The theist-atheist debate on God as an explanation reduces to two positions: on the theist’s side, God is the best explanation for why there is something (the universe) rather than nothing; for the atheist, God does not exist so he or it could not possibly be the best explanation for anything. This distinction nicely captures the perspectives presented by Christian philosopher and theologian Randal Rauser and atheist activist John Loftus that we will review here (1). If you want a quick rehash of what the terms “theism” and “atheism” mean, please consult my other entry on worldviews.
The Theistic Position
The theistic position posits God as a cause for the “whole shebang” or why there exists something rather than nothing. According to Rauser, there are two types of causes that sufficiently account for all events: event causation and agent causation. According to event causation, one event causally contributes to another event. According to agent causation, an agent undertakes to cause an event and this undertaking causes that event. Examples are easy to think of: a rockslide slipping down a precipice that destroys a helpless forest below is event causation because it was caused by one or more events (rain the night before dampening the Earth causing the soil to lose its rigidity that in turn caused the rockslide, which itself destroyed the forest). Agent causation, moreover, best describes a cup of coffee sitting on a table. Someone put on a kettle, boiled the water, put granules in a mug with milk, combined these items together, and produced the coffee. An agent, rather than neutral and geological processes (like rain and landslides), explains the coffee on the table.
In positing God as responsible for why there exists something rather than nothing, the theist is positing agent causation. God is the agent and the universe, planet Earth, human beings, and all varieties of biological life are the products of God’s agency. And just as a farmer whose fence located at the bottom of the hill was destroyed by the rockslide would want an explanation for what caused it, so do we want an explanation for the origin of the universe that we know occurred 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang. According to cosmology, the universe sprang into existence out of nothing. But what best explains this? The theist maintains that the best explanation is a creator who brought the universe into existence. One recent formulation of the theistic position is in the Kalam Cosmological Argument as popularized by Christian analytic philosopher William Lane Craig (2):
P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
P2: The universe began to exist
P3: Therefore, the universe has a cause
Theists like Craig maintain that this argument supports a cause to the physical universe of space and time. Upon further reflection, it leads a person to God when he begins postulating the nature of the cause in P3. For example, since space came into existence in the Big Bang, the cause must be spaceless. Time also came into existence at the origin of the universe, so the cause must be timeless and eternal. And since the universe is so immense and intricate, the cause must be extremely powerful. Craig also maintains that it must be personal because it created moral human agents. When these postulations are combined, the theist contends that one gets to a causal agent that is strikingly similar to the God of biblical religion.
The Atheistic Position
Atheists have taken various positions on the origin of the universe, many of which appear notoriously problematic. Some have resorted to positing an eternal universe that has always existed, others claim that the universe created itself by bring itself into existence in some way, or, which is probably most common, is that the atheist claims not to know and finds this a tenable position. Atheist John Loftus maintains that we do not know why the universe exists; he explains,
“The best answer to the existence of the whole shebang is that we do not know fully—yet. Until science helps us solve this problem, we shouldn’t pretend to know. The ancient Ptolemaic model of the geocentric universe (i.e., solar system) was a complicated monster. What if people in that day simply said we don’t know whether the sun or earth was the center of it all? Before Isaac Newton, what if people simply said we don’t know how objects move?… Why should these answers not be considered good ones?” (3)
At the very least, Loftus maintains that this is a superior position to positing God as an explanation,
“Compared to the “God did it” answer, they would have been the best answers—as we now know. The onslaught of modern science has solved so many mysteries it makes our heads spin. The God explanation has suffered so many huge hits that it’s surprising anyone continues to tout it at all… Christians either argue from the gaps in scientific knowledge or they don’t. If they do, then they are arguing from ignorance (a known, informal fallacy), contrary to the success of science as it closes previous gaps only to uncover more of them. If they don’t, claiming instead that their God is merely the sustainer of creation, then God plus the universe looks indistinguishable from a universe without God at all. In either case it seems apparent that the God explanation is one we can do without as either based on ignorance or in rendering superfluous.”
Objections and Counter Responses
Rauser objects to Loftus’ view arguing that he misunderstands the role of science. Science, maintains Rauser, can “study the universe once it exists, but it can never explain what brought it into existence” (4). If so, which seems to be the view of scientists (that science is best at studying the physical, natural world), it is mistaken to claim that science will one day explain what caused the beginning to the universe since whatever the cause was is beyond it. This is not to merely plug God into the picture as envisaged by Loftus’ “God did it” charge; instead, “you reason not from a gap of ignorance but rather from the only type of cause known to be capable of producing the observed effect [of the universe]: an agent of great power. If that looks a lot like God, then so be it.” Rauser also charges that Loftus holds to the same type of faith that he chastises in religious people: a blind faith. But rather than this being a blind faith placed in God, Loftus places it in science by invoking “mystery and a misbegotten faith in the absolute power of science” that it must have the answer (5).
Another common atheist objection to the theistic explanation is to ask “Who created God?” as surely God also requires an explanation for his existence as does the universe. Why exempt the one and not the other? However, theists find this charge misplaced in light of what they call metaphysical necessity. God or the universe’s Creator is a metaphysically necessary being that stops a vicious infinite regress because without such a being we could not escape such a regress and therefore be able to explain anything. Rauser explains,
“… if we appeal to an event then we have to explain all the events prior to that event, and this leads to an infinite regress of causes that ultimately explains nothing. In addition, it is wholly ad hoc since we have no experience of infinite causal regresses. Finally, it offers no explanation of what caused this mysterious, infinite, causal series, and thus it is really a pseudo-explanation. This dilemma recalls the father who explains to his son that the earth rests on a turtle (an event cause). Then when his son asks what the turtle rests on, the father replies that its turtles all the way down. Even if appealing to an infinite series of event causes manages to satisfy the curiosity of a child, it is not adequate as a metaphysical explanation of the universe” (6).
As such, the theist contends that we arrive at a metaphysically necessary being/agent/creator. To say that this being is metaphysically necessary is to say that it cannot not exist simply because it is in its nature to exist. A human being, for example, is not a metaphysically necessary being because it is possible for him or her to not exist. If we rewind evolution a billion years back, perhaps human beings would not evolve at all in the way they have, or perhaps in the future humanity will wipe itself out in biowarfare. By contrast, the metaphysically necessary being cannot at any point not exist, and it must be the origin of all other phenomena that exist. It is the only tenable way to avoid a vicious infinite regress of explanations.
Loftus, however, remains unconvinced saying the “only pseudo-explanation is the God explanation…” and he raises additional questions he presents as difficulties: “To suppose this agent is a spiritual being who was timeless before creation actually makes things worse. When did this agent ever get a chance to choose his or her own nature or learn what he or she knows?… How did this nonmaterial agent create a material universe out of nothing unless there is some aspect that this agent shares with a material world? How did a timeless being create the universe in time, since the very decision to create it would be simultaneous with the act of creating it? (7).
Few theists in this debate will deny that these are important questions, but one might wonder if raising additional questions like these (which have been the substance of theological thinking elsewhere) in the form of an objection solves the dilemma Loftus’s atheism faces in having to explain why anything exists rather than nothing. But whatever position one decides is superior, it is clear that the theist and atheist perspectives continue to be the substance of much passionate discussion.
1. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. God or Godless. Baker. p. 61-68
2. Craig, William Lane. The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Available.
3. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 64.
4. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 66.
5. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 67.
6. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 63.
7. Rauser, Randal., and Loftus, John. 2013. Ibid. p. 66.