Must Atheists Prove There’s No God? Why Not? — part 1

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This series has been inspired by two articles by Benjamin Cain. One is entitled ‘Must Atheists Prove There’s No God?’ and the second ‘Do Atheists and Theists have the Same Burden of Proof?’ Cain’s answer is ‘no’, on the basis that atheism is obviously a more reasonable human response to the universe we inhabit than any other.

I was already engaged in writing a response when I noticed that Cain has published another article on the same theme, beating the same drum. At the beginning we find him stating that “theistic religions are preposterous”. I assume that he is doing this in the hope of attracting new readers who have missed the earlier ones. For those who follow him, however, this is becoming a little boring. We get it, Benjamin. We know that you think that theistic religions are preposterous. You don’t have to keep repeating yourself.

Despite this, my answer to both his original questions is ‘yes’; atheists do have at least the same burden of proof as non-atheists. What follows are my own reflections on his theme, rather than a direct response to his articles, although I will refer to them. Prudence Louise and Eric Sentell have already offered a critique of Cain’s arguments, here and here.

Cain’s position is that, since the non-existence of ‘God’ is far more likely than the opposite, then believers have a greater burden of proof. The first problem therefore lies in how we define the terms. What exactly does ‘atheism’ mean? Is an atheist the opposite of a theist, therefore someone who does not believe in God? Apparently not, for the Oxford English Dictionary, having defined a theist as “someone who believes in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe”, compares and contrasts this with a deist. A deist, however, also believes in God, but a different type of God, one who doesn’t intervene.

An atheist would therefore seem to be someone who does not believe in any kind of God. This still does not take us very far, because we then have to decide how we define the word ‘God’. Cain focuses upon, and is hostile to, the idea of a theistic personal God, who intervenes as in the OED definition. But if we were to define God differently, as the ultimate non-intervening cause of everything else that exists, thus closer to deism, such an ‘entity’ could be impersonal.

That is precisely how many spiritual traditions describe this ultimate cause, an impersonal universal spirit. For example, in Kabbalah we have Ayin, in Hinduism Brahman, and in Gnosticism the Pleroma (a fulness which is also a nothingness). It is only the interrelated Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — which stress a personal, intervening God. It sometimes seems that Cain is arguing primarily against this type of theistic God.

We therefore need a very simple definition of atheism which avoids these problems. I’m going to choose one which I believe conforms to Cain’s expressed cosmicist beliefs, therefore one which enables us to discuss the issues on his terms. An atheist would be one who believes that there is no evidence of a divine presence in the world, that consciousness and intelligence are anomalies or aberrations in nature, therefore that everything we experience, apart from consciousness itself, can be explained by the ‘natural’ laws of physics and biology. Cain himself calls his position ‘atheistic naturalism’.

If these three beliefs are acceptable as defining features of atheism, then I believe that the burden of proof does indeed lie with the atheist, since atheism, even when it claims to be science-based, itself requires a lot of faith in order to maintain them.

In the remainder of this article I’ll discuss the second of those beliefs, in Cain’s words that “the presence of intelligent life within nature is anomalous… We are not fully natural. Something has emerged within nature which calls for other forms of explanation”.

It’s possible that by saying this he is trying to avoid the issue of, and therefore doesn’t have to offer any solution to, the Hard Problem of Consciousness. If that is his intention, then let’s call him out. What is his solution to the Hard Problem? If he has one, I think he would be the first human in history to come up with it. Even if consciousness is an anomaly according to the beliefs of atheistic naturalism, it must presumably have originated somehow. As he says, it calls for other forms of explanation. So let us hear his. (It’s possible that he may have already done this somewhere in his extensive writings, so I would be happy to be provided with a relevant link.) Exactly how could such an anomaly arise in a naturalistic world governed by the laws of physics and biology?

Atheists usually appeal to Darwinian theories of evolution to explain just about everything. If Cain is going to go down that route, included in his theory must be an explanation as to what advantage consciousness had for natural selection to work on.

StillJustJames, writing from a Buddhist perspective in this Medium article, says that qualia “have no clear purpose from an evolutionary perspective, nor are they reducible to constituent physical mechanisms”. Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup goes into more detail, arguing that ‘Consciousness Cannot Have Evolved’, and that ‘the felt qualities of experience have no survival function’. These are the title and subtitle of chapter 4 of his book Science Ideated¹. He elaborates in chapter 5: “The qualities of experience cannot perform any function whatsoever. And properties that perform no function cannot have been favoured by natural selection”.

That chapter is a response to evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne who had criticised Kastrup’s argument — his website is called Why Evolution Is True, and he has written a book with the same title. Kastrup then demolishes, at least to his own satisfaction, Coyne’s arguments, claiming that he doesn’t even have an intellectual grasp of the issues: “the internal contradictions of his reasoning are just overwhelming”.

So my challenge to Benjamin Cain would be, come up with a satisfactory, coherent explanation for consciousness from an atheistic naturalistic perspective, without resorting to the get-out clause that it is simply an inexplicable anomaly. As I said above, that would be a significant achievement, since so far it has proved impossible to all those who have tried.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the Hard Problem is only a problem if one starts from a presumption of the truth of the philosophies of physicalism or atheistic naturalism, as both Kastrup and Prudence Louise in this recent article have pointed out. Perhaps we need to adopt a different philosophy.

More to come in the following articles.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.

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Footnote:

1. iff Books, 2021