Monday, May 1, 2017

The strongest argument for atheism

The tremendous suffering in the world is widely understood to constitute the strongest argument against the existence of God. In his contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig outlines an approach to answering this argument which I found very helpful.

Craig begins by framing the argument for atheism as follows:

P1: If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
P2: Gratuitous evil exists.
C: Therefore, God does not exist.

[Note that "gratuitous evil" means pointless evil. In other words, gratuitous evil is evil that does not serve to bring about some greater good.]

One of Craig's several responses to this argument is to note that one could construct a parallel argument as follows:

P1: If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
P2*: God exists.
C*: Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Note that both the atheist and the theist accept P1. The atheist, however, maintains that P2 is true, while the theist maintains that P2* is true. Who is right? In order to answer that question, one must weigh the arguments for P2 against the arguments for P2*.

There are many strong arguments in favor of P2*. Click here for a list of five.

But what about P2? What arguments can be offered to support this premise? One could of course point to the tremendous amount of seemingly gratuitous evil in the world. But how could one ever demonstrate that such evil really is gratuitous? How could one ever demonstrate that an omniscient God could not have sufficient reason for allowing this evil? Just as a child might not understand why the surgeon is cutting into her, perhaps God's reasons for allowing evil are simply beyond us.

In summary, the theist can produce at least five formal arguments for P2*, but the atheist, as far as I can see, does not have even one formal argument for P2. [By "formal argument," I mean an argument with premises and a conclusion following logically from those premises.] Therefore, until the atheist can produce an argument for P2 that is more powerful than the constellation of arguments for P2*, we should not reject the existence of God. Instead, we should conclude that gratuitous evil does not exist.