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The Krueger-McHugh Debate: Theism or Atheism (2003)

Doug Krueger


Second Rebuttal by Doug Krueger

My task in this debate is considerably easier than I had anticipated because not only has McHugh used a well-known and well-rebutted argument in his opening statement (the ontological argument), he has further stated in his rebuttal that he "can concede Krueger's opening statement in its entirety." My opening statement argues that one can be justified in holding that it is false that there is exactly one being who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, transcendent, omnipresent, who created the world, and who rules the world. This is the common Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of god. Since McHugh concedes that there is no such being, I think that in the eyes of many believers I have prevailed in this debate. McHugh even denies that the positive property of "goodness" can be predicated of god. One could perhaps make a case that he has not argued for the existence of god, since he is not using the standard definition. However, I think I have successfully refuted his ontological argument.

Despite the fact that he concedes my opening statement, he tries to show that my arguments are unsuccessful just to be sporting and "make the debate interesting." Had he wanted to make the debate interesting he should never have used the ontological argument, especially a modal version, but in any case, I will now show that he has failed to rebut my arguments.

The Presumption of Atheism Argument

To rebut this argument, McHugh tries to simultaneously hold that belief in god is common sense, yet he has conceded that the most prevalent view of god, the common view, is unjustified. Most believers would deny that it is common sense that you cannot attribute positive properties to god (as McHugh maintains), so it is not clear how McHugh can call his view common sense. What McHugh calls commons sense could have got him burnt as a heretic by fellow believers not that long ago.

McHugh brings up free will as a common sense belief that allegedly entails theism. As do many believers who argue the free will topic, McHugh commits the fallacy of division. He says: "We must conclude that the ultimate substance of reality is something like a free will too, for the existence of our free will cannot be explained in terms of the blind interactions of non-free substances." It is a fallacy to claim that what is true of the whole must be true of the parts of the whole, so his argument from free will fails. It is not true that if we have free will that the components from which we are made must have free will also. McHugh also fails to explain how theism would account for free will. Just bringing spirits into the equation, especially those without any positive properties, hardly explains free will. In addition, there are at least some versions of theism that make free will problematic, especially versions that include predestination. McHugh says nothing about that issue. McHugh betrays a clear lack of familiarity with the issue of free will.

Finally, McHugh states that I must rebut all theistic arguments before I can conclude that there is no god, at least on the presumption of atheism argument. McHugh writes: "I disagree that belief in the existence of God counts as an extraordinary claim." I think it is telling that McHugh does not address an issue that I brought out in my opening statement, namely, the existence of other gods. Surely McHugh would demand extraordinarily strong evidence for those beliefs. Why should the existence of his god be in a different category from the existence of Odin or Jupiter or Shiva? Since he does not address the multiplicity of gods, McHugh's case sounds like special pleading. Would he not demand extraordinarily strong evidence for the existence of those gods?

I have made a case that one who asserts that god exists has the burden of showing that this is so, and that one can reject such a belief if there is no extraordinarily strong evidence in favor of it. Nothing McHugh has said seems to imply that I was incorrect in calling belief in god an extraordinary claim--especially since McHugh rejects the ordinary theistic claims about god.

The Contradictory Properties Argument

I argued that the concept of god has contradictory properties. Although McHugh argues that "the non-deficiency of God" is said to surpass all positive interpretations of "perfection" and that no positive properties can be attributed to god, and despite the fact that he concedes my opening statement "in its entirety," McHugh proposes alternative definitions of some of god's properties in order to circumvent my argument.

For example, he suggests that we can define omnipotence as "Someone is 'omnipotent' if and only if they can cause any logically possible situation whatsoever to obtain." However, his next statement is curious. He says: "For example, God could cause the world to come into being, but could not cause an omnibenevolent being (such as Himself) to commit a sin, for that would not be a logically possible situation." Since McHugh has denied that goodness as a positive property can be attributed to god, it is not clear how he can also argue that it is logically impossible for god to sin. In addition, since McHugh has carefully avoided predicating existence to god (in order to avoid Kant's objection), then it would seem logically possible that god necessarily does not exist. If that is a logically possible state of affairs (and McHugh has not shown that it is not), then on his definition, god must be able to bring about his own nonexistence. This cannot be the case, since if god exists (on McHugh's view) he exists necessarily, so on McHugh's definition god is not omnipotent.

McHugh's definition of omniscience is also problematic. He writes: "Someone is 'omniscient' if and only if they have all knowledge about any situation that possibly or actually obtains." This and the former definition seem to describe a positive property, and McHugh has argued against such ascriptions to god, so it is not clear why he is proposing this definition. He seems to be contradicting himself, or else just proposing definitions that he does not believe apply to god.

McHugh says of omniscience: "God could know what it is like (in every qualitative detail) for a human being to commit a given sin, but could not know what it is like for an omnibenevolent being (such as Himself) to commit a sin, for that would not be a situation that actually or possibly obtains." It seems that if god knows every qualitative aspect of the desire to torture innocent children for fun, then god must be able to experience this desire (since having the desire is a necessary condition of at least one aspect of knowing it). One aspect of knowing by acquaintance is only possible by actually having/being acquainted with that desire. So for god to know that desire completely he must have it, and god's having this despicable desire is definitely not part of the "common sense" concept McHugh wants to align himself with. As I've stated, his view of god is in the minority.

McHugh then addresses an argument I did not propose, Drange's argument about god's immutability. McHugh proposes that god could will a conditional statement and thus not change, and have something happen to allow the consequent of the conditional to obtain. I will address this below.

Because McHugh is unable to provide definitions of properties of god that avoid problems of contradiction, and which would contradict his assertions about god transcending positive properties, his attempts to rebut do not work.

The Argument from Suffering/Evil.

I had written:
 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.

McHugh asks how I can know that premise #1 is true. Since McHugh is reluctant to attribute goodness to his god, it is unclear why he would have a problem with the first premise. McHugh seems to be using a theological bait-and-switch tactic, where the rebuttals imply certain claims about attributes, yet when he gives his argument for god's existence he reneges on the claims. This is especially puzzling since McHugh has stated that he "can concede Krueger's opening statement in its entirety," yet later he seems unwilling to concede something from my opening statement, namely premise #1 of this argument.

However, his rebuttal fails. Here an appeal to common sense seems to be particularly apt with regard to premise #1. When some event E happens that seems to cause a great amount of suffering, and no apparent good results that would outweigh the suffering caused by event E, I hold that we are justified in concluding that E caused suffering of the sort that the world would have been "better" (i.e., it would have contained less suffering) had it not taken place. It was needless suffering. This is exactly the sort of common sense reasoning that we apply in situations where there is suffering. We do it all the time in courts, in daily life, and in evaluating historical situations. This is an accepted principle in other areas, and to argue that it should not be applied in situations such as the Oklahoma bombing or the deaths of 70,000 people in an earthquake in Portugal in 1755 seems to be special pleading. If a scientist with an earthquake prevention machine had been able to prevent the Lisbon earthquake but did not, we would say that since in the intervening two and a half centuries no discernible good has come from those deaths, it would have been better had that not happened and the scientist who stood by and did nothing was not a good person. The same reasoning should apply to god. McHugh states that my argument is question-begging and assumes that there is no god, but it is his rebuttal that begs the question. I am simply extending the common sense view. Merely proposing that there is a possible explanation that would show that the suffering was justified does not show that the suffering was justified. Since common sense tells us that much suffering is not justified, the burden is on the theist to show otherwise without engaging in special pleading.

McHugh further states that "a free-willed being could choose to rebel against God's perfect will," and that many people choose to go suffer in hell. Since McHugh acknowledges that this suffering is needless, he says that this is evidence that premise #2 is false. But he tried to rebut premise #1 by questioning whether we can know there is needless suffering. Now he asserts the existence of needless suffering to rebut premise #2. McHugh's rebuttal is problematic to say the least.

That point aside, his is an absurd argument, since no one made aware of the existence of a hell chooses to go there. The flimsy evidence for a hell (summed up: none) does not count in the least bit as making people aware of it. Any being who sends people to hell for disobedience is certainly not a good being. Perhaps this is why McHugh is reluctant to ascribe goodness to his god.

McHugh also appeals to the bible as evidence that premise #2 is false. He says that the bible has page after page of god not intervening to stop suffering. This is so. But McHugh cannot appeal to the bible for support because it contradicts both itself and his own definition of god. The bible describes god as "love" (1 Jn. 4:8) as "a consuming fire" (Deut. 4:24) as "jealous" (Ex. 34:14) and other positive properties. McHugh's position is that god transcends these descriptions, so appealing to the bible contradicts his own position.

In addition, the bible's descriptions of god allow for easy use of the argument from contradictory properties. For example, the bible describes god as being omnipresent and all-seeing (Prov. 15:3, Jer. 16:7, Psalm 139:7-8, for example) but also as not knowing what is taking place in certain areas (Gen. 11:5; 18:20-21). Similarly, First Samuel 15:29 says that god does not repent, yet god repents in Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, 1 Samuel 15:35, and Jonah 3:10. God knows what is in everyone's heart in Psalm 44:21, 139:13; and Acts 1:24; yet he also learns what is in the hearts of some people after a specific time in Genesis 22:12 and Deuteronomy 8:2. McHugh appealed to conditional statements to try to salvage god's immutability (see above), but cases in which god changes his mind or learns show that the bible god cannot be what McHugh is describing.

If McHugh appeals to the bible for a description of god, he may as well give up any claim to coherence, as well as any defense of the problem of evil: "I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (Is. 45:7 (KJV)). "Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?" (Lam. 3:38 (KJV)). In addition, sometimes god's reasons for causing suffering are given, and the reason is immoral. For example, 1 Samuel 15:1-3 has god order the genocide of the Amelekites:

1 Samuel 15:3: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

The reason given for this genocide a few verses earlier is that the Amelekites had attacked the Israelites a few centuries earlier when they were leaving Egypt. Surely killing people for something their distant ancestors did is immoral. There is no "unknown purpose" here that may save the incident from immorality. God explains the reason, and it does not justify the wholesale slaughter. The god of the bible also clearly endorses slavery, the oppression of women, and other immoral acts. The bible does not seem to rehabilitate the image of god, as McHugh seems to assume. McHugh's bible-based defense fails.

The Argument from Nonbelief

McHugh tries to rebut my "emaciated" argument from nonbelief. Space considerations required abbreviated versions of both the argument from evil and the argument from nonbelief. McHugh dismisses my argument because it does not contain a premise stating that god does not want anything more than he wants each person to be saved. (McHugh seems to be recycling material from other debates, or else it is not clear why he keeps addressing Drange instead of me.) I took it as implied (in an abbreviated version of the argument) that the standard conception of god is that of a being who would not want any situation to obtain that was inconsistent with universal salvation.

In rebutting McHugh writes: "The fact that the Biblical God has a history of allowing unbelief shows that there must be some unknown overriding reason for why He has chosen to allow it." Thus, he argues that god does not want "anything else that necessarily conflicts with his desire to bring about situation [of all, or almost all, humans since the time of Jesus of Nazareth coming to believe all the propositions of the gospel message by the time of their physical death], as strongly as he wants to bring about situation [that situation]." So god must have some reason for not wanting everyone to be a believer.

But McHugh's appeal to the bible backfires again. In 1 Timothy 2:3-4 we find that god is someone who "will have all men to be saved, and come to a knowledge of the truth." If an omnipotent, omniscient being wills something, one would think that he would meet with far more success than we see at present. More people believe that "Jesus is the son of god" is false than believe that it is true. If it is true that Jesus is god, one would expect that god could bring more people to come to the knowledge of that alleged fact. Second Peter 3:9 tells us that god "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." If god has an overriding reason to allow unbelief, then god is willing that some should perish, contrary to 2 Peter. Note also that McHugh, unlike my rebuttal, does not cite any biblical passages for support. He makes many assertions about the bible, but he does not make a case. Although there are bible verses that show that god wants people to go to hell, and in at least one case intentionally deludes them in order to send them there (2 Thess. 2:11-12), the most McHugh can hope to show by using such passages is that the concept of god in the bible is contradictory, and this would just add support for my second argument from contradictory properties.


Since McHugh "can concede Krueger's opening statement in its entirety," this rebuttal is perhaps a needless exercise, but since McHugh tried to show that my arguments are unsuccessful, I felt compelled to show that he was incorrect.

Regarding his own ontological argument, in my first rebuttal I clearly spelled out some serious difficulties with his argument. Since his own rebuttals have been ineffective, I conclude (and he concedes) that belief in the standard concept of god is unjustified, and I also conclude that belief in his "apophatic" view of god is unjustified.