Thursday, March 16, 2006

Why I'm an Atheist

When asked the question "do you believe in God?", I have usually answered something along the lines of "I don't accept the assumptions behind that question." I’ve been drawn to some version of mysticism, in which the divine is essentially ineffable, and can only be experienced, not "believed". I have been deeply moved by (the likely mythical figure) Lao Zi, Rumi, and the Upanishads. I rejected agnosticism, theism, and atheism.

In the past year or so, I believe I've come to better understand the language of existential claims. I have to give most of the credit for this to Wittgenstein. Such claims, I've come to believe, only make sense if they are falsifiable, either through empirical or analytical observation.

What sort of claim is "God exists"? The most intuitive follow up question is "what is the conception of God in question?" Here we arrive at a clearer understanding of atheism, and the position it rejects, theism.

Theism is the belief that God is a conscious entity possessing three necessary qualities: omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence. Let us then assume that this is sort of God purported to exist. The second question then may be "way observable conditions instantiate these three qualities?" In other words, what would we expect the world to be like were God, possessing these qualities, to exist?

Without going into the long history of this debate, it should suffice to say that there is no consensus about what such a world should look like, other than, of course, this world. The problem is that proponents of theism have not made any falsifiable claims about the existence of God. This is because they seek to show that God exists in this world.

The perhaps oldest challenge to the theist’s position is the problem of suffering. If there is a benevolent, all-powerful God, why do so many innocent people suffer? The typical theist answer is either that evil is the flip side of good, or that, simply, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

In the past, I found this response somewhat convincing. The problem I’ve come to see now is that such claims seem designed to apply in all possible situations. There is no limit to the cruelty that could exist to serve the divine purpose. It seems to me, then, that this is no answer at all, as it seems to say that no matter what conditions apply in this world, they speak to God’s existence. Thus I have come to see the claim “God exists” as either incoherent or demonstrably false.

I would, however, offer a caveat of sorts. I am sympathetic with the desire to transcend what sometimes seems like a hopelessly banal existence. While I deny most of the answers, I don’t deny the fundamental problem of how we are to live our lives, with the common intuition that there is some difference between what is pleasurable, soothing, or easy, and what is good.

The problem with mysticism is that it often seems to offer as a solution a retreat from all discourse. We’re to believe that the solution to our woes lies in meditation, or leaving society all together. I agree with William James that mysticism must be considered to be ultimately private, and cannot support any existential or ethical claims.

I also believe that the pursuit of the good, be it mystical or otherwise, if it is to be open to all, is predicated on the existence of an open society, founded on the principle of open inquiry. The problem with most religious doctrines is that they, at least implicitly, ask us to cease this inquiry, and uncritically accept their answer. In response to these doctrines, I call myself an atheist, not because I have the final answer, but because I cannot accepts theirs.