by Mark Thomas
Hello. My name is Mark, and I’m an Atheist.
History and Development of Science and Scientific Naturalism
Let’s start with a quick experiment. You can grab three coins and actually do the experiment, or just do a thought experiment.
Drop one coin and watch it fall. Do this again. Hold out the third coin.
If you were to do this again, what do you think would happen? If you could get ten good Christians to pray that this next coin wouldn’t fall, would it still fall? How about one thousand faithful Muslims? How about one billion people of any faith? I think that it would still fall. Drop the third coin.
Our understanding of the world around us, and our abilities to predict what will happen are based on naturalism — the basis of science. Naturalism is how all people live their lives most of the time.
OK, let’s just do a thought experiment. If you were to take two coins and glue them together, then drop them at the same time as you drop a single coin, would they fall twice as fast as the single coin? Aristotle thought so 2300 years ago, and for over 1900 years, his ideas were what was taught about this and many other subjects. Some of the other ancient Greeks had many ideas that are now a basis for modern science, engineering, math, philosophy, and democracy. Unfortunately for humankind, these ideas were largely forgotten for almost two thousand years while religion took control and Aristotle was revered as the source of supposedly scientific knowledge.
Galileo and Empirical Science
Around 1600, Galileo had a new idea for his culture. He decided to do something that now seems like common sense — to actually test the idea of what we now call gravity. He reasoned that two weights held together would fall at the same rate as one weight. Then he did experiments to test the idea — and, not surprisingly to us, it was true. This was the start of modern empirical science, and our collective understanding of the universe hasn’t been the same since.
“Empirical” is a word that I'll be using a lot. It refers to ideas that are capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment. Empirical evidence is not simply one type of evidence, but rather it is the only evidence that we can rely on, because it is reproducible. Empirical evidence is the basis for physical science.
Galileo also took the new invention of the telescope, refined it, and used it to look at the night sky. He was astounded. On the moon he could see mountains and valleys. It wasn’t just some strange heavenly object; it was probably made out of the same stuff as Earth. In 1609 Galileo looked at Jupiter and discovered that he could see four moons. If moons orbited Jupiter then not everything orbited the Earth, as the Catholic Church taught. Astronomy made more sense if the theories of Copernicus were true, and the Earth and planets orbited the sun. This was what Galileo taught, and in 1616 he was subject to the Inquisition. They banned him from teaching this idea, which was opposed to the true faith and contrary to Holy Scripture. However, Galileo later got permission from the pope (a friend of his) to write a book, as long as the Church's ideas and Galileo's were given equal weight. Galileo's book did not treat the two ideas equally, of course, so he was called to Rome in 1632 by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition and told to recant his heretical ideas.
This was no “simple request” by the Church. The Inquisition had already executed Galileo’s friend Giordano Bruno. Have you heard of him? In 1600, the Christian authorities in Rome took him out of the dungeon he had been in for eight years, drove a nail through his tongue, tied him to a metal post, put wood and some of his books under his feet, and burned him to death. Bruno’s crime was writing ideas that the Catholic leaders didn’t like — the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Sun is a star, there might be other worlds with other intelligent beings on them, Jesus didn’t possess god-like power, and souls can’t go to heaven. For these heretical ideas, the Catholic Church punished this brilliant man with an agonizingly slow death.
Bruno was not the only man executed by the Christians for heretical ideas. Another was Italian freethinker Lucilio Vanini, who suggested that humans evolved from apes. In 1618 he was tried in France and found guilty of atheism and witchcraft. He had his tongue cut out, he was hanged, and his body was burned — as was customary with all heretics. Six years later the French Parliament even decreed that criticism of Aristotle was punishable by death, and many heretics continued to be burned.
Galileo no doubt knew what he was up against. For the crime of heresy the Inquisition could put him in a dungeon, torture him, or even execute him. So, after a long trial, this proud 70-year-old man obediently got on his knees and dutifully recanted. But even after recanting, he was still sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. The Catholic Church officially condemned heliocentrism 31 years later, when Pope Alexander VII banned all books that affirmed the Earth’s motion. However, even as powerful as the Church was, they could not hold back the tidal wave of scientific discovery. The Church eventually lost its battle over our view of the universe, but it took them more than three hundred years to admit it. In 1992, after 12 years of deliberations, they grudgingly noted that Galileo had been right in supporting the Copernican theories. Even then, they ascribed his genius to God, “who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions.” But no such reprieve has been given for Bruno. His writings are still on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts, and Pope John Paul II refused to even apologize for the Catholic Church's torture killing of Bruno.
Galileo and others started something big — empirical science. Through science, we have come to a good understanding of the workings of the world and universe around us. The weather, lightning, thunder, the planets and stars, disease, and life itself all function based on well-understood principles. God doesn’t control them; the physical properties of matter and energy do. This principle is at the center of naturalism — the idea that only matter and energy exist, and they have properties that are repeatable, understandable, and quantifiable within the limits of quantum mechanics. We take this idea so much for granted that we typically don’t realize that it is based on several articles of faith. This faith, however, is quite different from religious faith. This faith is based on past experience and results. It is the faith that:
- There is an external world that exists independently of our minds.
- There are quantifiable natural laws that describe how things happen in this world, and we can attempt to understand them.
- These natural laws won’t change when we’re not looking; the universe isn’t totally chaotic.
So far, this faith has been well founded, as shown by the amazing accomplishments of modern science, engineering and medicine.
God of the Gaps, or Argument From Ignorance
Until just a couple of hundred years ago, most people thought that a god or gods controlled everything. Why did the wind blow? Why was there lightning and thunder? Why did the sun, moon, and stars apparently go around the Earth? Why did someone get sick and die? Why did anything happen? Well, obviously, God did it. If a person doesn’t know how something works or why something happened, they can say, “God did it.” This is known as the “god of the gaps,” or the “argument from ignorance,” and it is at the heart of the conflict between science and religion. Science looks for natural causes, while religion looks for supernatural causes. Science is steadily winning, because as we understand more and more about the universe, the gap where God might function grows smaller and smaller. Every time we learn more, God has less room to operate. When we learned what caused the sun to apparently move across the sky, there was no need for the Greek god Helios and his chariot. When we understood what caused lightning, there was no need for the Greek god Zeus, the Roman god Jupiter, or the Norse god Thor.
In fact, the understanding of lightning was one of the first areas of battle between science and Christianity. When Ben Franklin discovered that lightning was just a big electric spark, he invented the lightning rod. It was enormously successful at preventing buildings from being struck by lightning. However, this caused a bit of a conundrum for the church leaders; should they trust in their god to prevent lightning strikes on their churches, or should they use these new lightning rods? Up until then, lightning hit churches much more frequently than other, more “deserving” buildings — such as taverns or houses of ill repute. “Why was that?” they might have wondered. Could it be that churches had spires and were taller, or was it SATAN and his WITCHES? …… Actually, that is what they often believed, and many a supposed witch was executed for having caused the destruction of a church. When they started putting lightning rods on churches, witch killings stopped soon thereafter. However, the obvious fact is that they were putting their trust in science and lightning rods, not religion and prayer.
Why God(s)? Why Not?
The idea of an all-controlling, caring supernatural god is a very attractive one. It can make our mortal lives seem less frightening, more comforting. Somebody’s in control and won’t let bad things happen to us. Many gods also promise that we can go to heaven after we die, to live forever in some sort of bliss.
The idea of a god is also an easy answer to questions about the world around us. Where did the universe come from? God created it. Where did life come from? God created it, too. Where did humans come from? God created us, and in his own image, to boot.
Religious philosophers have tried for thousands of years to prove that there is a god or many gods. They have come up with many arguments. We will look at these arguments. Because I live in a largely Judeo-Christian society, when I refer to God with a capital ‘G’ I will be referring to the Judeo-Christian god Yahweh (a.k.a. Jehovah) and probably the Muslim god Allah. This god is typically defined as having free will, and being omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good), perfect, eternal, and unchanging. This god also created the universe and is separate from the physical world while still intervening in the physical world. After all, what good is a god that doesn’t do anything? Most of the arguments I use here will also apply to most of the other thousands gods created by humankind, and most of the thousands of religions. I certainly don’t know all of them, so I will deal with most of the major religions and their god(s). I will also closely link god(s) and religion. I do this advisedly because, for most people, one could not exist without the other. In addition, if there were a god I would think that this god would be able to appropriately guide the religions created for it.
There is at least one religion, essential Buddhism as taught by Buddha, which does not have a god or any supernatural component. To keep things a bit simpler here, the arguments I make regarding religion will probably not apply to essential Buddhism or any other religion without a supernatural component. However, almost all religions have grown from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created just for our benefit.
We need to define “Atheism.” Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any gods. For many, Atheism is also the conclusion that no gods exist, based on the complete lack of evidence for any god. I take the strong Atheist position — depending on how we define “God” we can prove that it does not exist, and I will use the typical definition just given for the Christian god Yahweh.
Why am I doing this? Is it just because I want to poke holes in people’s beliefs so that we can take away what makes them happy? No, I’m doing this because I want to know what is true, be intellectually honest, and be open to reality. And, I hope that you have similar reasons.
In this article I will put forth some of the reasons why Atheism is true, so they can be examined and evaluated. I will also show why Atheism is important to the future of humankind.
The arguments for the existence of God fall into several areas. I have arranged them into these categories:
- Mysticism and Revelation
- “Scientific” Claims
- Love and Morality
- Appeals to Authority
- Prophesy and Miracles
- Appeals to Faith, Logic, and Emotion
What Tools Can We Use?
How can we examine these claims? What tools can we use to determine truth of external reality? We have (1) empirical, verifiable evidence; and we have (2) logic. Evidence and logic are the best tools we have to determine how the universe really works. These tools have been extraordinarily successful in science, engineering and medicine, and in our daily lives. This is the standard that most of us expect in dealing with the real world; we expect doctors to use the latest medicine, and engineers to use empirical data when building bridges. Why should we use anything else for examining external reality?
When people believe things without evidence, they are left with no way to accurately judge whether or not what they believe reflects how things really are. Their beliefs must then be based on feelings and emotion or the unquestioned authority of something or somebody else, not evidence.
Each of us can choose between a magical view of the universe (one or more invisible, immaterial gods did it), or the “what you see is what you get” scientific version. I think that science, using empirical evidence, has done a far better job in explaining how the universe works.
At the center of science is intellectual honesty. In order for ideas to be accepted in science, they must be supported by sufficient evidence and arguments. Anybody can change what is accepted in science, if they can put forth evidence and arguments sufficient to show that their new idea is better. In fact, the larger the change created by an individual, the more that individual is honored. This is why Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein are honored — because their ideas radically changed our views of the universe. With this process of change, science can grow and improve our understanding of the universe. Conversely, most religions are stuck with unchanging “holy” words from a book or founder.
Mysticism, Revelation and Experience
Some people claim that there are other ways of knowing, such as mysticism, revelation or direct experience. People claim that they can experience God, sometimes thinking that the Holy Spirit has come into them. How can we verify these claims? The “Holy Spirit” experience seems to be very similar to the well-documented experience of catharsis. People claiming knowledge thru mysticism or revelation often don’t even agree with each other. The only way that I know to verify any mystic’s abilities is for the supposed mystic to be able to accurately, repeatedly, and verifiably know things that are supposedly impossible to know — such as events of the future. I know of no one who can, or could. Of course, we have to be very careful in any testing of such claims, because a good magician can easily fool us. Even if there were somebody who could predict the future, that does not mean that there’s a god. It would only mean that this person has peculiar skills. I submit that mysticism and revelation result from internal, altered states of consciousness — with no basis in external reality. Mysticism, revelation, and any other religious experience can only count for those who experience them; for all other people, they are merely hearsay. Thus, we can’t depend on mysticism or religious revelation to give us reliable answers to any issues.
“Scientific” Arguments for God(s)
The biggest weakness in using God to explain anything scientifically is that the explanation is not falsifiable, and thus not even testable. There is no way to create an experiment to show that it’s wrong. For every possible set of a test and a result, we could simply say, “God did it.” How did the Earth and universe begin, and why do they appear to be so old? God did it. How did life start, and why does nature seem so balanced? God did it. Once again, why does anything happen? If we say that God did it, there is no reason or opportunity to learn how the world really works. If we had stayed with God as the cause of all events, our modern culture would have been impossible. We would have no real science, engineering, or medicine. We would still be living in the Dark Ages.
The “God did it” response is known as the “god of the gaps” argument, and it has probably been around since humans first started creating gods. It's the basic premise behind all the “scientific” arguments for the existence of a god. Here's what the logic looks like when applied to two common weather phenomena: Lightning and thunder are terrifying! They must be caused by something else (that we don’t really understand either). This something else must be a god because we can’t come up with a better explanation.
The obvious main fault of “god of the gaps” is its supposition that current lack of knowledge on a subject means that it can’t be known — that “unknown” means “unknowable.” If this applies to an individual, it’s the argument from personal incredulity — because a person doesn't understand something then he thinks that the subject must be unknown, unknowable, or false.
When faced with an unknown, let's first note that it's perfectly OK to say, “I don't know,” or, “We don't know,” — just as it would have been when people in the past asked, “What causes lightning or tornadoes?” or, “Why do things fall to the ground?” or countless other questions for which we now have straightforward scientific explanations. Obviously, just because we don't know how something happened does not mean that “God did it.” Relegating an explanation of something to a god is easy; a person doesn't have to think much. Finding an explanation with science often involves hard work and analysis.
For the fringe areas of knowledge that we don’t understand, we are using the tools of science to learn the secrets of nature. As we have all seen, science has made excellent advances in our understanding of the universe, and will, no doubt, continue to do so. There may also be things that are too difficult or impossible for us to understand, but that doesn't mean that some god is behind them.
There are three common “god of the gaps” types of arguments for the existence of God. We have (1) first cause, (2) Intelligent Design, which grew out of creationism, and (3) origin of consciousness.
First Cause, or Cosmological Argument
The first cause, or cosmological argument, says that everything has a cause, and, since we supposedly can’t have an infinite series of causes stretching into the past, God must be the first cause — an uncaused cause. This argument was described by Aristotle, and has at least four problems.
The main problem of the first cause argument is the idea that every event has a cause. As we discovered in the 20th century, the universe is actually ruled at the bottom level by quantum mechanics, in which it’s possible for events to have no cause. An obvious example of quantum mechanics in action is the radioactive decay of a uranium atom. There is no previous cause for each such event, and we can only predict it with probability. The averaging of quantum effects gives us the Newtonian experience that we have. However, Newtonian physics does not control the universe; quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity do. We now know that the universe has an intrinsic, bottom level of uncertainty that cannot be bypassed. Quantum mechanics also shows us that objects can appear out of nothing and then disappear back into nothing. Even in supposedly empty space, virtual particles are continuously appearing and disappearing. This is a real and measurable process, via what is known as the Casimir Effect.
The beginning of the observable universe — of all the matter and energy in it and even of time itself — is called the Big Bang. The science of quantum mechanics is only a century old, and already we've been able to get extremely close to understanding the beginning of the observable universe — with no god needed. How close can we get? Approximately a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory is supported by extensive data. The four most prominent facts are:
- The red shift of almost all galaxies — getting greater as their distance increases.
- This shows that the galaxies are flying away from each other — at greater speeds at greater distances.
- The cosmic microwave background radiation.
- This is a remnant of the radiation from the Big Bang, and has cooled over time to the exact temperature predicted.
- The proportions of the lightest elements and isotopes.
- This helps show that the calculations for nuclear interactions immediately following the Big Bang are correct.
- The changes in galaxies as we look further away (and thus back in time), with distant galaxies more primitive.
- This shows some of the changes in the observable universe since the Big Bang, and confirms the deep time of the universe.
The physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth of MIT has put forth the scientific theory, called Inflation, that the Big Bang was just the result of a random quantum event called a vacuum fluctuation — with no cause, created out of the space vacuum, and with a total energy of zero. Even though this doesn’t make sense in the Newtonian physics of our experience of the world, it does make sense in quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity. In relativity, gravity is negative energy and matter is positive energy. Because the two seem to be equal in absolute total value, our observable universe appears balanced to the sum of zero. Our universe could thus have come into existence without violating conservation of mass and energy. There is also excellent experimental and theoretical evidence to support Inflation Theory. Even if Inflation Theory is eventually shown to be wrong or incomplete, that doesn’t mean that “God did it.”
The next problem of the first cause argument is the assumption that an infinite chain of events is impossible. This argument is made moot by the Big Bang, which negates the need for considering an infinite chain of events in our universe. Because time started with the Big Bang, any question of what happened before is nonsensical — much like asking what is north of the North Pole. Also, many cosmologists have proposed that our universe could be part of a much larger, super and perhaps eternal meta-universe; we certainly don’t know for sure, and may never know. However, this meta-universe would allow infinite chains of events.
Another problem comes from the definition of God as perfect and unchanging. If these qualities were true, then why would God need a universe and how could God change from not needing a universe to needing one?
The last problem with the first cause argument lies in its assumption that this eternal god exists, something that it is trying to prove. This is known as begging the question. Even a child can ask, “If God created the universe, then who created God?” If the answer is that God is uncaused, then the same answer could certainly be applied to the existence of the universe — that it is uncaused. Besides, which god are we talking about? People using the first cause argument always make the assumption that their god did the creating. Muslims think that Allah created the universe. Hindus think that Brahma did it. Christians and Jews think that Yahweh did it. Most religions have a story of how their god created the universe. The idea of a god as creator of the universe makes for a good tale, but it obviously tells us little about the characteristics of that god. What they are doing is explaining one mystery with a bigger mystery, and that is fallacious logic.
Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Irreducible Complexity
The next scientific type of argument is called Intelligent Design (ID). It states that life on Earth is so complex that it must have had an intelligent designer. This argument has evolved from the creationism argument, and it’s gaining strength by masquerading as a science. It’s a belief structure and not science because there is no body of research to support its claims, and it makes no testable predictions. To get around legal restrictions on teaching religious dogma, proponents of ID often say that they don’t know what this designer was; it could have been an alien or a god. This is disingenuous. If it was an alien, then the obvious question is: where and how did the alien originate? If they really mean God, which is what some of them have admitted, then ID is basically creationism with a few new ideas. So, I will treat ID and creationism as basically the same.
Proponents of Intelligent Design make many claims:
- The apparent design of the universe design requires a designer, like a watch requires a watchmaker.
- The complexity of life and the universe require a cause that is not part of this natural universe.
- Irreducible complexity shows that the odds against natural causes for certain processes are too great, so a designer is necessary.
- The physical laws require a lawgiver.
- The laws of physics were fine-tuned for life.
- Science can’t explain all the features of life.
- Our system of life on Earth was designed.
- The second law of thermodynamics proves that evolution is impossible.
- What they really claim is God did it!
Let's start with the apparent design of the universe, and use a story of Sir Isaac Newton as an example. A deeply religious man, Newton was struck by the order that he observed in the orbits of the planets, with all of them in the same plane. He could think of no reason for this, so he attributed it to God. Of course now, through science, we understand the gravitational dynamics in the formation of solar systems fairly well, and no longer need to invoke a god. Science is similarly showing how the rest of the universe works and eliminating the need for theistic explanations.
Many people think that the world looks like it was designed (and by a god, to boot). Of course, the Sun also looks like it goes around the Earth. It is only through science that we know that both of these perceptions are wrong.
Now let’s look at the second law of thermodynamics. This states that any closed system will tend toward disorder. However, it does not apply to the Earth, because we live in an open system with energy constantly streaming in from our sun. This is the energy that powers almost all life on our planet. Thus the second law of thermodynamics does not apply to evolution or any living being.
Next, let’s consider the laws of physics. They are quantified explanations of how matter and energy behave — not anything like man-made laws. We currently don’t know why the parameters of matter and energy have certain values, but that doesn’t mean that some god set them that way. The simple solution to the question of the source of the laws of physics is to accept them as brute fact, with no source. Besides, if it were true that a god set up the universe specifically for us, he certainly waited a long time for the result. The universe has been around for about 13 billion years. It took about nine billion years before Earth was formed from the remnants of supernova stars. Single-celled bacteria were forming ecosystems about a billion years after that, as shown by the evidence for Earth’s history in its rocks and fossils. For about two and a half billion years, life consisted of only single-celled organisms. Life evolved and became more complex with multi-celled organisms. It then took another billion years for fish, reptiles and mammals to appear. Then humans, God’s supposed reason for the whole creation, finally came along within the last 150,000 years or so — on one planet orbiting one of the trillions of stars. This seems like a lengthy, complex, massive, and apparently natural process for an omnipotent being that could have simply snapped everything (or just one magic planet) into existence. Using God as the source of the laws of physics just doesn’t make sense. Once again, religionists are trying to explain one mystery with a bigger mystery.
It's also important to note that life is exceedingly rare in the universe — even if it exists on every planet and moon. All we do know is that life exists on one oasis — Earth. Most of the universe is nearly empty, and almost all of the matter is in stars or nebulae. Any sort of life that we can imagine only has a chance on planets or moons. The universe was not designed for life; in practically the entire universe conditions are extremely hostile to life. Saying that the universe is made just for us is like a frog looking at his pond and thinking that the whole world was made just for him.
The core argument in Intelligent Design is the fact that evolutionary biologists can’t yet fully explain all the features of life; therefore ID claims that life must have been designed by some intelligent being. This is the old “god of the gaps” argument, and it is scientifically, logically, and historically flawed.
ID is scientifically flawed because it violates the ground rules of science by allowing supernatural (meaning outside of nature) causation.
ID is logically flawed in two ways. The first logical flaw in ID is that it's based on a lack of knowledge — explaining gaps in knowledge by invoking the magic of an unknown (perhaps supernatural) being. Like all “god of the gaps” arguments, ID is not falsifiable, can’t even be tested, and says nothing about the moral qualities of this unknown being, god, or gods. The second logical flaw is in the assumption it makes that, because something is supposedly very highly unlikely, something else must have designed it. What ID proponents blatantly ignore, because they take the existence of their god as a given, is the fact that this unknown designer must be even more complex, and thus less probable, than what ID was invoked to explain. The basic question is thus, “Who designed the designer?” This argument dates back to David Hume in the 1700's. Richard Dawkins calls it the “ultimate Boeing 747 gambit” because it shows the fatal weakness of Fred Hoyle's ID argument that the “probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747.”
ID is historically flawed because science has shown excellent progress in explaining the world around us, and there is nothing to show that evolutionary biology should be abandoned simply because it has not yet explained the origins of every single process of life. Because biochemical processes don’t leave behind fossils, it’s not as easy to explain their origins as it is for bone structures that do fossilize. However, evolutionary biologists are making excellent progress in understanding the origins and processes of the biochemistry of life.
Proponents of ID have also created the idea of irreducible complexity, which is central to ID. It states that many processes of life are too complex and irreducible to have evolved; therefore a designer must have created them. This complexity comes from many interrelated parts or processes, which supposedly are useless without all the other parts or processes. This is just another “god of the gaps” and it also falls apart under close examination.
“What good is half an eye?” they ask. The answer is simple. Any amount of vision is better than none, and any change that improves vision probably improves survivability. Starting with a basic light-sensing cell, eyes have evolved through natural selection — one small step at a time. Richard Dawkins has an excellent explanation of this (and much more) in his book Climbing Mount Improbable.
An icon of the irreducible complexity concept is the bacterial flagellum, with its many similarities to an electric motor — and about 30 protein components required to produce a working biological function. Unfortunately for the ID movement, research has demolished the flagellum's status as an example of irreducible complexity. Some bacteria use what is known as type III secretory system (TTSS) to allow them to inject proteins directly into the cytoplasm of a host cell. TTSS has a strong likeness in structure to the flagellum, and uses about 15 to 20 of the same proteins. This shows that the flagellum is not irreducibly complex, because a functioning structure (albeit with a different function) can be made with 10 to 15 fewer proteins. A detailed analysis can be found in The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of "Irreducible Complexity."
Intelligent Design is simply not science; it's religion dressed up to look like science to the uninformed. It is mystical pseudoscience.
I'd like to address a common statement made by creationists — that scientists have supposedly never actually witnessed evolution, so evolution either: a) isn't real science, or b) hasn't happened. First, this is a gross mischaracterization of science. There are many processes that scientists can understand without directly witnessing them, such as much of geology or fusion at the cores of stars. Second, this statement ignores the fact that evolution usually takes thousands or millions of years. It's like looking a tree and saying that it is not growing because you can't see any growth in a day. Third, for many, many species we have excellent evidence in the fossil record of the changes of the species. Fourth, scientists have actually witnessed the rapid evolution of new species — the apple moth from the hawthorn moth, a new species of polychaetes fish, and many more.
The Theory of Evolution
Life is a process — not a design. It requires an explanation — not an intelligent designer. This explanation is the fact and theory of evolution. “Evolution” simply means change over time. It’s a fact that enormous changes to life on Earth have occurred. The 3.5 billion year fossil record is clear and unambiguous on this. The Theory of Evolution explains the processes that caused these changes.
There are at least nine areas of study and empirical data supporting the Theory of Evolution. They are:
- Paleontology (fossils)
- Distribution of Animals and Plants
- Comparative Anatomy
- Vestigial Organs
- Natural Selection
- Sexual Selection
- Molecular Biology
I will only deal here with brief overviews of paleontology, vestigial organs, natural selection, and genetics.
The history of life on Earth is in its fossils, and we have extensive fossils showing how species have come and gone over the last several hundred million years. Here are just a few examples: Trilobites appeared over 500 million years ago and existed for 300 million years (with over 15,000 described species). About 375 million years ago, land animals were evolving from fish. [See Fossil Called Missing Link From Sea to Land Animals.] Dinosaurs (with an estimated 200,000 species) lived 251 to 65.5 million years ago. Horses are descended from the cat-sized Eohippus of 50 to 60 million years ago. Whales are descended from land animals of 52 million years ago. In fact, some whales still have vestigial legs and pelvic bones. Humans are descended from a long line of hominids, over at least 4.4 million years.
The dating methods for determining the ages of fossils and rocks are well established. They usually depend on the radioactive decay of different isotopes of elements, and can be used on objects that are hundreds to billions of years old. For an in-depth explanation, see Accuracy of Fossils and Dating Methods.
The evidence for evolution of life is overwhelming and conclusive. This evidence is not just in the fossils, but also in the body parts and genes of almost every living thing. If you have any doubts, take a little time to learn the concepts of evolution, then spend a few hours in any natural history museum or public library. If your mind is at all open, you will see the evidence. Remember, ignorance of how evolution works is no argument against it. The basic Theory of Evolution is completely solid, and will continue to be updated as we learn more about the complex history of life.
You don’t even need to go to a natural history museum or library to see evidence for evolution; our own bodies have many signs of our evolutionary heritage. When we get goose bumps, our bodies are trying to keep warm by raising hairs that are no longer dense enough to help. The muscles that allow us to wiggle our ears are of no use for us, but they did help some distant ancestors. Humans also have many other useless, vestigial organs such as nipples and mammary glands on males and the tailbone, which is just a holdover from when our primate ancestors actually had tails millions of years ago.
Intelligent Design completely fails to explain vestigial organs, which are obviously suboptimal. The Theory of Evolution explains them perfectly. If some god designed us and all life, he/she/it certainly didn't do a perfect job. Stephen J. Gould stated it well; “Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution — paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”
Every cell in our bodies contains the evidence of our evolutionary origins. The basic process of life on Earth is so common that we share about 50% of our genes with carrots, and more than 98% of our genes with chimpanzees. In fact, humans are genetically closer to chimps than mice are to rats. Here are some useful biological facts:
- We get an exact copy of the mitochondria in each cell from our mother, almost every time.
- Every male gets an exact copy of his Y chromosome from his father, almost every time.
- Both mitochondria and Y chromosomes slowly mutate over time at known rates.
With this knowledge, geneticists can estimate how recently any two of us shared a common female ancestor, or any two males shared a common male ancestor. Using this information and other data, the evidence strongly points to the claim that most or all of us are descended from a group of Africans that started migrating about 100,000 years ago.
We may share 98% of our genes with chimps, but we have 23 pairs of chromosomes while chimps and other great apes have 24. A close examination of the chromosomes shows that one pair of our chromosomes is made of two from the other primates. Our combined chromosome even shows the evidence of where the two chromosomes joined, with the ends of the old chromosomes in the middle of the joined chromosome. For more, see Evidence of Common Descent between Man and Chimp.
Let me address a common example that proponents of Intelligent Design use. [See general eye diagram.] “Look at the wonderful design of the human eye,” they say. “Surely this design could not have happened by chance. It must be that God did it.” Actually, it did happen by chance — countless little chance events of changes in the gene pool over generations, all controlled by the harsh realities of natural selection and survival of the fittest. While the initial changes in the gene pool (mutations) were chance events, survival of the fittest is obviously not random. This is the heart of the basic Theory of Evolution; individuals can pass their genes and characteristics on to their offspring. If a gene makes an individual more likely to have offspring that survive, its offspring (carrying that gene) will be more likely to have offspring that survive. In effect, species are designed to fit their environment. The designer is the blind process of evolution, however, not some god or gods. Evolution creates an illusion of human or supernatural design. This illusion is so powerful that it took until 1859 for us to discover it, when Charles Darwin put forth one of the greatest ideas in science — evolution by natural selection.
The faults in the design of the human eye, especially, show its evolutionary origins. [See eye diagram of retina.] When we study the retina at the back of the eye, we can see that the cell layers are backwards. Light has to travel thru seven layers of cells before reaching the light sensing cells. Then the signals go back thru these layers to the nerves on the inside surface. A truly intelligent designer could have done better than the human eye. Actually, evolution did a better job with the eyes of the octopus and squid, which have the light sensing cells on the surface, where they should be.
In fact, vision is so useful for survival that eyes have evolved independently at least twenty separate times, with at least a dozen different designs.
You’ve probably heard people say that evolution is “only a theory.” It’s important to remember that the term “theory” in science is not the same as it is in general usage. A scientific theory is a unifying concept that explains a large body of data. It is a hypothesis that has withstood the test of time and the challenge of opposing views. The Theory of Evolution is the basic unifying concept of biology. The CEO of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan Leshner, wrote, “Although scientists may debate details of the mechanisms of evolution, there is no argument among scientists as to whether evolution is taking place.” The National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization, has declared evolution “one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have,” and notes that evolution is supported by an overwhelming scientific consensus. The Theory of Evolution has as much validity as the theory of gravity, atomic theory, or the germ theory of disease. It's interesting to note that the idea that the Earth goes around the sun is also a scientific theory — albeit one with extensive evidence. Every day our eyes are deceived, when we see the sun rising and setting as it apparently goes around the Earth.
Evolution is thus both a fact and a theory. It is a fact that species have evolved. The Theory of Evolution explains our best understanding of the processes that cause evolution. It's a lot like gravity. Gravity is obviously a fact. The theory of gravity attempts to explain how gravity works. Actually, we know less about how gravity works than how evolution works. Some of the latest work in applied and theoretical physics (including String Theory) deals with gravity.
There is an underlying problem with the design argument, and most proponents of Intelligent Design probably aren’t aware of it. By assuming that living things have some sort of metaphysical purpose, they are intrinsically assuming what they want to prove. Purpose is an abstract human concept that exists only in our minds, much like beauty — with no physical reality. In the universe, I maintain, things have no intrinsic purpose; they just exist. Does an atom have any purpose? Does a rock? Does a star? Does an amoeba, plant or any living thing have a real external purpose? We could say that living things have the purpose of procreating to continue their species. However, we must realize that this is just our viewpoint, our interpretation. Rocks, trees, people, and the universe have no intrinsic purpose. We can create purpose for ourselves, and that is good because it's a useful concept; but it’s important to understand that purpose is a human construct. Remember, when proponents of ID begin their arguments by noting the design and purpose of nature, they are assuming what they want to prove. Don’t be fooled by this logic sleight of hand. No intelligent designer is needed for purpose to exist, because purpose exists only in our minds.
Even more basic than evolution is the field of science called abiogenesis, which deals with the origins of life from non-life. Simple experiments have shown that amino acids, the molecular units that make up proteins, can be made in lab conditions simulating Earth’s early atmosphere, and they are even found in outer space. Amino acids are not living, but abiogenesis scientists are learning many ways that life could have originated from amino acids.
A basis for the creationism idea is the concept that humans are at the center of the universe. The idea of God used to make some sense, when people thought that the Earth was the unmoving center of creation, and humans were the reason that there was an Earth and everything else. The biblical universe was much simpler then. The flat Earth was at the base, and above was the vast solid dome called the firmament. It contained the stars and held back the celestial waters. Above that were heaven and God.
We now know that the universe is almost unimaginably immense, complex, and ancient. It is the height of conceit for humans to believe that this whole universe was made just for us. Our perspective has changed. We are no longer at the center of the universe — not our planet, not our star, and not our galaxy. As people grow and mature, one of the big realizations is that they aren’t at the center. It is the same for our species; it is time for us to realize that we are not at the center either.
It is also necessary to note that in order for Intelligent Design to be true, these areas of science would be largely false: evolutionary biology, paleobiology, cosmology, astronomy, physics, paleontology, archeology, historical geology, zoology, botany, and biogeography, plus much of early human history. These fields of science make predictions and get results. ID makes no verifiable predictions and gets no useful results, and thus cannot in any way be called a science. A simple example of this is the field of oil exploration, where you won’t find any geologists using creationism or ID — because they don’t get results. And, with large amounts of money at stake, the companies want results.
The most common reason people give for why they believe in God is the apparent good design of the world. I think that this is part of why proponents of ID are putting so much energy into promoting their view and attempting to refute evolution. They realize that if the design argument were to fall, people might rethink their belief in God.
The design argument is popular because it superficially appears to be true, just like it appears that the sun goes around the Earth. The only way we know that the reverse is true is thru the process and data of science. This is also how we know that evolution is true.
Many people say things like, “Isn't that baby cute?” or, “Isn't that sunset beautiful? There MUST be a god.” I think that, if they are going to give God credit for the good and beauty in the world, they should also give God credit for the evil and ugliness — such as natural disasters, babies with birth defects, and all the diseases. The morality of nature shows its evolutionary heritage. What loving, intelligent designer would have invented the diseases of the world, including a parasite that blinds millions of people and a gene that covers babies with excruciating blisters? This is part of the Problem of Evil, which I will cover later.
Origin of Consciousness
Some people claim that consciousness is too mysterious or complex to be explained scientifically, therefore a god is necessary. Consciousness certainly is complex, and we probably can't completely understand it — in part because it is so subjective; but that doesn't mean that some god is its source any more that we need a god to explain the weather. Consciousness is an emergent property of a sufficiently complex living brain. Anyone who has had a mammal as a pet knows that animals think and emote. They may not think as well as we do, because their brains aren’t as complex as ours, but they definitely think and even dream. Even simple animals such as worms show a very limited consciousness by responding to their environment. The more complex the brain, the more complex the consciousness. We also know that, when a person’s brain is damaged, the person can lose part of his consciousness. The sad cases where the brain is extremely damaged can result in a “persistent vegetative state” with no consciousness. God(s) aren’t necessary to explain consciousness; functioning complex brains are.
Argument from Love
Where does love come from? Many religionists say that evolution can't explain love, that we need a god as the source for love.
Evolution actually explains love very simply. In primitive hunter/gatherer societies it is strongly advantageous for a couple stay together to raise their children. It's advantageous even in modern societies, although not as critically. Without love a couple is less likely to stay together. Without love they would be far less likely to keep raising their children when things are difficult. With love, children are more likely to be loving themselves — to others and eventually to their own children. Love also helps bind extended families and friends, who can help in raising the children. Any humans who didn't love were less likely to have descendants. Any humans who did love were more likely to have descendants. Evolution has programmed us for love.
Argument from Morality
How about morality? Some people say that we need an absolute morality, and that we all have a sense of morality. They say that the only possible source for this morality is God.
Many people have claimed that humans could not have created morality, that there is nothing in evolution or history that mandates it. This is wrong. In order for any social species to function, implicit or explicit rules of interaction are necessary. This is the basic function of morality — implicit rules of interaction that allow us to function cooperatively. Groups of our distant ancestors that had individuals who worked together were more likely to succeed. Individuals that didn't cooperate in a group might have been kicked out of the group, and had their survival severely threatened. Groups that kept non-cooperative individuals were less likely to succeed. Laws are the explicit rules of interaction. Morality and laws are human constructs that come from basic human empathy, kindness and compassion, a desire to treat others as we wish to be treated, and our need to work together — not from some ancient static scriptures. Morality and laws have evolved as humans have evolved our culture. We are social animals evolved by natural selection, so the great majority of us will naturally desire the health of our families and the peace of our communities. Evolution has programmed us for morality and cooperation.
Even other primates such as chimpanzees, monkeys, and apes exhibit empathy and morality. For more about this, see “Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior.”
Of course, the natural world is not loving or moral, along with many humans. We thus have the continual dilemma of how to survive with this conflict, using our natural self-interest.
It has been claimed that humans could not have had the concept of morality. I don’t see why not. We’re fairly intelligent. Human minds have created many ideas that are far more complex than morality. Why should morality be different?
Let’s look at what happens when people claim to get absolute morality from a god. I say that such religious absolutists don’t have morality; what they have is a code of obedience, which is not the same. God sets what is supposedly moral, and they obey. If God were to say that murder and theft were moral, theists would have to kill and steal to act morally. Actually, this is exactly what is happening with the suicide bombers in the Middle East. This is also what was behind the Crusades, the Inquisitions and 9/11. The fact that we find this so abhorrent shows that morality does not come from a god. God fails the morality test.
Many religious people like to claim that non-believers have relative morality, while they have absolute morality. However, since no Christians or Jews are stoning those who work on the Sabbath, and no Muslims are slaying transgressors wherever they catch them, they are choosing which “holy” laws to follow and which to ignore. We all have relative morality.
A large philosophical problem that religious moralists face is where to get the word of their god or gods. They can get it from “divine” revelation or from supposedly “holy” books. Each of these sources faces a problem; how do we know that this is the true word of the god? I’ve already discussed revelation, so let’s look at the idea of a holy book. I am most familiar with the Christian Bible, so that’s what I’ll address.
The Bible is touted by many as a source of ultimate knowledge and morality. It is said to be God’s perfect words to humankind. Have you ever read it? It contradicts itself in many places, is often difficult or impossible to interpret, and is largely simply boring. Some of it looks to me like it was written under the influence of hallucinogens. It contains two very different sets of Ten Commandments and three sets of paternal ancestors for Jesus (with one lineage just being the Holy Ghost). The better-known set of Ten Commandments (given in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21) even says that children can be punished for the sins of their great-grandfathers! The lesser-known set (in Exodus 34:12-27) tells us to not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. Are these the words of a perfect moral being? As I noted, the story of Jesus’ lineage is also confusing. If Joseph didn’t father Jesus, then why does the Bible show Joseph’s ancestors — with two different lists? (Matthew 1:1-16, Luke 3:23-38) The historical reason for the conflicting stories of Jesus' lineage lies in the fact that the idea of the virgin birth was added later. The original story had Jesus descended from David (thru Joseph), to fulfill prophesy.
The Christian Bible has the purported histories of many rapes, slaughters, and other mass killings, most of them apparently condoned by God. They even note how the pregnant women were sliced open (Hosea 13:16) — so much for God being against abortion. In one well-known story, God drowned almost everyone and everything on the planet merely because he didn’t like the activities of some of the people in his creation. In another story, 42 children were killed in the name of God, just for calling a man bald (2 Kings 2:23-24). In addition, the Bible has over 30 listings of death penalties — many for supposed “sins” that most of us don’t even consider to be wrong, such as working on the Sabbath. Do these tales and penalties show the actions of a loving god? The god of the Old Testament seems to be more of a capricious, petty, pathological, vindictive, schizophrenic, mass-murdering tyrant than a paragon of moral virtue, and Satan often comes off as the good guy. After all, how many people did Satan kill? The god of the New Testament is a little nicer, as described by the character Jesus. But this god also introduced eternal punishment — not a very kind or loving thing to do. This New Testament god also kept the idea of a blood sacrifice, even demanding it of his own son. If you still think that morality should come from the Christian Bible, I ask, what do you think about slavery and child abuse? Not once in the entire Bible is slavery or child abuse condemned, not even in the writings about Jesus. In fact both are condoned in many places; there are at least 18 verses on slavery and 21 on child abuse. Even Jesus had recommendations about beating and killing slaves (Luke 12:42-48). It's obvious that any kind person could do a better job of defining morals than what is in the Bible. The Christian Bible, its god, and its savior all fail the morality test.
What about the historical veracity of the Christian Bible? People say that archeological evidence shows that some places and people mentioned in the Bible really existed; therefore the Bible is true. This is like saying that Gone With the Wind is true because the Civil War actually occurred. Let’s first look at two biblical personages — King Herod the Great and Jesus. King Herod ruled from 39 - 4 BCE. His supposed slaughter of the innocents is not mentioned by any historian of the time, and is thus likely a complete fabrication. As for the historicity of Jesus, there is absolutely no reliable contemporary evidence that he ever even existed; he made no impression on any historian of the first few decades CE. If Jesus existed and if the spectacular events in the Gospels really happened, they would have been noted by several writers, including Philo, Seneca, Pliny the Elder, and Justus of Tiberius. None of these men referred to Jesus or the fantastical biblical events. The earliest extra-biblical supposed references to Jesus (or Christ) are in the writings attributed to the Jewish historian Josephus (about 95 CE) and the Roman historian, Tacitus (about 117 CE). However, the veracity of the text for these references is highly questionable; many Bible scholars are convinced that Christian transcribers added them much later. Even if they were true, at best they amount to second-hand testimony written more than 60 - 80 years later.
The earliest biblical references to Jesus are in the Epistles. Paul and the other Epistle writers don't seem to have known any biographical details of Jesus' life. To them, he appears to have been a sky god with no Earthly existence. Paul even admitted that all his ideas came from revelation (Galatians 1:11,12). In other words, he made it up. This is all complicated by the fact that half of the writings attributed to Paul are forgeries, and even his genuine letters have interpolations in them.
The main biblical references to Jesus are in the Gospels, which weren't written until at least 70 or 80 CE (and quite possibly decades later). In a semi-literate and superstitious society, that's a long time after Jesus' supposed life — a long time where myths could grow.
As David Fitzgerald, author of The Ten Thousand Christs and the Evaporating Jesus, noted, “In the earliest Christian writings, such as the seven genuine epistles of Paul, Christ is a spiritual being revealed in Jewish scripture, rather than a recent historical figure. Decades later the anonymous author of what we call The Gospel according to Mark wrote an allegorical story of this mythological Christ set in pre-war Judea, borrowing from many ancient religious and literary motifs. The idea of a Christ come to earth was irresistible; later Christians loved the story and couldn't help but make their own corrections and additions to ‘Mark's’ text, turning a purely literary creation into the basis of their own imagined biographies. Dozens of these Gospels were written, and centuries later four of them were eventually selected to form the beginning of our familiar New Testament.”
Here are more quotes from the Christian Bible that show its moral and rational confusion. See the end of the web page for links to similar sites.
Christianity is largely an amalgam of several previous religions from Greece, Persia, Egypt and still other places, and is by no means unique. There were at least eight other deities (Osiris, Mithra, Hercules, Horus, Perseus, Bacchus, Hermes and Prometheus) who were resurrected after violent deaths. Many of these gods were born on December 25 (the winter solstice), had their births announced by stars, had a virgin mother and divine father (or other miraculous birth), or had tyrants try to kill them as infants. The two main Christian holidays were incorporated from earlier pagan rituals and festivals; Easter (with its fertility symbols of rabbits and eggs) comes near the spring equinox, and Christmas was formerly Saturnalia. The current celebrations of Christmas also ignore the biblical prohibition of decorating indoor trees (Jeremiah 10:2-8).
Jesus died for our sins. This is one of the primary moral points of Christianity, and it is formally known as atonement or substitutive sacrifice. Many religions have practiced it when they killed sacrificial animals or humans on altars. What kind of morality is this, where one animal or person has to die because of what others have done? When we look at cultures that sacrificed humans, we call them barbaric and primitive. It makes no difference if the person being sacrificed agrees; it is still blatantly, repugnantly immoral and abominable. The Christian ceremony of communion is based on this blood sacrifice, and is just ritualized cannibalism and vampirism. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine of transubstantiation holds that during communion the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.
Using religion as a source for morality completely collapses when we look at religious positions now and in history. There are religious people with different positions on such moral issues as the death penalty, abortion, birth control, and gay and women’s rights. How can this be, if they all get the same divine words from the same god? Restrictions on birth control have added to the misery in the world by causing more disease and more births on a planet that already has too many people. Racism, misogyny, and slavery were once considered perfectly moral by large portions of humankind, and were seen as having a religious basis. Also, the killings done in the name of God, by most religions, are legendary. Our culture has changed, along with our laws, and these evils are no longer acceptable in modern society. Religion cannot give us the best answers to moral issues. Morality is a social and legal construct, not a religious one. Religion fails the morality test.
Argument from Authority
I think that most people begin their belief in God because something or someone said that God exists. This is called the “argument from authority.” We just discussed the Bible as one of these sources. There are other sources for other religions, such as the Koran for the Muslims.
What does it mean, when we believe something based on an authority? It means that we are taking something or someone else’s words as truth. We all do this for most subjects. Our first authorities are the people who raise us. This is because we are born with no innate knowledge of the world, and have to learn it from scratch. We soon start learning from other sources, such as friends, teachers, books and other written material. As we learn and experience our world, we develop a map in our minds of what the world is like. This map becomes a truth filter. When we look at a new idea, we typically compare it to the mental map that we have. If the idea fits well in the map, we can add it. If the idea doesn’t fit, we have a problem. We must either discard the idea, or make a change to the map. Change is difficult and often painful, so many people tend to discard ideas that don’t fit their mental maps.
When we use someone or something as an authority, we often bypass the comparison process and plug the new ideas directly into our maps. This can save us a lot of research time and mental work. However, it also opens us to believing in things and ideas that aren’t true. Since we can’t be experts on everything, we thus have a problem — what and whom can we implicitly believe? For me, since I want my mental map to be as accurate as possible, I have chosen the methods of science and reason as my ultimate authority. Science and reason have been shown to be the best predictors of how the world functions. Science and reason aren’t perfect, but they are self-correcting — using the scientific method. Other sources of authority are too prone to misinformation.
One large difference between science and religion is this: In science, if the facts don’t fit the theory, the theory is modified or tossed out. In religion, if the facts don’t fit the theory, the facts are often tossed out. All too often, people reject evidence and the findings of science because they conflict with their religious assumptions. With their minds thus unhinged from the real world, they can have problems distinguishing fantasy from reality.
Because many people's minds are infected with a “god belief,” they don't like to question their god's existence. “God belief” causes people to accept irrational ideas with little or no evidence. If I were to say that lemon snow cones could make people invisible, most people would likely ask for a little proof. But, a very old book says that 2000 years ago some guy was born with a ghost as his father and a virgin as his mother; this guy did miracles, was killed and came back to life — and billions of people accept the story seemingly without question.
Argument from Prophesy and Miracles Now, let’s discuss prophesy and miracles. I am continually astounded at just how little evidence people are willing to accept for proof of these. Prophesies that did come true are often easy to explain, once you understand that it’s easy to predict something if it has already occurred, or that actions were done merely to fulfill prophesy, or that events or prophesies were fabricated. There are also many prophesies that haven’t come true. As for religious miracles, the evidence is so slim that they should be relegated to hearsay. I've found three excellent quotes that sum up the problem well:
“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” — David Hume, Of Miracles (1748)
“Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.” — Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794)
“It is a fact of history and of current events that human beings exaggerate, misinterpret, or wrongly remember events. They have also fabricated pious fraud. Most believers in a religion understand this when examining the claims of other religions.” — Dan Barker, of ffrf.org
With these insights in mind, which is more likely: that true prophesies and miracles have actually occurred, or that they are just tall tales?
One ‘miracle’ that many people use is their own survival from a dangerous episode, or recovery from a disease or injury. They rarely seem to note that many others have not been so lucky. It's as if their god loves only them (and perhaps their family), and doesn't care about the others. Of course, we never hear from people who almost survived a car wreck, airplane crash, or disease; we only hear from those who survive. I call this the “survivor's fallacy.”
Even if truly inexplicable ‘prophesies’ or ‘miracles’ have occurred, that does not mean that there’s a god. It could just mean that a person has peculiar skills or technological help that we don’t understand. We all can imagine how easy it would be to go to a primitive tribe of humans and impress them with ‘god-like’ skills that are the result of our technology, medicine, or knowledge. It is reasonable to consider that we could be fooled by technology that is far in advance of our own. As famous science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Let’s consider one well-known ‘miracle,’ the resurrection of Jesus Christ. First, as I noted, there is no verifiable evidence that Jesus ever even lived. Second, even if he did exist, there is obviously no evidence that he actually died on the cross. If Jesus didn't die, his supposed ‘resurrection’ was much more possible in a purely natural sense. Some people think that the martyrdom of his followers proves the resurrection of Jesus. At best, it simply proves their bull-headed beliefs, not actual fact. At worst, they were deluded. A recent example of this is the Heaven's Gate mass suicides.
Argument from Religious Faith
Next, let’s look at religious faith. What is faith? It is the firm belief in something for which no proof exists — simply because you want it to be true. As Mark Twain once said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Religious faith proves nothing, except the bullheadedness of the believer. If you have faith, you don’t need proof. If you have proof, you don’t need faith. Therefore, any attempt to use faith as a basis for proof is intrinsically doomed to failure. Also, what good is faith if it has you believing in something that is not true? A recent example of absolute faith and its possible consequences can illustrate the objective failures of religious faith. I ask, on September 11, 2001, whose faith was the most effective? I say that it was the faith of the suicidal pilots of those three planes that crashed into the buildings. If you believe in the primacy of religious faith, there is no way to objectively differentiate between yours and theirs, for it is all purely subjective. Religious faith fails as a proof for God.
Dan Barker, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote, “If faith is a valid tool of knowledge, then anything can be true 'by faith,' and therefore nothing is true. If the only reason you can accept a claim is by faith, then you are admitting that the claim does not stand on its own merits.”
Faith is the antithesis of rational thought. This is why so many religious leaders actively preach against rational thought and even advanced education. They realize that rational thought and education can destroy religious faith and result in fewer followers for them.
Logical Arguments for God(s)
How about logical arguments for the existence of God? Let’s look at a proof for God that relies on reason alone. It is called the Ontological Argument, and it basically says that God exists because we can conceive of God. One of the characteristics of God is existence; therefore, God exists. Another form of the Ontological Argument defines God as the creator of the universe. Since the universe exists, God must exist. These arguments are so obtuse that it’s ridiculous. They just involve confusion between the existence of ideas and the existence of real things. Simply saying that something like a god exists does not make it exist. All that exist are the ideas (in our minds) of Satan, Jesus, God, or an invisible pink unicorn.
There are some people who claim that God is the source of logic, therefore we can’t even use logic without presupposing the existence of God. They say that logic can’t be created from unformed matter; therefore God formed the matter and created logic. This argument is known as Presuppositionalist, or the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God. The names are fancy, and my response is simple. Logic is a pattern of thinking, and patterns can emerge from simple rules. There are many examples of complex patterns coming out of simple rules, such as snowflakes and waves forming. There is nothing in our everyday experience that indicates that some higher power is necessary for these patterns, and there is nothing that proves that a god is necessary for the patterns we call logic. Additionally, the presuppositionalist argument gives little indication as to the qualities of the god it presupposes — much like the first cause and ontological arguments. The presuppositionalist argument is just another way of answering a supposedly difficult question with the simple response, “God did it.”
If anything is not logical, it is most religions. I am most familiar with Christianity, so let’s look at its basic claims:
- A supernatural god exists that created everything and intervenes in the natural world.
- This god had a son whose mother was a virgin who had been impregnated by the god in the form of a ghost.
- This son did many miracles, including making a dead person alive again.
- This son was killed, and came back to life one and a half (not three) days later.
There is not any empirical, verifiable evidence for any of this. There is also much experience from everyday life that virgins can’t get pregnant from ghosts, and that people who have been dead for a while can’t come back to life. Thus, belief in the above claims is illogical.
There is an argument for belief in God that is called Pascal’s Wager, named for Blaise Pascal who conceived it. The argument goes like this: Either there is a god or there isn’t. If you believe in God, and God exists, then you win big time and go to heaven. If you don’t believe in God, and God exists, you lose big time and go to hell. If there is no god, then you haven’t lost much by believing. So the obvious choice is to believe in God, because it’s simply the best bet.
Pascal’s Wager has several faults. The biggest problem is that it’s not a proof of any god’s existence; it’s just an argument for believing, a method of extorting the gullible thru fear. Like many other such arguments we have discussed, it also fails to denote exactly which god it refers to. Pascal’s Wager could be applied to any god that offers rewards and punishments. Taken to the extreme, following the wager would necessitate betting on the god with the worst hell, so it could be avoided.
Pascal’s Wager also assumes that God's mind is knowable. Perhaps God actually prefers independent thinkers such as Atheists, not obsequious followers.
Another problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it implicitly assumes that the odds of the two possibilities are similar. Since the odds of the Christian god existing are zero, the wager creates a false dilemma.
The last problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it completely ignores intellectual integrity and honesty. As an example, let’s talk about belief in Santa Claus. Don’t we have more respect for a child who figures out that Santa doesn’t exist, and says so, rather than continuing to lie so he can get more presents? It’s a sign of growing integrity and maturity for children to stop believing in Santa. Similarly, adults can give up belief in a god when they realize that there’s no real evidence for their god.
Comfort and Emotion
I think that many people continue to believe in a god because it gives them comfort; it’s an emotional response. It allows them to pray to their god and think that they’re actually accomplishing something. It gives them feelings of structure and meaning in their lives, and makes them feel connected. It helps remove the fear of death and nonexistence that most of us experience. Belief in the Christian god helps remove people’s fear of Christian hell that has been pounded into their minds. Belief in a god also makes the world more black and white, less confusing, and easier to deal with. But, is this any actual proof for the existence of a god? Is comfort a good indicator of the truth of external reality? I don’t think that it is. George Bernard Shaw said it best. “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.”
Belief in God, and How it Affects Our World This question about the existence of a god is not merely a philosophical exercise; it has pertinent applications to the world in which we live. I will talk about five areas — history, education, politics, medicine, and everyday life.
God and History
Millions of people have been killed in the name of some god, and most wars have had religion as a central cause. Religion was explicitly behind the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the mass killings of “witches” and heretics. Many of these heretics were only guilty of expressing ideas that the churches didn't like, but are commonly accepted now in science and social reform. With the threat of heresy, the churches effectively set back humankind's advancement by hundreds of years. More recently, the German leaders in WWII (like in many other warring countries) exhorted their people that God was on their side, and used religion to unite them. Religion is also at the root of most of today's international problems. Just imagine how much more peaceful the world would be without beliefs in gods causing so much strife.
God and Education
In education, at the same time that we have a rise of fundamentalist religions in the U.S., the youth of America are scoring lower on scholastic tests. Now, cause and effect are obviously difficult to establish for this; but it must be harder for many of them learn to think rationally when they are taught, by their parents or religious schools, such irrational concepts as creationism and invisible, immaterial beings. Also, as I already noted, many religious leaders actively preach against rational thought and even advanced education.
Here are some disturbing statistics, partly from a 2004 CBS News Poll, a 2004 Gallup poll, and a Gallup poll of U.S. teenagers.
- 81% of U.S. teenagers think that God controlled or influenced the origin of humans. (Gallup)
- 65% of Americans think that we should teach both creationism and evolution in schools. (CBS)
- 55% believe that “God created humans in present form.” (CBS)
- 45% believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old. (Gallup)
- 37% think that we should teach just creationism in schools, including 60% of evangelical Christians. (CBS)
- 36% believe in telepathy.
- 35% say that evolution is well supported by the evidence. (Gallup)
- 35% say that evolution is not well supported by the evidence. (Gallup)
- 25% believe in astrology.
- 25% think the sun goes around the Earth.
- 13% think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
- Only 13% of Americans accept the standard scientific account of evolution, without a god’s involvement. (CBS)
Belief in an omnipotent deity allows people to use sloppy logic. If they are faced with a difficult question about why an event occurred, all they have to say is, “God did it.” Then the reason behind the event is a mystery. This is the old “god of the gaps” answer, and it's an intellectual cop-out. It answers nothing; it predicts nothing; and it teaches nothing. To counter this we must ensure that scientific naturalism and critical thinking skills are taught in our schools. As students understand better how the world works, their personal gods of the gaps will diminish. If we want to have a strong democracy, our students and future voters must understand the basic facts of the world around us, in order to make informed decisions. If we want to continue leading the world in science and engineering, we must make sure that our students learn real science — not religious pseudoscientific nonsense.
God, Politics, and Government
God bless America. We’ve all heard it countless times, especially from politicians. It is a very dangerous concept, for it can give leaders the arrogance and invulnerability of supposedly divine backing where they can do no wrong. It can also give them the idea that they have the responsibility to impose their religious and political beliefs on U.S. citizens and on other countries — whether wanted or not.
The Roman leaders used to require that every Roman citizen pray to the Roman gods, to ensure victory for their armies. There’s an old saying that goes like this:
- To the Romans, all religions were equally true.
- To the philosophers, all religions were equally false.
- To the politicians, all religions were equally useful.
Does this sound familiar? Our politicians keep pulling God and religion into politics. President George W. Bush’s mangling of the wall separating state and church is well documented. In 1954, when President Eisenhower signed the bill adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, his words explicitly showed that the idea was to link religiosity and patriotism. In 1988 President Reagan established the National Day of Prayer. On March 27, 2003, House Resolution 153 passed by an overwhelming vote. It urges the President to issue a proclamation “designating a day for humility, prayer, and fasting for all people of the United States.” We are “to seek guidance from God to achieve a greater understanding of our own failings,” and “to gain resolve in meeting the challenges that confront our nation.” The Senate unanimously passed a similar bill. These government actions violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment. I say that we are becoming a de facto theocracy. Do you agree?
Religion has entered policies of the U.S. federal government. Faith-based groups are receiving billions of federal dollars, with little or no oversight. Federally sponsored sex education courses often follow Christian ideas, and don't teach facts that would help our youth deal with their sexuality. The FDA has based rulings concerning contraception on religious grounds, despite contradicting findings from their science boards and even the will of a vast majority of the U.S. population. President George W. Bush used his first veto to block funding of stem cell research, because of his religious views.
Religion has even entered into laws of most of our states. Nine states discriminate against Atheists in their constitutions, with seven states prohibiting Atheists from holding office. One state even prohibits Atheists from testifying in court. Fortunately, these laws aren't followed. Many states prohibit same-sex marriage, based on religious ideas. Thirty-nine states allow religious exemptions from child abuse or neglect charges, while thirty-one states allow a religious defense to a criminal charge. Parents can beat their children or allow them to die without needed medical help, and then basically claim, “God said I could.”
A basic source of incompatibility between religion and democracy lies in how each deals with points of view that disagree. Religion is usually based on divisive absolutes like right and wrong, good and evil, God and Satan, us and them. Democracy needs to be based on compromise. This is why democracy functions best when religion and its divisiveness are kept out of government.
True freedom must give us the ability to do and say what many others may disagree with, or freedom means little. It’s always easy to allow people to do what you agree with. The real test of freedom comes when people say or do what you disagree with. This is another reason why religion must be kept out of a democratic government. Few religions grant other than mild disagreement — often branding critical or disliked ideas and people as heretical. Democracy, however, thrives best when people are willing to openly disagree.
Many religious and political leaders say that our freedoms and liberties come from God. I say that freedoms in a society do not exist without the ability to enforce them. In the U.S. this power originates in our Constitution and is implemented by our officials enforcing it. In many ways, we can say that our government created our freedoms. If God is the source of freedom, why was there so little of it before our nation was formed? And, why does it take a government to enforce that freedom?
Before the U.S. was founded, most governments and churches worked together to stay in power — limiting whatever rights and freedoms the common people might try to obtain. The concept of a church actually promoting the rights of the individual is a relatively recent development.
It’s important to remember that the U.S. was founded as the first country that derived its power from a purely secular, nonreligious basis. All nations before then had kings and queens who often used their supposed “God-given divine right” to rule. Instead of this top-down power structure, our founders wisely created a government that derived its powers from the consent of the governed. This is why our Constitution begins with “We the People...”
The United States was also founded in direct contradiction to the Christian concept of submission to the current government, as put forth in Romans 13:1-7. These verses are a biblical source of the “God-given divine right” of rulers, and state that God established the authorities — so rebelling against them is rebelling against God. Fortunately, our founding fathers were more interested in human rights than the rights of the Christian god and his minions.
Our nation’s founders also realized the inherent divisiveness of religion and the many bloody wars that had been fought over religion, and kept it specifically out of our Constitution and government. God is not even mentioned in our Constitution. Religion is only mentioned twice — both times to keep religion and government separate. The Treaty of Tripoli, written during the administration of President George Washington, signed by President John Adams, and unanimously approved by the Senate, stated, “The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” How could we as a nation have forgotten such an important fact?
Many Christians are still trying to make the United States a Christian nation. They will point out that many of our founding fathers were religious, and that “God” and “Creator” are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. What they don’t mention is the fact that the religion of some of the founding fathers was Deism — not Christianity, the fact that the Declaration of Independence refers to “Nature’s God” — a Deistic god, not the Christian god, and the fact that the Declaration of Independence is not a basis of our government — the Constitution is. What these Christians also won't mention is that, altho the founders were largely religious, they saw the wisdom in separating government and religion.
It’s often said that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. The phrase originated with Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, when he wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” This was in a letter to a Baptist church, to reassure them that the U.S. would keep religion and government separate. The Baptists were painfully aware of that danger, because of their own recent experiences of not being the favored religion in some states and other countries. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said it best. “A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”
Many people claim that the Atheism of Communist countries shows the supposed evils of Atheism. The best response to this comes from David Fitzgerald. “Atheism is nothing more than a conclusion. There are plenty of people in this world who are Atheists, but this doesn't mean we share values. Communism is a perfect example. Communism is for all practical purposes, a political religion: It is totalitarian, it venerates its sainted founders, it has sacred dogma that cannot be challenged; it persecutes its heretics, it does not brook disobedience, it feels no compunction against twisting science for its own means. Even its touted "Atheism" is simply a defensive reaction against its rival religions. It has nothing in common with the free thought of Paine or Jefferson, or the humanism of Dawkins or Einstein.”
God, Medicine, and Science
Let’s look at religion and medicine. Religious leaders have consistently come out against medical advances. Hundreds of years ago, they were against autopsies and medical use of cadavers for research. In the 1800’s Christians fought the use of anesthetics on the ground that suffering is God’s will and therefore must be endured. This was particularly true for a woman’s pain during childbirth, because they could quote the Bible to support their position. Currently, some religious groups prohibit life-saving blood transfusions. Children die every year because their parents withhold medical treatment, trusting in God instead. Many religious leaders are preventing access to birth control, disease prevention, and information about sexuality. They act as though they would prefer to see people dying of disease or starvation, rather than allow the population to have forbidden products and information. Recently some have come out against very promising areas of medicine, such as fetal cell research, stem cell research, and therapeutic cloning. They have also convinced our government that these areas of research should be prohibited or severely limited. This has real implications for reducing the possible medical treatments available for each of us and for tens of millions of people in the U.S. who have spinal cord injuries and diseases such as Parkinson's. Not all religions want this research limited; but many do, and they fail the medical test.
One of the real evils that I see in both Islam and Christianity is that they take pre-hormonal kids and teach them that sex and even thinking about sex are wrong. Then the hormones hit, and the kids will think that they are sinful and evil. Unfortunately for them, their religion has the solution — prostration before their god and dedication to the religion. It's an effective and sick process.
Most religions base their beliefs on a “holy” book or interpretations of the holy book by their religious leaders. Because the holy book is fixed, it cannot change to account for advances in our understanding of the world. Religions thus have an intrinsic goal of resisting change or even returning to a supposedly better past. Science, however, has as its pre-eminent goal the improved knowledge of the world and universe. This conflict has been played out almost countless times. Galileo's problems with the Catholic Church are a classic example. More recently, all the resistance to the Theory of Evolution is religiously based. How far could humankind have advanced by now if not for the hindrance of religion?
God and Everyday Life
Let’s look at God and everyday life. If there really were a personal god, the existence of this god would be an obvious fact in the universe. God would be reaching into events in the world, and bypassing the laws of physics to influence the outcomes. People who lost limbs might have them re-appear. Babies killed in fires might come back to life. Other true miracles would happen. I’ve seen none of this, and I know of no one else who has either. In fact, there is no reliable evidence of any divine intervention, ever! God fails the reality test of everyday life.
We’ve looked at religion and history, education, politics, medicine, and everyday life. “What’s the harm in religion?” some people say. I think that I’ve shown some of the harm. Religion is divisive and poisonous to rational thought. Madalyn Murray O’Hair summarized it well when she said, “Religion has ever been anti-human, anti-woman, anti-life, anti-peace, anti-reason and anti-science. The god idea has been detrimental not only to humankind but to the earth. It is time now for reason, education and science to take over.”
God is Just an Idea
What could an invisible, immaterial god be like? This immaterial god would have an immaterial mind, and the only minds that we have any examples of result from physical brains. The only invisible, immaterial things that I know of are ideas, like mathematic, scientific and social concepts. Although ideas can be powerful in moving people to action, they are human creations and have no separate reality. If humankind were to disappear tomorrow, so would ideas — including the idea of God.
The English language even has a term for this: “reify” — which means “to regard something abstract as real or concrete.” The god idea is about as abstract as possible, with no real evidence for existence. However, people have been regarding some god or gods as real for thousands of years.
Where did this “god” idea come from? Humans are pattern-seeking animals. We see patterns everywhere, such as similarities between different types of plants, animals and people. To a great degree, this capability has served us well by helping us understand and adapt to our environment. It also causes us to see patterns where they don’t really exist — the man in the moon, clouds, Rorschach tests, and “intelligent” design in the universe. This is where the god idea comes from. Michael Shermer said it best. “The concept of God is generated by a brain designed by evolution to find design in nature (a very recursive idea).”
Because we are sentient, social beings, our brains are wired to interact with other such brains. This capability is easily subverted, and we often anthropomorphize animals and even objects — giving them “human” qualities. The god concept can be seen as simply the result of people anthropomorphizing the universe. Because God is just a projection of people's minds, he usually agrees with them.
Proofs and Qualities of God(s)
Ultimately though, it’s not necessary to prove that a god doesn’t exist. It is up to the god-believers to prove that their god or gods exist, for they are making the assertion of the existence of something that is not immediately visible. For example, if I were to claim that there's an invisible ten-foot tall pink unicorn standing next to you, and demand that you feed her, you could justifiably expect some sort of hard proof. The same concept of proof lies with those who claim that an invisible, immaterial god exists. Thus, even if all proofs of the nonexistence of gods were to fail, it would still be necessary for Theists to prove the actual existence of their god, if they expect us to take them seriously.
Some people say that we can’t prove that a god doesn’t exist; to do so we would have to have absolute knowledge. This is wrong. Depending on how we define a god, it's possible to prove that it is self-contradictory and can’t exist, just like it's possible to prove that square circles can’t exist. Let's first discuss the Christian god Yahweh, which is typically defined as having free will, and being omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good), eternal, and unchanging.
Many Christian philosophers also add other attributes to Yahweh (a.k.a. God), such as unknowable, ineffable, incomprehensible, transcendent, and of course supernatural — because they don’t want to limit a supposedly infinite being. How can we conceive or even logically discuss these characteristics? Any in-depth analysis ends in confusion, contradictions, and irrational nonsense.
First, it’s important to note that humans concocted all of these qualities of Yahweh, and have they no examples in the real world — much like the capabilities of Superman. To get a better understanding of what Christians really mean, we can also substitute “magical” whenever we see “supernatural.”
Yahweh’s typical qualities sound pretty good. Unfortunately these attributes are mutually exclusive and can’t all exist in one being, no matter how supernatural it is. Yahweh can’t have free will and be omniscient and omnipotent. If Yahweh knows the future, Yahweh would be unable to change it, and thus could not be omnipotent. As a simple example, let’s say that Yahweh declares what tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers will be, and writes them down. However, now Yahweh can’t change those numbers. Yahweh can’t both know the future and change it. In fact, an omniscient god can’t actually decide to do anything!
The idea of omniscience also brings into serious question the concepts of human free will and morality. If Yahweh knows what we are going to do then we have no free will and are just characters in a play written by Yahweh. Without free will, morality for humans makes no sense. Without free will and morality, any sort of punishment or reward system loses any justification. Heaven and hell would be places where Yahweh could watch the souls he created, predestined just for eternal happiness or agony.
The Muslim god Allah also suffers from conflicting characteristics. The Qur'an describes Allah as the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Loving, and the Just. In order for Allah to be just, he has to punish those who transgress Allah's laws. In order for Allah to be compassionate, merciful, and loving, he can't punish without these terms losing their meaning. Thus Allah can't exist with these four qualities.
Some people say that their god really does love us, but occasionally punishes us to teach us something. Because this “punishment” often involves people dying (as in natural disasters) this supposed “godly” love has little correlation to human love and is obviously concocted.
The Problem of Evil, or Theodicy
Yahweh can’t be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent, because terrible events really do occur, and this all-loving god hasn’t prevented them. This is known as the Problem of Evil (also known as theodicy), and I think that it is one of the biggest problems for those attempting to prove the existence of a loving, all-powerful god. How can anybody explain the existence of such a god, while also knowing the bad things that happen to all of us and the terrible things that happen to far too many?
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus summed it up well when he wrote these ideas:
- Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can and does not want to.
- If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent.
- If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked.
- If, as they say, God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?
- If he cannot and does not want to, then why call him God?
And yet the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good god with free will won’t go away. So, here we are discussing this subject again. It’s good to remember that there have been over 2500 gods created by humankind. Monotheists don’t believe in all but one of them. Atheists don’t believe in just one more.
In fact, the existence of honest and kind Atheists is another proof that the Christian god, who demands belief, doesn’t exist. If this all-good god existed, it would want everybody to be saved — even Atheists. If this all-knowing god existed, it would know that Atheists just want real proof of its existence. If this god were all-powerful it would be able to give unambiguous proof of its existence. It hasn’t. Therefore this god doesn’t exist.
As I have shown, the concept of God is also logically contradictory; God not only does not exist but cannot exist. In short, God is impossible.
Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism
The Atheist position is that the universe is understandable and explainable in the naturalistic terms of science and mathematics. There is no need for a god in order to explain the universe, or reliable evidence to show that any god exists. Atheism is more than just a belief paradigm; it is a conclusion based on the lack of any empirical evidence for any gods. Reality rules.
Richard Dawkins expressed it well. “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” He also wrote why Atheism is useful for improving our world. “Let's get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.”
Some people claim that it takes more faith to be an Atheist than to be a believer. This is false. All it takes to be an educated Atheist is understanding rational logic and what scientific evidence is, not unquestioning faith or beliefs. For instance, Atheists (like most people) don’t simply believe or have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow; we conclude that it will — based on evidence and logic. We also know that no gods were causing lightning before it was understood. Atheists know that the same process of evidence and logic can also be applied to larger subjects such as evolution and the Big Bang. This may remove some of the ‘magic’ of the universe, but for many it can create deep feelings of amazement and wonder of the world around us.
Most people seem to assume that Atheism and Agnosticism are incompatible. This is false. Agnosticism deals with knowledge (or lack thereof). Theism and Atheism deal with beliefs. Theism is based on the belief that a god or gods exist. Basic Atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods. For many Atheists, it is also the conclusion that no gods exist.
Why Atheism and not Agnosticism? Many people say that there still could be a god, that we can’t totally disprove the existence of all types of gods. That is true, but most people's Agnosticism ends up splitting hairs and being intellectually lazy. I’ve shown that there is no reliable evidence that any god exists, especially a personal god of the Christian/Jewish/Muslim type. This typical personal god would show up in its interactions with the real, physical world. As I noted, there is no empirical evidence of this. Thus, in this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. This leaves only marginal gods that have little or no interaction with humans and the world. Do we think that the ancient Greek gods still exist? How about the Roman, Norse or Mayan gods? How about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny? Of course not. There is no verifiable evidence for any supernatural guy in a red suit, magic rabbit, or gods. Just like it’s hypothetically possible for an undetectable teapot to be orbiting the sun (as noted by Bertrand Russell), some gods are also hypothetically possible, but ridiculously improbable. So, let’s be honest with ourselves and look at the world with open eyes, as it actually is.
Essentially, all the hypothetical arguments become rather pointless. Atheism is the simple conclusion that there are no gods, based on the evidence. Until some god makes its presence indisputably, unquestionably known, I will go with the conclusion that no god exists. This is why I'm an Atheist.
Christians and Jews don't believe in Allah or Brahma. Hindus don't believe in Yahweh or Allah. Muslims don't believe in Brahma or Yahweh. Atheists agree with all of them.
The truth is that we are, each of us, all alone in our minds. Many people have imaginary friends called gods to make them feel less alone, and often more loved. Our desire for love is a powerful trait, and it's one of the reasons for the popularity of Christianity with its sayings “God loves you” and “Jesus loves you.” Some people learn to give up their imaginary friends. It’s sometimes not easy not believing, and it is intellectually honest. Atheists can derive strength from that. People have been struggling with mortality for thousands of years. Here are three quotes that I like:
- The first is again from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus; “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”
- The scientist/philosopher Carl Sagan wrote, “For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
- Mark Twain wrote, “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.”
All living things die. All planets and stars will eventually die. Even our universe will fade out over trillions of years.
I find this amazingly liberating, and realize that life is to be lived joyfully and fully in the present, which is all we really have — while remembering the past and projecting into the future to give us guidance as to how to live now.
Many religious people ask how Atheists can be happy without God. For me and for many Atheists I know, the realization of our Atheism has been extremely freeing and has opened us to our innate happiness.
- Atheism helps us to see reality as it actually is, without the mental filters of superstition preventing us from directly experiencing it.
- Atheism opens us to experience our selves, without the debasing idea that we are innately sinful.
- Atheism allows us to experience true interpersonal love, without any imaginary supernatural intervention.
- Atheism gives us the freedom to think for ourselves, to construct our own meanings. We each can choose what we think has value.
- Atheism shows us that we can gain meaning by seeking to make our world a better place, for ourselves and our posterity.
- Atheism teaches us to take responsibility for our behaviors in the here and now, not for a reward in an imaginary afterlife.
- Atheism lets us see that we have to make choices about our future. No big daddy god is going to protect us from bad decisions.
- Atheism teaches us to treasure this moment, this life, and this world — because we realize that it’s all we have.
Here are two more quotes that show the advantages of Atheist life and thought:
“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, of the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust.” — Robert Ingersoll, 1896
“There is no evidence for a god, no coherent definition of a god, no good argument for a god, good positive arguments against a god, no agreement among believers about the nature or moral principles of a god, and no need for a god. We can live happy, moral, productive lives without such belief, and we can do it better.” — Dan Barker, of Freedom From Religion Foundation
Atheism also works well for free societies. Free nations with high levels of Atheism — such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland and Japan — are among the healthiest, wealthiest, most educated, and most free societies on Earth.
Most Atheists are also Secular Humanists. The philosophy of Secular Humanism takes the Atheist position and adds another layer. It declares that humans are most important, not any imaginary gods. We have the power, thru love, reason, science, courage, and vision, to solve our problems. We shape our destiny. We are each capable of personal development and satisfaction. Humanism holds as its highest goal the happiness, fulfillment, and freedom of all humankind.
This has been a long and involved article, so I would like to conclude with letting you know the bad news ... and the good news. The bad news is that there is no god to watch over and care for us. The good news is that there is no hell, and we can all love and care for each other — if we so choose.
This article was reprinted with permission from Mark Thomas (granted to Freethoughtpedia Jan/2008), Atheists of Silicon Valley.
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