Hard Pills of Atheism
I recently wrote an article targeted at committed atheists who claim that Christians carry all the burden of proof. There, I pointed out that atheism is not a neutral position and is justified only if it, too, can provide answers for the hard questions of science and human experience. In this article, though, I’d like to offer something similar only targeted to the agnostic, who flirts with the idea that this universe may be devoid of a God after all. My intent is to get such persons to consider the impact that true atheism would logically have on their beliefs and values, and to consider whether this package deal sounds more reasonable than theism.
To commit to the rejection of God is a game-changer. Sure the sun would still rise in the morning, and life may go on as usual (if you have no active spiritual life). However, it would make a difference in your outlook on life and what you are justified to believe is true. Many unbelievers live on the borrowed capital of a Christian worldview, just as Christians do not always think consistently with their own worldview. Given that atheism removes all higher authority for truth beyond one’s own mind, atheism permits you to believe whatever you desire. However, that is different than saying what one chooses to believe is actually reasonable to believe.
While a godless universe permits a selective application of reason and consistency (for, what duty do godless creatures have to such principles?), most atheists take themselves to be the champions of reason. Indeed, reason is often the very justification given for their rejection of theism. For someone truly considering the road of atheism on a rational basis I’d like to offer some logical implications of embracing that worldview.
“What people cannot abide is the conviction that the Universe and life are pointless. Which is what really, science is telling us. Pointless in the sense that there is no externally imposed purpose or point in the Universe. As atheists, this is something that is manifestly true to us. We make our own meaning and purpose.”Jerry Coyne, biology professor, atheist
If there is no God, then there is no creator — there is no designer of the universe and of humans. We are all just accidents of nature with no purpose and destined to be forgotten in the depths of time. This means that as much as you might wish otherwise there is no meaning to this world, humanity, or your own individual life.
While it may be possible to base your life upon those things that give you pleasure (as much as the hard edges of life allows) this is not the same as the idea that there is a point to your existence. In a purposeless, material universe, where we are just chance byproducts of chemistry, there’s no sense in which your life counts for something, reason for your being, or purpose to live your life one way versus another. You’re just a biological creature, like any other, that is here for a brief time reacting to stimulus. When things do not go your way, there is no asking “why?”, it’s just the way the cards were dealt in a purposeless game.
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, atheist
Likewise, in a world without a higher power, there is no outside intervention into this world. This means that there is nothing guiding the course of events and nothing that can come to your aid. Just as it would then be meaningless to pray, you can’t ascribe purpose to anything that happens, good or bad. You could not say that anything was “meant to be” or that anything “happened for a reason.” As they say, “shit [just] happens.”
Additionally, where there is no designer or overseer, there is no one to whom you could credit for any beauty, wonder, or good fortune in life. There is no object for your gratitude; it’s all just dumb luck. Some who reject a personal God cannot rid themselves of the instinct to appeal to something higher. This is where they smuggle in substitutes like “the stars” or “the universe,” but this is either a placeholder for their vague idea of God or just hyperbole. Any idea of a universe that contains conscious, intentional power of this sort really doesn’t fit into an atheist framework.
“The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well. Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things as war, or abortion, or the violation of certain human rights, are ‘morally wrong,’ and they imagine that they have said something true and significant.”Richard Taylor, philosopher of ethics and metaphysics, atheist
In order for morality to be an objective thing, which applies to all persons no matter what they think about it, there has to be a moral law-giver that stands above humanity. If there is no God to author and ultimately enforce morality, then it’s essentially a human-construction. One might say it comes from government, or group consensus, or personal opinion, but any human convention can and will change over time, and there’s no sense of “improving” things if there’s no objective standard toward which to move. This means morality boils down to your personal preference for some things over others, and some goals over others. Gandhi had his goals and values, progressives have their, conservatives have theirs, and Islamic extremists have theirs. In a relativistic world there is nothing left but preferences and power plays.
This is one of the hardest pills to swallow, because we very much want to believe that our causes are just, that our enemies are wrong, and that our values are noble. Atheism threatens to cast all of that as a hollow conceit. It even removes the basis for making moral objections to theology, scripture, and religious practices. To reject God because He allowed the Holocaust also leaves you with no justification for calling it truly “evil.” This is why, even though most atheist philosophers have historically agreed with my point, many of the “new atheists” work very hard to deny it so that they can justify their moral positions. But there is no agreed upon grounding for morality and they will admit that an atheist is free to appeal to any ethical system he chooses, including relativism. Where all views of a thing are equally valid, the thing itself is effectively meaningless.
“The problem is that whatever attribute we use to differentiate between humans and animals — intelligence, language use, moral sentiments, and so on — will equally differentiate between human beings themselves. If people are more important to us than orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t more articulate people more important still? And what about those poor men and women with aphasia? It would seem that we have just excluded them from our moral community.”Sam Harris, neuroscientist, philosopher, atheist
Universal human rights presuppose that each of us has unique, intrinsic value. The Founding Fathers asserted that our rights were endowed by God, and Scripture claims it is His own image within us that makes us special. If you dispense with this idea, what standard do you use to ground human rights?
We are not equal by any measure one could offer, such as fitness, talent, race, or intelligence. Even grounding it in our mere humanity is arbitrary, since there is no higher standard that would favor humans over the rest of the biological world, and some animals are more fit or intelligent than young, elderly, or disabled humans. Animal rights activists understand this and traffic in this “speciesist” notion. They point out the blight of the human race’s impact on nature, and do not temper that with any belief in the special value of humanity.
The loss of intrinsic human value leads to creative redefinitions for personhood and rights which traffics in things like contribution to society and a life worth living. This road leads to infanticide for the unwanted, eugenics for the unfit, and euthanasia for the elderly. We saw these ideas on display in Nazi Germany as well as, to an extent, the US and other European countries. However, they have been making a comeback in an increasingly secular western culture that has forgotten its dark past. But what principle does atheism offer you to object to any of this beyond your instinctive revulsion?
“Do not underestimate the likelihood of artificial thinking machines. Humankind is arriving at the horizon of the birth of a new intelligent race. Whether or not this intelligence is ‘artificial’ does not detract from the issue that the new digital populace will deserve moral dignity and rights, and a new law to protect them.”Hutan Ashrafian, surgeon, atheist
With the rejection of God naturally comes the rejection of the spiritual realm in favor of a cosmos consisting only of matter, energy, and physics. This means there is no place for the idea of a “self” or “soul” that is distinct from the physical body. Our “mind” is then only a product of our physical brain. As some have characterized the brain, it is a “computer made of meat.”
It must then be concluded that what constitutes the mind is simply emergent properties of a sufficiently complex system. The prerequisite arrangement of matter may results in self-awareness, emotions, beliefs, intentions, and qualia. This means that the human mind is not unique, and may similarly be found or reproduced elsewhere. Other minds may well be found in random constructs in the universe, creatures on other planets, or other lifeforms on own planet, like the dolphin or even trees (why think it requires an animal-like brain?).
It also follows that we should, ourselves, be able to construct programs or machines that mimic the human mind. It’s pretty uncontroversial to claim that we can or will create things that act like humans (in at least particular ways), but the materialist conception of the mind suggests that such artificial intelligence could be every bit as self-aware as we are.
This has led some to conclude that AI robots must eventually be granted rights and personhood as full members of human society, and that they may even achieve a level of superiority over humans. A number of movies have traded on these themes, but often that leap from mere robot to self-aware machine (ironically) often comes as a result of some inexplicable event.
One of the main problems in all of this is that even if we create a system that mimics the outward behavior of a human, we could never, in principle, know what was going on inside of its “head” to confirm that it was a self-aware, feeling, and free creature. However, atheism give you no good reason to believe it could not be so.
“The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former.”Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist and philosopher, atheist
If our mind really is merely a projection of our brain this would mean that all our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors are the product of this biological computer and its environmental inputs. Your genes and your experiences make you who you are, and you effectively have no choice in the matter. There’s nothing that stands apart from your physical self that could facilitate anything like a free choice to overrule your “flesh” and act on higher principles. This would call many things into question that we instinctively believe.
The idea of guilt is the first casualty, since a person’s criminal or anti-social behavior could be said to be due to bad genetics and/or upbringing. For such unfortunate persons, who are merely victims of their circumstances, the ideas of punishment and justice hardly apply. These are replaced with rehabilitation, improving their lot, and, at worst, comfortably quarantining them from the rest of society. Such ideas can be seen in modern judicial philosophy.
The other end of this equation is that there’s no grounds for praise for those who do well in life. They are merely the heirs of good genes and good life circumstances. Such people are not virtuous or worthy of considering the principles and choices they made leading to their success — it is essentially manifest destiny. We see this idea played out by those who most strongly believe in “social justice” to level the field between life’s lottery winners and losers, without factoring in any good or bad free choices made by either parties.
The most corrosive thing of all is that in a mental landscape lacking freewill, even the nature of your beliefs is suspect. We like to think we have come to our ideas by way of unencumbered reason and choice, but what grounds do you have for this where you mental states are mere products of your biochemistry? Indeed, some scientists have sought to prove that there are some brains wired for belief in God. But where brains can be wired for any belief, they can likewise be wired for unbelief in God. If atheism is true, it undermines your justification for believing atheism or anything else.
“Science is an amazing, wonderful undertaking … But it has not revealed to us why the universe came into existence nor what preceded its birth in the Big Bang. Biological evolution has not brought us the slightest understanding of how the first living organisms emerged from inanimate matter … Neither does it explain … how consciousness arises in living things? Where do symbolic thinking and self-awareness come from? What is it that allows humans to understand the mysteries of biology, physics, mathematics, engineering and medicine? And what enables us to create great works of art, music, architecture and literature? Science is nowhere near to explaining these deep mysteries.”Amir D. Aczel, mathematician, agnostic
In a universe with no creator or divine intervention all facts, effects, and questions must, in principle, be answerable by way of mindless “scientific” forces and causes. There would be no outside forces to appeal to for bridging functional chasms or loading the dice for improbable events. All the mysteries of the universe would be the atheist’s to answer, and any unanswerable question would either be due to lack of knowledge or an incorrect model of nature. In any case, all proposed theories will favor a non-supernatural explanation, no matter how outlandish or counter-intuitive, because a commitment to atheism demands it.
There are many unanswered questions for science, many of which are in line with our current knowledge and represent details and refinements on current theories that have every hope of being solved. However, some mysteries are of a different category and have been the subject of exploration for decades and even centuries. Science thus far has only served to deepen the mysteries and eliminate proposed explanations. Theism comes with its own questions, but the path of atheism puts all these enigmas into your lap and requires you to live with these deep existential mysteries.
Here are some important examples:
- All empirical evidence tells us that this universe had a beginning. Where did it come from?
- The laws and constants of physics seems to be fine-tuned for order, complexity, and life. Did we just get lucky?
- Physicists and mathematicians often remark on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics to describe reality. Why does the universe come equipped with a language to describe itself?
- There is no evidence of life less complex than the modern bacteria, which is far too elaborate to produce from random chemistry. How did life come from raw chemistry?
- The evolution of new species requires the massive injection of information (genes), which is likened to paragraphs, pages, and chapters of text. This also seems to come in spurts (biological big bangs, like the Cambrian Explosion). What is the mechanism for regularly creating new information in the cell?
- Consciousness is a seemingly non-physical property of the brain, which neuroscientists and philosophers of the mind call the “hard problem.” How does matter become conscious?
- Quantum physics suggests that human observers have an impact on the particles they measure. How is it that the mind, a presumed product of physics, can have an influence on the state of physical matter?
Offering naturalistic solutions to these problems has caused some theorists to descend into science fiction-like explanations, which can be impossible to experimentally prove, in principle. For example: There is a metaverse that created our universe and an infinite number of others, and we are just the heirs of one of the lucky ones with the right combination of forces and constants. There is some principle of yet-to-be-discovered self-organization that inevitably creates life wherever conditions allow. Consciousness is a property of the universe that precedes matter. The universe created itself from a quantum singularity of future exhaustive knowledge.
Atheism requires you to simply accept that these questions will someday be answered, or that such explanations are true regardless of supporting evidence. Theism provides answers for these and many other of the most pressing questions of existence, but atheism requires some things to just be taken on faith.
Embracing atheism has consequences. Removing God from your life is not like removing a piece of furniture from your house. It’s more like replacing the foundation, which impacts anything that has been built upon it. I’ve discussed several important things that are affected, but many more could be offered, like beauty and the arts, logic, truth, and even the reliability of our senses. In fact, every area of thought and life are affected, or are at least fair game for deconstruction by the universal acid that is atheism.
Now, all this doesn’t mean that atheism is false, it only points to the true scope of atheism’s impact on your beliefs and values. Of course, as an atheist you are free to live in a state of mental inconsistency, since, as with meaning and morality, atheists have no obligation toward truth itself (whatever that even means within atheism), but then you cannot claim to be an atheist as a result of a commitment to truth and reason. This means that an intentional, rational embrace of atheism (assuming we have freewill to do so) is not solely the elimination of belief in God, but comes accompanied by a big handful of pills to swallow.