Why I’m an … atheist

This week Elisa explains her atheistic standpoint and expands her belief in the importance of the pursuit of knowledge

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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. An outstanding essay. I’d love to hear the honest and considered response of a believer to what you’ve written here.

  2. I would just like to point out that going by your reasoning there are a lot of things you ought not to believe in, simply because we can’t provide any evidence or sufficient justification for them. Science itself is built on a few assumptions – that induction is a good method of getting knowledge, that there are material causes for natural effects, that the simplest theory is the best theory. These are all not uncontroversial, yet can anyone give any evidence (in the sense that you are demanding of religion) to support these? Does this mean we ought to stop believing in science then? I think it’s important to be discerning if one is seeking “evidence-based beliefs”, and to recognise that all knowledge has to start from certain first principles (or basic beliefs) that one cannot give any further evidence or justification for holding.

    • “…that the simplest theory is the best theory. ”

      Occam’s razor, also known as the principle of parsimony. What this means for a working scientist is that if _the data available_ equally support two explanations, you should accept the simpler one. What if you prefer the more complex explanation? Then you should collect additional data. Part of being a good scientist is knowing how to design an experiment that will allow you to distinguish between the competing explanations.

      As for first principles (i.e. axioms): the fewer, the better. And in science, even your basic assumptions are not beyond questioning. My favorite example is the Michelson-Morley experiment. M&M firmly believed in “the luminiferous aether” and set out to measure its velocity and direction. The existence of the ether was a part of their “first principles” in conceiving and designing the experiment. And yet, in all the textbooks their result is generally cited as the first good evidence for ether-free relativity. And so science had to change its collective mind about that.

    • This is a False Equivalence, science isn’t comparable to religion. Simply because you believe science is based off assumptions, doesn’t make it true.

    • Thanks for your comment. Of course, you are right that we do hold basic beliefs, for which we cannot provide evidence in the sense that I have been implying in my essay. However, there are a few things to note in connection with religion. Firstly, if this point is to have any bearing on a defence of religion, one needs to show that religions beliefs are basic–something which I think doesn’t have much plausibility. Secondly, science acknowledges that it makes working assumptions, and doesn’t claim to know they are true. On the contrary, religion lays down its claims as dogmas, and professes knowledge of them. But most importantly, the reason why the case for religion is so weak is not just that we lack evidence in its favour; it’s that we have a great deal of evidence against it. We know that there have been thousands of religions throughout history, all of which have reflected the beliefs their time. We have documented the creation of numerous religions. We study the sociology of religion and the psychology of religious belief. All these things point clearly to religions being human constructs, rather than having any connection with anything divine. The numerous contradictions and patent falsities that you will find in any scripture add to the stack of reasons that should make anyone suspicious of the credibility of religious claims. And so on. The bottom line is that although it’s true that some of our beliefs, including some strongly held ones, are basic, this does not undermine the argument that religious beliefs are unjustified in a way that scientific ones aren’t.

  3. Thanks for your comment Moira. Of course, you are right to point out that we do hold basic beliefs, for which we cannot provide any evidence in the sense that I have been implying in my essay. However, there are a few things to note in connection with religion. Firstly, if this point is to have any bearing on a defence of religion, one needs to show that religions beliefs are basic (e.g. like our belief that we exist is basic)–something which I think doesn’t have much plausibility. Secondly, science does not claim to know that the assumptions it makes are true; it acknowledges that they are working assumptions. On the contrary, religion lays down its claims as dogmas, and invited followers to believe that they have knowledge of them. But most importantly, the reason why the case for religion is so weak is not just that we lack evidence in its favour; it’s that we have a great deal of evidence against it. We know that there are and have been thousands of religions throughout history, all of which have reflected the beliefs of their society at their time. We have witnessed and documented the creations of numerous religions. We study the sociology of religion and the psychology of religious belief. All these things point clearly to religions being human constructs, rather than having any connection to anything divine. And it doesn’t end here. The numerous contradictions and patent falsities that you will find in any scripture add to the stack of reasons that should make anyone suspicious of the credibility of religious claims. And so on. Perhaps I should have made this clearer in my essay. Anyhow, the bottom line is that although it’s true that some of our beliefs, including some strongly held ones, are basic, this does not undermine the argument that religious beliefs are unjustified and should therefore not be held (in a way which does not apply to science).

  4. If I understand it correctly, you base your argument on one assumption: That the burden of proof lies with religion. To the extent that your argument affects only your personal choices, you have a right to say that that’s the case. If truth and knowledge are truly the driving force behind your choices, however, don’t you think you have a moral obligation to at least ask yourself whether you can prove the non-existence of God? And consider that it would be as hard for you to offer evidence of the non-existence of a God as it is for religions to offer evidence of its existence? I like that you have made up your mind. I don’t see nihilism in any of its forms as a wise choice. But if you base the argument for or against the existence of God purely on reason and evidence, shouldn’t you also admit that you can neither prove or disprove the existence of God? Wouldn’t then be more honest to say that, just like belief in God starts with faith and ends in trust, your lack of belief is based on a totally legitimate lack of faith? I understand that your lack of faith is based on lack of evidence of a super-natural creator. But if there was evidence of God’s existence we wouldn’t even be here having this discussion. Can you say that your atheism is serious and not an intellectual pose if you claim that you need no evidence of God’s non-existence to withhold your belief? I share your feelings and I think you are very thoughtful. So please take my questions as just questions, not charges.

  5. Listening to what people are expressing when using the word ‘god’ it comes to my mind that they mean to say ‘nature’ but it is forbidden to say that, othwerwise being punished. A lot of other expressions do express the way we human beings experience life and that is not from god’s own view but inherently human as part of nature.

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