Why I Am An Atheist - Or Not
"There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer." - Gertrude SteinJim Holt, in an article over at Slate, asks if non-God fearing Americans such as myself can prove God doesn't exist. There's a tiny bit more to his piece than that, but since the issue of proof is his challenge and the gist of the work, I'll go from there.
Before I get to it, an important question for me to ask is why Holt chose Garry Wills as a "rational and fiercely intelligent thinker" for his comparison to the select few atheists he points at and chuckles over for their 'dogmatic' grasp on atheism. (I'll ignore his claim that Voltaire was not an atheist, the topic of which many scholars still argue over.) Has he read Wills' Why I Am a Catholic? I was unable to discover the section that ties in to the title (you know, the answer to Why). Perhaps the copy I picked up was missing the page that provides this explanatory statement. All I finally came away with is that Wills is a Catholic merely because he says so. It doesn't appear to be because he accepts all of the church's doctrines, which to me seems to be the point of remaining an adherent to the Catholic, or any organized, religious faith. Belief in the teachings of a church, which certainly presupposes a belief in God as they delineate Him/Her, is an all or nothing affair. You really aren't allowed to pick and choose those features that suit your tastes; after all, it's the church who knows best, and all other opinions be damned! But I digress.
In the article, after noting the sweeping away of God's dust bunnies by 19th Century science (while making the ludicrous claim that atheists remain stuck in that century's mind set, like we're a bunch of flat earth aficionados making pre-Copernican travel plans), Holt states:
"The discovery that the universe began with a creation like Big Bang around 13 billion years ago, for example, breathed new life into the so-called cosmological argument, which posits God as the first cause of nature. The discovery that the fundamental laws of nature contained constants that appear to have been fine-tuned so that the cosmos would eventually yield intelligent life lent new credence to the design argument for God's existence. Quantum theory dematerialized reality, making the cosmos seem more like a thought than like a machine. But whose thought?"Holt's claims and disingenuous question not withstanding, evidence of the Big Bang or scientific theories dealing with the nature of nature only breathe activity into the posit of God as "first cause" if you are planning to find Him there. Pointing at a place no (current) scientific language can define and exclaiming "See!" is neither proof nor even a presumptive sign of a divine designer. As Gertrude Stein might say (even about this), there is no "there" there. And first year physics students learn that a single analogous feature ("seem more like a thought") is a seriously flawed method to build theories on. The universe is not a machine, nor is it a thought. It is a universe. You can stick under it all the metaphorical crutches that you wish, but in the end, there's nothing else like it in the... universe.
Personally, I don't use lack of evidence is evidence of lacking as the only reasoning behind my atheism. Still, the complete paucity of any which stand out obviously in His favor is a huge factor in my deliberation. Also, I stick by this not because I refuse to hold open the possibility of God's (or god's, or gods') existence. And not because I'm intellectually lazy, or confused, or pissed off with my ancestrally bequeathed religious roots. It's for the same reason I'm not an agnostic when it comes to the possibility of existence for fairies or the Easter Bunny: I've simply not come across any effectively persuasive *evidence* to the contrary that has altered my view about their non-existence.
Perhaps Mr. Holt preferred I drop my "dogmatic" stance on the Easter Bunny, as well. If so, I can hardly wait to compose my response to his next challenge come spring!
For me, the issue with Holt's little confrontation is whether it's useful to bother taking it up at all, or even giving it the time of day. It's a long understood point - at least it certainly should be - that one cannot prove a negative. A philosophical treatise delineating the argument against God's presence, no matter how brilliant or definitive, would be worth little more than the paper it's printed on to the fervently faithful. Conclusive, physical evidence is what would be demanded from such a project, but to provide the full, near scientific confirmation needed to show God's lack of being, we'd first be required to look behind every planetary formation, peak beneath every leaf structure, search around every religious totem, and find him lacking in all cases, before claiming with any degree of authority that He failed to show. Even then, how could we be absolutely certain we searched for Him in the right places, or that God wasn't in hiding during our search (just ask Isaiah).
No matter how thorough and diligent an investigator anyone turned out to be on a discovery of this nature, a proof of non-existence in the end would be disappointing in its attempt to prove anything. Taking up a challenge of this sort is an action destined to failure - though not by God.
Jim Holt states "[c]an the existence of God be disproved, or at least rendered highly improbable, as the atheist wishes to do?" Please read above, Jim, and note that I have no "wish" or should I even be required to do anything of the sort. (By the way, if wishes were horses, you'd be trampled by now.) You believe there is a God. Fine. May I suggest you take your own challenge in reverse, and provide me with proof of God's existence. I double dog dare you. Since this is a Christmas challenge (hey, you started it), try to make your evidence fulfill the Judeo-Christian vision of what God is. This means no undefined and tepidly conscious theistic force lying in wait, no universe born on the back of a cosmic turtle, no collective of a myriad number of gods for each mood or second of the day. Just one initiatory and omniscient power behind all of creation. Sounds like an easy task. I'm sure you can handle it.
I'll await your e-mail with the evidence, Jim. Until I receive it, I'll continue to call myself an atheist; but I assure you, I won't be doing so with the intended purpose of cramping your style. Some things just come about of their own accord.
(Note: Normally I wouldn't return after a long absence with a post so nearly devoid of humor (nearly), but I just couldn't help myself.)