Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Does it Require Faith to Be an Atheist?

There’s a phrase that sometimes comes up among religious people when discussing the reasonability of believing in God or not: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” This is usually supported by the claim that atheism requires you to believe that all the incredible complexity and vastness of the universe just happened by random accident. Further, they assert that it takes tremendous faith to believe that, because of the spectacular odds against us even being here to talk about it are so mind-bogglingly huge as to be virtual impossibilities.

It probably won’t come as much of a shock to you that I don’t think this position holds much water. But it’s just another example of the kind of thing that wraps so many misconceptions into one package that it takes far more effort to refute than it takes to state, and it sounds profound enough that someone who doesn’t really want to think about our viewpoint can easily believe it and move on.

But oh… where to begin? I guess first of all, atheism really isn’t a statement about what you do believe, but what you don’t. It’s a response to the claim “God exists,” and the response is “I don’t believe that.” Full stop. Atheism really doesn’t require anything other than that, and it takes no faith at all to not believe a claim.

But what about the odds of everything coming into existence without a God? Surely those are too astronomical to be discounted?

Well, here’s the thing. We really do know nothing of what those odds are. Being unable at present to look beyond our universe, we know nothing of the conditions that might prevail outside of it, how often those conditions may produce universes, and how much variation between different instances of universe creation they actually permit. It could very well be that it’s not possible for any other kind of universe to exist at all. Or it could be that the odds are astronomical, but so many universes pop into existence all the time that this exact one would be statistically inevitable. We just don’t know. But one of the interesting things about being an atheist is that, among us, “I don’t know,” isn’t a sentence to be feared. If anything, it’s an opportunity to learn.

But let’s say that the odds against the existence of this exact universe, where you and I exist and are able to have this conversation, really are as mind-bogglingly huge as stated. So what? It still requires no faith to believe that it came about anyway. The belief that it’s some miraculous occurrence that we’re here is kind of predicated on the assumption that our existence is important in some fundamental way, and that’s something we really have no reason to believe.

Let me give you an illustration of what I mean.

Say you have twenty standard six-sided dice. And let’s say you roll them and get the following result:

6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6

You would be amazed! Do you know what the odds are of getting that roll? I’ll tell you: 1 in 3,656,158,440,062,976. Approximately one in 3.6 quadrillion! Surely getting that result in a single roll would have to be a miracle!

But let’s say you roll the dice again. This time you get:

3 5 1 6 3 4 2 3 3 5 6 5 6 2 2 3 4 1 4 6

Well, shucks. That’s just random noise. Nothing special about that roll at all. But you want to know a little secret? The odds of getting that exact result in one roll of the dice is 1 in 3,656,158,440,062,976. Approximately one in 3.6 quadrillion. Exactly the same as that result of all sixes. You’d roll that and think nothing of it, despite the fact that it is exactly as likely as the result you would have called miraculous.

Any time you roll the dice, there has to be some result. And any configuration you can think of is exactly as likely (or unlikely) as any of the others. The only difference between the two results I gave is that we assign a meaning to a result of all sixes, and assign no meaning to a random collection of numbers. In other words, the one result only seems miraculous because we care about it.

It’s exactly the same with our existence in the universe, I’m afraid. Given a universe, it has to exist in some state. The only thing that makes the state in which we do exist seem miraculous, compared to the many possible states in which we don’t, is that we care about it.

It’s kind of like winning the lottery. To the person who wins, the odds must seem astronomical, and their winning might appear miraculous. But, of course, we know that someone must win. Well, in the great cosmic lottery of existence, we happen to be the winners.

But why does anything at all exist? I’m pretty comfortable with “I don’t know,” for the time being. It could be that existence is just fundamental. It might be necessary. It just may not be possible for there to be nothing. Maybe the laws of physics are such that our current state of being is far more likely that it appears at first blush. I don’t know. Maybe there are universe-building pixies. I don’t believe that either, but who knows? But what I’m getting at is the idea that there are so many possibilities other than “God,” or “random unfathomable chance,” that it makes no sense to believe in any of them that aren’t pointed to by actual evidence. And it takes no faith at all to not believe in them.

But even if it did, I don’t see any reason to believe that “a process we do not (yet) understand resulted in the universe as we know it existing,” somehow requires more faith than “a process we do not (try to) understand resulted in a fully formed self-aware entity infinitely greater than the universe existing, and it decided to make the universe as we know it.” That’s something we atheists regard as solving a mystery by appealing to a bigger mystery.

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