The case for atheism (3)
By Douglas Anele
Given the very real probability that the critical, self-replicating, molecular Rubicon was crossed on the basis of natural mechanisms without any supernatural intervention, no serious scientist should doubt the validity of Doolittle’s argument that life on earth (at all levels in its evolution) developed in stages, each stage built on the stabilising, catalytic and replicative power of the stage before it.
Creationist critics of evolution eagerly point to gaps in current knowledge about natural selection, especially gaps in the fossil record, as evidence of God’s intervention in the biological scheme of things. But then, it is wrongheaded to expect hundred percent preservation of the fossil record, just as it is to demand, before convicting a murder suspect, a complete cinematic record of the murderer’s every step leading up to the crime, with no missing frame.
Indeed, if there are gaps in tracing the history of various human groups, a phenomenon that began less than one hundred thousand years ago, why would any reasonable person be unduly perturbed because there are some hiatuses in the evolutionary trajectory of life, a process that is over three billion years old? That said, most living organisms do not fossilise; moreover, natural geological and geographical occurrences such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, agents of denudation, the perishable nature of organisms themselves and so on limit the number of fossils that are formed.
Hence, although we could easily have had no fossils, evidence from molecular genetics and geographical distribution of species still favours evolution and, therefore, makes the idea of a perfect omnipotent creator superfluous. There is an interesting argument which has driven many people to accept that there is God – the argument from personal religious experience.
Usually, such people claim, and are convinced, that they have experienced God – or an angel, or Jesus Christ or Virgin Mary – directly through vision or revelation. Such hallucinatory or imaginary experiences are unconvincing, especially to anyone knowledgeable in neuropsychology, someone well-informed about the human brain and its amazing capacity for simulating and modelling reality.
Many people have “experienced” pink elephants; a hard slap on the face can make the victim “see” stars. Optical illusions, dreams, vivid imagination and hallucinatory experiences are some of the ways by which our brains simulate reality. Yet, it would be wrong to ascribe objective reality to the contents of such subjective experiences.
And, as Omoregbe correctly observed in his book A Philosophical Look at Religion, no experience is intrinsically a religious experience, an experience of God per se. Interpretation of a subjective experience depends on a number of factors – one’s prior beliefs, assumptions, temperament, cultural background, and so on.
Thus, when someone says he has a personal encounter with God, the person is merely reporting his subjective experience, and should not expect to be taken seriously by those like myself who are familiar with the brain and its stupendous powers of simulation. The argument that the scripture, as the revealed “word of God which contain immutable truths,” must lead to unquestioning belief in the existence of God is seriously mistaken.
It is pertinent to ask questions such as “Who wrote the Holy Books and when?” “How did the writers select what to include and what to exclude?” “Are the meanings contemporary believers ascribe to expressions in both scriptures precisely the same as the ones intended by the authors?” “Were they unbiased observers, or did they have a religious agenda that coloured their writings.”
“Are the claims made in the scriptures in agreement with the latest established scientific knowledge?” If religionists can address their minds to these questions vis-à-vis the scriptures of their faiths, they would realise immediately the error in thinking that, because a particular piece of writing authoritatively claims to be divinely inspired, therefore all the propositions it contains must be true.
Because scriptures of the dominant world religions necessarily reflect the antiquated worldviews, knowledge situation, cultures (including the socio-political and economic conditions) of the communities where they originated, together with the idiosyncrasies and fallibility of their authors, many of the distinctive claims dressed as divine truths are garbled, logically incoherent, or false.
Those looking for an acceptable proof of God’s existence had better look elsewhere: the scriptures contain too many mythologies to be considered a reliable evidence for believing in the existence of God. It has been argued that since eminent scientists and intellectuals such as Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant, etc. believed in God, the rest of humanity should follow their example.
My answer to this theological variant of argumentum ad hominem (fallacy of appeal to wrong authority) is that in more advanced countries of the world, such as Britain and America, there is documentary evidence (e.g. the respected scientific journal Nature, 1998, Mensa Magazine, 2002) that an overwhelming majority of scientists and academicians are atheists. In Nigeria, family background, socio-cultural and economic factors compel our scientists and intellectuals to stick to religion.
Again, as I pointed out at the beginning, fear of losing their jobs and social status, stigmatisation and obloquy make a good number of well-educated Nigerians hypocritical about their genuine feelings towards religion (something my colleague, Prof. Jim Unah, cynically called “responsible hypocrisy”).
In any case, the mere fact that prominent scientists or intellectuals believe a proposition does not entail the truth of that very proposition. Experts in the relevant fields have identified and studied the psychological, cultural, ideological, and logical-epistemological reasons why people entertain certain beliefs.
Human beings are fallible, irrespective of their intellectual prowess and accomplishments. Therefore, it is epistemologically and logically naïve to accept that God exists simply because Isaac Newton, Chike Obi or Ayodele Awojobi did. Like every theory that makes an empirical claim about the world, we must subject the God hypothesis to the standard criteria for evaluating such claims, irrespective of who believes, or does not believe, in its truth.