The Apologetic Professor’s Argument for Atheism

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:

Part I:

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.

Part II:

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.

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3 Responses to The Apologetic Professor’s Argument for Atheism

  1. Uh-Oh says:

    Isn’t it interesting to explore good arguments for both sides? Or even just arguments presented by both sides – as long as it gets you to think about what you currently believe and why, then that is a great thing. It is one of the greatest reasons why freedom of speech is so important, especially for defending unpopular opinions from governmental censorship. If nothing ever challenges our perspectives, we may never know WHY we have those perspectives in the first place or what they even mean.

    I haven’t really heard of this atheist argument before, but I’ll have a go with it. To my understanding, the Christian god is a ‘perfect’ being, perfect in the sense of perfectly good, the literal embodiment of goodness in the universe. And sin could be defined as defying god’s will or the nature of good, which by definition god would not be able to do (anything the god did would be intentional and in line with his will). I do not understand the statement that god cannot ‘contain sin’. What is ‘containing sin’? Is that expressing or embodying sinfulness? The definition of sin that they put forward needs clarification.

    Statement #5 is not a definition or a logical fact, but an opinion statement. Isn’t this any particular person’s opinion on whether or not some action is more or less ‘good’ or ‘inspiring’? Giving a bottle of water to the thirsty is ‘good’, but giving your last bottle of water to them is ‘better good’, but giving your last bottle of water to a thirsty Hitler is ‘kinda bad’. That is all subjective based on the viewer, and so I don’t like it as a foundational ‘logic’ to this at all…

    But they are saying if you work for it, the action is more valuable than if it comes without effort. Does that not also mean that evil acts are more ‘evil’ if done with more effort? Like I could construct an elaborate scheme to trip my friend with 72 hours of mechanization and planning, or I could just stick my foot out. Which is more ‘evil’? Doesn’t the friend fall either way? Or is it more evil to blow up a dam with 100 tons of hand-crafted explosives or just press the release valve button? Either way the town below is wiped out, but I am supposed to decide which is ‘more evil’ based simply on effort and cost? It sounds absurd.

    ‘Ultimate good’ is very ill-defined. It seems to be a reference to the disparity between ‘sinfulness’ and an action of ‘goodness’, and only that difference creates ultimate good. This would be to say a person like Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan giving a little boy ice cream would be far and above more ‘ultimate good’ than a kindly nun doing the same thing. The only difference is the ‘sinfulness’ of the actor, not the action itself. To me, the whole judgment uses the wrong target (actor, not action) to determine whether something is ‘ultimate good’ or ‘evil’.

    The funny thing is, only an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god runs into these sorts of logical problems. Though this logic misses the mark I think, there is still something to be said about that sort of god being difficult to defend. Whereas the pantheons of ancient gods, with their varied and interesting personalities, would have no trouble at all with this sort of logic: The gods can be dicks – they’re gods and they do whatever they please, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But the ultimate ‘good and powerful’ god has no such excuse, and I haven’t heard a good argument defending what this logical attempt drives at.

    It will be interesting seeing more arguments appear both in your posts and in your comment section.

  2. Jack Shifflett says:

    Thank you for the tentative attribution, but I can tell you that, not only have I not used this “argument” for atheism, I’ve never heard of it. And, as with “Uh-oh,” I find that the argument rests on at least one questionable premise–#3 in the short argument and #5 in the longer version. As I understand the argument, the more sinful my nature–or, for that matter, my developed character–the more meritorious my occasional good action; which means we should all long for the most sinful nature possible, so that we can be capable of the “ultimate good”. I find the argument nonsensical.

    Unlike Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al, I don’t argue for atheism; it seems both futile and ungenerous to do so. So far as I’m concerned, people who believe in God are welcome to do so; they no doubt derive benefits from it. If they attempt to “prove” to me God’s existence, or convert me to their kind of belief, I may well present counterarguments, but in general it’s not a debate I’d ever begin. And people who have encountered, in whatever way, Something or Someone they call “God” are certainly entitled to their own interpretation of their own experience; I haven’t had such experiences, so who am I to debunk them?

    That said, I am, of course, an atheist, unapologetic but not argumentative. I’m this sort of atheist: the organization I work for has its office in a local church, and this morning I overheard a member of the church receiving the Eucharist in the hallway– some sort of exigent circumstance, I assume. Now, I didn’t believe a word of the “This is my body, this is my blood” formula, but the person receiving it did, and I found the entire informal ceremony incredibly touching. Religion reaches people in ways that science never can and never will, and anyone who dismisses or despises that is, in my opinion, missing out on something.

  3. Shawn says:

    Hi Luke – Long time no see! I wonder if your theorem could fit in a shorter set of postulates:
    1) God has no sin in Him
    2) People have sin in them
    3) People can sin better than God can
    4) If there is something that people can do better than God, then He isn’t really God
    Ergo God does not really exist.
    Two ideas that come to mind are 1) the idea that God cannot make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift, and 2) a rock, when dropped, can never hit the ground, because before it hits the ground, it has to get halfway to the ground, then halfway again, then halfway again, ad infinitum. I think your argument has some similarities to these other two, of ideas that sort of seem right but can’t be, because the conclusion is so clearly wrong (in this case, the rock example is the most obvious one where the conclusion has to be wrong, which I would prove if I was currently holding a rock).

    I think that from your argument (short form), it’s #3 which is the downfall. It’s not at all self-evident that overcoming one’s sin nature is the ultimate good. I would argue that death on a cross is a lot close to the Ultimate Good than my decision to, say, avoid a temptation on the internet.

    My mother wondered a similar kind of thing, though – if she has no desire to murder, say, then how is it credited as good for her to not murder? I pondered that for a few decades before coming up with a sort of answer. I think it’s that God is making, in believers, a new heart to do the things we should be doing. As such, desires I had before that were not Godly desires are (uh, very slowly) being diminished in my life. So, my desire to not do these kinds of activities is not so much an avoidance of sin, as it is evidence of the Holy Spirit within me. I think.

    The best example I have of this involves going to the mall. When I was younger I would be tempted by all kinds of things – and this was a problem because I had no money. Now, I have more means, but I can walk through the mall and not see anything I want to buy. It’s not that buying something is sinful, but certainly buying stuff I don’t need/coveting stuff/harboring bad thoughts about people who do buy the stuff I want is not Godly activity.

    Your argument also focuses on the existence of God, which is a very different belief than a belief in the Christian (Triune) God. But that’s probably beyond the scope of your post.

    In any event, I appreciate the challenging post! I agree about the need to see things from the other person’s angle. Certainly my experience in Vancouver enhanced rather than diminished my own beliefs, and I think that’s because of the constant awareness of others’ angles on Christianity which were really clear in the secular school setting. I also appreciate Jack’s comment about the difficulty in ‘proving’ either side of this argument, as both sides are essentially unfalsifiable.