I think that a lot of atheists would insist that their path to atheism is one of discovering that it is unreasonable to believe in God, much like it is unreasonable to believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. My hypothesis is different. It seems to me, the more I look at debates and such between theists and atheists, that atheists make a choice about how they view the world that prohibit belief in God a priori (that is, right at the start, before any evidence is examined). This choice seems so natural and obvious to atheists that they may not even see it as a choice. It’s the choice of epistemology (way of knowing, forming beliefs). I think that this choice is ultimately rooted in the desire for autonomy and a bit of rebelliousness.
The Surface Path
To be clear, I’m not saying that atheists reject God for purely emotional reasons, of course (a lot of Christians seem to think this — they probably do because many of them are pretty emotional themselves). I’m not saying that people get pissed-off at religious people and become atheists because of this. Or that they might be horribly disappointed at unanswered prayer, or something really bad happening to them or someone else, and reject God as a result. Intellectual steps are what I’m interested in. Here’s what I think they are. They aren’t always made explicit, but I think that atheists usually go through these.
1. Choose an epistemology that focuses on (perhaps exclusively) tangible, practical, “hands-on” values and goals either through usable knowledge, or theories that aid in the prediction/control of nature.
2. Point out that such an epistemology has no need of God.
3. Claim that the fact that such a godless epistemology is successful in meeting tangible goals is evidence against God.
4. Reject God.
I don’t think reflective atheists would deny that they have went through all of these at some point in their adoption of atheism. To them, these steps seem obviously right. Key to this path is the first step.
The choice in 1 goes back a long way, with roots in Francis Bacon, and later, explicit endorsement in John Dewey and his “bulldog” Sidney Hook. A current example of 1 is Sean Carroll’s rejection of God as a hypothesis because it doesn’t produce new information about how the world works. Atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss also seems to point to this, as does the atheist philosopher Alva Noe. Noe points out that belief in God will not help you fix your car. To be fair, Carroll (and the others as well, probably) also rejected God as a hypothesis because he didn’t think it was testable. However, the multiverse hypothesis isn’t really testable either, yet they are all willing to entertain it. I think that for them, as for most atheist scientists, it is 1 that is doing most, if not all of the work.
In general, natural explanations are the ones that have hope of allowing us to predict and control nature. These are, in turn, what are useful in developing new technology and solving social problems. In short, natural explanations are what best suit humanistic goals.
2 is insisted by every atheist. Just about anything you can think of could possibly have a natural explanation (How does one rule out all possible natural explanations?). So it’s a short logical step to God not being necessary for such an epistemology.
Regarding 3, that godless science is successful in meeting tangible goals, is obvious to everyone. Theists have to agree. But is this really evidence against God? Only if there’s reason to expect that natural science wouldn’t be successful if God exists. I honestly can’t see why it wouldn’t be successful: if anything, the success of natural science is something God wants, just as long as we don’t see it as the end of all knowledge. Natural science is certainly successful, but limited in its scope (Phillip Goff makes a similar point here about math, physics and subjective experience).
But maybe it’s more like this: God is not useful, for atheists have all that they want in science. I find it hard to argue with this; for given what atheists value (see 1 above), it makes perfect sense to ignore God in the way that they do.
The Deeper Path
Well, now that the intellectual path is out of the way, maybe I do need to return to emotions: to know what is useful one has to know what is valuable. And what is valuable to a person is rooted in what they want. What is it that atheists want, at bottom, anyway? I can’t speak for all of them, but I think that it’s expressed very well by atheist philosopher A.C. Greyling (I discussed it here); it’s autonomy. It’s doing what you want, choosing your own path.
Atheism is the second most rebellious worldview: it won’t bow down to or follow any mere person. One’s personal autonomy is limited by only one thing: empirical reality, “the facts.” It is surpassed in rebelliousness by one worldview only: postmodernism. Postmodernists refuse to bow down to anything, not even reality! *
Consider another passage from the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:
. . . I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. . .Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. (From The Last Word, italics mine)
Compare atheism with Islam, the Arabic word for submission. Theism is all about bowing down to a person. The apostle Paul tells Christians to “present their bodies as living sacrifices.” Atheists devoted to personal autonomy could never accept this, even if they believed in God.
So, as a result of this basic preference, or choice, atheists choose an epistemology that is all about how they can know more, predict more, control more, do more. This epistemology finds no ultimate purpose in the universe, but this doesn’t bother atheists; for them, purpose is what they make it. All this epistemology can do is find out how to get from A to B. They decide whether B is worth getting to.
God, of course, could never be part of such an epistemology, for God will not be controlled, predicted, or used. Any epistemology that could learn of God would also have to be prepared to submit to God.
So, in essence, it’s really down to autonomy versus submission. I’m reminded of Milton’s famous line: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Notice that none of this has to do with the truth about whether or not God exists. It’s more about whether a person could discover God, should He exist. Atheists make epistemological choices that forever make God unfindable. They claim to be open minded, but they really aren’t. Once one commits himself to this sort of pragmatic empiricism, and only accepts explanations/hypothesis that “tell him how the world works,” he will never, ever, ever, find God. God will have no part of that. And even if God obliged and provided, say, an obvious miracle, the atheist’s methodological naturalism, empiricism, or whatever you want to call it would prevent him from accepting the miracle, and he would find some other possible way of explaining the miracle naturally, or, at worst, would simply say “We cannot know what really happened here.” Even God couldn’t get through to this person!
My feeling is that atheists would reply, “Well, there are no such obvious miracles, so your point is moot. Show me the obvious miracle, and then we can talk.” I think this misses the point, however. What I’m discussing are the logical implications of choices atheists make; it logically follows from the epistemology that atheists adopt that they can’t ever find God. It would be pointless for God to perform one for them, for it would have to fall on deaf ears, as long as they hold on to their epistemology. To be truly openminded they would have to let go of the epistemology.
The complication in this is morality. Although some atheists deny that morality is real, in my experience the vast majority of them do hold to an objective morality that they feel everyone should submit to. This morality is, of course, not empirically knowable (Hume, G.E. Moore, and a host of others have made this point). They also, for the most part, try to follow it. So autonomy is limited further still — it’s limited by “the facts,” and it’s limited by what’s right and wrong. Just as we do not get to choose the facts, we also do not get to choose what is right or wrong. We merely decide whether we will obey. And, by in large, atheists do choose to obey. Atheists, in general, desire rebelliousness, not wickedness.
Given the above, the key difference between atheists and theists is, once again, personal. I remember having a very long but interesting discussion with an atheist colleague in grad school about the Euthyphro problem aimed at deriving morals from God. Putting the problem’s details aside, for him the worst thing about morality from God is that it is personally derived; this makes morality arbitrary. He could only give credence to moral theories that are based in an impersonal principle. Following a law is reasonable, but a lawgiver isn’t.
So, summing it up, atheists will bow down to the impersonal, not the personal. If morality is indeed impersonal, and somehow either reducible to empirical facts (Patricia Churchland and Sam Harris argue that it can: I’m not convinced), or to some set of objective, but immaterial, impersonal facts (like those of math, logic), then the atheist can be a consistent moral realist (someone who believes morality is objectively real). Otherwise, he will have an internal conflict in his worldview. He will have to either reject atheism, or objective morality.
The Atheist’s Wager
So what of it? Is the atheist unreasonable? In one sense, no. For he’s convinced that God’s existence, from the start, is extremely unlikely, and that there is some secular basis for morality. There is knowledge to be had, and being open to explanations that don’t provide usable knowledge about the world (i.e., “God did it”) could threaten at least some of this. So he puts his bet on natural science. He doesn’t fear the consequences. If he’s right about God’s inherent low probability, then this is a good bet.
But he might not be. For atheists don’t have good reason to think God is inherently improbable. Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, for example, is a poster child for bad atheist arguments (I argue for that here). Atheist mockery is more telling — from that their intuition that God is inherently improbable comes from false comparisons with beings that really are inherently improbable, such as fairies, Thor, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. But the God of theism isn’t really like these beings (I argue for that here). About that God, all the atheist can say is that he doesn’t know what the inherent probability of God’s existence is. And we can’t forget that saying that God’s probability is unknown is not the same as saying it is low.
Also, there is something that’s sacrificed in this wager: value, ultimate purpose and meaning. Going back to morality, atheists will indeed submit to it. Consider the intuition that right and wrong is somehow based on value. For empiricists, value is personal, subjective. It comes from what some person wants, desires. But atheists also put their desires aside to do what’s right. This would be clearly irrational for an atheist to do, if value is merely the desires of some person (somebody else, in this case) and there is no God. The only way a value-based morality could be anything close to objective is if based on the values of God (or some being with universal authority). I would have to admit it wouldn’t be completely objective, as it would be coming from a person, but it would be as universal as the other things God made, including the physical universe.
Also, purpose and meaning themselves seem to be worth something. Even the ardent atheist Daniel Dennett claimed that the secret to happiness is finding something greater than you are, and committing yourself to it. It’s part of human thriving to be part of something larger, to, well, bow down to something greater than we are. Theism wins this one in spades.
But, at bottom, whether or not a wager is reasonable depends on the probabilities and the payoffs. Here we don’t know what the probabilities are, but we have some idea of the payoffs. Theists can retain much of what atheists want: there is no reason a theist can’t enjoy pretty much all of what science delivers, or contribute to the discoveries science makes. But theists also gain the possibility of true, ultimate purpose, and a more satisfying view of what is right and wrong, and why it makes sense to submit to it. They also gain the riches of experiencing a reality that transcends the material, and the comfort of belief in an afterlife.
One final note. I just saw my father-in-law pass away. When I comfort my wife, imagine the shock she would receive if I told her that her father no longer exists; what existence he has is reduced to the corpse we viewed! The only comforting thing to hear is that he’s in a better place, a place where he is no longer crippled. Theists can take this comfort. Atheists cannot. Given that atheists are, well, betting on unknown probabilities, it’s hard for me to see what the advantage of that is. But that’s just me.
* This one of Richard Rorty’s (well-known pragmatist/postmodernist) complaints about atheist realists (those that believe in reality): they reject the Cross, but they still bow down to the god of science. Rorty bowed to no god.