In 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.
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.