I recently read an article Even atheists believe (English translation) about the thoughts of Danish artist Kristian Leth. An interesting read, but he mixed a number of related concepts together and came with – in my opinion – a rather confusing argument for religious faith. But it got me thinking about how I disagreed with him and I though I would put some of my own thoughts down.
Atheists are often criticized as fundamentalist or closed minded. Perhaps the personal style of some people (and it’s usually Richard Dawkins people are referring to…) causes them to have this reaction. But whatever you think about someone’s rhetorical style, this is obviously not an argument against what they are saying. We can find people whose style we find distasteful arguing anything. It seems trivial, but this is actually a really common argument and source of considerable negative feelings against atheism.
Keeping an open mind is of course desirable, especially in our interpersonal lives, but being open minded is clearly not the same as being prepared to believe in anything. Seeking good explanations for things is not the same as closed mindedness. Indeed, wonder and search for answers is as much characteristic of atheists as it is for people of religious conviction. These are human qualities, products of our imaginative and inquiring minds.
The important distinction that I make between atheist and other convictions is that atheists are aware that, as humans, our particular set of subjective experiences are inherently human – not universal.
We cannot reject the possibility that there is a god; we cannot strictly speaking be absolutely certain of anything. But this argument is a rhetorical smoke screen. In practice, we assess which things are likely and which things are unlikely and build our world view on these. Lots of things exist well up the spectrum just short of being certain, like gravity and evolution, and some things, like the Santa hypothesis for presents appearing under the Christmas tree, exist well down past unlikely just before impossible.
Some of the things that we can now accept with a fairly good degree of certainty are pretty big ones and ones that our ancestors, or even just earlier generations a couple of hundred years ago, could not have intuited by their limited knowledge. This is not a higher state of humanity – just better information on which to base our conclusions. We now know that the sun and the stars do not rotate around us but that we exist on a small planet at the edge of a galaxy of billions of stars that is one of billions of galaxies. When we feel the need to meditate on something greater than ourselves, do we have to look further?
We also know that around 4 billion years ago a star exploded and some of the remnants of that star came together to form our solar system. Pretty soon after there was simple life and through a process of evolution the various forms or organisms we can see through fossils developed into the organisms that exist today. Some 500 000 years ago some apes developed bigger brains, a self awareness and imagination.
Of all the possible sources of causes for these “knowns”, a god that is the kind of thing that just happens to be like our particular human ape is not a particularly convincing one. And a more modern semi-god concept of a “universal creative spirit” isn’t really needed when observable processes can explain the same things more simply.
The big existential challenge of a Universe where we are not center stage, is that exactly that it does not care about us. We are not special or chosen and we were not created with some universal purpose. We are just a (for us) lucky result of history. That does not mean that we have to live our lives without meaning. Just that the things that tend to be meaningful to humans have no universal meaning. If humans become extinct, then the particular range of subjective experiences that give us a sense or meaning will also disappear.
To enjoy art. To make life better for others or yourself. To appreciate a beautiful summer day. To love. These are the things that humans find meaningful. Why should we think that the answer to search for personal meaning is not also in our own nature and that not professing faith in a god can make these experiences somehow impossible or less meaningful.