Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's turtles all the way down!

There are two major arguments in the world today for God.  Many people give many reasons to believe in God, but they do not generally provide an argument for whether or not there is a God; people would rather give reasons for why they would like there to be a God.  The only two arguments which get vaguely close to being real arguments for God's existence are the Cosmological Argument (also known as the First Cause Argument) and the Teleological Argument (also known as the Argument from Design).  I'll just address the Cosmological Argument for today.

Thomas of Aquinas is the most often quoted on the Cosmological Argument.  The question, which gets thrown around rather like an infallible weapon that will silence any atheist, is generally phrased as "How did everything get here?" or "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  These are basically the same question, but for the sake of clarity I shall respond to the second, as it is worded simply and efficiently and lessens the chance of misunderstanding.

The Christian answers the First Cause question by postulating that a supernatural being, which existed independently of the natural universe, created everything which is scientifically observable.  Now, we must first ask where God came from, and why he is exempt from the law of everything needing a cause.  The Christian explains that God, existing independently of this universe, is not constrained by such natural forces as time.  So an essential component of the Christian's argument is the idea that anything existing outside the natural laws we observe today (which is the definition of supernatural) does not need a cause.  Now, it is a well-known fact (articulated wonderfully by Stephen Hawking in his latest book, The Grand Design) that the natural laws we observe today did not exist at the beginning of the universe.  They do not even function as we perceive them today.  Our brains see time as a straight line, extending in both directions.  We assume, then, that the line must have a point where it began and a point where it ends.  This is, however, completely a construct of our own consciousness.  Time- if we were to give it a spatial property such as we do when we think of it as a line- is rather like a sphere.  Things do not begin and end in the way we tend to think they do.  In that same manner, the universe did not have a 'beginning' in the way we assume it must have.  It was not a specific point on a line that we call time- it was more like the North Pole on a globe.  We can think of the beginning of the universe as the North Pole and the end as the South Pole- we can continue to move north, but once we get there, we cannot move any further north.  It does not exist.  So this idea of everything needing a beginning is resting on a constraint of our own perception- time itself has no beginning.  It is like a sphere- it has no point where it begins or ends.  We can say that, in a sense, the universe is eternal.  Within the concept of time, it is wholly without beginning or end.

Now, a Christian may still argue that even if time does not have a beginning or end, it must have been brought into existence by something.  Ah- so even something that is not constrained by a beginning or end still needs a cause?  Well, if we make that assertion, then the theistic god must be brought to trial.  If even timeless entities must have a cause, then we would be forced to conclude, as so many have done in the past, "It's turtles all the way down!"  Theists have a choice; either they say that eternal entities are not subject to the law of causation- which means we then are perfectly warranted in the conclusion that this eternal universe is all there is- or they can say that even eternal entities must have a cause, which means their God is thrown into the same boat as our universe.

What if we were to conclude that entities outside of time must have a cause as well?  In that case, it seems impossible that we are here at all.  It is absolutely impossible in theory for anything to exist, yet here we are.  Let me respond to this question with another question: what is nothing?  We should take a minute to pause and think about the actual definition of that word, "Nothing."  What would things be like, let's ask ourselves, if there was nothing?  Well, we've got a problem: that is an impossible question to answer, even in theory.  Because "nothing" being used to describe anything, even a lack of anything, is nonsensical.  Nothing is exactly what it sounds like: absolutely nothing.  Not a vacuum, or a lack of existence of any sort, but rather just a word to describe something that does not exist.  That is why, in a rather confusing mind-bender, is why there is something: because "nothing" does not exist.  By its own definition, it does not exist.  We are left with only one alternative: existence.  What exactly does exist is a question for science, but for the philosophers, we can confidently answer this question: It is not impossible for something to exist.  It's impossible for nothing to exist.

Now, that's a rather heartening thought for atheists, isn't it?  No matter what happens, there will always be something.  There always has been, and always will be, existence.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rally 'round the flag, fellow heathens!

I was just watching Piers Morgan of CNN interview Ricky Gervais in regards to his appearance as the host of the 2011 Golden Globes.  Gervais spent several minutes mercilessly demolishing various attending celebrities in a monologue which I personally found hilarious.  Now, not too surprisingly, Gervais's rant was eclipsed by a comment he made at the close of the show- "Thank you to God, for making me an atheist."  This incurred the wrath of American culture swiftly and effectively.  Atheism in America seems to be a lot like the kid in school that nobody really likes- we know he's there, we put up with him by not really paying any attention to him, and everyone is content with ignoring him; as soon as someone actually acknowledges him and tries to include him, people get upset.  Nobody will outright say that atheists should not be treated equally (except perhaps George H.W. Bush, who I am sure would pin the whole thing on a misinterpretation of sorts), but the vast majority of America secretly hopes they'll keep to themselves.  This is exactly what Ricky Gervais did not do, and I applaud him for this; he was not condescending or critical of others' beliefs, he simply stated his own lack of belief with pride and a little bit of Ricky Gervais humor.  Yet Morgan still warns him that he may be "offending" Americans with his comment.  How does that work, I ask?  Let's remember the positions of Christianity and atheism here: Christianity is making a claim, atheism is rejecting it.  Surely it is not offensive to state one's neutrality.  Gervais is really not making any sort of claim here, save for the fact that he does not share America's belief.  Let us imagine that there are two religions in America: Christianity and Judaism.  If someone says, "I am not Christian.  I don't agree with it.  I am Jewish," then no one would have a problem with his rejection of Christianity.  They don't mind because he is choosing a different religion.  Now, if that same someone said, "I am neither Christian nor Jewish," it would be considered offensive.  What has changed?  He is only rejecting a belief, which wasn't considered offensive in our former hypothetical.  What has changed here is that he is not choosing another belief to profess in the absence of Christianity or Judaism; people are offended because he is not choosing a religion as most Americans do.  Ricky Gervais managed to offend America, it seems, by professing no beliefs at all, which is quite silly when we think of it in that light.

I assure you I have not forgotten my original statements about atheism in America at some point during my zealous defense of Ricky Gervais; it is now that I come full circle.  This tactic- claiming offense at something which really should not even have the ability to offend someone- is the trick that my dominantly Christian nation will pull when someone has the audacity to not only take note of atheism, but speak of it with approval or even preference.  This is why atheists will come under fire whenever they step into the public eye- because they are "offending" people of faith (which have the advantage of being both the majority and the cultural norm).  It does not matter, as Gervais has proved, if all an atheist does is say "I am glad to be an atheist" in a place where America can hear him- it is offensive.  If there is one thing I have noticed about American culture, it is that anything new and strongly counter-cultural will be treated with caution and distaste, if not fear and hatred.  An atheist will rarely have rights denied him on account of his nonbelief; but his rights are given to him in a rather begrudging way, and if there is some way that he can be swept under the rug and silenced, the media and the general public will be only too happy to do so.

Gervais showed us once again how much discomfort there is towards atheism in America, and all he did was say he was thankful to be an atheist (the mention of God was a little dash of oxymoronic Gervais humor, as I saw it).  Imagine if he had spoken about his atheism with half the zeal we see in Christian fundamentalists all over America- the consequences would have been ten times as dire for him.  It is for this reason- this unwritten rule of silence that we find ourselves facing, this attitude of  "Don't talk about it and we won't complain"- that we must be as vocal as possible, more vocal than we have been to date.  We are not a valued minority in America.  We are hugely ignored, unappreciated, and fundamentally misunderstood.  It is because we are something new, stronger in numbers than atheists have ever been before in our history, that our country will resist us initially, as a body will often reject a substance it has never experienced before.  We must not be content with staying silent and submissive.  We will not be given a voice; we must make one for ourselves.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Greetings! (A short introduction.)

Hello everyone!

First of all, if you are reading this, thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and I hope you enjoy them.

I am an atheist, albeit a young and curious one, and this blog will centered on my non-belief in a country where faith and religion permeate almost every aspect of culture.  Football players drop to their knees and thank God for giving his attention over to guiding their passes and tackles rather than spending a bit of time helping scientists in their fight against cancer.  Friends and relatives of the Chilean miners thank God for saving the miners rather than thanking the people who worked tirelessly to extract them safely.  Many people show kindness to fellow human beings only because they are given the incentive of heaven and the threat of hell- and these same people are the ones who say that atheists are not as moral as theists.  Countless billboards profess the truth of the Bible and the undeniable existence of God, and urge us to accept him- yet a billboard professing a lack of belief in God and a secularized worldview is an "attack" on God.

Well, I do believe I have made my point.  Belief in God is all around me (most likely around you as well), as well as 'faith'- my pet peeve.  Then there is me, an atheist, doing my best to connect with the 12% or so of America that also lacks a belief in God.  But what exactly is atheism?  What does it mean to be an atheist?  At least half the believers I have talked to have a profound misunderstanding of atheism, so let's define that right away.

An atheist is not the 'opposite' of a believer.  He does not hold a belief in no god in the way that a theist believes in god.  In the words of Matthew Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience (of which I'm a big fan), atheism is "a rejection of a belief".  By definition, it is not really possible to do good or evil in the name of atheism, or to 'believe' in atheism, or to attribute any sort of behavior to atheism.  This is because atheism is simply a term that indicates the lack of theism.  We can no more say that atheism was at fault for Stalin's crimes than we can, if presented with a man who has drowned at sea, pick out a particular life vest and say that its not being attached to him is the reason he drowned.  One could certainly argue that its presence may have helped the man, but it is certainly not the fault of any particular form of flotation device which happened not to be present that the man drowned.  I was recently rather disappointed when a very intelligent Catholic, who is many years my superior and who I very much enjoy talking with, referred to atheism as a "bad idea" online.  It is not the "bad" that I took issue with; although I don't agree, there wasn't anything terribly surprising about it.  It is the fact that he referred to atheism as an "idea", at which point, upon reading his comment, my first thought was, "atheism is not an idea, good or bad.  Theism is an idea, and atheism is a rejection of that idea."  It was not worded quite as coherently in my head, but thoughts seldom are.

So, in a nutshell, an atheist such as myself does not believe in no god.  You, I can safely say, do not have a specific belief in the nonexistence of leprechauns.  To do so, one would need to travel all the known universe, seeking out leprechauns.  Luckily, you do not need to embark on any sorts of dauntingly large quests for leprechauns, unicorns, etc.  This is because we do not need to disprove something's existence to lack belief in it; we'd still have a long way to go if we did.  The default position is skepticism- doubt rather than stubborn, blind belief.  If your default position is not skepticism, I'd ask you to take a look at the progress made by scientists in the past few hundred years; skepticism has been working out pretty well so far.

This is why, whenever a believer asks me why I do not believe in God, I say, "Why should I?"