ARCHIVES:

Posts in this section were archived prior to February 2010. For more recent posts, go to the HOME PAGE.

2/07/2009                                                                                       View Comments

Why I Am An Atheist

Elephant in the room, part deux.Image by Cody Simms via Flickr

By Jeffrey Amos

The biggest reason I am an atheist is that I grew up evangelical and later rejected evangelical Christianity – that is the topic of my blog and will be overlooked here. But evangelical Christianity rejected doesn't imply atheism; in my case, non-Christian theist to deist to agnostic to atheist took from April '08 until October '08. Here, I will cover my reasons for being an atheist rather than an otherwise undecided non-Christian.

Atheism: What it Means

I need to first clarify what I mean by “atheist.” I don't believe in a God of any kind, or even see the existence of one as plausible, therefore I am an atheist. I don't claim to know for certain, and I can't prove God doesn't exist. I'm not an atheist in an absolute certainty sort of way, which is what some people still use it to mean.

Oftentimes, the definition of a word has a subliminal effect on how we think. Take the word “discipline,” for instance. It can be a verb meaning to punish misbehavior, or it can be an adjective describing one who behaves with great self-control. The subtle implication inside English is the idea that discipline leads to discipline. When we call someone “highly disciplined” this is a claim about their present level of self-control, not about the amount of punishment needed to become like that, but when this is said in English, this implication hides just under the surface regardless of if the implication was desired by the speaker. If this were false, this would be a problem in the English language. (Generally speaking, I agree with the idea subliminally reinforced by this homonym.)

An unfortunate misconception is caused by the word “atheist” meaning one who is absolutely certain there is no God. The problem is that it forces together the concepts of a particular position and absolute certainty. This causes a concept of unjustifiable arrogance to be automatically associated with the idea that God does not exist. A word is needed that merely describes the position and does not contain an implication of certainty. That word is atheism. The word's evolution into not carrying the implication of certainty is a needed linguistic change, but the change is only partially complete, and hence my embracing of the label is at the possible expense of misunderstanding.

Similarly, I am a capitalist. I'm not an expert at economics, I can't refute every socialistic argument ever put forward, and I might be wrong. But I'm still a capitalist, and this is not in tension with my lack of omniscience. I wouldn't want to call myself agnostic on matters of economics just because I might be wrong. I think capitalism works, I think God doesn't exist, I'm certain of neither, and I'm ashamed of neither. Therefore, I am a capitalist and an atheist. Only if the existence of God or the effectiveness of socialism starts seeming plausible to me will I call myself agnostic with regard to either.

One other misunderstanding of atheism is that it necessarily starts with the position that the cosmos is all there is. Some atheists do, but I do not. If I were to map out core presuppositions, conclusions just above those, the next level of conclusions above those, and so on, atheism would be very near the top. That is to say, very little that I believe rests on atheism – atheism rests on those other things that I believe. In particular, atheism is the conclusion that comes from the absence of reasons to believe in God. Richard Dawkins beautifully expressed this idea of atheism as a denial of others' claims, rather than as a positive position:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Why God's Existence Requires Defense

The one positive statement I will make that defends my atheism is that there are no good reasons to believe in God. I use absolute language not out of arrogance, but so as to have a target for theists (and agnostics) to shoot at. Agnostics have more wiggle room because it's perfectly fine if they feel the pull of several arguments for God's existence but don't think it's quite sufficient to believe. Think of my absolute statement as denying myself wiggle room so as to have an actual position that could be falsified by a fellow mortal.

I don't start with the existence/non-existence of God as a presupposition, and you shouldn't either. If there's an elephant in the living room you shouldn't have to believe in it on faith – if the elephant isn't obvious, it's not there. If it's not there, you shouldn't have to just disbelieve in it because it's too preposterous of a possibility to be worthy of consideration – if it's not there, you should be able to look and see that it's not there. How much more should this be the case with an omnipresent God, especially if he wants us to know him?

However, plenty of Christians do think God is obvious. Paul was among them, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” If I succeed in refuting the arguments for God based on creation, I have not only rebutted positive arguments, but I will also have shown biblical reasoning to be flawed.

The Key Idea

Before I address the particulars, I wish to belabor what I think needs to be the general idea behind “how do you explain X without God” arguments. The same idea will apply to existence, design, meaning, morality, free will, and probably dozens of others. In my opinion, this one idea destroys nearly all arguments for God in a single blow. (This idea does not refute most arguments for Christianity in particular, such as evidential arguments for the Resurrection, etc.)

I don't start with the existence/non-existence of God as a presupposition, and you shouldn't either. If there's an elephant in the living room you shouldn't have to believe in it on faith – if the elephant isn't obvious, it's not there. At face value, the argument from X rests on one claim, namely that atheists haven't figured X out, therefore they aren't looking at a big enough picture, therefore God. I can at least speak for myself in saying that for years I had this misconception. But this is wrong. For these argument to work, they also need to establish that theism doesn't suffer from the same weakness. Weaknesses in atheism are evidence for God only to the extent that theism doesn't have the same weaknesses. This point will come up over and over again, and I intend to repeat it au nausum as it is so often missed.

These arguments all rely for their rhetorical strength on the idea that it is somehow irreverent to try to understand God. I don't allow religion to impose a double standard on the discourse. Arguments for theism often consist of taking a bunch of things in the universe that we don't know, throwing them in a big box labeled “God”, and declaring inspection inside the box to be irreverent. Of course theists think the mysteries of life are not problems for their view! The problems are all hidden in a box that is not to be opened, because that would mean trying to understand God.

Pandora, be damned. I dare to peer inside the box.

Argument from Existence – Why is there something rather than nothing?

But why is there a God instead of nothing? If the existence of the universe demands a creator, why doesn’t the existence of a creator demand someone who created him? The only way to get around this conundrum is to assign to God some made-up property, like “necessary being,” “self-existent,” “not an effect, hence not needing a cause.” However, all these properties could just as easily apply to the universe as a whole. Perhaps this is a necessary universe, a self-existent universe, or the Big Bang was not an effect (there is no “before time”) and hence the Big Bang needs no cause.

Maybe God has one of these properties. But a need for one of them destroys the argument because a weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Design – Where did all this apparent design come from, if not a Designer?

So who designed the designer? A being capable of designing a world this intricate must be even more intricate than the world itself. To the degree that evolution is a good theory, atheism has a better answer than non-evolutionary theism. But even if the validity of evolution were nil, atheism would be on equal ground with theism regarding its ability to explain the existence of design. (Theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are on equal ground as well.)

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Meaning – How do our lives have meaning, if not in following God?

First off, the possibility that our lives have no meaning deserves serious consideration if the topic is truth, rather than what we would want to be true. The prevalence of extreme pain in the world gives a strong reason to think that some very harsh realities have to be faced. If the bitter truth is that our lives have no meaning then the argument fails.

In any case, how does God's existence have meaning? According to Christians at least, what we know of God's existence consists of seeking to be loved, seeking to love, and seeking his own glory. All of these are goals that mere mortals can seek for themselves without God. If meaning is to be found in the existence of the sort of God that Christians envision, then I too can create meaning in my life by living life.

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Furthermore, what is it about existence in heaven that is meaningful? The two perks are hedonistic (streets of gold, etc.) and relational (always being with the Lord/other Christians.) But this is not terribly different from seeking to create meaning in one's life through living life with other people and enjoying whatever time we have. How is being with the Lord meaningful while being with other people is not meaningful? If the problem is that a finite existence is not meaningful, then I am happy to be spared the experience of heaven, as it would then consist of an infinite sequence of meaningless existences.

Argument from Morality – How do we have a concept of “ought” (distinct from “want”) if not from God?

How does God have a concept of morality? If morality proceeds from what God wants, then from God's perspective, there is no right and wrong – only what he wants/conforms to his will. This takes away the possibility of genuine praise – he isn't any better than Satan in an objective sense, he's just on a different side. Also, if “good” equals God's whim, then if he had lied to us about his unchanging nature and ultimately decides to cast all believers into hell this would be every bit as “good” as what Christians think he's really doing. Surely, this idea of “good” has strayed so far from our intuitive concept of good, that our intuitive concept of good is not evidence for the reality of this counterintuitive concept of “good.”

If morality precedes what God wants, then I would like God to answer the Moral Argument: where did God get his concept of morality if not from another Higher God?

Neither side has an answer that results in the sort of transcendent morality that Christians claim to have. Either God has no morals, or the fact that God must have morals that don't come from himself shoots the argument from morality in the foot.

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Free Will – How do we have free will if not from God?

How do we know we have free will? As Dawkins recounted:

"'Tell me,' the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, 'why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went around the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?' His friend replied, 'Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth.' Wittgenstein responded, 'Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?'"

Similarly, I ask what the world would look like if it looked like we had no free will. I freely admit that this wondering challenges my own thinking as much as it challenges theism.

(I'll overlook the quantum physics answer outside this comment. It proves the logical consistency of free will and atheism, but leaves the actual existence of free will unknown. While very interesting, it is not needed to refute the argument.)

I'm sure you see where my second objection is heading by now... How does God have free will? Apparently, the reason a godless universe would have no free will is because such a universe would always follow its natural laws. But God always follows his own nature – so what's the difference? If God has no free will, it makes no sense for him to have the capacity to give the gift of something he lacks. As Calvinists show, even if God has free will, there are many definitions of free will and concepts of Sovereignty where we still don't have it. I will spare you the final repetition of the key idea...

Conclusions

With all of these questions, much more can and should be said. Just because evolution and abiogenesis are not needed to answer the design argument doesn't mean they aren't worthy of study. What is the meaning of life? Is morality absolute? Do the words “free will” even mean anything? All of these are worthy of centuries of analysis by philosophers and scientists. Surely we can do better than “42.” But as arguments for God's existence, I find that little is required to refute them. If you dare to look inside the God-box, you will see that theism fails to answer the questions that justified the idea of God in the first place.

Sometimes humanity does learn things that were previously unknown. Due to evolution, we do have a pretty good idea about the origin of much of the design on the earth. Many theists are working hard to resist these answers so as to keep this treasured piece of ignorance inside the God-box. If part of the question is answered, theists will have to find a smaller box. I'm tired of downsizing my box. I've gotten rid of it entirely and placed what I don't know on a shelf in full display. I would like to think that I could have figured out Thor does not exist even if I lived in a time before scientific descriptions of thunder existed. I wish to do the same with what remains unknown. Therefore, I am an atheist.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

No comments: