Why I am an atheist

zeusjpgI’ve written about religion a lot on this blog, but I’ve probably never explained why I’m an atheist.

It’s really simple.

There have been hundreds, probably thousands of god stories in different parts of the world and different historical periods. There was the endlessly squabbling unhappy family of Greek gods. There was Ra and his half human, half animal friends in the Egyptian pantheon. There were the deeply sinister Aztec gods. There’s God / Yahweh / Allah originating in the Middle East. The Romans seemingly had a god for every conceivable purpose. Hindus have gods, goddesses, divas and avatars by the hundreds, if not thousands. And that’s just a sample to illustrate my point.

These stories can’t all be true. Some of them – most of them – must be false. Indeed, the myths themselves often include warnings against “false gods”. The Book of Exodus describes how the Israelites invented a false god (a golden calf) for themselves, in a matter of days, when Moses was up Mount Sinai communing with (the real) God.

These diverse and imaginative god stories illustrate just how good humans are at inventing myths, and what a deep need we have to create them. And if that’s true, then doesn’t it seem very likely that they’re all invented? Why would your god story be true and all the others false?

When civilizations end, their gods die with them. No one still believes in Zeus, or Thor, or Anubis, except as stories. Gods and religions are cultural artifacts – nothing more.

What I really don’t understand is why most other people don’t seem to see this.

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54 responses to “Why I am an atheist

  1. On one level (the rationalist), I agree with you wholeheartedly. On another, I’m intrigued by Jung’s idea that these mythological figures and forces carry an enormous amount of information – perhaps more than can be gleaned from the more purely objective sciences – about “the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” And on the relevance of myth to wisdom, I like Timothy Leary, too: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes or evolution.”

  2. There’s an analogy I like that says God is a lake, and different religions are different parts of the shoreline. If you’re thirsty, it doesn’t really matter if you go to Buddhist Beach or Christian Cove or Islamic Island. We’re all drinking the same water, whether we know it or not.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think most religious folks see things this way.

    • It is argued that the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole “lake” or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

      This illustration backfires. The “lake” story is told from a point of view of someone who can see the whole “lake”. How could you know that each religion only sees part of the “lake” unless you claim to be able to see the whole “lake”?

      How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

    • and the lake is filled with impurities and poisons. Drink up.

    • The big problem with that analogy is that different religions make incompatible and contradictory claims. But I agree that all religions clearly express deeply held and universal desires and fears.

  3. I certainly agree that the many hundreds of Gods do not correspond with a modern rational world. Yet surely at least some of these Gods provide a metaphor that gives focus to life. For example “God is Love” or “God is personified by Jesus” might help with adopting a rational and helpful approach to community. If you want to see how this might work out Google Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion. Or coming it from another angle have a look at Einstein’s view of God and read about why he decided he could not be an atheist.

    • Metaphors, yes, exactly. And, when it comes to love, compassion and so on, there are at least as many non-religious writers on these subjects as there are religious ones.

      I personally believe that the great social progress that we have seen in the past century – women’s rights, racial equality, freedom of worship, homosexual rights, transgender acceptance, etc, are driven primarily by secular forces. For me, I find inspiration and hope in secular writing.

  4. While I see your point, to assume all are myths just because we as humans have a knack for inventing and creating stories, does not mean all stories are myths. It is the same in literature, there is fiction and nonfiction. When Israel was taken by the Assyrians and Babylonians their religion did not die with them. The question we need to answer, is were does this idea of a need or desire to create such stories, true or false, come from?

    Just my thoughts…

    • There is a deep, insatiable desire to understand our world through narrative. Narrative is how humans think about and perceive the world. Most explanations of anything are narratives. Fiction is a rich world that nourishes the human psyche.

  5. “What I really don’t understand is why most other people don’t seem to see this.”

    I wonder if perhaps it’s the emotional solace that holding to such beliefs may bring. I would venture to suggest that’s what swings the balance in favour of clinging to the belief once the inevitable doubts surface. There’s nothing quite so readily believed in as an un-falsifiable idea that we so much want to be true.

    • I think that the belief stems from two primary sources – 1) indoctrination from an early age and peer pressure, and 2) an almost universal tendency to believe in the supernatural (what Carl Sagan addressed in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World”), which derives from our reliance on narrative to explain everything that happens to us.

      • I’m sure you’re right about the genesis of the beliefs Steve, though your question was made from an adult and contemporary perspective. So, I don’t think we’re disagreeing, just using different frames of reference.

  6. I was going to use the same statement from your post that Hariod did and wonder the same thing. Clinging to a belief of something outside of oneself that can lead one to something better, something greater, and something everlasting is hard to turn away from. But one would also think that a rational person capable of critical thinking would understand that wishing doesn’t make it so.

  7. Hariod, I was about to comment, but yours encapsulated much of what I was going to say. Well said!

    The only thing I would add, as a nonbeliever myself, is that atheism is an emotionally expensive proposition. Those of us who can afford it (easily or not), should be careful not to be cruel to those who can’t.

    • Absolutely Mike. I remember the Chilean mining accident of 2010 and how many of the 33, when later asked what sustained them in their darkest hours, said that it was a belief that God would find a way of freeing them. One could say that they may just as well have believed in some imagined feat of engineering that would ultimately free them (as it did), though the concept of an abstract God that can work for us in any and all situations seems efficient if we can buy into it.

    • I don’t know, Mike. There are so many other sources of hope in this world. Wouldn’t it be great if those miners could have explained that what kept them going was the belief that their families, friends, and colleagues were doing their best to save them? That in fact the whole world’s media was drawing attention to their plight? And that all the resources of the modern world were being used to bring about their rescue? After all, this is what actually happened. I would rather place my hope in something that’s demonstrably likely to happen, rather than a vague hope that all will be well.

      When I drive my car at 70mph, I don’t cross my fingers and hope that God is on my side. I check my tyre pressures, I get my car serviced, and I watch carefully for hazards. If I had to rely on God, I’d be an emotional wreck. I’d probably never drive again. I don’t get how atheism is emotionally expensive, apart from the one question of life after death.

      • “I don’t get how atheism is emotionally expensive”

        Maybe the thing to do is to consider how you might feel if your life was far harsher and uncertain, less secure, if there were forces (natural, institutional, cultural, etc) affecting you that you had little or no power over, not just for a day or two, but for most of your life up to now, and that your options to improve this situation were limited or nonexistent. (This description isn’t too far off for much of humanity.)

        Could you imagine how a proposition that this is not all that there is, that there is something better waiting, might be powerfully compelling for someone in that position?

        I’m not saying that religion should never be contested, only that it pays to do it with an appreciation of what those beliefs mean for many believers.

      • I would rather place my hope in something that’s demonstrably likely to happen

        All those things are also known to fail. And, despite of you taking all precautions while driving, you still can be hit by a truck that went out of control. In the end, it’s still “a vague hope that all will be well”.

      • Sometimes I cross my fingers… 😉

  8. Well said, I always believed that religion is for those who need an explanation to thier existance, or a guide line. That is my opinion.

    • Well, I do think that most of us are looking for an explanation of the world. We’d like to understand what makes it tick. And surely most of us would prefer an explanation that’s actually true.

  9. I believe there might be entities we humans may never be capable of perceiving. That doesn’t rule them out. Nor does it proves they exist. We may get fleeting glimpses of higher entities that we can’t explain. There isn’t enough information to know the whole truth.

    I think the tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant fits for me.

    • Well there might be Jim. I’ve never had a fleeting glimpse of a higher entity myself though. You know, if God knocked on my door right now and introduced himself, I’d become a believer. I believe that evidence is generally a solid foundation for belief systems.

  10. I have had experiences that leave me with no alternative but to believe. My husband is a non-believer and rolls his eyes whenever I speak of this, but I choose to have faith because I need it, always have and always will, but everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and I respect yours as well as those of other commenters.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

  11. I think people believe in gods as a way to hold on to something when things seem difficult or even hopeless. I’m still not an atheist but I’m not religious either. I have a big problem with organised religion and it frustrates me that through the excuse of religion, people discriminate and people kill one another. In the end, all religious stories are just stories. Fantastical amazing stories with no one to verify any of it. 🙂

    • They are amazing stories. The old ones that no one believes any more (Norse, Greek, Roman Gods) are a rich source of material for fiction. But the ones that people still believe in, we have to tiptoe around, for fear of causing offence.

      As for organized religion, a lot of people seem to really get something out of that. Having certainty has great appeal, always.

  12. Hi Steve! Your arguments are largely my rationale as well for leaning more on atheism notwithstanding I am a citizen of a highly religious nation. Being a non-believer is not something one easily discloses here where I live as it begets being thought of as evil or bizarre.

    What pleases me more is reading your reply to a comment that you are principally making a statement and not interested to get into lengthy discussions — that, no doubt, are futile or pointless.
    I’ve recently grown weary of bloggers in other sites that engage in harsh debates and I flinch at insults hurled due to intolerance of each other’s beliefs. Our forefathers could only be deemed wise in their advice against participating in such dialogues. Nobody wins anyway and I doubt if anything could be gained, save for inducing tribal-like affiliations. I used to feel good for having found atheists like me in the blogosphere but, these days, after reading them jumping at every comment box, behaving like other religious fanatics, repeating themselves like a broken record, I am not so sure anymore. I prefer to think we are really kind of coool… 🙂
    Excellent post. ‘Glad to be here again.

    • Well said, lady from Manila – apologies for jumping in here, but there are no ‘like’ buttons to press.

    • LfM, you are very welcome back, as is everyone who reads or leaves a comment! No one will ever “win” a debate about religion. There are only ever losers all round.

    • I have a friend who does some field work for the forestry service in Alaska. His team is dropped off in some remote areas by a helicopter where they count trees or something. They live on a ship, encounter bears, etc. He took survival classes for his work. They said that in a life boat, religion and politics are absolutely prohibited topics. They recommended to stick to sports and women in conversations. Interesting.

      I, personally, don’t mind to discuss religion. The problem with these discussions is pushing an agenda by one or both of the sides. That’s where things go wrong.

      • Such a wise approach to not get into any conversational fracas on religion and politics. And what an interesting job your friend has, I just got to say.

        I also can discuss religion face to face with anyone although I’d probably end up reticent because, as you have mentioned, some people have no agenda or aren’t that much interested. I guess netizens are more than glad to exercise their extra freedom here resulting in losing control of their temperaments during an online discourse; After all, they feel sheltered behind their computer monitors. Yet I still don’t get how participants who sometimes brag of their elite intelligence could easily let slip the words “stupid, or idiot, or moron” when they disagree with somebody. Four or five blogger/commenters (mostly women,sadly) from a popular blog come to mind at once.
        I guess we are in accord with the assumption that any topic can be discussed as long as certain regulations are observed.
        Non-confrontational blog posts, like this one by Steve, that affirm or explain someone’s stance on atheism are a relief.
        Thank you very much, Agrudzinsky, for your response to my comment here.

      • Any topic of conversation that leads to argument and polarisation would be ill-advised in a lifeboat. I would have concerns about sport in that respect!

  13. This article lists several reasons for belief (or doxatic norms): prudential, moral, and epistemic.
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-belief/

    Essentially, you say that you don’t believe because belief in God does not pass your epistemic criteria – logic, evidence, etc.

    People who believe in God because of the solace, use prudential norm to justify their belief. Prudential belief is a belief that helps to achieve a certain result. E.g. if you want to sell a product, you better believe that the product is useful. This claim can be false, but you need this belief to reach your goal.

    People who believe in God because it is “right” use the moral norm. A belief that all people are equal is, obviously, false, but morally right.

    I think, reasons why people believe in God are much wider than just indoctrination and tendency to believe in supernatural. Those two are, certainly, not true for me.

    • agrudzinsky, I’m sure that you are exceptional in the intellectual rigour you use to understand and justify your belief.

      I am not actually saying that I don’t believe in God because of a lack of evidence. There are many things that I believe in – or are willing to place some trust in – without any direct evidence. But when it comes to religion, the evidence I have available to me strongly supports the hypothesis that there is no god. I draw this evidence from my knowledge of the physical world, from my experience of how people think and act, and from my observations of what religious people say and how they say it.

      But this is not an article where I wish to debate the existence of (any) god (or gods). I’m simply explaining my personal view of the world. I’m not going to be drawn into a debate about whether god exists.

  14. Kudos, well said. If you feel inclined, a short post on my point of view…
    https://notestoponder.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/how-dare-you-label-me/

  15. Through my attempts to find religion, I ended up losing it all together. I do find it a fascinating topic though, and I am intrigued by faith. There have been many times in my life that I wondered what is wrong with me? Why don’t I get it? Why can’t I find God? Then, I realized… I can’t find “him” because he is not there. That is when I finally had some peace.

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