Why the arguments for atheism are moral arguments, and why that matters

At ST Ia Q2 A3, where Aquinas offers his well-known “five ways” of proving God’s existence, he notes and replies to two objections. To paraphrase, the first is that “infinite goodness” is incompatible with the existence of “evil”; the second, that citing God is “superfluous” as an explanation for the world’s existence. It’s pretty evident that the problem of evil and the superfluity of God qua explanation are posed as the most common objections even today to classical theism. Aquinas presents them, in effect, as metaphysical objections and answers them accordingly. But I shall argue instead that they are, at bottom, moral objections. If I’m right, that has great significance for natural theology and apologetics.

My claim that people pose the problem of evil as a basically moral objection to classical theism ought to be uncontroversial. The most common way of pressing the objection is to argue that God’s permitting some people to suffer horribly beyond their deserts, when he could prevent it, is immoral. That is taken to be incompatible with God’s being perfectly good, a quality classical theists ascribe to God. Of course, another way to pose the problem of evil as an objection is to argue that, although a perfectly good God might well want to prevent such suffering, he is powerless to do so. That is taken to be incompatible with omnipotence, another attribute classical theists ascribe to God. But that way of pressing the objection is fairly easy to answer. Although an omnipotent God could well have created a world in which suffering does not far outstrip deserts, God has not done so; given the natural order God has willed, it is logically impossible to prevent such presumptively disproportionate suffering without divine intervention so regular as to destroy the natural order of things. And omnipotence neither need nor should be thought to include the ability to do the logically impossible. So much is, or ought to be, obvious. Of course, the standard reply to that defense is to argue that God is immoral for creating and sustaining such a natural order in the first place when, as granted, God have done otherwise. But that’s essentially the same as the first way of pressing the problem of evil as an objection to classical theism.

My claim that the superfluity objection is also, at bottom, a moral one is much more controversial. Most of what follows provides my argument for it.

Metaphysical (as distinct from methodological) naturalists typically hold that the sorts of explanation of the world’s existence proffered by classical theists—chiefly, by means of a posteriori cosmological and teleological reasoning—cannot do the sort of work that explanations in general are supposed to do. If so, then citing God as creator and/or designer of the world fails to explain anything; therefore, there is no reason to hold that God as explicans exists. But what does it mean to say that theistic explanation of the world’s existence doesn’t do the sort of work that explanations are supposed to do?

Classical theists should not, and the most intelligent among them do not, argue that presenting God as creator and/or designer does better explanatory work than the natural sciences. Those sciences have their own explanatory aims and canons which, though not immune to revision, remain exactly as they are whether or not classical theism is true. The theistic argument is, rather, that citing God as explicans does a different sort of explanatory work than natural science. The naturalist reply is that no such alleged “explanation” should be counted as explanation. What is the argument for that reply?

To explain something is to account for why it thus and not otherwise. In order do that, one must show that the explicandum would have been different if the explicans had been different. But classical theism does not claim that the world would have been different if God did not exist; the claim is that the world would not exist at all if God did not exist. That requires holding, among other things, that the world can and should be conceived as a certain totality which counts as an explicandum, such that only the action of something not comprised by that totality could account, in some non-trivial way, for why just that totality exists. But it will not do to characterize said totality simply as the physical universe studied by natural science, even at some hypothetical state before the Big Bang. For all we know, the primordial universe might have been the product of something else which could not qualify as the God of classical theism, but which might turn out to be identifiable by means of natural science—if not our science, then somebody else’s. No, the totality that divine activity supposedly explains must be the totality-of-things-that-happen. Call that ‘T’. Granted we do not know its full extent, T certainly exists. But such a totality, the naturalist would say, cannot admit of non-trivial explanation. We can explain its existence simply by noting that each of its constituents exist; but that would be trivial, and certainly not what the classical theist is after. And the reason we cannot have what the theist is after is that the theist cannot say what would have been different about T if God did not exist. T remains just as it is, whatever it is, whether or not God exists. Hence, goes the argument, citing divine activity to explain T’s existence does not and could not really explain anything. There is no non-trivial explanation of T’s existence. As Laplace said, there is no need of the God-hypothesis. It is superfluous.

From this point of view, it will not do to cite some version of “the principle of sufficent reason” as a premise in an argument for the claim that something not comprised by T accounts for T’s existence as a totality. There’s already “reason enough” for T’s existence as a totality: that of each of its constitutents. But that is hardly germane. What the theist must do instead is show that T is the sort of entity whose existence calls for another sort of explanation altogether. Yet how is the theist to do that? The only way he can do it is to show that, whatever the extent of T as a totality, its constituents cannot, either individually or collectively, account for the general causal regularities that must be cited in some explanation of how things happen as they do—i.e., the constituents of T cannot account for the “laws of nature.” But that sort of explanation would have to show that such laws would have been different if God as creator and/or designer did not exist. And that in turn would have to cite some sort of causal regularity. But given that such regularities are supposed to be part of what’s being explained, such an explanation cannot qualify as an explanation at all.

It might seem that the way for the theist to begin countering that line is to point out that it premises scientism: the thesis that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all. He can then go on to argue that there is no good reason to believe scientism. And he would be quite right. Humans have always known various things non-scientifically, and no scientific argument for scientism can be given. But that will not suffice by itself. For the naturalist can always argue that, even if scientism is false, his point about explanation remains untouched. Even if there are things natural science cannot explain, and thus cannot know, that’s no reason to believe that T’s existence can be explained in some other way. Unless and until the theist can show that his “explanation” of T’s existence does what explanations do, he hasn’t explained anything.

As I’ve suggested, the debate is really about the nature of explanation. It is evident that there are successful explanations in the contexts of ordinary life and natural science, but it is by no means evident that there can be a kind of explanation which doesn’t tell us how things would have gone differently if the explicans did not exist. To be sure, the theist must say that, if God did not exist, then T would not either—a conditional statement which, if true, is very important indeed. But that doesn’t tell us that things would have been different if God did not exist; it only tells us that there would have been no “things” to be either the same or different if God did not exist. Absent some account of explanation which shows that such a peculiar result can function as explanations do, the theist has not established that he’s explained anything. Nor will it do for the theist to insist that T is the sort of thing whose existence is explicable; for the only “sorts” of things we are familiar with are the sorts of things already comprised by T.

The only honest way for the theist to proceed is to argue that the question “Why does T exist?” is meaningful in such a way that one could reasonably entertain a non-trivial answer to it. That would show that we cannot rule out T’s existence being explicable in terms of something which T does not comprise. And the only way to develop such an argument is to show that (a) one cannot rule out that T’s existence embodies an intention, because (b) intentional explanations need not be thought reducible to causal explanations, which perforce cite natural regularities. That kind of argument has been given from time to time. In my hoary PhD thesis, I developed along such lines a book-length argument that it’s more reasonable to allow for a unitary explicans of T’s existence than to rule out the possibility of such an explicans on epistemological grounds. I still would argue to that effect.

As I’ve discovered over the years, however, the naturalist objection to that move is an essentially moral one. In ordinary life, natural science, and especially in formal disciplines such as logic and mathematics, there are reliable, agreed-upon methods for evaluating explanations as successful or unsuccessful. Prima facie at least, there are no such methods in natural theology—a discipline that not even the majority of religious believers find helpful. Given as much, naturalists typically argue that one ought not to expect people to find any of the putative explanations of natural theology cogent as explanations. Expecting people to do so is, in fact, morally defective. For such “explanations” necessarily transcend the sorts of considerations that it’s reasonable to count as evidence; expecting people to go beyond the evidence in forming their beliefs is expecting what’s unreasonable; and expecting from people what’s unreasonable is a sign of disreputable motives that are themselves all too evident in the history of religion.

To judge from the recent literature of the “new atheism,” which is really the old atheism with shoddier arguments, that’s the kind of objection, other than that from the problem of evil, which motivates people to be atheists. I have no doubt, of course, that some atheists are such because they very much don’t want to consider the implications for their lives if Christianity or some other form of classical theism is true. But that only serves to supply theists with a moral argument against atheism that is too ad hominem to be worth pressing. The real interest of the moral arguments against theism is that they steer the debate into a channel where the theist is on firmer ground.

Regarding the problem of evil, the theist can and ought to argue that the atheist has no moral legs to stand on. If a given atheist is an emotivist or some other sort of non-cognitivist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that there are objectively binding moral norms which God fails to satisfy. If a given atheist is a utilitarian or some other sort of consequentialist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that God’s utility calculations, if there is a God, are inferior to his own. If a given atheist is some sort of deontologist in moral philosophy, he must show several things: that the moral norms he believes bind humans absolutely do so even though there is no God; that even if there were a God, those norms would bind God in pretty much the same fashion as us; and that God, if there were a God, could not be said to observe them. All that is, at the very least, a tall order.

Regarding explanation and evidence, the atheist needs to show more than merely that it’s unreasonable to expect people in general to find classical-theist natural theology persuasive. That people in general do not find such theology persuasive is easily accounted for by factors other than the objective quality of its arguments. Most people lack the happy combination of time, talent, and education to study and evaluate such arguments, so that whatever the reasons this-or-that person might have for believing in God, they cannot be faulted for leaving natural theology alone. For that reason, classical-theist philosophers don’t expect most people to follow and evaluate their arguments. So the debate is really among philosophers, and the question whether one ought to go beyond what’s generally recognized as evidence is a debate in moral philosophy and psychology.

About that debate, I shall conclude by noting that the atheist has a lot more work to do than simply pointing out that something called “religion” violates his moral norms. There are many different forms of religion, and some are more capable of moral self-reformation than others. But what is such “moral self-reformation” supposed to amount to? Before a charge of immorality can be made to stick, there has to be antecedent and common agreement about what morality requires. A person who wants to press a moral argument against theism, but who believes that the universe is morally indifferent and that no transcendent lawgiver underwrites morality, is burdened with showing that the moral norms he upholds are objectively binding as such. For unless and until he can do that, his moral arguments against theism can do no more than beg the question.


Begin with a turnip…


Just so many luscious theories to deflower…

“There is still so much in this life to learn,” he uttered, with the hint of tears in his eyes. “Don’t stop at one point and stay there,” he counseled his disciples.

Then, alas, Leopold rose his hand and slid his hood back past his ears. “Is there any thing to learn that we should not unlearn?” he asked the master.

“Pardon me,” replied the master.

“Well,” he coughed, “learning seems to imply right and wrong answers, and a final test, and a teacher. I….”

“Seems to imply,” whispered the master, scanning the palm of his hand.

“Master,” Leopold ventured further, “couldn’t I say something like this:….” And here he paused to allow the master to correct the countless errors he must have already made.

The Master looked at him from beneath raised eyebrows. “Well? Go on.”

Leopold straightened his spine and wiped the sides of his mouth with his fingertips. “Couldn’t I say, ‘There are still so many women in this life to love; don’t stop with one relationship and stay there?'”

The master chuckled. “But we are celibate in this community, Leopold.” An unseen cloud of chuckles rose from the patch of maroon hoods surrounding Leopold. He gave a weak smile.

“Yes, Master, we are,” Leopold replied, “but I am, I am talking about people in the larger world. About husbands and wives. People trying to live upright, honest lives. Have you not taught that virtue, free from deceit, is one of life ‘s highest aims?”

“Well said, Leopold. I take your point, then, to be…,” the master answered, and brought his fingertips together, giving Leopold the floor.

“All I mean to say, Master, or ask, really, is, doesn’t there at some point need to be an ultimate commitment?”

“But Leopold,” the master answered, “you do have that kind of commitment here, in this community. You need to put thoughts of marriage out of your mind, or, that is, admit this community is not where you belong.”

Leopold noticed all the hoods turn in his direction, but he could see none of the faces beneath them. “No, Master, I mean, I understand what you mean about this community. I was simply trying to say, well, my analogy of an ultimate, faithful commitment between a husband and a wife is an analogy for our, our cognitive world. It seems like we have to place ultimate trust in something. Don’t we have to stop somewhere?”

The master inhaled sharply and looked up to the rafters. “Leopold,” he began, “let me try to summarize your point for you.”

Leopold’s brow unfurrowed and his shoulders dropped with relief. “Yes, Master, by all means!”

“I have been teaching this morning about remaining ever open to truth as it unfolds.” The patch of hoods bobbed in slow affirmation. “About never sticking with one narrow view, never getting stuck in one dogmatic belief system. And you, young Leopold, are trying to say that this… this spiritual agnosticism is intellectual hedonism, the life of spiritual rakes. If I may put it so bluntly.”

Leopold stared for a moment. The hoods wobbled in many directions, apparently unsure where to direct their unseen gaze. Then Leopold’s eyes widened and he repeated, “Intellectual hedonism. The life of spiritual rakes. Keeping your options open. Not getting trapped. Staying safe. You mean… getting the best out of every viewpoint without being tied down to any one system?”

“That’s how I would put your… point, yes, Leopold,” answered the master. “At last you are seeing the value of this community, Leopold. We have the freedom of the sons of light, Leopold, freedom that the small-minded outside these walls can barely imagine, stuck as they are in their narrow beds of sure truth and unequivocal goods.” The master smiled and opened his hands like a father welcoming his son back.

Leopold rose to his feet and pulled hood off his head onto his neck. The hoods rose slightly, maroon sunflowers arching blindly under an eclipsed sun. “But, Master, I didn’t make a commitment to this community to be a spiritual rake, to be an intellectual hedonist. That’s a bunch of bullshit.” And with that Leopold turned to walk through the heavy oak doors into the cool dusk of a new life.


There is a “religious side” to every human like there is a “food side” to everyone. Our species is the homo religiosus. Humans are inherently religious. We should not find this any more odd than the oddity of putting various objects into our mouths and finding life in them. Metaphorically, then, atheism is a form of bulimia, a problem not with the menu or the chef, but with food in general. Agnosticism, in turn, is a form of anorexia.

Atheists spend countless hours poring over religious documents, analyzing religious arguments, engaging religious believers, and the like, only to vomit it all back out and say, “Now that is what is making me, us, all of mankind, sick!”

Agnostics by contrast just walk through the mall, window shopping, tsk-tsking at every possible treat, turning each of them down, lest they become bloated and weighed down by anything they actually eat. Far too unsightly to binge and vomit like atheists, but also far beneath them to become fat and happy like the gullible, well-fed believers on the lawn outside.

Atheists claim there is nothing to religion, that is is sheer bunkum, and that is disgusts or bores them, and yet they are, when being most atheistical, as obsessed with it as any of the faithful, and probably more so because, whereas an average Christian is chiefly concerned with One Lord, the average atheist is concerned with the sprawling mass of “religion in general.” Otherwise they are “polite” and trim agnostics, not too fat too be a nuisance on the airplane of life, nor too raucous like the atheists on board.

Kurt Gödel ended up dying of starvation because he had a paranoia that all his food was poisoned. He was just being careful, a gustatory skeptic. He lacked absolutely iron-clad proof that his food was not dangerous nor had been tampered with. An agnostic literally means without-knowledge-one. A truly awesome self-description. I can at least respect my stepdad’s militant atheism for “having a pair,” but most of the time I admit I have as little taste for agnostics as I do for lukewarm Christians. As G. K. Chesterton said, the point of an open mind is like the point of an open mouth: to bite down on something real and good.

When it comes to our food, we are agnostic in the true sense of the word, but we are nonetheless largely rational for getting over our lack of “certain knowledge” and living and eating. We can’t be sure this or that food will give us cancer, or that it isn’t contaminated, but at the end of the day, we all gotta eat. This or that particular menu item is subject to rational evidence and reappraisal, but food itself is inescapable. So it is with God. This or that argument can be not to our liking, but we face everyday the insatiable need for the divine, and, like people driven to eats dirt and pine cones in the wild, will find ways to stave off the hunger, for better or worse.

We have to make a choice to live for some ultimate end. But based on what evidence? If we are rational, not to say rationalist, what reasons do we have to be rational, not to mention purely rational? Don’t we have to first will to be rational, and then follow reason where it leads? How can we follow reason if we don’t value rationality in the first place? You can’t convince someone to be rational. It is simply a great good which a person must will to accept, as a gift, to honor as a master and to cultivate as a child. Reason, then, is taken on faith or it is not taken at all.

But only if you first recognize that you have a nature, that your nature has intrinsic ends and proper goods, and that there is a way for that nature to be best used–– only then will you desire to take reason seriously as a natural human good. Nature is not intrinsically rational (just ask Stephen Crane, Jack London, Gerhart Hauptmann, or Cormac McCarthy, for starters). We “impose” rationality on it for the sake of an intrinsic good that is proper to human nature, namely, truth.

All that Catholicism claims is that God is the source of these intrinsic goods and the proper object of them hence He is worthy of our devotion, our “orienting our natural powers towards the good to be found in Him.”

In the age of godmaking…

Here’s the received wisdom:

Humans have long suffered from various emotional and psychological needs and fears. So, seeing as the real world is harsh, indifferent, and unresponsive to these needs, humans in every age have fabricated gods and godlets to meet every little need. Finally, however, mankind has been freed from this craven superstitiousness and can now walk on two feet into the horizon of pure reason and exact science. There is no God; He’s just been made up by precocious anthropoids in an existential bind. This is certainly the most basic objection to theism: “You know that’s true, it’s made up. So believing in X, Y, and Z is not only pathetic but also immoral. Humans should only believe what is objectively true and should proportion their adherence to a concept or claim based on the evidence for it. God is just a crutch.”

Unfortunately, however, the psychological needs are still with us. We still limp. We simply can’t function without meaning and purpose, value, hope, and unhinged love. So the new wisdom’s solution is to beat the religious at their own game. Seeing as, on the one hand, there is no Meaning in the cosmos, since there is no “Meaner” in whose divine eyes anything and everything has meaning, and seeing as, on the other hand, humans are driven by their irrational evolutionary heritage to seek what is called “meaning,” the best solution is just to make Meaning up as we go. If there is no meaning in the world to be discovered and cherished, then we had better just make it up ourselves.

At this point, however, the jig is up, rationally speaking. For it is the same people who in one breath castigate Christian believers for “just making up their god talk,” for cherishing a make-believe world, who now, in the next breath, praise nonbelievers for making up the meaning in their lives, for cherishing a make-believe schema of value and meaning that has no more “objective” place in the world than, arguendo, God Himself. The atheist way, thus, enjoins men and women explicitly to believe in a fabricated Meaning and to proportion their evidence precisely in inverse proportion to the evidence for cosmic Meaning, namely, the total lack thereof. Precisely because there is literally no evidence for a higher purpose or a grand meaning in our world, we have to believe we can forge it every step of the way, and that, in an explicitly anti-evidentialist manner.

I have written before about the failure of paganism — which I dub “utilitarian piety” — to meet the true needs of human nature, even as it is mounted on precisely the premise that meeting those needs is the essence of religion.