A Response to HJ McCloskey’s “On Being An Atheist”

by charlestinsley

The question of God’s existence has been debated throughout the centuries. There are several arguments for God’s existence that include the cosmological argument and the teleological argument. In light of these, H.J McCloskey wrote an article entitled “On Being an Atheist” in which he says these arguments are false and argues that without definitive proofs, we must dismiss the idea of God entirely and his main objection to the idea of God is the presence of evil in the world[1]. His approach is a repetitious attempt by the atheist community to not only define God, but dismiss Him at the same time. The mere fallacy of this argument is unavoidable.

H.J. McCloskey renames the arguments for God’s existence as the simple term “proofs”. He presents the idea that because the proofs (such as ontological and teleological) lack definitive evidence for God’s existence and should therefore be dismissed[2]. Generally speaking, God cannot technically be definitively proven or disproven by current scientific method. The general idea is that God transcends the capacities of our mental faculties. So for McCloskey to say that proofs should be dismissed is wrong. Presenting the idea that God is the best explanation for origin and life is surely the best way to go about beginning the teleological and ontological arguments. Consider the following example in the medical field. Often terminal illnesses such as AIDs and cancer take millions of lives every year and we have (so far) been unsuccessful in acquiring medical means to fully combat the illnesses and definitively eradicate the diseases. Does this mean it is impossible to obtain this medical technology? For the scientist, it simply means that there may be a cure, but we have been unsuccessful in finding it.

The same idea holds true with God. Just because we seem to lack definitive “end all” proof of His existence does not mean He does not exist.

McCloskey presents the following dispute against the cosmological argument: “The mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in such a being.”[3] In response, Evans and Manis present a non-temporal form of the cosmological argument. Their argument is broken down into three components: “Some contingent beings exist. If any contingent beings exist, then a necessary being must exist (because contingent beings require a necessary being as their ultimate cause). Therefore there exists a necessary being (which is the ultimate cause of the existence of contingent beings).”[4] They recognize the issue of saying that an infinite series as evidence to prove a contingent being exists may present the idea that there is no definitive explanation to the cause.

They reference objections to their argument. The first objection is that an atheist may claim the universe has always existed. Manis and Evans respond by saying their approach is sufficient for such a challenge because it makes no claims about the universe’s age and therefore accounts for a universe that may have always existed[5]. The second objection is that if everything does require a cause, then God must require a cause as well. Manis and Evans note that God is not a contingent being, therefore any explanation of His origin is unnecessary. They add that if we were able to trace to origin of God, He would not be God[6].

They present the principle of sufficient reason as defense for the cosmological theory. This theory holds that there is a final explanation for a contingent being’s existence and the entire series thereof[7]. The main rebuttal to this comes in the form of naturalism. Naturalism seems to hold that objects have no cause for their existence and come and go at nature’s will. Naturalist’s main problem is that they cannot provide an explanation as to why finite beings even exist[8].

In short, the “cause” of the universe would be God, and God’s existence is uncaused and infinite.

McCloskey also states the cosmological argument “does not entitle us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.”[9]. Evans and Manis acknowledge that the theory is simply a theological basis for deeper study and leaves out several theistic views of God. They note that even if the argument is successful, it is more or less a starting point in studying God. Simply, the cosmological argument allows us to go deeper into studying God and the origins of the universe[10]. The evidence is present to make a case for God’s existence, but such a thing can neither be proven or disproven. McCloskey’s attempt to dismiss the theory entirely is misguided in regards to definitive evidence that provides a source for the universe and all objects.

In regards to the teleological argument, McCloskey claims that “to get the proof going, genuine indisputable examples of design and purpose are needed.”[11] By indisputable examples, he means evidence that cannot be refuted. For example, I accidentally cut my finger with a knife while slicing tomatoes and it starts to bleed. I now have conclusive evidence that such a knife is sharp enough to break my skin and cause me to bleed. McCloskey’s stance that indisputable claims are necessary is unreasonable in a simple respect: God, Himself, cannot be defined.

Evans and Mathis present an argument, while not entirely indisputable, provides strong evidence for a designer of the universe. They state: “Nature contains many instances of design. Designed entities are the result of a designer. Therefore, nature is probably the work of a designer.”[12] Such an argument is observable in everyday life. The laws of nature and the functions of organisms within nature have remained consistent since man made it a point to observe, record, and form conclusions on them.

When McCloskey suggests that evolution takes the place of the necessity for a Creator[13], he is a bit off base. Evans and Manis argue that, while the evolution theory may be valid, it does not dismiss the idea for God to guide it and occurs within the laws of nature. In short, they propose that evolution is a process by which God realizes His purposes[14]. Evolution still needs a way of guidance. If one were to argue that nature is that guide, who or what guides nature? The laws of nature are specific and complex, but the laws remain constant. If one were to take the position that nature can guide itself, does that not imply that we are at the whim of a supernatural like guidance? I do not believe one could logically suggest that nature operates by chance. I believe it is quite obvious that nature’s specific construction remains unchanged as do nature’s laws. If nature’s laws occur by chance, they could very well change often and we would have no way of studying nature concretely and to any full extent.

When McCloskey ventures off onto the problem of evil in the world, he presents an age old argument from the atheist community. He states that evil is an imperfection in the world and uses that to make a case against “the perfection of the divine design or divine purpose in the world.”[15] We must acknowledge that the teleological argument has limits in this case just as the cosmological argument had prior. The definition of good and evil seemingly has no definitive line. Cultures around the world define evil in different ways. The teleological argument, in its most basic form, simply presents an outline and an order. It can be argued that deviations from the order produce evil and imperfection, but that would mean that free will is a curse as opposed to a gift.

McCloskey states: “No being who was perfect could have created a world in which there was unavoidable suffering or in which his creatures would (and in fact could have been created so as not to) engage in morally evil acts, acts which very often result in injury to innocent persons.”[16] In light of this, it can be said that a being that is good eliminates evil to the extent it can without the loss of a greater good or enabling of a worse evil[17]. Atheists may argue that no situation should ever be out of God’s reach if He exists to the point a compromise is necessary. However, it is becoming increasingly accepted that God cannot do what is logically impossible[18]. In order for some goods to be achieved, perhaps certain evils are logically necessary[19]. Without the presence of some evils, we would have no knowledge of what good is and through that perhaps no concept of morality[20]. These theories in themselves provide a basis for study. We must continue to acknowledge that we cannot define God or grasp in complexity of His thought processes. Once again, this inability does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

The problem of evil always sets up the argument against the concept of free will in the presence of God. McCloskey states: “might not God have very easily so have arranged the world and biased man to virtue that men always freely chose what is right?”[21] Evans and Manis propose “If God had created a world in which it was guaranteed that no one would ever do anything wrong, then the “freedom” of His creatures would not have been real; it would have been some kind of pseudo freedom.”[22] This defense alone encompasses the entire concept of free will. Say I give you the keys to my car and tell you the car is yours. You take the keys and as you head out to the car, I stop you. I explain that the car is free for you and you can drive it, but you can only drive it where I tell you, on the days I tell you it is suitable to drive, and you must replenish all the gas you use each time. While initially the car is free, you learn that I am allowing you to use it just to run medial errands for me. That concept is no different. If God were to give man free will and control what they do with it, then man really cannot be free to choose what they do with the gift.

In light of these proposals, some atheists suggest that it appears that some evil is pointless and if God did exist, He would not allow room for pointless evil; therefore, God probably does not exist[23].Worth noting is that because someone thinks some evil may be pointless does not mean that any evil is pointless. It is simply an opinion and there are plenty of opinions to entertain. Of course the counter proposal is that pointless evil cannot exist if God exists, God probably exists, and there is probably no pointless evil in the world[24]. The use of the word “probably” is not by accident. Once again we get back to the idea where God can neither be proven nor disproven, but He can certainly be argued against or defended. Ultimately, belief in God relies on faith as does just about everything we do in our lives. At the same time, we should always pursue knowledge and grow in wisdom at whatever chance we get in order to validate our beliefs with more practical (non mystical) means.

The conclusion McCloskey comes to is that atheism is comforting[25], more so than Christianity. In Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig argues: “If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well live as you please.”[26]. Craig is arguing the idea that morality exists because of God, rather than in spite of Him. I believe such a notion to be completely true. Without a God to define morality and help man discern right from wrong, murder becomes just as glorious as childbirth. To say this idea is comforting is troubling. The counter argument I could see is an atheist claiming morality is relative while referencing other cultures. While it is a fact that cultures around the world view morality in different ways, it is also true that they have not all received and accepted the revelation of God. In this respect, God’s definition of morality remains intact despite how other people may view it.

Craig goes on to say that life without God lacks purpose. He specifically states: “If there is no God, then our life is not fundamentally different from that of a dog.”[27]. How true this statement is. God created man to glorify Him and we are the pinnacle of His creation. If we are simply the result of a non guided evolutionary process, then we lack any real significance or purpose. Everything we will do or have done in this life would ultimately contribute to a meaningless race of organisms and be eradicated in the future.

Lastly, man cannot live his life without value, meaning, or purpose[28]. We cannot define life as a series of chance occurrences, to do so is an elaboration of ignorance. Following such logic, if someone were to argue in favor of purpose, I could propose that their perceived purpose is objective and ultimately meaningless because morality cannot exist outside of God.

McCloskey’s argument is a typical atheistic argument. That said, he does voice many legitimate concerns that we all have. I believe we all struggle with the idea of God existing while evil does. Important to note; however, is the presence of evil does not dismiss the existence of God. We should also concede that while the cosmological and teleological arguments are important, they are not necessarily an end all to the discussion. McCloskey may have been incorrect in his challenges to the proposals, but the fact remains that God and neither be proven or disproven. He can only be defended or debated against within the limits of our own understanding.


[1] McCloskey, H.J. “On Being an Atheist”. Question 1. February 1968.

[2] Ibid, p. 62.

[3] McCloskey, H.J. “On Being an Atheist”. Question 1. February 1968., p 62.

[4] Evans and Manis. Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. p. 70.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Evans, C.S., and R.Z. Manis.pp. 70-71.

[7] Ibid, pp. 74-75.

[8] Ibid., p. 75.

[9] McCloskey, H.J. p. 63.

[10] Evans and Manis, p. 77.

[11] McCloskey, H.J. p. 64.

[12] Evans and Manis. p. 80.

[13] McCloskey. p. 67.

[14] Evans and Manis, p. 83.

[15] McCloskey. p. 64.

[16] Ibid., p 65.

[17] Evans and Manis. p. 160.

[18] Ibid. p. 161.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See second order good. Evans and Manis. p. 161.

[21] McCloskey. p. 66.

[22] Evans and Manis , p. 163.

[23] Ibid, p. 169.

[24] See G.E. Moore shift. Evans and Manis.p. 171.

[25] McCloskey. p. 69.

[26] Craig, William Lane, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd Ed., Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. p. 74.

[27] Ibid, p. 76.

[28] Ibid, p. 84.

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