Best Proof That God Does Not Exist Essay

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion and popular culture.[1]

A wide variety of arguments for and against the existence of God can be categorized as metaphysical, logical, empirical, or subjective. In philosophical terms, the question of the existence of God involves the disciplines of epistemology (the nature and scope of knowledge) and ontology (study of the nature of being, existence, or reality) and the theory of value (since some definitions of God include "perfection").

The Western tradition of philosophical discussion of the existence of God began with Plato and Aristotle, who made arguments that would now be categorized as cosmological. Other arguments for the existence of God have been proposed by St. Anselm, who formulated the first ontological argument; Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Thomas Aquinas, who presented their own versions of the cosmological argument (the kalam argument and the first way, respectively); René Descartes, who said that the existence of a benevolent God is logically necessary for the evidence of the senses to be meaningful; and Immanuel Kant, who argued that the existence of God can be deduced from the existence of good. John Calvin argued for a sensus divinitatis, which gives each human a knowledge of God's existence.

Philosophers who have provided arguments against the existence of God include the aforementioned Kant, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. In modern culture, the question of God's existence has been discussed by scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Francis Collins, Lawrence M. Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan[2], Neil deGrasse Tyson and John Lennox, as well as philosophers including Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Rebecca Goldstein, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Edward Feser, David Bentley Hart, Reza Aslan and Sam Harris.

Scientists follow the scientific method, within which theories must be verifiable by physical experiment. The majority of prominent conceptions of God explicitly or effectively posit a being which is not testable either by proof or disproof. On these bases, the question regarding the existence of God, one for which evidence cannot be tested, may lie outside the purview of modern science by definition. The Catholic Church maintains that knowledge of the existence of God is the "natural light of human reason".[3]Fideists acknowledge that belief in the existence of God may not be amenable to demonstration or refutation, but rests on faith alone.

Atheists view arguments for the existence of God as insufficient, mistaken or weighing less in comparison to arguments against whereas some religions, such as Buddhism, are not concerned with the existence of gods at all and yet other religions, such as Jainism, reject the possibility of a creator deity.

Positions[edit]

Positions on the existence of God can be divided along numerous axes, producing a variety of orthogonal classifications. Theism and atheism are positions of belief (or lack of it), while gnosticism and agnosticism are positions of knowledge (or the lack of it). Ignosticism concerns belief regarding God's conceptual coherence. Apatheism concerns belief regarding the practical importance of whether God exists.

For the purposes of discussion, Richard Dawkins described seven "milestones" on his spectrum of theistic probability:[4]

  1. Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."
  2. De factotheist. Very high probability but short of 100%. "I don't know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50% but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50%. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50% but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical."
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."

Theism[edit]

Main article: Theism

The theistic conclusion is that there is sufficient reason to believe that God or gods exists, or that arguments do not matter as much as the "personal witness of the Holy Spirit", as argued by preeminent apologist William Lane Craig.[citation needed] The Catholic Church, following the teachings of Saint Paul the Apostle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the First Vatican Council, affirms that God's existence "can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason".[5]

Traditional religious definition of God: personal, omnipotent, benevolent, transcendent[edit]

In classical theism, God is characterized as the metaphysically ultimate being (the first, timeless, absolutely simple and sovereign being, who is devoid of any anthropomorphic qualities), in distinction to other conceptions such as theistic personalism, open theism, and process theism. Classical theists do not believe that God can be completely defined. They believe it would contradict the transcendent nature of God for mere humans to define him. Robert Barron explains by analogy that it seems impossible for a two-dimensional object to conceive of three-dimensional humans.[6]

In modern Western societies, the concepts of God typically entail a monotheistic, supreme, ultimate, and personal being, as found in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions. In monotheistic religions outside the Abrahamic traditions, the existence of God is discussed in similar terms. In these traditions, God is also identified as the author (either directly or by inspiration) of certain texts, or that certain texts describe specific historical events caused by or communications from (whether in direct speech or dreams or omens) the God in question. Some traditions also believe that God is the entity which is currently answering prayers for intervention or information or opinions.

In the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, reality is ultimately seen as a single, qualityless, changeless nirguna Brahman. Advaitin philosophy introduces the concept of saguna Brahman or Ishvara as a way of talking about Brahman to people. Ishvara, in turn, is ascribed such qualities as omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence.[7]

Non-personal definitions of God[edit]

In pantheism, God and the universe are considered to be the same thing. In this view, the natural sciences are essentially studying the nature of God. This definition of God creates the philosophical problem that a universe with God and one without God are the same, other than the words used to describe it.

Deism and panentheism assert that there is a God distinct from, or which extends beyond (either in time or in space or in some other way) the universe. These positions deny that God intervenes in the operation of the universe, including communicating with humans personally. The notion that God never intervenes or communicates with the universe, or may have evolved into the universe, makes it difficult, if not by definition impossible, to distinguish between a universe with God and one without.

Debate about how theism should be argued[edit]

In Christian faith, theologians and philosophers make a distinction between: (a) preambles of faith and (b) articles of faith. The preambles include alleged truths contained in revelation which are nevertheless demonstrable by reason, e.g., the immortality of the soul, the existence of God. The articles of faith, on the other hand, contain truths that cannot be proven or reached by reason alone and presuppose the truths of the preambles, e.g., the Holy Trinity, is not demonstrable and presupposes the existence of God.

The argument that the existence of God can be known to all, even prior to exposure to any divine revelation, predates Christianity. St. Paul made this argument when he said that pagans were without excuse because "since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made".[8] In this Paul alludes to the proofs for a creator, later enunciated by St. Thomas[9] and others, but that had also been explored by the Greek philosophers.

Another apologetical school of thought, including Dutch and American Reformed thinkers (such as Abraham Kuyper, Benjamin Warfield, Herman Dooyeweerd), emerged in the late 1920s. This school was instituted by Cornelius Van Til, and came to be popularly called Presuppositional apologetics (though Van Til himself felt "transcendental" would be a more accurate title). The main distinction between this approach and the more classical evidentialist approach is that the presuppositionalist denies any common ground between the believer and the non-believer, except that which the non-believer denies, namely, the assumption of the truth of the theistic worldview. In other words, presuppositionalists do not believe that the existence of God can be proven by appeal to raw, uninterpreted, or "brute" facts, which have the same (theoretical) meaning to people with fundamentally different worldviews, because they deny that such a condition is even possible. They claim that the only possible proof for the existence of God is that the very same belief is the necessary condition to the intelligibility of all other human experience and action. They attempt to prove the existence of God by means of appeal to the transcendental necessity of the belief—indirectly (by appeal to the unavowed presuppositions of the non-believer's worldview) rather than directly (by appeal to some form of common factuality). In practice this school utilizes what have come to be known as transcendental arguments. In these arguments they claim to demonstrate that all human experience and action (even the condition of unbelief, itself) is a proof for the existence of God, because God's existence is the necessary condition of their intelligibility.

Alvin Plantinga presents an argument for the existence of God using modal logic.[10] Others have said that the logical and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God miss the point. The word God has a meaning in human culture and history that does not correspond to the beings whose existence is supported by such arguments, assuming they are valid. The real question is not whether a "most perfect being" or an "uncaused first cause" exist. The real question is whether Jehovah, Zeus, Ra, Krishna, or any gods of any religion exist, and if so, which gods? On the other hand, many theists equate all monotheistic or henotheistic "most perfect Beings", no matter what name is assigned to them/him, as the one monotheistic God (one example would be understanding the Muslim Allah, Christian Yhwh, and Chinese Shangdi as different names for the same Being). Most of these arguments do not resolve the issue of which of these figures is more likely to exist. These arguments fail to make the distinction between immanent gods and a Transcendent God.

Some[who?] Christians note that the Christian faith teaches "salvation is by faith",[11] and that faith is reliance upon the faithfulness of God. The most extreme example of this position is called fideism, which holds that faith is simply the will to believe, and argues that if God's existence were rationally demonstrable, faith in its existence would become superfluous. Søren Kierkegaard argued that objective knowledge, such as 1+1=2, is unimportant to existence. If God could rationally be proven, his existence would be unimportant to humans.[citation needed] It is because God cannot rationally be proven that his existence is important to us. In The Justification of Knowledge, the Calvinist theologian Robert L. Reymond argues that believers should not attempt to prove the existence of God. Since he believes all such proofs are fundamentally unsound, believers should not place their confidence in them, much less resort to them in discussions with non-believers; rather, they should accept the content of revelation by faith. Reymond's position is similar to that of his mentor Gordon Clark, which holds that all worldviews are based on certain unprovable first premises (or, axioms), and therefore are ultimately unprovable. The Christian theist therefore must simply choose to start with Christianity rather than anything else, by a "leap of faith". This position is also sometimes called presuppositional apologetics, but should not be confused with the Van Tillian variety.

Atheism[edit]

Main article: Atheism

The atheistic conclusion is that the arguments and evidence both indicate there is insufficient reason to believe that any gods exist, and that personal subjective religious experiences say something about the human experience rather than the nature of reality itself; therefore, one has no reason to believe that a god exists.

Positive atheism[edit]

Main article: Negative and positive atheism

Positive atheism (also called "strong atheism" and "hard atheism") is a form of atheism that asserts that no deities exist.[12][13][14] The strong atheist explicitly asserts the non-existence of gods. Some[who?] strong atheists further assert that the existence of gods is logically impossible, stating that the combination of attributes which God may be asserted to have (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, transcendence, omnibenevolence) are logically contradictory, incomprehensible, or absurd, and therefore the existence of such a god is a priori false. Metaphysical naturalism is a common worldview associated with strong atheism.

Negative atheism[edit]

Negative atheism (also called "weak atheism" and "soft atheism") is any type of atheism other than positive, wherein a person does not believe in the existence of any deities, but does not explicitly assert there to be none.[12][13][14]

Agnosticism[edit]

Main article: Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.[15] Agnosticism as a broad umbrella term does not define one's belief or disbelief in gods; agnostics may still identify themselves as theists or atheists.[16]

Strong agnosticism[edit]

Strong agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible for humans to know whether or not any deities exist.

Weak agnosticism[edit]

Main article: Weak agnosticism

Weak agnosticism is the belief that the existence or nonexistence of deities is unknown but not necessarily unknowable.

Agnostic theism[edit]

Main article: Agnostic theism

Agnostic theism is the philosophical view that encompasses both theism and agnosticism. An agnostic theist believes in the existence of a god or God, but regards the basis of this proposition as unknown or inherently unknowable. Agnostic theists may also insist on ignorance regarding the properties of the gods they believe in.[17]

Agnostic atheism[edit]

Main article: Agnostic atheism

Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.

The theologian Robert Flint explains:

If a man have failed to find any good reason for believing that there is a God, it is perfectly natural and rational that he should not believe that there is a God; and if so, he is an atheist, although he assume no superhuman knowledge, but merely the ordinary human power of judging of evidence. If he go farther, and, after an investigation into the nature and reach of human knowledge, ending in the conclusion that the existence of God is incapable of proof, cease to believe in it on the ground that he cannot know it to be true, he is an agnostic and also an atheist, an agnostic-atheist—an atheist because an agnostic."[18]

Apatheism[edit]

Main article: Apatheism

An apatheist is someone who is not interested in accepting or denying any claims that gods exist or do not exist. An apatheist lives as if there are no gods and explains natural phenomena without reference to any deities. The existence of gods is not rejected, but may be designated unnecessary or useless; gods neither provide purpose to life, nor influence everyday life, according to this view.[19]

Ignosticism[edit]

Main article: Ignosticism

The ignostic (or igtheist) usually concludes that the question of God's existence or nonexistence is usually not worth discussing because concepts like "God" are usually not sufficiently clearly defined.

Ignosticism or igtheism is the theological position that every other theological position (including agnosticism and atheism) assume too much about the concept of God and many other theological concepts. It can be defined as encompassing two related views about the existence of God. The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed. Furthermore, if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God (per that definition) is meaningless. In this case, the concept of God is not considered meaningless; the term "God" is considered meaningless. The second view is synonymous with theological noncognitivism, and skips the step of first asking "What is meant by 'God'?" before proclaiming the original question "Does God exist?" as meaningless.

Some philosophers have seen ignosticism as a variation of agnosticism or atheism,[20] while others[who?] have considered it to be distinct.[citation needed] An ignostic maintains that he cannot even say whether he is a theist or an atheist until a sufficient definition of theism is put forth.

The term "ignosticism" was coined in the 1960s by Sherwin Wine, a rabbi and a founding figure of Humanistic Judaism. The term "igtheism" was coined by the secular humanistPaul Kurtz in his 1992 book The New Skepticism.[21]

Philosophical issues[edit]

The problem of the supernatural[edit]

One problem posed by the question of the existence of God is that traditional beliefs usually ascribe to God various supernatural powers. Supernatural beings may be able to conceal and reveal themselves for their own purposes, as for example in the tale of Baucis and Philemon. In addition, according to concepts of God, God is not part of the natural order, but the ultimate creator of nature and of the scientific laws. Thus in Aristotelian philosophy, God is viewed as part of the explanatory structure needed to support scientific conclusions and any powers God possesses are—strictly speaking—of the natural order that is derived from God's place as originator of nature (see also Monadology).

In Karl Popper's philosophy of science, belief in a supernatural God is outside the natural domain of scientific investigation because all scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable in the natural world. The non-overlapping magisteria view proposed by Stephen Jay Gould also holds that the existence (or otherwise) of God is irrelevant to and beyond the domain of science.

Logical positivists such as Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer viewed any talk of gods as literal nonsense. For the logical positivists and adherents of similar schools of thought, statements about religious or other transcendent experiences can not have a truth value, and are deemed to be without meaning, because such statements do not have any clear verification criteria. As the Christian biologist Scott C. Todd put it "Even if all the data pointed to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic."[22] This argument limits the domain of science to the empirically observable and limits the domain of God to the unprovable.

Nature of relevant proofs and arguments[edit]

John Polkinghorne suggests that the nearest analogy to the existence of God in physics is the ideas of quantum mechanics which are seemingly paradoxical but make sense of a great deal of disparate data.[23]

Alvin Plantinga compares the question of the existence of God to the question of the existence of other minds, claiming both are notoriously impossible to "prove" against a determined skeptic.[24]

One approach, suggested by writers such as Stephen D. Unwin, is to treat (particular versions of) theism and naturalism as though they were two hypotheses in the Bayesian sense, to list certain data (or alleged data), about the world, and to suggest that the likelihoods of these data are significantly higher under one hypothesis than the other.[25] Most of the arguments for, or against, the existence of God can be seen as pointing to particular aspects of the universe in this way. In almost all cases it is not seriously suggested by proponents of the arguments that they are irrefutable, merely that they make one worldview seem significantly more likely than the other. However, since an assessment of the weight of evidence depends on the prior probability that is assigned to each worldview, arguments that a theist finds convincing may seem thin to an atheist and vice versa.[26]

Philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, take a view that is considered anti-realist and oppose philosophical arguments related to God's existence. For instance, Charles Taylor contends that the real is whatever will not go away. If we cannot reduce talk about God to anything else, or replace it, or prove it false, then perhaps God is as real as anything else.[27]

In George Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge of 1710, he argued that a "naked thought" cannot exist, and that a perception is a thought; therefore only minds can be proven to exist, since all else is merely an idea conveyed by a perception. From this Berkeley argued that the universe is based upon observation and is non-objective. However, he noted that the universe includes "ideas" not perceptible to humankind, and that there must, therefore, exist an omniscient superobserver, which perceives such things. Berkeley considered this proof of the existence of the Christian god.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity and elsewhere, raised the argument from desire. He posed that all natural desires have a natural object. One thirsts, and there exists water to quench this thirst; One hungers, and there exists food to satisfy this hunger. He then argued that the human desire for perfect justice, perfect peace, perfect happiness, and other intangibles strongly implies the existence of such things, though they seem unobtainable on earth. He further posed that the unquenchable desires of this life strongly imply that we are intended for a different life, necessarily governed by a God who can provide the desired intangibles.[28]

[edit]

Existence in absolute truth is central to Vedanta epistemology. Traditional sense perception based approaches were put into question as possibly misleading due to preconceived or superimposed ideas. But though all object-cognition can be doubted, the existence of the doubter remains a fact even in nastika traditions of mayavada schools following Adi Shankara.[29] The five eternal principles to be discussed under ontology, beginning with God or Isvara, the Ultimate Reality cannot be established by the means of logic alone, and often require superior proof.[30] In VaisnavismVishnu, or his intimate ontological form of Krishna, is equated to personal absolute God of the Western traditions. Aspects of Krishna as svayam bhagavan in original Absolute Truth, sat chit ananda, are understood originating from three essential attributes of Krishna's form, i.e., "eternal existence" or sat, related to the brahman aspect; "knowledge" or chit, to the paramatman; and "bliss" or ananda in Sanskrit, to bhagavan.[31]

Arguments for the existence of God[edit]

Empirical arguments

Europeans polled who "believe in a god", according to Eurobarometer in 2005
North Americans polled about religious identity

Reasons that treat God as unnecessary

Science explains everything

Atheists argue that because everything in the universe can be explained in a satisfactory way without using God as part of the explanation, then there is no point in saying that God exists.

Occam's Razor

The argument is based on a philosophical idea called Occam's Razor, popularised by William of Occam in the 14th century.

In Latin it goes Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate or in English... "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily".

This is usually simplified to say that the simplest answer is the best answer.

Therefore atheists might argue that since the entire universe, and all of creation can be explained by evolution and scientific cosmology, we don't need the existence of another entity called God.

Therefore God doesn't exist.

What would William have said?

William of Occam would not have agreed; he was a Franciscan monk who never doubted the existence of God.

But in his century he wasn't breaking the rule named after him. 14th century science knew nothing about evolution or how the universe came into being. God was the only explanation available.

What William would think if he lived now is another matter...

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Arguments for God aren't convincing

Weakness of the proofs that God exists

There are a number of traditional arguments used to prove that God exists; however, none of them convinces atheists. Here they are:

The Argument from Design

The universe is such a beautiful and orderly thing that it must have been designed. Only God could have designed it. Therefore since the universe exists, God must exist.

An atheist might refute this by saying that, actually, the universe is not particularly beautiful and orderly. And even if it was, why should there be a designer? And modern science shows that most of the natural things we think of as designed are just the products of processes like evolution.

The "Ontological" Argument

We think of God as a perfect being. If God didn't exist he wouldn't be perfect. God is perfect, therefore God exists.

Most atheists think this argument is so feeble they don't bother dealing with it.

Professional philosophers usually reject it on the grounds that existence is not a property of beings.

The First Cause Argument

Everything that happens has a cause. Therefore the universe must have had a cause. That cause must have been God. Therefore since the universe exists, God must exist in order to have caused it to exist.

An atheist might respond by asking what caused God. (And what caused the cause of God, and so on.) The argument might proceed that if God didn't need a cause, then maybe the universe didn't need a cause either. If God was already perfect before he created the universe, why did he create it? How did it benefit him? Why would he bother? And if the universe was caused, perhaps something other than God caused it?

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Reasons to do with science and the history of thought

The best explanation

For most of human history God was the best explanation for the existence and nature of the physical universe.

But during the last few centuries, scientists have developed solutions that are much more logical, more consistent, and better supported by evidence.

Atheists say that these explain the world so much better than the existence of God.They also say that far from God being a good explanation for the world, it's God that now requires explaining.

Before science

In olden times - and still today in some traditional societies - natural phenomena that people didn't understand, such as the weather, sunrise and sunset, and so on, were seen as the work of gods or spirits.

Bible times

The Old Testament portrays the world as something controlled by God.

Where we would see the weather as obeying meteorological principles, people in those days saw it as demonstrating God at work. And it was the same with all the other natural phenomena, they just showed God doing things.

The Greeks

The Greek philosopher Thales moved things on by suggesting that the gods were actually an essential part of things, rather than external puppeteers pulling strings to make the world work.

Myth and magic

But there was more to these ancient explanations than gods doing things in or to the world. People saw the whole universe in a religiously structured way; they had no other way to see it at that time.

For the ancients, God provided the power that made the universe work, and God provided the structure within which the universe worked and human beings lived.

Astrology

Ideas like that survive in modern astrology. Many people believe that their lives are in some way influenced by the movements of heavenly bodies. And the heavenly bodies concerned have names taken from mythology and religion.

Modern religion

And you'll find similar ideas in most popular religious thinking. Many people still believe, or want to believe, in the idea of God as puppeteer.

They believe that God is able to do things in the world: he can divide the waters of the Red Sea to save the Israelites from Pharaoh, he can respond to prayer by healing an illness or getting someone through an exam.

Cosmology

Cosmology is the study of the origin and nature of the universe.

Nowadays it's a branch of astronomy and physics, but in pre-scientific times it was a religious subject, organising the universe in terms of almost military ranks of beings. God was at the top, and human beings came pretty much at the bottom.

In some cosmologies there was also an inverted hierarchy of evil beings going down from humanity to the source of wickedness, the devil, at the bottom.

Power

These religious cosmologies were rigid; each being had its place worked out for it in the structure that God had provided, and that was where it stayed.

Looking at the universe like this provided great support for the hierarchical power structures of earthly nations and tribes: Everyone in a nation or tribe had their place, and the power came from the top.

And if God had decided to organise the universe in such a hierarchy, this provided a strong argument against anyone who wanted to suggest that society could be organised in a fairer and more equal way - God had shown us the perfect way to organise things, and those who were ruling did so by a right given by God.

It was also very good news for whichever religion was followed in a particular nation: since the power all came from God, religion was bound to be given high status.

The mechanical universe

The idea that God steered everything in the universe as he saw fit was demolished by the discovery that there were natural laws obeyed by objects in the universe.

Galileo, for example, discovered that the universe followed laws that could be written down mathematically.

This suggested that there was logic and engineering throughout creation. The universe behaved in a consistent manner and was not subject to gods pulling a string here and there, or some unexplained influences from astrological bodies.

This didn't give Galileo any religious problems (although it annoyed the church greatly and they eventually made him keep quiet about some of his conclusions) because he believed that God had written the scientific rules.

And around this time scientists began to come up with new ways of assessing whether certain things were true. Things were expected to happen in a repeatable, testable way, that could be written down in equations.

God the engineer

Although scientific discovery began to explain more and more, it didn't cause large numbers of people to become less religious.

Even many - probably most - scientists still had a place for God in the universe. At the very least, he had started the whole thing going, and he had created the rules that his universe was shown to obey.

This half-way house between religion and science still had problems for the faithful, since it didn't seem to leave much room for God to intervene in the universe - and certainly it didn't need God to keep things ticking over.

God the creator

But the half-way house also provided some support for the faithful. They could look at the universe and see how beautifuly made it was, and be reassured that God had demonstrated his existence by creating such a wonderful place.

And since science, until the late 18th, and 19th centuries, hadn't produced any good explanation of how things began, religion still had an important place in explaining how the world was the way it was.

God takes a back seat

God's role as an explanation for the way things are took a serious knock from the sciences of geology and evolution.

Geologists discovered that the earth was hundreds of millions of years old, and not just 6,000 years old as was generally believed at that time.

They showed that the rocks that make up the earth had been laid down in layers at different times; a deeper layer (by and large) came from an earlier time than a shallow layer.

In each layer were fossils that showed that different species of animals had lived in different eras. Not only were many no longer in existence but some didn't appear until relatively recent times.

This was incompatible with the idea that God completely created the world in 6 days and so scientists with a faith came up with another compromise - the 6 days of biblical creation were a poetic way of describing long periods of millions of years during which God worked on the world.

The theory of evolution

The theory of evolution explains the variety of life forms on earth without any reference to God.

It says that from very simple beginnings, processes of genetic variation and selection (i.e. new forms of life keep appearing, and some forms of life don't survive and become extinct), working for hundreds of millions of years, generated the range of plants and animals that exist today.

These processes are not directed by any being, they are just the way the world works; God is unnecessary.

The result of this for God has been explained by Stephen Jay Gould:

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Reasons that treat God as meaningless

Relative philosophy

Some philosophers think that religious language doesn't mean anything at all, and therefore that there's no point in asking whether God exists.

They would say that a sentence like "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is neither true or false, it's meaningless; in the same way that "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" is meaningless.

Logical Positivism, or Verificationism

Logical Positivists argued that a sentence was meaningless if it wasn't either true or false, and they said that a sentence would only be true or false if it could be tested by an experiment, or if it was true by definition.

A more accurate version of this idea can be found here:

Since you couldn't verify the existence of God by any sort of "sense experience", and it wasn't true by definition (eg in the way "a triangle has 3 sides" is true), the logical positivists argued that it was pointless asking the question since it could not be answered true or false.

These particular philosophers didn't only say that religious talk was meaningless, they thought that much of philosophical discussion, metaphysics for example, was meaningless too. This philosophical theory is no longer popular, and attention has returned to the issues of what "God" means and whether "God" exists.

Note for philosophers

This is how one prominent philosopher put it:

Ayer actually preferred a weaker version of the theory, because since no empirical proof could be totally conclusive, almost every statement about the world would have to be regarded as meaningless.

And this led Ayer to dispose of the God question rather brusquely:

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Reasons that treat God as a psychological factor

Psychological explanations of religon

Psychologists have long been fascinated by religion as something that exists in all societies.

They ask whether 'religion' is actually a name given to various psychological drives, rather than a response to the existence of God or gods.

Such a belief is clearly atheistic.

Religion, to the common man, is a:

Religion comes from emotions

Human beings believe in God because they want:

  • A father figure to protect them from this frightening world
  • Someone who gives their lives meaning and purpose
  • Something that stops death being the end
  • To believe that they are an important part of the universe, and that some component of the universe (God) cares for and respects them

These beliefs are strongly held because they enable human beings to cope with some of their most basic fears.

Atheists argue that since religion is just a psychological fantasy, human beings should abandon it so that they can grow to respond appropriately to deal with the world as it is.

Freud

Sigmund Freud tackled religion in great detail and had several ideas about it.

One of his theories was that religion stems from the individual's experience of having been a helpless baby totally dependent on its parents. The infant sees its parents as all-powerful beings who show it great love and satisfy all its needs. This experience is almost identical to the way human beings portray their relationship with God.

Freud also suggested that childhood experiences caused people to have very complex feelings about their parents and themselves, and religion and religious rituals provide a respectable mechanism for working these out.

Freud also described religion as a mass-delusion that reshaped reality to provide a certainty of happiness and a protection from suffering.

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Reasons that treat God as a social function

Sociological explanations of religion

Some people think that religions and belief in God fulfil functions in human society, rather than being the result of God actually existing.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach was a 19th century German philosopher who proposed that religion was just a human being's consciousness of the infinite.

He said that human ideas about God were no more than the projection of humanity's ideas about man onto an imaginary supernatural being.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French sociologist, thought that religion was something produced by human society, and had nothing supernatural about it.

He believed that religion existed, but he did not agree that the reality that lay behind it was the same reality that believers thought existed.

Religion helped people to form close knit groups, in which they could find a place in society. Religious rituals created mental states in those taking part which were helpful to the group.

To put it another way; religious rituals do not do anything other than strengthen the beliefs of the group taking part and reinforce the collective consciousness.

Religion fulfilled the functions of:

  • Giving a meaning and purpose to life
  • Binding people together in groups
  • Supporting the moral code of the group
  • Supporting the social code of the group

Durkheim thought that this was enough to give people a feeling that there was something supernatural going on.

Durkheim said that religious beliefs divided experiences into the profane and the sacred - the profane were the routine experiences of everyday life, while the sacred were beyond the everyday and likely to inspire reverence.

Objects could become sacred, not because of any inherent supernatural resonance but because the group fixed certain 'collective ideals' on an object.

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Karl Marx's criticisms of religion

Marx's view of religion

Karl Marx thought that religion was an illusion, with no real God or supernatural reality standing in the background. Religion was a force that stopped human societies from changing.

A social institution

Marx believed that religion was a social institution, and reflected and sustained the particular society in which it flourished.

He went further. Religion was a tool used by the capitalists to keep the working-class under control.

Religion provided the working-class with comfort in their miserable oppressed circumstances, and by focussing attention on the joys to come after death, it distracted the workers from trying to make this life better.

Religion cheats human beings

Furthermore, it took the noblest human ideals and gave them to a non-existent God, thus cheating human beings of realising their own greatness and potential.

Religion disguises the true wrongs

Marx argued that the illusory happiness provided by religion should be eliminated by putting right the economic conditions that caused people to need this illusion to make their lives bearable.

Religion was like a pain-killer (hence Marx's famous reference to it as "the opium of the people"), but what was needed was to cure the sickness, not sedate the patient.

Target: Christianity

The Marxist analysis of religion was principally aimed at Christianity as Christianity was the dominant faith in the industrial societies which Marx was criticising.

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