This chapter presents four distinct rationales for atheism and the beliefs associated with them. It reviews these from an agnostic point of view, presents three kinds of agnosticism, and considers different sources that people might go to in search of truth.(Chapters 3 and 4 discuss three things that might constitute evidence of some kind of supernatural entity.)
Believing or a Belief is:
- a mental act or condition in which some idea or statement is held to be true,
with a range in the possible degrees of commitment, e.g.,
inclined to accept it as true,
firmly regard it to be true ;
or “know”, i.e., have no doubt whatever, that it is true;
- and an implication of trust in something relating to that idea or statement.
This definition assumes that everyone has some concept of what it means that something is true. At the risk of digging myself into an ever-deepening hole, I will suggest that it implies that there is some relevant reality, material or otherwise, that the purportedly true idea or statement can (notionally) be compared with. If the idea or statement agrees with that reality, then it is true. Depending on how feasible it is to make such a comparison, some degree of trust is required on order to accept that a particular idea or statement, and not something at variance with it, is true.
Atheists are often uncomfortable about the use of the word belief when it is applied in contexts such as those to be discussed. I use it here in the broad meaning of the definition above.
An Atheist is a person who believes that there is
no God and/or
no gods and/or
In this context,
supernatural refers to something that is distinct from and might exist independently of the material world,
gods are individual entities that are supernatural,
and God is a pre-eminent supernatural entity, perhaps all-encompassing and with unlimited powers.
The material world is the world that is described by science. It is what we continually find around ourselves and see, hear, feel, taste, smell, touch, manipulate, describe, measure, explain and speculate about. This seems to imply something tangible, in contrast to the supernatural, which is perceived to be ethereal..
It is sometimes said that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything. This is not the same as saying that it is impossible to prove the absence of something such as a hippopotamus in your bedroom, which can be plainly demonstrated to be either true or false and argued to be either feasible or infeasible. But the claim that it is not possible to prove the non-existence of something has not, as far as I know, ever been proven.
Indeed, many people have become Atheists after having found what they believe to be a proof of the non-existence of God or of any supernatural entity.
Agnostics have doubts about the rationales of Atheists. And Atheists don’t accept the doubts of Agnostics, being inclined to regard them as splitting hairs. Agnostics will readily say that some atheistic rationales might really be valid. Atheists might not return the complement. Supernaturalists, of course, have no doubts about the Atheists’ rationales: they just dismiss them.
People sometimes embrace atheism on grounds that might not be very compelling but are reinforced by doubts that have previously been ignored. Examples are the unacceptable behaviour of prominent members of their faith, and statements in sacred texts that seem patently incredible or immoral. (In this context, the word sacred implies association with some supernatural entity.) But there is no reason for such triggers to lead necessarily to atheism. They could just as easily lead to another faith or to agnosticism.
Here are my four rationales supporting atheism, each of which contains a set of usually unrecognised beliefs. Some Atheists will object that their atheism is not based on any of these rationales. Some may even object that no Atheist would embrace any of them. But I have heard all of them, not necessarily expressed exactly as above, in discussions with Atheists, including lapsed Catholic priests.
1 No Super-Anthropomorphic God
There can be no omniscient, omnipotent, all-good, all-loving God, and hence there is no God.
Rationale I see cruelty, suffering, slaughter and torture of innocents, all of which I regard to be evil.
An all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good and all-loving God would prevent this.
Therefore there can be no all-powerful all-knowing all-loving God.
Therefore there is no God.
Beliefs “Infinite anthropomorphic” characteristics are essential aspects of the concept of God.
I understand the difference between good and evil.
I am able to recognise evil when it occurs (as distinct from, say, annoyances, adversity, and suffering as depicted in the Book of Job).
The logic of this rationale is sound and reliable.
A variant of this argument that has exercised the minds of many Jews since the holocaust refers to injustice rather than to evil. Justice is seen to be one of the basic identifying principles of Judaism.
Agnostics ask why an all-powerful God must have the characteristics of goodness and love and justice as we understand them. Why base a rejection of God on the assumption that a transcendent being of cosmic or greater proportions would need to have the characteristics of a recently evolved organism on an insignificant planet of a middle-sized star of a galaxy with billions of stars in a universe with billions of galaxies?
From a human perspective, evil may be thought of as cruelty or injustice to organisms in planet Earth. So if God is just the god or our planet, then the argument about evil might have some merit. But from a cosmic perspective, the issue of cruelty and injustice to organisms on our planet would be as insignificant as our planet is.
If there were indeed an everlasting, all powerful, loving God, and eternal life after death for human beings, we should accept horrific things during our short term of material life in order to achieve eternal bliss, just as people sometimes willingly endure short term pain for later gain, tattooing being an example.
2 Lack of Evidence
There is no evidence for the existence of any sort of god or of the supernatural.
Rationale Nothing that I have experienced, or that other people tell me about, actually reveals the existence of the supernatural.
The purportedly supernatural aspects of the observed world, such as natural phenomena, complexity, inner feelings, visions, etc., are:
explained by different religions in ways that contradict each other;
often irrationally explained by the religions;
have, or eventually will have, a satisfactory explanation that does not need to invoke a supernatural entity.
Beliefs The only things that exist or that we can presume to exist are those we can detect and demonstrate to ourselves and to other people.
No one has unequivocally demonstrated any evidence of the existence of the supernatural.
When explanations contradict each other at least all but one of them must be wrong.
Irrational explanations must be wrong.
Science will eventually solve all the mysteries of nature.
The logic of this rationale is sound and reliable.
Agnostics point out that many things probably exist that humanity cannot experience or demonstrate.
We might be unable to reliably recognise the supernatural, if it exists, and have already encountered it unknowingly.
What has looked like unquestionable scientific truth at one period of time has often been subsequently shown to be totally or partly incorrect, or mysterious. Not only are we unable to resolve a range of scientific mysteries about that part of the universe that we know about, but we think there is a lot more universe than the part we know about. Before you can say there is nothing else you have to have looked carefully everywhere.
Inability to find something doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist.
3 Philosophically Unsound
It is philosophically unsound to believe in God or the supernatural.
(This has also been put to me as “there is no logical proof that anything supernatural exists”.
rationale All of the purported proofs of the existence of a supernatural entity have logical flaws.
Science has given, or soon will give, an explanation for all the phenomena that people attribute to a supernatural entity.
Philosophies based on God or dualism contain unjustifiable assumptions.
Introducing God or dualism to a philosophy makes it unnecessarily complicated.
Religious stories about creation are particularly unsound, and have been disproved by science.
The logic of this rationale is sound and reliable.
beliefs I have seen all the purported proofs of the existence of God or the supernatural, and they all contain logical flaws.
A philosophy that contains unjustifiable assumptions must be unsound.
A philosophy that is unnecessarily complicated must be unsound.
The assumption or complication that makes a philosophy unsound must be false.
Rigorous science based on careful observation and logic is the only source of truth.
There is no way of knowing what a future science will discover.
While there are indeed unsound arguments that purport to prove the existence of the supernatural, there may be other possible rationales that do provide a plausibly valid proof.
But there must be reservations about the soundness of philosophy of any kind, because it must ultimately rely on assumptions and speculation. So there cannot be an unequivocal absolute proof or disproof of the existence of the supernatural. This applies also to science, however rigorous it may be, and which I have described in Chapter 10: Reductionism and Emergence as being the closest we can get to truth, but we can never know how close that is. But unlike science, which deals with the observable world, there is no way of deciding what is close to truth regarding the supernatural.
There is no need to even consider the idea of God or the supernatural.
rationale I don’t need (and have never needed) to consider the idea of God or the supernatural in any part of my life.
Ideas of God or the supernatural have been developed out of ignorance of nature; and from human needs and feelings, such as the need to have some control within society, and feelings of insecurity in an unpredictable world.
beliefs If I don’t feel the need for something supernatural in my life then it is reasonable to believe that nothing supernatural exists,
Feelings about unseen presences are delusions.
“Man created God in his own image”.
Agnostics may themselves feel no need for anything supernatural, but they are aware that some other people appear to have strong perceptions of the constant need for the existence or of the presence of God or other supernatural entity. None of these feelings are proof of the existence or non-existence of the supernatural.
Agnostics see no evidence that their own or Atheists’ perceptions on matters not related to religion are always more reliable than those of religious people.
Whether “man created God in his own image” or not is irrelevant to the existence of any other kind of supernatural entity.
There may well be other justifications for Atheism that are not just different versions of these four.
Sometimes paradoxes are proposed as arguments for atheism. An example is:
An omnipotent God could devise a puzzle so difficult that he couldn’t solve it.
But if he couldn’t solve it he wouldn’t be omnipotent.
Therefore God does not exist.
Such paradoxes do not disprove the existence of God or some unspecified supernatural entity. But they draw attention to the implicit contradictions of absolute concepts such as omnipotence.
The overall Agnostic position on these atheistic rationales is that some of them are clearly invalid and some are just equivocal. Agnostics cannot justifiably say that the Atheists are wrong. What they do say is ‘You have not convinced me that you are right’. The basic agnostic perspective is that there is no known way of knowing whether there is anything other than the material world. So it would seem that either the Atheists or the Supernaturalists are right. But which ones?
Kinds of Agnostics and Atheists
While Agnostics don’t believe in Atheism, they don’t believe in any other religion either. People who are neither Atheists nor Agnostics usually class both as “unbelievers”. Some Agnostics would put Atheists in the class of believers, and regard themselves as the only unbelievers – the only ones who have “gone the whole way” – but most Atheists object to this.
But there are ranges of different opinions among those who regard themselves as Atheists or Agnostics.
Atheists are diverse in more than one way. There are many different reasons for embracing atheism. Each of the four rationales for atheism that I presented contained more than one argument. Different Atheists accept different arguments and may reject others. Some Atheists are completely convinced that they are right and others concede that there might be a time when some new evidence would make them review their position. Some Atheists are hostile towards both Supernaturalists and Agnostics for a variety of reasons. Supernaturalists are regarded to be unduly privileged within their societies and are seen to be distorting the truth, that is, they disagree on religious grounds with several scientific findings and personal liberties. Agnostics are often seen as traitors or wishy-washy people who lack the courage to become Atheists.
But, traitors or otherwise, there are different kinds of Agnostics:
- Believers in unknowability, who hold that it is impossible to know anything for certain, with the possible exception that we exist and have sensory and/or mental experience.
- “Evidential” Agnostics, who believe that human beings can know only what is delivered by the senses and the constructs they derive from sensory inputs, and so are intrinsically unable to tell whether there is anything beyond the material world.
- “Agnostic Agnostics”, who think that it may or may not be possible to know about the existence or nature of things beyond the material world, such as God or the supernatural, but no evidence either way is apparent to them at the moment. (Regarding the believers in unknowability, they might also think that it is paradoxical to know for certain that it is impossible to know something for certain.)
- Unconvinced people who just don’t know what to think. This doesn’t mean that such people are a bit simple: they may just be overwhelmed by the great number of claims and counterclaims of the different beliefs, and the inconclusiveness of the purported evidence.
On matters that are not connected with religion, and on some matters concerning religion, Atheists and Agnostics are, of necessity, also believers. For example, despite what I said earlier about the limits of science, I would confidently dismiss any proposition that contradicted a basic scientific principle, such as the second law of thermodynamics.
Everybody has to take most things on trust – often with a bit of misgiving. In every aspect of safety and survival it is necessary to believe that the actions we take are correct or adequate, trusting in experience, observation or whatever seems acceptable. It is just that some people are reluctant to rely on trust in matters of religion. So really, we are all mainly believers.
Apparently we are “wired” to be like this. There is evidence in the human genome of what geneticists have referred to as the “religion gene”. Presumably we have acquired this because, during our evolution, drawing quick conclusions on scant evidence would have been essential for surviving in hazardous environments and in building up mental pictures of the world. But, while the relevant genes may well predispose people to believe in things that are mysterious, I think it is most unlikely that it would necessarily direct someone to believe in a specific kind of supernatural entity. Similarly, our capability of being awestruck may affect our beliefs, but not necessarily produce religious belief.
Many people form strong beliefs on all sorts of things on scant evidence, and not all of them feel a need to believe in the supernatural. Even many things that we think are scientifically based, such as some procedures and treatments in medicine, are not “evidence-based”.
Believers of all kinds – religious, atheistic and agnostic – have criteria for identifying “truth”, or identifying what to put their trust in, such as:
- perceived evidence including the word of someone else – however, people differ about what is proper evidence;
- reasoning – and we differ about what is sound reasoning;
- intuition and inner conviction – and we don’t all get the same inner feelings;
- feelings such as anger, hope and wishful thinking, which encourage the development of self-convincing rationales;
- combinations of the above.
Whatever our persuasion, we all have to trust in some or all of these criteria. That is, we believe in them. We don’t all put the same weight on the value of particular criteria, therefore we come to different beliefs, including about religion.
And so, generally, Atheists and Agnostics don’t convince each other, nor do believers of other religions – at least, not about religion.