Why I am an Unbeliever
Table of Contents
“I found him not, in world or sun,
Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye,
Nor through the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun.”
It goes without saying that, in today’s society, atheism is not so uncommon nor disreputable a belief as once it was. Generally speaking, atheists are no longer burned by inquisitors, nor accused of sorcery and Satanism, nor subjected to many of the other atrocious means by which the believers of the past have dealt with unbelief.
But be that as it may, the fact remains that many of us are still living in predominately theistic societies. This, if only implicitly, seems to demand of the atheist some explanation of why, exactly, he can so confidently reject that which the vast majority of people embrace. I cannot pretend to offer an explanation which will fully satisfy this implicit demand, but feel that it is incumbent upon me to try.
I do not believe in God for the same reason that I do not believe in ghosts, or elves, or Santa Claus. I lack belief simply because the evidence in support of such a belief is, at best, woefully insufficient — and at worst, nonexistent. This is bolstered by the fact that, in many cases, claims asserting the existence of Gods are not only bereft of evidence, but flawed logically.
For many believers, this will seem a very poor justification indeed. Other atheists well-used to debating believers will be able to easily imagine the questions that a theist might pose: “but what if there is abundant and obvious evidence for God’s existence, and you only fail to see it?” or “but what if God simply transcends the limited human notion of logic… would He not then appear logically impossible, even though He actually existed?”
That these are interesting questions cannot be denied, and it also cannot be denied that such ‘what if’s are technically possible. After all, there is no way an atheist could prove that no evidence exists without being omniscient, and no way he could prove that logic is a universal rule without begging the question. But then, I would ask, why stop there? Atheists also can’t prove that God is not, right at this moment, presenting Himself before their eyes in all His glory. All these hypotheticals are possible, in the same sense that the Cartesian demon is possible.
The problem is that these hypotheticals do not constitute any kind of substantive refutation. Of course it is possible that humans are mistaken in their notion of logic, and it’s similarly possible that there is obvious evidence that atheists can’t see — I’m certainly willing to grant that I am not omniscient. But then, it’s also possible that all the theists on the earth are suffering from some kind of mental illness, and therefore see “evidence” that doesn’t really exist. It’s possible that what theists call “God” is really just an alien overlord capable of mind-control, intent on taking over the earth and turning us all into intergalactic galley slaves. ‘What if’s obviously come cheap.
Luckily, all the ridiculous hypotheticals above have one thing in common: lack of evidence. For a ‘what if’ to be taken into serious consideration, there must be enough evidence in its favour to make it plausible. Hence, another factor in my unbelief: none of the ‘what if’s which have been presented to me in favour of God’s existence have been supported enough to be worthy of serious consideration.
Naturally, this leaves open at least the remote possibility that God exists, and, therefore, the possibility that I really ought to believe in God. But this uncertainty is true only inasmuch as it is true for any position, including theism. One simply cannot take into account evidence one does not have, and to believe in everything on the basis of mere possibility would lead not only to believing in everything, but disbelieving everything simultaneously. This is a luxury available only to the truly insane.
In conclusion, then: I am an atheist not because I can prove beyond any possible doubt that no God exists, but because, in addition to the evidence I see against the existence of a God, there is nothing which leads me to rationally believe that one does exist. Perhaps this makes me an agnostic, rather than an atheist; the terms are too vague to say for certain, and such a distinction seems irrelevant anyways.
What matters is that, as the etymology of “atheist” suggests, I am a-theos, or without God. Should it be shown to me that I am in error, or should I find evidence that such is the case, this could change; I am not so arrogant as to believe that, at this very moment, I know as much as I will ever know! I can only continue to reason based on what I rationally believe, and hope that those with whom I debate do the same.
“No,” Rambert said bitterly, “you can’t understand.
You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart;
you live in a world of… of abstractions.”
-Camus, The Plague
The preceding section will, for many readers, seem largely irrelevant. Sure, it details some reasons why I don’t believe in a God; indeed, it details some reasons why anyone might disbelieve. But what it lacks is any sort of attempt to explain the meaning of unbelief. How does atheism “work”? How, without God, does the universe remain meaningful?
Questions of “meaning” in this sense are, of course, ultimately subjective, and may have little to do with philosophy in the strictest sense. Still, it is completely naive to suggest that meaning has no place in what we believe, and this essay is all about beliefs. So, I am going to try to explain, essentially, what atheism means for me. Before you read on, however, it is absolutely imperative that you understand: I am not trying to tell you what theism or atheism should mean to you, or to anyone else.
I have often been confronted by theists with the accusation that, without God, I am reducing the universe to nothing but the mundane and meaningless interactions of mindless electrons; that, in denying an ultimate Being, I am setting mere humans up as Gods in themselves. I am rarely able to answer this charge in a way that satisfies the questioner, as I can only ultimately reply thus: for me, atheism is a reaffirmation of meaning.
This is because, for me, the idea of “God” is little more than a kind of extreme metaphysical anthrocentricism. That is, no matter how much theologians define God to abstraction, I always see — somewhere behind these grandiose philosophical definitions — the idea of a big human in charge of the universe. Christian scripture bears this out somewhat, with the idea of man being created in God’s image: this connotes the idea that, regardless of who created who, God and man are conceived of as alike in some fundamental way.
Now, I should be completely clear on this point: it would be a gross oversimplification, if not a downright untruth, to suggest that theism (or Christianity specifically) consists of nothing but affirmation of some giant, superpowered human controlling everything. For many, if not most, “God” denotes a range of meaning which cannot be encapsulated in such trite generalizations. What I am saying is that, for me, the idea of a deity is little more than the idea that the universe is fundamentally controlled by — or even consists of — something which we can reduce to quintessentially human terms.
This is where I feel the anthrocentricism comes in. In attributing all existence to the machinations of some great personal consciousness, it seems as though we are suggesting that the universe can only exist or have meaning on human terms. I guess I just see greater meaning in the idea that the universe is so fundamentally non-human — so alien — that any reduction of reality to human terms only belies the finite nature of our thinking.
A theist and I might go out walking in the early morning and marvel at the beauty of the sunrise. For the theist, perhaps this beauty has meaning in that it reflects the majesty of God’s design. For me, this beauty instead reflects the workings of a reality more strange and inscrutable than could ever be produced by “consciousness”. The sunset wasn’t put there to please me. It simply is, and therein is the wonder of it. Why does the light catch the clouds that way? Why is it beautiful?
I suppose I can ultimately say this with a question. If God exists, can the universe be meaningful? Absolutely. But at the same time, is there meaning to be found in a Godless universe? Absolutely again. The universe — reality — is a wondrous thing, and it remains wondrous whether it was constructed by a personal consciousness or not.
So, atheism is not for me a denial of meaning, a denial of wonder, or an attempt to set human beings up as the center of reality. It is, instead, the affirmation of a different kind of meaning: the meaning to be found in a vast impersonal universe which at once seems to invite our inquiry and defy complete explanation. It is, if anything, the realization that humans are anything but the center of reality.
It’s a humbling philosophy, to be certain. And it’s certainly one that is constantly changing, as I increasingly try to make sense of my reality. But then… maybe this very process of making sense of things provides the best answer! Maybe any universe — whether it be theistic or atheistic — gains meaning for us all, simply in our search to find its meaning.
Not much of a conclusion, is it? But, come to think of it, if any of my ramblings have approached a point, perhaps it is that the tentative conclusion is the most suitable kind.