The Biggest Problem With Atheism


The “New Atheists” have made atheism in vogue among the popular masses. While agnosticism and atheism have been popular stances since the early days of the Enlightenment among the educated, until recently it wasn’t all that popular among the average citizen. In the past decade, however, that has begun to change. Chalk it up to the bravado of the New Atheists and their rhetoric, but don’t chalk it up to the content of atheism; that’s because atheism has no content, which is why no one should embrace it.

The biggest problem with atheism is that it tells us nothing about what is or what ought to be. If anything, in recent years, atheism has turned into nothing more than a giant rant against religion, specifically Christianity. Look at any of the popular books on atheism by atheists and it’s full of arguments against the existence of God. We’re told that God is evil, that God is impossible, that it’s irrational to believe in God, that we don’t need God in order to be good, and so on. In other words, all modern atheism does is show us what not to believe, but it puts nothing in the place of God.

We are told that we do not need God in order to be good; but sans God how do we define what “good” is and how do we create an ought to achieve that good? We’re told we don’t need God for the universe to exist; but sans God how do we explain the existence of immaterial laws in a universe that is supposedly solely material? Which came first, the matter/energy or the laws that govern the matter/energy? In other words, atheism tells us that God doesn’t exist, but if we grant this and go, “Okay, then what?” the atheist simply says, “Oh, I don’t have to answer that.”

Yet, and this is the problem with all skepticism, if no content can be provided as to what should be believed in the absence of what is rejected, then what value is the belief? Recognizing that atheism lacks answers to questions is a big reason for some people to turn away from atheism. After all, any child can mock something someone says, but it takes an adult to articulate why a belief is wrong and what should be believed in its stead. This is not to say that all atheists are children; there are some atheists who are making an attempt to explain why we should be ethical in the absence of God, why life has meaning, and so on. But these atheists are few and far between, and they’re getting fewer (either due to death or conversion to theism). The new atheists apparently want to say that life has meaning, life is unique and wonderful, and that universal ethics exist, but don’t want to supply any proper reasoning behind it. While “fanboys” of the new atheists laud their writings, other atheists (especially in academia) recognize that the new atheists have fallen short. In fact, my implication of there being two atheists is explicitly stated by other atheists (though I still think both types of atheism presented in the linked article are sub-standard as they provide no answers).

We look at the universe and through a process of deduction conclude that God is the most probable explanation. The atheist says no, but when we ask him to explain how something came from nothing, we get nothing (even Lawrence Krauss’ book completely falls short of its title). We’re told that we don’t need God in order to be good. When we ask why we ought to be good, we’re told it’s a matter of genetics and evolution. When we point out that we’re then determined and thus there’s no point to shame or praise, we’re told that we can still choose and that we ought to be ashamed for rejecting atheism. When we say that this is the language of free will (in fact, the mere act of attempting to persuade someone is acting on an implicit belief in free will), we’re told that everything is determined. Thus, atheism, in its attempt to prove God doesn’t exist discredits free will, but then seeks to persuade people to believe God doesn’t exist. This is simply one of many contradictions within atheism.

Having answers for the ought is important because the justification behind the ought is what changes society. Why ought I act a certain way? Why ought I pass certain laws? Why ought I care about suffering that is not my own? Why ought I show any concern for society? Ultimately, all atheism can say is, “Well evolution has caused this,” but that’s not an ought, it’s an explanation. Perhaps evolution has led the majority of humans to believe it’s wrong to murder for one’s own benefit, but where is the ought for humans who see no problem with that? And were we to provide an ought for why it’s wrong to murder, ultimately such a justification must be established in a strong metaphysic. But if our metaphysic is nothing beyond, “Something came from nothing as a huge accident” then our justification loses all meaning because it inherently lacks purpose.

Thus, the biggest problem with atheism is that it brings nothing to the table. It cannot create a metaphysic that holds any meaning because the metaphysic will ultimately lack purpose. Perhaps the new atheists can turn to existentialism, but once again we run into the problem; whereas existentialism taught that we provided meaning to our lives (which is something Kai Nielsen teaches), this belief doesn’t work because, yet again, it lacks the ought. Certainly the atheist can say that helping old ladies cross the street provides meaning to our lives, but we can counter that assuming the atheist metaphysic is true, pushing old ladies in front of cars equally provides meaning; neither action is good or bad, they’re simply actions (this is the conclusion Nietzsche came to). None of this is to say that atheists can’t be good – they are often better than many religious people – but it is to say that atheists lack justification for being good.

Of course, the problem of atheism isn’t limited to the realm of ethics, but that’s just the most obvious target. Atheism has no metaphysic, no justification behind its oughtness. Thus, while atheists may ask difficult questions or point to potential problems with theism, it ultimately lacks any substance or any reason for being good. Thus, even if the atheist points out that a reason for being good is false, it doesn’t mean we should disbelieve God, just that we should disbelieve the absoluteness of our reason; there’s still no reason to be an atheist because it simply has no answers. It might be able to question the explanations for “what is,” but it cannot provide its own explanation for “what is.” That is to say, atheism cannot tell us anything about the world around us, but can only question other theories that attempt to make and explanation, meaning atheism, ultimately, brings nothing to the table.

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13 thoughts on “The Biggest Problem With Atheism

  1. All of which is predicated on the idea that you think there ought to be a celestial moral arbiter. It says nothing about whether that arbiter exists, only that you wish it to exist.

    1. I’m saying that if we are to say “x is right” or “x is wrong” and mean it in any objective sense, by logical necessity there must be some absolute foundation. To accomplish this we must turn to some type of theism. If we don’t, then ultimately we’re simply talking about what we prefer, but it’s still subjective, leaving us with little recourse to justify any moral outrage.

      Hence the problem of atheism – it leaves us with no answers to life’s biggest problems.

      1. Well first off, why assume that the universe contains anything describable as wrong or right? With no evidence for the existence of an inbuilt moral framework—divinely inspired or not—then as thinking beings, we should exercise our capacity for thought and work one out for ourselves, both as a species and as individuals.

        Your logical necessity doesn’t follow. Because we feel that an action may be wrong or right, doesn’t logically lead to the conclusion that those feelings came from anywhere but our shared ancestry and experience. We’re intelligent enough to know whether an action will cause another person pain or sorrow, regardless of whether we allow that knowledge to influence our action. Add to that the principle of enlightened self-interest—I want to normalize the idea of not hurting people, because then people won’t hurt me or my kith and kin—and we have a good basis to build a system of morals on, without ever needing an outside arbiter.

        Please note: I don’t expect you to agree that the above is how the world actually is, but merely to agree that it provides, in principle, a non-divine basis for morals. I’m not arguing against the existence of a god here, just that a god is not necessarily needed as an explanation for moral behaviour.

      2. But that’s the whole problem with atheism, you say as thinking beings we should work one out, but why? Where is the justification for the ought? Why should I care about the principle of enlightened self-interest if I’ve gained enough power that I no longer have to care about other people (i.e. what if I’m a dictator with a military underneath me, so the only people I have to keep happy are those in my military, or what if I’m a CEO and I’ve purchased enough judges and senators that I can run my company as I please, caring not one bit for the people I harm, or what if I’m that same CEO and I use slave labor overseas simply because I can)?

        The point isn’t to deal with atheistic normative ethics – on that atheism has no problem creating ethical standards. The problem is when we reach metaethics or metaphysics in general (as atheism ultimately can’t provide us with an epistemology, can’t explain how we understand the world, leaves us without recourse to science [since the realism inherent within science cannot be supplied by atheism]). In other words, atheism works at questioning, but it doesn’t provide any answers, it has no substance, it cannot give us an ought in anything we do. “We should explore the world!” Why? What is the reason? “Because that’s how we’re genetically engineered!” But that doesn’t justify us exploring the world anymore than it justifies rape (as, according to atheism, rape is a product of evolution).

        Thus, we’re ultimately left without any recourse to answers when we probe the issue further. These answers can be supplied in a logically consistent way in Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and even some forms of polytheism (that have a monotheistic origin at least). There is a logical consistency within the system that can provide answers even if those answers don’t necessarily match reality. In those cases, we can determine if the system can be adjusted to match reality or if the system itself simply doesn’t correspond. With atheism, however, it’s only logically consistent in the tightest circle, but everything else simply has to be assumed or presupposed. The empiricism, scientism, and other “isms” often associated with atheism have all been proven logically incoherent and self-defeating, leaving atheism with no internal consistency and therefore no answers for the questions it raises.

      3. Another way to understand what I’m getting at is this:

        Scholasticism taught that knowledge was true justified belief (taking this from Plato and Aristotle). The epistemology that came from this was a based on realism, the self-evident view that what we experience is true. In other words, the validation for the external world was assumed because of a realist metaphysics. But realism simply is not possible within atheism because, in order to question the existence of God, one must abandon realism (this is why atheism only takes off intellectually post-idealism). Thus, the atheist is left with two options: (1) embrace a realist metaphysic, but admit this is inconsistent with his atheism or (2) attempt to come up with an epistemology that explains the existence of matter and our knowledge of matter without becoming circular or self-contradictory (hence the failure of positivism).

        Another example would be government. If there is no right or wrong, but what we determine to be right or wrong, then how do we approach the government? Wouldn’t Martin Luther King Jr actually be a villain instead of a hero since he went against what society had established as being right? In other words, aren’t all social reformers “evil” since they go against the majority? Of course, few but the most radical and high-tower atheists would ever admit to such a belief, so atheism is left attempting to explain how objective morality exists.

        That’s the problem – it’s one thing to remove God, but it’s entirely another to have to devise a system without God. I absolutely applaud the atheists that try to do this (and you seem like one yourself) and respect them for rising above the rabble of the New Atheists, but I do think their quest is in vain.

  2. All of which merely restates your own ought: That there ought to be a god of some sort to act as an outside arbiter—and, I might add, that that outside arbiter, if it exists, is acting in the best interests of humanity.

    Whether talking about the ‘ultimate origin’ of the universe, of life or of morals, the problem remains the same. Where the atheistic argument, I’ll grant, provides no ultimate source, the theistic argument merely claims the existence (with no supporting evidence) of a sentient source, without explaining what brought that source into existence. It merely places the origin problem one further step away. It adds complication merely to give the appearance of support to an unevidenced presupposition that such a being exists.

    Your explanation gives the appearance of explaining all, whilst actually explaining nothing.

    1. You’re performing some equivocation there and proving my point; you can’t actually support atheism, thus you turn back to attacking theism. You didn’t really respond to any of the problems I pointed out with atheism or attempt to supply an answer. All you did was turn around and attack theism. But that’s the entire point I’ve been trying to make: Atheism has nothing to offer in terms of an answer.

      Likewise, I never said there ought to be a God. I said that if we are to have an ethical ought, by logical necessity there must be a God. If we do without the ought then by logical necessity social reformers are “evil.” If we are to have a realist epistemology that is non-circular then by logical necessity there must be a God. If we are to abandon realism and/or use some form of positivism then we must accept that our own standards will be self-contradictory. If we want to use realism then by logical necessity God must exist.

      It’s the point of looking at philosophy as a whole and realizing that if we remove God when dealing with meta-ethics or metaphysics, the entire system runs into major problems. While atheism works in the particulars, when looked at from a universal aspect it provides (and cannot provide) any answers.

      Finally, the argument that we need evidence for any claim of God merely furthers my claim – such a standard ultimately contradicts itself. Yet again atheism leaves us with nothing. (Might I also add that the whole “then who created God” argument ignores over 2,000 years of responses?)

  3. “The biggest problem with atheism is that it tells us nothing about what is or what ought to be.”

    As atheism doesn’t attempt to do that, I don’t see the problem.

  4. As far as the OP goes, with its claim that atheism cannot provide a moral framework, I answered that in my second comment. Whether you agree that my explanation is how the world actually works or not is neither here nor there—I refuted your claim that there is no possible mechanism.

    Sorry, I wasn’t claiming that you were advancing an argument for god, merely that the theistic argument, whoever makes it, suffers from the same problem of infinite regress that the atheistic argument does.

    Whatever, we’re both talking about oughts, and neither argument says anything about what is. Philosophy without recourse to evidence-based checks is mere speculation. Fun, maybe, but ultimately ungrounded.

    You may add what you like about 2,000 years of responses. Unless you can show physical evidence for the existence of a god, all you have is 2,000 years of word-play. (And, I might add, noting that you’re a Christian, that the leap from a deistic creator to the specific god of the Bible is an even bigger one than the initial supposition of a vaguely defined deist’s god.)

    1. Oh damn. Sorry, I messed up an emphasis tag, obviously. Only the words ‘cannot’ in the first paragraph and ‘is’ in the third should be emphasised. (Feel free to edit my comment to that extent to correct it, if you wish.)

  5. [blockquote]That is to say, atheism cannot tell us anything about the world around us, but can only question other theories that attempt to make and explanation, meaning atheism, ultimately, brings nothing to the table.[/blockquote]

    That you were able to type that contradiction is the essence of the missed point. The questioning is what it brings to the table. If any of the theistic worldviews were actually a theory in any sense of the word they would embrace this questioning. They do not; they reject it. Regardless, those theistic worldviews don’t offer the guidance you seem to attribute to them. Those who follow assiduously what’s written in the sacred texts are rightly condemned for their immorality (Westboro Baptist, anyone?). They aren’t objective and do not offer absolutes, which is I think your main contention. If they did, how could they be used to justify slavery and the suppression of MLK’s mission and equally well to repudiate slavery or defend MLK’s mission? Absolutes are not subject to interpretation. There are few absolutes.

    The theistic approach is universally BAD at providing an objective or absolute moral compass. The one followed by the Abrahamic religions in particular is filled with horrific nightmares of unconscionable evil. Of course, when you start off with assumptions like “if god ordered it, it is by definition moral” then you can justify anything as moral, including unconscionable evil. To suggest that without god we can justify any behavior is exactly backward. To justify immorality requires the invocation of a god upon whom you can place all the responsibility.

    1. You’re making quite a few mistakes in your response. Let’s go over them:

      1) Questioning, as in, “Well how do we know this to be true” can bring a lot to the table. The type of questioning I’m referring to with Atheism, however, is more along the lines of skepticism, which doesn’t bring anything to the table. In other words, atheism cannot provide a justification for any beliefs.

      2) An ontological absolute doesn’t mean it is an epistemological absolute. It is absolutely true that the earth rotates around the sun, yet this theory as debated and for thousands of years wasn’t believed. Are we to say that the earth’s rotation around the sun is not absolute? Just because something is doubted doesn’t mean that something isn’t absolute.

      3) Your attack on theism merely proves my point – all you can do is attack theism. You can’t defend your atheism because your atheism provides no justification. You use words “good” and “bad,” but in atheism these words have absolutely no content to them beyond your own personal preference.

  6. You use words “good” and “bad,” but in atheism these words have absolutely no content to them beyond your own personal preference

    But how do you assign such values? Do you just ‘take God’s word for it’ that such-and-such is good, while such-and-such is bad? If so, on what grounds did you decide that his moral pronouncements are ‘good’?

    Once again you claim something to be a problem with the atheistic view, whilst ignoring the fact that the theistic view has exactly the same problem, but at one remove.

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