In the course of my discussions with atheists, and in hearing debates on the subject, I have found that there are a number of recurring arguments wielded against theism which are either logically fallacious or irrelevant. That is not to say that all arguments against theism are formally illogical, but many people repeat illegitimate objections without thinking through them; and while this is certainly as true of theists as it is of atheists, I want to address some of the more common objections made against theism. Though some of these objections are prevalent even among scholars, these arguments are especially common at the popular level. Note that this post is not intended to show that atheism is false, but merely to point out the fallacious nature of certain arguments given in its favor.
1.) Who made God?
This is a question very commonly asked of theists, and it is often regarded as somewhat of a “trump card.” However, this question merely demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of explanation.
In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. For instance, suppose some archaeologists unearth a bunch of primitive tools, pots, jewelry, etc, and they decide that the best explanation is that they have uncovered a village of some long-lost tribe that no one ever knew existed. Does it then follow that in order for the archaeologists to say that a lost tribe is the best explanation for their findings they must be able to explain the tribe (where they came from, who they were, etc)? Certainly not. If, in order to gain knowledge, one had to explain everything, it would clearly be impossible to learn anything.
This question is often posed in the context of the Cosmological Argument, which states:
1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2.) The universe began to exist.
3.) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.
Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,” subsequently asking, “what caused God?” However, aside from the apparent caricature of the argument, there are several problems with this. First, if the intent is to attack the concept of God’s eternality, then an atheist is forced to accept one of the following: that the universe either came into being, uncaused, out of nothing, or that it is eternal. The former is logically absurd, since it violates one of the most basic axioms in metaphysics, which is ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”); The latter espouses the very thing being attacked: namely, the concept of eternality (though it is also in conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the great body of evidence in favor of the “Big Bang” theory).
Much more could be said on the nature of this argument, but a full treatment of the Cosmological Argument and its objections is outside the scope of this post.
2.) Belief in God is a result of one’s environment.
Often, theists or Christians are told that their beliefs are the result of having been brought up in a Christian home, or in an environment conducive to apprehending a certain set of beliefs (i.e. Living in the “Bible Belt”), and that if they had been born somewhere else (India, for instance) then they might be Hindu or Muslim. This is certainly true. The problem, however, is that in making this statement, the implication that theism is therefore false is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy, which is attempting to explain away a particular view by showing how the view originated. It’s true that people often come to believe certain things as a direct result of their culture or home environment, but that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether those beliefs are true or false.
3.) There is no evidence for the existence of God.
I strongly disagree with this assertion, but let us assume that there is no evidence for God. Among forensic scientists it is virtually an axiom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in a court of law, the fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not commit the murder. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer, the defense would need to provide some positive evidence that he is in fact innocent (an alibi). But the mere absence of convicting evidence is not evidence that the butler did not commit the murder.
The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when two conditions are met:
1.) Certain evidence of a particular entity would be expected.
2.) The field in which that evidence would be found has been thoroughly surveyed and found lacking.
An example: Sitting in class, I would have good reason to suspect that because I see no elephant in the room, there is no elephant in the room. However, the fact that I see no flea in the room is not a justifiable reason for believing that there are in fact no fleas in the room. The difference is that in the first case we would expect to have evidence of the elephant, but in the second case we would not expect to have evidence of the flea. What kind of evidence would we expect to see in the case of God? No one can presume to know. This is precisely why atheism is not a justified “default” position, since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.
4.) Religious belief has been the source of much violence and evil.
This is obviously true. One could also make the case that the same is true of atheistic belief, but the fact is that the implications of a belief are completely irrelevant in regards to whether that belief is true or false. I would maintain that the horrors committed by Christians in the past, as in the Crusades or the Inquisition, were committed in spite of Christianity, not because of it, but even if were true that Christianity sanctioned such things, it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false. To paraphrase Augustine, one should “never judge a philosophy by its abuse.”
5.) There are false religions, therefore all religions are false.
This fallacious argument is not one typically articulated in this fashion, but it is one frequently implied. Atheists often like to point to the most extreme, the most ridiculous, and the most absurd religions and its followers and imply that all religion is essentially the same. I’m thinking of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous,” for instance. While such cases make very easy targets (and thus very appealing targets), it is as irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion” and attack it as one, given the diversity of religious claims, as it would be to lump all scientists into a category called “Science” and attack it. That is, unless one is a materialist, in which case he may attack all claims of the supernatural outright as a result of his own religious presuppositions.