Re-examining the grounds of my (dis)belief
Any longstanding belief is worth putting under the microscope once in a while. The reasons I chose to disbelieve years ago still hold up
You’re never too old to change your mind. In fact, it’s an important skill to practice.
One of the most dangerous errors a person can commit is to succumb to dogmatism, which entails absolute belief in your own rightness and reflexive hostility toward different ideas. Dogmatism is the root of countless atrocities, as well as a frequent cause of disaster when an overly rigid belief system collides with reality. Either way, it’s a mistake I don’t want to make.
The antidote to dogmatism is an attitude of intellectual humility and skepticism. It’s essential to always bear in mind that you could be wrong, and be willing to reexamine your beliefs occasionally, to see if they hold up in the light of new experience. The launch of OnlySky seems like a good occasion for that scrutiny.
Just to remove any suspense: Yes, I’m still an atheist! I consider all gods to be imaginary, mere products of the human imagination, like unicorns or dragons. I’ve changed my mind about various things over the years (more on this in upcoming posts!), but the arguments that led me to atheism still seem solid and unassailable.
These are the anti-theistic arguments that I find most convincing:
- The problem of reasonable nonbelief: Simply stated, there’s no good evidence that a god of any sort exists!
If there were an all-powerful supernatural being which desired its existence to be known by humanity, there wouldn’t be any debate or uncertainty about it. It would be as obvious as the sun in the sky. Conversely, the reason there is so much room for doubt is because the existence of a deity is a human fiction imposed on the world. It’s a story people have told to make sense of our existence, but like many such stories, it’s shown itself inadequate as our knowledge expands and deepens.
- The problem of evil: The most ancient argument for atheism is still one that no philosopher or apologist has been able to answer. If God wishes to eliminate evil from the world, but can’t, then God isn’t all-powerful; if God doesn’t wish to eliminate evil from the world, then God isn’t all-good; if God is both all-good and all-powerful, how can evil exist?
The easiest, most straightforward solution – that God isn’t omnipotent – is one that few religions have opted for, except possibly the Zoroastrians. Most have chosen one of the other options. The first is to deny that evil exists, which is basically to deny the world exists and to retreat into a self-contained fantasy. The second is to engage in logic-mangling about the definition of “good,” which fails to hold up to basic scrutiny. Any reasonably intelligent human being could come up with a better plan than the one religious believers tell us that God enacted.
- The problem of religious confusion: The fallback position of many apologists, that God demands we have faith, is neutralized by the observation that there are hundreds or thousands of religions, each making their own incompatible faith claims.
It’s unreasonable to expect every human being to guess the right one, so it makes no sense that a deity would allow this situation to arise. If God wanted to speak to us, the only rational course of action would be to speak to all of us. But this situation makes complete sense if there’s no divine revelation undergirding any religion, and the babel of competing faiths simply arose from the creativity of different cultures across space and time.
The second half of this question is why I choose to speak out about it. I can imagine a world where religion was a benign force, where churches confined themselves to preaching universal love and forgiveness and running soup kitchens, and didn’t oppose science or get involved in politics. In that world, I might still be an atheist, but I probably wouldn’t feel motivated to write this column.
But that’s not the world we live in. In our world, religion is too often a force for evil: violent, intolerant, power-hungry, stubbornly anti-science, dedicated to preserving the injustices of the past. It’s the kindling for witch hunters and book-burners, the spark that touches off suicide bombers and terrorists, the current that electrifies howling mobs. It’s opposed every moral revolution of the past hundred years: desegregation, civil rights, reproductive choice, women’s suffrage, marriage equality, transgender rights, and more. It serves as a cloak of sanctity for our worst impulses.
To be clear, there are many kind, generous and decent people who are religious. There are even people who are motivated by religious belief to devote their lives to charity and other worthy causes. But religion isn’t necessary as an inspiration for goodness. Conscience, empathy and the capacity for moral reasoning are built into the human operating system. With or without religion, we’d know to love our children, to offer a hand to the needy, to care for the sick, to shelter the guest and the stranger.
However, religion is necessary to justify evil deeds. When a shiny-suited prosperity-gospel preacher bilks the poor out of their meager income to buy himself another private jet; when a robed and bearded theocrat screams in glee for the public stoning of heretics; when an elderly male patriarch tells women that their duty is to kneel at men’s feet and bear children in silence and subjection; when a dominionist politician proclaims that freedom is a sin and that members of his sect are entitled to rule, democracy be damned – those acts can’t be justified by any rational standard of human welfare, but only because God, who can’t be seen or questioned, says so.
As long as evils like these exist in the world, I’ll continue to write and to speak out against religion and the harm it causes. There are hopeful signs that humanity is becoming more enlightened, but there’s still a long climb ahead to free all minds from the bondage of faith. I don’t expect the struggle to be over in my lifetime, but I aspire to do my part by helping to push one more step onward.