Having completed the unit of philosophy of religion, you are now ready to respond to an article written by an actual atheist. This article titled “On Being an Atheist,” was written by H. J. McCloskey in 1968 for the journal Question. McCloskey is an Australian philosopher who wrote a number of atheistic works in the 1960s and 70s including the book God and Evil (Nijhoff, 1974). In this article, McCloskey is both critical of the classical arguments for God’s existence and offers the problem of evil as a reason why one should not believe in God.
Background of McCloskey and his work
The article, “On Being an Atheist” by McCloskey addresses all the readers that their beliefs in being a theist is reasonable and comfortable than the contemptuous beliefs of the theists who worships a God that does not exist. He ardently puts his arguments forward both theologically and cosmologically. McCloskey also presents his reason for the Problem of Evil and why bad or evil cannot exist without the concept of a “perfect” God. He states that all their “beings” and Demi Gods that exists just need a reason to exist. McCloskey claims that the very idea of humans that a superior being has created this Universe is absurd and incorrect. He refutes the theological and cosmological beliefs of the existence of an omnipotent being often referred to as God (Berman). He put all his arguments forward stating why he thinks that a creator is a misconceived notion of man and faith does not help when one is in grave crisis.
McCloskey places all his arguments very tactfully and rationally. He argues that the very fact that Christian’s opinions for God is something that cannot be definitively established. Hence, anything that cannot be definitively established should be rejected. What he tries to point out is that Christians are only making vague arguments without backing up their arguments with accurate proofs. Stephen Evans had mentioned that the Christians are not stating anything that is their own, rather they are only believing in the probability of a God or higher, superhuman being (Bullivant, Stephen, and Ruse). After McCloskey addresses the notions of various proofs he then specifically targets the cosmological and theological arguments. In his attempt to cite the “defects” of the cosmological arguments he states that the existence of the world holds no reason to believe in the existence of a superior being. He further mentions that if we study the very nature of every object on earth then we would notice that these objects do not exists necessarily. There is not a single living thing that owes its existence to another living thing. Therefore, McCloskey is of the opinion that the very fact that these contingent beings should have a necessary being in order to love and exist considering a string of contingent beings only leads to infinite retrogress with no logical explanation to a cause. To this, Stephen Evans says that the very fact that a necessary being is the one and only being whose existence does not require further explanations. He says that there requires an ultimatum for the existence of a contingent being only if there is an necessary being. McCloskey writes, “This objection is one way of putting Kant’s criticism that the cosmological proof involves the ontological proof.” The reader feels that he is actually correct. The cosmological argument, as it stands, is not arguing for particular attributes of the uncaused cause. There is no room in the premise of the argument for such attributes. On the other hand McCloskey is trying to defeat the cosmological argument by stating that the ontological proof must play a factor in the argument. Neither is this stipulation evident nor is it necessary for the ontological to be involved in the cosmological. All the cosmological argument is stating (as laid out above) is that an uncaused cause must be the explanation for contingent beings. Therefore, McCloskey has travelled quite a bit further out past the limits of his own assertion.
Critique of McCloskey's rejection of classical arguments for God's existence
He then focuses on the theological argument and says that, “To get the proof going, genuine indisputable examples of design or purpose are needed. There are no such indisputable examples, so the proof does not get going at all” (McCloskey). What he tries to say is simply that since the proof is ‘indisputable’ it should be rejected completely. As has already been pointed out, the teleological argument is not being used deductively but rather inferentially as the best explanation available. Moreover, since it is inferential, it does not follow that a proof must either be indisputably proved or rejected. All that is necessary for an inferential proof is that the proof be probable. Evans states that, “The arguments can be rejected, but the person who rejects them pays a price. For to deny a proposition is logically equivalent to asserting another proposition. To deny p is to assert not-p.” Evans tries to say that McCloskey would have to reject every notion based on his own standard. Other counterfactuals to McCloskey’s assertion are the magnetic field and black holes as was addressed in Lesson eighteen (McCloskey). Neither of these can be indisputably proved using the scientific method yet scientists adhere to those particular views based on what are the best explanations available. Christians are no different when positing an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of purposiveness in the natural order. Therefore, McCloskey is overreaching when he states that his indisputability method is a “very conclusive objection” (Taylor).
The two great examples of teleological arguments that provide, inferentially, a proof for the existence of God are not only the features of “design” in the universe but also the nature of its measurability (Taylor). Stephen Hawking notes that, “If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size.” Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez in his article “The Measurability of the Universe – A Record of the Creator’s Design” says that “Humanity’s home planet is a comfortable porch from which curious humans can gaze out to the ends of time and space.” The Universe is either the product of a large scale accident or it is not (Taylor). McCloskey, on the other hand, has made no case for an elegant accident in his attempted refutation of the teleological argument. McCloskey however, tries to replace the appearance of the designer with evolution as he says, “So many things which were, before the theory of evolution, construed as evidence of design and purpose, are now seen to be nothing of the sort” (McCloskey). He does not acknowledge is that evolution, or more specifically macroevolution, has not been conclusively proved – a detail that he ignores outright when solely focusing on the “indisputability” nature of the argument from design (Mosk). We can assume for a moment that McCloskey is right and that evolution is the reason for “design” in nature, it still doesn’t provide a concrete reason for evolution in the first place (Corner). Evolution can only mechanistically explain the process of change but not the reason for the existence of any such change.
Evaluation of McCloskey's arguments pertaining to the problem of evil
McCloskey also focuses his attention on the presence of evil in the world as a means to refute both the cosmological and teleological arguments. The cosmological and teleological argument never addresses the notion of morality (Taylor). Evans writes, “By itself, the (cosmological) argument only seems to show the existence of a necessary being that is the cause of the universe.” By itself, the teleological also seems to only show an intelligent being. The two arguments strive to prove nothing more than that. Therefore, the concept of evil that McCloskey is trying to use as a rejoinder to those specific arguments is completely irrelevant. He tries to say that if there was a God who was perfect then he would not allow any evil or any immoral things to happen (Grayling). Since immoral and evil things, happen all the time it just means that there is no such being as God. Evans comes up here with what he calls a “second order good”. According to Evans if an atheist were to step in front of a bullet to protect a loved one, the fact that he was shot would be an evil but an evil that garnered a second-order good when he chose to be courageous and use himself as a shield.
The reader must notice that how callously McCloskey uses the terms “good” and “bad” without justifying the origins of these terms (Peterson). It is highly questionable that from where he derives the concept of “good” and “bad” if he does not believe in the moral goodness of God. Abn atheist, according to Evan is not off the hook when it comes to morality. McCloskey should explain how these moral terms mean anything if there is not a standard from which to judge. Saying that, while good and evil do exist, there is no God seems to be the equivalent of saying that, while McCloskey’s article evidently exists, there is no McCloskey himself. Thus his argument for evil is vague and irrational. McCloskey also talks about “free will.” Thomas Hardy had mentioned about the “immanent will” that directs the lives of every man on Earth. There is a problem how McCloskey defines free will. Free will cannot exist in the libertarian sense and if it is God who is behind it then one cannot choose freely. Therefore, the hypothetical that McCloskey employs here seems rather implausible without further argument. What we must understand is that God cannot actualize all possible worlds as McCloskey and Mackie suggests as God does not have any control over human free will (Ryan).
McCloskey further says that atheism provides comfort and consolation in pain and suffering than believing in an omnipotent other worldly being. Criag in his essay make three crucial points. The first point is that, given the second law of thermodynamics, all things in the universe are moving towards decay (Criag). The atheist should ask himself that whether there is a point to existence in the first place since all things die. The second point is that, in a world with no God, humans actually have no value. Morality and ethics become nothing more than simple statements about different types of ice cream flavors. In other words, no objective moral standard can exist without God. Lastly, humans have no purpose without God. They are merely accidents of random variation that appear to exist based on chance but only for a short while before losing everything they have strived for and acquired. If death really is all that awaits us then the atheist cannot find comfort, as McCloskey suggests, only despair.
Berman, David. A history of atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell. Routledge, 2013.
Bullivant, Stephen, and Michael Ruse, eds. The Oxford handbook of atheism. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Corner, Mark. Does God Exist?. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.
Craig, William Lane. "Does God Exist?." Philosophy Now 99 (2013): 6-9.
Grayling, Anthony C. The God argument: The case against religion and for humanism. A&C Black, 2013.
McCloskey, H. J. "On Being an Atheist." (1972).
Mosk, Carl. "Is There a Religion Trap? Atheism, Agnosticism, and Innovation." (2014).
Peterson, Michael L. "The problem of evil." The Oxford handbook of atheism (2013).
Ryan, Phil. "The Rhetoric of McCloskey." Challenge 58.3 (2015): 251-261.
Taylor Jr, David C. "A Response to On Being An Atheist." (2013).
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