Note: the following bit is something I wrote specifically for a new book I’m working on, tentatively titled: Angry Atheists?: Why Anti-Atheist Backlash is Silly. At the end, I’ll throw in a bit of explanation of where the book will take the discussion from there, and I’d very much like feed back on it, whether or not you think that’s a good plan for this section of the book.
In debates about religion, arguments for the existence of God can show up in two very different ways. Sometimes, people will actually use an argument. They’ll say, “you atheists are all wrong, because if there’s no God, where did the universe come from?” or “you atheists are all wrong, because if there’s no God, where do we get our morality from?”
But sometimes, they’ll merely mention an argument without actually claiming it shows that there is a God. Instead, they’ll suggest that the mere existence of the argument is evidence for some meta-point about religion debates. For example: “N. T. Wright’s argument for the resurrection is very sophisticated, and until you’ve dealt with it, you can’t claim to have dealt with the best arguments for the other side.” Or: “You can’t deny that there are intellectually respectable reasons for believing in God, after all, Plantinga’s ontological argument is very sophisticated.”
In general, the arguments that get used tend to be very different than the ones that are merely mentioned. Many arguments that believers actually use would be quickly dismissed by professional philosophers as not very good, but they’re almost at least somewhat good-sounding. That is, I can usually understand, to some degree, why someone might think it was a good argument.
On the other hand, the when an argument is merely mention, it’s usually one with a reputation for sophistication, and at the very least it’s usually the type of argument that impresses academics. But they also tend to be the type of arguments that would sound completely ridiculous if written up in a blog comment. The academics who come up with this sort of argument seem more concerned with impressing their peers with their “sophistication” than with actually convincing anyone.
For example, I’ve heard Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God cited, more than once, as giving one of the best cases for theism ever produced. The core of the argument is the claim that the universe we observe is much more likely on theism than on atheism. Swinburne develops this simple idea using a framework known as Bayesianism, and the way he does this has been praised for its sophistication.
What I never hear Swinburne praised for, though, is actually producing a terribly compelling argument. More importantly, I never hear him praised for giving really good reasons to think this universe is much more likely on theism than atheism. Without that, Swinburne’s argument isn’t much of an argument, no matter how sophisticated his use of Bayesianism may be. And that, I think, explains why no one actually uses Swinburne’s arguments in any normal context.
However, the fact that mentioned arguments often aren’t very good is just part of the real problem with this tactic. When someone tries to prove a point by just mentioning an argument, they’re assuming that in some sense it’s a good argument, and we should all be able to agree on that without even discussing the argument. Trouble is, sometimes we won’t all agree. In fact, I think all arguments for the existence of God are pretty terrible. I think atheists can’t be criticized for not dealing with the “best” arguments because there aren’t any “best” arguments.
And theists themselves don’t agree on what the best arguments are. Ask ten religious thinkers, and one will give you Aquinas’ five ways, another will tell you about his cutting-edge formulation(s) of the ontological argument, a third will claim the Quran is so perfect that God must be the author, and so on, until you get to the handful of guys saying you shouldn’t look for arguments. This means that no matter what arguments an author like Dawkins chooses to address, someone will always be able complain he didn’t choose the “best” ones, making that criticism especially unfair.
From here in the book, I’m planning on talking a bit more about arguments for the existence of God in general, and some flaws that are common to many theistic arguments. However, I plan on spending the bulk of the book’s “arguments for God” section on William Lane Craig, especially the latest edition of his book Reasonable Faith. My reason is that while Craig’s arguments are terrible, he at least knows how to produce good-sounding arguments, the kind of arguments people actually use. But I’m open to hearing I should take a different approach.