Why I am an atheist

As with the previous entry, this posting is a restatement and extension of ones I made months ago, this time on the subject of atheism (see postings a and b). Once again, I felt it was a topic worth one more revisit before I ventured into new topics on subsequent postings.

What follows is a brief list of the rationales for why I am an atheist.

Years ago, I kept my atheist beliefs largely to myself, concerned about what reaction they would engender from a public that was (and still very much is) quite negative in its attitudes towards atheism. Indeed, according to a Newsweek survey from March 2007, 91% of respondents profess to believe in God while only 3% described themselves as atheists. More to the point, 71% of those surveyed claimed they either definitely would not vote for—or might not for—a presidential candidate who was an atheist, regardless of the candidate’s other qualifications. As many as 32% of those surveyed believe that an atheist cannot be a moral person. And astoundingly, less than half of the respondents (48%) believe that “evolution is well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community.” This last statistic is incredible as much for the ignorance it demonstrates as for its prejudicial viewpoint. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs regarding evolution, there can be no denying that the theory is “widely accepted within the scientific community.” That is simply a fact.

Given this background, I decided that the least I could do to help change these attitudes is to publicly admit to my own atheism. Which I have done. I was also spurred on by the recent spate of books in defense of atheism and attacking religion (such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great). As an aside, these books have been criticized (even by some other secularists) for their openly hostile attitude toward religion. Critics apparently would prefer that atheists find a way to express their own beliefs without attacking those of others. I can understand this view. I certainly can’t deny that a more toned-down rhetoric might in fact do a better job of convincing people on the fence to shift to their position.

However, I strongly object to the idea that religious views deserve any special respect that would not be afforded the same views were they not cloaked in religion. For too long, we have been fearful of criticizing religion, even in a minimal way, apparently because doing so would be considered the religious equivalent of a racist statement. However, I see no reason why one cannot be just as harshly critical of a belief that says Jesus walked on water or that Moses parted the Red Sea as one might be of a belief that one can directly converse with aliens via a mobile phone. The only difference is the number of people who share the belief, not its reasonableness.

All of that said, I have tried to avoid an attack mode in the points I make here, focusing instead on the positive reasons for my atheism.

These ideas have evolved, if you will, over many years. The germ of these ideas began when I was a teenager and first began to question the religious teachings that I had been brought up to believe in. Other ideas have emerged in response to more recent events.

I have no special expertise in philosophy, and there is much that I should have probably read that I have not. Neither am I an expert in religious studies. I do have some expertise in the areas of science and evolution, having taught courses in Research Design as well as in Evolution & Behavior for more than twenty years.

I make no claim as to the originality of the ideas presented here. My only claim is that these are conclusions I reached largely by myself, prior to reading similar versions of the same arguments elsewhere. Still, I know enough to know that others have stated similar arguments, often in a more informed way, long before I tripped over them. I have no problem with that.

Finally, I make no claim that these arguments represent some sort of “slam-dunk” from which there can be no effective rebuttal. I simply believe they are important and effective arguments, that are difficult to dismiss out of hand. They are certainly enough to have convinced me.

1. If one religion is right, then the others must be wrong.

This was probably the first insight that I had on the subject. As with most of the points I make here, it seems so obvious that you would think it would not need stating. But apparently it does.

Simply stated: each religion has numerous beliefs that are not shared by other religions (or at least not by all other religions). To take one example: Christian religions believe that Christ is the son of God. No other religions believe this. Either Christ is the son of God or he is not. If he is, than all non-Christian religions are wrong. If he is not, that all Christianity is wrong. Either way, a significant portion of the religious population on earth believes something that is significantly and fundamentally untrue.

This logic leads to the inevitable conclusion that many, if not most, of the religious beliefs circulating on this planet are not true. Given this, and given that there seems very little rational method by which to determine which ones are true and which ones are not, you have to at least question whether any of them are indeed true. This, in turn, got me to start questioning my own religious beliefs (back before I was an atheist). Why did I believe them to be “true”? I realized that, if I had been born of a different religion, I would likely have an entirely different set of beliefs. How much faith could I have in a set of beliefs whose primary, perhaps only, justification was that they were the beliefs of my parents?

Added to this was the realization that the origins of the major religions began thousands of years ago, when we were almost completely ignorant of the scientific knowledge we now have. Religion grew out of attempts to make sense of all that was unknowable at that time. Today, we no longer have to depend on myths and folklore carried over from these ancient times. We don’t have the answer to everything. But we have better more informed answers than we had then.

Once we accept this realization, answers to many other questions begin to fall into place. For example, why we don’t see “miracles” today, of the sort that were so common in the Bible? The answer is because the so-called miracles of the Bible are a myth. They are no more true than the myth of Santa Claus. They never happened long ago. And they don’t happen today either.

2. There is no need for convoluted attempts to explain why a benevolent God lets “bad things happen to good people.”

This is yet another question/dilemma that becomes easier to answer once you give up on religion. The reason that bad things happen to good people is that there is no God to prevent it, or at least no God that cares to intervene to prevent such happenings. Religion has a much harder time coming up with an answer here.

As one example, consider a tsunami where thousands of people are killed. This is already difficult to understand from a religious perspective. Why does God let this happen? Making matters more absurd is when a newscaster interviews a survivor, someone who was was able to grab onto a tree branch at a critical moment and not drown. Often, such a person thanks God for the “miracle” of providing that branch so that he could live. Why assume that God was responsible for the branch and yet not assume that the same God is responsible for the death of the survivor’s entire family and the thousands of others killed in the disaster? If God is both benevolent and all-powerful, capable of any imaginable miracle, he could certainly have interceded to prevent the tsunami’s devastation. Why not do so?

To take another example, I saw an interview recently where the mother of a famous person described an event that happened when her son was a child. The son had contracted an unknown illness and, after weeks of being sick, was near death. Finally, their doctor asked whether the parents would consider giving the child a new experimental drug that might help. Not surprisingly, the parents agreed. The boy recovered within days. The drug turned out to be penicillin. In the interview, the mother states that she believes God intervened here, to save her son, because God had a plan for what her son was later to achieve. Listening to this, I am thinking, if God had a plan for her son, why let the boy get to the brink of death at all? Why have his life rest in the parents’ decision whether or not to administer an experimental drug? Wouldn’t it have been easier and kinder for God simply to prevent the child from getting ill in the first place?

It is not impossible to come up with an explanation here that is consistent with one’s religious beliefs. Perhaps God was testing the parents in some way, or perhaps experiencing the illness was somehow important in influencing the path that the son would later follow. Still, the logic quickly gets more convoluted and contradictory the farther we travel down this road. For example, assuming that God is omniscient and omnipotent, we can assume that he already knows what someone is going to do even before they “know.” So why does God need to “test our faith” if he already knows the outcome?

Sometimes, religious replies to such dilemmas focus on our supposed “free will.” That is, God gave us the power to make our own choices, including bad ones. The free-will argument is most often used to explain human-derived disasters, such as wars. Still, why doesn’t God act to prevent the consequences of “bad” actions, such as those that lead to war or a Holocaust? Isn’t that one of the things that people are supposedly asking of God when they pray? Isn’t a prayer to save someone’s life a request that God intervene to change the course of events that would have occurred if the person had not prayed? If God is capable of doing all of this, why does he so often choose not to intervene? Finally, we could again ask: if God already knows what people are going to do, then do we really have free will after all?

We can go down this philosophical road for a long distance. As I said, defenders of religion can come up with answers to all of the questions raised here, no matter how tortured the logic might be. But why bother? At some point, it makes more more sense to apply “Occam’s razor”: That is, to paraphrase the principle: when their are competing explanations for the same event, barring any definitive reason to support one or the other explanation, the more simple one is the one most likely to be true. We can use the razor, for example, to decide between two explanations for a tsunami that kills thousands of people. One is that such events are natural occurrences in a world indifferent to whether or not humans die. The other is that a kind and benevolent and all-powerful God somehow allows such things to happen to good and innocent people. Resolving the apparent paradox in the religious explanation requires many further secondary explanations. The natural explanation needs no further corollaries. Apply Occam’s razor and it is quickly clear which explanation stands up better.

As a last resort, when the potential religious explanation gets too cumbersome for even the faithful to defend, the explanation shifts to “God works in mysterious ways” and that we are too limited in our intelligence to ever hope to understand his purposes or plans. That’s just a cop-out. It’s the equivalent of a parent who tells a child that the reason to follow a given rule is: “Because I said so.” It may get compliance but it is otherwise a worthless answer.

Some of the more extreme fundamentalists take a different approach when confronted with a dilemma such as a hurricane’s damage. They transform it from an event directed at innocent people to one intended to punish the wicked (a group that typically includes homosexuals and liberals). From this appalling perspective, the dilemma is resolved: Bad things are not happening to good people, they are happening to bad people. Of course, if some innocent people get killed along the way, that’s just the price we have to pay for God’s judgment (which is itself yet another self-contradictory statement regarding God’s supposed omnipotent powers).

On a related note, it’s worth pointing out that God, at least the God of the Bible, is not all that benevolent anyway. In many Bible stories, he is a quite vindictive God, capable of punishing and even killing people for a host of transgressions that would not be considered capital offenses (or sometimes even a crime) in our courts. In other words, our criminal justice system is often more benevolent than God himself.

3. Yes, you can’t prove, with 100% certainty, that something is untrue. But that doesn’t make it plausible that it is true.

This is a basic principle underlying the scientific method: You can’t “prove” the negative. For example, there would be no way for me to “prove” that life does not exist on some distant planet. If we ever did find life on a distant planet, it would pretty much prove that such life does exist. In that sense, you can prove the positive. But, even if we studied ten billion planets and found no life on any of them, even if we came up with a line of logic backed up by experimental evidence that explained why we should not expect to find life on any of the remaining as-yet-unstudied planets—we still could not completely rule out the possibility that somehow our logic is incorrect, our evidence is not conclusive, and that somewhere out there is a planet with life on it.

Closer to home, by the same principle, I cannot “prove” that aliens are not visiting our planet right now. Perhaps one is standing next to me as I write this, but chooses to remain invisible and undetectable. Similarly, I can’t prove that dinosaur bones were not placed here eons ago by aliens, who were using our planet as a landfill for their waste products. There is no reason, of course, to believe any of this is so. And every reason to believe it is all entirely false. There is not one scintilla of physical evidence to support such assertions. But we cannot “prove” that the assertions are false.

When faced with these sorts of situations, what is the correct course of action? Must we treat both ideas (e.g., there are no aliens on our planet vs. there are indeed aliens on our planet) as equally viable? Should we give them equal respect and status? No! There is a big difference between saying that something is technically possible, no matter how unlikely that possibility might be, and that the idea is just as plausible as other much more viable and well-supported assertions. If you don’t make this distinction, you will soon find yourself in the untenable position of giving equal standing to every ludicrous idea that comes along.

That’s why we don’t teach in schools that the sun revolves around the earth, even if there are some misguided people who continue assert that this is so. One cannot prove, for example, that all our supposed evidence about the earth rotating around the sun is not just an illusion created by God to confuse us for some reason. But no one seriously expects such an idea to be included in physics textbooks.

It is by this same reasoning that we should not be teaching “creationism” or “intelligent design” in our classrooms. Not only are such ideas lacking in any evidence, they are not even science. The ultimate basis for their position comes from faith. As such, it is not subject to revision based on any scientific data that might be presented. Rather than employ evidence to reach a conclusion, intelligent design proponents start with the conclusion and only accept evidence that supports it.

It is true that scientists often start with preconceived ideas of what their research will find. But that’s not the same as refusing to accept contrary evidence. That’s why, over the centuries, scientists have rejected all sorts of ideas that were once thought to be true.

Even worse, proponents of “intelligent design” attempt to deceive the public by trotting out arguments against evolution that have a common sense appeal (such as “how could natural selection have ever produced something as complex as a human eye?”) even though the scientific community has repeatedly and successfully rebutted such arguments (evolutionists have in fact shown that natural selection can quite easily produce something as complex as the human eye).

In case you haven’t guessed by now, it is this very same logic that allows us to discount the existence of God without having to prove with 100% certainty that God does not exist.

4. A concession that there may be some unknown force, which some might wish to call god and that is behind the origin of the universe, does not in any way mean an acceptance of a traditional religious view of God.

It is certainly true that there is much that we don’t know about the origins of the universe. Or even about its current state. Our minds have trouble even comprehending the concept of a universe is “infinite” in size. We still don’t know exactly what it means to say that the universe began with some sort of “big bang.” We want to know what existed before the big bang or why there is anything instead of nothing. These are unanswerable questions for now.

There are those who want to use our ignorance here as a basis for supporting a belief in god. Couldn’t there be a god, they ask, that created our universe, “lives” outside of our universe and is not governed by the “laws” of our universe?

I offer two replies to such questions.

First, as has pointed out many times by others, the god explanation resolves nothing. It only backs up the same unanswerable questions to another level. Why is there a god instead of nothing? If a god created the universe, then who created god?

In any case, once you get past the mysteries of the origins of the universe, god quickly becomes unnecessary. The events put in motion by the creation of our universe are adequate to explain what happened afterwards, without need to resort to a god. For example, the theory of evolution provides a solid framework for the origin and progression of life on this planet.

Some theists do, in fact, posit the notion of a god that created the universe, with all its laws, and then left it to its own devices. But that is not the view of any of the major religions. That is, there is a huge distinction between saying their must be some sort of deistic power behind the creation of the universe, and saying that such a power is anything similar to the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic God—as depicted in the Bible, the Koran or other religious works

For starters, why should we even assume that there is just one such god? Why should we assume that a god is infallible or omnipotent or any of the other powers typically accorded to the deity?

To use an analogy, if fish could think the way humans do, fish in an aquarium might see humans as gods. We are outside their “universe” and we appear to have almost total control over their environment, including the ability to perform such “miracles” as reaching in and removing a fish from the tank. That does not mean that aquarium owners are infallible. They can make wrong decisions, harmful to the well-being of the tank and its occupants. They don’t even really have complete control over the course of events in an aquarium. A fish could die of a disease, for example, despite the owner’s best efforts to prevent it. Neither are they able to answer, or even hear, the prayers of the fish. The owners need not be benevolent; they could one day decide to kill the fish for reasons that have nothing to do with the fish’s behavior. And, of course, an aquarium can have more than one god owner.

The analogy is admittedly not perfect (the owner did not truly create the aquarium contents the way we might imagine a god created the universe). But I believe it is useful enough to make my point. And my point is that accepting the possibility of a deity behind the creation of the universe does not even come close to requiring that you accept a traditional religious view of God. As with the aquarium, there could be multiple, fallible gods behind our universe, with no special interest in humans or even the entire planet Earth. Humans, to such deities, may be no more significant than the bacteria inside of an ant are to we humans.

There is certainly no need to accept the notion that there is a god who punishes and rewards us, who intercedes in our lives via miracles, or who listens to and potentially answers our prayers. There is especially no reason to assume that any such god takes a personal interest in such “trivial” events as whether or not a particular person’s job interview goes well and who listens to prayers regarding such an interview. Neither is there any reason to accept the notion of an afterlife, of a heaven and hell, of angels and demons, or any of the other trappings of traditional religions.

Yet this is precisely the sort of slippery logic used by many of those who argue in favor of religion. They want to make it seem, for example, that if you even tentatively accept the idea that there may be some deity-like being(s) in the universe, you have also accepted a literal interpretation of the Bible. It just ain’t so.

5. We do not need religion to be moral and ethical.

There is no good reason to assume that we would descend into a lawless violent society (even more violent than we now are, if that is possible) if not for the restraining power of religion.

For starters, to make such an assertion is personally insulting. I (and every atheist with whom I am acquainted) have a sense of ethics and morality that is at least as well developed as those of my religious acquaintances. I try my best to respect the rights of others and I hope that the same respect is afforded to me. I seek to end the inequalities in our world, to defend the rights of minorities, and otherwise promote a sense of fairness in human interactions—all without any need for a God to justify or coerce my behavior.

The same cannot be said of many so-called religious people who have used religion as the justification for their prejudice and violence.

As has now been documented in several books, there is growing evidence that our sense of morality may have an adaptive value and may thus have originated via the same evolutionary processes that have determined our physical characteristics. From this perspective, religion is not only unnecessary as a basis for moral behavior, it may even be largely irrelevant to the origins of morality.

Similarly, when I hear people say that religion is the only thing that gives their life “meaning” and “purpose,” my reaction is a simple one: You may well be right—but that doesn’t make it true. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that we live in a universe that has no meaning, at least not in the religious sense of the word. You may find this sad (although I do not; I can still marvel in the wonders of a universe without religion), but that has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the proposition.

Bottom line: For the reasons I have outlined here, I believe that the evidence for a religious god is weak to non-existent. A universe without such a god is not only plausible but actually easier to explain—with less inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and contradictions. While I cannot rule out with 100% certainty the possibility that there is some sort of deity in the universe, there is no compelling reason to believe it is so. That’s why I am an atheist.

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