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 Evil and Suffering

My last post looked briefly at the problem of divine hiddenness. That problem, to me, is one of the two strongest reasons to disbelieve that God exists. The second of those two reasons is the problem of evil and suffering. It is the question, “If God exists, why is there so much wrong with the world? Why is there so much pain?”

One way to logically formulate the problem goes like this:

  • If God exists, then he is all-good and all-powerful.
  • If God is all-powerful, he creates whichever world he prefers.
  • If God is all-good, then he prefers a world with less evil and suffering than our own.
  • But the evil and suffering of our own world do exist.
  • Therefore, God did not create a world with less evil and suffering than our own.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

Based on considerations such as the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the axiological argument, I accept the first premise. The fourth premise is true by definition. And the intuitive plausibility of the second and third premises is what gives the problem of evil its intellectual force. Pain and suffering are intrinsically less preferable than their absence, making worlds with less of it better in some respect than worlds with more of it. And it certainly seems like God should prefer better worlds, and be able to create them.

“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Then whence evil?” – David Hume

Nevertheless, I think there are consideration which should lead us to doubt these crucial two premises of the problem of evil. Contra Hume, many philosophers have answered Epicurus: God is able to prevent evil, and he does not will it to occur – but he can have good reasons to allow it in the world the he creates.

See here and here for two animated videos on the problem of evil and suffering, which cover the topic pretty well in a short format.

The Second Premise

The second premise is that if God is all-powerful, then he can and will create whatever world he wants. There is one important consideration that gives good reason to reject this premise: the possibility of free will.

If God chooses to give genuine free will to his creatures – and there is significant value in him doing so, since, I would argue, it is what makes real loving relationships with and between his creatures possible – then God actually cannot just create whatever world he most wants to exist. In creating human beings with free will, God allows us to be co-actualizers of his reality. He can only create a world in which we make certain free choices if those are the choices that we would freely make.

To put it another way, if God prefers that we choose A, but we instead choose B, then he can only create the reality where we choose A by removing our free will. By allowing us to make free choices, some possibilities are closed off to God. This says nothing to undermine his omnipotence, but it does overturn the intuitive justification for the second premise.

The Third Premise

The more powerful objection to the problem of evil, however, is to reject the third premise on the grounds that God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil and suffering to occur. Free will comes into play here in a significant way as well: it is often put forward that God allows evil because he wants to allow free, morally significant choices to occur, and sometimes such choices result in evil. And he wants free, morally significant choices to occur because they are a necessary condition of loving personal relationships with his creatures, and for his creatures to undergo the moral growth that is necessary for them to experience perfect happiness.

Sometimes philosophers discuss a difference between moral evil and natural evil, the former being the result of free choices by moral agents (such as one person murdering another), and the latter being suffering that does not result from any such choice (such as an animal dying in a forest fire caused by a lightning strike). It is harder to see how natural evil could be justified by the consideration of free will, in addition to moral evil, but in fact I think it can be done.

Natural evil happens because the laws of nature operate in a certain consistent way, and God does not constantly intervene in the natural order that he has created to prevent such evils from occurring. But the fact that he does not constantly intervene actually serves as one of the conditions which makes our free will significant. The existence of consistent natural world enables us to reasonably predict what the consequences of our free choices will be, and provides us with opportunities to choose good over evil that we would not otherwise have.

Moreover, I would argue there is a kind of beauty in the natural world that would be diminished if it were constantly disrupted by God to prevent every kind of pain and suffering. We also have to consider that not all pain and suffering is completely bad: it is an intrinsic part of diverse ecosystems, it can serve to prevent further harm, and it can actually draw people closer to God. From a Christian perspective, there are verses in the Bible indicating God’s approval of the natural world, complete with instances of apparent evil (such as predation).

So those are some reasons why God might permit evil to occur. Here is another article giving another set of goods which may require allowing evil in order to be realized. I think these are worth mentioning:

  • As I have already said, a knowable natural world providing an arena for morally significant free choices is a great good. And there is aesthetic value in the order of the natural world itself.
  • Being able to form our own character in response to evil and suffering is good. Such character growth, in fact, may be the only way for finite created beings to fully enter into a relationship with God and experience perfect happiness.
  • The existence of evil and suffering allows God’s redemptive response to that evil and suffering, which is very good. More generally, I think true stories of conquering evil are morally valuable.
  • There are relational goods that may only be realized in response to evil (for example, sacrificing oneself for another, or love relationships forged by experiencing suffering together).

All of this goes to show that God may have reasons to allow some evil and suffering, but does it show that he has reasons to allow as much evil and suffering as exists in the actual world? The answer to that is, for all we know, it certainly could. The fact is that there is a lot of evil in the world that seems to serve no purpose – but from our limited perspective, we cannot expect to be able to see all of the reasons that God has for any specific instance of evil. The huge complexity of the world means that we can only see so far – whereas God’s foreknowledge stretches from the beginning to the end of time.

The other thing to consider when trying to evaluate whether the amount of evil in the world can be justified is that, if Christianity is true, there is the potential of an eternity of perfect happiness to counterbalance any extent of suffering experienced in our mortal lives, no matter how great. And, I think, the issue of free will that I have been talking about plays into that.

In order for a community of finite, created beings to experience perfect happiness in relationship with God and with each other, for eternity, they have to make certain choices. They have to choose not to pursue their own happiness at the expense of others. They have to make wise choices that will not lead to harm. Because God is perfectly good and only he knows completely what is best, they have to choose to submit to God and allow him to guide them. And they will have to go on making these choices forever.

Though some Christians believe free will is going to be taken away or changed somehow when we are brought into the new creation, so that it is no longer possible for us to sin, I think that may not be the case: I am inclined to think that free will is necessary for a true loving relationship, whether we are in heaven or not. But that raises an interesting question, to me.

What if all our experiences of evil and suffering – our individual experiences, including our moral growth, and the collective experience of humanity and all of the lessons learned from “doing things our own way” – is exactly what God foreknows is needed to create a community of moral agents who can experience perfect happiness together forever? What if, by allowing a finite amount of evil and suffering, God secures an infinite amount of good, freely chosen by his creatures?

And what if, because of God’s love for us, every individual human life has unique, irreplaceable value to him? What if the amount of evil and suffering in our world is precisely what God must allow, and no more, in order for all the goods of this world to be realized – including eternal life for each of the specific individuals who freely choose to follow him? If these last two “what if’s” are possible, then there could actually be a respect in which this world is better than any other possible reality, which would be enough to justify God’s decision to create it.

Conclusion

Often, the problem of evil is raised up as the problem for belief in God. But in the end I do not think it is anywhere near a definitive disproof of God’s existence. There could very well be reasons for God to allow evil. We can think of a number of such reasons in general. And given our limited ability to survey the vast complexity and scope of history, we should not expect to be able to see God’s reasons for allowing specific evils in many cases.

So again, the problem of evil presents a tension in the theistic worldview, but not one that cannot be overcome. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the problem of evil (especially when combined with the problem of divine hiddenness) is the emotional one: pain hurts, and it is natural to ask why God lets painful things happen to us or to loved ones, or why he does not at least show up personally to comfort us when those things happen.

All the philosophizing in the world is probably not enough to answer someone going through a time that makes them ask those questions, but I do appreciate what William Lane Craig has to say on that subject: although the problem of evil introduces a tension in the Christian story, in the end, it is the Christian story that provides the greatest comfort in the face of evil. He says it better than I do, so rather than elaborate further, I will just link it here. I encourage you to give it a look.

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

In this blog I have surveyed what I believe to be seven (or so, depending on how you count them) fairly strong arguments for the existence of God. But it is nonetheless true that God’s existence is not completely obvious to most people in the way that, say, the existence of the physical world is obvious. So why is the evidence for God’s existence not more direct? Why doesn’t God make his presence as clear as day to everyone – especially when he supposedly wants people to know him?

This is the problem of divine hiddenness, also called the argument from non-belief, and to me it is one of the two strongest arguments for atheism (together with the problem of evil, which I will discuss in the next post). It can be formulated simply as follows:

  • If God exists, then he is perfectly loving.
  • If God is perfectly loving, he would make it so that every person believes that he exists.
  • Some persons do not believe that God exists.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

The gist of the argument is that, if God existed, he would want to be in a loving relationship with every person he created. But a precondition for being in a loving relationship with God is believing that God exists. So, God would ensure that everyone is aware of his existence in order for it to be at least possible for them to enter into a relationship with him.

Since in fact it does not appear to be the case that everyone is aware of God’s existence, this line of reasoning lends support to the belief that God does not exist.

Evaluating the Argument

As a theist who finds the axiological and ontological arguments for God compelling, I am in complete agreement with the first premise: if God exists, then he is perfectly loving. So we can take that as a given.

The third premise, I believe, is also fairly obviously true. There are Christians who claim (on the basis of a couple verses in the Bible) that deep down, everyone really believes that God exists: no one is truly an atheist, and anyone who claims they are is lying, even to themselves. I have come to think that this is a very mistaken response. It is extremely uncharitable, it actually isn’t well supported by Scripture, and it isn’t well supported by the testimony of many current and former non-theists. See this article by Randal Rauser for more on that. So I also accept the premise that there are real atheists and agnostics out there.

The second premise is more questionable. Here is how it might be justified. Since God is perfectly loving, he desires the best for everyone. Since God is the locus of all value, being in a personal, loving relationship with God is the greatest good that anyone can experience. So God desires for everyone to be in a right relationship with him. And more simply, since he loves everyone, he desires relationship with them for its own sake: and he would certainly reach out to them rather than abandoning them to an existence devoid of the goodness of his presence.

Now, if belief in God is indeed a precondition for right relationship with him, then we can make the inference from “God desires for everyone to be in a right relationship with him” to “God desires for everyone to believe that he exists”. And I think it is certainly the case that, for the kind of deep and reciprocal relationship that God ultimately desires us to have, belief is required. However:

  • Not all persons may be capable of belief in God. (For example, infants or cognitively impaired persons.) Nevertheless, it may be that such persons can still have a kind of relationship with God, the way that even an unborn child has a kind of relationship with her mother.
  • Since God is not just one personal being among others, but is also the ground and locus of all value, it may be possible to have a positive relationship with God even without believing in him, by relating to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
  • If God has foreknowledge of our free choices, he knows whether producing belief would lead to the kind of positive relationship that he is interested in. There may be those who, upon coming to believe that God exists, would still reject relationship with him, enter into an improper relationship with him, or enter into a relationship with him which they would ultimately choose to forsake. (Such persons may or may not be culpable for being in these contrary states; there can be a variety of reasons for such dispositions.) God’s reasons for producing belief in these cases are much reduced.
  • Similar to the above point, there may be people to whom God has given sufficient rational grounds for belief in his existence, who have freely and culpably rejected those grounds, or who have shut themselves off from God in some other way (for example, by refusing to seek God because of a desire to be in control of their own life). Not desiring a coerced relationship, God’s reasons for forcing belief on such persons are also reduced.

This means there is some reason to doubt that God’s desire for relationship automatically leads to God’s desire to produce belief in his existence. Furthermore, even if God desires for someone to believe that he exists, that does not imply that he has an all-things-considered desire for that person to believe that he exists. God may have other considerations, some in favour of allowing created persons to remain unaware of his existence, at least for a time. Here are some reasons for divine hiddenness:

  • Delaying in making evidence available for a person to believe in God may alter their circumstances in such a way that they enter into a higher quality relationship with him later than they would have if he had made such evidence available earlier. (Daniel Howard-Snyder argues along these lines in this paper.)
  • Divine hiddenness may allow for greater independence and interdependence of creatures, benefiting our moral development. (Dustin Crummett makes this suggestion here.)
  • Divine hiddenness may reduce coercion in some situations and allow for more opportunity to freely choose what is good for the right reasons (i.e. because it is good, not just for fear of punishment, for example).
  • Perhaps it is appropriate to God’s holiness to maintain a certain degree of distance from his creatures.
  • Because of the butterfly effect, divine hiddenness could lead to better possible outcomes in ways that are totally unpredictable from a human perspective, but that can be foreseen by an all-knowing God.

(Take a look here for a resource that explores some of these possibilities further, with references to other philosophical works.)

In evaluating why God may remain hidden from some people, we also have to consider that if God exists, then human persons may have an eternity before them in which to relate to God: our mortal lives may just be an infinitesimal sliver of the whole of our existence. Which means that for all we know, God’s sacrificing some depth of relationship for a short time in order to obtain other goods may very well be justified.

Conclusion

Given these considerations, I am far from certain that the second premise of the problem of divine hiddenness can be sufficiently supported. Perhaps we could modify it:

  • If God is perfectly loving, then for every person A who is capable of entering into a personal relationship with God, such that A has not culpably shut themselves off from relationship with God in some way, God brings it about that A believes in his existence, unless he has an overriding reason to permit A to remain in non-belief.

I can accept this premise with reasonable certainty. But then we need to modify the third premise in order for the argument to remain valid:

  • There is at least one person who has not culpably shut themselves off from relationship with God, and who has not come to believe in God’s existence; and God has no overriding reason to allow this person to remain in unbelief.

And this premise is quite plausibly false. At the very least, it seems impossible to prove from a human perspective: we cannot possibly be in a position to adequately evaluate all of God’s reasons for doing something, and we can think of a few reasons in favour of divine hiddenness that cannot be ruled out conclusively.

(Note: There is, perhaps, one very important consideration which the proponent of the hiddenness argument could raise to say that God cannot have an overriding reason to allow anyone to indefinitely remain in unbelief: the person’s eternal salvation depending on having a right relationship with God. This gets into the problems of religious pluralism and exclusivity, which I will discuss in upcoming posts.)

Thus, I think it is quite reasonable to disbelieve this modified premise (provided the theist has a response to the problems of religious pluralism and exclusivity). Which means that, while the problem of divine hiddenness introduces some tension into a theistic worldview, in the end I do not find that tension to be insurmountable. After all, there is evidence for God’s existence, so he is not and does not remain completely hidden. And it may very well be that this evidence is enough to accomplish God’s purposes in this world: enough for people to seek him and begin a loving relationship with him, if they so choose.

Obviously, I have only scratched the surface of this topic, and there is a great deal of philosophical work that has been done (and that is still being done) to explore it further. I have to admit that in this post I haven’t dealt with the problem of divine hiddenness in as much depth as I’d like. In the future, I may come back to expand on what I’ve written here. For now, I want to keep moving on to new topics (and I don’t have as much time for blogging these days), so I am content with this overview.

The Presumption of Atheism

Do we really need a reason to not believe in God? Isn’t atheism the default position?

To answer this question we need to distinguish between believing that God does not exist on one hand, and not believing that God exists on the other. The former is the belief in an absence. The latter is simply the absence of a belief.

“Atheism” is commonly defined as the belief that God does not exist, but there are a growing number of people who define it in a weaker sense as the state of not believing that God exists (beginning with Antony Flew, who first suggested to use “atheism” in this way). For clarity, I will call the former sense “positive atheism” and the latter sense “negative atheism”.

So then, is atheism the default position? The answer depends on whether you mean positive or negative atheism.

If you mean negative atheism, then yes! I am in complete agreement that negative atheism is the default epistemic state. One does not need arguments or evidence to be a negative atheist, because negative atheism isn’t a belief at all. Being merely the lack of a belief, it does not assert that anything is true, and so requires no justification. It is just a description of someone’s subjective mental state. Babies, cats, and rocks are all negative atheists, since they do not hold a belief in the existence of God. (At least, we don’t think they do.) Positive atheists are negative atheists, but the converse isn’t necessarily true – agnostics are also negative atheists. (Which is why, if you want to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism, you have to mean positive atheism.)

Negative atheism is trivial. Note that we can just as well define “negative theism” to mean not believing that God does not exist, and then that is also the default position! (Someone can lack both the belief that God exists and the belief that God does not exist, and indeed the babies, cats, and rocks of the last paragraph are in that position – along with the agnostics.)

Because “negative atheism” is so trivial, it is only a useful category in some sociological contexts – in studying the kind of things that people believe, for example. But when we are talking about more than that – when we are talking about whether or not God really exists, not just what people believe about that – what we care about is “positive atheism”.

And there, the situation is quite different. If you claim that positive (not merely negative) atheism is the default position, well, you are simply wrong. Positive atheism is a belief – it takes a stand and asserts that something is true (namely, that God does not exist). And we should have reasons for believing what we do. We should seek to have justified beliefs. Thus, positive atheism requires justification to back up the assertion that it makes, which means it is not the default position.

I think this is worth repeating. The claim that God does not exist is no less strong of an assertion about the nature of reality than the claim that he does. So atheism (that is, positive atheism) is not an epistemically neutral stance. In order to be an atheist in any philosophically significant sense of the word, you have to have reasons.

To put a bit more rhetoric behind this statement: the atheist who says that he needs no evidence for atheism (because it is the “default”) is no better than the fideist who says that he needs no evidence for theism (because he accepts it by “faith”). Worse, even: at least the fideist usually recognizes that his position is irrational.

You’ll find atheists who say that atheism is not a claim, and therefore it has no burden of proof. But this can only be true of negative atheism: if said about positive atheism, it is blatantly false. The distinction between theism and atheism is not that one claims something and the other doesn’t. Rather, the distinction is that one is a positive existential claim (it claims that something exists) and the other is a negative existential claim (it claims that something does not exist).

And there is nothing about negative existential claims which makes them exceptions to the rule that we should have rational justification for what we believe. For comparison: philosophical idealism makes a negative existential claim, but that does not make it the default position, nor does it allow us to deny the reality of the physical world without valid reasons.

Reasons for Atheism

The saying “you can’t prove a negative” becomes relevant here. Some people assume that this is true, and that it means that justification for a negative existential claim can’t actually be given, letting atheism off the hook. But this saying is false. There are perfectly good ways to justify negative existential claims. There are, in fact, some reasons to believe atheism. Therefore, the requirement that atheists have reasons to be atheists is not unreasonable.

First, though, here are a few statements that are not reasons to be an atheist:

  • “There isn’t any evidence for God.”

If by “evidence” you mean the kind of natural, physical evidences that we study with science, then you’re looking in the wrong place. It presupposes atheism or philosophical materialism to insist that all justification for beliefs has to be evidence of this kind. Moreover, it is self-refuting, since we rely on certain non-evidential beliefs in order to acquire and use evidence at all. Construing “evidence” more broadly to mean any rational justification for a belief, this objection is false. See: all my previous posts on arguments for God’s existence.

  • “None of the arguments for God’s existence are convincing.”

This leaves you without a reason to believe that God exists, but it doesn’t give any reason to believe that he doesn’t. So at best, this leaves you with agnosticism. If you say you can be an atheist merely because you haven’t been convinced about theism, then you might as well say you can believe anything you want as long as it is not obviously false. I think rational belief requires a little bit more than that.

  • “God isn’t a valid explanation of anything.”

This objection is sometimes used against the cosmological or teleological arguments, saying that the God hypothesis is really a non-explanation. But for one, this objection is false: if God exists and created the universe, then God obviously would be an explanation for the existence of the universe. (And so the claim that God is a non-explanation just presupposes atheism, without justification.) And for two, even if true, this objection would only negate reasons for theism, rather than providing reasons for atheism.

(See also here for a further exploration of the not-a-valid-explanation objection.)

  • “Science shows that God doesn’t exist.” Or, “Science shows that we don’t need to posit God to explain anything.”

No, it doesn’t. I’ve written about this before. But by way of brief response: science allows us to explain a lot of things via natural causes, but it cannot explain everything, and it certainly cannot explain where those natural causes themselves come from. (To take up that question is to leave the realm of empirical science and go deep into the realm of philosophy.)

With those out of the way, here is one statement that is a valid reason to be an atheist (if true):

  • “There isn’t enough evidence for God’s existence, compared to the amount that there would be if he did exist.”

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes – unless we should have that evidence if the thing did in fact exist. (For a more in-depth exploration of that principle, see here.) Where this is used as an argument for atheism, it is known as the problem of divine hiddenness. More generally, we can provide justification for negative existential claims in the following way:

  • “If X exists, then Y should be true. But Y is false. Therefore, X does not exist.”

This is the logical form behind the problem of evil and other arguments against God’s existence. These are the kind of arguments that can actually justify atheism, and they are what I will be exploring in upcoming posts.

Implausibility of Theism

There is one further argument that I will address which is relevant to the question of whether or not atheism can be considered the default epistemic position. It is raised by Paul Draper in his article on atheism and agnosticism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The idea behind this “low priors” argument is that theism is intrinsically improbable, so that even before taking any evidence into account, the presumption is in favour of atheism.

Draper argues for the low prior probability of omni-theism (his term for the kind of theism that I believe follows from the arguments for natural theology) by comparing it to an alternative position that he calls source physicalism:

  • Source physicalism: the physical world is ontologically ultimate, and any mental reality depends on the physical for its existence.
  • Source idealism: the mental world is ontologically ultimate, and physical reality depends on the mental for its existence.
  • Omni-theism: a subset of source idealism, which further specifies the ontological ultimate to be a unique, perfect person.

Draper’s claim is that 1) source physicalism and source idealism have equal intrinsic probabilities, principally because of the symmetry between the two positions, and 2) omni-theism is a very specific version of source idealism and therefore it must be much less intrinsically probable than source idealism in general. From this it follows that 3) omni-theism is much less intrinsically probable than source physicalism.

These claims are, of course, contestable. Despite Draper’s assertion, there is an asymmetry between source physicalism and source idealism, both in regards to our epistemic position (we can doubt the existence of the physical world, but we cannot rationally doubt the existence of our own minds), and in regards to their ontological status (there are mental phenomena that do not seem possible to derive from the physical world even in principle). It seems to me that these are a priori considerations that could tip the balance in favour of source idealism in terms of its intrinsic probability, over source physicalism.

Second, it seems to me that Draper’s claim about the specificity of omni-theism, compared to source idealism, is greatly exaggerated. Over and above source idealism, omni-theism simply claims that the ontological ultimate is personal instead of impersonal, one instead of many, and perfect instead of imperfect. The first of these additional claims arguably has the advantage due to similar considerations as those in the last paragraph. And the latter two claims are in some sense simpler than their counterparts, and could claim greater intrinsic probability on that basis.

Finally, omni-theism is actually a very simple hypothesis: it postulates the existence of a single entity (an immaterial person) who can be described by perhaps just three properties (knowledge, power, and goodness) and who possesses those properties in the simplest possible way (to the maximum degree, with no limitations). Compare this to Draper’s source physicalism, which has to postulate the brute existence of a number of physical entities, laws, constants, and initial conditions (or some kind of mechanism for generating such). So I would say that considerations of simplicity actually tip the balance of intrinsic probability in favour of theism!

So I don’t believe that Draper is successful in his argument that omni-theism is many times less probable, intrinsically, than source physicalism. Which means that is not a good reason to take atheism as the “default position”.

 

An aside on Draper’s arguments in the article referenced above:

I might add that Draper’s complete “low priors” argument also includes the premise that the total evidence does not favour omni-theism over source physicalism. (Where “evidence” in this context means any rational source of justification for a belief – experience, arguments, etc.) Combining this with the premise that omni-theism is intrinsically much less probable than source physicalism, he concludes that omni-theism is very probably false, and thus, atheism (understood just as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.

As I said, I think there is reason to doubt the premise about the intrinsic probabilities of omni-theism and source physicalism. But even if that were established, I absolutely disagree with this claim about the balance of the evidence. Justifying it requires one to undercut or defeat all of the arguments for omni-theism from natural theology, or at least to balance them with equally strong arguments for source physicalism. And that, from my perspective, is a very difficult task.

(Draper’s appeal to the “fallacy of understated evidence” is a good starting point for discussion about potential weaknesses or balancing considerations of certain theistic arguments, but it in no way shows that those considerations actually succeed in reducing the force of those arguments by a significant degree.)

Interestingly, the failure of this premise is related in a way to the potential success of the other one. One of the ways that Draper tries to justify his premise about the intrinsic improbability of omni-theism is by saying that omni-theism makes very specific claims, each of which must reduce its probability. But if we’re being rational, we theists don’t just make those claims out of the blue. We make specific claims about God and reality because of reasons that we see for them (for example, from natural theology). So in the end, theism’s level of intrinsic probability doesn’t really matter. The important thing is its probability when the evidence is taken into account.

The put it another way, omni-theism is not postulated a priori as an arbitrary refinement of source idealism, any more than the Standard Model of particle physics is postulated a priori as a refinement of source physicalism. These things are postulated as hypotheses to account for facts that need to be explained. So the fact that omni-theism is more specific than source idealism is no more of a strike against theism, to my mind, than is the fact that the Standard Model is more specific than source physicalism a strike against atheism.

One more note: Draper has a second argument for atheism in that article, his “decisive evidence” argument. This one isn’t really a distinct argument, since its premises basically assert that 1) none of the argument for theism are successful, and 2) there is an argument for atheism that is successful. (There’s more nuance to it than that, but when you really break it down the premises are justified only if those two things are true.)

End aside.

 

So far, I’ve explored two reasons that are often put forward for rejecting theism in favour of atheism: arguments that theism is impossible, and the presumption of atheism as the default epistemic position. And in my honest evaluation, neither of these carry any rational weight whatsoever.

In the next few weeks I will explore some atheistic arguments that I think do have force.

The Existence of God

In order to explain and organize all our disparate experiences of the world we live in, everyone goes through the process, consciously or unconsciously, of forming a worldview. A worldview is an overarching framework for understanding and interpreting reality. And what someone believes about God is, almost certainly, their worldview’s most defining characteristic.

Does God exist? Who is he? What is our relationship to him? These are incredibly important questions, impacting what we believe about what is right and wrong, about why we are here, about where we came from and where are ultimately going. This is not a matter of indifference. All meaning, value, and purpose is on the line. What we believe about God influences every aspect of our lives.

It is important, then, to think clearly and carefully about how we answer these questions – to seek the right answers to these questions. So my goal in this section of my blog is to lay out the most significant considerations that I can see pertaining to this matter – reasons for belief in God and reasons against that belief – and explain why I believe the way I do.

I will say, up front, my conclusion is that God exists. This is the belief I grew up with, so perhaps some of you reading my blog will dismiss my conclusion as mere confirmation bias writ large. In response to that, I simply say that I have made an honest attempt to examine the reasons for and against belief in God as objectively as possible. I find that there are serious considerations on both sides, but when taking the whole scope of human experience into account, that a theistic worldview (and specifically, a Christian worldview) is the most coherent one, and gives the best explanation for the evidence.

To those who would dismiss my conclusion as nothing more than the result of my own biases, I hope you carefully consider whether that blade cuts both ways. Is your dismissal of my conclusion based on valid, rational justification? If so, what is that justification? Have you examined both sides of this question objectively? If I cannot free myself of my biases, are you able to free yourself of yours?

(And if you think you have no biases about this, I think you need to look more closely. The broad implications that God’s existence has for why we are here, and how we ought to live, mean there is no one who has no skin in this game.)

With that being said, I hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt, and believe me when I say that I have good reasons for believing in God. And because of the gravity of this matter, I sincerely believe it is of great importance for everyone – for you – to also look for the truth about it. Which is why I want to share my reasons in this blog.

So over the next few months I will be exploring the reasons for and against belief in God. Here’s a preview of what’s to come.

Reasons to Believe that God Exists

The Epistemological Argument. According to the principle of critical trust, the beliefs that we naturally form in the context of our experiences have some inherent justification. These basic beliefs are the foundation of all our other beliefs, and it is through them that we believe, for example, in the physical world around us. Belief in God is often like this – justified via our own direct experiences of God or via the common features of religious experiences that millions of people have had all over the world and throughout history.

The Cosmological Argument. Our rational intuitions support the principle of sufficient reason, which says that every contingent truth has an explanation. Applied to the existence of the universe, the principle leads to a necessarily existing being – God – as the best explanation for how the universe began, or why there is something rather than nothing.

The Teleological Argument. There are a number of lines of evidence suggesting that if the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the universe had been even slightly different, life – of any kind – would have been impossible. It is highly implausible to think that these conditions came about by chance, and the multiverse hypothesis does not solve the problem. These things are evidence for the existence of a Creator and Designer as the best explanation of fine-tuning of the universe.

The Noetic Argument. The existence of consciousness points to a reality beyond the physical universe, as it is extremely difficult to conceive of a natural mechanism that could produce the kind of conscious experiences and mind-body interaction that we observe. The existence of a supernatural Mind as the source of all reality is the best explanation of the existence of our own minds, and their embodiment.

The Axiological Argument. We intuitively feel the force of objective moral values and find ourselves bound by objective moral duties, yet in an atheistic worldview the most plausible reality is that these are nothing more than illusions, and that there is no right or wrong, or good or evil. So where do these values come from? A morally perfect, necessarily existing being, whose own character is the standard of goodness, is the best explanation for our moral experiences, and the only plausible ground for objective moral values and duties.

The axiological argument can actually be multiplied six ways, by permuting to rational and aesthetic values and duties as well as moral ones, and by seeking to explain our ability to know these aspects of reality as well as their ground of existence. Thus it is a rather fruitful source of justification for belief in God.

The Ontological Argument. A few plausible premises about the nature of perfection, and the basic structure of reality, surprisingly lead to the conclusion that a perfect being – God – must exist. This argument is the closest we get to proving through pure logic that God exists.

The Historical Argument. Two thousand years ago in a remote province of the Roman Empire, a man, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed and buried in a tomb. But then his body vanished, and men and women who had been following him began testifying that this Jesus had appeared to them, having been raised from the dead. They weren’t making it up – everything suggests they truly believed they had seen Jesus risen, and they continued to proclaim him even under threat of violence or death. Considering the extreme implausibility of any atheistic account of these events, the most coherent explanation of the evidence is that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and that he is who he said he is.

Reasons to Believe that God Does Not Exist

The Incoherence of Theism. Sometimes it is claimed that God cannot possibly exist, due to logical contradictions present in his supposed attributes. These include inconsistencies inherent in single attributes as well as contradictions between different attributes. Some atheists have even said that the proposition “God exists” is completely meaningless.

The Presumption of Atheism. Do we really even need a reason to believe that God does not exist? Isn’t it the default position? This is what a number of atheists claim, often alongside related objections: that theism isn’t even worth considering, either because it’s too improbable, or it doesn’t actually explain anything.

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness. If God really does exist, where is all the evidence? For all the arguments that theists present for their belief, the existence of God is not nearly as evident as it could be. Why doesn’t God make his presence obvious, when he supposedly wants people to know him? Perhaps it is because he isn’t there at all.

The Problem of Evil and Suffering. It is clear that there is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world, as well as moral evil (if you believe in such a thing as objective morality, as theists generally do). Yet if God is both all-loving and all-powerful, shouldn’t he both desire to prevent all this evil and suffering, and have the ability to do so? So why doesn’t he? Atheists say the answer the is obvious: it’s because he does not exist.

The Problem of Religious Pluralism. There are many different systems of religious belief throughout the world; and for most of history, what you believed about God was typically a matter of where you were raised. How could God allow this state of confusion – especially if knowing the truth about him is important for our ultimate salvation and eternal life? How is that fair? Atheists, saying all these systems are just made-up stories, will claim to have the best explanation for the great diversity of religious beliefs.

The Problem of Exclusivity. One of the most common objections to Christianity specifically is against its claim to exclusivity – that salvation and eternal life are through Jesus Christ alone. Is this really just? Compounding the problem, Christianity claims that an eternal punishment awaits those who are not saved – can this really be the work of a loving God? There are many people who vehemently think not.

These are the major arguments I have found for and against theism. (Let me know if you think I have missed any important ones.) In my next post, I’ll begin exploring these in more detail.