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The Ontological Argument

On Thursday the 6th of June we discussed the Ontological argument. The Ontological Argument (OA) is an argument for the existence of God based on reason alone without virtually any reference to scientific or historical evidence. The purpose of our discussion was to familiarise ourselves with the argument and the issues that surround it rather than to argue vehemently for its truth. The meeting was recorded via the Video Recording and the Power Point Slides.

The content of the presentation is also summarised as follows:

1 Introduction

The Ontological Argument has been highly controversial and maligned ever since it was first conceived. For instance, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the OA as a “sleight of hand trick” or “a charming joke”. Bertrand Russell was also dismissive, but with some reservations. He stated,

It is much easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than it is to say exactly what is wrong with them.

 The OA appears at first to be absurd, until you really start to think about it. Alvin Pantinga puts it this way,

Although the [ontological] argument certainly looks at first sight as if it ought to be unsound, it is profoundly difficult to say what, exactly, is wrong with it. Indeed, I do not believe that any philosopher has ever given a cogent and conclusive refutation of the ontological argument in its various forms.

 Other common arguments for the existence of God are the Cosmological and Design Arguments. These rely on observations about the actual world. They both precede the OA by over a thousand years since they have their origins in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. One can even find justification for these arguments in the writings of the apostle Paul in Romans 1. However, the OA is radically different. It is an argument based upon what Immanuel Kant calls, “Pure Reason”. It is a purely logical argument that has virtually no reference to the actual world.

 2 Anselm of Canterbury

The OA was first conceived rather late in history by a Monk in the 11th Century. Saint Anselm of Canterbury (c.?1033 – 21 April 1109) was a Benedictine monk, who held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He has been a major influence in Western theology. Anselm sought to understand Christian doctrine through reason and develop intelligible truths interwoven with the Christian belief. He believed that the necessary preliminary for this was possession of the Christian faith. He wrote, “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” In his Proslogion (which means Discourse on the Existence of God), Anselm put forward a “proof” of the existence of God which was later called the “ontological argument”. The term itself was first applied by Immanuel Kant to the arguments of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century rationalists (Descartes and Leibniz). Anselm defined his belief in the existence of God using the phrase “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”.

In the Psalms it says “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’”. Thus Anselm argues that even the fool has a concept of God. A critical passage from the Proslogion is as follows:

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater. Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

This passage is quite verbose, but we can simplify it a bit. He reasoned that, if “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” existed only in the intellect, then it would not be “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, since it can be thought to exist in reality, which is greater. It follows, according to Anselm, that “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” must exist in reality. The bulk of the Proslogion is taken up with Anselm’s attempt to establish the identity of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” as God, and thus to establish that God exists in reality. Anselm wrote in an informal style before the days of philosophical precision. However, Alvin Plantinga has provided a formalised rewording of Anselm’s Argument.

  1. God is defined as the greatest conceivable being
  2. To exist is greater than to not exist
  3. If God does not exist then we can conceive of a greater being that does exist
  4. Thus if God does not exist then he is not the greatest conceivable being
  5. This leads to a contradiction
  6. Therefore God must exist

3 Gaunilo

Anselm’s ontological proof has been the subject of controversy since it was first published in the 1070s. It was opposed at the time by a fellow 11th century Benedictine monk called Gaunilo of Marmoutiers. He argued that humans cannot pass from intellect to reality. In Behalf of the Fool, Gaunilo refutes Anselm using a parody of Anselm’s argument

  1. The Lost Island is that than which no greater can be conceived
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than merely as an idea
  3. If the Lost Island does not exist, one can conceive of an even greater island, i.e., one that does exist
  4. Therefore, the Lost Island exists in reality

Most attacks on the OA are based on parodies. If the same argument can be used to prove something absurd, then there must be something wrong with the original argument. This process is valid. However, usually there is something wrong with the parody. In Gaunilo’s case there is No intrinsic maximum for the greatest conceivable island. How many palm trees and dancing girls constitute the greatest conceivable island? Thus “a greatest conceivable island” is not a coherent concept? Gaunilo’s criticism is repeated by several later philosophers, among whom are Thomas Aquinas and Kant. In fact much of the criticism has come from people who already believed in God.

4 The Rationalists

Rene Descartes is an extremely important person in the development of Western Philosophy. He is considered the father of modern philosophy and the father of rationalism as well as being a great mathematician. Rationalism was a movement that aimed to obtain certain knowledge by pure reason alone. Anyway he contributed to the development of the OA. He introduced the idea that existence is a perfection. He also introduced an intuitive argument for the existence of God. The more you ponder the nature of God, the more it becomes evident to the intuition that God must exist. Descartes’ argument can be summarised as follows: • God is a supremely perfect being, holding all perfections

  1.  Existence is a perfection
  2. It would be more perfect to exist than not to exist
  3. If the notion of God did not include existence, it would not be supremely perfect, as it would be lacking a perfection
  4. Consequently, the notion of a supremely perfect God who does not exist is unintelligible
  5. Therefore, according to his nature, God must exist

Leibniz was also a Rationalist. He extended Descartes’ argument because he knew that Descartes’ argument fails unless one can show:

  1. That the idea of a supremely perfect being is coherent, or
  2. That it is possible for there to be a supremely perfect being.

He claimed that it is impossible to demonstrate that perfections are incompatible and thus all perfections can co-exist together in a single entity. Since he considered logic associated with necessity and possibility was in fact a forerunner of modal logic and the Modal Ontological Argument.

5 Kant’s Critique

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an Enlightenment Philosopher. His greatest work was the Critique of Pure Reason in which he attempted to unite empiricism and rationalism (Pure Reason). Within the Critique of Pure Reason he launched what many consider a devastating critique of the traditional arguments for existence of God, in particular

  • The Ontological argument,
  • The Cosmological argument, and
  • The Teleological (or Design) argument.

This doesn’t mean he was an atheist. In fact he believed in God, but this belief was based on the moral argument. Hence we can consider his arguments as friendly fire. Kant launched at least 3 criticisms of the OA. They are:

  1. Existence is not a predicate
  2. How can a conceptual conundrum in the mind affect a being’s objective existence?
  3. Negation does not entail a contradiction

We will look at each of these criticisms.

5.1 Existence is not a predicate

Kant is famous for his claim that existence is not a predicate. However, what is a predicate? The definition of the meaning of predicate is crucial to Kant’s argument. One way of defining predicate is to say that all propositions consist of a subject and a predicate. For example, consider the statement, “A dog has 4 legs”. “A dog” is the subject and “has 4 legs” is the predicate. That seems to make sense. However, consider the proposition “God exists”. God is the subject and exists is the predicate. Thus existence is a predicate and so Kant must be wrong. However, Kant is not that stupid. Predicate can be defined in other ways. The predicate contains the properties of the subject. Kant argued that existence is an instantiation of an object and thus existence is not a property, nor is it a perfection. Kant was not so much undermining Anselm’s version of the OA. He was primarily aiming at Descartes’ version of the argument as Descartes had claimed that existence is a perfection and thus it would be more perfect to exist than not to exist.

5.2 Conceptual Conundrum

Anselm argues for concepts in our minds to the objective existence of God. However, how can a conceptual conundrum in the mind affect a being’s objective existence? It makes me wonder.

5.3 Negation is not a Contradiction

Some statements are necessarily true, since their negation entails a contradiction. Examples of statements that are necessarily true are:

  • All bachelors are unmarried
  • All squares have 4 sides

However “God does not exist” is a coherent statement that does not entail a contradiction. Thus Kant argues that “God exists” is not a necessary truth. In this respect I think Kant is right. The statement “God exists” is not a necessary truth. However, I think Kant confuses “necessary truth” with “necessary being”.

Thus Kant concludes that the Ontological Argument “neither satisfies the healthy common sense of humanity, nor sustains the scientific examination of the philosopher.” However, Kant’s views are not universally accepted. We are going to look at Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument but firstly we will look at what Plantinga has to say about Kant, in particular his predicate argument. Plantinga says:

Kant’s point, then, is that one cannot define things into existence because existence is not a real property or predicate in the explained sense. If this is what he means, he’s certainly right. But is it relevant to the ontological argument? Couldn’t Anselm thank Kant for this interesting point and proceed merrily on his way? Where did he try to define God into being by adding existence to a list of properties that defined some concept? If this were Anselm’s procedure — if he had simply added existence to a concept that has application contingently if at all — then indeed his argument would be subject to the Kantian criticism. But he didn’t, and it isn’t. The usual criticisms of Anselm’s argument, then, leave much to be desired.

Plantinga may or may not be right. The point is that Kant’s views are not universally accepted.

6 The Modal Ontological Argument

Alvin Plantinga has produced a version of the Ontological Argument that is based on modal logic and is thus called the Modal Ontological Argument (MOA). Modal logic is an extension of philosophical logic to deal with possibility and necessity. God is defined as a Maximally Great Being (MGB) and one key property of God is that He exists necessarily. The argument does not rely on concepts in the mind and seems to avoid all of Kant’s objections. The MOA is as follows:

  1. Premise 1: It is possible that God exists.
  2. Premise 2: If it is possible that God exists, then God exists in some possible worlds.
  3. Premise 3: If God exists in some possible worlds, then God exists in all possible worlds.
  4. Premise 4: If God exists in all possible worlds, then God exists in the actual world.
  5. Premise 5: If God exists in the actual world, then God exists.

The MOA refers to possible worlds and the concept of possible worlds is a big part of modal logic. A possible world is any possible combination of state of affairs.

Most people are initially puzzled by premise 3 which states that “If an MGB exists in some possible world, then an MGB exists in every possible world”. Why is this so? One property of an MGB is that an MGB is a necessary being. Therefore a necessary being can exist in one possible world then he/she/it must exist in all possible worlds. The rest of the premises and the conclusion follow in a fairly natural way. Thus according to William Lane Craig only premise 1 is controversial (It is possible that an MGB exists).
However, what does “possible” mean? “Possible” means “metaphysically possible” rather than “epistemically possible” Does this sound confusing? Metaphysically possible means “is it actually logically possible?” whereas epistemically possible relates to our knowledge. For example, if I say “Gee, I dunno, therefore I guess it’s possible” that is not what the argument means by possible. Thus possibility is not an appeal to ignorance.

The argument is also not implying that existence is a property or predicate. Existence may not be a property but type of existence is. The type of existence may be

  1. Impossible (e.g. a square circle),
  2. Contingent (can exist in some possible worlds but not others, e.g. a unicorn), or
  3. Necessary (has to exist in all possible worlds, e.g. numbers, shape definitions or absolute truth)

7 Objections

Objections to the MOA usually come in 2 types. These are:

  • Parodies, or
  • Claims that a MGB is incoherent or impossible.

7.1 Parodies

Parodies are not really an argument. Parodies are attempts to use parallel arguments to prove the existence of things we don’t believe in and so demonstrate the absurdity of the original argument. If the parody is valid then there is further work to do. We still have to find the flaw in the original argument. What we think we find with the MOA is that all of the parodies contain flaws. The MOA only works for an MGB. We will look at some examples of parodies.

7.1.1 Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn

Someone has attempted to use the MOA to prove the existence of a Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn. The argument goes like this:

  1. It is possible that a Necessarily Existent Pink Unicorn (NEPU) exists
  2. If it is possible that a NEPU exists, then a NEPU exists in some possible world
  3. If a NEPU exists in some possible world, then a NEPU exists in every possible world
  4. If a NEPU exists in every possible world then a NEPU exists in the actual world
  5. Therefore a NEPU exists

However there are problems with this parody. The counter argument is as follows:

  1. A pink unicorn is physical
  2. All physical objects/beings are contingent
  3. Therefore a pink unicorn cannot be a necessary being
  4. Therefore premise 1 fails

 7.1.2 Reverse OA

The reverse MOA is an attempt to use the same argument structure to prove that an MOA does not exist.

  1. It is possible that an MGB does not exist
  2. If it is possible that an MGB does not exist, then an MGB does not exist in some possible world
  3. If an MGB does not exist in some possible world, then an MGB does not exist in every possible world
  4. If an MGB does not exist in every possible world then an MGB does not exist in the actual world
  5. Therefore Maximal Greatness is impossible

However, Premise 1 is tantamount to saying that it is not possible that an MGB exists. Thus it assumes its conclusion and is begging the question. Likewise premise 2 is question begging.

7.1.3 Dawkins’ Ontological Argument

Richard Dawkins has proposed an OA to prove that God does not exist. The Argument is as follows:

  1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.
  2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.
  3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.
  4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.
  5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being namely, one who created everything while not existing.
  6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.
  7. Therefore, God does not exist.

However, it is incoherent and impossible to propose creation by a God who does not exist.

7.2 Incoherency

As well as using parodies other people claim that the idea of an MGB is incoherent. These are versions that claim that it is not possible that an MGB exists. These are typified by:

  1. The Omnipotence Paradox, and
  2. The Problem of Evil

The omnipotence paradox is “Can God create a stone that is so heavy that he cannot lift it?” The idea is to show that one or more of God’s attributes are incoherent or self –contradictory. However, No-one claims that God can do the logically impossible, such as creating a square circle.

The other objection is that the presence of evil means it is impossible that an MGB exists. However, we deal with this issue in other sessions.

8 Essence of Argument

In conclusion, what is the essence of this argument? Is it just playing with words or does it have a core argument that is compelling. The core argument that really makes sense to me is that if it is possible that a Necessary Being (NB) exists then that NB must exist in all possible worlds. This makes sense and seems necessarily true.

Some have claimed that it is a good argument but it still does not convince people. However, William Lane Craig believes in the argument and has started using it in debates. Craig used the MOA in a debate with Victor Stenger. Stenger attempted to use a parody, which was a maximally great pizza. However, Craig easily demonstrated that a maximally great pizza is incoherent, since a really great pizza is meant to be eaten.

However, is the OA helpful in other ways? I believe it is. I have heard it claimed that it never convinces anyone. However, this is not always true. A student did his PhD on the MOA and eventually convinced his supervisor. The MOA also asserts that God is maximally great in every possible way. This may feed into the Moral Argument and be one solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Kevin Rogers

On Thursday 23rd of May we held our first debate. I debated Laurie Eddie on the subject “Does God Exist?” It would be unfair for me to make any judgement on the result of the debate, as I may be a little biased. However, I believe everyone enjoyed themselves and found it interesting, including Laurie. It was our largest meeting so far.

The debate is on YouTube. See

You can access the slide presentations at The Case For the Existence of God and The Case Against the Existence of God.

Check it out and make up your own mind.

Kevin Rogers

Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument

The Principle of Sufficient Reason

By Kevin Rogers

1         Introduction

Why does anything at all exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? These were the questions that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) raised, and from them he developed an argument for the existence of God based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). The PSR is one form of various cosmological arguments.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Leibniz was a German mathematician and philosopher. In mathematics, he was the co-inventor (with Isaac Newton) of calculus, the first inventor of a mechanical calculator and the inventor of the binary number system. In philosophy, he suggested that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”, he was a key thinker in the development of rationalism and also a forerunner of modern logic and analytic philosophy. In his latter years, he fell out of favour due to disputes with Newton on whether he had copied Newton’s ideas on calculus. His writings were largely forgotten, but were revived in the 20th century, and he is now highly regarded.

2         The Argument

Leibniz’s argument consists of 3 premises and 2 conclusions, as follows:

  • Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence
  • Premise 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God
  • Premise 3: The universe exists
  • Conclusion 1: The universe has an explanation of its existence
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore the explanation of the universe’s existence is God

However, is it a good argument? A good argument must satisfy the following criteria:

  1. The premises must be true, and
  2. The conclusions must follow logically from the premises.

In this article, I will work backwards. I will firstly discuss the logical structure of the argument (its validity) and then consider the premises. We will firstly assume that the premises are true and verify whether the conclusions follow from the premises.

3         Logical Structure

Conclusion 1 is justified by Premise 1 and 3 as follows:

  • Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence
  • Premise 3: The universe exists
  • Conclusion 1: The universe has an explanation of its existence

Thus if everything that exists has an explanation of its existence and the universe exists, then it follows that the universe has an explanation of its existence.

Conclusion 2 follows from premise 2 and conclusion 1 as follows:

  • Premises 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God
  • Conclusion 1: The universe has an explanation of its existence
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore the explanation of the universe’s existence is God

I think it is fairly self-evident that the logical structure of the argument is valid. Now we will look at the premises.

4         Are the Premises True?

4.1       Premise 3

Premise 3 states that the universe exists. I think this is fairly self-evident. I am sure that there have been extreme sceptics that have questioned this claim, but I will not concern myself with them.

4.2       Premise 1

4.2.1       Objection 1 – How do we explain God?

Premise 1 states that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence. This has prompted the following objection:

If premise 1 is true, then God must have an explanation of his existence. The explanation of God’s existence must be some other being greater than God. That’s impossible; therefore, premise 1 must be false.

However, this objection is a misunderstanding of what Leibniz meant by “explanation”. According to Leibniz, there are 2 kinds of explanations:

  1. Beings that exist necessarily (necessary beings), or
  2. Beings that are produced by an external cause (contingent beings).

Necessary beings are those that exist by a necessity of their own nature. In other words it is impossible for them not to exist. Some mathematicians believe that abstract mathematical objects, such as numbers, sets and shapes (e.g. circles and triangles) exist necessarily. Necessary beings are not caused to exist by an external entity and necessarily exist in all possible worlds.

On the other hand, contingent beings are caused to exist by something else. They do not exist necessarily and exist because something else produced them. This includes physical objects such as people, planets and galaxies. It is easy to imagine possible worlds in which these objects do not exist. Thus we could expand premise 1 as follows:

Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either due to the necessity of its own nature or due to an external cause.

It is impossible for God to have a cause. Thus Leibniz’s argument is really for a God who must be a necessary, uncaused being. Thus the argument helps to define and constrain what we mean by “God”.

4.2.2       Objection 2 – Does the Universe need explaining?

Some atheists have objected that premise 1 is true of everything in the universe, but not the universe itself. However, it is arbitrary to claim that the universe is an exception. After all, even Leibniz did not exclude God from premise 1.

4.2.3       Objection 3 – An Explanation of the Universe is Impossible

Some atheists have suggested that it is impossible for the universe to have an explanation of its existence. Their argument goes something like this:

The explanation of the universe would have to be a prior state of affairs in which the universe did not exist. This would be nothingness. Nothingness cannot cause anything, Therefore the universe exists inexplicably.

This objection assumes that the universe includes everything and that there is nothing outside the universe, including God. The objection has excluded the possibility of God by definition. However, an alternative definition is that the universe contains all physical things, but that God exists apart from the universe. This objection assumes that atheism is true and argues in a circle. It is clearly begging the question.

4.3       Premise 2

Premise 2 states that if the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God. This appears controversial at first, but in fact it is not. This is because atheists typically argue that if atheism is true, then the universe has no explanation of its existence. Thus if there is an explanation of the universe, then atheism must be false (i.e., God is the explanation of the universe). This conclusion follows from the following rule of logic: If p => (implies) Q, then “not Q” => “not P”. An example is, “If it is raining, then there are clouds. Thus if there are no clouds, then it is not raining.”

One may object at this point that the word “explanation” is ambiguous. An explanation for something may be due to either an intelligent agent or a mindless, unintelligent prior event or cause. For example, suppose we have a rusty car. The existence of the car was due to intelligent agents, but the rusty degradation was due to mindless, unintelligent causes. If the ultimate explanation of the universe is mindless and unintelligent, then the argument does not take us very far. However, could the existence of the universe be ultimately due to mindless causes?

However, I don’t think that the LCA necessarily demands that the observable universe has an intelligent explanation of its existence. For example, suppose that this universe was birthed by some other universe. Well, that other universe would be the explanation of its existence. Of course, that would simply push the problem back one step further. Even if an atheist wants to appeal to an infinite past succession of universes, we can still ask of that infinite succession, “Why does it exist, rather than nothing and what is its explanation?” But at that point, what kind of explanation can there be other than some transcendent, necessary cause? So a rational atheist is forced to either concede the argument or claim that the cosmos exists inexplicably (without explanation).

4.4       Objection 4 – The Universe exists Necessarily

All atheistic alternatives now seem to be closed, but not quite. Some atheists have claimed that the universe exists necessarily (i.e., the universe is a necessary being). If that were the case, then the universe would not require an external cause. However, this proposal is generally not taken seriously for the following reason. None of the universe’s components seem to exist necessarily. They could all fail to exist. Other material configurations are possible, the elementary particles could have been different and the physical laws could have been different as well. Thus the universe cannot exist necessarily.

However, is it valid to resort to God as the explanation of the universe? Are there other possibilities? The universe consists of space, time, matter and energy. The cause of the universe must be something other than the universe. Thus the cause of the universe must be non-physical, immaterial and beyond space and time. Abstract objects are not possible candidates as they have no causal relationships. Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that the cause of the universe must be a transcendent, unembodied mind.

5         Conclusion

Leibniz’s argument from the Principle of sufficient reason is an interesting argument for the existence of God, but it goes beyond just God’s existence. It also constrains the attributes of God to be a transcendent, uncaused, unembodied mind, who necessarily exists. In other words, this being is what the major monotheistic religions traditionally refer to as “God”.

1         Introduction

I attended the Global Atheists’ Convention held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from Friday 13th April (good luck?) to Sunday 15th April. Our GPS did not recognize “1 Convention Place” and so we had difficulty finding where to go. Ann dropped me off where we thought it was. Almost as soon as I got out of the car, none other than Richard Dawkins walked straight past me; so I knew I was in the right place.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is one of the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse”. “The Four Horsemen” is a play on the corresponding figures in the Book of Revelation (chapter 6). The 4 horsemen are outspoken figures for the new atheism movement. The other 3 are Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens died of cancer on December 15 last year and so he declined to attend. However the other 3 were there. Their key books are shown in the following table.

Table 1: Key books by New Atheists

Author Book
Richard Dawkins The God Delusion
Christopher Hitchens God is not Great
Why Religion Poisons everything
Daniel Dennett Breaking the Spell
Sam Harris Letter to a Christian Nation

There were about 4,000 atheists in attendance plus 5 intrepid Christians under the auspices of the Melbourne City Bible Forum. Throughout the convention, it was assumed that the atheistic world view was correct and there was virtually no attempt to justify that belief.

During the GAC I had a number of conversations with atheists. I told them I was not an atheist but an observer. In fact I was a spy; and I told some of them that I was actually setting up a chapter of Reasonable Faith in Adelaide. All of the people that I spoke to were friendly and interested. One woman said something like, “I suppose you are going to write nasty things about us”. I assured her that I wouldn’t, so I hope that I am fair.

I made notes on the individual speakers. However, this summary spans the speakers and provides my overall impressions.

2         Theme

The opening address was given by David Nicholls. David lives in Maitland in South Australia. He is the current president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA).

David Nicholls

The conference theme was “Celebration of Reason” and it was commonly attempted to associate reason, logic, truth, philosophy and evidence-based science with atheism, whereas religion stifles questioning and is a force of darkness. So how do you feel? David also claimed that reason is opposed to faith. Atheists have faith in reason, but Christians have blind faith without reason or evidence.

On 11 September 2001 Islamic terrorists flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York, killing over 3,000 people. This was done in the name of Islam. Islam is a religion, so all religions must be evil. This event was probably a significant trigger in the New Atheist movement.

3         Quality of Speakers

Naturally the quality of speakers varied greatly. About half of them were excellent. Some were balanced and readily admitted weaknesses in atheism and acknowledged merit in opposing views. In my view Peter Singer, Sam Harris, Leslie Cannold, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Lawrence Kraus, Eugenie Scott and Jason Ball were of this ilk. I even agreed with many of Richard Dawkins’ comments. I cannot comment on AC Grayling or Geoffrey Robertson, as I didn’t hear them. Lawrence Kraus gave the only talk that contained significant scientific content. It was an excellent presentation and I intend following up his arguments. I purchased his book, “A Universe from Nothing”.

4         The Aggressive Atheist

Most of the speakers were quite restrained, but the final speaker (Paul Zachary Myers) was the most aggressive.

PZ Myers

His grand plans are an assault on heaven and the killing of God. His talk was roughly as follows:

Society started with the family, then centred on the king, the city and then the world. Jews were a people of the book and the book persisted beyond the city. The ideas of Christianity are also captured in a book and so the ideas persist longer than the people. Ideas change the world, but you can kill an idea. Churches are reacting to the new atheists. We have a better idea and science is the God killer. We are the people of reality and you Christians are false. We are products of the natural world but are also members of a universal tribe. Science bridges the differences between tribes since science works. Our only authority is reality. Science and religion are in opposition. Assertion is the enemy of science. What matters is what is true. Apocalyptic views are an excuse for laziness, relying on a left behind book that is clearly lacking supernatural sources.

He attacked the morality of the atonement. He then attacked various Christian extremes (outliers) but he then turned towards Christian moderates. “I don’t like you!” he said. A good atheist is interested in truth and evolution is a fact. Atheists like being rebels and are proud to be different. We are cranky individualists. There are no shepherds. We are hunting. We are wolves, we plan to conquer and Christians have cause to tremble.

The crowd cheered and the rattles waved. Bring it on!

5         Separation of Church and State

A hot button for atheists was the separation between church and state. They considered it unjust that religion, especially Christianity, should receive any preferential treatment, such as tax breaks, the opportunity to proselytise within schools or the use of school chaplains. It is Ok to teach comparative religion, but this should be done by professional teachers. However, there is competition for what is taught in the curriculum. Some of the speakers freely admitted that separation of church and state was actually promoted by Christians. Some speakers did not want funding of Christian or private schools. I don’t think this argument is completely convincing. If people pay taxes and want their children to go to private schools due to lack of confidence in the public schooling system then the fact that they pay taxes means that some government funding is justifiable. The real issue is the actual distribution.

6         Ethics

There was a strong interest in ethics at the conference. It was often claimed that we can have ethics without God. Ethics should be based on reason to minimise harm and we don’t need religion to tell us what is right and wrong. We have arrived here by chance and for no reason. Thus it is up to us to create our own morality. Dawkins claimed that we don’t get our morals from religion but from reason. Richard Dawkins mentioned the instance where a man was stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Number 15: 32-36). He did not consider the context sympathetically. However, he concluded that we use our own reason to evaluate Biblical morality and thus our reason is a higher authority than Biblical revelation. Thus we should rely on our own sense of right and wrong. Morality also develops with time. We have 21st century morals. Darwin and Huxley were racist and would be considered revisionist now, as they were people of their own time. Morality should be based on consequences in order to prevent harm. Eg in the area of abortion there is nothing inherently sacred about humans. He was pro euthanasia but the slippery slope should be taken seriously. Designer babies are a viable option to remove bad genes. We can select cells. At least the issue should be discussed. Suffering and pain does have a purpose, at least as a deterrent.

I got the impression that liberal left ethics were assumed to be true such as:

  • Pro-gay marriage based on the equal rights argument,
  • Pro abortion based on a woman’s right to choose,
  • Feminist values,
  • Pro euthanasia, and
  • Permissive sexual values etc.

However, an atheist who came to one of the Reason for Faith seminars claimed that there is no uniformity in atheists’ ethical beliefs. They have no hierarchy and there are no approved sets of beliefs.

7         God as a Moral Monster

A common theme is that we should not get our moral values from the Bible, as the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster. Jim Jeffries did a very clever and entertaining parody of God as a party pooper. God is self-obsessed. He wants people to sing praise songs to him. He hates fags and anyone who doesn’t do what he wants. Dan Barker also cited the case where Satan incited God to destroy Job without reason (Job 2:3).

8         The Atonement

The morality of the atonement came under frequent attack. Is man really evil? Don’t we have a natural inclination to do good? Why original sin? Why should we be held responsible for being born into sin? Why should God become a man and die to satisfy his own requirements? Why can’t he just forgive? Eternal punishment in hell seems to be an over-reaction.

I believe we should take on these questions and provide an explanation of the morality of the atonement. This is a fantastic opportunity to state the gospel at the deepest possible level.

9         Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a North African woman who was brought up as a Muslim but has since defected. Hence she has 2 bodyguards.

Aayan Hirsi Ali

She gave an African perspective of those countries where Islam dominates, usually associated with bribery and repression. Islam is far worse than Christianity. Islamic countries have discriminatory tax practices, persecute Christians and Muslim minorities, suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the press, suppress women, practice genital mutilation and enforce marriage of young girls, as young as 9 years old. According to Ayaan they are all actually devoted to the destruction of Israel and have no commitment to a 2 state solution with the Palestinians. However atheists and the liberal west are often soft on Islam and often attack Christianity more than Islam. This may be due to white guilt, a romantic perspective on primitive cultures or just plain fear of reprisal. It is often the case that serious Christians are more effective at identifying the issues and providing effective opposition. Christianity may be the major force that holds back an Islamic winter.

10    Christians Doing Bad Things

On one occasion the compere asked “Who here is a lapsed catholic?” About 1,000 people put up their hands. He then asked, “Who is a lapsed Baptist”. Only one person put up their hand. As a Christian who is half Baptist and half Anglican, I should be proud, but I am not exactly sure what this result means.  Anyway, it was obvious that the problems in the Roman Catholic Church are a significant factor in people becoming atheists. Likewise common targets were Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, the US religious right, those who oppose gay marriage, abortion or euthanasia, or those who impose their values on others (bigots). I don’t think that all of these targets are necessarily bad, but it is obvious that one of the churches’ major enemies is itself.

However, groups should not be judged by their worst examples. At one stage it was observed that every group has their outliers and it is not valid to judge groups by outliers. Atheists do not like being aligned with Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot.

One guy that I met was a former Assemblies of God minister, who is now an atheist. He used to speak in tongues and had participated in healings. The healings that he saw he now considers psychosomatic or temporary. He was a nice guy and spoke openly about his experiences. Unfortunately we did not have much time to talk and he had to leave quickly but we departed on very friendly terms.

11    Sam Harris on Death

Sam Harris is one of the 4 horsemen and has a PhD in neuroscience.

Sam Harris

He was supposed to talk on free will, but changed his topic to the subject of death. As an atheist, this was a very brave move. You could hear a pin drop. The following is a summary of what he said.

Death and its denial are fundamental to religion, but death is the end and there is nothing after death. Death is not the problem; life is the problem. Life is an emergency and everyone has a run of bad luck but we must still try to make this world a better place. Real progress is a recent phenomenon. We cannot make this world a paradise and there is no satisfying way to hold on to the past. Atheism itself does not have much to offer, except only as a (supposed) corrective. Science, art and philosophy fill the void. Most people believe for emotional reasons. How can people make sense of tragedies? Religions provide an answer that most people think they need. Belief in heaven is consoling but atheism does not offer any such consolation.

We have to deal with this. We should admit that we waste a lot of our time caring about the wrong things and petty concerns. We spend a lot of our time in denial. We should rather make the most of the present time. What is the point of life? The answer is a change in attitude to live in the present moment. It is always now. The past is just a thought arriving in our memory. We are hoping to be happy in the future and we are always solving a problem. How can we be fulfilled in the face of death? We want fulfilment and a lack of suffering, even though some suffering is desirable for progress.

Consciousness is everything and your mind is all you have. What is the significance of your bucket list? What about our might have beens? We suffer from neurosis. Self conversations are a source of sorrow. We are constantly creating and repairing a world in which our minds want to live. We must see the sacred in the secular.

It reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s quote (A Free Man’s Worship):

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.

Bertrand Russell

Perhaps it is even more expressively captured in this famous quote from Macbeth,

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.

 It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

12    The Reason for Living

One of the major themes that came through was the contrast in the reason for living. The atheist believes that there is nothing after death and this life is all we have. Thus we should live for this life and make the most of what we have rather than wasting our time preparing for the next life. This was one of Dawkins’ themes. He advocated redesigning our morality and social institutions in accordance with a naturalistic world view.

By contrast living for God is a master/servant relationship. According to Dan Barker, holding our hands together in prayer is a symbol of shackled hands. Why live for another? We arrived here by accident. We should be autonomous, we should decide our own morality and we should make our own decisions about how we live and manage this world, rather than relying on an ancient text.

Sam Harris’ talk on death was pertinent. Ultimately the atheist has very little to say to console in the face of tragedy or injustice. Death ends all and life is ultimately meaningless. However, this is not a knock down argument for the Christian. If the atheist is ultimately right then it is better to accept life’s limitations rather than believing a lie, just because it makes us feel better.

13    Reason for Faith Conference

After the conference I helped Melbourne City Bible Forum with their Reason For Faith festival, which was held in response to the GAC. My main contribution was in handing out pamphlets at railway stations. I found this emotionally draining due to the frequent rejection. Only about 20% of people accepted the pamphlets and I felt that I was an imposition on their lives. A few people stopped to talk, but these were mainly Christians. However, it was still obviously a worthwhile activity as almost half of those who attended some of the meetings were there due to the pamphlets.

At one event, which was a discussion panel between some Christian scientists and some atheists, I met Graham Oppy. He is an atheist, an Australian and a world class philosopher. He is also a very nice guy. He has had written debates with William Lane Craig on the Kalam Cosmological argument and the fine tuning argument. I had about a 15 minute discussion with him in which he briefly covered some of the issues with the arguments. I didn’t understand or remember all he said, but I intend following up his writings.

14    An Assessment

There was an element of hubris at the conference. Atheists think they are the smart, rational people. They are the “brights”, the rationalists and the free thinkers.  Thus they bolster their own self image with these self-complimentary terms. However, as a Christian, I believe in reason, logic, truth, questioning and evidence based science just as much as they do (or even more so). In fact, Lawrence Leoung joked, “We are all freethinkers; and we all think the same”. Many a true statement is made in jest. There is no necessary or logical link between these values and atheism. In fact these values arose out of a Christian context, which they generally fail to acknowledge. Thus their arguments were generally applied in a one sided manner. For example, Daniel Dennett stated that it is very hard for people to change their beliefs. This is very true. However, he was referring to the difficulty of believers changing their mind towards the supposed truth of atheism, but did not seem to consider that it is also true in the reverse direction. In fact nearly all of his arguments could be applied in the reverse direction, but he seemed blissfully unaware of this.

On the other hand there were many things that I agreed with during the conference:

  • I am sympathetic to separation of church and state.
  • I believe we should work to make this world a better place.
  • In the area of morality, we face new issues today that were not imagined 2000 years ago and we have to work out new solutions.
  • I also share their concerns about Islam.

However, there are deep fundamental differences with the Christian world view. The atheist wants to be autonomous and optimise this life in some way. Autonomy entails making our own decisions without reference to any other authority. By contrast, Christians believe that the Bible is a revelation from God. The purpose of life cannot be understood without that revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 states, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” So God has spoken to us. The other fundamental difference is our highest fulfilment is found not by pleasing ourselves but by doing the will of God. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? ” (Matt 16:24-26)

One of Christopher Hitchens’ themes was that “religion poisons everything”.  Now, in the past 2000 years some dreadful things have been done in the name of Christ, but, as admitted at the conference, it is wrong to judge a movement by its outliers. The following Sunday I returned to my local church. It is a small affair of mainly working class people. However, there are a substantial number there in whom the gospel has borne fruit. They are warm, self effacing and wonderful people whom I can only aspire to copy. Does religion poison everything? Naah, it just ain’t true.