A reader writes:
I still have some investigating to do, but I am nearly ready to give up on organized religion for good. With that almost out of the way, there are two possibilities left: some other god(s) such as a deist god or no god at all. I agree with the notion that our ignorance of the origin of the universe does not necessitate god’s existence, but I don’t understand how it (or any other evidence we have at the present) could necessitate god’s absence either. Therefore, I am having trouble finding a single reason to think god does not exist. Unless I am missing something, rationality can only take someone as far as rejecting organized religion and its general anti-rationality attitude and becoming an agnostic. Actual denial of god seems to always involve a gut feeling, AKA a belief.
Since you made a point to clarify that you have “concluded” god does not exist rather than just “believing” he does not exist, I thought maybe you could shed some light on the issue. You imply that you have found some rational reason to take the extra step past doubting the Christian God to doubting any god at all, which makes me very curious. Could you please elaborate on what evidence led you to rationally deduce that there is no god, dismissing even a deist god? I would love to hear what you have to say.
First, thanks for the great question, Mike. It’s one that comes up pretty often, and one I had to wrestle with myself. I can only answer as to what convinces me, so for what it’s worth, here we go.
You reasonably ask, “what evidence led you to rationally deduce that there is no god”? My simple answer is, the best evidence against the existence of a god is the lack of evidence for that existence. This question, and how it is framed, plays a large role in debates between atheists and religious people (and sometimes agnostics). Religious people are often forced to admit, “OK, fine, I can’t prove that god exists. But you can’t prove that there is no god.” Atheists sometimes reflexively respond, “No, the burden is on you to prove that god does exist, and you can’t, so QED, there is no god.” I agree with the latter position, but my reasons need a little explanation.
Religion claims that god acts interacts with the physical world in extraordinary ways — hearing and answering prayers, healing sick people, providing help in times of crisis, etc. Although these acts are supposed to come from a supernatural being that defies observation, the effects of “acts of god” are claimed to be real and tangible. As such, they could be observed and measured. There is a strong cultural taboo against even undertaking such research (at least in the US), but some have argued convincingly (Daniel Dennett, in particular) that all aspects of religion should be open to experimental testing. Those experiments that have been conducted, such as studies on the effects of intercessory prayer, have failed to yield any convincing evidence of supernatural agency.
Moreover, it is logically impossible to prove the absence of something that is, by definition, not observable. Bertrand Russell had a great response to this issue – imagine I believe there is an ordinary teapot orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. You cannot disprove my belief because there is no technology, not even the Hubble Space Telescope, that could observe such a small object as such great distances. Because you can’t disprove it, is it necessarily true then that I am justified in believing my celestial teapot is there?
Ultimately, these points lead me to declare myself an atheist not because I conclusively know that god does not exist, but because it appears to me highly improbable that it does. Richard Dawkins explores factors that, to him, make the probability of god rather low in The God Delusion. I’ll list a few others that factor into my probability calculation: the ability of natural processes to explain the structure of the universe at large and life on this planet; the contradictory nature of the myriad religions that have existed throughout human history; the proven falsity of claims about the physical world made by religions; the history of obvious human influence on the development of religions. I could go on, but you get the flavor of my thoughts on this.
Finally, I want to address your direct question — why not a deist, non-interventionist god? I answer with another question — without a religion in which to understand god, to discern its desires for our lives and how we conduct ourselves (morality, etc.), how can we say anything meaningful about the characteristics of such a god? A deist god is just sort of there and has no relevance to our lives. If we don’t and can’t know what god is like, why bother with the idea at all? Aren’t you then, functionally at least, an atheist?
I hope that gives you something to chew on. Not high philosophy, but the best I can do over breakfast!