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Modest Case for Atheism

By Paul So ~

“When it is not in our power to follow what is true, we ought to follow what is most probable. ” - Rene Descartes

Many people often think that atheism amounts to a dogmatic assertion that God does not exist; they think that to be an atheist one has to produce absolute proof that there is no God. Most of the time people have this impression that atheists are absolutely certain about the non-existence of God since they claim to know that God does not exist, however this impression is misleading. While there are atheists who claim to be absolutely certain that God does not exist, not all atheists are like this. Most atheists are not committed to the view that the non-existence of God is some kind of axiomatic or self-evident truth, even Richard Dawkins once said that he isn’t 100% certain of the non-existence of God. What most atheists would agree is that the belief in the existence of God is implausible, hence unreasonable belief. Most atheists do not feel compelled to produce and reproduce absolute proof that God does not exist; it would be self-defeating and futile to even true. This is because most things in life cannot be shown to be true by absolute proof, especially in science. Evidences (or lack of) do not necessarily warrant absolute proof, but they support a certain hypothesis by making the hypothesis more reasonable belief. However, in mathematics and logic there is such thing as “absolute proof” such as 2+2 = 4 or the analytic statement “All Bachelors are Unmarried Men” (basically, something is true by definition). If something is self-contradictory, then you have given absolute proof that something is false or incoherent. So if someone shows that God is self-contradictory since his attributes are not consistent with each other (or one of the attributes is incoherent), then that person has given absolute proof that God does not exist.

However, the problem with this approach is that there are many different versions of God from theists to deists. Also, the theist can easily redefine the attributes of God in such a way that it can avoid contradiction. So trying to show that God’s existence is incoherent is a very tough work for atheists, and probably an unnecessary one. What most atheists should focus on is how reasonable the idea the existence of God is. A better way of understanding this is the scale of reasonableness from the least reasonable to highly reasonable. Most scientific theories such as evolution, big bang, cellular theory, atomic theory, and such usually belong to the high end of the scale “highly reasonable”. Fairy tales or rumors that lack evidence tend to belong to the very low end of the scale of “least reasonable” or unreasonable. The existence of a laptop in front of me is something I can reasonably believe in given that I am not hallucinated.

Ultimately, evidence determines where the beliefs end up in the scale of reasonableness. If the evidences and arguments are overwhelming, the beliefs end up in the higher scale; however if the evidence is scant or even overwhelming contrary evidence, then it ends up in the lower scale of reasonableness. For example, the existence of Big Foot ends up in a fairly low scale because the evidence presented are not very strong; these evidence could easily be fraudulent. The skeptic does not have to present absolute proof that Big Foot does not exist, all the skeptic requires is to determine whether or not the belief is reasonably plausible. The skeptic would point out that it is not reasonably plausible since there is a lack of evidence when we reasonably expect to find some. The skeptic justifies this by pointing out that often times we know that an organism almost always comes with groups of other organism to reproduce as a species. If this is the case then we should find a bunch of those same organisms, either dead or alive. If they are dead and not ancient, then we should already find corpses or fossils already which is common for most species. However, we do not find any fossils. While the big foot believer would point out that according to evolution a lot of extinct species may not have remaining fossils left (since they are destroyed by natural causes), the skeptic can retort that this is mostly true for species that have been extinct for an extremely long time. If big foots exists and are alleged to be observed a few decades ago, then their extinction is not long enough to have their fossils destroyed by natural causes.

As we can see from this example, the skeptic has good reasons to expect certain kind of evidence for big-foot. This is because if big foot exists as a living organism, then like most living organisms it should leave traces of its existence behind. However, what about God? It is not inconceivable that God interfere with the natural affairs without leaving behind traces of his existence. In this sense God would be an unfalsifiable or untestable hypothesis. However, there are reasons to believe that this is not entirely true.

Beliefs about the existence of God seem to imply what the universe should look like if God exists. For example, if God is all powerful and benevolent, then it is reasonable to expect that the universe would have scant amount of suffering. Theists often insist that since God gave us free-will to do evil as much as good, suffering is to be expected. However, we know that this does not include natural disasters, diseases, and accidents. Some theists can insist that this is because of sin, but this assumes young-earth creationism which we know isn’t true. Other theists can argue that God has a purpose for these natural disasters, the purpose leads to higher goods. Theists like William Lane Craig would dismiss suffering as an issue, since he believes that the relationship between human and God is purely spiritual, which does not pertain to anything physical. We can go on about this, but many of these responses have not been convincing. This is because many of them use ad-hoc reasoning. Things like higher purpose or “purely spiritual relationships” themselves lack justification, so we have no reason to accept these as good explanations.

Another good example is the argument from design, many people believed this long time ago (and still to this day) because they genuinely believe that natural causes cannot account for complexity and patterns of life. While they might admit that something like a snowflakes can be produced by clouds, they insist that there is nothing like a cloud that can design life the similar way; this is because life is far more complex than a mere snowflake. A famous proponent of this view was William Paley, who made a brilliant argument that even impressed Charles Darwin before he rejected it. Hundreds of years ago, I might have believed in this argument, however nowadays we can no longer depend on the argument from design anymore. This is because there is an independent and well-supported account on the complexity of life, namely natural selection. Some theists can argue all they want, but if they want to reject the theory of evolution they must find overwhelming evidence against it. So far they have not. What happens in this case is that the existence of God use to have an important explanatory role in the complexity of life, however this explanatory role is replaced by evolution. Some theists can insist that God guides evolution, which is fine by me but I see no need to add in God; if evolution alone can account for complexity of life without God, then why add God into the equation?

The last good example is the fine-tune universe. I won’t get too deep into this but I will make this point. The fine-tune argument is probably the more impressive argument I come across, it really almost had me. However, the argument leads to a problem. If God fine-tuned the universe for life to exist but parasites, diseases, predators, and old-age are a part of life, then God fine-tuned the universe in which life can suffer; God fine-tuned the universe in such a condition where suffering is permitted. Since God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving such a being should already know that fine-tuning the universe in a certain way is preventable, especially since such a being would not let things suffer needlessly. What eventually happens is that the fine-tune argument collapses into another problem of evil in the form of this question: Why did God fine-tune the universe that permits suffering if God could fine-tune the universe that could prevent it?

The skeptic does not have to present absolute proof that Big Foot does not exist, all the skeptic requires is to determine whether or not the belief is reasonably plausible. None of these arguments against theism are knock-down arguments, since the theist could change or moderate his position to avoid them yet still reasonably maintain his position. However, these arguments do make theism look like a weak position to the point of sounding unreasonable and implausible. We find that there are many reasons to doubt theism, enough to the point that the belief in the existence of God could be brought down to the lower scale of reasonableness. Believers might insist that atheists must produce absolute proof that God does not exist, however this is a bit unfair since there are many things in life that cannot be shown to be true this way. Many scientific theories were proven to be true by overwhelming evidence, but not absolute proof. After all, scientific theories can change if contrary evidence emerges. Also, not all rejected scientific theories were discarded because of absolute proof against them. Most of them were discarded because of overwhelming evidence against them, rather than some absolute proof. What rarely happens in science is that the belief that is rejected due to overwhelming evidence becomes accepted due to overwhelming evidence, this happens more rarely than scientific theories that simply were not accepted but became accepted due to overwhelming evidence.

Thus, an atheist can reasonably stand his ground by insisting that he does not need absolute proof. All he needs to show is that the belief in the existence of God is plainly unreasonable and implausible. The atheist cannot absolutely disprove the existence of god anymore than he could disprove the existence of fairies. I’m personally an agnostic atheist, since I do not claim to know whether or not God exists. However, I do claim that while it may be possible that God exists, it simply is not reasonable to believe in it due to the lack of evidence (and some contrary evidence). I am willing to keep an open mind, as long as there are good evidences and arguments. However, I just think that if God really does exist as a cosmic intervener, then there should be patterns, structures, events, or phenomena in the universe that cannot be explained by science, but could most likely be explained by the existence of God. Many theists believe this to be true, but I do not. I think that a lot of the things in the universe that is being explained by the existence of God are usually based on bad evidence produced by unreliable means (i.e. eye-witness report, anecdotal evidence, etc). It has become apparent that natural explanations are more well-supported to the point of having superior explanatory role than that of God. Many things in the universe are being explained by natural explanations, to the point that supernatural ones do not seem to have enough room to squeeze in.

Explanatory role of God is wearing thin quite quickly, soon it may evaporate. This is my intuition, as a naturalist who believes that everything in Nature must have an explanation in the contexts of Nature. I think this view is more probable than theism, since we have seen that everything that we know about the universe is explained in the context of the universe from the lower level (sub-atomic particles) to the higher levels (i.e. galaxies, black holes, expansion of universe, etc). This could change, but as far as I know it hasn’t changed so far. It appears that for now Naturalism is the more reasonable position to hold.