This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
I’ve written a fair amount about some of the more painfully bad arguments for religion and against atheism. I’ve written about the argument that religion is just a story, not meant to be taken literally… a story that still somehow makes people get very bent out of shape when atheists point out that it isn’t true. I’ve written about an assortment of arguments from wishful thinking, from the insulting (and irrelevant) argument that atheists don’t stay atheists when faced with death, to the baffling (and irrelevant) argument that religion gives us a needed feeling of mystery. I’ve written about the arguments that essentially just tell atheists to shut up. And I’ve written about the ways that, when asked what evidence they have for their religious beliefs, many believers simply deflect the question. Instead of saying, “This is why I believe what I do,” they offer a list of excuses for why they don’t have to show us any stinking evidence.
But that’s not true for all believers. When asked why they believe what they do, some believers take the question seriously and sincerely — and they try to answer it.
I want to return the favor. I want to look at some of these more earnest answers to the question, “Why do you believe in God?” I want to take them seriously, and assume that the people presenting them mean them sincerely. And I want to point out — in as much detail as I can in a single blog post — how they still don’t hold water. They’re less bad than a lot of arguments for God — at least they’re trying to actually answer the question about the evidence for god, instead of just treating it as stupid or meaningless or patently offensive. But in my years as an atheist writer, not one of them has made me stop and think, “Hm, that’s a poser.”
Today’s argument: But All Of This Had To Come From Somewhere! Otherwise known as the “First Cause” argument. “Things don’t just come out of nowhere,” the argument goes. “Everything that exists has a cause. Therefore, the entirety of physical existence itself had to have had a cause. Therefore, God exists.”
Yeah. See, there are some big problems with that argument.
For starters: If everything has to have a cause… then what caused God?
And if God can somehow have always existed or come into being out of nothing… then why can’t that be true of the universe?
I agree that the question “Where did the universe come from?” is baffling and intriguing. To say that physical existence either has been there forever or somehow popped into being from non-being… it does seem to call into question our basic understanding of cause and effect. It’s a legitimately tough question.
But the God hypothesis doesn’t answer this question. The God hypothesis simply begs the question. It simply moves the question back a notch. It gives an answer to the question of where the universe came from (“God”)… but then we have to ask the exact same set of questions about God. “Where did he come from… and if he just always existed, how is that possible?” “Where did the universe come from” is a legitimately tough question… but “God is a terrible answer. No, it’s worse than that. It’s no answer at all.
What’s more, the “God did it” answer cuts off further inquiry into the question.
Many astronomers and astrophysicists think that the question “Where did the universe come from?” might someday be answerable. In fact, many of them strongly suspect that the answer may indeed call into question our basic understanding of cause and effect… in much the same way that Einstein’s theories called into question our basic understanding of matter and energy and space, and Galileo’s theories called into question our basic understanding of the structure of the universe. (For instance: One idea that’s being tossed around is that the beginning of the universe was the beginning, not only of matter and energy, but of space-time itself… and that it therefore makes no sense to talk about what happened “before” time itself began.) They think “Where did physical existence come from?” may be an answerable question… and they’re busily researching possible answers.
The “God did it” answer doesn’t do this. It doesn’t pose possible ways of investigating whether the God hypothesis might be the right answer to this question. It basically just says, “Everything has to have a cause… except God, who by definition can do anything.” It’s a non-answer. It insists that every question have a valid, comprehensible, cause- and- effect answer… except questions about God. It’s like a parent answering every question with, “Because I say so.” It’s what atheists call the “God of the gaps”: it takes any question about the physical world that’s currently unanswered by science, and says, “Oh, we don’t know the answer to that, therefore it must be God.” It’s like taking every empty space in the coloring book, and reflexively filling it in with a blue crayon.
There have been countless times throughout history when we thought that Phenomenon (X) had a supernatural cause. Must have had a supernatural cause. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural. Why the sun rises and sets; why people get sick; what causes the weather and the seasons; why children look like their parents; how the complex variety of life came into being; etc., etc., etc. We didn’t have a clue what caused it, or even the shadow of a clue… so we assumed it was God. (Or spirits, or demons, or whatever.)
And every single time that we eventually got a conclusive answer to the cause of Phenomenon (X), that answer has been entirely natural.
So why on earth would we assume that any currently unanswered question about physical existence — even a massive and baffling question like how it all came to exist in the first place — would eventually turn out to be caused by God? It’s never been the right answer before. Not even once. Why would we assume it’s the right answer this time?
Finally, and most importantly:
There is not a single scrap of evidence suggesting that the universe had a supernatural cause, or that there are any supernatural beings or forces affecting it in any way.
As my wife Ingrid likes to point out: The universe does not look like one in which an independent outside agent is intervening. The universe does not look like one in which miracles happen and physical laws are violated by someone who’s above these laws. The universe looks remarkably like a system of physical cause and effect: an unimaginably massive, intensely complex system of physical cause and effect, but physical cause and effect nonetheless. And every single attempt to demonstrate the existence of any supernatural force or entity affecting the universe — at least, every attempt using careful, rigorous, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, etc. scientific methods — has fallen flat on its face.
When it comes to the question of how the universe came into being, the only reason for thinking that “God” is the answer to this question is the assumption that “God” has to be the answer to this question — the assumption that no other answer to this question is possible. And again, throughout history, whenever this assumption has been made in the past, it’s been shown to be bullpucky. Countless phenomena once considered not only to have a supernatural cause, but to have no possible cause other than a supernatural one, have been shown to be entirely explainable by natural forces.
We have no reason to think the universe’s existence is any different.
If you have evidence showing that the universe was caused by a supernatural creator, I’d be interested in hearing it. But if your only reason for believing in a God who created the universe is, “There had to be a creator because… well, because there just has to be, because everything has to have been caused by something, because I can’t imagine a universe without something making it happen”… you’re going to have to find a better argument.