Raise your hand if you’ve ever had this experience: You’ve learned a thing or two about the cosmological argument or the design argument. You eagerly share it with a friend of yours who doesn’t believe in God, and they accept all the premises. But they aren’t moved.
They’ll reply with something like: “Even if these arguments work, they don’t prove enough. They show there was a first cause of the universe or a designer, but that is a far cry from the God of traditional theism.” Or they might say “well, that doesn’t prove that the first cause or designer was Jesus or Yahweh. Try harder.” How do you respond to that?
This reply is at least as old as the famous Scottish skeptic David Hume. In the 18th-century, Hume wrote his Dialogues on Natural Religion. In the book, three fictional philosophers named Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes debate the nature of God’s existence.
DID DAVID HUME KILL ARGUMENTS FROM NATURAL THEOLOGY?
In the dialogue, Hume writes:
“The world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: It is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors: It is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him…”David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V (pp. 34-38)
So according to Hume, because the world isn’t so perfect, how can we tell if the designer isn’t some baby creator or a lame, old deity who abandoned the project? All the arguments do is show there’s a designer and not a very great one at that. That isn’t the God of traditional theism.
Plus there are hundreds of other creator gods in other religions besides gods we can postulate, like Quetzalcoatl, the Rainbow Serpent, Shiva, Unkulunkulu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
ARGUMENTS FROM NATURAL THEOLOGY CHALLENGE NATURALISM
In making this argument, notice what the atheist is not doing. They’re not willing to give up their naturalism. They’re just stating that because there is the presence of competing ‘god-claims’ that there probably is no god. These claims just cancel each other out.
But that’s not a very good conclusion at all. Let’s think about the cosmological argument for a second. It doesn’t prove that there is an evil deity or a good deity or an ambivalent deity. But it does prove that there is a timeless, spaceless, immaterial and immensely powerful entity that made the universe. This rules out pantheistic worldviews. It also rules out the Mormon god who is himself material and began to exist in the finite past. If successful, it would also rule out naturalism.
This should at least make us stop and reconsider our worldview. If there is some powerful, immaterial first cause, the right response would be to investigate further, not shrug our shoulders because one argument didn’t give us a full picture.
Philosopher Doug Groothius compares these arguments to receiving a letter with only a partial return address. We know someone sent us a letter, but there is more we want to know. The problem is many skeptics just toss these letters aside as if they’re junk mail.
WHICH GOD HAS THE BEST RESUME?
In responding to Hume’s argument, philosopher James Sennett reminds us that when we ask the question, “what or who might that entity be?” there is nothing in the rules of rationality that limits us to the entailments of the thought process that got us to the question.
Sennett uses the analogy of resumes of job applicants. Once the resumes are all in, all the info in those resumes becomes relevant. The rational thing to do is hire the most qualified candidate, not just any old schmo that is able to do the job.
Sennett argues that the God of traditional theism is the winner for three reasons.
- The enormous amount of scrutiny theism has withstood over the centuries.
- The amount of natural theology work theism does.
- The non-ad hoc nature of theism.
Regarding point one, for 2000 years theism has been criticized. This scrutiny has especially intensified in the past 200 years from academia. Critics have hit theism with their best shot, but it hasn’t been enough for all thinking people to reject it. Not by a long shot. In fact, with more scientific discoveries, the case for God has only gotten stronger.
The advance of scientific knowledge is precisely what led philosopher Antony Flew to theism after defending atheism for decades. He writes in his book There is a God:
“I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.”– Antony Flew, There is a God, (Kindle:1087)
Regarding point two, the arguments from natural theology give us a divine law-giver, or a powerful uncaused cause, or a supremely intelligent being. Theism comes ‘readymade’ with a God who displays these qualities. When one philosophical tradition provides answers to a host of questions, the virtues of explanatory simplicity give us a good reason to prefer it over alternatives. Finite or impersonal gods from other traditions won’t cut it.
Regarding point three, Sennett argues that there is no ad-hoc flavor to theism’s solutions. It wasn’t created or altered to solve the problems that natural theology gives us. But it does handle many otherwise confusing problems raised by philosophy. Contrast this to Hume’s aforementioned ad hoc deities, like the baby designer or the old geezer. In comparison, the God of traditional theism stands head and shoulders above the resumes of these other gods.
THE RESUME OF THE GOD OF CHRISTIANITY
Skeptics will often say there’s as much evidence for Yahweh as there is Unkulunkulu or other creator-gods, so why prefer him? This is just ignorance. It dismisses the historical case for the resurrection.
I get their initial concern. We’re talking about a miracle that happened allegedly 2000 years ago that Christians reported. But intelligent skeptics with just these hesitations, after reviewing the evidence in detail, have confessed the case is far stronger than they initially thought.
Here’s Jeff Lowder, one of the founders of infidels.org: “I remember thinking to myself that if I took the time to investigate the resurrection, I could make anyone who believed it look like a fool. Or so I thought. …I was about to discard it as ‘another illogical religious belief,’ …yet I found extremely difficult to deal with as a critic.”
And here’s Antony Flew, a philosopher at Oxford who wrote extensively in defense of Hume and atheism: “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”
Those who deny the strength of the argument for the resurrection are simply sticking their heads in the sand. It’s not something that is easily dismissed. To say otherwise is just a statement of stubborn incredulity.
And if the resurrection is true, we should look into what Christianity says about where we came from, why there is evil in the world, what life means and where we are going.
AN ADVENTURE IN MISSING THE POINT
So dismissing the arguments from natural theology by saying “well which god!?” misses the point. It’s an irrelevant question to assessing the logic theistic arguments, for two simple reasons: 1) it doesn’t deny the truth of any premises in a theistic argument, and 2) it doesn’t deny that the conclusion follows from the premises. This is exactly why atheistic philosophers like Graham Oppy respond to the premises of these arguments, for they understand the implications.
Admitting these arguments are successful should cause us to ditch atheism. They should make us wonder which God-candidate has the best resume in terms of explanatory power, scope and that isn’t ad-hoc. Arguments for God’s existence should make us more curious, not more dismissive, even if they do not lead to full-blown Christian theism.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.