In The God Argument, A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher, examined all of the arguments for religious belief and the belief in god, showing how they all fail on both theoretical and empirical grounds. Grayling also provided a compelling humanistic alternative to the religious worldview, a way of living based on intellectual integrity, the respect for reason and evidence, and the desire to do good and be good. The question is, does Grayling succeed in what he set out to accomplish? Can the God argument be refuted?
In regard to the arguments for god’s existence, there are many easy targets (the ontological argument), and, to my mind, one strong one (the cosmological argument). If the case for god’s existence is to be refuted, we need to address the strongest argument, which I’ll try to present and respond to here.
To begin with, intelligent design in its usual form is unquestionably lame; there is no feature or detail of the world that cannot be adequately explained in natural terms. The laws of physics are immutable and unchanging, and are not suspended by supernatural forces. Chemistry describes the composition of matter and biology and evolution describes the structure, function, and development of life. As Pierre Simon-Laplace put it, when asked by Napoleon why his book on celestial mechanics had no mention of god, he stated that he “had no need of that hypothesis.”
The workings of the world do not require the god hypothesis, so trying to find god in the details of the material world is destined to fail. When supernaturalism confronts science in the material world, science wins every time.
The same nonsense regarding miracles is completely unpersuasive. The idea that god suspends the laws of physics on special occasions is absurd enough, but the manner in which god supposedly does so is erratic and nonsensical. As Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, one the stupidest things humanity does is attribute positive outcomes to divine intervention while writing off the negative outcomes as god “operating in mysterious ways.”
A child is saved from the rubble of a tornado and it’s a miracle; hundreds of children die of diarrhea for lack of safe drinking water and “god operates in mysterious ways.”
These are pathetic, losing arguments. And believers in god are not doing themselves any favors by propagating them. They’re fighting a losing battle that science and basic reason will expose.
So what then IS the strongest argument for god’s existence? That requires us to look at the bigger picture.
Thanks to Darwin and modern biology, genetics, and evolution, we can now explain the development and diversity of life in exquisite detail. Life was not created, it evolved, so there’s no use looking for god there. But there is something to the “created versus evolved” distinction that we should bear in mind.
The real argument for god is not to be found in the details of life; it’s in the recognition that life exists at all. The real miracle is not the occurrence of extremely improbable events; it’s the fact that common events occur with such regularity.
This regularity is interesting. Life has either evolved or was created, and we know that it evolved. But we also know that the finely-tuned laws of physics did not evolve, so were they then created?
Science has no workable theory of consciousness, and the fact that life can evolve and that we can have subjective experience at all is entirely dependent on the constancy of physical laws. It is here that the argument for creation is most compelling, and yet the intelligent design community insists on the weaker argument by focusing on the complexity of the eye! (which evolution thoroughly explains)
How can we respond to this argument? If the laws of physics did not evolve, where did they come from? If we have no natural theory of consciousness, isn’t consciousness by definition “supernatural”? Doesn’t all of this imply a creator?
I’ll admit that this does make one think twice, but there are some serious flaws with this line of thinking, as follows:
1. Invoking a creator to explain the universe traps you in an infinite regress. It begs the question, who or what created the creator? If you say nothing did, or else that the creator has always existed, without providing any evidence, then I can make the same claim for the universe itself. Occam’s Razor, which prefers the explanation with the fewest assumptions and lower complexity, favors the argument without god inserted as an extra entity we need to account for.
2. The appeal to ignorance as evidence for a conclusion should be an obvious fallacy. I either know how something works or I don’t. What I can’t say is that I simultaneously can’t explain something but that at the same time can.
So, for example, I can state, correctly, that we don’t really understand how consciousness arises from brain activity. We know that the color red is a particular wavelength of light but we don’t know what the experience of red is exactly.
If we left it at that, there would be no issue. The problem, of course, is that we never do. If I don’t know how consciousness arises from brain activity, then it either does arise from the brain entirely or else emanates from something else. But my lack of knowledge on the subject does not count as support for either position.
The same applies to the question, what came before the Big Bang? Or what was outside of the Big Bang/what is the universe expanding into? My inability to answer the question is exactly that—an inability—and the only appropriate response is “I don’t know.” Perhaps one day we will, and we can keep investigating, but as of now we simply do not know.
Ignorance is a stopping point or invitation for further investigation, not support for a definitive conclusion. Claiming that my lack of understanding is proof of anything is to commit the fallacy. If I can’t explain X, my inability to explain X does not imply any particular conclusion. How could it? I either know what caused the Big Bang or I do not. I can’t say that god is the reason for everything I can’t explain, unless god is simply a synonym for ignorance. There will always be things we can’t explain, so I can always invoke god to explain them. But this is a weak and false sense of actual knowledge.
3. A favorite conjuring trick of the religious is to accept the argument that god created the laws of physics and then to use this as support for their particular religion. But notice that there is no connection between Deism and Theism; a creator of the universe does not necessarily involve itself in human affairs, listen to prayers, or root for football players and teams.
The strongest argument for god’s existence therefore leads to Deism only. To say the universe was created by god is only to label some kind of first-cause as god without knowing anything else.
Any other claims to knowledge—about god, god’s mind, the afterlife—is charlatanry and arrogance in the highest degree. How can the mind of god be known? It is here that the religious will have to revert back to scripture and faith and reveal to us that they were never really interested in science in the first place. The argument from design only gets them so far before they must start talking about the Bible again; it is the only source of authority by which they can claim to know the mind of god and the ultimate origin of the universe and destiny of humankind. These are extraordinary claims made with extraordinarily little evidence (in fact, based only on one book written thousands of years ago, consisting of the testimony of events, recalled years later, by scientifically illiterate and superstitious people).
And now we return to the problem of scripture, which is self-evidently man-made. If you press the issue, and ask the religious how they know the Bible was divinely inspired—rather than a crude expression of tribal morality—they tell you they have faith.
But faith is a dangerous proposition to grant, because when you grant it once you must continue to grant it. Faith provides justification—regardless of consequences—to believe and act as one pleases. When two faiths collide—as Islam and Christianity have done for hundreds of years—there is no recourse other than violence. When a belief system rejects evidence and reason, relying on faith alone, there is no opportunity for dialogue, persuasion, and compromise, and it is no wonder why religious wars and disputes have been so dominant throughout history, not only between different faiths but also within Christianity itself (Catholicism versus Protestantism).
Do we really want to adopt the feeble position of faith as an explanation for our deepest beliefs? Are we prepared to grant faith to others even if those beliefs lead to disastrous consequences, human suffering, and the subjugation of women?
No, we must have the courage and character to use our reason (the attribute that most distinguishes us from other animals) to derive our beliefs from evidence. The free debate of ideas (democracy) is the only way to resolve conflict nonviolently. Intellectual integrity is an underrated virtue, a virtue the Greeks gifted to us until it was overridden by Christianity’s hijacking of morality.
To believe something in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to believe something because it makes you feel better, to believe something simply because you think it’s useful, this is intellectual dishonesty to the highest degree.
The last thing I’ll discuss is the topic of morality. In this, religion is not required. The foundation for morality is biology, and is simply a matter of expanding our natural tendencies for sympathy and compassion beyond our children, immediate family, and tribe to all humanity. The only thing blocking this expansion is ideology that tells us some other group is less than human and undeserving of our respect.
If god doesn’t exist, what’s stopping us from doing whatever we want? What determines right and wrong?
The answer is simple: self-respect, the desire for respect from others, and engaging in actions that lead to becoming the type of person you’d like to be and establishing the legacy you’d like to leave behind. Do you really think the constant manipulation and harm of other people is going to make you happy? Can you live with self-respect behaving in this way? Or will you live with guilt, self-loathing, and anxiety from the constant threat of retribution from other people and from society?
Nasty, violent, harmful people are not tolerated by society, and so the social and psychological consequences are severe for those who choose a life of malevolence and ill-will. The happiest people, positive psychology tells us, are those who help others and engage in meaningful work. In fact, my claim is that, if the altruistic religious person was somehow convinced that god didn’t exist, their behavior would not (or should not) change at all.
This is captured in a quote by Steven Weinberg:
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
It seems to me that the strongest argument for god’s existence leads only, at best, to Deism (although I think agnosticism or atheism is the better conclusion). The jump from Deism to Theism or religion requires faith, and faith is dangerous, as you must be willing to grant faith to others as well, even if their positions are harmful. Reason is the only tool we have as a defense against harmful beliefs.
In this way me might come to see that, opposite the usual view of the religious person as humble, it takes a great deal of arrogance to proclaim to not only know that god exists but to also know his mind and wishes and commandments. No one can know this, and any claims to the contrary are the result of delusion and hubris. Don’t believe and don’t follow those who claim to have access to this secret knowledge. Instead, trust in your own reason and regain your freedom of independent thought.