Keith M. Parsons


Published on the Secular Web


Same Old, Same Old: Dallas Willard and the Unending Quest to Prove the Existence of God

As skeptics see it, recent theistic arguments are pretty much old hat. Their basic modus operandi has always been the same: represent some aspect of the universe as requiring an explanation that no naturalistic hypothesis can provide, and then propose God as the only possible or most satisfactory solution. Skeptics retort that either no explanation is required, naturalistic accounts suffice, or God provides no uniquely satisfactory explanation. The details may change, but the pattern remains the same. The theistic pattern is exemplified in the work of Dallas Willard, particularly his three-stage argument for the existence of God. Willard argues that God is needed because the natural universe is not enough. In this response, Keith Parsons provides the standard retort: naturalism suffices to answer all legitimate questions, and the appeal to God is either useless or obscurantist.

Hume’s Beautiful Argument

The received view of Hume scholars is that Part I of David Hume’s essay “Of Miracles” proffers an argument that it is never rational to accept a miracle claim on the basis on testimonial evidence. But even among those advocating the received view, there’s debate about exactly what argument is being offered in Part I. More significantly, the received view of Part I is notoriously hard to reconcile with the four evidential arguments offered in Part II of the essay. For if no testimony would ever be sufficient to establish that a miracle has occurred under any circumstances, why bother to evaluate whether the testimony that we actually have is good enough to rationally accept that any miracles have in fact occurred? In this essay Keith Parsons reconciles Parts I and II of Hume’s long-debated “Of Miracles” by interpreting Part I to be allowing the possibility that one could rationally affirm the occurrence of a miracle on the basis of testimony in an ideal case. Part II then simply aims to show that no actual miracle claims even come close to approximating the ideal case. That is, in Part I Hume the philosopher lays out exactly how heavy a burden of proof the miracle claimant must meet when miracle claims are directed toward the well-prepared skeptic. Then in Part II Hume the historian cites the historical evidence that has been offered for miracle claims to show how unlikely it is that any actual miracle claim can meet such a burden. These two parts combine to show that, while it is in principle possible to substantiate a miracle claim with human testimony, the actual circumstances of such claims disclose a vast gap between what is verifiable in principle and what is confirmable in practice.

A Simple Statement of the Problem of Evil

If God is all-powerful, then he can prevent evil; and if he is as good as can be, then he will prevent it. Why, then, does evil exist? The existence of evil implies that either God is not all-powerful, or he is not perfectly good. And if the traditional God must be both, then the existence of evil entails that such a God does not exist. Unless, of course, God has some morally sufficient reason for permitting evil—to prevent even greater evils, perhaps, or to enable some greater good. But examples of apparently pointless evils could be multiplied indefinitely, and some evils are so egregiously awful that no conceivable attendant good would be great enough to justify permitting them. But perhaps there are attendant goods that we, with our finite minds, simply cannot conceive. Perhaps; but this solution comes at a price. If we can have no inkling of what God would permit to happen, then we can equally have no inkling of whether God does, or even could, exist.

Atheism: Twilight or Dawn?

According to Alister McGrath, the early 21st century marks the decline of atheism. In this critique of McGrath’s arguments, Keith Parsons considers whether the intellectual clout, stature, or influence of atheism has in fact declined in recent years, concluding that McGrath does not even begin to address the real intellectual case for atheism. That disbelief in God is just as much a matter of faith as belief in God can only be a stale platitude from McGrath given his failure to even superficially survey the best arguments for atheism. McGrath does address, however, four charges made by Richard Dawkins against religion, including the charge that evolution makes God unnecessary as an explanation and that religion is a source of much of the misery in the world. Parsons concludes that once one appropriately qualifies or refines Dawkins’ accusations, McGrath’s critique fails to adequately address the underlying problems for religion that inspire them. Moreover, to the extent that the influence of inherently controversial and divisive religions on people’s lives grows, a corresponding dawn of the popularity of atheism is inevitable.

Review of Kingdom Coming

In Kingdom Coming Michelle Goldberg lets America’s “Christian Reconstructionists,” who openly advocate making the Bible the basis of a shari’a-type religious law, speak for themselves. Though considered extreme even within the religious right, an offshoot called dominionism, or Christian Nationalism, openly advocates theocracy and is rapidly gaining ground among “mainstream” right-wing Christians. Those swept away in this fundamentalist counterculture live in a universe that they have created, separate from and parallel to the one that the rest of us live in. The immediate danger they pose is not their impact on social issues, but the subversion of rationality itself, which has been achieved to an alarming extent. Today the best established scientific conclusions are routinely undermined and derided, and even the mainstream media feel that they have to offer “balance” on scientific issues by giving equal time to cranks and crackpots. The religious right is motivated, organized, and well-funded, and they are not going away. We ignore them at our peril. Goldberg has done us a service in giving us a beautifully crafted statement of why we fight.

No Creator Need Apply: A Reply to Roy Abraham Varghese

One of the clearest statements of the case for a Creator is written by Roy Abraham Varghese in his introduction to the volume Cosmos, Bios, Theos. Here Varghese argues that the best explanation for why there is something rather than nothing necessarily terminates in God, rather than the ultimate features of the physical universe, for unlike any physical thing, God is self-explanatory. But we are left completely in the dark on the sense in which God is self-explanatory, and how that would differ from the self-explanatoriness of a putative original, uncaused state of the physical universe. Consequently, I argue that there is no intellectual difficulty in postulating an initial state of the universe as a ultimate brute fact, and conclude that Varghese’s arguments to the contrary fail.

Review of Michael Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian?

Philosopher of science and zoologist Michael Ruse answers the question posed in the title his book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? in the affirmative. Ruse argues that a conflict only arises from a literal reading of Genesis. If Christianity actually depended upon such a literal reading, Ruse concedes, the resulting conflict with science would simply be all the worse for Christianity; but, pace Alvin Plantinga, Christianity does not depend upon such antiquated literalism. Although Ruse thinks that conflict can be avoided by merely adopting methodological naturalism without conflating it with the metaphysical variety, Parsons has his doubts, particularly when it comes to the issue of design. Parsons notes, for instance, that a loving Creator could’ve done much better than create us through a process that depends upon the vast waste, pain, and ugliness of natural selection, and that apparent design has increasingly given way to naturalistic explanations in biology–forcing theists to look for other gaps for God to fill.

Why Be Moral?

Parsons argues that the question, ‘Why be moral?,’ is no more of a problem for the nontheist than for the theist.

Why I Am Not a Christian

In this explanation of why he is not a Christian, Keith Parsons discusses the role that Christianity has played in perpetuating suffering throughout human history, the bizarre doctrine of inflicting eternal punishment on persons for having the wrong beliefs, the composition, inconsistencies, and absurdities of the New Testament Gospels, William Lane Craig’s flawed case for the resurrection of Jesus, the role of legendary development and hallucinations in early Christianity, and C.S. Lewis’ weak justifications for the Christian prohibition on premarital sex.

Do Atheists Bear a Burden of Proof? A Reply to Prof. Ralph McInerny

The “evidentialist challenge” is the gauntlet thrown down by atheist writers such as Antony Flew, Norwood Russell Hanson, and Michael Scriven. They argue that in debates over the existence of God, the burden of proof should fall on the theist. They contend that if theists are unable to provide cogent arguments for theism, i.e. arguments showing that it is at least more probable than not that God exists, then atheism wins by default. It follows that atheists are under no obligation to argue for the nonexistence of God; their only task is to show that theistic arguments fail. Prof. Ralph McInerny argues that the burden of proof should fall on the unbeliever. Here I shall rebut Prof. McInerny’s claim and argue that, in the context of public debate over the truth of theism, theists cannot shirk a heavy burden of proof.

The Jones-Parsons-Martin Debate: Is Non Christian Thought Justifiable?

The “book is a logically deft and clearly written introduction to the philosophy of religion. It should be useful for undergraduate courses, though parts, such as the discussion of the modal ontological argument, are quite complex and certain to confuse beginners. The book is also a brief for atheism. In general, it serves both of its functions well. However, the three parts of the book are unequal in value. I found part 3, in which Le Poidevin examines the possibility of religion without God, to be of less interest than the earlier sections. Further, though I regard part 1, ‘The Limits of Theistic Explanation,’ as a nearly complete success, I have some reservations about the treatment of the problem of evil in part 2.”

Science, Confirmation, and the Theistic Hypothesis

This thesis examines various attempts to construe theism as an explanatory hypothesis and to defend it with arguments similar to those employed in the confirmation of scientific hypotheses. It is the aim of this work to show that such a construal fails to confirm theism and in actuality leads to its disconfirmation.

The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics

Various criticisms of this conception of the miraculous will be considered and the efforts of some Christian apologists to deal with these difficulties will be examined. The answer being sought by this thesis is whether the attempts to refute the philosophical criticisms of the miraculous succeed or fail–with the result that a cogent Christian apologetic cannot be produced. In other words, if the miraculous is an indispensable element of Christian doctrine, it might generate philosophical problems so great that it renders impossible the entire apologetic enterprise. The purpose of this thesis will simply be to determine whether or not this is the case.