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Simon Blackburn is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, a member of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, a former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and currently a Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rick Lewis asks him about his atheism.
Hello Professor Blackburn. You are an atheist. What do you personally mean by ‘atheism’?
Actually I prefer the label ‘infidel’ to that of ‘atheist’. I suppose an atheist thinks there is a definite, intelligible question to which the answer is ‘no’, and agnostics also think there is such a question, and that the right answer is ‘don’t know’. But I doubt that there is a definite intelligible question about ‘the existence of God’.
How did you become an infidel?
I am not sure I ever had any faith to lose, so I can’t identify a definite, dated process. I was at a Church of England school, but gradually became less and less interested in the Church’s sayings and doctrines. At about the age of sixteen I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian, and never looked back.
Is it possible to disprove the existence of God? And if not, shouldn’t you be an agnostic?
Being an infidel, that is, just having no faith, I do not have to prove anything. I have no faith in the Loch Ness Monster, but do not go about trying to prove that it does not exist, although there are certainly overwhelming arguments that it does not. And at least there is a fairly determinate meaning attached to the idea that there is one.
What is the strongest argument against God’s existence?
Undoubtedly the fact of appalling human and animal suffering makes it hard to believe that the world is the product of an all good, all powerful, and all knowing intelligent designer. It is much easier to infer that any entity responsible for the world either doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or can’t do better.
What, if anything, would convince you that there was a God?
I doubt if anything could convince me via reasons and reasonings that there is a God. Of course a blow on the head or something similar might mean one ends up believing and saying anything, however outlandish. I am sure that emotional traumas, loss, oppression and despair cause many people to seek some kind of refuge in supernatural hopes.
How do you as a non-believer account for the existence of the universe?
The familiar infinite regress arguments that anything that exists needs a cause stop anyone from ‘accounting for’ the existence of something rather than nothing. To stop the regress you would have to postulate something that necessarily exists or is its own cause, and there is no real sense to be made of that. And as David Hume said, if there is some unknown, inconceivable quality of ‘necessarily existing’, then for all we know it might belong to the cosmos itself. No need, then, to add anything else.
This touches on the issue I mentioned earlier, whether there is a definite question in the God area. The problem is that the believer has to oscillate between two conceptions of God. One is a God modelled on human beings, with emotions very like ours, desires, purposes, awareness, and above all, one that inhabits time and is involved in world affairs. This is the God of Abraham and Isaac. The other is the God of the philosophers: a necessary existence, perfect, beyond time, changeless, eternal… In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume has great fun having spokesmen for each of these conceptions knock the stuffing out of the other. They are fundamentally inconsistent, but the religionist needs both at different moments. This is why we hear so much about it all being so mysterious. But one thing is clear, which is that you cannot stick your head into a cloud and come back with instructions about how to live, what to expect, whom to admire, how to dress, how to have sex, or what to eat. Mysteries carry no practical implications: religionists have to add those from their own fancies. Nothing in the fog can have any implications on its own for how we are to live or what we are to expect. Once this is understood, then as Hume saw in the last of his Dialogues, the question of the existence of God loses any interest.
What about the apparent fine-tuning of the physical variables of the universe which makes possible the appearance of intelligent life? Isn’t that an argument for God’s existence?
Anything that was causally responsible for tuning those constants would have to be extraordinarily fine-tuned itself, so this just pushes the issue back one step, and we are left with the problems I mentioned. We may currently be unable to see any reason why those constants have the values they do, but our ignorance cannot give us any premise from which to derive massive cosmological conclusions.
I think the fact that we came along does not in the least shows that it was the purpose or design of some creator to produce us. That is giving us far more importance than our insignificance on the scale of nature suggests. Homo sapiens has existed for the blink of an eye as a small fraction of the biomass in one small planet on the edge of a galaxy with over 100 billion stars, itself one of some 500 billion other galaxies. It would be very wasteful if that were all just for us. All that wasted time and energy just to get to David Cameron, for instance.
Many who do believe in God would say that atheism ultimately makes each of our lives meaningless. Would you agree with that?
I am sorry for people who cannot find any meaning or purpose in their lives, but I certainly do not see that living on and on and on forever would cure that: if anything, it would seem to make things worse. Schopenhauer thought that boredom was only second to actual pain as an evil to be avoided. I find it very odd that people who can barely stand an hour of singing and praying and praising in church on Sunday can imagine being blissfully happy doing nothing else for eternity. They must have very poor imaginations.
Besides, there is plenty of meaning to be found during life. The smile of a baby means the world to the mother; successes mean a lot to those who have struggled to achieve them, and so on.
Timothy Chappell says believers know there is a God through their own experience of Him, and that it is therefore entirely rational of them to regard sceptical arguments as mere brainteasers. He makes a comparison with scepticism about the external world. Do you think religious experience could be a valid source of data about God’s existence?
It may be an understandable cause of belief in God’s existence, for some people, but it cannot serve as a data point that justifies any such belief. You could not have an experience that bears the right kind of content for that, because peoples’ notions of God carry too much baggage: all powerful, all good, all knowing, necessarily existent… Even if you literally saw something conforming to your image of God spread out across the sky, you wouldn’t have any right to add all those properties to it. This is even before you start adding historical properties: ‘covenanted with Israel’, ‘sent Jesus’, ‘sent Mohammed’, or whatever.
The case is quite different with the external world. Scepticism about that is of only theoretical interest; firstly because nature takes care of our convictions about our immediate environment, as she does for all animals; secondly because it is only by the experience of an external world that we get to be thinkers at all; and thirdly because we have endless ongoing confirmations of the system. So we have very good reason for trusting our everyday conception of the world. If I go walking in the hills and the content of my visual experience is that there is a big cliff in front of me, I will do much better if I trust it than if I ignore it; and the same is true in countless cases every day of my life. Trusting in the goodness of God, unfortunately, does not seem to be attended with the same string of successes. People who do it seem on the whole to do worse than those who do not but trust other things. Probably most religious people at some point have to sympathize with Job, or with Tosca’s great despairing aria: “Perchè, perchè, Signor, ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?” – “Why, why, Lord, oh why do you treat me thus?”
I do not doubt that something causes some people to believe on the basis of experience. But as Kant said, without concepts, intuition, that is experience, is blind. Experience needs interpretation. So I wonder what leads them to interpret their experience as they do: what is it that convinces them that they’re not in touch with an inferior deity, or an impostor, or that God is a unity, or is male, or the source of the bizarre events described in the Bible?
Some theologians have followed the late John Hick in suggesting that religious claims aren’t really about asserting the truth of propositions such as ‘God exists’, but instead are claims about perceptions of God; in other words theism is about an attitude towards the world. Do you think something parallel could be said about some atheists?
I have a great deal of respect for the view that ‘onto-theology’, that is, religious doctrines associated with existence claims, should be abandoned, but that such things as rituals, poetry, metaphor, music and dance still have a role in welding people together into a congregation or a society. This was Durkheim’s view of the function of religious practices. I think they have other functions as well, but that substantially he was right. Of course, on this view the whole subject changes, and the question turns to the value of these practices as they manifest themselves in particular historical and cultural contexts. You can very effectively weld people together by magnifying their differences from other people, and that has always been an aspect of religion, and not at all a nice one.
Marx is admired by militant New Atheists for saying that religion is the opium of the people. But they forget what he said next, which is that “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” I think that is right, which is why moral and political questions should occupy all of us far more than ontological questions.
Would the world be a better place if everyone were an atheist?
Across large parts of the world religion conspires with tyranny and injustice to oppress women, to cement the power of men, to suppress free speech, to force acquiescence with the status quo, and to whip up hatred against other peoples. Nobody would want Europe to return to pre-Enlightenment attitudes; nobody sane thinks that people flourish more under theocracies. But as the Marx quote shows, it would require a whole moral, political, and economic change before the need for religion will wither.
As an atheist/infidel, do you think it’s important to campaign for a less religious society?
It all depends on what the religionists have got it into their heads to clamour about. At present in the USA it is important, because religious fundamentalism aims to keep people ignorant about science and scientific method. In Catholic countries there is the wicked suppression of birth control. In the UK this is fortunately not so true; but even here religionists oppose assisted dying, are at least half-inclined to moralize about harmless variations in sexual tastes and lifestyles, and constantly campaign to have a louder voice in political affairs than they deserve. They need watching.