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Does God Exist? (2002)

Imran Aijaz's First Rebuttal: Critique of Dr. Cooke's Arguments for Atheism

 

I am grateful to Dr. Cooke for his well written and entertaining reflections on the case for atheism. It is unfortunate, however, that absolutely nothing in Dr. Cooke's opening statement provided any sound justification for being an atheist. I shall divide my critique into five main topics I discerned in his opening statement.

(1) Theism, Atheism & the Appeal to Authority

For some strange reason, Dr. Cooke seems to think that if he can repeat theboring cliché that Hume and Kant "demolished" the traditional arguments for the existence of God (something he has yet to show), cite a number of people who have argued for atheism, and then swiftly conclude by announcing that these authorities have put "atheism on foundations so firm that arguing the existence of god in the twenty-first century seems like a quaint throwback to a bygone age," then this somehow gives credibility to his position.

Just who is Dr. Cooke trying to convince here? An appeal to authority is legitimate only if it meets a certain criteria, and one important requirementstates that there should be an "adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question."[1] Now, as anyone familiar with contemporary philosophy of religion knows, this is hardly the case with the field. The arguments of those individuals cited by Dr. Cooke have all been responded to by theistic philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Stephen T. Davies, Brian Davies, Charles Taliaferro, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and dozens of others. In fact, I suspect, there are probably more theistic philosophers around than atheistic ones.[2]

Not only have such prominent theists defended, and argued for, the rationality of belief in God, but they have shown the inadequacy of the naturalist worldview.[3] Their accomplishments have given naturalism a rather stagnant status, as atheist philosopher, Quentin Smith, notes:

The predicament of naturalist philosophers is not just due to the influx of talented theists, but is due to the lack of counter-activity of naturalist philosophers themselves. God is not "dead" in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.[4]

Arguing ad verecundiam, then, is unlikely to get one anywhere, especially an atheist. We need to look for serious philosophical argument(s) instead of using rhetorical slogans of self-confirmation which are not going to affect anyone.

(2) The Burden of Proof

Dr. Cooke is correct in noting that the theist who makes a positive claim regarding God's existence is obliged to give reasons in support of that contention. This, however, does not mean that atheism is the default position unless sound arguments for theism exist, since atheism too is a positive claim about the nature of reality. "Atheism," writes Jeaneane Fowler, "is clearly naturalism versus supernaturalism."[5] And so, it is, as Madalyn Murray O'Hair explains, "based upon a materialist philosophy, which holds that nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists."[6] This is quite a remarkable claim! Since theist and atheist make positive claims about the nature of reality (unlike the agnostic who suspends judgement), the burden of proof is on them both to substantiate their respective positions of supernaturalism and naturalism.

It is important to bear in mind the central point of contention between Dr. Cooke and myself. As William Rowe observes, "[p]erhaps the best way to understand the struggle between atheism and theism is to note theism's insistence on an agent explanation of various natural phenomena, including the existence of the universe."[7] In my opening argument, I sketched out considerations that give us plausible reasons for thinking that God exists, such as the origins of the universe, its fine-tuning, etc. That is, these facts about the universe only find a plausible account through agent explanation (i.e. the existence of God). Dr. Cooke denies all of this. He thinks, presumably, that there is a perfectly fine naturalistic account--a "Grand Story" (as Craig and Moreland call it)--that will explain the facts of the universe and our existence in it.

So I invite Dr. Cooke in his next contribution to give us an account of what this "Grand Story" is, to explain how it renders the existence of God obsolete, and to fulfill his share of the burden of proof by providing some arguments for thinking it to be true. A "proof" of atheism, then, will be a proof of naturalism, since if naturalism is true, it will follow ipso facto that no god of any sort (understood as a supernatural reality) can possibly exist.

(3) Charles Bradlaugh & the Concept of God

Dr. Cooke quotes Bradlaugh, as he has in a number of his debates in the past: "The Atheist does not say 'There is no God,' but he says: 'I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God'."[8] But this is an inadequate understanding of atheism (see my earlier comments), and Bradlaugh himself elaborates on important details not mentioned by Dr. Cooke. If a person does not know the concept of God, then it is fair to say that there is a presumption of ignorance rather than a presumption of atheism. Suppose Harry tells me that the Clock Tower at Auckland University is haunted by ghosts, and I do not know what the term "ghost" refers to. My ignorance of the term does not mean that I am justified in dismissing the claim being made, since I do not even know what a ghost is. Once I am told that a ghost is the spirit of a dead person that appears to whose who are still living, then I may decide whether to accept or reject their existence. Bradlaugh, too, recognizes this. Immediately after the passage that Dr. Cooke refers to, he writes,

"If, however, 'God' is defined to mean an existence other than the existence of which I am a mode, then I deny 'God', and affirm that it is impossible such 'God' can be ... When the Theist affirms that his God is an existence other than, and separate from, the so-called material universe, and when he invests this separate, hypothetical existence with the several attributes of personality, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternity, infinity, immutability, and perfect goodness, then the Atheist in reply says I deny the existence of such a being."[9]

So Dr. Cooke gave us an incomplete picture of Bradlaugh who does deny the existence of God, as construed in classical theism, for various reasons, such as his belief in materialism, the problem of evil, etc. Bradlaugh's understanding of atheism only serves to strengthen my contention that it is incumbent upon Dr. Cooke to provide some arguments for his denial of God's existence.

(4) Religious Pluralism

Dr. Cooke complains that, in any putative case made for supernaturalism, there is the problem of deciding which god, or gods, explain the phenomena in question, such as the existence of our universe. Thomas Aquinas, for example, concluded his proofs for the existence of God with the sentence "and this is what everyone means by 'God'."[10] Now Aquinas had the Christian God in mind, and certainly, the inference from, say, a first cause of the universe to the Christian God is a non sequitur. But classical theism is still a favourable option over atheism despite the problems of religious pluralism, for the following reasons.

First, it should be noted that the facts of religious pluralism do not imply the truth of atheism. If one religious doctrine contradicts another, this means that they both cannot be true. One may be right, or both could be wrong. Thus, the fact that Christians and Muslims disagree on whether God is tripersonal does not mean both are wrong. Both could be wrong, but it may be the case that one of them is right. This framework can be extended to include the other religions of the world. If we assume that one religion is generally incompatible with the others (call this the "assumption of incompatibility"), what follows is that not all religions are equally true. One of them may be true, or all may be wrong. There is no a priori reason in favour of the latter over the former, and so Dr. Cooke's argument does not work.

Second, one may question the "assumption of incompatibility." Just how incompatible are religions when it comes to the existence of God? Recall that the fundamental agreement among those who believe in a god of some sort is that they believe in agent explanation of our universe. The facts of the universe, they argue, can only be explained by postulating a supernatural being. Thus, we see the cosmological and teleological arguments being formulated throughout history by Jews, Christians and Muslims for the existence of God. This is because these parties all agreed in their understanding of God as the personal creator and sustainer of our universe. If we work with this minimal definition of God, then I suspect the "types" of gods in Dr. Cooke's Encyclopedia of Gods would drastically be reduced from 2,500, since the majority of deities can be defined with this minimalistunderstanding.

Third, it does not follow from the facts of religious pluralism that all kinds of deities are equiprobable, since a certain type of god could explain the evidence better than another. Suppose persons A and B are convinced that (1) the universe was caused to exist by a personal being; (2) there is impressive evidence of intelligent design in our world; and (3) one should not multiply entities beyond necessity. Person A claims that theHindu pantheon explains (1)-(3) whereas person B believes that Allah should be postulated. Now, B could argue with A that (1)-(3) is more compatible with the existence of Allah rather than the Hindu pantheon, for example, by pointing out to A that the origins of the universe by a transcendent, personal cause refutes the panentheistic principles of Brahman,or that the existence of one God is more rational than the entire Hindu pantheon, if one accepts simpler explanations, etc.

(5) Atheism, Theism & Values

While this topic has no direct bearing on our current exchange regarding God's existence, I thought I would address it to complete my critique. Dr. Cooke argues that theism leads to "cosmic arrogance," while atheism "encourages cosmic humility." Certainly, there may be theists who think in the manner described by Dr. Cooke, but that depends on a specific hermeneutic of religious particulars (which is a topic outside the scope of this debate). But how does cosmic humility follow for atheism? Bare atheism says nothing about values. As Fowler notes, "atheism has no set criteria, no stance on life, no ethical, societal, or global aims and objectives."[11] In fact, I do not think it can rationally derive values from a naturalist ontology, hence the nihilism of Nietzsche, and the views of Sartre and Camus that life is absurd. And from this, there seems to be nothing to stop the atheist, apart from a Kierkegaardian leap into the non-rational realm, from pursuing an arrogant, selfish, unhappy and ultimately, absurd life.

No doubt, Dr. Cooke will disagree, as will other atheists. But in the absence of a non-arbitrary derivation of "ought" from "is," what basis, apart from subjective preferences, can be given for humility, or, for that matter, any other moral virtue if atheism is true?

Conclusion

None of the considerations given by Dr. Cooke provide a justification for atheism. One of the more important points I attempted to make clear in this critique is that the atheist must share the burden of proof as well, since atheism is a positive epistemic claim about what exists. And since no serious arguments were given by Dr. Cooke, apart from methodologically flawed observations on the burden of proof and religious pluralism, I conclude that he has far from established an "intellectual victory of atheism."


References

[1] Appeal To Authority, The Nizkor Project.

[2] See Theistic Philosophers on the Web (maintained by Richard Davis).

[3] See, for example, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, (eds.), Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, (London, Routledge: 2000).

[4] Quentin Smith, The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, Philo Online, Vol. 4., No. 2.

[5] Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism, (Sussex Academic Press: 1999), p. 66.

[6] Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Atheism, (1962).

[7] Willam Rowe, 'Atheism', in Edward Craig, (ed.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol 1., (Routledge: 1998), p. 531.

[8] Charles Bradlaugh, A Plea for Atheism (1864).

[9] Ibid. Italics mine.

[10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a.2.3.

[11] Fowler, Humanism, p. 67.


[Read Bill Cooke's First Rebuttal]

[Read the Rest of the Debate]


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