Atheism Undermines Itself

The Reconquista Initiative

 Presents…

Atheism Undermines Itself

Most people hold that atheism—defined here as the positive belief that no God or gods exist—is a stable and rational point-of-view. Indeed, most people, even theists, believe that atheism, while perhaps wrong, is nevertheless a position which does not undermine itself. However, in reality, this belief is, at best, questionable, for the fact is that a good case can be made that atheism is actually a self-undermining position. Now what do I mean by the idea that atheism is self-undermining? I mean that the moment that a person believes atheism to be true, that same person, without considering any other evidences or arguments and only based on certain ideas inherent within atheism, immediately has good reasons to be sufficiently uncertain about the truth of atheism that the person, to remain rational and intellectually consistent, should then reject atheism and move back to a position of agnosticism concerning the existence or non-existence of a deity. That is how atheism is self-undermining. But with this stated, we must now ask: how could this be so? How could atheism internally undermine itself, especially since atheism seems to be nothing more than the belief that no deity exists.

Well, to understand this problem, consider the fact that the atheist, by denying the existence of a god, must unavoidably contend that the universe—meaning all of physical reality—came to be in only one of a number of possible ways that is consistent with atheism. First, the universe could be self-caused. Second, it could be eternal and uncaused. And third, the universe could have come uncaused from absolute nothingness. And indeed, if we consider the matter, these are the only logical options—with some sub-variations among them—that the atheist has to choose from to answer the question of how the universe came to be. But the problem for the atheist is that every one of these options undermines atheism itself, thereby making atheism self-undermining.

First, consider self-causation. Now self-causation is contradictory and absurd, given that a thing must exist before it could cause itself, and so if the atheist needs to embrace a contradictory and absurd principle as a means of maintaining his atheism, then this is already a sign that his atheism is in serious trouble. But the problem for atheism is actually worse than this, for the main self-undermining issue is that if the atheist holds to the idea that something could cause itself, and if the atheist literally believes that the universe was self-caused, then how and why could the atheist restrict self-causation to only the universe. Indeed, doing so would be rather ad hoc and inconsistent given that there seems to be nothing about self-causation that would restrict it to just the creation of universes. But then the question arises: if the universe can cause itself, then why can’t a god do so? Indeed, if the atheist believes that the universe was self-caused, thus embracing the idea of self-causation, then what are his grounds for denying the possible self-causation of a god. In fact, perhaps a god self-caused himself to exist right now. And if a universe was able to self-cause itself to exist in the past, then how many self-caused gods could have come to be over the course of the past million years, let alone thirteen billion years. In fact, intuitively, a case could be made that an omnipotent being had a much better claim to self-causation than mere physical matter would, and so the self-causation of a god is even more probable than that of a universe. But regardless, the point is that if the atheist holds to the idea that things could cause themselves, then unless he provides a convincing reason for why such self-causation would be restricted only to a physical universe, then the atheist would be hard pressed to deny that a god—even if the god was a material being—could not cause himself to exist either. Indeed, it would be ad hoc and inconsistent for the atheist to embrace self-causation in the one case but not the other. And since there is no clearly sound reason to embrace self-causation only for the universe, then the atheist has no grounds to deny it in the case of god either. So, on the atheist’s ‘self-causation’ embracing worldview, one, or ten, or millions of gods could have self-caused themselves to exist and the atheist has no way of denying this live possibility given his worldview; thus, the atheist’s embrace of self-causation as an explanation for the existence of the universe is the very thing that then turns around and undermines the very atheism that caused the atheist to embrace self-causation in the first place.

Second, consider the idea that the universe came uncaused from absolute nothingness. Well, again, even ignoring the fact that the idea that something could come uncaused from absolute nothing is absurd and unevidenced, and thus ignoring the fact that any atheist who embraces this idea embraces absurdity, it is nevertheless the case that if such a position is embraced, then the same problem that was spoken of earlier still arises: namely, if the universe can come uncaused from nothing, then there is nothing stopping a god from appearing uncaused out of nothingness. Indeed, given that absolute nothingness is non-discriminatory, there is not a single thing restricting what could come uncaused from absolute nothingness, and so if a universe could do so, then a god could do so as well. In fact, a billion gods could pop into existence uncaused, not just one. So again, the problem for the atheist is that by embracing the idea that things could come uncaused from nothingness—and some atheists do embrace this idea—the atheist removes any non-ad-hoc grounds that he has for claiming that gods could not arise from nothingness. In fact, maybe a god popped into existence uncaused from nothing right now. And so again, the atheist’s embrace of the idea of coming into being uncaused out of nothingness as an explanation for the existence of the universe is the very thing that then turns around and undermines the very atheism that caused the atheist to embrace that principle in the first place.

Finally, consider the third option, which is that the universe is eternal and uncaused, and which is, in light of the absurdity of the other two options, really the most intellectually viable option that the atheist has. Now it is true that a solid amount of evidence—both empirical and philosophical—shows that the universe is most likely not eternal, but again, let us leave this point aside. The more interesting point is that if the atheist believes that the universe is eternal, then, once again, he has good reasons to actually be agnostic about the existence of a god, not atheistic about it. Why? Well, in an eternal universe, meaning a universe that has always existed and will always exist, one could easily see a non-divine natural being gaining sufficient power and ability that the being could and should come to be considered a god. Indeed, in an eternal universe, it would not only be possible, but arguably likely, that some finite being gains in sufficient power and ability that that being is eventually able to create his own universes and his own creatures, thus fitting the description of a pagan-like god. In fact, with the recent advent of a number of non-theist scientists and other thinkers stating that our own universe may simply be a simulated creation of far more powerful beings, it is not hard to envisage the case that a natural being, in an eternal universe, in which an infinite amount of time already passed, could become a Zeus-like deity. And since a lower-case god could easily be a god who is material, and/or caused, and/or previously not a god, then, once again, these points support the idea that a being in an eternal universe could eventually become a god. And in an eternal universe, some being would very likely become such a god. In fact, if it is possible that a natural being could become a lower-case god, which it is, then in a universe where an infinite amount of time has already elapsed, then this possibility not only could happen, but also certainly already has happened, for it has had an infinite amount of time in which to happen. And so, once again, believing in an eternal universe as a means to make atheism reasonable is actually the very thing that makes atheistic belief unreasonable to hold. And thus, even in this case, atheism undermines itself.

Note as well that atheistic appeals to the multiverse, which has often been posited as a means of avoiding the design implications of the fine-tuning of the universe, also support the claim that atheism is self-undermining. After all, in the type of multiverse required to overcome the design implications of fine-tuning, meaning a multiverse with an untold or possibly infinite number of universes, then, once again, it would be easy to picture, as a very real possibility, that some kind of entity would eventually come into being who would have sufficient power and knowledge to be rightly considered a lower-case god. And so even the multiverse, often seen as the last bastion of atheism, is no bastion at all, for the multiverse idea also undermines atheism the moment that it is believed to be true.

Now please note that this argument is not necessarily an argument for the existence of a deity, although it could be made into one. Rather, at this point, this argument is simply meant to show that the moment a person comes to believe in atheism, then the additional beliefs about how the universe came to be which necessarily flow from that atheism, and from which the atheist cannot escape, create a situation where the atheist’s own ideas about the universe and its genesis give him no way to rationally deny the very real and live possibility that a god, or a million gods, could exist. So the atheist’s own ideas and principles, which necessarily stem from his atheism, give him a reason to deny his atheism, and what this means is that the atheist, being in such a situation, and if he wishes to remain rational and intellectually consistent, should drop his atheism and shift to a stance of agnosticism about the god question.

Additionally, note that while the atheist can avoid committing to either one of these choices about the genesis of the universe, his lack of committal does nothing to negate the fact that those three choices are ultimately the only ones that he has, and since all the choices undermine the atheist’s atheism, then the atheist’s lack of committal about which choice to accept does not remove the problem for atheism that this argument represents. Indeed, whatever way the atheist turns, he has a serious problem.

Now the atheist might indeed object to this argument. He might, for example, claim that the universe is eternal but exists in a cyclical pattern of expansion and collapse. But this would do little to negate the fact that a being could still become a god in such a situation, even possibly with sufficient power to stop the cyclical pattern of the universe, or with the power to create his own universe, or with the power to survive through the expansion and collapse of the universe. Or maybe the atheist could contend that the universe was eternal but caused; this option, however, would do nothing to help the atheist’s situation, for a caused universe would itself be a pointer to a god and so such an idea would also serve to undermine the atheist’s own atheism. But maybe the atheist could argue that no being who was not a god could become one or be worthy of the ‘god’ label; but again, such an objection appears weak, for a being who could create life, create a universe, have full power over what occurs in that universe, and so on, would surely be worthy of the label ‘god’ even if the being had previously been a non-deity or was material in nature. But maybe the atheist could argue that he has good arguments for why atheism is true, and no arguments for why theism might be true. Yet the problem is that all the arguments for atheism are actually arguments against certain types of theism, not specifically arguments for atheism; indeed, consider, as an example, that the most popular arguments for atheism, such as the so-called Problem of Evil, have no force against a deity who is not benevolent or omnipotent, but neither benevolence nor omnipotence are requirements for lower-case god-hood, and so arguments such as these are impotent against many forms of theism. And the same is true for all other atheistic arguments; they are arguments against certain types of theism, but not directly for atheism itself. But perhaps the atheist will claim that he sees no good reasons for the existence of any gods, and thus he has no reason to renege on his atheism. Yet it is the atheist’s own atheism which, when coupled with what the atheist must believe about the universe, actually serves as the very reason which should make the atheist doubt his own atheism. After all, if the atheist really believe that things can cause themselves or come from nothing, or that an eternal universe exists, then these ideas, in and of themselves, are a reason to doubt that no god exists, for a god could cause himself to exist or pop into existence just as much as a universe could, and a god could certainly come to be in an eternal universe, only to create his own universe and his own creatures in that universe. And so, if the atheist embraces these ideas, it is impossible for the atheist to claim that he knows or is rational to believe that a god does not exist, for the very ideas themselves, by the sheer fact that they make the existence of a god a very live possibility at any moment, remove the atheist’s ability to genuinely and consistently claim that he knows or is rational to believe that no god exists, for how could the atheist truly know or rationally believe that no god exists when, given the atheist’s own accepted ideas, one god or a dozen gods could have come into being right now, or ten seconds ago, or at any moment in the past or future. Indeed, in such a situation, it would simply be irrational for the atheist to claim that he knows that no god exists, for any justification or warrant that the atheist would have for such a knowledge claim would be undermined by the very ideas that the atheist must unavoidably embrace concerning the genesis of the universe. And so, as stated, atheism undermines itself.

Finally, if the atheist seeks to justify his lack of belief in God by appealing to the principle that ‘an absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence if certain evidence that would be expected is not present and a comprehensive search for that evidence has been done’, then please note that the atheist cannot, in fact, legitimately appeal to this principle. Why? Because, once again, if the atheist truly believes that something can come from nothing, or that something can cause itself, or that the universe is eternal, then it is impossible that the atheist could ever conduct an adequately comprehensive search to allow this principle to come into effect. After all, if the atheist tried to figuratively “search” an area for a god, the search could never be comprehensive or complete, for the moment that the atheist stopped searching one area, a god may have popped into existence in that area or caused himself to exist there the moment that the atheist stopping looking; furthermore, if the atheist holds that things can come into existence uncaused or can cause themselves to exist, then the moment the atheist stopped his search, thinking it complete, the atheist would have no way of denying that a god could come into existence uncaused from nothing or be self-caused right in the very moment that the atheist stopped his search. And so there are indeed numerous reasons why the atheist’s search could never be sufficiently comprehensive given the principles that he appeals to. But the atheist also has the problem that there would not necessarily be any evidence that the atheist would expect to find even if he conducted his search, for there is no indication that the gods that would come into existence would necessarily leave any evidence for the atheist to find. Indeed, for consider that, right now, a god may have popped into being uncaused from absolute nothingness, but there is nothing that says that such a god would be interested in giving us evidence of his existence, nor that there would be any such evidence to find. Thus, even if the atheist could conduct a figurative search for the evidence for a god, there is not necessarily any evidence that the atheist would expect to find. And so, for all these reasons, the atheist cannot appeal to the ‘absence of evidence is sometimes evidence of absence’ principle as a means to justify his atheism.

And so the long and short of it is this:  atheism is self-undermining, because the moment that a person accepts atheism, that person is simultaneously given internal and unavoidable reasons to be skeptical about it. Furthermore, the atheist has no means to avoid the self-undermining nature of his atheism. And while the self-undermining nature of atheism is itself not a positive argument for theism, it does mean that if the atheist wants to be rational and intellectually consistent, then, arguably, he should not be an atheist at all.

Anno Domini 2016 11 15

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

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10 thoughts on “Atheism Undermines Itself

    1. Sam,

      I am not sure what you mean. If you mean ‘Why am I a theist?’, well then, the answer is because I hold theism to be true beyond a reasonable doubt, thus meaning that it is the most, and arguably only, rational worldview to hold. As to why I argue for it: Well, I have an unending interest in philosophy, and I find the topic of God to be the most interesting philosophical question; and so I argue on behalf of God both because I hold theism to be true (in the sense above) and because I have a powerful interest in this subject.

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      1. What I mean is, why do you desire to speak on behalf of a God that is capable of creating the universe? There are an awful lot of theists on WordPress speaking on behalf of God, which only highlights the absence of a God in my opinion. That is one of the reasons atheism is gaining ground. A) A lack of evidence pointing to a deity, B) Because people are having to resort to speaking on behalf of God.

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      2. Good Day Sam,

        Two points:

        1) I disagree that there is a lack of evidence pointing to a deity, both in the conventional sense that most people mean and, since I am a Berkelian immaterialist, in the more direct sense in that ever single thing that you or I sense is proof of a deity.

        2) You argument about people speaking on behalf of God being a reason to doubt his existence seems strange to me. After all, as an analogy, consider that before the age of mass communication, many more people would speak for the President, and you might have never seen the President speak, but that does not mean that the President did not exist. And even today, many more people speak for the President than he does himself, but that does not mean he does not exist. In the same way, many more people speak for God, but God does directly show His involvement in the world from time to time as well. The fact that He does not do so in a way that you view to be more frequent is not a significant reason to doubt His existence.

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      3. See, there is the problem. You are comparing God to a human being. It is as if you are unable to comprehend the incredible power that you (I assume) believe God possesses. I am totally fine with people having to spread other peoples messages as humans are limited in ability. Do you assume God is limited to human abilities or is capable of more? You cannot say God is creator of the universe and when I expect more, reply in a ‘well, he is only human’ fashion. It seems you do not expect much from a deity.

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    2. If you’ve read the Bible, I’m sure that you remember that God is too holy for most people to be near. People were destroyed for entering his presence without being cleansed. Which isn’t t to say that he outright kills them, but rather the nature of his perfect and all powerful holiness is too overwhelming for the imperfection of men. There was already a need for a high priest or a prophet. Except for after Christ when the holy spirit came.

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    1. Good Day Keith,

      Ultimately, the point of the argument is simply to show that atheism is internally unstable and irrational to believe given its own commitments. Whether or not there are implications for theism is a different matter.

      Thank you for the comment!

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      1. The point of my comment was that philosophical arguments based on the notion of origins and contingency are all on shaky ground.
        After all, what lies at the very beginning is a singularity, and a singularity necessarily marks the end of all knowledge.

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  1. Reconquista, as a Christian, even I find that your argument hangs a huge load on a very tiny peg. you started by giving a definition of atheism, and then challenging that definition of atheism. An atheist who has done their homework may have already modified their definition recognizing their own limits of perception. If a god existed could never detect us, nor we detect that god, . . . well, . . . atheists and theists are equally unprepared to talk about that possibility.

    And yet, we all are limited by horizons. There is a point past which we just cannot speak about or reason about. Scientists can only probe the universe with math equations and data from instruments. Theologians can only probe the realms of the gods through religious writings or charismatic prophets. Scientists and theologians both face a horizon that they cannot see past. Scientists cannot see past the big bang (as in “what existed before the Big Bang”) And, even for those who love the Christian scriptures, we should recognize that we know very little about God or the otherworldly realms. We think, as people who worship and study scriptures that we know everything, but, we don’t even have answers for even basic questions. How does God create? “by speaking it into existence” But the trouble is, that is not an answer but just a circular definition of the act of creating. Or we could ask: What is God’s relationship to time? My theology professor pointed out that all revelation of God is indirect. I tried to argue with at the time, which made for an interesting discussion in the class, but, yea, I was wrong. All revelation of God is indirect. (My prof allowed me to claim that a Vulcan mind-meld was a form of direct revelation of the other, but, since we aren’t Vulcan’s, he wasn’t giving up much)

    As theists, we have no way to talk about what happens beyond the horizon. Things like the Kalaam Cosmological argument (and Anselm’s and Aristotle’s) are just not valid anymore because the claims they make are in that inaccessible space beyond our horizon. This isn’t a reason to give up on theism or our faith, but rather to recognize that as Christians, our interface with God is found in singing, worship, prayer, stories from the Bible and fellowship. In worship we are touched by God. That still doesn’t let us peek behind the veil that is this mystery, but we share in the mystery, we sometimes feel the Spirit move but we are unable to show it directly, in the same way that you can’t photograph air.

    This does not leave us hamstrung. We can still talk about our faith by talking about our experience. I think the desire to prove the existence of God and debate atheists at this grand cosmological level is rather a waste of time. Our faith isn’t in the logic, but in the experience.

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