A response to Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland
It’s one thing for a person to consider the arguments for and against God’s existence and choose atheism; but the claim that there is no reason whatsoever for belief in God is another matter altogether and one which many atheists would reject.
Recently, I took part in a debate at University College Dublin’s Literary and Historical Society (scroll to the bottom of the page to view the full debate). There was great interest with about five hundred students attending. The motion was that ‘there is no reason whatsoever to believe in God’. Four speakers, including Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland, proposed the motion while four of us opposed it. Michael and I debated the existence of God a couple of years ago, so it was great to have the opportunity to meet him again and take part in this very enjoyable event. Since Michael spoke after me, I didn’t have the chance to respond to his arguments, so I will make a few comments here. You can find Michael’s contribution here.
The first thing to note is that the motion was not that ‘God does not exist’, but the much more extreme claim that ‘there is no reason whatsoever to believe in God’. It’s one thing for a person to say that they have considered the arguments for and against belief in God and are not persuaded of God’s existence, but the claim that there is no reason whatsoever for belief in God is another matter altogether and one which many atheists would reject. I took the motion to mean that there are no plausible or good reasons for belief in God. Anyone who takes even a quick glance in the philosophy literature will discover that there are very detailed and sophisticated reasons presented both for and against the existence of God, with very notable philosophers (as well as scientists, historians, etc.) on both sides. The proposition bore a huge burden of proof since they were in effect claiming that none of these arguments provide any plausible or good reason for belief in God.
In opposing the motion, all we had to do was show that there was at least one such argument. In fact, I presented three: one based on the order in the universe as expressed in the laws of nature, another on the fine-tuning of various parameters necessary for life, and a cosmological argument based on scientific evidence for the universe having had a beginning. Although Michael spoke directly after me, he did not respond directly to any of these three arguments. Instead he offered some reasons against belief in God, which I’ll come to in a moment. The problem with this strategy is that one could accept that there are plausible or good reasons against belief in God, but that would in no way undermine the claim that there are also plausible or good reasons for belief in God.
In Michael’s opening comments, he focussed on a God who takes an interest in human beings, a God who wants to communicate with us and have a relationship with us. I’m not sure if I’m interpreting Michael correctly, but could he be suggesting that the sorts of arguments I presented are irrelevant to God’s existence since they don’t establish these aspects of what God is like? That would be a very strange position to take. Now, of course, as a Christian I believe that God does indeed take an interest in human beings, but there’s only so much you can argue for in seven minutes! Furthermore, it would seem pointless to focus on exactly what God is like before discussing whether there is in fact an intelligent creator and designer of the universe. It would be like a detective saying he wasn’t interested in whether a person was murdered and instead just focussing on what kind of person the potential murderer might be.
Now for Michael’s argument against the existence of God, which he also views as a kind of response to the fine-tuning argument. He spent quite a lot of time on this, but the basic idea is that the universe is vast, yet most of it contains no life, and it is very old, yet humans have only been around for a tiny fraction of that time. How is this supposed to count against God’s existence? Michael tells us that ‘God wasted’ almost all of space, almost all of the time the universe has existed and all the non-human species. Why does he think this? Because he thinks that God ‘is supposed to have created everything that exists for our benefit’. But this is simply wrong. First of all, why think that God wasted all this space and time? There’s no reason at all to think that an all-powerful, eternal God would be in a rush to create humans as quickly as possible or to create a small universe. Furthermore, there is no reason to think that God created everything for our benefit. That isn’t part of Christian belief, for example, so Michael is simply attacking a straw man. This is a very unusual argument against God’s existence and it really has no force at all. To make matters worse, the vast size of the universe may well be needed for humans to exist, so like the fine-tuning argument it may well support belief in God. As Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, puts it:
The very hugeness of our universe, which seems at first to signify how unimportant we are in the cosmic scheme, is actually entailed by our existence! This is not to say that there couldn’t have been a smaller universe, only that we could not have existed in it.
In light of these considerations, Michael needs to explain why he thinks the vastness of the universe in both space and time counts against the existence of God.
Michael also claimed that ‘Human life is as we would expect based on natural evolution. Not as the design of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, human-focused God.’ The assumption that evolution undermines design, however, is fallacious. Evolution depends on the laws of nature as well as on the fine-tuning of the universe (as well as requiring life to exist in the first place, a suitable planet orbiting a suitable star, and if it’s unguided evolution, a series of lucky accidents), which were two of the reasons I gave for believing in God in the first place. So evolution requires design!
Michael raised some issues to do with the problem of evil, in particular what is often referred to as natural evils such as earthquakes, tsunamis and cancer. This needs to be put in context. First, an earlier speaker for the proposition raised the problem of evil and I provided a brief response. Let me mention just two of the points I made. First, while much could be said in response to the problem of evil, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it does provide a plausible reason against belief in God. This would have no relevance to the motion that was being considered because it would in no way undermine the claim that there are also plausible reasons for belief in God. In reiterating the problem of evil, Michael failed to address this issue. Second, I pointed out that arguably the existence of evil provides a reason for belief in God. Why? Because it presupposes objective moral values and it can be argued that such values would not exist without God.
Michael responds to this in two ways. First, he claims that morality can be explained by evolution. The problem with this is that an evolutionary explanation of certain types of behaviour doesn’t tell us whether those behaviours are right or wrong. For example, let’s suppose that evolution can explain the existence of compassionate behaviour. Does that make it good? As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, evolution can also explain our xenophobic urges. Does that make xenophobia good as well? Clearly not. So evolution really is no help at all in trying to account for morality.
Michael’s second response is to attack the Bible which, he alleges, approves of rape. Apart from being incorrect, this is a red herring since it has nothing to do with either the moral argument for God’s existence or the debate as a whole. It is no part of the moral argument that morality is based on the Bible, but only that an appropriate foundation for an objective morality is required and that God provides such a foundation because morality is grounded in God. Evolution by contrast does not provide such a foundation for an objective morality for the reasons noted above. Attacking the Bible is just irrelevant to this argument.
In summary, I presented three main reasons for belief in God and Michael did not respond to any of them directly. Instead he offered some arguments against belief in God based on the size and age of the universe and the number of species. As we have seen, these arguments have no force whatsoever and, at least in the case of the size of the universe, might well count in favour of God’s existence. Michael also appeals to natural evils as part of his case against God, but I had already addressed the problem of evil and as part of that I had mentioned a fourth reason for belief in God based on morality. Michael’s appeal to evolution isn’t much help in this context and his attacks on the Bible are red herrings. So, overall I don’t think he provided any serious objections to my claim that there are good reasons for belief in God.
 Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers (Phoenix, 2000), p. 10.