In this installment of my insufferably long review of John Loftus’ Why I Became an Atheist we turn to chapter four, “Does God Exist?” Loftus introduces the discussion with a reflection on the mystery of existence. He then states his intention to discuss three families of arguments for God’s existence: ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, and teleological arguments.
These are three historically influential families of arguments for God’s existence. But there are dozens of others. Yes, dozens. Thirty years ago Alvin Plantinga delivered a lecture titled “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments.” (I’ve linked you to his lecture notes.) And there are many more as well.
One of my favorite families of arguments that Loftus doesn’t discuss is the argument from reason which has appeared in many forms. C.S. Lewis provided an influential early statement of the argument in Miracles; since then different versions of it have been forwarded by many philosophers including Alvin Plantinga, Victor Reppert and myself (see the chapter “If there is no God, then we don’t know anything,” in God or Godless.)
And then there is the family of moral arguments including arguments from moral value, moral perception, moral calling, and the satisfaction of justice. These are all distinct arguments (more correctly, distinct families of arguments), and yet Loftus opts not to discuss any of them. (He does discuss the relationship between God and morality in the following chapter, but that is a different discussion.) This despite the fact that many theists believe these to be among the most powerful arguments for God’s existence. And it isn’t just theists, either. The late J.L. Mackie was one of the most influential atheistic philosophers in the world in the late 1970s, and in his posthumously published The Miracle of Theism he defended moral arguments for God’s existence:
“If, then, there are such intrinsically prescriptive objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have, after all, a defensible inductive argument from morality to the existence of God.” (The Miracle of Theism, 115-16)
Given that both theistic and atheistic philosophers find moral arguments for God’s existence worth considering, why does Loftus completely dismiss them? Incredibly, the reason he gives is an appeal to the opinion of Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne:
“Following the lead of Richard Swinburne, one of the preeminent Christian philosophers of our generation, who said, ‘I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality,’ I will take a pass on the moral argument for God’s existence. If this argument doesn’t convince Swinburne, why should it convince me, or anyone else for that matter?” (81)
This is extraordinary. I never knew that Loftus held Swinburne in such high esteem that he would allow the Christian philosopher’s opinion to trump even that of such a respected atheistic philosopher as J.L. Mackie! Incredibly, Loftus opines that if moral arguments don’t persuade Swinburne then absolutely nobody should consider them. The deference that Loftus shows to Swinburne’s opinion here is staggering.
I also think very highly of Swinburne. Just last November I had a great chat with him about the existence of the soul and I’ve benefited from hearing his lectures at many conferences over the years. But unlike Loftus, I’m not apt simply to adopt a position just because it happens to be Swinburne’s position.
A closer look, however, reveals that Loftus isn’t really that big a fan boy of Swinburne, for the deference he shows here disappears in the rest of the chapter. For example, on page 92 Loftus refers to Swinburne’s critique of the anthropic principle. While he quotes Swinburne’s opinion, he grants no authority to it and quickly moves on in his critique of the theistic position. Swinburne is also cited on pages 96 and 98, but no particular deference is given to his opinion. Indeed, on page 98 Loftus endorses Craig and Moreland’s critique of Swinburne’s philosophical model of the Trinity.
This leaves us with a puzzle. Why does Loftus grant this deference to Swinburne’s opinion in one case (even elevating it over that of J.L. Mackie) whilst dismissing it in others? The only explanation I can see is that Loftus defers to the opinions of others when it suits his interests. In the present case, he wasn’t interested in discussing moral arguments and so he offered a convenient appeal to Swinburne as a justification for ignoring them.
And so we have a chapter promising to provide an authoritative, if not definitive, survey of the arguments for God’s existence. And yet, it only offers a brief discussion of three families of arguments. In short, this is a chapter that can’t possibly deliver in what it promises. The literature is far too vast and complex to be adequately covered in a chapter a mere 23 pages long.
To be sure, there’d be no problem at all if Loftus had a modicum of intellectual humility about his project. But he doesn’t. He thinks Christians and all other theists are simply “deluded” and he believes he’s going to provide a fatal intellectual blow to the foundations in theism in 23 pages.
We shall see…