The Krueger-McHugh Debate: Theism or Atheism (2003)
Opening Statement by Doug Krueger
Arguments for Atheism
In this opening statement I will explain how we can be justified in believing that god does not exist. I would like to thank the hosts of this debate and Christopher McHugh for making this debate possible.
I will define theism, for our present purposes, as the following:
Theism: the view that there is exactly one being who is:
•transcendent (outside of space and time),
•omnipresent (present everywhere),
•who created the world, and
•who rules the world (that is, the being interacts with the world by desiring to have the people in it behave in certain ways or believe certain things–this is to distinguish this view from deism, for example, which would be the same as theism except for the omission of the last characteristic on this list).
I will define atheism as the following:
Atheism: the view that theism is false.
In the course of this debate, I will offer arguments both for the truth of atheism and rebuttals to arguments for the truth of theism. In this way I will show that we are justified in believing that atheism is true; i.e., that we are justified in believing that theism is false.
In this debate I will use the following four arguments to support the atheist position:
A. The Presumption of Atheism Argument.
B. The Incoherent Attributes Argument.
C. The Argument from Suffering/Evil.
D. The Argument from Nonbelief.
I will present each argument in premise-conclusion format and then provide details to support the premises.
A. The Presumption of Atheism Argument
1. If a claim is extraordinary, then in the absence of extraordinarily strong evidence in its favor, the claim may be considered false.
2. The claim that a god exists is an extraordinary claim.
3. Therefore, in the absence of extraordinarily strong evidence in its favor, the claim that a god exists may be considered false.
4. There is no extraordinarily strong evidence for the claim that a god exists.
5. Therefore, the claim that a god exists may be considered false.
This argument takes advantage of a commonly accepted principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinarily strong evidence in order to be believed. I will define an extraordinary claim as:
Extraordinary claim: a claim that contradicts accepted physical laws or our common sense, everyday experiences of the world.
Extraordinary claims vary in their degree of extraordinariness. For example, the claim that I have eaten lunch is does not contradict accepted physical laws or our commonsense, everyday experience, so little or no evidence other than my word on it would be required for one to accept that claim and be epistemically responsible. However, the claim that I have won millions in the lottery would not contradict accepted physical laws, but it would contradict our commonsense, everyday experience, since most people do not win the lottery. In this case, it may be sufficient to show that I have won by reading the account in the newspaper or looking that the numbers on my ticket. On the other hand, the claim that I have been riding a unicorn through the forest would be even more extraordinary than the claim that I have won the lottery. To believe the latter claim, you would have to change some of your beliefs about:
• the reporting of history
• the study of zoology
• the methods of exploring the earth, etc.
It would be most rational to disbelieve the account about the unicorn until quite a bit of evidence was presented.
The claim that god exists is an extraordinary claim of the highest degree of extraordinariness. This claim is about a being who is not only different from humans and animals with regard to power or intelligence, but this being exists in a much different way than anything else we have ever encountered in our everyday experience. God is alleged to be a being who exists outside of space and time. In this way god is far different from a unicorn or any other kind of thing we have encountered in our experience. We should, then, demand extraordinarily strong evidence before believing that theism is true. In the absence of such evidence, one is justified in holding that theism is false.
This attitude regarding gods is common. If it did turn out that there is no evidence for the claim that god exists, it then be reasonable to deny the existence of god. There have been tens of thousands of gods asserted to exist in human history, and xians, for example, are atheistic about almost all of those deities–except one.
Xians do not believe in:
•The Greek god Zeus.
•The Roman god Jupiter.
•The Norse god Odin.
•The three main gods of Hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
•Titlacahuan, the omnipotent Aztec god.
•Tlalchitonatiuh, the Aztec god of the underworld.
And thousands of other gods. No one has ever been able to prove that these gods do not exist, yet no xian believes that such gods exist now or that they have existed in the past. Thus, it seems that most believers in the Judeo-xian god disbelieve in claims about other gods even though the nonexistence of such beings has not been shown. They disbelieve in such gods because there is absolutely no evidence that such beings exist. They use a presumption of atheism.
It would certainly be insufficient as a response to simply rebut that the xian does not believe in such gods because such a belief would be incompatible with his or her presently held xian beliefs. That would not be a sufficient justification to disbelieve in nonxian gods. Surely no xian reading this on the xian websites would be satisfied if a Hindu were to claim that his or her belief that Hinduism is true is sufficient grounds for rejecting belief in the xian god. No, most people disbelieve in the tens of thousands of gods in the past for the same reason I disbelieve in them: the claims that those beings exist is an extraordinary claim and there is no evidence for the claim. Since this is an accepted principle of belief in this case, I can use the same reasoning to reject belief in the xian god as long as there is no extraordinarily strong evidence to support belief in the existence of the xian god.
And is there strong evidence for the existence of god? I will refute my opponent’s arguments and show that there is not. But note that even some xians don’t think there is. Blaise Pascal held that there was not enough evidence to demonstrably prove god’s existence. So did the xian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Dr. James Dobson states that “faith ranks at the top of God’s system of priorities…. This determination to believe when the proof is not provided and when the questions are not answered is central to our relationship with the Lord. He will never do anything to destroy the need for faith.” (When God Doesn’t Make Sense, pp. 17-18.) Other believers who are theologians or philosophers, who would agree that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate god’s existence, include Karl Barth, Alvin Plantinga, Terence Penelhum, and many more.
Thus, in the absence of extraordinarily strong evidence for the existence of god, one would be justified in believing that such a being does not exist. Despite years of searching, I have encountered no evidence that even rises to the level of plausibility, let alone to the level of being extraordinarily strong evidence. Had there been extraordinarily strong evidence for the existence of god, I am certain that I would have been presented with it by now. I think the best explanation as to why this evidence is not forthcoming is that it does not exist. I conclude that, unless shown otherwise by evidence yet disclosed, we are justified in rejecting belief in a god.
By the way, this approach not only justifies me in rejecting the god of theism, as defined above, but also in rejecting all other gods that may be proposed by other religions until such time as extraordinarily strong evidence is presented in favor of the existence of such beings. Thus, I can conclude that there are no gods at all, and this would include the god of theism and the xian god in particular.
B. The Incoherent Attributes Argument.
A being with unusual powers or characteristics may exist, but a being with contradictory features cannot exist. When I say that a being’s attributes are “incoherent,” I mean much more than that the attributes of that being are strange or mysterious. I mean that they contradict. This means that if one or more of the attributes are true of that being, then it is also true that one or more of the other attributes of that being must, by definition, be false, and such a being–one with contradictory attributes–is not a possible being. And thus such a being could not exist. [See chapter 12 of Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1990) and Ted Drange’s online article (originally published in Philo, 1998 (2), pp. 49-60), “The Incompatible Properties Argument: A Survey.”
Contradictory properties Argument.
1. Any being with contradictory properties cannot exist.
2. God is a being with contradictory properties.
3. Therefore, god cannot exist.
I will discuss here only the contradictory attributes traditionally ascribed to god in the Judeo-xian-Islamic tradition. However, this traditional xian concept of god is not coherent.
Let’s begin with some contradictory attributes due to the omniscience of god. It is not exactly clear what is meant when one says of god that he is omniscient, or all-knowing. But surely one at least means by this that god is not ignorant of something known to some other person. So to say of god that he is all-knowing seems to clearly imply that for any knowledge K known to someone S, god also knows K. If someone S has some knowledge K that god does not or cannot have, then god would be both ignorant of K and by definition omniscient or all-knowing, which is incoherent.
When we speak of knowing, we may for the present purposes divide knowledge into several categories:
1) Factual or propositional knowledge, which is to say that it is expressible as a true sentence or true belief.
2) Procedural knowledge, which is the kind of knowledge of how to perform some complex skill, such as the skill used when one plays tennis or juggles. This kind of knowledge is different from propositional knowledge. Anyone who has tried to learn juggling, bicycling (or unicycling), bowling, etc. is aware that even though the novice can correctly repeat factual knowledge about a skill as well as a master of the skill, a different kind of knowledge is required to perform well at the task in question.
3) Knowledge by direct acquaintance, which is an immediate awareness (the direct acquaintance) of an occurring event or a direct memory of an event derived by direct acquaintance. This knowledge by personal experience is something we rely on and refer to constantly in daily life.
However, god cannot have all these categories of knowledge about all things that can be known. Here are some contradictory attributes of the theistic god concept.
Omniscience v. Omnibenevolence: Knowing pleasure in killing.
A human terrorist: Can know by direct acquaintance the experience of satisfaction derived from unjustly killing large numbers of civilian human beings.
God: Can’t know this experience by direct acquaintance, since god omnibenevolent.
In this case, a human being can know something that god can’t know. But god is supposed to be omniscient, so god must know it. But god can’t know it.
God may be able to delineate or explain the factual knowledge, or even the procedural knowledge, about unjustly killing large numbers of civilian human beings, but surely an omnibenevolent being cannot know by personal experience, by direct acquaintance, the pleasure or satisfaction felt by a terrorist at the killing of large numbers of civilian human beings. There are many other examples of cruelty or torture that could also be used in the same way. God is omnibenevolent, or morally perfect, and this precludes god enjoying unjust torture or suffering. (Examples in the bible in which god performs such actions will be ignored.) The most important part of knowing the enjoyment of killing large numbers of civilian human beings is the experience of the enjoyment that comes from such unjust suffering. God is by definition a being who does not enjoy such things. God cannot have such an experience. So god cannot know by direct acquaintance, by personal experience, something that can be known by a terrorist. So the concept is incoherent.
Omniscience v. omniscience: Make a mistake
Human: Can know the experience of finding out he or she made a mistake.
God: Cannot know this, since god supposedly is omniscient, so god can’t make mistakes and thus can’t know the experience of finding out that he’s made a mistake.
Omniscience v. Omnibenevolence: Knowing pleasure in sex. Human: Can know what it’s like to experience the pleasure of sexual intercourse.
God: Can’t know this, since god is omnibenevolent, and according to the Judeo-xian-Islamic view of sex, god can’t “debase” himself to know such pleasure.
Omniscience v. Omnibenevolence: Knowing the intense desire for sexual pleasure.
Human: Can know what it’s like to experience the intense desire for the pleasure of sexual intercourse. God: Can’t know this, since god is omnibenevolent, and according to the xian view of sex, god can’t “debase” himself to know the desire for such pleasure.
Omniscience v. omnipotence: Learning how to do something.
Human being: Can know by personal experience what it is like to learn how to do something.
God: Already knows everything, so god can’t know what it is like to learn how to do something.
So in this case a human can perform the action of learning, which god cannot, so it would seem that a human can also perform actions that an omnipotent being cannot.
Omniscience v. omniscience: Be an Atheist
Human: Can know what it’s like to be an atheist.
God: Can’t know what it’s like to be an atheist.
So once again a human being can know something that it is possible to know, yet god can’t know it. But god is omniscient and is supposed to be all-knowing. So the concept is incoherent.
Here are a few examples involving other attributes of god.
Omnibenevolence v. Omnipotence: Engaging in sexual intercourse.
Human: There are billions of human beings. Obviously humans engage in sexual intercourse.
God: Because god is “too good” to engage in sexual intercourse, god cannot engage in sexual intercourse. God can’t do something that almost all humans can do.
Transcendence v. omniscience and omnipotence: Swimming.
Human swimmer: Know a skill such as swimming by procedural knowledge and direct acquaintance.
God: Can’t know swimming in this way because he is outside of space and time, so he has no body with which to swim. This applies to many physical skills, so there are many more examples of contradictory attributes of god.
Omnipotence v. omnibenevolence: Sin
Human: I can sin.
God: God can’t sin, since he is omnibenevolent.
So there is something that is allegedly easily done, sinning, yet god, an omnipotent being, can’t do it. That is incoherent.
Transcendence v. Omnipresence:
God is transcendent (outside space and time).
God is omnipresent, i.e., existing everywhere in space.
So god is not in space and time and god is everywhere in space and time.
That is clearly incoherent.
Transcendence v. Omnipotence:
God is transcendent (i.e., outside of space and time).
All movement, by definition, is within space and time.
Therefore, god cannot move.
If god cannot move, then god cannot perform any physical actions.
If god cannot perform any physical actions, then god has limited power.
God is all-powerful.
If god is all-powerful, then god does not have limited power.
Therefore, god has limited power and does not have limited power.
That is incoherent.
There are many more contradictions, but this should suffice for now. The concept of god has many incoherent properties, so we are justified in believing that such a being cannot exist. If we were to add other alleged properties of god, such as infinitely merciful, perfectly just, the trinity, etc. one could generate many other contradictions.
C. The Argument from Suffering/Evil.
1.There is needless suffering in the world.
2.If god were to exist, then there would be no needless suffering in the world.
3.Therefore, god does not exist.
This argument is sometimes known as the argument from evil. Here I will define “evil” as the suffering of a sentient being. Whether we use the term “evil” is irrelevant, so I will call this the argument from suffering to prevent dwelling on the theological interpretations of “evil.” In this case, the argument is taking advantage of the fact that people recognize that the world has much suffering in it, and that is has had a great deal of suffering throughout human history and probably before that. In the first premise, by “needless suffering” I mean suffering that does not lead to a greater good. Even theists recognize that there is a lot of suffering in the world that does not seem to have any purpose. In this argument, I am not arguing that no suffering leads to a greater good. For example, I have no problem with the assertion that many instances of structure failures in buildings have led to stronger, more earthquake-resistant buildings. The deaths of some people due to inadequately constructed buildings led the recognition that we need to construct better buildings. The collapse of some bridges has led to the invention of methods of building better bridges. In many cases the death and suffering of many people from diseases has led to useful medical research. However, the basis for my first premise is that god would know which instances of suffering would lead to better things, greater goods, and which instances would not, and, knowing this, would not allow needless suffering since nothing would be gained from it, and, all other things being equal, it is better for suffering not to exist than for it to exist. So suffering that has no point, no purpose, no greater good, would be the sort of suffering we would expect would be prevented by an omnibenevolent god.
Now, is there needless suffering in the world? The evidence that there is needless suffering is so overwhelming that few theologians deny that there is a “problem of evil” (the problem of suffering). In fact, books on the problem of evil written by theologians are plentiful, and the intended audience for such books is usually believers, not nonbelievers. One book that gained a great deal of fame in the past for addressing the problem of evil was When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. There would be little need for such books if the problem I speak of were not readily recognized.
Consider the tragedy on September 11th. Thousands died because of a terrorist attack. It is beyond doubt that if god did exist, god could have prevented the tragedy from occurring without expending much effort. An all-powerful being could have stopped the terrorists in their tracks long before they arrived at the airport. God could also have prevented the planes from crashing once they had been taken over by the terrorists. Even if a theist were to claim that some good came out of the attack, it could be questioned whether the death of each and every person who died in the attacks was a necessary condition to bring about the greater good in question. If the same good could have come about from the attack even if one person fewer had died, then the superfluous death or deaths is the needless suffering that a good, omnipotent, omniscient god would have prevented if he existed.
Consider also the holocaust of WWII. Millions of Jews, about six million is the usual estimate, died in the death camps at the hands of the Nazis. Even if some good did come from that, and aside from the issue of whether this good is so good as to outweigh the suffering that brought it about, surely it is absurd to maintain that if one fewer of the victims of the Holocaust had died, that the good brought about from those deaths could not have existed. Historians can’t even narrow down the number of victims of the Holocaust to within one hundred thousand victims, so surely it is the case that if one hundred fewer victims had died in the holocaust whatever good was brought about by all that suffering would still have come into existence. Was the good that supposedly came from the holocaust that human beings learn to prevent war? Was the good that allegedly came from this event that we learn how terrible dictatorial political systems are? Even if some deaths were required to bring about a greater good, surely not every death was required, since we don’t even know how many there were. In fact, it is plausible to think that we may never know about every single death in the holocaust of WWII. So the extra deaths, those not needed to bring about the alleged lesson that is a greater good, are cases of needless suffering that we would expect to have been prevented if god were to exist. Even if the greater good is not some lesson that was to be learned, it still seems implausible to suppose that every death in the holocaust was a necessary condition to bring about whatever the alleged greater good is. If god is omnipotent and omniscient, it would also seem far less likely that every death in the holocaust was a necessary condition for whatever greater good is said to result from the holocaust. An omnipotent and omniscient being could manipulate the situations and events toward a desired outcome in a way no human being could.
The fact that there are cases of needless suffering shows us that there is no being with the power, knowledge, and desire to prevent such suffering. God is by definition a being with the power, knowledge, and desire to prevent such suffering.
So why wasn’t the needless suffering of the holocaust prevented? If god is unwilling to prevent it, then god is not all-good. If god is unable to prevent evil, then god is either not all-powerful (he was unable to prevent it even though he may have wanted to do so and knew that this evil would occur), or he is not omniscient (he did not know that this evil was about to occur), or he is both not all-powerful and not omniscient. Any of these concessions would spell defeat for the theist. If any of these attributes are denied, then this is an admission that the god of theism, as we have defined it, does not exist. Thus, the fact of the existence of evil, or suffering, makes the traditional concept of god untenable because the theist cannot maintain the traditional theistic concept of god and plausibly allow that needless suffering exists.
The best explanation as to why needless suffering is not prevented is that there is no god to prevent it. The fact that needless suffering exists justifies us in rejecting the existence of the sort of being whom we would expect would prevent needless suffering. Theists must invent ad hoc explanations for needless suffering, weaker explanations. The existence of superfluous suffering is untenable on the theistic view yet easily explained if god does not exist. So we are justified in holding that god does not exist in the face of needless suffering.
D. The Argument from Nonbelief.
Theodore Drange, professor emeritus of West Virginia University, is the originator of the argument from nonbelief. His book Evil and Nonbelief: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God provides a thorough and compelling case for the nonexistence of god based on both the argument from evil and the argument from nonbelief. Below is a modified (and abbreviated) version of the argument from nonbelief.
Let set P be defined as the set of the following propositions:
(a) There exists the god of theism.
(b) The god of theism loves humanity, and
(c) This being wants each person to be saved by having certain
beliefs sufficient for salvation, such as beliefs P1…Pn.
Beliefs P1…Pn represent whatever beliefs in addition to (a) and (b) would be required for salvation on any given version of theism. One may add to set P as members of P1…Pn any additional propositions such as “Jesus died for your sins,” “Jesus rose from the dead,” or similar propositions. Let us stipulate for the sake of simplicity that anyone who believes the propositions in set P is saved, and anyone who does not believe them is not saved.
This simplified argument from nonbelief, then, is the following:
1. If god exists, then god wants what is best for each person.
2. What is best for each person is that he or she is saved.
3. Therefore, if god exists, then god wants each person to be saved by having the beliefs of set P.
4. If god wants everyone to be saved by having the beliefs of set P, then everyone would have the beliefs of set P.
5. Not everyone has the beliefs of set P.
6. Therefore, god does not want everyone to be saved by having the beliefs of set P.
7. Therefore, god does not exist.
Premise #1 is surely unproblematic because if god is omnibenevolent, god wants what is best for each person and wouldn’t want anything more than he wants what is best for each person. Premise #2 is also unproblematic. Surely on the xian view what is best for each person is that the person is saved.
Premise #4 should also be unproblematic because if god were to exist, god could bring it about that each person would have sufficient evidence to bring about belief in the propositions of set P. Perhaps it could be objected that god does not want to impede the exercise of free will? God wants each person to freely come to believe that he exists. That is irrelevant. God could bring it about that each person comes to freely believe that he exists because they have been confronted with sufficient evidence for his existence. Each person reading this statement has freely come to believe that George W. Bush exists, yet no one had to surrender any free will in order to believe this. Each person reading this statement has freely come to believe that Saddam Hussein exists, yet no one had to surrender any free will in order to believe this. Who is it more important to believe in the existence of: George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, or the theistic god? Presumably the evidence for the existence of the former two was not much of a problem. Millions believe that those two humans exist, yet no one lost any free will in the process. The theistic god could use similar measures to ensure that belief in his existence is universal, and the theistic god allegedly has more power and intelligence than Bush or Hussein, so there seems to be no reason that god could not create universal belief in his existence simply by providing sufficient proof. God could cause each of the stars in the sky to form the words “God exists” or he could cause each book that has ever been printed to suddenly have only the text of the bible as its content. There are any number of other events that the god of theism could cause in such a way as to provide sufficient evidence to freely instill belief in his existence, but these events do not happen.
Theists who claim that no possible set of events would bring about belief in god in a given person are fooling themselves. Some theists like to pretend that nonbelievers are simply “hard-hearted” or “stiff-necked” and that no amount of evidence could change the minds of such people. Perhaps there are such people, but I have never met any, and I have known many atheists. The fact that many atheists are former believers is good evidence that such atheists are open to changing their minds based on the evidence–or lack thereof. I know that if I were to see the stars in the sky to form the words “God exists, Doug!” I would consider that sufficient evidence to change my beliefs.
That premise #5 is true is also uncontroversial. There are millions people throughout the world that are not theists, and many who are nonbelievers in any god. Claims that people “deep down” all know that god exists are just pleasant falsehoods that theists often tell themselves to avoid facing the fact that many intelligent, conscientious people throughout history have diligently examined the alleged evidence for the existence of god and have found it to be clearly insufficient.
Thus, the fact that not everyone believes in the god of theism is evidence that such a being does not exist. If god did exist, he would see to it that everyone was convinced of his existence because he would want everyone to be saved. Not everyone is convinced of his existence. So we are justified in holding that such a being does not exist.
My arguments for the nonexistence of god, then, are:
A. The Presumption of Atheism Argument.
B. The Incoherent Attributes Argument.
C. The Argument from Suffering/Evil.
D. The Argument from Nonbelief.
There are other arguments for atheism, but my space in these debates is limited, and I believe that those I have presented can demonstrate that we can be justified in believing that there is no god.