Kilroy Was Here
December 23, 2002
Arguments for Atheism
In Slate today, there is an interesting article called The Atheist Christmas Challenge - Can You Prove God Doesn't Exist? by Jim Holt.
Here is my attempt at illustrating three arguments for an atheist worldview.
As I'm sure has already been mentioned on the Fray, using a logical argument to prove a negative is impossible. At best, you can develop an argument that a hypothesis is improvable.
Therefore, an atheist has at least three routes to go to defend their hypothesis that God doesn't exist: the empirical route, the human nature route, and the pragmatically ethical route.
THE EMPIRICAL ROUTE
Under the empirical route, an atheist does not have to actually prove that God exists; he or she merely has to state that the evidence for God's existence does not rise to the level required for a rational being to assent to. It is up to those who believe in God's existence to provide that evidence and argue that it does meet those standards.
One can argue, as Russell does, that the best one can be is agnostic about belief in God. But using Russel's standard, one would have to be agnostic about any being. If you replace the word 'God' in Russel's argument with the word 'Santa Claus' or 'fairies', you would get similar results.
More difficult is the conflicting definitions of God. God, unlike Santa or fairies, has as many definitions about his/her/its existence as there are people. It is difficult for an atheist to put together any sort of empirical defense against the existence of God when theists keep changing their mind about what God is.
Which leads us to...
THE HUMAN NATURE ROUTE (also known as THE MEME ROUTE or THE LINGUISTIC ROUTE)
Under this argument, an atheist does not argue against the belief in God; rather the atheist argues that human beings are naturally prone to invent fanciful, imaginary constructs to explain their world. God, argues the atheist, is a very effective meme. As a side effect of human consciousness in the world, humans are very predisposed to constructing God or gods.
There seems to be plenty of evidence for this. Throughout history, every culture has developed these fanciful beings that they worship. Most people no longer believe in these beings and would argue against the existence of say, Zeus, or Odin, or Ananzi.
Since studies have shown that people who tend to have a belief in any higher being tend also to have better chances of survival of diseases, etc, an atheist could argue that human beings are evolutionarily predisposed to these types of beliefs.
An atheist can also attempt to give a cause to this hypothesis.
An atheist can argue that one of the essential elements, perhaps the essential element for human survival has been the development of language. Individual human beings have survived precisely because they have been able to co-ordinate (or even manipulate) others to act in their best interest. And as the saying goes, "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."
So when human beings are confronted with other factor that endanger their survival, such as the environment, or disease, they want to try and manipulate that factor directly, and they try to do so with the only tool they have, language.
Human beings give the environment and disease and any other event that they cannot control, a language in order to attempt to 'communicate' (read manipulate) with that event. And before you know it, you have the Tornado god, and the Sun god, and the Rain god, etc. Is your village still getting hit by tornados? Well then, you must not be talking to Tornados the right way. Try using this Tornado prayer.
Given that human beings have this tendency to construct these fanciful beings due to our innate linguistic nature, a rational person should discount any proposals for the existence of these fanciful beings without significant evidence to the contrary.
When the boy is always crying wolf, you're going to want to see some real hard evidence of wolf activity before you believe the boy.
THE PRAGMATIC ARGUMENT
Another route to supporting an atheist world view is the argument that 'God' is a concept that we have outgrown. At one point in human culture's history, God was a useful concept that assisted us with coping with the world at large. Sure it had some horrific side effects (such as Crusades and Inquisitions and such), but in the end, it was beneficial for most people to believe that the universe was somehow on their side and that they were part of a larger plan.
However, with the advent of science, the size of our population, the democratization and increased destructiveness of technology, and the increased virulence of religious thought, 'God' as a concept has ceased to be a net positive for humanity and become a liability.
Humanity needs to rid itself of this 'God' thing before the belief in 'God' and the desire for all others to believe in my 'God' destroys us all.
Kilroy Was Here
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