Topics like the formation of the universe are always contentious because there isn’t a universally accepted theory, and they can’t all be right. For that reason, it isn’t a bad thing when someone has the humility to not believe in something that can’t be proven. While science only tangentially supports atheism with concepts like evolution, skeptics of all definitions still appreciate their denial of any ideas lacking empirical evidence. The major problem with an idea like creationism is that it reaches a very definitive answer to an indescribably complicated question with relative ease. To an atheist, simplicity is something this crazy world and its own beginning probably won’t have in common.
The basic response is to say that our lack of an answer to the world’s origins does not necessitate putting forth an unfounded one. It’s better to know that you don’t know rather than potentially being wrong.
There are many who would argue against that, defending a creator with anecdotes of divine intervention. However, most of the existing support for these stories reflects a certain selectivity bias. Hopes become reality because prayers were answered. Otherwise, it must not have been part of the plan; it’s a similar psychological process to feelings of luck. To be fair, conceptualizing comfort through religion can be its own kind of initiative for those that need it, but it doesn’t work if your life requires certainty in lieu of confidence.
Not having answers shouldn’t be discouraging, though. As I’m sure it is convenient in trying times to believe that an omnipotent being is guiding the course of history, you can also make the best of the confusion. One of the proudest reasons I have for being an atheist is that it carries with it a sense of self-sufficiency when you don’t have a second life to depend on. At the worst of times, being responsible for your own life is certainly less flattering than an external explanation, but that’s what makes working hard worthwhile.
Lacking an answer with humility is always better than flying the wrong flag with zeal. When my future theological conversations reach the inevitable stopping point of how the universe was formed, I’ll continue to express my lack of awareness for the level of understanding that it represents.
Travis Vail is a fourth-year communication major.
I wonder if the ancient Greeks chided those who questioned the story that the seasons are caused by the sorrows of the harvest goddess Demeter by pointing out that the questioner cannot provide a better explanation. I hope that the Iron Age skeptic replied that the burden of proof is on the one who is providing the explanation and not on the one who raises questions about it.
There was no proof that winters are caused by Demeter’s failure to nourish the earth while she mourns for her daughter Persephone, who spends part of every year with her husband Hades in the underworld. Furthermore, knowledge that the seasons are caused by the Earth’s tilted axis is not necessary to realize this. Rather, this ancient story merely points out that the chance of accurately describing the cause of a natural phenomenon by simply guessing has a low rate of success. It is silly to devise an alternate reality full of mythical places and figures when one can just admit to not knowing the answer.
It is the same with the origin of the universe. Cosmology is not my expertise. I don’t know how close we are to understanding how human life came to be. However, if we cannot answer this question with our current scientific knowledge, it is highly unlikely that the people who wrote the ancient holy books, who knew comparatively little about science, could have gotten it right. Claiming that they got it right because of divine inspiration is a circular argument if the claimant cannot provide proof of it outside of the text itself.
Not believing in any religion does not solve the problem. If the word “god” is to mean anything, one must attribute some traits to this entity. Any attribution of traits will lack proof since no one has observed this god. Saying that a god is merely the first cause of the universe makes the word meaningless. Then, this god is no different from any naturalistic explanation.
The sensible position is that of an agnostic atheist who says he/she doesn’t know the cause, but refuses to believe unproven claims. Unlike a devout theist, the agnostic atheist is open to the existence of gods, but does not believe in any unless proof is provided for their existence.
Zoltan Mester is a graduate student of chemical engineering.
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