I find religion to be quite fascinating, despite the fact that I’m a soft atheist and don’t personally believe the fundamentals of any of them. This post will be a bit of a meander through thoughts kicking around in my head related to religion and atheism.
Hard vs. soft atheism
I would say that I fall somewhere in the vicinity of weak agnostic/soft atheist. By that, I mean that I’m open to the idea that a deity (or deities) exists and is knowable, but I’m not inclined to believe such a thing does exist without some sort of evidence that it does. I was raised in an atheist family, which certainly shaped my worldview, but I’ve always found religion interesting. For the sake of curiosity, I’ve read the Quran (obviously in English translation) and a fair bit of the Bible.
I’m not a hard atheist who believes there is no deity or deities, full stop. In my mind, that’s a hypothesis with no more evidence to support it than the hypothesis that God does exist. If theism is the hypothesis that there is a deity (or deities), I’m going with the corresponding null hypothesis that there isn’t proof for a deity’s existence; if that’s soft atheism, I guess that’s what I am.
To put that in non-scientific terms, let’s talk purple people eaters. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone’s notion of God is a purple people eater. I design a little experiment to try to find evidence of a purple people eater. I run my experiment and don’t find any evidence, so obviously, I haven’t proven that they exist. Those results also don’t prove that purple people eaters don’t exist (the equivalent of hard atheism); it just means we don’t know yet. Faith is believing that purple people eaters exist anyway, and that’s what I don’t have. Show me a purple people eater, then we’re good to go.
This post is quite Christianity-centric, but that’s mostly because it’s what I’m most surrounded by; I’m an equal-opportunity non-believer. It’s not my intent to criticize anyone’s religion; there are just things I don’t get. I think it’s great that people find comfort and a sense of meaning in religion; I’m just not one of those people.
It’s harder to prove a negative than a positive
Looking at provability, the non-existence of something is always much harder to prove than the existence of something. Let’s get back to the idea of purple people eater as deity to illustrate this.
To prove that purple people eaters (or deities) exist, I only need to find one.
To prove that purple people eaters don’t exist (the equivalent of hard atheism), I would have to scour every corner of the known world, and then I’d have to keep looking for the remainder of my life, as well as the life of everyone yet to come, because I might have missed a purple people eater hanging out in a black hole somewhere.
So why haven’t atheists proven there is no God? Because no one has managed to check every last black hole for that stray purple people eater that might be kicking around. Proving that things don’t exist is very, very hard. For me, anyway, the burden of proof in a logical argument falls on whoever is arguing that something does exist, be it God, purple people eater, or otherwise.
When bad stuff happens
There’s a lot about religion that I just don’t get. If there is an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God, who many people believe does directly get involved in the human world in a good way, why does He let bad things happen? I’m not talking bad things on the scale of someone losing their job; I’m talking the really nasty, large-scale stuff, like genocide, war, or famine. I’ve never come across an argument that doesn’t have the feel of wildly scrambling to reconcile things that don’t really go together.
The argument that bad things have to happen so something good can come of it, or that there’s a reason for bad things to happen but we’re just not aware of it, is fine if we’re talking about job loss, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard when we’re talking about genocide. Was there good to be had as a result of the Holocaust? It seems rather gross and all kinds of non-loving to think so.
In the anti-atheism arguments I’ve come across, there seems to be a lot of faulty logic. There was one article that I came across that said that evolution didn’t happen, but the way people say it supposedly happened, lots of species died out, and therefore it’s reasonable that God allows people to get killed off. Huh?
Another article said that choice and accountability are necessary for spiritual growth, so God doesn’t save people from their decisions. But again, bringing it back to genocide, no one chose to be in an ethnic group that was going to be slaughtered. That same article argued that tragedy is okay because it empowers others to act in a positive way. Really? Another article said pain awakens us to God; if God is so glorious, why on earth should pain be required? There’s the argument that God has his reasons, and we’re just not capable of understanding them. Except that’s not an actual argument, because what do you do with that? You could argue basically anything and wrap it up in a bow of God has His ways and we just don’t understand.
The main argument, from what I gather, has to do with free will. But I still don’t get it. Let’s say we were to accept a few things as a given:
- God is omnipotent
- He has given humans free will
- He loves us because God is love
- people believe they’re interacting with God on a regular basis and He is intervening in their lives, answering prayers and letting the holy spirit do its thing (I still don’t really understand what the holy spirit is)
- people believe He intervenes to perform miracles on at least a somewhat regular basis, given that there are 10,000+ Catholic saints
- God parted the Red Sea to save the Israelites from the Pharaoh, yet, for reasons unknown to us, decided to go hands off when the Nazis came along and started gassing every Israelite they could get their hands on
Given all of these things, when Hutus started slaughtering Tutsis in Rwanda, somehow God is bound by His choice to give humans free will, so sorry, but He’s out? God is claimed to perform everyday miracles for people, and the Holy Spirit is all up in people’s business (in a good way, presumably), but He can’t circumvent His own prior choices to stop people from slaughtering and torturing each other? I don’t get it.
More atheist questions
I also don’t understand why Jesus had to die. Sure, it’s the whole basis of Christianity that He died to absolve all of humanity’s sins, but my question is, why couldn’t God have forgiven people without sending His Son to be tortured?
I also don’t get the whole notion of original sin, and I’m not clear on whether I just don’t grasp what the concept is, or whether I know what the concept is and still don’t get it. Was God’s creation flawed? How could that be if God is perfect? Is it necessary to hold a grudge against humans forever because Adam and Eve weren’t well-behaved? If your children disobey you, does that taint stay in your family for a gazillion generations to come? If so, that seems like a pretty harsh punishment given all the love that’s supposed to be floating around.
Focus on the Family assures me that I’m going straight to hell for not believing in Christ as redeemer. They say it doesn’t matter if I (or anyone else) is good or sincere; God doesn’t want my despicable sinful self in his presence. I’m guessing that Focus on the Family is of the fire and brimstone persuasion. To be honest, it seems a bit wonky that a serial killer who believed in Jesus as redeemer would go to heaven, while a kind and caring person who thought Jesus was a purely human preacher spreading positive messages would go straight to hell.
I’ve come across a lot of arguments for theism that rely on some faulty logic. There may well be better arguments out there, but I haven’t stumbled across them yet.
I’ve seen the enduring popularity of the Bible used as an argument to support the existence of God. Those two things have nothing to do with each other, though; popular and long-lasting suggests that something is meaningful and it resonates with people, not that it’s true. Being popular and accurate are independent ideas, so the truth of one doesn’t speak to the truth of the other.
Then there are shut-down arguments, which are much like a parent saying “because I said so.” It may be true, but offers no chance of gaining any new understanding on either side. For example, there’s the argument that if things in the Bible don’t seem to make sense, it’s because humans just aren’t capable of understanding why God does what he does. I get that if there is a deity, He/She couldn’t be fully understandable by us, but “it just is” is certainly not going to bring me any closer to believing what someone’s trying to convince me of.
There’s the argument that the world is amazing, therefore there must be intelligent design. There is no more logical must in there than me saying our governments act like puppets so there must be a purple people eater pulling the strings.
Some of the Christian sources I’ve come across refuting atheist arguments choose particular arguments that are weak to the point of ridiculousness, which makes me wonder if those arguments actually came from atheists, or perhaps from a purple people eater, or a human inside the stomach of a purple people eater. This is a form of the straw man logical fallacy.
There’s a book by Ray Comfort that’s rather amusingly titled God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists. In the first chapter, which is viewable in the Kindle preview on Amazon, he argues that atheists don’t exist because no one has any way of proving the absolute assertion that God doesn’t exist. He adds that the Bible says ignorance of God is willful, therefore atheists don’t see the evidence of God because they choose not to. But if you flip all of that on its head, then theists don’t exist either. Neither side of that argument is any good, but there does seem to be a blind spot to seeing the flip side.
The good and the bad of organized religion
I’m not anti-religion, and I can absolutely see how religion can be quite beneficial for people looking for a sense of meaning and community. People want answers and direction, and religion is very good at giving answers to that kind of thing. On an individual level, I can see spirituality being a very positive thing.
I do have issues with organized religion, though, and that’s less about the religion itself and more about the fact that people suck. A lot of people do a lot of shitty things. When you get a bunch of stupid people together, and they’re feeling all kinds of self-righteous about their religious fervour, they start doing shitty things in the name of their religion. Those shitty things aren’t part of the religion, and in many cases, they may run contrary to the core values of religion, but people suck, so they go around killing each other.
Sociologically, when groups of people have strong belief systems, it can be very easy to Other groups that don’t believe what the in-group beliefs, and Othering can produce some very messy results. A Washington Times article rather brilliantly says “The most violent religion on Earth is any that have people in them.” Christianity comes to mind as having had a whole buttload of killing done in the name of it, but I’m pretty confident in my assumption that that’s not what Jesus would do.
God and science
I see no reason for God and science to exist as opposing ideas. Take the big bang, for example. Accepting the big bang requires rejecting what Genesis has to say about the world being created in seven literal days (as we understand them), but it doesn’t mean rejecting the notion of divine creation. Science knows about what happened from the big bang forward in time; it knows nothing and doesn’t claim to know anything about what came even an instant before it, which leaves plenty of room for God to come into play.
There’s nothing inherently anti-theist about the scientific method. Science isn’t about a certain body of knowledge; science is a method. You come up with an idea that you formulate as a hypothesis; you design an experiment to test that hypothesis; you run that experiment; you determine whether the results support your hypothesis or not. People get it wrong sometimes, but that’s all part of the process, and by continually questioning, hopefully, people will reach more accurate conclusions eventually. Science is about always questioning.
None of this was meant to try to argue or persuade anyone of anything, nor am I saying I’m right and anyone else is wrong. It was just the thoughts that have bubbled up in my head.
I think what it really comes down to is that there is no one right way. No matter what any of us happens to believe, and there are a lot of different beliefs out there, we’re all fumbling around in the dark to some extent. Since the beginning of humanity, people have looked for meaning in this world and sought answers to questions like what happens after death, or whether there’s anything more than just this life we’re living.
People have come up with many different answers over the eons, and chances are, no one is fully right or fully wrong. Maybe the best we can do is to accept one another and try not to expect others to adhere to our own beliefs, and acknowledge that no matter what deities may or may not exist, humans are fallible, and that means each and every single one of us.
And to close, this fabulous quote from George Carlin comes via Nick at Fiction & Ideas:
Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.
This is a very broad question, but what are some of the key ideas that fuel your own religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?
This video of a talk by Dr. Dennis Hiebert on the social construction of reality is an interesting look at how human understanding of religion is socially constructed – and yet, he’s not an atheist.