The Something (rather than nothing) That I Attended

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

Photo of James Zimmerman speaking at a podium.

By James Zimmerman

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, held at Eastern Washington University (near Spokane). My presentation was in the History discipline, and I made an effort to support and attend other History presentations.

However, in the listing of presentation descriptions, one topic caught my eye: “Something Rather than Nothing: Theism Explained.” Despite this being from the Philosophy and not the History department, I felt I just had to attend.

The young man who gave the 15-minute presentation was a student from the hosting University. He began by asking everyone to approach his discussion with an open mind – advice that I thought was very applicable to many of the presentations I attended.

He said that he would prove a theistic creation of the universe to us and, simultaneously, point out how the atheistic worldview is lacking.

He first asked us all to accept that whatever caused the universe to begin is God. As much as I dislike the term “God” for whatever started the universe, I had to admit that there wasn’t anything wrong with his proposition, so I continued even more intrigued.

He next showed a list of five bulleted points on the screen. I didn’t have time to write them all down, but the gist was that the universe did have a beginning, that everything that begins to exist has a creator, that creators have individual personalities, and that infinities cannot exist (except in the abstract, such as with numbers.) Of course, the first point – that the universe had a beginning – has near universal acceptance. The student then moved on the next points. He was careful to point out that only things that begin to exist have creators. He explained that this argument satisfies the atheist’s question of who created God: Since God never began to exist, then surely he did not need to be created. God thus, he claimed, is both eternal and omnipotent.

For those who were unsatisfied with this argument, he gave a detailed argument of the absurdity of infinities – and then applied this to a God who was supposedly created by someone, who was then supposedly created by someone else ad infinitum. This is ridiculous, he claimed (evidently the absurdities of infinities does not include a being who imbues such infinities such as omnipotence or omniscience).

He singled out atheists again by saying that the burden of proof is on them to prove the non-existence of God, especially since he has just proven that God does exist. Atheists are the ones who categorically state that God does not exist just as, say, most people claim that unicorns do not exist. The only difference is that there is proof of God’s existence. Besides, he pointed out, the universe is clearly fine-tuned for life and ideas such as a cyclically recurring Big Bang or expanding multiverse are without evidence and only serve to provide reassurances to atheists who have been scrambling ever since Hubble determined that the universe had a beginning.

During the Q and A segment, I asked how he was defining “atheism,” since he seemed to be conflating it with anti-theism. I suggested that most atheists simply see no evidence for gods and thus live as though they don’t exist. He rifled through some papers and said he used the definition provided from a source (sorry, I can’t recall which one) that defined atheism as the rejection of gods. I was hoping to ask a follow-up question, but he next called on a few other people.
After a couple minutes, he called on me again, but this time I said, “You mentioned that the burden of proof is on non-believers, but I don’t think you can ever disprove a negative.” A few people in the audience nodded their heads in agreement. I added, “To use your example of unicorns, maybe they do exist…who knows?”

The student chuckled a bit and then pointed out that at a certain point we can prove a negative. He said that, for all practical purposes, you can disprove the existence of unicorns.

But without waiting to be called on again, I said, “I don’t think you can disprove unicorns. Even if we photograph every square inch of the solar system. I mean, maybe they’re really small. Maybe they’re invisible, or live somewhere we haven’t explored.”

This got a few chuckles. The student noted that this is something Christopher Hitchens has noted in the past. He was going to continue, but his time was up just as someone else asked him how he knew which god was true. The student, as he was leaving the lectern, said he felt the New Testament provided the most compelling argument for God which, I felt, negated any credence he had built up by that point. I left rather disappointed that the presentation didn’t offer anything new, just the same tortuous logistical leaps I used to employ to keep my own faith alive.

As I headed to the field house for lunch, a fellow Hamline student (who had attended the presentation with me) agreed: there were a grievous numbers of errors in logic during the presentation; an especially appalling fact considering it had been in the Philosophy and Ethics discipline. It’s too bad. There were several presentations I attended during the Conference that challenged my notions and opened my mind to new arguments. “Theism Explained,” however, wasn’t one of them.

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