In a 1968 Question article, “On Being an Atheist,” H. J. McCloskey expressed his deep personal commitments to the nonexistence of God. In this article, McCloskey presents a negative appraisal of the traditionally-stated cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God; he argues that the so-called problem of evil renders traditional theism “irrational and foolish,” and claims that “atheism is a much more [psychologically] comfortable belief than theism,” in the face of life’s tumultuous trials. In response, the following will examine each of these challenges and attempt to offer counter-arguments from the perspective of minimal theism, which argues that God’s existence, as rationally demonstrated from the cumulative and concurrent force of the various traditional arguments, is the best explanation for the universe and life.
On the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence
Concerning the traditional cosmological argument (CA hereafter), McCloskey complains that “The mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in the existence of such a [necessarily existing] being. If we use the causal argument at all…this does not entitle us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.” The weight of McCloskey’s objection is felt and his complaint is heard by the critically thinking theist. Further units of weight could be added to this objection. For instance, the traditionally constructed CA attempts to move from the “existence” of the world to the “existence” of God, the uncaused Cause. As Evans and Manis explain, “Cosmological arguments are, as the name implies, attempts to infer the existence of God from the existence of the cosmos or universe.” Within the course of the argument, however, the term “existence” is indiscriminately used of both entities without qualification. Thus, the apologist shifts the meaning of “existence” from the natural to the supernatural, the physical to the metaphysical, and thereby commits the logical fallacy of equivocation.
Furthermore, McCloskey draws the reasonable conclusion that, “All we are entitled to infer [from the CA] is the existence of a cause commensurate with the effect to be explained, the universe…We must conclude that [God] is either a malevolent powerful being or that he is a well-intentioned muddler.” With this conclusion, America’s finest puritan divine, and arguably her finest philosopher, Jonathon Edwards, concurs.
I cannot tell whether any man would have considered the works of creation as effects, if he had never been told they had a cause…But, allowing that every man is able to demonstrate to himself, that the world, and all things contained therein, are effects, and had a beginning, which I take to be a most absurd supposition, and look upon it to be almost impossible for unassisted reason to go so far, yet, if effects are to be ascribed to similar causes, and a good and wise effect must suppose a good and wise cause, by the same way of reasoning, all the evil and irregularity in the world must be attributed to an evil and unwise cause. So that either the first cause must be both good and evil, wise and foolish, or else there must be two first causes, an evil and irrational, as well as a good and wise principle.
By stringent application of the very pattern of reasoning used by the apologist to frame the CA, causal reasoning, it would appear that this so-called proof for God’s existence is buried under the weightiness of these objections. However, just as every effect has its sufficient cause, the theist argues that these objections have their efficient counter-arguments.
All good philosophizing, as well as good theologizing, is borne out of careful distinctions and delineations. A minimalist theistic approach readily concedes that certain past constructions of the CA, and their proponents, claimed too much in their conclusions. Nevertheless, this concession does not commit one to the view that the CA in another form is without its valid merits and implications as “a crucial part of a cumulative case for theism.” According to Evans and Manis, one of the necessary distinctions, with respect to strengthening the CA, is the distinction between two species of the argument, between the temporal and nontemporal forms.
The force of the temporal forms of the CA hangs much, as the name suggests, on the temporality of the universe. “Temporal versions of the argument contend (or assume) that the universe had to have a beginning, a first moment of existence. A cause is necessary to explain its existence in that first moment, and God is inferred to be that cause.” The temporal forms posit God as the uncaused backstop to an otherwise infinite regression of temporal causes. Such a regress, as would logically follow if an uncaused cause were not posited, would be absurd. Despite the absurdity and irrationality of an infinite regression of causes, McCloskey seems prepared to embrace it, in asking, “after all, why must we postulate some ultimate cause?”
Because atheist philosophers are willing to go to absurd epistemological lengths to disarm the CA, the temporal form has been subject to a number of difficult objections. These would include, but are not limited to, positing the eternality of the universe itself, as McCloskey suggested above; inferentially pressing that, if every entity requires a cause for its existence, then God too must require a cause for his existence; that because the series of cause-and-effect relations has long since begun, the existence of the first cause is no longer necessary, and charging the temporal form of the CA with the fallacy of composition, that is, the part-to-whole fallacy. The temporal form has, since its conception in antiquity, been subject to many formidable criticisms. It is this original, weaker form that McCloskey’s article addresses and allegedly buries. The nontemporal form, however, alleviates a number of these problems.
The primary thrust of the nontemporal form of the CA is that “God is the reason why there is a universe at all, regardless of whether the universe is young, old or infinitely old.” Nash expresses it by way of a simple pair of equations. “God minus the world equals God. The world minus God equals nothing.” To use an illustration from a series of falling dominos, in the temporal forms of the CA, God is presented as the necessary cause that gets the series going; God tips the first domino that subsequently causes the next to fall, which cause the next to fall, and so forth. The nontemporal form argues that—despite the temporality of the cosmos—God is the necessary ontological precondition for the existence and continuance of the cosmos. In this, God provides not only the tip of the first domino in the series but also the surface, the floor or table, on which the series rests, so to speak. This form of the CA has three integral features: (1) the principle of sufficient reason, (2) the concept of contingent being, and (3) the concept of necessary being; these three form the three-legged stool on which the nontemporal form of the CA rests.
The term (1) principle of sufficient reason (PSR hereafter) was coined by Leibniz, but enjoys conceptual precedents as far back as the pre-Socratics (e.g., Anaximander, Parmenides, Archimedes). The two great rationalists Plato and Descartes defended the PSR. Plato, in Timaeus (28a), expressed the PSR, saying, “Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created.” According to Spinoza, the PRS is a variant of the metaphysical axiom ex nihilo, nihil fit, “from nothing, nothing comes.” The PRS is arguably a necessary precondition for human inquiry and reasoning.
The PRS has had its dissenters, however. Hume, the infamous modernist skeptic, “argues,” as an attending consequent to his critique of the principle of causation, “that since the ideas of cause and its effect are evidently distinct, we can clearly conceive or imagine an object without its cause. He takes the separability of the two ideas to show that there is no necessary conceptual relation between the ideas of cause and effect insofar as conceiving the one without the other does not imply any contradiction or absurdity.” In response to Hume, it may first be said that, “Those who claim that some [or all] events in the world are uncaused are to that extent irrationalists. Like all irrationalists, they run into problems when they try to argue their case rationally! There is no way to prove rationally (apart, of course, from divine revelation) that any particular event in the world is causeless.” Secondly, for sake of the present thesis, Hume’s criticism is a moot point. Since McCloskey’s objection to the CA rests on the rigorous use of causal reasoning, his objection assumes its validity and thereby dismisses Hume’s critique. Thus, Hume’s objection to the PSR may likewise be dismissed for sake of this present thesis.
Therefore, the PSR is a concept that may be taken for granted. “As Richard Taylor sees it, belief in the PSR ‘seems to be almost a part of reason itself.’” “The nature of reasoning is to inquire after causes.” Moreover, as Russell, the brilliant atheistic analytic philosopher of the last century, recognized, “Some at least of these principles [of thought] must be granted before any argument or proof becomes possible. When some of them have been granted, others can be proved, though these others, so long as they are simple, are just as obvious as the principles taken for granted.” The PSR, then, is a principle of thought that may be taken for granted with epistemic responsibility and respectability. The first leg of the nontemporal stool is therefore established.
The second leg of the stool is (2) the concept of contingent being. It may be reasonably asked, “What is it about the universe that supports the claim that it requires a cause and that its cause is God? The usual answer hinges on what may be termed the contingency of the universe.” Simply put, a contingent being is any entity that depends on something else for its existence; it has its cause, explanation, or sufficient reason in something other than itself. Subsequently, the nonexistence of a contingent being is not logically impossible. More formally stated, “If the existence of some being (call it A) depends on some other being (B), the nonexistence of B would entail the nonexistence of A. The nonexistence of a contingent being is logically possible.”
Similarly, keeping the logical notation above, the concept of contingent being can be illustrated by way of the transcendental form of argument. A transcendental argument is “an argument that elucidates the conditions for the possibility of some fundamental phenomenon whose existence is unchallenged or uncontroversial in the philosophical context in which the argument is propounded.” Using the transcendental form, it follows that, if A is the case, then B must necessarily be the case, since B is a necessary or sufficient precondition of A. A is the case; therefore B is necessarily the case.
In this way, any common phenomenon of human experience may be put for A, and from A one may infer an ultimate or necessary cause. Additionally, since any single contingent feature of experience may be taken up as the major premise, another unit of logical weight is added to the CA. This offers the nontemporal form of the CA a luxury that the temporal form McCloskey attacked does not enjoy, namely that the nontemporal form is not subject to the charge of the fallacy of composition. The nontemporal form follows from the indubitable premise that “Some contingent things exist.” Regarding the entities and events of common human experience, Evans observes, “they are all contingent: things which do exist might not have.” In fact, no one has yet discovered anything but contingent things in our cosmos. Further still, one could argue that our universe or cosmos—as a whole—is quite easily conceived or imagined to not exist nor ever come into being. Therefore, granting the nature of the concept of contingent being, and whether arguing from the parts or the whole, the second leg of the nontemporal stool is securely in place.
The concept of contingent being has as its complimentary counterpart, (3) the concept of necessary being. “A necessary being, if it exists, is the compliment of a contingent being,” as implied several times in the foregoing. A necessary being is self-caused, self-contained, and thus self-sufficient. A necessary being would possess what the old Latin theologians and philosophers called aseity, from a se, which means “from himself.” A necessary being is by definition actus purus, pure actuality. A necessary being therefore depends on nothing outside or beyond itself for its existence. A necessary being is thereby non-contingent, but serves as the logical and ontological grounding for the explanation and existence of all contingent being. Evans explains the relationship between these two categories of being, as they related to the CA.
If the cause of a thing is something contingent, then the existence of that “something” will also require an explanation. Ultimately, the explanation of any contingent being’s existence will be incomplete unless it culminates in the causal activity of a necessary being—a being that cannot fail to exist, a being that is the cause of the existence of all contingent beings. A necessary being is the only kind of being whose existence no further explanation. In short, there is an ultimate explanation for the existence of a contingent being only if there exists a necessary being.
Hereby, under epistemic compulsion and inevitability, all being which is not a se, that is, self-existent, requires for its intelligibility a being which is self-existent, and thus necessary for contingent being, both logically for its explanation and ontologically for its existence. Finally, the third leg of the stool, the concept of necessary being, is in place for the nontemporal CA.
The full sum of these three integral concepts, as they relate to and culminate in the nontemporal form of the CA, is no better expressed than by atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie.
Nothing occurs without a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise, there must, then, be a sufficient reason for the world as a whole; a reason why something exists rather than nothing. Each thing in the world is contingent, being causally determined by other thing: it would not occur if other things were otherwise. The world as a whole, being a collection of such things, is therefore itself contingent. The series of things and events, with their causes, with causes of those causes, and so on, may stretch back infinitely in time; but, if so, then however far back we go, or if we consider the series as a whole, what we have is still contingent and therefore requires a sufficient reason outside this series. That is, there must be a sufficient reason for the world which is other than the world. This will have to be a necessary being, which contains its own sufficient reason for existence. Briefly, things must have a sufficient reason for their existence, and this must be found ultimately in a necessary being. There must be something free from the disease of contingency, a disease that affects everything in the world and the world as a whole, even if it is infinite in past time.
In light of the foregoing, McCloskey’s claim that “The mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in the existence of such a [necessarily existing] being” may be reevaluated. The PSR in conjunction with the concept of contingent being drives one to the clear conclusion of the existence of necessary being. It has been shown that not only does the mere existence of the world but the entire universe, in part and in whole, entails the certain existence of necessary being. In fact, a single example of contingent being within human experience suffices to infer necessary being. The only viable defeater available to McCloskey and atheists like him, one which would undermine the strength of the nontemporal CA, is to deny the PSR. It has been demonstrated, though, that the denial of the PSR leads headlong into irrationalism. Granted, there have been and are today philosophers who are willing to reject the PSR and embrace irrationalism. “So, in the end we are forced to choose between a first cause and irrationalism. Irrationalism…is self-contradictory. That leaves the cosmological argument is a strong position indeed.” The minimal theistic approach to McCloskey’s objection to the CA is therefore vindicated, by means of the nontemporal form of the argument. Moreover, the implications of the foregoing could be teased out beyond a minimal or generic theism to a more robust and consistently Christian conclusion.
Having concluded that a necessary being, whose existence provides the logical and ontological grounding for the existence and continuance of the universe—a being which tips the first domino and is itself the very surface on which the whole series rests—must exist to account for all contingent existents; and, granting that under consideration there are only two perspectives, we may infer a further conclusion, by way of disjunctive syllogism.
Either McCloskey’s atheism or Christian theism can account for such a necessary being. Atheism plainly cannot account for any entity beyond the material universe, and is therefore left with only contingent things. Necessary being is, again, independent of the universe. Furthermore, contingent being is, in the final analysis, unintelligible apart from the sufficient reason of necessary being. Therefore, atheism cannot account for either necessary being or the final intelligibility of contingent beings and events, which have their logical explanation in necessary being. The conclusions above, however, are perfectly congruent with the traditional doctrines of creation and providence, as founded on the triune God, and as defined and defended by orthodox Christian theism. Therefore, Christian theism alone, when contrasted with McCloskey’s atheism, provides the necessary precondition for the intelligibility of all things contingent.
McCloskey further complained that the CA does not, in and of itself, entitle the conclusion of a first cause with certain of the attributes of traditional theisms’ Deity. Minimal theism grants this much. It is worth restating that the CA does not stand alone as a singular, definitive proof for the God of Christian theism. Rather, it warrants pride of place among select other arguments in the cumulative case for Christianity. However, even if taken alone, the argument goes far enough to put an otherwise skeptical person in a noetic posture of a willingness to listen to further entailments of the argument, as demonstrated above, or the several other concomitant arguments and evidences which work in concurrence with the CA. As Evans and Manis wisely witness, “If someone should accept the conclusion [of the nontemporal CA], the proper attitude for him to adopt is surely a desire to learn more about God.” The CA has served as one of the innumerable means that God has used to bring his elect to himself.
On the Teleological-Design Argument for God’s Existence
Regarding the teleological-design argument (TDA hereafter), McCloskey claims that “One can reject the argument from design by rejecting its premise, that there is evidence of design and purpose.” “To get the proof going,” he continues, “genuine indisputable examples of design or purpose are needed.” McCloskey declares that examples that were once interpreted as obvious tokens of design and purpose have since been utterly displaced by the theory of evolution. This, McCloskey believes, is a “very conclusive objection.” Can the TDA be responsibly dismissed so easily?
An answer to McCloskey’s allegedly conclusive objection begins by an indirect challenge to the crux of the objection, namely his criterion of indisputability. Even if we grant the criterion of indisputability, still McCloskey suggests that many such examples of indisputable evidences of design and purpose existed by consensus until they were washed away in the watershed of the evolutionary theory. Were they all washed away, however?
Darwin himself lists a number of organs that trouble his theory, not least the eye. Concerning the eye, Darwin admits, “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” Understandably, Darwin goes on from these remarks and attempts to explain away the absurdity of the eye within his theoretical framework. However, the explanations hardly live up to McCloskey’s criterion of indisputability. The point is that the very so-called theory by which McCloskey wishes to wash design and purpose out from the universe fails to meet the very standard he has set. This is special pleading. Furthermore, since neither view, whether it be atheistic evolution or minimal theism, can present any example which is “indisputable,” McCloskey’s criterion is no less seemingly absurd than Darwin’s evolving-eye. What indisputable evidence does McCloskey have that indisputability is the proper criterion? It would seem that, in order to get the objection going, as McCloskey likes to put it, he would be obliged to present such evidence.
If, as McCloskey believes, evolution has washed away design and purpose, then a more direct attack on atheistic evolution goes a long way in disarming this sort of objection to the TDA. Assume atheistic evolution is true, for argument’s sake, and two conclusions follow that render McCloskey’s dismissal of the TDA’s first premise perfectly dismissible. First, C. S. Lewis sets up Professor Haldane’s criticism of evolution by observing that “All possible knowledge…depends on the validity of reasoning…Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.” Lewis then cites Haldane’s observation in all its succinct strength. “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason to believe my brain to be composed of atoms.” It is seen, then, that if evolution is taken for granted, and is imagined to eliminate the elements of design and purpose—not least in human cognitive faculties—then we are left without a reason to trust our reason. Thus, as Lewis said, the theory upon which McCloskey’s objection rests should be “utterly out of court.”
A second thing that occurs, if evolution is accepted as true, is that the theory itself is seen to ride upon the very telos, the purpose and order, McCloskey wishes it to wash away. Bavinck makes this much plain.
In recent years…many practitioners of the natural sciences have returned to vitalism and even to teleology. The Darwinian doctrine of descent was initially characterized by the attempt to everywhere substitute the causes for the purpose, but rather brought to light the indispensability of the teleological view. The theory of natural selection, after all, aimed at explaining the functionality of things. Matter, force, and motion are obviously not enough: there also has to be direction, and direction is inconceivable without purpose…Teleology and causality certainly do not exclude each other. Anyone positing a goal will then apply the means needed to reach that goal. There is even ample room within a teleological worldview for mechanical causality. The latter only exceeds its power and competence when it seeks to explain all phenomena in the world, from matter and metabolism—also the conscious and the mental.
McCloskey’s objection indeed did attempt to displace all genuine purpose in the universe, and he thought to do so by means of evolutionary theory. As Bavinck explains, however, the mechanisms of evolution drive one to, not away from, teleology in the universe. Without telos, natural selection is literally going nowhere. Darwinian biology, therefore, presupposes theistic teleology.
Therefore, even granting the truth of evolution for argument’s sake, McCloskey’s objection from evolution cannot get going. If atheistic evolution were true, then we have no reason for believing it is so. More generously, however, if evolution were true, then it would presuppose the order and purpose of the major premise of the theists’ TDA, which McCloskey had hoped it would wash away. It might be said that McCloskey’s objection to the TDA could be termed the Backwash Fallacy; evolution needs teleology rather than negates it. At very least the TDA demonstrates the higher degree of plausibility that theism has against its competitors, especially evolution. The TDA, like the CA, is an integral part of the cumulative case for Christian theism, making theism all the more the best case explanation for the universe and human experience.
On the Problem of Evil
Beyond his objections and criticisms of the traditional CA and TDA, McCloskey speaks with even more certainty on the nonexistence of God based on the so-called problem of evil. “It is because evil exists,” says he, “that we believe God does not exist.” McCloskey presents two primary lines of attack. First, he uses the logical construction of the problem, hoping to reveal a contradiction between the existence of evil and the existence of God. Or, as he declares elsewhere, “There is a clear prima facie case that evil and God are incompatible—both cannot exist.” Secondly, he anticipates and challenges the free will theodicy. These will be taken up in their respective order.
Regarding McCloskey’s challenge to the logical problem of evil, the answer is two-fold. First, the atheist must be challenged on his premise that genuine, objective evil is meaningful, and that within the confines of an atheistic worldview. This is to ask, for whom is evil really a problem? McCloskey may be brought under the weight of his own epistemological criterion mentioned earlier in the section on the TDA, that is, indisputability. The atheist must be challenged in his very predication of acts, events, or states of affair as either evil or good. McCloskey must, according to his own criterion, provide genuine, indisputable examples of evil in human experience, and also provide a universal, objective, and absolute standard by which to judge X as good or evil. McCloskey has, in the final analysis, only three options: some form of (1) social relativism, (2) personal relativism, or (3) consequentialism.
None of these three options is able to provide the necessary standard to meaningfully predicate evil to any thing or situation. If (1) social relativism is the case, then Hitler’s Nazi regime was indeed doing “good” in their extermination of the Jews, Pols, Christians, and Gypsies, since that society deemed the presence of such political nonconformists as “evil” and their elimination as “good.” Trans-social ethic judgments are meaningless, if social relativism is the case. Such judgments are meaningfully made all the time by all people, however; therefore, social relativism itself is meaningless.
Alternatively, (2) personal relativism is another option for McCloskey. However, assuming the truth of personal relativism, for argument’s sake, when two individuals predicate some event X as “evil,” they are not saying the same thing at all. For example, if Kevin says, “Child molestation is ‘evil’” and Bryan says, “Child molestation is ‘evil,’” neither means what the other does. Both Bryan and Kevin are only describing the subjective feelings and disposition each personally holds toward the proposition. What Bryan feels and what Kevin feels are not identical. Therefore, the proposition “child molestation is evil” has as many meanings as it has individual persons who state it. Hence, according to personal relativism, the proposition “child molestation is evil” is hardly different than “my tummy is sour.” Both propositions may be incorrigible beliefs, but neither says a thing about objective, absolute standards of morality or their application.
Finally, McCloskey could opt for some flavor of (3) consequentialism, such as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism envisages the greatest happiness or good for the greatest number. “The irrelevance of such a notion for making ethical determinations is that one would need to be able to rate and compare happiness, as well as to be able to calculate all of the consequences of any given action or trait. This is simply impossible for finite minds (even with the help of computers).” Clark concurs and further presses the need for a means of calculation.
If it were possible, the question would still remain whether the calculation could be complete and correct…The possibility of measurement depends on the identity of a unit. In order to measure heat, a degree of temperature had to be invented. No one has yet invented a unit of pleasure [or happiness, or good, etc.]; therefore there can be no sum. There must also be a unit of pain [or unhappiness, or evil, etc.], and this unit must be commensurable with the unit of pleasure. One cannot add an inch to a degree to an ounce and get a total. It is doubtful that pains and pleasures are commensurable, and at any rate there is no unit. Therefore, the required calculation is impossible.
From these three alternatives, by which McCloskey could predicate any given situation or entity X as either good or evil, it is demonstrable that the atheist completely lack a veritable, “indisputable” criteria for making ethical judgments, much less speak meaningfully about the existence of “evil.” Thus, as Bahnsen concludes, “Philosophically speaking, the problem of evil turns out to be, therefore, a problem for the unbeliever himself. In order to use the argument from evil against the Christian worldview, he must first be able to show that his judgments about the existence of evil are meaningful—which is precisely what his unbelieving worldview is unable to do.” Evans and Manis add, “The charge of contradiction,” that McCloskey and other atheists make, “is a strong one, and the burden of proof is on them to show exactly what the contradiction is. Unless they can do so, there is no good reason to conclude,” as McCloskey does above, “that the existence of evil proves that there is no God.” McCloskey cannot get his objection from evil going, since on his presuppositions he is perfectly unable to present a genuine, indisputable example of evil.
Secondly, then, McCloskey challenges the free will defense by asking, “might not God have very easily so have arranged the world and biased man to virtue that men always freely chose what is right?” Both this question and its answer are subtle.
The crux of this challenge is the supposition that it is logically possible that God could create a possible world wherein genuine human freedom exists and evil does not. In response to this challenge, as articulated by atheologian J. L. Mackie, Plantinga has developed what he has termed the Free Will Defense. Premised on the concept of libertarian human freedom (a premise that Plantinga assumes only for sake of argument), and the law of non-contradiction, Plantinga argues that certain logically possible states of affairs could obtain by, which God would be prevented from the possibility of creating a world of both autonomous humans and evil.
Roughly illustrated, consider two propositions. (1) S freely performs action P. (2) S freely performs action ~P. It is easily granted that both propositions represent logically possible states of affairs; either proposition may be true, but it cannot be the case that both are true (at the same time in the same sense). If God created an actual world in which (1) is true, then there is a possible world that would be logically impossible for God to create, namely a world in which (2) is true. It turns out that if we assume libertarian free will, and we assume that either (1) or (2) must be true, then there are logically possible worlds which even an omnipotent being cannot bring into existence. Therefore, we may grant that McCloskey utopian vision of a world of absolutely free moral actors and free of evil is possible, but it is logically possible that certain possible worlds cannot be created by God, and such has no bearing on the attribute of omnipotence. The alleged omniscience problem is eclipsed by a logical problem, which makes the objection from evil no real problem.
On Atheism as Comforting
Imagine yourself in a Boeing 747 with 378 other passengers on board. You are trying to get comfortable enough to take a nap in your middle coach seat. The flight is from New York to London. Far more comforting than the coach seat is the fact that you know that someone, who is perfectly able, is controlling this half-million pound bullet cruising over the Atlantic at nearly Mach 1. Suddenly, over the intercom comes the frantic announcement that your greatest comfort, the pilot, is dead. No one else on the plane has the competency or capacity to take his place. You sense the speed increasing as you feel the nose of the plane tip toward the black icy waters thousands of feet below. Imagine further, the plane is this world, the passengers are humanity, and the ocean is a universal nihilistic heat death with only more nothingness at bottom. This is the cosmos that Nietzsche described as the “absolutization of nothingness.” This imaginary horror story is just one logical entailment of McCloskey’s atheistic worldview.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a relatively consistent atheist. He recognized that no finite point has any meaning unless it has an infinite reference point. With this remark, the consistent theist readily agrees. To state the argument negatively, if there is no God, then there is no meaning in human experience. Even the scriptures make this plain. Thus says the Preacher,
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.
Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun (Eccl. 4:1—3 KJV).
Indeed, humanity left alone under the sun, without God, is summed well up by the Preacher. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” (1:2). Without God, who is the Comforter (Jn. 14:16, 26; 16:7), there is no comfort for the creature. Not only is God the Comforter, he is likewise the infinite reference point, the necessary precondition, of any comfort we may extend to others and by which we console ourselves (2 Cor. 1:4). Thus, for the Christian theist the doxological verse rings true, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort” (1:3, italics added).
Did God foreknow, even foreordain, all the suffering and evil experienced in his world? The biblical response is yes. Does this, then, involve mystery within the theistic frame of reference? Indeed. As Carson notes, however, “To say that something is mysterious is not to say that nothing can be said of it.” Much may be said about suffering and evil, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, creation, fall, and providence, and many other related doctrines of Christian theism. On the one hand, then, the theist can say something, in fact many things about evil and its answer. McCloskey, on the other hand, as seen above, cannot even get the conversation started. The atheistic worldview fails to provide the necessary conditions for meaningful contemplation and conversation about the human predicament; much less can it provide a solution. So, again, because the theist has an infinite reference point for meaningfully predicating suffering and calamity and its solution and comfort, and the atheist cannot, the argument for the comforting nature of theism can be made from the impossibility of the contrary. If there is no God, then there is no final meaning, as Sartre candidly confessed. If there is no final meaning; then suffering and evil has no real meaning. If human suffering is ultimately meaningless, then the notion of atheistic comfort is utterly meaningless. Therefore, if there is no God, as McCloskey argues, then the notion of comfort is utterly meaningless. In McCloskey’s worldview, the plane is going down and there is not even a reason to care, much less comfort.
In the foregoing, it has been seen that McCloskey’s negative assessment of the traditional cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence is unwarranted. Many of McCloskey’s several objections to the temporal CA, admittedly, carried some logical weight. However, the nontemporal form of the CA creates a dilemma, either one accepts the conclusion for God or embraces irrationalism. Against the TDA, McCloskey demanded indisputable examples of purpose and design before conceding the major premise. This criterion is unreasonable. McCloskey further suggested that evolutionary theory washed design and purpose from the universe. However, evolution itself, if accepted, needs the very purpose he needed to be rid of. What is more is that evolutionists simply cannot produce the indisputable evidence for their theory that McCloskey himself requires of others. McCloskey therefore refutes himself. Both the CA and the TDA survive McCloskey’s criticisms, and both serve as strong elements of a cumulative case for Christian theism.
Mixed throughout the undercurrent of the entire article, however, was McCloskey’s fixation on the so-called problem of evil, serving as his linchpin argument against theism. It was demonstrated that with this argument, when left with only the ethical paradigms available to atheists—personal or social relativism, or consequentialism—McCloskey simply does not have the necessary presuppositions for making meaningful ethical judgments. This neuters the atheistic challenge from evil, since upon such a worldview moral predication is merely subjective. Moreover, his challenge to God’s omnipotence, suggesting that God could have and should have created a world of free men and freedom of evil, was disarmed by Plantinga’s Free Will Defense. Plantinga’s argument demonstrated that, granting genuine free will in man, there are possible worlds that God is logically unable to create. Hence, the charge that theism, from the existence of evil, has a source of serious incoherence within its framework was eliminated.
Finally, despite McCloskey’s argument against theism as comforting, it was seen that atheism cannot even provide meaningful evidence that humanity is in need of comfort. Atheism renders all our cries, calamities, cares, and comforting unintelligible. Therefore, McCloskey’s article is not so much a good argument for atheism as it is a mere expression of it. Additionally, while no single argument for minimal theism will rationally and logically drive one to find their rest in God, by the work of the Holy Spirit, these theistic ‘proofs’ help to dispose one to a posture much closer to kneeling, closer to kneeling before the cross-throne of Jesus Christ.
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Beckwith, Francis J. and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
Brueckner, Anthony. “Transcendental Argument.” In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., edited by Robert Audi, 925—926. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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Clark, Gordon H. “Utilitarianism.” In Baker Dictionary of Christian Ethics, edited by Carl F. H. Henry, 690—692. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973.
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Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection: or, The Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. New York, NY: Avenel Books.
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Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1994.
Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001.
McCloskey, H. J. “God and Evil.” In Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach. 2nd ed., edited by Baruch A. Brody, 273—291. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1974.
_____________. “On Being an Atheist.” Question, no. 1 (1968, February): 51—54.
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Nash, Ronald H. Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988.
Plantinga, Alvin. The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, edited by James F. Sennett. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
Plato. “Timaeus.” In Plato: Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, 1151—1211. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. 2nd ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.
Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 2004.
Schaeffer, Francis A. He is There and He is Not Silent. In Trilogy: Three Essential Books in One, 273—341. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990.
Strauss, James D. “Nihilism.” In Baker Dictionary of Christian Ethics, edited by Carl F. H. Henry, 461—462. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973.
 McCloskey, H. J. “On Being an Atheist,” Question, no. 1 (1968, February): 51—54.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 51. Brackets and term added by present writer for clarity.
 Ibid., 51. Brackets imported from McCloskey’s earlier comments within the same paragraph for clarity’s sake.
 C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 67. Italics added for emphasis.
 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 136.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 51, 52. Brackets added.
 As cited by Reymond, A New Systematic Theology, 138—39. Italics original.
 See, e.g., Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 70, 77.
 Ibid., 70. Italics original.
 Ibid., 68.
 John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1994), 110—12.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 52.
 Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 70—73.
 Ibid., 69. Italics added.
 Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 125.
 Yitzhak Melamed, “Principle of Sufficient Reason,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 14, 2010, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sufficient-reason/ (accessed December 05, 2011).
 Plato, “Timaeus.” in Plato: Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 1161.
 Melamed, “Principle of Sufficient Reason,” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sufficient-reason/.
 Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 111. Brackets added; parenthesis original.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 51.
 As cited by Nash, Faith and Reason, 127.
 Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 111.
 Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, 2004), 49—50. Brackets added for clarity.
 Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 69. Italics original.
 Nash, Faith and Reason, 127. Parentheses original.
 Anthony Brueckner, “Transcendental Argument,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., ed. Robert Audi (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 925.
 Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 70. Italics added to emphasize the particularistic nature of the claim.
 Ibid., 69.
 Nash, Faith and Reason, 127. Op cit.
 Ibid., 128.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1994), 160.
 Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 69.
 As cited by Nash, Faith and Reason, 128.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 51.
 Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 77.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 52.
 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection: or, The Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York, NY: Avenel Books), 217.
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 21.
 Ibid., 22.
 More recently, other Christian philosophers have developed similar yet more sophisticated lines of this reasoning. Plantinga, for instance, has developed what he terms Darwin’s Doubt. See Alvin Plantinga, “Is Naturalism Irrational?” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 72—96.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2, edited by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 83.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 52.
 H. J. McCloskey, “God and Evil,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach, 2nd ed., ed. Baruch A. Brody (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1974), 277.
 Gregory Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2004), 168—169.
 For a sound, tough-minded response to both social relativism and personal relativism see Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998).
 Gordon H Clark, “Utilitarianism,” in Baker Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), 691.
 Bahnsen, Always Ready, 168—169. Parenthesis original.
 Clark, “Utilitarianism,” 691. Brackets added.
 Bahnsen, Always Ready, 169.
 Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 168.
 McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” 53.
 See Alvin Plantinga, “Free Will Defense,” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 22—49.
 See Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 166. That Plantinga would actually affirm the doctrine of libertarian human freedom is certainly unlikely, since such would be contrary to his otherwise Calvinistic theology as the founder of what is called Reformed Epistemology, which rests firmly on the teachings and doctrines of Calvin and the Reformed tradition.
Evans and Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 165. Op cit.
 Strauss, James D. “Nihilism,” in Baker Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), 462.
 As cited by Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent, in Trilogy: Three Essential Books in One (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 277.
 Donald A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 205.