British radical, atheist, freethinker and essayist, Charles Bradlaugh (born Sept. 26, 1833, London, died Jan. 30, 1891, London) wrote in his "Plea for Atheism" that an atheist is certainly justified in saying, "The Bible God I deny; the Christian God I disbelieve in; but I am not rash enough to say there is no God as long as you tell me you are unprepared to define God to me1".
This is the crux of the question "does God exist?" -
In a universe that is around 10-15 billion years old, that may well have an extent so large that most of it will be, to all intents and purposes, forever beyond our ability to observe, this conception of God seems, well, silly and so anthrocentric that it's laughable. As a member of alt.atheism (whose name escapes me, if it's you, please let me know) says in his signature file "Christian Fundamentalism: The doctrine that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely old entity who is intimately concerned with the details of my sex life".
But, simply because something seems silly doesn't necessarily make it untrue. The God of the fundamentalists makes claims (or at least has claims made on His behalf by those who believe in Him) that can be tested. For instance, it is claimed that he created the universe and everything in it in 6 days approximately 6,000 years ago. It is claimed that at one point early in human history, He wiped out almost the entire human race. It is claimed that He frequently intervened in history on behalf of an obscure middle-eastern tribe, often breaking natural laws that we have no reason to suppose can be broken, to do so. It is claimed that He loves each one of us infinitely, but will never-the-less condemn a significant fraction of humanity to eternal torture.
If it can be shown that these claims can stand up to investigation, then we may have evidential grounds to seriously consider belief in the God of the fundamentalists. If on the other hand, these claims do not sustain investigation, we have every right to discard this conception of God, and look elsewhere.
It is important to realise that we can only investigate claims that are falsifiable, that is claims that are, in principle, capable of being disproved. For instance, were someone to state that an omnipotent God had, in fact, created the universe and everything in it, including us and our memories, thirty seconds ago, with perfect consistency and the express intention of making the universe look and feel billions of years old, there would be no way in which we could disprove the assertion. Such a claim is not falsifiable, and as such cannot be investigated in a scientific (or any other) manner. It must merely be accepted or rejected according to personal whim.
Let's start at the beginning. Is the universe 6,000 or so years old, did it come into being in 6 days, and how can we tell? Creationists claim that it is, and that it did. They "know" this because the creation process is detailed in the Bible, and the age of the earth can be inferred from the geonologies presented in the same book.
If we can show that these theories are not in fact true, if we can falsify them, then it is clear that the God of the Creationist Fundamentalists doesn't exist. Some other God(s) may, and we'll look at what that means that later.
How do we tell how old the earth is? Well, what we need is some kind of natural clock that runs at a known rate. If we can find one of these, we should, in principle, be able to read what time it is now, and backtrack to discover when the clock was wound up.
Radiometric dating techniques are useful here. As is well known, radioactive elements transform into other elements, uranium 235, for instance transforms into lead 207. Although it is not possible to predict which atom of a given quantity uranium 235 will transform in an atom of lead 207 (there a very good reasons for believing this to be a-causal, which of itself raises some interesting questions about the nature of the cosmos) if we take a quantity of uranium 235, we can say that after 710 million years, half of that uranium will have transformed into lead 207.
How do we know this? Scientists haven't been around for 710 millions years, and even if they had, it's unlikely that the research grant would last that long. The answer, is of course, mathematics. If I take a kilo of uranium 235 and determine the amount of lead 207 in it, then wait a defined period of time and again determine the amount of lead 207 in it, the difference between the two measurements when compared to the original quantity of uranium will enable me to work backwards and determine the half-life. Other radioactive elements have much shorter half-lives radon 222, for instance has a half-life of 3.8 days, and is itself formed by the decay of radium 226.
The rate of radioactive change from one element into another is uninfluenced by chemical changes or other changes in the environment.
Rubidium-strontium dating techniques indicate that certain types of rock are in the region of 3.5 billion years old, and when the cooling time of the earth (following its formation) is taken in to account, the age of the earth is determined to be in the region of 4.6 billion years. QED the earth was not created 6,000 years ago and so the God who created the earth 6,000 years ago does not exist.
In answer to this the Creationist will respond in basically one of two ways:
If the creationist takes the former position, then there is no more to be said, except perhaps to bring up the case of the Church of Last Tuesday. The Church of Last Tuesday asserts that the entire universe, including humanity, was in reality created last Tuesday, but in such a way as to appear to be much older. All your memories of times prior to last Tuesday are in fact creations of God.
There is, of course, no way to prove or disprove such a thesis and you take it or leave it according to taste. So it is with the universe of the supernaturalistic creationist. To assert that the universe was created 6,000 years ago with the appearance of being much older is to depart from science and rationality. Whatever the argument has become, it no longer advances a position that is capable of disproof, and as such it is a meaningless argument.
In the latter case, where the creationist asserts that the dating technique in question is wrong, one has to ask to see the evidence. One also has to bear in mind the implications that such a disproof would have for other areas of science.
Well, we seem to have strayed a long way from "Does God Exist?".
To some extent, that's the point. [to be continued]
1Charles Bradlaugh in Paul Edwards, "Atheism." Paul Edwards editor, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York: Macmillan, 1967, vol. 1, p.177. Many of Bradlaugh's essays can be found at the Internet Infidels Website, which houses a spectacularly large collection of secular resources.