Saturday, 9 May 2009

Is Christianity more probable than atheism?

That is the question that John W Loftus wants to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig on. Loftus was a former preacher and student of Craig who turned atheist and now runs the fantastic blog Debunking Christianity where he along with other former theists try to debunk Christianity. Now Craig has said he won't debate former students, though given the challenge it does seem appropriate to engage Loftus given his current credentials as a "new atheist". Unlike many of the other atheists recently putting out books, Loftus' book Why I Became An Atheist directly attacks Christianity in particular - contrasting the styles of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett who go after faith itself or the institution of religion.

In the spirit of things, here's why I would say that Christianity is not more probable than atheism.

The sheer number of options
Is Christianity more probable than atheism? The question itself is poorly defined as atheism and Christianity aren't competing ideas for the same prize. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any god, whether it be the Christian construct of the Trinity or any other deity. It is the ultimate position of scepticism, the notion that there isn't enough positive evidence for a belief in a higher power to warrant a belief. So to me the question should be is belief in Christianity is more justified than not believing. This means foregoing the choice between all other gods that have ever existed, but to many this is the only choice they have. It is either the religion of their peers or no religion at all, so in this sense the question of whether Christianity is more probable than atheism in this society is akin to asking whether Islam is more probable than atheism in Saudi Arabia.

But therein lies the first problem with the concept of a god - the globe is littered with different versions of the supernatural. Why is it that God in the Trinity form is not the default religion in Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan? Why is it that Hinduism dominates India, or Buddhism dominates Cambodia? Being born in Greece these days may mean a Greek-orthodox version of Christianity but just 2500 years ago it would have been a belief in the polytheistic deities. An Egyptian now would probably have a belief in Allah, but only 3000 years ago it would have been Ra and Osiris (among others) that littered the Ancient Egyptian religion. Aboriginals in Australia had their own tribal supernatural entities, the dreamtime story of the giant rainbow serpent has survived for 40,000 years yet in the last 200 this has been largely relegated to myth as Christianity has taken over.

What this demonstrates is that belief in God is wholly dependant on the time and place of birth. It is an accident to be born into a society where the meme exists or is introduced, which should wave a red flag considering the necessity for the meme in order for salvation. The notion of a maximally loving God that requires belief in order for reward means that anyone unfortunate enough not to be born in the right place and period of history is condemned to eternal torture for an event that is beyond their control. It may be that God will save those who have not heard the message, but this calls into question both the need for Jesus in the first place (as it creates a test where there was none) and the need to proselytise.

The sheer number of different gods also poses a problem for any one god. It can't be that all religions are true as many contradict the others, nor can it be that each religion is explaining the same god as it has the same stumbling block. So any explanation that explains the existence of God also needs to explain why other cultures and religions worship false idols. What makes Christianity so special that all other explanations involving that came before were mere fantasy, but in Christianity's case was an exception. And why if one particular tribe had the one true god did other tribes not fall in line?

The nature of reality
Modern human discovery has changed the way humans look at universe and our place in it. Geocentrism was dealt a fatal blow in the 17th century, special creation in the 19th century, and in the 20th century many of the secrets of nature have been unlocked. The God of the bible was one who created a flat earth where heaven was in the sky and all creatures were created ex nihilo. Even today in 2009, the fundamentalist belief of special creation and the moderate theistic evolution show just how much of a death blow Darwin's theory was to the Christian view of the universe.

We now live in a universe not where the earth is the centre, nor even the sun or our own galaxy is the centre. We are one species of approximately 10 million who orbit one star of about 200 billion in our galaxy alone. And that galaxy is only one of a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars in this universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world. Yet this spiritual geocentric model of the universe remains.

The universe is big, really really big. And in order to see a big universe, the universe must be really old. The standard unit of measure for astronomy and cosmology is the speed of light. It takes 8 minutes for light emitted by the sun to reach earth, 4.3 years for the next closest star. That means when one looks at Alpha Centauri, the light we are seeing left the star 4.3 years ago. So seeing distant galaxies means that the distance measured in light years means that was how long ago that light we are seeing left the galaxy. We have observed galaxies over 13 billion light years away and thus the universe has to be at least 13 billion years old. By contrast the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have been on this earth for around 150,000 years.

We have existed for 1/10,000th of the history of this universe, each one of our lives an even smaller fraction of that. We have evolved like every other organism that by all accounts is an unguided process. Yet despite the small part of the universe we occupy, the theist view of us having a special place in the universe by all accounts is putting us into an undeserved special place. Of course none of the science disproves God, but it does highlight the means by which God was created as a substitute for knowledge - and a poor one at that. Quite simply, the ancient Israeli accounts of the nature of reality are no more accurate than those of the Australian Aboriginals and as such the probability of the Christian god grows more and more infinitesimal as more is learned about nature and history.

There are so many reasons to conclude that Christianity is not more probable than atheism, but one argument stands above all. When it comes down to it Christianity requires faith, something of which to be sceptical of. Any idea worth having should be able to stand on it's own merits, survive rigorous sceptical scrutiny, and demonstrate insight into the universe. If the notion of any god, let alone the Christian construct of God were more probable than atheism then it shouldn't necessitate faith. Philip K Dick put it best when he said:
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.


feeno said...


The last time we spoke over at Mr. Loftus' site, I was nothing but a bug on your windshield. So you probably don't remember me, but anyway good to be able to talk again.

I was just over at D.C. and followed you here.

You say in this post "Any idea worth having should be able to stand on it's own merits, survive rigorous sceptical scrutiny and demonstrate insight into the universe."

I think Christianity has met all those requirments and then some?

I could be wrong but it seems that Christianity has been under attack since the days of Christ, yet were still here.

What do you think?

Thanks, Peace Out, feeno

Kel said...

It's ability to survive has had nothing to do with the truth of the matter. Hinduism has been around for 3 times as long as Christianity, yet we wouldn't use it's longevity as a beacon of truth.

The worth of a meme is it's successful propagation, and Christianity is a very good meme at that. But the question is about the truth of a meme, and a meme doesn't need to be true in order to propagate. Remember that even the Greeks forsook science and succumbed to superstition where science was rejected in favour of their gods.

So my answer would be that longevity shows a successful means of propagation, and only a fool would deny that Christianity is very good at spreading. But that doesn't mean the idea is any more or less valid.

This is why all claims of knowledge should be external to individual beliefs, that individual beliefs are centred upon evidence as opposed to faith.

If you could demonstrate that there is a god and that god is the Trinity, I'd convert to Christianity. But right now, I happen to find the Christian construct of god about as likely as the Hindu construct.

The god of the bible was born out of human ignorance, and that is apparent from cover to cover. It's a book of superstition, one filled with magic. It is not the word of God, but the word of man trying to understand nature and his role in it - in effect a means to give order to an incomprehensible world. The fact that it's 2009 and creationists not only exist but still thrive demonstrates to me quite clearly that God is nothing but a substitute for knowledge, and a bad one at that.

Anonymous said...

You said "Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any god ... It is the ultimate position of scepticism, the notion that there isn't enough positive evidence for a belief in a higher power to warrant a belief."

What you're describing is agnostic, not atheistic.

Atheism states there is no god as a fact, not simply a lack of belief in one. Of course that makes no sense, as the only way you can say there is no god is if you have all knowledge. Thus atheism makes no logical or intellectual sense, unless someone claims they have all knowledge in the cosmos.

What you wrote about describes an agnostic mind-set, but labeled atheistic.

a-theism - without god (theism)

a-gnostic - without knowledge (gnosis)



1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study


1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.

2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

Kel said...

I strongly disagree. Atheism is a matter of belief, not knowledge. Theism is to do with belief, gnosticism is to do with knowledge. A-theism is the not-belief. It's not a claim to know that there isn't a God, just no reason to believe in one.
This would seem to imply that an Atheist is:
"A person who is without a belief in any deity. This definition would mainly include those who are simply unaware of the existence of any deity. It would also include a person who is either too young or who lacks the mental ability to conceive of a deity."
Atheism is the position that deities do not exist, or the rejection of theism. In the broadest sense, it is the absence of belief in the existence of deities."As for atheism, there are no major or even minor tenets. Atheism is simply lacking belief in God, no more and no less. I don’t believe in God, so I’m an atheist. End of story." - Michael Shermer

Though in the end, this is just splitting hairs. The term atheism shouldn't even exist, it's about as accurate as having a word for non-astrologer. Want to call it agnosticism? Fine. Call it naturalism? Call it humanism, call it non-belief, call it scepticism... It doesn't really matter too much, the sentiment is the same. What is out there is ultimately unknowable and and claims to the contrary should be placed under a critical eye. There simply is no way to know, and thus no reason to believe.

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