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November 23, 2011


Koukl makes the following comment in the video segment. I did change one mention of “atheism” to “theism” and put that change in brackets, since clearly Koukl just had a slip of the tongue and meant to refer to theism.

I only know, friends, I only know of one argument for atheism. I know that atheism really more or less is the default position of people who don’t think there are good reasons for theism. But they don’t give reasons for atheism proper. The only one that I know for atheism proper is the deductive argument from the problem of evil. Because that argument says that [theism] must be false in virtue of internal contradiction. Now I don’t think that argument goes through but at least it is in argument in favor of atheism. I know of no other arguments in favor of atheism. All other ways of looking at atheism, or justifications for atheism, are just taking shots at arguments for theism, and saying that those arguments aren’t adequate, and therefore since the only alternative is unsupportable, then atheism is kind of the fallback position.

I’m not surprised to hear that Koukl knows only of the deductive argument from evil for atheism; but if that’s the only kind of argument Koukl has heard of for atheism, then it’s time to read a book and learn something new. There’s been a lot written on the evidential argument from evil, which certainly is not the deductive argument from evil Koukl referenced. I provided a short list of material to peruse below.

One needn’t even be up-to-date on the contemporary literature to have heard of the evidential argument from evil. First published in 1779, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion clearly contain passages referencing the evidential argument from evil. Witness:

It must, I think, be allowed, that if a very limited intelligence, whom we shall suppose utterly unacquainted with the universe, were assured, that it were the production of a very good, wise, and powerful Being, however finite, he would, from his conjectures, form beforehand a different notion of it from what we find it to be by experience; nor would he ever imagine, merely from these attributes of the cause, of which he is informed, that the effect could be so full of vice and misery and disorder, as it appears in this life...But supposing, which is the real case with regard to man, that this creature is not antecedently convinced of a supreme intelligence, benevolent and powerful, but is left to gather such a belief from the appearances of things; this entirely alters the case, nor will he ever find any reason for such a conclusion. He may be fully convinced of the narrow limits of his understanding; but this will not help him in forming an inference concerning the goodness of superior powers, since he must form that inference from what he knows, not from what he is ignorant of.

Hume continues,

In short, I repeat the question: Is the world, considered in general, and as it appears to us in this life, different from what a man, or such a limited being, would, beforehand, expect from a very powerful, wise, and benevolent Deity? It must be strange prejudice to assert the contrary. And from thence I conclude, that however consistent the world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures, with the idea of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning his existence. The consistence is not absolutely denied, only the inference. Conjectures, especially where infinity is excluded from the Divine attributes, may perhaps be sufficient to prove a consistence, but can never be foundations for any inference... There may four hypotheses be framed concerning the first causes of the universe: that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect malice; that they are opposite, and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness nor malice. Mixed phenomena can never prove the two former unmixed principles; and the uniformity and steadiness of general laws seem to oppose the third. The fourth, therefore, seems by far the most probable.

Here Hume explicitly concedes that suffering may be logically consistent with theism, but argues that suffering is still evidence against theism. Clearly, therefore, the argument referenced in this passage is not the deductive argument from evil, but rather an evidential argument from evil.

A Small Sampling of Some Work on the Evidential Problem of Evil

Draper, Paul (1989). “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists,” Noûs, 23: 331-350; reprinted in Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 12-29.

Draper, Paul (2009). “The Problem of Evil,” in Thomas P. Flint and Michael Rea (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, Oxford University Press, pp. 332-351.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel, ed. (1996). The Evidential Argument from Evil, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hume, David (1990). Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, edited with introduction and notes by Martin Bell, Penguin Classics.

Rowe, William L. (1979). “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 16: 335-41

Here is another argument for atheism (and please remember that although this argument is against theism, any argument against theism is an argument for atheism, and vice versa) that is not the deductive argument from evil: the argument from the incoherency of theism.

I will not lay out here the argument in its most refined and subtle form, since my present purpose is just to produce one atheistic argument from thephilosophical literature that is not identical to the deductive argument from evil. The basic gist of the argument is the very notion the theistic God is incoherent. And since there are no instantiations of incoherent notions/concepts there is no theistic God. What is lovely about kind this argument is that it makes no mention of evil whatsoever.

For more on this argument, check your local library for these sources:

Findlay, J.N., 1955, ‘Can God's Existence be Disproved?,’ in Flew, A. and MacIntyre, A. (eds.), 1955, New Essays in Philosophical Theology, London: S.C.M. Press

Rowe, William, Can God Be Free?, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Thanks for the references.

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