Summa Atheologica: Why I Am An Atheist

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login date: 2022-02-08




Napoleon: You have written this huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe.
Laplace: Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.

— Quoted in Budget of Paradoxes

1. Introduction

Like most atheists in my part of the world, I grew up Christian. My mother was a traditionalist conservative Christian, bordering on fundamentalist. My father was more loose with his Biblical interpretation, but remained a presuppositionalist — so, somewhere in the general vicinity of Jordan Peterson, although he had his theological views long before ol' Lobsterhead became popular. I grew up taking more after my father in this regard; he had me read A Christian View of Men and Things by Gordon H. Clark, explained to me on myriad occasions how secular morality, politics, and epistemology was without foundation in the absence of the Christian god, and encouraged me, when I rejected creationism, to reconcile evolution with the Bible (or, more accurately, reconcile the Bible with evolution).

It was this focus on the apologetic and theo-philosophical aspects of religion that eventually led me to leaving the faith. I became increasingly interested in the aspects of philosophy that weren't theological, and through that, became aware of the myriad schools of thought that based morality and epistemology on things other than gods. Eventually, I began to deconstruct my worldview's reliance on the Christian god as a cornerstone, began to learn about the actual origins of the Bible. The orientation of my worldview began to turn on its head: now, instead of God justifying epistemology and logic, they were justifying God. At that point, the only thing that held me to my faith was the belief that ""Judeo-Christian values," and the morality that the Christian God justified, were necessary to a happy life and a stable civilization, and that, furthermore, such an argument from consequences was a valid reason to believe something.

What finally gave me the push necessary to become an atheist was realizing that, after all, the morality espoused by the Bible, and the Christians that followed its teachings, simply wasn't a morality worth holding on to. It glorified being weak, having faith, being altruistic, and being a servant. It encouraged pity and condescending compassion instead of anything positive. It weaponized guilt and shame to keep you feeling dependent on Jesus Christ and keep you in line. It told you that your entire life, personality, and interests should be bound up in it and nothing else, lest you worship "false idols." It was a thought-virus. So, finally, one day, while the pastor was not-so-subtly trying to guilt everyone into tithing, and telling them that having interests outside of the church was idolatry, I got up and walked out of the church, never to return.

This sparked an intense period of research and learning for me, as I began to immerse myself every more deeply in the reasons for and against the existence of god or gods, as well as the field of epistemology which provided the (often unspoken) foundation for such arguments. You see, now that I didn't have an endogenous reason to want to believe that a god existed, I wanted to make sure that there wasn't an exogenous, epistemological reason that I was missing, I wanted to make sure that my rejection of god was actually in line with the truth,1 and not just the product of emotion the same way my belief in god had been. In the process, I formed and strengthened my understanding of almost every philosophical discipline, from phenomenology to ontology and beyond, read the works of many philosophers, engaged in reading many secondary sources, and took 12 college credits in philosophy (I plan to take even more).

1

We'll get to what I mean by this later!

Throughout this period and up until today, my beliefs have developed rapidly, and I do not believe that there will ever come a time when I am done learning or developing, as a philosopher or as a person. Nevertheless, despite what some religious people would have you believe about atheists and others who "deconstruct" their faith, there was always a consistent through-line, a logic and direction, to the path I was following, both at the time and retrospectively. I wasn't merely bouncing around between beliefs at random, believing whatever I'd heard last. Simultaneously, however, there was a drastic process of maturation going on for me from ages sixteen to now (twenty), and it is still ongoing. Therefore, please do not view this essay as a final word, a capstone to my deconversion; instead view it as just another milestone, a step along the path, documenting a snapshot of where I was at a certain time. Looking back, I doubt that I will ever wholly disavow or disagree with what I say here; but nevertheless, I will grow and change.

2. A Question

So, why am I an atheist?

A very simple question and, at first blush, it deserves a very simple answer: because I have not found sufficient evidence to be anything else. Of course, just as in all other philosophical discussions, from here on out things become far more complex. A number of questions concerning this answer must themselves be answered before we can even begin to talk about what being an atheist means for your worldview and life, or the arguments against atheism that theists have millennia concocting.

3. Why Evidence is Important

3.1. Primacy of practicality, experience, and simplicity

The first question that must be answered is this one: why should we require evidence to believe things in the first place? The core reason is that beliefs inform actions, and actions have consequences, both for the world and for ourselves. This is the epistemological pragmatist's answer. If I believe something is true about the world, then that has implications for how I should act. For instance, if I believe that there is an afterlife wherein we will see those we love, I won't feel that it is as necessary to reconcile with my loved ones in the here-and-now. If I believe that in the afterlife people will get their just reward, what reason is there to try to improve life, or push for justice, in this one? If I believe that guilt is something that exists between myself and a deity, instead of myself and my fellow humans, especially those that I have wronged, and that it is something that can be discharged through prayer and repentance instead of making right what I have done wrong with those around me, that has implications for those around me. If I believe that there is a god who judges everyone according to its own set of rules, and therefore that there is an eternal law which is going to be imposed on everyone, then I will believe that I am rescuing people from eternal punishment by spreading the word and convincing them to stop lifestyles and actions that I believe are going to be harmful to them.

Thus, it is better to restrict a worldview to only the simplest set of assumptions necessary to accurately explain and predict our experiences of the world. This is for two reasons: first and foremost, our experiences are the things that we absolutely must wrestle with, the things that matter to us most intimately. They are what we know. Anything outside of experience is pure speculation until it becomes a part of our experience; pure unreality, compared to the real, tangible reality that we face every day, the reality which we invented philosophy in order to help ourselves comprehend. Secondly, and almost as importantly, for every assumption, rule, entity, or brute fact we posit that is not directly necessitated by our experience, our chances of being wrong increase significantly. Every proposition carries with it, inherently, the chance that it will fail to predict or explain reality. And incorrect beliefs carry consequences with them: they might directly lead to incorrect predictions, or prevent us from predicting something; they might block of further avenues of inquiry that might improve our ability to wrestle with the world of our experiences, or they might incline us towards believing other things, only tangentially related, that might harm us. Therefore, in light of these two facts, it is better to constrain ourselves, wherever possible, to positing only that which is necessary make the world of our experiences coherent and predictable, to understand, comprehend, and navigate it.

3.2. Falsity risk and seeking out truth

In light of this we can define "truth" in terms of a theory which would best explain and predict the totality of all human experience for all time — essentially the "final" theory that all epistemology that has to do with aligning beliefs and propositions to the world of experience through observation, testing, and conceptual analysis (including, but not limited to, science) tends towards in the long run. Truth is therefore a spectrum: something is more true the better it coheres with reality, with what experience requires for us to believe, with that ""ultimate theory"; something is less true when it is further away from that.

If we purposefully choose to believe something that is not as close to truth as we can come, or not analyze our beliefs to determine whether they are as true as we can make them, we are purposefully choosing to accept the risk that we are holding beliefs that will make us choose to do, or not do, things that, had we known the truth, we would rather not have done. Things that will hurt our happiness, and the happiness of others. This is what I call "falsity risk." Every belief carries with it a falsity risk: the chance that that belief has of being wrong (determined by the amount of evidence for and against it, as well as its inherent improbability, determined by its complexity) multiplied by the severity of the consequences if it is wrong. That is why our lives should be an ongoing process of learning, maturing, and improving, as we try to minimize our falsity risk in light of the new evidence we see, while at the same time it is okay to choose to not learn about some things, and not worry about them.

I believe that most theologically 'interesting' — that is, non-pantheistic, non-deistic — religions carry with them an extremely high falsity risk, because they make substantial statements about the way the world works, the way human beings work and what makes them happy, the way society should be structured, the way one should live, and more. This isn't to use a reverse version of Pascal's Wager, to say that one should not believe in religions simply because of the risks inherent in choosing to do so and turning out to be wrong. This is simply to say that choosing to accept a religion is a choice that comes with serious consequences, and so should be considered carefully and not treated with frivolity. It is something that should only be done if you think you are correct in doing so. We posit the material world only because it seems to be the best and most natural way to understand the phenomena of our experience; we posit that other minds exist for that same reason; we posit particles, and galaxies, and stars, only for that reason; why should the rules be different for things which influence our everyday choices and lifelong happiness far more significantly than the existence of virtual particles or Proxima Centauri?

4. What Is Evidence?

In the process of answering this first question, we have also answered a few other questions — what truth is, for one, as well as why materialist atheism is the "default" position. The next question that must be answered is this: what, precisely, constitutes evidence?

4.1. Defining evidence

Based on what I said in the previous section, my answer to this should be clear: evidence is primarily constituted by experiences.

Simply saying this isn't enough, though. Experiences are phenomena which mediate between us and the mechanisms, ontology, and/or rules that generate them — they are not complete in themselves but exist in relation to other experiences, which then form patterns, which form the "fundamentals" of the ontology we build in our minds.2 As such, we have experience of things, but we have no direct connection, no immediate epistemic knowledge, of what the rule or pattern behind that experience and its relation with all of the others we have or will have, is. Therefore, we have no immediate knowledge of what to posit, ontologically, as a good theory to encapsulate that pattern. Therefore, experience simpliciter cannot be direct evidence for whatever that experience seems at face value to be.

This distinction is similar to the Kantian distinction between noumina and phenomena, in that there is experience (what we get directly) and something else "behind" experiences, a meta-layer; it is different, in that it does not presume that anything in particular exists ontologically, if anything. It does not say, for instance, that noumina exist in a 1:1 correspondence with the objects of our experience. Monism, atomism, pantheism, and simulation theory are all viable, among many others. Instead, the "noumina" of my philosophy are the patterns that exist between experiences, which we call objects or laws. These patterns are out of our direct reach, even though we have direct access to our experiences, for two reasons: first, because we do not have access to the totality of all experiences, and second, because understanding those connections is an interpretive game with infinite moves, so something in the space of interpretations must be chosen volitionally, we cannot just jump from experience to interpretation in a determined way.

2

This leads to a fun little paradox, in that experience is both the fundamental component of reality, because it is the most real thing we experience and the fundamental starting point for everything, and the least fundamental component of reality, since it is always explained in terms of something else.

To expand on the concept of interpreting experiences a little: experience must be interpreted, correlated, and integrated to arrive at a belief about the nature of what caused that experience, and the accompanying implications concerning other (future, past) experiences. This is usually a simple task, since interpreting experiences in terms of what they most literally seem to indicate is usually sufficient in everyday life. Because of this simplicity, the process is nearly unconscious and transparent, so people frequently assume that they do not interpret their experiences, but that ""direct experience" of something is simply evidence for whatever that thing seems to be. On a slightly more sophisticated level, since a face-value interpretation is usually enough, people assume that taking experiences at literal face-value is sufficient in all cases. Both of these assumptions are wildly wrong. Even determining what the literal, face-value interpretation of an experience is in the first place is an active choice, and not at all a necessarily determinate or obvious one, instead influenced by background priors, education, and so on. So choosing what the "obvious" or "face value" interpretation of an experience is is still interpreting it in terms of the background set of beliefs and experiences you have that set your priors for that interpretation higher than for others!

If we have to choose an interpretation for experience, what should we choose? I propose that if we want to posit a pattern, rule, or object behind experience, we should do so on the basis of which interpretation provides the best predictive and explanatory power for that experience with the least complexity, assumptions, and logical lacunae (paradoxes, etc). This goes back to my pragmatic approach to epistemology: the goal of positing things based on our experiences is to better figure out how to interact with and prepare for the world of experience that we have to wrestle with.

Furthermore, however, in choosing an interpretation we also have to consider how well that interpretation is able to account for the previous experiences that we've had, as well as the inherent improbability of that interpretation. This is what I call the prior of an interpretation — its inherent probability combined with its prior success in explaining other phenomena within its purview. Thus, if a theory is very good at predicting some experience I just had, but is very bad at predicting other experiences (either because it positively predicted things that did not happen, or predicted that things that did happen would not, or, most importantly, if it is reconcilable with all states of affairs and so predicts any particular state of affairs with a one over infinity, that is zero, chance) then I would be justified (depending on how those balance out) in interpreting an experience in terms of a theory that does better on its prior probability even if it predicts the current experience with less probability.

To summarize, then, having integrated all of the considerations in the previous paragraphs: experience is evidence for a particular theory if and only if it is better predicted by that theory. However, having evidence for something does not mean you should automatically believe that thing; you have to weigh the evidence and intrinsic improbability for a theory against all of the other candidate theories.

4.2. Cases of indeterminacy and meta-theories

In talking about theories and explanatory power, it might come across like I am saying that, should you come across something that your current web of beliefs cannot explain and/or did not predict, you are absolutely required to posit some new entity, and therefore that any unexplainable phenomena you come across is free license to posit any new entities you wish. This is not precisely the case. Although when unexplainable and unpredicted phenomena come about, you are required to integrate something new into your web of beliefs to account for it, it is sometimes acceptable to simply accept that the answer is not known without switching your web of beliefs or worldview completely. This is what I call epistemic indeterminacy: responding to an inexplicable phenomena by admitting that you do not have a direct theory to explain this compatible with your starting priors, but based on other knowledge you have, you are fairly confident that a wholesale revision of your priors isn't necessary, and that the explanation, when found, will fall in line with your existing priors.

This is often the response you get from scientists and naturalists when they interact with spiritual people, people who believe they have seen UFOs, etc. While they do not perhaps have a specific explanation for these phenomena, they are confident that there is a naturalistic explanation, just one they haven't precisely found yet.

There are two conditions under which such a framing is reasonable. The first is when the general outlines of an explanation — such as that a person is mistaken, had a hallucination, is schizophrenic, etc — can be provided, its just that the specific details are uninteresting and not perfectly accounted for because the theory remains in broad strokes. Here, the substance of the issue is predicted within the bounds of existing priors well enough that the priors don't need to be changed, and on the basis of that substantial success, it can be extrapolated that the same success will be met with if one were to dive into the details, and its simply not worth the effort of doing so.

The second condition is one in which not even the broad outlines of an explanation is known, but the skeptic looks at the history of investigation of similar phenomena and notes that in every case they turn out to be explicable by natural means, and notes that on the basis of that evidence, they should have a strong expectation that this phenomena, too, will be explained naturalistically. Thus, although they do not have a particular explanation for the phenomena, they can be fairly confident, on the basis of evidence about the the interpretation of past related evidence, that it is probably explainable naturally.

Both of these are instances of meta-theories, i.e. theories about theories. Since you don't have the evidence or theories at hand, or can't/won't go into the often grueling and extensive effort of debunking a particular one, you are instead theorizing about what theories would turn out to be preferable given the proper investigation, given evidence about how previous investigations went. Instead of theorizing to explain the evidence, you're theorizing about the theories that would explain the evidence.

We actually do this a lot, every day. When we hear a disturbing noise at night, we don't investigate it every time; we look back in our memory and remember all the times we heard a scary noise and it turned out to be nothing, and theorize that, given the proper investigation, the theory that would explain the noise best would turn out to be non-threatening, so we act as if it is, in fact, non-threatening. This is also what we do when we see things that are likely to be scams, etc.

4.3. Personal religious experience

In speaking so much about phenomenological experiences as the basis for my epistemology, I have surely pricked up the ears of those who have had personal religious experiences. If experiences are so important to you, they ask, what better reason could one have for believing in things of a religious nature than religious experience?

To this, I reply that religious experience can only constitute a good reason or evidence to believe in a new class of entities (spiritual beings, for instance, or gods) if that experience cannot be explained in terms of the entities one is already committed to believing in. It is the first duty of someone looking to find an accurate and simple theory to explain their experiences, and avoid falsity risk, to attempt to reconcile their experiences with their existing belief commitments; only if, after attempting to do this, it becomes clear that their worldview cannot predict such experiences, and can only be post-hoc adapted to them, or that the experiences cannot be reconciled with their existing worldview at all, is it prudent to posit new entities in order to explain those experiences. I have yet to encounter any religious experiences which, even when recounted according to the people who had them, would provide sufficient reason for them to posit new religious entities, still less for me to. Not to mention the wide variety of religious experiences that means that any acceptance of a literal interpretation of them would be contradictory with the literal interpretations of many of the others, which in turn is problematic for anyone trying to accept their religious experiences but not others, since now they have to explain other people's religious experiences as not real, but make an exception for their own — after having already demonstrated how it is possible to explain religious experiences in general by materialistic means.

All this said, however, I actually do not deny the possibility that, if someone has consistent, frequent, powerful, and inexplicable religious experiences, it might be rational for them, in an attempt to live in the world as they experience it, to accept the existence of religious entities. After all, the primary goal of my epistemology is to allow people to live in the world that they experience, as they experience it, instead of holding them to dogmatic presumptions about how it all must work. Although we may all technically live in the same "world", since we all interact, we also all live in different worlds, as we each have different perspectives and life experiences, and that can rationally change, even drastically, what we should believe even given the same epistemology! Nevertheless, I have never yet come across someone who actually described a set of religious experiences that would require such religious belief, and even if I did, it still would not require me to change my priors, as usually the experiences of others are also explicable in terms of naturalistic priors, and I simply do not share their experiences.

5. Arguments For Theism

With all of that out of the way, I think a brief look at some of the more compelling arguments for theism is worth it before I proceed to talking about what the implications of being an atheist are for one's life. It is important to look, at least in broad strokes, at these arguments because the atheist is making a claim: that they have, as of yet, not seen sufficient argument or evidence to convince them that positing a god or gods is necessary to explain reality. As such, when given the time, outlining responses to the more common arguments that people might think of in response to this is simply doing one's due diligence.

In the next three sections, therefore, I will briefly (but I hope with a fair amount of philosophical rigor) cover what I consider to be the three most challenging and interesting arguments for theism. I chose these specific three not just because they are challenging and interesting, but also because I believe they each exemplify a unique way that people try to slot god into their epistemic model, and therefore, through my responses, I will get to discuss the various ways in which atheism is a superior fit for those purposes. That way, you'll get a more multifaceted understanding of my approach to atheism. For instance, the presuppositionalist argument highlights how someone might try to use god as a justificatory tool, to arrive at certain desired consequences which seem unreachable otherwise. The fine-tuning argument highlights an attempt to use god as a scientific theory, presenting the simplest explanation for the organization of the world as we see it around us. Finally, the Kalam cosmological argument highlights how we might use god to arrive at some sort of metaphysical grounding, and as an explanation not for the whole world as we perceive it, but for a particular event.

5.1. Presuppositionalism

5.1.1. The argument

I will first begin by tackling the presuppositionalist argument, since that is the form of apologetic that I started out believing. The presuppositional argument comes in many different forms, from the one that started with Van Til and Bonson and was most recently defended by Sye Ten Bruggencate, to the version defended by Matt Slick, to the version proposed by Gordon H. Clark, to that defended by Jordan Peterson. Fundamentally, however presuppositionalist arguments generally take the following very similar form:

  1. God is needed to justify X (meaning, morality, epistemology).
  2. X is practical/necessary/important.
  3. Therefore, we need to accept god even without evidence for it.

5.1.2. Cutting out the middle-man and avoiding special pleading

The fundamental problem with arguments of this form is that if positing a god is ultimately unjustified, then how can it provide good justification for the further proposition we wish to justify? If the justification of something relies ultimately on a baseless assertion, then in what way is that a good justification? If committing myself to believing something requires, as a prerequisite, that I accept something that I have no reason to believe, then it would be better, and more accurate, to simply reject that which relies on that baseless assertion! Of course, this is where the second premise in the argument kicks in: the presuppositionalist will retort that I simply cannot reject proposition X, since that would make my worldview completely incoherent and unlivable, so that move is simply not open to me in this exchange. The counter to that, however, is to point out a subtle trick that's being pulled here: when the presuppositionalist introduces premise 2, they are essentially making the necessity or practicality of the idea do the work of justifying it, not god. It is the incoherence of thought or impossibility of life without that proposition that forces me to accept it. God is just being ""brought along for the ride," so to speak, through the association of the two in the first premise. Therefore, the correct response to the presuppositionalist is to point this out and say: if we are going to rest the justification of X on its practicality or necessity, simply let that be so. Admit that it is not justified in the argumentative or logical sense, but only in the practical or transcendental sense, and cut out the middle-man entirely. So it is impossible to reason without logic — that in itself is a reason to accept logic, no god needed! Ultimately, it is the proposition, X, that is doing the justifying of god, but since god and X are not conceptually related a priori, but only correlated in the mind of the presuppositionalist, X does not strictly entail god, and the two can be decoupled.

Of course, an obvious response to this is to refer me back to the first premise: god is necessary to justify X. So if we want X, we can't simply presuppose it, we have to presuppose god. Unfortunately for the presuppositionalist, this is simply special pleading. They are already trying to use the idea that presupposing things is valid in order to presuppose their god, but suddenly they want to stop anyone else from doing the same thing, because when other people try to do the same rhetorical move, suddenly it becomes inconvenient for them. Problematically for them, however, there is nothing inherent to the nature of god, or X, that means that only god can be presupposed and nothing else can be, or that X can't be presupposed, it can only be justified in terms of a presupposed god. Anything, I repeat, anything can be presupposed. That's inherent to the nature of presuppositions. It's just that some presuppositions are worse than others, and we probably want to keep our list of presuppositions down to the smallest and least ontologically heavy (full of rules and implications) list possible.

5.1.3. Knowledge, meaning, and spiritualism

An example of reasoning this argument out might be in order. Let's start with epistemology: suppose the presuppositionalist says that in order to know anything, we have to trust that god beams the knowledge that our senses are trustworthy into our heads in a trustworthy manner. This is how Descartes solved solipsism, after all, although he did not on this basis turn it into a transcendental argument. Without believing in god, therefore, the presuppositionalist insists, we cannot trust any knowledge that we have of anything outside our own heads, because we do not have a trustworthy source of information. In response, I might simply reply: why not simply believe, as a matter of practical necessity, that our senses are typically trustworthy? If you are justified in merely asserting that fact with an extra step, why am I not justified in asserting that fact directly? In fact, I don't see why I'm more justified in asserting that fact directly due to its direct practicality than you are in asserting that fact with extra assumptions and indirection!

This is not to mention the fact that presuppositionalists typically try to loop their scriptures into this argument at some point, thereby undermining their entire point; after all, if in order to know that god was telling them (trust-worthily in its omniscience and omnibenevolence) that their senses were reliable, they had to read scripture first, then of course prior to that (both temporally and logically), they had to trust that their senses were accurate enough to be competent to read scripture in the first place. Which could of course be false — an evil demon could be manipulating scripture to make it seem like it said one thing, when it really said another.

The same sort of reasoning works for meaning or purpose as epistemology: if meaning and purpose in life are really so necessary that asserting them baselessly is acceptable, then doing so with less indirection is both more honest, and more justified, than asserting them with more indirection. Additionally, if you are choosing for yourself whether to assert a god, and which god, in order to get to a certain purpose in life, you are essentially, at least in the vaguest outlines, choosing your own meaning for yourself anyway — so why not choose it for yourself directly? I guarantee that having control over your own life-narrative, your own meaning, will, once you have discarded the religious brain-worms of ""true meaning" needing to come from outside yourself, make you far more fulfilled and happy, since you will be able to choose something that is truly the most meaningful to you.

This is also, incidentally, my response to the semi-presuppositionalist arguments that I often see from "spiritual" people. They object to what they perceive as my cold and calculated rationality — when it is really my warm blooded and excited love for experience and the world and the life that I am living! — by saying that they find meaning and purpose in believing in the spiritual world, and that it doesn't really hurt anyone. To this I reply threefold: first, if you have the kind of epistemology that lets you believe such things merely because you want to believe, then you will be ripe to be taken in by all sorts of nonsense; second, if you are accepting something purely for the meaning it gives you, why not just construct and assert your own meaning directly; and third, I am sure that believing in those spiritual things makes some practical difference to how you act, so that the falsity risk of being spiritual remains non-zero. Nevertheless, typically people who are pantheists, spiritualists, pagans, etc, tend to be very accepting people with beliefs that are not particularly normative at all beyond conclusions that you would come to anyway, so I find it best not to bother them; the falsity risk of their belief systems is typically very small, and they are typically great people, so there's no need to harass them unnecessarily.

5.2. Fine-Tuning

5.2.1. The argument

The fine-tuning argument is a much more scientific argument then the presuppositionalist one, and actually follows the form of a proper argument, instead of an appeal-to-consequences fallacy mixed in with two special-pleading fallacies and a massive violation of Occham's Razor. In this case, we have an abductive argument:

  1. The universe is fine-tuned for life: there are many physical constants and laws which could have been otherwise, that have been set just right for life to exist.
  2. The probability of this happening randomly is very small, since the range of possible constants and laws is large and they would have to be identical in value to the ones we currently have.
  3. Meanwhile, the probability of the physical constants and laws being as they are given a god is one — guaranteed.
  4. Therefore, a god is the best explanation for the current state of affairs.

5.2.2. Why god is not a simpler hypothesis

The fundamental problem with this argument is that it hides all of the complexity of having a deity that would create the universe in just this way behind the seemingly-simple word "god." You see, the reason that we would choose the god hypothesis to explain this over simply saying that the physical constants and laws that we observe are brute facts, is because that seems like positing a lot of brute facts, whereas if you posit a god, that's only "one" brute fact.

The problem with this is that the god that you need to posit for this to work is actually an incredibly complex network of incredibly complex brute facts. While the physicalist is positing nineteen numbers and two rules (the standard model and general relativity, lets say), all of which we actually observe, the theist is positing that:

That's a lot of brute facts, and the more theologically interesting you want your god to be, the larger the number of brute facts grows — and its not just about the number of brute facts either. Not only are these brute facts not things that we know exist and observe, and are very useful for explaining other experiences, but these are complex brute facts that carry with them a lot of implications, possibilities for contradiction, and more.

Note also that in order to explain why that god created the universe in this way and not some other way, we basically needed to import all of the brute facts that the atheist would have to assume anyway? That basically defeats the entire point of this argument, showing that once again, in apologetics god is usually something smuggled in, an extra middle-man between us and the actual solution to the problem.

This is not to mention the fact that we don't actually know how many of these physical laws and constants would need to be brute facts, and how many actually can be derived from each other or from further, more fundamental physics that we haven't discovered yet. Already in history the number of fundamental physical constants has been reduced, as new science has shown how to derive previously thought to be fundamental constants from other ones, and we haven't even gotten to quantum gravity yet! It could be the case that there is only one law, or one constant, that we need to posit as a brute fact, whereas the theist has already reached the limit of their exploration by positing a god.

In this case, a god is just simply a worse hypothesis than positing the physical constants as brute facts.

5.3. The Kalam

5.3.1. The argument

The Kalam Cosmological argument is conceptually very simple, but it, too, has complications. Here is the basic format of the argument in all its iconic glory:

  1. Everything that begins to exist as a cause for its beginning
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore the universe had a cause.
  4. That cause is god.
  5. Therefore, god exists.

This has the form of a more traditional deductive argument, and as such, we can analyze it premise by premise, unlike the previous two arguments.

Before I do that, however, I think an abductive analysis of this argument, like the one given in the previous section, might be helpful as a high-level overview. This argument works by extending rules that we are familiar with in everyday life (or at least, so it claims) to another event in the set of all events, thereby seeking to establish that a god exists by showing that a god is actually implied by are already-existing understanding of how the world works. Thus, god is being used to explain a new phenomenon, but by way of explanations, patterns, and rules that we already adhere to. This is the rhetorical power of the Kalam: it attempts to naturally integrate god into the totality of our scientific worldviews, treating it as an endogenous consequence instead of an exogenous extra hypothesis. Of course, the failure condition for this argument, then, is to show that either the event that is supposed to require god as an explanation by our existing rules didn't happen, or, alternatively, that the existing rule it is relying on does not actually naturally extend in the direction the Kalam claims it does, meaning that new things would have to be posited, after while point it should become clear that positing a self-existing block universe is far more ontologically frugal than positing a universe plus a self-existing god.

5.3.2. The universe didn't begin, and it didn't need a cause either

Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its beginning.

Even granting all of the other premises of the argument for the moment, for simplicity's sake so that we can tackle them one at a time, this premise has several serious, pretty much fatal, problems.

The first problem is that extending this causal rule to the universe itself (and therefore to a state of affairs "outside" the universe, whatever that means) is actually extending it far beyond what everyday empirical experience and scientific investigation would suggest. We know that when an object "begins to exist" it requires a cause inside the universe, where space and time and laws of physics hold sway, but we do not have any way of knowing that the same rule is true of a completely and utterly different situation. That's stretching induction much too far. On top of this, it seems clear — and this is actually the consensus among both scientists and philosophers — that causation is a fundamentally spaciotemporal affair: a cause must come before its effect, and be related to it in some spacial, physical way. That gives us strong prima facie reason to doubt that the principle of causation applies outside the universe.

This fundamental distinction between what happens inside the universe, where even the vacuum of space, which is colloquially called "nothing," is actually filled with a manifold with all sorts of energy and activity going on, and known laws, and what happens "outside" the universe, where truly nothing that we can really comprehend exists, defeats the naive intuitionistic argument that if it were possible for something to come into existence without a cause, and from nothing, then we would expect to see it happen all the time in the real world. Not to mention the fact that even if this distinction did not rebut that argument already, we could simply say that things springing into existence is cosmically rare — so rare in fact that we would not expect it to happen within the time that human has to exist. This is in fact what quantum physics leads us to believe: even in a vacuum, virtual particles pop in and out of existence causelessly all the time, and these particles have a certain probability of not mutually annihilating each other, in which case, it is possible, just astonishingly unlikely, that anything could pop into existence at any time. Thus, rejecting this rule, whether totally, or only in its application to the universe, does not require us to accept absurdities at all.

The second problem with this premise is that it equivocates on the definition of "cause." Both in the sense that, as explored in the foregoing paragraphs, whatever kind of cause would work outside the universe would have to be a very different kind of cause than the ones we are familiar with, but also in the sense that, when we are within the universe, every cause we have ever observed has both a material and efficient component, whereas if something were to "cause" the universe, it would of course have to be immaterial in nature, which is something that we have never seen before. In fact, we don't even know if it is possible, or have any reason to think that it is! Thus, again, the process of induction that the Kalam is trying to leverage breaks down just precisely when we get to the very boundary that it is trying to stretch to.

Following on with this problem, another problem arises immediately: from our experience within the universe, we know that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged. When new things ""come into existence," they are really the materials of other things being arranged into a new pattern that we recognize as a new entity. Therefore, if inductively extrapolating rules of things inside the universe to the universe itself and beyond is valid, then why not extrapolate that rule, and conclude that the universe must have always existed, since we know from experience inside the universe that matter and energy are constants that cannot ever either come into existence or go out of existence? This actually meshes well with our understanding of the Big Bang, since as far as we know the matter and energy that expanded into the universe as we know it today has always existed, and the current universe is only a different state and organization of all that matter and energy, nothing more.

Now, one argument that can be made in response to what I'm saying is that we know that everything in the universe needs a cause to begin to exist, and since the universe is just the set of all those things, surely whatever applies to every member of the set, also applies to the set itself. The problem with this argument is that it commits a parts-to-whole fallacy. If I say that each brick in a wall can't function as a wall, therefore the whole set of bricks cannot function as a wall, well, that is obviously mistaken. How do we know this is not the case with the universe itself? It could be possible that the most fundamental metaphysical law is that "Nature abhors a vacuum," and some set of things must exist, it is just that any particular thing doesn't need to exist; so particular things need causes, but something will always exist no matter what, without the need for a particular cause. It should also be pointed out that the universe is actually not merely the set of all things; it is actually a separate and unique thing itself which contains everything else. The universe is the spaciotemporal substrate that everything else exists embedded in, and that substrate is very decidedly something.

Premise 2: The universe began to exist.

Here, yet again, we come across severe difficulties. The first major problem is that we don't actually know that the universe began to exist at all. We know that it is not past-infinite, but because of how we believe time works during and around the time of the Big Bang, we have reason to believe that time itself only began to exist along with the universe's expansion. That would mean that although the universe is finitely extended in the earlier-than direction, there was no time at which the universe did not exist, because there is no infinite "container of time" for it to be embedded in that would allow for a state of affairs when it did not exist. It never "began to exist," it always was — it just changed state at the beginning of visible cosmic history. This is not overturned by the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, either, whatever William Lane Craig might tell you: all that theorem proves is that a universe which is expanding cannot have done so forever. It does not prove that there ever was any point in time when that universe did not exist.

The reason this is important is that if something has always existed, at all points in time, then there really isn't any coherent way in which we can say that it "began to exist." To say that the universe began to exist, when there was no point in time at which it did not exist, is simply to redefine words. So to try to apply a causal principle, which has to do with "beginning to exist" in the sense that we mean when we see things in this universe not exist and then come into existence, to something which can be said to begin to exist only in an extremely different and distinct manner, is to equivocate.

A second issue with this premise is that it assumes a tensed theory of time, where things in the future and past do not actually exist, only the present infinitesimally small "moment" exists. Thus, when something that did not exist in the past begins to exist in the present, there has actually be an ontological change in state — a new entity has entered the picture. If this were not the case, if all moments in time were equally existent and real, than anything could be said to "come into existence" only in the sense that a ruler "begins to exist" at the first inch — that is, the appearance of starting to be present is not an ontological fact, but a product of a reference frame that is limited in scope and accelerated through the time dimension in a certain direction. The problem with assuming a tensed theory of time (A-theory), however intuitive it might seem, is that the B-theory of time, or block theory, is pretty much universally considered to be the only theory of time reconcilable with the physics of relativity by modern scholars in both scientific and philosophical disciplines. All attempts to reconcile relativity with an "objective" reference frame in order to allow time to be tensed, such as the Neo-Lorentzian relativity theory, have failed, so we are left with strong reason to think that the very concept of anything "beginning to exist" at all, except in a sort of relative sense based on our own reference frames, is just irreconcilable with science.

Even if you change the argument so it isn't about the universe as a whole "beginning to exist," but instead is about the state transition of the universe starting to expand needing a cause, it really doesn't work. We already know that things can require state transitions, or various effects to happen, from their internal nature, without an external cause needed. A perfect example of this is radioactive decay: simply because of the nature of large, heavy atoms, they will begin to change their state, without any external cause needed. Why could it not be like that for the universe? Simply the existence of so much matter and energy compressed into an infinitely tiny space, required expansion to take place — and since, as far as we know, that matter and energy existed timelessly before it began to expand (if that even really makes sense), there isn't even a question of why it started to expand at one time or another — as soon as it existed it began to expand.

Sub-conclusion 3: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

To sum up then, based on the previous points: we have no reason to think that something coming into existence ex nihilo actually requires a cause,"3 and applying causal principles to the universe is fallacious; we also have no reason to think that the universe actually did come into existence out of nothing or begin in any other sense that might require a cause either, and we have no reason to think that the eternally (for all of time, even if time itself is finite) existing universe required an external cause to begin expanding either. These objections in themselves, completely annihilate this sub-conclusion, and therefore the rest of the argument.

3

Richard Carrier has a very good argument as to why "from nothing nothing comes" is probably wrong, which he uses to not only destroy the Kalam argument, but also the fine-tuning argument, by arguing for a metaphysical, infinite multiverse: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/14486.

There is more to say, perhaps not surprisingly at this point. It could be objected that whether the universe actually temporally came into existence or not is a moot point, because what the Kalam is really getting at is that we have to posit god as the ultimate sufficient reason or ontological substrate that contains and necessitates the universe — a sort of contingency argument. The problem with this argument is that in any worldview, you're going to have to posit a brute fact, as the chain of reason or logical causation is going to have to end with something no matter what. The theist chooses to posit god as a brute fact, while the naturalist chooses to posit the universe as a brute fact. The question is — which is a better approach? I believe that the answer is quite clear: positing the universe as a brute fact is by far the superior approach, because it elevates a reality that we all have to grapple with, the source of our experiences, to the highest position in our ontology, where it should be. Furthermore, it posits no more entities than those which we already have reason to believe exist, and posits a quite simple entity at that. Meanwhile, positing a god as a brute fact doesn't really have any extra explanatory power (see the previous section), elevates something that we don't have reason to believe exists independently to the top place in our ontology, and is quite complex. The only possible reason we could have to prefer a god over a universe as a brute fact is the ontological argument, but that argument basically says that god is a brute fact as part of building its definitions, so its not really lightening the load at all, and it also fails as an argument."4

4

I won't cover why the ontological argument isn't convincing here, because I really don't think that it demonstrates any useful or unique aspects to how I approach atheism and theism as comparative theories. If you're interested in more, I recommend reading what Michael Huemer has to say on it.

Premise 4: That cause is god.

I'll just cover this argument briefly, since, having destroyed phase one of the Kalam, phase two is pretty much irrelevant. The common argument given for the cause of the universe being god is that, as something which causes the universe, it must be atemporal and immaterial, as it must exist outside of the universe and prior to it. So far that's reasonable, but it doesn't rule out abstract laws of physics, quantum fields, etc. What comes next is where things really start diverging into absurdity: proponents of phase two of the argument insist that for something to cause something without being caused to make that choice itself, that thing must be a personal agent. This relies on the assumption of agent-causation, where conscious, personal agents are the sole cause of their decisions, with nothing prior to them causing their decisions ultimately. First of all, this is a highly contentions understanding of free will, and I think it should be pretty obvious that most ways we understand minds require context and prior causes in order to make decisions. Moreover, I would argue that minds are fundamentally temporal — the operation of thoughts is a temporal affair, and something which simultaneously holds all mental states isn't really doing thinking. I also think minds are fundamentally material, or at least relational: consciousness requires something to be conscious of, so a mind cannot exist in the absence of something to exist in relation to. Furthermore, I simply don't think that agent-causation is the only way you could get uncaused causes. See my points about radioactive decay and the inherent nature of objects requiring new events without direct causation above. See also Richard Carrier's stuff on refuting the ""out of nothing nothing comes" argument. Finally, we arrive at the idea that whatever this cause is, it must be "sufficiently powerful to create the universe." This is tautologically true, since whatever caused the universe must have the causal power to create the universe; but the picture that proponents of this argument want to draw for us, of something having to be immensely, incomprehensibly powerful in order to create the universe, simply doesn't follow — effects can be disproportionate in scope to the "size" or "power" (nebulous terms) of the causes that create them all the time, e.g. the Butterfly Effect. The reason it seems like we should assume that the cause is extremely powerful because it has the power to create the universe is that there is an equivocation here between causal power, the logical and metaphysical capability of causing something, and power in a broader, theistic-associated sense.

5.4. Pascal's Wager

All my talk of falsity risk in the opening sections might have brought to mind Pascal's Wager, and my clarification of the differences in how I am applying probabalistic epistemology that I outlined there might not have satiated the reader's appetite, since they may still believe that that sort of approach to epistemology entails, despite whatever I may think, the correctness of Pascal's Wager. Therefore, before I move on, assuming that my audience is satisfied that I am reasonable in my atheism, and establish what I think the correct implications of atheism are for human life, I think it is necessary for me to delve more deeply into why Pascal's Wager is incorrect even given my epistemology.

I won't lie — when I first came across Pascal's Wager, its logic was so similar to my own mode of thinking that it really threw me for a loop, and it took me about a week of really struggling with it to internalize an intuitive understanding of the fundamental problems with it so that it no longer bothered me. I hope I can convey those reasons here.

5.4.1. The argument

The basic form of Pascal's Wager usually begins with a simple Bayesian table, like so:

-AtheismTheism
God$$-\inf$$$$+\inf$$
No God$$+n$$$$-n$$

To put it in words: if you choose to not believe in god, and it turns out that god exists, you will go to hell for all eternity; whereas if you choose to not believe in god and he doesn't exist, you only gain a finite amount. Meanwhile, if you choose theism, and god does exist, you gain an infinite amount, whereas if you choose theism and god doesn't exist, you only lose a finite amount. According to basic decision theory, the choice is obvious: on the one hand you have a finite reward with infinite risk, and on the other hand you have infinite reward and finite risk — because of the infinities it doesn't matter what the relative probabilities of theism and atheism being true are, the infinity overcomes them. The logical choice is always to believe in god.

5.4.2. Naive decision theory doesn't work

One common objection to this argument is to deny doxastic voluntarism, and insist that it is impossible to simply choose to believe something without sufficient evidence. This, of course, is true to a certain degree, but I actually think that at base level, belief at least might be volitional. We can choose our epistemologies, and thereby we can choose what we believe by extension — to believe in god, we simply have to change our epistemology to be a much weaker, more permissive one. Of course, that raises the question of whether the belief one has in one's own epistemic system is voluntary, and I'm really not sure that it is (probably isn't), but the point is that this point is highly contentious, and verges into highly nebulous psychological discussions that I'm simply not interested in having. Furthermore, Pascal himself has a response to it: he says that whether or not we can choose to believe, we should at least try, on the off-chance that it actually works, or that at least pretending to believe is enough to make god happy. Which seems like a solid enough response to me.

No, the more interesting response stems from a thought experiment, which highlights that there is a more fundamental problem with this argument, something extremely important missing from the naive decision theory that Pascal uses to make his point. Imagine you're walking alone in a dark ally one night, when a mysterious stranger in a dark suit strides up to you out of the gloom. In the striated lights and shadows of the car headlamps passing on the road behind you, its hard to see his face, but his eyes glisten wetly in the moving light as they stare at you. When he speaks, he speaks in a low baritone, telling you that you are in grave danger. There are spirits haunting you, he says, and they will soon strike, sending you to the pits of Tartarus to burn for all eternity. To prevent this, good spirits have appeared to him in a dream, and told him that you must pay him a thousand dollars, as well as wear this medallion. He holds the medallion out, a strange twisted shape of gleaming lacquered oak. Do you pay him and take it?

According to Pascal's logic you should, without question — after all, if you don't and you turn out to be wrong, you will burn for all eternity, whereas if you do, and turn out to be wrong, all you've lost is a thousand bucks. Yet, I daresay many of us simply wouldn't take this man's offer seriously. Why not? The threat of eternal punishment should surely outweigh whatever inherent improbability there is in the conception of the universe he is presenting to us.

I think the reason why we wouldn't pay the strange man, or take Pascal's bet, is that decision theory needs to operate on the basis of possibility, not mere conceivability. This is because while there are an infinite amount of conceivable situations — many of which are in fact not possible, and/or not compatible with the actual world that we otherwise find ourselves in5 — we are beings with a finite amount of processing capacity, and we need to limit the range of what we have to consider when making decisions to the most salient, important, and relevant options. That process of determining what options are salient to our decision-making needs to be based on what we actually know about the thing with respect to which we are making decisions: the world of our experience. Thus, the options that are actually salient to our decision-making process are those options that have either been demonstrated to be possible by evidence, or can at least be inferred to be possible. We should therefore only enter outcomes into our decision matrix if they are demonstrated possibilities consistent with the actual universe in which we are making decisions. Spending all our lives considering every possible conceivable scenario with a large enough negative or positive payoff to overcome their inherent improbability (whether that payoff is infinite or not) is simply a waste of time, an exercise in needless worrying, especially since it is difficult to assess whether any of those scenarios are actually even possible given the actual universe we live in.

5

There is a [well-understood difference between the conceivability and possibility](http: //www.askphilosophers.org/question/1729), and there are "strong reasons to believe that conceivability does not directly entail possibility, either metaphysical possibility, too. For one thing, it is possible to conceive of states of affairs that are actually not possible.

For instance, since we have seen car crashes in the past, we should integrate that into our understanding of the risks of driving, but since we have never seen someone be abducted by aliens while driving, even though that is a conceivable occurrence, we don't really need to worry about it. This is actually how people deal with anxiety all the time: realizing that some outcomes are simply imaginative flights of fantasy that have no real basis in what actually happens in the real world. Likewise, until it is demonstrated that a god actually does exist, and therefore that it is an actual possibility that a god exists, one need not consider that part of the payoff matrix. Of course, if it turns out that a god does exist, then Pascal's Wager actually have something interesting to say: out of self-interest, we should try to get into heaven even if we don't like that god!

I can perhaps give a somewhat stronger illustration of why this limitation on decision theory is necessary by bringing up the "many gods" objection to Pascal's Wager. This objection merely points out that if infinity obliterates all consideration of relative probability, then we should not just consider the Christian god, but all conceivable gods and religions. Not merely all existing religions, but every god that is conceivable. Now, I think it is fair to say that there is an infinite amount of conceivable gods; even if we limit the properties of these gods that we vary to create the space of possibilities to the conditions for entering heaven or hell, since that is what is relevant to the Wager, we can still construct an infinite number of them, since for any god, we can create an anti-god that sends you to hell if you believe in that other god, and an anti-anti-god, and so on, essentially working like the Peano arithmetic "successor" function, which provably creates an infinite set. Once you have this infinite list of gods/religions, we can match each god up with an infinite list of other (mutually exclusive) gods that will send you to hell for believing in that god, meaning that you have a negative payoff of an infinity of infinities for choosing any god, matched against the single-order infinity of positive payoff for choosing that god. Therefore, the expected payoff of choosing any god in particular remains infinitely more negative than positive. Any choice we make, therefore, is the "wrong" choice, because we have to consider the conceivably infinite consequences of being wrong!

Atheism isn't the odd one out here, either. There are many belief systems that grant infinite reward (heaven) to those who stick to truth no matter what and follow their conscience, whether or not they believe a particular thing, and grant infinite punishment (hell) to those who are disingenuous about what they believe, or hurt those who believe differently from them (which most of the religions that most assiduously threaten eternal damnation encourage you to do). In fact, such belief systems are quite common among those that are generally spiritual or agnostic. That's not to mention the belief systems that grant you infinite reward (heaven) no matter what you believe, like (some forms of, if I understand it correctly) universalism, which means that any belief system you choose automatically has an extra infinity granted to it (and constant multiples of infinity are not differentiable, above adding one infinity where you had none before, so this still does not privilege theism over atheism).

Even if we were to take seriously the logic that, according to Pascal's Wager, it is rational to be anything but an atheist, there are other decision-theoretic paradoxes that crop up, further demonstrating that doing decision theory on conceivable outcomes is simply naive. For instance: if there is an infinite reward for believing, should you simply do the minimum necessary to be counted religious, since that has the same expected payoff (infinite) as doing any more? Or should you do the absolute maximum (become a monk perhaps), since you want to do everything in your power to avoid that infinite negative outcome? Should you choose the religion with the worst hell (in order to avoid it) or the worst heaven? These are all fundamentally and completely unsolvable decision-theoretic lacunae once you incorporate conceivability into your decision tree.

And this illustrates the fundamental point: once you admit conceivability into your decision tree, all hell (if you'll forgive the pun) breaks loose. Thus, we should only really worry about established possibilities for consequences when trying to decide our actions. Let us worry about living the one life we know we do have as best we can; we'll find out what lies beyond that, if anything, when we get to it. As Nietzsche said in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

This leads us directly to falsity risk: falsity risk, rather than being a reason to believe in something based on the possible consequences of not doing so, is instead a reason to investigate and try to form correct beliefs about something. It is essentially a barometer for deciding whether to investigate whether something which is conceivable is also possible. Additionally, like I discussed earlier, falsity risk only works as a reason to ensure that one has a sufficient reason to believe something, and does one's due diligence regarding it; it does not work in the negative direction, asking one to have sufficient reason to disbelieve something, because if we started on the prospect of believing absolutely everything in order to avoid that risk, we would have to believe an infinite number of contradictory things, which is impossible. Therefore, of the two poles, I choose the one that begins with the null hypothesis.

6. Living Like An Atheist

Alright then — I'm an atheist because the world as I experience it does not provide me any reason to be otherwise. What does that entail? How do I choose to live, what values do I choose to posit, how do I grapple with all the things that religion provides for other people? I think these are questions worth answering, especially answering in a mature and developed way that is aware of the philosophical literature surrounding existentialism, because far too often all that is presented is a negative atheism, an atheism that only says "no" and nothing more. That is strictly acceptable, but it isn't satisfying. I think if you try to demolish people's worldviews without offering anything in return to substitute it — either a reason why they don't need something, or something to fill that need — they will be far less likely to actually accept what you are saying and change their minds. It's like interacting with someone at a brainstorming session — alright smart guy, maybe my idea was bad, but what's yours?

Nietzsche worded this question the best, in the full version of perhaps his most famous quote, from The Gay Science:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

I believe that the answer to Nietzsche's final question in this quote is a resounding Yes — if by a god we mean a being that decides values, erects morals, chooses the purposes of all things in the universe, and chooses the meanings of categories by which things are interpreted, then I believe that, in the absence of a god above to us to do those things for us, we must choose to do them for ourselves. Thus, the old objection to atheists that many theists make — that we just want to ignore god in order to become our own gods, is partially true, just backwards; we want to become our own gods precisely because we have lost our faith in the gods we believed in before.

And what does this new landscape without a god look like? What does it imply, about the choices we make and the things we believe? Unlike many atheists, I believe that a worldview without a god should actually be drastically different in character and meaning from one with a god; in this, I agree with Sartre, when he said, in Existentialism Is A Humanism:

"It is nowhere written that 'the good' exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men... Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself... If God does not exist, we are not provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse.

Thus, while I am of the opinion that it is just as "legitimate" to assume by faith and dogma whatever values we please on the basis of nothing but our own voluntary choice and desire, and elevate them to the level of commandments, as it is to use that voluntary choice and desire to justify a god which in turn justifies those commandments, as I said in the section on presuppositionalism, nevertheless, I do not want to be merely just as justified in my choices as the theist. I want to be more justified, and more free. I want to free myself from faith and dogma, and choose my values as they come to me through my desires, without externalizing them into a code which I must bow down to. That is, I want to become Nietzsche's overman, Stirner's willing egoist, one who proclaims her values and desires boldly and unapologetically, who declares them and denies all duty. Another quote is reasonable here, I think. From Nietzsche:

My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the lion? Why is not the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent, enough?

To create new values — that even the lion cannot do; but the creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred "No" even to duty — for that, my brothers, the lion is needed. To assume the right to new values — that is the most terrifying assumption for a reverent spirit that would bear much. Verily, to him it is preying, and a matter for a beast of prey. He once loved "thou shalt" as most sacred: now he must find illusion and caprice even in the most sacred, that freedom from his love may become his prey: the lion is needed for such prey.

But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes." For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred "Yes" is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world.

We must deny that there is any duty, claim freedom for ourselves, and then, in the space that freedom creates for us and our individuality, understand and will the values that our dear to us, enact them, pursue them, love them and the world we exist in. Thus we embrace the freedom of nihilism, the rejection of any inherent or objective meaning, without falling into the despair that might come with that realization if we forget that subjective values, our own values, need not be justified, and do not need objectivity to be worth pursuing.

This is the fundamental danger that looms over those who reject religion and the religious-like secular values that most atheists accept: if we still retain the same basic misconception that reason must be the master of the passions, that all that we do and choose must be based in reasons and objectivity ultimately, then we are bound to fall into despair, as we realize that no passions, no values, no purposes can ultimately be justified in terms of objectivity. We will abandon all hope, and abandon the pursuit of beautiful things that we love. To avoid this, we must come to realize a fundamental truth, one that Hume realized long ago: reason is not the master, but the servant, of the passions. Reason is a truth-preserving mechanism, a means of re-arranging axioms and truths, of relating them; we cannot ask it to do anything more; therefore if something is not implicit in the premises that we give it, we cannot expect to find it in the conclusion. Hence if we do not begin with passions, with desires and values, we cannot expect reason to produce desires or values! We should not ask of reason something which it cannot provide. Instead we should live life by passion alone, by love alone, and allow reason to fulfill its proper function, of reconciling values and helping us achieve them. We should look within ourselves, and figure out what is meaningful to us, what is beautiful to us, what we desire and value.

And why not? Why is this not superior to that which religion can provide? I see no reason why I should not find meaning that stems from the very depths of my soul, the very core of my being and nature as a person, that wells up from the wellsprings of who I am, that I had to search through high mountain cliffs and deep caves to find, more beautiful and meaningful to myself than a meaning selected for my without care for the particulars of my individuality and personality by a being other than myself! I do not see why the fundamental freedom to choose one's own purpose in life, as well as the values that one will enact throughout it, is not a freedom to be treasured, exploited, and pursued, enjoyed to the fullest. It is only the indoctrination of religion, that teaches you that you are nothing without it, that your whole being must be wrapped up in it, that meanings that are not "objective" are meaningless self-deception, that fools us into thinking otherwise.

In fact, I would argue that even if God exists, even if religion were true, that would be of no help to us. A meaning, or a purpose, or a code of values and commandments handed down by a celestial being is no more objective than those things when handed to us by another person; they are merely the opinions and decisions of another mind, subjective as the opinions of any other mind. Values cannot exist metaphysically, to be found in the world, their ontological existence is incoherent and nonsensical. Yes, commandments handed down by a god are the product of a "perfect" mind, an "infinite" mind, but that does not make them any less subjective; yes, they are handed down by a being that is infinitely more powerful than us, but that gives us a reason to obey them only out of fear of punishment or the desire for reward — the same reasons that earthly law and nature can provide; the laws themselves are still the subjective caprice of a deity.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that the freedom granted by atheism brings with it a huge responsibility, an "anguish," to use Sartre's term. It is no light thing to accept, I admit that — but is any truly foundational belief a light thing to accept? No! And is it worth it? Yes, a thousand times yes! The freedom that not belonging to someone else, not being the slave of some metaphysical tyrant, brings is immeasurable. Thus, when the theist tells me that I am an atheist because I just want to sin, they are partially correct — I do want to sin, I enjoy sinning — and who wouldn't? Who would not rejoice to be free of the arbitrary rules and limitations of religion, who does not, deep in the core of their being, the part of them that still revels with Dionysus in the woods, love the good things of life and want to enjoy them? Who does not want to meet others in love and passion, to taste the fruits available to us in this world? Who, in other words, honestly does not want to be a hedonist? It is only the first part of their question that I reject: I reject the notion that I believe or disbelieve things only because I want to believe them; that is pure projection on the part of the theist, for that is the purview of faith alone. If there is an unpleasant truth, and there is something I can do to avoid it, even if at great cost to myself, I want to know. Claiming otherwise is like saying that you would rather not know that there is a truck barreling down the road towards you, which will crush you unless you stop playing in the street, simply because it is an unpleasant truth.

What I say here may seem to lack specifics, it might seem empty of specific injunctions to you, but that is precisely the point. For myself, I choose hedonism as my life philosophy, anarchism as my moral code, and the exploration of truth and beauty in writing, as well as the furtherance of the causes of justice and equality, as my purpose. But those are my choices. I believe that every person is better off when granted autonomy, and prefer to see true liberty for all; I hate relationships of domination and subordination, where the interests of those involved are not treated as truly equal; I hate authority and hierarchy; so I choose to be an anarchist. I love life, I love experiencing life, and I prefer to plan rationally and carefully so that I can enjoy life as much as possible, so I am a hedonist. I love writing, and thinking, and helping others, so I choose the purposes listed above. But these things will be different for everyone. I believe there are general reasons, applicable because of the situation we find ourselves in as conscious agents and a social species, that some values will be better than others for promoting happiness, but that is all. I will not dictate to you what you must choose, because that is simply the reinvention of religion. All I will do is try to guide you to what I believe is most probably the truth. After that, go and be free. Become your own god.

7. Conclusion

So, that is why I am an atheist, and what I make of my life in light of it. To summarize, I think that being an atheist is the natural outcome of an epistemology oriented around pragmatism and trying to maximize one's chances of being correct. Therefore, I think it is both the most correct, and the most pragmatic, position to take regarding religion. Additionally, I view it as a fundamentally freeing position to take, one that allows you to live authentically, as you choose, as a fully autonomous being not beholden to anyone above you.

Nevertheless, I rarely speak about my lack of faith. I do not evangelize atheism. If someone seems open to converse on the topic, I'll sometimes engage them if they bring religion up, and if someone close to me converts I might ask them why they converted and try to explore the reasoning with them, in the hopes of at least coming to understand where they came from, and either learning that they have a rational reason, or getting them to reconsider if they do not (which, meta-theoretically, is more probable); nevertheless, I am not in the business of going out and trying to deconvert people en masse. Why is that, if I believe atheism is most probably correct, and also beneficial for your life?

Fundamentally, it is because if someone is not harming or likely to harm others, and is not currently or immanently in danger of harming themselves (as opposed to just missing out), I want to give people space to believe what they think is right and discover the truth for themselves. Trying to make sure everyone thinks correctly about things when the only person they're hurting is themselves (or no one at all) is simply annoying and invasive. Moreover, I can't be absolutely certain that I am in fact correct, so it's better to foster a diversity of ideas and consider them all carefully. Furthermore, it isn't my responsibility to make sure that everyone is a perfectly rational thinking machine. Most important, however, trying to debate someone into a position you hold simply isn't a good way of convincing them. Especially if it's a position that is integral to their identity and worldview, like religion is. Instead, I try to do as Paul suggests: present a compassionate, happy, example of someone living without god, so that those around me know that it is a viable, non-evil option. Exposure to good atheists, kind atheists, is probably the number one way that people who already have doubts about their faith will deconvert.

Nevertheless, I find writing about philosophy enjoyable, which is why I'm writing this: not necessarily to convince anyone, but because its nice to get my ideas out on paper.