In "On Being an Atheist," H.J. McCloskey discusses what it means to him to be an atheist. In doing so, he criticizes the classical argument in favor of God's existence. This is not a new criticism, as people have been arguing about whether it is possible to prove or disprove the existence of God for years. However, McCloskey goes further in his argument against the existence of God by discussing what he believes is a critical argument against the existence of God, as he is portrayed by major world religions, and that is the problem of evil. However, there are several weaknesses in his argument against God. This essay will explore those weaknesses and attempt to reach a conclusion regarding the validity of McCloskey's argument.
One of the first problems with McCloskey's argument is that he describes the arguments in favor of God as proofs, and, because of how he has characterized them, suggests that they must be abandoned. McCloskey suggests that, "To get the proof going, genuine indisputable examples of design or purpose are needed. There are no such examples, so the proof does not get going at all" (McCloskey, 1968, p.64). This is an interesting approach, and one that is belied in other areas. Traditional geometry and traditional logic both use the idea of the proof to support statements. When one examines this traditional approach, one sees that proofs are a series of logical steps leading to a conclusion and are not composed of a series of irrefutable statements, as McCloskey appears to suggest. Mark Ryan suggests that a proof consists of the following steps: creating the statement of the theorem; stating the given; creating a drawing that represents the given; state what must be proven; and providing the proof itself (Ryan, 2012). Moreover, the use of postulates in geometric proofs demonstrates that even mathematical proofs employ the use of things that are taken as self-evident. What this process suggests is that a successful proof is not dependent upon using only provable facts, but can begin with a postulate, or something taken as a given. This does not mean that McCloskey cannot choose to reject those things that come down to being capable of being absolutely proven, but he does not acknowledge that this rigid conclusion would mean he would have to reject, not only the existence of God, but basic mathematical principles, if that is his guiding premise.
McCloskey continues by claiming that the mere existence of the world constitutes no reason for believing in the existence of God. However, when one looks at Evans' discussion of the non-temporal form of the argument, McCloskey's objection seems less substantial. According to Evans, temporal arguments assume that the universe had a beginning in time (Evans, p.68). In contrast, non-temporal arguments suggest that the universe has always existed. These non-temporal arguments have been used by a series of religious philosophers, including, but not limited to, Aquinas, Leibniz, Clarke, and Taylor (Evans, p.69). This gist of these arguments is that "God is the necessary cause of the existence of the universe, both now and for as long as the universe has existed" (Evans, p.69). This argument, in and of itself, does not really challenge McCloskey's argument as it is based upon belief. Does the universe even need to have a first cause? Evans suggests that it does not necessarily need a first cause, largely because there is no cause given for the existence of individual things in the universe, even in theories that explain how the universe works; if one does not have to explain the scientific cause of the explanation of the origin of life, then why does one have to explain the cause of the origin of the universe. After all, describing conditions that were conducive to the origin of life is not the same as ascribing cause. That does not mean that Evans supports the cosmological argument to defend the existent of God. McCloskey's claims that the cosmological argument "does not entitle us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause" are actually supported by Evan's conclusion. Evans does not think that the cosmological argument, in and of itself, is sufficient evidence for the existence of God, merely that it provides substantial evidence for the existence of some type of God (Evans, p.77). However, I believe that Evans would suggest that anything argument that makes it clear that some type of deity is necessary is a first step in proving the existence of God.
Returning to the idea of incontrovertible proof, McCloskey's objections to the teleological argument seem to have some initial merit. After all, many people erroneously assume that scientific arguments are based on incontrovertible truths, but an examination of different scientific theories demonstrates that this is not really true. I do not believe that the reading in Evans is able to offer an example of design that provides substantial evidence of a designer of the universe. McCloskey implies that evolution has displaced the need for a designer and, to me, that argument has some meritorious appeal. However, while the evolution argument may be compelling evidence that a designer is not necessary, it is not a compelling argument against the existence of a designer. Even Evans acknowledges that, "Darwinian evolution gives an explanation of the order of the universe that is a rival to theistic explanations" (p.82). However, Evans believes that evolution makes even more sense if one thinks of an intelligent being guiding the process of evolution, so that how things have evolved have occurred in a logical manner for the way that they function in the world (Evans, p.83).
Moreover, McCloskey would suggest that the presence of imperfection and evil in the world argues against the case for a designer. However, that seems like it would be an argument against evolution as well, because the argument of evolution would seem to argue for a more cohesive universe. Evans did believe in the limitations of the cosmological argument, so the fact that there is an intelligent designer does not necessarily mean that there is a benevolent designer. Establishing an intelligent designer is simply a necessary step in proving the existence of God as described in Christian theology, but is not sufficient to establish that God. In other words, it is simply a step in the proof.
However, that is not to suggest that the problem of evil is an inconsequential one. McCloskey believes that the presence of evil is one of the most compelling arguments against the existence of God. According to McCloskey, "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." Looking at one example, rape, one can see some merit in McCloskey's argument. After all, there is a compelling evolutionary argument in favor of rape; it provides a means for less desirable males to ensure the transmission of their DNA, a thesis that is supported by evidence of higher sperm count in rape-emissions vs. emissions in consensual sex. There is no compelling argument against the notion of rape as an evil, which would seem to be a specific argument against the existence of God. However, this argument depends upon a premise that a perfect being could and would strive to create a world that is perfect. McCloskey specifically discusses the free will argument, 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?" However, this argument would take away much of what it meant to be free. Why would one assume that God's definition of perfection would be based on the perfection of moral behavior rather than the perfection of free choice? Only with free choice can one determine whether or not humans are actually virtuous; otherwise, humans are only slaves whose behavior is dictated by God. This argues against the idea of a God who created man in his image. Moreover, even with the idea of a perfect God, the Bible is replete with examples of God acting in vengeance and anger, emotions that are not considered morally perfect in humans. Humans were created perfectly in God's image, but that does not mean that they were created in perfection.
In fact, McCloskey relies upon the evidential problem to suggest that the evil in the world means God's existence is unlikely. The basic premise of this argument is that, "the occurrence of evil, though it does not prove that God does not exist, renders his existence unlikely or improbable" (Evans, p.158). However, this argument argues against the entire theological systems underlying the three Abrahamic religions. Not one of those theologies argues that God in any way promises a world free of evil, therefore, it seems illogical to argue against the idea of a perfect God who tolerates the…