The case for atheism (1)

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By Douglas Anele

Last week I argued that we cannot abandon our world to misanthropes in the guise of religious fundamentalists, despite the real dangers associated with criticism of religious dogmas, because doing so would imperil human civilisation. This time around, in consonance with my conviction that columnists must help spread enlightenment especially about religion among the reading public, I undertake, in the following series of essays, to lay the ground for atheism.

In other words, I will establish that atheism is a rational and humane worldview, contrary to the simplistic claim in Psalm 14:1 that “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” From a rational-scientific point of view, there are sound reasons for abandoning belief in God.

Moreover, it is evident that belief in a deity, particularly the anthropomorphic deities of Abrahamic religions, increases the tendency towards intolerance, violence and destructiveness much more than humanistic atheism allows. This is indicated by the fact that most benign nations in the world today – the Scandinavian countries – are also the most atheistic, whereas the most religious countries, mostly in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, are also the most violently intolerant and inhuman.

A significant number of Nigerians are atheists, agnostics or nominal theists, but are unwilling to declare their stand publicly for fear of losing their jobs, personal relations and social status. In addition, fear of stigmatisation and obloquy from believers compel people to hide their true feelings about religion. Nevertheless, since I believe strongly that honesty is the best policy in religion (as in all other things for that matter), I might as well use this opportunity to affirm my disbelief in the existence of God.

This implies that our discussion is a brief articulation of some of the reasons why I stopped believing in the existence of God. For starters, let us define what the word ‘God’ means in other to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. J. I. Omoregbe, in his informative essay, “What is God: A Critical Inquiry” critically examines various conceptions of the deity in different world religions and philosophical systems.

“The dominant idea distillable from Omoregbe’s paper which we shall adopt in our analysis is that God is a spiritual being who created the universe and everything in it, and deserving of worship by human beings. This is a minimalist definition, for it does not include the contradictory anthropomorphic attributes usually associated with the deity. Yet it captures the kernel of the conceptions of God in all dominant religions of the world.

Since antiquity thoughtful believers have produced arguments to establish the existence of God. Classically, such arguments can be grouped into two main categories, namely, the a priori and the a posteriori. Typically, a priori arguments for the existence of God rely on what Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist, described as “pure armchair ratiocination,” that is, on the manipulation of mere concepts without reference to any data from the real world. On the other hand, a posteriori arguments try to feed in information derived from inspecting the actual world while making a case for God’s existence.

One of the most venerable a posteriori arguments for the existence of God is the cosmological argument. Plato, the respected ancient Greek philosopher, was the first to formulate it explicitly, although Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and other religious apologists over the centuries have reiterated the same theme. All cosmological arguments depend on the attempt to stop an infinite regress, to halt the endless series of an answer to a question which raises a prior question, and so on ad infinitum.

For example, as the argument goes, nothing moves without an antecedent mover, or causes itself in the absence of a prior cause. But the previous mover or cause must also have been moved or caused by something else. In order to halt the endless prior movers or causes, we have to postulate an Unmoved Mover or First Cause called God. This line of reasoning is based on the unwarranted arbitrary assumption that God must be the natural terminator of the infinite regress of motion or causality in the universe.

Assuming that it is logically or psychologically expedient to arbitrarily assign a terminator to an infinite regress, must the terminator be a spiritual being endowed with the contradictory qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, not to talk of other human attributes such as jealousy, hatred, regret, love, compassion etc.? Moreover, why must God be immune from the regress? If everything in the universe must have a cause, why is God not caused by something else?

In my opinion, the big bang singularity posited by cosmologists such as Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking provides a more intellectually parsimonious and scientifically plausible end-point to the infinite series for which creationists invoke God. And supposing that the causal chain in the universe forms a loop instead of a straight line, a phenomenon known to scientists and engineers, the question of terminating an infinite regress would not arise at all.

A well-known a priori argument for God’s existence is the ontological argument proposed in 1078 by St. Anselm of Canterbury, which has been reformulated by different theologians ever since. According to Anselm, it is possible to conceive of a being greater than which nothing can be thought (what would such a being be like?), an infinitely perfect being.

But a being which exists only in the mind but not in the actual world is not infinitely perfect. Since a being that exists both in the imagination and in the real world is more perfect than the one that exists only in the mind, it follows that God exists. The most telling refutations of the ontological argument are usually attributed to the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

The major flaw in the ontological argument, aside from the intractable difficulties surrounding the concept of “a being greater than which nothing can be conceived,” is the tacit assumption that it is valid to reach a definitive conclusion about the existence of some entity by the mere fact that the entity in question can be conceived. Obviously I can conceive that I have one billion naira in a certain bank; but it does not follow that there is such an amount belonging to me lodged in any bank.

Again, St. Anselm was wrong in thinking that ‘existence’ is a predicate or perfection that can be ascribed to, or removed from, an object. The fact is that a term or expression might connote an entity; whether that entity actually exists or does not exist is a different matter altogether, which can only be settled when relevant investigation has been carried out by competent researchers. If the entity in question really exists then it exists, if it does not exist ascribing existence to it cannot make it pop into existence.  To be continued.

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