Does God Exist? (2002)
Imran Aijaz’s Closing Statement
I find it rather surprising to see Dr. Cooke “wonder[ing] what value there is in thrashing out questions of the existence of God”. If a being like the God of classical theism does, in fact, exist, then man is part of a teleological worldview that is unfolding over time towards an ultimate end. If, however, God does not exist, then man’s “origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms” and “only in the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built”, as Bertrand Russell put it.
Thus, the significance of whether or not God exists cannot be underestimated, in my opinion. Regrettably, Dr. Cooke does not seem to realize this. Once again, he confidently boasts of his unproved contention: “The evidence against the existence of any sort of god is so overwhelming as to be hardly worth arguing.” Really? The mere reiteration of a proposition does not make it true, even if Dr. Cooke repeats it a dozen times.
What, then, would be required to constitute a case for atheism? Well, according to the NZARH, of which Dr. Cooke is a member, “[a] rationalist believes that knowledge and truth are ascertained by using reason and logic and not by divine or supernatural revelation.” To this point, my opponent has not proffered a single case for atheism that can be said to be based on reason or logic; philosophically speaking, this would be a valid argument where the truth of the premises would entail the truth of the conclusion. Rather, what we have seen are gestures at certain problems for theists, but ones which by no means constitute any sort of case for atheism, as I shall now argue.
I have so far avoided commenting on the charge of “anthropocentric arrogance,” since I really do not see where the case for atheism is here. The basic worry for Dr. Cooke, as he states in his opening address, is that he does not have “the level of presumptuousness to think [himself] so cosmically significant that the creator of the entire universe should come from [his] planet or be interested in [his] welfare.” But this simply presupposes a particular viewpoint (in Dr. Cooke’s case, his atheism) that influences whether or not one thinks of humanity as having any significance.
For example, if I believe that God exists, then I have at least some reason to think that humans are created in the Imago Dei, and that the God of this universe may have an interest in my welfare. It is a “live option” for me, to use William James’s phrase. If, on the other hand, I am convinced that God does not exist, then, of course, this will influence my outlook on life. That the Creator of the universe has an interest in my welfare would not be a live option for me. Instead, I may adopt atheistic attitudes, such as those of Richard Dawkins, who claims that “[t]he universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Of course, this gloomy outlook is a post facto rationalization; one which presupposes that God does not exist.
Hence, we need to examine the underlying presuppositions shaping these views, which is the purpose of this exchange. Honestly, arguing for atheism based on the contention that one does not have the presumptuousness to think of himself as cosmically significant is, surely, no more valid than arguing for theism based on the contention that one does not have the presumptuousness to think of himself as cosmically insignificant!
Next, Dr. Cooke mentions the problem of evil, but he does not mould his complaints into an argument of some sort. Certainly, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was a tragic event, but how does this evince the non-existence of God? Dr. Cooke does not even entertain two possible ways of responding to the problem of evil, viz., by offering a theodicy , or, alternatively, by revising the concept of God in light of the problem of evil.
Dr. Cooke attempts to justify his earlier assertion regarding the demolition of theistic arguments by Hume and Kant by parading before us a number of theists who hold views that would typically fall outside the category of “traditional” theism. But, as I stated in my first rebuttal, Dr. Cooke simply does not seem to realize the fallacy of his appeals to authority. Given the broad diversity of theistic views, it is not enough to cite five or so individuals and give the impression that this is somehow a consensus in the theistic community. Now, it would have been interesting if Dr. Cooke had used some of the arguments he found in his reading of these liberal theologians, but nothing of the sort was to be found in his criticisms.
Why, then, does Dr. Cooke refuse to offer arguments for his atheism? Well, apart from his fallacious appeals to authority, he rests his case on a methodologically flawed understanding regarding the burden of proof and Occam’s Razor. Dr. Cooke is correct in noting that the theist adds another level of explanation over naturalism–she proffers dualism (i.e. God and the universe) as opposed to monism (i.e. the universe only) in accounting for why our universe exists and why it is the way it is. So what seems to be the problem? According to Dr. Cooke, “[t]his addition of God, of course, violates Occam’s Razor, which states that .. .. a shorter explanation is to be preferred over a more convoluted one.”
Once again, Dr. Cooke misleads his readers by a sleight of circular reasoning; he has not shown that naturalism is the shorter explanation when compared to theism. Rather, he has simply assumed that naturalism is the simpler explanation over theism, and then declared that theism violates Occam’s Razor. Thus, Dr. Cooke’s excuse for exempting himself from the burden of proof, it seems to me, rests neatly on a petitio principii, since he simply assumes that naturalism is the more simpler explanation over theism, and then uses this assumption to argue that it is the theist who must show why God is required in the equation, while he has to do nothing of the sort.
But is atheism not the default position? Does atheism not follow if arguments for theism are all inadequate? Certainly not. Even if theistic arguments are inadequate, this does not show there is no God; the fact that an argument does not warrant the truth of a conclusion does not entail the falsity of the conclusion itself. It seems to me that Dr. Cooke is arguing ad ignorantiam here. Now, Dr. Cooke might complain that he cannot prove a negative. Here, I have two responses; first, it is quite possible to prove a negative, as Richard Carrier explains, and second, atheism can easily be reformulated into a positive claim. Rather than asserting that God does not exist, it can be understood as the positive claim “nature is all that exists.” As I argued earlier, if this is shown to be true, then, ipso facto, theism will be refuted, since there is no room for dualistic explanations. So, contra Flew, there is certainly an onus of proof on Dr. Cooke to substantiate atheism.
Finally, let me say something about the issue of atheism and values. Dr. Cooke calls my observation, that bare atheism says nothing about values, a “cheap shot,” but he has not really answered the question of how the truth of ontological naturalism can entail certain ethical recommendations for humans. The fact that humanists can be decent people is certainly not in question here, for, as Dr. Cooke points out, I have enjoyed the hospitality of the NZARH. Rather, it involves asking whether ontological naturalism entails the claim, according to the NZARH, that “[a] humanist rejects that there is any power or moral value superior to that of humanity”. It is not clear how a view of the world that is, say, Russellian, in which our being here is the result of an “accidental collocation of atoms,” entails that Homo sapiens have some kind of intrinsic value. So it is important to make a distinction between, say, living a meaningful life, and justifiably living a meaningful life. My claim was that the latter has not been adequately argued for by humanists. Unless some objective guard is in place, it seems to me that atheism cannot offer an adequate defense of the sort of nihilism Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about.
It is for this reason that Nietzsche scoffed at the Darwinians of his time who wanted to ground universal values in nature, when nothing of the sort is to be found there. If there is to be any meaning to life, it must, as theologian Keith Ward observes, involve intrinsic values:
[I]f there is any point or purpose to the universe, it must eventually lie in the existence of some thing, state or process that is intrinsically good… nothing can be called intrinsically valuable unless it is actually valued by some conscious being.
Thus, to argue, as the humanist does, that humanity has moral value (in an objective sense) implies that humans have intrinsic worth. But, as Ward notes, this is not possible unless that worth is recognized by some conscious being, or, in other words, God. According to a long theistic tradition, with elements traceable to Plato, God provides the ontological grounding for intrinsic values. Although Dr. Cooke, as an atheist, may claim that there is no moral value superior to that of humanity, he has given us no reason, compatible with his naturalism, for thinking this is so.
We have seen in this debate that Dr. Cooke has been unable to provide a satisfactory rejoinder to my case for theism. Rather, he seems to be content with the fact that there are atheists who have argued for atheism, and a handful of liberal theologians who have chartered a trajectory towards it. So what? This does not show that the powerful arguments being presented by contemporary philosophers of religion (the majority of whom are theists) today are redundant, nor does it offer any sort of case for atheism. But Dr. Cooke attempts to avert the evidentialist challenge to atheism by claiming that atheism is the default position if arguments for theism fail, and this is patently false. Atheism can easily be construed as a positive claim regarding what exists (i.e. the claim that naturalism is true), and therefore, the burden of proof arises to be fulfilled. This, Dr. Cooke has not done, because he rests his claim on his vacuous position that naturalism is a simpler and shorter hypothesis than theism. Nothing is done to substantiate this amazing assertion apart from begging the question.
In closing, I must say that I have been disappointed with Dr. Cooke’s failure to argue for atheism, since I regard him as perhaps the leading atheist figure in New Zealand. Nevertheless, this short debate has been interesting, and I am sure both of us have, at least, given each other the prolegomena for a promising exchange sometime in the future. Until then, I would like to thank Dr. Cooke for debating me, Richard Carrier for moderating the exchange, and the Internet Infidels for hosting the debate on their site.
 See, for example, John Bishop, ‘Can there be alternative concepts of God?’, Nous, 32, (1998), pp. 174-188.