Monday, August 28, 2023

Atheism is untenable

Imagine a primitive tribe in the center of a jungle. Their cosmology includes the idea that all water comes from a giant ocean full of living things on the other side of an enormous mountain, and this ocean God sends them rain in the form of clouds so that they may live. After thousands of years, they develop the necessary tools to cross over the mountain, so they send an envoy to pay homage to their god. But when the expedition returns they report that they saw no ocean. 

The tribe is immediately divided into two groups: the first group believes that their ocean god must be somewhere else, while the second group decides that oceans don't exist. Not just their ocean, but they insist that all concepts of “the Ocean,” are false. This is the origin of atheism.

Atheists insist that there is no God and their argument usually relies upon the fact that there is no scientific proof of God. But this same standard is not applied to all ideas. The Big Bang theory for example has not been proven, it merely remains consistent with observation. 

Before I go further I would like to point out that some atheists claim that their disbelief in the existence of God is not the same as the belief that God doesn't exist. I'm not going to make that distinction here because it doesn't change my argument or my conclusion. I am going to defer to the Encyclopedia Britannica's description of atheism:

“Generally atheism is a denial of God or of the gods, and if religion is defined in terms of belief in spiritual beings, then atheism is the rejection of all religious belief.”

Atheism “casts a wider net [than the claims made by specific religions, like Christianity] and rejects all belief in 'spiritual beings.'”

The term “spiritual beings” mentioned here includes concepts like angels, demons, spirit and the soul. 

Furthermore, it seems to me that self-described “soft” atheists may be better characterized as agnostics, or they may be guilty of “moving the goal posts” – an accusation they frequently make of theists – when they claim that their disbelief in the existence of God is substantially different from the belief that God doesn't exist. 

The scientific method (science), pioneered by Sir Francis Bacon in 1620, was deliberately designed to exclude questions of meaning from consideration in favor of physical descriptions of the material world. That is to say that science excludes from view any idea that will not submit to experimental proof. It does not follow that those ideas must be false, and yet that is the reasoning that atheists use to dismiss all conceptions of God. The question an atheist immediately asks is almost always “where is your proof,” and they mean where is your scientific proof

Atheists will happily discuss aliens, uploading your consciousness to a computer, the Big Bang theory, theories of multiple universes, telepathy and many other ideas for which there is no proof. And although scientists quite reasonably turn a blind eye to questions that fall outside of the scope of science, atheists go much further: they deny even the validity of contemplating those ideas – but only when those ideas pertain to God. They have thus made a god of Science by elevating it to the position of supreme arbiter of which ideas may legitimately be entertained, and then singling out religion as a unique category to be sneered at as if it were a competing god that must be defeated. This may be an example of “Scientism.” 

Therefor the very existence of atheism is implicitly dependent upon the logical fallacy of special pleading: atheists plead that ideas about god are different from other ideas that will not submit to the scientific method and thus all such ideas are false. This alone may be sufficient to conclude that atheism is untenable, but there's much more.

The tragedy of atheism is that by making a god of science they minimize, or even exclude from consideration, the most important questions that an individual should contemplate: questions of meaning, especially questions of meaning with a capital "M," like the meaning of your life and what our understanding of the universe means to humanity. Refusal to consider the meaning of your life is characteristic of nihilism. That atheism is nihilistic is not in itself enough to dismiss it as untenable, it is merely a consequence of the atheistic world view. 

The following claim that I posted on social media triggered a visceral reaction:

“Atheism is untenable. 
To determine that God doesn't exist one would have to examine and defeat every possible conception of God, which is impossible.”

I certainly did not believe that my off-the-cuff dismissal of atheism would be the last word on the matter but the passionate nature of the responses I received from atheists highlights the fact that the belief that god does not exist is not a dispassionate rational conclusion. It is the central defining “fact” in their story, and an attack on someone's story is almost always felt as a personal attack precisely because story is at the heart of humanity.

Human beings are driven by story, which is often referred to as “cosmology” when that story is about the universe itself. A couple of quotes from a lecture published on the University of Oregon's website explains this nicely:

“Cosmology is as old as humankind. Once primitive social groups developed language, it was a short step to making their first attempts to understand the world around them.”


“Modern cosmology is on the borderland between science and philosophy, close to philosophy because it asks fundamental questions about the Universe, close to science since it looks for answers in the form of empirical understanding by observation and rational explanation. Thus, theories about cosmology operate with a tension between a philosophical urge for simplicity and a wish to include all the Universe's features versus the total complexity of it all.”

Cosmology is thus the story that we create to understand the universe and our place in it and professor emeritus Helge Kragh from the University of Copenhagen sums up our present situation, which I will expand upon in a future essay:

“Through most of human history, cosmology and religion have been closely intertwined, and such was still the case during the scientific revolution. More recent developments in physics and astronomy, however, resulted in cosmological views that challenged the belief in a divinely created world. The uneasy relationship between religion and scientific cosmology never ceased, and in the twentieth century religious issues even played a role in debates between rival cosmological theories.” 

Why is story, or cosmology, so important and what does that mean for atheism?

Tolstoy, whom many of today's writers consider to be the greatest storyteller of all time, had this to say in relation to meaning, faith and god:

“… faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live. If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith he cannot live…”

“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Here Tolstoy is saying that we must connect our particular existence with the infinite –  meaning God or the universe itself, and I will expand on this shortly – or we must make ourselves blind to God. In other words, we must discern and articulate the story of the universe in such a way that we may relate our finite existence to the infinity of the universe. That is to say, we must have a functional cosmology in order to live and failing to do so is nihilistic. 

But, as pointed out previously, science cannot help us with questions of meaning at all, and Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg expressed the inexorable march of Scientism towards nihilism in his book “The First Three Minutes” like this: 

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, 
the more it also seems pointless.” 

This sentiment is dependent upon the assumption that any idea that will not submit to the scientific method, and hence fit Weinberg's definition of “comprehensible,” is false, or at least not worthy of consideration. Again there's an implicit special pleading to exclude meaningful stories and ideas about God while allowing unproven ideas which lie within the scope of science.

The error of this assumption is made clear in the example of a hypothetical murder. A scientist might observe a bullet hole in a murder victim, note that the bullet penetrated a major artery, and conclude that the victim died of loss of blood. But those facts do not in any way explain why the person was murdered, which is the most important part of the incident.

What matters most in the event of a murder is the story behind it, and the meaning of the event is entirely dependent upon the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim: the meaning lies in the space, or interface, between perpetrator and victim. 

Whether the victim had threatened the perpetrator's children or was being robbed by the perpetrator changes everything – same observations at the scene, same conclusion for cause of death, but entirely different meaning. In the first case the perpetrator is defending his children which is a socially acceptable act, whereas in the second case the perpetrator is robbing the victim which is not acceptable.

This example merely illustrates that the scientific approach to discerning the truth about reality is incomplete and that the results of science must be further interpreted in order to be meaningful to humanity. 

Take the example of a cell phone, which is only possible by “interpreting” abstract scientific results to make a physical object. Furthermore, it exists only because of the human desire to communicate with one another. And what do we communicate? Stories. Science itself has little or nothing to say about how its results are used.

In denying all concepts of god, the atheist, like the scientist in the example of murder, denies the importance of interpreting the meaning behind the observed facts. 

Scientists are very comfortable with ideas that seem entirely impossible in normal life. In fact much of physics hinges upon the use of near-mystical entities. Virtual particles are real when their effects are observable, but not real when they aren't useful in calculations. Even terms that we take for granted, like “particle,” are not so easily nailed down: 

A detailed article in Quanta magazine titled “What is a particle?” summarized the scientific understanding of fundamental particles to conclude that “we don’t know.” 

Looked at another way, the search for the now not-so-indivisible “atomos” proposed by Democritus more than 2,400 years ago ultimately led to the discovery of quarks, which are thought of as point-like entities with zero size according to quantum chromodynamics ( In other words our search for the fundamental building blocks of the universe, the so-called indivisible atomos, has revealed that they are mysterious entities with no size. It's almost as if they don't exist, and yet they do. 

That's Mystical stuff. 

Even more so for virtual particles which only exist while their effect on “real” particles is measurable, and all of this is before we contemplate the nature of “energy” and “forces,” the existence of which is no less mysterious simply because they can be described by a mathematical equation. Suffice it to say that atheists are more than willing to accept mystical ideas, but only when they fall within the purview of their own god, Science.

It's important to point out here that science does not explain the universe. It models the universe and expresses that model in the form of theories and equations. Only stories explain things, which is their role in human affairs. In fact the entire edifice of science can be understood as a sophisticated form of map or model making. 

In the broadest sense, a map is something that describes a territory. It can be used to orient oneself in the world, make predictions such as “if I drive west for two kilometers and turn right I will find a coffee shop,” perform calculations such as the distance from New York to Paris and much more. And that is exactly what scientific theories do for us – they are maps that we project onto the universe. 

But maps and theories can never do anything more than describe reality. The map won't tell us whether we will want or like coffee, and though it may help us get to Paris we have to put the map away in order to explore and understand the reality of Paris and a lover who happens to live there.

It is the denial of this shortcoming of science that enables the dismissal of ideas that fall out of reach of its power. Scientism insists that the results of science represent the sum total of what can be known. But, as in the example of a murder above, it may only be the beginning of the story.

Scientists have even searched for the human soul in the past by measuring the weight of a body before and after death. They found no change and concluded that there was no evidence of a soul. Fair enough. But if, in thought experiment, we were to take apart a human being organ by organ, cell by cell, searching for the soul we would still not find it. And this is the sort of argument used by atheists to claim that the soul, being a religious term associated with ideas about God, is not real, though they are comfortable with equally vague and poorly understood terms like consciousness, virtual particle, and the idea that quarks have zero size. Again, atheists apply different standards when dealing with idea's within science.

Humanity can be described thus:

At the center of a human being there exists another virtual particle that we can call its story. And we know that it exists by virtue of its effect on the “real” particles with which it interacts – and this is the same standard applied within science for the existence of virtual particles. 

There also exists another particle – a particle of meaning which is made clear by those stories – and though this particle has zero size it is every bit as real as a quark which also has zero size, but its existence is not detectable by the methods of science. And we might call that particle a “soul.” 

The life of a human being is so short, on a universal scale, that it might well be thought of as a virtual particle that separates briefly from a larger object before it returns to its place of birth. This particle, which we have named the “soul,”  carries  the meaning of the universe while it lives and disappears back into the universal soul from whence it came after its purpose has been fulfilled – like a drop of water finds its way back to the ocean after falling to earth as rain and fulfilling its role in making all of life possible. 

Let me relate this idea to Tolstoy's insight: the soul of a person, like a drop of water, separates from the universal soul and connects “the finite with the infinite” by carrying the meaning of a person's life within the larger story of the universe, thus making his life possible.

To wrap this up with respect to atheism, first we have the circular reasoning that concepts of god must meet the standards of proof defined by the scientific method which was deliberately designed to exclude questions about God, or meaning. 

Next, by denying the existence of all gods, atheists presume to have considered and disproven all concepts of God, which is an impossible task.

Finally atheism relies upon the logical fallacy of special pleading when it happily considers unproven theories, mystical ideas, undefined particles and even multiverses when they fall within the purview of science, but then categorically rejects all concepts of god by implying that these ideas are “differently” unproven in some unspecified way.

To further drive home my point in this essay, I have demonstrated that we can propose descriptions of soul and spirit – which are distinctly religious ideas –  that meet the same criteria for existence as some scientifically recognized particles, like quarks and virtual particles. A soul may have zero size, like a quark, but its existence as the carrier of meaning is evidenced by its effect on the world around it. 

And, though the story carried by the spirit may disappear as quickly as it arose, it is as real as any virtual particle – also as evidenced by its impact on the world around it. 

In fact the “noosphere,” which is described as the planetary "sphere of reason" and popularized by philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, has even been referred to as a “sphere of the spirit.” 

So, not only is atheism untenable but it is also inherently nihilistic, as suggested by Tolstoy and made clear by Weinberg, and as such it is possibly the worst of all faiths.

                                            Steve Brulé

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