Who are the best defenders of atheism? Where can one find the strongest defenses of atheism?
I get asked those questions from time to time, and they’re good questions, so I’m going to offer my own answers (for what they’re worth) in this post.
First, however, a few observations and caveats. For the last couple of decades, Christian apologists have tended to focus on the so-called New Atheists, most notably the “Four Horsemen” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. There’s good sense in that. Among proponents of atheism, those writers receive the most attention from the public and media, whether or not they deserve it. They’re the loudest, most entertaining, most provocative, and most influential voices for the atheist cause in the public square. They’ve had a significant impact in promoting anti-religious skepticism and turning people away from Christianity. I continue to hear stories of ‘ex-Christians’ who say that reading The God Delusion or God Is Not Great shook their faith “to the core” and eventually destroyed it. I’m always taken aback by such reports, because I’ve read those books too, and there’s precious little in the way of serious and substantive argument in them. (Dennett is the most intellectually serious of the Four Horsemen, but he doesn’t so much argue for atheism as just take it for granted.)
But here’s the thing: the New Atheists are hardly the best and the brightest of contemporary atheists (despite Dennett’s unironic attempt to self-advertise as “the brights”). Their criticisms of religious beliefs do need to be refuted, of course, but as I’ve said before, that’s low-hanging fruit. The most sophisticated and formidable arguments in defense of atheism, and specifically for naturalism, come from academic philosophers, particularly those who specialize in philosophy of religion. They’re trained in logic and critical thinking. They’ve studied the scholarly literature. They’re well-versed in the arguments for and against the existence of God, both classical and contemporary. They actually know what they’re talking about.
I should make a few other prefatory comments before I share my answers to the questions. Obviously I don’t think there are any sound arguments for atheism. If I did, I would be an atheist! I don’t even think there are any good arguments for atheism, i.e., arguments that provide rational grounds for denying the existence of God. There are various reasons why I say that, some of which have to do with my evaluation of the most respectable arguments for atheism, and some of which have to do with broader epistemological considerations (e.g., what I hold as foundational presuppositions and what I take to be the criteria for rational beliefs).
Some Christians take the view that there are good arguments both for and against the existence of God, and therefore both theism and atheism can be rationally justified. I don’t share that view, for a combination of Van Tilian and Plantingan reasons. Bottom line: if theism is true, then belief in God is rational and non-belief in God is irrational; if theism is false, then there are no objective epistemic norms, in which case no belief-states are rational or irrational. Either way, non-belief in God isn’t rational. (No, I’m not going to rehearse the arguments for that conclusion here; that’s for another time, but see the addendum below.) I suspect that most of my atheist friends will find this stance irritating, perhaps even insulting, but I don’t mean any offense. I’m just being honest about where I land, all things considered. Better to be candid and risk offense than to be inoffensively equivocal.
All that said, I can readily acknowledge that there are some very sophisticated and even intimidating arguments for atheism, and there are some very intellectually formidable defenders of atheism. (There are, of course, many intellectually formidable unbelievers, but not many of them are impressive as defenders of atheism.) So without further ado, here are the five I would place in the top rank, along with pointers to some of their most significant writings in defense of atheism and/or naturalism.
Graham Oppy (1960–) is Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, Australia. He earned his PhD from Princeton. To my mind, Oppy is the #1 defender of naturalism and critic of theism at this time. He specializes in philosophy of religion and is a prolific scholar (see here for his publications). He’s written a number of books on the subject of atheism, but his major academic work on arguments for and against God is Arguing about Gods (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Oppy has engaged in semi-formal debates with Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Edward Feser, and other Christian philosophers, many of which can be found online if you search for them.
Jordan Howard Sobel (1929–2010) was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto for 28 years. His book Logic and Theism (Cambridge University Press, 2004) is an absolute beast: 600 pages of dense text, loaded with symbolic logic and technical argumentation. Not for the fainthearted! Catholic philosopher Robert Koons described it in his review as the best book of its kind since J. L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. Hard to disagree, unless you think Oppy’s Arguing about Gods has the edge. (Oppy’s book is certainly more accessible.)
Michael Tooley (1941–) is professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His PhD is also from Princeton. He’s one of the leading defenders of the argument from evil (see his article on the problem of evil and his book-format debate with Alvin Plantinga). Tooley has debated William Lane Craig at least twice, in 1994 and 2012. (I had the pleasure of attending the second debate.)
J. L. Schellenberg (1959–) is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University and gained his doctorate from the University of Oxford (you might have heard of it). Schellenberg is best known for his development and defense of the “argument from divine hiddenness” (see his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, Cornell University Press, 1993) which has generated an impressive amount of discussion and debate (see here for an overview).
Paul Draper (1957–) is Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University. He has published widely on the philosophy of religion (see here) but is best known for his defense of the so-called evidential argument from evil, especially this early and influential paper. Draper has engaged in debates with William Lane Craig (here) and Alvin Plantinga (here).
Finally, although it isn’t a defense of atheism per se, the book Philosophers without Gods (Oxford University Press, 2007) is a useful collection of essays by academic philosophers in which they give their own accounts of why they’re atheists and how they try to make sense of life from an atheistic perspective. It’s the kind of intellectually serious book to which Christian apologists ought to give some attention, even if they also have to engage with the polemical screeds of the New Atheists.
Did I make any conspicuous omissions? If so, let me know in the comments.
Addendum: Some folk have asked me, understandably enough, to say a bit more about my “Van Tilian and Plantingan reasons” for thinking that non-belief in God isn’t rational. I plan to write more on this in the future, but for now, see here, here, and here.