WHY I AM AN ATHEIST
February 4, 2011 § 41 Comments
I gave an unusual lecture this week. I was invited to Bristol University’s Trinity College, to talk to theology students about ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was an enjoyable event, and I relished debating with an audience that was courteous, articulate and well-informed (and all of them endearingly concerned at my loneliness in being the only atheist in the room). And, perhaps, I planted a few seeds of doubt in their minds. What was clear, however, was that the difference between between us rested less at the level of philosophical debate than of psychological temper.
My brief was to talk about why I do not see a need for God in my life. I challenged the traditional arguments of God as a necessity for explaining the universe, dispensing moral values and infusing life with meaning. I questioned the belief that we needed a ‘First Cause’ for the universe, or that God was such a First Cause, explored the weaknesses of traditional theological ‘proofs’ of God’s existence, and looked at the fragility of the claim that without God we would all fall into a moral abyss.
But I also accepted that, in an important sense, all such questioning and criticism is irrelevant to an audience such as this. No one comes to believe in God because they have been convinced by philosophical argument. No one says, ‘I was unsure about God, but now that I have read Aquinas’ proofs of God’s existence, I am convinced that He is real.’ Rather they insist, as philosopher Peter Stannard does, that ‘I don’t have to believe in God, I know that God exists – that is how I feel.’
The theological arguments for the necessity of God are an attempt to demonstrate not so much the existence of God as the intellectual soundness of belief in a supernatural deity, of striving to establish that such knowingness can be rational. As the eleventh century Christian philosopher Anselm of Canterbury put it, ‘I do not seek to understand in order to have faith, I seek to have faith in order to understand.’ If you already believe in God, then the theological proofs for God’s existence suggest that such belief may not be irrational. But if you do not believe in God, they certainly do not demonstrate the necessity for doing so.
And this bears upon the differences between atheists and believers. Take, for instance, the Christian belief that God is necessary for the creation and maintenance of the universe, a belief that can be traced back to Aristotle. Behind every change in the universe, Aristotle argued, must lie a cause, and indeed a chain of causes, that brings about that change. But such a chain cannot stretch out for ever because it is impossible to have an infinite series of causes. The first link in the chain, as it were, is what Aristotle called the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause of the cosmos and of all change within it, but which itself is not caused by anything. This argument, which came into the Christian tradition via the Kalām school of Muslim philosophy, was given theological rigour in the work of Thomas Aquinas.
The problems with this argument have long been recognized, including by Christian theologians themselves. Why insist that one cannot have an infinite regress of causes? Why should the idea of an uncaused First Cause seem any more believable than the idea of an infinite regress of causes? Why should the First Cause be God given that God, or at least the God of theists, possesses many properties not implied by the concept of First Cause, such as omniscient, omnipotent, benevolence, the ability to intervene in our lives? And so on.
In the end, though, the difference between atheists and believers lies less in the answers to such questions than in the degree of closure required from those answers. I, as an atheist, am happy to say, ‘I do not know what First Cause is, or even if there is one. It may be that one day we discover the answer to that. Or it may be that we never will. For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’.
Believers are reluctant to go down that road. They insist that there must be a First Cause and that it must take the form of God. They find it difficult to live with the uncertainty about First Cause that comes with non-belief. In Peter Stannard’s words they know – they have to know – that God exists. Which is why that which divides believers and atheists is a matter not simply of philosophy but also of psychological temper.
It is the same in the debate about God and morality. Believers often claim that without God every human has to make up his or her own mind about what is right and wrong. There is no anchor for moral values. Rather, everyone can pick and choose which values they accept and which they reject. All of which is true. But all which also applies to believers. For pick and choose is exactly what believers do.
Consider the Bible. Leviticus justifies slavery. It tells us that if a ‘man commiteth adultery’, then both ‘the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’ According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. It also insists that those work on the Sabbath may be put to death. Genesis implies that birth control is a capital offence. Proverbs tells us to ‘beat the child with the rod’. And so on.
Few modern day Christians would accept such commands. But many others they would unquestioningly follow. They pick and choose, in other words, which values make sense and which no longer do so. Some Christians today think that the Bible justifies the execution of gays. Others, reading scripture differently, insist that practising homosexuals are committing no sin at all. Each reads the Bible in whatever way is necessary to fit it into their own moral framework.
The difference between believers and atheists in not, then, that one picks and chooses moral values, while the other simply receives them from God. It is that I, as an atheist, accept that values are humanly created, while believers, having humanly chosen what is good and bad, then alienate this decision to God, because that seems provide those values with greater authority. The difference, in other words is between those who are happy to accept the unnerving thought that we live by our own moral standards and those who have a need to set their ethics in concrete by invoking the authority of God.
It is a difference beautifully expressed in Albert Camus’ meditation on faith and fate in The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in the embers of the Second World War, Camus confronts both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one because the certainties of God provide false hope and in so doing undermine our humanity by denying choice. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, Camus writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’
Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. Humans have to make their own meaning. And that meaning can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus, who, having scorned the gods, was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain.
For Camus, religious faith must be replaced not with faithlessness but with a different kind of faith: faith in our ability to live with the predicament of being human. It was a courageous argument, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust. It remains no less important today.