Apr/May 2001 Miscellaneous

The ABC's of Atheism

by Gary Sloan

Among the public, misconceptions about atheism and atheists abound.  To dispel all the confusion, one might have to write from now until kingdom come.  I'll touch upon only a few fundamentals. The difference between theism and atheism can hinge on subtle distinctions omitted here.

For anyone interested in a detailed exposition, Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Prometheus Press) is scholarly and thorough.  George Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God (same press) is probably better for the novice. 

The term “atheist” is correctly applied to anyone who doesn’t believe supernatural entities exist.  According to this definition, those who equate god with the totality of nature, as did Baruch Spinoza, Walt Whitman, and Albert Einstein, are atheists.  So are agnostics: fence-sitting doesn’t constitute belief. 

The word loses some of its horror when hyphenated: “a-theist.”  The prefix “a” means “without.”  “Theist” is from “theos,” Greek for “god.”  So the literal sense is “without god.”  All babies are atheists.  Later, at least in America, most become theists when they are told that God (usually the culturally dominant one) exists and that they would do well to worship “him.” 

In personality, a cross section of atheists looks much like a cross-section of theists.  Some atheists are gregarious and chatty, others quiet and retiring.  Some are studious, others mindless.  I had rather hobnob with a reflective theist than a dumb or obnoxious atheist.  Perhaps civility should be accorded the reverence some reserve for deity.  In any case, a well-versed theist sometimes gives me something worth mulling.

Atheism has two varieties, sometimes called “weak” and “strong.”  In the weak form, atheists don’t try to prove God doesn’t exist.  The burden of proof is on the theist.  When theists present their evidence for God (if they have any), the atheist either deems it compelling and becomes a theist or rejects it and remains an atheist.

In the “strong" variety, atheists try to show that one or more gods, as defined by the theists, don’t exist.  Before atheists can do so, the theist must provide a testable concept of God.  If, for example, God is described as an omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing) being, the atheist can show such a god can’t exist. The concept is nonsensical, like a square circle.  Since what an omniscient being foresees must occur, this god could not, even if he wished, alter the events he foresees.  Conversely, an omnipotent being cannot be omniscient since omnipotence would enable him to do something other than what he foresaw.

For believers in free will or hell, divine omniscience raises additional problems.  The will cannot be truly free if God foresees all future events.  The popular distinction between foreknowledge and foreordination is fallacious.  If God knows you will be asleep at noon tomorrow, you cannot, try as you might, be awake at that time.  Your subjective sense of choosing is a delusion.  If, as some believe, many wretched souls go to hell, an omniscient God would be remarkably uncivil.  He creates millions of people who he knows beforehand will eternally suffer.

The theist might say God is the being who created the universe.  The atheist shows that no evidence exists that the universe was created.  One can prove neither that the universe was created nor that it has existed for eternity.  To verify the claims, an observer would, in the first case, have to be older than the universe or, in the second, have existed longer than eternity.

The so-called First Cause argument—since the universe exists, somebody had to create it—has more heads than a Hydra.  When cosmologists bandy the possibility that the universe popped into existence as a result of quantum fluctuations (oscillations of particles in "empty" space), theists see an opening for a personal creator.  The cosmologists offer little encouragement.

When physicists like Stephen Hawking, Leon Lederman, and Steven Weinberg (all Nobel Prize winners) speak of "God," they (like Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg, and Edwin Schrodinger before them) are referring to the laws that govern natural phenomena.  These laws are mathematical constructs that say more about the numerical adroitness of mathematicians than about a hypothetical creator. 

Cosmology aside, the First Cause argument has a fatal logical flaw:  It is as reasonable to ask what caused God as what caused the universe.

Today, the most popular argument for God adduced by theists is that of Design.  Since Nature, the argument runs, exhibits a high level of order, someone (God) had to impose that order.  It couldn't have come about by the random movement of matter.  The argument is a favorite with both creationists and theistic evolutionists, aka intelligent design theorists (IDT).  Creationists allege that complex organs like eyes and wings couldn't evolve from rudimentary precursors.  To be functional, they had to be created fully formed. 

The conviction betrays an impoverished imagination, unable to appreciate the developmental effects of minute, incremental organic modifications occurring over millions of years.It is astonishingly unobservant.Half an organ, one-hundredth of an organ, is better than no organ.  While cataract sufferers who have had their lenses surgically removed can't see well without glasses, they are considerably better off than the sightless.  Although an animal without lenses can't focus an image, it can detect the looming shadow of a predator and take evasive action.  While animals without wings can't fly, some can glide.  Between their joints, they have flaps of skin, fractional wings, that have survival value.  If they fall from a tree at a crucial height, the flaps offer air resistance that can mean the difference between life and death.  Over an eon, minute modifications can dramatically change the appearance and function of an organ.  But, at every stage, the evolving organ has utility.  In The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable, famed evolutionist Richard Dawkins covers the territory well.

Intelligent design theorists maintain that the inception of life from nonlife (abiogenesis) is too improbable to have occurred through fortuitous natural processes.  Because of the improbability, design theorists, like most Americans, maintain that abiogenesis required divine intervention.  "The finger of God," said the late Brian Silver in The Ascent of Science, "is certainly a tempting way out."  Silver resisted the temptation. He says the emergence of a living cell may be less miraculous than it now appears.  Perhaps matter has an undiscovered self-organizing principle that conduces to life.  Or maybe scientists are making the wrong assumptions about conditions on the prebiotic earth. 

At any rate, statistical improbabilities are notoriously deceptive.  In retrospect, everything that happens can be viewed as massively improbable.  What are the chances your father would impregnate your mother with the particular sperm from which you are derived.  Trillions to one.  Toss a coin thirty times and record the sequence of heads and tails.  Now, toss the coin another thirty times.  The chances of your duplicating the first sequence are one in a billion.  Do 150 tosses and the odds of duplicating the sequence are 10 to the 45th power (10 followed by 45 zeroes).  If everybody in the world flipped coins for the rest of their lives, they would have to live about a billion years before anyone replicated your sequence of 150 tosses.  They might allege you couldn't have done it without supernatural assistance.

One can't logically argue that because something highly improbable happens, some occult force had to make it happen that way.  The genesis of life on earth certainly seem remarkable, all right.  So does the genesis of water and clouds.  But, as Steven Weinberg commented, "In a big universe, accidents will happen from time to time."

Whatever their pretensions to objectivity, design theorists, like biblical creationists, are usually impelled by religious sensibilities.Why they should find the concept of a Designer comforting, rather than unsettling, is perhaps best explained by depth psychologists.

If a Designer exists, “he” can certainly be intelligent, but, according to human standards of morality, it is an intelligence directed to ill.Nature is a huge killing field rocked by ceaseless internecine combat.  Living creatures spend much of their time ripping other creatures apart or trying to avoid being ripped.  Billions of people have died agonizing deaths from genetic flaws subtly shrouded in the innermost recesses of their DNA molecules. The list of ailments that afflict humans and other animals is longer than an anaconda.  No human imagination is capacious enough to grasp the quantity of excruciating pain that animals, including humans, have endured, generation after generation, throughout what Shakespeare called the dark and backward abysm of time.

If, as many theistic evolutionists allege, the purpose of evolution is to produce us, why the long prologue? Why not bring us onto the stage immediately, an easy feat for omnipotence, and forego all the preliminary sound and fury? And why not provide incontrovertible evidence of a teleological scheme, of design not explicable by Darwinian adaptations? The concept of Design raises more questions than it answers.If theists are honest, they will admit that given four billion years and unlimited power, they could do better than their hypothetical Designer.

So their concepts of God can’t be refuted, theists often resort to vague definitions.  God becomes “the ground of all being” or “the ubiquitously infusive spirit of love.”  Since these propositions can be neither verified nor falsified, they have only emotional or psychological significance.  As someone remarked, they are not even wrong, just meaningless.

Today the buzz phrase for and among theists is “people of faith.” Fideists, the traditional term, believe god withholds unambiguous evidence of his existence so as to test their faith, to see whether they will believe anyway.  For some, the more credulity required, the better.  The atheist thinks faith of this sort smacks of pusillanimity and, more importantly, is lethal to any hope of understanding the true nature of reality.  Too often, people have faith in whatever makes them feel good.

As one would expect, atheists think all gods are products of the human mind.  They reveal a lot about human hopes, needs, aspirations, and fears, but nothing about the universe outside the believer’s mind.

While I understand the psychological allure of theism, I don’t think the evidence points to the existence of a supernatural God or that belief in such a Being is a precondition for a meaningful and gratifying existence.


Previous Piece go to forums Next Piece

What did you think?