WHY GODS CANNOT EXIST
BY JON NELSON
Let me start off by stating that I find it singularly amazing as well as depressing that, in the twenty-first century, we still need to even discuss the existence of supernatural entities such as gods. Technologically, society continues to move forward at a pace that would have astonished earlier generations. The advancement of science and technology have brought enormous benefits to virtually everyone on earth. In striking contrast with this, we see constant strife all over the world which should indicate to any thinking person that something is morally wrong with the majority of the world’s population and its leaders. It is my contention that the root cause of most of this strife can be found in religion and god-belief. The majority of people worldwide continue to believe in things that are laughingly ridiculous and should have died out centuries ago. Perhaps the most universal of these is the belief in the existence of gods. Despite the fact that there exist countless articles, magazines, periodicals, books and social media information that have thoroughly demolished all the rationalizations for the existence of gods, most people are blissfully unaware of such information and, if presented with it, tend to reject it outright. However, if we are to arrive at the truth, we must first avail ourselves of all preconceived religious and social biases and examine the evidence objectively. It takes a courageous person to do this, and risk ostracism and discrimination, not only from his/her family, but from associates and friends as well. Most believers will take the easy and comforting way of unquestioning theistic belief. For those of stronger moral and intellectual character, read on.
Let us begin by noting that the title of my article refers to gods in the plural, rather than singular. This is because, since gods exist only in the mind of those who believe, people construct their deities according to their own wishes and desires. A person’s god is merely an extension of what that person would like to be. A liberal person, for example, will imagine a god who magically dovetails with that person’s liberal beliefs. A person who believes in the literal truth of the Bible will invariably become extremely conservative, and construct a vengeful, tyrannical deity as depicted in the Old Testament. A Muslim will believe in the Muslim deity, and the Jews believe in yet another kind of deity. A happy person will construct a happy god, while someone who is morose will construct theirs in accordance with their own nature. It should be obvious that all these people cannot be talking about the same god. Hence the plurality of the title of this piece.
The single most damning refutation of the existence of gods is the fact that no one, at any time in history, has been able to describe exactly what their god actually is. The usual tactic is for them to tell us what god is like or what he/she/it/they is said to have done. However, this is a logical fallacy; as most of us learned in third grade, every verb must have a qualifying noun. In other words, before believers can say that their god created the universe, they must first describe exactly what they mean by the word “god.” Since time immemorial, this has proven to be utterly impossible. Before god can do something, it must firstbe something. All conscious actions presuppose the physical existence of an entity that caused the action to take place. To try and exempt god from this fact is worse than the fallacy of special pleading; it violates all common sense. Did all god believers somehow miss the third grade?
Many believers also attempt to “answer” the question of what god is by attributing various character traits to him. Again, this is putting the cart before the horse, a fallacious effort to avoid the fundamental issue of providing us with the essence of what a god actually is. Any child can invent an imaginary playmate and attribute certain traits to it. Calling god “all loving” or “omniscient” is no more objectively valid than the child’s description of his invisible friend as being “very friendly.” Neither points to anything resembling objective reality.
To elaborate, “running” does not exist, but things that run do exist. If I say that “giffles run,” this is an objectively meaningless statement until I can describe what a “giffle” is. To do this, I must describe it by stating what category of existence it falls into, and what differentiates it from other entities in that category. For example, I might say that a giffle is a type of rodent, and that it possesses five feet. I have defined the giffle by class (rodent) and by differentiation (five feet). While this does not prove the existence of such a creature, it at least gives us something to go on were anyone seriously to contemplate searching for one. We would be looking for some kind of a rodent with a uniquely different characteristic: the possession of five feet. With a god, however, the theist has nothing to offer by way of description; they have failed to provide us either with its class, or its differentiation. Therefore, there is nothing “out there” to look for. At the most fundamental level, the theist has failed to make his case. All the other rationalizations for the existence of god need not even be considered until the believer supplies us with a coherent starting point. None have ever done so.
The believer may then assert that, although he/she cannot prove the existence of his god, the atheist cannot disprove it. This is yet another logical fallacy; it is irrational to demand refutation for something that has not even been coherently defined. More to the point, it is not the atheist’s responsibility to prove that god does not exist. Why not? Simply because the theist is asserting the existence of something outside the natural world, and therefore the burden of proof rests upon him to prove his case. The atheist isn’t asserting the existence of anything outside of nature; both he and the theist can agree that the tree in front of them is a tree. It is the theist who is asserting the existence of something else, of something beyond the material world. Therefore he has the burden of proof. The atheist’s responsibility is to examine the theist’s claim; he therefore has only the burden of rebuttal.
One of the most difficult things to convince a believer of is the fact that the atheist is (or should be) basing his conclusions exclusively on objective evidence. Believers, by contrast, are basing their conclusions on faith, and the rationalizations for their god only come after the leap of faith has been taken. This is why, in any discussion of the god issue, the atheist should note this at the beginning and then ask the believer if he/she is willing to abandon their belief should their rationalizations be refuted. If they say no, than the atheist should cease the conversation, possibly stating that it would be pointless to discuss the issue with someone who is not basing their conclusions on logic and reason. Faith, being utterly subjective, is not admissible as “evidence” for the existence of gods or of anything else.
Atheism, properly understood, should be based exclusively on reason and objective evidence; in contrast with god believers, wishes and desires are not part of the equation. The child who is an atheist because his parents are atheists, or the adult who decides not to believe in god because he is unhappy with his church or is angry at god for some imagined slight is not a true atheist since they did not arrive at their conclusions by reason. The believer who claims to be rational and yet will reject rational claims and fall back on his faith when the objective facts fail him, as they invariably must, is not rational in any meaningful sense. The rationalization from faith can readily be disposed of by asking one simple question: Can faith make an untrue statement true? If the believer answers yes, then they have entered the world of total subjectivity, wherein A is not necessarily A, and truth is based solely on the whims and desires of the believer. There are no objective facts in such a world, and issues of truth and falsity can only be settled by a show of force—the lessons of religious history are a stark testimonial to this fact. If, on the other hand, the believer answers no, then they are admitting what the atheist contends: that faith is subservient to the facts and is therefore inadmissible in the discussion since it objectively proves nothing.
Gods, if they can be said to exist, must possess certain definable attributes, as do all other existing things. What attributes can believers adduce for their gods?
Since gods don’t exist anywhere except in the minds of believers, there will be many different responses and rationalizations to this question. Some of them are downright silly. For example, many believers insist that “god is love.” The fallacy of this argument should be readily apparent, for we already know what the word “love” means; we don’t need another word meaning the same thing. If the word “god” means nothing more than love, then the word “god” is rendered superfluous; we don’t need the word “god” to explain what love is.
Over the centuries, theologians have come up with numerous other rationalizations for believing in a god. None of these would be convincing to anyone not already predisposed to believe in their god, and they have been refuted time and again by non-believers. Despite this, believers continue to bring them up, proof positive that irrationalism dies hard. As previously noted, since no believer has been able to come up with a logical and consistent definition of what god is, these arguments need not even be considered. Nonetheless, since they constantly re-surface, we will briefly examine them here.
We are told that god is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), and omnibenevolent (all good). Notice first of all that these attributes contradict one another. No being can be both omniscient and omnipotent. Why? Simply because if god knows everything, then he has pre-determined everything in advance and if so, nothing can be changed, contradicting the idea of god’s omniscience. Secondly, omniscience and omnipotence contradict omnibenevolence, for if god is all-powerful and all-good, why would he allow evil to exist in the world? How could a Hitler, for example, have been allowed to murder millions without god lifting a finger to help? If god is all-powerful, he has the means to stop a Hitler. If he is omniscient, he knows what is happening. And if he is omnibenevolent, he recognizes evil and must do something to stop him. This is known as the problem from evil and theistic philosophers have tried since time immemorial to answer it. Let’s consider some of their excuses for their god’s mysterious absence when he is most needed.
Some theologians will simply say that we cannot grasp the mystery, but god will reveal it in his own good time. This is nothing more than an admission that they have no answer, for the existence of real suffering in the world continue to happen while god sits on his celestial throne doing nothing. Others have suggested that heaven is so grand and glorious that those who suffer here on earth will receive unimaginably great rewards in heaven. This is tantamount to saying that suffering in life is a good thing, and contradicts the notion of god’s benevolence. More significantly, it also makes a mockery of human morality and values. If it is argued that “god’s ways are not our ways” then god cannot be said to be moral, since the word morality means something different to god than it does to human beings.
A similar rationalization is that god does work for good purposes, but we mere mortals, with our limited intellect, cannot understand his ways. What this really means is that, if we see evil occurring, it somehow serves gods greater purpose, and we should do nothing, as it is part of god’s plan. This amounts to nothing less than the annihilation of all morality and human sentiment.
The concept of free will is usually trotted out at this point to justify god’s refusal to take action whenever evil is taking place. But humans cannot have free will if, by the believer’s own argument, god is omniscient and knows what we will do before we do. Believers cannot have it both ways. More to the point, the rationalization of free will is a smokescreen, whereby believers seek to shift attention away from their god onto us poor sinful humans. Free will or not, god is still not doing anything for us when we truly need him. Hitler’s Holocaust is proof enough of that. Is it moral to stand idly by when you have the power, at no danger to yourself, to intervene? How exactly is our free will threatened by god’s intervention? Is preserving the free will of a rapist or a murderer more important than the life of his victim? If anything, god’s intervention would be proof not only of his existence, but of his benevolence. How would a human being be judged if he was able to prevent a homicide and failed to do so? If we can judge a fallible human being for failing to act, we certainly can question the existence of a supposedly infallible, morally superior being who fails to do what any moral human would do. If it is still maintained that god is moral, than the believer is faced with the dilemma that morality means something different to god than to humanity. And if so, he can no longer be called all-good. There is no answer to the problem of evil.
Believers often display an alarming callousness toward the suffering of others. There have been many instances involving some kind of disaster in which many people are killed, and a survivor, when interviewed, credits god for “saving” him/her. In other words, the other people’s suffering and death are of no concern either to god or to the survivor. The arrogance of such people both amazing and disturbing.
Some believers try to rationalize their god into existence by reference to science. The most common of these is the attempt to posit god as a quasi-scientific “explanation” for the existence of human beings, the world, and the universe. They insist that, since everything requires a cause, there cannot be an infinite regression of causes, and god is conveniently posited as the “first cause.” This rationalization contains a number of erroneous ideas. The first is that it assumes that positing god as the creator of the universe somehow solves the problem posed by an infinite regress of causes. However, any third-grade child can reasonably ask, if god created the universe, who created god? If the believer insists that god does not require a cause, that he “just is,” then why can he not accept the idea that the universe “just is?” The believer is obviously capable of envisioning that something cannot require a cause (his god), so why can he not accept that the universe does not require a cause? Why bring a god into the equation? A natural universe requires the fewest assumptions. In logic, this is alternatively known as Occam’s Razor and the Principle of Parsimony. Answering the question How did the universe get here by reference to a deity not only does not answer the question of how the universe was created, it complicates the question by introducing another unanswerable question: Just what exactly is this god?
Notice too another logical fallacy: the circular reasoning of the first cause rationalization. The believer is saying, in effect: “everything except god has a cause, therefore the cause of everything is god.” This is begging the question: the believer is bringing his conclusion, i.e. that god exists, into his premise, i.e. that everything has a cause. He is trying to exempt god from the first cause argument without giving any reason why we should do so. The believer is trying to set up an imaginary “problem,” the mere fact that the universe exists, and then try to exempt their “solution” from the foundational premise of the problem. The most that believers can say is that their god is “different” or that the rules of logic and plain old common sense somehow don’t apply to him. This is intellectual dishonesty at its lowest level: believers who argue in this way are committing the fallacy of special pleading. When believers say that their god is above “mere” human logic, what they are really saying is that they (the believers) are not going to be logical: anytime any kind of disproof is offered, all they need to do is fold their arms and say “god is above human logic.” All this means is that believers are only committed to reason if it benefits them, and when it doesn’t they will seek an escape clause. Those who persist in this kind of argumentation are simply showing that there is something other than intellectual honesty guiding their actions. It is not god that refuses to play by the rules, but the theists who believe in him.
It should also be pointed out that, since god is usually portrayed as being objectively unknowable, how does positing something unknowable answer an unknown (the origin of the universe)? Even accepting the believer’s rationalization of positing god as the first cause, we still don’t know HOW the universe was caused. So, instead of the initial problem, we have now compounded it with a host of new problems: what exactly is this god, and by what means did he cause it to come into existence? Again, Occam’s razor comes into play: how is saying that an unknowable god created the universe by some unknowable means at some unknown time an advancement over the idea that the universe has always existed or is either self-created or originated by unknown means? Clearly, there is no logical reason to introduce supernaturalism in any form into the equation; it doesn’t answer the question, and confuses the issue by unnecessarily raising more unanswerable questions.
One extremely silly response, Bible based, is that god “breathed” the universe into existence. This is incoherent; breathing is part of our respiratory system, and to state that a deity’s breathing is an act of creation is to reject the definition of breathing and replacing it with a new definition applying only to god. This is an example of the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept. This concept, coined by Ayn Rand, states that one is employing a concept while denying the validity of its generic roots, i.e., of an earlier concept or concepts on which it logically depends. “Breathing,” in the religious context, destroys the meaning of what the term was designed to mean, and what it means today.
Another incoherent concept, also bible based (“in the beginning was the Word”), goes back long before to the ancient Egyptians and their god Ptah from Memphite theology. Ptah was said to be able to create himself, other gods, and any other living thing by speaking their names. While this is interesting in that it shows how people thought thousands of years ago, it is ludicrous in the extreme when contemporary Christians tell us that their god “spoke” the universe into existence. The words “spoke” and “word” have linguistic connotations that have no connection whatever to actually physically creating something. Rand’s Fallacy of the Stolen Concept applies here as well.
Another similar response is that god “willed” the universe into existence. The word will, in this context, means the strong desire to be or do something. It does not mean to physically do it, and it certainly does not explain how it was done. To accept this “explanation” one must reject the traditional definition of “will” and replace it with an objectively incoherent new definition. Rand’s Stolen Concept applies once again.
More fundamentally, if god is going to be offered as an explanation every time we don’t know something, why have science at all? Religion has historically thrived on answering questions via mysticism that we now are able to answer via logic and science. Answering a question by reference to a deity does not answer the question, for it tells us nothing about what this deity actually is, where it came from, or how it operates. This leads us to the most fundamental error of the first cause rationalization; the argument incorrectly assumes that the existence of the universe requires a causal explanation. The existence of the universe is in fact an axiomatic given, an irreducible primary at the basis of all causal change. When we speak of the universe, we are referring to an all-inclusive term (leaving aside multiverses and other recent scientific issues) referring to everything that exists. This fact is at the basis of all our knowledge and cannot be reduced any further. If a god exists (however ill-defined), it is part of that existence. If it doesn’t exist, it cannot be a cause—of anything. Nothing (a god) cannot be the cause of something (the universe), and nothing is outside of existence. If the believer tries to weasel out of this fact by stating that god is “something other” than what we know, then he must tell us in what way he/she/it/they is different. Just what is this god, where is it, and how exactly did it do what the believer insists it did? And, how can a being that is said to be non-physical (non-physical being is a contradiction in terms, discussed below) create anything without possessing a physical body? Even if it were granted that there was some kind of uncaused first cause, on what basis can it be argued that this must be a supernatural deity? Why can’t the first cause conform with logic and science? A naturalistic first cause seems never to entered the thinking of believers who want so desperately for their god to have some kind of scientific and logical foundation. If there is a primary cause, it might as well be related to existence itself, which we can perceive, rather than a supernatural agent, which we cannot. Once again, Occam’s Razor works to the disadvantage of the believer.
If an atheist asks a believer how the universe “got here” he will unhesitatingly say god. But notice here that this was not the question being asked; the question was HOW it got here, not WHO brought it into existence. This conclusively shows that the believer cannot answer his own question; he cannot tell us the means by which god brought the universe into existence, other than by making nonsensical mystical statements such as that he breathed it into existence or willed it into being (discussed above). Why would a believer ask an atheist a question that he himself cannot answer?
In contrast with believers of earlier times who saw god’s hand in everything that happens, we now know that Aristotle had it right over two thousand years ago when he came up with the laws of Identity and Causality. The Law of Identity states that everything is what it is: A is A. Nothing, therefore, can be A and non-A at the same time and in the same way; a table cannot be anything other than a table at that moment. The Law of Causality is an extension of the Law of Identity and says that any given thing can only act in accordance with its nature. For example, a human mother cannot give birth to a horse. The universe acts, and has always acted, on the basis of these two primary natural laws. Again, if believers disagree, let them describe exactly how their god operates. Until they do so, their rationalizations may summarily be rejected.
Perhaps the most popular argument for god is the design rationalization. This takes on many different forms. Invariably, it states that the universe, in all its multifaceted complexity, could only have come about by the work of an intelligent designer, which naturally opens the door for their deity. This, like the other rationalizations for the existence of gods, is easily refuted; the principle of graduated complexity alone refutes it. This principle states that any creator is of necessity more complex than anything it can create. For example, the human mind is more complex than anything that we have ever constructed. Accordingly, god must be much more complex than the universe, and must as a consequence require an even more complex designer. Who therefore created god? And who created god’s creator? Thus, we are led to a series of infinite regresses which doesn’t help us in the least in explaining “how it all came about.”
The design rationalization also ignores the key issue of purpose. Everything that is consciously created is created for a purpose. Here, the traditional watchmaker argument can be turned against the theist. The watchmaker rationalization, first coined by William Paley (1743-1805) states that, by looking at a watch, we can see how every part works in conjunction with the others and that this is proof that it was designed. The order of the universe, according to Paley, tells us likewise that the universe, which runs like clockwork, must have been created. Theists in their arrogance assume that we humans are the grand purpose for the universe’s creation. The problem is exactly that there are no extraneous parts in the watch. If this rationalization is applied to the universe as a whole, then there can likewise be no extraneous parts in the universe. This puts quite a responsibility on the theist, who must therefore tell us the purpose of everything in the universe and how it fits in with god’s alleged design and the “order” we see all around us. From the smallest grain of sand on the beach to the remotest galaxy, all must fit in and be explained in terms of how they are essential components to the operation of the universe. Exactly how is a grain of sand necessary for our function as human beings? Until the theist can answer this, the design rationalization can be dismissed without further consideration.
If god can be said to exist, it must possess certain definable traits and physical characteristics. An entity without attributes is a contradiction in terms; saying the entity is supernatural does not solve the problem; existence can only be proven by describing attributes. In trying to escape from this logical quagmire, believers often resort to negative theology: god is not like us, he is not physical, he is not finite, and so on. While believers may be able to supply a series of non-descriptive personality traits (loving, caring, intelligent, just, etc.), these are secondary, and not primary traits; they are also tactics of evasion. To reiterate, none of this tells us exactly what it is that is said to be loving, caring, etc. How is a being that possesses no definable positive attributes and characteristics any different from not existing at all? The believer can only shrug his shoulders and sputter nonsense such as “god is different.”
Some believers try other tactics to persuade us to abandon our reason and accept faith in their god. One of these is known as Pascal’s Wager. It originated with the 16th century scientist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and continues to be popular to this day. It goes something like this: “you should believe in god, because if he’s real, and you believe in him, you gain eternal life. If he’s real and you don’t believe, you suffer eternal damnation. If he’s not real, you lose nothing, so why not believe?” It seems astonishing that a man of Pascal’s intellect could come up with such a lame wager. The first point concerns intellectual integrity, which apparently means nothing to those advancing the wager; unlike believers, atheists accept things as true based on facts and evidence, and not on wishes and desires. The very idea that we would be willing to abandon our reason and “just believe” attests to a complete lack of intellectual integrity on the part of the believer, who assumes that the atheist likewise possesses no intellectual integrity. Belief by intimidation, (which is all that Pascal’s Wager really is), while it obviously works with believers who advance this argument, can have no effect on an atheist. Philosopher George H. Smith, who authored “Atheism: The Case Against God” devised a counter-wager which runs as follows: the existence of god can proved or disproved only by reason. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by an honest use of your reason. Examine the issue honestly and openly, which should lead you to atheism. Now the question arises: “but we are fallible human beings. What if our reason is wrong here? What if there is a god who will punish us for non-belief, and he is unprovable by reason?” Here is where Smith’s counter-wager comes in. There are only four possibilities, as follows: One, there is no god. The atheist is correct, and lives a happy life free from superstition, mindless dogma and the emotional tyranny of believing in hell. The second possibility is the god of traditional deism, who created the world and left it to run by its own devices. Such a god has nothing to do with humanity, and there is no reason for us humans to waste our lives fearing him and praying to him. The third possibility is that god exists, and he is a just god who is concerned with humanity. This cannot be Pascal’s god (or the god of Christianity) who freely consigns anyone to eternal torment for not believing in him, because his innate goodness would preclude this god from punishing someone for an honest error of reason, assuming that there is no moral evil involved. Here again, we have nothing to fear from such a god. In fact, if our reason is what separates us from the other animals, and this reason is a gift from god, one can imagine his anger at those who would reject it in rely instead on blind faith. This god might construe faith, rather than reason, as the gravest of “sins.” If anyone is in danger here, it is the believer, not the atheist. Finally, the fourth possibility concerns an unjust god. Unconcerned with justice, he will burn us whether our mistakes are honest or not. There is no greater injustice than to punish someone for an honest error of belief, and yet that is exactly what this fourth god, the Christian god, promises to do. The Christian thinks he is in a better position here, but if you think about it, he really is in the same boat as everyone else. For if this god really gets such a thrill out of creating people just to burn them for daring to use the reason he gave them, what could give him more enjoyment than to promise the Christian eternal life, then turn around and burn him too? Certainly, you cannot trust the word of a dishonest, unjust god when he promises you something, since sadism must be his defining characteristic. So in summary Smith’s Wager comes down conclusively on the side of the atheist: wager on atheism, because if the first possibility is true, you are correct; it is believers who have thrown away their lives wasting their time in prayer and believing in a false fantasy. If the second possibility is true, we have nothing to fear from this god and, once again, prayer becomes a futile and meaningless exercise and religious activity a pointless waste of time. The third possibility only puts the Christian in danger, not the atheist. And if the fourth possibility is true, admittedly the universe is a nightmarish place, but the Christian is no better off than the atheist. Pascal is refuted: wager on reason.
Others try and make a another kind of bet out of the whole thing. They will say, in effect, “I can’t convince you that god exists, but why don’t you just try praying to him and eventually he will come into your heart. You don’t have anything to lose by trying.” In other words, the believer wants us to put aside everything we know about the nature of reality in order to take his little test. Everything we know to be true is to be put on the line. However, as with every test, if there is a possibility it will succeed, there is also a possibility that it will fail. The atheist, if he were to take the test, is putting all his values and knowledge on the line. Therefore, the believer must put up similar stakes. If the atheist takes the test and god somehow comes into his life, he will be convinced (although other atheists will surely wonder how deeply committed he was to reason in the first place). However, if the experiment fails, the believer must admit his error and give up belief in god. If the believer is demanding that the atheist give up his non-belief, based solely on this test, the believer must be willing to give up his belief. This must be made clear at the outset of the bet. Is the believer willing to test himself and his beliefs in this way? It is a rare believer indeed who would agree to this. And for those who would, the atheist would be well advised to get it in writing or get it in front of a group of witnesses, since believers are not notoriously honest in matters of intellectual integrity.
Finally, notice what happens to word definitions when used by believers to describe their imaginary best friend. Words like “existence,” “being,” “breath,” “will,” and “create” no longer mean what they were coined to mean. When used by theists, their connections to physical reality are severed; we are asked to forget these traditional definitions and replace them with new ideas that makes no objective sense at all. In other words, we are being asked to re-invent words in order to accommodate the believer’s imaginary deity. Yet to do this is to sever all connection with reality. For example, theists often “describe” their god as a non-physical being, but this ignores the fact that the definition of the word “being” presupposes physical existence. Therefore, “non-physical being” is as contradictory a phrase as “square circle.”
In this type of linguistic confusion, the believer hopes to introduce his god.
Consistently adhered to, this anti-rational approach would leave humankind on its knees, blind to the nature of existence, endlessly beseeching a nightmarish deity that cannot even be described for assistance that never comes.
There was a time when this type of thinking ruled the world. It was called the Dark Ages.