Does believing in god make sense? For atheists like myself, the answer is clearly no: from scientific, logical and even theological perspectives, the arguments in favor of god simply do not stand the test of scrutiny. Belief therefore boils down to an issue of accepting dogmatic ideas and ignoring those that even to believers will appear contradictory, unethical, or just outright false. Often, we debate these ideas where they relate to specific religions. For example, arguing that Noah could not have conceivably built a wooden ark to save every species on Earth is specific to Christianity. But proving Christianity wrong doesn’t prove all religions are wrong. As a result, I have tried to summarize some arguments against god that could be seen as somewhat universal. Admittedly, most o these are biased towards the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as they are the ones most familiar to me. But to some extent, they apply to any belief in an omnipotent deity that looks over us and that who we must worship to achieve salvation.
Here are the reasons why I think this concept of god is impossible.
The omnipotence argument
“Since power is said in reference to possible things, the phrase, ‘God can do all things,’ is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Let’s start off with imagining what god actually is. It seems to me that god cannot be anything other than a being that features the three “omnis”: omnipotence (can do everything), omniscient (knows everything) and omnipresence (is everywhere). Indeed his power, knowledge and presence could not be conceivably limited because that would imply that there is some other force or condition in the universe that could limit it. Omnipotence, however, does have to be logically consistent: god cannot make a circle a square. There is also the omnipotence paradox which is illustrated by the case of whether god can create a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it, so it is clear that any sensible definition of omnipotence needs to be less than absolute lest we end up in a logical quagmire.
Excluding these logical constraints, could god limit his own powers? Yes but his limits have limits. For example, he could choose not to do something or to not be present somewhere but he still retains the power to reverse his decision. So it’s not really a limit in the sense that he can’t ever again regain that capability or else he would cease to be omnipotent (and how would the universe function without an omnipotent being?). Omniscience is slightly trickier as it is hard to imagine god limiting his own ability to know something since he would already know that which he wished to un-know. Of these three “omnis”, omniscience is the one that at least to me, seems impossible to limit.
But while all monotheistic faiths claim that god is omnipotent, their holy books clearly describe a deity with limits; in fact, very human limits. For example, an omniscient god would have known that Eve would have eaten the apple because he can see past, present, and future. Why was she judged so harshly then? If the self-proclaimed son of god, Jesus Christ, was also omniscient then surely he knew that he would ascend back to heaven after dying on Earth which makes the idea of his “sacrifice” a bit ridiculous. More so, having convinced god that mankind deserved to be saved, he effectively proved god wrong and an omnipotent and omniscient being cannot be proved wrong. In all the Abrahamic traditions we hear of an angry, spiteful god on numerous occasions which is strange because feelings such as anger arise out of uncertainty and expectation and an omniscient being cannot be uncertain about anything. How can you be angry about the species you purposely created flawed?
The next argument dwells a bit more on this.
The free will argument
According to Christian doctrine, one of god’s greatest gifts to human-kind is the gift of free will. In other words, god simply plays a passive role in our actions which by and large are determined by ourselves, mere mortals who constantly struggle to choose between good and evil (sin). The first contradiction in this line of reasoning is that it makes prayer completely worthless. Why do we pray for god to do something for us if he does not intervene? Or maybe does intervene, only on occasion, and only to favor those who are closest to him (a kind of divine old boy’s network). This probably explains why all armies as well as American professional sports teams have claimed god is on their side and that alone explains their victory. Curiously, they never acknowledge that god is probably on the other team’s side when they lose.
But can god, by definition, provide free will? The answer is no. Because god is omniscient and can see perfectly into the future, he has to know what decisions we take and how our lives will be affected by them. If you don’t believe that god can see into the future then you don’t believe god is omniscient, which means there are limits to his power (and as I mentioned above, omniscience is the one characteristic of a deity that appears impossible to self-limit from a logical sense). In a nutshell: you are already saved or damned without you knowing it and without you being able to do anything about it.
That said, does the Bible really claim that we have free will? Well, Proverbs 16:4 suggests otherwise: “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble”. The Old Testament story of god asking Abraham to kill his son Isaac also proves this lack of free will. Surely Abraham should have challenged god on the grounds that infanticide is an act of evil. The Bible is filled with contradictions (god clearly enjoys confusing us) and free will is one of them. The Qur’an is no less contradictory and apparently the concept of predestination is quite a disputed one according to various Islamic schools of thought: “And if Allah had known any good in them He would have made them hear, and if He makes them hear they would turn back while they withdraw” (Surat Al-‘Anfal 8:23).
The veneration argument
It seems to me that an omnipotent deity would not require anything resembling worship from his subjects, in this case homo sapiens, but let’s imagine that for some reason he does. After all, for this he created the universe. A universe composed of billions of galaxies and trillions of trillions of stars (10 to the 24th power to be precise). All so that ONE of those stars would have a solar system capable of supporting life. Life, which for 3.5 billions of years has existed and resulted in millions of different species, most of which have gone extinct and of which only one advanced ape has evolved sufficient intelligence to realize that it owes its existence to such deity and must worship his creator or else face an eternity of hell. It seems to me, therefore, that if god created this one species in his image and for the sole sake of worshiping him, he really went out of his way to create a universe so vast that most of it is completely unnecessary for this task, especially since he could have created this universe any way he wanted.
This argument is also related to the age-old question of “why do we exist?”. Well, clearly from a god-centric view of existence, we exist to amuse him. There can’t be any other reason since we serve no useful purpose to an deity who is already omnipotent. Let’s imagine a robot that has the artificial intelligence to become self-aware. We would only create such a robot because we would believe that it would help mankind in some way (presumably in an economic sense). However, if we could derive no utilitarian purpose for developing a robot with self-awareness, what’s the only reason we would do so anyway? For amusement. And what could be more amusing than seeing your creation worship you.
Your god is a selfish one.
The geography argument
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
“No one of you will enter Paradise by his deeds alone.” They asked, “Not even you, O Messenger of Allah?” He said, “Not even me, unless Allah covers me with His Grace and Mercy” (Bukhari, Riqaq, 18; Muslim, Munafiq, 71-73).
So we have it that you can’t go to heaven or paradise or whatever unless you subscribe the one true faith, whichever that might be. However, what if you are never exposed to that one true faith? There have been an estimated 100 billion people living in the world since the dawn of man, of which only a fraction have ever been exposed to any given religion, even large ones like Christianity. Think of all the people who were born and died in the American continent before Columbus arrived. Think of all the people living in India or China that were also not exposed to any other faith except those of their society for centuries until missionaries arrived. If the gates of heaven are closed to those, it seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? As far as I know, no religion has any provision for this conundrum and it is not clear whether they go to hell or limbo or some sort of heavenly immigrant detention center, but clearly heaven it ain’t.
Even if one were exposed to a different religion, god hasn’t really made it easy for some to adopt the right one. If you are a Christian born in mid-west USA, then you pretty much have it made in terms of the ease in which you can pursue your faith without persecution. However, if one were born in Kabul, Afghanistan, it would not be that easy to convert. One would face ostracism from society in the very best of cases, and death in the worst. Why has god not leveled the playing field then? If he seeks to maximize the number of converts to the one true faith, why does it make it so much easier for some to pursue this faith than others? And why is this seemingly dictated by geography (and to a lesser extent, ethnicity)? Surely a fair and just god would not have some of his disciples cruise through life with a clear path to heaven while others have to risk life and limb for the same outcome solely because of the (completely random) place they were born. Then again, maybe god does have some geographical or ethnic preferences: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:47).
The time argument
How many times have you heard a believer argue “well, even if the Big Bang is real, what was there before it?”. The answer is simple: NOTHING, not even time itself. This is because time was created during the Big Bang, just like space was. According to the Theory of Relativity, time is simply a fourth dimension that coexists with the three dimensions of space: this is called space-time. Our human brains, which don’t function very well in making mental images of anything beyond three dimensions, have a hard time dealing with this idea of temporal finitism. We can imagine the concept of “no space” but not “no time”. But the fact is that there was no time at some point, which actually means that nothing could have created the Big Bang since that something had to exist in a space and a time before space and time existed.
In any case, if god existed before the Big Bang, what was he doing then during this whole time? Fiddling his godly thumbs? Playing celestial X-Box? Why did he decide one day to create a universe, a universe that would take billions of years before the first self-aware species worshiped him? One has to accept here the scientifically-erroneous idea that time is infinite, or else god too would have a start date (in which case the question would be, what was there before god?). From infinite to the Big Bang is quite a long time: infinite, which also makes no sense since at any point in the infinite it would still take an infinity before the Big Bang took place (-∞ – t = -∞); therefore it would never happen! As such, god cannot be eternal because there’s only two possibilities to consider: that time is finite (the scientifically-correct position that negates the possibility of god being eternal) and that past time is infinite (mathematically impossible).
You can try and cop out of this by claiming that god transcends space and time but this leads to other flaws. Assuming god inhabits some other dimension of existence it would still follow that lower dimensions (like space and time) need to exist first. For example, you could not have a three-dimensional object in a uni-dimensional world. You cannot have time without space. If our four-dimensional universe is the minimum necessary to exist, an x-dimensional god needs to inhabit space and time first. In any case, regardless of which dimension he exists, we still come upon the mathematical impossibility of the infinite. However you want to look at it, god fails the time test.
The political argument
Let’s imagine that aliens arrive to Earth and explain to humanity that all religions are false. That they put the figures of Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, and others on this planet just to test our ability to embrace reason amid the temptations of faith which to them, is the ultimate test of whether we really are an intelligent species by cosmic standards. After enlightening us with this fact, they fly off in their UFOs never to be seen again. What would be the response to this by the faithful? Would religious leaders accept that their beliefs are wrong and that people should continue to live their lives without god? Or will they find a excuses on why people should continue believing? They could say that this alien visitation is in fact, yet another test of our faith by god himself in the shape of green little men. Or that since we can’t prove that Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha et al were in fact aliens, then the aliens could have simply lied just to mess with us. The point here is, do you really think that if this happened the Pope would suddenly hang his pointy hat and turn the Vatican into a museum? Would Hindus suddenly start eating beef and Muslims pork? Would Mormons put on some jeans and move back to Utah?
The answer is probably no: religion would find a way to survive. And that’s because the main point of religion is power, and there’s no better form of power than making people believe what you believe. Religion makes it easy because it involves a set of beliefs that are essentially unchallengeable (dogma) even though they may be proved patently false. Note that this also implies that most “religious” conflicts are inherently geopolitical in nature rather than purely religious. For example, when explaining his fatwas against the United States that led to 9/11, Osama bin Laden gave only geopolitical reasons, but laced them in Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric. It is clear that when religion is used as a banner for these political aims, it becomes considerably easier to ask people to rape, kill, and torture because some pastor or imam says so. Insofar as there exists political reasons for religion to exist, it will.
The probability argument
What are the odds that your religion is the one true faith? Not particularly high. If you accept Jesus Christ and the teachings of Christianity (never mind the fact that there are quite a number of denominations all of which think the others have some major theological flaw) you pretty much have one-third of the world on your side. But that actually means two-thirds of the world thinks you’re wrong. For Muslims, once again ignoring intra-religious divides (in this case Sunni-Shiite), you have about three-quarters of the world not agreeing with you. Keep picking religions and the odds grow slimmer and slimmer. To make it even less favorable, consider those 100 billion people that have lived on Earth and ask yourself how many of them have been Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist. Clearly only a small fraction.
So in a nutshell, if we were to pick ANY religion as the one true faith by sheer act of randomness, chances are yours won’t be the chosen one. On the other hand, atheists simply have a 50/50 choice since it is irrelevant for us which of the many religions is correct: either there is a god or there isn’t. This is because the correctness of one religion is mutually exclusive with the correctness of all the others; in other words, only one can be right. If one takes a two-stage approach to this (first: does god exist and second: is my god the right one), then the odds of your particular religion being correct is even lower since you have to multiply it by half. Therefore a Christian has a one in six probability that he’s right and a Muslim has one in eight. So if probability is your thing, and you want to go with the choice that gives you the best odds of being right, it’s atheism. Yeah, there’s still a good shot that you’ll end in hell, but at least you’ll be in the company of billions of others who chose to believe the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.
Ditch faith. Embrace reason. Be happy. 🙂
Update 21/4/15: Cut some unnecessary bits and gave a clearer explanation of the time argument.