This I Believe: God, or Lack Thereof

[Updated to add:

Axiom 0: The physical universe exists objectively and our sense perceptions of it are more or less accurate.]

God

Axiom 1: There is no god.

As I wrote in a previous post, an axiom is a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident. I think it’s pretty darn clear that the universe operates on its own according to natural laws which are inherent in its structure. Occam’s Razor tells us “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” or “all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” No deity is necessary given the universe we observe. QED.

But, you might say, God is outside the universe, or immanent in all parts of it. Very well, it’s possible to prove all the natural laws of the universe in their own terms, starting from first principles. Please demonstrate how there is an element missing from those laws that can only be explained by the presence of God. Please prove the existence of God or anything “outside” the universe from the standpoint of the physical universe and what can be observed inside it, since the evidence of our senses is the only thing we can collectively be reasonably sure actually exists and is not the product of sheer imagination.

There. No god, gods, deity, collective consciousness, what have you, to my satisfaction. Let’s move on.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager, paraphrased, goes something like this: Worshipping God either benefits me if He exists or is a null if He doesn’t, but not worshipping Him if He does exist means I’m screwed. Now, I’m sure that the wager is a lot more nuanced in the context of Pascal’s writings and all that, and the Wikipedia article points out lots of lines of criticism, but taking the wager on its face my response is a lot simpler.

To digress for a moment: when I was about fifteen years old I had a dream, in which it was clear that I was deceased. I stood in a long line of dead souls slowly ascending a freestanding stone staircase. Just past the head of the staircase stood an titanic giant bearing a titanic axe (I played D&D, remember), and as each soul reached the top of the staircase, the giant would cleave them in two. The souls that cringed away from the axe were … cast down, or destroyed, or something. The souls that stood confident, even defiant, as the axe struck them were thrown into an elysian realm to dwell forever. The interpretation I’ve always taken from this dream was that if I lived as a moral and honorable person, then my salvation was assured regardless of whether I’d worshipped God during my life.

This was long before I’d ever heard of Pascal’s Wager, but when I did I instantly rejected it as being self-serving and amoral. Turning the wager inside out made much more sense to me: If God does exist He should judge me on the content of my character, but if He does judge me not on the content of my character but on whether I obeyed arbitrary forms of worship then He wasn’t worth worshipping anyway.

Religion

As you might imagine, I describe myself as an atheist. I used to call myself an agnostic back in high school, but by college decided that was just being wishy-washy — I truly did not believe in the existence of God, therefore “atheist” was appropriate. I wasn’t raised in any religion or with any particular sense of spirituality inculcated into me by my parents, so I’m not an ex- or apostate-anything. That means two things: one, when I say I’m an atheist I don’t mean I believe there is a God that I choose not to worship, I truly mean I deny the existence of any god or gods; two, since I was never a member of any church or religion I have no bad memories, and therefore I hold no grudges.

I don’t mind the existence of organized religion, or of religious or spiritual people in general. To each their own — if someone wants to believe weird things, who am I to tell them not to? Religious tolerance is one of the things that makes this country great.

I demand, however, that the religious show me the same courtesy — they must be willing to tolerate my lack of religion. I don’t mind an evangelist of any denomination approaching me with the intent of convincing me. That’s free speech on their part, and is another one of the things that make this country great. But I insist that they stop evangelizing once I tell them that it’s not welcome; that goes back to tolerance.

Morality and Ethics

Where does morality come from? Atheists are frequently posed the question, “if you don’t believe in God, how can you be a moral person?” I reply that morality comes from our responsibilities to each other as civilized human beings.

Rabbi Hillel said “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” This is my favorite statement of the Golden Rule (which turns out to be much more widespread in philosophy than I thought). Contra Hillel, however, I don’t see that the Torah is necessary to the question at all.

If the Golden Rule is our first moral principle, our second should be whatever increases our sense of responsibility to each other is good, in that it strengthens the bonds of civil society (which I’ll get into in a later post) and increases the chance that individuals in society will act morally toward each other. Together these two rules should form a virtuous cycle.

I’ll put down two more axioms to reflect these basic rules:

Axiom 2: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.

Axiom 3: Whatever increases our sense of responsibility to each other is good.

Many religious people seem to take the view that we must act in a moral fashion or suffer punishment from God. This strikes me as Stockholm Syndrome writ cosmically large. I believe that it’s much more in keeping with our humanity and free will to say that a person should choose a religion if they find its morality agreeable, rather than they should profess a morality because they hold a particular religion.

Now, it’s possible that most religious people, at least in the Judaeo-Christian religious matrix with with I’m most familiar, instead view their morality as a positive assertion — imitation of Christ or a corollary — instead of a negative stricture. I completely respect this choice, and wish them all the best.

Herd Immunity

“When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” (apocryphally attributed to G.K. Chesterton). This statement is self-evidently wrong as a general rule; my existence is the counter-proof. But while I claim no particular superiority over my fellow humans, my sort of atheism seems to be pretty rare.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a negative correlation between religiosity on a society-wide level and various self-destructive or just plain wacky ideas. See, e.g., Western Europe, a mostly “post-religious” society, and fount of communism, fascism, existentialism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, etc., etc. Compare the United States, with a much higher rate of religious adherence, and where none of these notions have the currency or popularity that they do in Europe.

In epidemiology there is the concept of herd immunity:

[I]n diseases passed from person-to-person, it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune. The more immune individuals present in a population, the lower the likelihood that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infected individual.

I believe that this concept extends to religiosity vs. bad philosophy. Not everyone in a society need be religious, but having a certain level of religiosity means that bad philosophy destructive to everyone in the society can’t get a foothold.

I realize that I’m saying that my enjoyment of civil society as an atheist is dependent upon the existence of a large number of religious people in that society. I’m okay with that — it’s their choice, after all, and since I’m an atheist and not a nihilist I don’t feel any need to tear them down. As I said, I hold no grudges.

Next in the This I Believe series will be my opinions on what makes us human, civil society, cultural relativism, and generational clash. I’ll be coming back to the principle of herd immunity when I talk about the Second Amendment and the place of personal weapons in a civil society.

18 thoughts on “This I Believe: God, or Lack Thereof

  1. Pingback: Fashion News » Blog Archive » This I Believe: God, or Lack Thereof

  2. C. Vermeers

    one problem with relying on the law of parsimony as a guiding principle is that it implies that the best philosophical stance is solipsism, as no entities are required to explain observations other than the self (if even that is required – see Buddhism). another is that it is an aesthetic tool rather than a logical one, though often mistaken for the latter. basically, it needs to be taken in concert with Chatton’s anti-razor: “if three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on”, or Kant’s “the variety of beings should not rashly be diminished”.

    now, given those, it remains to determine whether one believes that it is more likely that the majority of humanity are either hallucinating or lying, or whether that majority are expressing something true of some sort. in that sense, the difference between atheism and agnosticism is one of pessimism about human nature and optimism about same. the difference between agnosticism and many varieties of religious experience, i’d argue, lie in precise understanding of the concept of “deity”.

    when one considers the idea of pantheism, “the doctrine that God is the transcendent reality of which the material universe and human beings are only manifestations: it involves a denial of God’s personality and expresses a tendency to identify God and nature”, then one may see that the concept of “God” and the concept of “physical law” (even though we may imperfectly understand both and formulate them only provisionally) are not incompatible.

    as for the function of religion and ritual, the discussion would go on for days in this format, so i will simply refer interested parties to The Ritual Process by Victor Turner as an important introduction.

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  3. admin Post author

    Hm. Perhaps I need to start off with Axiom 0: The physical universe exists objectively and our sense perceptions of it are more or less accurate. That rules out solipsism.

    Re: pantheism, if God is one and the same as the whole universe and has no personality, why call it God at all?

    I suppose I am fairly cynical about human nature, but I don’t think that the majority of humanity are lying. I think that the religious experience and spirituality are at their root reactions to the vastness of the universe or aspects of it; in practice I think they are mostly (usually valuable) social conventions.

    The so-called “mystical experience” of shamans, monks and other ascetics bears a lot of resemblance to the “near-death” experience and various forms of psychosis; since the latter, at least, can usually be diagnosed as a chemical or neural aberration, I don’t have much problem asserting that the former probably has a similar cause.

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  4. C. Vermeers

    always good to add a necessary entity. 😉

    on pantheism: why not call it “God”? it’s a traditional term which expresses the idea succinctly. why create a new one? confusion sometimes arises as different people have ascribed apparently different meanings to the word, but all are trying to express a similar concept, even if the understanding of some of them is radically different from the understanding of others. by not unnecessarily altering the word, it provides a point of contact between Enlightenment thought and Reformation (and other religious) thought that allows for meaningful discourse, rather than the current unproductively adversarial relationship between “atheists” and the “religious” (by which most atheists mean “Christians and other monotheists”, as their arguments don’t generally have much applicability to the other religious streams out there).

    as a polytheist, i would have to agree strongly that religions are “(usually valuable) social conventions”, however i would also differentiate between religious ritual and the mystic experience. someday, ask me about my thoughts on randomized experience and its value to experiencing reality, which is a topic that deserves its own forum, rather than being a subtopic of this one. the point of it in this discussion is that i don’t think it matters whether there is a neurochemical or other physical basis for that experience, as the experience is demonstrably valuable in itself (demonstrably so because of the variety of useful products which have come from it, including a number of scientific discoveries, such as the understanding of the structure of benzene). the interpretation of that experience, on the other hand, has a variable usefulness.

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  5. C. Vermeers

    oh, and i’ll also point out that the argument against religion by most current atheist thinkers doesn’t even apply to most monotheist thought, but really only to a particular stream of monotheism which originated in North America, and which is anti-intellectual and anti-science. most monotheists don’t subscribe to the positions expressed by those.

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  6. admin Post author

    Because when almost everyone thinks of “God” or even small-g “god,” they mean an entity with powers above and beyond the baseline natural processes of the universe and a will to use those powers. If you’re going to radically redefine the word “God” so it means the same thing as “Nature,” then why use it and cause confusion?

    I’m not sure that my argument against religion pertains to only one strain of one denomination — I don’t think *any* religion that postulates the existence of a deity is real.

    Again, I’m not the garden-variety atheist. Unlike, say, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, I’m not mad at God or feeling abused by Christianity. I’m disinterested in what people think about God, except as a purely intellectual pursuit.

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  7. admin Post author

    powers above and beyond the baseline

    Er, or “a personification of a natural process or processes with a will and the ability to cause that process to operate according with their will.” There, that should cover most forms of paganism.

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  8. C. Vermeers

    that’s an interesting assertion about what “most people” think. i don’t know that to be true, in the first place, and even if it were shown to be true i don’t know that i’d agree that it’s an essential characteristic of the concept. “most people” don’t understand special relativity, either (i don’t fully grasp some of its particulars, myself, and i’m willing to bet that you don’t either), but that doesn’t mean that special relativity isn’t an important concept.

    the question is which is the redefinition? i could go on about the astronomical and other naturalistic explanations of a large number of myths (which gives the lie to the concept that the gods depicted are anthropomorphic in character, any more than a pet is anthropomorphic, but are instead anthropomorphized for conceptual purposes), but it would take too long. (if you want recommendations of where to look into this, i can give you some, starting with Hamlet’s Mill by Giorgio de Santillana.) the point being that it hardly matters if some people have a misconception, as long as there is a legitimate core of meaning. misconceptions can be overcome over time and discussion.

    i understand that you don’t accept any religion having a concept of “deity”, but the arguments you’ve presented so far only really apply to one particular strain, as i note. applying them to other strains by assertion doesn’t really work, logically.

    i’m not really sure what your argument against “a personification of a natural process or processes with a will and the ability to cause that process to operate according with their will” might be, so i can’t speak to that as yet.

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  9. C. Vermeers

    by the way, i am not discussing this with you in order to change your mind or anything like that, but to refine my own thinking on the subject. i hope that i am helping you to refine your own thinking as well.

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  10. admin Post author

    I think we’re talking past each other and so I suspect an axiom clash.

    “a personification of a natural process or processes with a will and the ability to cause that process to operate according with their will”

    Another definition of deity. Zeus, Father of the Gods, who could call down thunderbolts on mortals he wished to punish; a person accidentally killed by a lightning bolt (a natural process) was considered cursed and left unburied. Nergal, God of Pestilence, who walked invisibly through the cities spreading plague by his presence.

    I’m not sure why you think my rationale for not accepting religion only applies to Judaeo-Christian monotheism. Perhaps it’s the formulation “there is no God,” which might connote a big man with a white beard who lives in the sky.

    I believe the universe operates by natural physical laws without the direction or action of supernatural entities — anthropomorphic or not — and that’s all, so that should cover pretty much all the varieties of polytheism. I don’t believe there is an afterlife or central soul exchange (maybe I didn’t hit this point before), so that should cover Buddhism. I don’t believe that inanimate objects possess sentient spirits, so that should cover Shinto.

    What variety of religion is my argument of atheism missing?

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  11. C. Vermeers

    i know of no polytheist religion which includes supernatural beings. that seems to be a characteristic only of some varieties of monotheism. therefore, your arguments are coming against something which i don’t think exists, either. since we both think that the thing doesn’t exist, there must be some other disconnect. one of us must be mistaking something if you think that arguments against the supernatural should apply to all religions.

    i understand what you are saying by the “pagan” definition of deity you provide (and i think that it is good as far as it goes), but i am failing to see what your argument against it might be.

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  12. admin Post author

    Chris, I’m really not sure how you’re using the word “polytheism.” The standard meaning is “the belief in or worship of multiple deities,” in which case virtually *all* polytheist religions include supernatural beings. I think you might also be confusing “supernatural” (having no scientific explanation) with “preternatural” (existing outside nature). (Definitions from Wikipedia, FWIW.)

    My “argument” against the pagan definition of deity is literally axiomatic: no such thing exists.

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  13. C. Vermeers

    i don’t buy that definition of “supernatural”. if that is the sense in which you are using it, then i’d still argue against its validity, but on slightly different grounds. i tend to prefer American Heritage Dictionary’s first definition for the word, “Of or relating to existence outside the natural world”, since that agrees with the etymology, where the wiki definition you quote doesn’t really. “preternatural” is simply a synonym based on an etymology from different words of the same meaning.

    however, to argue against that sense, i will say that my understanding of gods (and it is not a universally-held one, but bear with me as i get to that part) requires that they are personifications of “natural law”, or, more accurately, are extended (possibly metaphoric – i don’t like to make any absolute pronouncements there, though) manifestations of large, complex systems.

    now, as i said, this is hardly a universally-held understanding (and i am perfectly willing to modify my understanding based on new information), but it is certainly religious and about “gods” (and is held by more than one person, as i am not the one who originated this general conceptualization, though this specific formulation is my own wording), but doesn’t yield to the arguments for atheism that you’ve made.

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  14. Rob

    “See, e.g., Western Europe, a mostly “post-religious” society, and fount of communism, fascism, existentialism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, etc., etc. Compare the United States, with a much higher rate of religious adherence, and where none of these notions have the currency or popularity that they do in Europe.”

    Erm.

    You’re sort of mixing about 150 years of history here rather pell-mell- and also ignoring rather serious historical problems in Europe that had a lot to do with religion. For instance: European anti-Semitism as expressed via Luther, through Catholic doctrine as the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War (which had quite a lot to do with screwing up Germany very very badly), the Huguenots, the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks… well, I could go on, but I think that’s a terrible simplification of things.

    One might also note that Western Europe over the last 60 years, while gripped in the throes of all that evil existentialism, multiculturalism, deconstructionism, etc., has managed to do something quite positive: not kill millions of people in a World War, something they managed to do quite effectively back when they were considerably more religious than today. They exist in a polity that’s LARGER in population than the United States, speaks far more languages, and is far less united. Said polity has also managed to have democratic governments of a variety of political stripes, as well as have a thriving economy, AND integrate poorer regions (probably the best way to think of what’s happened to the EU since the end of the Cold War is to imagine if we let Mexico join the US).

    Yes, the bear doesn’t waltz so great sometimes. Be thankful it can waltz at all…

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  15. admin Post author

    Rob,

    I didn’t mention antisemitism, not because I don’t think it’s wacky, but because I don’t think it’s new. Yes, there are a bunch of ills that came along with State Christianity, but it was at least a dynamic, thriving culture not clearly bent on self-destruction.

    Serious European post-Christianity goes back about as far as the French Revolution, so I’ll see your 150 years and raise you 70. Nietzsche proclaiming “God is dead” was shocking but not so shocking that he didn’t sell truckloads of books. Fascism, Naziism and Communism were explicitly anti-clerical. And nowadays the only people to be found in English churches are doddering oldsters.

    As for European peace, if the United States hadn’t been there sitting on them, and if the Soviet Union hadn’t been just across the Western-Eastern border, I don’t for a second think that Europe would have stayed peaceful. Look at how Yugoslavia tore itself apart as soon as the Cold War ended and nobody cared about them one way or the other anymore.

    And it remains to be seen just how “thriving” the EU economy is. If we had permanent 10% unemployment in this country there would be torches and pitchforks. Their standard of living is something like 75% of ours and getting smaller. And just how “integrated” are the poorer regions when that integration depends on poitically-unpopular transfer payments from the rich countries?

    Personally, I see the EU project backfiring on the Euro elites bigtime in about 20 years, right about the time all their pension plans go so bankrupt they can’t tax themselves back into solvency.

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  16. Ookla

    ” The physical universe exists objectively and our sense perceptions of it are more or less accurate.”

    That is NOT an axiom. It is a proposition that must be backed up with logically sound and true premises.

    Axioms are, in short, self-evident assumptions (e.g. When an equal amount is taken from equals, an equal amount results.)

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  17. Ookla

    ““When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” (apocryphally attributed to G.K. Chesterton). This statement is self-evidently wrong as a general rule; my existence is the counter-proof. But while I claim no particular superiority over my fellow humans, my sort of atheism seems to be pretty rare.”

    It is NOT self-evidently false. If your existence invalidates it then it is evidently (according to the evidence available) false. It would be self-evidently false if it were evident in itself without proof or demonstration. Since it’s error required proof and demonstration, like your existence, it was not “self evident”.

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  18. Bryan Lovely Post author

    That is NOT an axiom. It is a proposition that must be backed up with logically sound and true premises.

    Really? See, I think it’s a self-evidently true statement. That makes it an axiom — as I said, “a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident.” (See dictionary.com) I think in terms of general argument, we don’t have to narrowly define the term as it’s used in mathematics and formal logic.

    If you don’t accept that it’s axiomatic, then we have a problem, which I’ve called “axiom clash.”

    And, okay, I meant “evidently” false. I think you’re getting too hung up on formal logic — I’m a non-philosopher trying to explain my philosophy of life here.

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