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The Gap in Theistic Arguments (1997)

Michael Martin



In this paper I will show that all the major proofs for a theistic God contain a gap. Even if they are otherwise unassailable, they fail to prove what they purport to prove: that a theistic God exists. As proofs of theism these arguments are incomplete because the conclusion that in fact follows from their premises, barring other problems, is compatible with religious views besides theism. Additional premises are needed, that is, if the arguments are to establish the unique truth of theism.

I do not mean to suggest that this gap in theistic arguments has been entirely overlooked. David Hume, for one, was aware of the problem with respect to the Teleological Argument and made it an essential part of his critique of that argument.[1] In recent years William Rowe has pointed to the need to supplement the traditional Cosmological Argument with other premises.[2] But for the most part this gap in the major arguments for theism has been neglected. In particular, the fact that this gap is found in all major arguments for theism, both ancient and contemporary, has been overlooked.

The term "theism," which is taken from the Greek "theos" (god), refers to a belief in one God who is personal and worthy of worship, who transcends the world but takes an active interest in it, and who reveals His goals for human beings through certain individuals, miraculous events or sacred writings. The theistic God is personal in that He can be understood on analogies drawn from a human person and human beings can enter into a personal relation with God, petitioning Him in prayer and referring to Him as "Thou." He is worthy of worship since He is morally perfect and is infinitely knowledgeable and powerful.

Theism is thus a form of monotheism and, as such, should be contrasted with two other forms: pantheism and deism. On the one hand, pantheism is the view that God is identical with the world or at least is completely immanent in the world. On the other hand, deism, sometimes known as the absentee landlord view of God, is the view that God created the world and then had no further interest in it. Theism should also be contrasted with polytheism, the view that there are many gods, as well as with another form of monotheism: the belief in one God who has all the attributes of the theistic God save for His omnipotence; that is, the belief in a finite God.

The critical question to ask about arguments for theism is whether they are compatible with these other contrasting religious positions.

The Big Three: The Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological Arguments

The "big three" arguments for the existence of God are the Ontological, Cosmological and Teleological. To begin with the Ontological Argument, from an analysis of the concept of God it purports to prove a priori that the theistic God exists. Descartes, for instance, maintained that a perfect Being must exist since without existence a being would not be perfect. In contrast, St. Anselm maintained that God, the greatest being that can be conceived, must exist since if such a being did not exist, it would lack an attribute that contributed to its greatness.[3] However, it is seldom noticed that such a perfect Being or a Being such that no greater being can be conceived need not have all the attributes of a theistic God. For one thing, such a Being need not be personal; for another, this Being need not have revealed His goals to human beings. Thus, for example, the followers of some Eastern religions considered their impersonal God perfect or maximally great. Indeed, it is not clear why a perfect or maximally great Being would necessarily reveal His purposes rather than allow them to be discovered by reason.

The Cosmological Argument takes many forms, all of which conclude that there is a First Cause of the Universe. Thus, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas in his Five Ways--all versions of the Cosmological Argument-- speaks of a first mover, a first efficient cause, a necessary being, a cause of perfection, and a director of natural things to their ends.[4] Samuel Clarke, in turn, tries to demonstrate the existence of an immutable and independent Being.[5] But however a First Cause is conceived, it need not be the theistic God: all of these conclusions are compatible with deism and with an impersonal God. Even contemporary versions of the Cosmological Argument which appeal to Big Bang cosmology face this problem. For supposing there is a supernatural Big Banger behind the primordial beginning of the Universe, this does not have to be the theistic God. A supernatural explanation of the Big Bang is compatible with deism, a finite God, and even with polytheism.[6]

Finally, the Teleological Argument, which maintains that because of evidence of design in the Universe it is probable that the Universe has a Designer, also takes many forms. However, as Hume pointed out in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, this argument is compatible with polytheism: there could be many supernatural designers. Hume also showed that the Teleological Argument is compatible with a finite God and with deism. Post-Humean advocates of some versions of the Teleological Argument base the argument on alleged problems with Darwin's theory in explaining the evolution of life. But even if these problems are acknowledged, the gap remains. Thus, recent attempts to give Creation Science scientific respectability[7] and claims that evolution is directed or guided in some teleological way[8] also fail to make a case for theism even if their arguments are otherwise acceptable. The rejection of Darwinian evolution is compatible with deism, polytheism, and a finite God view. The same thing can be said of the acceptance of a supernaturally directed evolutionary process: the director need not be the theistic God.

Lesser Arguments

In addition to the big three arguments for the existence of the theistic God there are several lesser ones. In the version of the Moral Argument put forth by Kant, the highest good (summum bonum) includes moral virtue and happiness as the appropriate reward of virtue. Kant argued that it is our duty to seek to realize the highest good and that if it is our duty to seek to realize the highest good, then it must be possible to realize it. He maintained, however, that this highest good cannot be realized unless there is "a supreme cause of nature" that has the power to bring about a harmony between happiness and virtue.[9] Once again, however, the argument is compatible with a finite God or even with polytheism for a supreme cause of nature need not be the theistic God.

Miracles and religious experience provide a starting point for another argument for a theistic God. It is supposed that miracles and religious experiences can only be explained by the postulation of a theistic God. Let us understand a miracle as a divine intervention in the natural course of events. Even if such events occur, they need not be understood in a theistic way for miracles could be interpreted in terms of polytheism or in terms of a finite God. Thus, the cure of Mr. Jones' cancer might be the result of the intervention of a finite God or of several gods. Even Jesus's resurrection and the virgin birth might result from the interventions of polytheistic gods or a finite God.

There is nothing about miracles per se that requires a theistic interpretation[10] and the same thing can be said of religious experience. Let us understand a religious experience as an experience of the immediate presence of a supernatural being. Even if one can eliminate all naturalistic explanations of such experiences, it does not follow that the only interpretation of them is a theistic one. Certainly experiences occurring in the context of nontheistic religious suggest other interpretations. But even experiences occurring in the context of theistic religions such as Christianity might be interpreted in other ways.[11] For example, was the Lady of the Grotto as seen by Bernadette the Virgin Mary or a finite God?

There is also the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG) recently put forth by Greg Bahnsen[12] and John Frame.[13] It maintains that logic, science and objective morality presuppose the existence of the theistic Christian God. However, even if TAG is unassailable in other respects, it is compatible with a finite God and with polytheism. Consider Bahnsen's argument that induction presupposes the existence of God: that without God we would be committed to Humean inductive skepticism; that is, we would have no knowledge that the future will be like the past. Bahnsen argued that such lack of knowledge would be incompatible with God's desire that we learn from experience; consequently God's existence is presupposed by our reliance on induction. However, this argument, even if sound, is neutral on whether God is finite and whether there is more than one god. TAG also holds that objective morality presupposes the existence of God. Without God morality is subjective and relative. However, even if this aspect of the argument is sound, the conclusion is compatible with a finite God and even with polytheism. There is no reason why a finite God or many gods (so long as they were in agreement on moral principles) could not provide the solid foundation that is alleged to be needed.

Finally, in his recent work on epistemology Alvin Plantinga provides an indirect argument for the existence of God. He maintains that knowledge requires warrant and warrant requires the proper functioning of our cognitive apparatus. However, he says that proper function cannot be understood in purely naturalistic Darwinian terms. In order to understand proper function correctly we must suppose that supernaturalism is true.[14] However, Plantinga too easily identifies supernaturalism and theism. At the end of his book Warrant and Proper Function he says that warrant "requires, for its best flourishing, to be set in the context of theistic supernaturalism."[15] But supposing that his argument is unassailable on other grounds, he has not established theism. At most he has established supernaturalism and this is compatible with deism, polytheism and a finite God.

The Relevance to Atheism

The gap in the arguments for the theistic God is relevant to atheism in at least two ways. First, in our society atheists typically confront professed theists-- not deists, polytheists or believers in a finite God. It is important for atheists to know that the standard arguments theists use to support their case both in print and oral debates are incomplete as they stand. It is important to say in response to a theist: "Your argument does not prove theism since it is compatible with both polytheism, and the existence of a finite God." This point should give a theist some pause.

Second, this critique of theistic arguments is not enough for in a broad sense atheism is either the denial of all gods (positive atheism) or the nonbelief in all gods (negative atheism). When the gap argument is put forward by an atheist it invites the following reply from a believer: "Yes, I have failed to prove theism per se, but I have undermined atheism. My arguments at least show that your view is wrong." In order to defend their position, atheists must demonstrate that the existence of a nontheistic god is not supported by theistic arguments. If atheists fail to do this, then there will be a gap in their arguments.


[1] See the selection from David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in L. Pojman (ed.), Philosophy of Religion, 2nd Ed. (Wadsworth Pub. 1994), pp. 37-43.

[2] William Rowe, "An Examination of the Cosmological Argument," in Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, p. 16.

[3] See Alvin Plantinga (ed.), The Ontological Argument, (Doubleday, and Co., 1965).

[4] See the selections from St. Thomas' Summa Theologica reprinted in Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, pp. 4-6.

[5] See the selection from Sammuel Clarke's A Discourse Concerning Natural Religion reprinted in Pojman, Philosophy of Religion, pp. 6-7.

[6] On a similar point see my discussion William Lane Craig's argument in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple, 1990), pp. 103-104.

[7] For a critique of this view see P. Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, (Open University Press, 1983).

[8] For a critique of this view see Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, (Norton and Co., 1986).

[9] For further discussion see Atheism, pp. 212-215.

[10] For further discussion see Atheism, Chapter 7.

[11] For further discussion see Atheism, Chapter 6.

[12] See my paper, "Does Induction Presume the Existence Of The Christian God?" forthcoming in Skeptic.

[13] See my debate with Frame at

[14] See Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford University Press, 1993), Chapter 11.

[15] Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, p. 237.

"The Gap in Theistic Arguments" is copyright © 1997 by Michael Martin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Michael Martin. All rights reserved.