Over-confident atheism?

It seems a lot of people don’t like atheism. They see it as an over-confidence in the non-existence of something, some even trying to suggest that it is more scientific to be agnostic about unproven things.

I have heard atheists respond with “I am not agnostic about fairies, so why should I be agnostic about a God?” As a theist I always felt that fairies were very different from God. God was a more philosophical concept, an over-arching reality in whom we all subsist. Fairies were just mythical creatures.

The thing is that God is such a flexible concept. It means so many different things to people. If God was simply “ultimate reality”, or even equated with the universe itself, or logic, or the laws of physics, then no-one would be an atheist. However most people imply some sort of supernatural consciousness when they use the word God.

Religious scriptures such as Bible and Quran certainly portray God as a conscious being, a kind of super-human with very definitely human attributes, emotions, and behaviours. As the centuries have passed, the concept of God has become more transcendent and philosophical, and non-doctrinal theists are far less definite in their understanding of God. But the idea of a conscious mind with purpose and intention, as a bottom line, seems to be retained in the God concept.

Is it over-confident to deny the existence of such a consciousness? When it comes to the very human-like concepts of gods, the pantheons of ancient Greece for example, most people now would be as confident in the non-existence of Apollo or Poseidon as they are in the non-existence of fairies. But what about a more transcendent form of consciousness?

Personally I don’t believe it exists, and not because of the lack of concrete evidence for it, but because my sense of reason tells me that consciousness is a biological, evolved thing. I find it amazing and mind-blowing to think of the universe becoming aware of itself through the evolution of advanced consciousness. I understand that our consciousness is so developed that we are prone to seeing consciousness everywhere, even where it isn’t. I understand that this is what makes the God concept so persistent, but a supernatural mind without a brain, seeing all without eyes, hearing all without ears, doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know what the ultimate nature of reality is, and I happily accept that, but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable if I say I’m fairly sure it’s not a consciousness.

I don’t think this makes me arrogant either – I used to be a believer; I can empathise with belief, I don’t think belief is “stupid” and nor do I think it does any harm to believe in a God. I don’t want to take away anyone’s belief in God. So I don’t understand why anyone would want to take away my unbelief and insist that I be agnostic.

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15 Responses to Over-confident atheism?

  1. caraboska says:

    Praise the Lord

    I solve this problem by assuming that our eyes, ears and other human attributes are reflections of the greater reality that is God. Not the other way around 🙂

  2. Achelois says:

    I am one of those who thinks agnosticism is better than atheism but that is only because most atheists I know (except for you) are as sure about the non-existence of God as the theists are sure about the existence while both groups don’t have any visual proof. However, just as a visual proof is not required to feel the presence of God in one’s life, a visual proof shouldn’t be necessary to feel the absence of God either. And you have a good point about God being a consciousness. That is what it is – a feeling, a spiritual presence, an understanding, a hope.

    I love your concluding paragraph!

    • caraboska says:

      Praise the Lord.

      You wrote: [J]ust as a visual proof is not required to feel the presence of God in one’s life, a visual proof shouldn’t be necessary to feel the absence of God either.

      Excellent point. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow it next time I am talking to an atheist.

      And you also wrote: And you have a good point about God being a consciousness. That is what it is – a feeling, a spiritual presence, an understanding, a hope.

      Here I will take the liberty of questioning. In the case of God’s consciousness, who is doing the feeling or understanding or hoping? I hope you are talking about God’s feeling and understanding as being integral to his identity, while our experience of same is totally irrelevant to God’s identity as God. I would really argue, however, with the thesis that God hopes. God sees all. Hope that is seen is not hope. Ergo God does not and indeed logically speaking… cannot hope. You could say it is the ‘price’ God pays for being omniscient 😛 But then again, He has something better than hope.

      • Achelois says:

        Feel free to use it! I’d be honoured 🙂

        I meant that God to us is “a feeling, a spiritual presence, an understanding, a hope.” I have heard so many people say that they have felt God, that they have encountered His spiritual presence. Belief in God makes us hopeful of so many things including His Grace and an afterlife.

        • caraboska says:

          Praise the Lord. Are you saying that people do not normally differentiate between their feeling or experience of God, and God Himself? Because I am trying to draw that distinction (between God and our experience of God) in as unambiguous a manner as possible, and am not sure if I am getting that across.

  3. Marahm says:

    The existence (or not) of God is inextricably tied to our experience of consciousness, specifically, our expectation that we’ll get it back after we die, and that our affairs during earthly life affect the condition of it later. However, God and consciousness do not necessarily have to influence each other.

    As a scientifically trained person, I am tempted to believe that consciousness is always dependent upon brain function, but the evidence sometimes shows otherwise. Consider near-death experiences, when brain function actually ceases (in addition to heartbeat, of course) and the patient comes back to tell about what he/she “saw” during those moments of ceased function.

    Also, consider the mystery of anesthesia, and the phenomenon of sleep. What happens to our consciousness during these states? They are completely different, physiologically, yet our experience of them is similar. Consciousness ceases to exist with respect to our experience of it, but does it actually cease to exist, and if not, might it also be returned to us after irreversible bodily death?

    The God concept says yes, and that’s good news for believers, perhaps that’s the only news that counts, after all. All of what follows from relgion is based upon it.

    However, I personally allow for the possibility that belief or disbelief in God is completely irrelevant to the condition of consciousness, including the possibility that we get do it back after we die.

    • Sarah says:

      I definitely have a materialistic bent, and sometimes I wonder where that came from… why it is that others can look at the same evidence and see something different. That’s interesting in itself. One thing I always found uncomfortable as a believer in God, heaven and hell, was the reports of people’s personalities being altered by brain damage. If it made them less inclined to be moral (in some way) then God could take that into account when judging them, but would their altered personality impair their experience of the afterlife as well as their experience of this life?

      I think for me personally, certainty of an afterlife would be news I would receive with mixed emotions. I find it comforting to think that no matter how bad life gets, the suffering is only temporary. For an eternity of existence to not be a scary concept to me, it would have to be completely different to anything we experience here and now!

      • caraboska says:

        Praise the Lord. Supposedly it will be very different – in much the same way an oak tree is different from the acorn it grows from. And the experiences reported by people who have had NDEs appears to bear that out.

  4. caraboska says:

    Praise the Lord. I can see that Marahm’s thesis would definitely hold for someone who is centered on the afterlife, on the concept of being with God in the afterlife. But what about the person who is centered on the concept of being with God NOW, and figures that while they personally believe there is an afterlife, that isn’t the important part, that the important part is to worship God NOW? I don’t think the concept of God would be linked directly with consciousness in any way – except maybe in that our consciousness is in some way a dim reflection of the Ultimate Consciousness that is a property of God.

  5. Sarah – I think your post is helping me sort out some of my difficulties with this too. It’s fascinating to me that some people look at the world and believe they perceive evidence of a god’s existence past or present. I think we do start with ourselves and project that outwards into a cosmic consciousness and supernatural world view. The humanising of the gods in religious texts is the crudest example. Because our experience of living life seems so clear we to assume the universe and the subatomic level must behave in the same way.

    • caraboska says:

      Praise the Lord. I always return to this when I hear this kind of assertions: What about the millions of people who grow up in a non-religious environment, are to all appearances totally convinced that there is no god… but then they find out that there is something beyond themselves? And that this thing is outside of human experience and not under human control – quite the contrary, it provides the conditions for human experience? What about the lifelong atheist, 70 years old, who is nonetheless aware that there is something bigger beyond him/herself and his/her experience? Who even likes to go out into nature and be there, feel that connection to that something bigger that is out there? And for the sake of argument, let us say that this person is an academic, retired from a long career in the natural sciences, purely rationalistic in their outlook, not acknowledging any supernatural elements in their science, so that there is no reason they should feel this way – it is even counterintuitive?

    • Sarah says:

      Graham – yes, Jesse Bering explains belief in terms of our over-active “theory of mind”, which concurs with what you’re saying about subjectively projecting our consciousness outwards onto everything else. It makes sense to me to understand it that way.

      caraboska – you are giving examples of exactly this kind of subjective experience. The fact that it’s scientifically explainable does not mean there isn’t really a God, of course – I guess that’s a highly subjective matter of interpretation too.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post quite a lot in the last several days since it was published. As one that is leaning strongly towards agnosticism, I ask myself why. It seems that I don’t want to fully give up the idea of God, not for the usual reasons of loyalty to religon or even hope in an afterlife, but because of the feeling that there is something more.

    Of course, feeling something is true doesn’t make it true. But the human experience is so much more than a materialistic and rational worldview. I’ve been looking into the religous experience and the essence of what it is exactly. Is it pure psychology, an evolutionary adaptation, or are we actually in tune with something that is larger than what our senses allow us to see on a regular basis?

    It is the glimpses of a transcendent reality that has kept me from becoming an atheist. At the same time, I don’t in any way view God in the traditional ways. I don’t even view it as being something we might understand. And I also realize I might be completely wrong about everything. I’m not sure I’ll ever know or be confident in the conclusions I draw.

    • Sarah says:

      I can relate to that feeling and I guess the different ways we interpret it are down to personality and conditioned way of thinking. It’s subjective.

      I would love to hear more about your ideas about what God is like, as they develop. I’m very interested in this!

  7. susanne430 says:

    Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the post and comments!

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