In many of my writings about religion, I take my atheism as a given. When I critique religion, or gas on about atheist philosophy, I generally start with the assumption that religion is a mistaken idea about the world and that atheism is a correct one, and go from there.
Which is generally fine with me. If I always had to start with first principles — on any topic — I’d get nothing written. (Nothing interesting, anyway.)
But it occurred to me recently that a newcomer to my blog might think that I hadn’t carefully considered the question of God’s existence. My arguments against God and religion are scattered all over my blog, and I don’t expect even my most devoted readers to read every single piece of my Atheism archives just to dig them all up.
So here — largely for my own convenience, and hopefully for the convenience of readers both atheist and not — is a summary of the Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being(s) or substance(s). Something I can point to, and that maybe other atheists can point to, when theists ask, “But have you considered…?” (And since I’ve probably missed some good ones, I’ll be asking for your own favorite arguments at the end of the piece.)
A couple of quick disclaimers first. This is really just a summary: a summary of ideas that I, and other atheist writers, have gone into in greater detail elsewhere. People have written entire books on this topic, and this post isn’t an entire book… nor is it meant to be. If you’re going to critique me for oversimplifying, please bear that in mind: It’s a summary. It’s meant to be somewhat simple. (I’m giving links to my own writing and to other people’s that go into the ideas in more detail.)
And no, I don’t think any of these arguments provide a 100% conclusive airtight case against God. Not even all of them together do that. And I don’t think they have to. I’m not trying to show that belief in God’s existence is absolutely impossible. I’m trying to show that it’s implausible. I’m trying to show that it is — by far — the least likely hypothesis for how the world works and why it is the way it is.
Oh — and for the sake of brevity, I’m generally going to say “God” when I mean “God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being(s) or substance(s).” I don’t feel like getting into “Well, I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard, but I believe…” discussions. It’s not just the man in the white beard that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in any sort of religion, any sort of soul or spirit or metaphysical guiding force, anything that isn’t the physical world and its vast and astonishing manifestations.
And here’s why. (Divided into two parts, to keep it from being insanely long.)
1: The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.
When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.
Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.
All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.
Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?
Sure, people come up with new supernatural explanations for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?
Again — exactly zero.
Given that this is true, what are the chances that any given phenomenon for which we currently don’t have a thorough explanation — human consciousness, for instance, or the origin of the universe — will be best explained by the supernatural?
Given this pattern, it seems clear that the chances of this are essentially zero. So close to zero that they might as well be zero. And the hypothesis of the supernatural is therefore a hypothesis we can comfortably discard. It is a hypothesis we came up with when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now… but that, on more careful examination, has never — not once — been shown to be correct.
If I see any solid evidence to support a religious or supernatural explanation of a phenomenon, I’ll reconsider my disbelief. Until then, I’ll assume that the mind-bogglingly consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is almost certain to continue.
The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely
2: The inconsistency of world religions.
When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we’re looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree — what other plants it’s most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary tree, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree’s basic existence, and the basic facts about it.
This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement whatsoever as to what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or does not act upon the world, whether he’s a he, whether there’s one or more of him, whether he’s a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful, sane people. What’s more, many smart, thoughtful, sane people don’t even think that God exists… and the number of those people is going up all the time.
And if God existed, he’d be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don’t see God in even remotely the same way whatsoever?
The explanation, of course, is that God does not really exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren’t actually perceiving anything that’s real. We’re “perceiving” something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brains that’s wired to see pattern and intention (even when none exists) is wired to see and believe.
3: The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.
The argument from authority. (Example: “God exists because the Bible says God exists.”)
The argument from personal experience. (Example: “God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.”)
The argument that religion shouldn’t have to logically defend its claims. (Example: “God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.”)
Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle — so abstract that it can’t be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: “God is love.”)
And all these arguments are incredibly weak.
Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn’t have any mistakes. (The Bible, for just one example, is shot full of them.) And the feelings in people’s hearts can definitely be mistaken. They are mistaken, demonstrably so, much of the time. Instinct and intuition play an important part of human understanding and experience… but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject.
I mean, if I told you, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves,” and offered as a defense, “I know this is true because my mother/ preacher/ sacred book tells me so”… or “I know this is true because I feel it in my heart”… would you take me seriously?
Some people do still try to point to evidence in the world that God exists. But that evidence is inevitably terrible. Pointing to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document, for instance, when it so blatantly is nothing of the kind. Or pointing to the complexity of life and the world and insisting that it must have been designed… when the sciences of biology and geology and such have provided far, far better explanations for what looks, at first glance, like design.
As to the “We don’t got to show you no stinking reason or evidence” argument… that’s just conceding the game before you’ve even begun. It’s basically saying, “I know I can’t make my case, therefore I’m going to concentrate my arguments on why I don’t have to make my case in the first place.” It’s like a defense lawyer who knows their client is guilty, and thus tries to get the case thrown out on a technicality.
Ditto with the “redefining God out of existence” argument. If what you believe in isn’t a supernatural being(s) or substance(s) that currently has, or at one time had, some sort of effect on the world… well, your philosophy might be a dandy and clever one, but it is not, by any useful definition of the word, religion.
Again: If I tried to argue, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves — and the height and color of trees is a question that is best answered with personal faith and feeling, not with reason or evidence”… or, “I know this is true because I am defining ‘500 feet tall and hot pink’ as the essential nature of tree-ness, regardless of its outward appearance”… would you take me seriously?
Oh, all over the place. But probably most succinctly:
A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
The Argument From Design, Part One and Part Two
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations
4: The increasing diminishment of God.
When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God himself, among believers themselves, has been diminishing. As our understanding of the natural, physical world has increased — and our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles (or other purported supernatural/ metaphysical phenomena) has consistently shifted, away from the phenomena that are now understood as physical cause and effect, and onto the increasingly shrinking area of phenomena that we still don’t understand.
Examples: We stopped needing God to explain floods, but we still needed him to explain sickness and health. Then we didn’t need him to explain sickness and health any more… but we still needed him to explain consciousness. Now we’re beginning to get a grip on consciousness, so we’ll soon need God to explain… what, exactly?
Or, as Ebon Muse so eloquently put it, “”Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”
This is what atheists call the “God of the gaps.” Whatever gap there is in our understanding of the world, that’s what God is responsible for. Wherever the empty spaces are in our coloring book, that’s what gets filled in with the blue crayon called God.
But the blue crayon is worn down to a nub. And it’s never proven to be the right color. And over and over again, throughout history, we have had to go to great trouble to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s minds and replace it with the right color. Given this pattern, doesn’t it seem that we should stop reaching for the blue crayon every time we see an empty space in the coloring book?
5: The fact that religion runs in families.
Very, very few people carefully examine all the religious beliefs currently being followed — or even some of those beliefs — and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children.
Now, we don’t do this with, for instance, science. We don’t hold on to the Steady State theory of the universe, or geocentrism, or the four bodily humours theory of illness, simply because it’s what we were taught as children. We believe whatever scientific understanding is best supported by the best available evidence at the time. And if the evidence changes, the understanding changes. (Unless, of course, it’s a scientific understanding that our religion teaches is wrong…)
Even political opinions don’t run in families as stubbornly as religion. Witness the opinion polls that consistently show support of same-sex marriage increasing with each younger generation. Even political beliefs learned from youth can and do break down in the face of the reality that people see and live with every day. And scientific theories absolutely do this, all the time, on a regular basis.
Once again, this leads me to the conclusion that religion is not a perception of a real entity. If it were, people wouldn’t just believe whatever religious belief they were taught as children, simply because it was what they were taught as children. The fact that religion runs so firmly in families strongly suggests that it is not a perception of anything real. It is a dogma, supported and perpetuated by tradition and social pressure — and in many cases, by fear and intimidation. Not by reality.
I haven’t written about the “religion running in families” argument at length before, and while I’m sure it must have been addressed in the atheosphere, offhand I don’t know where. But Richard Dawkins addresses it in The God Delusion. You can look it up there if you like.
I have, however, discussed religion as an idea perpetuated largely by fear, intimidation, tradition, and social pressure… and the ways religion armors itself, not only against criticism, but against the very idea that religion is a legitimate target for criticism. That discussion: Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions.
End of Part One. I’m breaking this up into two parts, since it’s already ridiculously long; Part Two will appear tomorrow. I realize this will probably be a fruitless plea, but if you can stand it, please hold your comments until Part Two is posted: I may have already addressed your ideas there, and anyway, that way all comment threads can be in the same place. Thanks.