Is There a God? Why It Matters to Atheists

I am going to devote a number of posts on the question of the existence of gods and I am currently working on a podcast. I’d like to talk about why I am doing this and there are really two reasons.

I Like the Discussion

I find myself drawn to any discussion on the existence of god. I enjoy seeing good atheist arguments and watching theists’ arguments being defeated. I do not know why. I seem to just like delving into the philosophical, moral, and scientific issues at play.

While I do think answering the question of whether any gods exist is an important one, projects aimed at eliminating poverty, preventing war, healing the sick and, caring for the environment are more pressing. I’m interested in doing this series mainly because I enjoy it.

These Are Important Issues

That said, I certainly do think there are a number of benefits and harms that flow from getting this question wrong. If a god does exist and denying or ignoring him means people will be hurt, including missing out on eternal life and facing to eternal anguish, it would be better to know if this god exists in the first place. There may also be all kinds of other benefits to believing, or acting religious. For example,  prayers and rituals might create positive results in this life and in any afterlife.

On the other hand, if no gods exist, then it would seem that a great deal of resources are being wasted and a multitude of harms have been needlessly imposed. I think we can be more confident about some of these harms than others, and I divide them into three rough categories.

Harms that are Almost Certainly Caused by Religion or Theism

We can be most confident about the social divisions, strife, and psychological distress caused because of differences in religious belief. Families are divided, moms cry for atheist or apostate children they believe destined for Hell. Some believers feel offended or guilty over sin and blasphemy and so on. Also, a lot of money and time is being spent on religious buildings and rituals which could be used more directly for alleviating social problems, for building community, or simply for entertainment. I would also place the refusal of secular medicine on religious grounds in this category.

Harms I Think are at Least Partly Caused by Religion or Theism

There are of course many more troubling issues, but these are also more difficult to link to religion or theism. Terrorism, genocide, and crimes against humanity, such as genital mutilation, seem quite often religiously motivated, and religious justifications are commonly advanced for them. We also have discriminatory views and practices against equity-seeking groups (such as homosexuals and women) that seem to fall into this category as well. But we cannot deny that there are sure to be social, economic, and psychological causes for these harms too. It may very well be that if no one ever believed in any gods, something like the Crusades, the Inquisition, Al-Quaeda, ISIS, and the Westboro Baptist Church would have happened anyway. Of course, the same can be said for the many charitable activities and goodwill for which religion is given as a justification. These kinds of things cut both ways.

I don’t think we know what the relative strength of possible causal factors are for these kinds of harms or good works, or that we ever will know. But what we can say with confidence, is that if theism and religion do play some causal role in these atrocities,  reducing the belief would lessen the harm. Even if there is no causal link, we are still better off in demonstrating atheism to be true, because at least we will have taken away a stated justification. Then again, if charity and goodwill are also partially attributable to religion, these too would suffer. But I think reducing the harms would likely be more beneficial on balance. I can of think good secular reasons for things like helping the poor and curing disease, but I can’t think of any for things like witch-burning, genital mutilation, or homophobia.

Harms I Suspect are Related to Religion or Theism

A harm which is probably the least easy to establish, is my view that theism actively encourages uncritical thinking and bad epistemology about important issues and this bleeds into other important areas. Theism is about things more important than life and death, such as the fate of eternal souls. When it comes to justifying these beliefs, it is not empirical evidence and logic that are employed, but rather tradition, wishful thinking, blind faith, ideology, and dogma. I don’t think that we can honestly say that people will suspend reason on these religious issues, but rely on reason alone for other important issues.

What Do I hope to Accomplish?

I know that many religious apologists will argue that their beliefs can be justified entirely by empirical evidence and/or reason. It is these arguments that I wish to address in these posts. I think all of their arguments can be refuted leaving only things like intuition and dogma to justify believing in any gods. If people still wish to use these to justify their positions, then there is not much anyone can do, but I think they must admit they are in a weaker position.

I don’t think anyone will read single a post here and change their minds. But I think efforts like this provide a counterweight to the well-organized and well-funded projects intended to justify theism. I think counter-apologetics are helpful to thoughtful theists in their journeys  to reason and out of religion, lessening the harm described above.

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About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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12 Responses to Is There a God? Why It Matters to Atheists

  1. varietypost says:

    Excellent post. Intellectual, yet short and to the point. Check out my blog!

  2. chicagoja says:

    I hope you realize that refuting the gods of religion does not refute the possible existence of a First Cause. Keep in mind when making your arguments, that the absence of evidence does not equate with evidence of absence. I look forward to reading your posts.

    • These counter apologetics will deal with claims that gods exist. I will be applying a standard of evidence of a balance of probabilities. The first cause issue will likely arise in an early post discussing the cosmological argument. I would not deny that a first cause is possible, but I am interested in whether something is more likely than not the case, not just whether it hasn’t been demonstrated impossible.

  3. Personally, I see no point in debating an empirically unresolvable topic other than the desire to argue. However, that is our prerogative should we wish to. Very few believers are swayed by the rationalist arguments presented by “New Atheists” and other “confrontationalists.” Religion will inevitably fall on its own lack of merit, and we are witnessing this trend now throughout the developed world – albeit at a much slower pace than I would prefer.

    Here’s an essay I wrote which expands upon these points (the comment section contains rebuttals from atheists): http://atheistenquiry.org/2013/10/13/between-the-lions-an-agnostics-view-of-the-theism-versus-atheism-debate/

  4. Pingback: A Salmon of Doubt – Episode 3 – Teleological Argument Part 1 | Brian Green Adams' Blog

  5. Luke Breuer says:

    A harm which is probably the least easy to establish, is my view that theism actively encourages uncritical thinking and bad epistemology about important issues and this bleeds into other important areas.

    I wonder if the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes awarded to Jews throws a wrench into this reasoning? The list is 21% Jewish, even though Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the population. Now, not all of these scientists were actively practicing, but that still seems a troubling statistic when it comes to your argument. Something Jewish culture has done over the last 2500+ years was extraordinary, if measured by scientific excellence. Do you really want to immediately claim that Judaism had nothing to do with it, that in fact if Jews hadn’t been theistic, they would be winning even more Nobel Prizes?

    Theism is about things more important than life and death, such as the fate of eternal souls.

    Sure, and this seems like a very sharp knife: it can be used to perform life-saving surgery, or to carry out gruesome torture. Take, for example, the conundrum of doing the right thing vs. the thing that will preserve one’s life and social power. Which is better for posterity? How much have you benefited from people who chose what was right over what was easy/safe? After all, surely it is possible for people to optimize for the welfare of a future generation?

    When it comes to justifying these beliefs, it is not empirical evidence and logic that are employed, but rather tradition, wishful thinking, blind faith, ideology, and dogma.

    Do you have the requisite empirical evidence, passed through scientific analysis and peer review to show where correlation matches up with causation, to demonstrate this? For example, can you show me enough examples of either of these things to constitute scientific evidence:

         (1) Upon becoming atheistic, a scientist starts doing better science.
         (2) Upon becoming religious, a scientist starts doing worse science.

    ? Even if you cannot establish (1) or (2), surely your views here are based on peer-reviewed scientific studies?

  6. BGA says:

    “Do you have the requisite empirical evidence, passed through scientific analysis and peer review to show where correlation matches up with causation, to demonstrate this? For example, can you show me enough examples of either of these things to constitute scientific evidence:

    (1) Upon becoming atheistic, a scientist starts doing better science.
    (2) Upon becoming religious, a scientist starts doing worse science.

    ? Even if you cannot establish (1) or (2), surely your views here are based on peer-reviewed scientific studies?”

    Goodness no! I think I was very clear that I really do not think I can defend this claim. This is a suspicion a very weak position. My concerns are not with doing science, but rather with public policy. Science has probably the best system of identifying poor reasoning and correcting it. Public policy or individual social and other decisions would be much more vulnerable.

    But as I said, this is a suspicion, it might be interesting for people to investigate.

    The point of this piece is actually to state how weak atheist claims that theism leads to bad judgment or crimes against humanity are, compared to interpersonal divisions.

    • Luke Breuer says:

      My concerns are not with doing science, but rather with public policy. Science has probably the best system of identifying poor reasoning and correcting it. Public policy or individual social and other decisions would be much more vulnerable.

      I don’t see how you can even suspect that science is better, without showing it to be better. (In the same domain where other systems are failing—that is, the domain of the politically relevant, with all the forces at play there which are not at play in e.g. quantum mechanics.) That seems self-contradictory, because science is all about not believing things until you have enough evidence, properly analyzed, and properly peer-reviewed. Stated differently, you are unscientifically thinking that scientific thinking is better than unscientific thinking.

      Here, by the way, is a reason to be skeptical that when religion is [largely] evacuated from the human mind, the result is any sort of increase in rationality or decrease in harm:

          Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (A Far Glory, 30)

      “The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone astray in their moral and political thinking as often as anyone else,” write the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their new book Democracy for Realists, echoing Lippmann. What the educated are better at is sounding like they know what they are talking about, because they have been trained in how to make an argument. “Well-informed people are likely to have more elaborate and internally consistent worldviews than inattentive people, but that just reflects the fact that their rationalisations are better rehearsed.” Education gives you the ability to tailor your arguments to suit your personal preferences, which is why it is a big asset on the job market. But it does little to help tailor your personal preferences to suit the best arguments. (Guardian: How the education gap is tearing politics apart)

      With additional education, you do get an increase in rationalizing.

  7. Sandy Donaldson says:

    How I can suspect it is because when I see well-educated people making fallacious arguments and doing violence to critical thinking, I wonder how this can be? I look at religions that encourage fallacious thinking and suspect that this is having an effect.

    It comes from organized, often wealthy apologists with large networks and followings, encouraging poor reasoning such as Matt Slick, Kirk Cameron, Ray Comfort, Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, Ken Ham and many more. These people advance arguments based on arguing from ignorance, special pleading, begging the question and that belief is justified by these means on the most important questions. I cannot help but wonder when such a climate of fallacious thinking is so forcefully employed, that it bleeds into other areas.

    It comes from finding out where my Prime Minister went to church and listening to sermons there that explicitly stated that you should be a young earth creationist, based on ridiculous and fallacious arguments. I think it is reasonable to be concerned that this has an effect.

    This blog post is not science and it explicitly says it is a suspicion not even a belief. I am actually not engaging science at all in this post or my comments.

    I have zero problem admitting that there is little if any support for this suspicion.

    Again the point was to say to atheists that there is little of any support for this position.

    • Luke Breuer says:

      So I hear you on Christians pushing their agendas, agendas which are ultimately harmful to humanity. Jesus warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing and Paul had to deal with plenty of fakes (“super-apostles”) who were quite effective at gaining large followings. Whether there is a “true Christianity”, a natural kind (vs. No True Scotsman), which does not exhibit these pathologies is a question which can be asked another time.

      Where I really want to focus my criticism here is on the idea that more science is our most pressing need, that more science is what will solve our problems. I’ll give you an historical example of this kind of thinking:

      In the 1960s, for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, wrote that

      It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people. … Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we seek its aid. … The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.[3]

      Views like Nehru’s were once quite widely held, and, along with professions of faith in the ‘scientific’ political economy of Marx, they were perhaps typical of the scientism of politicians in the 1950s and 1960s. (Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, 2)

      Science delivered, partially: We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People — and Still Can’t End Hunger. But science doesn’t seem to be helping all that much with Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. It is as if there is an entirely different aspect of human nature which is extremely important, which simply cannot be covered by doing more science.

      In a sense, the fact that your post is quite unscientific supports what I’m saying, but only in a degenerate way that I don’t think is particularly useful. What really needs to be dealt with is whether human nature is such that more science suffices, and I think the answer is a very strong “no”. But apparently, there isn’t yet enough evidence to convince people like you of this?

      • Brian Green Adams says:

        I am sorry, I do not understand what you are trying to ask me. I guess you are reacting to scientism, the idea that only scientific conclusions can form the basis of action, whether political, engineering and so on.

        This is not my view at all. It is quite obvious that people, organizations, etc, will very rarely have a scientific basis demonstrating the necessary course of action. On a question like climate change, I think this is closer to the mark. On the question of whether to intervene militarily in a given situation such as Rwanda or Congo or Iraq, no there is no science that will be particularly helpful and yet decisions need to be made. Such decisions must be made by way of good critical thinking.

        I don’t think you have anything to criticize here, you need to find someone who subscribes to scientism.

      • Luke Breuer says:

        At the very core of your OP is one or both of the following:

             (A) less of X will make things better
             (B) more of Y will make things better

        The chief examples are X = religion, Y = science. This applies not just to the topic you say is “the least easy to establish”; it applies to your entire post. At least (B) is the attitude of Jawaharlal Nehru in the bit I quoted. The general idea here is that somehow religion fouls up humanity while science enhances it. Strict scientism says that Y = science and X = everything else. But what I’m interested in is the more general idea that science is a powerful force for good while religion, on average, is worse than what could replace it. These both seem like empirical claims, and the less you can use science to support them, the more you appear hypocritical. Surely you see how this makes sense? If you cannot appeal to recent science to support your claims—e.g. psychology, social psychology, and sociology—then it would appear that you don’t actually think science is all that important, at least in such domains.

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