Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Miracle of Atheism

The late J.L. Mackie published a book, right as he was at the end of his life, about atheism. More precisely, a book about philosophy of religion which favored atheism. Unlike Dawkins and other so-called new atheists, he actually knew about the arguments he was trying to refute. So the book actually wasn't that bad (though not very good either, if by "good" one means "rationally compelling"). The name of the book is "The Miracle of Theism."

So the basic outline of the book is that Mackie sets out a cumulative case for belief in God, then critiques it. He also sets out a cumulative case for atheism. He sets them side by side and concludes the latter is on much more solid ground than the former.

All the classical arguments, for and against God, are laid out critically. The heart of the case for atheism, in the book, seems to me to be the problem of evil. As I understand, Mackie died just as that problem, the problem of evil, was itself dying, so we may forgive him for overlooking the obituary. Nevertheless, he does interact with Plantinga's freewill defence. At any rate, it seems to me that Mackie's statement of the problem is fairly unique and, therefor, as well as for other reasons, worthy of examination.

As one may gather from the title of his book, Mackie views belief in God as miraculous, in some sense of the term. He does not find theism very plausible in other words. Still, various philosophers down through time have given what purport to be rational support for their religious beliefs and Mackie does take this fact seriously by giving the classical arguments a fair hearing.

He really does explain them, the arguments for God's existence, accurately, so far as I can tell. He does not misrepresent them. He then proceeds to give his concerns against their cogency. I disagree with his analysis here, but that is besides the point. If the cosmological, teleological, and ontological arguments are all logically unsound, that does not mean, in-and-of-itself, that theism is a false view. It could be that there really is a God. And why disbelieve in a God Who may really exist, if all one has to appeal to is the absence of evidence?

Of course, Mackie goes beyond this by offering a positive case for atheism. But here is the problem. His case revolves primarily around the problem of evil, which, if unsound, totally destroys his positive case. What is incomprehensible is that Mackie himself admits that the problem of evil, as a deductive argument, is unsound! He admits this in his book, in the very chapter on the problem of evil! So theism is the miracle here? Perhaps the a-key was stuck on his typewriter as he was writing the book.

Here, then, is Mackie's argument:

1. It is either logically possible, or else it is impossible, that God (who may or may not actually exist) could have created human beings such that they always freely choose the good.
2. It is not impossible, that God could have created human beings such that they always freely choose the good. We know this, for example, because any human can and does freely choose the good on at least one occasion so, it is certainly at least possible that he do so on every other occasion as well.
3. Therefore, God could have prevented evil from occurring but He did not so. And this is so, even taking man's putative freewill into account.

What I think Mackie is getting at here is that invoking freewill does not nullify the problem of evil. To say that it is logically possible that God could have created humans who always freely choose the good is, I suppose, true enough, but, only insofar as it goes. It kind of misses the whole point. I mean, logically possible or not, it need not be logically actual. In other words, if a man is created with genuine libertarian freedom, then it must be possible for the said man to choose evil. So if we find evil in the world, as a result of libertarian human freedom, we should not be surprised. Even God cannot, I submit, create a truly free agent who cannot, of his own accord, choose evil in a truly free way.

It is important to reiterate, at this juncture, that the problem of evil is the major and main part of Mackie's cumulative argument for atheism (keep in mind that this argument is one of the best cases for atheism by one of the best atheists in one of the best books on atheism, to date). Yet we see here that it, Makie's problem of evil, fails miserably. So the cumulative case for atheism as a whole fails miserably. And as I said before, even if all the arguments for religious belief are faulty, that does not, in-and-of-itself, establish atheism. So why be an atheist? Could it be that Mackie, and others, have less than rational reasons?

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