Atheist’s Doubt

I came across a rather fascinating post this morning, in which various questions are posed to atheists. I have a problem with how more than a few of them are worded, but there’s one in particular that I wanted to address. Go and have a look at the others, though, as they’re well worth reading. One of them is from Gregory Koukl, who I’ve complained about here before, and there’s also a hypothetical question from Alvin Plantinga. I’ve read a few of his papers, so it would have been great to see an actual question from him.

Historian Mike Licona: “Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”

Firstly, I’d object to the word ‘troubling’. It’s a near-universal practice to assume that any ‘challenge’ to one’s worldview should be considered a source of intellectual anguish, which seems like a rather weird way of looking at things. Whenever I come across something that makes me doubt my atheism, I pursue it as far as I can out of interest and the possibility that it may change my mind, but I can’t say I’m ever troubled by it.

Probably the most potent theistic argument I know if the ‘fine-tuning’ one, for the simple reason that no easy rebuttal to it exists. Many atheist would claim otherwise, but a full explanation for the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe would require scientific knowledge far beyond what we currently know – indeed, it may require scientific knowledge beyond what we can ever know.

That is not to say that I find the fine-tuning argument convincing, obviously. It makes too many unwarranted assumptions itself, and rather swiftly runs up against certain aspects of the universe which would seem to contradict the idea of a divine creator – or at least one which cares about our well-being. I also dislike the jump from ‘God is an explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life’ to ‘God is the explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life'; I’m certainly willing to grant that God is a possible explanation, and perhaps even a fairly decent one, but that’s not enough for me to make the jump to theism. (In case that doesn’t make it obvious enough, I see the issue of theism as probabilistic rather than going for all-or-nothing certainty, which I don’t believe anyone can honestly lay claim to when it comes to the question of God’s existence.)

In case you’re wondering, I don’t think most of the anti-theistic arguments are particularly strong either. Some formulations of the evidential problem of evil seem to be lacking strong theistic responses, and one of them in particular is, I feel, a very strong argument for atheism, but they mostly seem to make the same mistakes as their theistic counterparts.

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6 Responses to “Atheist’s Doubt”

  1. 1 Greg Reich January 31, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    The problem with the “fine-tuning” argument is that the people who assert that the universe is “fine-tuned” for life don’t understand that physical laws are based on the universe we observe. We have no idea what would have happened if the universe was different, so to say that this universe is fine-tuned for life is simply circular: “This universe has life. The laws of physics allow for life. Therefore, the universe is fine-tuned for life.” In other words: “The universe is fine-tuned for life because it has life.” Nobody knows what would have happened if the universe was different. The universe is what it is–and given the apparent scarcity of life in it, I would object to the notion of the universe being fine-tuned for it anyway.

  2. 2 shamelesslyatheist January 31, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Exactly. It is life that is fine-tuned for the universe it developed in, not the other way round.

  3. 3 augustine January 31, 2009 at 10:46 pm


    That is the standard reply, and it obviously is quite damaging to the fine-tuning argument. But st the risk of revealing my intense ignorance when it comes to physics, doesn’t it seem that even fairly small variations in the ‘constants’ would make it difficult for matter, let alone life, to exist? This is the one reason why I give the fine-tuning argument some amount of credit: it seems probable at least that our universe, if taken among all potential universes, would be one of the few capable of supporting complex life.

    But as I said, there are all sorts of other problems with this assertion, and even granting it as true doesn’t immediately suggest theism.

  4. 4 Greg Reich February 1, 2009 at 1:06 am

    The constants come from what we observe–and small variations in these constants would certainly result in a lack of life–as we know it.

    Another bit of damage I can do to this “fine-tuning” argument is to point out that while we humans who live in the developed parts of the world find it relatively easy to survive and thrive, life on this planet has been an intense struggle from its beginnings. There have been mass extinctions. Species constantly have to survive predator-prey relationships, climate changes, and food scarcity. If the universe were so fine-tuned for life, why is survival a constant struggle?

    And again, a change in the constants might result in life in completely different forms–or no life at all. Life is a fragile thing. It can be wiped out by a giant meteor or a couple of supervolcanos going off at once. Imagine if Toba and Yellowstone both erupted at the same time! The results would be catastrophic. Toba almost wiped out humans the first time it erupted. Yellowstone would wipe out a good chunk of North America and make life difficult for the rest of the planet.

    The creationists pretend as though the universe is idyllic for life, but ignore the difficulty life has had in surviving for three billion years (oh, that’s right–several of them believe that it’s only a few thousand years old). They ignore the fact that warm-blooded species have a life span of about twenty-six million years, and cold-bloded ones survive about three hundred million between extinctions.

    Of course, creationists also reject evolution, for the most part (some intelligent design proponents accept it). The constants are what they are because they are what we observe; if they changed, the paramaters that define evolutionary paths would change, and life might be altogether different. We might only have single-celled life; bacteria survive in extreme conditions, after all. Life as we know it survived because of adaptations that allowed it to survive to reproductive age in the world as we know it; if the survival limitations changed, life, of course, would be different–it might still exist.

    Remember also that when these fine-tuning folks calculate odds, they often use numbers that they pull completely out of thin air, or they ignore limitations on these numbers. They talk about the odds of proteins coming together. Well, we have a finite number of elements, and they combine in a finite number of ways, all due to physical laws having to do with which atoms will share electrons in their outer orbitals and how stable their bonds become. Only so many molecules are proteins, and only so many proteins make up RNA and DNA. They often want to roll the dice over and over and over, but they never take away dice in their odds calculations; they have to in order to fit the model of reality.

    I’m sorry, but I’m jumping around and giving you bits and pieces. The problem is that the expertise required to truly argue with creationists includes several areas of study, including biology, physics, chemistry, geology, archaelogy, mathematics, and cosmology. I can’t pretend to be an expert in all of them, but I was a biology major, and I have a tiny bit of a physics bacground. What I know about these two subjects can’t be written in a blog entry; it requires college-level coursework and a good bit of ability to comprehend complex concepts. Creationists will throw arguments out there based on limited understanding of these subjects, but to truly refute their scientific-sounding arguments, you have to have some knowledge of science, and most people don’t. They can make up any old factoid out of whole cloth; how does one refute it if they don’t have the background–and if their audience also doesn’t have one?

  5. 5 augustine February 1, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Creationists will throw arguments out there based on limited understanding of these subjects, but to truly refute their scientific-sounding arguments, you have to have some knowledge of science, and most people don’t. They can make up any old factoid out of whole cloth; how does one refute it if they don’t have the background–and if their audience also doesn’t have one?

    That’s one of the main problems with the evolution/creation debate – most of the fighting ‘on the ground’ (if you’ll excuse the overly militaristic metaphor) is done between people with little to no scientific education. While I know enough from my own study to refute the most blatantly stupid examples of Creationist propaganda, some of it really does require the attention of a real scientist – or at least, a science graduate of some sort. Creationists are almost always a rather spectacular example of the blind leading the blind, but some of the anti-Creationists can be accidentally doing the same thing.

    This is why I don’t think people like Dawkins or other highly visible scientists/atheists should be ignoring Creationists.

  6. 6 ZackFord February 2, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Isn’t it sad how much time and energy we have to dedicate to explaining what it means to be an atheist, when ultimately it really is as simple as “we don’t believe things that can’t be or haven’t been explained.” I suppose making sense of that to others and their Truth is part of the fun of being an out atheist.

    Thanks for the comment on my post!

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