God On Trial: Reviewing Some of The Best Objections To Apologetics

Those of us who dabble in philosophy of religion will encounter a range of objections. We might hear Christians using a clearly circular argument against atheism. We might hear an atheist proudly reciting shallow one-liners like “Who created God?” But sometimes there are potent counterarguments that make you stop and think about whether your argument is as sound as you thought. In this article, I will be reviewing some of the best objections to apologetics. Some are objections that I thought of on my own, while others are objections that I learned from scholarly atheists. While I do think that these objections are reasonable and raise good questions, I think that there are good answers for them.

If you cannot find your favorite objection on here, you may feel free to take that as a slight against your objection. There are a lot of popular level arguments for which I have no respect. That is not only about atheism, though. Pop-arguments can be found in politics, social issues, science, and virtual any industry that comes across the public sphere. A lot of people think that they can navigate through topics that have a lot of latitude with nothing but their common sense. The result will be arguments like the ‘God of the Gaps’ objection or the science versus religion paradigm. Moving on to more serious business, let’s begin assessing some of the best objections that I can think of.

There Is No Rule of Logic That Necessitates Objective Moral Values And Duties

The moral argument is a favorite amongst apologists. I find it attractive because it invades in an individual’s daily life. You can forget about the cosmological arguments, but you cannot forget about the moral argument. Life is full of choices that have moral underpinnings, and the reflective person will ask whether her moral values have any meaning, or if they are just the byproduct of the evolutionary process and nothing more. The answer that seems right to most of us is that our moral values and duties are significant and that we are aiming at a standard that transcends us.

An objection to this occurred to me while reading Graham Oppy’s book The Best Argument Against God. As a human being, I may believe that there is a moral realm, but it seems difficult to prove it logically. The most that I can do is appeal to intuitive experience. We seem to grasp it even if we cannot prove it. But there could be other explanations for this intuition. It may be that through the evolutionary process, we have internalized sanctions against murder, thievery, and other moral crimes. If that were the case, then it seems difficult to say how different our intuitions about morality would be. So it is an epistemological question. How do we know that there really are moral values and duties?

Interestingly, despite that this might be a forceful objection, it has not actually worried me too much. Most people are not going to find any objection to their moral intuitions to be persuasive. The more efficient way to convince somebody to abandon the moral argument would be to suggest that objective moral values could be grounded in the natural world (but I do not think they can). Beyond that, I think our ethical obligations have a sort of proper basicality. On page viii of Warrant And Proper Function, Dr. Alvin Plantinga pointed out that a belief is warranted if it is produced by a sound mind in a suitable environment by mechanisms that are aimed at truth. It may be said that belief in our moral values meet that criteria. The only challenge would be whether the mechanism is aimed at truth.

The naturalist might suggest that since our moral intuitions are just internalized sanctions against social taboos, they are not aimed at truth but cooperation. I think the problem is that moral values are not only intuited. There is an entire field of philosophy dedicated to ethics. Sophisticated intellectuals can reason about the good and discern how to get closer to it. I do not know that it is just a matter of feeling some sanction in your heart. Further, skepticism about properly basic beliefs leads to troubling waters. Beliefs about the external world would also be properly basic. If we are questioning our very minds and sensory experience, then we are left vulnerable to the old brain-in-a-vat scenario.

Finely-Tuning An Argument To Accommodate Objections

Typically when scientists convert to theism, they find the fine-tuning argument the most compelling. Of course, these esteemed scientists are not citing the bastardized version of the argument that is typically paraded. Hack apologists might say something like, “If the sun were just one inch closer, life would not exist.” The obvious rebuttal to this argument is to just tell them to jump in the air and see if they are incinerated. The most sophisticated treatment would be to say that there are numerous cosmological constants, which if altered by even a fraction, life could not exist. Among them would be the historical expansion rate of the universe, the force of gravity, and the initial conditions of the Big Bang. Most of these constants are universal, not local, meaning that they apply to the entire universe.

Beginning on page 27 of his book The Best Argument Against God, Dr. Graham Oppy offered an interesting assessment of the fine-tuning argument. He suggested that using God as an explanatory hypothesis would be no more satisfying than appealing to chance. God could have created the universe with different constants. He could have arranged it such that the necessary conditions for life were different than they are now. His choosing the current conditions would have been wildly unlikely – perhaps more unlikely than the conditions arriving by chance. So, argues Oppy, the design hypothesis is really no better than the blind, dumb luck hypothesis because both rely on an extraordinarily unlikely scenario.

While this objection might have an initial appeal, I think it is vulnerable to a few counterstrikes. First, Oppy’s argument would mean that we could never perceive design in anything. If a series of asteroids were to strike the moon forming the words “Worship one God in trinity,” Oppy could still say that the God hypothesis leaves us with an extraordinarily unlikely scenario – as unlikely as the series of unguided asteroids forming a sentence. Further, the same point can be made about manmade design. If we see carvings in a cave that have linguistic earmarks, we might say that a human being could have created carvings in a wide range of patterns, and so the design hypothesis leaves us with an unlikely scenario. So Dr. Oppy’s argument can be reduced to absurdity. As a rule of thumb, we should interpret specified complex (complexity accompanying a pattern) as design.

Is There A Possible World In Which God Did Not Create The Universe?

The various cosmological arguments are easily my favorites. In particular, I think that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s penetrating insight that out of nothing, nothing comes, secures my theism as well as any argument could. If “out of nothing, nothing comes,” that entails that there must be an explanation for the universe. If it were to cause nature, it would have to transcend nature. Accordingly, it could not be natural, spacial, or temporal. In other posts, I argued that the cause of nature must have the properties of the God of classical theism. I will not here address some of the silly, pop-objections that we find in the blogosphere. I have done that in the linked articles. There is something else on my mind.

In the most sophisticated arguments, we rely on probabilism. We are relying on inductive and deductive arguments to infer that God is the best explanation for some phenomena given the relevant data. In this argument, there does not seem to be much room for probabilism. We have to say that if something exists, then God must exist. This means that there is no possible world in which God did not bring about the state of affairs. This might not so much be an intellectual objection as much as that it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to make such grandiose claims in my apologetics. I am essentially complaining that the argument is too good, too lofty, and therefore it must have some kind of error. But it is not as though we could reformulate it to allow for other possibilities. Once it is conceded that something could come from nothing, the entire argument is conceded, and traditional doctrines such as divine aseity lose their integrity.

But as I pointed out, this is not really an argument as much as it is a statement of my personal preference. While it is my favorite argument and I find it more compelling than any other, I do not want to have a silver bullet mentality. However, I do think that this can be mitigated by remembering that a successful apologetic will have to form a cumulative case, utilizing a range of arguments. The cosmological arguments only give us God as the Creator. It gives us Genesis 1:1, but not John 3:16. Something else to consider is that just because the conclusion of the argument is that God is a necessary explanation for the physical world, we still might have room for probabilism in the premises. Dr. William Lane Craig likes to say that the premises in his arguments are “more likely than their negation.” With a premise like, “Out of nothing, nothing comes,” the likelihood that it is true is probably very high. But that still does not mean that it or the other premises are absolute and undeniable. There is still room for probabilism. But even if there is not, the worst that we can say is that we have a very strong argument, which is probably a good problem to have.

The Resurrection Entails That God Exists. Therefore, God Exists

There is an obviously circular way in which the resurrection argument can be mounted. One could say that they believe the Bible, which claims a resurrection, and that resurrection verifies the biblical data. That is not how apologists render the argument. Typically, we will argue that there are certain historical facts surrounding the death of Jesus that are best explained by the resurrection. In this account, the New Testament will be treated as a collection of historical documents from which data can be gleaned. Since historians affirm the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus and his death by crucifixion, we can say that the best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead, and this outstrips naturalistic hypotheses.

However, some formulations of this argument would seem to be guilty of circular reasoning. In probability calculus, the two factors that need to be considered are the intrinsic probability of some event and the probability given the local context. When considering the intrinsic probability, we would have to consider a resurrection be very low (even granting theism) and therefore we would rely on the background evidence to tip the scales in favor of the resurrection. But within the intrinsic probability will be the premise that God exists. If the person making the argument believes that there is a high probability that God exists, then the argument might prevail. But if she thinks that the probability of God’s existence is very low or inscrutable, then the background evidence will not matter. It all depends on values that you apply to God’s existence. The problem becomes even more complicated when you say that the resurrection is evidence for God, because God is presumed to have a high probability of existing for the argument to go through. So it would seem to be circular.

I do not think that this deals the death blow to the resurrection argument. But it does mean that it would have to be amended. The resurrection argument needs to be made in conjunction with other arguments, such as the aforementioned cosmological argument. Then the apologist would establish that the probability of God’s existence is high. Further, the argument should not be used to conclude that God exists. If it does, that would seem like a tautology because it presumes a high probability that God exists. It should be used to conclude that God raised Jesus from the dead, or even (more humbly) that Jesus rose from the dead. Then it would take on its most robust form.

If God Does Not Exist In Some Possible World…

I am not sure why this is, but atheists on the internet tend to attack the weakest possible formulation of the ontological argument. The weaker formulation would be to say that as the greatest possible being, God would have to exist because existing is better than not existing, and hence would be uncharacteristic of the greatest conceivable being. Though this formulation does have defenders, I do not think it is the best way to mount the argument. In the linked article, I summarized Platinga’s modal ontological argument. It basically states that if God’s existence is even possible, God must exist. That is because the possibility of his existence entails that he exists in some possible world. But if a being who is metaphysically necessary in his existence exists in some possible world, it follows that he exists in every possible world, including the actual world. Therefore, God exists.

While pop-critics rarely understand this argument well enough to criticize it, there are some good objections floating around out there. One is that the argument can actually be flipped and used as an argument against the existence of God. If it is possible that God does not exist, then God does not exist in some possible world. But since God would have to be metaphysically necessary, he would have to exist in every possible world. Since he does not, it follows necessarily that God does not exist.

There are a few problems with this objection. First, the ontological argument begins with the premise that “It is possible that God exists.” I think the objector would actually have to deny this premise and say that it is impossible for God to exist, since her premise that God does not exist in some possible world entails his non-existence. So for the anti-ontological argument to work, the objector would have to carry a burden of proof. Second, even if we accept the lighter premise that “It is possible that God does not exist,” it still bears a burden of proof. For the apologist to prove that it is possible for God to exist would be easier; we would only need to establish that there is nothing internally inconsistent about the concept of God. But how would one establish that it is possible that God does not exist beyond making the more assertive claim that it is impossible for God to exist? The best approach that I can think of is to say that maybe there is some argument that has not yet come to light and when it does, it could disprove God. We should be tentative until then. But I do not think that would be acceptable. If you cannot provide a reason for denying the possibility of God, then we are rational to believe it.

Another possible objection is to ask how this argument accounts for probabilism in apologetics. After all, our best arguments are inferences to the best explanation, and we happily admit that they do not yield absolute certainty. But if they do not yield absolute certainty, wouldn’t that entail that there is some possible world in which God does not exist? I do not think so. Think for example of the moral argument. It states that God is the best explanation for objective moral values and duties. But if the argument fails, it would not entail that God did not exist. It would only entail that he is not the best explanation for moral values and duties. So an argument could fail without producing a possible world in which God does not exist.

Reviewing Some of The Best Objections To Apologetics

These objections have been rolling around in my mind for a little while and I thought it would be profitable to write them. It might seem a little esoteric since they are not pop-objections, but I am a little tired of pop-objections, and I have written about them several times. Thinking about these objections has helped me tighten my rendering of the arguments and think more critically about what I believe. Aside from the information throughout this article, a lesson to take away is that there is nothing wrong with criticizing your own arguments. Your criticisms could strengthen the arguments.

Recommended Reading:
William Lane Craig assessing the ten worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument
If God Is Improbable, It Follows That God Exists