What Atheists Do Not Believe

In a recent discussion here at SO one commentator posted some claims about what atheists must believe. These claims are commonly made, not just by this particular individual, but by many theists, including some who should know better. I quote some of the claims from those posted comments below, in bold, and reply by stating what atheists need and need not think.

The atheist worldview largely includes beliefs:

– In effects without causes (e.g. a Big Bang with no known or explicable cause).

Since it is a tautology that every effect has a cause, no atheist denies that every effect has a cause. What atheists are likely to deny is that every entity or every event has a cause. Many atheists would accept that there are ultimate brute facts, that is, things or occurrences that are not caused by, dependent upon, a mode or attribute of, supervenient upon, reducible to, or epiphenomena of anything else. A brute fact just inexplicably is. Thus, for an atheist who is also an naturalist, the ultimate facts of nature, whatever they are, are regarded as brute facts. Put simply, for the naturalist, the universe is a brute fact. For the theist God is a brute fact. The theist does not think that God is caused by, dependent upon, a mode or attribute of, supervenient upon, reducible to, or an epiphenomenon of anything else. God just inexplicably is. So, the naturalist is not making any sort of claim about brute facts that the theist is not also making. Indeed, unless causal chains stretch back ad infinitum, any causal account, naturalist or theist, will have to stop with some reality that is not explained but taken as a brute reality. So, a theist who criticizes atheists for appealing to brute facts is either being disingenuous or fails to realize that by positing God as the final reality he is doing the same thing.

– That the precise settings of all the universal constants (e.g. speed of light, force of gravity), without which this universe would not exist, were “dialed in” by accident (and invented multiverse theory as a pathetic attempt to try to explain all this).

Actually, as opposed to the theist, the atheist, qua atheist, does not claim to know how the values of the fundamental constants were determined. The atheist sees that as a job for the physicist. The atheist will not endorse an account that those values were “dialed in” by accident unless that is the account given by physicists, and, in that case, the theist’s argument is with the physicist, not with the atheist. As for multiverse theories being “pathetic” and “invented,” perhaps theists should contact Max Tegmark and other highly reputable cosmologists that support versions of the theory and inform them that they are wasting their time on an “invented” theory (supposedly “invented” in some sense other than the way that all theories are invented).

Perhaps the reply would be that any physical ultimate would be only one of indefinitely many conceivable alternatives, the vast majority of which would not be “life friendly.” Therefore, any physical theory that would explain the fine tuning of the fundamental constants would simply raise the problem again, requiring an explanation of how the fundamental terms of that theory were finely-tuned. But if this is a problem for any theory postulating a physical ultimate, it is equally a problem for any theory (like theism) that postulates a non-physical ultimate. Unless the ultimate entity you posit is logically necessary (and lots of luck with arguing that), it will be logically contingent. However, anything logically contingent, and postulated as an ultimate reality, will, necessarily, be only one of an indefinitely numerous of conceivable alternative ultimates.

In particular, if our ultimate posit is a supernatural entity (e.g. God), then that posit will only be one of an indefinitely numerous set of other possible ultimate supernatural entities. Of that set of putative supernatural ultimates, only a tiny minority will have the power and the desire to create a finely-tuned universe fit for organic life. Therefore, any theist that raises the problem of a finely-tuned universe needs to confront the problem of a finely-tuned God. How, of all the conceivable ultimate supernatural entities we “could” have had, were we so impossibly lucky as to get one that wanted beings like us and had the power to create the necessary conditions.

The upshot is that the “fine tuning” problem is necessarily insoluble by anyone. ANY ultimate posit (God, the universe, or whatever), if logically contingent, necessarily has indefinitely many equally logically possible alternatives that “could” have existed instead.

– That the first life sprung from non-living material (something never observed in nature or duplicated in a lab).

When was creation by God ever observed in nature or duplicated in the lab? Theists also believe that life sprang from non-life. But wait. Isn’t God alive? Even if God is “alive” in some obscure sense, God’s life is not biological life. Therefore, theists are just as committed as naturalists to saying that biological life arose from something non-biological. How did it happen? Here is the theist’s “account:” God said “Let there be life!” (pause for drum roll) POOF! There was life! Such an “account” is operationally equivalent to admitting ignorance. So, the real opposition here is between looking for a scientific account and settling for disguised ignorance.

– That the first living thing accidentally mutated multiple complex systems (e.g. nutritional identification acquisition and digestion; reproduction) pretty darn quick, like before it died.

Wow. Straw man, anyone? It would really help to be familiar with at least some of the literature before making wild and irresponsible claims about what origin of life researchers say. An intelligent critique of origin of life research would at least be familiar with works such as:

The Spark of Life, by Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada

The Emergence of Life on Earth by Iris Fry

Origins of Existence by Fred Adams

The Origins of Life by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary

Genesis by Robert M. Hazen


The Vital Question by Nick Lane

A critique can only be effective if addressed towards what is actually said, not the critic’s fantasy of what is said.

– That you and something like a bacteria are distant cousins.

The news is not that you and something like bacteria are cousins. The news is that you are descended from something like bacteria. This is not atheist dogma, but scientific fact. Deal with it.

– That existence is an accident, largely meaningless and certainly with no eternal significance.

Is existence an accident? What is meant by “existence,” and what is meant by “accident?” If human existence is what is meant, and “accident” means “pure chance” (whatever that means), then, no, existence is not an accident. Evolution holds that the human species is a product of natural selection just like any other species. The “chance” aspect of natural selection comes down to the presence of phenotypic variants that are fitter in a given environment. If, for instance, the environment is drying (as in the Sahel region south of the Sahara), there is no known mechanism that would call forth precisely the right adaptation for a given organism to survive in those desiccating conditions. Therefore, it is said that variation is “random” with respect to a given environment. However, that does not mean that the process does not occur in the context of lawful physical processes. Further, the selection process itself is not random, but is caused by the selective advantage conferred by phenotypic features in a specific environment.

Probably what is really meant by saying that life is an “accident” is that, according to atheists, it was the product of impersonal natural forces and not planned, e.g. by God. Absolutely, atheists say that. However, it is a massive and egregious non-sequitur to hold that this makes life meaningless (see below). It is question-begging to imply that a life with no “eternal significance” cannot be meaningful. BTW, I guess a soul being tormented in hell can derive comfort from contemplating that its life had “eternal significance.”

– That there is nothing good or bad about life (or of death), for good and bad are meaningless terms in cosmological/biological evolution.

– That likewise, there is no good or bad in the behaviors of life forms.

– That the atheist has no reason for defending life, even *his* life, other than to say he’d *like* to keep it. Just as he might *like* chocolate. Or *like* a certain car or home decorating style. Just varying degrees (and price tags) of matters of taste. [Atheists however have been known to disagree with this accurate description.]

There are so many questions begged here it is hard to know where to begin. Maybe I should just counter by noting that nothing, nothing at all commits an atheist to the claim that life is meaningless or that there is no moral good or bad. It would have helped if the above assertions rested on anything resembling argument, but since they do not, I will just have to make counter-assertions.

Unless “meaning” is defined in an entirely question-begging way so that it entails theism, an atheist’s life can be rich with meaning. If “meaning” means things like enjoying deep personal relationships, having intrinsically rewarding work and hobbies, serving good causes bigger than yourself, showing compassion and contributing to the common good, enjoying the beauties of nature and art, and even spiritual experience (The symphonies of Anton Bruckner give me far deeper spiritual experiences than I ever got sitting in a pew.), and so forth, then, the atheist can enjoy such things as much as anybody. No, the atheist does not believe in eternal life, but he or she regards as childish the idea that to be meaningful life must last forever.

As for moral goodness and badness, again, anyone that thinks that these cannot be real for atheists must define ethical terms in a question-begging way. Atheists just cannot see how being commanded by an all-powerful being can make anything good or bad. Even if we are told that such a being is essentially good, we don’t see why you can’t have the goodness without the God. Here, once again, it would help if the critic had actually read some of the ethical and meta-ethical proposals of atheists, rather than concocting straw men out of his own malice. A good place to start would be any of the books by Erik Wielenberg, but this suggestion assumes that such critics as I have addressed here are interested in rational debate and not just in issuing sneering put-downs.