16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Arguments for Atheism
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 02/04/2007
Do you ever wonder how you came to believe what you believe about God, the universe, and our place in it? What kind of factors influence us in coming to say that we believe in something or we don’t believe in something?
Our upbringing, what we were taught as children by our parents certainly has a large affect. It might have been an affect to influence us toward their belief, or it might have an influence in driving us away from their beliefs. Watching our parents and other important people in our lives also influenced us. I remember watching my older sister in church and having a sense that she had a deep belief in God that she demonstrated in how she prayed in church and in how she treated others in her life. I think she was one of the major influences in my life in starting life with a belief in God.
When I was eleven years old, I remember clearly a day on the playground of my fifth grade class when a friend announced to me that she didn’t believe in God. I was shocked. I had grown up being taught that God created the world and loved me personally. At dinner every night, my father said a grace that reiterated this belief. And every night at bedtime, I said my prayers to thank this God for the wonderful life I was given.
I remember this particular day, it was early spring and crocuses were blooming. There was just a hint of warmth in the air promising that spring in all its beauty was beginning to blossom and would soon fill the air with all its life- giving birth. I looked around at all this beauty and I said to her with my naïve incredulity “If you don’t believe in God, how do you think all this beautiful world was created?” She looked back and shrugged.
My belief in God changed as I grew and matured, as many people’s beliefs do. When I went to college, I began to question my immature faith in a personal God who would take care of me. As I matured, I found I did not need that kind of God. And I happened to be introduced to Buddhism which talked about the forces of natural energy in the world and our oneness with this universe.
Many people’s beliefs change and mature as they grow older, have different kinds of experiences, and start to look at the world with more knowledge and reason. Our need for a certain kind of belief may change as well.
Richard Dawkins, an atheist writer, speaks in his book, The God Delusion, about a God hypothesis that many people hold. He describes this kind of God as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Dawkins says that he holds an alternative view that many scientific people hold that “any creative intelligence of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.” (Hawkins, The God Delusion, p. 31)
Dawkins describe theists as believing in a God who is a Super Being that created the world, believing in a soul and an afterlife, and who believe in God’s intervention in this world defying the laws of nature. Dawkins describes atheists as not believing in a supernatural intelligence who created the world, not believing in an life after death, and as people who do not believe in miracles.
Dawkins describes agnostics as cowardly fence-sitters who fear taking a stand either way. He says that agnostics say that there is no way that people can know definitively whether or not there is a God. Dawkins disagrees. He says that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. And for him, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that points toward the existence of God.
Many scientists who write about the wonders in the miraculous universe, talk about it in such reverential tones that they have often been confused as people who believe in God, Dawkins says. Einstein when asked whether he believes in God says, “If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” But he says that he is “a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new religion.” He goes on to say that “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.”
Many of us have very modern realistic views about science but still find the universe to be overwhelmingly awesome. Dawkins says this is not religious, this is an appreciation of life. Even though Einstein uses the term “God” euphemistically to describe those elements of the universe that science has not yet revealed, he in fact was an atheist.
Sometimes in discussions about religion, some people will say that science has its realm and religion has its realm. Stephen Jay Gould sees science as dealing with facts and theories of why the universe works the way it does and religion as examining the ultimate meanings in life and moral values. He doesn’t see the two realms as overlapping.
Richard Dawkins questions this way of seeing science and religion as completely separate. It’s one universe so why are these two methods of inquiry allowed to view it in their unique way? The universe must be seen as a whole entity- not a duality of physical and non-physical existences. This duality as taught by ancient Platonic thought creates in our thoughts an unreal world- one that has scientific laws and one that doesn’t. If the universe exists as energy and matter, then don’t all aspects of it need to respond to one set of natural law?
Dawkins points out that in the world that Gould suggests the God that religion believes in would not have dominion over the natural world. What kind of God would not have omnipotent power over the world? And what kind of science would not be able to describe laws that act in nature predictably?
Bertrand Russell describes another theory that to him is comparable to people’s belief in God. He describes a infinitely tiny teapot that is revolving in space.
If I were to suggest that between Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of the human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the mind of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitled the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
- Bertrand Russell, “Is there a God?”, 1952 (from The God Delusion, p. 52)
Dawkins says that Russell’s teapot is just as unproveable as the existence of God. However, we live in a society that is founded on the belief of this fantastical theory. He says that the fact that many people believe in this fairy tale doesn’t make the theory any more probable or proveable. The existence of God can’t be proven just as the existence of this teapot can’t be proved. It doesn’t mean that it’s unproveable, just that the probability of it in science is very remote.
One of the key arguments that many believers have is that the incredible design of nature that we see in the intricate network of life is too unbelieveably miraculous for it to have happened by chance. This was the feeling I had on that spring day when I was eleven and felt the awe of the beauty around me. Many people feel that life is too miraculous for it to have happened by chance.
There is a story told to illustrate this point. The story describes a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard and somehow picking up various objects and it it’s path it assembles a Boeing 747 out of the scraps it finds. The story is used to say that life is as complex or more complex as the design of a 747 and nature itself couldn’t have designed the complex organisms we see in nature by chance.
The design of life must have been designed by an “intelligent designer” creationists say. When you look at the intricate nature of the human eye and how it works, one wonders at how this organ could have come about by nature alone. Dawkins says that humans have an intuitive sense that anything small must have been created by something much larger, smarter, and more complex.
A Jehovah’s Witness publication, Watchtower, a pamphlet called “Life- How did it get here?” proposes the question of how a complex structure such as the Venus’ Flower Basket could be created with its “quasi-independent microscopic cells [which]collaborate to secrete a million glassy splinters and construct such an intricate and beautiful lattice? We do not know. But one thing we do know. Chance is not the likely designer.” (Dawkins, p. 119)
Chance indeed, most scientists agree, is not the designer. Darwin’s theory of natural selection stands such a theory on its head. The process of natural selection as proposed by Darwin is the most elegant and reasonable explanation that can explain how life came to be the way it is. Over thousands of years, each generation of a species the organisms that survived created progeny. So the particular uniqueness of those individuals were preserved in their young. Each generation over thousands of years improved slightly the chance for that species for survival. And that would “select” the unique organs that those individuals possessed.
Some creationists point to the eye in particular to say that the eye couldn’t have just appeared in an organism without its purposeful design because how would it have been created in the first place? Even Darwin admitted that imagining that the eye could have been created by natural selection is a tall order. In order to imagine this happening, one has to reduce the organ down to its most irreducible part. How can you do that with an eye? Our most distant cousins, the “Nautilus” which floated in the earliest sea of biological organisms had an organ that was a pinhole that could decipher a very blurred light and dark image- but an eye nevertheless. Even though it seems almost impossible, the eyes that most creatures bear today are the product of that first organism’s pinhold organ that could see so little. Natural selection choose creatures that could see progressively better and better to create progeny who might see even a little better. Our own ancient ancestors in the proverbial soup are our creators, according to natural selection. (Dawkins, p. 124)
The other difficult question that those who believe in a Creator God pose is, “Well then, how did the very first organism get created on this planet with just the right conditions to survive and be able to begat and begat others?”
This is a question that lies within the probability statistics that outline how many planets might have existed with just the right chemical make-up to create our form of life. It is estimated that there are between one billion to thirty billion planets in our galaxy and then on top of that probably maybe 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Even if there were only a billion billion planets, with a billion to one chance that the conditions allowing life would exist on a planet, that still leaves plenty of chance for these conditions to create life not only on this planet but others. A statistical model might still predict that life would exist on about a billion planets, according to Dawkins. And that doesn’t even allow for the possibility of other weird forms of life being created with totally different conditions on other planets! The science fiction writers have a field day with describing possible other scenarios for life in another environment.
Then people will point out that in order for these planets to exist, friendly conditions had to arise to create the universe. And this again is an opportunity for that God Creator to have begun things according to a Giant Plan.
Scientists have many theories but none proven to try to explain how the law of physics created the “Big Bang” that first created the universe. One theory says that there is a “strong force” that binds together the components of an atomic nucleus and that that there are six fundamental constants that needed to be true to create a universe such as we have. Physicists are still arguing about whether there is a “theory of everything” or a theory that will explain how all of the forces of the universe are bound together by one principle. Some scientists think that if this “theory of everything” is finally understood that then we’ll really understand the true nature of the universe and therefore we can either disprove or prove the existence of “God”.
Now for many people who believe in God, all the science in the world will make no difference, since they believe that God created the universe to be just this way. That only God could have created and imagined a universe that operates in these scientific laws. That God is in fact, the physics of the universe. And if you think about that “strong force” that holds together atoms - couldn’t that be called God?
But Dawkins says that you can’t just call anything God because that suits your fancy. He disdains the scientists who imply that these scientific miracles are God-like because he thinks they are not being honest about their essential atheism.
Nietzsche, a late nineteenth century German philosopher, first declared that “God is dead”. He is talking about the surge of atheism among intellectuals and scientists. And this birth of atheism he feels is a freeing notion.
Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead’, as if a new dawn shown on us; our heart over flows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectations, at long last the horizon appears free to us again.
Nietzsche emphasized finding the joy within this life and not worrying about the next life. We should look within ourselves for our own contentment and approval. “For one thing is needful, that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art, only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold.”
In a world where one doesn’t believe in a controlling God, who is one to rely on? Nietzsche says we are to rely on ourselves. He describes a kind of “Super man” or “Over man” who sees life as a challenge to find the best within himself. Finding the best within oneself becomes the goal of one’s life, not looking for salvation in the next life.
Bertrand Russell, another atheist, also emphasizes the importance of a life well lived with an open minded freedom about seeing life as it is. He says,
Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end, the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition extols the virtues of using reason in continually examining one’s beliefs. For that reason, our faith has encouraged people to question and re-question what they believe. While we have roots in Judaic-Christian tradition, we also have many important Unitarians who called themselves atheists. In 1933, the Humanist Manifesto was written detailing the belief that humankind would be the salvation of this planet, and that there was no supernatural force in control. Many of the names signing this document were Unitarians.
We continue to maintain this tradition of using our reason as one element in our faith journey. Whatever we believe as Unitarian Universalists, we respect those who proudly call themselves atheists.
Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Publishing, 2006.