There is this scene in Tron: Legacy where the son of the main character is trying to explain to his dad, who has been absent from society for twenty years, what “WiFi” is. When the dad gets it, he says matter-of-factly: “Wireless linking of digital devices? I thought of that in ’85.”
It turns out that this is often how I myself feel when I read atheist arguments. I often feel something like “yeah, I thought of that, on my own, about 20 years ago – already been there, done that, moved past it. You’re way behind me, kid.” I rarely hear of an argument for atheism that I haven’t already considered.
This just in: I’m arrogant.
This has a point, which is: I like to look at things from both sides of the issue. My intellectual hero is St. Thomas Aquinas, who generated some of the best arguments for the positions he did not believe in that have ever existed. I don’t think you’ve really begun to think about an issue until you’ve put forward the best arguments on both sides. Otherwise, to paraphrase Chesterton, you are like someone arguing against the existence of a police force who has never heard of criminals.
So my Christian readers should not be alarmed that I occasionally still generate arguments for atheism, try to think of the very best reasons why God might not exist. And quite frankly, my arguments for atheism sometimes seem better to me than most of the arguments atheists themselves generate. Most atheist arguments that I read about are boring, or tautological, or declarations by fiat, or filled with self-defeating logical contradictions, or all four at the same time. (To be fair, and to stave off the inevitable wave of criticism, most Christian arguments strike me the same way. See: Humanity). Since I dismiss that kind of thinking for both sides when I see it, I admit I often don’t see a lot of merit in what atheists themselves say about atheism.
It isn’t just me. A while back, I ran a series where I graded arguments for God’s existence; and I’ve been thinking of doing a parallel series where I grade arguments for atheism. Problem: There are currently, in the public zeitgeist at least, very few constructive arguments for atheism floating around. I know that sounds controversial, but really, save your hate mail. This isn’t sensationalism – it is rather something that a lot of people on all sides agree on, including famous atheists such as Richard Dawkins. I’m not saying there aren’t any constructive arguments – I’m saying that most of atheist argumentation historically, and certainly in the current climate, involves refuting arguments for God, often in a fairly boring manner based on personal experience, and not creating a compelling positive case for the atheist world view. The very name atheism is reactive.
Yet it need not be the case. Indeed, as much as I think Richard Dawkins mostly an idiot (he is) that my daughter could out-argue (she could), and which St. Thomas Aquinas could have beaten in an argument while taking a freakin’ nap (hahahahaha!), Dawkins actually produced a pretty clever constructive argument for atheism in a recent book. Clever, but not memorable – I can’t remember what it was. A better blogger would go find it for you right now – but I think we’ve established at this point that I’m not a better blogger. Seriously, go read some Grundy or Jack Shiflett if you want better blogging.
Anyway, Dawkins’ argument, whatever it was, did not re-capture the atheist glory of David Hume or anything, but it at least offered something worth reading. Really.
And in that spirit of creating positive constructive arguments for atheism, I here present to you an Apologetic Professor original: One of my own positive cases for atheism that is in the old “ontological argument” mold (but of course on the other side of the debate). I’ll let you decide for yourself, but personally, I think it’s air-tight logically and pretty tough to beat. It’s only defect is that it happens to be wrong.
Now, I’m not claiming that this argument has never been said before – quite surely, someone else has thought of this chain of reasoning. I even have this vague sense that Jack Shiflett may have inspired or facilitated this argument in a discussion on this blog – I don’t remember. Maybe I even got it from Richard Dawkins. But I’ve never seen it before that I remember at this moment, and I didn’t “get it” from anywhere that I know of. It’s just been in my head for many years running now.
But seriously, how many Christian blogs are going to offer you an argument for atheism? Cut me some slack.
For the lazy, here’s the short form of the argument:
1. God must be better than people on all dimensions or else He is not God.
2. God cannot contain sin inside of Him or else He is not totally good.
3. Doing the ultimate good requires overcoming one’s own sin nature.
4. People can do the ultimate good because they can contain a sin nature.
5. God cannot do the ultimate good because doing the ultimate good requires containing a sin nature.
6. Therefore, people are better than God on the dimension of doing the ultimate good.
7. It follows that it is logically impossible for God to exist – the idea of God is self-defeating:
7a. If God contains a sin nature, He cannot be God.
7b. But If God does not contain a sin nature, He cannot do the ultimate good, and therefore He cannot be God.
For the obsessive over-thinker, here’s the argument in long form:
1. God is defined as an omnipotent being that on every single dimension attains the very best possible on that dimension.
2. This means that God must be equal to or better than humans on every single dimension, or else He would not be God.
3. God by definition cannot contain sin – God cannot do something morally wrong, because that would not be the best possible on that dimension.
4. God cannot even contain sin inside of him as His own – sin cannot be a part of God – because having sin inside of oneself would make one less than the best one could possibly be.
5. It is morally better to exert effort/sacrifice for doing good than it is to do good when no effort/sacrifice is required.
Example: If you can literally print/manufacture money whenever you want it, it would be morally less inspiring to give someone in need $100 than it would be if you had to give $100 of your $200 grocery allowance.
6. It requires more moral effort to overcome sin when it is a part of you than it does when it is not a part of you.
Example: Take a single act of goodness, such as being kind to a stranger on the street. It would be nearly universally acknowledged that for a (1) person who was raised in a perfect environment where kindness was shown repeatedly and that person had a good temperament and personality, who wanted to do the good act out of her/his nature, performing that good act would be less noble and good than for (2) someone who had been raised starving on the street, fighting for food, having never been shown an ounce of kindness, and who did not want to do the good act. In the second case, there is goodness is overcoming the natural inclination they had been dealt, their natural inclination to do bad, which does not exist in the first case.
7. Because God does not have a sin nature, God being good does not require the ultimate in moral effort. It is not possible for God to have a natural inclination to do bad.
8. Because humans do have the potential for a sin nature, humans have the potential to exert the ultimate in moral effort.
9. Therefore, people are potentially better than God on that dimension. God’s “ceiling” for potential goodness is lower than humanity’s “ceiling” for goodness.
10. Because God cannot have a sin nature, and simultaneously a Being without a sin nature cannot do the ultimate good, it is logically impossible for God to exist – the idea of God is self-defeating.