The Atheist Argument From Design

William Paley (1743-1805) argued that the appearance of design in the natural world suggests that it is the product of the intentional design of a creator, and therefore, a God probably exists. Paley asserted that in the same way that we intuitively conclude that a watch is the product of intentional design, even if we have no idea who designed it or when it was designed, we can similarly conclude that a complex piece of biological machinery like the vertebrate eye is also the product of intentional design—and that God is the best candidate for such a designer.

Recently, philosophers and biologists (such as Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson) have noticed that this argument is limited by the fact that it doesn’t take the possibility of evolution by natural selection into account. The process of natural selection is a designing agent, but not a deity. So the argument from design is a persuasive argument that many elements of the biosphere were designed, but it does not tell us whether the designing agent was a God (like Yahweh or Allah) or a naturalistic designing agent (i.e., natural selection). Thus, the argument from design is valid for arguing that a designing agent exists but is inadequate as an argument that God exists as the designing agent.

However, one could go a step further and argue that, if the principles underlying the argument from design are accepted, it might raise the probability that God does not exist. The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has recommended the following criteria for determining the likelihood that a given object was designed:

“An object designed for a given purpose must have certain properties to achieve its purpose, which are unlikely to have arisen by chance. The more numerous, complex, and interlocking the design features, the more compelling the evidence for their designed nature.”

(Wilson, 71)

What if we apply this principle to God? By many indications, the theistic God exhibits features of design. He is highly efficient at accomplishing the things he desires, such as creating a massive and complex universe, as well as creating a planet full of conscious creatures with whom he can interact. God is also fully equipped to have relationships and other meaningful interactions with his creatures. If God exhibits such highly complex features, we must consider the possibility that God is the product of design. The issue with this conclusion, of course, is that God is by definition an eternal and omnipotent being, and therefore not the product of design. God could not have been designed by a greater God, since there is none greater, and he could not have been designed by natural selection, since he is not a physical reproducing organism. So how can we account for God’s apparent design features?

One solution would be to assert that God is an exception to the principle of the argument from design—God is necessarily a special case of an undesigned entity who nevertheless possesses traits that would otherwise indicate design. This is a workable solution philosophically, but it does contradict the premise of Paley’s argument from design, and thus further undercuts the validity of Paley’s argument for God. Another solution would be to assert that God is not so specially equip to achieve his desires (the existence of evil might be one testament to God’s ineptitude), but most theists maintain that God is perfect in power, knowledge, etc., and so would reject this solution out of hand.

There is another possible solution: God does not really exist as an objective entity but is rather a concept designed by humans. If God is merely a concept, rather than a real being, there is no contradiction between God’s characteristics (as descriptors of a concept that represents nothing in reality) and the evidence that God was designed; we could reasonably expect humans to design a concept of a God who had all of the ‘design features’ that the theistic idea of God possesses. If we hold constant the principle of the argument from design, without making special exceptions, we can formulate an atheological argument from design that concludes that there is no God. This argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. Every object or creature that exhibits characteristics that appear to be designed for accomplishing specific goals was likely designed, and the more complex the object or creature is in terms of its ability to accomplish certain goals, the more likely it was designed.
  2. God is a complex being who exhibits many features necessary for accomplishing specific goals and therefore has a high probability of having been designed.
  3. If God is a real being, rather than a mere concept, then he could not have been designed, since there is no process or entity that could create an eternal and self-sustaining being like God.

  4. Since there is a high probability that God was designed, there is also a high probability that God is not a real being.


Paley, William. Natural Theology (Oxford University Press, 1802/2008).

Sober, Elliot. (2001). “The Design Argument” in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion Ed. by Mann, W. E. (Blackwell Publishing, 2001)

Wilson, David Sloan. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

3 thoughts on “The Atheist Argument From Design

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  1. Interesting argument. very cool way to show that humans are the designers.

    Theists also have the problem that this god is incompetent in design. This god managed to make our main source of energy, the sun, give animals, including humans, cancer. It also has managed to put the esophagus beside the trachea in humans, guaranteeing that thousands choke to death every year.

  2. I’m also inclined to think the God of Abraham is far to arbitrary an agent to fill the role of such a design agent. If (if!) we grant that these point to God (or a design agent), they certainly do not point to a capricious deity who uses occasional miracles to reshape his creation.

  3. I think it’s safe to say that the god of the bible underwent an evolutionary process based on human conceptions. He went from a limited family and regional deity that lived in the sky or on a mountain and was evolved into an omnipresent entity that existed within every in of the cosmos.

    I think the world as we see it is better explained by evolution than by design and religion is better explained by mankind’s desire to not be just another evolved species.

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