What is atheism?
If you ask an atheist this question most often they will carefully explain to you that atheism is ‘a lack of belief in God’.
They’re very sensitive about this.
A lack of belief is not the same thing as non-belief. To claim God ‘does not exist’ is an absolute statement, and one which is virtually impossible to prove deductively.
So the atheist will simply say they ‘lack belief’ and will say this is mostly because of a ‘lack of sufficient evidence’ (agnosticism).
Some atheists are happy to flat-out deny the existence of God and explicitly deny He exists, but most do not.
In practise however, virtually all atheists live life as if God does not exist and harbour a characteristic antagonism towards religious belief.
“I do not believe in God. I am an atheist. I consider myself a Critical thinker, and it fascinates me in the 21st Century people still believe in, as George Carlin puts it, ‘the invisible man living in the sky’.” – Seth MacFarlane
In fact many of the most recognisable atheists, like Richard Dawkins, appear to have made a name for themselves primarily thanks to their condescending, albeit charismatic, public personas.
If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. – Bill Maher
Belief in any kind of god is, in the mind of many atheists, the antithesis of intelligent, human reasonableness.
Supposedly atheism captures a spectrum of beliefs, from outright rejection of any supernatural phenomena at all, to more of an openness to some more spiritualised forms of religion which do not necessarily believe in a ‘god’ per se (like buddhism, or even weird stuff like Satanism and nature worship).
But for the most part atheism rejects any reference to the supernatural, including ghosts and the paranormal, inter-dimensional spirituality, the human soul or any kind of afterlife (including reincarnation).
What you see is what you get.
Given that atheism rejects the supernatural atheists are, unsurprisingly, huge fans of science.
To many atheists, science has all the tools to explain virtually all of our existence, because science is the study of the natural world, and the natural world is all there is.
How does the atheist explain our world?
Atheism is a worldview really, just like Christianity is a worldview.
Atheism may try to limit itself to ‘a lack of belief in gods’, but lacking a belief in gods requires one to hold at least minimal beliefs about other things without reference to any god.
If God does not exist, then what caused the universe to exist?
How is it that the universe seems to be so perfectly fine tuned for life?
What is morality and where did it come from?
Atheism should be able to offer some alternative explanations for these things. Most importantly, as Ravi Zacharias explains here:
“A worldview basically offers answers to four necessary questions: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny [purpose].”
In other words, a belief that God doesn’t exist (or is not the most likely explanation), needs to be able to explain (or at least have some idea) how to answer questions like what mechanisms gave rise to the universe, biological life, human consciousness or the laws of nature and logic? Do our lives have meaning? Is there such a thing as good and evil?
Realistically it should be able to offer up a more compelling response than that given by any alternative.
In fact if atheism is the correct worldview, and it is true God does not exist, then you would expect atheism to have better, more likely explanations for everything we see.
Except it doesn’t.
In fact atheism fails to explain the majority of big picture questions it should be able to explain.
The origins question is huge.
How did everything that exists get here?
This is the at the core of any worldview. The one thing that you really want your worldview to be able to explain is the world right?
How did the universe come into existence?
Not just the universe but life and human beings especially.
So let’s take a look at a few of the big important things and see where the challenges for atheism are.
If we go right back to the beginning, the first big question is, how did we get here?
Where did all the physical matter (and time, space and energy) of the universe come from?
If there is no such thing as god, and no supernatural cause for the universes existence, then the only possible explanation is that everything just kind of… happened.
Further, to claim that everything here arose naturally without any influence from a supernatural God, means (if at all possible) it must have taken a very, very long time.
The most popular model for the origin of our universe is the Big Bang.
In some sense atheism is completely dependent on the Big Bang being true, or some other sufficiently similar explanation which describes how the universe gradually formed over time.
However there is an important point that few people realise.
The Big Bang is not an explanation for what ’caused the universe to exist’.
The Big Bang describes how the universe expanded, after it already existed.
The Big Bang is a model for how a tiny speck of infinite heat and density (the singularity) rapidly expanded to form the universe today, fully equipped with gases, solids, space, time, gravity, physical laws and life on earth (and maybe life in other places too).
Setting aside the many problems with the Big Bang itself, the more important question is then, what then caused this singularity to come into existence?
Atheism has no idea.
Atheist’s are very honest about this, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere too.
The problem is not the honesty (that’s a good thing), the problem is that many atheists are quite cynical about belief in God, yet God is not some arbitrary thing inserted just to try to dismiss the problem.
No one is saying ‘oh God did it, so stop asking questions’.
Many a Christian philosopher has argued that if the universe began to exist, then God is really the only suitable explanation. Not to mention the fact that our universe contains highly constrained constants and properties which seem to make it likely that it was intelligently designed, such as the anthropic principle, and the fine tuning of many universal constants.
The atheists rejection of God as creator, is unjustly dismissive, given their lack of an alternative.
If you don’t have a particularly good argument for why God is a bad explanation then it doesn’t matter how honest you are about ‘not knowing’ what caused the universe to exist, it still a god-of-the-gaps argument. You’ve just replaced ‘god’ with ‘ignorance’.
If God does not exist then life, much like the universe, had to have started through some unguided process, and must have also taken a very long time.
Natural selection is a theory of how environmental pressures favour the features of some living organisms over others of the same species or type, which influences the prevalence of those features in the next generation. This is the primary driving force of the theory of evolution.
Natural selection cannot apply to systems before life started.
All nature has to work with before life starts, is the laws of chemistry. Of course you can argue that some analogous process took place, but it would not be natural selection, therefore it would not be evolution.
The term used to describe how life arose from non-living chemicals is abiogenesis.
To this day, abiogenesis is barely a hypothesis. There exists no explanation whatsoever for how life could have arisen from non life; nothing that is anywhere close to deserving the title ‘theory’.
There is a lot of talk surrounding life spontaneously arising from non-life, but the vast majority of it is wishful thinking and optimism in the extreme.
Atheism (and science) have no idea, how life arose from non-living chemicals.
Atheists are again very honest about this. At least in this case many scientists are attempting to form some theories, or are hopeful that some may appear.
Unfortunately though, the problem is not just that no one knows how this could’ve happened, but actually it looks very much like it could not have happened that way.
I’m not even talking about the ‘complexity’ of life. I’m not saying it looks ‘designed’ per se, I’m simply saying the laws of chemistry seemingly prohibit life having arisen from non life, not to mention the philosophical considerations like how to define life, and whether or not there exists a sharp boundary between life and non-life (cue the sorites paradox).
The atheist has no answer to this, other than to insist that ‘well it just must have’. Consider Richard Lewontin who has famously said:
“materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door”
In other words there has to be some natural explanation, because you’re not allowed to use God to explain it.
For the record, this is only a philosophical bias against the supernatural. There’s no logical reason why God cannot be the explanation for first life. All that means is that the origin of life is beyond the scope of science, which not the same as saying it is an ‘unscientific’ position.
There are other characteristics of life relevant to the discussion of worldviews.
How is it we are even able to ask these questions, and why are we bothering?
Consciousness is the ability to reflect, to think and be self aware. This is so much more profound than it sounds.
No other life on earth that we know of other than humans, including primates like chimpanzees, have this ability to comprehend their own existence.
The human brain is unparalleled in the animal kingdom, even just as an anatomical structure, but consciousness is something altogether different.
Two hundreds years has seen the development of electricity, nuclear power, super computers and space travel.
To this day no-one, not philosophers, nor psychologists, nor neurobiologists, have developed even a remotely compelling natural theory for consciousness, what it is or what its relationship is to the physical human brain.
There is still very healthy debate within philosophy about whether consciousness can even be explained through natural biological mechanisms.
Most importantly, no one has any naturalistic, atheistic explanation for where consciousness came from. How did it originate? How did it evolve? What caused it?
Science, and therefore atheism is completely at a loss to explain any of this, without even a light at the end of the tunnel. Consciousness is a total mystery.
If the entire universe and everything in it was the occurrence of completely natural processes, then it begs a deeper question. What’s natural?
What are the laws of nature, logic and mathematics?
Why can we/do we trust them to develop scientific and philsophical theories?
Where did they come from and why are they the way they are, and not different?
The laws of physics, or logic and mathematics are immutable. They are also non-physical.
Natural laws are properties of the physical universe that it conforms to. It is these laws which make it orderly, and allow us to study it. It is because of the immutability of these laws that allow science to make reliable predictions.
If the Big Bang is true, and everything in the universe has a completely natural explanation, then we have no reason to expect the universe to exhibit any natural laws. Many of the laws of nature that do exist had to be violated in the initial moments of the Big Bang event, so why should we expect those laws to have held any time following the Big Bang.
The only real answer that the atheist, or naturalist has to this is ‘because we observe them’, which is not an answer at all.
The question is not ‘how do we explain the existence and reliability of natural law in a world where God doesn’t exist?’.
The better question to ask is ‘would we expect to find order in a universe that was completely derived from some natural process?’
Almost everything I’ve discussed above is not particularly controversial. Atheists are rather cynical about religious people and their zany beliefs in the ‘invisible man in the sky’, despite the fact they are generally willing to admit that they have virtually no alternative explanation for anything that exists.
Interestingly however, is that many atheists, despite having no belief in any supernatural deities, or anything beyond the natural world, retain a deep seated sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
Meaning and purpose
This one is real simple.
If God does not exist, and the physical world is entirely the result of natural process from the Big Bang, to evolution, to now, then life has no real meaning, or purpose.
And no, I’m not saying how ’empty life is without God’.
I’m not saying you’re a lost soul tragically destined for eternal torment because you don’t have ‘God’ in your life.
I certainly didn’t feel that way before I became a Christian.
It was full of friends, and indulgent pleasures like alcohol, music, cars and worldly philosophies.
What I am saying is this, if it’s true that God does not exist, then it’s simply true that meaning and purpose do not exist.
Whatever meaning and purpose we give to our lives is an illusion.
Whatever meaning and purpose we give to our lives is completely temporary and counts for nothing in the (very) long run.
The universe evolved, then life evolved, then we evolved. Eventually we will all die, humanity will go extinct, all of our knowledge, technology, and experiences will cease to exist as if they never did. Eventually all of life will fade away, and the universe will fade into oblivion.
The most intellectually honest atheists tend to acknowledge this point.
However, there’s a bigger problem.
If we evolved through a completely natural process, then the atheist needs to explain why virtually all human beings, so far as we know, seem to have this deeply rooted desire to contemplate the meaning of life. Virtually all human beings have a deeply rooted desire to give their life purpose.
The most we can say is we evolved a deep need to give our lives meaning and purpose because it had some survival advantage.
However there’s not really any good reason to think that lying to ourselves about life’s purpose has any selective advantage, other than to perhaps improve our will to survive. Yet from a purely biological perspective, the compulsion to avoid pain and injury would be strong enough for that, and made all the simpler if we weren’t constantly pestered with thoughts about some higher purpose.
If all we are doing is surviving, and that’s about all that we should be doing, then I see no real survival advantage in evolving the intellectual capacity to question why we should be trying to survive at all.
Consider the harsh reality that many individuals devoid of any real meaning or purpose in their lives end up destitute and depressed. This is sad, but it also seems to suggest that not only do we seek meaning and purpose, but apparently these abstract qualities are really beneficial to us, maybe even necessary.
It seems to me that from a survival perspective, humans would be better off without these deep feelings.
In other words, if humans did not live life with a sense of meaning and purpose, evolution would have no problem explaining why this is the case.
By contrast, if we seem to really thrive as humans when our lives have purpose and meaning, it’s highly likely that this is because our lives do actually have meaning, and a purpose. This is really only possible if someone, or something gave it to us.
Really the best explanation for meaning and purpose is that we were purposefully created by an omniscient God.
To lack a belief in any God, is to acknowledge a lack of any real meaning and purpose to this life, other than whatever temporary, arguably superfluous purpose we give to it ourselves.
However, attempting to give your life any meaning and purpose, even some kind of tailor made purpose is to acknowledge that human beings have a need to do so, a need which atheists are at a loss to explain or justify.
Morality is a hot topic.
Can we just get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way first?
No one is saying that atheists ‘cannot be moral’. I’m not going to say this either. Obviously this is not true.
Atheists can be quite defensive about this too. Atheists need to consistently remind everyone, especially Christians, that they ‘don’t need to believe in God to be moral’.
I agree of course.
Well I mean, I agree that anyone, whether they believe in God or not, has the capacity to be very agreeable; assuming God exists and we are made in His image with free will and a conscience.
But this is not really the issue.
Morality doesn’t exist
If we are just evolved creatures, then there is no objective standard for morality.
If humans beings evolved, then what we think is morality is nothing more than some chemical reaction in our brain that evolved only because it had some survival benefit. Over time, we had to evolve some instinctive sense that helping others helps us survive better.
However, that’s not really morality in the way we think; that is really just self-interest. Morality, as most humans understand it is the genuine and conscious will to do good for its own sake.
So if God isn’t real, and we’re just evolved mammals then what is ‘good’?
Is ‘good’ the least amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people? Well now you have to explain why we aren’t all out harvesting our organs to save two or three extra people. You also have to explain why alleviating suffering is ‘good’.
Is ‘good’ decided by society? Well now you have to explain why we abolished slavery because it was ‘bad’, since most people at the time thought it was perfectly OK. You also have to acknowledge that ‘good’ then is completely arbitrary and can literally change depending on how the people feel. You also have to explain why the criteria for ‘good’ is what most people think? Why is that the definition? Why not just one person that the whole world trusts? Why not just a couple of people? Why not Burt Reynolds?
Is ‘good’ decided by the law and the Government?… Oh liberals, you’re not trying to tell me that Trump gets to decide what’s good are you? That doesn’t sound like you at all.
All the above definitions, and any others, are merely human inventions. Good could just as easily be sacrificing the weakest to allow the strong to survive.
The fact is, if atheism is true, there’s no such thing as true good and evil.
Atheism has no basis for enforcing moral values
First let me say there is really no good observable evidence that morality evolved (plenty of theories).
But even if it did, explaining how we evolved to be moral creatures does nothing to justify why we ought to be moral.
There is no authority beyond our own that we are subject to, no ultimate consequences for our actions, nor should there be.
If our behaviour is the product of some evolutionary process, then we have no free will, and only behave according our genetic makeup, whether good or bad. If we are simply “dancing to our DNA”, then we can’t really be held responsible for our actions.
But if there is no God, then we won’t be held responsible for our actions in the long run anyway.
But morality does, actually, exist
Fortunately, humans actually have the capacity for extreme altruism, and a commitment to really abstract concepts like virtue, loyalty, goodwill and kindness, when it has utterly no survival benefit whatsoever, or is in many cases extremely injurious to the individual.
Humans don’t just care about survival and cooperation, they care about the sick and expend enormous resources caring for and aiding the weak, the sick, the downtrodden and the less fortunate.
Most of humanity utterly vilifies individuals or societies who subjugate the weak, or take innocent life.
Certain societies seem to have arbitrary conventions which appear to have no other function than demonstrating human worth. This is to say nothing of seemingly completely unnecessary things like ‘good table manners’ and decorum.
It is a very fortunate fact that the vast majority of human beings, atheist or otherwise, have a deeply rooted belief in the existence of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. So much so that the atheist will very often recourse to some universal moral principle, even if they don’t really believe such a thing exists.
Consider this quote:
“To me a real patriot is like a real friend. Who’s your real friend? It’s the person who tells you the truth. That’s who my real friends are. So, you know, I think as far as our country goes, we need more people who will do that.”- Bill Maher
Bill Maher the skeptic has an opinion about what makes a ‘good’ friend (and patriot), one that tells the truth. But why should anyone feel like truth-telling is so important to a persons good nature? That’s just Bill’s opinion. Ah, but Bill doesn’t just think truth-telling is good, he also feels it is necessary to insist that others do to.
In other words, Bill is appealing to some higher, objective standard of behaviour which all (or most) human beings appear to acknowledge. So Bill hopes to win the hearts of this audience by appealing to this universally acknowledged moral standard.
But if God doesn’t exist, where does this moral standard come from? It doesn’t come from the people because Bill is assuming that everyone is intuitively aware that this standard already exists, and that most people agree, and subject themselves to it freely.
There is honestly a real audacity to outright rejecting God, and the existence of any objective morality, but then attempting to hold other people accountable for their behaviour, based on your own arbitrary standards.
You see, morality really is inescapable. This moral code is so intimately tied to our existence and experience that most atheists will appeal to it, without even realising it.
But there’s a twist.
“These, then, are the two points I wanted to make.
First, that human beings, all over the earth, have the curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way.
They know the Law of Nature; they break it.” – C. S. Lewis
This is why the moral argument for God is so strong; because there appears to exist this common law of morality that appears to be almost universal amongst human kind, and yet, we appear to be completely free to disobey it.
Or, alternatively, we have no particularly good reason to obey unless we think that we have some higher standard of accountability (or we think we have something to gain), and many humans often don’t. In fact most people would agree that some of the greatest and most honourable acts of kindness and goodwill, are so admirable because they came at the extreme disadvantage to the hero. Yet this paradoxical tendency to fail to hold up to some moral standard, does in no way diminish the deep-seated belief we all have that it exists.
I have to acknowledge that I’m touching some broad religious, scientific and philosophical topics here with no shortage of intense dialogue.
Humans have been pondering the existence of God for thousands of years and it may seem rather arrogant to just dismiss one worldview over another in one simple blog post.
Any one of the points raised here could occupy several blog posts on their own (and then some). Every one of these points has a dearth of dialogue on both sides spanning centuries, even millennia.
I hope though that by considering the points raised here, many of which are not at all controversial, you can take an honest look at what atheism claims to state about the world, and that for the most part it appears to be lacking in many key areas of life and our experience.
Atheists and evolutionists very often accuse creationists of ‘just poking holes in evolution’, which I think is really ironic, because in the same way it could be said that atheism has only ever ‘just poked holes in theology’. It appears to be consistently on the defensive in accounting for the universes existence, the origin of life, the origin of morality and human virtue, and the general complexities of the human spirit.
Why do we get lonely?
Why do we seek meaning and purpose (and why do we struggle so much when we don’t meet these needs?)
What are emotions and why do we have them?
Why would anyone invent a god that expected them to be celibate, self sacrificial, self-denying or monogamous?
If you’re an atheist and you’re reading this then I hope you haven’t just scoffed (as many often do), but are willing to think about these issues and hopefully look at them in more (honest) detail.
If you’re a Christian then remember that you have just as much responsibility to examine these points yourself for both personal and evangelistic purposes.
Most atheists, especially those who take time and care to think about what they believe have not come to their position lightly, I understand this, and if you as a Christian are interested in engaging them and showing them that the Bible is true, then you ought to be ready…
This blog post is an expanded version of a talk I recently gave. The talk comprised one part of a theme on world views in general. As such I would like to give a very grateful shout out to my friends and colleagues who also gave talks and ultimately masterminded the overall structure of the topic, from which this post was inspired.
Lewis, C. S. 2002. Mere Christianity: fiftieth anniversary edition, HarperCollins Publishers.
I consider it an honour to have an excerpt of this content published elsewhere, on the condition that full credit is given, and the excerpt is linked directly & clearly back to the source material. God bless.