Monday, December 11, 2006

Atheism

Every religion has a different conception of God. There are some shared characteristics between the various faiths; for example, most religions claim that people need salvation. But when we begin to compare religions, we see that the differences are often far greater than the similarities. Each religion presents a fundamentally different way of attaining salvation. These basic differences are the things that make religions distinct; it is impossible to reconcile them. Logically, contradictory statements cannot all be true; either one picture of God is true, or all of them are false.

Some would say that each religion has a little bit of the truth, and that if you would combine all of the “little bits,” you would see the true God. Sometimes the story of the blind men and the elephant is used to illustrate this idea. Here’s a version of the story that I found on a Jain website.

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant was. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! It is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the
trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."

"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree to. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, "Maybe you have your reasons." This way we don’t get in arguments.

There is a problem with this story as an illustration, though. If God is the elephant and we are the blind men, who is the wise man that passes by to tell us about the big picture? There is no person who is standing far enough away from the situation to see the big picture. So this story which tries to show that nobody has a correct picture of God actually illustrates the opposite. To say that somebody has a complete and correct view of God—that they see the whole elephant—is exactly what this story says can’t happen. So, we have the question: What is God like? Which God exists?

In our past discussions, we have looked at some good reasons to believe that a God exists. We have also come up with a partial list of some of the characteristics or attributes that this God must have. From the cosmological and design arguments, we learned that God is necessary, powerful, transcendent, non-contingent, intelligent and personal. The moral argument told us that God has a moral will and purpose and that he is engaged in the world; that is, he cares about how people live. We can add one other item to our checklist; God is unique—there is nothing and no one else similar to him. If God meets all of the other characteristics we have listed, there could not be anything that exists except what he has created. No other god could exist.

So, we can make a checklist that will help us eliminate some false ideas of God. If you remember the story of Cinderella, you remember how the prince went around his kingdom with a glass slipper to find the girl he fell in love with at the ball. We can use our “glass slipper” to check out some ideas of God to see if it fits on them. Religions that deny these attributes must have a false view of God or, at least, needs to explain how their god can really exist. So let’s take our checklist and look for the real God.

The first worldview we will examine is atheism. The word ‘atheism’ comes from the negative ‘a’ which means ‘no’ and ‘theos’ which means ‘god.’ So, atheism in the simplest terms means ‘no god.’ Basically, atheism is the lack of belief in a god and/or the belief that there is no god. By contrast, theism is the belief that there is a God and that He is knowable. I need to mention that most atheists do not consider themselves anti-theists. Most consider themselves as non-theists.

Many atheists claim that atheism is not a belief system while others say it is. Since there is no official atheist organization, nailing down which definition of atheism to use can be difficult. Here are some definitions offered by atheists.
• "An atheist is someone who believes and/or knows there is no god."
• "An atheist lacks belief in a god."
• "An atheist exercises no faith in the concept of god at all."
• "An atheist is someone who is free from religious oppression and bigotry."
• "An atheist is someone who is a free-thinker, free from religion and its ideas."

Whichever definition you go by, atheism denies God.

There are two main categories of atheists: strong and weak, with variations in between. A strong atheist actively believes and states that no God exists. They expressly denounce the Christian God along with any other god. Strong atheists are usually more aggressive in their conversations with theists and try to shoot holes in theistic beliefs. They like to use logic and anti-biblical evidences to denounce God's existence.

Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell would probably fall into this camp; he wrote:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. . . . Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

Weak atheists simply exercise no faith in God. The weak atheist might be better explained as a person who lacks belief in God the way a person might lack belief that there is a green lizard in a rocking chair on the moon; it isn't an issue. He doesn't believe or not believe it.

We look at the world through certain presuppositions. The atheist has a set of presuppositions, too. Here are some basic principles that atheists, as a whole, tend to adopt. Not all atheists would agree with all of these ideas; the only absolute common one they hold to is that they do not believe in a God or gods.

1. There is no God or devil.
2. There is no supernatural realm.
3. Miracles cannot occur.
4. There is no such thing as sin as a violation of God's will.
5. Generally, the universe is materialistic and measurable.
6. Man is material.
7. Generally, evolution is considered a scientific fact.
8. Ethics and morals are relative

Obviously, no version of this worldview matches up with any item on our checklist. Atheism rejects everything we discovered in the cosmological, design and moral arguments. But it does not provide adequate explanations for how the universe began, why there is such evidence of design in the universe, or why there is objective morality. Atheists have to rely on ideas like actual infinites in the real world, biological evolution and relativism; but, as we have seen, all of these ideas are seriously flawed.

Atheism isn’t actually a religion, but there is a religion that basically is atheistic. Buddhism doesn’t really rely on the existence of a God. God isn’t necessary in Buddhist philosophy; and, if God does exist, it doesn’t affect anything about Buddhist thought or practice. It is a godless religion.

While the arguments for the existence of God are strong ones, there are many people who have rejected them—even people whom the world considers important and intelligent. Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Francis Crick (one of the discoverers of DNA) and Thomas Edison were all atheists. Isaac Asimov is a respected author, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate any of the arguments for God’s existence. He wrote:

The notion of an eternal universe introduces a great many difficulties, some of them apparently (at least in the present state of our scientific knowledge) insuperable, but scientists are not disturbed by difficulties—those all make up the game. If all the difficulties were gone and all the questions answered, the game of science would be over.

In other words, he is saying that the atheistic worldview doesn’t make sense, but that science would rather keep looking for ways to make it make sense, instead of just accepting the existence of God.

Actually, true atheism is a self-refuting philosophy. There are no "proofs" that God does not exist in atheist circles, especially since you can't prove a negative regarding God's existence. Of course, I’m not saying that atheists haven’t tried to offer some proofs that God does not exist, but their “proofs” are always too limited. After all, how do you prove there is no God in the universe? How do you prove that in all places and all times, there is no God? You can't. If there were a proof of God’s non-existence, then atheists would be continually using it. But we don’t hear of any such commonly held proof supporting atheism or denying God’s existence. The atheist position is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove since it is an attempt to prove a negative. Therefore, since there are no proofs for atheism’s truth and there are no proofs that there is no God, the atheist must hold his position by faith.

There is only one way that atheism is intellectually defensible and that is in the realm of simple possibility. In other words, it may be possible that there is no God; but stating that something is possible doesn't mean that it is a reality or that it is wise to adopt the position. If I said it is possible that there is an ice cream factory on Jupiter, does that make it intellectually defensible or a position worth adopting merely because it is merely a possibility? So, simply claiming a possibility based on nothing more than it being a possible option, no matter how remote, is not sufficient grounds for atheists to claim viability in their atheism. They must come up with more than "It is possible," or "There is no evidence for God," otherwise, there really must be an ice cream factory on Jupiter and the atheist should start defending the position that Jupiter ice cream exists.

Some atheists understand this problem with their worldview, so they don’t claim that God doesn’t exist. At best, atheists can only say that there are no convincing evidences for God so far presented. They cannot say there are no evidences for God because the atheist cannot know all evidences that possibly exist in the world. At best, the atheist can only say that the evidence so far presented has been insufficient. This logically means that there could be evidences presented in the future that will be sufficient. The atheist has to admit that there may indeed be a proof that has so far been undiscovered and that the existence of God is possible. This would make the atheist more of an agnostic. In fact, this view is sometimes known as “strong agnosticism.”

Atheism fails all ten items on our checklist, so we can reject it as a possible way of understanding God. It doesn’t even have a foot to try our glass slipper on. So let’s move on to a related worldview—agnosticism.

2 comments:

dwain said...

Actually, true atheism is a self-refuting philosophy. There are no "proofs" that God does not exist in atheist circles, especially since you can't prove a negative regarding God's existence. Of course, I’m not saying that atheists haven’t tried to offer some proofs that God does not exist, but their “proofs” are always too limited. After all, how do you prove there is no God in the universe? How do you prove that in all places and all times, there is no God? You can't. If there were a proof of God’s non-existence, then atheists would be continually using it. But we don’t hear of any such commonly held proof supporting atheism or denying God’s existence. The atheist position is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove since it is an attempt to prove a negative. Therefore, since there are no proofs for atheism’s truth and there are no proofs that there is no God, the atheist must hold his position by faith...

At best, atheists can only say that there are no convincing evidences for God so far presented. They cannot say there are no evidences for God because the atheist cannot know all evidences that possibly exist in the world. At best, the atheist can only say that the evidence so far presented has been insufficient. This logically means that there could be evidences presented in the future that will be sufficient. The atheist has to admit that there may indeed be a proof that has so far been undiscovered and that the existence of God is possible.

There's a difference, to me, between "self-refuting" and untenable. Also, I think you're being a little unfair by saying (I think) that a lack of evidence for the lack of something proves the existence of the something for which there is a lack of evidence of the lack of. I don't think that's any more tenable than the atheistic scientist's approach. There seems to be a contradiction between the first and second paragraph. Just as there's no way for the atheist to know all the proof of the existence of a god that may exist in the multiverses, there's no way for the theist to know all the proof for the absence of god. It's a double-edged sword that helps neither side in their argument.

Here's a video of Richard Dawkins addressing some of these questions. Your students might or might not find it interesting.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR_z85O0P2M

Chris said...

I didn't get to hear all of Dawkins' Q&A session due to technical difficulties, but I think I got enough to address your objections. Maybe some of the misunderstanding came because this blog was a little out of context. It was a lecture following a series of lectures on proofs for the existence of God. So I wasn't still trying to prove God's existence. I was just evaluating a worldview to see if it produced a God who matched up with the God we had already discovered.

Atheism is, by nature, a faith statement. You can't prove a negative; you can't prove that anything doesn't exist, unless you have unlimited knowledge. That doesn't mean atheism is wrong; it just means that atheists can't really be too dogmatic. Strong agnosticism is a little more tenable of a position, but an honest agnosticism would say that, given sufficient evidence, they would accept the existence of God.