Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

The Argument from Common Consent (sometimes called the Argument from Universal Experience) argues that an inclination toward belief in some sort of god has existed in nearly the whole of humanity throughout history, so such a belief is probably innate and instinctive. Belief in a god would not be so popular or pervasive if some god did not actually exist, the argument continues, therefore a god must exist.

A variation suggests that even if there is no innate belief in a god, there is nevertheless an innate yearning or desire for some sort of god. The argument proceeds in the same way: if there exists an innate desire for something, that something must exist.

The Refutation Back to Top

The Argument from Common Consent has fallen out of favour somewhat in recent years, but was of great influence historically (John Stuart Mill observed that it has probably had more influence on more people than other more logically sound arguments), and it has remained popular among “amateur” and popular religious apologists.
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
- Bertrand Russell (1929)

Firstly, the initial contention that god belief exists almost universally in humans is far from empiricially proven and remains a mere unsubstantiated assertion. Atheists have always existed, and to suggest that they are in denial of innate beliefs (as some theists do) is spurious arguing, not to mention patronizing and arrogant. Some significant religions, including Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, etc, operate from a non-theistic base, and anthropologists like Will Durant have identified certain Pygmy tribes in Africa which have no identifiable gods, cults, totems, spirits or religious rites of any sort.

In attempting to explain the existence of religion historically, some have hypothesized that it works as a kind of placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress; or that religious tribes have proliferated at the expense of non-religious or more peaceable tribes in a process of “group selection”; or that it is merely a hangover from the ingrained habit of a child’s unquestioning belief in the wisdom of its elders in the interests of tribal safety and selective advantage.

Some have even hypothesized (based on a combination of behavioural genetic, neurobiological and psychological studies) the existence of a “God gene” that predisposes spirituality to arise in a population because spiritual individuals are favoured by natural selection. Matthew Alper in particular has developed a comprehensive and well-argued theory that belief in a religion/God/spiritual world is a cross-cultural genetic predisposition (regardless of the palpable absence of evidence for such Gods or worlds), in much the same way as the cross-cultural tendency towards language, music, etc. The various different world religions are merely cultural variations of a base cross-cultural imperative established by our common genetic heritage. He further postulates a physical and neurologial mechanism for such beliefs, physically located in a specific part of the human brain (what he calls "the God part of the brain"). Alper hypothesizes that such a genetic trait originally arose as a means of dealing with the constant awareness of existence and time passing - and consequently of death or non-existence - that the intelligent human animal developed during its evolution. In particular, a belief in some kind of an afterlife - a major component of most religions - relieves man of a great deal of the psychological strain caused by our unique awareness of our mortality. According to this theory, all notions of God, the spirit world and eternal souls are merely "cognitive phantoms", installed in our collective brains with a view to improving our species' probability of survival.

At core, though, there is no clear evidence that there exists in humans an innate belief in (or even a yearning for) a god which is not actually created by instruction and/or indoctrination later in life. Belief in a god is unlikely to be innate and instinctive, since it does not appear to be present in our minds at birth, and some people manage never to believe in any gods. Neither can it be innate in the sense that it is a belief that we are predisposed to acquire, because there is no reason to think that all children will automatically acquire it without specific instruction or indoctrination. There is no evidence that a baby instinctively believes in the existence of a god, and no way of confirming this either way in a very young child. When the baby reaches the age of understanding, it is usually indoctrinated, either consciously or unconsciously, into the religion of its culture, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.
If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one.
- W. Somerset Maugham (1901)

However, the main logical fallacy of the argument is its assumption of a logical connection between the widespread existence of a belief and the existence of the object of that belief. There was a time when everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the Earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around it. Just because billions of people believe a thing does not make it true - truth is not decided by majority vote. A 2003 Harris poll showed that 51% of Americans believe in ghosts and 31% in astrology, but that does not make either the existence of ghosts or the truth of astrology any more likely. Furthermore, the common cold is universal to all humanity, in much the same way as some form of religion is, but we do not suggest that colds provide us with any benefit for that reason.

In the same way, the claim that a yearning logically necessitates an object for that yearning is invalid: it is merely an unsupported assumption. It is conceivably possible that a belief in, or a yearning for, a deity might have some evolutionary survival value for the human species, regardless of the truth of the matter, but that does not make the existence of such a deity any more likely. Another possibility is that there may be an innnate yearning for security or justice (which also has some evolutionary survival value), and that this yearning is often transferred to an all-encompassing god which does not actually exist.

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