The Only Two Good Arguments for Atheism

Recently there has been a flurry of books from the "New Atheists." Such figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have been holding forth to state . . . well, not anything new.

The reason there is nothing new to say is that there cannot, by the nature of the discussion, be anything new to say. When it came to the question "Does God exist?," St. Thomas could only think of two reasonable objections in the whole history of human thought.

Objection 1: It seems that God does not exist, because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

Objection 2: Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.

Every reasonable atheistic argument is a restatement of one or both of these basic points.

Objection 1: The Argument from Evil is a rich treasure trove for the New Atheists, providing as it does multiple opportunities to bang on about how Religion Poisons Everything and brandish the usual rap sheet of evils done by theists. And, best of all, should some theist timidly observe that 20th-century atheists shed oceans of blood dwarfing anything ever achieved by theists, the New Atheist can then rail against the uncaring and immoral God who lets innocents suffer and die. It's win/win! If you are as quick-witted as Hitchens, you can even try to reclassify communism and Nazism as "religions."

This last ploy may not pass the laugh test with most people, but it's still workable with the Chattering Classes. All the New Atheist need do is hope that his reader won't inquire too deeply into just how he arrives at certitude about what "good" or "evil" is without smuggling in all sorts of transcendent categories from a supernatural worldview.

For the New Atheist is full of moral prescriptions and proscriptions: We should be teaching children about Darwin. We should not be teaching children religion. We should have greater tolerance for sexual diversity. We should not be subjecting infants to circumcision. We ought to be doing X, we ought not to be doing Y, etc.

The problem is this: Trying to derive a moral universe -- any moral universe at all -- of Should from a purely materialistic universe of Is turns out to be impossible. The perfectly just outrage of a Hitchens at some crime by a theist turns out -- if you grant the New Atheists' materialism -- to be just one more biochemical reaction. And privileging a biochemical reaction merely because it is a lot more complex than, say, combustion is as crude a mystification as bowing down to a rock because it's really really big.

In the atheistic universe of Is the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called "Adolf Hitler" can have no greater or lesser Oughtness than the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called "Martin Luther King Jr." They just Are. Attempts to impose meaning or value judgments on these biochemical processes are, in the final materialist analysis, simply one more sample of the human brain's innate tendency toward pattern-making -- which, according to Dawkins, is the source of the God Delusion. As the real modern atheist, Richard Rorty, pointed out, there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, "Why not be cruel?" Quoth Rorty:

Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

The New Atheists, however, seem to be blissfully unaware of all this, because they are, in fact, Old Atheists of the 18th and 19th centuries who retain a serene confidence that the privileged bits of the moral and rational order looted from the Christian civilization they are laboring to destroy will just go coasting on of their own accord. Because of this, the New Atheists retain the charming Enlightenment faith that they can hold on to that particular pattern-making epiphenomenon of brain tissue called Reason as they deploy the other staple argument of any really substantial atheistic case: Objection 2: The Everything-Works-Fine-Without-God Argument.

This argument is what undergirds most attempts to back up the New Atheism with a gloss of scientism. It goes like this: People once thought lightning was the Wrath of God and disease was caused by evil spirits. Now we know the physical laws behind a lot of phenomena. Therefore, there is no Legislator of those Laws, and he cannot alter those laws or feed new data into his creation because that would interfere with the philosophy of a lot of tenured people.

Put briefly, you propose a huge metaphysical hypothesis that Absolutely Everything popped into existence 13 billion years ago with the help of Nobody, but loaves and fishes cannot pop into existence 2,000 years ago with the help of Jesus of Nazareth, despite the eyewitnesses who inexplicably chose to die in torments proclaiming He did. The trick to establishing this hypothesis as dogma -- when the odds currently stand at 10137 to 1 against the fine tuning of the universe -- is to take a particular methodology that, by its nature, only looks at time, space, matter, and energy and have thousands of people repeat "Only what our methodology can measure is real!" for two centuries over millions of loudspeakers. Voila! The words of C. S. Lewis's Mr. Enlightenment become the Received Wisdom of an entire culture:

Hypothesis, my dear young friend, establishes itself by a cumulative process: or, to use popular language, if you make the same guess often enough it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact.

If people still are troubled by those 10137 to 1 odds, just wave your hand like Dawkins and say there are probably lots of universes, so ours was bound to turn up. Admittedly, there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever for that claim. But if you invoke "string theory" and mention Stephen Hawking's name you can generally intimidate people into silence.

If this doesn't work, you can, like Dawkins, argue that "any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself." Have another New Atheist named Dennett declare this argument "unrebuttable." Then quote Dennett quoting you and declare him spot on. You might also want to throw in something about how much more science knows about the complexity of universe today than in St. Thomas's day. Don't play up the fact that medievals knew as well as anybody else with two eyes that the universe is a really complex place. And, in particular, don't discuss the fact that St. Thomas addressed your brand new unrebuttable objection nearly 900 years ago in his Summa Theologiae (Part I, Question 3, Article 7).

Most of all, overlook the fact that the question you are supposed to be attending to is "whether God exists," not "whether God is complex." Ignore the fact that all a theist has to do is show that creation is contingent and therefore necessarily depends on what is not contingent for existence. Do not remind yourself that the theist is not obliged to say he or she understands that non-contingent Being, merely that such a being exists. If all this fails and your reader still thinks St. Thomas is getting the better of you, call your reader a creationist in the same tone of voice you'd use to say, "You left your used Kleenex on my coffee table." Or, if you are Hitchens, just compare him to Osama bin Laden.

Now Objections 1 and 2 are all she wrote as far as good atheist arguments. You can expand on them by multiplying examples of evil or by ringing the changes on various natural processes that seem to be getting on fine without God. But you can't add to these arguments.

And that's what fascinates me about the New Atheists. Because, as Dawkins's "unrebuttable" fallacy just demonstrated above, the New Atheists and their disciples do not stick to these, the only two really reasonable objections to God's existence there ever have been or ever will be. Instead, they exhibit the telling tic of the nervous rhetorician and incorrigibly lard on various other arguments known as "fallacies."  Of which more next time.