Currently we’re in chapter 4, “Does God Exist?,” of our never-ending review of John Loftus’ book Why I Became an Atheist. Given that the topic of the book is a justification for adopting atheism rather than merely rejecting Christianity, one would have thought that Loftus would devote more than a mere 23 of its 500+ pages to a discussion of evidences for God’s existence. But that’s it: a single short chapter that discusses three types of arguments: ontological, cosmological and teleological.
As I noted in Part 11 of this review, this is a chapter that is absurdly ambitious in scope. No 23 page discussion of an ongoing major, centuries old topic of debate in philosophy is going to warrant an authoritative conclusion to the debate. As I also noted, this would be fine if Loftus presented his discussion as a primer to the debate. But he doesn’t. He presents it as an authoritative word on the debate.
Loftus begins with the ontological argument, an argument about which he observes: “It is generally agreed that the ontological argument never converted anyone….” (81) This candid observation offers a revealing indictment of Loftus’ method: taking on an argument that “never converted anyone” is akin to agreeing to arm wrestle the guy who never beats anybody. That’s just lame.
And that’s only the start of the problems: things get worse from here. In his two page critique of the ontological argument, Loftus limits himself to the original formulation of the argument that Anselm developed three centuries before the printing press. Incredibly, Loftus ignores contemporary rigorous articulations of the argument including that of Alvin Plantinga (The Nature of Necessity (Oxford University Press, 1974), chapter 10) and Robert Maydole (“The Ontological Argument,” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Blackwell, 2009), 553-92.
This is akin to offering a critique of the automobile by pointing out the inadequacies with the Ford Model T. Loftus seems unaware of the fact that when you want to defend a position in the academy you are supposed to critique the strongest forms of the opposing view, not merely the oldest. And yet, Loftus ignores all the rigorous contemporary defenses of the ontological argument, opting instead to gerrymander a few select criticisms of Anselm’s millennium old argument.
To be fair, Loftus doesn’t completely ignore contemporary versions of the argument. He makes a passing reference to Alvin Plantinga’s ontological argument at the very end of his final paragraph. But he never bothers to engage with Plantinga’s argument (let alone that of Maydole or Malcolm or Gödel or Hartshorne or any other recent defenders of the argument). Instead, his “response” is borrowed from John Hick who rejects the argument under the claim that it would also establish a maximally evil being.
But Loftus presents no argument whatsoever to justify Hick’s claim. All he provides is the authority of Hick’s opinion. The irony here is glaring, for Loftus quotes from Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, a work of philosophy of religion that offers arguments which Loftus would categorically reject. So while he would generally reject Hick’s opinions, he conveniently cherry-picks Hick’s statements when they happen to suit his ends. (As we already saw with his Swinburne quote, this cherry-picking appears to be Loftus’ modus operandi.)
If Loftus were serious about engaging the ontological argument, he would carefully engage the most rigorous formulations of the argument (e.g. Plantinga, Maydole) and show how those arguments fail. Instead, he offers a scatter-shot two page critique of Anselm’s millennium old argument and then dismisses contemporary versions with a quick quote from a philosopher of religion whose work Loftus would otherwise repudiate.
This is yet another of the endless litany of instances where Loftus shows that he cares nothing about evidence and argument. All he is concerned with is selectively using sources to dispense contrary views whilst supporting his own ideological commitments.
For those who are interested in actual rigorous philosophical reflection on the ontological argument, you can check out this recent academic paper by philosopher of religion Alexander Pruss.