How to Be an Atheist: Why Is There Anything?

by | Jun 25, 2012 | Uncategorized


Author’s note: This past week, I served as one of five adult leaders for a Kairos retreat. One student remarked early on that his own uncertainty about God made talking about faith very difficult. This is hardly surprising. If we can’t establish the credibility of belief in God, it makes little sense to speculate about other matters of faith.

In response I offer this series of five letters modeled after Denys Turner’s inaugural lecture given upon assuming the Norris-Hulse chair of Theology at Cambridge in 2001. Entitled “How to be an Atheist,” Turner’s lecture forces us to confront a very odd sort of question: Why is there something rather than nothing at all?

My goal in this piece is to recraft Professor Turner’s argument in the form of a series of letters, letters that I might have written to the kind normal, doubting student with whom I was just on Kairos.  Since I have been teaching at an all-boys school, I’ve given my hypothetical interlocutor a young man’s name, Timothy.


Dear Timothy,

I have enjoyed having you in class this semester. You have been fun to teach: you read nightly, reflect on what you have read, and share freely during class discussion. Despite my tremendous appreciation for your diligence, I disagree with you when you assert that God’s existence is merely a matter of personal belief. It seems to me that God – whatever we take that word to mean – either does or does not exist. A matter of personal belief would be more akin to the statement “butter pecan is superior to vanilla ice cream,” whereas the assertion “There is a God” is more like a statement of fact, such as “there are fifty states in the Union” or “a circle has a circumference of 360 degrees.” God either does or does not exist; my opinion (or anyone’s opinion for that matter), doesn’t make a lick of difference.

I want to be the best teacher I can be, which means that I want you to be the best student you can be. Even when enmeshed in disagreement, I am only too happy to help a student to think through an issue – especially one so important as this. If I may be so bold, I’d like to engage you in some thinking through letter-writing. I hope that through these letters I can help you to articulate just what it is that you, as an atheist, do not believe. In this first letter I would like to proceed in a roundabout manner, attempting to show what it is that theists argue.

Every day, we encounter an enormous number of things. A thing or, as they used to say in the old days, an ens, has distinct properties. Cars and llamas, radios and lemons, Twinkies and toddlers: each of these is an ens or a thing. Some of them occur naturally – lemons and toddlers and llamas – while others have to manufactured or put together. Each one has its own specific properties, functions, and dimensions. Each one takes up space on the map – given a specific enough map, one could mark the location of any ens with a pushpin.

Each day, I walk to the local coffee shop to buy a cup of overpriced, yet deliciously addictive, coffee. Along the way, I encounter a number of things. For instance, when I walk down the road, I don’t typically say, “Wow! A car! Surely there must be a God who is responsible for its coming-to-be!” Instead, I’m more inclined to say, “Wow! A car! It looks nice and hopefully gets good gas mileage. I wonder who manufactures it?” My glimpse of a handsome car, an ens, can lead me to investigate further into its origins. Similarly, when I encounter a Twinkie at the convenience store, I hardly think of it as a proof for God’s existence. Indeed, given the widening waistlines of our population, it may the work of a particularly malicious demon (albeit one that likes creating delicious-malicious things)! But, we might ask, why does it not serve to prove God’s existence? It doesn’t because I can explain the coming-to-be of Twinkies by reading the packaging and looking for the factory from whence it was unleashed.

You might think of it this way: of any ens I can ask the question, “Why?” For example: “Why that iPod that you love so dearly, Timothy?” Answer: the iPod exists because Steve Jobs appeared hell-bent on dominating our world with his technology. That’s a fine answer, you might reply, but I really meant, how did the iPod get here? But surely, I can trace its origins: I bought it from an Apple store, which acquired it from its distributor, which transported it from a factory where it was produced by materials produced in other factories by factory workers.

Every time we encounter a manufactured ens, we can be fairly confident that we can ask “Why” and sort out not only what it is, but also where it came from, who made it, and what it does. In a word, we do not need God to explain the Snuggie.

Atheist Bus Campaign

So, how about a more complicated kind of ens, like animal life? Certainly, animals are rather different from wine bottles. In his surprising (and debonair) fashion, Father Herbert McCabe might have answered by saying that the difference between a living ens and a manufactured ens is that the living thing is an auto-mobile, a self-moving entity. Plants, without any help from me, are phototropic (they turn to the sun). Mosquitoes, despite repeated discouragement, enjoy seeking me out in order to take little bites of me.

If I take my niece Emma to Central Park and we see a puppy, it would be entirely plausible that she ask me, “Uncle Ryan, why is there a dog there?” I could explain its presence by saying that its owner had walked it to that point or that it scampered away to play with another dog. Should she tug on my sleeve and say, “But why is he a puppy?” I would hardly respond, “Emma, my dove, the answer is God.” Instead, I’d probably sit her down on a park bench and hope to God that I could distract her with an ice cream before I had to explain to her that at some point how it came to pass that a mommy doggy and a daddy doggy, who loved each other very much.

As awkward as a conversation about animal reproduction might be, I suspect I could do it. The devil may be in the details, as the adage goes, but God certainly would not need to factor into my explanation. Given that Emma is pretty clever, I might even be able to help her see that repeatedly asking “Why?” about the animals she encounters each day could well lead us to tell the story of evolution, which, as you well know, is the best explanation we have today for why living things are the way they are.

With all this talk of evolution, Timmy, you might think that the stories your Uncle Jack told you are true and that the Jesuits really are atheists. I should like to think that you doubt this. Do you remember when we were in class and you asserted that the story of Genesis was incompatible with science? My response was, “Well, you’re nearly right.”

As an account of history and science, the story of Genesis is hardly reliable. As I said in class, I simply don’t believe that Adam and Eve ever had a mailing address. I don’t believe that God made the world in seven twenty-four hour calendar days, or that God at some point dug up clay, breathed into it, and named it Adam. My point was that we ought to understand the story literally, but not literalistically. That is, Catholic tradition insists, even in the Catechism (see #115-119), that we have to interpret the Bible. A literalistic, word-for-word interpretation of the story, is certainly incompatible with science. Careless or naïve readers of Genesis take the story literalistically, as a factual account of how the earth was formed, whereas a Catholic would attempt to uncover the meaning of the text, to understand how it is a story attempting to make sense of the origins of life.

But you aren’t completely right in your assertion concerning the incompatibility of Genesis and science. The Creation narratives (there are two, as you may be aware) are not science. But going deeper into this seems a bit senseless to me at this point, since admitting that Genesis expresses certain fundamental truths is irrelevant if there is no God. I touched on the topic more because I wanted to remind you that a theist does not have to believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive pursuits.

In fact, during my early undergraduate studies, I wanted to be a chemist (once I realized what I klutz I was in the lab it seemed safer for all involved that I study something less dangerous). Perhaps I intuited in those days something the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed in the early 20th century: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.44).

All scientific pursuits explore how the world is. We live in a world where we can ask “Why?” of just about everything. “Why the duckbilled platypus?” “Why these glacial grooves?” “Why dark matter?” From microbiology to astronomy, inorganic chemistry to particle physics, science seeks to explore and explain the way the world is. We have a rather long list of things we can investigate and, given time and the proper methods, we can be reasonably assured that we will be able to make some headway into our pursuits.

Yet, what Wittgenstein calls the “mystical” is another type of question altogether, a question requiring of us a different kind of thinking. The mystical question, according to Wittgenstein, is “that” the world is. What I think he means here is something similar to what Father Brian Davies (following St. Thomas Aquinas) means when he expresses wonder that creation exists at all. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Fr. Davies asks, “Why is there anything at all?”

Can you see why this is an odd question? Think about what we’re asking: why is there anything to begin with, let alone all the particular beauty of puppies and ipods and glaciers? Fr. Davies question, and my question to you as we begin this discussion, is not meant to call into question any particular thing. Instead, I’m wondering why there is any thing in the first place.

Has the strangeness of this question ever struck you? Why is there anything at all?

Let me leave you with this for a spell. Consider this question if you will, Timothy, and let me know how you would respond: Why is there something rather than nothing?



Mr. Ryan G. Duns, SJ

AKA: Nefarious Badfellow


Editor’s note: read the second letter by clicking here.