Believe It or Not

Michael Ruse's Kinder, Gentler Atheism
This story is included in these collections

Philosophy of religion is an awkward business. As philosophers, we ask for reasons (evidence, arguments), to which believers typically respond that it is rather a matter of faith. This needn’t be a conversation stopper, since we can reply that faith can’t be simply irrational assent, as if you just believed the assurances of a used-car salesman. But the discussion will be haunted by the possibility that philosophy and religion are passing in the night.

Atheism, however, is something else. Those who assert that there are no gods almost always present their position as a matter of reason dissolving the mists of faith. So from the start, philosophy and atheism are playing the same game—and, it appears, they are mostly on the same side since surveys indicate that about two-thirds of philosophers are atheists.

It would be natural to conclude that the philosophical literature contains powerful refutations of theism, which have embarrassed and frustrated those few philosophers who still believe. But in fact over the past few decades atheistic philosophers of religion have been playing defense, responding to the impressive work of theists such as Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Robert Adams, and Peter van Inwagen.

Of course in popular discussions of religion, the “new atheists” (led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens) have made quite a splash with their aggressive attacks on religion. But Michael Ruse, a distinguished philosopher and a reflective atheist, is not impressed. “They are,” he writes, “hectoring and arrogant; they are unfair to and belittling of others; they are ignorant of anything outside their disciplines to an extent remarkable even among modern academics.” Ruse does, however, credit them with “an earnestness unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament,” for which “they deserve a response more measured and thoughtful than they are able to give.”

Ruse’s new book, Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know, is in fact a refreshing contrast to much of the polemics of the New Atheists. Although he too writes for a popular audience with verve, wit, and passion, his discussion is far more informed and intellectually sophisticated. Compare, for example, Ruse and Dawkins on the cosmological argument. The argument posits God as the cause needed to explain the existence of the world. Dawkins claims the argument simply assumes that God, unlike the world, needs no cause. Dawkins takes the self-satisfied challenge “Then who made God?” as a decisive refutation. Ruse starts where Dawkins ends: “Prima facie you can drive a horse and carriage through the cosmological argument. If everything has a cause then what caused God?” But he goes on: “If you dig into Aquinas’s writings, as well as others who have supported the argument, you soon see that they are ahead of you here.” Ruse proceeds to explain that the cosmological argument concludes with God as a necessary being (requiring no cause) as the only alternative to an untenable infinite regress of causes. (In his acknowledgements, Ruse praises the English Dominican Brian Davies, “the best of teachers,” for helping him understand Aquinas.)

Ruse eventually rejects the cosmological argument, but only after formulating David Hume’s objection to the intelligibility of a necessary existent, considering two senses of necessary existence that might avoid the objection, and then concluding that neither sense plausibly supports the cosmological argument.

Overall, the book is a respectful but insistent reflection on whether the intellectual resources of theism are sufficient to withstand atheist critiques. Ruse begins with two historical chapters tracing the origins of atheism from defiance of God or belief in the wrong gods in Old Testament days, through ancient and medieval doubts and indifference, to scattered appearances of professed atheism (Diderot, d’Holbach), and of militantly anti-Christian deism (Thomas Paine) during the Enlightenment. On Ruse’s account, the move to full atheism accelerated in the nineteenth century, but he suggests that uncompromising atheism became a major public voice only in the twentieth century.

Ruse’s treatment of the sources of atheism is condensed, but careful and nuanced. He concludes that “overall it was science, and above all Darwinian evolution, that demolished traditional theism.” But he notes important scientific factors besides evolution, such as geology, physiology, and thermodynamics, and also takes account of major non-intellectual factors such as the Industrial Revolution and political trends toward secularism.

Unlike the New Atheists, Ruse insists on a substantial discussion of the meaning and intellectual bases of theism before taking up the case against it. He begins with a quick survey of the considerably different religious portrayals of God in the Old and the New Testaments, and the even more considerable differences between them and the metaphysical “God of the philosophers.” But he also makes the reader aware of Christian strategies for reconciling the accounts, including the rudiments of Aquinas’s theory of analogy.

Ruse then turns to an overview of Christian thinking on faith and reason, including references to the Catholic view of Aquinas, the Calvinist view of Bavinck and Plantinga, the existentialism of Kierkegaard, and the empiricism of Locke. He next moves to capsule discussions of the main theistic arguments: the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, as well as those from miracles and from morality. All of this is quite schematic, but beginners will find helpful pointers to a deeper understanding, while experts will find little to object to. They may raise an eyebrow here and there, but nothing in this book will make their jaws drop the way Dawkins’s cavalier criticisms often do.

Ruse takes considerable care in setting up his treatment of the case atheists can make against theism. In accord with his historical survey and the thrust of the New Atheists, he focuses on the scientific critique. He agrees that science refutes the Biblical literalism of fundamentalists (creation in six days, less than ten thousand years ago, etc.). But, citing thinkers like Augustine and Calvin, he immediately notes that
“literalism is neither traditional nor genuine Christianity.” His own working formulation of Christian theism includes just four core claims: “a creator God exists”; “there is a purpose to it all”; “we humans are special”; and “we have obligations.” His question is not whether these claims are true, but whether “science shows them untrue.”

Ruse rejects the idea, endorsed most notably in our day by Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion can’t clash because science deals only with facts, whereas religion deals only with values (Gould’s principle of “non-overlapping magisteria”). Ruse notes that at least the first three claims of his core Christian theism are factual. Still, he doesn’t think it follows that the facts theism asserts lie within the domain of science, and indeed thinks that they don’t. Modern science, he argues, has always worked in terms of a mechanistic model (or metaphor) that shows how, given some things, we get other things. But the question theists answer by appealing to God—why are there any things at all, why is there something rather than nothing?—can have no scientific answer, since science must always start from some basic set of things that it takes for granted. As for purpose, the explanations of modern science have long found no place for it. Finally, the “specialness” of humans, if any, lies in their consciousness, which science treats as just another mechanism (perhaps a computer) and special only in its degree of complexity.

Of course, the atheist can always respond that it’s precisely because science finds no place for a creator or purpose or human specialness that the three theistic claims are false. This response, Ruse maintains, assumes that science is able to answer any question about what there is. This is unlikely because the machine model—like any metaphor—both raises and excludes questions; and, in any case, science itself can tell us nothing about the limits of its own knowledge. In particular, since it deals only with physical reality, it can’t say whether there’s any other sort of reality. “Science does not preclude religion,” he says, at least when it’s limited to the core theistic claims.

 

THAT, HOWEVER, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of challenging this core, as well as the many further (non-scientific) claims religions make. The last half of the book turns to these challenges.

The first challenge is whether the Christian theist’s notion of God is even coherent. Ruse puts the issue in standard Athens-versus-Jerusalem terms: the metaphysically potent but paradox-prone ultimate entity of Greek philosophy in tension with the concrete, historically involved person who would be the endlessly fascinating protagonist in a novelization of the Bible. (Less plausibly, Ruse also presents the conflict as between a Protestant personal God and a Catholic impersonal God.) In any case, his discussion is, as usual, engagingly chatty as well as admirably substantial and attentive to important subtleties.

The second challenge is for theists to show that there are good reasons to believe in God. Interestingly, Ruse seems to think that individual believers may have good reasons, particularly from their religious experiences. Of Alvin Plantinga, one of the “most distinguished philosophers of religion”—although one he sometimes strongly criticizes—Ruse writes: “If a man like that believes, then who am I to deny that [he and others like him] really do know.” Ruse’s concern seems not to be whether it may be reasonable for at least some theists to believe in God, but whether there are arguments that would make atheism irrational. By this high standard, it’s not surprising that he finds all the major theistic arguments eminently resistible.

Ruse has surprisingly little to say about theists’ efforts to respond to the atheistic argument from evil, mostly focusing on somewhat embarrassing efforts (by Plantinga and William Lane Craig) to provide positive explanations for horrendous evils. Such responses open themselves to Ruse’s sardonic comment: “Try telling that to Anne Frank as she lay dying in Bergen-Belsen.” But this emotional level of discussion ignores the intellectual difficulties that pose deeper problems for theists (of which more later).

Ruse concludes with judicious but inconclusive discussions of three further issues frequently raised by the New Atheists: Does religion have a thoroughly naturalistic (in particular, evolutionary) explanation that undermines its truth claims? Has religion led to far more evil than good? Does atheism offer a meaningful life? He does an especially good job on the first question, avoiding highly speculative “just-so-stories” but pointing toward more responsible accounts along lines suggested by Durkheim and E. O. Wilson. He also provides a sketch of life in fifteen-century England that tries to give a concrete sense of just what a Christian life-world could be like, and how we might explain such a world naturalistically. His conclusion is that, although religion might be a largely natural phenomenon that may be adaptive but not true, “there is nothing to stop the religious from arguing on other grounds that it is.”

For Ruse, the decision for or against theism comes down to an individual’s assessment of a complex of opposing evidence and arguments. He has no sympathy for the self-satisfied slam-dunks of the New Atheists. Still, his considered conclusion is that “the philosophical and theological issues seem to me to destroy the central claims of Christianity.” He also, first and last, emphasizes that the judgment for or against theism is ultimately a moral one, in his case driven by a conviction that we should believe in an ultimate meaning only where there is strong rational support. To the consolations of religion, he prefers “the reward of putting aside childish things and seeing through the glass clearly.”

 

UNLIKE THE NEW ATHEISTS, Ruse presents his atheism as his own considered conclusion, and does not insist that anyone who does not see the point is irrational. This seems right. It’s hard to see how there could be a rationally compelling case for atheism. How could anyone be that certain God does not exist?

Agnosticism, on the other hand, would seem to have a lot going for it. My guess is that many truly religious people would admit, at least to themselves, that they don’t actually know that God exists—which is precisely agnosticism. But Ruse, like Dawkins and company, has little to say about agnosticism, although his arguments could make a far better case for it.

Consider, for example, the atheistic argument from evil, widely regarded as the main threat to theism. On the emotional level (to which Ruse mostly restricts himself) the argument can seem devastating. On a purely logical level, however, it is more tractable. Those with lively intellectual imaginations can readily construct non-contradictory scenarios in which even an all-good and all-powerful God has reason to allow virtually any amount of evil. The trick is to cite sufficiently high levels of good that logically require great but lesser levels of evil (human wrongdoing, for example, as a condition for free will).

The standard scenarios showing the compatibility of God and evil ultimately appeal to God’s knowledge of relevant factors to which we have no access. Given what we know, it makes no sense, for example, that God would permit the horrors of warfare for the sake of respecting human freedom or of some other compensating goods. But what is paltry human knowledge in comparison with divine omniscience? This unbridgeable gap between God and humans is the ultimate trump card against the problem of evil.

But, as any chess player knows, a successful defense can lead to a more serious threat. There may be an all-good, all-powerful God; but the promise of Christianity is that, so long as we are worthy, God will ensure our salvation, however this is understood. But the solution to the problem of evil shows that God, for reasons unfathomable to us, may be prepared to accept enormous evils in some parts of creation for the sake of the final good of the whole. How, given the gap between our knowledge and God’s, can we be assured that God might not need to allow our loss of ultimate happiness for the sake of some higher good (say the soul-making of a vastly superior alien race)?

There may be ways of responding to this higher-order problem of evil (and philosophers of religion are currently taking up relevant issues in a debate over “skeptical theism”). Without a satisfactory solution to this problem, we can’t identify the all-good, all-powerful being we believe in with the Christian God who grounds our sure hope of salvation. The atheist’s argument from evil could still be defeated, but we could no longer be sure that the God of our religion exists. The issue, of course, needs much more discussion. But agnosticism, not atheism, is the real challenge to theism.

Published in the May 1, 2015 issue: 

Gary Gutting is emeritus John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.  His most recent book is Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (Norton).

Also by this author
Sex Is Not 'Fun'
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture