Refuting God

By Dan Barker

This is a very brief look at some of the most common arguments for the existence of a god, originally written in brochure form, and appearing as chapter 17 in Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist. Links have been added to this online version to articles that go into greater depth.

Theists claim that there is a god; atheists do not. Religionists often challenge atheists to prove that there is no god; but this misses the point. Atheists claim god is unproved, not disproved. In any argument, the burden of proof is on the one making the claim.

If a person claims to have invented an antigravity device, it is not incumbent on others to prove that no such thing exists. The believer must make a case. Everyone else is justified in refusing to believe until evidence is produced and substantiated.

Some atheists feel the argument is pointless until the term "god" is made understandable. Words like "spirit" and "supernatural" have no referent in reality, and ideas like "all-knowing" and "omnipotent" are self-contradictory. Why discuss a meaningless concept?

Nevertheless, there are many lines of theistic reasoning and volumes have been written on each. The following sections briefly summarize the arguments and the refutations. Atheism is the default position which remains when all theistic claims are dismissed.

Design

"Where did it all come from? How can you explain the complex order of the universe? I can't believe the beauty of nature just happened by accident. Design requires a designer."

This argument merely assumes what it wishes to prove. Any attempt to "explain" anything requires a higher context within which it can be understood. To ask for the explanation of the "natural universe" is simply to demand a "higher universe."

The universe is "all there is." It is not a thing. A god would certainly be a part of "all there is," and if the universe requires an explanation, then god requires a god, ad infinitum.

The mind of a god would be at least as complex and orderly as the rest of nature and would be subject to the same question: Who made god? If a god can be thought eternal, then so can the universe.

There is design in the universe, but to speak of design of the universe is just theistic semantics. The perceived design in nature is not necessarily intelligent. Life is the result of the mindless "design" of natural selection. Order in the cosmos comes from the "design" of natural regularity. There is no need for a higher explanation.

The design argument is based on ignorance, not facts. Failure to solve a natural riddle does not mean there is no answer. For millennia humans have created mythical answers to "mysteries" such as thunder and fertility. But the more we learn, the fewer gods we need. God belief is just answering a mystery with a mystery, and therefore answers nothing.

"The universe is governed by natural laws. Laws require a lawgiver. There must be a Divine Governor."

A natural law is a description, not a prescription. The universe is not "governed" by anything. Natural laws are merely human conceptions of the way things normally react, not behavioral mandates, as with societal laws. If the design argument is valid, the mind of a god would be equally "governed" by some principle of order, requiring a higher lawgiver.

"It is improbable that the complexity of life occurred by accident; and the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend to disorder, makes evolution impossible. There must have been a Creator."
These pseudo-scientific objections are based on error. No biologist claims organisms suddenly appear in one step of "accidental" mutation. Evolution is the gradual accumulation of tiny changes over millions of generations of environmental suitability. Humans, for example, did not have to evolve--any one of billions of viable possibilities could have adapted, making it quite likely that something would survive the ruthlessness of natural selection.
Using probability, after the fact, would be like a lottery winner saying, "It is highly unlikely that I could have won this lottery, therefore I must not have won."

Creationists often misquote the second law of thermodynamics, which states that disorder increases in a closed system. The earth is currently part of an open system, getting energy from the sun. Driven by the input in solar energy (and other forms of energy, such as chemical), complexity routinely increases, as with the growth of an embryo or crystal. Ultimately, of course, the sun will cool and life on earth will disappear.

Personal Experience

"Millions of people personally know God through an inner spiritual experience."
Most theists claim their particular god can be known through meditation or prayer, but such experiences point to nothing outside the mind. Mysticism can be explained psychologically; it is not necessary to complicate our understanding of the universe with fanciful assumptions. We do know that many humans habitually invent myths, hear voices, hallucinate and talk with imaginary friends. We do not know there is a god.

There are millions of god-believers; but this is a statement about humanity, not about god. Truth is not something which is attained by vote. Religions arose to deal with death, weakness, dreams, and fear of the unknown. They are powerful mechanisms for giving meaning to life and personal/cultural identity. But religions differ radically, and appeals to inner experience only worsen the conflict.

"Atheists lack spiritual insight and can hardly criticize the theistic experience of God. That would be like a blind person denying the existence of color."

Many theists claim that god is known by a special "spiritual" sensitivity. But is faith a "sixth sense" which perceives another world? Skeptics deny such a thing exists.

The blindness analogy is inapt because blind people do not deny the sense of sight, or that color exists. The blind and the sighted live in the same world, and both can grasp the natural principles involved. The path of light can be traced through a normal eye to the brain. Frequencies can be explained and the spectrum can be experienced independently of vision. The existence of color need not be taken by faith.

The theist, however, gives no independent means of testing "spiritual" insight, so it must be doubted. The skeptic does not deny the reality of subjective religious experience, but knows it can be psychologically explained without reference to a supposed transcendent realm.

The implication that theists are the only "complete" human beings is unfounded and arrogant.

"We all have a feeling of right and wrong, a conscience which puts us under a higher law. This universal moral urge points outside of humanity. It is consistent that God, a nonphysical being, would relate to us by such sublime means."
Here is another argument based on ignorance. Ethical systems are based on the worth humans have assigned to life: "good" is that which enhances life, and "evil" is that which threatens it. We do not need a deity to tell us it is wrong to kill, lie or steal. Humans have always had the potential to use their minds to determine what is kind and reasonable.

There is no "universal moral urge" and not all ethical systems agree. Polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism (Eucharist), wife beating, self mutilation, war, circumcision, castration and incest are perfectly "moral" actions in certain cultures. Is god confused?

To call god a "nonphysical being" is contradictory. A being must exist as some form of mass in space and time. Values reside within physical brains, so if morality points to "god," then we are it: the god concept is just a projection of human ideals.

"If there is no absolute moral standard then there is no ultimate right or wrong. Without God there is no ethical basis and social order would disintegrate. Our laws are based on scripture."
This is an argument for belief in a god, not for the existence of a god. The demand for "absolute" morality comes only from insecure religionists. (Voltaire quipped: "If god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.") Mature people are comfortable with the relativism of humanism since it provides a consistent, rational and flexible framework for ethical human behavior--without a deity.

American laws are based on a secular constitution, not the bible. Any scriptures that might support a good law do so only because they have met the test of human values, which long predate the ineffective Ten Commandments.

There is no evidence that theists are more moral than atheists. In fact, the contrary seems to be true, as evidenced by centuries of religious violence. Most atheists are happy, productive, moral people.

Even if this argument is true, it is of little practical value. Devout, bible-believing Christians cannot agree on what the scriptures say about many crucial moral issues. Believers regularly take opposing positions on such matters as capital punishment, abortion, pacifism, birth control, physician-assisted suicide, animal rights, the environment, the separation of church and state, gay rights, and women's rights. It might be concluded from this that there is either a multiplicity of gods handing out conflicting moral advice, or a single god who is hopelessly confused.

First Cause

"Everything had a cause, and every cause is the effect of a previous cause. Something must have started it all. God is the first cause, the unmoved mover, the creator and sustainer of the universe."

The major premise of this argument, "everything had a cause," is contradicted by the conclusion that "God did not have a cause." You can't have it both ways. If everything had to have a cause, then there could not be a first cause. If it is possible to think of a god as uncaused, then it is possible to think the same of the universe.

Some theists, observing that all "effects" need a cause, assert that god is a cause but not an effect. But no one has ever observed an uncaused cause and simply inventing one merely assumes what the argument wishes to prove.

Pascal's Wager

"God can't be proved. But if God exists, the believer gains everything (heaven) and the unbeliever loses everything (hell). If God doesn't exist, the believer loses nothing and the unbeliever gains nothing. There is therefore everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God."

This argument, first formulated by French philosopher Blaise Pascal, is sheer intimidation. It is not a case for a god's existence: it is an argument for belief, based on irrational fear. With this kind of reasoning we should simply pick the religion with the worst hell.

It is not true that the believer loses nothing. We diminish this life by preferring the myth of an afterlife, and we sacrifice honesty to the maintenance of a lie. Religion demands time, energy and money, draining valuable human resources from the improvement of this world. Religious conformity, a tool of tyrants, is a threat to freedom.

Nor is it true that the unbeliever gains nothing. Rejecting religion can be a positive liberating experience, gaining perspective and freedom of inquiry. Freethinkers have always been in the forefront of social and moral progress.

What kind of person would eternally torment an honest doubter? If their god is so unjust, then theists are in as much danger as atheists. Perhaps god will get a perverted thrill from changing his mind and damning everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. Or, inverting the gamble, perhaps god will only save those who have enough courage not to believe!

Pascal was a Catholic and assumed that the existence of god meant the Christian God. However, the Islamic Allah might be the true god, which turns Pascal's wager into a riskier gamble than intended.

In any case, a belief in a deity based on fear is not a belief that produces admiration. It does not follow that such a being deserves to be worshipped.

Ontological Argument

"God is a being than which no greater being can be conceived. If god does not exist in actuality, then he can be conceived to be greater than he is. Therefore, God exists."
There are dozens of varieties of the ontological argument, but St. Anselm was the first to articulate it in this manner. The flaw in this reasoning is to treat existence as an attribute. Existence is a given. Nothing can be great or perfect that does not first exist, so the argument is backwards.

A good way to expose this reasoning is to replace "being" and "God" with some other words. ("Paradise Isle is an island . . .") You could prove the existence of a perfect "void," which would mean nothing exists!

The argument squashes itself, because god can be conceived to have infinite mass, which is disproved empirically. And it is comparing apples and oranges to assume that existence in conception can somehow be related to existence in actuality. Even if the comparison holds, why is existence in actuality "greater" (whatever that means) than existence in conception? Perhaps it is the other way around.

No wonder Bertrand Russell said all ontological arguments are a case of bad grammar!

Revelation

"The Bible is historically reliable. There is no reason to doubt the trustworthy testimonies that would hold up in court. God exists because He has revealed Himself through scriptures."

The bible reflects the culture of its time. Though much of its setting is historical, much is not. For example, there is no contemporary support for the Jesus story outside the Gospels, which were anonymously written thirty to eighty years after the supposed crucifixion (depending on which scholar you consult). Many accounts, like the creation stories, conflict with science. The stories of the bible are just that: stories.

The bible is contradictory. A glaring example is the discrepancy between the genealogies of Jesus given by Matthew and Luke. The story of the resurrection of Jesus, told by at least five different writers, is hopelessly irreconcilable. Scholars have noted hundreds of biblical errors which have not been satisfactorily addressed by apologists.

The bible, like other religious writings, can be accounted for in purely natural terms. There is no reason to demand it be either entirely true or false. Christianity is filled with parallels from pagan myths, and its emergence as a second century messiah cult stems from its Jewish sectarian origins. The Gospel authors admit they are writing religious propaganda (John 20:31) which is a clue that it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Thomas Paine, in The Age Of Reason, pointed out that scripture cannot be revelation. Revelation (if it exists) is a divine message communicated directly to some person. As soon as that person reports it, it becomes second-hand hearsay. No one is obliged to believe it, especially if it is fantastic. It is much more likely that reports of the miraculous are due to honest error, deceit or zealous theological interpretations of perfectly natural events.

Outrageous claims require outrageous proof. A criterion of critical history is the assumption of natural regularity over time. This precludes miracles, which by definition "override" natural law. If we allow for miracles, then all documents, including the bible, become worthless as history.

Science

"There are many scientists who believe in God. If many of the world's most intelligent people are theists, then belief in God must be sensible."
This is just an appeal to authority, which atheists could do equally well, or better. Academicians, as a group, are much less religious than the general population. Though it is easy to find scientists who believe, none of them can scientifically demonstrate their faith. Belief is usually a cultural or personal matter separate from occupation and no one, not even a scientist, is immune from the irrational seductions of religion.

"The new science of quantum physics is showing that reality is uncertain and less concrete. There is now room for miracles. A theistic world view is not inconsistent with science."
This is nonsense. A miracle is supposed to be a suspension of natural law which points to a transcendent realm. If the new science makes miracles naturally possible (a self-contradictory concept), then there is no supernatural realm, and no god.

In quantum physics, the term "uncertainty" does not apply to reality, but to our knowledge of reality.

Theism implies a supernatural realm. Science limits itself to the natural world. So theism can never be consistent with science, by definition.

Faith

"Belief in God is not intellectual. Reason is limited. The truth of God is only known by a leap of faith, which transcends but does not contradict reason."
This is no argument. Admitting that something is nonintellectual removes it from the realm of discussion. Yes, reason is limited: it is limited to the facts. If you ignore the facts you are left with nothing but hypotheses or wishful thinking.

Faith is the acceptance of the truth of a statement in spite of insufficient or contradictory evidence, which has never been consistent with reason. Faith, by its very invocation, is a transparent admission that religious claims cannot stand on their own two feet.

Sartre said that to believe is to know you believe; to know you believe is to not believe.

Even if theism were a consistent hypothesis (which it is not), it would still need to be proved. This is why most theists downplay proof and reason and emphasize faith, sometimes ludicrously claiming that science requires faith or that atheism is a religion.

Psychic Powers

"There is strong evidence of psychic powers, reincarnation and such. You have to admit there is something out there!"
Most scientists disagree that there is strong evidence for "parascientific" claims. When carefully examined with rigid controls, they are generally exposed as misinterpretations or outright fraud.

Even if they were legitimate, mysterious phenomena could have perfectly natural explanations. In such cases, skeptics prefer to withhold judgment rather than jump to superstitious conclusions.

Conclusion

It should be noted that even if these theistic arguments were valid, they would not establish the creator as personal, singular, perfect or currently alive (except for "revelation," which is free to create any kind of god desired). Nor do any of the arguments address the presence of chaos, ugliness and pain in the world, which make an omnipotent deity responsible for evil.

Many theists, when they realize their philosophical arguments have failed, will resort to stereotypical character attacks. All atheists are labeled unhappy, immoral, angry, arrogant, demonic, unfeeling wretches who have no reason to live. This is untrue and unfair. But even if it were true, that would not make theism correct.

Since by careful examination all theistic arguments are faulty, atheism remains the only rational position.

Definitions

Religion:
System of thought or practice which claims to transcend our natural world and which demands conformity to a creed, bible or savior.

God:
A being who created and/or governs the universe. It is usually defined with personal aspects like intelligence, will, wisdom, love and hatred; and with superhuman aspects like omnipotence, omniscience, immortality, omnibenevolence and omnipresence. It is most often pictured interacting with humanity, but is sometimes held to be an impersonal "force" or nature itself.

Theism:
Belief in god(s).

Atheism:
Absence of belief in god(s).

Agnosticism:
Refusal to accept the truth of a proposition for which there is insufficient evidence or logical justification. Most agnostics suspend belief in god.

Freethought:
The practice of forming opinions about religion on the basis of reason, without reference to authority, tradition or established belief.

Rationalism:
The idea that all beliefs should be subject to the proven methods of rational inquiry. Special treatments like faith or authority, which are not allowed in other disciplines, are not acceptable for analyzing religion.

Truth:
The degree to which a statement corresponds with reality and logic.

Reality:
That which is directly perceivable through our natural senses, or indirectly ascertained through the proper use of reason.

Reason:
A tool of critical thought which limits the truth of a proposition by the tests of verification (what evidence or repeatable observations confirm it?), falsifiability (what, in theory, would disprove it, and have all such attempts failed?), parsimony (is it the simplest explanation, requiring the fewest assumptions?) and logic (is it free of contradictions and non sequiturs?).

Humanism:
Secular humanism is a rationalistic natural outlook which makes humanity the measure of values.

All of these words have suffered from multiple definitions. The definition of religion, of course, can vary with the religionist. Most atheists consider themselves to be concurrently freethinkers, rationalists and agnostics since they are not mutually exclusive labels. Agnosticism is here defined by Huxley's original intention, though current popular usage wrongly views it as a halfway house between theism and atheism. Any person who cannot say, "I have a belief in a god," for whatever reason, is an atheist.

For Further Reading:

  • The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine.
  • An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, edited by Gordon Stein, Prometheus Books, New York, 1980.
  • A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, edited by Gordon Stein, Ph.D., Prometheus Books, New York, 1987.
  • Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Michael Martin, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1990.
  • Atheism: The Case Against God, George Smith, Prometheus Books, New York, 1979.
  • Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, edited by Al Seckel, Prometheus Books, New York, 1986.
  • Critiques of God, edited by Peter Angeles, Prometheus Books, New York, 1976.
  • Ten Common Myths About Atheists, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin (booklet), 1987.

This chapter originally was printed as a booklet, sold and distributed to members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Its purpose was to provide a handy, nutshell response to common theistic arguments. Most of the arguments have been developed in greater detail elsewhere in this book.

© Copyright 1992 by Dan Barker. From Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, Chapter 17. All rights reserved.

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