Recently, I have been listening to some debates on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, as recommended by a friend. Although I agree with almost everything Hitchens says (said rather, because he is no longer with us), I find his tone bit too flippant and derisive for my taste, much like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I am an atheist, as those who have been following my writings may know. Given that an overwhelming majority of people do believe in some sort of a supreme being, at times I feel kind of compelled to answer the question why I don’t believe in one.
When one claims to be an atheist, one has to define what that means. In my view, atheism is the belief that there is no God. It is different from believing there is no God and proselytizing for that conviction. An atheist, by this definition, merely believes that the concept of a God is superfluous and holds no explanatory advantage, just like the concept of Santa Claus doesn’t explain Christmas presents. He believes that everything in nature and the universe obeys natural physical laws, possibly unknown laws, but not supernatural laws. The supernatural, as the name implies, does not exist in nature, for if it did, it would be natural. This definition has certain advantages. For one thing, the burden of proof is not on the atheist to demonstrate that there is no God.
Just because an atheist cannot (or does not want to) prove that there is no God doesn’t mean that there is one. Just because I don’t prove that there is no Santa Claus or tooth fairies doesn’t mean that they exist. So it is with God — those who proclaim their belief need to justify it. It is, in principle, impossible to disprove the non-existence of anything. Therefore, the atheist has a much smaller remit; he just needs to show that there is no reason to believe that God exists.
The belief in God comes in different flavors. There are those who believe simply in a power greater than and separate from themselves, a supreme being, that created the universe. This level of faith is called deism. Although deists believe in God, they don’t insist that God takes any special interest in our day-to-day conduct. A deeper level of belief, called theism, insists just that – that God intervenes and directs our actions, gives us morality, answers to our prayers, and gets upset when we sin. The God of the theist is a personal God, and we can expect the theist to be a religious person. Most people fall somewhere in between these two levels of faith. Then to the right of them, we have the fundamentalists, who take their scriptures literally, at least when it is convenient.
The debates I listened to featured both deist and theist arguments, although called Hitchens vs. theists. But each kind of theism has to be taken on in its own right. Some of the milder theists might argue that there is no proof either way; you cannot prove that there is a God, or there isn’t, and so we should leave the question alone. I find that an insidious kind of argument, imputing the same level of credence to both sides of the argument, which is like saying that creationism and evolution are competing “theories,” while one is faith, and the other is a scientific theory. One is accepted as mystic wisdom, while the other meets certain standards of verifiability, and more importantly, falsifiability. Assigning equal weights to them, or to the question of the existence of God, Santa Claus, tooth fairies, ghosts or superman, is to play fast and loose with the concept of a debate. In fact, no debate is possible when one side argues from the position of mystical revelation that precludes logical negation by definition.
That reservation notwithstanding, the theist camp seemed to have “won” many of the debates I watched mainly because Hitchens didn’t take on their arguments in a serious manner, I feel. Besides, the theist debaters were brilliant speakers, one of whom was Tony Blair. I know it is presumptuous of me to say this, but I would like to take on the theist arguments and perhaps answer them better than Hitchens did. I will start with Prof. William Lane Craig in the next post. The debate with Tony Blair I linked above is more on the usefulness on religion and the associated philanthropic efforts, about which I haven’t made up my mind.