The ABCs of Atheism
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: GSloan@liberator.net) [November 10th, 2000]
Among the public, misconceptions about atheism and atheists abound. To dispel all the confusion, I would have to write from now until kingdom come. Here, I'll touch 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. Many excellent Web sites are available, including SecularHumanism.org and AmericanAtheist.org.
“If god is described as an omnipotent and omniscient being, the atheist can show such a god can’t exist. 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.”
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, Giordano Bruno, 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 roast.
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), eager 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, Neils 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.
The most popular argument for God currently adduced by theists is that of Design. 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. This conviction betrays an impoverished imagination, unable to appreciate the developmental effects of minute, incremental organic modifications occurring over millions of years.
“As one would expect, atheists think all gods are products of the human brain. They reveal a lot about human hopes, needs, aspirations, and fears, but nothing about the universe outside the believer’s mind.”
The argument 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, Richard Dawkins covers the territory well.
Intelligent design theorists (IDT) 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."
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 brain. 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 warrants belief in a supernatural god(s) or that the belief is a precondition for a meaningful and gratifying existence.
Resources and Avenues for Further Study
Cornell's Program in Science and Religion: God and Physics: From Hawking to Avicenna Professor Arnold V. Lesikar: Einstein on Science and Religion The Secular Web: Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God New York Times: Review of Brian Silver's Ascent of Science American Humanist Association: The Skeptical Theism Website
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