In a post from 2015, Thomist Bent explored what he termed was “The Unreasonableness of Atheism” It fell out of my Twitter feed and into my consideration. The first question asked by the author (by quoting someone who posed the same question to another atheist) is: What would it take for you to believe in God?
This atheist’s answer is a complete credible account of a supernatural ontology. Look, atheist activists on Reddit, Twitter and the like use a wide variety of techniques to poke holes or expose weaknesses in theist arguments. Many of these involve asking the theist to explain why they don’t believe in the tooth fairy, chupacabra, Loch Ness monster, etc. It usually ends in a special pleading argument by the Christian apologist. Your god may not be identical to the tooth fairy, but they share a necessary condition, they’re both supernatural.
Now, the author takes great effort to show that atheists are as unreasonable as the theists because they use ad ignorantiam arguments. The author claims atheists make ad ignorantiam to the non-existence of god(s) on the basis of a lack of naturalistic proof for the existence of god(s). After all, absence of evidence isn’t the same as evidence of absence.
The intellectually honest atheist would make no such claims. Atheists are acutely aware of ad ignorantiam (i.e. god of the gaps) arguments. This of course, has more to do with this author’s tacit concept of atheism as making a positive claim to the non-existence of god(s). Which is a straw man, for atheism makes no such claims. Atheism can only be the rejection of the existential claims to god(s) due to the lack of epistemically reliable evidence.
Some atheists have attempted to provide evidence of the absence of god(s). But these suffer the same problems as the evidence for the existence of god(s). And that is that there is no supernatural ontology available to either atheists or theists to make any evidence meaningful whatsoever. Forget about the existence of god(s) for a moment. The existence of a supernatural ontology is impossible for the theist to offer. Full stop. Without a supernatural ontology, god(s) cannot by definition, exist.
Of course, providing a supernatural ontology is the purpose for holy texts in the first place. (Interesting exception: Buddhist canon, which state explicitly that gods are the creation of man in many different places.) They are supposed to delineate the supernatural ontology which lay down the individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the existence of gods. Furthermore, they are aimed to give the reader a reasonable account of how the supernatural and natural interact. There are several problems with using holy texts as an account of supernatural ontology.
One example: Christian canon states that there are three metaphysically distinct entities which co-exist at the same time. If we follow the Bible, one of those is supernatural (god), one of those is natural (Jesus) and the other is both natural and supernatural at the same time (Holy Spirit). This is such a huge philosophical problem that Kierkegaard recommended the Christian “leap to faith” to accept it. Furthermore, there is the problem of how supernatural and natural entities can share the same identity, which is non-sequitur itself.
The answer Christian apologists offer is usually some variation of “because God wills it to be.” This is essentially punting the question of supernatural ontology. How does god will something like that to be? It’s the logical equivalent of God creating a rock so heavy that even his omnipotent self can’t lift it. It’s a logical impossibility.
The trinity problem is likely due to the human authors’ of the Bible lack of foresight as to this being a problem. A coherent supernatural ontology is required to explain the trinity. Doesn’t it then become an ad ignorantiam argument to say when asked “How does god pull off the trinity thing?” to answer “I don’t know, but he does.”
This is the real problem of theism: How does one establish a supernatural ontology that allows for interaction with the natural world in the ways required for god(s)? Especially in a natural world which is increasingly comfortable with epistemic ignorance of natural phenomena, and less reliant on supernatural explanations for mind-boggling phenomena.
It’s more than an evidentiary issue, it’s a conceptual one. God, by definition, is supernatural. A few philosophers have tried to circumvent this ontological problem with novel approaches. Spinoza, for example. He conclude from a handful of axioms that everything in the natural world is made of god-stuff, and that god doesn’t care about us whatsoever. This is an entirely naturalistic explanation for the existence of god.
Sadly, Spinoza’s god wasn’t acceptable to Christians or Jews (he was excommunicated from his Jewish community in Portugal as a result of writing The Ethics). It’s especially unpalatable to modern Evangelical Christians as their conceptualization of god requires an adherent to have a personal relationship with god.
Of course, there are inklings of a supernatural ontology in modern society. Take the trope of an 8-year-old surviving life-threatening surgery with a complete account about her time in heaven. Even if we assumed the existence of heaven for the sake of argument, an 8-year-old is cognitively ill-equipped to make to make any such observations reliable. Unless, she has some supernatural affinity, which would require a logically coherent supernatural ontology to explain, let alone verify.
Furthermore, if we take the 8-year-old at her word it still shows the problem of supernatural/natural interaction. For her body was on the operating table for the entire time, and didn’t disappear into a supernatural realm when the surgeons were operating on her.
The most frequent response to this trope involves a Cartesian substance dualism argument, which Descartes uses to establish a clear and distinct idea of God in philosophy’s first recorded instance of circular reasoning. Plus, Descartes never ontologically established (only epistemically established) his dualism except for his conjecture that the spirit/mind and the body interact via the pineal gland. (N.B. The purpose of the pineal gland is not trans-substantial mediation, but for melatonin production).Then there’s that whole parallelism thing.
This forces us to choose between two options. Whether the child somehow travelled to a parallel supernatural realm without a philosophically viable supernatural ontology to explain this. Or, we could attribute her experience to vivid dreaming, which is a widely reported side effect of surgical anaesthesia.
It is the intellectually dishonest theist who would choose the former over the latter. The central problem of theism isn’t proving the existence of gods, it’s helping themselves to a supernatural ontology that often, by their own definition, they can’t comprehend or provide proof for, empirical or otherwise.
Which is why the christian canon implores us to “Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on (y)our own understanding.” Because there is no way to make god available to people through understanding without a logically coherent supernatural ontology. Therefore, the faithful must unquestioningly trust to believe, or as Kierkegaard implored “leap to faith.”
A lack of supernatural ontology is also the problem with Anselm’s ontological argument. He helps himself to the assumption that god exists in the understanding without offering an explanation as to how god avails himself to the understanding at all. After all, it is quite possible that god exists not in the understanding, but in the imagination.
It’s also why champion apologist William Craig Lane avoids omni-descriptors in his version of the kalam cosmological argument. He uses words like ‘changeless’, ‘timeless’, ‘incredibly powerful’ to describe god. Lane is smart enough to not help himself to the omni-descriptors because the same metaphysical problems rear their head when using them.
One could rely on a Plantinga-like possible worlds modal logic to establish such an ontology. But such an attempt would certainly be fruitless, because to make such an ontology consistent with holy texts is impossible, even with modal logic. That has more to do with the source material than the modal logic.
The bottom line is that laying the claim of ad ignorantiam arguments against atheists is a disingenuous one. Clearly, one can reject a claim and maintain an attitude of epistemic ignorance without trying to fill the gaps of any argument, with the apparent exceptions of theists and apologists.
It’s an unavoidable ad ignorantiam argument for theists to lay claim to the existence of gods without a logically coherent account of a supernatural ontology. Not to mention a deeply rooted a priori problem with gods.