How to Be an Atheist: Creation Ex Nihilo

by | Jun 28, 2012 | Uncategorized

Letter by athena at Flickr
Letterbox by MrBG at Flickr

The 2nd Letter to a Young Atheist

Editor’s note: the first letter can be read here – part 1.


Dear Timothy,

I hope you have not lost sleep over the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s an odd sort of question because it does not ask about any one thing or another in particular but, rather, asks why there is anything at all. This may be confusing, so let me try to make it a bit clearer.

If I ask, “Why is there a Ryan Duns?” I can cite my parents as being pretty intimately involved in my coming-to-be. They were, to my knowledge, intimately involved in the production of my four siblings as well. No big mystery there. Should I wish to push the question further and pay the membership fee, I could investigate the “Why” of the Duns family on a genealogy website and trace my family back to ancient Scotland. Were I so inclined, I might trace further to a point where humans had no language and might be difficult to differentiate from primates (remember, I believe in evolution). Eventually, my investigation might lead to a time before there was life on the planet and, further still, to the origin of the universe. Starting from something as inconsequential as my own birth, I am confident that I can ask “Why” until I reach both the origin of life and, much further back, the origin of the cosmos.

This should come as no surprise. On the map of the universe, we can trace and plot the history of each and every ens, each and every thing. Every ens leaves its mark on the map of creation, playing a role in and making a difference to history. My Great-Grandma Kilbane left two children and very many grandchildren in her wake. The custard donuts I used to enjoy on the way to school each the morning also left a wake, one that took six months in Weight Watchers to erase. Every ens has a history and every inquiry whether into a living being or an artifact like an iPod – explores its role in the story.

Baby studies donuts by Santheo at Flickr

Donut Study, by Baby

This is to say, we can investigate how any particular ens came to be. iPods and donuts and babies just don’t pop into existence – they have a history, they come from somewhere. Start with any thing you like and, if you ask “Why” long enough, you’ll be amazed at the web of relationships this little question uncovers. At some point, it seems to me, one might finally ask a final question: Why is there a map of creation at all? Why is there a universe? Is there a reason that there is a universe to begin with, a map on which things take place?

In answer to this question you may say, along with Bertrand Russell, it is “just there, that’s all.” That may be an answer, but it seems very much like the unsatisfying answer given by parents – “Because I said so!” – which succeeds in ending discussion via fiat rather than argument. “It just is” may work for a cranky adolescent, but it hardly works if you feel that you have a legitimate question that you want to have answered.

I’m sure it’s evident by now that I think that asking why there is a universe is a legitimate question. In fact, I believe that one can ask both “Why” the world is the way it is as well as “Why” the world is at all. I am encouraged in this because every ens we encounter in the universe has a reason for its existence. It comes from, or is made out of some antecedent material. The universe is open to careful and rational exploration and explanation, both scientific and otherwise.

When asked where the universe came from, Christian thinkers often say that the world is neither made out of nor comes from anything. In Latin they say the whole map of creation is the result of creation ex nihilo creation from nothing.  On the map of creation, I investigate things; I ask how things are and how they are related. These How questions are scientific questions, questions that probe the way things are and how they interact with one another. But when I raise the question “Why is there a universe at all?” I am looking for the reason there is a world for science to describe.1

Do you remember when we watched the YouTube clip of physicist Lawrence Krauss in class?2 After we watched the clip one of your classmates pointed out something interesting – that Krauss seemed not to grasp what creation ex nihilo really means. Your classmate noted that Krauss seemed to think that “nothing” simply mean some inert, unformed lump of stuff, and that it was this lump of stuff (which somehow got stretched and pulled to form the warp and woof of our universe) that he called “nothing.” What I am after here in this letter is pointing out just what your classmate saw: ‘nothing’ doesn’t mean some unformed thing, it means not anything. Krauss erred in treating creation ex nihilo as the same type of creation we deal with each day. He failed to realize that ‘nothing’ is not, as Professor Turner says, a funny sort of something. There’s not a blob of ‘nothing’ that gets shaped into something, as a blob of clay gets molded into a vase.

Traditional theists assert that God’s primordial activity is to create, that God’s job is to make the whole map of creation to be. God does not have to create any particular thing on the map of our world, mind you, but never the less God is responsible for there being a map in the first place. One of God’s main jobs is creation ex nihilo, accounting for there being. This means, and here we begin to get back (finally, I know) to our atheism vs. theism debate, that theist take the word “God” to mean that on account of which there is something rather than nothing.

Plato & Aristotle by Image Editor at Flickr

Plato & Aristotle

Of course this has consequences for an educated a-theist (which I hope you will be if you are not a theist). To be a true atheist, you must somehow address the question of “Why something rather than nothing?” The theist asserts that there is a universe because God makes it to be. The atheist, on the other hand, must show that the act of questioning the whole is either misguided, or invalid (or both, I suppose). That is, the atheist must demonstrate how it is that in a universe, a universe where we can reasonably ask “Why” of so many things, the ultimate Why question is nonsensical.

Aristotle observed, “…it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” Theists maintain that there is something fundamentally wondrous about the universe, something inviting the question “Why anything at all?” Theists believe this to be a reasonable question and call whatever it is that answers it by the name “God.” What do you think of this so far, Timmy?  I’m sure you have many good and provocative questions. There’s still much work for us to do, certainly, but one letter at a time, eh?

I look forward to hearing from you very much.


Mr. Ryan Duns, SJ

AKA: Notorious Troublestirrer


Editor’s Note: read the next letter by clicking here.

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  1. Side note: it’s because I find the world a reasonable place, I am willing to pose the “Why” question that asks why there is anything at all. To be sure, I recognize that in asking “Why the map of creation?” we ask a different sort of question, a question not about anything in particular but, rather, about the whole thing.
  2. Krauss recently wrote a book entitled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing if you would like to look more deeply into his idea.