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Further Reading


Unequal to the Task

Four Things That Atheism Can't Explain About the Universe

by Christopher Shubert

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 7

There is today a groundswell among the world's small population of atheists to promote and advance atheism as a world philosophy. Atheism—the belief that there is no God, no gods, no spirit, and no soul—is currently engaged in a public-relations push to try to sell itself to the public at large. Books such as Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and television shows such as Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Unbelief have lately made a splash by making strong allegations against religious faith. All of these works make the case for atheism by claiming that faith is the source of most of the world's evil, and by alleging that the world would be a better place without religion.

It bears noting that these broadsides are mostly composed of attacks on the character of both religion and religionists. One might well question the wisdom of such an approach; surely it is better to promote your views by presenting their merits rather than by attacking the character of your opponents. Suppose that your efforts are successful in that you win a few converts. What sort of converts will you receive? The tactics of personal attack are most likely to appeal to people who are by nature critical, perhaps even bitter and cynical. Not the basis of a polite and congenial society!

A better approach for atheists would be to demonstrate that atheism is the worldview that has the superior ability to explain life and guide us through it. This is, after all, the purpose of a worldview: to provide a rational framework wherein the world may be understood, and by whose light pilgrims on the road of life may find their way. As I considered atheism from this perspective, though, some troubling facts surfaced. I began to realize that, although atheism has made significant efforts to try to develop a comprehensive worldview since the 19th century, the fruits of these labors are, at best, completely unripe—and not at all nourishing.

The Origin of the universe

Consider, for instance, a basic question: Where did the universe come from? The atheist explanation—the scientific model that endeavors to explain the universe without recourse to theology—is known as the "Big Bang." This theory proposes that the universe began as an infinitely small, infinitely dense point of energy. Then, some ten to twenty billion years ago, for reasons unknown, this "seed" exploded of its own accord, and energy and matter rushed out in all directions.

Over time, the energy and matter coalesced into clouds of hydrogen and helium gas; these clouds in turn collapsed into stars and galaxies; the stars then manufactured the heavier elements required to form planets and produce life; and various life forms emerged, including human beings, who stare up at the night sky and wonder about the whole thing. The entire process unfolded according to unvarying principles—the "laws of physics"—that have remained unchanged throughout all these billions of years.

A true believer might wax rhapsodic over this description of the origin of the universe, and may well want to propound all of the many corroborating lines of evidence that seem to support it. But a skeptical observer will jump immediately to a devastating and ultimately unanswerable question: If the Big Bang created the universe, then what created the Big Bang?

This might at first seem only to be an ironic question, but it would be a mistake to casually dismiss it. The principle of cause and effect is the foundational principle of science; scientists expect to be able to examine every particular object in the universe and, from its observable characteristics, determine its origin and causes. It is antithetical to the scientific mind to abridge this principle. One is not at liberty to look at any feature of the universe and say, "Well this just happened by itself." To do so is to commit scientific suicide. The history of science has been the history of a rigorous pursuit—indeed, a relentless pursuit—of natural causes for natural events. So after so much scientific progress, it seems an utter defeat to now toss up our hands and say, "Well, never mind. Some things don't have any cause after all."

As unscientific as the idea may sound, the notion that natural phenomena might exist without any cause suits the atheist mindset very well. The famous atheist logician Bertrand Russell once said that there "is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed." And many scientists today seem curiously willing to accept the possibility that matter and energy can pop into existence unbidden and unexpectedly—that stars, galaxies, or even whole universes could, at any moment and for no apparent reason, begin to expand in our living rooms.

To you and me, this may seem no more sensible than the idea that a flock of emperor penguins should magically appear on our kitchen table. But to be fair, science has a fairly well defined idea of what sort of things can spontaneously generate, as well as a theoretical basis for the mechanism of their generation. On principle, though, if we are willing to throw out the idea of cause and effect just when the discussion gets theological, what does this say about atheism's commitment to following the evidence where it leads, as well as its supposed dedication to unbiased rational conclusions?

Of course, this is not the sort of question that has a direct impact on our daily living. The question of the origin of the universe is probably not going to change the way you conduct your affairs today or tomorrow. On the other hand, it's the sort of question that can have far-reaching implications. If the answer to this question turns out to be theological—if the universe was created by some supernatural being—well, this may have very serious consequences. And in any case, atheism's inability to answer this question is quite a letdown for the person who is looking for the answers to the mysteries of life.

The Origin of life

If the origin of the universe is difficult for the atheist to explain, the origin of life is even more difficult. Anyone who has even a basic understanding of the times in which we live knows that the prevailing theory of life's origins is evolution. Evolution is based on the premise that, given enough time, non-living matter will organize itself into living creatures, which will begin as simple, single-celled organisms and burgeon into an abundant variety of diverse species—animal, vegetable, and otherwise. A variety of evidential lines is offered to support this philosophy, foremost among which is the fossil record, which bears evidence of a significant number of extinct species that once populated the earth.

Despite assurances to the contrary, though, a variety of significant problems plagues evolutionary theory. For instance, it is a well-documented and universally admitted fact that the fossil record is remarkably shy on evidence of actual evolutionary transitions. Atheist paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once called this "the trade secret of paleontology." Still, a small number of allegedly transitional fossils can be presented as proof of the concept, so evolutionary believers usually pooh-pooh skeptics on the basis of the scraps of evidence that can be adduced. But the evidence is actually so poor and sparse that it has forced a rethinking of the theory of gradual evolution, making room for the new theory of "punctuated equilibria." So the fossil record can hardly be claimed as a compelling demonstration of evolution.

It is also recognized that a significant factor in evolutionary mechanics is strikingly missing from the picture; although natural selection is widely accepted as the means of determining those members of a species whose genes will persist into the future, there is no known mechanism whereby new genetic variations can be produced. Evolutionists often cite mutation as the source of this new genetic information, but again, everyone recognizes that mutations have almost always been harmful to the creature in which they occur (and even when benign have not presented an advantageous development). This is inherent in the nature of a mutation: Genetic mutations always damage a functional genome. Yet mutations are the best hope—the only hope—for sources of new genetic material.

When dealing with the question of the origin of life, atheists must also deny the evidence of their own eyes. Every observer of Earth's biosphere sees the same fact: The creatures found here are all extraordinarily well adapted to their environmental niches. Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins says that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." He goes on to say that "the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning."

Atheists sometimes mistakenly define faith as "believing contrary to the evidence." But what better description could one find for the person who observes a biome filled with creatures that bear every appearance of having been exquisitely designed for their purpose, but who then concludes that the whole thing is the result of blind and purposeless forces?

Ironically, explaining the origin of life is supposed to be the great forte of the atheist worldview. Evolution is supposed to be the theory that makes it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist" and that fairly well disproves the religious viewpoints that rely on a creator to explain the existence and diversity of life. Yet, from only the minimal survey presented above, we can see that the atheistic worldview is utterly unable to explain even the basics of the origin, complexity, or fitness of life. It would be singular indeed if one were to find this intellectually fulfilling.

The Origin of consciousness

Another difficulty for the atheistic worldview is the explanation of consciousness. Consider the fact that you are reading this article. As you read it, the thoughts and ideas of the article enter into your conscious mind. Perhaps you will stop reading the article from time to time and consider some point in it. When you do this, you may decide that there is a problem with the point in question. Or, based on some piece of information in the article, you may realize that there has been a problem with your previous way of thinking, and you may change your mind about something based on this article. Actions such as these are essential processes of consciousness—and they cannot be explained from the perspective of atheism.

By consciousness, we do not simply mean that something holds within itself an accurate image or analogy of the world around it. If that were the case, we would say that mirrors were conscious, as well as large databases such as Google Earth. Conscious beings are able not only to perceive the world around them, but also to audit the information that their perceptions supply—to decide, through the processes of intellect, whether the information is inaccurate or inadequate, and then to revise it if necessary. Mirrors and databases passively hold their data; conscious beings actively revise, edit, and arrange their data.

Suppose, for instance, that up until now you had uncritically accepted evolution as a proven fact. But based on the information presented above, you have realized that there are substantial doubts about the theory of evolution. You might then decide to examine the evidence on both sides of those doubts and reevaluate your ideas about the origin of life. In so doing, you are not merely acting as a recipient of information; you are also making decisions regarding the value of the information that you have received and choosing to accept or reject that data on the grounds of its validity.

So, consciousness is not a passive quality; it is an active one. Most people accept this definition. The trouble comes when we try to imagine the mechanism whereby consciousness works. If we imagine that human consciousness is solely a product of the processes of the human brain, then we run into difficulty pretty quickly. This is because the human brain is a mechanism constructed of biochemical machinery—machinery that operates on chemical principles, and that produces its results strictly by the rules of chemistry. So, if human thought is the product of the human brain, then human thought is a chemical output. This means that our thoughts are not the product of what we want them to be, but rather the product of what chemistry dictates them to be. Any given thought in your mind is nothing more than a manifestation of chemical processes, with no more conceptual validity than the product of any other complex chemical reaction.

In the end, then, we must either choose to accept the atheist conclusion that human consciousness is a mechanistic process that occurs in the brain by virtue of deterministic necessity, or to believe that we actually control our thinking in meaningful ways. And if we accept this second idea, then we must also accept that atheism cannot explain our understanding of how we think. This is a cruel irony, since atheism represents itself as the philosophy of rationalism—while it actually works to disprove the validity of rational thought.

THE BASIS of morality

Unlike most religions, atheism has no moral code associated with it. This means that atheism has no built-in definition of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice. Individual atheists are on their own to try to figure out what is ethical and what is unethical. Atheists do not view this lack of moral definition as a difficulty, but rather regard it as one of the core values of atheism. As a rule, atheists would much prefer the liberty of establishing their own definitions of right and wrong over having these things defined for them. Atheists believe that they are able to discern right from wrong by the power of their intellects, and that they can thus successfully navigate the moral waters of life.

Three difficulties assail this approach to ethics, however. The first is the fallibility of human capacity. If, in any situation, we are on our own to determine what is right and wrong, then we must rely on our ability to accurately perceive and reason through the situation in order to discern its degree of rectitude. This is no small difficulty. In recent history, powerful atheists, reasoning according to their best lights, committed great atrocities as they strove to bring about virtuous and just societies.

Neither will it help us to rely on historical precedent or the thinking of others, since there will always be a cacophony of voices that advise us in a variety of ways, many of them quite contradictory to each other. I suppose it would be possible for atheists to come together to construct an atheist ethos that would serve as an infallible moral guide for all atheists of all times. But this would defeat part of the point of being an atheist, since atheists do not want to have their ethics handed down to them. They are "free thinkers" (in some things, at least), so are unlikely to be willing to cede their moral autonomy to an ethics committee.

The second difficulty that handicaps the pursuit of ethics through reason alone is the problem of self-interest. Young adults are prone to the belief that they can, by reason alone, determine the rights and wrongs of life. But older, more experienced people know that it is all too easy to rationalize wrongdoing. In fact, the slope leads downward into selfishness; it is easier to concoct an excuse to do wrong that sounds reasonable than it is to face the facts courageously and accept the cost that comes from doing right at the expense of self-interest.

Many crimes are crimes of passion—hot-blooded, emotional reactions to sudden situations. But many other crimes are crimes of logic—wrongs that we decide to commit because we have convinced ourselves that the situation requires it. Most criminals have a reason for their crimes. Reason can thus lead us to crime as well as to virtue. And it is an unfortunate fact that we do not usually recognize that we are rationalizing in favor of self-interest until we have already committed some wrong (if then).

The third (and most important) difficulty is the fact that intellect can only elucidate the way things are, not the way things ought to be. Ought and should are matters of value. Perhaps your neighbor is a particularly outspoken evangelist. What you should do about this depends entirely on your values. In some countries, you could report your evangelist neighbor to the police, who would arrest him, imprison him, and perhaps torture him, execute him, or send him to a labor camp. In other countries, you would have no recourse but to put up with him. In the first sort of country, freedom from religion is a higher value than freedom of speech. In the second, the reverse is true. But the fact that our neighbor is an evangelist—and that some of his neighbors don't want to hear him—does not tell us how we ought to respond to him.

C. S. Lewis pointed out that a man who tries to derive moral direction from rational processes "is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premises in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible." So reason, which operates on facts and produces factual conclusions, cannot tell us what is right or wrong. It can tell us how to pursue our values, but it cannot tell us what our values ought to be. And even the preference for rational ethics is itself a question of values. Why should we live rationally? Only because our values lead us to believe that it is good to do so. So any attempt to construct our value system from reason alone is destined to come speedily to a frustrating end.

Thus, atheism is incapable of providing any guidance on how to live rightly. Atheists are on their own in determining good and evil. They cannot know what is right until they have defined what is good. The attempt to do this rationally will frustrate them, because they have no bedrock upon which to rest their moral considerations; there are no givens upon which to base their proofs. Atheism not only denies the traditional bases of morality, but also disqualifies as irrational any proposed foundation for ethics. Thus, it actually undercuts those who are searching for an ethical basis for behavior. Given this, it is ironic that atheists are all too willing to tell religionists how they ought to conduct themselves in public. And what are we to make of a worldview that is not only unwilling but also unable to instruct its adherents in the right way of living?

Atheism as a Failed Philosophy

If you talk to an atheist, he will often be able to recite three cardinal virtues of atheism: First, it represents the ascendancy of reason over superstition. Second, it offers a rational and scientific explanation for the universe, as opposed to the mystical and mythological explanations offered by religion. Third, atheism liberates its adherents from the arbitrary, arcane, and sometimes abusive moralities offered by traditional religions. These are the three chief advantages that atheists routinely claim for their philosophy. But do any of these supposed advantages actually pan out?

Apparently not. Atheism essays to provide a coldly material explanation for both the existence of the universe and the existence of life. But as we have seen in both cases, it actually cannot explain the most foundational questions of our existence. Dedicated atheists may choose to keep the faith and wait on a day when atheism can explain these things. But as we have seen, it is exceptionally unlikely—if not altogether impossible—that atheism will ever be able to provide answers to these questions. And for those who thought that atheism had already provided the answers, there is only disappointment.

More significantly, we have seen that a philosophy that claims to champion rational thought actually ends up denying the validity of rational thought. And while atheism does release its followers from the religious underpinnings of morality, it does so by making morality meaningless. Where the puzzle of the creation of life and the universe is concerned, the atheist may still hold out some hope for a solution. But when it comes to the validity of thought and the basis of ethics, there is no hope at all; the atheist must relinquish both of these in order to be intellectually consistent.

It might then be reasonable to ask what, exactly, atheism does accomplish for us. What mysteries does it explain? What guidance does it offer? In practical terms, we see that atheism cannot act as a guide for our lives, because it cannot tell us how life ought to be lived. Neither can it shine any light on the ultimate mysteries of life: our origins, the origin of the universe, or the meaning or value of rational thought. I have tried to imagine what value atheism has, either practically or philosophically, and have been unable to come up with anything. Atheism can't even serve as a decent basis for political theory, since it has no ethics.

So, in the end, we see that atheism actually explains nothing of substance, and along the way, it destroys important concepts such as the validity of thought and the legitimacy of morality. Atheism seems to cut itself off at the root. In fact, it is hard to think of one positive thing that atheism can contribute to human thought or human life. 

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