Do Atheists Exist?

By Sean Carroll | June 25, 2008 12:05 pm

The struggle to definitively prove or disprove the existence of atheists has puzzled philosophers for centuries. Some have proposed the cosmological argument — “many cosmologists seem to be atheists” — while others have fallen back on the argument from design — “without atheists, who would believers have to argue against?”

But the Catholic Encyclopedia seems unconvinced by these arguments:

The most trenchant form which atheism could take would be the positive and dogmatic denial existence of any spiritual and extra-mundane First Cause. This is sometimes known as dogmatic, or positive theoretic, atheism; though it may be doubted whether such a system has ever been, or could ever possibly be seriously maintained. Certainly Bacon and Dr. Arnold voice the common judgment of thinking men when they express a doubt as to the existence of an atheist belonging to such a school. Still, there are certain advanced phases of materialistic philosophy that, perhaps, should rightly be included under this head. Materialism, which professes to find in matter its own cause and explanation, may go farther, and positively exclude the existence of any spiritual cause. That such a dogmatic assertion is both unreasonable and illogical needs no demonstration, for it is an inference not warranted by the facts nor justified by the laws of thought.

You have to admire the confidence — the fact that “dogmatic atheism” is “both unreasonable and illogical needs no demonstration,” and let’s leave it at that. It’s a little bit different from the tack they take in another entry:

Formal dogmatic Atheism is self-refuting, and has never de facto won the reasoned assent of any considerable number of men.

The Encyclopedia does not dirty its hands by explaining the nature of this self-refutation, any more than it explained the previously-noted unreasonability and illogic. I like it! It’s kind of like arguing on the internet.

  • George Musser

    I presume you saw the NYT story yesterday that said a fifth of self-identified atheists say they believe in a god.

  • darkkosmos

    Who cares? We just don’t believe in any god, lets use that as a definition.

  • JustinB

    While they may be a little short on their facts, I think they are, in essence, correct. In my eyes, it’s just as conceited to claim with certainty that there was no prime mover, as it is to claim that one exists.

    My position has always been that such an entity is unnecessary, unproven, and extremely unlikely. But to claim absolute knowledge of the existence or non-existence of such an entity just smacks to me of the same sort of hubris displayed by the religious in claiming that one exists.

  • PaulF

    The general thesis follows something like this:
    A: “God does not exist”
    T: “How do you know?”
    A: “Existence of God requires absolute truth, and there are no absolute truths”
    T: “But ‘no absolute truths’ is an absolute truth, so your reasoning is wrong.”

    There are better presentations of the argument, but it basicly requires Athiesm to state absolutely that there is no god, rather than a more subtle statement that the person individually does not believe in god. Once it does that, it then turns into a classic Godel-Escher-Bach self-reference problem, which merely shows the boundaries of logic, rather than absolutely refuting the claim. At best, it shows that Athiesm is no more rational than theism and that both are founded on belief rather than pure logic. And so the perfect record player fails to exist…

  • Mark Hudson

    What exactly is it about the god-concept that means that anyone who says “there is no god” is presumed to be arrogant or hubristic, whereas people who say “there are no fairies” or “there are no alien abductions” are not thought of in the same way?

    Now, I really don’t think there is a god at all. But the word “atheist” only means that we do not believe in god; it does not necessitate the statement that it definitely does not exist. But we are generally agnostic about it only in the same way that we are agnostic about fairies, leprechauns and other similar entities.

    The certainty that many of us put forward is not really any different from the certainty that we and others have about any number of things on which we have opinions. Of course we can admit that we *could* be wrong, but we really don’t think so, so why should we have to tone things down? The theists themselves are the most annoying on this topic: “oh, you’re being so arrogant, so smug, so sure of yourself.” Which is normally followed by some kind of threat as to why god doesn’t look kindly on this sort of behaviour. Sorry, which god was that? The one that you are certainly not arrogantly, smugly and self-assuredly telling me absolutely exists?

  • wolfgang

    >> We just don’t believe in any God

    A (tiny) problem with such a statement is that since we dont know what God is,
    it is also not really clear what it means to not believe in it.

  • Sean

    I’m with Mark H. here. When someone says “I don’t believe in God” they are using “believe” in exactly the same sense as when they say “I don’t believe in the tooth fairy.” Why do people suddenly think that absolute logical certainty is required to make statements where God is concerned, but are not similarly daft with respect to other kinds of statements?

  • Mark

    What Mark Hudson said.

  • wolfgang


    the “tooth fairy” has enough ‘features’ to give meaning to the sentence that you do not believe in the tooth fairy. e.g. I assume you mean the money under the pillow was really placed there by mom…

    But what exactly do you mean when you tell us that you do not believe in God?

  • darkkosmos

    Wolfgang, it’s very easy to side step what God means.. lets use the churches definition

  • Albatross

    Occam’s Razor clearly supports atheism.

    If the question is “Where did the Universe come from?” the theist replies “God,” to which the question follows “Where did God come from?” to which the answer is “I don’t know” (usually baked into some kind of light and airy semantic pastry.)

    Occam’s Razor suggests that given two equally-likely possibilities, the simpler is most often correct. So simply take God out of the dialog: “Where did the Universe come from?” followed immediately by “I don’t know.”

    I figured this out when I was about thirteen.

    More complicated was this assertion, about age sixteen (Carter Administration then:) if God exists outside of time and the Universe, then God is moot, because something outside the Universe is by definition unable to interact with it. If God exists INSIDE the Universe, then God is not God because God is limited by the Universe. Therefore either God exists and is moot, or God is not God and is therefore not God.

    Finally about age 18 I came up with the moral argument: Assuming God existed, God is not God, because God is not ME. If God is not ME, then God has no right to kill ME because my individuality is as unique as God’s. God may be ABLE to kill me by merit of size or power, but the argumentum ad baculum fallacy is not a morally acceptable justification for murder. And as I did not enter in an agreement with God to be created in exchange for eventually being killed, then God’s creation of mortality itself is immoral. So if God is immoral then God is not God, but merely a very powerful amoral creature.

    I’ve been an atheist since I was twelve, and I figured this all about by age 18, mostly while sitting bored in my family-mandated Catholic catechism classes

  • Spocko

    One of my fave quotes…

    “Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist. Atheism is sometimes defined as “the belief that there is no God of any kind,” or the claim that a god cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism — and are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist, rather he does not believe in the existence of a god.”

    ~ George H. Smith

  • Brett

    What I find most amusing about this is not the weakness of the argument that dogmatic unbelief in God is illogical (which it is, as JustinB and PaulF point out), but rather the fact that the Catholic Encyclopedia first admits that the actual nonexistence of dogmatic atheism is “the common judgment of thinking men,” then proceeds to argue against this conclusion. Bacon and Arnold correctly point out that this strong form of atheism is a straw man,* and the encyclopedists appear to accept this, then immediately turn around and try to argue against it. One must conclude that the encyclopedists are not “thinking men.” Even if one construes “man” to refer only to adult males, as opposed to the whole of humanity, it is likely that the authors of this section were indeed such “men.” Thus we are led to the likely conclusion that they were, at least at the time they composed this section, not “thinking.”

    * I have met people who professed a dogmatic, unwavering disbelief in any deity, but I do not believe that they were sincere.

  • Jeff

    “it’s just as conceited to claim with certainty that there was no prime mover, as it is to claim that one exists.”

    “At best, it shows that Athiesm is no more rational than theism and that both are founded on belief rather than pure logic. And so the perfect record player fails to exist…”

    It’s quite simple really, unless you are a solipsist, you utilize reasonable doubt. “God” and “no God” are two possibilities. This is not contested. That rejecting one of them is hubris simply because it is a possibility runs contrary to rational thought. They are not equal in possibility, “God” is far less parsimonious than “No god”, and therefor requires more than mere utterance to justify acceptance. The alternate possibility is entertained primarily because one faces varying degrees of social alienation for failure to do so: “Atheism… has never de facto won the reasoned assent of any considerable number of men.” the most effective arguments for theism are essentially appeals to force, and/or popularity.

  • tacitus

    I think there’s a lot of confusion (and deliberate obtuseness) over the difference between what is “impossible”, “improbable”, “possible”, and “probable” when it comes to debates over “God” and his/her/its many definitions.

    Even as firm atheist I don’t rule out the possibility that there is some sort of supernatural entity responsible in some way of the creation of the Universe. I just think it’s highly improbable. For all we know, the Universe was created as the third-grade science homework of a hyper-dimensional alien being.

    But the tiny possibility that we live in a deistic universe is huge when compared with the likelihood that the Universe is governed by a personal God who cares when and who I have sex with to the point of meting out the ultimate sadistic punishment to anyone who disobeys commands written down in a 3,000 year old book. Still, I don’t have the evidence to rule it out completely, though I have a much better chance of, say, Scarlett Johansson arriving on my doorstep with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a check from Bill Gates for one billion dollars in the other. (Hey, a guy can dream.)

    So I kind of liken the declaration that “there is no God” to someone who never buys a lottery ticket claiming that they won’t win the lottery this week. How do they know for sure? After all, what happens if, say, a friend just happens to be in a generous mood this week and decides to buy them a dozen lottery tickets just for fun, and one of them turns out to have the winning numbers? Or perhaps a passer-by dropped the soon-to-be winning ticket and it fell unnoticed into their bag? It is likely? No. Is it possible? Yes. Are you going to base critical life choices on that remote possibility? Not if you have an ounce of common sense.

    In the same way, just because we can’t absolutely rule out the possibility that God exists, does not automatically make it “likely” that God does exist. Just as I don’t go through life believing I’m going to win the lottery (I don’t buy tickets), I’m not going to go through life believing that I am beholden to some entity that almost certainly does not exist.

  • TheNerd

    “I like it! It’s kind of like arguing on the internet.”

    The internet: where the rational and the irrational mingle as one.

  • Joshua

    As Richard Dawkins spells out clearly in “The God Delusion” (which should have been on that 100 best books list), it is true that the positions “God surely exists” and “God surely does not exist” are both untenable, but its telling that there are a lot more people who hold the former view than who hold the latter.

  • PaulF

    It boils down to definitions of Atheist, Agnostic, God, etc. George Smith defined athiesm one way, but it is not the generally accepted definition used by religious scholars. His definition of atheism would make a theologian cringe the way many people make physicists cringe when they use the words or phrases “relative”, “uncertainty”, “second law of thermodynamics” and “quantum leap.”

    The Catholic Encyclopedia probably assumes that the reader is using specific definitions, rather than loose definitions. Most people here are comfortable using the term athiest and agnostic loosely and interchangably, as Mark demonstrates. But the Catholic document will mean atheism more strictly, as discussed here

    The other important point is the definition of God. It is easy to prove that God exists if you allow your definition to be something that loosely equals nature. I would expect the authors of the Encyclopedia to have required an anthropomorphic god who is also omniscient (begging the definition of “knowledge”), omnipotent, etc. They probably assume the reader has the same definition.

    I’m not defending them, I’m just trying to explain why the Encyclopedia might not take the effort to explain their claim.

    Occam’s razor might favor athiesm, but its not clear to me. When you talk about creation, both physics and theism have a certain point where you just have to stop asking the question. Occum might favor agnosticim, saying “you just can’t know for sure.”

    Simplisticly, the analytic philosophers (Wittgenstein, Frege, Russell, etc) did a pretty good job showing that, at its most basic level, logic is unprovable. Godel did the same with mathematics. Ultimately, we accept both as self-evident. I’m not sure that faith in God is all that different.

    Personally, I’m not sure where I stand. I have strong agnostic leanings, but I’m not convinced I’m right.

  • http://ReRamsden Ray

    Before one can believe or disbelieve, one must define what it is that is being believed or disbelieved. I have yet to hear a definition of god that is does not contradict itself.

    Personally, I like Scott (Dilbert) Adams’ take on it in “God’s Debris”.

    BTW: Why do even atheists capitalized the word?

  • invcit

    I always find it amazing that there are people able to produce that kind of prose, but so utterly unable to think. Cargo cult encyclopedia, anyone?

  • Matt (the real one)

    To Mark’s point, I happen to think the rationale most people use for rejecting fairies and alien abductions is, in fact, very arrogant. Do I believe in fairies? No. Do I define my worldview by falling on my sword over their nonexistence? No. To reject something just because it seems, according to the current zeitgeist, silly is i think lazy. There is in fact a whole mountain of eyewitness evidence in support of the claims of alien abductions. If you don’t find that an interesting enough area of inquiry to research and reach your own conclusions, fine, but to reject hundreds of claims (or, say, call yourself a “Anabductionist”) simply because the possibility of alien abductions seems extraordinary, or doesn’t fit within your notion of how the universe works, is, in my opinion, only a notch or two removed from the logic of Young Earth Creationism.

  • astropixie

    god is boring.

    if “because god did it” is always an answer…. that’s no fun.

    if i believed that some all-knowing entity already put everything together in my life as a series of steps built in to my pre-determined ultimate “fate,” then whats the point of exploring my Universe? that would be no fun.

    its much more exciting and makes much more sense to me to think that all possibilities are open to me… to interpret life as i choose… to understand that unexplainable changes will happen and i can react in whatever way i feel… now that’s exciting!

  • Albatross

    I reject the label “agnostic” because it is tool with which theists attempt to water down my faith. Many atheists reject my characterization of atheism as a “faith,” preferring instead the black and white world of proven facts. But we cannot prove a negative, and so belief in no deity is unprovable, and hence must be taken on faith. Theists have a much easier task – all they need to do is arrange for God to put in an appearance, and many of us will be persuaded to believe.

    When theists use the term “agnostic,” they tend to be implying uncertainty on the part of the atheist, which they contrast with their own wholly illogical firm faith. This is of course dishonest, since even the most firmly convinced theist (the one who reportedly was God’s son) had occasion to doubt – so the agnostic is no more uncertain than the theist, simply more honest.

    Finally, I refer to God when using the term as a proper noun, and gods or deities when refering to the class of beings.

    For more on the natures of gods and deities, you can always buy my book ‘Mitlanyal,’ which examines the theologies of twenty wholly fictional gods created by Professor M. A. R. Barker as part of his world of Tekumel.

  • Roger, FCD


    When the fairyists and the abductionists have as much power over me as the theists do, I will loudly proclaim my afairyism and a-abductionism too.

  • student_b

    Well, the best argument (imho) was always the following:

    As an atheist, I just believe in one god less then you.

    And then I wait for logical and sound arguments, why the other one doesn’t believe in Zeus, FSM or any other of the thousand imagined gods in human history.

    And since I’ve never encountered a good argument from believers why they don’t believe in the other gods but insist on believing in a specific one, I let the burden of proof on the believers.

    And if they’d ever had a good argument against the other gods, I’ll be damned if it can’t be used against the one they’ve left out. 😉


    And my personal definition of atheism is simple. Atheism is the same as not-stamp-collecting, not-river-rafting. Not doing something/not believing in something is the default position after all. 😉

  • Albatross

    And since the day is nearly done (at least here), let’s take a break to enjoy this slight divergence from topic, Creationism vs. Norse Mythology
    (work safe page, although other pages on that site may not be)

  • Bill, M.D

    No one truly believes in God, at least not in the good old US of A. Have you ever heard of an American family that’s about to lose a loved one–or has just lost a loved one–child, adult, senior citizen, that is overjoyed? Singing happy songs, rejoicing, throwing a party of thanksgiving? That would be the expected and appropriate response, would it not, if they were dead (pardon the word choice) certain that the loved one was in fact with the angels? I mean, if they have traded this vale of tears for eternal joy, why all the despair?

  • Brandon Watson

    Wow, it is like arguing on the internet, because if you read the context, you find that the quotes in the post are all out of context. For instance, from the post you don’t get any indication that ‘positive and dogmatic atheism’ is being used as a technical phrase for the purposes of the article, and that it is explicitly contrasted with (1) atheism based on a materialist view of the world and (2) atheism based on lack of evidence for theism and (3) atheism based on our inability to know whether there is a God or not. So apparently we are to dismiss claims that an atheism based on neither evidence, nor a recognition of the limits of the human mind, nor on anything strictly required by a materialist approach to the world, is unreasonable!

    But I get it — the post is really a joke, showing what would happen if atheists actually argued like the people at Uncommon Descent, showing how absurdly foolish they would look; and so it serves as a valuable lesson in not taking quotes out of context like the IDers do, and in not trying to build, as many IDers do, insinuations on the basis of a phrase here and a silence there. A great joke, with a great lesson in how to argue rationally — but a bit subtle, I think. You should be careful; people might misunderstand you.

  • Moody834

    The deus ex machina still can’t pass the Turing test, the costumes and masks are lame, the plot is silly and the dialogs and monologues, however poetic or pretty or clever, are ultimately dissatisfying as evidence of anything beyond this world. Pour the tea from Russell’s teapot into a cup I can measure the contents of, or take your cream crackered, skint arse argument off to Hyde Park.

    I don’t believe that “God/gods” exist/s because there is no robust evidence to indicate that it/they does/do. I see no reason whatsoever to have ‘faith’ in something just because a large number of people think I ought to. Even if I could see a reason for it, I would still be unable to honestly become ‘faithful’ in something that is so unreasonable, etc.

    It would suit me just fine to drop the label: atheist. However, as the society I live in has opted to make it an issue that touches many areas I am interested in, such as science and art, and to do so, often enough, in a disturbing way that smacks of authoritarianism and indicates a desire on the part of a fair number of religionists in my country to control whatever they can get their hooks in, I feel that there is an ethical compulsion for me to explicitly state my position clearly and unambiguously.

  • Neil B.

    The main trouble with atheism may not be the stance itself, but the misguided (IMHO) opinion that “exist” is the straightforward, simplistic category most of us want to think it is. Click on my link for some eye-opening critique of what you are used to thinking about the existence of “the material universe.” Then you might be inspired to be less casual about throwing around opinions such as whether “God exists.”

    BTW, advanced philosophical concepts of “God” are not very related to concepts like fairies etc., aside from whether “existence” is a simply coherent “trait” (is it even a predicate we can grasp at all, other than as a generalization from experience?) God and fairies etc. are logical apples and oranges at best. Critters like fairies, ghosts, etc, are alleged non-ultimate entities with peculiar composition or mode of being, but are still denizens of the universe the absence or character of which has no comprehensible logical consequences – they have no “logical function” in the scheme of things. OTOH, “God”, by definition, is supposed to be a first cause that our universe existentially depends on (presuming that argument is correct), whatever it is that *would* exist of its own accord, etc. God would at least be a potential proper explanation of why laws are the way they are, but fairies wouldn’t be (unless you were just a smartass defining your nominal category as being like “God” anyway …)

    To me, maybe there is a God or other sort of ultimate reality (google for alaya vinyana) that conditions which worlds really exist, or maybe there are the multitudes of worlds imagined by some and we just lucked out. I think the idea of *this* particular “possible world” just happening to be the one that should exist, and furthermore to just have conveniently life-friendly features but not in order to have same, is the most crocked and tacky concept imaginable. It’s like saying, the number 23 (or almost as bad, numbers 21-26 like a limited landscape) just happen to be reified as actual brass numerals despite no obvious logical way to relate some numbers to a mystic idea like “real material existence” and not others. The modal realists are at least right on that count, even though I don’t agree with them anyway because of the foundational and non-mathematical nature of consciousness as epistemic ground (as we experience it, not as alleged “computation” which Penrose and Hameroff have well critiqued IMHO.)

  • MZ

    A good Bayesian rationalist never assigns a probability of 0 or 1 to any belief, but many beliefs are of sufficiently low probability that they warrant rejection. We can’t disprove the existence of God, but the probability of this concept being true is in the same neighborhood as fairies, UFOs, and the gods of religions that Catholics reject.

    We must also remember that the null hypothesis is privileged. A good rationalist asks — is there a God? — and looks for evidence. Religious people start with the conclusion and work backwards. In the mind of a believer, the evidence is a string of rationalizations (We can’t see God because he is invisible. He appears to answer some prayers and not others because he works in mysterious ways) and non sequiturs (X recovered from cancer…God saved him. That car narrowly missed me…God intervened. I won $100 in the lottery…God chose me).

    For several weeks after you buy a new car you may see many people driving the same car. Did lots of other people buy the same car at the same time as you? No, you just weren’t looking for that car before. Now that you have that car, it is a SALIENT part of your perception. Similarly, if you’re looking for evidence of God, and you want that evidence to exist, you’ll find ambiguous, interpretable evidence everywhere you look.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    God appears to be an ineffective concept or conjecture in our understanding of the world. This does not disprove the existence of God, for science is not about proving things. Science is about observing the world and a theory is regarded as operative (tentatively true) if the preponderance of data supports it. So far there is a virtual nullity of data which supports the conjecture that the world emerged by the supernatural activity of a vast or infinite conscious being, nor is there any data to support the activities of this being in the world.

    A moment’s reflection also makes the God conjecture difficult to support. If God acts upon the world, even if only as the designer or prime mover of it, then this means that God must change the energy states of systems, or their momenta. This is even the case if that supernatural entity is a spiritual force commonly called a soul meant to “explain” our consciousness. If this supernatural entity is able to change the physical state of a system it can do so in two possible ways. It can do so in a way which preverse these physical quantities, eg conservation of energy, momentum, baryon number or … . This might sound reasonable, but if this is the case then the God operates according to symmetry principle that conserve these quantities a’la Noether’s theorem. In this case this supernatural entity is “programmed,” or unable to deviate from some set of rules that are indistiguishable from natural principles. Poof, God evaporates into naturalism. Assume on the other hand God can violate these principles, say as some Schopenhauer-esque “will” that is able to exert its power in any way its volition permits. This would mean that there should exist systems or observable processes which utterly defy any logico-emperical understanding. This is what Intelligent Design advances. So far after several centuries of science no clear incidence of this has occurred.

    Without going into great depth here I do think that there are behaviorial programs in our brains which predispose us to believe in Gods or supernatural entities. Religions, which are culturally created forms of nature mythic systems of thought our Pleistocene ancestors lived by, offer a meaning to the “life the universe and everything.” They psychologically anchor the believer in some sort of neuro-psychological basin of attraction which offers a purpose or meaning to life. In the last several centuries science has dismantled much of the intellectual foundation for religion, and I think given time the demolition will be complete. Religious people become very testy or even angry by any suggestion that the whole basis upon which they have hung the meaning of their lives upon is a fairy tale.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • omh

    Responding to Matt (the real one):

    To Mark’s point, I happen to think the rationale most people use for rejecting fairies and alien abductions is, in fact, very arrogant. Do I believe in fairies? No. Do I define my worldview by falling on my sword over their nonexistence? No.

    And neither do most others. You are setting up a straw man.

    To reject something just because it seems, according to the current zeitgeist, silly is i think lazy.

    Again with the straw man. No one ever indicated that they would reject fairies or alien abductions without having thought about it. I don’t think it takes a tremendous leap of intellectual industriousness to intelligently and thoughtfully reason that the existence of fairies and alien abductions is improbable.

    There is in fact a whole mountain of eyewitness evidence in support of the claims of alien abductions. If you don’t find that an interesting enough area of inquiry to research and reach your own conclusions, fine, but to reject hundreds of claims (or, say, call yourself a “Anabductionist”) simply because the possibility of alien abductions seems extraordinary, or doesn’t fit within your notion of how the universe works, is, in my opinion, only a notch or two removed from the logic of Young Earth Creationism.

    There are (and have been throughout history) “whole mountains of eyewitness evidence” in support of many ridiculous claims, and I don’t think it takes a scholar in the field of psychology (or history or science for that matter) to suppose that this is not very compelling in the absence of corroborating (hard) evidence, especially when in this particular case the very idea of what is claimed makes very little sense (on many levels) when thought about critically.

  • Sean

    Brandon, your stance would be more compelling if you could find a way to actually reveal to us what the technical definition of “formal dogmatic atheism” is supposed to be, and cite the relevant passage in the Catholic Encyclopedia, so that we may more easily see why such a stance is self-refuting. Thanks!

  • FSM

    Bill M.D.

    You make an excellent point. I have often thought along the same lines.

    I think that the main reason why people “believe” in god, is that in their heart of hearts, they are rational and they know the odds. They know that in the end everything will turn to dust, and the existance of the entire human species will eventually be lost to time.

    People sometimes need to believe that all our efforts are not in vain. God is just another manifestation of hope, a belief that no matter how bad things get, the universe is random and chaotic enough that one’s fortune will change at the drop of a hat.

    There is nothing particularly mysterious about this, but when push comes to shove and we are faced with the starkness of our reality, and realize that we just have to keep moving, or give up. However, if we keep moving we know things will always change one way or another.

    If people need something to believe in, I would say believe in your fellow man. As hard as this may seem at times, you have to believe not everyone is like the a**hole journalists on CNN, MSNBC and FOX.

  • FSM

    All American Rejects Move Along remake

  • HI

    Neil B,

    I can accept the possibility of the existence of “a first cause,” although I’m not convinced that the existence of such “a first cause” is a logical necessity. So, suppose such “a first cause” existed. How do we know such “a first cause” is the same as the “God” as described by various religions? Yes, such “a first cause” is responsible for the existence of the universe, but religions describe various other aspects of the “God” as well. How do we know that the “first cause” also share those aspects of “God”? Why do the advanced philosophical concept of God and the concept of God taught in organized religions have to be identical? It is the God(s) in organized religions that many of us have a problem with, not with “Spinoza’s God” as Einstein described.

    So, we have to ask, “Please Tell Me What “God” Means?”

  • Rational Zen

    To Bill MD:

    1) We had a party when my grandmother died, most everyone there were theists.

    2) A belief in God does not supersede human emotion. It’s ok to be sad for one’s self even though something is happening to another we care about that is ultimately positive.

    3) Should the inverse be true as well? Is it safe to say that people in the US of A don’t actually disbelieve in a God because they get emotional, sad, and mourn when a loved one dies. I mean afterall, it’s just nature and natural selection right?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I think that our propensity to believe in gods, along with ghosts, spirits, and the like might stem from our evolutionary past. One of the remarkable faculties we have is telling stories. This is after all one of the primary purposes of language. I suspect that in our evolution of language a big selective pressure for it was the ability to communicate information about our local environments. Most stories involve people, and our stories about things in the world we related to often have anthropic projections. So in communicating information about the world, such as certain seasons when game is migrating, our Pleistocene ancestors conjoured up stores based on anthropic projections which could be easily told and retold down generations. These are of course spirits, totems and other apparitions which are common to indigenous people. Religions are just highly complex constructions from these basic mythic behaviors.

    Another characteristic which I think betrays this is the great popularity of ghost stories. I no more believe in ghosts than I do Santa Claus. Yet the movie “The Sixth Sense” I found compelling when I first watched it. I have long had some fondness for vampire stories, and in high school one of my favorite rock bands was Blue Oyster Cult. I don’t have any belief in these things, but I suspect that indulging in these fantasies stimulates certain neural pathways which may be associated with our propensity to believe in magical or supernatural entities.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Joel

    Materialism, which professes to find in matter its own cause and explanation, may go farther, and positively exclude the existence of any spiritual cause.

    Further. Silly Catholics.

  • Pensive

    After considerable reflection, I have decided that I am a string atheist: I affirmatively believe that there are no gods. And I believe that I have a firm rational basis for that belief.

    Obviously, I can’t specifically refute all possible imagined deities, because there is literally no single common factor they share. (For example, pantheists identify God with the universe, so their God is neither invisible, imperceptible, nor immune to interference by humans.)

    But I can say that the world I live in lacks an active, interventionist deity. It would be a very different world if there was that sort of intervention regularly. Quite possibly a nicer one; it would be nice to have some good wrathful smiting of the evil by a perfect judge rather than relying on limited and corruptable human authorities.

    This is backed up by, e.g. studies of the efficacy of intercessory prayer.

    The alternative is a non-interventionist deity who, perhaps having created it in the first place, does not meddle in the unfolding of the universe. There is no observable effect that such a deity will have, so obviously I can’t disprove its existence.

    But I can also go happily along with my life assuming such a deity doesn’t exist and I will never be wrong.

    I don’t have to have 100% certainty to believe something. Once you get past solipsism, certainty is hard to come by; I have to settle for theories that have worked in the past and are likely to work again. I do not know first-hand that being hit by a car hurts, and even if I did, that doesn’t prove that it will hurt next time. But it’s the best idea going, so I accept it and move on to other debates.

    Likewise, I can’t prove that no gods exist, just that the universe acts as if no gods exist, so applying Occam’s razor, I might as well assume that no gods exist.

    “I believe no gods exist” in the same sense that “I believe sticking my tongue in that light bulb socket would hurt.” It’s not 100% certainty, but I’m not going to waste my time testing it.

  • Mark Harrison

    BTW: Why do even atheists capitalized the word?

    God is the proper name of the deity worshiped in the Abrahamic faiths. Proper names are capitalized whether or not the object named exists.

  • Pseudonym

    Perhaps, the real argument made by the Catholic Encyclopedia, when you try to parse it, is that “dogmatic” atheists are inconsistent.

    Actually, I think most people would probably agree with that, whatever it means.

  • Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Sean doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy???!!!

    No wonder he is so immoral.

  • JCF

    Aided by circumspect nudges from Einstein, atheism was moving along pretty strongly with bien pensants until the concept of the anthropic principle was proposed by Brandon Carter in 1973. As this bit of circular reasoning percolated through the scientific establishment it was increasingly recognized to afford, with its realization of the universe’s myriad evident “fine tunings” promoting life, a new and seemingly insidious argument for deism. It of course deserves strong co-billing along with many other fortuitious discoveries since then, both physical and philosophical, for the growing embrace of the multiverse vision among specialists, a grand sweep of inflationary reasoning which obviates the speciality of the quirky laws, constants and initial conditions underpinniing our paltry universe. Strangely, however, the AP is still kinda like Rodney Dangerfield; it can’t get no respect in many scientific circles, not even as a superseded bogeyman which pointed us in the right direction, as Euclid and Newton did. Now, however, a cosmologist as distinguished as Alex Vilenkin, in his recent, magisterial Many Worlds in One , can grant a modicum of possibility, at least in a poetical sense, to a Creator obsessed with mathematics who is good at formulating the perfect equations for universes:
    “Earlier cosmological models suggested a Creator meticulously designing and fine-tuning the universe. Every detail of particle physics, eash constant of nature, and all the primordial ripples had to be set just right. One can imagine the volumes and volumes of specifications the Creator handed down to his assistants to complete the job! The new [inflationary] worldview evokes a different image of the Creator. After some thought he comes up with a set of equations for the fundamental theory of nature. This initiates the process of runaway creation. No further instructrions are needed.”
    Presumably, after this, like a good father, he leaves us on our own.

  • B

    See also 😉

  • fh

    7. Sean, in this case it is because there is a vast theoretical and philosophical background to the claim. You are quoting from the catholic encyclopaedia, the intellectual cast of the catholic church has been arguing over what “God” means for ever, and the answers they have come up with are fantastically sophisticated. So if you tell a Jesuit you don’t believe in God it’s perfectly reasonable to hear back the question: “Which one?”

  • milkshake

    The most logic-laden part of the doctrine comes when the same church advises you to pray in front of a piece of a dead saint (bone, dessicated blood, etc, all aestetically framed in gold and accompanied by gruesome martyrdom story) and the dead saint himself will thus channel your prayer so that you can influence the omniscient and omnipotent God more effectively.

  • John Baez

    PaulF wrote:

    I have strong agnostic leanings, but I’m not convinced I’m right.

    Are you really sure of this? It seems like an awfully bold statement.

  • wds

    To digress a bit, what’s with all the religion/politics posts lately? I really enjoy reading about the science but religion, eh, not so much. (and yes I can ignore those posts, just wondering if I’m the only one here)

  • Matt (the real one)


    Straw man? Damn. I was shooting for something a little more nuanced than your average straw man. Lemongrass man? Rosemary? Anyone?

  • daisyrose

    Some people feel there is only “so much” good stuff in the world -that they are better than others and therefore they must grab all they can while others feel that there is more than enough for everyone and in the end “god” will provide a sort of pantheism.

    Just an idea

  • Sandy

    What do you call someone who is non-committal about the existence of a god-like entity, but is sure that they don’t believe in religious dogma.

  • Spaceman Spiff

    to Matt (the real one)

    Yes, I’d agree with omh — that would be straw you constructed. There are a lot phenomena associated with the human mind that we are only now beginning to come to grips with. For example, we can turn off and on the mechanism in the brain that gives the owner a sense of either “self” separate from the rest of the universe or a sense of “being one with the universe” and even the sense of separation from one’s body. The abductions by “devils” or “fairies” or (the list is very long) of previous centuries became abduction by “aliens” only in the past half century or so. The fact that 100s of people claim to have been abducted by aliens says a lot more about the workings of the human brain than it serves as any argument that we should seriously consider these claims. That’s not to say that every such claim was automatically rejected out of hand. They have been investigated, and the evidence for actual alien abduction is found lacking. Later claims sound follow the same patterns and so aren’t considered interesting to most. Of course, if something new and much more interesting comes up, it ought to be investigated.

  • omh

    Matt (the real one),

    Damn, I was trying to bait you into a paranoid rant about alien abductions. I’ll go with lavender. Because it is very hot here and I once had some refreshing and delicious lavender-ade.

  • Albatross

    When asked “As an atheist, why don’t you just go around killing whoever you don’t like,” I answer one of two ways. When sober I reply, “If your belief in God is the only thing keeping you from mass slaughter, by all means do not let me shake your faith.”

    When I’m drunk I simply leer and say “How do you know that I don’t?”

  • LoCut

    What’s with all the word parsing? Belief is just that – belief. Faith is just that — faith. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. We hope it is. The atheists I know believe there is no God. The religious I know believe there is a God. None are willing to admit they might be wrong, even though the nature of belief is exactly that possibility.

  • Choice

    Since, as many of you have pointed out, there is no evidence of an interventionist God and there no effect observed in one’s existence derived from such a being, why does it matter if one person ascribes a certain event to a force of nature or if they call it God? Why not allow others the semantic latitude to call it what they will? It seems the whole argument is based on whether one is correct or incorrect and based on the state of the knowledge and rationale presented here, it hardly seems prudent to even enter the debate!! I am not a philosopher and not a scientist and so I can’t cite Occam or Einstein to bolster my assertions. But, since science hardly proves anything, and since science merely “believes” what has not yet been disproved (which may be proven later with more evidence), it seems to me that what attracts people to one side of the argument or the other is more a matter of taste. The deist is attracted to the argument that God exists, perhaps that he even cares or intervenes mostly because he wants to or enjoys or desires believing. The atheist/ agnostic is attracted to proofs and evidence and to the idea that the facts or truth of things can be discerned logically. I somewhat straddle the debate because I like them both. I find both sets of arguments to have a certain inherent beauty. I don’t see anything “wrong” with that. This probably takes some of the fun out of the deal for those that like to win arguments, oh well.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    t appears a key point is whether “certainty” is necessarily “dogmatic.” My lack of belief is open to reconsideration upon the presentation of new, convincing, reliable evidence. The failure of believers to come up with such evidence is not proof that my certainty is “dogmatic.”

    I suppose the definitions could be shifted, so that “certainty” mean “absolute certainty.” But I would only accept that if believers acknowledged that they are not certain about that the Earth is not flat, etc.

  • Jim K

    I think that anyone who experiences AWE and WONDER on observing aspects of the physical universe is experiencing respect for a higher reason or cause. They may may well have little or no respect for what organized religions call “God”. Scientists are by nature very spiritual people who reject religion.

  • Neil’

    HI, (commenter not greeting!)

    You’ve got a point, that the FC responsible for this existing (whatever that really means …) is not logically required to be like “God” in other respects. For example, I don’t think It is omnipotent and could turn a prince into a frog in a poof. But it the laws of physics were not finely tuned, there wouldn’t even be a way for frogs to evolve (and, to the chagrin of traditional believers, their descendents to become princes!) That’s why I think the FC does relate to traditional God in some ways at least: Purpose. It clearly is angling to have something “interesting” and to have a life of its own, whatever IT really is. It may not be any more imaginable to us than say, the never-reached Omega infinity of infinite set theory, or ironically, the “true nature” of material particles that QM says we are just getting indirect insights about from measurments, thinking about collapse, etc.

  • thorn


    let’s talk “how do you know?” for a minute.

    the sum total of the information re. any deity and its rules that we have in our possession is human in origin. it is not from independent *observations*. it is all from stuff we have been *told*. by *people*, many of whom claim to have observed things. but all *we* get to know, is what they’re telling us. we don’t get to go see what they ‘saw’. many of the people conveying these narratives are well-meaning. but they have their information from *other people*. the thing is, people are sometimes wrong. they frequently have an agenda of some kind. sometimes people are deluded. and in fact, perfectly brilliant, excellent people sometimes get bad information, and pass it along.

    based on what i know of the written record of deities, psychicness has never been conferred upon humans, as a group, at any point. so how are we supposed to know which human is right? was it joseph smith? david koresh? cardinal bernardin? the pope? jerry falwell? my next-door neighbor? your very most favoritest professor?

    and if even one of those humans from whom we have gotten our information about deities *was* totally correct, 1. we can’t know which of those humans really is correct, because we’re not psychic; 2. the likelihood that there even *is* one untarnished chain of information going back to actual events is infinitesimally small; and 3. we’re not psychic, so if there is such an untarnished chain of information, we will never a. know which one, and/or b. be able to recognize our contemporary living link.

    “it’s turtles all the way down.”

    so. i am an atheist. i exist. therefore, atheists do exist.

  • Dave

    I identify myself as an agnostic – I don’t believe in any of the gods I’ve been introduced to inside of churches, but I do believe in some form of spirituality. I’m not sure what exactly a ‘spirit’ is, but I identify it as the source of strength that I tap into to remain calm, to stay true to what I value, to be truthful when dishonesty seems easier, and so on. That strength, whatever it may be called, can have powerful and far-reaching (even if mundanely-explainable) effects.

    I am personally convinced, however, that *if* any gods exist, their scope is limited to our little planet, or at best our solar system. In the vastness of space, anything greater seems absurd to me. (Unless worshipping the entire universe and its physical laws, but I don’t think any society could really do that one justice.) The Sun is actually my #1 candidate for known entities deserving of worship – it really is the giver of light and life (and nearly all forms of energy) to us. Many ancient religions had a strong sun-worshipping core, and many more may be indirect sun-worshippers – one book I read made a fairly strong case for the New Testament being an allegorical account of the constellations moving across the sky over the course of a year. (Not that I’m promoting or claiming sun-worship, of course – just noting that it seems the most sensible if forced to pass judgement on that sort of thing.)

    On a close-but-not-quite-related note, since we’re also talking about “What is God?”:

    A friend and I came up with our own “theologically crackpotted” theory/story about gods actually being beings of emotion – that is, their main influence is to try and affect peoples’ thoughts/emotions, and in turn “feed” off of the most intense emotions of their believers. It elegantly explained why the Christian God proclaimed Himself to be the only god (a tactical gamble to try and win believers, and thus power, from other gods), why many deities demand sacrifices (fear and pain? Yum!), and why worshippers of the One God are so divided (Not just Catholic/Protestant, but Judaism/Christianity/Islam – if fear/pain/suffering are easy sustenance, but there aren’t any other gods left to declare war on, get your worshippers to fight each other! Feed off both sides of the carnage!) This “theory” is also quite compatible with the classic theistic position that has existed since at least the time of the ancient Greeks: “Gods are bastards.”

    Sorry for the tangential asides – we now return you to the more traditional forms of theology-thumping. :)

  • chancho

    I believe in god(s) as much as I believe in Santa Claus/tooth fairy.

    All these discussions again seem to be about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin…

    I like the way Jim K (#60) put it: “Scientists are by nature very spiritual people who reject religion”.

  • John Knight

    Nope. There are no atheists.

    No one who professes to be an atheist could live consistently with that claim. By their actions, all professing atheists show that deep down they have some knowledge of God. They rely on that knowledge as the basis for all their knowledge.

    Sorry, sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t have brought up epsitemology in this group.

  • Jim Davenport

    To answer the question “Do Atheists Exist”, I will answer: Yes. We do.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    John Knight on Jun 26th, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    By their actions, all professing atheists show that deep down they have some knowledge of God.


    The God-meme exists, well to the extent that memes exist. I not only believe but know that the God concept exists. This of course is not the same as a belief in God. I don’t know that God does not exist, but the conjecture concerning a deity is to my mind highly problematic, for if nothing else it is a completely ineffective hypothesis.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Otis

    Lawrence B. Crowell writes: “Without going into great depth here I do think that there are behavioral programs in our brains which predispose us to believe in Gods or supernatural entities.” (#32) “I think that our propensity to believe in gods, along with ghosts, spirits, and the like might stem from our evolutionary past.” (#39)

    Let us suppose that the above assertion is correct. Then, unless Gods or supernatural entities actually exist, we must conclude that evolution has programmed humans to believe things that are false. If humans (including Lawrence) are programmed to have false beliefs, then why should I believe Lawrence’s assertion? Indeed, why should anyone rely on human “rational” thought as a means for determining the truth?

    Lawrence’s assertion is self-defeating.

  • Lord

    No they don’t, and I don’t believe in any assertions to the contrary 😉

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Otis said:

    Let us suppose that the above assertion is correct. Then, unless Gods or supernatural entities actually exist, we must conclude that evolution has programmed humans to believe things that are false. If humans (including Lawrence) are programmed to have false beliefs, then why should I believe Lawrence’s assertion? Indeed, why should anyone rely on human “rational” thought as a means for determining the truth?

    Huh? Do I understand you to mean that it’s impossible for delusions or even misunderstandings to exist if evolution is true? You seem to have one of those misconceptions of biological evolution – that evolution exclusively passes along beneficial traits and that such have a single “purpose”. Not so. More to the point, as our brains evolved pattern recognition to survive our changing environments, etc, there are 4 different possibilities that come to mind, so to speak, when seeking such patterns.

    1) Something true is believed.
    2) Something false is not believed.
    3) Something true is not believed.
    4) Something false is believed.

    The fact that we have “hits” (first 2) as well as “misses” (second 2) along for the ride has served us well evolutionarily. The trick is to maximize the first two and minimize the second two. But we too often lack sufficient information (and possess other deficiencies) to guarantee that we only “hit” – and so we also “miss”. I suppose that should be obvious by now….

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Otis on Jun 26th, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    we must conclude that evolution has programmed humans to believe things that are false. If humans (including Lawrence) are programmed to have false beliefs, then why should I believe Lawrence’s assertion?


    Forget the idea the human brain evolved to solve differential equations or to invent electronics. It evolved to adapt our species to a wide range of environments, where this adaptation came about in its later stages through language. Of course this is a conjecture or hypothesis on my part, but I suspect that our linguistic abilities were selected for because it permitted our species to communicate things about the world in novel ways. I further think this was done through our ability to tell stories and to project what I call anthrotypes onto the world, or into other people’s minds. The anthrotypes we project onto the world are spirits or gods. Consider that fiction is largely about projecting characters into the minds of readers. By projecting anthrotypes onto the patterns of nature, seasons, animal migrations, periods of rain, drought etc, this was a way of delivering vital information needed for survival from one generation to the next. That this evolution of the brain also permitted reasoning is maybe in part a byproduct, or an accidental emergence.

    Evolution operates from one generation to the next. There is no game plan or goal in how life evolves. A species may evolve perfectly well along some path of selection, only to be later delivered into an evolutionary cul de sac. Human beings lived for 100,000 years perfectly well with what might be called nature religions. It has only been in the last 5000 years that religions become abstractions about larger gods and then eventually God. It has only been in the last few centuries where all of this has been found to be incongruent with what we understand by reason and observation. So a pattern of behavior or neuro-psychology that worked perfectly for many thousands of years has only recently lead to a President of a nuclear armed state who believes in a final battle between Jesus and Satan. Maybe we are entering an evolutionary cul de sac.

    Science is not about determining the truth. It is about building model systems which are commensurate with what we measure or observe in the world. There are a whole lot of things in physics which people really should not take as literal IMO. Things such as Newton’s lines of force, or quantum wave functions, strings cavorting around, or even visual ideas of curved spacetime are model constructions. Nobody should fall into the trap of thinking these things are somehow real. They are useful logico-algebraic systems of abstracted objects or models we use to benchmark what we observe.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • JCF

    Lawrence Crowell —
    But these things you mention in your last paragraph — quantum wave functions, infinitesimal strings — aren’t they as “real” as anything else, if they somehow work? If they permit successful predictions? Isn’t all of human life more or less building model systems — my heritage, my country, my career, my family — that facilitate survival? With varying levels of observational palpability. Then should we consider religion just another model system that helps struggling, fearful mankind survive, feel good about itself? Or does it somehow differ from quantum mechanics?
    BTW, your contributions to this thread IMHO have been singularly refreshing and pertinent.

  • Garth A Barber

    Jim K

    Scientists are by nature very spiritual people who reject religion.

    This is a generalisation; there are some scientists who, being very spiritual by nature, do not reject religion.


  • Nathan… no I’m not a Jew

    Cultures previous to globalized industrialism defined themselves by the narratives of their environment and their existence in it. These stories were their social glue, the gossip and the wisdom that defined the people as an amorphic mass. Now we have… what? Money? Certainly the majority can’t say happiness. The things that bring us together are, for the most part, the same things that always have – food, family, holidays, recreation. When this kind of social collectivism extends to include our whole community and even the environment, it’s inevitable that the poets and scientists words juxtapose. And why shouldn’t they? In the end, science provides no answers. Nor does materialism. Spiritual answers are not empirical or physical. Unless you deny the existence of anything beyond your perception, which is simply illogical, God or god(s) are working through you.

    The very structure of human civilization today is based on the ideas of our forefathers. It is impossible to deconstruct any aspect of modern culture and find it without resemblance to its predecessors, be it the Bible or the Vedas or the Quran or the Iliad or the Constitution.

    To say the tooth fairy doesn’t exist is to refute a story via logic, while to reject god(s) or God is to reject the power these ideas have in our modern day culture. In the end, it’s equally meaningless to argue that God or god(s) are any more real than the tooth fairy. They are as real as our power of imagination. Until the world becomes too bland to be made into fanciful dialog, such entities will always exist. I pray they always will.

  • John Merryman

    The assumption is that a god would be a platonic ideal form from which we fell and seek to return, but the absolute, the universal state, is elemental, so the source of consciousness would be the raw essence of awareness from which intellect is an emergent ordering phenomena. If one were to impose a fractal progression onto the process of evolution of which we are part, then the next stage for human civilization is to transcend from being top predator in the planetary eco-system to central nervous system of the planetary organism. Which would posit a certain Gaia type entity.
    Since top predators are early victims of collapsing eco-systems, the alternative is not pretty.

  • Otis

    From Spaceman Spiff on Jun 26th, 2008 at 9:40 pm: “Do I understand you to mean that it’s impossible for delusions or even misunderstandings to exist if evolution is true?”

    That is not at all what I meant. Perhaps my post was not clear. Allow me to try again.

    If we (us humans) are hard-wired (“programed”) by evolution to have false beliefs, as asserted by Lawrence Crowell, then why should we trust our own reason? We can never really know whether what we think to be true is the result of a rational argument or is just one of those pre-programmed beliefs. We could have beliefs that are true AND/OR beliefs that are delusions, but we could not reliably distinguish between them.

    As an example of the problem that we have here, I point to post #71. There is no empirical data on which Lawrence Crowell bases his argument in that post. But according to his own admission, evolution has caused him to have false beliefs. So why should I believe his argument. For that matter, why should he believe it?

    This problem really comes into play when Sean Carroll asserts that the universe should “make sense” to him. But what value is that if he is hard-wired to have false beliefs?

    The bottom line is that Lawrence B. Crowell’s assertion is self-defeating. If it is true, then it cannot be believed.

  • Clara

    A (tiny) problem with such a statement is that since we dont know what God is,
    it is also not really clear what it means to not believe in it.

    the “tooth fairy” has enough ‘features’ to give meaning to the sentence that you do not believe in the tooth fairy. e.g. I assume you mean the money under the pillow was really placed there by mom…

    But what exactly do you mean when you tell us that you do not believe in God?

    If you’re going to argue that it is unclear to say one does not believe in God because God itself is ambiguous, then I’m going to have to point out that the ambiguity first creates a problem with the theists. So, however the theists define their God, I say that’s a good starting point for the atheists to say “bull.” I’m no theologian, but I believe the general idea of God is some sort of omniscient, supreme being who created the universe and has some level of control over happenings in the universe (in the Christian faith, I believe that control ends at the free will of humans). So, as an atheist, I say I’m pretty sure that no such being exists. I think God has a few “features” to give meaning to the idea of believing/not believing. The tooth fairy takes your teeth away and leaves money; God created everything and listens to people and smites the wicked (or whatever). I believe it highly unlikely that a small winged creature came in the night to take my teeth as a child, and that a far more likely explanation is that my parents did so. I also believe it highly unlikely that any sort of supreme being(s) created all the life around me, and that a far more likely explanation is that they evolved, beginning in a soup of organic molecules that formed when the Earth was all young and hot and had lightning everywhere turning simple molecules into complex ones.

  • Clara

    Someone above said something along the lines of “the best arguments for theism are brute force and/or popularity.” This reminds me of a poster I saw on one of these fundie nutter sites (I browse them occasionally when I’m feeling particularly in need of a good laugh). It had a picture of a kid with a gun on it (presumably Godlessness makes you kill people… but no one has ever killed anyone else because of God) and says something along the lines of “evolution demotes you from a special being in God’s image to just an animal. believe in God so you can feel special,” but not in so many words. I can’t find it, and if someone knows what I’m talking about and could provide a link, that would be awesome. I just always thought that poster was really telling: people need religion to feel that they have a special place in the world. Really, though, I think it’s much more awesome to think that beings such as ourselves could have had such humble beginnings.

    Also, reading this post, I was reminded of a particular school-bus ride when I was in middle school (in conservative, whitey-white Protestant Indiana), overhearing some kids talking about atheism. I believe they got this “information” from their pastors or ministers or whatever, and they were discussing how atheists are evil Satan-worshippers. I, at the worldly age of 12, thought this was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. An atheist, by definition (just look at the etymology!) does not believe in God. WHY would such a person believe in, much less WORSHIP, God’s evil counterpart? Anyway, I just thought I’d share, to make everyone feel better about humanity. 😉

  • Clara

    Apologies for posting so many times in a row, but when there are 70+ comments to read, I keep coming up with things to say before I get to the bottom

    What’s with all the word parsing? Belief is just that – belief. Faith is just that — faith. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. We hope it is. The atheists I know believe there is no God. The religious I know believe there is a God. None are willing to admit they might be wrong, even though the nature of belief is exactly that possibility.

    I beg to differ. First of all, I would say that, at least for me, atheism is not so much an active belief in the non-existence of as a lack of believe in the existence of a god. It may just seem like semantics, but there is an important difference. I don’t believe in God the same way I don’t believe in Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t believe in any of those things, but I don’t sit around with people reveling in that disbelief. Also, I disagree with the idea that non are willing to admit they might be wrong. Agreed, there are some atheists that wouldn’t admit that possibility, and a whole heck of a lot of theists who wouldn’t, but personally (and I think I speak for the majority of atheists when I say this), if any real, solid believable evidence for the existence of God, I would definitely consider changing my mind (same goes for Big Foot, Loch Ness, etc). I think what I think because it seems to me to be the most likely possibility.

  • Albatross

    Because it’s Friday afternoon, and only the real die-hards are still reading this thread anyway, here’s a treat for you. It’s about my favorite song ever, and it illustrates why I refer to myself as a ‘spiritual atheist,’ without intending to imply that I believe in anything supernatural.

    Enjoy, and have a good weekend.

  • Jim_Harrison

    The notion that atheism is impossible depends upon a fairly specific view of human cognition that derives originally from Plato and Aristotle and imagines what happens in consciousness as a top-down process as if our awareness and understanding of specific things and events depended upon high-level metaphysical commitments. Folks who buy into this idea are likely to think that people necessarily have something like a world view with a ruling principle in order to have any meaningful thoughts at all or make any sense of their own actions.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    JCF on Jun 26th, 2008 at 11:08 pm
    Lawrence Crowell –

    But these things you mention in your last paragraph — quantum wave functions, infinitesimal strings — aren’t they as “real” as anything else, if they somehow work?


    I will betray one aspect of how I think about physics. The most real aspect of reality is information. In a particle experiment what is the most real is when a photo-multiplier tube goes “click” to register a voltage that is amplified and stored in some register or media. A statistical assembly of such data is used to reconstruct a scattering cross section or some channel process. This is compared to what we expect.

    Think of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. We play the music or listen to it and our minds fixated upon the brilliant counterpoint of his second movement, or the uplifting of his choral fantasy Ode to Joy in the final movement. Yet we have to ask what is going on? You have people who are drawing coarse hair across strings, which in turn produces sounds which are transduce in an esquisitely designed resonance cavity made of wood. Other people are blowing air through their puckered lips into nozzle shaped pieces of metal that connect to these metal tubes all coiled up. Other people are banging membranes on cavities, blowing are through other pieces that create resonant acoustical sounds in tubes, and some are thrusting air through their larynx to create sounds in their throats. And so what does all of this sound do? It combines in a way that amounts to lots of acoustical pressure. Now suppose we set up detectors that pick this up. Some analysis is done, the first is maybe a fast fourier transform. What we find is that is not just white noise. There is signal in this system. From there lots of further work can be done. Some recent developments have shown that sequences of triads obey rules similar to those found in orbifolds. So is music in some ways a recherche of string theory?

    If we were to send Bach, Beethoven or Debussey into the universe on EM fields and it were picked up by ETs they might perform this sort of analysis. They would deduce something about this information stream. Yet would they be able to capture the passion of Beethoven? For that matter, do we today understand fully the meaning sense of Bach’s Cantata 169 when he performed it in early 18th century Leipzig? Where is the essense of this music? Did Beethoven’s brain really exhibit patterns of orbifold compactification of D2-branes? And if so, where is the passion of Beethoven?

    Physics is similar to this. We detect various elementary events and compare them to our models. We compose our systems of music, which we call mathematics, that are model systems of internal consistency. I will not for now get into the Platonic issue on these structures, such as Tegmark’s ideas, but for the time I will assume that these things are model construction of the human mind — until further data comes forth. We then compare our models to what it is that nature is telling us. These mathematical systems are developed for one reason: The beauty of it all, and with physics we employ them, facilitate their development or directly contribtue for one reason — nature must be beautiful. Nature is beautiful, but in the end it is dispassionate. The passion is something from us.

    All of these things we consider as so real outside of data are in the end our passionate desires, which best be codified logically to have some prospect for science. What science really requires as real is data, and whether that comforms to our model constructions is up to nature. Nature is the final arbitar, and if we are wrong then so be it. In our motivation for beauty, just as with our Pleistocene ancestors we are guided by this anthropic brain which quests for beauty and tries to define that as truth — an eternal struggle, we continue onward.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • JCF


  • Sam Cox

    To LC re post #82,

    I second that “bravo”…a thoughtful read.

    Extending what you say, each mind reads and especially interprets the information stored in the cosmic structure differently, because the way the universe is observed from each frame of reference is different.

    Yet what occurs in time space at each frame of reference is also by definition…”real”. People contemporary with Mozart saw his music in a social context different than that of the 21st century. Some people today regard classical music as “disturbing noise” and others regard the contemporary music of the 21st century as equally disturbing “noise”. On a more elementary level, dogs, cats, fish and trees “read” the universe differently than we but their perspective on the universe also has an important place.

    Modern cosmological models, as much as describing the universe, define the universe in such a way that everyone who studies and conceptually comprehends them can understand his or her place in the universe more fully, and (collectively with others) develop a workable and quite advanced technology from what has been emperically derived.

    We need to remember (as you implied) that observation and consciousness are crucial to the very existance of the universe. Whether we relate the massive body of information and complexity we observe “correctly” is important if we wish to produce a viable technology…but clicks must be heard, recorded and related, if what we call the “Universe” is to exist. Consciousness and particulate existence are entangled concepts. We can’t “have one without the other”.

  • John Merryman

    Lawrence, Sam,

    It seems to me the issue is that while bottom up process is unitary, the top down order derived from it isn’t absolute in the sense that one frame can be derived from it. It is this assumption that this bottom up connectivity ultimately implies some absolute frame that is the basis of all Platonic assumptions, from monotheism to, as Lawrence says, Tegmark’s argument(s).
    It amounts to confusing zero with one. Unitary doesn’t imply a universal unit.

  • JCF

    Therefore, if we take away all cogent observers (but not necessarily data-recording devices), the universe does not vanish? Or does it?

  • Anchor

    “W. V. O. Quine has been one of the most ruthless of recent appliers of this principle [Ockham’s razor.] I recall an exchange in print (a fest-schrift, around 1980) where someone quoted Shakespeare’s “There are more things on heaven and earth, than are dreamed of in your philosophy” at Quine. Quine responded something like, “Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth.” ”

    – David Lyndes

    Need anyone really say any more?

    Dogmatic religionists do, and how, and they yap so incessently that they hardly ever give themselves a chance to listen, or if they ever manage a moment’s worth, bother to contemplate any argument they judge doesn’t conicide with their preconceptions.

    In short, ladies and gentlemen, they don’t come from a place of reason and logic. They come from a place of authoritarian righteousness.

  • Anchor

    Oops, omitted word correction:

    “Need anyone really need say any more?”


  • Anchor

    Wow, so sorry – The FIRST one was correct after all…guess it’s time for that new pair of glasses.

  • Anchor

    …and that’s an analog of how scientifically minded individuals work to correct their ‘beliefs”.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The universe obviously existed before H. sapiens walked onto the stage. At least we are able to deduce a long history, geologically and evolutionarily on Earth, astrophysically with the age of stars and cosmologically with redshift and Hubble distance. So in some sense the universe existed, but it may not have had conscious entities to confer some existential modality to the universe or assign it an ontology. With ET conjectures there must have been some time when on the Hubble frame the first ET came about, so maybe before hand the universe existed in a blind state or unaware of its existence. Whether this is necessary for a universe to exist is uncertain, and I have some negative opinions on anthropic principles. I think AP can only be admitted in physics and cosmology only when we are completely forced into it. This may happen in the future, where it could be the end of physics as a foundational science.

    The universe will undoubtedly exist after H. sapiens is gone as well. Our species exists on very precarious terms. The biggest problem is that we are tearing down the planetary life support system. Global warming is an obvious problem, but to my mind equally disturbing are the disappearance of pollenating insects, ocean die-off and coral reef bleeching, tropical deforestation which has doubled in its rate in the last 20 years and so forth. Another disturbing trend is that we tend to place mentally disordered people in positions of great power. We have a President who learned foreign policy by playing the MB game Risk and took particular delight and glee at ordering executions as governor of Texas. This nation has been lead by a pantheon of schitzotypal personality disordered types for nearly 8 years. It appears likely that the world has not seen the last of this, and if not in the US then maybe in Russia or China or elsewhere. So to make an honest conclusion I think it likely the human species will not exist terribly much longer. Yet I think the universe will continue.

    The final state of the universe is something we can talk about, though we can’t observe it. The AdS/CFT dualism and observed “eternal inflation” suggests that the final state of the universe is the AdS conformal infinity as an empty Minkowski spacetime. As the universe expands to become more deSitter-like eventually the cosmological horizon will likely emit a very weak radiation and the cosmological horizon will recede away “to infinity.”

    The role of consciousness in the universe is strange. Before we ever get a handle on that we need to tackle the issue of “Why classical physics?” We might think of the universe as a grand path integral and the observable universe as some einselected state from all possible spacetime configurations. Einselection is an approach to understanding the role of classical physics according to how wave functions are reduced or so called collapsed offered by W. Zurek. In this process obviously classical gravity or general relativity emerged as well as large decoherent structures such as stars, planets and the like. I think that this einselection has some type of extremization to it where a cosmology is einselected so as to permit the maximum possible level of complexity in local regions. This might then tie cosmology to this bio-planet and the existence of ourselves.

    The universe has a curious property where the most elementary of quanta or particles are indistinguishable, with some quantum statistics to go along with that. Larger decoherent structures are more distinquishable. We can fiind great differences between planets or between different species of life. The different “frames” of consciousness or POV may be tied to this.

    It might also be the case that consciousness is in some ways analogous to a gauge potential. In physics there are two types of these. The first is with internal symmetries which give rise to gauge fields such as electromagnetism or QCD. Here the gauge potentials are not at all observable, and really don’t exist. The other is external symmetries which we call relativity. Here the equivalent of a gauge is a coordinate frame. This is in some sense observable, though it really is a sort of mathematical construction more than a physical one. Then of course comes supersymmetry which unifies these two types of gauge fields. If consciousness is some analogue of this then in some sense we might say that consciousness does not really exist. Of course this might raise all types of objections. Maybe mind exists in some platonic sense.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • JCF

    Non cogito ergo non sum?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The modus tolens of cogito ergo sum would be

    not-(I am) —> not-(I think) = non sum ergo non cogito.

    To state non cogito ergo non sum implies a necessary and sufficient condition. I am not sure this obtains. Of course the statement “I am” implies some recognition of beingness. This is a bit different from saying it does not exist therefore it does not think. Of course I think that anything which is capable of awareness or thought is a physical system, but I don’t know that.

    It is interesting to note that “I am” is the identification God tells to Moses. If you are familiar with the Gospels, Jesus in Matthew identifies himself as “I am,” in the temple, where upon the priests and crowd chase after him and he disappears. Descartes in making this little syllogism came close to committing a blasphemy that could have gotten his ass in a major sling. Consider that mid 17th century Europe was coming out of a serious funk over the reformation and counter reformation.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • senderista

    In fairness I think it should be pointed out that the Catholic Encyclopedia dates from 1917 (hence the ubiquity of the masculine pronoun and other anachronisms). But bad arguments (or in this case, absence of argument) were still bad arguments in 1917.

  • John Merryman


    It would seem consciousness is some form of bottom up emergent phenomena, in the sense that it is apparent in lower order fauna and there really is no clear line between biological reactive functions and conscious perception. Even much of human activity could be argued is primarily reactive while still being conscious. The intellect, on the other hand, is a modeling of reality, a top down ordering of perception. The Platonic Ideal is the top down order as absolute, of which all other form is corrupt copy. Since the unitary state is formless, there is no absolute form and the projection of one simply serves to stifle further evolution, creating a constrictive and brittle model that only serves to hinder further upward process, until it breaks down and a new form begins to take shape. “Punctuated Equilibrium,” as Stephen Jay Gould called it. So the intellect would be the construct, while consciousness is an emergent reality.

  • JCF

    “Another disturbing trend is that we tend to place mentally disordered people in positions of great power.”

    A trend, come to think of it, that recedes to the beginning of recorded history, and not merely in the case of political power. One thinks immediately of Caligula, perhaps one or two popes. Unfortunately, the weapons at their disposal continue increasing exponentially in efficacy, as the terrors of the Old Testament continue to fade.
    Yet, inasmuch as time and causality move in both directions, as Sean points out, did some compulsion to create the catastrophe, say, of the Iraq war produce the backwards causation for the Scalia decision declaring Florida for Dubya?

    Re cogito, remember Popeye’s great self-affirmation, I yam what I yam, which may have influenced Descartes’ immemorial syllogistic aphorism.

  • Brandon Watson

    Hi, Sean,

    You say,

    Brandon, your stance would be more compelling if you could find a way to actually reveal to us what the technical definition of “formal dogmatic atheism” is supposed to be, and cite the relevant passage in the Catholic Encyclopedia, so that we may more easily see why such a stance is self-refuting. Thanks!

    I’m not sure what ‘stance’ this is referring to; but the “cite the relevant passage” part is absurd. Do you think niche encyclopedias define every technical term they use, given that they can assume that certain things are known by their intended audience? Since the Catholic Encyclopedia is a niche encyclopedia, it would require looking at the context in which it was written, namely, in the context of what would have been generally recognized by educated Catholics of the sort had in view by the encyclopedists in 1917; in the context of the article, the natural approach would also be to look at Bacon and Arnold, to whom the article explicitly refers on this point.

    This is pretty basic stuff, not rocket science, as you well know: don’t quote out of context, look for the broader context of the text itself, don’t build arguments out of mere verbal similarities, don’t read into silences without investigation, in short, hold yourself at least to elementary rational standards. And the post, as I said, is a pretty decent parody of what atheist reasoning would become if all atheists argued like intelligent design theorists, since these are precisely the uncritical moves for which IDers are often rightly criticized.

  • Brandon Watson

    By the way, I should mention, for those who don’t have the time to devote to critical analysis of an article largely removed from their primary interests, that in context one can draw some fairly probable conclusions about what ‘formal positive dogmatic atheism’ in the article would have to be, despite there being no explicit definition; it would be a view of the world that took the nonexistence of God not as a derived conclusion but as a first principle, i.e., as an axiom (cf. the “blank Atheistic denial” of the Existence of God article). You can see this simply by looking at what it is contrasted with, namely, negative atheism, every case of which involves the nonexistence of God being derived from (1) assessment of the evidence of the natural world; (2) assessment of the limits of the human mind; (3) more fundamental principles, e.g., those of materialism. All three of these are cases where the existence of God turns out to be excluded on the basis of something more fundamental; the opposing position is then plausibly seen as atheism taken as a fundamental principle in its own right. This is confirmed not only by the “blank” comment in the EG article, but also by the comment in the Atheism article that certain advanced phases of materialistic philosophy approach the category of postive dogmatic atheism when they “have left the sphere of exact scientific observation for speculation”. That is, positive atheists are atheists as a matter of metaphysical commitment (speculation, which is used to be a term commonly applied to areas of human thought where you recognize truths not by collating evidence but by simply seeing that they are true).

    There are ambiguities due to poor writing; but I take it that we are not here considering an argument about how best to write encyclopedia articles. However, the basic idea is easy enough to see; it just requires the application of basic reading skills. That’s what makes the post such a great satire of certain ID methods for criticizing their critics: it’s exactly the sort of thing they do, trading on ambiguities, lapses in good writing habits, verbal similarities, obscurity of context, etc., in order to put forward a superficially plausible criticism that doesn’t stand up to basic critical examination.

  • Aiya-Oba

    The grand meaning of all possible parts, is in the context of their whole.-Aiya-Oba (Poet/Philosopher).

  • http://pending(sincetimeimmemorial) Proteus

    Do atheists exist? Are we meant to address more general existential questions first, such as “do beliefs exist?”? Several posters pointed out the futility of addressing such arguments. However, they also describe weights that their sense of reason requires them to ascribe to the relative rationality of various beliefs, including that of “disbelief in God or gods”, “lack of belief in God or gods”, “disbelief and/or lack of belief in the Loch Ness Monster” as well as an implicit “belief in the existence of things which are generally believed to exist by all people”.

    Naturally, all of this begs the question. Can we use reason to increase our knowledge in this, or in any matter? While this might seem a most treacherous notion to posit amongst scientists, the absolute nature of the question (or any absolute question, such as “does paper exist”) does in fact inspire this logical fallacy noted in the first sentence of this paragraph.

    I make these comments, for the most part, in ignorance of the history of epistemology, so I apologize if I have made any basic mistakes with regard to that subject. And while I have been, more or less, resolute in my own beliefs with regard to the matter, it seems that the conflation of personal and rational beliefs is particularly poignant in this topic, as it is quite likely that our own beliefs that rationality is the ultimate path to “knowledge” is what drove many of us into pursuing careers as scientists in the first place.

  • Micki

    Belief is choice. Respect is civilized.

  • John Knight

    The God-meme exists, well to the extent that memes exist. I not only believe but know that the God concept exists. This of course is not the same as a belief in God. I don’t know that God does not exist, but the conjecture concerning a deity is to my mind highly problematic, for if nothing else it is a completely ineffective hypothesis.

    Gee, Mr. Cromwell, that response to my post was pretty much irrelevant.

    Theism is not a conjecture. It a world-view, or rather, a group of world-views, just as atheism is a group of world-views. The atheism of Richard Dawkins, for example, is a rather naive form of radical empiricism in epistemology & materialism in metaphysics. The problems with this kind of uncritical, radical empiricism have been exposed by Popper, by Wittgenstein, by Quine, by Sellars, by Polanyi, by Kuhn, and by Plantinga.

    The questions that Dawkins & Dawkinite clones across the Internet are pretty much destined to be the wrong questions. They are questioned premised upon a faulty, self-refuting world-view. They fail to provide any solid basis for knowledge-claims of any kind, theistic or otherwise.

    Dawkinites are laughable in their parochialism. Not only do they assume that all rational people share their beliefs, they assume that the methods of natural science are the only rational methods of inquiry, implicitly discounting ethics, ontology, aesthetics, teleology, epistemology, history, economics, law, mathematics, and personal, relational knowledge. The contradictions are obvious. First, methods of inquiry are not constant & uniform across the various branches of the natural sciences. Second, the natural sciences are not a self-justifying enterprise; they presuppose the validity of mathematics, of logic, of induction, of sense perception, but do not provide an ultimate foundation for any of these necessary beliefs.

    Theism, or Christian theism, at any rate, does provide an adequate foundation for these necesssary beliefs, while Dawkinite varieties of atheism do not. (Neither do other varieties of atheism, IMHO.) In that sense, the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris-quoting professing atheist who uses math, logic, induction, or even sense perception is (at the very least) closer to theism than atheism in his daily practice.

    More could be said, but I’ve probably offended enough people for one week.

  • Loki

    This discussion, as many others, seems to be about the meaning of words like “beleive”, “truth”, “faith” etc. As such it doesn’t relate a lot to real life, not to mine, not to yours (unless you are a philosopher). What does relate is, for example, whether american kids should be taught Christian Teism at school along biology, physics etc.

    Well, maybe they should, why not. As long as it comes with smart immigration policy that will help replace those creating new technologies, drugs etc. from countries like India, China and Russia – i see no problem :-)

  • http://nil Prof. C B S R Sharma

    As a teacher of Ecology I am an atheist. God was created by man as a necessity. The necessity still exists. Reason also exists and it must. The debate continues. Ultimately it depends on the conceptualisation of God that one develops during one’s life time. Mine is here.

    Prof.. C B S R Sharma, Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences Pondicherry University [Retired] 7, Airport Road, Pondicherry 605 008 , [ Ph: 0413 – 225-7036 ]

    How nice it is to have a God.
    No one sees god. But every one feels.

    It is like the bird that feels the dawn when it is still dark.
    It is also like the wolf that feels the dusk when there is still light.

    The Pancha Bhootas, the five elements of nature were resources
    to the humans, when balanced, but very harmful if imbalanced.
    Both good and bad are the attributes of the same.
    Humans realized ecology and called it god.

    When a child is borne the mother feels the god.
    When some one dies, the dear ones fear the god.

    When some one kills the other without touching him, the witness sees the god. God is not merely linkages, but a web, inscrutable.

    When bad people succeed and enjoy life, Why bad things happen to good people ? what is god doing? Is he existing, or if not is he also bad like the powerful. God’s duty is to protect the good and punish the evil.
    An Enigma indeed.

    God lies in the work. Work produces dirt. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Truth is god. But truth is bitter. It takes us to the crematorial elegy land,
    the last lap of all journeys, sooner. God is a self contradiction

    Myriad times I felt how nice if we have a god. Albeit, formless, faceless, flavorless, tasteless, speechless, senseless, but valuable and powerful?
    God is an insatiable yearning.

    No one sees god, although feel, but late.
    Therefore evils and bads, flourish.
    How nice it is to have a God.

    I have seen god,
    in the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.
    And in the entire Siddhardha of Herman Hesse

    I feel god, whenever good happens , rain and river banks
    I deny god, whenever bad happens, heat and dust
    This is the stuff of god , a summation of all probabilities
    But GOD has always haunted me and did not enlighten me..
    Ecology enlightens me. And I found my God. A great necessity


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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