Introduction – Atheism – the lack of belief in gods – is based upon a lack of evidence for gods, lack of a reason to believe in gods, and difficulties and contradictions that some god ideas lead to.
Nevertheless, atheism is a tentative state, subject to change if compelling theistic arguments are presented.
Following are some of the arguments that atheists have considered, along with some of the reasons these arguments have been rejected.
(1) God-of-the-Gaps (God as a “free lunch”) – Almost every “proof” for the existence of gods relies, at least in part, on a god-of-the gaps argument. This argument says that if we don’t know the answer to something, then “God did it.” “God” gets to win by default, without any positive evidence. But is saying “God did it” really an answer?
Intelligent design, god-advocate William Dembski has authored a book entitled No Free Lunch. However, “God” is the ultimate “free lunch.” Consider the following:
We don’t know what gods are composed of.
We don’t know what gods’ attributes are.
We don’t know how many gods there are.
We don’t know where gods are.
We don’t know where gods come from or, alternately, how it is possible for them to always exist.
We don’t know what mechanisms gods use to create or change anything.
We don’t know what the “supernatural” is, nor how it is capable of interacting with the natural world.
In other words, we know absolutely nothing about gods – yet at least one god is often given credit for many things. Thus, to say “God did it” is to answer a question with a question. It provides no information and only makes the original question more complex.
The god-of-the-gaps argument says that not only do we not have a naturalistic answer today, but we will never discover a naturalistic answer in the future because no naturalistic answer is possible. Thus, to rebut a god-of-the-gaps argument, we only have to show that a naturalistic answer is possible.
For example: We open the door to a room and observe a cat sleeping in a corner. We close the door, then open it again five minutes later. We observe that the cat is now sleeping in another corner. One person says “God did it by levitating the sleeping cat” (without offering any proof). Another person says “It’s quite possible that the cat woke up, wandered over to the other corner, and fell asleep again.” Thus, although no one saw what actually happened, the god-of-the-gaps argument has been rendered implausible by a possible naturalistic explanation.
(2) Leaps of Faith – The fact is, no one even knows if it’s possible for gods to exist. Just because we can imagine something doesn’t mean it’s possible. For example, we can all imagine ourselves walking through a solid wall, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible. So, just because we can imagine a god, doesn’t mean its existence is actually possible.
Because there is no direct proof for the existence of any gods, a typical believer must make at least nine leaps of faith to arrive at the god they believe in. These are separate leaps of faith because one leap does not imply the next leap.
The first leap of faith is that a supernatural realm even exists.
Second, that beings of some sort exist in this realm.
Third, that these beings have consciousness.
Fourth, that at least one of these beings is eternal.
Fifth, that this being is capable of creating something from nothing.
Sixth, that this being is capable of interfering with the universe after it is created (i.e. miracles).
Seventh, eighth, and ninth, that this being is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.
If people want to believe in a god more specific to a particular religion, then some additional leaps of faith are necessary.
So, when we speak about gods, we have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about (see unconvincing argument #1), and we have to make at least nine leaps of faith to get to the god most people believe in.
(3) Holy Books – Just because something is written down does not make it true. This goes for the Bible, the Qur’an, and any other holy book. It is circular reasoning to try to prove the god of a holy book exists by using the holy book itself as “evidence.”
People who believe the holy book of one religion usually disbelieve the holy books of other religions.
(4) The Argument from Historical Settings – This argument states that because historical people and places are mentioned in ancient stories, that everything else about those stories, including descriptions of supernatural events, must be true. By this argument, everything written in the Iliad, including the intervention of the ancient Greek gods, must be true.
(5) “Revelations” of Others – All religions claim to be revealed, usually through people called “prophets.” But how can we know that a “revelation” is actually a “message from a god” and not a hallucination?
A revelation is a personal experience. Even if a revelation really did come from a god, there is no way we could prove it.
People of one religion usually disbelieve the revelations of other religions. These revelations often contradict each other, so what basis do we have for deciding which are the “true revelations”?
(6) “Revelations” of One’s Own (Personal Testimony,
Feelings, “Open Heart”) – This is when you are personally having the revelation or feeling that a god exists. Though you may be sincere, and even if a god really does exist, a feeling is not proof, either for you or for someone else.
It will do no good to ask atheists to “open our hearts and accept Jesus” (or any other deity). If we were to set aside our skepticism, we might indeed have an inspirational experience. But this would be an emotional experience and we’d have no way to verify if a god was really speaking to us or if we were just hallucinating.
Many atheists have stories of how wonderful it felt to lose their belief in gods. As with religion, this is not proof that atheism is true.
(7) Most People Believe in God – It’s true that throughout history, most people have believed in at least one god. But mere popularity doesn’t make something true. (Most people used to mistakenly believe that the Earth was the center of the universe.)
The number of atheists in the world is currently increasing. We can imagine a day when most people are atheists. (In fact, most of the top scientists in the U.S. already are atheists.) However, as with religion, the popularity of atheism will not be able to be used as proof of its truth.
Even today, it is probable that in England and France atheists outnumber theists. Does this mean that God exists everywhere except in those two countries?
(8) Evolution Would Not Favor a False Belief – Would evolution reward a species incapable of perceiving reality? Would evolution reward a species that hallucinated? If not, then a god must exist, according to this argument.
However, evolution does not reward what is true. Evolution rewards that which is useful.
No one can doubt that religion and god-belief have sometimes been useful. “God” can be employed like Santa Claus, to keep people behaving well in order to earn a reward. “God” can also be used to justify horrible behavior that benefits your group, such as Islamic suicide bombings or the Christian Crusades. “God” can reduce your fear of death.
Nevertheless, in an age of nuclear weapons, the dangers of god belief far outweigh its usefulness.
(9) The “God Part” of the Brain – Some religious people argue that a god must exist, or why else would we have a part of our brain that can “recognize” a god? What use would that part of our brain be otherwise?
However, imagination is important for us to be able to predict the future, and thus aids in our survival. We can imagine all kinds of things that aren’t true. It is a byproduct of being able to imagine things that might be true.
As a matter of fact, scientists have begun to study why some people have religious beliefs and others don’t, from a biological perspective. They have identified certain naturally occurring chemicals in our brains that can give us religious experiences. For example, the brain chemical dopamine increases the likelihood that we will “see” patterns where there are none.
In studies of religion and the brain, a new field called neurotheology, they have identified the temporal lobe as a place in the brain that can generate religious experiences.
Another part of the brain, which regulates a person’s sense of “self,” can be consciously shut down during meditation, giving the meditator (who loses his or her sense of personal boundaries) a feeling of “oneness” with the universe.
(10) Ancient “Miracles” & Resurrection Stories – Many religions have miracle stories. And, just as people who believe in one religion are usually skeptical towards miracle stories of other religions, atheists are skeptical toward all miracle stories.
Extraordinary events can become exaggerated and grow into miraculous legends. Good magicians can perform acts that seem like miracles. Things can be mismeasured and misinterpreted. Many things that seemed like “miracles” in the ancient world can be explained with modern knowledge.
Regarding resurrections, atheists will not find a story of someone resurrecting from the dead to be convincing. There are many such legends in ancient literature and, again, most religious people reject the resurrection stories of other religions.
Many religions reports that their god(s) performed obvious, spectacular miracles thousands of years ago. Why have these miracles stopped? Is it because the gods have become shy? Or is it because science started?
(11) Modern Medical “Miracles” & Resurrection Stories – Modern medical “miracles” are a good example of “god-of-the-gaps.” A person experiences a cure for a disease that science can’t explain. Therefore, “God did it.” God never has to prove himself in these arguments. It is always assumed that he gets to win by default.
But this argument assumes we know everything about the human body, so that a natural explanation is impossible. But the fact is, we don’t have complete medical knowledge. Why don’t we ever see something that would be a true miracle, like an amputated arm instantaneously regenerating?
Several studies of prayer, where the patients didn’t know whether or not they were being prayed for, including a study by the Mayo Clinic, have shown prayer to have no effect on healing.
(This raises the question of why we would have to beg an all-powerful, all-loving god to be healed in the first place. It seems ironic, to say the least, to pray to a loving god to be cured from diseases and the effects of natural disasters that he himself created. It also raises the Problem of Evil: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does evil exist in the first place?)
Modern resurrection stories always seem to occur in Third World countries under unscientific conditions. However, there have been thousands of people in modern hospitals hooked up to machines that verified their deaths when they died. Why didn’t any of them ever resurrect?
(12) “Heaven” (Fear of Death) – Atheists don’t like the fact that we’re all going to die any more than religious people do. However, this fear does not prove there is an afterlife – only that we wish there was an afterlife. But wishing doesn’t make it so.
There is no evidence for a god, no evidence that he created any place for us to go after we die, no explanation as to exactly what that place is composed of, nor where it is, nor how a god created it from nothing.
There is no evidence for a soul, no description of what a soul is composed of, and no explanation of how a non-material soul evolved in a material body, or, alternately, no explanation of how or when a god zaps a soul into a body.
If a fertilized human egg has a soul, what happens if that egg splits in two to form identical twins? Does each twin have half a soul? Or did the original fertilized egg have two souls?
What about when the opposite happens, when two fertilized eggs fuse to form one human being, creating what is known as a chimera? Does that person have two souls? Or did each original fertilized egg have only half a soul?
If a one-week-old baby dies, what kind of thoughts will it have in an afterlife? The thoughts of a one-week-old, which are zero? The thoughts of an adult? If so, how will that happen? Where will those thoughts come from and what will they be?
There is no reason to believe our consciousness survives the death of our brains. The mind is not something separate from the body.
For example, we know the chemicals responsible for the feeling of love. Drugs can alter our mood, and thus change our thoughts. Physical damage to our brains can change our personalities, and our thoughts. And learning a new skill, which involves thinking, can physically change the structure of our brains.
Some people get Alzheimer’s disease at the end of their lives. The irreversible damage to their brains can be detected by brain scans. These people lose their ability to think, yet they are still alive. How, one second after these people die, does their thinking return (in a “soul”)?
If people had to choose between a god and an afterlife, most people would choose the afterlife and forget about God. They only choose god belief because it’s the only way they know of to fulfill their desire for an afterlife. [Thanks to Edward Tabash for this point.]