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Does God Exist? (2002)

Bill Cooke's Second Rebuttal: Super Duper's (or Was It Hyper Mega's) Last Gasp

One really wonders what value there is in thrashing out questions of the existence of God. The evidence against the existence of any sort of god is so overwhelming as to be hardly worth arguing. And, as I said in my opening address, I simply cannot muster a sufficient quantity of anthropocentric arrogance to be able to believe genuinely that the universe owes me a living.

On the day I write this, twenty-six kindergarten-age children and their teachers have been killed in an earthquake in Italy. Among compassionate people, expostulations about the existence of God would be expected to cease at once for shame in the face of such a tragedy. As Voltaire noted after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which killed thousands of people, many of whom were in churches, what sort of a god would behave in such a way? And acts like this occur every day, yet people still believe.

What is more, I have got on well with Mr. Aijaz, my opponent in this debate, for several years. All this disputation about god can serve no constructive purpose, and that seems sad. But, of course, god has traditionally been used as a divisive force rather than a uniting one. When humanists disagree, the most we can think of our opponent is that they are, in our view, wrong. But theists have the extra advantage of being able to see their opponent as wicked. This is why so many societies that base themselves overtly upon religion are authoritarian, with Muslim societies notable in this respect.

But let us go through the motions of examining Mr. Aijaz's rebuttal. His first gambit is to escape the fact that traditional arguments for the existence of God were demolished by Hume and Kant by resorting to abuse. But labelling my observation a "boring cliché, as he does, in no way means my observation is untrue. Rather, it suggests it is true, and that this is all Mr. Aijaz can do to gainsay it. Let us seek to justify my claim by considering a source not normally noted for its support of atheism: theologians.

Take the example of John Bowden, once manager of the Student Christian Movement Press. In a 1993 work Bowden stated flatly that there "are virtually no new substantial and intellectually attractive statements of traditional Christian belief which counter successfully the now well-established criticisms of it."[1] Then there is the British former churchman, Richard Holloway, who wrote a book called Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics, published in London in 2000. Holloway's central thesis is that religion is not only irrelevant but actually a hindrance to the determination of a genuine, authentic personal morality. He is right of course, but the point here is Holloway's reason why this is the case. It is because, Holloway wrote, God "no longer seems to provide the kind of cohesion we need, because the systems that claimed divine authorisation made some claims that we have subsequently repudiated for good reason."[2] In other words, God can provide no foundation for morality because the concept of God itself no longer has valid foundation. Elsewhere, the Catholic theologian John F Haught, began his book God after Darwin with the frank admission that any "thoughts we may have about God after the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) can hardly remain the same as before."[3] Why? Because any pre-Darwinian theology is fundamentally compromised by the naturalistic understanding of the cosmos that evolution has provided us with. Most recently, Lloyd Geering, New Zealand's most internationally respected theologian, published a book called Christianity without God. Geering argues what most of us know, which is that traditional conceptions of God are in tatters, and Christianity will perish if it retains such outmoded and fallacious ideas. John Shelby Spong in the United States and Don Cupitt in Great Britain have said similar things. This whole trend was recognised more than seventy years ago when the English theologian Rendel Harris noted pithily: "In theology it is a mistake to be born before Darwin."[4]

I repeat, each of these men were or are theologians, not normally known as defenders of atheism. So, when I say that the traditional arguments for the existence of God have been in ruins since Hume and Kant, far from being a boring cliché, it is actually the considered opinion of a great number of distinguished theists, people from whom Mr. Aijaz would profit by reading. He would also discover the anxious attempts of these people try to retain some theistic fig-leaf to cover their nakedness. John Haught, for instance, is content to surrender the entire universe to naturalist processes, abandoning life after death, heaven and hell and the entire corpus of Christian cosmology, save for a bloodless first cause, not dissimilar to Teilhard's Omega point. And, incidentally, Haught recognises that all theodicies ultimately fail. For most of these men, the criticism of Margaret Wertheim is apt. Their lifeless substitutes for a god idea, notwithstanding their various grand titles, are little more than a set of equations.[5] I would go further and add, consistent with my opening address, that they are further evidence of anthropocentric conceit. But these faults notwithstanding, these theologians know what Mr. Aijaz has not yet realised, that the traditional arguments for God are redundant.

Mr. Aijaz's one attempt to provide evidence against my claim was to quote the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith. But not only does the article cited not support Mr. Aijaz's claim, even the quote he has used fails to support him. Quentin Smith's quotation ends with the observation that God "returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments." Desperate indeed is the cause that is strengthened by admitting it clings to one last bastion! And even in the case of philosophy, the return of the theists is largely confined to the United States.

The mistake I made in my first rebuttal was to assume Mr. Aijaz is more widely read than appears to be the case. It is important that he reads more broadly, particularly away from the narrow confines of theistically inclined philosophers who haven't yet come to terms with what even theologians have recognised. The mistake of my first rebuttal was even more apparent regarding Mr. Aijaz's second point, on the burden of proof. I assumed Mr. Aijaz was familiar with Occam's Razor, but his rebuttal suggests this is not the case. The atheist says that the universe is explainable in terms of the universe itself, that is solely by naturalistic means, as interpreted from the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. What the theist does is to then add a whole new level of explanation on top of the universe; God. This, of course, requires a whole new corpus of explanation and justification, not to mention setting off an infinite regress (but who created God...) unless arbitrarily stopped. This addition of God, of course, violates Occam's Razor, which states that a shorter explanation is to be preferred over a more convoluted one. Like it or not, atheism is in fact the default position, as Antony Flew has argued so persuasively.

Mr. Aijaz then wants me to outline the atheist account of the creation of the universe. As if that's possible in 2000 words! And neither is that necessary in a debate about the existence of God. At the risk of repetition, the burden of proof lies with Mr. Aijaz to provide convincing reasons why we should violate Occam's Razor and contrive a whole new level of explanation over and above what science has so far gleaned. This he has tried to do using the tools of one discipline only, that of philosophy, and from a narrow range of thinkers at that. The atheist position shows considerably greater intellectual range than the narrow and archaic language of theistic apologetics. All the cosmologists, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists and others who are contributing to our understanding of the universe are also contributing to the atheist understanding of the universe. There is no atheist mythology in the way that there are so many competing and contradictory theist mythologies. If Mr. Aijaz wants a naturalist account of the creation of the universe he can choose from a wide range of reputable thinkers; Steven Weinberg, John Barrow, Victor Stenger, and James Trefil are particularly good.

Now comes a point where Mr. Aijaz and I agree. He is right to assert that the issue is between the naturalist account of the universe, and the supernaturalist account. The naturalist account takes nature seriously and respects our attempts to understand nature, which go under the collective label of science. The supernaturalist, by contrast, prefers myth to fact and is prepared to believe in things contrary to nature simply because some book, person or tradition tells them so, and for reasons of anthropocentric conceit. Mr. Aijaz's task has been to demonstrate why we should be taken in by this unstable miscellany of conceits and fancies. He has failed of course, but his attempt was worthy.

Only toward the end of his first rebuttal does Mr. Aijaz begin to address my main objection to theism: its anthropocentric arrogance. He states that the facts of religious pluralism do not imply the truth of atheism, although he acknowledges that when absolutes compete they cannot both be true. Mr. Aijaz is correct that there is no a priori reason to favour the idea that all religious claims are wrong as opposed to one of them being true, but then I never said there was. That one theistic claim might be true is just as likely that none of them are true is, from the standpoint of logic, just as likely. I agree. But when looked at from a more cross-disciplinary perspective as I have been doing, this becomes massively unlikely. If ninety-nine theistic traditions in a hundred are rooted in human history and are therefore human creations, from an historical perspective, then it is entirely reasonable to suspect that the hundredth theistic tradition is also rooted in human history and is therefore a human creation.

Mr. Aijaz completes his first rebuttal with the most disappointing cheap shot. Following some startlingly ill-informed theist apologists, Mr. Aijaz says that "bare atheism says nothing about values" and that atheism can only lead to an unhappy and absurd life. Mr. Aijaz has enjoyed the hospitality of humanists often enough to know that this is a caricature. He is attacking a straw man here. Atheists are not solely atheists, they are also humanists and rationalists, and each of these cover different facets of our understanding of the universe. Atheism is only about what we don't believe in, while humanism is about what we do believe, and rationalism is about how we believe. This is well put in Paul Kurtz's summary of humanism: "Humanism includes at least four main characteristics: (1) it is a method of inquiry; (2) it presents a cosmic world view; (3) it contains a concrete set of ethical recommendations for the individual's life stance; and (4) it expresses a number of social and political ideals."[6]

This whole debate has involved principally the second of Paul Kurtz's four pillars of humanism, though the first and third have also been employed and implied (in that order).

But what better way to finish than to restate my main point, and from the words of another theologian? Toward the end of his career the Quaker H. G. Wood wrote that it is "no longer possible to believe that this vast Universe has been brought into existence simply for the use and benefit of man."[7] It is no longer possible, and yet some still try.



[1] John Bowden, Thirty Years of Honesty: Honest to God Then and Now, London: SCM, 1993, p 82


[2] Richard Holloway, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics, London: Canongate, 2000, p 17


[3] John F. Haught, God after Darwin, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000, p ix


[4] H. G. Wood, Belief and Unbelief Since 1850, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1950, p 55


[5] Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Auckland: Doubleday, 1999, p 218


[6] Paul Kurtz, Eupraxophy: Living Without Religion, Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1989, p 24


[7] Wood, op.cit., p 55.

[Read Imran Aijaz's Second Rebuttal]

[Read the Rest of the Debate]