Earlier today, I delivered a speech concerning atheism and the question ‘does God exist?’ to students studying intercultural communications at Misericordia University in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Below is a transcript of my talk. As always, feel free to leave comments below.
Thanks for having me today. I’m here to talk about atheism and my thoughts concerning the question ‘Does God exist?’ Individual topics I’ll mention in my presentation could be entire speeches on their own – I won’t give an exhaustive treatment to all of my sub-topics, but instead will give a brief overview of several items I am interested in discussing. I’ll take questions and explain more in the question and answer session following my presentation.
First, I’d like to tell you relevant information about myself as it relates to my presentation. I was raised in a religious Roman Catholic household and attended religious C.C.D (Catholic Childhood Development) classes from kindergarten through high school in addition to my public school education. I went to church quite regularly with my father and received Roman Catholic sacraments from baptism to confirmation.
I don’t recall questioning the religious belief I was raised with until later years of high school when I was challenged by some friends and eventually during my undergraduate education at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. Philosophy classes and presentations I attended led me to deeply question my religious beliefs and ask myself whether there was good reason to maintain my religious beliefs. College was a great opportunity to question my own beliefs, even those outside of religion, as I was exposed to many new ideas and encouraged to think critically. Attending a Catholic college, too, allowed for many discussions about religious belief as there were Bible discussion groups, religious speakers, and a campus ministry office which held several events I attended.
Eventually, as you might guess, I found that the answer to ‘are my religious beliefs justified?’ was ‘no’ and declared myself an atheist – not only keeping this a private matter, but rather going public by joining and becoming an active member of a community organization I would later become the spokesperson and organizer of – the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society – having conversations about religion, actively writing on a blog, hosting a podcast, participating in public debates/discussions, and challenging several instances of government entanglement with religion.
I first came into the public spotlight when I challenged a nativity scene prominently placed on the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse in 2009 arguing for a more inclusive display and less focus on religion in government. I protested a school voucher rally in Harrisburg and was rebuked by a government official told to go back to my “community of privilege.” I worked alongside an organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group whose focus is opposing violations of separation of church and state and educating the public about non-theism, to get ‘God Bless America’ removed from Lackawanna County buses. I participated in a lawsuit to overturn legislation declaring 2012 ‘The Year of the Bible’ in Pennsylvania. I placed several banners, also with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in response to religious events and symbols on government property. I protested rallies and events including a National Day of Prayer rally calling for more government involvement with religion. I challenged prayer at Wilkes-Barre city council meetings and offered a secular invocation of my own.
As one atheist, I can’t claim to speak for everyone – I can only speak about my personal perspective. Knowing that a person is an atheist tells you only one thing about that person – that he or she lacks a belief in any gods – this is no guarantee of critical thinking skills or anything else like political affiliation, stance on particular social/political issues, or philosophical positions. The atheist, or most atheists according to my experience, does not say for certain that no gods exist or even make a positive claim that no gods exist, but rather just simply doesn’t believe any gods exist – likely because they don’t find good reason to believe. Maybe an atheist was raised in a non-religious household and wasn’t brought into religious belief by their caretakers or people in their community, but many atheists, like me, have a religious background.
The atheist has simply not been persuaded by arguments and reasons for religious belief provided by religious individuals. Even Richard Dawkins, one of the most well-known public atheists today, puts himself as a six of seven on his seven point scale of religious belief in which seven is absolute certainty that god does not exist – very low probability but short of zero. What, though, do atheists believe?
Personally, one of my main motivations in life, how I find meaning in life (I’ll get to more about this later), is pursuing knowledge and learning through study, conversation, and challenging myself. I enjoy facing challenges, overcoming adversity, finding answers to questions, thinking about complicated topics, and learning new information. I’m curious – I ask questions, challenge information that is often taken for granted, and examine that which I’m confused about. I’m interested in discussion about all kinds of issues.
From my experience, there seems to be a lack of thoughtful discussion about matters of religious belief in our society. People perhaps avoid conversation because they want to preserve harmony or what some call ‘respect beliefs.’ Some view disagreement as disrespect. Some even think that disagreeing with people’s religious belief in whatever manner or even providing counter-arguments to religious belief is intolerant. Perhaps because people closely identify with their religious beliefs and cherish their religious traditions, they view people who openly question religion in a negative light and view such challenges as disrespectful – confusing questioning ideas or challenging ideas with attacks on a person.
I believe that people should be concerned with holding belief that is both true (corresponding with reality) and justified (having good reason/argument). The Bible even, in some points, specifically in 1 Peter 3:15, instructs people to, if asked, give “the reason for the belief in your heart” to “prepare a defense and do so with gentleness and respect.” As an atheist, I am very much in favor of this attitude. Discussions and disagreement can and should be had in a respectful manner – discussing ideas vigorously rather than attacking people. In challenging our beliefs, especially our cherished beliefs, we can only learn and progress. If it is the case that arguments can serve to lead us away from particular beliefs, we are better for that – for having beliefs which are justified and true should be a primary concern in our intellectual lives and much more important than possible temporary discomfort.
Some think there is no such thing as truth, truth varies from person to person, or that holding truth is impossible. Some believe that it is just fine to believe something because a belief makes one feel good, because a belief is held by many people, because a belief is handed down through a respected tradition, or even solely because of faith – steadfast belief without evidence, sometimes contrary to evidence. I believe that we, even though we may be limited with our current state of limited knowledge, can talk about truth and collectively work toward reaching it.
A misconception atheists face is that we are closed-minded – unwilling to change beliefs and unwilling to engage with arguments from religious believers. I am willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided good enough reason and argument is presented. I seek to find lapses in my own reasoning and reasoning presented by others should something seem suspicious. If a convincing argument for any gods or the Christian god comes forth, I will be better for encountering that because I will have more justified true beliefs and fewer false unjustified beliefs.
Even if we happen to not change our minds on issues, we’re also, I would think, generally better off for encountering people with whom we disagree provided something is learned. Justified true beliefs, after all, should be able to withstand objections.
Sometimes religious believers, rather than giving reasons for belief in god, say that it’s just simply wiser to believe God exists because the risk of not believing is just too big (punishment in Hell for eternity or separation from God for eternity) while the believer has nothing to lose through believing God exists and everything to gain. This formulation is better known as Pascal’s Wager. Believing something is true, though, shouldn’t be based on rewards and consequences of belief – that doesn’t seem at all genuine to me and certainly isn’t based on good reasoning. Wouldn’t God know if people believed just because they didn’t want to go to Hell? Should this sort of belief be rewarded or even desirable? I think not. Anyway, why privilege the Christian god? What about thousands of other gods and religious traditions? Surely the Christian, for instance, isn’t worried about the consequences of disbelief in regards to other proposed gods.
Why be so public about my atheism and openly challenge religious beliefs? Am I strident or militant for doing so as some perceive? We cannot doubt that our beliefs inform our actions and some of our actions have the ability to harm others – we live in societies in which our actions can have impact on others. Of course not all religious beliefs or beliefs derived from religion are harmful, but many can be.
Religious belief leads parents to refuse medical treatment for their children leading children to die rather than receive simple vaccinations or medicines. Religious belief inspires a great deal of divisiveness leading to violence, shunning, and discrimination. Atheists fear that going public about their thoughts on religion — especially in highly religious areas like the American South, the Bible belt — may lead to job termination, financial distress, political suicide in that people would not vote for an atheist, and suspicion.
Religious people, too, will not trust individuals of a different religious worldview and even isolate themselves from entire communities of other religious people. Some religious people believe, for instance, that atheists lack morality or otherwise have no reason to be good people – likely because these religious individuals think that morality comes from religion and without religion people are simply without a moral compass.
Thinking about complicated moral questions often seems difficult. Should we focus on the needs and wants of society at large rather than needs and wants of specific groups of people? Should we focus primarily on the consequences of implementing certain actions or policies rather than the process – do the ends justify the means? Should morality be something of universal consideration or should certain practices vary from culture to culture?
Although we can face difficulty in considering ethical dilemmas or determining right and wrong, I think most people – even though, of course, there are people who take advantage of others or break just laws – have a general sense of right and wrong which is a product of cultural influence, self-reflection, and an understanding that other humans have similar wants and needs. After all, we humans are social animals – beings that work together in social situations, cooperate in a larger society, and benefit from interaction with others. Through cooperation, rather than violence and war, we realize that by working together we can improve ourselves, the world around us, and make a lasting impact.
Why, as an atheist, should I be a good, ethical person treating others with kindness and respect? I would imagine that religious individuals would provide similar answers although there may be some differences in opinion about the source of morality. Perhaps we want to treat others with kindness and respect because this is the way we want others to treat us – we want to model the behavior we want to see in others. Perhaps we take personal pleasure in treating others well and would be wracked with guilt, rightly so, should we treat others poorly – a blend of a self-interested motivation and a yearning to treat others well. Perhaps we feel an inner obligation to help others because we have the resources and time to do so.
Personally, I tend to lean toward what is referred to as virtue ethics – an ethical framework by which we aspire to make decisions and live our lives based on certain values we hold dear rather than referring to duties or rules. Act how the virtuous person would act in a situation says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in its article on virtue ethics. Virtues such as tolerance, compassion, humility, fairness, kindness, loyalty, moderation, and many others guide by day-to-day life.
Indeed, there is some good within religion. Religion can provide some good ideas about morality, advice about how to live life, and even good social networks and community services. People are often inspired by religious beliefs to do good in the world. However, all of the good that comes from religion, I would maintain, can be had without religion. Religion, too, as I mentioned, can warp moral priorities and lead to harm.
Another misconception about atheists is that they are uninspired individuals who find no meaning in life. This misconception likely comes from the religious conclusion that without God, life is pointless because the purpose of life on earth is to serve god and fulfill some divine, externally imposed will. While it might be the case that some atheists maintain that life itself or the world itself is without meaning, many atheists, find meaning in life through a process of self-creation – determining what in this life makes it worth living – what motivates, what leads one to wake up in the morning, what breaks the monotony of the usual day-to-day grind, what is a valuable use of time, and what is worth our efforts.
For the atheist, finding meaning in life comes with a great deal of freedom. Although some – both religious and non-religious – may encounter pressure from society-at-large and from specific individuals about what is meaningful or which goals should be pursued, individuals can ultimately decide for themselves how they can find meaning in life and what they should strive for. Rather than saying meaning is simply what God or a religious tradition declares or desires, the atheist can determine his or her own meaning and live life accordingly.
A common question I get is ‘What if you’re wrong about God? What if you die and go to Heaven to see God only to be denied eternal paradise. What would you say?’ I would respond similarly to the philosopher Bertrand Russell and say, “Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence.” Should I be punished for eternity or denied an eternal paradise simply because I lacked belief in a god, using the brain that I was born with to arrive at a conclusion that I found no good reason to hold religious belief? Could an all-loving being really punish someone for being thoughtful and honest? I just haven’t found good reasons to believe God exists.
With that, I’d like to move on to a new topic that I was asked to address – the question of ‘Does God exist?’ As I mentioned, an atheist is simply one who lacks belief in any gods. I am an atheist because I find no good reason to believe any gods exist. I have not been persuaded by arguments put forth by religious believers. In fact, I find the arguments to be severely lacking – many of them not even pointing to a specific god or leading one to a specific religious tradition. It is a wide gap, for instance, between the assertion that the universe was created by a supernatural being to Jesus died on the cross for our sins; God disapproves of same-sex marriage; and God is both the father, son, and holy spirit who is an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good being who is a disembodied mind outside of space and time who created the universe just for us.
I find that many reasons people give for believing in gods are based on a lack of understanding about the world – that people often, rather than simply saying ‘I do not know,’ jump from ‘this seems complex and I do not understand it’ to ‘God must be responsible’ – what philosopher Dr. David Kyle Johnson calls the ‘mystery therefore magic’ fallacy. Indeed, there are many things about this world we do not fully understand.
Just because we don’t understand something or have an answer to why or how something works does not mean that we should jump to the conclusion that God exists. After all, throughout human history, there were many phenomena we did not understand including earthquakes, diseases, lightning, and mental illnesses. While there are still gaps in our understanding, we now understand much more about the world than we did in past generations – we no longer believe that earthquakes, for instance, are punishments from God. We have understanding about tectonic plates and can predict when earthquakes are likely to occur through using machines and making observations – there is simply no need to invoke god to explain this.
Perhaps in time we will know much more about phenomena which currently puzzle us such as the nature of consciousness, the origin of the universe, and quantum events and later have answers to questions which currently lead some to believe God exists. As human knowledge increases, though, it seems that gods are often only present in the gaps of understanding; over time explanations involving god fall by the wayside. Rather than assuming God is responsible in the gaps of our knowledge, I find the more fitting explanation to be ‘I don’t know.’ Simply because one has no explanation for something does not mean that one is justified in believing God exists.
Concerning the creation or existence of the universe, religious individuals argue that since everything we know exists has a cause, the universe itself must have a cause. This line of argumentation usually appears in cosmological arguments or arguments from contingency. They say that this cause must be an uncaused cause – a personal god outside of time and space lest there be an infinite chain of causation which religious individuals would also argue is impossible. Religious individuals will point to buildings, human inventions, and much more to give examples of that which we know has and needs a cause.
The problem with this reasoning, though, is that while we have experience with buildings having builders and can understand the process by which buildings are built, we don’t have experience with the process of the universe beginning to exist or coming into existence. We can’t justly reason from one area of life in which we have experience and understand to another area of life in which we don’t have experience and don’t understand. Perhaps the principles we apply to our everyday lives here on earth simply don’t apply to the realms of the really, really large – universes and the really, really small – quantum events.
Perhaps the universe itself doesn’t have a cause in the same way we see a building needing a cause or explanation for its existence. Personally, if asked questions about the universe and areas in which I don’t understand, I’ll say ‘I don’t know’ rather than assuming a god caused the universe to exist. Either way, even if the universe has a cause or was created, I don’t find this to point to any specific god or creator.
Some religious believers will pose what they call fine-tuning arguments pointing to certain constants in the universe such as gravity, expansion of the universe, and electromagnetic forces arguing that if certain rates or constants were changed ever so slightly life as we know it would not exist. Such fine-tuning, they say, points to intelligent design and more precisely a creator god. This argument, though, fails to properly account for randomness and understand probability. Sure, one particular assortment of particles in the universe that allows for life to exist is extraordinarily rare considering all possible configurations. However, given enough time and chances of situations which can be life-permitting, life existing somewhere in the universe at some time – given how big the universe is – doesn’t seem so rare at all.
It’s possible too that life can exist in other states than that which we intimately know. Surely our carbon-based life and physical constants here on this side of this galaxy can’t be the only possible life-permitting configuration. How can we possibly definitively say it’s the only possible one? Chance, rather than God, is a better explanation for why the universe is the way it is. Another problem with the fine-tuning argument, too, like cosmological and contingency arguments, is that it doesn’t lead to a specific creator. It’s a big jump from ‘the universe is finely tuned for existence’ to ‘The Christian god is responsible.’
Next, some religious individuals will appeal to religious experiences as a means to justify their religious belief – because some seemingly extraordinary circumstances happened in their lives they believe God exists. For instance, a mother may say that her son was diagnosed with a terminal illness and was given six months to live, but because her son lived past the six months God must have intervened and performed a miracle. Maybe a person attributes divine intervention to her recovery from alcohol or drug abuse. Maybe a person claims to have received a vision in which God appeared and offered some advice.
One problem with such stories about religious experiences is that people around the world of different religious traditions tell similar stories yet come to different conclusions about religious beliefs. The Christian and the Hindu, of course, can’t both be right in that Jesus and Shiva intervened to save them from death, but they could both be wrong. Additionally, religious experiences can very often be better explained by other means which do not include supernatural explanations. Diseases go into remission. Doctors can be mistaken about diagnoses. People recover from drug abuse through a good deal of personal effort, changing behaviors, counseling, and social support. Even if we lack an explanation, as I explained previously, we should not jump to conclusions about God existing and instead should more humbly say ‘I don’t know.’
I find that the most powerful objection to belief in God lies in what is known as the problem of evil or the problem of natural suffering. The evidence of such an egregious amount of suffering in nature is incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good god. This is introduced quite well in dialogue from the movie “The Masque of the Red Death” starring actor Vincent Price who says, “Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, pestilence, war, disease, and death – they rule this world. If a god of love and life ever did exist he is long since dead.” The ancient philosopher Epicurus also said, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from where did evil come? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Should we expect so much suffering which occurs through natural causes if a god or love and life created the universe? Would we expect a predatory food chain in which animals are devoured by other animals as a means of sustenance? Would we expect stillbirths, infants dying shortly after birth due to particular diseases, people being born with chronic illnesses which make life incredibly difficult? Would we expect tsunamis which ravage humans and devastate populations of animals?
In response to the problem of natural suffering, religious individuals have offered several responses which I find incredibly inadequate. Perhaps God didn’t intend suffering, some say, but because of human disobedience or sin the world is of a ‘fallen nature.’ I find it difficult to believe that God would change the laws of physics and the structure of the earth so that natural disasters and diseases would exist – would such a loving being allow or introduce calamity in the world because of human action? Punish future generations of people because of the actions of few? Introduce a predatory food chain in nature because of human behavior?
Perhaps God has some unknown mysterious reasons for allowing such natural suffering? Maybe God has some sort of cosmic plan in which he allows suffering for a higher purpose we just can’t understand? For all we know, the religious can say, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which killed about 100,000 people can seem horrible to us, but it’s actually not so bad because it’s part of God’s plan and since God is good, there must be some really good reason for allowing such devastation but we just don’t understand the mind of God. I would think, though, that an all-powerful and all-knowing God can achieve some significant ends to a cosmic plan without such grievous suffering here on Earth.
If a human had the ability to end gratuitous natural suffering by putting an end to a deadly disease or preventing a natural disaster and could do so with ease yet she opted to just stand by and do nothing, we would rightly be outraged and would not accept a response from the person such as, ‘Well, I could stop this, but I’m not going to’ or ‘There may be good reasons for suffering to continue, but you just can’t understand the reasons I have for letting it continue.’ We would start to question the moral character of this person and rightly come to the conclusion that she was not good-hearted even if we had previous assumptions that she was morally upstanding.
Why, then, if we would consider the person in this scenario to be of problematic moral character would we not think the same about a supposed God? Shouldn’t we, instead of saying God may have a reason for permitting natural suffering, reconsider the all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving nature of God? Shouldn’t we have higher standards for God – expecting more of such a being, expecting not to live in a world with so much natural calamity which could easily be done away with by an all-powerful and all-knowing being?
Some argue that without hardship and challenge humans wouldn’t feel compassion, grow, or live a fulfilled life. Humans, though, can face hardship and challenge without such grievous suffering in life – we don’t need earthquakes, deadly diseases, and the like to be fulfilled individuals. In fact, such natural suffering takes life away from individuals who otherwise could use their time here on earth to help others.
Thanks for your attention. I’d like to move on to the question and answer period.