I personally think there have been plausible naturalistic explanations for how belief in creator gods developed in human minds. While it could definitely be true that there really are creator gods that caused this evolutionary development to occur that doesn’t mean that creator gods is the correct explanation. If we can agree that we do have plausible naturalistic explanations (and obviously people argue whether or not that’s true) then that’s where I feel Occam’s razor could have a valid application. You know from other conversations that I do believe Occam’s razor is really just a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule, and that’s where I think I struggle to figure out exactly where I stand on the whole thing.
I think Howie’s right. Occam’s razor is a great guideline, but there’s no guarantee that it’s always right. Sometimes the simplest explanation is not the right one.
But despite the lack of a guarantee, I think there’s another angle to this when it comes to some religions. I’d like to come at this point in a round about manner, so let’s begin with an example. Long ago, most people believed the earth was flat. And this wasn’t just based on a whim, they had actual justification for that belief. If the earth wasn’t flat, then anything on the sides or the bottom would slip off, right? Any child could understand that. They were, of course, completely wrong about that belief, but it’s very easy to understand why they would have held it. Their belief was based on evidence — misunderstood evidence, granted, but evidence nonetheless. It’s easy to forgive their misunderstanding. In fact, most people would probably say there’s nothing to forgive.
When it comes to the existence of God, I think we’re in a similar position. It’s possible that a God or Gods set everything into motion that led us to where we are today, and for a very long time, that was the prevailing explanation for existence. But today, many of us no longer feel that deities offer the best explanation for why we’re here. There’s no clear evidence of the divine at work in our world today. Examples of evil and suffering are easy to find. And science has helped us find natural explanations for how the universe and its forms of life operate. Not all questions have been answered, but many of us feel that Occam’s razor is great justification for believing that those remaining questions will also have natural explanations.
And that brings me to my main point. Even if we’re wrong, those of us who are atheists are justified in not believing in gods. That doesn’t mean we’re right. However, while Occam’s razor isn’t a law that proves we’re right, it gives much more strength to our position when talking about certain kinds of gods. This isn’t a situation in which it could easily go either way — Occam’s razor actually stacks the deck strongly in our favor.
Consider Christianity: most versions of it teach that God is going to judge humanity for its sinful nature, and the only way to escape this judgment is to put faith in God and his son Jesus Christ. We’re also taught that this god is righteous and merciful — he is a wholly good god who can not do evil, and he loves us enough (even while we were sinners!) to sacrifice his only son. But such a god doesn’t fit a reality where one can be justified in believing that there is no god. If atheism is justified, it wouldn’t be right to punish someone for being an atheist, just as it wouldn’t be right to punish someone who lived 4,000 years ago for believing that the earth is flat.
Ryan Bell, the former 7th Day Adventist pastor who famously decided to try atheism for a year, recently wrote something similar:
For the sake of argument, let’s say, “God did it.” God kicked off the entire process by igniting the Big Bang. This is essentially the God of deism—a God who is not involved in the affairs of our world, and has not been since he got the whole thing started. So, to come back to my first question on the first day of the year, “What difference does that God make?” I’m not inspired to worship that God. That God cannot possibly be described by the Bible and Jesus was incorrect in his understanding of that God, because that God has been absent for 13+ billion years. Frankly, I’m surprised that so many Christians even make these cosmological arguments. They don’t get us any closer to the Bible or Christianity.
If we try to cover that gap and posit a God who not only caused the Big Bang but is involved in the world, we run into other problems—mostly ethical problems. Why is God so silent and inert? Why is God such a bad communicator? Why are people killing each other to defend their version of God? And why does it seem so much like we are evolving as a species and editing our view of God as we go along?
Occam’s razor works for the unbeliever in at least two ways: First, justified atheism makes it very hard to believe in a god who would punish unbelievers. Secondly, the only kind of god we’re left with probably doesn’t matter a great deal. As Bell says, what difference does he make? It’s similar to the Delos McKown quote, “the invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”
I think that Occam’s razor provides very good justification for atheism, but it’s not a guarantee — sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the right one. But most religions define their god(s) in such a way that Occam’s razor deals them a critical blow. It’s their own assertions that do them in. At least, that’s how I see it — what do you think?