What Theists and Atheists Should Be Talking About

Denys TurnerIn the following interview with Denys Turner, he gets to the very basis of my thinking regarding spiritual matters, and I think he has a lesson for how atheists should talk to theists. Basically, he says that if you are going to be an atheist, you have to disregard one question, “Why does anything exist?” I understand where he’s coming from and he is certainly right that most atheists in fact do avoid that question. The problem is that those atheists do not explicitly avoid the question. Too often, they seem utterly unaware of the question.

I disagree with him, however, that we must avoid that question. I think it should be the number one question that theists and atheists consider. And the fact that the vast majority of them don’t understand the question and its importance is a big reason why atheist-theist arguments quickly degenerate into tribal wars. Since I am an atheist, I don’t claim to speak about theists other than to note that most American theists seem more interested in conservative politics than in any matters of spirituality. But I know the atheist community pretty well, and I’ve noticed a few things about it.

Consider two very famous atheists: Richard Dawkins (a brilliant biologist) and Lawrence Krauss (a brilliant physicist). Dawkins thinks that evolution proves there is no God. Krauss thinks that the fact that particles spontaneously burst out of nothing proves there is no God. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say of both men that their scientific views prove to them that no God is required. But they are both making the same mistake. Krauss thinks that the existence of his kind of nothingness that allows matter to pop out of it answers the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” His answer, which he repeats ad nauseam is, “Nothing is unstable!”

That answer is actually slightly less useful and sophisticated than, “God created it!” All Krauss has done is push the ultimate question back one level. My question to him (which he claims to not even understand) is, “Why is there the kind of nothingness from which stuff spontaneously erupts?” You are still talking about a “nothingness” that has certain properties. (Which means, by the way, that it is not nothing.) Where did those properties come from?

Dawkins position is even more naive than Krauss’. It is true that natural selection does not require an interventionist God. But it does require particles in the universe and physical laws that describe how they interact. I assume that Dawkins thinks that Krauss has his back on that issue, but as I just showed, Krauss is totally clueless on that ultimate question of why all those particles are around to allow natural selection to exist.

I suppose that those atheists who claim that I am not a real atheist may have a point. Maybe I’m a “negative theist.” I don’t know why the universe exists but there are a lot of thing I can say that are not the reason for it. One of them is all the teachings of the Abrahamic religions. But I still call myself an atheist, because I think if I could talk to Lawrence Krauss, he would pretty much agree with me: existence is a kind of paradox. But regardless of where I may land on the theist-atheist scale, I don’t believe any of the nonsense of a personal God or an afterlife.

But I think it is sad that theists and atheists can’t seem to discuss this real issue that divides us. I think it is especially sad for atheists, because if they were willing to talk about this kind of thing with theists, I think we would pull them more into our camp. After all: “God created the universe” doesn’t answer any real questions. Just the same, “Only idiots believe in God,” just reinforces tribal identity.

Afterword

Two things. First, I’m planning to write an article soon to explain why I am not a deist. Second, this is the only time I’ve been able to understand Denys Turner. I’ve watched lectures and read some of his writing and it is completely over my head.

0 thoughts on “What Theists and Atheists Should Be Talking About

  1. My atheism is a "fail to reject the null hypothesis" proposition, or what is called "weak" atheism. Your objection to Krauss is valid. No matter how much we learn about our universe it will always be possible to reconstitute the question of origin as to how things came to be that way. It seems it would be logically impossible to call the matter settled.
    I further concede that it is possible, that is I have no positive evidence to the contrary, that the universe was created by and is ruled by the invisible monster yawheh, who will extract terrible revenge if I should displease him. I also have no good reason to believe this is so. And neither does anyone else. And further, the whole project so thoroughly mirrors the human mix of one part kindness to six parts barbarism that it seems obviously a human fabrication.

  2. @Lawrence – It seems to me often that I run into problems with other atheists because they approach the subject from a scientific point of view and I approach it from a mathematical point of view. There simply are things we cannot know, and if someone wants to call that "God," I don’t have a problem. I [i]do[/i] however have a problem with mistaking dogma with actual unanswerable (as yet, anyway) questions. Similarly, I have a problem with atheists who claim that there is nothing to theism. True: most theists believe in silly things. But there is nothing silly about the questions that God was created to answer.

    And of course, we atheists can’t prove that that the God of Hellfire doesn’t exist. Even Dawkins admits that. I think we are in agreement. I don’t believe unicorns exist, but I can’t prove it. There is a very small chance that they are around and we just haven’t found them. But it would be wrong for me to say that I’m agnostic on the issue of unicorns.

    I keep writing about these issues because I’m very interested in the ontological questions. I think that both theists and atheists should be interested in this. But sadly, there are few on either side. I suppose that makes sense for the atheists, although I think it would help the cause if that’s what they see it as. As for the theists to not be interested in the subject is a travesty.

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