I recently watched Ricky Gervais speaking about religion and the video drew my attention to some common pitfalls that atheists seem to fall into when discussing God and religion. I'm writing this as someone who was taught philosophy by atheists, so this is not meant to be a personal attack on all non-believers. My university professors were amazing and truly understood the complexity of theology and theism. However, there seems to be a handful of common attacks on theism that atheists always regurgitate which, to be honest, have no philosophical bite. I'm hoping this post will be useful to both believers and non-believers alike.
Most of my points are applicable to certain questions Gervais addresses. But I wanted to use the video as a starting point to talk about other things. And oh, the italicized bits are NOT quotes by Gervais. They're just example of things people say.
If you want, you can watch the video before we begin.
1- Monopolizing science while also being unscientific
'Science disproves the existence of God.'
'I'll believe in God when science proves it.'
Science does NOT disprove the existence of God. In fact, it's impossible for science to disprove the existence of God.
Science is concerned with understanding the world we live in, empirical data and the laws of physics/ quantum physics.
But God (in the 3 Abrahamic religions at least) is not part of the physical world. God's existence is part of the studies of metaphysics, 'meta' as in beyond physics and the physical world. There is no way you can conduct a scientific experiment that would conclusively disprove God's existence because he is not a physical being. You can't search for God in the way you'd search for the fossils of a dodo bird or look into a telescope to try to see if he's floating somewhere in space. Science can only take you to a certain point but then it requires a leap of faith to believe in God but also a leap of faith to disbelieve.
Yes, you heard me right. You are taking a leap of faith to confidently disbelieve in God's existence.
If this point makes you feel uncomfortable, you'd be better off being an agnostic.
2- Atheism is not a belief
'I don't believe in anything. I'm just an atheist.'
'There shouldn't even be a word for not believing in God.'
This point relates to the previous one. Atheism is not a state of non-belief. It is a belief and an ideology, a specific perception of how the universe works. To confidently assert that there is no God is not a scientifically validated stance, but a theoretical assumption. In similar ways, based on the data available to them, believers choose to believe in God even though there is no empirical/sensory evidence to prove God's existence (e.g you can't see God).
To be an atheist you need to believe God doesn't exist even though you lack the evidence to prove this. How is this different to someone who does believe in a higher power? Believe me, there's not much difference between an atheist and a theist with no religious affiliations.
3- Confusing physics with metaphysics
'Well, who created God then?'
Remember how I said God is not part of the physical world? The above statement does not make much sense for that reason.
It makes sense to ask who created the universe, because the physical world is governed by the laws of cause and effect. Trees don't simply materialize. Your pencil didn't create itself. Your laces don't lace themselves up. This is why people are right to wonder what the ultimate cause of the universe is.
However, God is not physical or part of the physical world. Therefore, he is not governed by the laws of cause and effect. When you ask who created God, you are applying the laws of physics onto the metaphysical world. You can see why this wouldn't work.
Confusing belief in spirituality/ a higher power with religion
'I don't believe in God because religions have done a lot of harm in the world.'
Let me clarify one crucial point: there is a difference between believing in a higher power and following a specific religion. It is common to see atheists attacking certain elements in a religion or multiple religions as a way of strengthening their position as atheists. This is not logical, as it is possible to believe in a god/ higher power without believing, for example, in the Judeo-Christian concept of God.
'If there is a God and he is so good, why is there evil?'
Again this question is implicitly attacking a certain concept of God as being all powerful and all good. But what if someone argued that there are two gods? One good and one bad? Or maybe God is not all powerful? In these cases, the above concern would no longer be relevant.
Now I'm not saying that 'God' is in fact weak or evil. My point here is simply that criticisms of religion and/or religious figures/institutions does not logically negate the existence of 'a god' in whatever shape or form.
Making silly comparisons
'Why would you believe in God and not fairies and Santa?'
The quickest way of highlighting your own ignorance is by comparing mythological figures to centuries and centuries worth of theology, philosophy and civilization. Some of the greatest thinkers believed in God and argued for the existence of a higher power. I'm talking about some seriously smart philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. Making silly, mocking comparisons that are based on minimal knowledge and research will make you look very small and embarrassingly stupid. This can also be applied to believers in this day and age. There will always be those who believe in whatever their parents taught them, people who follow a religion mindlessly. However, never assume this is always the case. There are plenty of smart people who believe in God and even convert to certain religions. Belittling your opponent's intelligence is the surest way of losing the argument. This is one the most important things I learned studying philosophy at uni.
Assuming that theists don't believe in evolution or the Big Bang
'I'm an atheist because I believe in science and evolution.'
Really? So do I. How wonderful and strange.
In fact, as a conservative Muslim woman, I grew up assuming that everyone agreed that there were humans pre-dating Adam and Eve. I mentioned it in school when I was maybe 15 years old and my Islamic studies teacher almost had a heart attack when I said that Adam and Eve weren't the first humans. It turned out that within my own sect in Islam, belief in a certain concept of evolution is common. Then I started studying philosophy in sixth form and I found out that plenty of Christians believed in the Big Bang and evolution. Of course, it is a contested topic. Not everyone will agree with my views on this. But religions are complex and painting everyone with the same brush also highlights the individual's ignorance.
Faith occurs when there are gaps in knowledge
It is true that the desire to know more drives scientists, philosophers; as well as the search for meaning or God. However, this argument overlooks the element of spirituality. For many believers, faith is linked with their spiritual needs. It does not function as some outdated mechanism to understand what science can already tell us.
What spiritual needs?
It's hard to explain this to someone who may not believe in spirituality to begin with. But it is a very real thing to believers. I'd imagine that this spiritual need is one of the reasons that drive individuals to suddenly turn to religion or why some people struggle to find satisfaction or meaning in life. This is not to say that atheists live unfulfilled, meaningless lives. What I mean is that religion isn't simply a tool to understand the world. It satiates a specific need that many people have.
When I was still in sixth form, I used this as a premise to create my own amateur theory for the existence of God. It went something like this:
The universe has developed in a way to meet the physical and emotional needs of humans.
Food and water are available to satiate our physical needs.
We live in communities and families in order to meet our emotional needs for love, intimacy and companionship.
But humans also have spiritual needs. We know this because the majority of people around the world believe in something higher than themselves despite technological and scientific advances.
Seeing as the world has provided us with ways to meet all our other needs, why would there be nothing in existence to satiate our spiritual needs?
God must exist in order to satisfy the spiritual needs naturally built into humans.
The argument is full of hole and assumptions. After all I was just 17 years old then. But it does draw attention to an element of faith that is constantly ignored by atheists.
'People believe because they want answers. Science will eventually discover all the answers.'
Science may very well discover 'the answers' but people will still believe in God because understanding the universe is not the sole purpose/function of religion.
That's it for this post. Hope you all enjoyed it. I'm also thinking of writing a similar post aimed at believers and the common mistakes they make. Let me know if that's something you'd like me to write.