Mar 31, 2011

Why Atheists are believers too

In his book A short history of nearly everything Bill Bryson writes ‘It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.

Bryson, like a lot of atheists I’ve met, accepts that the universe had a beginning but can’t accept that God was the cause.

Yet we must all answer the question first asked by Leibniz ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ or to put it in more scientific language ‘why is the universe here?’. There are only three options open to us;

1) The universe has always existed

2) Someone or something caused the universe – that which some people call ‘god’

3) The universe came to be literally from nothing (without a cause)

Now what I find striking and very revealing is that most atheists opt, like Bryson, for option 3.

It’s striking because in doing so it’s hard not to accuse them of thinking irrationally. After all there is nothing in science and nothing in our known experience to suggest that something comes from nothing. It’s striking because atheists enjoy nothing more than mocking Christians for believing in something without evidence or proof, namely god and yet do exactly the same when it comes to the origins of the universe.

After all what could be more improbable than believing that the universe simply came out of nowhere. Is it not in fact the most counter-intuitive and illogical option of the three available to us. It is to go against everything that we know and everything that science teaches. When something happens we ALWAYS look for a cause. We seek a reasonable explanation. We ask where does it come from. We never shrug our shoulders and say things just happen. If we did we’d give up scientific endeavour.

Atheism’s article of faith

Belief in the god of the Bible is dismissed as being as fanciful as belief in pink unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster. But Atheists don’t enjoy being reminded that their whole worldview rests on believing an extremely unlikely idea – a self-creating universe – and believing it as an article of faith.

It’s why I not only ask atheists ‘why does this universe exist?’ but most importantly ‘what reason do you have for holding the answer that you do?’

So when an atheist such as Quentin Smith concludes ‘the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing’ he is not speaking from reason but against reason for there is no reason at all to believe that things come into being from absolutely nothing. An atheist who believes in an uncaused universe is not being reasonable at all. In reality they are doing what the theist is accused of doing all the time – playing the faith card! They are saying ‘I believe because I believe and I may not have a reason to believe it but it’s what I want to believe and that is enough for me.’  Maybe they think that one day we will find reason to believe it but we all know that at present there is none and by any other name that is religion. Belief not based on what you know to be true but what you want to be true.

What is the conclusion?

Atheists are as much people of faith, belief, maybe even superstition, as the rest of humanity. We believe things because we choose to believe them and we believe things not because they are scientifically based, logical or likely but we believe because the one thing we know is that we don’t want to believe the alternative.

We are all of us believers and believers in something that we cannot prove. Welcome to the club my atheist friend.


  • Just to clear the air here, science does not purport that the universe came from nothing. In fact, science doesn’t believe anything came from nothing. That would violate fundamental laws of nature. Get your facts straight.

    • It seems to me that there are a range of views in the scientific community. So I’m not sure anyone can claim to speak for ‘science’. But there are certainly some scientists who make an argument for something from nothing and there are certainly philosophers and thinkers who do to. So I name one in the article.

      from the scientific community there certainly seem to be some who are comfortable using the language of ‘something from nothing’ so for example Paul Davies writes ‘”Even if we don’t have a precise idea of exactly what took place at the beginning, we can at least see that the origin of the universe from nothing need not be unlawful or unnatural or unscientific.” Paul Davies, physicist, Arizona State University.

      And then another atheist writer has said ‘Few people are aware of the fact that many modern physicists claim that things — perhaps even the entire universe — can indeed arise from nothing via natural processes. Creation ex nihilo — Without God (1997), Mark I. Vuletic

      So I think my facts are pretty straight.

  • I’m bothered when Christians (I assume you’re a Christian – I never seem to find myself having these discussions with anyone else…) purport to know what “most Atheists believe”. Atheism is a fairly divergent position. I doubt much research has been done on the beliefs of Atheists. In any case, you fall victim to the same problem you’re highlighting – What created God? And what reason do you have for believing that your god is the actual God. I mean, calling Yaweh ‘God’ is not a cover-all position to hold – if you’re wrong about the accuracy of the bible and I’m wrong about there not being a god at all then you’re as screwed as I am.

    Anyway, I digress. Personally, I suspect the universe probably always existed. Clearly not in its present form, but I’m yet to see compelling evidence for why there couldn’t have been matter before the big bang. But, as a logical being, I’m prepared to be proven wrong. I suspect that many Atheists would agree with me.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful and polite response to my post. I agree that atheism is a divergent position and my comments only address a percentage of them. But the post was a reflection to the many dozens of conversations I’ve had with atheists in recent months.

      I’m not sure my position (nor yours by the way) falls victim of the same problem. For those who postulate an eternal god or an eternal universe there is not the same problem that arises when we maintain something really did come from nothing. The suggestion of something from nothing faces unique challenges. I also completely agree that my argument does not prove the existence of God although I maintain it is more rational than the something from nothing position and should be preferred. I would need to make further arguments to establish the reasonableness of belief in a god.

      But the big point of my post was to address the aggressive new atheism that mocks Christianity for believing in a god without evidence when my post simply points out that the new atheist who believes in a universe from nothing also believes something without evidence and actually something that is contrary to all known experience. My point in this one post is to demonstrate simply that we are all of us believers in something we can’t prove and yet affirm, something on which our worldviews are based. That puts the theist and atheist on equal footing.

    • @Rob
      “What created God?”

      That makes a fundamental category error. While the universe is clearly contingent and temporal, God as is normally posted is neither contingent nor temporal (thus necessary and eternal) and to ask ‘who made’ of an eternal and necessary entity is as meaningless as asking the name of a bachelor’s wife, or who combed the bald man’s hair.

  • The problem is that ‘nothing’ doesn’t actually mean ‘nothing’ – is usually means a quantum fluctuation where there are equal amounts of positive and negative energy (which just happens to equal zero). It’s just pushing the question back a step IMO.

  • Interesting post.

    I think that what you say is true if you have a strong deterministic view of Science.
    One of the challenges of this position for the Christian when speaking to Scientist might be those who say there is a hidden option related to your point 2 a 2b); which would be something like; an understandable phenomena that obeys the laws of physics and can be investigated by theory and experiment caused the observable universe to come into being.

    The question of origins can always be pushed back in time to the something before the something, but science has been fairly successful at peeling back the layers.

    A second point would be that the ‘something from nothing’ problem is not necessarily such a big deal in Physics. This relates to a move away from determinism in scientific thinking in the last century. There are many random physical processes particularly on the quantum scale that are well understood. These follow no rules of predicatbility but nevertheless very accurate theories with real predictive power cvan be obtained by using statistical methods. Radioactivity would be a good example. Given what is known about random quantum fluctuations in a vacuum already, it is not a very big leap of faith for those who are familiar with these things to think that the Big Bang might fall into this category and will therefore be explainable in the same terms when we have more astronomical evidence or when current theories mature. Things really do come from ‘nothing’ but this is allowable and explainable. I am always hesitant about saying I believe in the laws of Physics. In one sense this is true but in another, I don’t really need any faith because I can test any of them out any time I choose by making observations and doing experiments.

    I am not trying to argue God out of the universe – quite the opposite. I think the universe is amazing. I actually think that the fact that the universe is understandable and that we are here to understand it is even more amazing. I do not want to put God in a gap in my knowledge of how the universe is, because given how scientific process moves forward, I am not sure that any particular gap will last forever. I would want to see God in the universe but also beyond the universe – a God who requires faith to believe in, who is transcendent and unexplainable in scientific terms. A God who reveals himself on his own terms.
    I may be pushing this a little far but I kind of think that I don’t really need faith if I can use my eyes to see it.

    Long comment – sorry. Need to do some work now.

  • Hi Dan

    On your first observation I guess we have to say finally, no matter how many layers we go back we believe in an eternal universe without any cause, an eternal God who is the first cause of the universe, or some beginning from nothing.

    On whether science really suggests we get something from nothing I guess it depends what we mean by nothing.

    The philosopher William Lane Craig comments:
    ‘Properly understood, “nothing” does not mean just empty space. Nothing is the absence of anything whatsoever, even space itself. As such, nothingness has literally no properties at all, since there isn’t anything to have any properties!’

    So when we argue that something comes from nothing we either don’t really mean nothing (we mean something that appears to be nothing eg a vacuum, but in reality is full of energy) in which case we are describing an eternal universe or we do mean really nothing in which case we are saying something that is unlike anything else in human experience.

    Craig again comments;
    ‘This is simply the faith of an atheist. In fact, I think this represents a greater leap of faith than belief in the existence of God. For it is, I repeat, literally worse than magic. If this is the alternative to belief in God, then unbelievers can never accuse believers of irrationality, for what could be evidently irrational than this?’

    Thanks again

  • You’re missing another major point. Saying ‘I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’m not going to make an assumption, even if it means I’ll never know the answer’ is perfectly fine. You’re literally expecting a commoner to know the beginning of the universe. If you’re interested in an honest answer, I’d rather look to the scientists, the work of whom has to stand to peer-review with theories that change to the facts.

  • Thanks Nick.

    You make a fair point and I don’t think I’d disagree with you. There are many people would not want to embrace atheism preferring the agnosticism that says ‘I don’t know the answer’. I agree that this is perfectly fine. And I have no issue with agnostics because I think their position is a perfectly reasonable one.

    My post seeks to highlight only the inconsistencies of those who affirm atheism – those who argue that the universe did indeed come from nothing — without offering any evidence, scientific or otherwise, for such a position. They are quick to point out that theism is a ‘faith’ position without being willing to recognise that their own conclusions (an uncaused universe) go way beyond any evidence.

  • I am so thoroughly happy that I have stumbled across this blog, young man. It is a remarkable example of theist irrationality being used in cerebral strands to intellectualise superstition. Remarkable ignorance on your part in several degrees.
    I would love to address how incredibly tainted and incorrect your knowledge of physics is, or your armchair, layman, appreciation of the sungularity event science is, but alas I would not know where to start.
    As it happens I intend to quote directly from your blog in my forthcoming lectures. So I must thank you for the ammunition. Please, please keep writing.

  • James, I hope you will also quote agnostic cosmologist and NASA scientist Robert Jastrow;

    “Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.’

    Do please send me a set of your lecture notes.

  • The business of having a god to create the universe injects a whole new unknown into the equation. What happened before god? Seems rather an unnecessary add-on, especially as nobody has an answer for either.

  • Most of the dissenters appear stubbornly or intellectually incapable of an objective reading of your position. James, “alas, sungularity”? Really? I don’t “know where to start” with sungularity either. Alas, your post reads suspiciously like a ninth grader’s version of a professor in a bad romance story. Johnx, the author of the blog concedes to a position of faith and is simply asking why you cannot do the same. Nothing. Use your big scientific brain to really think about it. NOTHING. Now, SOMETHING from NOTHING. Not the position of every scientist or atheist, but clearly a few. If it’s not your position, fine. Welcome to CREATION.

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