Do We Have a “God Problem”? No, But We Are Outgrowing Superficial Atheism
Cameron McAllister responds to "The New York Times" opinion article, "A God Problem."
Michelangelo [Public domain].
In North America, Christianity’s influence may be waning, but the conversation on God’s existence is maturing.
This was vividly illustrated by a recent opinion piece for The New York Times by philosopher Peter Atterton, in which he argues that the very idea of God is incoherent—a declaration that won’t surprise many of us. The fact that skepticism rules the roost in most philosophy departments is hardly a newsworthy item. What is surprising, though, is the largely unified response from believer and non-believer alike to Atterton’s arguments. A casual survey of the various eruptions on social media reveals a rather unflattering consensus regarding Atterton’s article: Its arguments don’t rise above the level of a freshman dorm room debate.
It doesn’t help that Atterton begins with a sentence that’s a variation on the “If you look up x in a dictionary” formula. In terms of verboten opening lines, this phrase is right up there with the infamous “in today’s society” that drives so many writing instructors to distraction. Add to this the fact that Atterton scrutinizes God’s omnipotence (his all-powerful nature) by assigning Him the familiar nonsensical tasks of creating married bachelors and rocks so big He can’t lift them. Beyond freshman dorms and Philosophy 101 classes, square circles, married bachelors, God-exceeding rocks, and all other sundry verbal contradictions simply prove that language offers us a near limitless capacity for meaningless combinations of words.
When a professional philosopher argues that God’s inability to create a married bachelor (or any other non-thing) constitutes a conceptual challenge to his omnipotence, it certainly doesn’t inspire robust discussion or careful thought; it simply demonstrates an unwillingness to engage with substantive arguments. Since the Christian doctrine of God’s omnipotence is a formidable one, it’s inspired a venerable roster of thinkers that includes everyone from St. Thomas Aquinas to Alvin Plantinga. Though these towering figures get passing nods from Atterton, you won’t find any real interaction with the substance of their thought. In fact, if there’s one key feature of the piece, it seems to be a principled avoidance of any serious discussion of the subject under question. Atterton appears to simply rest on the laurels of skepticism’s cultural capital—the unvoiced assumption that smart, mature people don’t even take the question of God’s existence seriously. Though this assumption carries considerable persuasive force, it’s nothing more than a deep-seated cultural bias. Plenty of smart, mature folks believe in God—Atteron names them in the article!
When a professional philosopher argues that God’s inability to create a married bachelor (or any other non-thing) constitutes a conceptual challenge to his omnipotence, it certainly doesn’t inspire robust discussion or careful thought; it simply demonstrates an unwillingness to engage with substantive arguments.
Another thing Atterton assiduously avoids in the piece is specificity. For instance, he’s content to label Blaise Pascal—a mathematical prodigy and polymath who’s credited with inventing the prototype of the modern computer—as nothing more than a proponent of blind faith: “It is logical inconsistencies like these that led the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal to reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation.” Given the verve and complexity of Pascal’s (many) arguments for the Christian faith in his Pensees, this cavalier dismissal of such a seminal thinker verges on farce. Let’s not forget that Pascal’s celebrated “wager” is one of the more well-known arguments for the existence of God.
Tellingly, Atterton is most unwilling to get specific about God:
(I shall here ignore the argument that God knows what it is like to be human through Christ, because the doctrine of the Incarnation presents us with its own formidable difficulties: Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?)
Bracketing Christ’s Incarnation—the core of the Christian faith—in a discussion of Christianity is a bit like a car mechanic refusing to deal with a vehicle’s engine. Atterton is simply offering a hollow dismissal dressed up as an argument. It’s a shame because I’m confident that a man of his training and capabilities could offer a more robust critique. I hope he does. I’m confident a more constructive conversation will follow.
In the meantime, the response from the church to this article was not devastation, but disappointment. Skeptics of various stripes felt the same. Fortunately, it looks like we’re outgrowing these superficial discussions of Christianity.
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