On Being an Atheist
Being an atheist means being atheistic, that is, not taking a theistic view point. This does not mean one doesn’t take a religious viewpoint — though I don’t take one — but that one doesn’t agree with the notion of an omnipotent, omnipresent being. In ordinary life, a disagreement with another viewpoint isn’t generally a cause for decrying the holders of the other viewpoint as stupid, more often it is an invitation for a reasoned debate on the subject (at least, amongst reasonable people).
For some atheists, however, it nowadays seems to be fashionable to lambast theists for their beliefs. This is not worthwhile or fair. Portraying religious believers as irrational and inflexible is both insulting and incorrect. Some are, but such arguments sound like pot calling kettle black material. That someone has a different and incompatible view to your own is not a reason for such portrayals. People such as Richard Dawkins, whom I have a lot of respect and time for, go to far when they make claims, for example, that religious people are indoctrinating their children. It is stereotyping gone too far.
People are free to believe what they wish to, insofar as it doesn’t negatively impact other peoples’ right to believe in what they wish to. I regard this as a fairly basic tenet. (This is one reason I find those who try and convert you to a given set of beliefs so obnoxious, especially those who accept no criticism about their beliefs. I sometimes wonder whether they see the inherent hypocrisy in their position.)
At the same time as holding the belief that people are free to believe as they wish, I find it incredibly irritating when religion is viewed as an inviolable aspect to someone’s existence. In my view religion is as amenable to criticism as an argument of left/right wing political views or whether animal testing for medical purposes is moral. It is a choice which has been made, and people should be willing to defend their choices.
A problem in debates over religion is that people are hostile to a critique of a view they hold dear. There is a lack of empathy on both sides of the debate between atheists and theists. For example, I cannot imagine believing something such as a god — which I see no evidence for the existence of —, let alone letting my life be so consumed by it. Conversely, many theists are appalled at the idea of reducing life to a scientific viewpoint, which they see as soulless and mechanistic.
Of course, I think theistic adherents are incorrect in their beliefs. I don’t believe there is a god watching over us. I believe we are alone in deciding our fate, along with everything that view entails. And it is a belief in some ways: a belief in the scientific method, a belief that the lack of any evidence for a god means there is no god. It is a belief backed up by evidence, rather than propped up by faith. I view my approach as correct, but can understand that other people wish to go a faith, rather than evidence, based route.
There are many reason I have chosen to take this position, some of which I shall explain below. These include my non-belief in the need for a reasoning behind human existence and my belief in people having the ability to decide between good and evil and the necessity of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Religions often offer to explain a “why”, for example, “why are we here?”. I do not believe there needs to be a why in all cases. Sometimes things just are. A why is a very powerful thing; something which offers a reason can offer reassurance. This is a reason theistic belief appeals to many people. That something just is — there is no cause beyond chance — can seem uncomfortable. Personally, I don’t find the fact that the universe just is uncomfortable.
When I look at the choice between an all powerful being deciding to create a universe and the possibility that the universe just happens to exist, in many respects the latter actually seems a much more comforting choice to me. It may not offer a reason, but I’m happy with that. The former possibility doesn’t seem to explain much anyway, why did the all powerful being decide to create the universe? Was it bored one day?
It is possible that there may be a god, I just don’t view it as the case given current evidence. The fact that it is impossible to prove a negative precludes my stating as fact that god does not exist, but I believe it to be a fact nonetheless. To put it another way, I am open minded to the possibility of their being a god, I just view the probability to be so small as to be discounted based on current evidence.
In addition to the more abstract reasons above, I find many of the ideas embedded in theism very uncomfortable. That we need some external being to instruct us what is good and evil, that watches over us, that we need to appease and serve, I find disturbing.
The idea of needing instruction in good and evil seems to both belittle man’s own ability to be moral and to put the responsibility for one’s actions somewhere else. Though most religions allow for freewill, many evil things have been done by someone who claims to be following “God’s will” rather than exercising their own freewill.
As an aside, this is one of Dawkin’s arguments for the abolition of religious belief. I don’t believe it is a cause to tar the whole of religion with a veneer of wrongness in any way: many things can be manipulated to justify evil acts, as well as beneficial ends (of which religion encourages many).
Having an omnipresent watcher to keeps tabs on us, that one must appease, strikes me as almost authoritarian, that we cannot be trusted. We find ourselves back to the point of having some external entity ready to punish us for immoral acts to dissuade us from carrying them out, rather than our own internal morality being sufficient in preventing our doing such acts.
The reasons above explain, in part, my reasons for taking up an atheistic position. I’ve also taken some time to explain why I don’t think religion and faith-based belief per se is incorrect and should be revoked in this age of reason; and why I don’t reject them out of hand.
It may be that science cannot explain some things beyond saying they just are, but I don’t take this automatically to mean something “beyond science” provides a cause for them. On the other hand, there may be truths beyond the reaches of science and something different may be needed to explain them; one method of explanation beyond science is religion, and there are likely to be many others. I just don’t believe this further level of truth is necessarily existent.
Though there are many religious scientists, my final point is I believe that a fully scientific viewpoint will at some point be at odds with a theistic viewpoint, as at some stage there is the need to provide evidence for a god, of which I do not see any.