Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Do Skeptics Not Believe In God?

     The estimable Mark English posed a question rather like this some time recently. It has been rolling around in my mind since then. In my case, to the extent I was aware of anything like religion before about age six I seem to have assumed that “God and Jesus” were givens. About that time there was a conversation with my father. I still remember two sentences of it clearly. I said to him, “But you have to admit that God and Jesus exist, right?” He said, “No.” From then on I do not remember thinking about religion much for many years. I went to church when visiting the religious members of our extended family. I liked the formality, the music, the sense of common bond. But I always knew I was an alien in the congregation. Sometimes, on these visits, I would be sent to Sunday school. Once, having run across some book on what was not yet called Wicca, it appeared a good idea to explain to the other teens in Sunday school that so-called witches didn’t really worship the Devil. They worshipped nature instead, so give them a break. I can’t remember whether there were any family conversations afterward, but it seems likely the Sunday school teacher would have spoken to my local relatives, who would likely have spoken to my parents, who apparently decided that I was even then free to make up my own mind about things.

     I became intellectually confirmed as a religious skeptic at about age nineteen when I read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Although even then I disliked Russell’s more vituperative attacks on religion—he seemed to be trying to offend believers more than prove his point, for instance by denying that Christ was a reputable moral teacher—nonetheless his fundamental refutations of the traditional proofs of the existence of God seemed decisive. The way Russell laid out the proofs and his refutations thereof, how could anyone believe in God? The most telling, to me, was his argument against what is sometimes called the Proof from a First Cause. Russell pointed out that the proof was internally inconsistent. It demanded a cause for the universe, but then omitted to demand a cause for that cause. Sometimes this is put, “If the universe had to be created by God, then who created God? If God didn’t need a cause and could have always existed, then why couldn’t the universe itself have just always existed?” Occam’s Razor then sliced away the unnecessary hypothesis: God.

     I think now that this argument was so powerful for me because the Proof from a First Cause was the one among the traditional proofs I found most nearly compelling. The Ontological Proof, for example, just seemed to be word-play. It proceeds like this: Imagine a perfect being. Since a being that actually existed would be superior to a being that did not, a perfect being must exist by definition. That perfect being is God. No disrespect intended to those who find this a meaningful proof, but for me it was empty. Apart from the intellectual difficulties I had with faith, there was also simply a bedrock feeling of doubt. I just knew there was no God, in the same way that I just knew there were no vampires. It was all a fantasy.

     Significantly for a nineteen-year-old, being free of Christian theology also meant being free of Christian morality. At the time, Christian morality meant little more to me  than sexual repression. Christians wanted to deny human sexuality. They wanted to make people unhappy by making them give up life’s greatest joy. Some of this was clearly the voice of youth. I have since found greater joys. In my case, the voice of youth harmonized well with the voices of the specific hippie-types with whom I was spending much of my time. If, after thirty years, my views of morality have matured, I still find scientific explanations more compelling than religious ones. Modern cosmology can account for the existence of the universe itself. Modern biology can explain the development of life. Evolutionary psychology has made great progress in explaining the development of human nature, to the point that it is possible see how something very like traditional morality is in fact best suited to govern that nature.

     Yet, that last point presents something of a challenge. If it turns out those Christians did a pretty good job in articulating necessary moral principles—don’t murder people, don’t take their things, don’t sleep around, obey your parents, forgive your enemies—does their theology not perhaps deserve a second look? Having fully revised all my moral reasoning and finally rejected the ethics of youth, am I still satisfied to retain the convenient skepticism of youth? Why, in fact, am I a skeptic? Why is anyone? Once the hormonal haze of adolescence has passed, why would anyone choose oblivion over Heaven? For me, the answer has to involve evidence.

     No amount of wishful thinking will make an indifferent natural universe into a loving God. So far, for me, the evidence simply is not compelling. However, I recognize that I have not really explored this question in years. I am still operating in the Russell domain, having closed deliberation on that question thirty years ago. Are there intellectually consistent arguments, derived from evidence, that tend to establish the existence of a divine creator? Are they better than the old Ontological Proof? Perhaps it is time to investigate. Many atheists like me remain cultural Christians, and Christmastime is perhaps a reasonable season in which to begin such an inquiry.


  1. As you may have noticed, I almost never write about or even refer to religion and I considere myself a hard agnostic: the religious can't prove to me there is a God, and atheists can't prove to me there isn't. Furthermore, it's so easy to be a skeptic about anything, even skepticism leaves me cold. Okay, so I don't believe something. NEXT! What do I believe? That is a far more difficult question.

    In this post you're a half skip away from the next step. Once upon a time, I began to wonder what would be left, if religion were stripped of its questionable extra-physical dimensions such as God, angels, devils, immortal soul, heaven, hell, miracles, and especially humans quoting gods. "And God said to Moses, strike the rock" and that sort of thing. Or "God said, I shall smite thine enemies" and such. Although the answer to "What's left" might seem to be "not much," this intellectual experiment brought me to study non-western thought, and thus to a sudden realization.

    If gods are just made up, and the moral systems found in religions are strictly human in origin, then we human beings are gifted beyond even our own historical ability to admit it. For we have crafted thousands of years of moral thought and theory -- religious and otherwise -- out of nothing but our own anthopological propensity for living socially and a marvelous ability to think. That, in itself, is the closest thing to a miracle or human soul anyone should need: a profound respect for the striking creature this human animal really is.

    And there I stand.

  2. In one paragraph, you have captured the humanist spirit. I distinguish between humanism and Humanism, since the latter has been associated with a doctrinaire Leftist movement. The former included Erasmus, a Christian, and also it seems G. T. Christie, an agnostic.

    I suppose I share your agnosticism regarding the ultimate possibility of a divine First Cause. What I mean by atheism is simply the absence of active belief rather than any Dawkinsesque certainty that there is no God. "Atheist" comes from Greek, after all: "a-theoi" is just "gods" with the privative alpha as negation prefix. It meant something like not believing in the gods of the city, which was formally the crime of Socrates. I've always been quite sure that any gods I'd ever heard of could not possibly exist, at least as depicted in their respective mythologies. However, regarding some unidentified higher power, well, who knows? Some of the recent reading I've started makes a fascinating case that our universe could not have just happened because there are too many improbabilities required to produce a universe capable of supporting life. Makes one wonder.

  3. I think I have to disagree with you about one small thing. I don't believe that Russell was trying to offend believers when he denied "that Christ was a reputable moral teacher." Around AD 200, the Christian apologist Tertullian argued in very much the vein Russell adopts in "Why I Am Not a Christian." Tertullian pointed pout that much of Jesus' behavior was simply appalling by any normal standard, and could only be justified if he were some exotic being exalted beyond normal standards. Tertullian's case came to be known as aut malus aut deus- either a bad man or God. That argument would likely have been familiar to many of Russell's early readers, since it was a favorite of his contemporary C. S. Lewis.

    Indeed, while aut malus aut deus may make some Christians uncomfortable, the alternative should make them far more uncomfortable. Look up "Muslim Jesus" and see all the Muslim writers who insist that Jesus' ethical teachings represent an early draft of Islam, then imagine how the Christians of your acquaintance would react to if they were told that Jesus was "really" a Muslim. non-Christian group

  4. Acilius, that's a plausible defense of Russell, but my memory of the essay is that he seemed at pains to deny Christ and Christianity credit for anything good. About aut malus aut deus, didn't Lewis put it, "either lunatic, liar, or lord"? Somewhere on the 'net I saw a video that presented a fourth option: legend.

  5. I wish I had the same command of the ancients that you do. But then, I do not really lack for anything, since obviously I have a Consvltvs for that.

    Good wishes for you and your family this holiday season.