The Atheist Bible
Chapter on Gods
IntroductionThis chapter explains the nature of gods from the point of view of a positive atheist. The chapter consists of just two sections:
- An Atheist View: Explains how a positive atheist sees gods.
- Questions: Discusses objections to the atheist view point.
An Atheist View
CinderellaCinderella was a poor girl whose mother died. One day, the prince of her country gave a ball. Cinderella wanted to go, but her stepmother did not allow her to, and she did not have a dress either. While Cinderella stayed home all alone, a good fairy appeared and gave her a marvelous dress. Cinderella went to the ball, and the prince fell in love with her.
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). Today, the version with the good fairy is the most popular one in the West. 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” Cinderella.
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 at 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 a fictional character, which was later added to the story in order to make it more appealing. That worked, and the story caught on.
For an atheist, religious stories (as recorded in the Bible or other scripture) are just the same. These stories were maybe based on some true events. They were then later embellished with miracles, spirits, and gods. The gods in these stories are just like the good fairy in the Cinderella tale: they are fictional additions to the story. They are magical characters invented by people, and added to historical tales. These stories have been passed on through the generations, and were recorded in books and oral traditions. However, that does not make these stories true. In particular, this does not pop the gods into existence — just like fairies, magic animals, unicorns and other products of human imagination do not exist in reality either.
Let us make this 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 hold that it is the same with supernatural characters. Gods are heroes and sometimes villains in the books. 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. God is imaginary.
Religion confuses cause and effect:
It’s not God who created man, but man who created God.
Why would gods be fictional?Atheists believe that gods are fictional characters — just like the good fairy in the Cinderella tale. If we want to understand this kind of thinking, we have to ask ourselves why we believe that the fairy in the Cinderalla tale is fictional. Why are we convinced that the good fairy does not really exist?
- The good fairy is unknown outside the Western culture. The Eastern cultures rather tell the story of a magic fish. This fish, vice versa, is unknown in the Western cultures. This indicates that the story is not some objective truth, but rather a legend.
- The good fairy does magical things that defy the laws of nature. In reality, the laws of nature cannot be defied.
- There is no evidence for the good fairy other than the story. Our only source of information about the good fairy is 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. We discuss the different gods in the Chapter on Religion.
- Gods usually do magical things that defy the laws of nature. They make people walk on water, make virgins pregnant, part the waters, or heal miraculously. All these things are acts of magic that are typical for 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. As we have discussed in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods, there is no such evidence.
Hence, atheists conclude, gods are fictional characters just like the others.
For the same reasons that the Aztec gods showed up only to the Aztecs, the Japanese gods showed up only to the Japanese, and Yahweh only showed up 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 god does not exist. The Earth explodes tomorrow? It was 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, none is accepted as a proof that God does not exist.
This means that there is no X such that
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 is also unfalsifiable. This means that we have two claims that cannot both be true, and yet none 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.
If you cannot prove it wrong
that doesn’t make it true.
Isn’t the creation falsifiable?This book argues that the existence of gods is not falsifiable. There is nothing that a believer would accept as a proof that his 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. Hence, we have a possibility to prove the hypothesis wrong, 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 wrong. 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. Even if the world ceased to exist, it could still have been God who created it originally. And thus, the thesis “God created the world” is still unfalsifiable. It is just empty words stacked on top of whatever we observe.
Isn’t the subjective God experience falsifiable?We have argued that the existence of God cannot be falsified, and that the claim “God exists” is hence meaningless. We can object that there are quite a number of feelings linked to God: When we pray, we feel better; when we believe that God protects us, we feel relieved; when something good happens, we feel thankful. Are these not real, perceptual experiences? And can these experiences not be predicted by the assumption of God? And if yes, does this not give “God” a meaning, in the sense that the hypothesis 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 the present book dedicates a 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 — and never the 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 with respect to God, then...”. It follows that such theories can only ever predict psychological 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.
Atheism and FalsifiabilityWe have argued that the hypothesis “God exists” cannot be falsified. Therefore, atheism holds that gods are the work of fiction. Now how about atheism? Can the claim “God does not exist” be falsified?
To answer this question, we have to find things that we would count as proofs that God exists. Here is a list of things that atheists would 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
This is the central asymmetry between theism and atheism: Theism says there is a god, but does not 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.
Why I am an atheist?
I spoke to God.
He said that for all practical matters, he doesn’t exist.
Why would people invent gods?In an atheistic world view, gods are the works of fiction. This begs the question of why some people would invent gods.
There is a wide variety of reasons why people came up with gods. One of the earliest reasons might be the desire to explain the phenomena of nature. People did not know why the sun rises every day, and so they suspected that there must be someone who moves the sun. This thought gave rise to the fictitious entity of a god. Similarly, people did not know where rain comes from, and hence they assumed that there is a god of the rain. Indeed, some religions have different gods for different phenomena of nature. There can be also be psychological reasons. Children, for example, are afraid of an evil ghost under their bed. In the same way, ancient people may have been afraid of ghosts, spirits, or higher powers. Some of these may have evolved into full-fledged fictional entities later on. People can also create fictional entities out of a dream, hallucination, or epileptic seizure. Such experiences can give rise to the belief in things that are not real. People can also start personifying a dead person. They can believe that they can talk with them, and this belief can give rise to the notion of an afterlife, or of spirits. In other cases, simple stories and myths may have become so popular that they were taken for true. It is sufficient that some shaman tells a story, and that people pick it up, so that it becomes a belief. Still today, people create, share, and believe urban legends — even though they are false. In the Chapter on the Founding of Religions, we dedicate an entire section to the things that inspired the stories about the gods.
In some cases, religious beliefs may also have been 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 people in power also realized that they could easily 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 is widely acknowledged in the case of Scientology. However, it may also be true for other religions. The prophet Mohammed of Islam, for example, granted every Muslim man up to 4 women — but he himself could have an unlimited number of women, as per God’s order. It is clear that such a power may tempt people to invent gods and stories. We discuss them later in this book. We also 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.
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. And yet, this is not the case.
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 fiction. Here, we discuss why people would believe and follow such fiction.
One factor that might have played a role is that people were much 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. 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, no one ever saw Jesus walking on the water. All authors of the New Testament, including the evangelists, but including also Paul, lived decades, if not centuries after Jesus. They possibly never met that Jesus. Still, people believed their stories.
All of this worked because people had no modern means of verification. The idea that a hypothesis should be formalized and tested before it is taken for true is a modern one. In ancient times, stories were considered true if they were reported by authoritative people, or if they were sufficiently prevalent.
Once a belief has established itself in society, it is deepened through iteration and habit. Children learn the belief from their early years on, and hand it on to the next generation. It is often also prohibited to question that belief. Thus, people are quasi brainwashed into the belief. As an example, consider the belief in fairies. Adults tell children about fairies, and many children believe that fairies exist. Now assume that the belief in fairies would be taught at school. At the same time, it would be prohibited under penalty of death to tell children than fairies do not exist. (This is indeed how it is in some Muslim countries with respect to God.) Any thought or argument that fairies do not really exist would be wiped out from our lives. This way, an entire generation of children would be brought up believing that fairies exist — much to the helpless surprise of their parents. These children would tell their own children about fairies. Imagine if this were iterated for hundreds of years. Then an entire culture would incorporate fairies as a natural part of life, and it would not be surprising at all that everybody believes in fairies. This is how the world’s major religions work.
Furthermore, belief in higher powers can also be convenient. Higher powers seem to explain many questions that would otherwise go unanswered. Belief in higher powers might 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.
Insanity is believing that your hallucinations are real.
Religion is believing that other people’s hallucinations are real.
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 wrong. In fact, everybody believes that gods are fictional characters — as long as it is the gods of the other religions. The majority of people on Earth believe, e.g., that the Horned God of the Wicca religion is a product of fiction. Likewise, the majority of people on Earth believe that Vishnu and Brahma are myths. It may come as a surprise to Christians, but the majority of people on Earth also believe that the Triune God is a human invention. The majority of people, likewise, believe that Allah is the creation of a prophet. Everybody thinks 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 all the 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.
My god created the universe!From an atheist point of view, gods are fictional characters that do not exist. Believers contort that their god is the all-powerful being and the creator of the world Chapter on the Abrahamic God. 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, and that she is smarter than any human, then she still remains just a fictional character.
Why is it that human beings can detect fairy tales with complete certainty when those fairy tales come from other faiths, but they cannot detect the fairy tales that underpin their own faith?
My 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 scripture are no truer than the scripture itself. The stories about the scripture were made up in just the same way that the scripture itself was made up. God did not inspire the writers of the Bible — that was just something the writers would say, or that others would say about them. God did not dictate the Quran — the Prophet Mohammed just made up the verses himself and then claimed that God dictated them. The Laws of Manu were not dictated by a god — the Brahman made up the story to cement their own power in the society. Thus, in atheist eyes, even the story about the scripture is a myth.
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. Yet, she did not. The entire frame story for the book is a fabrication, too Scheherazade. In other words: not just the stories of “1001 Nights” themselves are made up, but also Scheherazade did not exist.
To atheists, it is the same with the tales about gods: Not just the stories themselves are fictitious, but also the legends that surround them.
You know exactly what it is like to be an atheist with respect to the beliefs of Muslims. Isn’t it obvious that Muslims are fooling themselves? Isn’t it obvious that anyone who thinks that the Quran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe has not read the book critically? Isn’t it obvious that the doctrine of Islam represents a near-perfect barrier to honest inquiry? Yes, these things are obvious.
Understand that the way you see Islam is exactly the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.
Jesus and Mohammed existed!For an atheist, gods are the products of fiction. However, believers contort that certain figures of the religions were real. For example, there is little doubt that Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha existed. Then does this not mean that everything else is real as well?
Fictional stories often mix reality with inventions. Consider for example the Harry Potter stories — a children’s book by J. K. Rowling. Harry, the hero of the book, uses the train at King’s Cross railway station. This railway station exists in reality. Even the conductor of the train may exist in reality. It’s just that everything else in the story is fiction woven around these items. 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”, e.g., Dante tells the story of how he has been traveling through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven Divine Comedy. Even though Dante exists, 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, e.g.), but this does not make the stories real.
Sometimes, a story attaches a legend to a real character. For example, Shakespeare develops his famous play “Macbeth” around King Macbeth — who was a real king of Scotland Macbeth. Even though real people and real events make it into the play, the largest part of 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, the 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 does not exist in the real world, and neither does its purported author, Newt Scamander. However, later, the author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling, decided to write a book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in the real world. So there is a real-world book called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. What is more, 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 first book could believe that it refers to the real book that exists in the real world. 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. Thus, the book claims that it was revealed by God even though it did not exist at the time of the 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 honestIn 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. Current scholarly opinion holds that the Gospels of the Bible, for example, 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’ death. It is difficult to uphold the honesty of an author whom we do not even know. Most likely, no author of the Bible actually met Jesus.
Islam, for its part, traces the Quran to the authorship of the prophet Mohammed. Mohammed, 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 1500 years ago with these stories.
East-Asian religions are older, and it is even more difficult to trace the prophets. 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 the reason is simple: What would you do if someone came and told you that God talked to him? Probably, you would not take him seriously. If he continues to say that God talks to him, you would refer him to psychological treatment. And rightly so: We have no verified case where a god really talked to a human, and hence we regard this a sign of mental problems. The reasons for such purported encounters can be several: Epilepsy, hallucinations, schizophrenia, missing skepticism, or psychological overtaxation. Every year, for example, dozens of people claim they saw God in Jerusalem. This is known as the Jerusalem Syndrome Jerusalem syndrome. We give these people psychological treatment. Then why should we believe a person any more who talked to God hundreds of years ago? The same reasoning applies there, too: If this person really said to be in contact with gods, then the most likely explanation is that he was psychologically unstable. However, we seem to draw that conclusion only when the prophet is alive, and not when he’s dead. That is inconsistent.
There is another argument against the honesty of the prophets. It applies to all religions, and goes as follows: If the prophet of a religion was honest, then there is no reason to assume that the prophets of all other religions were not honest. We should give these prophets the same confidence. However, religions rarely know about the other religions. No religion grants the prophets of the other religions honesty, and literal accuracy. 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 in the universe.
Scripture says that God exists!Religious books such as the Bible, the Quran, the Dianetics Book, or the Hindu Scriptures are often takes as evidence for the existence of gods. Yet, taking these books as proof for the existence of gods is no different than taking a Cinderella book as proof for the existence of the good fairy. Such books cannot prove the existence of something.
Adherents of different religions typically provide proofs for the authenticity of their books. Yet, these usually convince only those who believe in it anyway, and not the adherents of other religions who have themselves proof for the authenticity of their books. We discuss the holy books in detail in the Chapter on Religions, with the Christian Bible and the Muslim Quran in their own articles.
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.
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. This, in turn, would render the atheist world model nonsensical. As an example, take the concept of “love”. Is that not also a fictional entity?
It is not. “Love” is the name for the feeling of intense affection Oxford Dictionary/Love. Whenever we have such a feeling, we use the word “love” for it, because saying “feeling of intense affection” would be too clumsy. Thus, “love” is a label for a phenomenon of the real world. We do not need to use that label (we can use any other label), but the way we employ it in common usage, the word is a name for a thing of the real world. It is not a fictitious entity. In particular, “love” implies something in the real world. It implies a feeling, the desire to be with the other person, and to help the other person. A similar argument goes for other abstract concepts. As far as they are meaningful, they are all abbreviations for 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 “God exists” is irrelevant for the real world, and thus literally meaningless. It is just empty words.
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 none, and does nothing.