An Atheist View
CinderellaLet us start our discussion by recalling the story of Cinderella. Cinderella was a poor girl whose mother died. Her father remarried but her stepmother and stepsisters were cruel to her. One day the prince of her country gave a ball. Cinderella wanted to go, but her stepmother would not allow her, and she did not have a dress either. While her stepsisters went Cinderella stayed home all alone. However, a good fairy appeared and gave her a marvelous dress. Cinderella went to the ball and the prince fell in love with her, and after some twists and turns they lived happily ever after.
As you know, this story is a fairy tale. The oldest known version of this tale was recorded by the Greek geographer Strabo in around 7 BC. In that variant of the story, a magic eagle helps a slave girl called Rhodopis, and she marries the king of Egypt. Other variants of the story exist across the world, including China (where the girl befriends a fish), Korea (with a magic ox), and the Middle East (where she is helped by a demoness). The version with the good fairy is the most popular one in the West today. It was first published by Charles Perrault in “Histoires ou contes du temps passé” in 1697, and later by the Brothers Grimm in their folk tale collection “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” .
There may indeed have existed a poor girl (or several) who inspired these tales. However, the part of the story with the magic fish, ox, demoness, or fairy was made up. Maybe someone came up with the idea during a long winter’s evening, or seated around a campfire. People liked the idea that some magic spirit helped the poor girl. The story caught on, and it got passed on through the generations.
Gods as FictionThe story of Cinderella is a very popular fairy tale. While a girl called Cinderella may have existed, the fairy in the story did not. The fairy is an entirely fictional character, which was included in the story to help drive the plot and make Cinderella’s escape from the clutches of her evil stepmother all the more appealing. It worked, and the story caught on.
For an atheist, the nature of religious stories (as recorded in the Bible or other scripture) is no different from the nature of the story of Cinderella. These stories were maybe based on some true events. But they are embellished with miracles, spirits, and gods. The gods in these stories are just like the good fairy in the Cinderella tale: they are magical characters invented by people and entirely fictional in character. These stories have been passed on through generations and were recorded in books and oral traditions. However, that does not make these stories true. The gods in these stories no more exist in reality than do the fairies, magic animals, unicorns and other products of human imagination do.
Let us make this point more concrete: When we read the story of Cinderella, we are pulled into the story. We are eager to learn what happens, we feel with the main character, and we are excited when the good fairy steps in to give her the dress. However, when we close the book, the good fairy is gone. When we look around, there is no fairy. Only children believe that the fairy is really there.
Atheists contend that same holds for supernatural characters. Gods are heroes and sometimes villains on the page. The stories are inspiring, exciting, and sometimes enlightening. Yet when we close the book, the characters are gone. They do not exist in reality. They are legendary beings. Gods are imaginary.
Religion confuses cause and effect:
It’s not God who created man, but man who created God.
Why are gods fictional?Atheists believe that gods are fictional characters — just like the good fairy in the Cinderella tale. If we want to understand why they think so, we have to ask ourselves why we believe that the fairy in the Cinderella tale is fictional. Why are we convinced that the good fairy does not really exist?
- The good fairy is unknown outside the Western culture. Eastern cultures rather tell the story with a magic fish instead. This fish in turn is unknown in Western versions of the story. Had the same magic entity appeared in different cultures, that would have been an indication for its existence. However, it does not.
- The good fairy does magical things that defy the laws of nature. In reality, the laws of nature cannot be defied.
- Our only source of information about the good fairy is the story. There is no evidence for the good fairy other than the tale.
Atheists hold that the same is true of gods:
- Just like every culture knows their own magic fish, ox, or fairy for the tale of Cinderella, every culture knows their own gods and spirits in their religious stories. The same god does not arise in different regions.
- Gods usually do magical things that defy the laws of nature. They make people walk on water, heal miraculously, make statues shed tears, or take someone on a nightly ride to Jerusalem through the skies. All these things are acts of magic that are typical within fairy tales but impossible in the real world.
- There is no evidence for gods other than the original book or myth. Evidence is a validated theory that confirms the existence of a god. There is no such evidence. (We will refute popular proofs for the existence of gods in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods.)
Hence, atheists conclude, gods are fictional characters just like the just like the good fairy in the Cinderella tale.
The Aztec gods showed up only to the Aztecs for the same reasons that the Japanese gods showed up only to the Japanese, and Yahweh only showed up only in the Middle East.
Do you have a proof?Nobody has a proof that God does not exist. This is because there is nothing that a believer would accept as a proof that his or her god does not exist. Nature is inherently brutal? It is God’s will! Prayer does not work? God will fulfill your wish later in a different form! There is pain and hunger in this world? It’s all a test for the afterlife. Nobody has ever seen God? That’s because he’s invisible. No matter what argument we come up with, it will not be accepted as a proof that God does not exist.
This means that there is no X such that
To see this, let’s assume that the god of Christianity exists. What can we conclude from this assumption? Maybe that it was him who created the world, that there is paradise, and that there is hell. Unfortunately, all of these statements are again unfalsifiable -- they cannot be proven false either. This means that they also don’t tell us anything about the real world. If we assume that God created the world, we still don’t know anything concrete: We don’t know how many animal species there are, we don’t know when the Earth will be destroyed, we don’t know how the human brain works, we don’t know how to solve the problem of world hunger. The assumption of God’s existence tells us nothing about the real world.
Another consequence of the unfalsifiability is that we can come up with arbitrarily many other unfalsifiable claims. For example, I can say “There is not one god, but two gods”. This claim contradicts the claim “There is only one god”, but it also is unfalsifiable. This means that we have two claims that cannot both be true, and yet neither of them can be proven false.
Therefore people have come up with numerous contradictory supernatural theories. Since none of them can be proven false, they are the main ingredient for religious disputes, which are oftentimes violent and even deadly. They are fundamentally irresolvable because the entities, actions, or events they refer to cannot be disproven. And that is the case because the entities, actions, or events they refer to are fictional.
If you cannot prove it false
that doesn’t make it true.
Isn’t the creation falsifiable?This book argues that the existence of gods or the supernatural is not falsifiable. There is nothing that believers would accept as a proof that their god does not exist.
Now let’s look at the hypothesis “God created the world”. Isn’t that one falsifiable? If God had not created the world, then the world would not exist. Thus, it would appear that we have a possibility to prove the hypothesis false, and hence the hypothesis is falsifiable.
This line of reasoning is tempting but false. Falsifiability asks for what would have to happen (in the present or future) to prove the hypothesis false. What could I do now to show to you that God did not create the world? What has to happen to shake your belief that God is not the creator?
It turns out that there is no such thing. No matter what happens, you would still believe that it was God who created the world. And thus, the thesis “God created the world” is still unfalsifiable. It is just empty words stacked on top of whatever we observe.
This distinguishes the theory that God created the world from scientific theories about the origin of the world: When a scientific theory predicts that the universe came into existence 14 billion years ago, then the discovery of any artifact that is older than 14 billion years would prove that theory false. Thus, the statement “the universe is 14 billion years old” predicts that we will never find an artifact that is older – which has indeed not happened.
The absence of God is proof for the absence of God, as the absence of a bottle of whiskey on my desk is proof of the absence of a bottle of whiskey on my desk. What isn’t there isn’t there.
Isn’t the subjective experience of God falsifiable?We have argued that the existence of the supernatural cannot be falsified, and that the claim “God exists” is hence meaningless. Believers can object by pointing to quite a number of feelings linked to God: When they pray, they feel better; when they believe that God protects us, they feel relieved; when something good happens, they feel thankful. Are these not real, perceptual experiences? And can these experiences not be predicted by the assumption of God? And if so, does this not give “God” a meaning, in the sense that the hypothesis of the existence of God has predictive power?
These experiences are indeed perceptions in the sense of this book. Thus, the theory “If I pray to God, I feel relieved” does make falsifiable predictions. These predictions are well studied, and we will later dedicate an entire section to them.
However, such theories always concern an action by the believer and never an action by the god. It is the belief in God, the prayer to God, or the devotion that has the effect — not God himself. Technically speaking, the rules are never of the form “If God does X, then...”, but always of the form “If I do X, then...”. It follows that such theories can only ever predict personal experiences. They can predict feelings of relief, the illusion of control, or the abatement of fear. However, they cannot predict that God created the universe, that we have to follow his commandments, or that he has objective physical existence. Thus, “God” is an auxiliary notion that we use to describe our subjective psychological experiences. In this sense, God “exists” — but he exists only in our heads.
Every believer has created God in his own image. God, therefore, carries the very same biases and convictions as the believer.
Atheism and FalsifiabilityWe have argued that the hypothesis that the supernatural exists and cannot be falsified. Therefore, atheism holds that gods and the supernatural are the work of fiction. But what about atheism? For example, can the claim “God does not exist” be falsified?
To answer this question, we have to find things that we would accept as proof that God exists. Here is a list of things that we could accept as a proof that God exists:
- Praying to God makes things possible that are otherwise impossible
- God reveals himself in a scientifically verifiable way
- God intervenes in this world a verifiable and identifiable way
The claim predicts that, no matter how much we pray, we will never obtain anything that would not have happened anyway. When we generalize the claim to “the supernatural does not exist”, it says that praying, observing rites, or following superstitions will never have any effect other than psychological. This is indeed what we find. The claim also predicts that no god will ever reveal himself in a scientifically verifiable way. This is again what we find. Finally, the claim predicts that no god will ever intervene in this world in a way that we can identify him. In other words, there are no miracles. Again, this is what we observe. Thus, the claim is not only meaningful, but also true. It makes concrete and correct predictions about the real world. This is more than any religion can say of itself.
This is the central asymmetry between theism and atheism: Theism says there is a god, but cannot say what will happen or not happen. Hence, theism is not falsifiable and thus meaningless. Atheism says there is no god, and uses this to make predictions, which we find to be true. Hence, Atheism is falsifiable and thus meaningful.
How do we know that the gods are imaginary? Simply imagine that one of them is real. If one of these thousands of gods were actually real, then his followers would be experiencing real, undeniable benefits. These benefits would be obvious to everyone. The followers of a true god would pray, and their prayers would be answered. The followers of a true god would therefore live longer, have fewer diseases, have lots more money, etc. There would be thousands of statistical markers surrounding the followers of a true god. All the other false gods would have fallen by the wayside long ago, and there would be only one religion under the one true god.
Why would people invent gods?In an atheistic world view, gods are fictional creations. This begs the question of why people would invent gods.
There is a wide variety of reasons why people came up with gods. One of the earliest reasons was the personification of natural entities. The sun gives warmth and light, and people suspected that it was a conscious being not unlike themselves. This gave rise to the idea of a sun god. People also used gods to explain other phenomena of nature. They did not know where rain came from, and hence assumed that there was a god who caused that rain.
People can also create fictional entities out of a dream, a hallucination, or a medical condition such as epileptic seizures. Such experiences can give rise to the belief in things that are not real. Or people can start personifying a dead person. They can come believe that they can talk with them, and this belief can give rise to the notion of an afterlife, or of spirits.
In other instances, simple stories and myths may have become so popular that they were taken to be true. It is sufficient that some shaman tells a story, and that people pick it up, so that it becomes a belief. To this day people create, share, and believe urban legends, even though they are false. We will later dedicate an entire section to the things that inspired the stories about the gods.
In some cases, religious beliefs were also actively promoted by those in power. Kings of all eras loved claiming that their power and laws were sanctioned by the gods. This kept the people quiet and obedient. The rulers also realized that they could control a population by threatening it with hell. Therefore, some people may have actively invented or supported stories of gods. In some cases, people may have benefited personally from the stories that they invented. This may have tempted them to invent gods and stories. We will dedicate an entire section to the motivations that people had for nurturing a religion.
Over the centuries and millennia, the stories of gods were shared, altered, amended, and merged. Some were abandoned, others became very powerful. We discuss this process in detail in the Chapter on Memes.
Insanity is believing that your hallucinations are real.
Religion is believing that other people’s hallucinations are real.
Why would people believe in gods?For an atheist, gods are the work of fiction. We have discussed why people would come up with such a fiction. Here we discuss why people would believe and follow such a fiction.
One factor that might have played a role is that people might have been less skeptical than they are today. Imagine that I tell you that I heard about a man who could walk on the water. You would probably not believe me. You would want to know where I heard that and whether there is proof for it. In the ideal case, you would want a picture or video of it. Without such proof, you would not remotely consider that I might be right, let alone follow me and start sharing this story. Yet this is what ancient people did. Of the people who wrote the New Testament of the Bible, for example, no one was present at Jesus’s miraculous birth. All of the stories of in the New Testament were written decades after Jesus’s death. Still, people believed these stories.
All of this worked because people had no modern means of verification (and no cameras). In ancient times, stories could be considered true if they were reported by authoritative people, or if they were sufficiently prevalent. That said, today people still believe all kinds of stories even if they are outright false. We will later see examples.
Once a belief has established itself in society, it is deepened through iteration and habit. Children learn beliefs from their early years, and hand it on to the next generation. Thus, people see their faith as something natural and obvious. It was often also prohibited to question that belief.
As an analogy, consider the belief in fairies. Adults tell children about fairies and many children believe that fairies exist. Now assume that the belief in fairies was taught at school, while at the same time it is prohibited under penalty of death to tell children than fairies do not exist. Any thought or argument that fairies do not really exist would be wiped out. In this way an entire generation of children would be brought up believing that fairies exist. These children would tell their own children about fairies. If this was iterated for hundreds of years, an entire culture would incorporate fairies as a natural part of life. This is how the world’s major religions work.
Another reason why people believe in gods is that such beliefs can also be convenient. Higher powers seem to explain many questions that would otherwise go unanswered. Belief in higher powers can also fulfill a basic human desire for control. By imagining that someone is responsible for the randomness of life, we can imagine that we influence that someone through prayers, sacrifices, or rituals. Thus, we have at least the illusion that we can do something about the arbitrariness that surrounds us. Religion also caters to the human desire for emotional comfort, safety, absolution, and group feeling. Religious beliefs can also appease people, give power to whoever claims to be in contact with the gods, or establish certain practices in a society. For all these reasons, many people embraced religion. All of this, however, “works” no matter whether the religion is true or not. We discuss why people believe in gods in the Chapter on Following Religion and the Chapter on the Benefits of Religion.
It is a telling fact that, the world over, the vast majority of children follow the religion of their parents rather than any of the other available religions.
Gods are not fictional!For atheists, gods are fictional characters just like the fairy in the Cinderalla tale. However, most people think that gods are by nature different from fictional characters.
This hypothesis is false. In fact, everybody believes that gods are fictional characters — as long as they are the gods of the other religions. For example, when we ask people about the Horned God of the Wicca religion, most people on Earth would consider him the work of fiction. Likewise, the majority of people on Earth when asked would consider Vishnu and Brahma myths. The majority of people on Earth also believe that the Triune God of Christianity is a human invention. People usually think that the gods of the other religions are fiction. If something is a god to one group of people, it is a fictional entity to most others.
Atheists apply the same logic to all gods at once. To an atheist, all gods are human inventions.
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
God created the universe!From an atheist point of view, gods are fictional characters that do not exist. Believers of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith) purport that their god is the all-powerful being and the creator of the world. Hence, he cannot be a fictional being.
Atheists note that it does not matter how much power we ascribe to a fictional character — it still remains a fictional character. If we say that the fairy in Cinderella story has magical powers, that she can live forever, or even that she created the world, she still remains just a fictional character.
Scripture is from God!Some religions hold that their scripture came directly from God: Christians believe that God inspired the writers of the Bible. Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated by God. Hindus believe that the Laws of Manu were dictated to the first human (Manu) by a god, or that the Vedas were handed down from mythical ancestors. Does this supernatural origin of the stories not vouch for their correctness?
For an atheist, these stories about the origin of the scriptures are no truer than the stories within the scriptures themselves. The stories about the scripture were made up in just the same way. God did not inspire the writers of the Bible — that was just something the writers of scripture would say (or that others would say about them). Nor did God dictate the Quran — the Prophet Muhammad just wrote the verses himself and then claimed that God dictated them. The Laws of Manu were not dictated by a god — the Brahmans made up the story and ascribed it to Manu. In the eyes of atheists, not only are scriptures myth, but the stories about their divine origin are as well.
As an example, consider the tales of “1001 Nights”. Legend has it that a woman called Scheherazade was to spend a last night with the king before being executed. She told the king a story, but did not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, postponed her execution — and so it goes on for 1001 nights. The stories she told were then collected in the book of “1001 Nights”. While the stories themselves are known to be fictitious, many people believe that Scheherazade actually existed. She did not: the entire frame story for the book is a fabrication, just like the other 1001 stories between the covers. In other words, not only are the stories of “1001 Nights” made up, but also the person who told them.
To atheists, it is the same with the stories about gods: Not just the stories themselves are fictitious, but also the legends that surround them.
Jesus and Muhammad existed!For an atheist, gods are the products of fiction. However, believers maintain that certain figures of the religions were real. For example, there is little doubt that Jesus, Muhammad, Confucius, and Buddha existed. Doesn’t this mean that everything else is real as well?
Fictional stories often mix reality with invention. For example, consider the Harry Potter stories, a series of children’s books by J. K. Rowling. Harry, the hero of the book, uses the train at King’s Cross railway station in London. London exists in reality. Even the railway station exists in reality. It’s just that everything else in the story is fiction woven around these items. Platform 9 ¾ does not exist in reality and nor does the Hogwarts’ Express train. In a similar vein, some items in the legends about gods are definitively real. However, that does not make the gods real.
Sometimes, the inventor of the stories is himself a character of the story. In Dante Alighieri’s “Divina Commedia”, he tells a story of how he travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Even though Dante existed, he did not really make this trip. He just made up a story and wrote it in first person. Today, the story is considered one of the greatest works of world literature. In a similar vein, the prophets can have created stories in which they themselves appear (as the son of God, or as a prophet), but this does not make the stories real.
Sometimes a story will attach a legend to a real character. For example, Shakespeare develops his famous play “Macbeth” around King Macbeth, who was a real king of Scotland . Even though real people and real events make it into the play, for the most part the play is fiction. The real King Macbeth probably never said the famous words “Is this a dagger which I see before me / The handle toward my hand?”. Likewise, Lady Macbeth (who appears in the play) has no historic equivalent. She did not exist in reality. In a similar vein, stories about prophets and gods can mix reality and fiction. They can ascribe fictional phrases or stories to people of the real world. This does not make these stories true.
Sometimes, the story references itself. For example, in the Harry Potter books, the main character reads a book called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. This book did not exist in the real world , and neither did its purported author, Newt Scamander. However, later on, the real author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling, decided to write a real book entitled “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in the real world. So now there is a real-world book called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. To make matters even more confusing, she published the book in the real world under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. Thus, what was a fiction in the first book became reality later on. Whoever reads the Harry Potter series could imagine that mention of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in it refers to the real book that exists in the real world. However, that book and its purported author are still fictional creations.
In a similar manner, religious books can mix imaginary and real authorship. For example, the Quran (the holy book of Islam) repeatedly refers to itself as the holy book revealed by God. However, the Quran was written years after the death of the prophet who received these revelations.
I find it funny that some people are comparing John Lennon and God....
I mean, he was great, and all, but he’s no John Lennon!
The prophets were honest!In atheist eyes, gods are the work of fiction. Therefore, atheists do not believe that gods are real. Believers retort that the prophets who told us about the gods were honest people. If they were honest, then their experiences were real, and the gods really exist.
Unfortunately, it is very hard to figure out whether the prophets were honest, let alone whether they existed. For example, current scholarly opinion holds that the Gospels of the Bible were not written by the 4 apostles. Rather, the stories were most likely compiled from different sources by different authors. Furthermore, they were written about 20 to 100 years after Jesus’s death. It is difficult to uphold the honesty of an author whom we do not even know. In all likelihood no author of the Gospels actually met Jesus.
Islam, for its part, traces the Quran to the authorship of the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad, however, was illiterate. He did not write the Quran. The stories were memorized by his followers and written down near or after the death of the prophet. While Muslim consensus holds that the stories were transmitted truthfully and verified through cross-validation, nobody knows what happened 1300 years ago with these stories.
Newer religions (such as Scientology, the Wicca faith, Mormonism, or the Bahai faith) can typically trace their holy book in a verifiable way to their prophet. These books also claim the existence of the supernatural. However, they find only few adherents. For some reason, the majority of people prefer to believe prophets that are dead for a longer time.
And that reason is simple: What do most people do when someone comes and tells them that God talked to him? They usually do not take him seriously. If he continues to say that God talks to him, they usually consider him insane. And rightly so: We have no verified case where a god talked to a human, and hence we regard such experiences today as a sign of mental problems. For example, every year dozens of people claim they saw God in Jerusalem. This is known as the Jerusalem Syndrome . We do not believe these people; instead, we give them psychological treatment. The reasons for such purported encounters are sometimes linked to hallucinations, schizophrenia, dehydration, or epilepsy. Now if we do not believe these people today, then why should we believe a person who talked to God hundreds of years ago? There is, in the eyes of an atheist, no reason.
There is another argument against the honesty of the prophets. It applies to all religions and goes as follows: If the prophet of one religion is seen as honest, then there is no reason not to assume that the prophets of all the other religions were honest as well. We should treat the proclamations of these prophets the same as we do the first prophet. However, religions rarely know about or acknowledge the validity of other faiths. No religion views all the prophets of other religions as completely honest and literally accurate in their proclamations. If they did, then they would have to believe in a plethora of gods and contradictory convictions. Thus, for every prophet, atheists simply side with the majority of people — by not believing his stories.
Men think epilepsy divine, because they don’t understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine. And so it is with everything divine in the universe.
Scripture says that God exists!Religious books such as the Bible, the Quran, Dianetics, or the Hindu Scriptures are often taken as evidence for the existence of gods. Yet taking these books as proof for the existence of gods is no different from taking the story of Cinderella as proof for the existence of the good fairy. Such narratives cannot prove the existence of anything.
Adherents of different religions typically provide proofs for the authenticity of their books. Yet these proofs usually convince only those who believe in the religion anyway, and rarely move the adherents of other religions (who have themselves proof for the authenticity of their books). We discuss holy books in detail in the Chapter on Religions, with the Christian Bible and the Muslim Quran in their own articles.
Are abstract things also fictitious?To an atheist, gods are fictional entities. So then we can argue that other abstract things should also be fictional entities to an atheist. For example, is love not also a fictional entity? If so, then this would render the atheist world model nonsensical.
However, love is not a fictional entity. “Love” is the name for the feeling of intense affection 1. Whenever we have such a feeling, we use the word “love” for it (because the phrase “feeling of intense affection” is clumsy to say). Thus, “love” is a label for a phenomenon of the real world. It is not a fictitious entity. In particular, “love” implies something in the real world. It implies a feeling associated with a desire to be with another person and to help that person. A similar argument applies for other abstract concepts. As far as they are meaningful, they are all abbreviations for real-world phenomena, or can be used to derive statements about real-world phenomena.
The same cannot be said of gods. The statement “God exists” does not imply anything in the real world that we could not also imply without this assumption. The statement is irrelevant for the real world, and thus literally meaningless. Hence, atheists conclude, gods are fictional.
When inventing a god, the most important thing is to claim that it is invisible, inaudible, and imperceptible in every way. Otherwise, people will become skeptical, when it appears to no one and does nothing.