Response to Global Atheism Conference - the contemporary case against God: necessity

Part three of Greg Clarke's series on the 2010 Global Atheism Conference

In my previous article, I outlined just a few elements of a reasonable case for God. Well, I think it’s reasonable, but many others don’t! Those who don’t are attacking the case for God from a number of angles. In this piece, I look at three ways in which the New Atheists are attacking the case for God: they attack the need for God; they attack the visibility of God; and they attack the goodness of God.

Let’s consider them in turn.

God as unnecessary

The more scientifically inclined atheists suggest that we do not need God in order to make sense of the universe. Science explains to us why the universe looks designed (in terms of gradual evolution) and it offers an alternative to the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe, in the multi-verse proposal, a difficult to explain idea that all possible universes in fact exist, making this one we are in no big surprise.

Because I am not a scientist, I don’t intend to step out of my area of expertise here and claim too much. All I do wish to point out is that, while science does a tremendous job of observing the universe, it has nothing to offer us to explain why the universe is here at all. For this, we need a philosophical proposal, and the notion of a necessary, eternal Mind is yet to be bettered. In fact, in order to be rational, we have to accept either an eternal universe (as did Aristotle, and some Eastern philosophy), or an eternal Mind/Being. Since we established scientifically that the universe had a beginning, it has been less reasonable to hold the eternal universe view.

As Richard Swinburne, the eminent Oxford philosopher, has written, “It is very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but rather more likely that God would exist uncaused.”1

The necessity of God is also defensible in the area of moral reality. To everyone’s relief, the New Atheists are very concerned with morality. They are not (by and large) a bunch of nihilists; they are not power-wielding Nietzschean types; they want to pursue the Good Life. This is very interesting, since atheism has no obvious moral programme and no obvious call to moral attentiveness. But it recognises strongly the desire of human beings to live well (albeit unwilling to name how badly we do it, atheists and religious people alike).

If we can philosophise about this for a moment, there is a strong argument that the moral impulse (and the regret at moral failure) are best explained by our sense of duty towards God and desire to please God.

Professor Keith Ward, recently retired from Oxford University, writes that human moral impulses, far from being mere hormonal surges and cultural conditioning, suggest a longing for an ” affinity with a higher reality of wisdom, joy and compassion”. He says that moral attitudes, such as obligation, compassion, cooperation, forgiveness and unselfishness, along with a sense of our own moral failures, are confirming of the existence of a morally purposing Creator. “[T]here is a way of seeing reality that is virtually already a form of belief in transcendent moral goodness.”2 In other words, if being moral interests you, you probably have some sort of idea of God.

C.S.Lewis held the same view, and I've always found it persuasive. It's not that atheists shouldn't live good lives, rather that the fact that so many of them want to is suggestive of a greater moral purpose in a greater consciousness that many of us call God. Even the fact that we often don't want to live as we feel we should suggests a greater moral Goodness of which we are already aware.

To want to strive to live a Good Life is an argument for the reality of God. And it makes God necessary, if we want to understand what Goodness is all about.

Greg Clarke is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

1. Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, 2004, p.152.
2. Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is A God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion Books, 2008, p.137.