A world without God

Believers and non-believers certainly disagree on innumerable things, but perhaps one thing we can agree on is that a world without God would look very different than a world with God. I'm an atheist not because I'm certain there is no God, nor because I think religion can be destructive and divisive, nor because I merely disagree with any particular religious creed. I'm an atheist because, when I look out on the world, I see a world just as it would be without a God, and find no plausible reason to entertain the idea of such a being's existence. Throughout this blog I've attempted to address numerous specific issues salient to the clash between faith and reason — the nature of morality, the origins of life and the universe, the problem of suffering, and many others. In this post, I'll lay out what is, for me, the most clear and definitive argument for rejecting belief in a supernatural deity. So it's in that spirit that I ask: what would a world without God look like? What might we reasonably expect to see?
Pattern recognition errors

We humans are programmed (or evolved, if you will) to be experts at pattern recognition. We can discern stationary objects, colors, faces, and countless other patterns. However, we can make two fundamental errors in pattern recognition: we can fail to see a pattern when it is there, such as a well-camouflaged animal; or, we can impose a pattern when there isn't one. Everyday examples of the latter abound: We hear a noise in the night that we believe are footsteps or a voice; we hear it again, and realize that it was just the wind. We slam on our brakes when we momentarily mistake a leaf tumbling across the road for a scurrying animal.

In each case, we are not simply erroneously imposing some arbitrary pattern; we are erroneously imposing goal-oriented patterns. This distinction is very important. An animal scurrying across the road is behaving with a goal: to get across the road; but a tumbling leaf is simply a random occurrence. The voice-like sounds made by the wind are similarly random, goal-less phenomena. Superstitions are rooted in this phenomenon of pattern-recognition errors. For example, if a gambler strikes it rich while wearing a certain hat, particularly if it happens on multiple occasions, he may begin to perceive the hat as his "lucky hat". In reality, the odds of his luck is a statistically predictable phenomenon, and his hat has nothing to do with it. He just happened to win when he was wearing the hat, and has now made the error of assuming that his hat somehow influenced the outcome.

If there were no God, we would expect supernatural beliefs to arise primarily as a result of such pattern-recognition errors, in which people perceived intent in random natural phenomena. Such phenomena might include illness, droughts, natural disasters, or famine. Like the old cliche of the island tribe tossing the virgin into the volcano to appease the Volcano God (see Joe vs. the Volcano), early human cultures would have thought that by performing certain rituals (including prayer) that they could appease a deity and influence the outcome of fateful events in their favor.

If this were the case, religion, being entirely a human construct, would be extremely dissimilar across various cultures. Any two cultures in isolation from each other would have completely different ideas about what supernatural being or beings existed and how they should be properly appeased. Some might not even believe in gods per se, but rather attempt to appease other types of supernatural beings, such as ancestral spirits or animals believed to have mystical powers. Because there would be no singular "true" God or religion to concurrently influence the beliefs of the world's innumerable cultures, no two religions, having never intersected, would share the same gods, rituals, or beliefs. And looking out on the world, this is precisely what we see.


Moral norms

If there were no God, we would expect moral norms to have arisen solely as a consequence of natural selection — sociocultural outgrowths of biologically hardwired behavior that improves our chances at successfully surviving and reproducing. Norms of how humans ought to treat one another would function as a necessity of cooperative, interdependent group living. For example, I ought to treat others with respect and fairness if I expect others to in turn treat me with respect and fairness. We would certainly expect that certain ideals regarding equity and fairness would be ubiquitous, although the nature of in-groups and out-groups and our tendency to be fearful of outsiders would sometimes manifest itself in selective inequalities.

We would not expect to see a consistent, absolute standard of moral norms across all cultures throughout human history; rather, there would be great variability in what was perceived as morally acceptable. This is simply because the types of moral norms that allow a relatively small tribal culture to thrive are quite different than the moral norms that allow what Desmond Morris would call a "super tribe", such as a large city, to thrive. To this end, we would expect to see great changes in moral norms as human cultures became larger, less homogeneous, and more complex.

Looking out on the world, this is precisely what we observe — and perhaps there is no better example than the Bible, and its stark contrast with the common practices of modern Christians. In the Old Testament, the people of tribal Israel kept slaves and were allowed to beat them severely; men were permitted to marry multiple women, and sell their daughters into sexual slavery; genocidal wars were waged against cultures that worshiped different gods, and soldiers were allowed to subjugate the virgin women. Even in the comparatively peaceful New Testament, slavery was permitted and women were explicitly subjugated to men. Modern Christians, of course, along with the rest of our socially evolved culture, tend to view things like slavery, misogyny and religious genocide to be egregious affronts to our most fundamental human rights. As human society has changed, so have our moral norms.


Prayer

If there were no god, we would not expect to see any scientific evidence that prayer has any significant effect on the outcome of any event. People who pray — and those for whom they pray — would not be statistically less likely to get sick, suffer injury, or die tragically. If a natural disaster strikes, it would strike randomly, with no particular person or group statistically more or less likely to be killed, injured, or bereft of their possessions. We would closely examine self-proclaimed "faith healers" such as Benny Hinn, and find no evidence that their prayers actually cure anyone of any affliction. But if prayer does indeed work, it should logically have a measurable, observable effect.

And yet, evidence in this regard has remained elusive. From Wikipedia:

Some studies of prayer effectiveness have yielded null results.[20] A 2001 double-blind study of the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in the recovery rates between people who were (unbeknownst to them) assigned to a group that prayed for them and those who were not.[21] Similarly, the MANTRA study conducted by Duke University found no differences in outcome of cardiac procedures as a result of prayer.[22] In another similar study published in the American Heart Journal in 2006[23], Christian intercessory prayer when reading a scripted prayer was found to have no effect on the recovery of heart surgery patients; however, the study found patients who had knowledge of receiving prayer had slightly higher instances of complications than those who did not know if they were being prayed for or those who did not receive prayer.[7]


But even if specific effects of prayer are scientifically elusive, we might reasonably expect that those who are actively religious might find good fortune more readily than the non-religious. But again, evidence of any such benefit is elusive. Natural disasters, diseases, and all other manner of tragic circumstances strike indiscriminately. Hurrican Katrina decimated much of New Orleans leaving millions of lives in disrepair, but missed the infamously debaucherous French Quarter. Deadly diseases like cancer afflict the young, the old, the religious and the non-religious alike. All of this is precisely what we would expect if there were indeed no God.


Our mere existence

If there were no God, we would not expect Earth to have been purposefully placed in the "habitable zone" in our solar system so that life could arise; rather, we would expect life to arise merely as a consequence of the Earth's proximity to the Sun and the resulting conditions thereof. If that were the case, life — especially sentient life — would be extraordinarily rare. Given the fact that we have found bacteria living near volcanic vents on the ocean floor in extreme heat and total darkness, we might expect that similar microorganisms might be somewhat more common in the universe, and perhaps even within our own solar system. But highly complex, intelligent life would require specific conditions that would be highly improbable.

Looking out on the universe, we see billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Large portions of these galaxies — the vast central clusters of stars — are far too hot and cramped for complex life to evolve. Much like there is a "habitable zone" within our solar system, there is a "habitable zone" in our galaxy as well — and, presumably, others like it. We look out on the universe and see vast expanses of nothingness, and inexplicable lifeless planets that have formed — like our own — as a mere consequence of probability. While we can see that our celestial home, and our mere existence, is quite extraordinary and certainly quite rare, we can see no evidence that our universe is uniquely designed to accommodate us. In a few hundred million years, our planet will no longer have enough oxygen in the atmosphere to sustain human life. Billions of years from now, our planet will be annihilated by our sun as it runs out of hydrogen and becomes a red giant. And our entire galaxy may meet an unfortunate fate as it appears to be on a collision course with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. Certainly even now our species lives on a knife's edge of survival. This kind of universe — one utterly indifferent to us — is precisely what we would expect to see if there were no God.


A world without God

We see a natural world indifferent to human suffering, and even to our very existence, rather than a world that appears made for us. We see moral norms that have evolved as tools needed for our survival and that have changed as our cultures have changed, rather than immovable absolutes that have remained unchanged since the dawn of our existence. We see cultures with conflicting and irreconcilably different concepts of what God is and what God wants; moreover, we see countless cultures with pantheistic or animistic beliefs, and cultures that worship animals or ancestral spirits. There is no cohesive concept of "God", nor is there any cohesive concept of how such a deity should be appeased. We see no statistical evidence that prayer, or religious people in general, are more fortunate than the unfaithful, much less that those of any particular religion are more fortunate than those of any other. It is for these reasons that I am an atheist. I cannot fathom any reason to entertain the notion that there is a God at all, much less one that cares about me, listens to my prayers, and grants me good fortune in return for my faith. A world without God would look just like the one we see.

Comments

  1. Just out of curiosity, what would you expect a world with God to look like? Further, why is it at all reasonable to suggest that God should conform to your idea about how he should present him (or her) self to the world?

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  2. Presuming we are talking about a theistic god – one who intervenes and orchestrates events in the world, answers prayers, etc – and presuming this God is a "good" god and not some sadistic asshole.... I would expect there to be observable evidence of it, particularly those who followed the correct religion, presuming there is one. Perhaps people of faith would live longer, healthier, happier lives. Perhaps religious societies would be more peaceful and prosperous. Perhaps people of faith would be less likely to suffer from disease, famine, disabilities, and natural disasters. Perhaps they'd be less likely to commit crime, divorce or have affairs. Perhaps better educated people, would be more likely to be religious.

    But none of this is the case. I did a post on prayer some time ago in which I cited a handful of studies showing that people of faith were more likely to suffer from depression. The most peaceful, prosperous societies in the world are some of the most secular, such as the countries of Scandinavia. The most religious states in US are the highest in per capita crime, teen birth rates, and suicides while being lowest in education. Prison populations are disproportionately religious. A study by the evangelical Barna group found that atheists had lower divorce rates than any denomination of Christianity. Religious devotion is even correlated with lower education and IQ.

    Over at Ken Pulliam's blog, he came across a rather large study (conducted by a Christian organization no less) which found that evangelical pastors had a far greater than normal incidence of depression and anxiety. These spiritual leaders are essentially miserable people. Wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that not to be the case since these people are supposed to be theologically educated and deeply spiritual?

    I'm not asking the concept of God to conform to some sort of bias I have. I'm an atheist, I don't care. I'm asking people who proclaim that a theistic God exists to be able to articulate a logically consistent concept. If a theistic God exists but there are no measurable, observable effects of his existence, then he might as well not exist. Some theists weasel out with the whole "God can't be measured" excuse, but that's just admitting that God doesn't do anything and doesn't matter, which is what I've been saying all along. :)

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  3. OK, so a couple more questions - isn't much of what you cite regarding the U.S. in the paragraph beginning "But none of this is the case..." drawn from the "Red families v. Blue families" book? And aren't you basically just substituting the words "most religious states" for "states with younger average age of first marriage" which was more the thrust of that book? I'm not saying it's not an accurate substitution (especially given that you and I both grew up in ok, where religion indeed drives many people to marry young), but I also think it's important to note that there are multiple variable in each of the things you cite. For example, the Scandinavian countries are also extremely rich due to their low populations and resource wealth; prison populations also tend to be disproportionately poor. As such, I think it's erroneous to suggest that religion is causal in either of those assessments (i.e. if Scandinavians were less secular, they'd no longer be peaceful and prosperous, and if prisoners were less religious, they'd no longer be inclined to do things that land them in jail.)

    Also, when you say "...that's just admitting that God doesn't do anything and doesn't matter, which is what I've been saying all along", aren't you just plagiarizing Dawkins? :)

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  4. Question 1: No, that's data that actually be independently ascertained from a number of sources. The "Bible belt" states are of course more politically conservative as well, but they're still crappier places to live than more liberal, secular states.

    As a corollary, it's important to understand what I'm getting at here. I'm not saying that secular countries are better off because mainly because they're secular. Nor am I saying that more religious places are worse off only because they're more religious. I think those things play a role, but obviously there are countless other economic and sociocultural factors intertwined.

    Marriage is a fine example. Due to sociocultural norms regarding pre-marital purity, more religious people are probably more likely to marry young. And marrying younger means a higher likelihood of divorce. So I don't think that atheists have lower divorce rates because they're atheists, but because they reject those norms and hence wait longer before marriage.

    But what I'm really getting at is that all things being equal, what is the evidence a theistic god exists? Want to say God intervenes in the natural world? That he answers people's prayers? That there is a good, pragmatic reason for being a believer in terms of one's happiness, moral constitution and/or personal welfare? Fine. How do you know?

    Question 2: Actually I was totally ripping off PZ Meyers:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/04/am_i_to_be_the_next_enemy_of_t.php

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