ArticlePDF Available

Abstract

Atheology, accurately defined by Alvin Plantinga, offers reasons why god’s existence is implausible. Skeptically reasoning that theological arguments for god fail to make their case is one way of leaving supernaturalism in an implausible condition. This ‘rationalist’ atheology appeals to logical standards to point out fallacies and other sorts of inferential gaps. Beyond that methodological marker, few shared tactics characterize atheists and agnostics stalking theological targets. If unbelief be grounded on reason, let atheology start from a theological stronghold: the principle of sufficient reason, a cornerstone of rationality. Seven rules, corollaries to that principle, are enough to show how theological arguments for god repeatedly contravene rationality by perpetuating mysteries, contradictions, begging of questions, pseudo-explanations, and the like. None of these complaints are new, nor has theology been unaware of them. Disorganized atheology has, so far, allowed theology to appear to answer them. Five major arguments for god are systematically analyzed and refuted using these seven rules of rationality, as a preliminary exercise illustrating this re-organized and re-focused rationalist atheology.
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
DOI 10.1007/s11153-014-9498-6
ARTICLE
Rationalist atheology
John R. Shook
Received: 2 March 2014 / Accepted: 12 December 2014 / Published online: 17 December 2014
© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract Atheology, accurately defined by Alvin Plantinga, offers reasons why
god’s existence is implausible. Skeptically reasoning that theological arguments for
god fail to make their case is one way of leaving supernaturalism in an implausi-
ble condition. This ‘rationalist’ atheology appeals to logical standards to point out
fallacies and other sorts of inferential gaps. Beyond that methodological marker,
few shared tactics characterize atheists and agnostics stalking theological targets.
If unbelief be grounded on reason, let atheology start from a theological strong-
hold: the principle of sufficient reason, a cornerstone of rationality. Seven rules,
corollaries to that principle, are enough to show how theological arguments for
god repeatedly contravene rationality by perpetuating mysteries, contradictions, beg-
ging of questions, pseudo-explanations, and the like. None of these complaints
are new, nor has theology been unaware of them. Disorganized atheology has,
so far, allowed theology to appear to answer them. Five major arguments for
god are systematically analyzed and refuted using these seven rules of rational-
ity, as a preliminary exercise illustrating this re-organized and re-focused rationalist
atheology.
Keywords Atheology ·Theology ·Atheism ·Sufficient reason ·Logic
Atheology offers opposition to theology’s efforts to show the reasonableness of god-
belief. Philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga revived the term ‘atheology’ while
defining “natural atheology” as “the attempt, roughly, to show that, given what we
J. R. Shook (B)
Philosophy Department, University at Buffalo, 135 Park Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260, USA
e-mail: jshook@pragmatism.org
123
330 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
know, it is impossible or unlikely that god exists” (Plantinga 1967, vii).1The tra-
ditional distinction between revealed theology (from divine revelation) and natural
theology (from human learning) couldn’t be found in atheology, so the ‘natural’ mod-
ifier may be omitted as redundant. Arguments—successful or unsuccessful —against
the reasonableness of god-belief fall under the purview of atheology. Other sorts of
criticisms and scornings of religiosity, relying on rhetorical diversions, crude fallacies,
satire, humor, and the like, also deserve surveying, but they aren’t part of atheology.
What is known, that we can’t mind god? Atheology, like theology, appeals to the
body of human knowledge as may prove useful to carefully consider the supernatural.
Facts are in dispute, between theism and atheism; whether certain key matters are
even knowable gets contested as well. Neither side questions the possibility of human
knowledge, nor do they dispute that reason should help guide knowledge. Theology
understands how religiosity isn’t primarily about reason or knowledge, or or even
‘belief’ in just a cognitive sense, but theology has typically asserted that religiosity is
at least reasonable for the convinced believer. (Those few theologies denying knowl-
edge is irrelevant to god-belief and rejecting the answerability of god-belief to reason
have little dispute with atheology, since atheology already agrees god-beliefs can’t be
reasonable.) Atheism has surely made enough noise about its own grounds in reason.
Theology, no less than atheology, appeals to reason and also has good reason to take
human reasoning itself to be accessible in human knowledge. We know reason, in a
sense, for we know it as we use it properly and we can understand how it can work
well. Familiarity with forms of reasoning, such as the types of inference and forms of
argument, or even a self-reflective awareness about how well or poorly one is reason-
ing, is by no means evenly distributed across humanity. Nevertheless, some common
sense, a respect for consistency, and a preference for satisfactory explanation haven’t
been withheld from most of humanity. We can recognize good reason, often enough,
when we can see it, regardless of any religious or secular standpoint.
Atheology utilizes distinct methods to defend the unreasonableness of god-belief,
each appealing to some component of human knowledge. Two general kinds of athe-
ology have dominated modern debates over religion. Where good reasoning suffices
to expose theological fallacies and raise skeptical doubts towards arguments for god’s
existence, “rationalist atheology” is undertaken. By contrast, “scientific atheology”
relies on current science to challenge theological interpretations of natural matters to
infer god’s existence. Impressive atheological challenges to religions apply these two
methods, the rationalist and the scientific, in cooperative concert in order to explain
why god-belief turns out to be unreasonable. For example, Thomas Hobbes leaned
heavily on the experimental science of his times, more frequently than logical criticism,
to deny any immaterial deity. David Hume, by contrast, was primarily a rationalist
atheologian in his religious skepticism. Debating whether atheologians are themselves
atheists is gets clouded by semantics; atheology can stay focused on debating theology
over the reasonableness of supernaturalism.
1The term ‘atheology’ goes back to philosopher Ralph Cudworth, the seventeenth century Cambridge
Platonist. He applied that label to the godless Greek philosophies, such as atomism and Epicureanism,
which he was attempting to refute in the course of expounding a systematic theology (Cudworth 1678,
p. 61).
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 331
Atheological skepticism towards god-belief aims at showing that anyone is reason-
able for disbelieving in the supernatural. Atheists seek “disproofs” of god must look
elsewhere. There won’t be necessary proof that no one could ever reasonably think a
god is real. Only reasoning sufficient to withhold god-belief is wielded by rationalist
atheology. Exposing numerous violations of formal logic in theological arguments is
the most familiar feature of rationalist atheology. Atheological skepticism has noth-
ing to do with establishing some other metaphysical worldview. Although the “god
debates” of our times has largely forgotten why, naturalism and supernaturalism are
hardly exhaustive alternatives. (Phenomenalists, extreme skeptics, and idealists may
be rare nowadays, but metaphysics isn’t a popularity contest.) Committing the fal-
lacy of false dichotomy can’t be a good start. Atheology doesn’t presume the truth of
naturalism, undertake a defense of naturalism, or imagine that its success establishes
naturalism.
Reason
By applying seven rules of reason, all corollaries to the principle of sufficient reason,
severe criticisms can be systematically raised against five major theological arguments
(and by extension, minor arguments). This schematic approach lends some much-
needed organization to rationalist atheology.2
As theology can affirm, the divine may be mysterious, and it may be a mistake to
ask mystery to answer to reason. Atheology agrees that reasons can’t support mystery;
theology would be wise to stop offering arguments for any mysterious diety. Mystery
itself doesn’t violate reason, since it is reasonable to notice when we run up against
mystery, and carefully mark off unknown territory as mysterious. It is hardly unrea-
sonable to frankly admit when matters become mysterious and beyond our present
understanding. Quite the opposite: honest rationality should see where explanations
stop, while deceptive rationalizations try to misrepresent mystery as familiar and reas-
suring. Reason cannot be satisfied by pretending that mystery explains anything. A
genuine explanation should decrease mystery and confusion, not increase them. This
view can be elaborated into specific rules as well. Here are seven basic rules of reason:
1. Don’t accept mere mystery: Reject an “explanation” that just puts a label on some-
thing beyond human conceptualization or comprehension.
2. Don’t accept contradiction: Reject an “explanation” that requires a logical contra-
diction, since that creates another mystery.
3. Don’t accept repetition: Reject an “explanation” that requires the prior truth of the
explanation, since that repeats the mystery.
4. Don’t accept mysterious causes: Reject a “explanatory” causal relationship
between two things that have absolutely nothing in common, since that creates
another mystery.
2Exemplary volumes offering a great deal of rationalist atheology include Nielsen (1985), Martin (1990),
Le Poidevin (1996), Martin and Monnier (2003), Sobel (2003), Everett (2004), Kenny (2004), Oppy (2006),
and Shook (2010).
123
332 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
5. Don’t accept absent justification: Reject an “explanation” where an offered reason
cannot provide genuine support since it is irrelevant or unjustified, leaving only
mystery.
6. Don’t accept arbitrary justification: Reject an “explanation” where reasons given in
its support can equally support rival explanations, since that leaves more mystery.
7. Don’t permit unjustified exemptions: Reject an “explanation” that requires special
exemption from a rational principle used to support the explanation, since that
only increases mystery.
To illustrate what violations of these seven rules look like, suppose we want to justify
convicting a woman of being a witch.
Violate Rule 1: She seems mysterious, so she must be a witch.
Violate Rule 2: It is impossible to tell clever witches from ordinary people, and
she looks ordinary, so we can tell that she must be a witch.
Violate Rule 3: Ordinary people don’t place illness curses on other people, but she
did, so she must be a witch.
Violate Rule 4: She was born on the coldest night of the year, so she must be a
witch.
Violate Rule 5: Every town suffers from a witch (don’t ask us why), so she must
be a witch.
Violate Rule 6: Children in the town have died from the same illness, so she must
be witch.
Violate Rule 7: Unfortunate events always have unfortunate earthly causes, yet
assuming that earthly misfortunes could just keep on happening by themselves
seems inconceivable, so a demonic powercauses some earthly events, and therefore
she must be a witch.
More sophisticated logical rules and fallacies emerge from these basic rules of reason.
For example, Rule 2 calls for the logical rule that a proposition and its negation cannot
both be true at the same time, Rule 3 is the idea behind logical rules forbidding the
fallacies of begging the question and circular reasoning, and Rule 6 accounts for the
fallacy of assuming a false dichotomy.
These rules of reason suffice for exposing violations of basic rationality by core
arguments for a supernatural god: the Mystery argument, the Ontological argument, the
Creation argument, the Design argument, the Morality argument, and the Revelation
argument. Modern theologies utilize sophisticated variations to these core arguments,
so this chapter does not refute every supernaturalist system. Strategies sufficient for
their refutation can be developed from the simpler tactics explained here. Any trained
theologian could rightly point to a skeptical point raised in this chapter to say that
a complicated theological answer gets ignored by this survey. Yes, theologians have
already noticed and struggled with every single one of these skeptical challenges, since
it was theologians of many religions who detected them in the course of arguing with
each other over doctrinal and philosophical matters across the centuries. Rationalist
atheology will stay busy examining refined theological arguments claiming to avoid
violations of reason and formal logic.
Because this is a survey of several atheological strategies against primary theo-
logical arguments, readers cannot expect exhaustive or conclusive results. Any minor
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 333
tactic of just a single atheological strategy could require an entire book to develop
and execute, and such books have been composed. (Just as theology is replete with
volumes responding to those tactics.) Nor is every tactic mentioned here to be regarded
as particularly strong just because it has received enumeration in this essay’s sections.
Mapping out the terrain doesn’t by itself guarantee victory upon the contested field.
All the same, atheology’s forces should at least be in possession of a reliable map, and
avoid confounding each other.
The mystery argument
The mystery argument proposes that since deep mystery exists, it is reasonable to
believe in god. Skepticism immediately asks the question, Why is belief in god needed
here? We can all agree that it is reasonable to accept the existence of deep mystery—
mystery about what lies beyond current knowledge, and what may lie beyond all future
knowledge. Reasonable people can respect and even revel in the existence of mystery,
and mystery stimulates curiosity which in turn arouses inquiry and learning.
The suggestion that deep mystery is god cannot be reasonable. Calling a mystery
“god” is not an explanation of a mystery (violating Rule 1). Furthermore, just because
you accept the existence of mystery does not mean you accept the existence of god. The
supernaturalist cannot argue that anyone who accepted the existence of mystery beyond
knowledge automatically admits the existence of god. Precisely because everyone
admits the deep mystery, no one can claim to know that a god is out there without
contradiction (violating Rule 2). It doesn’t help to assign superlatives to this mystery
and then proclaim that god has been discerned. For example, an age-old tactic is to
argue like this: “The deep mystery around us is infinite, but God is infinite, therefore we
all must admit God is real.” Detect the blatant fallacy here, by considering this similar
argument: “The amount of numbers is infinite, but God is infinite, therefore God is
real.” Projecting the label of God at something quite inconceivable and expecting a
divine being to reflect back isn’t reasonable at all. Also, the supernaturalist would
have to prove that this mystery does not consist of just more unexplored nature. If
the supernaturalist argues that an endlessly advancing science faces more mystery
so a god must exist beyond nature, this argument violates Rule 6, since science’s
continually advancing knowledge also supports the idea that only more nature still
lies beyond knowledge, so we reach a skeptical stand-off between naturalism and
supernaturalism.
It cannot help the supernaturalist to argue that it must be a supernatural god out
there in the mystery on the grounds that god is the simplest explanation. This argument
at least respects reason. Using god to attempt an explanation is not a problem in itself;
and simpler explanations should be preferred, all other things being equal. Between
two explanations that can enjoy the same support from evidence, it is reasonable to
prefer the simpler explanation (this is a specific variation of Rule 6). The criteria for
“simplest explanation” in the supernaturalist’s argument here must be a principle that
a simple explanation adds the fewest things in the explanation. Adding just one god to
nature does sound pretty simple, but this argument doesn’t actually help. The naturalist
replies that naturalism is even simpler than supernaturalism, since it proposes that there
is only more nature out there in the mystery, hence adding nothing to nature. Nature
123
334 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
plus a supernatural god cannot be a simpler explanation than just plenty of nature out
there.
Rationality can recognize the existence of mystery, but that is quite different from
irrationally trying to discern anything divine (or anything else) within that mys-
tery.3
The ontological argument
The ontological argument for god proposes that one highly specific god must exist—
that “god” which is conceived as having an essential characteristic for “necessarily
existing.” Denial of this specific god is supposed to violate reason, according to kind
of argument, so the only rational course would be to accept the truth of this god’s
existence. Different versions of this argument select different essential characteristics
of this special god, but they all basically argue that the possession of this characteristic
makes the existence of this god necessary and undeniable. Quite different arguments,
relying on no godly characteristics but logic alone, also get labeled as ontological
arguments, but few theologians attempt them and even fewer theologians rest god-
belief on them.4
Since selecting “existence” or “necessary existence” or “not a contingent being”
as the essential characteristic obviously violates Rule 3, by begging the question and
assuming the very thing to be proven, ontological arguments cleverly select other char-
acteristics (maximal greatness, perfection, and the like) to attempt to show how such a
god must exist. Philosophers and theologians sharply disagree amongst each other over
whether these sorts of purely conceptual and logical arguments ever demonstrate that
something must actually have a real existence anywhere. We cannot settle that issue
here. For our purposes investigating supernaturalism, we can instead ask the narrower
question of whether anything supernatural could be proven to exist in this manner.
Suppose that a successful ontological argument specifying some essential charac-
teristic (label it ‘C’) demonstrated the existence of one necessarily existing thing (call
it ‘G’). If C is “supernatural” then this argument concerns the existence of one super-
natural G, but no successful argument would actually use “supernatural” since there
is nothing in the concept of “supernatural” permitting an inference towards “neces-
sary.” The term “supernatural” could be redefined as “having no contingencies” on
the grounds that the “natural” only consists of contingent things, but this strategy
violates Rule 6 (why must nature arbitrarily contain only contingent things when,
for all we know, the supernatural could contain contingencies too?) and also Rule 3
(defining “supernatural” as “not contingent” causes an ontological argument to beg
the question).
3Agnostic philosopher Schellenberg (2009) infers that just an aspirational faith in the ultimate remains
reasonable for any religious person. Lacking any concrete conception of this ideally ultimate reality, he
offers an utter mystery as an explanatory ideal, allowing people to faithfully imagine whatever meaningfully
elevates their lives. But people will fancy and adore what they will, and no agnostic could judge their
convictions. Where every attractive religious idea is ‘reasonable’, nothing about god could be.
4For an atheological survey of ontological arguments, including modal logic arguments, see Oppy (1995)
and Rundle (2004).
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 335
On the other hand, if characteristic C doesn’t mean “supernatural” then an addi-
tional argument, after the ontological argument, is needed to show why C implies
“supernatural.” But what would that additional argument look like? “Greatness” does
not logically confirm “supernatural,” nor does “perfection.” None of the typical onto-
logical arguments use a C that guarantees that G must be supernatural. For all we know,
the greatest, maximal, perfect, or self-sufficient being could be all of nature, or some
core feature or component to nature, or some other sort of natural being totally unlike
anything any theology would bother concerning itself with. A theology violates Rule 6
if it tries to arbitrarily explain that only by being supernatural could something achieve
necessity and self-sufficiency. A theology violates Rule 3 if it tries to presumptively
explain that a god would ensure that believers can comprehend what the supernatural
is. Religions themselves often denigrate nature and refuse to see anything divine in
the worldly realm just because it is worldly (violating Rule 5), but this convenient pre-
sumption against nature is prejudicial, not rational. Just because some religions could
never regard nature as worthy doesn’t help any ontological argument demonstrate that
something supernatural must exist.
An interesting variation on the ontological argument for god begins by claiming
that a person can possess and comprehend the concept of a perfect being. It must first
be proven that a person can truly possess and comprehend the concept of a perfect
being. Such proof is impossible. Merely putting words together does not guarantee the
full possession of a concept, including “an infinite being.” If I say, “I have an idea of
the distance between the earth and the sun,” that hardly means that I am successfully
conceiving that entire distance. Trying to fully comprehend any sort of immensity
or perfection generates only mystery (violating Rule 1). Presuming that god would
ensure the innate possession of an adequate conception of god violates Rule 3, and
trying to account for a way that god could implant a perfect idea in people’s finite
minds violates Rule 4. Asserting that the very inadequacy of an idea of a perfect
god is a good sign that it is indeed of a perfect god (who ought to be inconceivable,
after all) is a violation of Rule 5, and arguing that an inadequate idea of god can
only be delivered from a perfect god violates Rule 6 (since worldly inspirations could
be responsible instead). Furthermore, people do not agree on what they specifically
have in mind when they think of perfection. Christian theology had to categorically
define a small set of perfections for god just to get Christians focused properly, which
assumes what is to be proven (violating Rule 3) or relies on a suspiciously arbitrary
method favorable to just Christianity (violating Rule 6). Also, even a careful list
of things such as omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence generate conceptual
contradictions when a single entity is imagined as possessing all of them (violating
Rule 2).5Because of these problems, this version of the ontological argument collapses
into a revelation argument, by insisting that people have perfect ideas of a perfect god,
5For an introduction to theism and perfections of god, see Hoffman and Rosenkrantz (2002). Individual
philosophers and critical examinations of their ontological arguments can’t be listed here, yet Descartes
can’t be avoided; one may begin by consulting Marion (1986). Atheological arguments exposing paradoxes
of divine perfection are collected in Martin and Monnier (2003). Any large treatise on Christian theology
can explain typical responses to these venerable arguments.
123
336 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
due to divine inspiration or interaction. This simplified approach suffers from all the
problems concerning revelations, discussed in its section below.
A successful argument that a necessary and self-sufficient being can’t be natural
would require theology to direct deal with what it means to be natural, and figure
out whether evidence from the natural world can assist with understanding anything
supernatural. Other theological arguments, such as those discussed next, head in these
directions, but such efforts go beyond anything attempted by an ontological argu-
ment. Ontological arguments for something supernatural fail to survive tests against
standards of reason.
The creation argument
The supernaturalist believes that a supernatural god created nature. “Nature” here
refers not just to our small world or vast universe, but to everything natural that
may exist. Simplistic creation arguments equate our universe with nature, ask how
anyone can imagine that nature didn’t have a cause, add that nature can’t cause itself,
and conclude that only something besides nature caused the big bang. But nature
should not be equated with our universe, since that begs the question against the
possibility that more nature is responsible for our universe. If theology can prove that
this possibility must in fact impossible (not merely unknowable), that demonstration
hasn’t been produced. The creation argument for a supernatural god attempts to infer
the existence of a supernatural god from the existence of all nature as understood by
the best cosmology available. If cosmology suspects that there may be more to nature
than whatever came out of the big bang, it is not creation theology’s place to object.
Even if all of nature should be treated as something contingent, what should god’s
status be? The supernaturalist typically prefers to define god so that god is exempt from
explanation. The reasonable demand for explanation would call for an explanation
for god’s existence (yet another higher god?) and so on, so theology does not fail
to require a special exemption for god from such explanation (violating Rule 7).
Supernaturalist theology can try to define god as precisely that unique thing which
has no characteristics calling for further explanation. However, defining a god, as
we have discussed, is not the same thing as proving such a god really exists. This
supernaturalist definition for god is simply a convenient way to distract the issue
towards nature, which allegedly needs an explanation for existing in a way that god
shouldn’t. This distraction cannot divert logic, however. The supernaturalist must first
prove that nature requires explanation, before producing a conveniently unexplainable
god to supply that explanation.
This creation argument therefore depends on the supernaturalist first proving that
nature as a whole (including whatever caused the big bang) is not timeless, necessary,
or self-sufficient. How could the supernaturalist establish this? Why nature would be
as contingent or dependent as its parts is a question left unexplained by theology,
violating Rule 4. Cosmology hasn’t supplied a definite answer one way or the other,
and theology has no resources of its own to figure it out either. Although individual
things within nature do exist in time, have origins, and are not self-sufficient, nature
as a whole may not have the same properties. For example, time might not be a real
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 337
property of the universe or all of nature, taken as a whole. Time might only exist within
a universe, so that there cannot be a “time” before the big bang. Multiple conceptions
of time—continuously linear, discontinuous, or even nonlinearly disjointed—may get
utilized by cosmology for distinct levels or phases of nature. Time might not even be
physically real anywhere at all, so that passing time is only an effect for conscious
organisms. Science has no firm conclusions about these possibilities yet, but theology
has no way to confirm matters either, so for all we know, nature may not be an event.
On the other hand, if time is a real property of not just our whole universe but all
prior universes as well, then nature could be infinitely old (but not eternal, in that
supernaturalist sense of having no duration. If nature were infinitely old, then it had
no beginning and no cause, and once again nature eludes the scrutiny of the rules
of reason. Unless it can be first proven that nature as a whole is the sort of thing
requiring an explanation, the rules of reason do not apply, and the creation argument
for a supernatural god cannot even get started.
Theology could try to argue why nature as a whole cannot be infinitely old. A
prominent argument to that conclusion argues that since it is impossible to imagine how
an infinitely long nature could really exist, therefore nature cannot actually be infinite
in duration. This argument can seem plausible, but any line of thinking involving
infinity must be handled carefully. A definition of infinity requires that conceiving
its completion must be humanly impossible—if conceiving such a completion were
possible, infinity isn’t involved. Mathematics is well aware of the many paradoxical
consequences that arise from fitting infinity to intuitive expectations. This theological
argument against actual infinities therefore misuses the concept of infinity. Our human
inability to conceive nature having an infinite duration cannot imply that nature can’t
really have an infinite duration. For all we can know and understand, if nature really
is actually infinite in duration, we shouldn’t be able to fully conceive that infinity. Our
failure of imagination is logically and realistically compatible with both possibilities:
nature being finite and nature being infinite. When this theological strategy presumes
that the human ability to conceive nature’s infinite duration can only be compatible
with nature’s finitude, not only is mathematics ignored, but Rule 6 is violated.6
Theology can argue that even a thing of infinite extent can be imagined to not
exist, so that some explanation is required for why nature exists as a whole instead
of absolutely nothing at all. If some explanation is indeed required, then a super-
natural god can be the explanation. The justification for believing that nature might
not have existed is that we can conceive of absolute nothingness, and where we can
conceive of absolute nothingness, some explanation is required for why that absolute
nothingness isn’t real instead of actual existence. This justification violates Rule 1,
since conceiving absolute nothingness is not within the possibilities of human imagi-
nation, and hence even trying to conceive of absolute nothingness yields only mystery,
not a conception capable of explaining anything else. Even if we could conceive of
absolute nothingness, this theological strategy violates Rule 2 or Rule 7. This strat-
egy replies on the principle that when we are confronted with a stark choice between
6William Lane Craig runs afoul of this difficulty in his modern version of this Kal¯am argument (1979). His
later versions don’t fare any better; see e.g. Craig and Sinclair (2009). Graham Oppy (2006, pp. 137–154)
details rationalist atheology criticisms, expanding objections over infinity along with additional problems.
123
338 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
conceiving something existing and conceiving nothing existing, some explanation is
required for why such absolute nothingness prevails instead of actual existence. The
supernaturalist offers the existence of god as the explanation for the difference: god
created nature and hence prevented absolute nothingness. But wait—if god must be
conceived as existing in this situation of absolute nothingness, then a contradiction
ensues, and Rule 2 is violated. The theological reply here is that god is just always
real anyways. However, why should god be real, instead of just absolute nothingness,
since that absolute nothingness remains conceivable? Applying the same principle
again, we see how something is needed to explain why god is real rather than absolute
nothingness, and so something else besides a god must be involved. We are looking
at an emerging infinite regress: no matter what is postulated to explain what is real,
that very thing requires an additional explanation for its reality, and so on. When the
supernaturalist tries to break this infinite regress of non-explanation by saying, “god
is the one exception to the principle that a real thing requires an explanation for being
real instead of absolute nothingness,” then Rule 7 is violated. Theology is better off
abandoning this principle, but then the conceivable alternative to god can never be
eliminated: nature itself may be the one absolutely real thing requiring no further
explanation.
Although supernaturalism cannot get the creation argument going in the first place
because nature may need no explanation, adding a supernatural god to explain nature
violates reason in several more ways. Suppose a single supernatural god is postu-
lated as nature’s cause. Either this god created nature from itself, or god created
it ex nihilo, “from nothing.” If god created nature out of itself, god would have
to create basic natural properties (mass, physical energy, space-time dimensions,
etc.) from divinely supernatural characteristics, yet these things by definition have
nothing in common, violating Rule 4. If god is supposed to have created nature
from nothing, that notion ends up violating several rules no matter how such a
creation is imagined. Simply appealing to creation “from nothing” as if it were
self-explanatory, or as if god created without any cause, violates Rule 1. Imagin-
ing that god had a causal relationship with nothingness violates Rule 4. Saying that
“god’s will” or “god’s word” created nature do not supply sufficient explanations
either, however much they may appeal to the human imagination. We understand
how things happen because we “will” them to happen, but we also have to have a
causal relationship with what happens to (after I will that I stand up, my muscles
actually have to forcefully stand me up). Similarly, my words can have effects in
the world, because I transmit them with sounds or symbols that affect other peo-
ple. Supposing that a mere ‘will’ or ‘word’ alone, even if divine, has causal pow-
ers only violates Rule 5. Claiming that god created nature from nothing is not the
same thing as claiming that divine creation happened for no reason, but it does
amount to an admission that a causal act of special creation must be forever mys-
terious.
Supernaturalist religions can try to depict divine creation in humanly comprehensi-
ble terms, resorting to anthropomorphic characteristics of god to make divine reasons
for creation understandable. However, partially reducing god to humanly understand-
able dimensions risks more violations of reason. For example, if this supernatural god
has existed for an infinite amount of time, then the unanswerable question arises about
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 339
why god waited an infinite amount of time before creating the world (violating Rule 1).
On the other hand, if god is timelessly eternal, then there is no point in time when god
creates the universe, leaving the universe’s origin in time as a mystery (violating Rule
5). Furthermore, if this god is timelessly eternal and created nature in that timeless
state, then the origin of nature was caused at no time and in no time (violating Rule
1 and Rule 2). Some theologians have resorted to claiming that instantaneous causes
and creations are conceptually possible, but even if they are, theology must still prove
that they can be real, yet nature supplies few clear examples. The creation argument
proceeds from what we know about nature, not what we don’t know about nature.
Other theologians have claimed that god switched from an eternal to a temporal status
just “in time” to create a temporal world with temporal causes, but proposing that
god could make such a switch simply appeals to more mystery (violating Rule 4 and
Rule 5).7When a supernaturalist theology ultimately admits that divine creation is a
mystery that will never conform to expectations of reason, skepticism is happy to hear
this confirmation of what it has been saying all along.
This confirmation can be heard in the most unexpected of places. The prominent
Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne has insisted upon reasonable religious expla-
nations as much as anyone. His book The Existence of God offers demonstrations of
god’s explanatory power. He first says that a proper explanation of something must
include not only what made it happen, but why that cause was able to make it happen.
This view of explanation captures the spirit of explanatory reason indeed. However,
later in the book when Swinburne wants god to ultimately explain the world, explana-
tory reason has vanished:
... we have an ultimate explanation of some phenomenon E if we can state not
merely which factors C and R operated at the time to bring E about, and which
contemporaneous factors made C and R exist and operate at that time, and so
on until we reach factors for the contemporaneous existence and operation of
which there is no explanation; but also state the factors that originally brought
C and R about, and which factors originally brought those factors about, and so
on until we reach factors for the existence and operation of which there is no
explanation. (Swinburne 2004, pp. 78–79)
It is unclear whether Swinburne intended to so generously permit any belief system
to suspend a requirement for reasonable explanation where convenient. The skepti-
cal standoff between naturalism and supernaturalism is the inevitable destination yet
again.
A supernatural “explanation” cannot reasonably explain nature’s origin. The alter-
native remains, that nature as a whole needs no external explanation, and only more
nature can explain nature. There is more work for theology to undertake, of course.
Theology can turn its attention to processes within nature, to seek signs of divine
creativity there.
7Theological discussions of divine creation are discussed in such works as May (1994), Copan and Craig
(2004), and Burrell (2010).
123
340 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
The design argument
The design argument (also labeled as the teleological argument) proposes that a cre-
ator god is responsible for our universe’s structure as understood by the best natural
knowledge available. In our modern era, that means trying to account for such things
as the universe’s particular arrangement of physical laws and energies, the specific
way the universe has developed into galaxies of stars and planets, and the emergence
of life in its impressive complexity. The design argument hence presumes that any-
thing having some distinctive regular order (and our universe, along with many things
within the universe, surely qualifies there) calls for a reasonable explanation.
This rule that order must happen for some reason or purpose is a variation on the
idea of explanatory reason that something contingent must be the responsibility of
something else. The more regular order something has, the more it seems dependent
on some particular cause for its existence. Something having very little regular order,
like a lump of randomly arranged particles none of which are uncommon, strikes us
as easily brought together under any number of prior conditions, so that no particular
cause, and definitely no intentional cause, is needed to explain it. Something possessing
a structure of patterned arrangements to uncommon parts, on the other hand, strikes us
as an unusual thing requiring some highly specific sort of cause to bring just that special
thing into existence. Things in the world come in degrees of order, so there is a range
for explanation, from no particular explanation to specific explanation. The world
does not strike us as divided sharply into two categories of things needing explanation
and things needing no explanation, because all natural things deserve explanations, as
explanatory reason demands. Thanks to the natural and life sciences, we understand
how natural processes produce natural things, such as geological processes producing
mountains and forests producing new trees. Cosmology describes how stars condensed
from the early universe’s first atoms and then formed into galaxies, and physics is
now describing how the first atoms formed from the earliest particles out of the big
bang.
As far as theology is concerned, the argument from design is only concerned with
those natural things possessing an order so highly structured and improbable that no
natural process could be responsible, but only a supernatural creator must be involved.
What would those natural things be? Let’s set aside pseudo-design arguments rejecting
sound science (such as the biological evolution of organisms) and weak design argu-
ments supposing that some things in nature will never be explained by science (how
could theology know this in advance?). Responsible design arguments acknowledge
science’s impressive powers and only ask whether a few things still reasonably seem
to require an explanation from beyond nature. Retrograde theologies around the world
haven’t given up on attacking evolution, of course, and pseudo-scientific creation-
ist postures like ‘intelligent design’ call for scientific and atheological refutation.8
Conceding science’s vast capacity for explaining matters within the universe, modern
theology has turned its attention towards the whole universe itself. This ‘universal’
8On intelligent design, consult Behe (2007), Dembski and McDowell (2008), and Monton (2009). Athe-
ological rejections of intelligent design are included in Pennock (2001)andEdis and Young (2006).
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 341
design argument for god begins by making two claims: that the universe’s regular
order is so highly structured that it is naturally improbable, and that anything that
improbable requires a supernatural designer rather than just a natural explanation. If
these two claims are indeed reasonable, believing in the existence of a supernatural
god may be reasonable. The overall skeptical strategy counter-argues that the first
claim is not sufficiently justified by either reason or science (violating Rule 5), and
that the second claim is weak because it relies on a principle saying that “order cannot
come from disorder,” leaving the argument in violation of several rules.
The first theological claim, that the universe is so highly structured that it is naturally
improbable, cannot be demonstrated by theology. The naturalistic possibility that our
universe originated from a prior universe, or some portion of a prior universe (like
a black hole), or some interaction between prior universes, and so on, cannot be
ruled out by theology. The fact that science does not yet favor one origin account
over another is not relevant here; theology must concede that its universal design
argument must firmly assume that no natural origin to our universe is conceivably
possible. Yet several cosmological theories are already conceiving natural origins
for universes, and although they are highly speculative at this early stage of inquiry,
there may be no necessary reason why cosmology must forever fail. Unless theology
can prove that cosmology must forever fail, so that a supernatural explanation is
needed, theology cannot conclude that a god is the only sufficient explanation. The
design argument probably fails to supply a sufficient reason to conclude that a god
exists, and it may never be able to demonstrate that a designing god is a necessary
explanation.
The most generalized form of the design argument starts from the fact that our
universe displays a regular structure, a structure describable (to a high degree) by
mathematical tools. Regardless of whether we would ever be able to tell how probable
or not this structure happens to be, there is one unquestionable fact: our universe
has structure. Why does mathematics apply to the universe at all? This generic design
argument judges that the best explanation for structure is a designer god who selected a
structure. Presumably the alternatives to our actual universe would either be no universe
at all (so this argument degenerates back to the creation argument), a created universe
with no structure (but why would a god bother to create such a useless thing), or an
uncreated eternal universe without any regular structure (a universe of sheer chaos)
that eventually produced universes with structures. Setting the first two options aside,
theology would have to rule out the third option, and also rule out naturalism’s fourth
option, that universes with structure have always existed, requiring no divine creator.
The third option is an odd metaphysical notion, but philosophers have contemplated
it—American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce even attempted to mathematically
demonstrate its plausibility. And theology can’t rule out the fourth option, as explained
in the previous section. If this generic design argument insists that the only cause for
a structured universe is something itself having a structure, the naturalist can agree,
and point out that the theist gives no reason (thus violating Rule 5) for preferring
a supernatural creator over a natural creator. The question, “Why does mathematics
apply to our universe?” can be answered with the naturalistic option that eternal nature
always had structure, and that structure produced the actual structure of our universe
through the big bang.
123
342 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
A version of the universal design argument, the “fine-tuning” argument, attempts
to depict our universe as so improbably ordered that it becomes unreasonable to think
that prior natural processes could be responsible. This fine-tuning argument points to
the delicate arrangement of basic universal laws permitting such things as the universe
growing to its present scale, or the universe developing conditions permitting life to
arise. Supposedly, to get a theological argument started, it must be believed that any
small divergence from these basic laws would forbid the universe from looking the
way it does now. What could ensure that just the “right” physical laws prevail in our
universe, when they seem so terrifically improbable that even an endless amount of
prior natural processes (including anything natural capable of causing the big bang,
for example) couldn’t be responsible? This theological argument proposes that only
a super-intelligence could have selected and crafted such an otherwise improbable
result.9
We have to keep in mind that the fine-tuning argument is based on current sci-
entific knowledge about the fundamental laws of nature. How much weight can be
placed on today’s cosmology? Science’s understanding of the big bang and the fun-
damental forces and energies of our universe is in its infancy; any calculations for
the “probability” of our universe’s laws are highly speculative and quite revisable.
Recent excitement over the improbability attached to the “cosmological constant,” for
example, presumes that cosmology now has the correct account of matters and won’t
make large theoretical revisions in the future, but that’s even less likely. It may turn
out that just about any universe’s origin that manages to reach the big bang stage must
have more or less the natural laws that we observe with our own universe, so that our
universe’s laws look more probable than improbable. It may also turn out that life
could have arisen even if our universe were considerably different. Our kind of life
emerged as it did to survive within this universe, and if the universe had been different,
other life-forms might have emerged differently. There may be nothing special about
our form of life, and getting this universe “just right” for us does not need to be viewed
as anything special requiring explanation. Besides, it is very easy to imagine a more
hospitable universe for our kind of life, so a design argument’s explanation that our
existence is a good reason to believe in a creator violates Rule 5, since our existence
could also be due to the universe naturally creating us without any plan or protec-
tion.10 Ultimately, there is no justification for presuming that naturalistic alternatives
9Many aspects to the design and fine-tuning arguments are discussed in Manson (2003). Recently for-
mulated versions of this fine tuning argument, cognizant of scientific research, are presented by McGrath
(2009)andBarrow et al. (2012). Several of the skeptical criticisms presented in this section are indebted to
Stenger (2011).
10 The universe’s harmful indifference initiates the “problem of evil” argument against a personal caring god
who intended to create us. Theodicies try to reconcile a preconceived notion of god with the observed world,
claiming that their god would design this world no matter what. Theodicies lack clear and comprehensive
explanations why observed evils are actually good, leaving matters in mystery (violating Rule 1), requiring
the same thing to be both evil and good (violating Rule 2), treating something as supremely good without
proving a divine existence first (violating Rule 3), regarding evil as the responsibility of a perfectly good
god (violating Rule 4), implying divine involvement without actually explaining it (violating Rule 5),
blaming evil on a bad deity but leaving no reason for a good deity (violating Rule 6), or claiming that
evil is necessarily from god but god is the singular being able to let evil happen without losing perfect
goodness—unlike humanity (violating Rule 7). See recent surveys by Drees (2003)andO’Connor (2009).
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 343
are impossible. The fine-tuning argument’s assumption that we must forever regard
our universe’s structure as incredibly implausible only violates Rule 5.
Summing up so far, the design argument’s first claim rightly demands explanations
for structural order, but claiming that the universe’s order is too highly improbable to
have a natural cause fails to satisfy reason. The second claim of the design argument
goes on to offer a supernatural god as the alternative explanation for such a highly
improbable universe, but this explanation fails to satisfy reason as well. To make a
supernatural god more useful than nature for explaining a highly ordered universe,
an additional principle besides “order requires explanation” is required to tip the
balance in favor of the supernatural. The design argument traditionally relies on a
rule that “order cannot come from disorder” in order to render it implausible that
our universe’s structure just arose from whatever accidental natural processes were
available before the big bang. Perhaps there were natural “raw materials” around,
some physical ingredients useful for universe creation, but maybe that’s not enough,
at least not enough for a complex universe like ours.
This second phase of the design argument proposes that complexity requires not just
a special prior cause, but more specifically, some sort of intelligent design, by appeal-
ing to the principle that anything sufficiently complex must be created by something of
even greater complexity. Of course, we have plenty of natural evidence that complex
things can create similarly complex things. However, this principle that highly com-
plex things require even more complex creators does not follow from any of the rules
of reason, and science can’t support it either, so it remains an unjustified explanation
(violating Rule 5). Science has discovered numerous ways that greater order can be
produced by much disorder over time, and how highly complex things can arise from
long natural processes involving lesser complexity. Religion appeals to our intuitive
sense that highly complex things are made by intelligences, and we have this intu-
itive sense because we grow up in social world where complex artifacts have human
designers. However, just because we have good reason for applying rules about design
to our social world does not automatically mean that this kind of complexity reasoning
infallibly applies beyond that social world. Theology would have to claim that we can
only be reasonable if we apply this complexity principle everywhere. No theological
argument has successfully justified this claim (violating Rule 5 again), and theology
only violates more rules of reason by staunchly relying on it. If we must always apply
the complexity principle in every context, then it presumably applies to this proposed
creator god as well. Since the creator of our highly complex universe must be even
more complex, then the complexity argument applies to this god as well, and we must
infer that some even more complex god created the god that created our universe, as
so on.
Avoiding this regress problem is impossible. Proposing a “maximally” or “per-
fectly” complex god violates Rule 1 (what we are supposed to be imagining is a
mystery beyond human comprehension) and it also violates Rule 6 (for all we know,
this “maximally” complex thing might simply be the entirety of nature). Theologians
are aware of these problems, and some instead propose that the one creator god is
actually quite simple, so that the complexity principle can’t apply to god. However,
trying to imagine a perfectly simple god also stretches the human imagination beyond
its limits (violating Rule 1) and leaves god far too simple to be able to explain anything
123
344 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
as complex as the universe (violating the “order requires explanation” version of Rule
5). And if simplicity could actually create our universe, then a relatively simple and
disordered natural cause to our universe can be the alternative explanation, making a
creator god an unnecessary proposal (violating Rule 6). If theology tries to avoid all
these problems by making the arbitrary claim that this lone creator god is one thing
exempt from the complexity principle, then Rule 7 is violated.
All the versions of the design argument are unreasonable failures, so supernatu-
ralism is halted by another skeptical impasse. Perhaps it’s understandable why most
theologies today look not to the stars, but within ourselves.
The revelation argument
Supernaturalism proposes that the best explanation for revelations about a god is that
a supernatural god actually exists. Skepticism finds many problems for revelations
having any explanatory role. Revelations often yield no information (violating Rule
1), they contradict each other (violating Rule 2), they just repeat the belief “god exists”
(violating Rule), their causal relation to a god must be mysterious (violating Rule 4), or
they yield beliefs that different gods exist (violating Rule 6). Each religion could claim
that only their own revelations are valid, but that violates Rule 3 and Rule 6. Even taken
singly, a lone revelation cannot be checked for veracity without verifying god caused
it (violating Rule 3 and Rule 4), checking it against other approved revelations (vio-
lating Rule 6), or assuming it carries its own self-evident character (violating several
rules).
Revelation is usually taken to be a direct encounter with something having divine
character. Rather than enumerating all the different sorts of events and things taken
to be revelatory (miraculous signs and visions, profound experiences, prophetic pro-
nouncements, holy scriptures, and so on), we can simplify matters by taking all of
them to be putative revelations. The issue is not whether people can take them to be
direct encounters with the divine and appear as evidence of the divine; people around
the world evidently do so. The issue is whether they are actually divine encounters.
The revelation argument claims that the best explanation for a genuine revelation is
that a supernatural deity is involved. There are three principal forms to this argument.
The first considers all revelations taken generically, without discriminating among
them by who has them or what religion they lean towards. The second considers only
the collective experiences of a specified group of people. The third considers only
individual personal revelations, taken singly.
Revelations taken generically across all humanity exhibit immense variety. Revela-
tions too mysterious in themselves can’t indicate how any god is involved, so relying
on them for evidence of the supernatural violates Rule 1. The revelations so indescrib-
able that mystics are left speechless can’t serve as evidence for a single inconceivably
transcendent reality. Expecting these information-less revelations to be pretty much
the same, or similarly about the same mysterious god, violates Rule 1 and Rule 4.11
11 Scholars of religion no longer blithely assume that all religious experiences are homogenously alike, or
have similar orientations to the same trans-experiential reality. Ineffability is just too convenient, and too
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 345
Revelations that do convey some information often contradict each other across reli-
gions, and even within the same denomination or church, so relying on them all for
evidence pointing to a supernatural god violates Rule 2. Revelations amounting to just
“god exists” can’t count as evidence without violating Rule 3. Taking revelations to
be supernatural things themselves also violates Rule 3, but if revelations are entirely
natural (as brain states, say) then the revelation argument mysteriously connects two
things having nothing in common, violating Rule 4. Revelations often yield beliefs
by different people about very different gods, so taking revelations as explanations
for just one supernatural god violates Rule 6. Excluding revelations that appear to be
about different gods and elevating low-information mystical experiences to the status
of ‘truly’ being about the one genuine mysterious god violates Rule 6. All these vio-
lations lead skeptics to judge that the argument for god from generic revelation is a
failure.12
Rather than respect all revelations, religious believers typically claim that only some
collective experiences supply revelation evidence: just those similar experiences of the
same sort of god. Indeed, many religions are based on a small set of near-identical
experiences about the ‘same’ god by a small group of people, in order to avoid the
violations of reason already noted. This special set of revelations can serve as an
authoritative guide to proper religious beliefs, useful for instruction in the religion and
for testing any new revelations for validity. However, there is insufficient reason why
just this group’s set of similar experiences should count as the only valid revelations.
The group should not claim that no explanation exists or that tradition must be blindly
obeyed (violating Rule 1). They should not claim that god approves of just this set,
since that assumes that god exists (violating Rule 3). If the group claims that no other
experiences belong because they are too different from the basic set, this justifica-
tion is circular by first assuming this group’s validity (again violating Rule 3). If the
group claims their set of revelations seem like the best about god to them, any other
group could appeal to the same justification for their revelations and their god as well
(violating Rule 6).
An argument from scriptural testimony for god runs into several violations in a
similar manner. Theology cannot claim that scripture is so mysterious that god must
be involved (violating Rule 1), or that all the world’s contradictory scriptures still point
to the same god (violating Rule 2), or that god approves scripture (violating Rule 3), or
that god creates scripture (violating Rule 4), or that scripture simply must be divinely
inspired (violating Rule 5). Theological defenses of one religion’s scripture as the only
Footnote 11 continued
tempting. Religions dictate appropriate language and understandings for unusual mental episodes, which
then turn out to support just their creeds. Psychologists can apply a crafted set of criteria they define
as a ‘mystical’ core and promptly find plenty of phenomena satisfying that set (Hood 2001;Paloutzian
and Park 2005). Neither religions nor mystics are wrong about finding just what they seek. The actual
diversity to spectrums of atypical states of awareness is undiminished all the same, while the import of such
experiences remains radically underdetermined. Respect for pluralism has accordingly revived (Proudfoot
1985;Harmless 2007).
12 It’s a rare book which systematically commits every one of these violations; coming close is Hick
(2007). Hick had many predecessors seeking that elusive revelatory core to all religions; see for example
War d (1994).
123
346 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
truth about god runs into additional violations. Claimed that the one true god approves
just this one scripture violates Rule 3. Simply claiming that a successful religion must
be based on a true scripture has no justification, violating Rule 5. Claiming that any
flaws in scripture are due to human ignorance or error, leaving the ‘true’ scripture
(whatever that was) so perfect that god must be responsible, violates Rule 1 (where is
this mysterious perfect scripture?), Rule 3 (why is a god assumed here?) and Rule 5
(what is the justification for assuming there ever was a ‘perfect’ scripture?). Pointing
to a justification that any successful religion must have the most impressive scripture,
and hence the most valid scripture, avoids violating Rule 5 but runs into a violation
of Rule 6, since there have been many impressive scriptures and many successful
religions about entirely different sorts of divine realities.
Arguments from scripture are a specific version of the general strategy of arguing
from others’ testimony about revelation for god’s existence. That general strategy is
just as unreasonable. Supposedly, the best explanation for people’s testimony about
their revelations is that god has delivered these revelations to them. Since this argu-
ment relies on the existence of genuine revelations, already refuted, arguments from
testimony automatically fail. Furthermore, the way that people testify or witness to
some revelation or another cannot serve as adequate justification for taking their claims
about god to be verified. We rarely take personal testimony to be very reliable even
under the best of conditions concerning mundane matters, so it is unreasonable to
accept testimony about extraordinary events or unearthly matters.13
The third kind of revelation argument focuses on individual personal experiences.
By what method could it be shown that a strange experience is a genuine revelation of
an existing god? Perhaps there can’t be any method at all, since theology is now con-
sidering only lone experiences taken singly, and comparisons against standard criteria
or other experiences are not available here. There are very few options now. Verifying
an alleged revelation of god could consist of checking to see if god is actually present
during the revelation, but independent checking would require someone else having
another experience of god, violating Rule 3. Perhaps verification of a revelation could
try to track a causal relationship between god and the person having the revelation,
but that violates Rule 3 again, and it also violates Rule 4. Admirers of revelation often
argue that humanity would be lost without occasional contact with god, but no justi-
fication is supplied for why we shouldn’t simply consider ourselves as living without
god (the naturalistic option), so Rule 5 is violated. Perhaps verification could consist of
checking it against other revelations already verified, but that appeals to an arbitrarily
selected group of revelations, violating Rule 6.
Theologians are well aware of all these problems. Some suggest that genuine rev-
elations do not need any verification, because they have the special character of “self-
verification” or “self-evidence” or “veracity”. Religions have all sorts of ways to
express this special character. Revelations can “shine by their own inner truth” or
“carry the stamp of divinity on them” or “transport one beyond the world,” and so forth.
Appealing to some special character relieving an experience from external judgment
leads to violations of rules of reason, however. Since only some revelations can have it,
13 Sophisticated versions of these points against hearsay about revelations and miracles are discussed in
Fogelin (2003).
123
Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348 347
how does one distinguish between experiences truly possessing this special character
and those lacking it? Claiming that revelations are the experiences having a uniquely
mysterious quality which establishes a mysterious divine cause violates Rule 1 and
Rule 3. Claiming that self-evident revelations are those that go unchallenged by com-
mon sense does appeal to a valid meaning for “self-evident,” yet alleged revelations
about god are almost always challenged, so this explanation violates Rule 5. Plenty of
religions can claim that revelations of their particular god possess the character of self-
evident verification, so arbitrarily selecting only one religion’s revelation leads to a
violation of Rule 6. When a theology is compelled to describe what this “self-evident”
character actually consists of, it is driven towards some mysteriously indescribable
trait they are always driven back to favorably comparing a revelation with other prior
approved revelations (violating Rule 3) or comparing a revelation with an approved
prior conception of god (violating Rule 3 again).14
All three forms of the argument from revelation—generic, collective, and
individual—suffer from many violation of reason. Even if naturalism could not account
for alleged revelation experiences, reason dictates a skeptical stance against their abil-
ity to prove that a supernatural god exists. Scientific atheology can undertake the task
of showing how alleged revelations have naturalistic explanations, but rationalist athe-
ology is more than sufficient to skeptically doubt theological efforts to infer a god’s
existence from religious experiences.
References
Alston, W.(1991). Perceiving god: The epistemology of religious experience. Ithaca, NY:Cornell University
Press.
Bagger, M. C. (1999). Religious experience, justification, and history. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press.
Barrow, J. D., Morris, S. C., Freeland, S., & Harper, C. (Eds.). (2012). Fitness of the cosmos for life:
Biochemistry and fine-tuning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Behe, M. J. (2007). The edge of evolution: The search for the limits of Darwinism. New York: Simon and
Schuster.
Burrell, D. B. (Ed.). (2010). Creation and the god of Abraham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press.
Copan, P., & Craig, W. L. (2004). Creation out of nothing: A biblical, philosophical, and scientific explo-
ration. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Craig, W. L. (1979). The Kal¯am cosmological argument. London: Macmillan.
Craig, W. L., & Sinclair, J. D. (2009). The Kalam cosmological argument. In W. L. Craig & J. P. Moreland
(Eds.), The Blackwell companion to natural theology (pp. 201–1000). Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.
Cudworth, R. (1678). The true intellectual system of the universe: The first part; wherein, all the reason
and philosophy of atheism is confuted; and its impossibility demonstrated. London: Richard Royston.
Dembski, W.A., & McDowell, S. (2008). Understanding intelligent design. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House
Publishers.
Drees, W. B. (Ed.). (2003). Is nature ever evil? Religion, science, and value. London and New York:
Routledge.
14 Compendiums of arguments from collective and individual revelations, committing about every one of
the violations recounted here, are in Alston (1991), Yandell (1994), and Swinburne (2004, chap. 6). Wider
perspectives on the diverse roles for religious experience within religion are offered by Bagger (1999)and
Tav es (2009).
123
348 Int J Philos Relig (2015) 78:329–348
Edis, T.,& Young, M. (Eds.). (2006). Why intelligent design fails: A scientific critique of the new creationism.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Everett, N. (2004). The non-existence of god. London and New York: Routledge.
Fogelin, R. J. (2003). A defense of Hume on miracles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Harmless, W. (2007). Mystics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hick, J. (2007). The new frontier of religion and science: Religious experience, neuroscience, and the
transcendent. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hoffman, J., & Rosenkrantz, G. S. (2002). The divine attributes. Malden, Mass: Blackwell.
Hood, R. W. (2001). Dimensions of mystical experiences: Empirical studies and psychological links. Ams-
terdam and New York: Rodopi.
Kenny, A. (2004). The unknown god: Agnostic essays. London and New York: Continuum.
Le Poidevin, R. (1996). Arguing for atheism: An introduction to the philosophy of religion. London: Rout-
ledge.
Manson, N. J. (2003). God and design: The teleological argument and modern science. London and New
York: Routledge.
Marion, J.-L. (1986). The essential incoherence of descartes’ definition of divinity. In A. Rorty (Ed.), Essays
on descartes’ meditations. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Martin, M. (1990). Atheism: A philosophical justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Martin, M., & Monnier, R. (Eds.). (2003). The impossibility of god. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
May, G. (1994). Creatio ex nihilo: The doctrine of “creation out of nothing” in early christian thought.
Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark.
McGrath, A. (2009). A fine-tuned universe: The quest for god in science and theology. Louisville, Kent:
Westminster John Knox Press.
Monton, B. (2009). Seeking god in science: An atheist defends intelligent design. Peterborough, Ont:
Broadview Press.
Nielsen, K. (Ed.). (1985). Philosophy and atheism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Press.
Oppy, G. (1995). Ontological arguments and belief in god. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Oppy, G. (2006). Arguing about gods. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
O’Connor, D. (2009). God, evil and design: An introduction to the philosophical issues. Malden, Mass:
Wiley-Blackwell.
Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality.
New York: Guilford Press.
Pennock, R. (Ed.). (2001). Intelligent design creationism and its critics: Philosophical, theological, and
scientific perspectives. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Plantinga, A. (1967). God and other minds: A study of the rational justification of belief in god. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press.
Proudfoot, W. (1985). Religious experience. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rundle, B. (2004). Why is there something rather than nothing?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schellenberg, J. L. (2009). The will to imagine: A justification of skeptical religion. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press.
Shook, J. R. (2010). The god debates: A 21st century guide for atheists and believers (and everyone in
between). Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.
Sobel, J. H. (2003). Logic and theism: Arguments for and against beliefs in god. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
Stenger, V. J. (2011). The fallacy of fine-tuning: Why the universe is not designed for us.Amherst,NY:
Prometheus Books.
Swinburne, R. (2004). The existence of god (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swinburne, R. (2004). Revelation: From metaphor to analogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and
other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ward, K. (1994). Religion and revelation: A theology of revelation in the world’s religions. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Yandell, K. (1994). The epistemology of religious experience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
123
... It is necessary to note here that this conclusion is not that god-belief is "irrational" or intellectually "vicious," to repeat Justin Barrett's wording. If my article mounted a solely epistemic rejection of knowledge of God, that terminology might come into play (see Shook 2015). When science has only a negative answer to theology's optimism about the intellect's powers to know god, our actual powers should not be deemed unreasonable, unless we encourage ourselves to think we know more than we do. ...
Article
Full-text available
The four commentaries on my article “Are People Born to be Believers, or are Gods Born to be Believed?” only indirectly address my main argument that god-belief is not an innate (natural, normal, and so on) capacity of all humanity. Although scientific disciplines dispute criteria for innate biological functions, there remains little scien-tific evidence of an inherent capacity to our species for getting acquainted with any deity. Theologies looking to science may hope that the right sort of god best fits the right sort of brain. Methodologies for scientifically studying religion should not be in-fluenced by such normative presumptions.
Article
Full-text available
The existence of various sufferings has long been thought to pose a problem for the existence of a personal God: the Problem of Evil (POE). In this paper, we propose an original version of POE, in which the geographic distribution of sufferings and of opportunities for flourishing or suffering is better explained if the universe, at bottom, is indifferent to the human condition than if, as theists propose, there is a personal God from whom the universe originates: the Problem of Geography (POG). POG moves beyond previous versions of POE because traditional responses to POE (skeptical theism and various theodicies) are less effective as responses to POG than they are to other versions of POE.
Article
Full-text available
Atheism is skeptical towards gods, and atheology advances philosophical positions defending the reasonableness of that rejection. The history of philosophy encompasses many unorthodox and irreligious movements of thought, and these varieties of unbelief deserve more exegesis and analysis than presently available. Going back to philosophy’s origins, two primary types of atheology have dominated the advancement of atheism, yet they have not cooperated very well. Materialist philosophies assemble cosmologies that leave nothing for gods to do, while skeptical philosophies find conceptions of god to be too unintelligible or unsupported by evidence to warrant credibility. The origins and genealogies of these two atheologies are sketched and compared over many centuries down to present-day atheism, which still displays signs of this internecine divide between confident naturalists and agnostic skeptics.
Book
The Will to Imagine completes J. L. Schellenberg's trilogy in the philosophy of religion, following his acclaimed Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion and The Wisdom to Doubt. This book marks a striking reversal in our understanding of the possibility of religious faith. Where other works treat religious skepticism as a dead end, The Will to Imagine argues that skepticism is the only point from which a proper beginning in religious inquiry-and in religion itself-can be made. For Schellenberg, our immaturity as a species not only makes justified religious belief impossible but also provides the appropriate context for a type of faith response grounded in imagination rather than belief, directed not to theism but to ultimism, the heart of religion. This new and nonbelieving form of faith, he demonstrates, is quite capable of nourishing an authentic religious life while allowing for inquiry into ways of refining the generic idea that shapes its commitments. A singular feature of Schellenberg's book is his claim, developed in detail, that unsuccessful believers' arguments can successfully be recast as arguments for imaginative faith. Out of the rational failure of traditional forms of religious belief, The Will to Imagine fashions an unconventional form of religion better fitted, Schellenberg argues, to the human species as it exists today and as we may hope it will evolve.
Book
This is the first major response to the challenge of neuroscience to religion. It considers eastern forms of religious experience as well as Christian viewpoints and challenges the idea of a mind identical to, or a by-product of, brain activity. It explores religion as inner experience of the Transcendent, and suggests a modern spirituality.
Book
With the help of in-depth essays from some of the world's leading philosophers, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology explores the nature and existence of God through human reason and evidence from the natural world. Provides in-depth and cutting-edge treatment of natural theology's main arguments. Includes contributions from first-rate philosophers well known for their work on the relevant topics. Updates relevant arguments in light of the most current, state-of-the-art philosophical and scientific discussions. Stands in useful contrast and opposition to the arguments of the 'new atheists'.
Book
This book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (Chapters 1 to 4) investigates how truth can be conveyed in allegory, parable, or myth by analogy and metaphor, within false presuppositions about science and history. Part 2 (Chapters 5 to 6) considers what is shown when some book or creed constitutes a revelation from God. Its content needs to be intrinsically plausible and also to be confirmed by miracle. Part 3 (Chapters 7 to 12) assesses the claim that Christian doctrinal and moral teaching and the Christian Bible constitute revealed truth. It sets out the criteria for a society descended from the society of the apostles being the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and shown by his miraculous Resurrection to be a source of revealed truth. It argues that the authority of its teaching and of the Bible depends on their being authenticated by that church. It analyses the extent of analogy and metaphor in the Church's teaching, claims that the moral teaching is intrinsically plausible, and that the Bible is to be interpreted in the light of the Church's teaching and of our knowledge of science and history.