This article is an in depth look at some of the reasons why people choose atheism, and some of the most influential atheist thinkers and their arguments.
Last updated 2009-10-22
This article is an in depth look at some of the reasons why people choose atheism, and some of the most influential atheist thinkers and their arguments.
Most atheists would offer some of the following arguments as their reason for deciding that God doesn't exist.
Many people are atheists because of the way they were brought up or educated, or because they have simply adopted the beliefs of the culture in which they grew up. So someone raised in Communist China is likely to have no belief in God because the education system and culture make being an atheist the natural thing to do.
Other people are atheists because they just feel that atheism is right.
The arguments and counter-arguments are presented in this article in an extremely simplified way and are intended only as a starting point for further reading and exploration.
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence
W. K. Clifford (1879)
Many people are atheists because they think there is no evidence for God's existence - or at least no reliable evidence. They argue that a person should only believe in things for which they have good evidence.
A philosopher might say that they start from the presumption of atheism.
This is an argument about where to begin the discussion of whether or not God exists.
It says that we should assume that God does not exist, and put the onus on people who believe in God to to prove that God does exist.
The philosopher Anthony Flew who wrote an article on this said:
If it is to be established that there is a God, then we have to have good grounds for believing that this is indeed so.
Until and unless some such grounds are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic.
So the onus of proof has to rest on the proposition.
It must be up to them: first, to give whatever sense they choose to the word 'God', meeting any objection that so defined it would relate only to an incoherent pseudo-concept; and, second, to bring forward sufficient reasons to warrant their claim that, in their present sense of the word 'God', there is a God.
Atheists argue that because everything in the universe can be explained in a satisfactory way without using God as part of the explanation, then there is no point in saying that God exists.
The argument is based on a philosophical idea called Occam's Razor, popularised by William of Occam in the 14th century.
In Latin it goes Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate or in English... "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily".
This is usually simplified to say that the simplest answer is the best answer.
Therefore atheists might argue that since the entire universe, and all of creation can be explained by evolution and scientific cosmology, we don't need the existence of another entity called God.
Therefore God doesn't exist.
William of Occam would not have agreed; he was a Franciscan monk who never doubted the existence of God.
But in his century he wasn't breaking the rule named after him. 14th century science knew nothing about evolution or how the universe came into being. God was the only explanation available.
What William would think if he lived now is another matter...
There are a number of traditional arguments used to prove that God exists; however, none of them convinces atheists. Here they are:
The universe is such a beautiful and orderly thing that it must have been designed. Only God could have designed it. Therefore since the universe exists, God must exist.
An atheist might refute this by saying that, actually, the universe is not particularly beautiful and orderly. And even if it was, why should there be a designer? And modern science shows that most of the natural things we think of as designed are just the products of processes like evolution.
We think of God as a perfect being. If God didn't exist he wouldn't be perfect. God is perfect, therefore God exists.
Most atheists think this argument is so feeble they don't bother dealing with it.
Professional philosophers usually reject it on the grounds that existence is not a property of beings.
Everything that happens has a cause. Therefore the universe must have had a cause. That cause must have been God. Therefore since the universe exists, God must exist in order to have caused it to exist.
An atheist might respond by asking what caused God. (And what caused the cause of God, and so on.) The argument might proceed that if God didn't need a cause, then maybe the universe didn't need a cause either. If God was already perfect before he created the universe, why did he create it? How did it benefit him? Why would he bother? And if the universe was caused, perhaps something other than God caused it?
The existence of evil seems inconsistent with the existence of a God who is wholly good, and can do anything.
The argument goes like this:
Most religions say that God is completely good, knows everything, and is all-powerful. But the world is full of wickedness and bad things keep happening. This can only happen if...
And so there is no being that is completely good, knows everything, and is all powerful. And so, there is no God.
Theologians and philosophers have provided various answers to this argument. They all agree that it gives useful insights into the nature of God, evil, and belief.
For most of human history God was the best explanation for the existence and nature of the physical universe.
But during the last few centuries, scientists have developed solutions that are much more logical, more consistent, and better supported by evidence.
Atheists say that these explain the world so much better than the existence of God.They also say that far from God being a good explanation for the world, it's God that now requires explaining.
In olden times - and still today in some traditional societies - natural phenomena that people didn't understand, such as the weather, sunrise and sunset, and so on, were seen as the work of gods or spirits.
The Old Testament portrays the world as something controlled by God.
Where we would see the weather as obeying meteorological principles, people in those days saw it as demonstrating God at work. And it was the same with all the other natural phenomena, they just showed God doing things.
Everything is full of Gods
Thales (624-546 BCE), Greek philosopher
The Greek philosopher Thales moved things on by suggesting that the gods were actually an essential part of things, rather than external puppeteers pulling strings to make the world work.
But there was more to these ancient explanations than gods doing things in or to the world. People saw the whole universe in a religiously structured way; they had no other way to see it at that time.
For the ancients, God provided the power that made the universe work, and God provided the structure within which the universe worked and human beings lived.
Ideas like that survive in modern astrology. Many people believe that their lives are in some way influenced by the movements of heavenly bodies. And the heavenly bodies concerned have names taken from mythology and religion.
And you'll find similar ideas in most popular religious thinking. Many people still believe, or want to believe, in the idea of God as puppeteer.
They believe that God is able to do things in the world: he can divide the waters of the Red Sea to save the Israelites from Pharaoh, he can respond to prayer by healing an illness or getting someone through an exam.
Cosmology is the study of the origin and nature of the universe.
Nowadays it's a branch of astronomy and physics, but in pre-scientific times it was a religious subject, organising the universe in terms of almost military ranks of beings. God was at the top, and human beings came pretty much at the bottom.
In some cosmologies there was also an inverted hierarchy of evil beings going down from humanity to the source of wickedness, the devil, at the bottom.
These religious cosmologies were rigid; each being had its place worked out for it in the structure that God had provided, and that was where it stayed.
Looking at the universe like this provided great support for the hierarchical power structures of earthly nations and tribes: Everyone in a nation or tribe had their place, and the power came from the top.
And if God had decided to organise the universe in such a hierarchy, this provided a strong argument against anyone who wanted to suggest that society could be organised in a fairer and more equal way - God had shown us the perfect way to organise things, and those who were ruling did so by a right given by God.
It was also very good news for whichever religion was followed in a particular nation: since the power all came from God, religion was bound to be given high status.
The idea that God steered everything in the universe as he saw fit was demolished by the discovery that there were natural laws obeyed by objects in the universe.
Galileo, for example, discovered that the universe followed laws that could be written down mathematically.
This suggested that there was logic and engineering throughout creation. The universe behaved in a consistent manner and was not subject to gods pulling a string here and there, or some unexplained influences from astrological bodies.
This didn't give Galileo any religious problems (although it annoyed the church greatly and they eventually made him keep quiet about some of his conclusions) because he believed that God had written the scientific rules.
And around this time scientists began to come up with new ways of assessing whether certain things were true. Things were expected to happen in a repeatable, testable way, that could be written down in equations.
Although scientific discovery began to explain more and more, it didn't cause large numbers of people to become less religious.
Even many - probably most - scientists still had a place for God in the universe. At the very least, he had started the whole thing going, and he had created the rules that his universe was shown to obey.
This half-way house between religion and science still had problems for the faithful, since it didn't seem to leave much room for God to intervene in the universe - and certainly it didn't need God to keep things ticking over.
But the half-way house also provided some support for the faithful. They could look at the universe and see how beautifuly made it was, and be reassured that God had demonstrated his existence by creating such a wonderful place.
And since science, until the late 18th, and 19th centuries, hadn't produced any good explanation of how things began, religion still had an important place in explaining how the world was the way it was.
God's role as an explanation for the way things are took a serious knock from the sciences of geology and evolution.
Geologists discovered that the earth was hundreds of millions of years old, and not just 6,000 years old as was generally believed at that time.
They showed that the rocks that make up the earth had been laid down in layers at different times; a deeper layer (by and large) came from an earlier time than a shallow layer.
In each layer were fossils that showed that different species of animals had lived in different eras. Not only were many no longer in existence but some didn't appear until relatively recent times.
This was incompatible with the idea that God completely created the world in 6 days and so scientists with a faith came up with another compromise - the 6 days of biblical creation were a poetic way of describing long periods of millions of years during which God worked on the world.
Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker
The theory of evolution explains the variety of life forms on earth without any reference to God.
It says that from very simple beginnings, processes of genetic variation and selection (i.e. new forms of life keep appearing, and some forms of life don't survive and become extinct), working for hundreds of millions of years, generated the range of plants and animals that exist today.
These processes are not directed by any being, they are just the way the world works; God is unnecessary.
The result of this for God has been explained by Stephen Jay Gould:
No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature (though Newton's clock-winding god might have set up the machinery at the beginning of time and then let it run). No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.
Some philosophers think that religious language doesn't mean anything at all, and therefore that there's no point in asking whether God exists.
They would say that a sentence like "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is neither true or false, it's meaningless; in the same way that "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" is meaningless.
Logical Positivists argued that a sentence was meaningless if it wasn't either true or false, and they said that a sentence would only be true or false if it could be tested by an experiment, or if it was true by definition.
A more accurate version of this idea can be found here:
Since you couldn't verify the existence of God by any sort of "sense experience", and it wasn't true by definition (eg in the way "a triangle has 3 sides" is true), the logical positivists argued that it was pointless asking the question since it could not be answered true or false.
These particular philosophers didn't only say that religious talk was meaningless, they thought that much of philosophical discussion, metaphysics for example, was meaningless too. This philosophical theory is no longer popular, and attention has returned to the issues of what "God" means and whether "God" exists.
This is how one prominent philosopher put it:
We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express - that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject is as being false.
A. J. Ayer
Ayer actually preferred a weaker version of the theory, because since no empirical proof could be totally conclusive, almost every statement about the world would have to be regarded as meaningless.
A proposition is said to be verifiable, in the strong sense of the term, if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established in experience. But it is verifiable, in the weak sense, if it is possible for experience to render it probable.
And this led Ayer to dispose of the God question rather brusquely:
...There can be no way of proving that the existence of a god...is even probable.
For if the existence of such a god were probable, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis. And in that case it would be possible to deduce from it, and other empirical hypotheses, certain experiential propositions which were not deducible from those other hypotheses alone.
But in fact this is not possible...For to say that "God Exists" is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false.
A. J. Ayer
Psychologists have long been fascinated by religion as something that exists in all societies.
They ask whether 'religion' is actually a name given to various psychological drives, rather than a response to the existence of God or gods.
Such a belief is clearly atheistic.
Religion, to the common man, is a:
system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to him the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here.
Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
Human beings believe in God because they want:
These beliefs are strongly held because they enable human beings to cope with some of their most basic fears.
Atheists argue that since religion is just a psychological fantasy, human beings should abandon it so that they can grow to respond appropriately to deal with the world as it is.
Sigmund Freud tackled religion in great detail and had several ideas about it.
One of his theories was that religion stems from the individual's experience of having been a helpless baby totally dependent on its parents. The infant sees its parents as all-powerful beings who show it great love and satisfy all its needs. This experience is almost identical to the way human beings portray their relationship with God.
Freud also suggested that childhood experiences caused people to have very complex feelings about their parents and themselves, and religion and religious rituals provide a respectable mechanism for working these out.
Freud also described religion as a mass-delusion that reshaped reality to provide a certainty of happiness and a protection from suffering.
Some people think that religions and belief in God fulfil functions in human society, rather than being the result of God actually existing.
Ludwig Feuerbach was a 19th century German philosopher who proposed that religion was just a human being's consciousness of the infinite.
He said that human ideas about God were no more than the projection of humanity's ideas about man onto an imaginary supernatural being.
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French sociologist, thought that religion was something produced by human society, and had nothing supernatural about it.
Religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan.
Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
He believed that religion existed, but he did not agree that the reality that lay behind it was the same reality that believers thought existed.
Religion helped people to form close knit groups, in which they could find a place in society. Religious rituals created mental states in those taking part which were helpful to the group.
To put it another way; religious rituals do not do anything other than strengthen the beliefs of the group taking part and reinforce the collective consciousness.
Religion fulfilled the functions of:
Durkheim thought that this was enough to give people a feeling that there was something supernatural going on.
Since it is in spiritual ways that social pressure exercises itself, it could not fail to give men the idea that outside themselves there exist one or several powers, both moral and, at the same time, efficacious, upon which they depend.
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
Durkheim said that religious beliefs divided experiences into the profane and the sacred - the profane were the routine experiences of everyday life, while the sacred were beyond the everyday and likely to inspire reverence.
Objects could become sacred, not because of any inherent supernatural resonance but because the group fixed certain 'collective ideals' on an object.
Karl Marx thought that religion was an illusion, with no real God or supernatural reality standing in the background. Religion was a force that stopped human societies from changing.
Marx believed that religion was a social institution, and reflected and sustained the particular society in which it flourished.
He went further. Religion was a tool used by the capitalists to keep the working-class under control.
Religion provided the working-class with comfort in their miserable oppressed circumstances, and by focussing attention on the joys to come after death, it distracted the workers from trying to make this life better.
Furthermore, it took the noblest human ideals and gave them to a non-existent God, thus cheating human beings of realising their own greatness and potential.
Marx argued that the illusory happiness provided by religion should be eliminated by putting right the economic conditions that caused people to need this illusion to make their lives bearable.
Religion was like a pain-killer (hence Marx's famous reference to it as "the opium of the people"), but what was needed was to cure the sickness, not sedate the patient.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feelings of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The Marxist analysis of religion was principally aimed at Christianity as Christianity was the dominant faith in the industrial societies which Marx was criticising.
This is one of the more unusual arguments used to show that God can't exist:
God is perfectly loving
God knows that human beings would be happier if they were aware of the existence of a loving God
So if such a God existed, he would make sure that everyone knew it
There are lots of people who aren't aware of the existence of a loving God. Therefore such a God does not exist