In his essay "On Being an Atheist," the author H.J. McCloskey offers a multi-layered criticism of the belief in God and specifically Christian beliefs regarding God. McCloskey addresses several frequently-cited complementary yet distinct philosophical arguments advanced by Christian believers over the centuries. This paper will first discuss McCloskey's arguments and evidence and then cite potential objections.
Arguing for God from proof (ontological)
McCloskey first argues that objective, ontological argument of 'proof' in the divine is impossible. One cannot rationally 'prove' the existence of God like you can prove 2+2 equals four is true. Because the existence of God cannot be proved; it cannot therefore be disproved, according to the positivist assumptions regarding the scientific method which states if something cannot be conclusively proven to be false by scientific methodology it also cannot be proven to be true. Furthermore, even McCloskey admits that no believer comes to believe in God based upon 'proofs.' [footnoteRef:1] Elaborate philosophical arguments may be created to justify one's beliefs after the fact, but the emotive need for God comes first, followed by proofs which are later developed as religious philosophy. Rationalization which comes after unsubstantiated belief is not scientific. [1: H.J. McCloskey," On being an atheist," Question, 1: 64]
However, it could be argued that to some extent McCloskey answers his own objection to God: he is applying a scientific standard of truth applicable to the human, material, finite world to the divine world. The fact that some people have foolishly applied a standard of scientific proof created by the limited human consciousness to God is not itself an argument against the existence of God, just merely a poor understanding of divine logic reflected in human understanding. Merely because we cannot prove in a scientific fashion that God does not exist does not mean that he is not real. This is along the lines of claiming that God does not exist because God does not 'prove' his existence by creating miracles on a daily basis: we may wish him to do so but because he does not mean he does not exist.
Regarding the argument of the idea that there must be a God as creator of the universe, McCloskey asks the familiar question of 'who then created God?' God in such conceptualizations is the first mover, the creator who by virtue of his creative power is able to influence the whole of existence for the rest of eternity. [footnoteRef:2] But McCloskey argues the first cause cannot be explained as being caused by a necessary, existing being. Because there is no first, singular cause of the universe there can be no single, omnipotent divine being who was the origin of all things and who continues to control his creation. [2: McCloskey, 64]
However, God is not necessarily conceptualized as a 'contingent' being, rather he is something that has always existed. [footnoteRef:3]Furthermore, the existence of God as the cause of the world itself does not have to have a finite beginning and end. The 'beginning' of the Bible begins with the creation of what we call the world, not with the creation of God. Everything does not necessarily require a cause to exist on the ultimate, divine level of existence. Once again, this suggests an attempt to superimpose a human understanding of the world onto a divine understanding of the world, the latter of which is infinite and not necessarily bound by causal determinants. [3: C. Stephan Evans & Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about faith, (IVP Academic, 2009): 69]
Those who lack scientific knowledge of evolution may be tempted to see design in the current state of the universe and apparent design after the fact but according to McCloskey this is due to human perceptions, not because of an actual guiding divine hand. Evolution is based upon certain characteristics of the individual being suited to the environment and facilitating its ability to survive and produce offspring after the fact, not by an overreaching intelligence. The mere fact that we perceive a divine intelligence at work does not mean that there is one in actuality.
McCloskey demands a standard of indisputability when it comes to demonstrating that there is a divine intelligence -- but once again, the objection to this standard is the same problem as demanding proof of God in general: it is applying a scientific, human method of understanding to the world to the divine. Furthermore, even if evolution is scientifically true this does not mean that God is not necessarily the cause of evolution nor does it mean that God stands outside of the scientific laws which govern the operation of the imperfect universe.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Evans & Manis 82]
McCloskey finds a further objection to honoring God as the creator of everything. He states that even if one were (incorrectly, according to McCloskey) to assume that there was intelligent design to the universe, then one would have to conclude that such a being was imperfect and malevolent, given the current unsatisfactory state of the world.[footnoteRef:5] Even the most committed believer cannot help but concede that people such as Hitler and Eichmann are evil and there are great evils in terms of natural disasters, disease, and the evils human beings perpetuate themselves against one another.[footnoteRef:6] McCloskey finds the argument that the existence of evil is the absence of God, not proof of an evil component of God, to be unconvincing (i.e., the argument that the existence of such evils are manifestations of the absence of compassion, caring, and all of the values embodied in divinity). [5: McCloskey, 64] [6: McCloskey, 65]
On the problem of evil
Thus McCloskey argues that the problem of evil is perhaps the greatest obstacle for the believer, given the current state of the world. He opens his essay with a condemnation of someone who recommended Jesus as a great comfort and tranquilizer to the stresses and anxieties of the world. [footnoteRef:7]McCloskey mocks arguments that attempt to justify evil in the world which state that evil is merely the absence of good; is punishment for original sin; or an illusion. This requires a simultaneous belief in free will because for punishments to be just human beings must choose to sin, rather than be forced by external circumstances to do so. There cannot be an all-powerful, all-good God under such circumstances -- at best there is a good God with limited powers, who, McCloskey implies is limited in his claim upon our adoration. [footnoteRef:8] If God has free will as we are supposed to have, how can he act immorally?[footnoteRef:9] Also, even if people choose to sin, do the apparent punishments always meted out merit the crimes? For example, if someone is struck by cancer is this truly the punishment for all of the sins of their life, given that many people who live far more blameworthy existences also get cancer and often suffer far less? [7: McCloskey, 62] [8: McCloskey, 66] [9: McCloskey, 66]
Theologians Evans and Manis have suggested that there is a 'logical' answer to this problem, however, that God cannot transgress the rules of logic he has created in the world: he cannot make 2+2=5 and some degree of evil in the world may be necessary for the good of the world to exist.[footnoteRef:10] (And interestingly enough, McCloskey discusses the good in the world very little, if at all, although he has much to say about evil). They also respond to the objection that God 'should' have created a world where to do evil was impossible, even for humans exercising free will, noting: "there are some logically possible worlds [without evil] God cannot create" as well as it may be impossible for God to create beings that did not misuse their freedom from time to time and do evil.[footnoteRef:11] Freedom always comes at a price, versus the creation of soulless automatons. [10: Evans & Manis, 161] [11: Evans & Manis, 169.]
On atheism as a comfort
Finally, McCloskey argues that religion is not even a comfort, as some assert -- what comfort is there if someone is taken by an 'act of God?' McCloskey uses the example of an infant struck by meningitis or someone incapacitated by a stroke. Surely someone who is innocent and harmed in such a manner will not find comfort that he or she is being used as 'proof' of God's existence to the universe and the idea that their suffering is arbitrary and not caused by God is more, rather than less comforting. He also notes that science rather than religion has provided many of the answers to the causes of suffering through the creation of such things as modern medicine.
However, it is this claim that seems to be the most dubious of all McCloskey's arguments against God. Even on a very subjective level, people find comfort in very different things. During times of great stress, some people become more rather than less religious and a number of…