Monday, February 1, 2016

Atheists and the cosmological argument

Arguments for God’s existence have been around at least since the time of the Pre-Socratics, and these arguments have taken many different forms. However, the argument that is usually seen as prima facie most compelling—even if one is not persuaded by it—is that of the Cosmological Argument (CA). Although this argument has taken many different forms, the thrust of the argument basically rests on the premise that the natural world participates, in some form or another, in a chain of contingency, and that this chain must admit of a first member that is not itself contingent (i.e., the First Cause, Unmoved Mover, Necessary Being etc.).

Throughout the ages, the CA has been promulgated by individuals like Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Avicenna, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Leibniz, Clarke, Pruss, Craig etc., and while all of these arguments differ in a myriad of ways, they are all very similar in that they attempt to deduce a First Cause which is responsible for causing (and upholding) the existence of the natural world. Unfortunately, atheists today do not spend much time differentiating and comprehending the subtleties and nuances of the different cosmological arguments. Rather, a lot of them tend to believe that philosophers and skeptics like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and J. L. Mackie have refuted these arguments and put them to bed long ago. The atheists subsequently claim that it’s only the desperate theists grasping at straws, trying to justify their delusional faith, who put forward these antiquated and failed arguments for God’s existence.

But is this really the case, though? Have atheists past and present laid rest to the very argument innumerable theists have promulgated time and time again throughout the ages? Have they simply been beating a dead horse, the carcass of which theists try to continually resurrect? I do not believe so, and I don’t say this because I happen to personally find the CA to be persuasive. Instead, I assert that atheists have actually demonstrated their track record for adequately comprehending the arguments is extremely poor. Why do I claim this? Well because the objection against the CA most promulgated by famous atheists over the years is the old adage which states that “If everything needs a cause, then what caused God?” (The point of this article is not to answer this confused objection, which I have done here.) However—and this is important here—no theist who has promulgated the CA, or at least none listed above, has ever used the premise “everything has a cause.” And yet this is literally the most common objection famous atheists have paraded out as the be-all end-all of the CA discussion.

In case you don’t believe me, or think I exaggerate presently, here is a survey of a multitude of well-known atheists (old and new) parroting this very (false) premise:
[The CA] goes. ‘Everything that exists has a cause. Therefore, the entirety of physical existence itself had to have had a cause. Therefore, God exists.’ (Greta Christina)
[T]he postulate of a designer or creator only raises the unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator. (Christopher Hitchens)
The Cosmological Argument[…]in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God[.] (Daniel Dennett)
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. (Bertrand Russell)
Every existing thing has a cause, and every cause must be caused by a prior cause, which in turn must be caused by a still prior cause, and so on[.] (George Smith)
The argument runs more or less like this: everything that exists has a cause; space and time exist; space and time must, therefore, have been caused […] If God created the universe, what created God? (Sam Harris)
Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence[.] (David Hume)
The point, again, is that no version of the CA is predicated on the premise that “everything has a cause.” Therefore, the very question “if everything has a cause, then what caused God?” is itself a caricature and straw-man of the theistic position.

What’s even more telling about the above quotes is that when discussing the CA in published literature—as a majority of these individuals did—these atheists did not actually quote a single theist who had actually defended said argument—and this is one reason why the straw-men abound. You would think that when attacking position X, it would help to actually quote those who have articulated X to their own satisfaction. And yet this is act of charitability with regards to sophisticated dialogue is rarely done by the atheist interlocutors. This, to me, is indicative of the fact that atheists probably have not actually read much of the literature of the opposition, which stems from, again, assuming that the preceding atheists have already done all the metaphysical legwork required in refuting these arguments—e.g., “Hume has already refuted argument X, so why should I bother reading up on it?” Moreover—for those that actually own the books of Russell, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and Hume quoted from above—you’ll notice that many of these atheists only devote less than a page—some of them a measly paragraph—to an attempted refutation of the CA. That is, the argument many theists have devoted literally thousands of pages to has been dismissed within literally a few dozen words. Is this really intellectual sophistication on the part of the atheist movement?

Please note that I don’t claim all atheists have mischaracterized the CA, or failed to quote their theistic counterpart, or devoted only a few paragraphs to attacking their interlocutors. Rather, my charges here are only indicative of the intellectual laziness that has plagued many, and some of the most famous, atheists. And this is important to highlight because it is these very atheists that have blazed the trails that have led to the New Atheist movement. These are the same individuals that are publishing best-selling books on the very topic of anti-theism, or have done so in the past, and are highly regarded in the present atheist community—for reasons I don’t understand. Yet, when it comes to actually engaging probably the most well-known argument promulgated for theism, these very atheists have no idea what the hell they’re talking about, and yet sit there and adamantly and arrogantly label themselves the “freethinkers”—completely oblivious to their ignorance.

I think it’s best to sum up my point in the eloquent words of W. Norris Clarke:

[W]e are here in the presence of a philosophical tradition that is truly in a self-repetitive rut, a tradition that has long since ceased to look outside of itself to check with reality and see whether the adversary it so triumphantly and effortlessly demolishes really exists at all[… ][I]t would seem to be high time that those who still follow this particular tradition of antitheistic argument should have the grace and humility to acknowledge that their argument is dead, and let us get on with more substantive problems with regard to philosophical argument for and against the existence of God.

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