I can—and have— wrung and washed my hands, and strode forth into what's left of my opportunities. So far, so good—and I'm surprised and pleased with how much good I've experienced as an atheist. But that doesn't preclude standing aghast at the magnitude of my error and its consequences, especially when I suffer a setback that challenges my self-worth. Then the enormity of the deception that commisioned me to be an evangelist for the right brand of religion, the right concept of God, and the foolish hope in the sublime harmony of a world filled with those who would accept what I hawked.
Around 2006, I encountered the writings of the so-called New Atheists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Paul Bloom. If my faith hadn't been already on the edge and sliding away, I might have withstood their arguments and hung on a little more. But down it all went, and I emerged from the rubble a stunned and wounded man. Some ten years later, a book came out that has had a more lasting impact on me, one whose arguments and language gain my continuing respect.
The Big Picture by Sean Carroll was published in May 2016.
Today, I came across Carroll's itemization of why atheism is a more valid view than theism. I post them here as a reminder of how weak the concept of a God is, and how amazing it is that so many people, especially I, took that concept into some outrageously stupid extremes:
- So imagine a world that is very much like ours, except that evil does not exist. People in this world are much like us, and seem able to make their own choices, but they always end up choosing to do good rather than evil. In that world, the relevant data is the absence of evil. How would that be construed, as far as theism is concerned? It’s hard to doubt that the absence of evil would be taken as very strong evidence in favor of the existence of God. If humanity simply evolved according to natural selection, without any divine guidance or interference, we would expect to inherit a wide variety of natural impulses—some for good, some for not so good. The absence of evil in the world would be hard to explain under atheism, but relatively easy under theism, so it would count as evidence for the existence of God. But if that’s true, the fact that we do experience evil is unambiguously evidence against the existence of God. If the likelihood of no evil is larger under theism, then the likelihood of evil is larger under atheism, so evil’s existence increases our credence that atheism is correct. Put in those terms, it’s easy to come up with features of our universe that provide evidence for atheism over theism.
- Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all.
- Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently came up with precisely the same doctrines and stories about God.
- Imagine a universe that was relatively small, with just the sun and moon and Earth, no other stars or galaxies.
- Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information.
- Imagine a world in which human beings were completely separate from the rest of biological history.
- Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living, telling compelling stories of life in heaven.
- Imagine a world that was free of random suffering.
- Imagine a world that was perfectly just, in which the relative state of happiness of each person was precisely proportional to their virtue.
- In any of those worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as evidence for God's existence. It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism.
- How strong that evidence is, is another question entirely. We could try to quantify the overall effect, but we’re faced with a very difficult obstacle: theism isn’t very well defined. There have been many attempts, along the lines of “God is the most perfect being conceivable,” or “God is the grounding of all existence, the universal condition of possibility.” Those sound crisp and unambiguous, but they don’t lead to precise likelihoods along the lines of “the probability that God, if he exists, would give clear instructions on how to find grace to people of all times and cultures.” Even if one claims that the notion of God itself is well defined, the connection between that concept and the actuality of our world remains obscure.
- One could try to avoid the problem by denying that theism makes any predictions at all for what the world should be like—God’s essence is mysterious and impenetrable to our minds. That doesn’t solve the problem—as long as atheism does make predictions, evidence can still accumulate one way or the other—but it does ameliorate it somewhat. Only at a significant cost, however: if an ontology predicts almost nothing, it ends up explaining almost nothing, and there’s no reason to believe it.
- There are some features of our world that count as evidence in favor of theism, just as some features are evidence for atheism.
- Imagine a world in which nobody had thought of the concept of God—the idea had simply never occurred. Given our definition of theism, that’s a very unlikely world if God exists. It would seem a shame for God to go to all the trouble to create the universe and humankind, and then never let us know about his existence. So it’s perfectly reasonable to say that the simple fact that people think about God counts as some evidence that he is real.
- Imagine a world with physical matter, but in which life never arose. Or a universe with life, but no consciousness. Or a universe with conscious beings, but ones who found no joy or meaning in their existence. At first glance, the likelihoods of such versions of reality would seem to be higher under atheism than under theism.