The first article of faith in Michael Palmer’s “The Atheist’s Creed” is that he believes, echoing Carl Sagan, that “the cosmos is all that is or ever was and ever will be.” (Palmer 2012:5) “The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing” (Smith 1993: 135), so we are told by Quentin Smith.
Was Bertrand Russell correct in deeming that “the universe is just there, and that’s all” ? Why are some atheists repelled by the concept of the cosmic beginning? It is time to ponder. Keeping my post short, I have divided this article in two parts, part I Cosmic Beginning and part II Cosmic Genesis.
Eternal Universe: Religious Atheists’ Article of Faith
Michael Ruse quoted Ernst Mayr’s noteworthy observation: “People forget that it is possible to be intensely religious in the entire absence of theological belief.” (Ruse 2003: 335) To avoid painting all atheists with a single stroke, an explanation of what I mean by the oxymoron “religious atheists,” as used in this article, is required.
By religious atheists, I mean atheists who still hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe to avoid the cosmic beginning, even though, as cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin put it, “[a]ll the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning” (Grossman 2012: 7). Five years earlier Vilenkin contended,
It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning. (Vilenkin 2006: 176)
In 1978 Paul C. W. Davies explained how the boundary to space-time at the cosmic beginning inferred from the implication of reversing the expanding universe. He wrote,
If we extrapolate this prediction to its extreme, we reach a point when all distances in the universe have shrunk to zero. An initial cosmological singularity therefore forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. We cannot continue physical reasoning, or even the concept of space- time, through such an extremity. For this reason most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself. (Davies 1978: 78-9)
Religious atheists are not convinced by philosophical arguments or by proof of cosmic beginning. Victor J. Stenger’s commitment to a possibility of eternal universes, I believe, is a good example of a religious atheist. Contending that we should find evidence from astronomy and physics if God were its creator, which he argued that we do not, he asserted that “ modern cosmology suggests an eternal ‘multiverse’ in which many other universes comes and go” (Stenger 2012: 47)
Russell’s observation and critique of Thomas Aquinas’ First Cause cosmological argument for the existence of God, namely “[i]f everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.” (Russell 1927: n.p), which I believe was on the mark if the case was that “everything that exists has a cause,” can be excused since only arguments were present in Russell’s era.
I think Russell would probably have reconsidered his position if he were presented with Muhammad al-Ghazali’s (ca.1058–1111) form of cosmological argument, namely, “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.” , since al-Ghazali’s version is unaffected by Russell’s objection. If not convinced with arguments for the beginning of the universe, Russell would probably have changed his mind given that the proof that the universe had a beginning is now in place as cosmologist Vilenkin informed.
Russell would probably take a similar route that Quentin Smith took. Smith accepted the data that “[t]he physical sciences indicate that the universe began to exist with a big bang, an explosion of matter and energy that occurred about 15 billion years ago” and admitted that “[a]n atheist may hold that it is uncaused, as I used to believe” and considered that “if the theist can formulate a compelling causal explanation of the big bang explosion, then the atheist should believe the big bang does have a cause.” (Smith 2007: 184-5)
Even though he agreed with the first part of Kalam cosmological argument, which set to show that the universe began to exist, Smith believes that “there is a sound “atheistic” second part that shows that the universe is self-caused.”  (ibid 182) Peter Atkins holds a similar stance, which he christened, “Cosmic bootstrap,” namely, “Space-time generates its own dust in the process of its own self-assembly.” (Atkins 1994: 143)
Why do some atheists fear the cosmic beginning? I attempted to answer this question in my second part: Cosmic Genesis And Grousing Of Religious. Atheists. I welcome your thoughts on this question in the comments below.
 Bertrand Russell 1948 BBC Radio Broadcast. Debate With Frederick C. Copleston
 Bulletin de l’Institut Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale 46 1947: 203 Quoted in Craig’s On Guard
 Smith explained what he meant by self-cause “My Kalam cosmological argument has for its conclusion that the beginning of the universe’s existence is self-caused. “B is self-caused” does not mean the same as “B causes B” but means the same as “each part of B is caused by earlier parts of B, B’s existence is logically entailed by its parts’ existence, and the basic laws instantiated by these parts are caused to be instantiated by earlier parts that also instantiate these laws.”(ibid 184)
Davies, P.C.W. (1978) “Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology and Black Hole Evaporation” in J.T. Fraser, N. Lawrence and D. Park (eds) The Study of Time III, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 74-91.
Grossman, Lisa (2012) “Death of the eternal cosmos. From the cosmic egg to the infinite multiverse, every model of the universe has a beginning” in NewScientist of 14th January 2012: 2847
Palmer, Michael (2012)The Atheist’s Primer. The Lutterworth Press. (Uncorrected Proof Copy Review Purposes Only)
Quentin Smith (1993) “The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe” in William L. Craig and Quentin Smith (eds) Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
________________ (2007) “Kalam Cosmological Arguments for Atheism” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism Ed. Michael Martin (2007)
Ruse, Michael (2003) Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? Harvard University Press
Russell, Bertrand (1927) “Why I Am Not a Christians”. March 6th 1927’s lecture given at National Secular Society, South London Branch.
Stenger, Victor J. (2012) “The God Hypothesis” in NewScientist of 17th March 2012: 2856
Vilenkin, Alexander (2006) Many Worlds in One. New York: Hill and Wang
7 thoughts on “Cosmic Beginning And Grousing Of Religious Atheists”
I don’t know of any atheists that struggle with the concept of a cosmic beginning that are still alive. Sagan didn’t have the benefit of the evidence we have now, and Palmer (although I tend not to like his writing) could easily be saying the same thing Hawking says: if there is no ‘before’ the Big Bang (which seems reasonable as space/time is mean to start there) it has always been. It’s just that “always” is finite. The universe has been for all of time. That is tautologically true.
But a start to the universe doesn’t leave atheists desperately trying to avoid eye contact with God as He’s staring obviously into their eyes. Science gives us very plausible options. None of them have been empirically confirmed (well, not in their entirety, elements of the options are corroborated by experiment), but they are hypotheses that are plausible.
Part of the problem here is that atheists will often talk of the ‘something from nothing’ dilemma being invalid, and many religious debaters do characterise that as a denial of the Big Bang. But it is not. We’re not sure we have something (as, on net, the total energy and mass of the universe is nothing… it’s just oddly expressed) and we’re pretty sure there wasn’t ‘nothing’ (think: Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing). None of that denies the Big Bang or a beginning to this universe.
I just put a post up that touches on a different nerve: the concept of an eternal string of finite universes.
Also, Smith outlines a very interesting challenge. How could a person present a compelling argument that something lies in a causal relationship with nothing? What would the something do with the nothing to get more something? How can something lie in a causal relationship with nothing and get a result?
Well now, if you have read the article, you know some atheists who struggle with the genesis of the cosmos. 🙂 Palmer holds Sagan position as his faith and Stenger still sings the possibility of eternal multiverses in his latest entry in NewScientist on 17th March 2012 even though on 14th January NewScientist entry titled ” “Death of the eternal cosmos—From the cosmic egg to the infinite multiverse, every model of the universe has a beginning.” contended that all models requires a genesis 😀
Well done, you’ve laid out the argument and the various players well. Thank you for putting this all together.
As always, a very nice post. Let me just take issue with you on “(Atheists are) repelled by the concept of the cosmic beginning.”
Not at all. The blunder you’re making here is ascribing some kind of ‘religious’ thought to Atheism, ignoring the fact that atheism is simply the non-belief in any god. The majesty of the universe itself is another matter altogether. That ‘non-belief’ is simply based on a rational appraisal of the evidence. Or should I say, the lack of any evidence for some supernal cosmic figurehead.
For me I don’t believe in any god for the simple reason that nothing is made permanent, so that in and by itself negates a reason for there to be a god. If something (say, the universe itself) could be shown to be permanent then I would have cause to redress my appraisal. The universe however is finite. We know that. We’ve seen it. One day all the hydrogen in the universe will be spent and the age of stars will cease to be. Life will extinguish. How would a god explain that?
I just wrote a cheeky post on this. You might enjoy it, but do please excuse the swearing.
You would have been correct in many ways John if I did not have written “some atheist”. I do know that not all atheists are repelled by cosmic beginning.
I call it religious atheism John because those who hold to eternal universe refuses to bow down to modern cosmology. They deny both arguments and proof.
Thank you for your comment John.
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