Why I am an atheist

Russell here.  I’ve been feeling left out of PZ Myers’ series on how people became atheists, but I thought it would be greedy of me to try to guest post on his blog when we’ve got our own.  So instead, I’m posting my own story here.

My parents are both of Jewish cultural/ethnic backgrounds, with roots in Germany and Eastern Europe.  They are also both more or less atheists — my dad more, my mom a bit less.

Continued below the fold…

[Read more...]

Viewer Mail: On Personal Experience

Letter from R:

I was raised as a protestant christian. All my life I was told that there is a god and that he loves us all. Yet all through my life,from as early as I can remember, a single question plagued me: “Why did god create a world based on suffering?” The natural world of which we are a part, is a constant struggle to eat or avoid being eaten. Metaphorically the same is still true for humans today. If I share my food among the starving, I starve. If I stand alone against an army of murderers in defense of an innocent, I will be killed.

Combined with this childish intuitive critique of god’s creation I also possess a university scientific education. I acknowledge the total irrationality of the supernatural. Whilst at university some years ago I realized that I could not continue to believe in god without continuing to grow in contempt for him. My contempt became rage, and my rage soon quickened to hatred. I literally tore my soul apart trying to find a way to reconcile my belief with my hatred. I had to make a decision. Allow hatred to twist and embitter me, or deny god once and for all. I still struggle with the decision.

Cognitively I am an atheist. I know no god. Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny the evidence of personal experience when the experience is your own. It causes me to fear the words “I deny god”. Ashamedly I shed tears at the knowledge that my cognitive faculties are at the mercy of my old brain, those structures that we share with all vertebrates.

I type this message as a plea. I do not believe in the soul yet I fear that mine may drive me insane. Please, if anyone among you has struggled with these feelings and overcome them, tell me how. I cannot continue to live in dissonance.

My response:

Hello R:

Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny theevidence of personal experience when the experience is your own.

This is going to sound flip, but there is a point: “Have you taken any antacid for your god?”

Feelings are products of minds, which are products of brains. I have a degree that includes communication studies, and one thing they drilled into us (using quite a lot of research to show it’s true) was that our feelings are produced internally by our own brains. The brain interprets data and offers emotional and physical responses to that data. But we own those responses.

Example: I am walking down a dark, narrow, lonely street alone at night. I see a moving shadow behind a trash can and I feel myself getting anxious. I need to walk by the bin to get to where my car is parked. My breathing becomes quick and shallow and I feel adrenaline beginning to flow and make my head tingle, I see the shadow move again and I pause. Do I go back or keep moving ahead. I fear there is someone hiding there—a mugger or a rapist…and nobody is around if I end up in trouble…

There is NO doubt that my personal experience of fear is totally real. But does that mean that the shadow is a rapist waiting to do me harm?

It turns out it’s a cat.

You don’t have to deny your personal experience. Just don’t assume the experience is evidence of any particular cause when you have no evidence or insufficient evidence. Yes, you “feel something.” But there is no reason for believing it has anything to do with gods.

-th