Why I'm an Atheist

(Saturday, July 29, 2006, 6:29 p.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

Generally speaking, I like Christians. Most of my best friends are Christian. Both my parents are Christian. The women that I've felt most comfortable with are Christian. My experience with Christians (with maybe the exception of the occasional obnoxious fire-and-brimstone preacher) has been positive. The believing Christians I know are some of the most sincerely conscientious, modest, trustworthy, and kind people I've met. I might even go so far as to say that, were I Christian, I might also be more conscientious and kind at heart. I might be happier and more self-assured and be more the part of a community. Certainly, these are moral and psychological goods worth having. When I was younger, I was encouraged, though not very forcefully or regularly, to believe in Christianity. Over the years, I've had long debates and discussions with friends and had more than one of them buy me copies of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity (which I have in fact read three times) hoping my reason might come around to the side of belief. So why haven't I come to believe?

The trouble for me is not Christians, but Christianity itself: a belief that there is some personal father-sky-god that created the universe, is looking out for everyone's best interest, and will ultimately step in and reward good deeds and punish evil. Some Christians have a more sophisticated view of the nature of God than described here, but this is what I take to be the standard image Christians (and Jews and Muslims as well) have of the Creator. It's not the consequences of the supposed truth of the Christian world view that bother me. If it could be proven to me that a personal and just God existed and that He/She/It were looking after us, genuinely concerned with our affairs and exhibited the right balance of justice and mercy that Judeo-Christianity calls for in its conception of God, I would be content to take my place among the believers.

The problem is that it hasn't and I don't think it can be proven to me that such a God exists. Convincing proof, for me, generally consists of either observing something to be true myself or hearing/reading it from someone I trust who has observed it or at least has a rigorous logical theory that is backed up by observations. For me, the basic concept of a personal god (a concept shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that created the universe and life is unbelievable. For me (to put it perhaps offensively bluntly) belief in a personal god is like the belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth-Fairy. It is not impossible for me to imagine the existence of such beings. Indeed, there may even be a kind of poetic satisfaction in contemplating them. But if you ask me as a scientist or a philosopher whether I believe they exist, I will have to say resoundingly, No! There are better explanations for why the presents appeared under the tree or the money appeared under the pillow. It doesn't take a supernatural explanation: to whit, your parents left the presents or the money. I claim there are better explanations for life and the workings of the universe than the human-like whims of an invisible father-sky-god figure. There's a general philosophical principle at work here: that of not believing in the existence of cause X when there is a more plausible explanatory cause Y.

So why do people that don't believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy believe in a personal god? There are many, many reasons why someone might believe, but what I think is the main one, honestly, is that most believers are relying on the authority of scripture, society, their parents, etc., and they don't even bother to question whether or not the beliefs of scripture, society, parents, etc., are on sound footing. Most people (who aren't neurotic intellectuals like myself) have more pressing things to do than contemplate how Nature might produce life and the workings of the universe without the constant direction of a Creator-being. In my daily life, I tend to not spend much time worrying about how my Ford Taurus works. If something goes wrong, I will take it to a mechanic I trust because I assume he's an authority who knows how my car works. Most people are not scientists, so if they have the occasional urge to know what the overall meaning of life is or how it originated, they go to people who are presumably experts: that is, scientists, philosophers, or religious figures. Scientists and philosophers, though, give really long-winded, dry, complicated answers to why the universe is as it is, so that most laypeople are left bored and confused. By comparison, religious figures say, basically, that God created the universe and set the laws that govern it. That's an explanation that's not hard to understand, is easy to remember, and is poetically satisfying to boot. Scientists and even many philosophers also don't have a whole lot to say about how a person ought to live their life, whereas religion has a lot of advice to give on that. So most people turn to religion rather than science or philosophy when they are moved to think of the tough questions about life, morals, and existence in general.

To sum it up then, people believe in a personal god on the authority of people whose explanations they can understand. The trouble is that the most easily understood, intuitive explanation is not always the same thing as the best proven explanation. We now accept as fact that the Earth turns around the Sun rather than the Sun turning around the Earth. But unless you're an astronomer, this really isn't the most intuitively plausible explanation. Pretend for a moment that you're an ancient Egyptian farmer. You see with your own eyes the Sun rising in the East and setting in the West. Why shouldn't you conclude that the Sun turns around the Earth? It is only the many observations that astronomers have made beyond what is observable on a daily basis that have forced us to adopt a heliocentric view of the solar system. The Egyptians and Greeks can be readily forgiven for not believing that the Earth moves around the Sun, which is to say that they can be forgiven for being mistaken in the larger view of things.

When it comes to belief in a personal god, the only evidence I can really see consists of scripture and divine revelation, despite the efforts that have been made by Christian apologists from Thomas Aquinas to C.S. Lewis to provide other rational justifications for belief. Neither scripture nor revelation are reliable sources of knowledge in my opinion (nor in the opinion of scientifically-minded philosophers). Not everything that ancient people have written down for posterity is fact; Babylonian historical accounts talk about kings living hundreds of years, for example, something we take to be absurd (not plausible enough to be an urban legend). Why should I believe Biblical or Vedic or any other scriptures that claim miraculous occurrences when the ancients have made so many other claims that are obviously inflated legends. It's hard enough separating fact from fiction in the current goings on in the Middle East. (Have 30 or 500 Hezbollah guerillas been killed in the fighting?) Now imagine that we're talking about things that supposedly happened over two-thousand years ago! Virgin births? Crucified dead men coming back to life? I think I can be forgiven for being skeptical of the historical accuracy of the Gospels.

As for divine revelations or mystical experiences I'm a psychologist, and to my mind, all divine revelations amount to hallucinations or delusions, varying from mild and voluntary to severe and automatic. Do I have proof of this? No, but I think the mental states that are referred to as being divine revelations are explainable in terms of physiological brain function and don't require divine intervention. That said, if you have personally had an experience that you believe to be a divine revelation, it doesn't mean you're crazy. You may have a good imagination and you may have genuinely felt a sense of truth, good, or beauty when you imagined the experience that you interpret as a revelation. I think I have a pretty good imagination, myself, and some of the things I imagine are pretty alluring, more alluring than what I experience in daily life. I might be tempted to attribute my most beautiful or satisfying thoughts, ideas, imaginations, etc., to a benevolent supernatural force or person, but the truth is that I think the human mind/brain is highly creative and intuitive in its operation because of how it is wired. Because of how the brain is wired, it is capable of generating ideas and images that are both fact and fiction. The key, it seems to me, to whether a particular thought or idea is fact or fiction, is whether it is reliably consistent with what I and other people observe.

Of course, if I were to become schizophrenic or go off on a permanent LSD trip, my observations would be all fouled up so that most of my ideas, imaginations, etc., would be fiction as far as everyone else is concerned. A lot of mystics and religious figures, I submit, are either drug users or have been in the throes of psychotic episodes. The tribal medicine man is often the holy madman. Even a resolutely sane person might have a single psychotic episode and interpret it as a divine revelation. In short, to finish beating the undead horse back to death, people should be careful about how they interpret emotionally powerful, visionary experiences. The difference, perhaps, between a genius and a raving mystic is that the genius applies more rigorous critical thinking to his or her intuitively-leaping visions whereas the mystic draws immediate conclusions and accepts them as God-given.

I've wandered perhaps further than necessary to answer the question of why I don't believe in a personal god, so I should probably sum it up more succinctly. I don't believe in a personal god because I don't see sufficient evidence for Him/Her/It. I think that the evidence that most believers accept is unsatisfactory, consisting as it does of appeals to scriptural authority and divine revelation. It would comfort me to believe in a benevolent, personal Creator, but it seems wishful thinking. It is human psychology and social dynamics, products of genetic evolution, that are the source of morality, not an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. It is tempting to speculate (like the Christian theologian and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin) that God is the embodiment of natural laws, including the process of evolution. To me this is both poetically appealing and closer to the truth than the standard Christian image of the bearded sky-god (because it makes fewer anthropomorphic assumptions about the nature of God). However, when I'm really honest about it, this pantheistic vision seems like a fig leaf over what would be honest, naked atheism, or at least agnosticism. The question I must ask the pantheist is whether the laws of nature taken as a whole are sentient, are consciously aware, or not. They may be, or they may not be. It escapes me, however, how we might settle the matter one way or the other, at least at this stage. So, technically I'm an agnostic. The poet in me would like to take the pantheist position. However, my intuitions and my skeptical nature incline me to take a stronger position of atheism.

To be an atheist is to live without any supernatural assurances in life. It is natural law and human nature that makes a man suffer or prosper. No divine father figure is around to bail out individuals and nations. It's up to us and always has been since our brains evolved the ability to reason and plan. It will soon be within our abilities to even shape the biological components of human nature. I believe that genetics and neuroscience technology will advance to the point where we can effectively reprogram our fundamental natures, for better or worse. Perhaps we can reengineer the human species to be less violent and aggressive, less prone to experiencing incapacitating depression, more tolerant, less territorial, more rational. (Of course, in doing so, we have to beware the side-effects of such modifications.) It will be human nature and the decisions that we humans make based on that nature that will determine our future. Let's hope we are fated as a species to make the right choices.

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