Philosopher Graham Oppy, whose book Arguing About Gods is well worth reading, has written an interesting survey of work by atheist philosophers over the last sixty years. Here’s a taste:
The last sixty years have been a very fertile period for academic atheist philosopher critiques of theistic arguments. Among large-scale works that have attempted to establish that theistic arguments are unsuccessful—i.e. not such as ought to persuade non-believers to change their minds—we should certainly mention: The Existence of God (Wallace Matson, 1967), The Miracle of Theism (John Mackie, 1982), Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Michael Martin, 1990) The Logic of Theism (Jordan Howard Sobel, 2004), and God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason (Herman Philipse, 2012).
Jack Smart’s contribution to his debate with John Haldane—in Atheism and Theism (2002)—was a natural development from the views expressed in his 1955 papers; but, by then, he had thoroughly rejected the idea that theistic arguments appeal to something deep-seated in our nature, and professed embarrassment that he had ever written such nonsense.
Apart from works treating theistic arguments collectively, there have also been attempts to provide thorough examinations and refutations of particular theistic arguments or families of theistic arguments, as for example, in The Cosmological Argument (William Rowe, 1975). Unsurprisingly, there are no academic atheist philosophers who suppose that there are successful theistic arguments, i.e. arguments that ought to persuade academic atheist philosophers to become theists.
Right on! Ontological arguments inevitably come off feeling like simple word games, while cosmological arguments are just as inevitably based on dubious metaphysical assumptions.
Still, it seems like a high bar to say that an argument is only successful if it compels someone on the other side to change his mind. I would think that no matter how good the argument either for or against God, it is always possible to retreat into mystery. Thus, a theist might agree that the prevalence of evil and suffering is hard to explain, but also believe that God provides a cogent explanation for so many other things that his inability to explain evil and suffering is not enough to change his view. Likewise, an atheist might have responded to William Paley’s argument by acknowledging that the complexity of organisms is hard to explain without God, but that atheism is so satisfying on other grounds that one mystery is not enough to change his view.
This becomes relevant later:
In 1979, in `The Problem of Evil and some Varieties of Atheism’ (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1979), William Rowe published an evidential argument from evil that replaced Mackie’s logical argument from evil as the canonical atheistic argument from evil. In the face of theistic responses—in particular, sceptical theist responses initiated by Plantinga and William Alston—many academic atheist philosophers have since retreated to the view that we do not yet have any successful arguments from evil, i.e. arguments from evil that ought to persuade believers to give up their theism.
Moreover, while some other arguments have risen to prominence—e.g. John Schellenberg’s argument from hiddenness, which was given its canonical formulation in his Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (1993), and Paul Draper’s various arguments from evil, starting with the one outlined in `Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists’ (Noûs, 1989)—there are at least some academic atheist philosophers who are sceptical that we yet have any successful arguments against theism, i.e. arguments that ought to persuade theistic believers to give up their theism.
Sceptical theism, as applied to the problem of evil, is the idea that our limited human perspective is such as to preclude our ability to comprehend God’s motives in allowing evil and suffering. This, to me, has always seemed like a very weak response to the evidential argument from evil.
First, it is essentially an admission that we do not, in fact, have any good explanation for why God allows evil and suffering. If you have a workable theodicy, you do not retreat to skeptical theism. Moreover, is it really plausible that what we perceive as great evil and suffering, of a sort that any of us would stop if we could, actually serves a higher divine purpose that no one has been able to conceive of? Are our moral intuitions really so untrustworthy, and is God’s reasoning really so deep and obscure, that we must accept this? I have a little more confidence in human reason than that. I think if there were compelling reasons to think that evil and suffering are necessary to achieve God’s noble purposes, someone would have come up with them by now.
Since there is so much that is mysterious in this area, I would tend to think of a successful argument somewhat informally as one that makes an advocate for the other side feel uncomfortable. I think the problem of evil simply has to do that to a thoughtful theist. I would say that Paley’s argument was such as to make an atheist uncomfortable in the early nineteenth century, though Darwin and those who followed him have entirely defanged it. Nowadays the fine tuning argument is the best that theists have, but this, I think, is just a much weaker argument than what Paley served up.
At any rate have a look at the whole lengthy article. It certainly provides a useful reading list!