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02/12/2014 07:51 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Is That the Best You've Got? Alvin Plantinga's Feeble Attack on Atheism

Widely regarded as America's leading Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, offers what are presumably his best arguments against atheism and in favor of Christian belief in a lengthy New York Times "Opinionator" interview published earlier this week. Its headline: "Is Atheism Irrational?"

When you consider that he has been at the top of his profession, has had a lifetime to prepare, and has recently published a book on these themes, it is quite surprising to see how weak his case is. Don't take my word for it. Let's plunge in.

Plantinga's first argument is that lack of evidence for God does not justify atheism, but only agnosticism. Sound reasonable? It might be, if his claim were merely that the universe we inhabit had a creator. That is indeed a proposition toward which we owe agnosticism. But theism does not merely assert a creator; it makes some quite distinct claims about God, a supernatural personage who not only created but acts in the world.

These claims have been the cause of endless battles, both philosophical and on the field of arms, but in Christianity there is a rough consensus about God: He's supremely perfect. His perfections are summed up in three traits: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.

But such assertions are refuted by the world itself. Long before modern science, the Greek philosopher Epicurus put the case:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Is it possible that Plantinga is a heretic? There are, after all, some who believe in a lesser God, one who feels compassion but is unable to prevent evil. Such a belief, while not compelling, is irrefutable. But no, Plantinga is a full-on Christian theist. Here's how he sums up the God story:

The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might -- e.g., having them boiled in oil -- God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

This is remarkable in several ways. First, Plantinga seems to forget that, according to the Bible, God behaved exactly like "some ancient potentate," commanding slaughter and rape, sending plagues, killing children, and, in a useless fit of pique, drowning everyone but Noah and his family. That good man Noah no sooner makes landfall than he gets drunk and curses his own offspring (leading to an infamous biblical justification for the enslavement of Africans). Some judgment.

Second, Plantinga seems to believe that the Christ story makes sense to those not brought up in it. Actually, the Gospels lack any coherent connection with their purported goal. Why the torture and hideous death of the son of God should put others "in a right relationship" with said God is anything but self-evident. If God is capable of putting one emissary in the world, why not one for every person? Why don't we all have a divine teacher?

Indeed, when you consider that most of the world knew nothing of the events on Golgatha for well over a millennium, and that those that did frequently behaved abominably, it makes no sense at all. The least an omnipotent being might have been expected to do would be to let everyone in on the story rather than wait for the rise of European conquerors and missionaries. Even today, less than half of humanity is persuaded of Christianity, and even those who are cannot agree on the meaning of "a right relationship" with God. Forget about omnipotence. Where's the competence in that?

Plantinga's answer is that perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds. Maybe if things were better in some regards, they'd be even worse in others. This old chestnut is what I call the "hidden higher good" argument. It conflates two very different propositions. One is the idea that to explain what we observe, we may be forced to invoke something unobserved. That is certainly so with many phenomena in nature. The neutrino has never been seen, but its existence is undoubted because we can measure the slightly reduced mass of a decomposed atom as it whizzes away, and we can see the occasional flash that it causes as it wriggles effortlessly through an underground water tank.

The other proposition is that we may invoke an unobserved phenomenon to create an alternative explanation for something we already observe and explain in simpler terms. This tactic violates a basic philosophical rule: that explanations should be confined to that which is necessary and sufficient. Once we know about plate tectonics, we don't need to invoke an angry god to explain an earthquake, or indeed the unceasing seismic activity of the world. (Never a dull moment.)

Similarly, once we grasp the basic rules of nature, including human nature, we don't need to reach for anything hidden to explain the presence of evil in the world. Evil exists because we have interests to defend (our lives, those of our children, plus our hopes and desires), and sometimes those are unjustly thwarted. That's what we call evil. It's that simple.

Change perspectives -- put yourself in the place of a mountain lion in a western state trying to make a kill to feed her cubs -- and you see evil in a quite different light. Change perspectives again -- see the world in the light of modern science -- and the "hidden higher good" argument falls to pieces. It's a philosophical sham.

Plantinga, however, is not done. Comparing atheism to "a-Moonism," he says just because we don't need God to explain earthquakes or evil doesn't mean He doesn't exist. (Unlike the moon, however, the only evidence for God is a feeling that Plantinga and some others have that He's out there.)

The philosopher tries to bolsters his case for theism with an appeal to science: the fine-tuning argument. It's true that many constants of nature have to be just so, or very nearly so, for a universe hospitable to philosophers and the rest of us to exist. But that mundane fact prompts Plantinga to proffer a whopper: "This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism."

First, it's a false choice. Remember, theism means a big guy in the sky (or at least a supernatural deity out there somewhere but active down here). Another possibility, one that occurred to Newton, Jefferson, and a host of other Enlightenment thinkers, is that the creator was an impersonal being who built the universe, wound it up, turned the key, and let it go. Plantinga cannot be unaware of this, so it's intellectually disingenuous to pit theism against atheism in the fine-tuning sweepstakes.

But even if those were the only choices, he's wrong. Atheism has quantum cosmology on its side, which points to a vast cosmic landscape in which every possible combination of constants plays out. Naturally, we are in one of the sets that is bio-friendly. This remains an unproven conjecture, but when Platinga claims that theism is vastly more probable, he is blowing philosophical smoke.

I have no wish to beat dead horses, so I won't go into his minor arguments. I hope, however, that you've seen enough to be persuaded that Christian philosophy, at least in Alvin Plantinga's hands, amounts to no more than Christian apologetics.