This post is in part motivated by Matt Barber's article, The Fool Says 'There is no God' published on April 23rd, which essentially argues that atheists are fools because we don't realize that the Big Bang and life on earth prove there is a God. Sure.
Sometimes it surprises me that I have written so little on the issue of atheism in this blog. After all, it is not only one of the most controversial issues in history, but in my youth, anyway, it was a leading ideological division between me and other people starting in the second grade, even if of no real practical importance. And though most of my friends and family could care less (especially anymore), some occasionally do, although not to the point where anyone ever stopped being friends. Still, I can be at least a little reluctant to tackle the issue. The main reason is that even among people I know well, sometimes it upsets them to hear what they believe is reasonable and important is not seen the same way by me. Some see it as a challenge to their beliefs (I've heard that said). Maybe it shouldn't bother people, but we know it can.
But those are friends or people I know relatively well. In the world at large, people care a lot more and some can be a bit rude about it. Some are even murderous, but that's not what this post is about. At least, when I read online I find an awful lot of columnists, bloggers and commenters who are quite concerned with atheists, Matt Barber's article being a good example. According to many of them, we atheists are not only fools, but have no morals or values either. Of course, I have spoken with religious people, and heard religious leaders speak on the topic who think no such thing. But, I am also aware that when Pew and Gallup take polls on what ideologies or ethnicity would cause them to rule out voting for someone for president, more would vote for any ethnicity and any religion than for an atheist. Atheists do worse than even homosexuals and sometimes Muslims. The bias is that deep. Go to Pew or Gallups websites or http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm, if you find this hard to believe.
Fortunately, not thinking much of atheists doesn't regularly translate into violence in America, with threats of it only a little more common. If people do find out I am an atheist, most aren't overtly troubled, but some tell others that they feel sorry for me or look down on me (and those people obviously tell me) but others try to convert me.
Once in a blue moon I am challenged to informally debate the issue. I have never had one of these debates go bad, that is, degrade into an argument, though it has frustrated some of those in the conversion mode. If I do debate it, I usually say to whoever I am debating that I have no interest in changing their opinion -- and I don't -- but will defend my own. But, I do understand that they often very much want to change my opinion. The charitable view is that they are trying to save my soul. A more cynical view is that they find my lack of faith uncomfortable. It varies person to person. Rarely though, do I find other people who are as curious as I am about what other people believe without having the added motivation of proselytizing to them. What can I say? It's a hobby.
Admittedly, I am careful about the way I say things in a religious debate. I know that people are less sensitive about issues that can be proved in some way or another (Was Mickey Mantle no. 7 or 9? Google it) and much more sensitive about those they can't really prove at all, such as religious matters, politics or who was a better quarterback - Bart Starr or Johnny Unitas?
Following are just some of my thoughts on atheism, shorn of my usual reluctance. I suppose I could make more detailed arguments, but, for me, atheism is not a difficult question. It's simple.
My basic premise
God is an assertion that a Supreme Being, or at least something like that, exists. It cannot be thought or argued, even if it is accepted on faith, without making that type of assertion. Atheism, to the contrary, does not necessarily require asserting anything, although an atheist can assert the negative position as a matter of belief. But, someone could theoretically grow up and never hear of or consider the issue of the existence of God. They would be an atheist by default, but not believe in God all the same. It is no different than that someone who has never heard of the idea of life on other planets does not have to assert that it does not exist in order not to believe in it. Again, to the contrary, to believe in the existence of anything, including God, you have to have a positive or active thought that it exists.
It is axiomatic that no burden can logically be required to prove a negative existence except in a closed system where you can measure sufficiently to rule out existence (I just made that last part up, but it sounds right to me), and I will not try. It would be fruitless. But, I certainly can claim that the proofs of God's existence that I have heard have never been sufficient for me to believe in something of which there is no evidence (and below I will get to some of the claims that there is evidence).
This is a logical argument that has been around for about a thousand years. Some hold that it is the best proof of God. I don't get it at all. Since, it is a logical argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion should be true. The premises are so far from rational that I do not think one needs to even argue that they aren't true, though they are not in my view. I disagree that it is truly a logical proposition at all. I do not think it follows any of the basic axiomatic logical principles that we generally agree upon (such as - If p then q: p therefore q).
Many philosophers have bought the ontological argument, some tinkering with it a little, but many others disagree. Perhaps Bertrand Russell was right when he said that it was not very persuasive to the modern mind, but it was easier to say that it was wrong than to say how. But I don't think so. It is so filled with flaws as to be almost preposterous. Because there are a number of versions of it, varying in degree of complexity - Gödel's, for example, is just ridiculous - I have to pick one. So I will go with the original, of which all the others are variations. Anselm held that (I took this from Wikipedia):
"1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
6. Therefore, God exists."
I think you could argue that each and every one of these propositions is false or at best may be true only because it is a tautology (the premises are the same as the conclusion). For example, take 1: This is not necessarily everyone's understanding of God in the first place. It is merely one understanding of God. Indeed, there have been arguments within the Christian religion itself whether some aspects of the trilogy are greater than other parts. If that argument is taken as true, it would be harder to argue perfection (though they do anyway). Second, we can easily conceive of a being greater than God simply by believing that a being created God but itself did not think it necessary to create the universe that it could have. This is actually existing Hindu theology as well - Vishnu creating Brahma who created the world (not generally what you would learn in college or some other texts about them, but one version of their mythology or theology). Or we could conceive of a being who could create a superior universe and have even reigned supreme over God (rendering God a Lucifer), but deemed it superior to allow God to destroy him or simply remained inert as God created the world and heavens.
And so you could argue the falsity with each of his five premises, though I do not want to go on forever here. But, if you look at the list closely, the logic falls apart anyway, which is my main point. The conclusion (no. 6) is not at all based upon its premises (nos. 1-5) the way this classic example is: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. There is simply no logical imperative that God exists simply because we cannot conceive of something greater than God. Also, it is a tautology because God's existence is already made part of the premises from no. 1 through 5, but especially in 3 - which explicitly states that God is real. It comes almost as a self sustaining conclusion which he could have given after any statements he made, almost a deux ex machina.
I agree with Karl Popper and others that eventually all philosophic arguments can be reduced to common sense or axiomatic grounds which we cannot prove. And on common sense grounds, the ontological argument falls apart, as shown above. For instance, Premise no. 4 simply makes no sense whatsoever because a) there is no such thing as an objective definition of reality; b) there is no objective definition of "greater," a concept which only exists in the mind; (c) one cannot conceive of something which does not exist only in the mind and we cannot tell ever whether anything exists outside the mind. I recently made fun of some obtuse writing by A.J. Ayer, a philosopher. In the book I had quoted from, he argued that we can know that things exist outside our minds. But, when you read what he writes closely, you have to recognize that it is simply on - as we lawyer's like say - his own ipso facto.
This is a far more substantial argument than the ontological one because it cannot be disputed that all of our experience and sense tells us that everything must be created at some point in order to exist. We know of no example for which we can say with any authority that this is not so. This argument can also be presented in several ways, but simplest is perhaps to ask why there is something rather than nothing? It is an excellent question. Where did all this come from? Must there not be some first cause?
Excellent as the question is, it cannot be answered. And, it is inconceivable, unless there is some way to witness a second creation, that it can ever be answered unless we are all subject to what is usually termed revelation.
Of course, believers propose the answer - God did it. But, I ask then, if that is taken to be the answer, how was it accomplished? Because if we cannot know that, then we cannot know at all that it is so. It is neither evident, nor claimed by a Supreme Being to us, and the circumstantial evidence points only to God if you already believe it based on faith. I would say that God is an appropriate answer only if the meaning of God is "I don't know."
For as Hume has pointed out, we cannot witness causation. We only can know that one thing regularly follows another. In this case, we cannot even witness the former event - whatever was or occurred preceding creation. And it presents a paradox. For, if a deity existed prior to existence, then existence preceded existence, unless we say that God did not exist. If God did not exist, then it could not be first cause. And, as been asked many times by many people, if God created the universe, where did God come from? If the answer is God always existed, then why couldn't the universe have always existed? More, if God and the universe are identical, what special meaning does God have? These are far more logically certain than the ontological argument. Yet, the questions are (must be) dismissed by all those who argue that first cause is proof of God.
Of course, the faithful are usually comfortable with paradox and mystery. So, they don't mind.
But it's all so complex
Here's the theory. The world, the universe, all of it could not be so complex, were there not a designer.
Is it really that complex? It's not even a real question. Complexity is purely a human construct. It does not exist, on this planet anyway, outside of the human impression that something is hard to comprehend because there are more aspects to it that one can easily arrange in one's mind. Unlike a person, a dog or an even an ape may not be able to comprehend some thing or concept, but it doesn't recognize that its inability is due to something intrinsic in the nature of the thing that puts it beyond the comprehension of its mind. Only humans, as far as we know, have this self awareness.
If humans are, so far as we know, the only creatures in the universe capable of the notion of complexity, were to be wiped out -- certainly not an impossible situation -- would that make the existence of God more or less likely? Of course not. Therefore, complexity cannot be proof of God. It can't possibly have any effect on the question any more than the existence of humans can have an effect on whether a planet or a fern exists. It is just bogus argument that sounds good, but is entirely illogical.
Or, if you want to presume that out of the (likely) billions of solar systems in the universe there are not only other intelligent beings out there, but some which may be much more intelligent than us, it doesn't help the theist argument at all. Because the argument would then again rest on the relative intelligence of two beings -- just as it did with human intelligence and that of a dog or ape. And that really makes no sense at all.
Very often God is asserted as a matter of revelation. That is, either the believer relies on personal revelation by God or reliance on his revelation to others. This cannot be easily combated and I don't really try. It is arguably the opposite of science, which is the most powerful tool we have to discover what is not true and a better approximator of what is true than anything else of which we know. Science is dependent on independent verification or falsification (depending on whether you agree with the Circle of Vienna or Karl Popper, and these days, Popper won), documentation and rigorously controlling variables, among other things. Revelation has no rules other than those imposed on themselves by whomever is the recipient of the revelation. No documentation need be made and certainly no verification or falsification is possible. In what other type of decision would we reasonably allow this to be considered proof?
The same argument of personal experience is made with other things which are not in common experience, such as with UFOs. I have several friends who swear that they have seen flying saucers. In one case I know an entire family that says they saw one together and I don't disbelieve them. In fact, right in front of me another person who grew up in the same town as them claimed that she saw the same phenomena and their stories matched. Since they knew each other it may just be that she had heard the story before and later remembered it as though she experienced it herself (I've seen this many times in life). What I believe in their case is that they experienced something which they interpreted to be a UFO or their belief was aided by priming and imagination.
And I readily acknowledge that I have had my own experiences when I lived in Virginia which seemed like there was a ghost in my house which were very hard for me to dismiss as just my imagination (particularly while they were ongoing). I also had a momentarily terrifying moment in Gettysburg where I felt like my arm was being lifted up in the air as I fell asleep. But, I do not really believe there was a ghost in either place. I think in the former case there were natural explanations, probably mostly the wind. It was a drafty old house. Though the light switch going off in the ghost's room while I was in there, and just that once - is a little harder to explain. Well, and the doors repeatedly opening as I approached. Oh, and the garbage can swivel top moving. Hmmm. I said it was hard, but I really do not believe it. Anyway, in Gettysburg I told myself I was dreaming and I fell immediately asleep, to awake early the next morning as usual, all in one piece and alone. Others in turn can (and have) laughed that I refuse to accept as true what they see as a reasonable conclusion of interactions with ghosts. But even were I convinced by my own experiences, I cannot experience what someone else says happened in their head or privately to them.
There are all kinds of revelation. There is that which comes either word for word or as inspiration to a Moses and Mohammed or the authors of the Vedas, etc., which are very detailed. There is that revelation which simply seems to the recipient to say "I am." And there are other people who simply experience a feeling and believe they understand it as the presence of a deity or the deity. None of these convinces me because I cannot know they are true. I am assuming they were genuinely experienced just as I know that I experienced something in Virginia and Gettysburg, even if only in my mind.
But, for obvious reasons, personal revelation or reliance on someone else's revelation cannot serve as proof for someone else, however satisfactory it is to a believer. And a free choice to believe someone else's revelation cannot serve as evidence of truth either. If it could, then completely opposite things could be true at the same time since one person can believe it and another reject it. Even were technology sufficient to see someone's thoughts as they occurred, would it change anything other than verify that they were telling the truth as to what they are experiencing? If we could not see the source of their "voice," how would we know how to differ it from imagination or even psychosis.
And, not least, how do we deal with contradiction, which is virtually inherent in revelation? For it is likely enough that every revelation particular is contradicted by another person's revelation experience; even something as simple as feeling a presence - which asserts several things about a deity - it can be felt; it is mobile, at least into a mind; it has a will to be felt; it responds to a person's beliefs/heart/soul or favors an elect group, and so on. Each of these beliefs can be contradicted by another's revelation as to what constitutes God.
None of the above means that revelation, whether first or second hand, isn't good enough for the believer. And, they can argue also that none of it means it is not true. There is no possible logical rejoinder to that.
I may have made fun of Ayer, who I mentioned above, but he was considered by some the greatest 20th century English philosopher after Russell (not by me though). He argued that the question of God was unverifiable, so it was meaningless. In fact, he considered any religious debate meaningless because it was unverifiable. Therefore, he argued, he was not even an atheist, because it was pointless to discuss it. Like much he wrote, there is some logic to support him, but in my opinion, he pressed it too far in stating that one could neither argue that God exists nor that God does not exist. Because, if we cannot have arguments about what is unverifiable, at some level, we cannot argue about anything. And absence of certainty is the whole point of arguing. Even a philosopher may step down off his pedestal and have an opinion that cannot be verified. If we only had opinions, even very strong beliefs about only that we can verify, it would be a very quiet and boring world. Besides, what was unverifiable, might become readily so.
I would call his position intellectual pompous anyway, as eventually he did come to refer to himself as an atheist later in life. However, supposedly he had a dream before he died where he saw a Supreme Being. I say pish posh, and his own son had doubts it happened that way in any event. http://variousenthusiasms.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/did-atheist-philosopher-see-god-when-he-died-by-william-cash/ (I am laughing at myself now, because I put that website there thinking someone might care enough to read it. But, really, how many people would care enough to read about what some old philosopher claimed to experience when he was probably dreaming?)
And I am sure there are those who would like to point out that we cannot measure or detect gravity either, but we do not doubt its existence. From this they continue that just because we cannot detect or verify God does not mean God does not exist. Well, that is certainly true. But, there is a big difference.
There may not, in fact, be a thing called gravity. Perhaps it is an interaction we little or cannot at all understand. But we certainly can directly experience it by jumping up in the air or even standing and observing and comprehending it in the motion of the planets and stars. When we say we believe in gravity what we are really saying is that we believe in the experience of it. Whether it is a thing, like a pen or an interaction of the universe in a way that is beyond us may be determined in time, but that it may be a complex being beyond our common state of knowledge and intellect is no more proof of God than anything else.
Is atheism just another faith?
I do not know when this idea was first proposed, though I have heard it offered many times in recent years. I think it is entirely wrong. Faith implies a belief. In order to have faith, one must have faith in something.
All knowledge relies on some kind of faith if you reduce it far enough because at some point we just can't know things through experience. We have to accept that certain things are what philosophers call a priori, that is, we know them before we experience them (like, arguably, 1 plus 1 = 2).
Why then can it not be said that atheism, like theism, is simply a faith like a religion? The answer is because one - religion or faith in a deity - is an active decision to believe in something (even if not consciously) and the other is simply a recognition that you can't prove something or everything.
There is a great and unalterable difference between believing in something without (sufficient) evidence and not believing in something when there is no (or insufficient) evidence. But, I have learned over time if people do not or will not see the difference between these two things, there is no point in trying to argue it.
Ad hominem arguments
Arguments against the person are not really arguments but fallacies. Yet, they are more often used by many to try to prove the existence of God than anything else. I keep an informal list of insults I receive online when I argue politics because it amuses me to do so. The other day I was called a "hit and run troll," which really means, of course, that the writer did not appreciate that I disagreed with what was obvious to him and found it unsettling that I can't stay online all day like many of the regulars on that website. But, it had nothing to do with the difference in opinion we had.
I have heard throughout my life many reasons people assert why they thought I believed or did not believe something. Among them are because I wanted to be different, I liked to shock people, I am a lawyer, I was a psych major, I was a liberal or conservative, a jerk, just wanted everything to be in the middle and so on.
There is no problem with discussing any of those things. We can certainly discuss someone having a recognizable political or religious philosophy shared by others and then the discussion is about them (or me). Few people like to be labeled, though some do, and we all feel sometimes that we are being labeled unfairly. Me too. But, that's not what really bothers me. What I find frustrating is when the personal quality is substituted for the argument we are discussing. There is a difference between arguing about someone's typical mindset and using it to prove a point about something unrelated. But, I really don't think everyone gets that because they argue with me about the difference too. I remember not to long ago a fairly intelligent person looking at me bewildered at the idea that whether someone was a liberal or conservative might be a genuine object of debate, but whether they were one or the other could have no bearing on whether health care reform was a good idea. To her the two were precisely the same.
It is, of course, not fun to have someone point out that you are engaging in a logical fallacy and if you do, be prepared to have your target spend time trying to prove that your arguments are fallacious too. Ad hominem arguments are a distraction and in my mind, almost an admission of defeat, but it is also just the way the world is, and I am long used to it.
I heard my favorite ad hominem attack on me when I was 13 and it involved whether there was a God or not. Two friends, neither who I am friends with as an adult, explained to me that the reason I did not believe in God (and did not get bar mitzvah'd) was because I was immoral. Oh. It was that time I came upon a tactic that I thought was brilliant but has never seemed to do me any good whatsoever. I suggested that they presume that I was the worst of all people in the world, and that once we accept that, we should move on to discuss the topic. Didn't work then, doesn't work now. My personal immorality seems to answer the question for them.
"Aesthetics" is what I like to call the dumbest branch of philosophy, dealing with beauty and taste. Come on. One man's brilliant sunrise is another man's headache producing burning pile of hydrogen and that is all there is to it. Of course there is such a thing as beauty in itself, but it is merely what appeals to us and there are many reasons for it doing so. Einstein would argue that you could know when a scientific theory was true because it had a beauty to it, and that also was dumb. Smart as he was, Einstein thought and believed dumb things just like everyone else.
Nevertheless, some people urge aesthetic arguments as if they were proof of God. I am far from immune to their appeal. There are many things I love, for example, about the Old and New Testament, particularly the stories and the language. There is a tremendous appeal to the idea of a human soul - something which I am certain will never be measured or scientifically detected (at least, validly such that we can replicate the experiment) because it does not exist. The idea of a soul can be beautiful, but, if you want to view it differently, you could make quite ugly stories about them too and this has been done as well.
When I discuss whether there is a God with people, and particularly with women, I find the question of an afterlife comes up. Don't I want, I am often asked, to believe that there is life after death? My answer is, well, sure, especially if it comes with guilt and consequence free eating. But, wanting something to be true does not make it true either.
During my whole life myth has had a tremendous appeal to me. It is possible that the reason is nothing more than that one of the first books my mother taught me to read with was Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Few of my brothers and sisters share this love with me at all. In fact, with the exception of my one deceased brother, the idea of fantasy seems completely unexciting to them. My oldest brother describes watching The Lord of the Rings as one of the most boring things he has ever done in his life and his son joined him in it. I find myth so appealing that I literally feel sadness for those who cannot enjoy it and think that they would if they gave it an opportunity. I am well aware that there are those who feel that way about me and the concept of God, which is not a large step from myth. In fact, it is a tiny, almost imperceptible step. Yet, the aesthetic appeal of myth to me - even of Jehovah walking in the garden - does not translate into belief at all. If it did, as I explained to my mother when I was very young, I would as soon believe in Athena or Odin as I would Jehovah. But, the gods and goddesses were make believe she told me, and God real. I didn't buy it then. I don't buy it now.
But, feel free if you like.