Continuing on from last week I’m listing some of the more common reasons why many people fail to believe in gods or God. So far I’ve talked about different kinds of atheism, about evidence and how it does not lead to gods and about how god isn’t necessary to living. Alone each of these reasons may not be sufficient to reject belief in gods in the face of the reasons that people do have for belief.
This week I’ll look at some of the common proofs of god(s) existence and try to explain why they are not convincing enough for many atheists to make that leap of faith. This time I want to start off by saying that I accept that these arguments are enough to convince some, they just don’t convince me.
The Argument from Design
Many theists talk about the “totality of existence” being evidence for God. We live in a universe that seems perfectly suited to life. It is beautiful and apparently orderly, at least the rules of physics remain orderly wherever we look. Surely such a wondrous thing is proof of design? If we can infer design then there must be a designer and only God or the gods could have designed it. The argument for design says that the universe exists so God or gods must exist.
On the face of things this seems pretty reasonable. Well apart from the fact that the universe isn’t that beautiful or that orderly. Look at evolution for example and you see massive waste. Evolutionary dead ends have seen the extinction of 99% of all life that has ever lived on this planet. You see carnivores that have to kill in order to survive. You see lives snuffed out for no reason. You see suffering and death, destruction and torture at every turn. Human beings, supposedly the pinnacle of God’s creation, are wrought with flaws too numerous to mention. We are less created in God’s image than thrown together out of whatever working parts could be found.
However, even if the universe were a perfectly ordered and beautiful thing, and I’m not disputing that we can see beauty and order within it, even if it were perfect, why should there be a designer? Modern science has shown us that natural explanations exist for a wide variety of thinks we once thought of as designed. Laws are devised to explain the effects of gravity, theories are formed that explain natural processed like evolution or the chemical imbalances in the brain that lead to some mental illnesses. Gods offer no such explanations.
The “Ontological” Argument
The ontological argument uses logic and reasoning based on an a priori proof proposed by Anselm of Canterbury way back in the 11th century. It is an argument that seeks to put God in a place where He is necessary for existence.
- God is that entity than which nothing greater can be conceived.
- It is greater to be necessary than not.
- God must be necessary.
- God necessarily exists.
Ever since I first heard this I’ve always disliked it. I find it childish and silly and I really don’t see why anyone takes is seriously. That’s why I’m not going to bother with it beyond saying that you could apply this to anything at all. Simply substitute the word “god” for something else silly like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Eric the Time Travelling Viking. The “logic” then seems less compelling, doesn’t it?
The First Cause Argument
Unlike the ontological argument I actually like the first cause argument. Among my “real life” friends who hold to no particular religion but retain a belief in a mysterious “something” the first cause is a favourite reason. “Well something must have started it all off” they say and they are quite correct. If everything has a cause then the universe must have a cause. Isn’t it fair to say that this cause must be God?
Actually, no. If you want to put God up as a first cause then that is just begging the question of who or what caused God. If everything needs a cause then so does God. If God doesn’t need a cause then why does the universe? Saying that God is uncreated and perfect, that He somehow lives outside of the universe and outside of time, well, that isn’t satisfactory. It’s just begging the question again. If God was already perfect then what reason did he have for creating the universe?
Also, if the universe was caused why does that mean that God was the cause? Perhaps Odin was the cause, perhaps Ra, perhaps some unknown, natural process. There is room for doubt and lots of it.
Many believers assign properties to a creator in order to get the idea to fit their preconceived notions. For example some might say “if God is the designer, then He would have designed the natural processes by which these things are created.” How would we possibly be able to tell if that were the case? It is an unfalsifiable assertion. That isn’t objective and it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The truth is that we simply do not know what caused the Big Bang event (or last Big Bang event) and so it would be dishonest to claim to know. Perhaps it was a creator, perhaps it was an unknown but natural event. I’ve read some mind boggling theories about overlapping dimensions and quantum states of existence that try to explain mathematical ideas for a natural first cause. They make my head spin and I haven’t a clue if they are even close to the truth. However, at least they don’t rely upon an unverified entity.
Many theists assume a priori that their god exists and try to fit evidence around that assumption.
“If everything has a first cause” is an assumption based on powerful evidence. Everything we know has a cause but we’re not talking about everything we know, we’re talking about a unique event in space time that is beyond our experience and possibly beyond our conception. It is unrealistic to claim knowledge of this event and assign it to a god. What connection do you have to God that makes him the first cause? A 3400 year old collections of scrolls dealing with two distinct creation myths. Everything else has been assigned to God based on your presupposition that God exists.
If there are incorrect assumptions about God then we need to strip them away. We need to start afresh and reexamine the evidence and the ideas without assumptions. Not an easy task with thousands of years of culture and faith built on the back of earlier creation myths and earlier ideas.
The problem, of course, is that when we strip everything away we are left with nothing but our own thoughts. We are placed in the same situation as Descartes and must define our knowledge from a tenuous grounding. “I am thinking, therefore I exist” tells us nothing of the past or future. We must build on our reason with evidence and assumptions but keep in mind at all times that we may well be deceived by our assumptions or by bad evidence. Descartes use the ontological argument to escape this trap, something that I would consider a false assumption and some pretty circular reasoning.
I originally wrote this for Off the Map – Atheist in 2009