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Paul Obrien Gentle Atheism4

It seems only fair to flesh out a few of the more traditional arguments against the existence of God. Once again, I will not dwell very long on any one of them, and I will add my personal assessments to each of them in turn. Contrary to what some might think, I find disastrous flaws with these arguments as well, despite the fact that they attempt to support the belief that I myself hold.

The Nature of Matter

In the cosmological argument, we saw an attempt to provide an explanation for the beginning of the universe as the effect of a prime mover or uncaused cause one may call God. This atheistic argument works closely in form to the cosmological argument, except against God.

This argument reminds us that one of the most fundamental principles in physics is the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy. Physics instructs us that no amount of matter or energy can be gained or lost in the universe. In addition, this arguer then asserts that if a God did indeed create the universe, he must have done so at a certain point in time. But if energy and mass can never be gained or lost, this so-called creation by God at whatever given point in time could not have happened. The notion that God created the universe is contrary to the physical laws of the conservation of matter and energy; it makes no sense to conceive of a God that creates something out of nothing when the laws of physics clearly indicate that this is impossible. This discrepancy convinces the arguer that God could not exist.

This is not a terribly convincing argument at all, and it is one I would not use to defend my belief. One of the flaws of the cosmological argument was that its speculation made too many assumptions and was too general to be acceptable. This argument suffers similarly. Though we are free to speculate upon the nature of the conservation of matter and energy, I seriously doubt whether these laws definitively show that God could not exist.

God is supposed to be omnipotent, after all. Couldn’t he have created the universe, he himself being the prime mover, and then, from that point on, made the laws of conservation of matter and energy come into effect? And why not, since God is supposed to be all-powerful? This argument is guilty of what two of the arguments for the existence of God are also guilty of: an observation leading to a speculation, then bounding too far to become a supposedly stable metaphysical theory. The observation in this case is that the laws of conservation exist and work, and that they indeed seem to represent the physical world as accurately as we as humans can tell. The speculation is over the compatibility of a prime moving God coinciding with these laws. The theory, then, is that there isn’t enough room for the two of them, so therefore the hypothesis of God must give way to these empirically accurate and useful laws of physics. So now we must ask: why is there not enough room for the both of them? Is it really so hypocritical to say that a God and a conservation of matter coincide in the same universe? The denial of these possibilities remains to be seen.

The Existence of Evil

God is supposed to be all-powerful and he is supposed to be all-knowing. Allegedly, God created the universe and he ultimately has the greatest control over our lives; luckily he is supposed to be infinitely good as well. But is the world infinitely good? Clearly not, this arguer asserts. Evil exists, as anyone can tell. Disasters happen, innocent people die, many good people suffer and perish, and many people who break the rules and who violate morality prosper. It doesn’t always happen this way, but it happens enough to capture our notice.

If God is all-powerful and all-benevolent, how could he allow these atrocities to happen? Since God is also supposed to be the creator of the universe and everything in it, how could he even create evil or choose to include it in this world? Why would he need evil at all if he is powerful enough to eliminate it altogether, and smart enough to know exactly how he ought to do so? There is no simple answer to any of these questions, and that fact may suggest to some people that perhaps God does not exist.

The logic of the argument is simple and fine, but unfortunately, its premises are not satisfying. First of all, the nature and understanding of "evil" is very problematic. One needs to ask themselves "What is evil?"Are there times when an evil should be committed for the sake of a greater good? Legal punishment runs along this line of reasoning, especially considering the controversial death penalty. A murderer is apprehended and tried, and for the greater good of the community, another murder is committed; the murder of the murderer. Is this justified?

Good and evil are tricky, troublesome notions. Though most of us buy into these notions to some extent, let the buyer beware, for these notions are hard to understand and especially difficult to apply to practical circumstances. On top of that, this arguer would have us put God into the equation and say that God and evil cannot exist together. But again, why couldn’t they? Maybe God uses evil as a necessary evil toward some greater good, perhaps to test faith like he supposedly did with Job. He is omniscient after all, which means that shouldn’t he know what he’s doing better than we do?

One need not even touch this part of the argument; maybe they can simply alter or redefine God’s omnipotence and benevolence. Maybe God is not so powerful or benevolent after all. That doesn’t mean that we should necessarily pack up our bags and stop believing in him. Maybe we’re recognizing evil where it does not in fact exist. These questions I cite are supposed to make us feel a little uncomfortable because they are real problems that must be asked and considered.

But one thing is for certain: the argument, because of these ambiguities and possibilities I list, has probably oversimplified the equation and dismissed God prematurely. Yet there is something deeper here than pure rationality reveals, and it is something I want to note that will lead into a later section in this book about emotional convictions. Many people who doubt God do so in situations where a tragedy or some other seemingly senseless atrocity has been dealt to them. "How could God have done this to me?" they might ask, and the answer sometimes comes to them as, "he wouldn’t have allowed this to happen if he was truly a loving God," or even, "he couldn’t do so if he really existed at all." Therefore, since the bad incident did happen, maybe God isn’t out there after all.

I want to be wary of this feeling right from the start. Its force and commonality is striking and notable, but it displays a force external to the metaphysical proofs I am currently outlining. It is an emotional reaction to the world that arouses serious emotional doubts. Though emotional convictions are not inherently bad (as I will later point out), the negativity of this emotion can potentially led to great bitterness, hatred, and insecurity. I defend theism on this count and tell the doubter this: your doubt is real, but do not let that solely change your mind about religion. Take some time to analyze the doubt more objectively, and then see what how viable it seems.

All too often atheists are born from a painful religious incident. I cannot tell you how many Christians, after learning that I am an atheist, have asked me, "what happened?" as if some horrible incident drove me from the Church. This may bring many people to atheism, but I hope that it does not keep them there. I am, for one, an atheist who converted out of positive reasons. People motivated toward any given religion for negative reasons, such as this or coercion, will only hurt themselves in the long run, and quite possibly hurt the religious institution they belong to as well. Although I recognize that hate or fear might bring people to believe in certain beliefs, I encourage them not to let such negative emotions keep them there. We need to keep our decisions as positive as possible, and I will definitely try to bring some positive factors into consideration later.

Burden of Proof

I have not found this argument in any textbook, but I have come across it too many times in conversation not mention it briefly. This argument can be illustrated in the following manner: imagine that two people are speaking to each other about God and Godlessness, one being an atheist and the other being a theist. Suppose the theist tells the atheist all about God and his religious code, while the atheist remains very doubtful about what she is hearing. "Alright," the theist may challenge, "prove to me that God does not exist." But the atheist shakes her head. "No. It is you who must first try to prove that God exists, and then I will try to disprove him."

Who has to prove which position first before the other can properly respond to it? This is essentially a question about who has the burden of having to prove their point first, and this argument posits that theists hold this burden. Once theists succeed in getting any arguments for the existence of God off the ground, then atheists will step forward to argue against them. Unfortunately for theists, no argument for the existence of God has really endured very well under scrutiny, as I have attempted to show earlier. When it comes down to it, this atheist is just waiting, while the theist has their work cut out for them to survive this scrutiny.


This is a resilient argument. Who has the burden of proof, the theist or the atheist? It depends on how you’re looking at it. If you have been convinced that God does exist by any variety of the arguments available, or from personal experience and belief, you have technically done your part and it’s now on the atheist’s side of the court. If the arguments for the existence of God have not satisfied you, however, perhaps you are still waiting for something substantial to work with.

I used to find this argument convincing. I was once speaking with a Christian on this matter and it seemed that my use of this strategy was the first time he had ever heard of it. I tried to put it plainly; I said, "If you have two people who are quietly minding their own business, and one proposes some idea or belief, it is up to that proposer to support their idea first. Why? Because the other person is just minding their own business; they will listen, but they cannot be held responsible for immediately refuting every idea that comes their way. Let he who initiates the action or the idea defend that act or idea, not the passive party."

The Christian smiled and corrected an assumption I was making, one that I was not even aware of until he pointed it out to me. "That’s not the way God works," he basically said. "God is not something ‘out there’ that two gentlemen stumble across, where one sees him and the other does not, or where the observer must defend his observation. It is simply not a proof for some external truth. God’s truth is all around us; it’s been part of the entire universe since the moment we were born. It predates all of us. Its pervasiveness does not need to be proven in that way, and its widespread acceptance cannot be overlooked. You made the theist look like the one who moved against the norm by breaking the peace by talking about God. But the norm among us is that God does exist, and therefore it is the atheist who goes against the grain. Therefore it is the atheist who must argue their position now."

Can an atheist disprove God? It hardly seems possible. Logically, it is what we might call a supertask requiring an omnipotence and an omniscience in its own right. We would have to search every corner of time and space itself to prove a negative like this, and that’s not going to happen. You would practically have to be as powerful as a god to disprove all gods! So what gives? What are we to make of this argument? I will suspend judgement on that question for a moment so that I may introduce a greater point. I’ll come back to this argument soon enough.

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