One of the more persistent comments on atheism I see floating around is the “atheists believe the universe came from nothing” or “atheist believe nothing created everything” fallacy. This is a fallacy on two levels, because it is a fallacy within another fallacy.
For one thing, and while it might go without saying for some folks, I must reiterate again and again: you cannot attribute any idea to atheism besides the rejection of the idea of gods. An atheist need not believe in science, the Big Bang, or any other idea.
I would not be surprised in the least if one were able to find individual atheists who would feel comfortable making such statements about nothing creating everything. However, you would be hard pressed to find any educated individual who has ever studied the origins of the universe scientifically who would adhere to the notion that the universe derives from “nothing.” This is certainly not the view of science, and science is not atheism.
However, the reality is that most atheists have allowed science to answer the big questions that are handled by religion, so addressing views on the scientific theories surrounding cosmology is worth doing for most atheists.
Regarding the “everything from nothing” claim, nothing in science even so much as suggests this idea. The closest one may come is when discussing the concept physicists call the “singularity,” the single point from which the big bang originated and from which all mass and energy in our observable universe comes from.
Singularities are not a mere hypothetical theory; they are an observed reality. As defined in physics, a singularity is a point in spacetime where the force of gravity causes matter to have an infinite density and zero volume. It is the same phenomena which is observed at the center of a black hole.
The concept is easier to understand if one bears in mind Einstein’s equation of mass-energy equivalence, E=mc^2. What this equation means (for us, in this scenario) is that energy and mass are one in the same. For me at least, it is much easier to imagine the early universe as an explosion of concentrated energy, with mass being a by-product, rather than to imagine every planet around every star in every galaxy being smooshed into a tiny point.
The idea of “everything from nothing” does not apply, because there is something before the big bang, and it is precisely everything, though in a different form (namely pure energy, rather than mass and energy).
And that’s more or less what we understand about the origin of the universe. We don’t know what caused the universe to expand from its concentrated state, nor do we know the origin of the singularity. However, it seems ridiculous and counter-productive to me to attribute either one to gods.
Suppose there was a being who created the singularity and caused its expansion. I don’t know why one would suppose this, as we have not observed this being in any other capacity. However, let’s assume that you find some old book in a desert and that is says it was written by this being, that this being created the universe, and that this being loves you very much (even though the book is riddled with factual inaccuracies and seems to have a human author).
Personally, I would have some questions, namely: if everything derives from this being, where did this being come from? What created this being? Why won’t this being answer my questions? Why does this being love me, even though they haven’t gotten to know me or even bothered to meet me?
Ignoring the love non sequitur, proposing that a conscious being created the inanimate universe only raises more questions than it answers. I have heard the universe described as being like a clock, and that there must be a master craftsman behind its construction, because something so ordered and perfect could never just come together without intelligent deliberation.
However, I’ve studied the universe, and I find it far more random and flawed than any watch I have ever seen. What’s more, I am no more contented by the idea that a watchmaker appeared out of thin air than I am to believe a watch had no craftsman. Explaining the origins of the watch only opens the door to questions about the one who crafted it.
And in marches absurdity, with all its illogical fanfare and diversion. Ultimately, one is expected to be satisfied with the idea that this being who created the universe is “uncreated.” We are told this means that logically, this being has no beginning and therefore no end, and a whole host of over nonsense that derives solely from the imagination of fools.
“Uncreated” is an interesting characteristic attributed to God. It’s arguably my favorite, as well, because getting a believer to say “God is uncreated” is the closest I will ever come to getting most believers to be an atheist.
Why? Because the primary definition of “uncreated” is not that something existed forever and is uncaused. No, the primary definition of “uncreated” is “not having been created; not yet in existence.”
But hold on there… sometimes Christians have been well coached, and they don’t use the word “uncreated.” Some Christians have been taught to say that God is “uncaused.” When you probe deeper, they will awkwardly stutter on about how there doesn’t need to be a cause for God, that God existed forever and will exist forever, yadda yadda yadda.
At this point, I have to shake my head and wonder what they would say to me if I had made such a defense regarding the singularity (and by extension, the universe itself). “The universe is uncaused. It has existed forever in one form or another.” Would this appease any Christian?
In point of fact, it doesn’t even appease me. I don’t believe in an intelligent designer, but I know there is more to the whole of existence than our observable universe. What if the singularity of every black hole in our universe is the creation of a new universe, a sort of inversion of a singularity here which opens as a new sub-universal singularity into its own universe? What if we ourselves budded off of another universe in this way?
How one determines the chain of regression to the origin of existence is limited only by human creativity, but borrowing the idea of God and leaving it at that is the surest way to stop questioning, to stop probing for answers, and to stop discovering new information.
Sometimes I get the impression that believers see science as pretending to have all the answers. In point of fact, science is a process, one which is ongoing and continuously changing. Science thrives on what religion suppresses: curiosity and debate. Though when it comes to the notion of gods creating the universe, the debate has been over for some time now, though it is repeated at intervals by the religious, like some pathetic ritual attempt to bring God back.