I’m new to this whole blogging thing, but I thought I would start off with a big post. A few weeks ago my nephew, who is an evangelical Christian of the progressive Jim Wallis type, not the neanderthal James Dobson type, asked me to explain briefly why I am an atheist. I wrote the following informal manifesto. I’d like to hear what some of you think, and maybe get some others to sumbit their own manifestoes. Thanks. Here goes:
If somebody were to ask me why I am an atheist, my first response would be “Why not?” I guess I would then pose a follow-up question asking why it is a puzzle. After all, almost everyone disbelieves in Zeus and Odin, and their disbelief is not considered problematic or in need of any special explanation. Everyone knows that the stories about Zeus and Odin are myths–admittedly fascinating tales, but clearly merely the products of the human imagination. Prima facie, the same thing would apply to Yahweh, the God of the Bible. The stories about this god grew in the telling, just like the Norse and Greek myths, as Karen Armstrong details in her History of God. In short, any reason that we would have for thinking that Zeus and Odin are cultural constructs would seem to apply just as well to the tribal god of ancient Israel.
When asked for reasons for thinking that God exists, most people reply with amateur versions of the first cause or design arguments. For most people, even philosophers like William Lane Craig, the idea that the universe “came into existence out of nothing” is just absurd. After all, in our ordinary experience things don’t just pop into existence or spontaneously disappear (except socks in the washer and car keys). As Craig puts it somewhere nobody would expect a full-grown Bengal tiger to just materialize out of thin air. In short, from nothing comes nothing. However, this reasoning is fatally flawed. Our common-sense expectations about things coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space/time universe with all its conservation laws in force. We have no experience at all of the beginning of space/time itself, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that our everyday intuitions would apply to such a situation. If the physics of the last century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions simply might not apply to the realities studied by fundamental physics. You and I cannot be in two places at once; an electron can. I have no intuitions at all about the beginning of space/time, and if I did I would not trust them.
Besides, the statement “out of nothing comes nothing” has rhetorical but no logical force. It is an instance of how people, even philosophers (who ought to know better) are misled by surface grammar into thinking that a statement says something that it does not. When somebody says “before the big bang there was nothing,” this creates the misleading image of a vast cosmic emptiness into which, miraculously, a universe spontaneously appeared. But this picture misleads because the statement seems to be saying that there was once a something, which we call by the name of “nothing” which existed prior to the universe, and was the sort of receptacle or matrix within which the universe was generated. But “nothing” is not a ghostly, empty something. There was no “nothing” for the universe to come out of. When somebody asks “What existed before the big bang?” it is wrong to reply “nothing;” instead, we should say “There wasn’t anything prior to the big bang.” Putting it this way avoids appearing to reify nothing, i.e., turning it into a mysterious something and so creating a pseudo-mystery about how that mysterious “nothing” generated the universe.
As for the intuition that, surely, everything had to have a cause, Bertrand Russell gave the best reply: If everything has to have a cause, then God had to have a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might as well be the universe as God. For theists, God is the uncaused first cause; for atheists it is the universe itself, or perhaps the initial singularity or whatever it was that existed at t = 0. I simply defy theists to give me any reason whatsoever why it is more reasonable to take God as your ultimate brute fact than the original or fundamental features of the physical universe.
Well, what about the apparent design in the universe? Isn’t it just too complex and orderly a place to have come about by sheer chance? But of course, the plan-or-chance dilemma is just a false dichotomy. There are many well-known instances of how complex order spontaneously arises from the impersonal, mechanical operation of simple laws and natural processes. Indeed, Darwin was just scratching the surface with the discovery of natural selection. Matter may have seemed inert and passive to the scientists of Newton’s day, but now we are increasingly aware of how marvelously self-organizing nature actually is. From a few simple laws, which at rock bottom may be purely probabilistic, we now can explain how ascending levels of ever-more-complex organization can arise.
Generally, people who offer the design argument now usually present it in the form of the “fine tuning” argument. It goes like this: Had the basic constants of nature been ever so slightly different, then no universe like the present one, certainly none capable of sustaining complex intelligent life, would have been possible. For instance, had the gravitational constant been weaker by even a billionth part, then the big bang would have not been able to generate galaxies, but only an ever-expanding attenuated gas. Since, obviously, we are much more important and interesting than attenuated gas, so the argument goes, there must have been an original Fine-Tuner who set up the gravitational and other constants so as to permit the existence of splendid beings such as ourselves.
The problem here is that I simply cannot see any reason to think that ultimate facts have any probability at all, high or low. When we judge probabilities in ordinary life, we appeal to all sorts of other things that we know–ultimately to the laws of physics. But what do we appeal to in order to say that the laws of physics themselves are unlikely? The fine-tuning argument holds that there is an infinitesimal chance that, say, the gravitational constant has the value that it does. OK, so the value of the gravitational constant is very, very unlikely to be what it is given…what? To what background do we appeal in making our assessment of probability here? To the laws of physics? But the laws of physics will either entail that the gravitational constant is exactly what it is, or they will be wholly irrelevant. What, then, underlies our judgment that the gravitational constant is extremely unlikely? The fact that we can imagine it having all sorts of other values? But it is always possible to imagine an infinite number of ways for things to be different than they are, but this does not make what does exist in the least unlikely. I can imagine the moon made out of cheese (or marzipan, or Lego blocks, or play dough, or…) but this does not make it the least unlikely that the moon is what it is.
If someone insists that, nevertheless, we are very, very, very lucky–impossibly lucky–to have a universe as “life friendly” as the one we inhabit, and therefore there must have been a supernatural fine-tuner to set things up, I have to ask “Why doesn’t that same reasoning apply to putative supernatural beings?” Why is it, that of all the ultimate supernatural beings that might have existed, we were so impossibly lucky as to get one that was a personal being who, amazingly, just happened to want creatures like us? Out of the innumerable types of imaginable ultimate supernatural beings–the vast majority of which either would not or could not have cared about us, or could not have created us–we had to be impossibly lucky to get the benevolent fine-tuner we did. Well, maybe the fine-tuner had a further fine-tuner that created him (her? it?). But this puts us on the road to an infinite regress. The only alternative is to take it as a brute, inexplicable fact that we got a supernatural being with just the right combination of powers and desires to get us. But if we say this, what is the advantage of this line over taking our present “finely tuned” laws of physics as a brute, inexplicable fact?
The most popular arguments for God’s existence therefore seem to me to have no force at all. Add to this what seem to me good reasons for not believing in God. It seems to me that if there were a God, he would have revealed his existence, nature, and will in so clear and unmistakable a manner that no honest and reasonable person could go wrong about those essential facts. After all, God is not supposed to be the aloof “watchmaker” of the deists, but a caring being who desires, above all things, that his creatures should know and love him. Therefore, he will not let his children stumble about in the dark, vainly searching for the light, but will give them sure guidance to this vital knowledge. But it is a simple and undeniable fact that perfectly reasonable and honest people do not see any reason to believe in God, and many of those who do can find no common ground to resolve their differences about his nature and will. There simply is no unmistakable revelation that is so clear and obvious that every rational and honest seeker is led to the right answer. To say that there is, just goes against the plain facts.
Then there is the problem of evil. Theists, of course, have long maintained that God has good reason to permit the evil that occurs, or, at least, that we cannot be sure that omnipotence cannot bring good out of even the worst evils. Well, I cannot say with absolute assurance that omnipotence will not someday, somehow, in some currently incomprehensible and inconceivable manner, bring justifying good out of all the evil that occurs. But let me tell a story: I saw a thing on a nature program about a huge colony of pink flamingoes, somewhere in Africa, I think, that hatches its eggs next to a big lake in the middle of a desert. While the chicks are growing, the lake dries up. When the lake has largely dried up, the chicks, which cannot yet fly, have to march across a hundred miles of desert to get to a body of water that will sustain them. So, 50,000 chicks start off across the desert. Along the way, the adults try to help them, but can only do so much. As they march, the chicks often are weighed down with huge balls of mud that get stuck to their wings and finally get so heavy that they cannot walk. Some years, not a single chick makes it across the desert. After seeing this, it occurred to me: Only a lunatic would plan something like that. Now, theists will say that, nonetheless, there is a good reason that the flamingo chicks have to die in this absurd and fantastic way. All I can say is that it seems to me mad, perfectly mad, and I just cannot make myself think that there is some sublime plan that will make it all work out for the good. Therefore, I cannot accept that there is a perfectly good and all-powerful being that will make it all work out someday.