“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Christian's Argument for Atheism

[See "NOTE" below.]

We find that we exist, and we find ourselves existing within a particular world. We see that there are other people, other living organisms. Stepping back we find ourselves on a tiny blue sphere, teeming with life and activity. It's all quite remarkable, and of course it begs the question, "where did it come from?" Why the universe, why this universe? The theist proposes the idea of "God," a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence, knowledge, and power, a Superman if you will, as an explanation for the universe. Presumably this God exists eternally outside of time and created the world we know.

Existence is an incredible fact, so naturally we wish we could find an adequate explanation - we seek an extraordinary explanation for an extraordinary world. The believer imagines something of infinite magnitude, something that seems to him to possess true greatness, yet he can only imagine things that resemble his experience, so he naturally imagines something like himself: a great Being, which he calls God.

We must be patient with the theist - after all, his belief is quite understandable in psychological and biological terms. One would only expect that a human being, in trying to understand a big world, should hypothesize a big being - something big enough to seem like an explanation, but also an idea that he can at least vaguely understand and describe with words. And that is precisely what God is.

But does this idea really explain anything? A few moments of rational thought will reveal that it does not. Granted, the universe is a mystery - we really have no idea why it exists or why it is the way it is. But to say "God did it" - what a cop out! This idea of God is both less understandable and less self-explanatory than the universe we know. We can learn about the universe through observation and experimentation, gaining a real understanding of how it works (indeed, a full understanding is within sight), but how on earth could one test this hypothesis of God? How could we observe him? Being unknowable and incomprehensible, God explains nothing of the mystery of the universe and only succeeds in adding his own existence to the problem. The theist wonders why the universe exists, but we must press him: why does God exist? And if we hypothesize a second explanation - something that made God - then where did that thing came from? This kind of reasoning leads us down the path of infinite regress, which becomes more and more absurd the farther we follow it. It is better not to start out down that path in the first place. We must accept the mystery of our existence rather than grapple in the dark for invisible explanations. We ought not try to answer unanswerable questions.

Now the theist, stubbornly resistant, throws out several "arguments" for God. First, the cosmological argument. The universe had a beginning, the Big Bang, and since all events have causes, there must exist some cause of the Big Bang, something other than universe. But is the Big Bang really a beginning? The argument presupposes (a) that cause and effect follows the flow of time, but does time really "flow" or is the static Hawking-Hartle model a better description of the universe? and (b) that time begins with the Big Bang, but research in quantum cosmology suggests that the Bang was in fact a Bounce: there was a universe before the Big Bang. The Big Bang might well not be the beginning of a universe flowing in one direction in time.

Second, the believer sees the unmistakable marks of "design." The universe is fine-tuned to a remarkable degree of precision in order to allow for life to exist. But is our universe really the only one out there? Physicists are becoming increasingly interested in the idea of multiple universes - some string theorists suggest as many as 10^500 universes. With a number this high, it is inevitable that some of these universes will turn out to be sufficiently "fine-tuned," and that those universes will indeed produce life. The life on those particular universes is inevitable. The apparent design, then, need not be viewed as design at all.

Most powerful of all in refuting the idea of God is the problem of evil. Why would an all-powerful and benevolent God allow suffering to exist? For some greater good? But surely a God of infinite wisdom and power, such as the theist proposes, could find a way to bring about any conceivable good without resorting to such horrific means. Are we really to believe that this pain-filled world is the only way that God could possibly bring about his greater good. And even if it were, is it worth the unimaginable suffering of millions?

The idea of God fails to explain the problems for which it was invented, either because those problems were not problems after all, or because it only succeeds in introducing new problems. God is an arbitrary and unnecessary hypothesis. As Laplace famously said, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

The believer often finds security in the idea that God created him for a good purpose. It is clear that we cannot hide away in this cozy shell of delusion and remain rational people, but we need not despair of finding meaning or value in our existence. There is no reason for thinking that meaning can be found only in God - it can be found in abundance in the world around us. The universe is a beautiful and wonderful place - such a sublime physical and mathematical structure, such a vast and glorious cosmos, so incredible as a birthplace of life. And this beauty does not depend on the idea of God - one can see it in the world and wonder at it regardless of one's philosophy. There is grandeur in the story of the universe, and in our story within it.

NOTE: In order to approach the truth we must have meaningful dialogue, and for that to happen we must each strive to understand the viewpoints of those we disagree with, and why they hold these viewpoints. The above argument is my articulation of what I perceive to be some of the strongest and most common points made by atheists. I actually think there may be a good bit of truth in the responses to the cosmological and design arguments, but other than that the argument is, in my view, utterly false. Had I given what is to me the most convincing argument for atheism, it would have been somewhat different. As it is, it is not my argument for atheism, but my best short formulation of the atheists' arguments as I see them.

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