By and large, I call myself an atheist. At least with respect to the god of any religion – any kind of god who has a will, and takes an interest in humankind; who created heaven and hell; who makes miracles happen and decides the fate of this world; any kind of god about whom people claim to know things. That is, I am an atheist with respect to all the gods that human beings have ever believed in or currently believe in. I don’t know whether any indeterminate ‘higher power’ exists. It might. To the extent that its existence changes nothing in our lives, who cares.
Why am I an atheist, so defined? I am certainly not an atheist because I have something against religious people, or because I find it cool, or rebellious. I am not an atheist because I think God can be disproved in some strong sense, scientifically or otherwise. I am also not an atheist for lack of knowledge about any particular religion, and the many hours spent in religious classes in school will testify to that. I am an atheist simply because the burden of proof lies on religion. And the way I see it, no religion is convincing at all.
As a start, we need to acknowledge the fact that throughout history, there have been thousands of different versions of God that people have believed in, almost as many as there have been religions. So assuming that some god does exist, which god should I believe in? The Abrahamic god, who talked to Moses, sent his son Jesus Christ on earth, revealed the Quran to Muhammad, and dictated the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith? Shiva, the god who can destroy the world with his dance? Thor, the hammer-wielding god? Or Zeus, the god of thunder, who lives at the top of Mount Olympus? There are so many! This fact alone should make anyone suspicious of people claiming to believe in the ‘true’ God, or the ‘right’ religion. Unless a good case can be made that a specific religion has more chances of being true compared to all others, it’s really hard to see why we should believe in any one of them and reject the rest. Mysteriously enough, most religious people utterly disregard this fact. Christians hardly lose any sleep over whether they should convert to Islam, Muslims hardly lose sleep over whether they should become Hindus, and so on.
But likewise, atheists hardly ever lose sleep over whether they should believe in any particular god. And this marks an important similarity between atheists and religious people. Namely, that religious people are atheists too, in their own right. What would a Christian say, for example, if asked why she doesn’t believe in Islam, or in the Japanese Shinto religion? Most likely, we would expect her to say something like ‘why should I?’. And indeed, why should she? This is the same question that atheists ask too. Why should I believe in Christianity? Why should I believe in Islam? Why should I believe in Hinduism? Why should I believe in any particular religion? It seems that religious people don’t find any compelling reason to believe the narrative of other religions. Likewise, atheists don’t find any compelling reason to believe the narrative of any religion. So if you are a religious person, and you don’t believe in any other religion, then you know exactly how the atheist feels. As Richard Dawkins has said, “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
In fact, all of us think like atheists all the time, with respect to all sorts of non-religious propositions. For example, if someone claims that they can fly, we normally won’t believe them unless they show us that they can. Or we won’t believe that homeopathy works, unless good scientific evidence is produced showing that it works. We don’t believe in Santa Claus. We don’t believe in fairies, or unicorns. And so on. In the absence of evidence, then, the reasonable thing to do is to withhold belief. All of us work with this premise all the time. So why is it that people don’t apply this to religious belief, like they would to any other kind of belief?
Clearly, there are vast numbers of religious followers who believe in a given religion because they were raised to do so, and who never question their faith. But there is also a portion who cite what they take to be evidence for the particular religion they believe in. Some common arguments include having had some sort of ‘religious experience’, having witnessed a miracle, testimonies, historical evidence, the ‘perfection’ of the universe, and others. All of these arguments have been much debated, and in my view refuted, so I will not repeat the dialectic here. There are, however, two noteworthy things about such arguments. First, most of these arguments can apply to all religions, and can be used by people of different faiths to justify a range of different beliefs. Virtually all religions claim testimonies of miracles, and people from all faiths report religious experiences, though of course, almost everyone who has such an experience interprets it as evidence for his own faith. And second, even when these arguments are put forth (usually as a response to atheist arguments), they rarely constitute the main grounds for religious belief. Religious belief is based primarily on faith, and even religious people admit this. That is, religious belief is by definition not based on evidence. At best, evidence plays a supporting role.
Given how prominently the word ‘evidence’ features in my discussion, I should probably say a bit more about why I think it’s so important. So here it the why. Growing up, and particularly in the years since I went on to study philosophy at university, I have developed the view that knowledge is an extremely valuable thing. When we know things, we are in a direct relation with the truth, and truth is a beautiful thing. We live in an immensely complex, awe-inspiringly beautiful universe. We are born with a very limited understanding of the world around us, and by seeking the truth we discover the universe, its complex realities, its embedded mysteries. I believe it is an essential feature of human beings to seek to discover the truth about the natural world, like it is an essential feature of human beings to seek to be moral. I would almost go as far as to say that we have a duty to seek knowledge, in virtue of being human. We think that it is wrong to lie, or deliberately fool people into believing things which are not true, because by fooling someone, you are not respecting their nature as an autonomous individual; one who responds to the reality around her by making her own free choices. For the same reasons, we ought not to fool ourselves. For we can’t build genuinely authentic lives if we allow ourselves to believe in falsities. And besides, there just seems to be something inherently wrong about believing something false. So if we are to avoid falling prey to delusions, we must always seek the truth, and this can only be done if we follow the evidence to where it leads. If we want to seek knowledge, we must accept a belief only if we think it is sufficiently well justified in a given context. We can’t believe something merely because we like it.
Now, throughout human history, we have also invented a great many things about the universe. We have fantasized, dreamed, imagined, told stories, created art. And all of this is wonderful, as long as we do not deceive ourselves about the truth of our own creations. No matter how much we like the fantasies that we dream up, fairy tales remain fairy tales, and if they are believed they become delusions. Religion is no exception. We have repeatedly collectively created and propagated myths aimed at explaining the mysteries of the natural world, and providing us with solace in times of hardship. History is littered with religions, living and dead. In my view, believing these stories is an insult to the beauty of the universe that surrounds us, and to our nature as human beings. As Tim Minchin has said, “how does [the natural world] so fail to hold our attention, that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap man-made myths and monsters?”
So I believe in the the pursuit of knowledge as one of the ultimate human ends. I believe that we owe it to ourselves, more than we owe it to anyone else, to seek to tell truth from falsity apart. This task, in my view, can only be achieved through the careful acceptance of grounded, evidence-based beliefs. Faith is not conducive to knowledge. And no religion, as far as I know, can marshal sufficient evidence to make its claims seem probable, and belief in them well-grounded. The combination of these beliefs is what makes me an atheist. And to be honest, I like it better this way. Although belief in God can sometimes be comforting, the lack of it helps you see a clearer picture of reality; it frees you from all preconceptions, allows you to give your own meaning to life, to define and to liberate yourself. It opens up a world of limitless possibilities.