By Colby Hess
“Does God exist?” Of the near-limitless variety of questions that can be posed by human beings, few are as profound, as important (or to certain fanatical Nietzsche lovers, as inane and tiresome) as this one. Few other questions have such a powerful effect over daily life, politics, and human interactions as this one simple query, and any given individual’s reply to it speaks volumes about his or her worldview.
For billions of people on planet Earth, its answer is a resounding “Yes!” – a declaration of faith so central to their lives that even a moment’s hesitation or doubt can induce feelings of severe guilt and internal conflict. For a large and growing multitude however, the answer to this question is instead a confident but qualified “No.” And yet, for many others still, the only sensible reply is “Maybe,” “I don’t know,” or even “It’s impossible to say.”
Although plenty of people simply don’t care one way or the other, rolling their eyes and far preferring not to talk about it or even think about it, that’s just dodging its repercussions. No matter who you are or what you think, it truly is the most important question there could possibly be, for the simple reason that if the overwhelming majority of our species who answer “yes” are correct – if God is real and is anything like the way he’s described in the world’s major holy books (concerned with our thoughts and behaviors, listening to prayers, occasionally suspending the laws of physics to perform miraculous interventions, etc.) – then all of eternity hangs in the balance. If what they believe is true, then this life is just a test and all that matters is that you get a passing grade. Every other concern – job, relationships, money, education, possessions, health – all of it pales in comparison, for they’re all but drops in an endless sea of time.
If, however, the answer is anything other than “yes” (or if God is just some abstract being uninvolved in our affairs as the deists and pantheists would have it), then an awful lot of people are wasting an incredible amount of time, energy, money, resources, and emotional commitment on a mass delusion – not to mention perpetuating the thousands of years of needless oppression and suffering endured by those who disagree with them. This is why emotions run so high around the subject and it’s why it keeps popping up no matter how hard one may try to avoid it.
In attempting to fairly assess the question, for all those not content with relying on faith for the answer, any sound approach almost inevitably involves wading into philosophy – specifically, into the foundational disciplines of ontology and epistemology. The first concerns the study of existence or being, and the second pertains to the nature of knowledge and how we humans go about acquiring it. For the purposes of this essay and in the interest of brevity, we’ll confine ourselves to just a quick look at the latter, epistemology. Although it can be a rather arcane and convoluted subject and has a way of rapidly descending into metaphysical abstractions, it’s possible to touch on it in a relatively simple manner that should at least make clear the position and reasoning of the various camps.
Within the broad spectrum of possible beliefs about knowledge, on one extreme lies the position called “philosophical skepticism” or “radical empiricism” which asserts that nothing can ever be known with certainty. For instance, you may think you’re sitting in front of a computer right now reading this essay, but perhaps you’re actually just an isolated brain floating in a vat of nutrients in some mad scientist’s laboratory, and everything you experience as the world is nothing more than a Matrix-like simulation. Or perhaps the inputs you receive from your senses are wholly unreliable and don’t give a true impression of the external world around you. Some would even argue that there is no external world and nothing exists but the mind.
While there are technical names for all of these various sub-positions (such as solipsism, idealism, etc.) and they differ considerably in their particulars, they all share in common a rejection of everyday common sense perceptions and the natural feeling that the world is pretty much like it seems – that if you stub your toe on a rock it’s because there really is a rock and you really have a toe that just collided with it – a straightforward stance known as direct or naïve realism.
The idea of absolute skepticism outlined above, while counter-intuitive, is a very old argument, one of the first to be addressed by the ancient Greek philosophers. Without going too far into it, suffice it to say that the most powerful rejection of the statement “Nothing can be known with certainty” is the simple reply, “Are you certain?” for to assert universal uncertainty with certainty is to undermine the entire premise of the argument. It gets reduced to the muddled and antithetical statement, “It might be possible that some things can perhaps be known with certainty.”
Practically speaking, to reject such a skeptical stance is almost a no-brainer, for if you choose to assume that the feeling of hunger is imaginary and food is not necessary to survive, you won’t be long for the world (as evidenced by the recent case in Switzerland where a woman died after several weeks of trying to subsist on sunlight alone). As Lucretius phrased it over two thousand years ago:
If anyone thinks that nothing can be known, he does not know whether even this can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing … If you did not dare trust your senses so as to keep clear of precipices and other such things to be avoided and make for their opposites, there would be a speedy end to life itself.
Bringing the discussion back around to where it began, those who answer the question of God’s existence by saying they don’t personally know, or it’s not possible for anyone to ever truly know the answer – two positions collectively referred to as “agnosticism” (Greek for “without knowledge”) – are essentially falling into the same trap as the radical skeptic. Or at least, those subscribing to the second position are. How can they know what is possible to know? To have such knowledge would require complete knowledge of everything in the universe (something which ironically, only a god would have). Arguing about it becomes as futile of an exercise as Donald Rumsfeld rambling on about “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns” in the lead-up to the Iraq War. It also completely discounts the incredible power of human potential and cleverness, and of the possibility of future discoveries and technological advances. To make such a statement, while seemingly neutral and open-minded, is actually a terribly arrogant and untenable stance to assume. Think how many people throughout most of history must have answered the question, “What’s on the dark side of the moon?” with the smug response, “We’ll never know.”
There’s a segment of feisty agnostics out there of this latter persuasion who are constantly attacking atheists, lumping them in with the theists and smearing them with the charge of having arrogant certitude in their belief that God is imaginary. This is either a comical misunderstanding of what atheists actually believe, or else it’s just a cowardly way of discarding religion without having to face the societal consequences of “denying God” and all of the negative stereotypes that are attached to atheism. Personally, I’d say it’s an even mixture of both.
Technically, an atheist (from the Greek root a meaning “without” and theos meaning “god”) simply means being without a belief in a god or gods. It says nothing about the reason for this lack of belief. It could be that the person has lived alone on a desert island all her life and has simply never heard of the concept of God. Every newborn baby is in this sense an atheist, for no child is born spouting Bible verses or bowing towards Mecca. Or perhaps, like most outspoken atheists, they find the idea of God far too improbable or far too injurious to take seriously.
Whatever their underlying motivation though, for most atheists, when they say, “There is no God,” what they’re really saying is, “I have seen no compelling evidence whatsoever to make me think that there is a God and I’ve seen plenty of evidence to suggest that there isn’t, therefore, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to operate under the working premise that there is no God. If at some point I am presented with undeniable evidence that God does, in fact, exist, then and only then will I change my mind.” That’s quite a mouthful, so it’s easier to condense it into the statement, “There is no God.”
Just to be crystal clear, what atheists are not saying is, “I’m absolutely, one hundred percent positive that there is not, and never could be, any kind of god or higher power or vast intelligence of any type anywhere in the universe or beyond. I, as knower of everything, am categorically ruling out the concept in any way, shape, or form for all time.” Now that would be arrogant and closed minded. Luckily, it’s a view held only by straw men or perhaps by a few random outliers who haven’t fully considered the logical consequences of what they’re saying.
Compare the first statement above (the one atheists actually make) to something more commonplace, like the belief that the earth is round. It’s easy to forget, but for much of human history (including the time when the Bible was written), the prevailing wisdom said that the earth was a flat square or disk, like the way it appears on most maps. If you’ve never been taught otherwise and you’ve never had the opportunity to go into orbit and witness the truth firsthand, this seems an eminently reasonable and obvious thing to assume – especially when it’s implied by your holy book. Along these same lines, for those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God and who therefore take it at its literal face value (46% of Americans at last count), the earth must be flat, for how else could the devil have taken Jesus to “an exceeding high mountain” from where they could view “all the kingdoms of the world”? (Matthew 4:8)
We now know of course, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the earth is actually a slightly distorted sphere, and its seeming flatness is merely the result of it being so massive compared to ourselves that it appears flat when viewed from ground level. Living in the 21st century, almost everyone has seen the famous photo taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts of the earth rising over the moon, looking like a blue marble in the vastness of space. Anyone who owns a cell phone equipped with GPS takes advantage of the fact of Earth’s roundness every time they place a call. Anyone who has ever traveled internationally across time zones has keenly experienced the results of this roundness – especially if they phone home from the other side of the planet at noon only to find that it’s midnight for the person on the other end of the line.
Thus, it could be said that anyone who accepts that the earth is round necessarily rejects the idea that the earth is flat, and by holding such a belief, it by definition makes them an “a-flat-earthist” – someone without belief in a flat earth (as opposed to a “flat-earthist” who believes the opposite). To carry this analogy to its logical conclusion, to be agnostic about whether the earth is round or flat is to answer the question, “What is the shape of the earth?” by saying, “I don’t know,” or “We’ll never know.” Of course, you’re highly unlikely to find many people in the modern world who would claim to be agnostic about such an objective and easily demonstrated fact, and any who do so are probably just being obstinate or so absurdly open minded that their brains have leaked out of their heads. It’s the less easily demonstrated facts that get tricky though, and that’s where the agnostics hang their hats.
To be agnostic about the existence of God comes down to one of two things. It’s either “the argument from personal ignorance” meaning, “I personally don’t happen to know the answer therefore I’m unqualified to provide one,” (fair enough) or it’s the paradoxical claim of having knowledge that the answer is forever unknowable. Or, equally likely, it’s, “I really don’t believe in God but I’m scared to say it out loud for fear of being rejected by my society, so instead I’ll play it safe and essentially just refuse to answer.” And they wonder why atheists don’t take them very seriously!
It should also be pointed out that like it or not, to any dedicated theist, being agnostic makes you just as much of an infidel as being an atheist, for you’re still not accepting God into your life and for that you’re still going to burn in Hell or be denied his everlasting love and radiance. So you might as well put aside your sense of superiority and take your rightful place on the non-believer team instead of always trying to erode it from the inside.
Coming back to atheists, for us to say that we don’t believe in God is no different than saying we don’t believe the earth is flat. There is no credible evidence to suggest that an all-powerful anthropomorphic being created mankind and the universe. There is no rational reason to accept that the claims of Christianity have any more validity than those of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, or any of the thousands and thousands of other religions (many of them now extinct) that have entertained the fancies of humans for millennia.
Not only that, but there is plenty of evidence to actively indicate that there is no such cosmic being. Biology has revealed numerous vestigial organs and DNA traces that are a result of our having evolved from simpler life forms. Psychology, computer science, and cognitive neuroscience have made incredible, if tentative, advances into understanding how the physical organ of the brain gives rise to intelligence and all of the subjective experiences – what some call “spirituality” – that come with being self-aware. Physics and astronomy have uncovered mind-blowing facts about the workings of space, time, matter and energy that make up the universe and give clues as to its formation. There is simply no reason to resort to the God hypothesis. There is no reason to have faith in the ignorant ramblings of frightened and superstitious tribesmen who lived at the dawn of civilization. This is what we as atheists believe and we are perfectly comfortable living our lives as such.
Remember, everyone more or less does the equivalent in their day to day lives. Everyone accepts certain basic truths, such as the existence of gravity or the necessity of breathing, as being knowable aspects of reality – if nothing else, just for the sake of getting out of bed in the morning and getting on with their day. They don’t cower under the sheets, trembling with indecision, and claiming it’s impossible to commit to any particular position. While it’s perfectly okay to remain agnostic about a question like, “How many dogs on Earth just barked in the past ten seconds?” – a question to which there is a real, specific answer, and yet for the foreseeable future there is no way to go about finding it – it’s not reasonable to be agnostic about the need to drink water or whether the sun is the source of daylight.
Atheists have often pointed out that while most sane adults don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, there’s no need for them to go around calling themselves “a-toothfairyists.” It’s simply not that critical to the future of humankind. But nor is there need to proclaim ignorance on the subject. It’s a pretty safe bet that there is no tooth fairy so there’s nothing wrong with saying so. In the remote chance that it’s someday proved otherwise, you can always change your mind then, glad to have had your false belief or erroneous thinking corrected. In the meantime, what can possibly be gained by sitting on the sidelines of the tooth fairy debate? (Other than sparing the feelings of a credulous six year old.) Well, it’s no different with God.
Now I know just from the amount of spiteful commentary articles like this inevitably generate, that there are obviously many people – even a lot of fellow heathens – who dislike atheists, finding us overly serious, overly certain, overly concerned with something we purport not to believe in; but my challenge to such people is this: What are you going to do about girls forcibly getting their clitorises chopped off in the name of Islam? What are you going to do about children here in the U.S. not being vaccinated or given medical treatment because prayer alone is supposed to be all they need? What are you going to do about the catastrophic warming of the earth’s atmosphere, enabled in large part by the Christian belief that God promised Noah he would never again flood the planet and therefore the glaciers and snowcaps couldn’t possibly melt? These are very serious matters, regardless of your disinterest, and as compassionate human beings we have every right to take them seriously. So screw you for ignoring them and for calling us jerks for doing otherwise.
The question of God’s existence is not merely academic; it’s something with profound consequences for our species no matter what its actual answer, so everyone had better think long and hard about where they stand and what that means for our ability to coexist on one small planet sharing limited resources. Otherwise, humanity will only continue in its downward spiral of war, environmental destruction, and the short-sighted pursuit of endless wealth, and the future will be anything but bright.
Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA. He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess.
Originally published as:
“Doubt and Denial in Pursuit of Reality” on June 6, 2012 by Disinformation > http://www.disinfo.com/2012/06/doubt-and-denial-in-pursuit-of-reality/