Reasoning Away God
Jonathan Derbyshire on a sophisticated and clear critique of theism
It would be a pity if Nicholas Everitt's new book, aimed primarily at advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students in philosophy, were not to reach a wide audience. Everitt's sedulously rationalistic treatment of the question of God's existence would, one suspects, be highly effective in rousing believers and nonbelievers alike from their respective dogmatic slumbers. His principal aim is to "examine what reasons there are to think that [God] exists, what reasons there are to think that He does not, to weigh them against each other, and thereby come to the most reasonable view we can." That might sound platitudinous, but some theists maintain that asking for reasons to believe in God's existence is beside the point. The demand for reasons in this context is, they say, either blasphemous or vacuous. As Kierkegaard put it, echoing Luther, belief in God is a matter of faith; it's not like our ordinary belief in the existence of things like tables and chairs, which can be justified or shown to be false.
Everitt is impatient with such manoeuvres, and dispatches them rather effectively. He makes two main points here. The first point is an empirical one: theological and philosophical literature is full of arguments for and against the existence of God. Secondly, and more interestingly, he asks what it means to believe something 'on faith'. When an irrationalist theist says that he believes something "on the basis of faith", he is, Everitt argues, committing a logical error. The choice is not between having reasons as the basis for your belief or having faith as its basis. Rather, faith implies the absence of a basis. So to have faith in something is to believe it in the absence of reasons which would lead you to suppose that it's true.
This characterisation of faith has an important consequence, one that atheists less careful than Everitt would also do well to consider. And this is that faith in God is logically independent of the claim that supernatural evidence can be adduced in support of belief in his existence. In other words, faith is not belief in evidence of a certain kind. So, if Everitt is right, it is not prima facie irrational to suppose that nonnaturalistic or nonscientific reasons could be adduced. This needs to be shown. "Nonbelievers as well as believers," he says, "can be guilty of ignoring the need to defend their position by an appeal to reasons."
That's especially true in polemical contexts, where it is often thought that a vague appeal to 'science' is sufficient to put theism to the sword. Everitt has an interesting discussion of recent attempts by scientists to colonise areas of metaphysical speculation hitherto the preserve of philosophers and theologians. Having rejected cosmological arguments for God's existence, on the grounds that the idea of an uncaused, nontemporal cause is contradictory, he considers the views of physicists such as Stephen Hawking. Hawking claims that science, through developments like Big Bang theory, has discovered why the universe exists. And he regards such theories as decisive 'disproofs' of theism. Everitt submits to close and withering scrutiny a passage from Hawking in which the scientist says that science can explain how the universe came to be "literally out of nothing" which, of course, is what theistic cosmological arguments claim to do. But all Hawking has done, on Everitt's reading, is explain one feature of the universe (particle energy) in terms of another (gravitational energy). This is not to say that science is incapable of providing an explanation of how and why it all began; just that, so far, it hasn't done so.
Everitt's broad conclusion, nevertheless, is an atheistic one. He examines each of the major arguments for the existence of God in considerable detail, and has good grounds for finding each of them wanting. In addition, he makes what he describes as a 'logical' objection to theism: the characteristics typically said to define God turn out, on analysis, to be incompatible omnipresence is incompatible with omniscience, omnipotence is incompatible with eternity. The NonExistence of God, though, is welcome confirmation that philosophical sophistication is not incompatible with clarity and sheer, bracing good sense.
The Non-Existence of God is available from Amazon (UK)