It is easy to understand how one can be undecided about the existence of God. I’m often undecided myself, since doubting my convictions is the first step in any serious analysis; yet I am as atheist as they come.
Agnosticism generally takes three forms today. There is the traditional agnostic who maintains that no one can prove or disprove God’s existence and therefore the only intelligent position is to say “we can’t know”. The second sees agnosticism as a beginning point, a method of skepticism or doubt from which to proceed. The third type says withholding belief in God because of insufficient evidence is identical to being atheist (generally called weak atheism).
Today a great many atheists are actually agnostic-atheists of this last sort. For an example of the 2nd group, see David Eller’s essay “Agnosticism: the basis for atheism not an alternative to it”. (Eller argues that agnosticism is a method that if properly followed leads directly to atheism.)
But my focus now is agnosticism of the first sort. Advocates of this position claim to know basicly two things:
(a) there are no logically sound proofs or disproofs of God’s existence
(b) therefore there is insufficient reason to adapt either theism or atheism
I have no doubt that to the agnostic’s best knowledge, both claims are true. He or she isn’t aware of a convincing case for belief or disbelief.
But maybe that’s because our agnostic simply hasn’t been exposed to strong atheist arguments. Which would not be surprising. Most atheists are actually weak atheists, our group three above who disbelieve because of insufficient evidence. Weak atheists, it seems to me, are often unaware of the best arguments for atheism.
The strongest philosophical argument for atheism, the Argument from Perfection, is rarely presented anywhere in full (often it has to be extrapolated from discussions of “the Problem of Evil”); likewise for the other arguments that constitute specific atheism.
As for general atheism (the scientific/naturalistic presentation of atheism) I suppose it is still an unnamed work in progress. But clearly, as the evidence for naturalism becomes overwhelming, so too the case for atheism since it is a necessary corollary.
I should probably explain that specific atheism is that atheism which purports to disprove the existence of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic monotheistic God—that is, the perfect supernatural being who is said to have created the natural world including us. Specific atheism argues either that such a God is impossible, or if possible could not have created the world we have.
General atheism, on the other hand, is an outgrowth of the scientific/philosophical case for naturalism. Advocates of general atheism like to begin their arguments with well-established science (evolution, the physiology of vision or of the brain) and move on to conclusions about the nature of human knowledge and its relationship to the world—conclusions which if correct eliminate supernaturalism (and therefore eliminate any supernatural God or gods). This is where most scientists who are atheists are coming from—though usually they still couch their arguments in terms of methodological naturalism rather than metaphysical naturalism.
But getting back to our #1 agnostic, and their two-part argument:
(a) there are no logically sound proofs or disproofs of God’s existence
(b) therefore there is insufficient reason to adapt either theism or atheism
Specific atheism has an answer for a, but first let’s question conclusion b.
Ghosts. There are no sound logical proofs—or disproofs—of the existence of ghosts. Of course we can throw doubt on the existence of ghosts by bringing up certain difficulties in the concept: how can a ghost interact with the physical world, respond to gravity, walk on surfaces, move things, appear to the living, etc. unless they are somehow physical. But if they are physical why can’t scientists detect them (outside of Hollywood, of course).
After all, science has no problem with invisible things: gravity, molecules, quarks, and so on. But the ghost hypothesis can’t be applied to any known phenomena. From the scientific perspective it’s not useful. Still, does that mean, speaking logically, that it’s impossible for ghosts to exist.
Does this bring up memories of the situation with God? It should. And it should raise the following question: are those who are agnostic toward God’s existence also agnostic toward the existence of ghosts? Do they shake their heads at the educated people who deny that ghosts exist, tsk tsking that their unbelief is unwarranted? Perhaps, but I doubt it.
Next step: gods & goddesses. Think of Egyptian deities like Anubus or Isis, or Greek like Zeus or Athena, or Roman like Venus or Mars. Can we logically disprove their existence?
Again we can point out a colossal lack of evidence for their existence. We can question how gods can interact with people or transform into animals; how Leda can be raped by a god disguised as a swan. We can point out that many of the natural phenomena formerly attributed to the goddesses and gods are now explained without them by science. Still, logically speaking, they could exist.
So, are agnostics agnostic about Anubus and Athena? Do they scoff at anyone who thinks he’s smart enough to assert the non-existence of these various, formerly popular deities? Again I doubt it.
We come to God, then. Scientists have discovered alternate explanations for just about everything that used to be attributed to God, including the origin of our species. As was the case with ghosts, gods, and goddesses, the concept of God is saddled with a number of difficulties: how does an immaterial being interact with material? how does a being without a body move or do anything? Like Zeus, God is said to have fathered a divine son through a human female. The similarities, it seems, are greater than the differences.
If agnosticism doesn’t apply in the case of Casper or Osiris, why does it apply in the case of Allah or Jehovah? If saying there are many gods is without foundation, why is saying there is one god any better?
In fact, the case for God is weaker than that for Aphrodite. Not only does God come with all the difficulties of ghosts and goddesses, but God is defined with two additional attributes which make his existence even less likely: God is perfect, and God supposedly created the natural world.
A perfect being created an imperfect world? On its face that would seem to be impossible. —Which is enough by itself to render the case for God weaker than the case for Minerva and Mithra, who to their benefit aren’t saddled with perfection.
Theists like to tell themselves there is a way around the perfection problem. One option is to deny that God is perfect. But that demotes him to a god, cavorting (probably) after every Venus or Virgin Mary he sees. Most theists can readily see the problem with adopting this particular option.
A second option is to admit that the world is imperfect but insist that God is not responsible. God created a perfect world, but it “fell” because one of the free beings in that world chose—freely—to disobey God. But this “free will defense” completely misses the problem. Sure, it might explain imperfect decisions made by certain sentient species, but it completely ignores the massively larger and more important imperfection which is the result of the world’s flawed design.
Almost every living thing in existence, due to its inherent physical nature, must eat some other living thing in order to survive. This isn’t the result of disobeying God. It’s the result of anatomy and physiology. It can’t be blamed on sin. It can only be blamed on God—if God is the creator.
My moral decisions can’t change the fact that other living things need to eat me to survive, or that I need to eat other living things to survive. The world of life is designed on deadly competition at its core.
The concept of “the fall” is thus laughably inadequate to explain the imperfection of the world. The only option that remains is for the theist to argue that the world “is the best of all possible worlds”—that a perfect God could do no better.
But this approach only works if we lack imagination. For example, we don’t usually think about it, but in the world we have around us physics trumps everything, even morality. For example, a criminal with a gun can kill a Pope or a saint as easily as he can kill another criminal. To kill the saint all he must do is aim the gun at the right part of the body. Physics is no respecter of goodness.
But why not? Why didn’t God create a world in which goodness trumped physics? In our fantasies and movies, in fact, that is what we often make happen. If he had enough imagination, God could have codified the nature of things so that violence never paid. So that when the bullet from the gun of the criminal reached the body of the saint, it suddenly jumped to the body of the criminal instead. Morality would then trump physics. In such a world violence could only be inflicted on oneself. Or, to put it another way, violent perpetrators would receive immediate punishment, exactly proportional to the harm they would have caused. Since God created physics, he certainly could have chosen to allow goodness to trump it.
Isn’t that the way it is, supposedly, in Heaven?
The advocates of “the best of all possible worlds” excuse have one more shot. Earth isn’t perfect, they explain, because it’s a testing ground for souls. In order to find out which of the “free will” beings he created are ready for the perfection of heaven, this argument goes, God created earth as a kind of testing ground or “vale of soul-making”—something along those lines. But a world that doesn’t need a testing ground is clearly more perfect than one which does, just as a factory which produces cars which don’t need to be tested for defects is more perfect than a factory whose output can’t be trusted. But beyond that, this argument still fails to account for embedded imperfection of the world mentioned earlier. How can earth be an adequate testing ground for heaven if in fact it’s nothing like heaven? If a car is built for the road, it needs to be tested on a road—not by dropping it into a volcano. That’s the wrong kind of test.
Other problems with the soul-testing hypothesis abound. If the idea of the test is to help God determine which free-will souls are inherently good and which are only good for an ulterior motive, then it would be essential that the souls being tested not know they are being tested. It would be best, in fact, for the souls not to even know there’s an afterlife or a God: only then could God be sure their goodness was inherent and genuine, not gamed for the test.
There is also the difficulty which results from God’s prescience. if God has foreknowledge of human events then there is simply no need to run any kind of earthly test. If God feels compelled to run the test anyway despite knowing exactly how it will come out, then it raises the serious difficulty of human freedom. It would appear that choices which are foreknown are effectively foreordained. We can not be free to change our behavior during our “test” because to do so would turn God from infallible to fallible. It would destroy divine perfection.
Other difficulties: why does God only test human embryos and fetuses for a few days or months—completing the trial even before they are born—yet spend 80 years testing the soul of a mass-murderer? Makes one suspect its not testing that’s going on at all. Then there’s the whole problem of natural disasters. Why must a 3-year old child be burned by molten lava, crushed by an earthquake, or racked with leukemia or some other incurable disease? Can there be a legitimate point to such a “test”? Isn’t it obvious that no imaginable future could make a milkshake of perfection out of such experiences.
That is the problem with sentient experience: it is real. What is experienced is really experienced; it can’t be undone. The Biblical story of Job is very instructive here. In a single day, as part of a test (the product of a little side-bet between God and Satan) Job suffers the loss of his livestock, the death of most of his servants, then the death of his ten children. But it’s ok. Because in the end, God “makes it all right” by giving him new livestock, new servants, and new children.
Could that in any way make up for the emotional pain Job endured—could it really bring things back to the way they were before God and Devil entered into their evil little agreement? New sons and daughters are nice, but still, still the first ten died. They lost their lives. And Job suffered the loss. Nothing ever undid that suffering or those lost lives: nothing could ever undo it.
When a child is lost to a tornado or a washed-out bridge, how can the pain of the loss ever be undone. There is only one way: to make it so the loss and the pain never occur in the first place. Wiping away the memory of it, even that is not enough: the loss is still a loss even if the survivors don’t remember. (If anything the loss is greater—more tragic—for not even being remembered.)
This world can’t be the best of all worlds because, put simply, it is too easy to improve upon it. One less deadly hurricane or lightning strike or killer virus. One less fetus lost to natural abortion. In fact, humans have proven time and again by the application of technology that the world can be improved. Every levee or dam, every medical advance, every hurricane warning, every antibiotic improves on God’s original creation and prevents evils which God allows.
This is the point at which theists usually throw up their hands and declare that God’s perfection is beyond human understanding.
When I hear this it always sounds like a concession: an admission that their story about God “doesn’t make sense” as far as human reason is concerned.
But to say “only God can understand it” doesn’t work against the argument from perfection. The reason is pretty simple. A world whose perfection is evident to God but not evident to the sentient beings he created is not as perfect as a world whose perfection is evident to both its creator and the creatures within it.
The problem is that as soon as God creates other sentient beings, the world has to be perfect not just for God but for those other sentient beings as well. God’s perspective is no longer the only one that exists. Even to argue that in the end those beings will also see the perfection of the world—that doesn’t work, because in a truly perfect world its perfection would be evident from the beginning. A perfect world would be perfect all along, to everyone’s experience, beginning to end.
To tell Job, for instance, after the death of his 10 children not to worry, that he will eventually experience perfection—that doesn’t work. The loss of his children and the sorrow he experienced from it was still real, not to mention the experiences of the children and servants who were killed. There was no perfection for them even if God thinks otherwise. When their lives came into existence their point of reference also came into existence, and from that moment on God’s point of reference is no longer the only one. Perfection has to be perfection for everyone.
There is really no way to get around the common sense observation that a perfect God would create a perfect world, and that our world isn’t perfect. And that our experience, our human point of view, is just as valid as God’s when it comes to the experience of evil. Perhaps mores so. If only God experiences the world’s perfection, then things are indeed imperfect.
I lingered on the argument from perfection only to show how powerful it is. But we mustn’t forget that the perfection argument isn’t even needed. It’s purpose is to show that God is an even weaker proposition than ghosts or pagan deities. Even if that argument ultimately fails (and it doesn’t look that way), the atheist’s case is compelling.
If it makes no sense to be agnostic about gods and ghosts, then likewise for God.