Does God Exist? (2002)

Opening Statement by Bill Cooke


The Folly of the Super-dupers

There is a beach at the northern extremity of New Zealand called the Ninety-Mile Beach. Oddly enough, the beach is ninety miles long. Imagine how many grains of sand there must be on this beach. Tens of millions? Now imagine one of those grains of sand, just one of them. Let's say it's--at the moment--fourteen and a half miles from the southern end of the beach, about a third of the distance between the edge of the dunes and the high-tide line, and eight and a half inches below the surface. Now that single grain of sand, for those who listen closely, is alive with speculation about the size of the beach and how it came to be. Many of the atoms which make up this grain of sand attribute the creation of the beach to something they call Super-duper. None of them really know what sort of entity Super-duper is, but they're all sure he (always seems to be a 'he') is very super. Some are quite sure that Super-duper is ineffable, although this usually applies only to opinions about him they don't like.

But other atoms are indifferent to all these claims about Super-duper. For them, the beach is the work of Hyper-mega. Other clumps of atoms advance the cause of Golly-whizzo, while newer types of atoms have become enamoured of Wow-wee, or Pres-ley. Still other atoms, scorned by all the others, say the beach is caused by the action of the waves that pound them every day. While the Super-dupers, Hyper-megas, Golly-whizzos and everyone else disagree (frequently violently) with one another, they all agree that the sandies, as the last group are dismissively called, are wrong. After all, they chorus, who caused the action of the waves? But when the sandies respond by asking who created Super-duper, Hyper-mega or any of the others, they get angry and walk away.

But in the ceaseless din of this arguing, a point of central importance has been missed. Neither the Super-dupers, nor the Hyper-megas, Golly-whizzos, Wow-wees or even the Pres-leys have realised that none of the other grains of sand along the entire beach are in the slightest bit interested, or even aware, of their endless chatter on this one grain fourteen and a half miles from the southern tip of the beach. Only the sandies are in a position to grasp this essential fact, but few even of them have fully understood its importance. The fact is, the beach has been where it is and like it is for a very long time.

Once upon a time the silly noise from this one grain of sand could have been forgiven, for most atoms thought their grain was at the centre of the beach. One or two sandies queried this, but they were eliminated. Eventually it became evident that their grain had moved over a long period of time. They kept seeing new grains around them, and occasionally other grains quite close to them were destroyed. After this, the question of whether there even was a centre of the beach became hard to determine. All they knew now was they weren't at it. It was only after this realisation, in fact, that Wow-wee and Pres-ley atoms became anything like numerous. Up until then the Super-dupers and Hyper-megas had had the stage to themselves, apart from a few troublesome sandies. (The Golly-whizzos came from the other side of the atom and weren't known about for a long time).

Once it was apparent that their grain of sand was just one along a very long beach indeed, you would have thought the Super-dupers, Hyper-megas and the rest of them would have packed it in. The notion that Super-duper or some such idea was responsible for the entire beach was at least plausible while they could believe they were at the very centre of the beach and that it all revolved around them. But now, the Super-dupers had to account, not only for the superiority of their claim to that of the Hyper-megas and the others, but also for making any claim like that at all, given how irrelevant their grain of sand was in the scheme of things. Extraordinarily, the Super-dupers, Hyper-megas, Golly-whizzos, Wow-wees and Pres-leys all carried on as if nothing happened! In the face of the numbing irrelevance of their little grain of sand, they continued to bicker with each other and sneer at the sandies, each arguing that they and they alone were responsible for the whole beach. The sandies did what they could to alert their fellow atoms to the scale of their arrogance, but few atoms listened. But if the other atoms weren't listening, none of the other grains of sand along the entire beach were in the slightest bit aware of this boasting little grain's delusions of grandeur. Eventually the entire beach was washed away.

Saying the same thing, only sensibly

There is no remotely convincing reason to believe that any sort of god exists. Every argument that has been advanced for the existence of a god has long since been irrevocably destroyed. Between them, David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century demolished most of the traditional arguments for the existence of the Judeo-Christian god. Their triumphs were followed up in the nineteenth century by some brilliant popular exponents of atheism. And then came a renaissance of atheism in the twentieth century. Joseph McCabe, Wallace Matson, Antony Flew, J. J. C. Smart, J. L. Mackie, Kai Nielsen, and Michael Martin have put atheism on foundations so firm that arguing the existence of god in the twenty-first century seems like a quaint throwback to a bygone age.

The case for atheism has been put superbly by Michael Martin in more than one debate available at this site, and I would urge readers to consult them.[1] There is little in this opening statement that I need to add to the work of these thinkers. I shall confine myself here to add a moral dimension to the argument that I think has been undervalued. To argue for the existence of God in the twenty-first century is to turn one's face from every advance in science and philosophy over the past four centuries. But--even more serious--to insist on a god is to insist for oneself a cosmic importance that is little short of breathtaking. And in my view the planet has suffered enough at the hands of this arrogance, and its continuation hinders whatever slim chance we have as a species to survive.

Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) wrote a very moving plea for atheism in the 1860s.[2] Bradlaugh said he doesn't deny god, because he was without any coherent definition of what it is he is supposed to be denying. We know this to be the case today. Imran Aijaz, my opponent in this debate, is a Muslim, and he will tell you that God, apparently called Allah, is like this, and has these attributes. However, a Hindu will speak about an entirely different sort of being when, or even if, the idea of god is raised. Devotees of the Shinto river god Kakaku will inscribe his name on tiles to protect their house from fire, whereas Cagn, a creator god of the Kalahari bushmen, is a more distant deity. If a devotee of Allah stood beside the Hindu (at the moment an unlikely scenario), and the devotees of Kakaku and Cagn, Bradlaugh would be forgiven for hearing not a coherent account of the nature of God, but a cacophony of contradictory assertions, each one dependent on the accident of each believer's birth.

My Encyclopedia of Gods lists 2500 gods. On every single page except page 12, Mr Aijaz and I would be in perfect agreement that none of these deities exist. We would probably agree that they are the inventions of the societies that worship them. But on page 12, and page 12 alone, my opponent would completely change his tack and insist that this one is for real. Were I to be debating a Christian, we would have to wait until page 341 to hear such a claim being made. So, my opponent has not only the burden of proof with regard to a god, he has the extra task of demonstrating that his god is the only valid option among all the gods on offer. I can see no remotely reasonable argument for demonstrating this.

Another problem my opponent has is to give some plausible reason why such a young god should be able to create such an old universe. The universe is thought to be something like 15 billion years old. And yet Allah is only 1400 years old. Any claim that Allah is older than that is little more than an assertion made by one type of believer, a claim that would be hotly disputed by other believers. Likewise the Jewish god began life as a volcano deity in the land of Midian, probably no more than 2800 years ago. It is quite incomprehensible how a deity, which has a traceable history of 1400 years or 2800 years on one planet in a nowhere-in-particular solar system in a nowhere-in-particular galaxy could then be credited with the invention of the entire, 15 billion year-old, universe. To make such a claim is to take our species very seriously indeed. It is to see our planet, and in particular our species, as the centre of the universe. Such a claim is ridiculous, flying in the face of all science from the past four hundred years. Worse still, if one is to uphold such a claim, it is then a small step to then see one's claim to a bit of land on earth as valid by virtue of being God's chosen people, or as land belonging by divine right to the umma. And this means those who disagree with you can't simply be wrong, they must be wicked. It is hard to conceive of a scheme of thought which is more cosmically presumptuous and conducive to a gospel of hatred, at a time when planetary co-operation is more essential than ever.

I am an atheist, which means I lack the degree of arrogance required to place myself at the centre of the universe. I am unable to muster the level of presumptuousness to think myself so cosmically significant that the creator of the entire universe should come from my planet or be interested in my welfare. An attitude of cosmic humility, which atheism encourages, helps to predispose the individual to taking an attitude of responsible stewardship of the planet during one's brief tenancy on it. It also predisposes one to value science as the surest means by which we can attain some knowledge of the universe, and to tolerate others, whose opinions differ from one's own.

The three great revolutions in science over the last four hundred years have successively knocked us off pedestals we have erected for ourselves. The Copernican revolution showed us we are not the centre of the universe. The Darwinian revolution showed us we are not the apogee of a great chain of being. And the Genetic revolution we are in the middle of at the moment is progressively revealing how little we are even in charge of ourselves, and indeed, how problematic the notions of 'we' and 'ourselves' are. Atheism is entirely consistent with each of these revolutions and theism has been made progressively more incoherent and ridiculous by each of them. But more important than the intellectual victory of atheism is the moral imperative to cosmic humility that it brings with it. To acquire this humility is essential for the planet to survive and drastically unlikely so long as we remain chained to discredited and discreditable pretensions to being so dazzlingly significant in the scheme of things.

[1] Available in the Secular Web's Modern Library as: The Fernandes-Martin Debate on the Existence of God (1997); The Martin-Frame Debate on the Transcendental Argument for the Non Existence of God (1996); The Jones-Parsons-Martin Debate: Is Non-Christian Thought Justifiable? (1991).

[2] Available in the Secular Web's Historical Library as: A Plea For Atheism (1864).

[Read Imran Aijaz's Opening Statement]

[Read the Rest of the Debate]