The Consistency of Strong Atheistic Arguments
by Francois Tremblay
There is a somewhat common criticism about the consistency of strong atheistic arguments. More specifically, some people question the use of other arguments if noncognitivism is true. After all, noncognitivism proves that the word “god” is meaningless, and that religious language is gibberish. So how can we then turn around and use, for example, the Problem of Evil to show that evil disproves “god’s omnibenevolence” if “god’s omnibenevolence” is gibberish? Isn’t that kinda like demonstrating that the distimming of a gostach contradicts the rules of poultry treatment – a traipsing in make-believe?
Well, there is one difference between the distimming example and the omnibenevolence pseudo-property. We have a definition of what “omnibenevolence” means and, while it is meaningless, parts of this definition can be used in relation with facts of reality. This is actually what we do when we discuss “god” in other arguments.
Let me explain this with the property of Creator. When we use “a hypothetical god is Creator” as a premise, we are always using it in relation to a fact of reality, in this way:
- cause of – the universe
- cause of – all natural events
- prior to – the universe
And so on. “The universe” and “all natural events” are facts of reality that we can then use in deductions. We cannot use the pseudo-properties alone, because they are all either defined negatively or applied to a negative substance. For more on this specific issue, see “The Argument From Non-Cognitivism”.
Here is an example taken from my Problem of Evil variant. Here are the first four propositions as I wrote them:
- If a god exists, then it is Creator.
- If a god exists, then it is morally righteous.
- Given (1) and (2), a god would not have created a non-perfect universe.
- If a god did not create a non-perfect universe, we should not observe natural or human evil/suffering.
If we rephrase this in more “correct” language, we should get something like this:
- A god is Creator, which we interpret as: cause of – the universe.
- A god is morally righteous, which we interpret as: can only cause – best possible option if all decisional costs are equal.
- Creating a non-perfect universe implies:
- cause of – the universe.
- cause of – not the best possible option when all decisional costs are equal.
- A god would not have created a non-perfect universe.
As you can see, we can make perfect sense of atheological language without invoking meanings that do not exist. The translations are not all as direct as the Creator example. Secondary attributes cannot be translated alone. Omnibenevolence, for example, can only be used relationally when coupled with either “Creator” or “causal agent”. In this way, we get:
- Omnibenevolence is: causes only – good divine actions
- Divine action is: cause of – material event
- Omnibenevolence is: causes only – good material events
This is a simplified example (there are many ways to define divine action, for instance) but it shows how we can translate secondary properties.
In short, strong atheistic arguments (apart from noncognitivism) do not need to make the claim that:
1. The word “god” has meaning.
2. The pseudo-properties of the word “god” have meaning.
But rather that
3. Parts of the pseudo-properties of the word “god” can be used in relation with facts of reality. We can then compare the facts of reality in those relations with other facts of reality.
Claim (3), while much more limited than (1) or (2), still permits us to talk about “god”, insofar as “god” is agreed to have the pseudo-properties that are contradicted. If “god” has a given pseudo-property, and the logical consequences of that pseudo-property are incompatible with facts of reality, then we are justified to draw a conclusion of the type “gods do not exist” or “gods cannot exist”.
February 7, 2005