This is a series I’ve been promising nearly from the first year of this blog; taking the analytical ethical tools I’ve discussed and using them to take a really solid look at some of the major ideologies floating around in society today. Current affairs may offer good examples of ethics in real life, but all too often I end up stuck with namby-pamby ‘it depends in the circumstances’ compromises. Ideologies on the other hand, are just ideas, pure and simple. And that makes them much more fun to take apart.
The first of these ideologies to get strapped to the dissecting table is atheism, and I can hear a bunch of you objecting already; “Atheism isn’t a belief system! It’s the rejection of a belief system!” Yup, which in turn makes it a belief system all of its very own. What, you’re going to try and tell me that atheism doesn’t have ideals? That it doesn’t seek to change things? That it doesn’t have end goals in mind? I’m not suggesting atheism has a unified political front or something, but you don’t go around rejecting ideas unless you have a reason for doing so – generally because you think the idea is a bad one and that superior alternatives are available. Serious proponents of atheism don’t just want to tear down religion for shits and giggles, they want to replace these institutions with systems they believe work better, even if that replacement is pure freedom; the absence of a system. Like it or not, this means you want to change how other people live, and that means you are 100% eligible for criticism.
So with that established, let get stuck right in: what do atheists believe? Well that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? They don’t believe that one or more gods exist, and that therefore institutions and value-systems based on such higher powers are a load of crap. 90% of the time you hear about atheism it’s in a political sense: separation of church and state for example, keep your religion out of my relationship/uterus/children’s school, etc etc. But these political arguments are based on a far more fundamental criticism; it’s not just that atheists disagree with the ideas or even values of religious groups, it’s that they believe the foundation of those ideas and values is complete bunk. After all, if your politics are based on your values, and your values are based on your belief in a higher power, then if that higher power doesn’t actually exists your ideology is in some serious trouble, right?
Broadly speaking atheists deny the existence of god/s in three different ways; ‘evidence’, ‘evil’ and ‘failure’.
‘Evidence’ is the go-to atheist argument, basically stating that there is no evidence whatsoever that a god exists or that religious value-systems are based on divine will. No god of any kind has ever, y’know, shown up in a way that completely proves its existence. Sure we’ve got burning bushes, angelic messengers and groovy vision quests out the wazoo, but you’ll note all of these are things a person could just as easily hallucinate (or make up for that matter) – you’d think that if an all-powerful divinity wished to prove its existence to us it would be pretty dang capable of doing so. Sure every religion has its sacred texts they claim are the infallible word of their god/s, but once again you’ll notice that books aren’t exactly hard to make up – in fact we do it all the time. The Bible, Torah or Koran could be the unblemished word of the creator, but then again they could just as easily have been written by the guys in charge at the time – something that seems kinda likely considering the ‘word of god’ happens to match the social and legal norms of the period they were written in. Makes you wonder if god would have been fine with homosexuality if those texts got written today.
Of course religious folk generally respond to criticisms like these with faith – their belief in god and his teachings is beyond such earthly needs as ‘proof’. But as I’ve mentioned on here before, faith can seriously backfire for religious folk. If your beliefs are true simply because you have faith in them, and despite any and all evidence to the contrary, then can’t anything be true? If a psychopath honestly believes god wants him to make a wallet out of people’s noses, then isn’t that equally as valid as your faith in a loving and merciful god? How can both be true when they obviously conflict each other? This is the philosophical concept known as Hitchen’s Razor:
Based on evidence, there is no sign of god. Based on faith, his lessons are effectively meaningless. Your choice.
The second category of argument used by atheists is the question of ‘evil’, or to be more specific, ‘where does evil come from’? This is more a problem for monotheists like Christians and Muslims who tend to portray their god as both omnipotent masters of all reality, AND perfect and incorruptible beings of love – a combination many have been quick to point out, is kinda incompatible with the fact that evil still exists in the world. Religious folk have a tendency to explain away evil as the fault of satan, humanity’s corruptibility, or in particularly difficult situations on ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. But here’s the thing about being omnipotent – you’re all powerful. Everything is as it is exclusively because you made it that way. Sure, evil may exists in the world because man has free will, or because the devil is out there corrupting us, but once again, god created everything, and therefore all that corruption can only happen because he made room for it.
This wedges the ‘god loves us’ crowd into an awkward spot, because the fact that evil exists means that either god can remove this evil but chooses not to, or that god loves us and wants to remove all evil, but can’t. Either outcome makes the big fella look pretty damn terrible.
And finally there is the third category of atheist criticism: failure. ‘If god is so great’, they ask, ‘then why do his divine teachings keep fucking things up all the time?’. Whether you’re talking about Sharia law’s horrendous injustices, the Catholic ban on condoms effectively spreading HIV across Africa, the Christian anti-homosexual hate machine, the pure ridiculousness of Orthodox Judaism, the horrors of the Hindu caste system, or the poverty and oppression created by the Tibetan Buddhist theocracy, religion has a habit of causing some really terrible outcomes. And this begs the question; if these are the teachings of the all-mighty, all-knowing creator of all that is, then why don’t they work? Why do they lead to such great levels of suffering compared to the non-godly alternatives? Maybe the teachings were changed over time, or maybe the leaders have perverted them, but if that’s the case then why do we follow these ideas at all and how do we know the true will of god? Maybe the systems are working perfectly and this is precisely what god wants for us? But if massive and avoidable suffering is the will of god then that god is not benevolent and is better defied than followed.
The obvious defence here is that these terrible outcomes are religion being used as an excuse and justification by terrible people. Allah never wanted the brutality of ISIS, and Islam does not condone it. The Bible clearly says to love your neighbour and the anti-homosexual lobby are blatantly ignoring this teaching. But even where this is the case, the fact remains that religion has failed to prevent these charlatans from using their god as a tool to gain power – a failure of the ideology in and of itself. Sure religion is hardly unique in being abused for power, but there’s no denying that you get better bang for your buck when you claim to be the instrument of the creator of the universe.
So based on these three claims you may think that atheists have a rock solid case: three solid logical paradoxes demonstrating that there is no proof for a god of any kind existing and that all religions based on that idea must therefore be wrong. This is not to say of course that religious people should be attacked themselves (since that defeats the entire point), nor that religious folk don’t do some wonderful things in the world. But it does mean that all the good done by those people in the name of god/s is done for flawed reasons, and while that’s not necessarily a problem in the short term, it can have some nasty results further down the line – consider the difference between outcome-focussed aid, and intention-focussed charity.
But before your atheists out there get too pleased with yourselves, there’s a sting in this here tail: these proofs that god does not exist are only true if we assume that ‘god’ means the same thing as ‘religion’. When atheists say that there is no evidence of god, that the existence of evil means he is either weak or uncaring, and that every attempt to implement divine laws leads to disaster, they are criticising religions. And while this may have merit in itself, it is NOT the same as proving that one or more gods do not exist. Why? Because that is a question that simply cannot be answered – there may not be proof that any god exists, but neither is there any that a god does not.
To be clear here the arguments made against the gods as described by various religions are quite valid, but this is because we can show evidence that god cannot be like that – the existence of evil for example shows that he can’t be both benevolent and all-powerful. But if we strip back all those details and stick with the core question of whether some sort of higher power exists at all, then we have no way of answering the question because evidence simply does not exist. By definition a creator god must exists separate to the universe it created, and since by definition the universe is the limit of all the information it is possible for us to ever access, the question is closed. Unless said deity chooses to make a guest appearance (and it’s possible for it to do so) then we have no information to work off.
And this completely tanks the atheist argument. Sure you can criticise the divine authority of religions all you want, go for it. But any claim about the existence and nature of god (from either side) is moot because it is impossible to answer. And since atheism is not merely the disagreement with religions, but the explicit denial that god/s even exist, the idea falls into a screaming heap. To hold to the claims of pure atheism in the face of this total void of knowledge would be illogical – precisely as illogical as the faith-based beliefs of those that atheists condemn.
Of course in practice this kind of metaphysical point is irrelevant to those who are more concerned with fighting the influence of religion in politics. But just as good deeds done for flawed religious reasons may accidentally lead to bad outcomes, so too do atheists risk making terrible mistakes in denying the limits of their own knowledge about the universe. I am a huge fan of the scientific method and rational decision-making, but there is no shortage of examples of how it too has been abused for terrible ends by those too arrogant to question themselves.
Personally, I no longer describe myself as an atheist. While I generally agree with the values and politics of the movement, the foundation of the movement it too simplistic for me to embrace. Rather I consider myself an agnostic rationalist – acknowledging my own ignorance about the cosmos but embracing the best tools available to overcome that ignorance. It’s hardly as satisfy a philosophy as either hardcore atheism or devout theology, but it does have one major advantage: it’s correct.