In his recent NYT Opinionator piece, On Dawkins's Atheism, Notre Dame's Gary Gutting writes, describing the "no arguments argument" of some atheists:
To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?
He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.
But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.
The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable to atheism.
I have a serious problem with Gutting's response to the Russell-Dawkins tag team. Gutting concedes far too much in his reply, namely, that it even makes sense to compare the claim that there is an orbiting teapot with the claim that God exists. Instead of attacking this comparison as wrongheaded from the outset, Gutting in effect concedes its aptness when he points out that, just as there could be (inconclusive) scientific evidence of a celestial teaspot, there could be (inconclusive) experiential and argumentative evidence for the existence of God. So let me try to explain why I think that the two existence claims ('God exists' and 'A celestial teapot exists') are radically different .
If someone asserts that there there is a celestial teapot orbiting the sun, or an angry unicorn on the far side of the moon, or that 9/11 was an 'inside job,' one will justifiably demand evidence. "It's possible, but what's your evidence for so outlandish a claim?" It is the same with God, say many atheists. The antecedent probability of God's existence, they think, is on a par with the extremely low antecedent probability of there being an irate lunar unicorn, a 'lunicorn,' if you will.
But this is to assume something that a sophisticated theist such as Thomas Aquinas would never grant, namely, that God, if he exists, is just another being among the totality of beings. For Aquinas, God is not an ens (a being) but esse ipsum subsistens (self-subsistent Being). God is not a being, but Being itself. Admittedly, this is not an easy notion; but if the atheist is not willing to grapple with it, then his animadversions are just so many grapplings with a straw man.
Why can't God be just another being among beings?
If God exists, then God is the metaphysical ground of the very existence of every contingent being, and indeed, of every being distinct from himself. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic purely spiritual being.
This is connected with the fact that one can argue from general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. There are also arguments from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides.
The very existence of these arguments shows two things. First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling.
People like Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not a physical being; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. In all three respects, God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.
God is a not a being among beings, but the very Being of beings. To deny God, then, is not like denying an orbiting teapot; it is more like denying Being itself. Or it is more like denying truth itself as opposed to denying that a particular proposition is true.
And the widely-bruited 'death of God?' It is an 'event' of rather more significance than the discovery that there is no celestial teapot (or Santa Claus, or . . . ) after all.