I do not believe in God and I am here to explain why. Any discussion of the discussion of the existence of God must, I think, begin with some preliminary definitions and points of principle. As commonly understood, atheism is the denial of the existence of God. I prefer a slightly different formulation, in which atheism is the claim that there is no rational justification for belief in the existence of God. More particularly, I take atheism to assert that, when all the evidence for and against is weighed, the best conclusion to draw is that there is no God. Theism, in contrast, is the doctrine that there is good and sufficient reason to believe that God exists. On my interpretation, a person that has never considered the question of God’s existence, does not count as an atheist. Nor does someone who blindly rejects the concept of God out of a spirit of rebellion or some emotional turmoil. Furthermore, atheism does not require certainty. I do not claim to be 100% certain that there is no God, any more than I can claim with absolute certainty that there are 9 planets in the solar system. Nevertheless, I do claim that the preponderance of the evidence makes it highly unlikely that there is a God.
As an atheist, I deny exist of all Gods: those of the Mayans, the Hindu, the Ancient Egyptians, and the God of the old and new testaments. If I am right, all of these are fictional constructs invented by clever humans for purposes, a variety of purposes, ranging from psychological comfort to entertainment. Still, although I am an "equal opportunity" atheist, I will focus on the concept of God familiar to the most popular Western religious traditions. According to this concept God has 8 defining characteristics. He is (1) a person, (2) supremely powerful, (3) morally perfect, (4) all-knowing, (5) the uncreated creator of the universe, (6) specifically concerned with human beings, (7) the only deity, and (8) essentially immaterial or non-physical.
It is important to spell these criteria out somewhat more carefully. The God whose existence I deny is supposed to be a person; to have a mind, will, intelligence, purposes and desires. I am not interested in debating the existence of an impersonal God, who could be identified with nature, or fate, or any other vague "something" that is supposed to run the universe.
God’s supreme power or omnipotence means simply this: There is no possible state of affairs which God could not bring about, if it should please him to do so.
The moral perfection of this deity will, I think, be easily enough granted. God, as traditionally conceived, inflicts no unwarranted harm and can never justly be blamed for anything.
That God knows all things is also part of the standard definition. If God exists, there is no fact of which He is ignorant.
God’s status as supposed creator of the univere should also be relatively unproblematic, but I would like to stress an important point here, namely that in postulating God as creator, the believer claims that God’s existence explains something about the way things are, and belief in God is thus supposed in some way to make the world more intelligible.
Further, God is traditionally thought to have a special interest in human affairs. He is not taken to be some kind of disinterested observer, but is supposed to love humans, to be offended by their misdeeds, and to be particularly upset if some humans do not believe is His existence.
That there is but one God is also a standard piece of the picture. On the view I am considering, there must be conclusive grounds for the belief that there is one and only one creator and ruler of the universe.
Finally, the usual understanding of God requires that he be essentially non-material and non-spatial. God in this sense cannot be understood as a physical thing or as subject to the laws of physics.
Let me now move to the case for atheism. Here are my grounds for thinking that there is no personal God who is the all-powerful, morally perfect, omniscient, immaterial creator of the world who holds a special concern for the lives of humans. A basic reason for denying God’s existence is what I call the "Principle of Conservatism." According to this principle, we should, where possible, avoid accounts of the world which postulate unusual or hitherto unknown things in order to explain what can be explained in terms of more intelligible and well-understood things. The principle is one which, I think, nearly everyone here accepts. For example, suppose that I hear an odd sound in the attic and you tell me that it is due to the leprechaun who has taken up residence there. Without a whole lot of additional evidence, your hypothesis should not be taken seriously. Any reasonable person would naturally prefer an account of this noise that does not require leprechauns and it makes due with well-understood things — well understood things like faulty ventilation fans or expanding ceiling joists, or what have you. Suppose, however, that further investigation reveals no leprechaun, but also nothing else that could easily explain the noise. You account for these facts by saying that the leprechaun is naturally shy and has fled, fearing discovery. I submit that, although this hypothesis, or this pair of hypotheses, do have the virtue of being consistent with all the known facts, it remains suspect, because it relies on something so remote from the general order of things. Assuming, as I think you will grant, that leprechauns are not the kind of thing one typically runs into. I must stress that the Principle of Conservatism does not mean that we are never justified in introducing novel explanations. Science frequently makes progress by introducing some new kind of object, event or process. Nevertheless, the appeal to the unknown or unfamiliar is generally a last resort, and the Principle of Conservatism holds that we should shun all such accounts when there are more familiar forms of explanation available.
Alright. What does this principle have to do with God? I claim that God qualifies as something mysterious, unintelligible and unfamiliar in the relevant sense. God is not visible, tangible or otherwise detectable by empirical means. God is supposed to act in space and time, but without having a location in space and time. His essence is, according to the tradition itself, ungraspable and fully beyond the comprehension of finite human minds. And yet belief in this incomprehensible being is supposed to make the present state of the world more intelligible. Everything observable is supposed to be created by God, but God Himself is uncreated. Furthermore, events in the observable world can generally be accounted for without introducing God as an explanation. Thunderstorms, earthquakes, plagues, eclipses, the variety of natural species, and even the origins of life itself all have detailed atheistic explanations, notwithstanding the fact that they were once thought to be the immediate work of God.
In addition, the use of God as an explanation for anything seems bound to be problematic. We are told a great deal about Him, but never enough that claims that His existence can be put to the test. Imagine, for example, a farmer who prays to God for rain to help his drought-stricken crops. Suppose it then rains. Our happy farmer explains this as the act of God in response to a prayer. But suppose it doesn’t rain. The farmer explains this as God’s having had other reasons for withholding rain. Either way, the God hypothesis seems to do no real explanatory work. It can be used to account for literally anything in exactly the same way.
A second, but I think closely related reason for denying the existence of God arises from a demand for consistency on the part of the believer. Anyone who believes in the standard-issue God of western monotheism must also deny the reality of every other culture’s God or Gods. Although they may not wish to admit it, believers must hold that all other deities are illusory, and that people who believe in them are in the grip of a massive error. I take it that the believer will argue that whatever appears to be explained by these alternative deities can, in fact, be accounted for by natural processes, or perhaps by the actions of his God, whom he takes to be something familiar and not in need of explanation.
Consider, in a slightly different context, the response that Christians typically make to such "new age" doctrines as the healing power of crystals. Typically they will dismiss such claims for the mysterious powers of crystals as nonsense, and they will explain away in the supposed case of healing by crystals in terms familiar to medical science. In all such cases as this, the believer is using a double standard. He uses the Principle of Conservatism to debunk alternative Gods, but violates the principle when it comes to his own deity. But principles are not like taxi cabs. You can’t just use them to get where you want to go and dismiss them.
The third reason for rejecting theism is the familiar problem of evil. Nobody will contest that there is a great deal of suffering in the world. Some of this is due to the action of humans, some of this is due to the forces of nature. Suffering itself is a bad thing. The only justifications for intentionally inflicting suffering are either to bring about a greater good, or as just punishment for wrongdoing. Anything else is rank sadism. Given the undeniable fact of suffering, one must ask whether it is consistent with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly benevolent deity who has a particular concern for human beings. Surely such a God would be aware of the existence of the world’s evils. After all, God is supposed to know everything, and as creator of the world, He is presumably (at some level of description) the creator of these evils. Now, any such God must have the desire to lessen these evils. We are told, after all, that He is morally perfect, He could not inflict unjustified suffering, and He has a particular concern for humans.
Finally, God’s supreme power would give him the means to alleviate suffering. If such a God really existed, I submit that the facts of human existence would be vastly different than they are. There should be none of the sorts of suffering we see about us every day, from starvation to mass murder to earthquakes to brain tumors. Some authors have tried to explain away the world’s evils either as not really being evils, or as part of a greater plan of divine providence, or perhaps not as ultimately the responsibility of God as all.
I lack the time to go through these in detail, but I can say that they all seem rather desperate attempts to avoid facing the difficulty. In the end, they all end up retreating to a kind of mystery position, which holds that God has unknowable reasons for permitting evil and mere humans are not in a position to make sense of such a mystery. This "mystery maneuver" is a fundamental concession to the atheist. In effect, it admits that religious belief ultimately has irrational consequences.
In light of the above reasons, I conclude that the hypothesis of God’s existence is gratuitous. It is not rationally justified. It is indeed a prime candidate for rejection.
However, there are some arguments for theism that I would like address just briefly. This overview of several leading arguments for theism and the characteristic weaknesses they suffer will illustrate, I think, the difficulties in justifying the theistic case, thereby making the case for atheism still stronger. Before moving on to these arguments, I must take note of a very important point, however. Namely that no argument for God’s existence can take for granted the truth of any particular body of sacred texts. This is because the very believability of scripture is an issue. Obviously, if you accepted scripture as truthful, you would believe in God, some God or other. But, then we must ask whether you have a rational basis for accepting the scripture. Consider the parallel case, for example, of the Hindu who worships the god Shiva and when challenged for evidence that such a God exists, claims that ancient scripture reliably testifies to the existence of this deity. I think this strategy obviously fails to convince, precisely because it begs the very question at issue.
The first argument that I wish to discuss is the cosmological argument. It asserts that everything which begins to exist must have a cause, that the universe began to exist, and therefore that the universe has a cause. This cause of the universe is then identified as God. There are several problems to mention here. First, even if the premises of the argument are granted, it does nothing to show that such a God has the attributes of benevolence, omnipotence, omniscience personhood, uniqueness, or concern with humans. It is therefore wholly inadequate to prove the existence of the God of western monotheism, at least on its own. Furthermore, the premises themselves are not immune to challenge. Why, for example, should we think that universe began to exist? Why not believe that it has always existed. Even ‘Big Bang’ cosmology, which notoriously gives the universe a finite past, says that time itself has a beginning of the Big Bang, or at least can be interpreted this way. On that interpretation, the universe did not begin to exist, because there is no time at which it did not exist. Asking for an event before the Big Bang is like asking for something north of the North Pole.
Further, the causal principle employed in this argument seems suspect. The only cause/effect relations we observe take place among physical events. But, if God is understood as essentially non-physical, it is very difficult to see how we can be justified in extending the causal principle beyond the bounds of space and time and onto the realm of God.
Another traditional argument for God is that from design. According to this argument, the universe shows an impressive degree of order, coherence, and structure that is highly unlikely to be the product of random chance. There is instead a remarkable fitness in the way that organisms are adapted to their environment and the way that processes in the universe are appropriately suited one to another. Therefore, the argument concludes, there is some kind of intelligent designer who is responsible for the remarkable order, structure and coherence of everything. This argument had its heyday in the 18th century as part of the process of natural theology. But its hypothesis of a divine designer is difficult to take seriously for several reasons.
First, if we are in a position to recognize the wonderful design of the world, we are also entitled to critique the design work. But, it is obvious that, say, the human body could be much better designed. Replaceable lung filters to prevent lung disease, Teflon lined arteries to avoid arterial blockage, an improvement on our absurdly inefficient digestive system, and so forth. With problems like this in the design, the supposed designer of humankind is by no means an imperfect craftsman. Indeed, he would likely get a ‘C’ in an industrial design course.
Second, Darwinian biology and its theory of Natural Selection can account for all of the supposed evidence of design (at least on Earth) without supposing a designer. Then, by applying our Principle of Conservatism, there is no basis for the assumption that there is some supernatural designer out there.
Third, the argument gives absolutely no reason to think there is only one God. Indeed, if we reflect on the fact that nearly everything we know to have been designed is the product of a team effort, the design argument strongly favors the hypothesis of a less than perfect "design team." But this is inconsistent with the monotheistic doctrine the argument was intended to support.
Finally, the design argument can at best only provide evidence for natural powers or processes of the sort that we see about us in nature. To establish the existence of a literally supernatural God or Gods, much more is needed.
A third argument is the so-called moral argument for God’s existence. According to it, atheism makes morality impossible, because we must ground our moral theory in a guarantee that virtue will be rewarded and evil punished. But, without a supreme judge to oversee human affairs, it is impossible to have such a guarantee. Thus, the argument concludes that we need to believe in God in order to make morality possible. This line of reasoning is wholly unpersuasive. It simply assumes that morality cannot be founded on non-theistic principles, but I see no problem in the idea that actions can be right or wrong for reasons having nothing to do with God. Why not think that right or wrong could be understood in terms of obligations which we owe to one another as people? Even if the argument where granted, it seems to reduce morality to an odd kind of bargaining game between man and God. "I will behave in order to avoid punishment if God rewards me with eternal bliss after this life." But, who is acting more morally — the atheist who does good because he genuinely believes it is the right thing to do, or the believer who is kept in line only by fear of punishment and a desire for a big payoff in the next life?
The final argument concentrates on the many reports of religious experiences, as well as the pervasiveness of religious belief throughout many cultures. According to this argument, these facts must be taken seriously and they are best explained, we are told, by taking them for what they report to be: literal reports from beyond which testify to the existence of a God. The main difficulty with this line of thought is that it overlooks the possibility of explanation in terms of psychological factors. I do not doubt that people report feelings of divine presence, and the fact that these kinds of experiences occur in many different times and places surely is evidence that they have a common cause. But why should this cause be anything outside the human mind? I assume, for example, that people who report the experience of being kidnapped by aliens are not actually lying. They are sincerely reporting what they believe to have happened to them. But, we are reluctant to take such reports at face value, precisely because they can be explained in terms of familiar psychological mechanisms that don’t require the existence of extra-terrestrial kidnappers. We know that humans are very clever at creative. All cultures show a variety of forms of creative expression from music to literature to mythology, to poetry. Why not assimilate religion into this mix? Humans frequently long for something beyond the dull facts of everyday existence, and believers often claim that they feel their lives have a deeper meaning and purpose than they would have had without their belief in God. This certainly shows that people derive psychological benefit from their religious beliefs. But does this give us reason to think that the beliefs are true? I think not. These facts can equally well be accounted for by supposing the theistic belief is grounded in an emotional response to fear of death, or to a sense of powerlessness, or to loneliness. The fact that a belief makes you feel better is, perhaps unfortunately, not evidence that the belief is true.
I would like to close with a brief comment on the question of whether theistic belief could be justified by faith alone. Faith of the sort that I have in mind is either belief lacking any evidence at all, or continued belief in the face of a mountain of counter-evidence. Thus conceived, I claim that faith becomes quite literally arbitrary. If no evidence is relevant to the content of your belief, you could just as well believe in anything. Why not, then, believe by faith that the universe was brought into being by the number 17?
I conclude, then, that there is no God. We are on our own.
Dr. Jesseph’s statements in the Jesseph-Craig Debate are copyright © 1996 by Doug Jesseph. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Doug Jesseph. All rights reserved.