This article is a quick follow up to my article “On believing God (or Santa Claus) doesn’t exist” in which I critique Jack David Eller’s essay “What is Atheism?” Four years ago I reviewed another essay by Eller in John Loftus’ volume The Christian Delusion. Eller’s essay was a mishmash of rhetorical gobbledygook bereft of any argument (a fact which doesn’t speak well for Loftus’ editorial wisdom).
The same problems are evident in “What is Atheism?” Consider this passage:
“arguments in favor of god(s) fail, and if they did succeed, they would not establish the existence of any particular god(s) over all the others; that is to say, the tired old cosmological or ontological or teleological arguments would defend Zeus or Odin or Vishnu as effectively as Yahweh or Allah.” (14)
I’m not citing this passage merely because it is bad, but because its badness is illustrative of a general confusion I find among many atheists on the internet. (Incidentally, I want to avoid referring to these folks as “village atheists” which sounds too pandering. At the same time, we should recognize that many atheists are highly learned, articulate individuals who would never make these kinds of elementary blunders. What is interesting in Eller’s case is that he makes the kinds of ignorant comments one would usually find in those “atheists on the internet who are commonly maligned as village atheists,” but he does so in print, not merely in some blog or discussion board.)
So what is the problem? Eller argues that for a theistic argument to work, it must establish which God exists. This is another way of saying that it must establish not only that God exists but that he/she/it has a particular set of properties (e.g. the Trinity of Christian theism).
This is absurd and it shows that Eller doesn’t understand to even the most rudimentary degree how these arguments are supposed to function.
Consider an analogy. Imagine that James is accused of committing a murder at Bletchley Hall at 9 pm on Thursday. In the trial the prosecution points out that surveillance footage shows a red pick up leaving Bletchley Hall at 9:15 pm on the evening in question. And James drives a red pick up.
Does the surveillance footage demonstrate that James is guilty? Of course not. But it does support the prosecution’s case nonetheless. In short, if James is guilty then you might expect to find a vehicle fitting the description of his pick up leaving the hall shortly after the murder. And that is precisely what you do find. So you would need much more, evidentially speaking, to find James guilty. But that doesn’t mean that the surveillance footage isn’t good evidence. It is, in fact, good evidence so long as it serves as part of a cumulative case.
By the same token, no Christian has ever claimed that the cosmological argument (for example) establishes the existence of the Trinity. But it does provide a good reason to accept the existence of an agent first cause, a fact that is consistent with theism but not atheism. In that sense, the argument serves in a cumulative case for the Christian God’s existence in a way parallel to the way the surveillance footage serves in a cumulative case for James’ guilt.
Before wrapping up, I’ll make two more quick points.
First, each of the arguments Eller references is, in fact, a family of arguments. There are many forms of cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments, and several of them could serve as part of a cumulative case argument.
Second, Eller clearly doesn’t understand the arguments to which he refers. For example, the ontological argument could not, by definition, support the existence of Zeus since the ontological argument supports the existence of a necessary being while Zeus is supposed to be the contingent son of Cronus.