Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why I'm an atheist, redux

I want to lay out my specific reasons for being an atheist. There are a variety of issues that people bring up when objecting to atheism, and I'm going to lay out my objections to the objections. I doubt I'll hit on all the ideas out there, but I'll try to hit on most of the ones I've encountered. I'll also lay out my own specific reasoning. I won't bother going into the history of me becoming an atheist, as I've already done so on this site (it's not all that dramatic anyway).

Meaning of Life. 
I think this was the very first objection I ever got to atheism: "But if there's no god, then what's the meaning of life?" I have to say, I was honestly confused (I was young). My response was "Who says there has to be a meaning?" The question was, and is, a genuine one. We may want there to be a meaning to our life, one that some force greater than ourselves recognizes, but I see no reason to think that the universe is obliged to grant our desire. It genuinely puzzles me that anyone thinks that just because we want a particular thing, it therefore must exist.

Meaning, if it exists, is something that we provide to our lives. It's not something that is assigned to us from on high, but rather something that we must find or choose for ourselves. I suspect that the "meaning of life" will always be somewhat individual and subjective. One person may find meaning in being a father who raises ethical children, while another finds it in philanthropy, and so on, and so forth. But even if we cannot find something to give our lives meaning on our own, or with the help of other people, that does nothing to prove the existence of a god or gods, or any sort of afterlife.


There isn't much here that I can say that I didn't say under the "Meaning of Life" section. Whatever hope or comfort one believes is provided by a belief in god (or the afterlife) is no argument for the actual existence of a god (or an afterlife). I will note, however, that I do believe there are plenty of things for us to be hopeful about. As I said in another post
I have hope. I know there are many reasons that I have to be cynical, untrusting, and angry. But I also see people who work hard to make a world in which those reasons will be minimized, and that gives me hope. When I write about the things that I'm against, and that I don't believe, it is because of my hope that I do so, and not because of my anger. I have hope that those writings, and the actions and writings of others, will move us toward a brighter world. Science continues to advance our knowledge, and as such I have hope that the children of the world will have longer, healthier, and better lives than my generation, and the generations that have come before me. I do not know or believe that any of these things will happen, I have no faith in the future, but I most assuredly have hope.


The world isn't fair. Good things happen to the worst people, bad things happen to the best people, and innocents suffer while evil people prosper. And of course, sometimes the good people get all the best things, the evil get to suffer, and innocents are happy.

Many people want to believe that somehow there's a cosmic balance sheet, and the evil are punished and the good rewarded. It's an understandable desire, I suppose. I can sympathize. But I see no reason to actually believe it. I have yet to see anything in my life, in the news, in magazines, or anywhere, that suggests there are karmic forces at work. And before I can believe in any sort of afterlife, I'm going to need some evidence (other than the imaginings of oxygen starved brains, such as with near death experiences). That evidence has yet to make an appearance. Other than that, see what I said about hope and meaning. 

Pascal's Wager.

This is an argument put forth by a French philosopher named Blaise Pascal. To quote Wikipedia, 
It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or does not exist. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming the infinite gain or loss associated with belief in God or with unbelief, a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.)
First off, this is an argument for belief, not for the actual existence of God. Second, which god? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of gods that have been worshiped throughout human history. Get it wrong, and you could be in as much trouble as an atheist. Thirdly, and most compellingly to me, if the god you choose makes certain demands that are contrary to good morals (like, sacrificing your kids, killing homosexuals, keeping slaves, etc), then by following that god you could end being responsible for a great deal of pointless suffering and immorality.

I would rather try to understand what morality is, why specific things are immoral, and act accordingly, even if I risk an eternal hell by doing so. Any god that would send me to hell for that (and for not believing in them) doesn't deserve my worship, but rather my condemnation.

Objective Morality.

While I do highly suspect that objective morality exists, it is not objective in the sense that the speed of light or the gravitational constant is. It is not a fundamental law of the universe. Rather, it is something that can be discovered through the exercise of reason, much like mathematics. Consider that if I take one electron, and put it by another electron, I now have two electrons. It doesn't matter what one and one you're adding, you'll always get two. This is simply the nature of 1+1. It is simply the nature of numbers. It would be the same in any universe, with or without a god. Human minds are capable of discovering, through the exercise of reason and rigorous testing, further facts about numbers, developing systems of algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and other things I have no names for. Morality is likely the same way: something that is determined/discovered through the exercise of reason, and would, at a fundamental level, be the same regardless of the universe we find ourselves in (for one attempt at such an exercise of reason, please see the excellent work of Dan Fincke, especially this piece -- I've been studying his work, and am so far finding it compelling).

As regards morality coming from God, or God somehow being the source of morals, this seems incoherent to me. Presumably, an omniscient god would understand morality, but that's not the same as morality coming from God. That's more like figuring out what morality is, in the manner I've described, and perhaps then passing on what he/she/it/other figured out to those with less awareness and wisdom. If, on the other hand, morality is simply something he decides in a manner that cannot be explained reasonably, such that we could then say "oh, yea, that makes sense, you're right," then God's rules would merely be arbitrary, with no reason for us to listen other than, well, he's bigger than us. 

However, even if I'm wrong about objective morality, and it doesn't exist in any form, even if it's purely subjective and arbitrary, that is neither an argument for, nor against, the existence of God. Whether God exists or not simply has nothing to do with the nature of morality, and the nature of morality has nothing to do with God's existence.

Fine-tuning argument.
This is the idea that the universe is ideal for the existence of life, specifically human life. The argument goes that since the universe and the earth are so ideally suited to the existence of human life (ideal distance from the sun, right amount of gravity, nuclear forces just right for the formation of the chemical building blocks life etc), it must therefore have been created specifically for humanity.

In my case, this reminds me of a quote from Douglas Adams, author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
In other words, we evolved to fit the universe (and the planet) that's here. Had it been different, we would be different. 

Many argue that even the basics of any kind of life couldn't exist without the natural laws being exactly as they are. This seems a potentially good argument, but even this may not be true. Scientific American has an article discussing some work that's been done that suggests that life of some kind (just not "as we know it") could exist if not one, but more than one natural law were altered in certain key ways. It's been too long since I read it for me to attempt a proper summation, and it's sadly behind a paywall, but follow the link if you care to give it a gander. 

But even if that work is wrong (and it can't be proven or disproven at this point, and perhaps never can be), fine-tuning still fails as an argument for a creator (and by the way, if one accepts the fine-tuning argument, it still only gets you as far as a creator of some sort, not as far as any particular religion). It fails because . . . we could've just gotten lucky. Plain and simple.

Lack of Evidence.

I've been talking about a bunch of philosophical arguments, but none of them are the primary reason that I'm an atheist. It's even fair to say that they have nothing to do with me being an atheist, when it comes right down to it. The primary reason that I'm an atheist is very simply a lack of evidence for any sort of god. 

The most common type of god that I hear about is the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving god. But here's the thing: this world would not be the way it is if there were truly a god of that description in existence. An omniscient, omnipotent god could readily remove the suffering in the world, i.e., natural disasters, cancer, missing limbs, dementia, mental illness, food poisoning, and any other ailments both minor and major. An all-loving god that was also omnipotent and omniscient would have already done so, with no need for prayer or requests. 

But what about free will? Putting aside the argument about whether free will exists, and assuming, for the sake of argument, that it does, what the hell do earthquakes have to do with free will? And even in cases where suffering is caused directly by human action, like, say murder or rape, are you saying that the murderer or rapist's free will is more important than the free will of their victim(s) (who most certainly did not will these things to happen to them)? I'm going with "No" on this one. If we don't object to a cop or such stopping a crime, I don't think we can object to God doing so.

Some claim that God does interfere in these things, by guiding the cop or whomever to be in the right place and right time to prevent these things, or that he guides the doctors who are working on cancer, etc. There's at least two problems with these scenarios. One, this looks exactly the way it would look if God wasn't interfering, so . . . why posit that God is involved at all? There's no reason to. And two, where is God in all the situations where cancer doesn't go into remission, or a crime like murder isn't prevented? Simplest explanation is that God doesn't exist. 

In other words, I treat the existence of a personal god of the sort commonly described as a hypothesis about the universe. And a good hypothesis is one that can be disproven (not proven, but disproven). So, if any sort of personal god of the sort commonly described existed, the world would not look the way it does. The world as we observe it seems to appear just as it would be expected to look if there were no omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving being interfering in it. Thus, I conclude that there is most likely no god.

Since I probably can't leave this subject without talking about evolution, I'll mention a few thoughts on the matter. When Darwin first proposed his idea of natural selection, it was not immediately accepted by the scientific community. It had to go through the same rigorous testing as Newton's hypotheses and Einstein's hypotheses. Evolution has been observed in the wild, in the lab, and has even included the observation of new species evolving. For an excellent treatment of just what the evidence for evolution consists of, I can recommend the book The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins. It's well written, and makes no assumptions about the reader's level of knowledge about biology. If you prefer video, there's a series on YouTube by thunderf00t called "Why do people laugh at creationists?" Yes, there's some snark, but the explanations are nonetheless well done. 

Just a point or two you might find in those resources. I, and many others, have back problems (lower back, in my case). Back problems in general can be traced back to the fact that humans only relatively recently evolved the ability to stand and walk upright. Our skeleton did not originally evolve for it, but rather for four-legged locomotion, and our pains are the legacy of it not being fully adapted to uprightness. Sadly, it will probably remain that way, since there doesn't seem to be any pressure causing those with back problems to procreate less successfully than others. You can find similar things in humans and other creatures: structures in the body that have adapted from a previous function to either include a second function or to an entirely different function. In some cases, structures no longer do a damn thing for the species as it currently is, and have become vestigial (occasionally causing problems--tonsillitis, anyone?). 

Basically, if God had designed us 6,000 years ago, we would not expect creatures to look like they developed via short term solutions that worked just well enough to manage for now, but without long term planning. But that is what we'd expect if evolution's a fact. And it is what we see. While that doesn't prove evolution, it does provide evidence against the God Hypothesis. 

Here's the thing. If someone comes to me, claiming to have evidence that a god exists, then I'll want to see this evidence examined under the same rigorous applications of critical thinking that epitomizes good science. I will treat the claim as a hypothesis, which means I will first look for evidence to disprove it. Positive claims are the ones that hold the burden of proof, not the negative claims (i.e., "Bigfoot exists" is a claim that requires supporting evidence, while "Bigfoot probably does not exist" is simply the default, simplest position to take -- and Bigfoot is more plausible by far than God is).

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