My faith as an atheist lies in two areas. The first will be one in which many atheists will disagree with me. The other, though, will probably have more widespread acceptance among atheists. This blog though is about the first one.
First Statement of Faith: God does not exist.
Now that I have admitted that I believe this on faith and made some conservative religious types very happy, let me expand on that and make them unhappy.
I do not believe that an omnipotent, omniscient, moral being exists due to the fact that there is no evidence for his existence and to the fact that there are problems, both philosophically and ethically, with such a being creating what we see around us. However, I cannot prove that he does not exist.
In regards to a lack of evidence, this alone is not proof. I know that the standard (and correct) counter-argument to this is that you cannot prove a negative and, therefore, those claiming something exists have to prove that it does. My problem though, and why I say it is a statement of faith, is twofold.
First, just because a belief may be the most rational one to hold does not mean that it is correct. Our evaluation of what is rational to believe and what is irrational to believe can, has, and does change as we learn and experience more. Continental drift was rejected by the vast majority of scientists for many long years, and with good reason. Evolution was not believed to be valid for many long years too, and the reasoning for its rejection were also logical and rational for a long time. The same with the heliocentric model of our solar system. All of these, based on what was known at the time, and using perfectly good logic and reasonings, were correctly rejected. However, their rejection by most did not mean that they were not true.
Second, and related to the first, for this lack of evidence to be a strong argument against the existence of God, or of anything, it should be linked to other problem that makes the reality of God impossible. To phrase this another way, some existences in the line for proof are more likely than others.
For example, an invisible hippo living in my swimming pool would violate the laws of physics and economics (I would be even more broke than I am now if I had to actually feed a hippo). However, the existence of a unicorn is not physiologically impossible, does not violate any known laws. And, who knows, perhaps we will eventually genetically engineer one or one might evolve due to a changing environment. The point here is that some posited creatures whose existence is without evidence are impossible, while others are possible but lacking in evidence.
God’s possible existence is more like that of the unicorn than the invisible hippo. He is a possible creature rather than an impossible one.
Now, I know many will point to God’s attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence (which includes the ability to violate the laws of physics, chemistry and all the other sciences) and say that such a creature is clearly impossible. However, that is overlooking one of the basic traits of such a God – he/she/it exists outside of time and space. Since God is not part of our universe and did not derive from it then he/she/it is not bound by its laws and regularities. This trait of God’s is as essential to God’s definition as the horn is for the unicorn. Remove either and the creature no longer exists.
Since God exists outside of space and time and is therefore not limited by natural law and, in fact, created them, then the violation of natural laws are not prima fascia evidence against his existence. Again, unless such a lack of evidence is linked to an impossibility then the lack of evidence is lacking in force as proof against something existence. It does not support the idea of God’s existence, but neither does it, by itself, constitute evidence that God does not exist.
After all, at one time we had no evidence coelacanths existed and they were widely, almost universally, believed to be extinct for 66 million years. But they do exist, as was discovered in 1938. Until it was found scientists were perfectly correct in doubting its existence since there was no evidence of it still existing. However, as the discovery of it in 1938 shows, they would have been incorrect in stating that this lack of evidence constituted proof that the coelacanths no longer existed. Perhaps God, like the coelacanths, exists in a remote and inaccessible place.
Then there is the problem of free will. How can free will exist if God already knows what you are going to do (part of being omniscient). Even if he/she/it does not control your actions and thoughts something obviously shapes them so that he/she/it is capable of knowing all. If free will really existed then God should not be omniscient.
Of course there are a couple of ways around that. One I will discuss a bit later. The other though is to concede that free will may not exist and modify God’s plan for salvation, heaven and hell. Or, for that matter, modify the claim that God is omniscient to have it limited by a certain element of uncertainty. In other words, knowing everything God can make very informed guesses at what a person will do and be right ALMOST all of the time. I have seen both of these arguments used by theologians and believers.
Another issue is justice. Life is unfair and unjust and how can a good and just God create and sustain such a universe? However, this one is a two edged argument against God, cutting against the atheist as much as the theist. This lack of justice in this life can be taken as evidence of some sort of an afterlife and a God. After all, we have an inborn need for justice and fairness. Life does not give us either fairness or justice. Therefore to satisfy this need, to right this wrong, there has to be something more than just this uncaring universe and this lone life.
Just as our need for food indicates that food does exist, even if we cannot find any now, so too does our need for justice and fairness indicate that something must exist to provide them. God provides just such a remedy for that hunger in the next life.
From there though we move to the related problem of contradictions between the traits of God and what we see in the universe. God is moral, and yet there is great evil in the universe; very bad things happen to good people all the time. Although those believers who have dealt with the Problem of Evil have come up with many different answers, all of them except one fails. The one that does not fail – the Book of Job’s answer. God is too great for our understanding, so great that he sees the good in what is happening or the reasons for why evil is necessary when we are unable to. And, truth to tell, this is a reasonable and rational possibility. One that also holds up for the question of God’s omniscience and human free will.
During my many debates with creationists when explaining why an unknown that has no scientific explanation (as of yet) does not constitute evidence for God. I pointed out that there are actually three other possible solutions to the question besides God did it. I won’t go over what the other two are (those who are interested can check it out at my blog “Turning Science Into Non-Science”). However, the third possibility is the one of interest in regards to the problems of God’s existence and why some element of faith exists in stating that God does not exist.
3) There is a natural explanation but we will never be able to solve it because we just do not have the intelligence to do so. For example imagine one of our early ancestors – possibly Homo Erectus – sitting on the shores of the ocean. She notices the tides and wonders what causes them. However her intelligence is too limited for her to ever understand how the gravitational effects of the moon and sun cause the tides. Because of this even though there is a natural explanation she might conclude a god caused the tides when taking baths.
This same argument holds for the question of evil and of free will. We are limited creatures and, perhaps, unable to see the very real solution to reconciling evil and free will to God’s omnipotence and omniscience.
Let me also say that while the existence of God has many different issues, I do not know of any belief system or outlook on the universe that does not have issues and problems – even atheism.
One such problem is that of existence.
Why does anything exist rather than nothing? I am not talking of the existence of the universe, which could be answered by some of the many different multiverse hypotheses floating around; but why does anything exist at all? An uncreated being might be one answer. Of course, then the question comes up of how did God come about. But note the definition of God as uncreated and eternal. So, it is a possibility that cannot be ruled out solely by logic and reason.
Also there is the question of what constitutes evidence? Most atheists (including myself) use science, reason, and logic in regards to answering the question of God’s existence. However, does all evidence have to be empirical and scientific or are other sorts of evidence of equal importance in areas outside of how the universe works? In which case, science and logic and reason would limit how God could and has manifested and worked within the universe, but does not eliminate the existence of such a being.
Personal experience and emotions are often used (and often justifiably so) in making decisions in our lives. Martin Gardner, one of the primary founders of the modern skeptic movement, believed that the emotional reasons were enough for him to make a leap of faith and believe in God. And, while I can bring up some arguments against this, they do not rise to the level of absolute proof.
Consider the limitations to reason and logic contained in the fact – the fact – that I cannot absolutely prove that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. It always has, but that does not mean that it always will. Perhaps it will go supernova on us. Perhaps the laws of the universe will change. There is really no logical proof that this will not happen..
There comes an end to all logic and all reason. A point by which we have to take it on faith. Even reason and logic tells s this is true when you use these tools to seek an answer to whether they will always work. Just because they have in so many areas does not mean they always will. A bridge before it collapses may have had millions of cars and trucks cross it, yet despite that history of success, it still failed. Without access to look beyond or beneath reason and logic we have no way of determining whether their girders are still strong enough to support our endeavors or whether they are on the verge of collapsing
So, bottom line for me – it is a leap of faith to not believe that God exists. However, this leap of faith is a much much smaller leap than the one involved in believing God does exist. Whereas the biggest unknowable question for me is that of why something rather than nothing exists, for the theist it is the multiple questions of evil and free will and why there is no evidence for God’s existence. My leap of faith in regards to not believing in God is a bigger leap than my belief that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, but still smaller for me than believing in a God with all of these problems and issues. In fact, my leap is just a short hop compared to the large leap of the believer.