This is the original draft of my View Counter-view article on “Atheism vs Theism” published in Renesa Aug 2009 Issue. I presented an argument favouring atheism. Here it goes
I prefer an argument where both sides employ logic and reasoning as the only weapons to decimate the opposition. However, with religious views and beliefs in unquestionable and unshakeable truths of the holy books entering the arena, logic and reasoning tend to take the backseat. Admittedly, people of a theological bent are chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true and what they would like to be true. And yet, I will try to present my points with scientific zeal and clarity and leave it on you, the reader, to choose the side you prefer to align with, hopefully without getting excited about personal opinions, either mine or yours. All religions have one thing in common – the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, eye-in-the-sky God, who has, among other responsibilities, the job of listening to our prayers and answering them(billions of them simultaneously), punishing our sins and disapproving with our sex lives. And this is the hypothesis I shall attack – the existence of God along with the ideas of Creationism and it’s politically expedient and well dressed, but equally deceptive, cousin Intelligent Design
One of the arguments often forwarded to necessitate the existence of God is the one from personal incredulity: Oh look at the human eye, how complex it is and I, personally, cannot imagine how an instrument of such complexity just comes about by chance; therefore God created it. Such an argument could only be made by somebody who does not understand the first thing about natural selection, somebody who thinks natural selection is the theory of chance whereas –in the relevant sense of chance- it is the opposite.
Evolution is not a theory of chances. It says that living beings evolve through random changes or mutations in their genes. These mutations occur over a period of millions of years. Natural selection selects the most favourable ‘mutant’ from the lot based on the surrounding environment of the living being. Natural selection is a cumulative process. It breaks the problem of improbability in to smaller less improbable pieces. The above is a very general definition and anything better cannot be confined within the word limit of this article. Please read “The Blind Watchmaker” for an in-depth understanding of the subject.
Imagine a wedge, one side of which is a steep incline and the other a gradual slope. Natural selection rises up the gradual slope to reach to the top, rather than the slippery slope as chance would have to take. Natural selection is a phenomenon of evolutionary time-scale, one that takes millions of years to pronounce a change. We cannot observe natural selection and evolution in action (except in viruses) because nobody can survive that long enough. Yet we have proof of evolution from not just fossils but also molecular genetics and geographical distribution of life. There are obviously gaps in fossil record and that is because only a tiny fraction of corpses fossilize. Evolution also makes the strong prediction that even if a single fossil turned up in the wrong geological stratum, it would nullify the whole theory and yet that has never happened. Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates of course love gaps in scientific understanding, whether they be gaps in fossil records or gaps in our present scientific understanding. There ploy is that if science can’t fill a gap, it must be, by default, filled by god. Notice the biased logic here: if theory A fails in some particular case, theory B must be right without theory B having to undergo the rigorous demands made by science. Scientists exult in mystery because it gives them something to do. Creationists love mystery because it allows them to bring out god to explain the mystery.
The other is of course the argument from irreducible complexity (IC). The whole IC gambit goes like this: the creationist assumes that either an eye sees or it doesn’t, either a wing flies or it doesn’t and there are assumed to be no useful intermediates. And that, my dear reader, is absolutely and blatantly wrong. Creationists claim that they eye, or the wing for that matter, are irreducibly complex, that the removal of one of its parts causes the whole to cease functioning. Let’s think about it for a second. A cataract patient with the lens of her eyes removed may not see much, but she can certainly see enough not to bump into a tree. Half a wing may not be as good as the whole but it can certainly cushion a fall, and 51 percent of a wing would certainly do a better job than that. A flatworm has an eye that can detect light and shade but not form any images, and yet it is better than no eye at all. Do not declare things to be irreducibly complex. There is a good chance that you haven’t looked carefully enough at the details or thought carefully enough about them. As of writing this, no object has been demonstrated to be irreducibly complex.
The other appeal put forward by theists to support religion, and therefore god, is the healing power of religion. They ask: What does science has to offer the dying patients, the weeping bereaved, and the lonely in the way of comfort and consolation? Religion’s power to console does not make it true. Even if all atheists, including yours truly, were despairing neurotics driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst – none of these would contribute a tiny-weenie bit to God’s existence. There is a difference between “X is true” and “It is desirable that people should believe that X is true”. And of course, there is no evidence to suggest that atheists are any more unhappy, angst ridden than their theist counterparts. Some of the consoling that religion does can be achieved by means of physiatric counselling. Similarly science could offer physical comfort to the dying in the form of medical treatment in a way that religion never can.