If you take a look at the history of ideas from the Enlightenment onward, an unmistakable trend is the steady abandonment of superstition. Weather patterns aren’t caused by raucous spirits. Diseases aren’t the work of angry spouses and their witch doctor friends. We break it to children in sympathetic voices that Santa Claus doesn’t wiggle down chimneys and the Tooth Fairy doesn’t break into bedrooms at night. Few of us care if a black cat meanders across the sidewalk in front of us or if the big exam falls on Friday the 13th. On the whole, then, we’re a reasonable bunch. So why do so many of us persist in believing in what the biologist, Richard Dawkins, has called “an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, [and] can give you advice?”
It’s that sort of god I’m talking about. The personal one, the big guy who hangs out in heaven, watches everything you do, and adds spice to your life when you need it. This is the god the muscled man at the gym was talking about last week when I overheard him explaining to a woman about how his life had been so terrible lately. The thing was, he said, he knew he was going to get through it because “the good Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” So not only do Americans believe in this all powerful imaginary friend, but they’re also convinced he’s the one making their spouses leave, their backs give out, and their children use drugs. That god, the omniscient player of the Sims, is the concept I have so much trouble believing.
It’s important, before going too much further, to lay out rather exactly the point I’m trying to make. Namely, I want to claim that I don’t believe in God, and neither should you. This is quite different from asserting the non-existence of God. To say “there is no God” is a fool’s utterance. How would we know? If God can do everything people say he can, I bet he’d be pretty good at hiding, too. We can’t look everywhere for him and there’s a good chance we wouldn’t even know if we’d found him. In this sense, God is like a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts but I can’t say with total certainty that they don’t exist.
The reason I don’t believe in God is because I’ve never found a convincing reason to do so. Every argument made to me has fallen prey to counter examples, alternate constructions, and problems of logic. What I’m going to do in this essay is run through one of the more frequent positive arguments for God I’ve heard and show why it shouldn’t convince anybody that he’s up there watching over us.
That most common of arguments goes like this: “I don’t need evidence for the existence of God. I have faith.” That’s a terrible reason for believing anything and I’m going to explain why, but let me first take a couple of steps back and introduce the topic of Phenomenal Conservatism. See, for philosophers, knowledge is a sticky concept. If you don’t believe me, grab an introduction to epistemology textbook and prepare the have your simplest assumptions thoroughly rocked. The issue Phenomenal Conservatism want to solve is the problem of justified belief. When are we justified in believing something? Justified means roughly that it is acceptable to believe it. So if I’m standing in front of a table with a cougar sitting in the middle of it and I turn to you and say, “I believe there’s a bullfrog on that table,” you could rightly question my justification for that belief. The trouble is most knowledge stems from our senses and those can be deceived. The most recognizable form of this argument is the brain in a vat thought experiment, which was the basis of the central conceit of the Matrix movies.
Phenomenal Conservatism jumps into this fray by providing the following basis for justification.
- If it seems to me that P
- and there are no defeaters for P
- then I am justified in believing P
What I want to argue is that the faith argument is a specific form of Phenomenal Conservatism and, therefore, collapses when facing the arguments traditionally used against its parent.
So what’s wrong with Phenomenal Conservatism? Well, think about it for a moment. If you follow through on the logic, you’ll see that it can be used to justify belief in pretty much anything. For sample, let’s say I believe in unicorns. Am I justified in do so? It does seem to me that unicorns exist. And there clearly aren’t any defeaters for this position. After all, nobody has conclusively disproved the wonderful tales of brilliant and beautiful horses frolicking in the woods, somehow managing not to get the the narwhal tusks sticking out of their heads caught on every low branch.
And there lies the problem. Phenomenal Conservatism, as a criteria for justification, is way too powerful. It’s the reverse scorched earth approach to epistemology. Don’t want to risk throwing out beliefs that are justified? Then just go out and justify everything. This sort of thinking isn’t only sloppy–it can be quite dangerous.
For example, consider the following situation proposed by the philosopher, Michael Tooley. Let’s say I believe there is a supreme being who has the power to put me up in a nice loft in downtown Paradise after I die. He’ll give me wine and women and all the sitcoms on TV won’t have laugh tracks. Sounds like a good deal, right? There’s a catch, of course. You see, to land this righteous, posthumous pad, I have to go out and kill people who don’t believe in my omnipotent patron. If I don’t slaughter at least twenty heathens by the time I kick the bucket, I’m going to some place far worse than Paradise.
It certainly could seem to someone that the above is the case. And there aren’t any defeaters. How could there be? This makes the above belief justified according to Phenomenal Conservatism. But we don’t want that. We’ve had enough people killed by lunatics who hold fast to similar beliefs to make it more than worth our time to show how they are in fact not justified in flying planes into buildings and chopping the heads off of Wall Street Journal reporters.
So Phenomenal Conservatism isn’t good enough. It’s too easy to justify even the most erroneous and idiotic beliefs. Now think about the argument from faith for a moment. Isn’t it more or less the same thing? I have faith in God which means it seems to me that God exists. Furthermore, nobody has disproved the existence of God. Therefore I’m justified in believing in God. End of debate. Let’s all send our money to the 700 Club.
Wanting to believe something isn’t a good enough reason for actually believing it. I want to believe I will win the Powerball lottery next week without even having to buy a ticket. Maybe such a belief is fine because it’s rather innocuous. The trouble starts when I act upon that belief. I throw away all my existing furniture because, you know, I’ll have way better stuff next week. Who needs a Sears bought sofa when you’ll be able to afford the entire Ethan Allen store in seven days?
Or maybe I believe that good Christians can cure their cancer through prayer. I tell all the men in my congregation who are being slowly killed by tumors in their prostates to stop writing checks to doctors and, instead, write them to the 700 Club. And all you women with breast cancer? You ought to do the same. After all, Jesus healed those lepers. And, dammit, I’ve got faith he’ll do the same for you.
Belief in God is a big deal. It makes people radically change the way they live. It informs their sense of morality, for better or, just as often, for worse. And when faith in involved, there isn’t any way to question the justification for hatred of gays, the slaughter of non-Muslims, or terrible gospel rock.
I don’t believe in God because I don’t have a reason to. I understand how life can evolve without divine guidance. I don’t feel a need to hold fast to the idea that my consciousness will continue after I die. I have a firm grasp of the secular grounding of morals. I don’t need Dawkins’ imaginary friend.
In short, I don’t believe in the supernatural because it all strikes me as more than a little made up. Without hard evidence to the contrary, I don’t see how any reasonable person can think that this last weekend celebrated the birth of a guy who literally raised the dead, turned water to wine, magically healed the sick, and, if he’d had half a mind to, probably could’ve shriveled penises with the best of those crazy African witch doctors we’re always reading about in the international editions.
I mean, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.