The least important question in the world

If you’ll permit me, I’d like to invite you to take a trip back in time with me. This is a journey to the moment I realized I was atheist. I say ‘realized’ because the process of becoming an atheist happened over an 8-year span that started in my early teens. It started with little things: the church’s position on abortion, the common practice of idolatry, the inconsistent claims made by various factions of Christianity (particularly those of my fundamentalist friends). These quickly grew more difficult to reconcile as I delved deep into where the answers were supposed to be. Taking a course on world religions certainly didn’t help things – every different group seems to think they have an exclusive claim to truth, which by necessity can’t be the case.

So picture me sitting in church on a Christmas morning, next to my parents, idly skimming over the sermon as it was being presented – more interested in breakfast than the haranguing coming from the pulpit. As my thoughts searched for something to connect with, one flitted across my conscious mind: this guy has no fucking idea what he’s talking about. This struck me as a rather significant revelation – after all, he was supposedly a ‘man of the cloth’ and representative of God’s church on Earth. If he didn’t understand what he was talking about, then how could we expect anyone to know what they were talking about when it came to the divine?

I sat on that thought for a split second and pondered its implications. God is supposed to be fundamentally unknowable, discernible only by faith. But there are many people of faith, and they don’t agree on the definition of what god is. If we can’t get a consistent definition, how can we be sure a god exists at all? We can believe as hard as we want, but how do we know whether or not it’s true? I had been told for years that the existence of God was one of the fundamental questions that mankind had to grapple with. Perhaps the single most important question ever asked. It had certainly been plaguing me for the past few years.

At a sudden stroke, I realized how fundamentally unimportant the question was. So unimportant as to be almost meaningless. I will explain. Suppose I tell you that I have a glomyx in my back yard. Your response would probably be “what the hell is a glomyx?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I’d say “but it’s very important to understand that they exist, and that I have one. My neighbour thinks he has one, but he has a false glomyx. Mine is the genuine article.”

“How do you know yours is real?”

“Well, because I believe it’s real. Isn’t that clear?”

“That’s stupid. Just because you believe something doesn’t make it true.”

“You’re awfully intolerant of glomyx owners. You must hate glomyxes.”

“How could I hate something I’ve never seen and don’t think exists?”

“But of course they exist! How could I have one in my back yard otherwise?’

And the conversation goes on and on in circles until your brain explodes. The problem here is not just my irrational belief in glomyxes, or my utterly empty attempts to justify my belief by casting aspersions at your motivations. The problem is that I never answered your original question – what is a glomyx?

To bring the allegory home, the problem with the question of “does a god exist?” is that it assumes that we have a reasonable (or at least consistent) definition of what a god is. It had been trivially easy for me to reject the description of Yahweh from the bible – it was a largely incoherent and inconsistent account of a Bronze Age war god who, despite repeated instances of evil actions, is praised as being “omnibenevolent”. I don’t think I had ever really believed in that god – I believed in one that was far more benign and merciful. The problem, of course, is that I had no reason to believe that the war god Yahweh was less realistic than my fuzzily-benevolent god. In fact, if I trusted the bible (I didn’t, but let’s pretend) then the war god was far more supported by scripture than mine was.

So the problem I faced wasn’t whether or not a god of some kind existed. That question was largely irrelevant. What mattered is, assuming that there is a god, what sort of god is it? How could we go about determining the nature of the god, if we just for a moment assumed that it existed? Well, we’d look at the claims about the various models for a god and see how they stack up against what we see in the universe. After all, that’s what we do when we have questions about other phenomena we can’t directly observe – electrons, tectonic plates, gravitation from distant galaxies – we look and see what kind of effects they have on things we can observe.

There are a number of claims made about the deity – too many to list exhaustively here. Suffice it to say that the central claims made about Yahweh obviously fail to reflect observed reality – prayer is ineffective, ‘miracles’ always occur under dubious circumstances, and we have explanations for the various other phenomena that were previously thought to be possible only by a supernatural being. Even a cursory view of the little we know about the universe rules out Yahweh, as well as any of his dopplegangers from Judaism’s sister religions. As little as I understood about the various other religions of the world, I knew that their god concepts were all as interventionalist as Yahweh – certainly not reflected in reality either.

The only concept of a god left to consider was one that either chooses not to intervene in human affairs, and therefore not interested in being worshipped; or unable to intervene in human affairs, in which case it is not worthy of worship. There was still no evidence to support the existence of either of these ideas, although obviously they could not be ruled out conclusively by the very nature of the hypotheses. They are therefore not even worth considering, since they can neither be confirmed nor denied.

Theistic critics of atheism often speculate that some sort of traumatic event leads people to ‘reject’ their loving god. While this may be true for some atheists, I’ve never met one. Most of the atheists I know simply followed the same logical path away from belief in the absence of evidence that I did. My ‘epiphany’ just so happened to occur on a bright Christmas morning, from my seat in a church pew.

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  1. says

    Good stuff!

    Your point about the definition of “god” is part of my Proof of the Nonexistence of God..
    (Believers don’t care about defining “god”. That says that whatever it is that they allege they believe in doesn’t need a definition, which in turn shows that their belief is not the kind of thing that’s based on the observation of reality integrated and checked by rational thought. And so their belief in a “god” is floating, w/o ground.)
    (That doesn’t exactly prove <it is not the case that >, but it does show that the subject of that (inner) proposition is not well-defined (enough for the prop. to have content.)
    (and so in this sense, arguments about the existence of “god” are really about the state of Believers’ knowledge about “god”, rather than about hIS existence) is your observation of the nature of exo-mathematics truth.
    (The point of Epistemology is to guide our lives in reality. Thus truth in that context is simply that which is sufficient to decide action choices (not unfalsifiability). And so proof in the context requires only – as you say – what I call a kind of
    judicial truth (the preponderance of evidence for, & lack of it against ~= w/in a reasonable doubt.)

    Your “nonintervention[al]ist” god is close to the conception of our (US) Founding Fathers.

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