Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Why I’m an Atheist

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I wrote in my previous post that I was considering using this blog as a platform to do more than just reflect upon my readings, but to also reflect upon some broader questions that interest me. This post is the first of those. So, thinking about my previous post, and some responses to my remarks on faith-based Indian ethics, I’ve been provoked into thinking about about atheism. This post presents some of the reasons I’m an atheist (and why I think other people should be atheists too).

My starting point is to ask myself: why should I believe in a God or Gods? One reason could be that there is evidence for a God or Gods. What might count as such evidence? There certainly doesn’t seem any empirical evidence for the existence of a deity or any means of conducting tests that might prove their existence. Why then should I be more convinced in the existence of a deity than in ghosts, telepathy, magic, goblins, fairies, the existence of a soul, or the invisible man called Fred who lives in my garden & survives on sunlight?

One possibility is that the existence of a deity or deities is the best explanation for some phenomenon that we do know exists. Thus, we have arguments like Intelligent Design and the claim that the universe must have a creator. The problem is that these claim use the absence of scientific knowledge as proof that something non-scientific has occurred, which is a pretty strange form of argument. To say that so far non-one has figured out the answer to a particular puzzle means that therefore the puzzle must have been created by a god just seems odd. Imagine if that claim was made for an unsolved mathematical problem. Can’t figure it out? Then there must be a god. Why?

Now, as I’ve argued above – the absence of evidence for one thing doesn’t count as evidence for another. Therefore, it seems like I can’t rely upon the absence of evidence for the existence of God as evidence that God does not exist. However, one thing we can do is ask whether the existence of God is the most likely reason for a phenomenon that we are unsure about the origin of. Is the existence of God the most likely explanation for the existence of the universe? I’m not sure why it should be. In the history of previous mysteries of the universe, plenty seem to have been amenable to discovery as physical processes and none have yet been revealed to result from divine power.

These sorts of reasons for scepticism lead most religious people to fall back on faith. Divine power is simply not amenable to discovery or detection using any known means – it’s just a matter of faith. Now I’m willing to accept that this is possible, but I can’t figure out where it gets us. All we can say is that it’s possible that a God or Gods exists, but this doesn’t tell us anything about how we should behave, or provide any reasons for accepting the other baggage that seems to accompany religions – stories about creation, the idea of heaven and hell, sin, angels, devils, spirits, the home of the gods, souls, etc. etc.

Religious people tell us that their religion is the one true religion, and that the reason for believing this is a matter of faith, and that this faith is resistant to tests for truth. Furthermore, they all seem to tell us these things. So how can we decide which faith is more likely to be true? The answer is that we can’t, because faith is presented as an alternative to testability -there’s just no way of assessing whose faith is corresponds to truth.

Nor does it seem remotely plausible to move from the impossibility of proving that God does not exist, to any kind of religious doctrine – the existence of a creator is not a reason to worship a creator, or to believe that we have souls, or that we should adopt a certain moral code.

And this leads on to me to ask: if there’s no real reason to have faith in a particular deity, might there be reasons to follow the moral codes of particular religions? I think that there are reasons to adopt certain moral beliefs held by religions, but I’m unable to see how the fact that they are religious beliefs is in any way connected to why we should adopt those beliefs. One reason for this is that if your reasons for not murdering me are that you are frightened of the consequences (of going to Hell or prison), or because you have been ordered not to and you’re a loyal sort of person (i.e. it tells you not to in the Bible) then it doesn’t seem like you have moral reasons at all for not murdering me. In fact, it seems like you have given up your moral responsibility altogether.

There seems a whole world of difference between ‘I respect you for your own sake’ and ‘I respect you as an element of God’s creation’ or ‘I respect you because God instructs me to’ – the latter two examples provide only indirect reasons to respect you, and if one day my faith told me that God had become indifferent to you, I’d have no moral reason not to murder you. I find that pretty empty (and frightening) as a moral code.

As is drawn out in Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – if God wants us to treat others well is because treating others well is good, then goodness is a property that exists independently from God – and thus it is not God’s command that gives us a reason to be good. But, if treating others well is good because God wants us to treat others well, then it seems that the reason to treat others well is rather arbitrary – ‘because I tell you too’ is not a moral reason, it relies upon coercion.

So, I can’t see why I should believe in a God, nor can I see, even if it possible that God exists, why I should believe in any particular God described by the various religions, and nor can I see why the potential existence of a God can act as a reason to adopt a particular moral code or any other behavioural stricture. These are some of the main reasons that I am an atheist – I’d love to read your thoughts on the matter.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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