I’ve taken the time to write some of my thoughts on the proposed “Atheist” bus advertising initiative coming to New Zealand next year. If you haven’t heard, the campaign hopes to raise awareness about atheism through advertisements such as “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” (check out this post for all the details). Here’s my take on the campaign:
Firstly, it’s not properly an Atheistic campaign.
Traditionally and properly speaking Atheism is the theory or belief that God does not exist. As a positive claim to truth this philosophy needs justification – that is, if it is to be held as rational. On this definition Atheism turns out to be just as much a statement of faith as belief in God is often accused to be. Aware of this and lacking successful or convincing arguments to sustain their position, many have sought to redefine Atheism. This is especially true of the so called “New Atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and many others. Because of their popular appeal, evangelistic zeal and appearance of scholarly credentials, they have succeeded in construing Atheism as the theory or belief of those who have no reason to believe that God exists.
This latter claim is very different. The first thing that should be said is that this new construal of atheism is totally consistent with God existing (of course, it is also totally consistent with God not existing). Accordingly, on this new definition, both a Christian Fideist and the most fervent anti-Christian bigot can call themselves an Atheist. Also, a person who has looked at all the evidence for God’s existence, and tried their best to understand and engage rationally with the arguments, may well conclude in the end that there is no reason to believe that God exists. He then may decide (i) to believe anyway, or (ii) he may decide to disbelieve. Alternatively, (iii) he may decide to remain undecided on the issue, declaring he doesn’t really know. This last option should rightly be called some form of agnosticism. But under the new definition, this person would be an Atheist.
That said, I’m willing to grant the new Atheist his definition. The net result is a belief which is frankly identical to the traditional Atheist – that God does not exist. Even if that were not the case, their predicament also remains the same as before – such a position is a philosophical position and therefore needs rational justification by way of reasoned argument. It is also false that in the absence of evidence for God’s existence it is more rational to presume that God does not exist. (This idea is fleshed out in my discussion of Russell’s Teapot.)
What can we say of the bus advertising slogan “There probably is no God”? Lacking certainty, this is actually soft agnosticism – the belief that does not know if there is or is not a God. Given the measures Atheists are willing to take to make their philosophy more reasonable, one might be forgiven for thinking that Atheism is a philosophy in retreat.
Secondly, if God does not exist, why should we not worry?
Here are three points where I think worrying would be good advice if it were true that God did not exist.
First, the question of God’s existence is truly the most important question there is. If God exists there are many entailments, some of which are the strong probability of an existence after the death of the physical body. Such an entailment should strongly effect how you live in this life. So this is not a trivial question at all.
To illustrate, think of yourself as a parent whose child has gone missing in the wilderness. Three days of desperate search has quickly passed by, and the leader of Search and Rescue comes to you and gently says, “Listen, we all are very tired and hungry, and we think that there is only a 5% probability that your child is still alive. We want to call off the search.” As a parent you would truly be alarmed, for as long as there are people searching there is a possibility that your child may be found, and found alive. You therefore press the Search and Rescue officer, “Please… Keep searching.” He responds kindly and continues through the night, but in the morning says, “Listen, we think that there is only a 1% possibility that your child is still alive.” Even with a 1% possibility, do you as a parent ascent to calling of the search? Of course not. In fact, the small odds would inspire the parents to reconsider how the child has avoided detection and even the assumptions that informed the initial search parameters. Even if the possibility were to be reduced even further, as long as there is the slimmest hope, the search is not abandoned. For the parents continuing the search is justified, for the reward of having their child back safely in their arms far outweighs the any effort they could expended. In the same way and for the same reason, so should our search for God be. Pascal says the wise man will search for God with all his heart.
The immortality of the soul is a matter so important to us, one which touches us so deeply, that a man must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to it . . .
One does not need to have a very highly trained mind to understand that there is here no genuine and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are only emptiness, that our ills are infinite, and that finally death, which threatens us every moment, must in a few years inevitably place us in the awful necessity of being eternally annihilated or miserable.
There is nothing more real than that, and nothing more terrible . . . So a man who doubts and yet does not search is at the same time utterly miserable and utterly wrong-headed. Pensees, 11
Second, if God does not exist then what restraint is there on moral behaviour? This is not to say that Atheists cannot act morally – they most often do. Similarly, I’m not suggesting that Atheists are unable to discern what is right and wrong – I think for the most part they can. Instead, the point is that by erasing God from the picture all morals become mere human conventions that are unfixed and subject to change by the latest whim. They are reduced to preferences, such as the taste of chocolate over vanilla. Without a transcendent ground for moral values and duties, justification for commonly held moral beliefs we all share is lost, and rational restraint from tyranny and oppression along with it. All are vulnerable to be victimised by another’s hedonistic ideal. Without a standard, there can be neither justice nor injustice. Without an ultimate good, there can be no evil.
God has traditionally filled the position of that transcendent ground required for the justification of morality. Immanuel Kant saw that for practical reasons (in order to make sense of morality) it was necessary to assume that God exists. Voltaire, the Eighteenth Century French Atheist said, “If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In other words, if God does not exist objective moral values and duties do not exist, and this is unacceptable. An Atheist may believe in objective moral values – if he does, he does so without rational justification. An atheist may disbelieve in object moral values but still live a life that affirms them – but to be more consistent with his philosophy he should renounce all moral values and duties, actually become a nihilist and not just believe it, and live as he pleases. After all, if God is absent there is ultimately no moral accountability and no life after death. So if there is no ultimate accounting for your actions, why not live by pure self-indulgence and gratification if you can get away with it? The consequence of a thoroughly realised atheistic view, is cause enough to worry.
Third, there is implied here in the statement “Now stop worrying” a view of God who sits in judgement of the world, condemning every trespass and hanging the threat of hell over every person, in order that they might behave. Such a view is a distortion of the Christian view and misrepresents the nature of God. Jesus said, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) As we approach Christmas, we are reminded about the extraordinary lengths God undertook to rescue us from the predicament we were already in, and of the God who loves, and saw fit to offer the life of his Son as a substitute for many. The Christian message is not one of sorrow where a judge finds us guilty and punishes every wrong action, but one of great joy, where a Saviour has made every effort to reach out and draw people to himself, that we might freely choose him and thus avoid the judgment we already so richly deserve.
Thirdly, thanks for the reminder to enjoy life.
Jesus said, “I come that you may have life, and life more abundantly.” This slogan reminds us of the words of Jesus, and that it should be Christians who enjoy life the most. This is the natural state of true believer who has discovered the purpose of all life. That this life is is to discover and know Christ Jesus our Lord, and this should be the greatest adventure as He is the source of fulfilled life and true happiness.
Fourthly, Atheists apparently need a thicker skin.
The stated reason for this promotion of so called Atheism is not to convince anyone that there is probably no God, but to reduce stigma attached to the label “Atheist”. At this I wonder, what stigma could he be referring to? I’ve wrestled with a number of obstinate, unreasoning, and raving-mad atheists in my time, but realise that these are not representative of the general horde (approximately 60% according to the last census) of Atheists/Agnostics in New Zealand. Have Atheist’s got it so bad that they feel stereotyped or misunderstood in some way? It strikes me as supremely odd that in western countries such as Britain and New Zealand, Atheists would start an awareness campaign for Atheism, when Christians in other countries face immanent threat of death from real persecution, and must meet in secret to avoid extermination. To add to the insult, for the most part in the twentieth century it was Atheistic regimes doing the persecuting of Christians. Atheists in Britain and New Zealand apparently need thicker skin. If they want to know what persecution is they should become Christians and experience what it is like living in North Korea, or Saudi Arabia.
Fifthly, these issues are not unprovable.
I often hear the claim that;
1) The Atheistic claim is a universal negative
2) In principle, it is impossible to prove a universal negative.
3) Therefore, Atheism is unfalsifiable.
While the logic is valid, both the premises are false. For (1), the Atheistic claim that “God does not exists,” is not a universal negative – it is a singular negative statement. For (2), both universal negatives and singular negative statement can in principle be proved. All that is required is to find an instance of whatever x is. And if x is God, then finding God disproves a negative. Christians should be aware of this, and have a ready response.
As another instance, I heard recently this argument made by a Christian
1) You cannot prove that God exists.
2) You cannot prove that God does not exist.
3) Therefore, both Atheism and Theism are equally faith commitments.
Again, the logic is valid, but the premises are false. For (1), it is certainly true that one cannot prove with logical necessity that God exists. Logical necessity would be the level of certainty attained by mathematic equations, logical syllogisms, and very few other things. However, it is possible to prove that God exists to the standard of beyond reasonable doubt, which is all that is required in a courtroom. Successful arguments for God’s existence can be constructed with premises that are true or at least more plausible than their contradictories and therefore, rationally compel one to believe its conclusion. For (2), the same response for (1) applies – logical necessity is not necessary for a proof. Plus, it is untrue that Atheism does not have positive arguments. The Atheist has traditionally appealed to the Problem of Evil. Some atheists still appeal to the incoherence of the concept of God. Furthermore, what I said about universal negatives not being unfalsifiable applies – all one needs to do is demonstrate there is a God and Atheism is falsified.
Sixthly, this is an opportunity for Christians.
My last thought on this campaign is it makes for an excellent opportunity to address this important topic and to enter into discussion with those who have never thought about it before. While I won’t be donating any money to the cause, this should be seen as an open door for us to advance the gospel of truth. It is a fair warning for all Christian theists to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet 3:15), and demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5). Accordingly we should be wary of people who have no good reason or sound argument to hold to Atheism, yet believe it anyway. Likewise we should call our fellow believers to become familiar with the good reasons and sound arguments for Christian theism, which implicitly will be defeaters for Atheism.