Category: The Big Bang

When people use the #atheist or #atheists or #atheism hashtags on Twitter, I sometimes respond.  As an atheist, it seems reasonable to me that the fact that they have used those hashtags signals a desire to engage in discussion. I welcome the opportunity. Sometimes they’re calling atheists out. But sometimes they’re genuinely eager to debate and discuss. And when it’s not absolutely clear that they’re just trying to raise our hackles, I try to give the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the latter.

So recently, when twitter user @shubsy76 , posted the following tweet:

How can someone believe this amazing world exist of nothing but coincidence? #atheists ..SubhanAllah

My reply was:

Simple. Evidence.

In turn, shubsy (if I may call him by his twitter handle, and if I may presume shubsby is a “he”) responded:

give me one evidence,just one simple evidence

To which I replied:

Well over 99% of animals that ever existed are extinct. If that’s an intentional design, its a terribly stupid design.

shubsy asked for clarification:

so your sayin the animals that are existing now equate to 1%

And I obliged

Yes, but to be clear that’s the percentage of species, not the number of animals.

…and also added:

But more importantly, your original premise tests on two logical fallacies: the argument from incredulity & the god of the gaps.

And in shubsy’s subsequent reply, he requested:

speak English,stop trying to be clever by using big words.keep it simple.

From this point I replied by apologizing for using jargon such as such as the term logical fallacies* that people who aren’t familiar with apologist/counter-apologist discussions might not be familiar with. Unfortunately, he then accused me of denigrating him as ignorant. Which a) I really din’t do (follow the links above to read our complete exchanges, and judge for yourself), and b) kind of pissed me off since I was bending over backwards to be polite and respectful, not to mention patient.

But at the end of the day, I really don’t care what he thinks of me, or if he falsely accuses me of insulting his intelligence. What I do care about is his initial query: “someone believe this amazing world exist of nothing but coincidence?” So I want to focus the remainder of this post on the aforementioned logical fallacies on which his question is based, in as plain English as I possibly can.

1. The Argument from Personal Incredulity

Simply put, this amounts to, “I do not or cannot believe x is possible, and therefore x is not true.” In shubsy’s case x is a universe which exists by “coincidence”, or in other words did not come into existence by the agency of a “creator” (his term).

Historical examples clearly illustrate the flaw in this logic.  We can plainly see them in any given time period when that era’s dominant understanding of how the universe works is challenged by scientific progress creating newer, more accurate models. For centuries through the dark and middle ages in Europe, biblically-based geocentrism — the belief that Earth is fixed at the center of the universe, unmoving and unmovable — was the only accepted and acceptable model of the world. Until Copernicus revolutionized this understanding by publishing his heliocentric model of a universe with the sun at its center, it was inconceivable to people of that time that such a world in which Earth was not at the center could possibly exist. The initial response to such a (no pun intended) earth shattering new idea was indeed incredulity, and the Vatican would proceed to condemn Copernicus’ book on heliocentricism as heresy, officially condemning the work for calling into question their massively mistaken concept of the universe.

Copernicus was correct, of course, about Earth not being at the center of all things, and the fact that it revolves around the sun. And with every new major scientific development which has produced surprising new models of our physical world — especially those models which directly contradict religiously shaped views of the universe — there has been at first resistance, disbelief, condemnation and anger. Later this generally gives way to  reluctant acceptance of what by then has been proven far beyond any reasonable doubt to be fact. This finally proved to be true in this case as well although it was not until 2010, in fact, that the Vatican allowed Copernicus to be properly reburied in a marked grave. Their final concession to having been wrong took only 457 years to make!.

From Copernicus to Galileo to Newton to Darwin to Einstein, science keeps delivering better, more complete and accurate models for understanding how the world works, challenging our previously held beliefs at every turn. In our modern age, quantum mechanics and its revelation of the wave-particle duality of light continue to challenge our imagination as, on the face of it, these concepts are so counter-intuitive as to seem impossible. But in actuality they do hold up against the scrutiny of the scientific method, and if laypeople (like me) can’t grasp their reality, it is a failure of our own imaginations, not a failure of the science itself.

Simply not being able to believe something is true is never a valid, legitimate reason for necessarily believing it must not, cannot be true. The appeal to incredulity can at best be considered deeply flawed logic. The people or organizations who cling to them most fervently nearly always end up on the wrong side of history, and when they don’t, it’s only because they were lucky enough to be right for the wrong reasons.

2. The Argument from Ignorance, or the God of the Gaps

Let me first clarify, because there is usually confusion about this, that to say someone has used the logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance is not calling that person ignorant. Here, “ignorance” refers to our common, collective ignorance, or more clearly put, the  limitations of human knowledge. For example, the universe is so vast, and our technology for measuring it so limited, that there is a lot of information simply unavailable to us because we simply do not (at least not yet) have the means to acquire it. So in this sense, we are literally “ignorant” about many details of distant space. It is to such areas where human knowledge is lacking that the “ignorance” in “argument from ignorance” refers to, not to the person making the argument.

Religious apologists and proponents of other supernatural or pseudoscientific concepts will at times use the argument from ignorance to exploit the fact that we indeed cannot know everything, and insert whatever explanation they choose in those “empty” spaces beyond and between what is known. They point to those gaps, which legitimately remain mysterious, and stick their gods in there (or ghosts, psychic powers or what have you).

The arguments from incredulity and ignorance closely dovetail each other, and play off each other as our understanding of the universe progresses. Each time our scientific understanding of the world expands — from a flat Earth to a spherical Earth to an Earth which is an oblate spheroid; or from a geocentric to a heliocentric world to what is now recognized as a universe with no discernible center — the gaps into which those gods can be placed grow smaller and smaller. At every step when that which was previously thought only attributable to a god was demonstrated to have perfectly natural causes, the goalposts get moved back to the new border between known and unknown. God keeps getting squeezed into tighter and tinier spaces, but there remain limits to our knowledge and thus holes to plug that god into.

Lightning and thunder, long believed in many cultures to be the anger and punishment of gods, are now of course well understood as a purely material phenomenon. (Though some still believe that appeasing the gods will prompt them to make it rain). The more we understand the world, the narrower and less relevantt the footholds for these gods become.

In the case of the Big Bang theory, which shubsy is challenging, the space in the scientific model for a creator has essentially been pushed back to the very first few moments after the big bang, at which point the laws of physics as we understand them would completely break down, rendering those events beyond investigation. (Physicist Stephen Hawking actually goes a step further, arguing that modern physics allows no room for a creator of the universe). The scientific validity of the Big Bang model, however, is well established by consensus as being the best explanation we currently have for the origin and history of the universe. It has withstood decades of testing, research and attempts at falsification, nearly all of which have failed to disprove it and confirmed its explanatory power.

And the key phrase there is explanatory power, because here’s the thing about science: It works. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is good. Last month NASA sent an amazingly advanced robot to a very precise location on Mars. Their ability to do so rests squarely on the shoulders of giants like Einstein, Newton and Copernicus. Science, unlike religion, actually produces results. If you are reading this now, it’s entirely because science gave us the internet and all the wonderful IT to make convenient use of it. Psychic powers did not send the Voyager to the edge of the Solar System. Spiritual mediums did not discover and develop the insulin which keeps millions of diabetics alive. And churches most certainly did not help Curiosity get to Mars (if anything, they probably prevented it from getting there sooner by holding back scientific progress).

Like all scientific theories, the Big Bang theory is not perfect, and it cannot explain everything, but it has resulted in the development of the most accurate picture of the universe in human history. In a similar sense, the germ theory of disease is not perfect, and cannot explain everything, but it has resulted in the world of modern medicine in which human life expectancy has doubled over the last century.

The fact that scientific theories do have limitations does leave us with many mysteries about the world remaining to be solved. That does not make it legitimate, however, to just plug whatever explanation you like into those gaps in order to justify the things you want to believe. And if you are to make the positive claim that this universe must have a creator, then you are assuming the burden of providing real evidence in support of that claim.

“How could anybody possibly believe there’s no creator?” Because all of the scientific evidence points to a universe in which at the very least a creator would be unknowable and irrelevant, or at most (as Hawking argues) incompatible with our understanding of physics. And in all of human history there has been literally no scientific evidence which supports the existence of a creator. None.

“I’m amazed!” isn’t evidence. It’s the argument from incredulity.

“It’s amazing, so there must be a creator!” isn’t evidence. It’s the exact opposite. It’s wishful thinking. It’s plugging a god into a gap precisely because there is no evidence at all.

I took the time to answer this question at great length because it’s such a common stance, and because it is in fact an important question worth examining. I hope shubsy and others who share his views might use it as a stepping stone towards critically examining previously unquestioned beliefs and claims.

*If you are not familiar with the formal discipline of logic, or logical fallacies, a good introduction can be found here at the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.


A few days ago, twitter user @BenjiLeeT invited atheists to comment on the image below. (And just to be clear, I’m only posting his twitter handle to credit him as the source for the picture. My criticisms below are in no way directed towards him personally).

So, here’s the pic, which appears to have fairly widely circulated:

Now of course this is meant to be humorous, and perhaps on those grounds it shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. On the other hand, it’s a perfect example of how apologists attempt to misrepresent the views of atheists in order to construct straw men and cartoonish stereotypes which are easy to ridicule and dismiss. So on those grounds I find it worthwhile to break down this deeply flawed message in all its fallacious glory.

Starting from the beginning, then, “Atheism: The belief…”

Stop. Three words in and we’ve already arrived at…

Falsehood Number 1: “Atheism is a belief”

Atheism, by definition, is not a belief. It is the lack of belief in any gods. We remain unconvinced of any theistic or supernatural claims because there is insufficient evidence that those claims are true. At its core, atheism is not a belief or viewpoint at all, but rather the natural conclusion that results from a skeptical, rational approach to the observable world. Thus far, every argument for the existence of gods has failed to deliver a shred of substantial, empirical proof that it is based on anything more than human imagination and cultural tradition, and so we remain unconvinced.

Falsehood Number 2: “Atheism equals evolution and the Big Bang”

Now, it’s probably a very large majority of atheists who embrace the validity of the scientific method, and by extension the theories that are the most widely accepted among the scientific community, including evolution and the Big Bang. However, this is not an exclusive club. In fact, the majority of Americans who believe in evolution are theists, being that there are so many more believers than non-believers. The Vatican has officially accepted the Big Bang and evolution, and “theistic evolution” is likewise accepted by a wide range of Protestant Christian denominations as well as many other religions.  So while it’s probably safe to say that most atheists embrace these concepts, it’s patently absurd to suggest that we’re alone in this.

A subheading under this category would be the falsehood that most people who are the loudest critics of the Big Bang and evolution have even the slightest understanding of the science they’re denouncing. When creationists converse with people who actually understand evolution, they will often interject things like, “Well, if evolution is true then how did life start in the first place?”, or, as in the picture above, “Well, if evolution is true, then how did everything come from nothing?” When blurting out these utterances (usually to sidetrack or derail), all they really do is show their complete ignorance of the science they’re talking about. Very few would be able to tell you, for example, that abiogenesis and evolution are completely separate areas of research.

Abiogenesis is the study of how organic matter (which is to say, life) emerged from inorganic matter. The theory of evolution seeks to explain how the complex life forms we know (and are) evolved from simpler previous forms going back to a common ancestor. But evolutionary theory in no way attempts to explain how life originated in the first place. Likewise, the Big Bang theory is an explanation for the beginning of the physical universe, but makes no claims about the origin or evolution of life, or anything biological whatsoever. Apologists will often juggle around elements from all three of these, none of which have any claims to make regarding theological beliefs in the first place, obfuscating and muddying the conversational waters, probably because making good, rational arguments is hard when you don’t have any.

Falsehood Number 3: “Magic”

The use of this word – twice, just to drive the point home, I suppose – just goes to show how willing apologists are to be blatantly dishonest as long as it serves their purpose. It’s obviously thrown in there to suggest that atheists are foolish and silly for believing in the crazy, “magical” fantasies of scientific theory (which again, do not even equate to atheism in the first place). However, most atheists don’t even believe in the mundane David Blaine variety of magic, let alone outlandish tales found in religious scripture of talking snakes, virgin birth and the like. It should go without saying that for believers to ridicule atheists for “believing in magic” is beyond ironic. It is a deliberate and intellectually dishonest ruse to discredit the findings of science, which are supported by natural, empirically verifiable evidence. And beyond that, unlike religion, science is honest and open about the limits of its explanatory powers. Religion takes advantage of that honesty with a childish, “Ha! You even admit that you don’t know!”, and then sleazily proceeds to fill in the gaps with whatever stories suit its purpose. Science is not capable of explaining everything, but everything which science can explain it can do so in entirely naturalistic, empirically evident terms. Religion can’t even come close to claiming the same.

Falsehood Number 4: “Atheists carry the burden of proof of their ‘beliefs'”

The last line of the graphic basically states that religious beliefs (ie. supernatural beliefs) are more rational than naturalistic beliefs, by ridiculing the validity of science. This is fairly sneaky, because what it’s really doing is engaging in an absurd attempt to shift incredulity from supernaturalistic claims to naturalistic claims, even though the latter are objectively observable and the former are not. Another way of saying this is that it’s trying to shift the burden of proof from those who make claims without any scientific evidence to their skeptics who justifiably won’t take their word for it. “I’ll keep believing until you prove me wrong,” the believer says.

Yet, Christians are not obligated to disprove Hindusism, and Hindus are not obligated to disprove alien abductees, and alien abductees are not obligated to disprove Muslims, and Muslims are not obligated to disprove believers in Santa Claus, and believers in Santa Claus are not obligated to disprove 9/11 truthers, and 9/11 truthers are not obligated to disprove Christians.This shifting of the burden of proof is one of the most common apologist tactics, as they demand of atheists time and again that we “prove there is no god”. Sorry folks, but  that’s not our responsibility.

Again, atheism is not in itself a belief, but is instead the insistence that:

a) if people are going to make truth claims regarding the existential reality of gods or other supernatural entities or phenomena, and…

b) if they want us to accept their claims as serious, plausible, rational and believable, then…

c) they are obliged to provide us with evidence of their claims, and it must be both empirically observable under testable conditions and also sufficiently convincing as to merit (cautious) credulity and further testing.

In fact, the majority of atheists are agnostics who not only do not claim any absolute knowledge of the lack of existence of gods, but would absolutely love to see such evidence provided if there were any. But as of yet, there hasn’t been.

But for their part, many theists, rather than being intellectually honest and attempting to make positive proofs for the existence of their gods, resort to the “I know you are but what am I?” deflection method, insisting that we atheists disprove that for which they have absolutely no evidence, and which in reality can’t be disproven (much like you can’t prove I don’t have a tiny Sasquatch living in my top desk drawer), and which we skeptics are simply unable to believe without good reason.

In terms of logic, this is a fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. This is not to call anyone ignorant, but simply to recognize that humans have limits of knowledge, and therefore remain collectively in the dark about the as yet undiscovered and unsolved. The fallacy is to exploit the unknown areas (the “filling in the gaps” described above) and say, “Well, if nobody knows, then therefore that’s God.” Without any justification. Without any legitimate reason. Without any evidence. On nothing but desire and a”faith” in translations of translations of rewrites of rewrites of ancient texts of stories told mostly not by eyewitnesses but handed down in large part orally from generation to generation, somehow finally resulting in what they call the Truth, otherwise known as The Word Of God (as decreed by whichever “holy” scripture they happen to believe in), stories written by people who weren’t there about desert dwellers hundreds or thousands of years ago whose knowledge and understanding of life and the universe was extraordinarily miniscule compared towhat we know of the world today.

And then they have the audacity to call us foolish for not believing. That does not make perfect sense to me.

%d bloggers like this: