Friday, January 16, 2009

Why I am an Atheist

The biggest reason I am an atheist is that I grew up evangelical and later rejected evangelical Christianity – that is the subject of the rest of my blog and will be overlooked here. But evangelical Christianity rejected doesn't imply atheism; in my case, non-Christian theist to deist to agnostic to atheist took from April until October. Here, I will cover my reasons for being an atheist rather than an otherwise undecided non-Christian.

Atheism: What it Means

I need to first clarify what I mean by “atheist.” I don't believe in a God of any kind, or even see the existence of one as plausible, therefore I am an atheist. I don't claim to know for certain, and I can't prove God doesn't exist. I'm not an atheist in an absolute certainty sort of way, which is what some people still use it to mean.

Oftentimes, the definition of a word has a subliminal effect on how we think. Take the word “discipline,” for instance. It can be a verb meaning to punish misbehavior, or it can be an adjective describing one who behaves with great self-control. The subtle implication inside English is the idea that discipline leads to discipline. When we call someone “highly disciplined” this is a claim about their present level of self-control, not about the amount of punishment needed to become like that, but when this is said in English, this implication hides just under the surface regardless of if the implication was desired by the speaker. If this were false, this would be a problem in the English language. (Generally speaking, I agree with the idea subliminally reinforced by this homonym.)

An unfortunate misconception is caused by the word “atheist” meaning one who is absolutely certain there is no God. The problem is that it forces together the concepts of a particular position and absolute certainty. This causes a concept of unjustifiable arrogance to be automatically associated with the idea that God does not exist. A word is needed that merely describes the position and does not contain an implication of certainty. That word is atheism. The word's evolution into not carrying the implication of certainty is a needed linguistic change, but the change is only partially complete, and hence my embracing of the label is at the possible expense of misunderstanding.

Similarly, I am a capitalist. I'm not an expert at economics, I can't refute every socialistic argument ever put forward, and I might be wrong. But I'm still a capitalist, and this is not in tension with my lack of omniscience. I wouldn't want to call myself agnostic on matters of economics just because I might be wrong. I think capitalism works, I think God doesn't exist, I'm certain of neither, and I'm ashamed of neither. Therefore, I am a capitalist and an atheist. Only if the existence of God or the effectiveness of socialism starts seeming plausible to me will I call myself agnostic with regard to either.

One other misunderstanding of atheism is that it necessarily starts with the position that the cosmos is all there is. Some atheists do, but I do not. If I were to map out core presuppositions, conclusions just above those, the next level of conclusions above those, and so on, atheism would be very near the top. That is to say, very little that I believe rests on atheism – atheism rests on those other things that I believe. In particular, atheism is the conclusion that comes from the absence of reasons to believe in God. Richard Dawkins beautifully expressed this idea of atheism as a denial of others' claims, rather than as a positive position:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Why God's Existence Requires Defense

The one positive statement I will make that defends my atheism is that there are no good reasons to believe in God. I use absolute language not out of arrogance, but so as to have a target for theists (and agnostics) to shoot at. Agnostics have more wiggle room because it's perfectly fine if they feel the pull of several arguments for God's existence but don't think it's quite sufficient to believe. Think of my absolute statement as denying myself wiggle room so as to have an actual position that could be falsified by a fellow mortal.

I don't start with the existence/non-existence of God as a presupposition, and you shouldn't either. If there's an elephant in the living room you shouldn't have to believe in it on faith – if the elephant isn't obvious, it's not there. If it's not there, you shouldn't have to just disbelieve in it because it's too preposterous of a possibility to be worthy of consideration – if it's not there, you should be able to look and see that it's not there. How much more should this be the case with an omnipresent God, especially if he wants us to know him?

However, plenty of Christians do think God is obvious. Paul was among them, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” If I succeed in refuting the arguments for God based on creation, I have not only rebutted positive arguments, but I will also have shown biblical reasoning to be flawed.

The Key Idea

Before I address the particulars, I wish to belabor what I think needs to be the general idea behind “how do you explain X without God” arguments. The same idea will apply to existence, design, meaning, morality, free will, and probably dozens of others. In my opinion, this one idea destroys nearly all arguments for God in a single blow. (This idea does not refute most arguments for Christianity in particular, such as evidential arguments for the Resurrection, etc.)

At face value, the argument from X rests on one claim, namely that atheists haven't figured X out, therefore they aren't looking at a big enough picture, therefore God. I can at least speak for myself in saying that for years I had this misconception. But this is wrong. For these argument to work, they also need to establish that theism doesn't suffer from the same weakness. Weaknesses in atheism are evidence for God only to the extent that theism doesn't have the same weaknesses. This point will come up over and over again, and I intend to repeat it au nausum as it is so often missed.

These arguments all rely for their rhetorical strength on the idea that it is somehow irreverent to try to understand God. I don't allow religion to impose a double standard on the discourse. Arguments for theism often consist of taking a bunch of things in the universe that we don't know, throwing them in a big box labeled “God”, and declaring inspection inside the box to be irreverent. Of course theists think the mysteries of life are not problems for their view! The problems are all hidden in a box that is not to be opened, because that would mean trying to understand God.

Pandora, be damned. I dare to peer inside the box.

Argument from Existence – Why is there something rather than nothing?

But why is there a God instead of nothing? If the existence of the universe demands a creator, why doesn’t the existence of a creator demand someone who created him? The only way to get around this conundrum is to assign to God some made-up property, like “necessary being,” “self-existent,” “not an effect, hence not needing a cause.” However, all these properties could just as easily apply to the universe as a whole. Perhaps this is a necessary universe, a self-existent universe, or the Big Bang was not an effect (there is no “before time”) and hence the Big Bang needs no cause.

Maybe God has one of these properties. But a need for one of them destroys the argument because a weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Design – Where did all this apparent design come from, if not a Designer?

So who designed the designer? A being capable of designing a world this intricate must be even more intricate than the world itself. To the degree that evolution is a good theory, atheism has a better answer than non-evolutionary theism. But even if the validity of evolution were nil, atheism would be on equal ground with theism regarding its ability to explain the existence of design. (Theistic evolution and atheistic evolution are on equal ground as well.)

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Meaning – How do our lives have meaning, if not in following God?

First off, the possibility that our lives have no meaning deserves serious consideration if the topic is truth, rather than what we would want to be true. The prevalence of extreme pain in the world gives a strong reason to think that some very harsh realities have to be faced. If the bitter truth is that our lives have no meaning then the argument fails.

In any case, how does God's existence have meaning? According to Christians at least, what we know of God's existence consists of seeking to be loved, seeking to love, and seeking his own glory. All of these are goals that mere mortals can seek for themselves without God. If meaning is to be found in the existence of the sort of God that Christians envision, then I too can create meaning in my life by living life.

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Furthermore, what is it about existence in heaven that is meaningful? The two perks are hedonistic (streets of gold, etc.) and relational (always being with the Lord/other Christians.) But this is not terribly different from seeking to create meaning in one's life through living life with other people and enjoying whatever time we have. How is being with the Lord meaningful while being with other people is not meaningful? If the problem is that a finite existence is not meaningful, then I am happy to be spared the experience of heaven, as it would then consist of an infinite sequence of meaningless existences.

Argument from Morality – How do we have a concept of “ought” (distinct from “want”) if not from God?

How does God have a concept of morality? If morality proceeds from what God wants, then from God's perspective, there is no right and wrong – only what he wants/conforms to his will. This takes away the possibility of genuine praise – he isn't any better than Satan in an objective sense, he's just on a different side. Also, if “good” equals God's whim, then if he had lied to us about his unchanging nature and ultimately decides to cast all believers into hell this would be every bit as “good” as what Christians think he's really doing. Surely, this idea of “good” has strayed so far from our intuitive concept of good, that our intuitive concept of good is not evidence for the reality of this counterintuitive concept of “good.”

If morality precedes what God wants, then I would like God to answer the Moral Argument: where did God get his concept of morality if not from another Higher God?

Neither side has an answer that results in the sort of transcendent morality that Christians claim to have. Either God has no morals, or the fact that God must have morals that don't come from himself shoots the argument from morality in the foot.

A weakness in atheism is not evidence for God when theism contains the same weakness hidden in the God-box.

Argument from Free Will – How do we have free will if not from God?

How do we know we have free will? As Dawkins recounted:

"'Tell me,' the great twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked a friend, 'why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went around the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?' His friend replied, 'Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth.' Wittgenstein responded, 'Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?'"

Similarly, I ask what the world would look like if it looked like we had no free will. I freely admit that this wondering challenges my own thinking as much as it challenges theism.

(I'll overlook the quantum physics answer outside this comment. It proves the logical consistency of free will and atheism, but leaves the actual existence of free will unknown. While very interesting, it is not needed to refute the argument.)

I'm sure you see where my second objection is heading by now... How does God have free will? Apparently, the reason a godless universe would have no free will is because such a universe would always follow its natural laws. But God always follows his own nature – so what's the difference? If God has no free will, it makes no sense for him to have the capacity to give the gift of something he lacks. As Calvinists show, even if God has free will, there are many definitions of free will and concepts of Sovereignty where we still don't have it. I will spare you the final repetition of the key idea...


With all of these questions, much more can and should be said. Just because evolution and abiogenesis are not needed to answer the design argument doesn't mean they aren't worthy of study. What is the meaning of life? Is morality absolute? Do the words “free will” even mean anything? All of these are worthy of centuries of analysis by philosophers and scientists. Surely we can do better than “42.” But as arguments for God's existence, I find that little is required to refute them. If you dare to look inside the God-box, you will see that theism fails to answer the questions that justified the idea of God in the first place.

Sometimes humanity does learn things that were previously unknown. Due to evolution, we do have a pretty good idea about the origin of much of the design on the earth. Many theists are working hard to resist these answers so as to keep this treasured piece of ignorance inside the God-box. If part of the question is answered, theists will have to find a smaller box. I'm tired of downsizing my box. I've gotten rid of it entirely and placed what I don't know on a shelf in full display. I would like to think that I could have figured out Thor does not exist even if I lived in a time before scientific descriptions of thunder existed. I wish to do the same with what remains unknown. Therefore, I am an atheist.


  1. How is being with the Lord meaningful while being with other people is not meaningful? If the problem is that a finite existence is not meaningful, then I am happy to be spared the experience of heaven, as it would then consist of an infinite sequence of meaningless existences.

    This is perhaps one of the most lucid question/answers I've seen on this topic.

  2. this is one of the most thoughtful posts i have seen on this subject- and one of the most thorough. (veering dangerously into flatterspam.)

    for me, one of the reasons that i am an atheist is the idea that god is responsible for evil, god could get rid of evil, but doesn't, for whatever reason.

    once you remove god from the equation, evil is our fault, and our responsibility to get rid of. that seems horrifying, but, it means there is a chance, no matter how slim, of actually defeating evil, which for me is cause for joy.

  3. Well done!

    Your discussion of "special properties" of God (necessary being, self-existing, etc.) reminds me of the philosophical and linguistic contortions believers must adopt in order to keep the system afloat.

    I want to scream whenever someone posits that God is Simple as if that somehow explains everything, yet no one can come close to explaining what "Simple" really means because it's too damn complicated.

  4. Define capitalist. Do you mean libertarian laissez-faire or general capitalism (that does not exclude the welfare state?

  5. I'm a capitalist in a more general sense. I know the difference between Obama "socialism" and actual socialism.

    In extreme cases like right now, I'm all for a stimulus via spending due to the government spending effect multiplier being greater than the tax-cut multiplier. Like a conservative, I see the effect this will have on increasing the government's size to be a bad thing - but not bad enough to prevent me from supporting Democrats' ideas about what it should look like.

  6. Well written.

    The toughest part about debating with theists, and particularly fangelicals, is that their arguments are absurd, and it is difficult to find fault without invoking sarcasm and ridicule.

    And after wading through their circular reasoning and special pleading, you cannot sway them, because the central concept of religion and belief in gods stems from ignorance (back in the day, it was lack of scientific knowledge; now it is simply wilful).

  7. Hi! Great post! Haven’t had a chance to read all your posts (just found this blog) so maybe you answer this question already, but how do you deal with the argument of ‘faith’? I love hearing how x-Christians handle this (if you even consider it an argument).

  8. I haven't written anything directly against "I just have faith." The closest I've come is my post The Power of Prayer?. (This is a slightly revised version of a post on this blog.)

  9. Hello, there! Well, I first must gives thanks to you for writing this post up. As some one who attended a Baptist Christian school I can tell you the number one issue I had with some of these people was not that they believed what they did. It was that there was virtually no critical thinking on their part and defended the absolute truth of the Bible without ever actually reading the thing or researching it's history or construction. If you are going to believe something 'big' like that you better have some proof to back it up. I have always hated 'It's my faith' argument.

    But too often I would be equally turned off by some atheists whose arguments weren't really rational debate or logic more like a rant. But this post actually simply states issues with some key religious positions that really don't prove their points at all. But in fairness it doesn't completely disprove their entire religion either. I'm not sure entirely agree with what you say exactly but it is nice to read something like this that dispels stereotypes and misconceptions from both sides.

    So, wonderfully written!

  10. "A being capable of designing a world this intricate must be even more intricate than the world itself."

    On what planet?

  11. Great post.
    Only thing I'd expand is your Euthyphro-dilemma point on morality:
    "Either God has no morals, or the fact that God must have morals that don't come from himself shoots the argument from morality in the foot."
    The standard xian response is to place morality inside the God-box, claiming it is part of God's Nature and needs no causal explanation anymore than any other of God's properties in the God-box.
    But if there are universal binding prescriptive moral principles, it doesn't matter if they are placed inside the God-box or not. All God's other properties add nothing to them. God might be able to shortcut our own discovery of these principles by communicating them to us, but that's justifying God because God would be convenient. (Or course actual alleged Godly moral revelations are problematic.)
    I'm sure you meant all the above, but that's the point of the Euthyphro which I often see atheists fail to explicitly make.

    One bit of trivia about meaning: heavyweight apologist William Lane Craig believes not only God but eternal life is necessary for meaning. According to him, even if you perfectly serve,worship,etc. God but did not exist forever, your life would be meaningless. It really is an astonishingly and revealingly selfish conception of personal meaning.

  12. Any entity placed within space and time cannot naturally have any lack of space and time if it is not artificially deprived of them. That is, any entity placed within space and time should naturally have space and time. But in case of light we find that it lacks both space and time, because as per relativity theory values of both time and distance become zero for light. This cannot occur naturally, because light has in no conceivable way been artificially deprived of space and time, and therefore, no natural explanation can be given for this particular phenomenon. Thus here, and here only, we will need a supernatural explanation.

    For further reading please see:
    i) Who will tell us how space and time are non-existent for light?
    ii) The Necessity of God & the Uncreated Whole

  13. "But in case of light we find that it lacks both space and time, because as per relativity theory values of both time and distance become zero for light."

    Right now, my room contains light.

  14. There is a general consensus among the physicists that space and time do not exist for the light. This is as per the relativity theory. If existence means existing in space and time, then it can even be said that the light does not exist at all! Yes, Sacha Vongehr in Science 2.0 has written just the same thing about the light, that the light does not exist for itself, but that it exists for everything else (The Fundamental Nature of the Light, Science 2.0). But my point is not that one. My point is that how space and time become non-existent for the light when we know very well that they cannot be so by any natural means.

    Einstein's equation shows that time totally stops for the light. But what is the reason that time will have to totally stop for the light? Similarly Einstein's another equation shows that if the light has to travel from A to B, then the distance between A and B is reduced to zero for the light. We can ask the same question here also: what is the reason that this distance will have to be reduced to zero for the light? Will the light fail to travel from A to B if this distance is not reduced to zero for it? As the travel time is also reduced to zero for the light, so we can also ask: will the light fail to travel from A to B if its travel time is not reduced to zero? So we do not find any apparent reason as to why space and time will have to be non-existent for the light.

    So here we find that there is not only a how-question, but there is also a why-question. We know very well that science does not attempt to answer the why-question. But let them at least answer the how-question.

  15. Whatever is, is. Whatever is not, is not. The Argument from Existence is actually the only one that matters. Every other argument is fallout from this one and it is not so often handled correctly. Bertrand Russell supposed that there was no reason why the Universe could not simply always have been; that it did not have need of a first, "un-caused" cause but was rather just a string of causes and effects running back ad-infinitum. He could find no mathematical or philosophical reason for this not to be so. And indeed we observe, without a single exception, that, in the universe we can detect, nothing happens or comes into existence without a cause; though we may not exactly understand the nature of the cause yet we understand that it is there. The Principle of Cause and Effect (PCE) appears to be absolutely sovereign within the scope of "All That There Is". The problem begins when we ask the question, "What has caused PCE?" If it is a product of material existence (first matter and then PCE), and it is hard to imagine PCE without anything to operate on, then matter is the uncaused cause of PCE for how could matter have been caused prior to PCE. If matter was caused, then PCE was in operation already and either caused itself (self-existence) or was, itself, uncaused. It seems, therefore, that we all (atheist and theist alike) must acknowledge a "First Cause" behind everything which is either an uncaused cause or a self-existent cause. I posit that the argument from existence, as currently used by theists and debunked by atheists, is actually a giant red herring. The real question is "What do we call this unavoidable "First Cause" that we have no choice but to acknowledge?

    1. With abstract concepts, I see no reason to think PCE holds. PCE is an abstract concept.

      For example, in geometry I might say a triangle having three sides "causes" it to have three angles, just I might say the three angles causes it to have three sides. In physical reality, two events both causing each other would be puzzling. In geometry, it's not a mystery, because I do not believe that all truths are literally caused.

      Frankly, this is a line of argumentation where I'm surprised that anyone finds it even marginally persuasive, which is why it received no mention in the opening post.

    2. You seem to be suggesting that the relationship between matter and PCE is an abstraction and that as such it is similar to the relationship between the sides and angles of a triangle. I disagree entirely. First of all, I don't believe matter, PCE, triangles, sides, or angles are abstract. An abstraction is something that defies sure definition because it has no standard, physical measure or concrete existence. None of these things fit that definition. Next, there is a subjective element to an abstraction; like beauty. Sides and angles are the surely defined parts of a triangle; they are descriptive. Without 3 sides and 3 angles there is no triangle so neither have caused each other. Perhaps it could be said that 3 sides and 3 angles, when relating to each other in a certain way, cause a triangle. Are you suggesting that matter and PCE define existence the way sides and angles define a triangle?

    3. "With abstract concepts, I see no reason to think PCE holds. PCE is an abstract concept."

      I would appreciate it if you would offer some proof that the Principle of Cause and Effect is an abstraction. I ask because, if it is, then the entire foundation of scientific inquiry and rational thought is an abstraction. That's kind of huge.

    4. "PCE is an abstract concept."

      You don't seem to let anyone else get away with bare assertions.

    5. Your entire argument is a perfect example of the fallacy my entire post is pointing out. It postulates a God without a cause, when a crucial first step is arguing that everything has a cause. Ignoring my main point entirely and just charging ahead with a pre refutted argument puts you in a very weak position for motivating interaction.

      But since you insist: An abstract noun is something that isn’t physical. All ideas are abstract nouns.

    6. But all I have actually postulated is the logical necessity of a "first" cause (no names attached) which is either uncaused or self-existent.

      I'm with you that ideas are abstract nouns. But is causality an idea like freedom, morals, or romance, or is it simply the nomenclature assigned to a demonstrable, observable, testable physical reality like gravity (which is not an abstraction)?

      If there were no rational beings in the universe would there still be abstractions? I personally don't think so as I see abstraction as a product of thought but perhaps Philosophy will never answer such a question. I daresay there would still be gravity. There would also still be causes producing effects and effects which never precede their causes. I think I might even argue that causality is more fundamentally concrete than gravity since causality is assumed and employed in developing gravitational theories.

      Just thinking out loud here...
      Rational thought is built upon these:
      Cornerstone = Existence: Whatever is, is.
      Foundation = Causality: If this, then that
      Philosophers have always rationally debated the nature and definition of causality without any consensus. Like a ball of mercury under a thumb, it refuses to be pinned down. Maybe that's because causality precedes rational thought. Maybe rational thought itself is an effect.

  16. "In any case, how does God's existence have meaning? According to Christians at least, what we know of God's existence consists of seeking to be loved, seeking to love, and seeking his own glory. All of these are goals that mere mortals can seek for themselves without God."

    The implication here seems to be that God seeks these things for Himself just as we would seek them for ourselves. This is a gross misunderstanding of what is revealed to us about God's motivation; a misrepresentation of God in our own image, which we are so prone to do (aka Thor and his ilk). We seek things for ourselves and so God must do so as well. But God does not have needs that must be satisfied from an external source in order to gain benefit for Himself. He is the Source: He only gives. If He had never created one whit of anything He would be no less or more than He is now. If He desires us to glorify Him, love Him, or receive love from Him (or anything else)it is for our benefit and not His. Whatever your conception of God appears to be too small.

    1. You're saying I have a "gross misunderstanding" of God, while making absolutely no effort to spell out precisely where you even disagree.

      For instance, I have no idea if you disagree with assertion that God seeks his own glory.

  17. I'm sorry, I thought I was being clear when I said that the implication in your statement seems to be that God seeks these things for Himself in the same way that we would seek things for ourselves.

    God is revealed as seeking after many things but He is not self-serving. Take glory for instance: Creation displays His glory but it does not add to it. He created because it was good to do so not because He was supplemented in any way by it. Seeking glory then is not for personal gain for He has always possessed all the glory that there ever could be. He seeks for we who have been created in His image to stop ascribing glory to all of the wrong things because that is harmful to us.

    1. I want a straight answer: is it true that you believe that God seeks his own glory? Moving on down the list, do you believe God seeks to love and seeks to be loved?

      This is a typical example of how when a Christian calls something a "gross misunderstanding" it probably really means "shaddup atheists, I don't like it when uppity unbelievers use anything other than an exact word-for-word copy of how I would have said it, and even then, I'd prefer that they just let me say it."

      > He created because it was good to do so not because He was supplemented in any way by it

      In context, I suppose “good” means “things consistent with what God wants.” So that really just means God created because he wanted to. I can also do things because I want to.

      You're still failing to jointly defend the claims that God's existence has meaning, but people's existence without God does not.

  18. You are asking me if I think God seeks his own glory. What exactly do you mean by that question? If you want to know if I think God is trying to increase or make his glory weightier, or shinier, or better in some way then the answer is no. The fullness of all possible glory is his already: It cannot be added to, improved, or degraded in any way.

    If you want to know if I think God seeks after mankind to ascribe to Him the glory that is already His then the answer is yes. It is not for His benefit but for ours.

    God seeking to love and be loved follows suit.

    If there is an absolutely transcendent being who has always existed and who created everything that there is from nothing, wouldn't you think definitions of such things as good/evil, right/wrong, etc. would be his alone. These definitions certainly could not ultimately rest with the created thing. If we can choose to do things that we want to do then we are making use of a given ability. But we cannot actually do everything that we choose and not everything we choose to do is good: We are not Gods.

    I don't believe that I have assigned meaninglessness to a person's life without God, nor would I.
    Looking at Webster's for definitions of the word 'meaning': 1)intended or achieved conveyance of an idea, 2)logical connotation, 3) significant quality, I would say that everything that exists has meaning. Existence is binary; it's either yes or no. All existence has meaning, in a certain sense, because it makes no sense to ascribe any quality to non-existence. The question, "Does God's existence have meaning?" answers itself. If He exists then He has meaning. If we exist then we have meaning. But are we equal? This is the implication that I originally took issue with: That God seeks after things in the same way that we seek after things and with the same motivations.

    When Christians say people have no meaning without God I think that they are dancing around the idea of existence without any understanding. Perhaps they are confusing meaning and purpose? The person who has rejected God has the same meaning as a devout Christian or anyone else. The only reason anything has meaning is because it exists. The only reason anything exists is because God created. All meaning is His and comes from Him because He exists.