Why I Can’t Be An Atheist

Almost a year ago I started posting about my exploration of what I see as the strongest arguments for and against the existence of God, and I started writing these posts several months earlier than that. Almost half of the posts on my blog so far have been directed at this question. (And on top of that, apparently my average word count per post has been higher this year than last!) So it has been a fairly long project.

Looking back over all of the thoughts I’ve gathered, here is where I find myself: I cannot be an atheist.

I can imagine why someone might be an atheist. I can imagine how you might weigh the considerations differently so that atheism is reasonable, even. But for me, that is not an option. For me, the arguments for God’s existence substantially outweigh those against.

What I Have to Believe to be an Atheist

Here is what I would have to believe in order to be an atheist:

  • The principle of sufficient reason is false, and the fact that the universe seems to work like it is true is just one huge coincidence. Abductive and inductive reasoning is invalid, and most of our scientific reasoning is undermined.
  • There is ultimately no reason why the universe (or anything at all) exists, or is the way that it is.
  • There is no explanation for the finely-tuned structure of the physical universe, except perhaps for vastly improbable chance.
  • The existence of consciousness is inexplicable, and in fact, because of this, the connection between our experiences and any external reality becomes dubious.
  • There is no such thing as objective morality, no right or wrong. Morals are just subjective impressions foisted upon us by our evolutionary and cultural history, and we have no fundamental obligation to follow them.
  • There is no such thing as objective beauty. Any sense of the transcendent we have in the sight of something beautiful; any experience of awe and wonder at the world around us; is empty and illusory.
  • There is even no such thing as objective rationality, and it is dubious whether our ways of reasoning, even deductively, are capable of reliably producing truth.
  • In a universe void of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, with no teleology in our creation, living insignificant lives in the overall scheme of things, and universally destined for non-existence no matter what we do, life is ultimately without value, purpose, or meaning. (And we can pretend otherwise, but it doesn’t change the reality.)

In contrast, in exchange for the meaningfulness, explanatory coherence, and firm foundation that theism brings to one’s worldview, I only have to accept these tensions in order to be a theist:

  • I cannot fully understand why God would create a world containing evil and imperfection (though I can come up with some plausible reasons why he might do so, in general).
  • I cannot fully understand why God would not make more complete revelation of himself universally available, instead revealing himself in particular places and times in history and allowing many false religions and ideas about him to propagate (though again, I can come up with some plausible reasons why he might do so, in general).
  • I cannot fully understand how God has acted in regards to salvation, eternal life, and those who are excluded from that destiny (but logically, I see no barrier to things turning out in a way that accords with his goodness).

I could, perhaps, be accused of playing things up a little bit here for rhetorical effect. I am not saying that these conclusions are obvious and rationally compelling for everyone. I don’t think all atheists are inherently irrational. But at the end of the day, I do think they are mistaken. Under the light of the arguments for God’s existence, I find that atheism results in absurdity.

I admit haven’t spent as much time exploring and responding to the arguments against God’s existence on this blog as I would have liked to – there is much more that could be said (and has been said, elsewhere on the internet) regarding those subjects. And ideally, in a wrap-up post like this I would be including a quantitative assessment of the cumulative strengths of the reasons for and against belief in God, accounting for the degree of dependence or independence between the different arguments.

I will at least attempt to do that quantitative assessment, briefly, here. (“Briefly.” Ha.)

Quantifying Belief

In the comments on a post a few weeks back, one gentleman (who his own blog worthy of reading) suggested a high-level categorization of the arguments for and against God’s existence, and I think it is a good way of looking at things:

  • Argument from Reality: theism is the best way to explain some fundamental features of reality (encompassing the cosmological, teleological, noetic, and axiological arguments).
  • Argument from Imperfection: atheism better explains the fact that reality is full of imperfection (encompassing the problem of non-god objects, the problem of evil, and dysteleological arguments).
  • Argument from Revelation: theism is supported by experiences of God and the evidence of God’s actions in history (encompassing the epistemological and historical arguments).
  • Argument from Indifference: atheism better explains the apparent indifference of religious revelation (encompassing the problem of divine hiddenness, the problems of religious pluralism and religious disagreement, and the problem of exclusivity).

The argument from imperfection is paired against the argument from reality, and the argument from indifference is paired against the argument from revelation. (One further category, which I’m not going to consider in this analysis due to the difficulty of casting them as abductive arguments, would have the ontological argument on the side of theism, and contradictions in the concept of God on the side of atheism.)

Now what I want to do is run a Bayesian analysis of the odds for theism over atheism, considering each of these arguments in turn: reality (R1), imperfection (I1), revelation (R2), and indifference (I2). Using the odds-ratio form of Bayes’ theorem, and iterative use of the fact that P(A & B) = P(A|B)*P(B):

\frac{P(G|R1,I1,R2,I2)}{P(\sim G|R1,I1,R2,I2)}=\frac{P(I2|G,R1,I1,R2)}{P(I2|\sim G,R1,I1,R2)} \times \frac{P(R2|G,R1,I1)}{P(R2|\sim G,R1,I1)} \times \frac{P(I1|G,R1)}{P(I1|\sim G,R1)} \times \frac{P(R1|G)}{P(R1|\sim G)} \times \frac{P(G)}{P(\sim G)}

To make estimating these probabilities a more reasonable task, I am considering them all to be conditional on some level of background knowledge which frees us from having to consider the probabilities of many irrelevant specific contingent data about the world. In this way the focus can be on whether each worldview in consideration (theism or atheism) has the resources to explain the high-level facts we are interested in.

Even with that, it is hard to pin down some of these numbers, so I will actually model them as a distribution of probabilities. More on that below.

P(G)/P(~G):

First, I think it is fair to consider the prior odds of theism (and atheism) to be one to one, or approximately so. I mentioned Paul Draper’s “low priors” argument a few posts ago, but as I said then, I don’t think it is successful. The intrinsically symmetric alternatives that he considers, “source physicalism” and “source idealism,” both need to be further specified to account for the full range of data. And I see no reason to think that theism must be further specified from source idealism than a viable form of atheism must be from source physicalism.

So P(G)/P(~G) = 1.

P(R1|G):

Now, does the existence of God provide a solid ground for the fundamental features of reality (e.g. existence, appearance of design, consciousness, objective value) that need to be explained? Without considering any of the imperfections in reality – that is the next argument, not this one – I would say the answer is a solid yes. So I will set P(R1|G) = 1.

P(R1|~G):

The argument from reality is atheism’s weak point, in my mind. In order to explain these fundamental features of reality, it faces all the difficulties that I raised above. (And I’m trying to stick to the rational difficulties, but there are serious existential difficulties as well.) My initial impulse is to rate this probability no higher than 0.01, with 0.001 being closer to what I would put it at on most days. Just the failure of the PSR alone, I think, is worth putting it below 0.01.

That is probably a bit extreme, so I will ease off by a factor of 2 and say P(R1|~G) = 0.002 to 0.02. (Median value 0.006.)

P(I1|G,R1):

Of the considerations that could go under the argument from imperfection, I have only specifically addressed the problem of evil on this blog. But the others, the problem of non-god objects (why would God, a perfect being, create anything at all?) and dysteleological arguments (why would God create things that appear poorly designed?) do not add much weight to it, honestly. And given what I think are good responses to the problem of evil, I don’t think this probability needs to be much lower than 0.5.

But recognizing that the argument from imperfection does cause some tension for theism, I will estimate P(I1|G) = 0.1 to 0.4. (Median value 0.21.)

P(I1|~G,R1):

Assuming atheism could overcome the argument from reality, can it explain all the imperfections and evils that we see? Yes, completely. P(I1|~G) = 1.

P(R2|G,R1,I1):

The question here is whether it makes sense for God to provide some revelation of himself and whether theism can account for the kind of examples of revelation that we see. I think the answer is yes, in general, and that this probability is pretty close to 1. To make things simpler, any doubt about this can be transferred to a boost to the next probability. So P(R2|G) = 1.

P(R2|~G,R1,I1):

For me, this probability would be pretty close to 1 (making the argument from revelation quite weak) if it were not for the events surrounding Jesus’ death and the origin of Christianity. I do think atheism has difficulty explaining the evidence that we have for what happened there.

Nevertheless, assessing the argument for the resurrection is a complicated matter, and I am fairly uncertain about just how much force it has. My initial thought is to put this probability anywhere from 0.01 to 0.5. To offset the value of 1 given to the corresponding probability on theism, I will set P(R2|~G) = 0.05 to 0.6. (Median value 0.22.)

(*Note: in an earlier version of this post, I instead set P(R2|~G) at 0.15 to 0.75, wanting to be generous to the other side. But upon later reflection, I felt this really underrepresented my assessment of the strength of the evidence, even taking my uncertainty about that into account. With the original numbers, the median value for my overall probability for God’s existence was about 91.5% instead of 95.3%.)

P(I2|G,R1,I1,R2):

The question that theism has to face now is why God’s revelation of himself is apparently so ineffective and localized. Why would God not make his existence more obvious? Why is there so much religious confusion? How could God leave people in this state of uncertainty, and then condemn them to hell?

The kinds of considerations that I have raised in response to these things in that past few posts go a ways to reducing the tension that the argument from indifference brings to theism – but I find it more difficult to overcome than the argument from imperfection. Let us say that P(I2|G) = 0.05 to 0.3. (Median value 0.13.)

P(I2|~G,R1,I1,R2):

Finally, can atheism explain the apparent indifference of religious revelation? Again, it can do so perfectly. P(I2|~G) = 1.

For each of the four probabilities with a range of values, I have modelled them using a logit-normal distribution with the upper and lower values listed above set to the 10th and 90th percentiles. These are what the distributions look like:

 

subjective distributions

And once these random values are put into the Bayesian equation, and the result converted into a distribution for the posterior probability that God exists (using 10,000 sets of randomly generated numbers to estimate the distribution), this is what I end up with:

subjective distribution output smoothed

This ranges from 82% at the 10th percentile to 98.8% at the 90th percentile, with a median probability of 95.3%. (An equal probability for theism and atheism, at 50%, is down below the 1st percentile in this distribution.)

So, there you have it. Given how I’ve weighted the above arguments, I should on average be a bit more than 95% confident that God exists.

Faith and Reason

This value (or distribution of values) represents an assessment of the strength of the rational justification for belief in God. Obviously, it is a product of several subjective judgements, and different people could weight the arguments differently and get a different number out as a result. On a different day, I myself might feel that different numbers are more appropriate than the ones I have given here. So this number shouldn’t really be thought of as any kind of precise determination of my level of belief in God.

But even more than that, while rationality is extremely important, at the end of the day I have to admit that it isn’t the only consideration that goes into forming one’s beliefs. There are existential considerations as well: considerations about finding meaning and purpose in our lives, and about how our beliefs are going to impact the way we live. So while I definitely think that there are good reasons to believe in God – 95% isn’t insignificant, after all – there is more than that. And the meaning and purpose of life that I find in the theistic worldview draws me, essentially, to commit to what I see as the truth.

The existence of God is too important, and the implications too far-reaching, for it to be practical to be indefinitely weighting the reasons for and against theism, holding that left tail of the distribution in mind and wondering if it will change. This gets back to something I wrote about at the very beginning of my blog: we need critical thinking, but we also need epistemic faith. When we see good reasons to accept a belief – as I see good reasons to believe in God – we should trust that, and not linger in unnecessary skepticism.

Basically, what I am saying is that I am willing to take that last 5% on faith, and I think it is proper to do so. I will trust what I have good reason to believe.

This does not mean that I think I should seal up the issue of belief in God and never subject it to scrutiny again. If something comes up that makes me think about how I’ve weighed the evidence, or if I come across some new consideration that could affect the balance, I am willing to take a look at it. (Granted, given the scope of my exploration of this issue so far, I admit that I find it unlikely that something will ever impact my belief so much as to make me change my mind. But I want those who disagree with me to be open to changing their mind, so I should probably exhibit the same attitude!)

So, that is why I am not an atheist. In my next post, I will write a little bit more on why I believe that Christianity, specifically, is true.

The Problem of Exclusivity

In my previous post, I argued that the problem of religious pluralism (that the diversity of the world’s religions makes it unlikely for a non-pluralist religion like Christianity to be true) is derivative: the strength of this argument borrows its strength from the problem of divine hiddenness (that the widespread unbelief in God’s existence is improbable, if God really did exist).

Specifically, I concluded that the following ratio, measuring the strength of the problem of religious pluralism, is the same magnitude as the probability that God would choose to remain hidden:

\frac{P(G|E,K)}{P(\sim G|E,K)} \simeq P(H|G,K)

(Where G is the hypothesis that the Christian God exists, E is the fact of religious diversity in the world, H is the hypothesis that God chooses to remain hidden to some degree, and K is our background knowledge.)

This means that the problem of religious pluralism is only as good as the problem of divine hiddenness – and moreover, it isn’t independent of it. And the considerations that I brought up two posts ago, when I wrote about the problem of divine hiddenness, basically amount to reasons to think that P(H|G,K) may not be that low after all. (The relationship between the two problems also means that as long as there is value for God in allowing religious diversity – say, because the existence of contrasting viewpoints ultimately clarifies the truth in the long run – that adds further reason for God to remain partially hidden.)

There is one issue relevant to both of these problems that I haven’t addressed yet. What overriding reasons could God have to remain hidden, and allow religious diversity, if having certain correct beliefs about God is essential for salvation and eternal life?

That is, we can suppose that many of the reasons for God to allow non-belief (which come down to “more and better relationships in the long run”) are ultimately rooted in people eventually being able to receive eternal life and experience the greatest possible good. But if people are excluded from eternal life unless they accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour in this mortal life – in order to do which, they must believe that he exists – how can any of those reasons override the motivation for God to ensure belief? How can a loving God deny the opportunity for eternal life to so many people?

This is the problem of exclusivity in a nutshell. And to my mind it is the most significant problem underlying both the problem of divine hiddenness and the problem of religious pluralism.

The Fate of the Unevangelized

One of the core claims of Christianity is that eternal life is available through the work of Jesus Christ alone. The problem of exclusivity cuts particularly hard against Christianity if this means that only through conscious faith in Jesus Christ can someone be saved. This is definitely the stance that some Christians take, and arguably, it was at least a kind of “working assumption” for the apostles in the early church:

“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” – the Apostle Paul, Romans 10:13-14

But if you were to ask Paul whether he meant that salvation was so exclusive that it’s only those who have heard someone preach about Jesus who even have a chance, I think he might point to what he wrote just a few verses later in that chapter:

“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” – the Apostle Paul, Romans 10:18, quoting Psalm 19:4

(“Their voice” in Psalm 19:4, which Paul quotes here, is referring to the way that God’s glory is revealed in what he has made, available for all to see.)

Here Paul seems to suggest that people can come to have the appropriate kind of faith to be in a right relationship with God, without having the particular knowledge of what Jesus has done. We have examples in the Old Testament of figures like Melchizedek and Job, who are portrayed as righteous, even though they are outside of God’s covenant with his people. And the Bible never affirms the notion that people are judged simply for not having heard of Jesus – rather, God judges us on the basis of what we have done with the knowledge and ability that he has given us. (This, I take it, is part of what Paul is saying in Romans 2:12-16 and Romans 5:13, for example.)

So there is room within Christian belief for at least a moderately inclusivist position: the idea that the salvation which is made possible by Jesus is accessible by having an appropriate kind of faith in God, and that this faith may not require conscious knowledge of what Jesus has done. God gives grace sufficient so that salvation and eternal life are available to all.

However, there is a little more that the problem of exclusivity can say against Christian belief. Evangelism is a central part of Christianity. (I must admit it is far more central than I act as if it is, to my shame.) Presumably this indicates that in some way, hearing the gospel gives a person a better chance of developing the right kind of faith in God by which they can be saved – otherwise the motivation for evangelism would not be as great. How then is it fair that God does not give this opportunity – the opportunity to hear the gospel – to everyone?

The concern here is that there are some people who never hear the gospel and are forever lost, failing to gain eternal life – but who would have been saved if only they had heard the gospel. On the face it seems very probable that if there is anyone who never hears the gospel, then surely some of these people would have been saved had they heard it. And then it seems that the eternal damnation that these people suffer is just a result of the various historical and geographical contingencies which led to the fact that they never heard the gospel.

I say that this concern seems very probable on the face, but the truth is that here we are again faced with epistemic limitations that make it difficult to assess the probability this claim. We cannot see inside people’s hearts and minds – often I think we have trouble discerning what is going on in the depths of our own hearts – and it is even harder to see what would be inside people’s hearts and minds were they to be in a different situation. So we have no direct ability to verify this claim. But then we can only indirectly assess it, by inferences and assumptions.

And an implicit assumption behind an assessment of high probability for this concern is a kind of inductive presumption of uniformity. It is the idea that if in one group of people a certain portion have a certain trait, then in a similar group of people we should expect a similar portion to have that trait. Since there are people who grew up without hearing the gospel who then do accept it upon hearing it, we expect that there should be people in groups who have never heard the gospel who would accept it upon hearing it.

Here now is the flaw in this concern. This kind of reasoning is powerful and very often valid – we use it all the time in everyday life and in science – but it is liable to not properly account for occurrences and circumstances that are intricately tied up with God’s providence over history. If there are reasons for God to choose some degree of hiddenness (such as those I explored a few blog posts ago), there is a way God can “have his cake and eat it too:” God can create a world in which he remains hidden, yet there are still no accidents of history or geography leading to people being lost who would otherwise have been saved.

Let me try to clarify what I mean. First, I am suggesting that people are able to enter into a right relationship with God without having heard of Jesus Christ (even though what Jesus did is ultimately necessary for that relationship to be possible). And second, I am then suggesting that, through his foreknowledge, God has arranged the world in such a way that there simply are no people who are “accidentally” lost – people who are lost, but who would have been saved if only God had put them in circumstances where they had heard the gospel.

On this proposal, someone who is lost without hearing gospel is lost not because they did not hear about Jesus, but because they failed to enter into a right relationship with God – something which was possible for them to do. And moreover, it happens that even if they had heard the gospel, they still would not have entered into a right relationship with God, and so the fact that they are lost cannot be chalked up to historical or geographical accident. And the reason why God would create the world in this way is simply that he is too good to create people without the possibility of salvation, and too good to create anyone whose failure to be saved is so circumstantial.

This suggestion basically follows what William Lane Craig propounds (for example, in this article; for a more nuanced possibility see Kirk MacGregor’s article here; and I think there is room for even more nuance and depth in that analysis, if there are any aspiring theologians or philosophers of religion reading this). If this suggestion is reasonably plausible on the assumption that God exists – and because of God’s goodness and the reasons he may have for remaining hidden, I think it is plausible – then it goes a ways towards removing the overriding reason against the plausibility of God’s remaining hidden.

Another possibility that gets around the concern about the fate of the unevangelized is that there simply are no people who never hear the gospel, because anyone who never had an appropriate chance to respond to God in this mortal life is given a chance in the afterlife. Some Christians believe that this is hinted at in 1 Peter 3:19, for example. (I am somewhat doubtful that this is the intended meaning of that verse, but see here for an article laying out this possibility.) Again, the reason that God would do this is rooted in his goodness, and if this suggestion is plausible, it eases the problem of exclusivity.

The Fate of the Lost

There is one more objection to Christian belief that is relevant for this post. That, of course, is what may be called the problem of hell.

The traditional belief within Christianity is that everyone who fails to receive eternal life – everyone who is excluded from experiencing the ultimate good – instead ends up in hell for eternity, in an unending state of suffering. And the horror of this idea provokes the question, how can this be good? How can a loving God subject any of his creatures to such a destiny?

There are a couple of things that I would say in brief response to that.

The first is that it is quite reasonable to think that not everyone can be saved. In order for heaven to be what it is – an eternity of experiencing the ultimate good of perfect relationship with God and with everyone else – the saved in heaven need to go on making the right choices, to maintain that state of perfection instead of marring it, and they need to go on making those choices forever. Nobody besides God knows perfectly how to make the right choices, so in order to enjoy heaven, one must submit to God’s will. There is no getting round that. And for the relationship with God to be fully good, it must be entered into freely, so God cannot force the kind of submission to him that the enjoyment of heaven requires.

But this means that anyone who will not freely submit to God ultimately cannot join the ranks of heaven, basically out of logical necessity. This makes it extremely plausible that universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved, is false. But then something has to be done with the people who are not saved. (Just what that something is, I will get to in a moment.)

The second thing is that the exercise of punishment, as an act of retributive justice against wrongdoing, arguably flows out of God’s goodness and is in no way contrary to it. It is an aspect of God’s goodness that he punishes evil. And despite what most everyone would say at this point – that they haven’t done anything so evil as to deserve eternal torment as punishment – the fact is that we tend to minimize and ignore the extent of our wrongdoing. We hurt others more than we admit. We do worse than we often recognize in hindsight, after we have edited our accounts with excuses. We transgress against the perfect goodness of God.

So much of the problem of evil is really the problem of our evil. This is not to say that humans are all bad all the time, but it is not a tenet of Christianity that humans are “basically good.” Our God-given potential can be used for both good and evil, and often and unfortunately, we use it for evil. God offers mercy, but if that mercy is spurned, his punishment, his justice, is not wrong. It is a righting of wrongs.

The third point is that the traditional Christian teaching of eternal conscious torment may not, in fact, be correct. There are Christians who hold that the suffering of hell is simply the miserableness of existence apart from God and the joys of heaven. (C.S. Lewis vividly depicts something along these lines in his work The Great Divorce.) And the folks at Rethinking Hell, among other places, make a good case that what the Bible actually teaches is annihilationism (also known as conditionalism or conditional immortality), which says that the ultimate fate of the lost is cessation of existence. If eternal conscious torment is incompatible with God’s goodness, that may just be a strike against that doctrine, not against the existence of God.

I won’t go any further into those in-house debates in this post. But my point is, when it comes to the fate of the lost, we can trust that God will act in a way that accords with his goodness and justice, whichever that way may be. (That trust is on the basis of our reasons for thinking that God is good in the first place; coming from the moral and ontological arguments in natural theology; from religious experiences; and from the teachings of Jesus and scripture via the argument from the resurrection.)

Conclusion

The responses I have given to the problem of exclusivity (and along with it, to the problems of religious pluralism and divine hiddenness) are admittedly speculative. But like my responses to the other atheistic arguments in the last three posts, I think they are sufficient to noticeably diminish the strength of this problem. Given these considerations, I do not think we can claim with confidence that the particularity of Christian belief is an overriding reason against God’s remaining hidden and allowing the religious diversity that we see.