This page in brief ….
Two very different stories about the world compete for our attention and our allegience. One says the world came from nothing and is going to nothing; the other says the world came from God and finds its purpose in God. In the English-speaking world, we can name these two stories as atheism and christianity (though this is an oversimplification). Here is an outline of what each story says to us, and some questions to help us choose between them.
Story 1 : There is no god, matter is all there is
This story says the universe has evolved out of nothing, with no cause we can imagine. For all we know, the universe might never have existed, or it might have been completely different. Perhaps it is part of a much larger group of universes, zillions of them in fact. But somehow it is here, and it has grown and developed so that there are galaxies, stars and planets.
Life originated by chance, and we have evolved by natural selection to suit the conditions on earth. But one day life will end and the universe will run down.
What is human?
Believing in a god is a delusion, though one that helped us as we evolved. It may have outgrown its usefulness, but this isn’t clear yet. There is no “bigger purpose” or meaning in life. There is no objective standard of morality – ethics can only be justified pragmatically, based on what we choose, or what society feels is most likely to preserve itself. Thus we have no objective way of making ethical judgments about others. Our freedom to choose is illusory, for our thoughts and actions are controlled by our genes, our circumstances and our brain chemistry.
Human beings are not really anything more than “robots made of meat”. But we have consciousness that allows us to realise this, and emotions that allow us to feel the force of this conclusion.
Purpose in life
Anyone who believes this story is non-religious, and they would feel out of place in many countries of the world, where they might face persecution. But they would feel right at home with western culture. They would feel that the scientific explanation of the origins and complexity of the universe are correct and sufficient, and would be thankful to be free from the influence of false and dangerous religious philosophies. They might even feel that the austere scientific picture lends life a certain grandeur.
But atheism poses some practical problems and the serious atheist faces some difficult choices:
If this story is true, we have to determine our own purpose in life. At its best, this story can lead people to live an ethical life and leave the world a better place, purely because they believe it is ‘right’ (‘humanism’). Many will take this step, but may find difficulty maintaining their faith in human nature at times.
But others will argue that a sense of larger purpose has no basis, but just makes us feel better. The humanist belief, that purpose can be found in serving and improving the human race, seems to be trying to make something positive out of nothing, they will say, and thus seems to require a leap of faith.
So they may prefer to think that we should enjoy it while we can (hedonism), ignoring many of our ethical intuitions. Others may feel that with no ethics or purpose, despair is the only reasonable response (nihilism).
So we can choose to ‘think positive’ and behave well, or have as much fun as we can, or get depressed. It makes no difference in the end, although it can make a lot of difference here and now.
Story 2 : God created the universe and gives it meaning
This story says that behind evolution there is a supreme being, who created the universe and set it up so that human life was formed. A god who perhaps did this for the purpose of giving us life, freedom and his love. A god who makes himself known through his creation, through our inner sense of right and wrong, through a sense that there is more to life than what science tells us, perhaps even through some direct revelation.
Purpose and meaning
This story may scare us or threaten us a bit, but it may also give a basis for hope, truth, ethics, beauty, meaning and purpose. People really matter because, as rational, ethical, autonomous, relational beings, we are made in the image of God. Our purpose is found in God, who is calling us to be part of his movement to change the world into a better place. Truth, right and wrong are also found in God. Believers thus may well have a sense of fulfilment which many non-believers may lack, based on their belief that they are pleasing God and receiving the benefits.
However believers face many challenges.
- How do they choose the ‘right’ religion (if there is indeed a right one), the ‘right’ denomination, sect or faction within that religion, and the “right” behaviour? And what happens if they have been born into a ‘wrong’ religion?
- How do they avoid the excesses of religion – arrogance, intolerance, a closed mind, etc? Can they, and should they, blindly follow the leadership of their priest, imam, holy man, rabbi or bishop?
- How do they explain the evil in the world if it was designed and created by a loving god?
- They may also have to face active persecution if they are the minority religion in an intolerant country, and mild scorn in western secular countries.
In the west, the answers to these questions are found in christianity, which is not only the world’s largest religion but uniquely different to other religions in a number of ways. So for our purposes here, this story probably entails believing that the God of the universe showed himself to us in a unique way in Jesus of Nazareth.
Why believe this story?
The evidence for this story is all around us, believers say. In the fact that the universe appeared out of nothing with no cause, and is so amazingly set up for life to evolve. In the fact that it is very difficult to believe, and live by, the belief that there is no objectiove morality, no freedom of choice, and no purpose to life. The sense we have that there is more. And the fact that when this story is tried out, it seems to make sense. This story also requires faith, however it is not faith out of nothing, but faith in something and for good reason.
How to judge between these two stories?
So, two stories, both possible, neither provable. Which one is true? Approaching these questions objectively is very difficult, and our conclusions may depend more on our assumptions and preferences. The following questions may help you consider your response.
Is truth important to you? Or are you more concerned with how things work out practically?
If trying to find what is true is important to you, then you will want to consider all the different lines of argument (many of them summarised on this website – see Clues), and probably do some more focused reading. You’ll probably feel that God is at least a possibility worthy of investigation, so you’ll also want to go on and read some analysis of the major world religions (see Belief).
However, if you are more interested in what works now, you may have to choose between what is easiest right now (probably either the belief you were brought up in, or a mild form of hedonism) or what will give greatest long term satisfaction, as outlined in What makes people happy?).
How much do you feel the need for an explanation of the origin of the universe?
Science and evolution are good at explaining the world since the big bang, but science can’t go back beyond the big bang, so atheistic explanations of the causes of the big bang don’t look so convincing. If this issue is important to you, theism is probably the more logical belief, and you may wish to think through how we may find God (see God (show me a sign)).
How much do you trust science?
The more you trust the assumptions and results of science, even when scientists speak about larger issues like God and purpose, the more likely that you will opt for non-theistic belief.
Are you determined only to believe in what can be proved and you can understand?
If so, it is virtually impossible for you to believe in a god, and you will certainly find non-theistic belief most suitable.
Do you feel the need for a sound basis for ethics, meaning and humanity?
We tend to take these things for granted, in which case, you would be free to choose any of the basic belief systems. But if you feel it is important to have a logical basis for these things, you are probably more likely to find it in theism.
Do you feel you need help from God, to give you freedom from guilt or a sense of meaning in life?
Most of us need help at some time or other, and it is no shame to recognise this. Many people come to a belief in God because they are willing to try faith as a way of dealing with issues in their life, including guilt, hopelessness, failure, low self esteem, etc. Those who feel more self-assured may not have the same motivation.
How much do you want to remain independent, and not beholden to a god?
This is, in a sense, the opposite motivation to the previous question, and is a critical factor for many people. If this is how you feel, it is unlikely any of the theistic arguments will have convinced you, and it is probably a credit to you that you have persevered this far.
Which story is true, which should we live by?
If this page has helped you clarify your views in any way, then I am gratified – please let me know. I hope you keep pursuing truth, and find it. There is a lot more on this website that may help you.