Myth: Atheism Cannot Explain the Origin of the Universe

How can Atheists Account for the Existence of the Universe, or Existence Itself?

Man Before the Stars
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Atheism cannot explain the origin of the universe or even existence itself.

Technically speaking, this statement is true: atheism does not explain the origin of the universe or even the nature of existence itself. So if it's true, why is it treated here as a myth? The "myth" part comes in because whoever is saying this is inappropriately categorizing atheism as something which should be expected to explain the universe and of all of existence. This is thus a myth because of the incorrect perception of what atheism is, what atheists believe, and what atheism should do.

Atheism and Origins

People who imagine that atheism is in the category of things which should explain the universe or the nature of existence usually try to treat atheism as a philosophy, religion, ideology, or something similar. This is all massively incorrect — atheism is nothing more or less than the absence of belief in gods. By itself, that mere disbelief is not only incapable of explaining the origin of the universe, but it shouldn't be expected to perform such a function in the first place.

Does anyone try to criticize disbelief in elves because it doesn't explain where the universe came from? Does anyone try to criticize disbelief in alien abductions because it doesn't explain why there is something rather than nothing? Of course not — and anyone who tried would probably be laughed at. By the same token, of course, theism by itself also shouldn't necessarily be expected to explain things like the origin of the universe. The mere existence of some doesn't automatically offer any information about why the universe is here; for that, a person would have to believe in some particular god (like a creator god) in the context of some particular theological system (such as Christianity).

Beliefs and Belief Systems

Instead of looking at atheism and theism, which are merely elements of such belief systems, people need to look at the systems as wholes. One fact which this reveals is that the person repeating the above myth is inappropriately comparing apples and oranges: the apple of mere atheism with the orange of a complex theistic religion. Technically, this is an example of the Straw Man logical fallacy because theists are setting up a Straw Man out of atheism by portraying it as something it is not. The correct comparison should be some atheistic belief system (whether religious or secular) against a theistic belief system (probably religious, but a secular one would be acceptable). This would be a much more difficult comparison to make and it almost certainly wouldn't lead to the facile conclusion that atheism has nothing to offer.

The fact that people like to contrast atheism with Christianity on the basis of myths like this leads to another significant problem: Christianity doesn't "explain" the origin of the universe either. People misunderstand what an explanation is — it isn't to say "God did it," but rather to provide new, useful, and testable information. "God did it" isn't an explanation unless it includes information about what God did, how God did it, and preferably also why.

I wonder if all of this might be why it's so rare to see any religious theists — almost always Christians — actually making such comparisons. I can't remember ever seeing a Christian try to make a serious comparison between Christianity and atheistic Buddhism or between Christianity and Secular Humanism in order to demonstrate that such atheist belief systems are unable to account for the origin of the universe. If they did, they would be forced to not only move away from mere atheism, but would be confronted with the failure of their own religion to provide what they are looking for.

This would make it impossible to smear atheists and atheism, though.