6.5 Arguments Against Belief: Atheism


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The meaning of atheism.
  • The arguments for atheism based upon the seeming incoherence of divine attributes.
  • How advances in science have tended to support atheist arguments.
  • Strenghts and Weaknesses of the atheist position.

Atheism, in the broadest sense, is an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Arguments against God, religious belief, and the supernatural have long attracted the attention of philosophers. Atheism, as a socially viable, seriously considered alternative to theism, has taken root only in the last few centuries, but many arguments now associated with atheism have been debated in philosophical circles for much longer—not in the form of proofs of God’s non-existence, but more often in the form of concerns that any adequate belief set must resolve. In this section, we shall examine some of the most prominent arguments against theistic belief.

Theism, of course, encompasses a multitude of belief sets, ranging from monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to polytheistic religions such as Hinduism and (arguably) Buddhism, and even pantheism, so it will be necessary to limit our scope somewhat. Philosophical arguments against theism normally target a specific subcategory of monotheism typified by the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). This brand of monotheism worships what some philosophers of religion call the “omni-God,” a god possessing the following omni-properties:

  • omniscience, or knowledge of everything;
  • omnipotence, or the power to do anything; and
  • omnibenevolence, or perfect (moral) goodness.

Other gods may, of course, possess some combination of these, but critiques of theism tend to aim explicitly at the versions of the omniGod in these three traditions, so this form of monotheism shall be our focus.

What Is God Like?: Crash Course Philosophy #12

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The omniGod is usually viewed through the lens of personalism, the claim that God is a person of some sort. Personalists are not committed to the claim that God is an embodied person, as though God had a genetic makeup, a spleen, and so forth. Rather, theistic personalists conceive of God as responsive or reflective in ways akin to our own. God has, for instance, emotional responses to worldly events much as we do. Personalism, however, is not the only option for omniGod theists. Classical theists like St. Augustine (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) had a very different, non-personal concept of God. According to classical theism, God is simple, so that all of their properties are identical to one another and also to God (God’s benevolence is their timelessness, and God is God’s benevolence); immutable, so that their properties cannot change; impassible, unable to be acted upon by us or anything in the causal world; and timeless, existing outside of time. But here we shall be dealing primarily with the personalist omniGod, since it (a) is a more popular conception of God among philosophers and is, therefore, the subject of most attempts to discredit theism, and (b) is more familiar to theists today. (Steyl, in Branson, “Reasons not to Believe,” Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 4)

The Incoherence of Divine Attributes

Philosophers have been thinking about God’s properties for millennia. One popular argument against this concept of God also arises from such reflection. It maintains that the omni-properties are either internally or externally incoherent, and therefore a god which possesses these traits cannot possibly exist.

Omnipotence, as defined above, is a common target for such arguments, because it seems to lead to paradoxes. These paradoxes usually have to do with God’s ability to restrict their own power. Can God create a stone that is too heavy for God to lift? Can God create something indestructible, so that it cannot be later destroyed by its maker? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then there are some things that God cannot do. If God can create an object that cannot be destroyed by its maker, then God cannot destroy that object, and the same is true, mutatis mutandis (that is, with the necessary changes), for a rock that they cannot lift. On the other hand, if the answer to either question is “no,” and God is incapable of limiting themself in this way, then again there are some things God cannot do. So, omnipotence, defined as an ability to do anything at all, cannot be one of God’s (or any being’s) traits, since the very concept of omnipotence is internally inconsistent.

There are a number of responses available to the defender of divine omnipotence. One is to suggest, as René Descartes (1596-1650) does, that God can in fact create a stone that is too heavy for God to lift, but that this is not problematic because God is not bound by the laws of logic or similar metaphysical truths. We suppose that it is contradictory for a human being, who cannot perform logically impossible feats, to create a rock that is too heavy for her to lift. But why think that God, the Almighty, would be bound by similar laws? If we believe that God is all-powerful, then God could well be capable of suspending the laws of logic!

Such solutions raise other problems, however. One might reasonably ask, in response to this answer, whether such a god can be reasoned about at all. There are, after all, certain claims about God that theists will typically want to make. And it seems that many of those claims are only tenable because they are logical. Consider, for example, omnibenevolence. If God is omnibenevolent, we know that God always does what is good. But if God is not constrained by the laws of logic, then we have no reason to accept this statement. God’s omnibenevolence only entails morally good actions because it follows logically. So theists who defend omnipotence by claiming that God is in some sense beyond logic may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Another option is to concede that the definition of omnipotence above ought to be revised. One could, for example, qualify the above definition by appending “except that which is logically impossible,” without deviating too radically from our original conception of God as all-powerful. Though we have shelved his concept of God, we might still like to borrow an idea from Thomas Aquinas, a prominent Medieval philosopher and theologian, who defended such a view:

…since power is said in reference to possible things, this phrase, “God can do all things,” is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason, He is said to be omnipotent. (Summa Theologiae, Ia, 25, 3).

Such a maneuver is not without its hazards, of course. One might think that such a God fails to satisfy conditions of adequacy for an object of worship, appealing perhaps to an Anselmian view that God is that “than which no greater can be thought.” It is, nevertheless, open to the omniGod theist to either challenge the supposed inconsistency or to revise their account of omnipotence.

Another problem arises when we question whether the omni-properties are consistent or coherent with one another. One could claim that any of the traits mentioned above is internally consistent and non-paradoxical, but that the set of traits attributed to God generates contradictions and cannot, therefore, be possessed by a single entity. Consider the following premise:

  1. Omniscience interferes with free will.

If we take omniscience to include infallible knowledge of every future event, then God knows with absolute certainty that God will do x at a given time t. If this is true, then it looks as though omniscience interferes with free will. But if omniscience interferes with free will, then it looks as though omniscience also interferes with omnipotence. If God cannot be mistaken about how God will act at t, then God is incapable of doing anything other than x. Thus, we arrive at:

2. If God lacks free will, then God lacks omnipotence.

And omniscience may also conflict with omnibenevolence. The freedom to do otherwise is often thought of as a precondition for morally good actions (I am not performing a praiseworthy action if a mind control device forces me to rescue a drowning child). Yet if God infallibly knows how God will act and thus cannot act otherwise, then one could plausibly argue that there seems to be a similar lack of moral freedom with respect to God’s actions. So it appears as though omnibenevolence is inconsistent with omniscience, and we can add the following premise to the argument:

3. If God lacks free will, then God lacks omnibenevolence.

If these premises are all true, omniscience interferes with free will, and as a result, it interferes with both omnipotence and omnibenevolence. The argument would thus reach the following conclusion:

4. If God is omniscient, God cannot be omnipotent (2) or omnibenevolent (3).

And notice that one could present a different argument that begins with either omnibenevolence or omnipotence and goes on to claim that either of these properties is inconsistent with the others. Consider:

  • Omnibenevolence seems to interfere with free will.
  • If God lacks free will, then God lacks omnipotence.

If omnibenevolence amounts to moral perfection, then we can infer that God necessarily does what is morally best in any given scenario. But this is just to say that God cannot do anything that is morally suboptimal. God cannot, therefore, be omnipotent if we take omnipotence to mean an ability to perform morally imperfect actions.

So, it appears as though all of the omni-properties can be brought into prima facie conflict (that is, into conflict at first glance) with any of the others. If any of these inconsistencies hold water, then once again, the omniGod cannot exist, because in order to exist, God must possess a set of traits that are logically inconsistent with one another.

(Ibid, Steyl, in Branson, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 4, “Reasons not to Believe”)

Taking it to the Streets…

Identify 6-8 people who are atheists and do not believe in any type of God. Ask them to explain their reasons for their atheism. Take note of their answers. What commonalities do you notice among the responses? Which response stands out to you as the strongest? Which response is the weakest?

Ask these same people the following question and take note of their responses. “How would you go about disproving the existence of God? What arguments do you think are best in disproving God’s existence?” Again, take note of any commonalities in people’s answers. Which approaches to disproving God’s existence are the most common? Are there any unique approaches in your responses? What role do reason and evidence play in people’s ideas of how to disprove God?

Did any of your respondents bring up the “omni” qualities or the problem of evil among their reasons for their atheism? Did you notice if any of your respondents seemed to struggle to provide reasons for their point of view? Why do you think that might be?

Excerpt from Beau Branson, Is Contemporary Western Philosophy Dogmatically Atheist?

In what follows, ask:

  • Why did the early 20th-century Positivists disregard language about the supernatural? (For more on Positivism see our chapter on the Philosophy of Science.)
  • How did historical events further weaken theism?
  • What began to change in European philosophy by the mid-20th century?
  • Where do most philosophers stand on the issue of theism today?

… Philosophical speculation can easily lead to beliefs that aren’t the same as the surrounding cultural mainstream. So, it’s easy to see why people would associate philosophy with heresy (beginning with Socrates himself). But it is probably with philosophers of the early 1900s, such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and the Logical Positivists [see Chapter 8] that we find the source of philosophers’ current-day reputations as people who narrow-mindedly refuse even to consider the possibility of the existence of God or anything spiritual. This reputation of narrow-mindedness is rather unfair in context, however. It’s true that the Logical Positivists held religious talk to be, not merely false, but meaningless (which of course is a bit of a conversation stopper). But this was not, or at least not simply, a matter of being closed-minded or dogmatic about religion in particular. Rather, the Positivists had very specific views about the nature of language and meaning, and the relationship of meaning to observation and experience. Namely, it was held, to put it succinctly, that the meaning of a sentence is just the conditions under which it could be verified to be true …. From their presuppositions about language and meaning, it simply followed as a straightforward consequence that talk about God or anything spiritual would be meaningless ….

World War I and World War II no doubt also shook many people’s faith in any kind of benevolent deity and solidified the skepticism of those who already doubted. … In the middle of the 20th century, philosophers’ attitudes toward religion began changing, especially within the Analytic tradition of philosophy that grew out of Logical Positivism. These changes have apparently not yet been widely noticed outside of the profession of philosophy and in the wider culture. At the same time that philosophers began to see deep problems with the Logical Positivists’ very narrow theory of meaning, a small number of mostly English-speaking, Christian philosophers began a firm and sustained series of defenses of the rationality of theistic belief against the then-crumbling Positivist theory of meaning.….

Since that time, the philosophy of religion has seen something of an explosion within Analytic Philosophy (the kind of philosophy most prominent in English-speaking universities today). … Of course, religious belief has by no means won the day among philosophers, and the majority of professional philosophers would identify as atheists. Still, in contrast to the early and mid-20th century, when probably only a few philosophers had any religious beliefs (and even fewer were willing to admit it!), today almost 15% of professional philosophers say they believe in, or lean towards belief in, God. That figure bumps up to almost 30% among those who specialize in Medieval Philosophy (much of which is concerned with the philosophy of religion, and the relation between philosophy and theology). And the figure bumps up again to well over 70% among those who specialize in the philosophy of religion itself (Bourget and Chalmers 2014). There is controversy of course over what the last bit of data shows. It may mean that the arguments in favor of religious belief are just better than those against and that those who specialize in philosophical arguments about religion (and so are in a better position to judge their merits) find themselves convinced of the existence of God. On the other hand, it may simply be a matter of self-selection—if one is an atheist, one might not be very likely to specialize in the philosophy of religion!

We’ve seen that the reputation of closed-mindedness about religion among philosophers results from a misunderstanding of one particular school of thought that has somehow managed to overshadow nearly the entire history of philosophy from antiquity to the 20th century. The truth is that most philosophers throughout history have had religious beliefs of some sort, and many of the non-religious minority have been interested in, even consciously influenced by religion. And while Logical Positivism’s dismissal of religious talk as meaningless may sound insulting when viewed out of context, it was a straightforward and unavoidable logical consequence of the then-dominant view about linguistic meaning in general. That view about language, however, met its demise some time ago.

(Branson, in Branson, “The Intertwining of Philosophy and Religion in the Western Tradition,” Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 1)

Strengths and weaknesses of atheistic arguments.

Atheists do well to point out that the omni-properties of God are incoherent, which saves them from having to engage in mental gymnastics in order to reconcile these supposed properties of a supreme being.

Atheism emphasizes rationality and empirical, evidence-based thinking. God’s existence is not required in order to explain the cosmos.

On the other hand, just as theism can be accused of making positive claims about something for which there is little evidence, atheism can be accused of making negative claims on the same basis.

The atheistic materialist worldview tends to assume that we can scientifically investigate all that exists and that the cosmos is completely explained by circumstances and prior causes. However, thinkers throughout human history have explored thoughts and ideas that encompass much which is unknowable and suggest that there is more to human experience than we can weigh, measure, smell, and count.

Works Cited

Branson, Beau. “The Intertwining of Philosophy and Religion in the Western Tradition.” Introduction to Philosophy Philosophy of Religion, Rebus Community, 11 Dec. 2020, https://press.rebus.community/intro-to-phil-of-religion/chapter/the-intertwining-of-philosophy-and-religion-in-the-western-tradition-2/.

CrashCourse. What Is God Like?: Crash Course Philosophy #12. YouTube, YouTube, 2 May 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gs_gY1K1AMU&t=180s. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.

Steyl, Steven. “Reasons Not to Believe.” Introduction to Philosophy Philosophy of Religion, Rebus Community, 11 Dec. 2020, https://press.rebus.community/intro-to-phil-of-religion/chapter/reasons-not-to-believe/.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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