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Oct 10 2011

Why I am an atheist – Radek Szyroki

The world as explained by science is so beautiful it makes me weep. Literally. When I think about these tiny jiggling particles that constitute everything, when I gaze into the sky and see the vastness of the Cosmos, when I sit in my chair, smoke a pipe and consider life on Earth and try to wrap my head around the unimaginably complex processes that allowed me to form as a human being and now ponder life itself, when I try to imagine and appreciate how much we have accomplished, when I see the shrouded realm of what we do not yet know my eyes brim with tears of emotion, my heart leaps with expectation and wonder. I am so grateful that I am privileged enough to live in times of great scientific understanding and in social circumstances that exposed me to all this information. It is marvellous. It is profound.

When I hear anyone proposing an invisible being whose existence denies the weight of all the things I hold dearest, I feel like I have been slapped in the face. Any concept of god steals away the world’s beauty and wonder and mints it into a mere cog in some strange machinery. It is outrageous to me and most offensive. It beslimes the greatness of human discovery and I will have none of it.

There are also moral reasons for my disbelief. I have a firm conviction that only the morality that emerges from a deep intrinsic need to do good is worthwhile. The opposed, religious morality of punishment and reward I find unwholesome, dishonest and infantile. I do not consider people who behave acceptably because they fear eternal punishment moral. They are petty and cowardly at best. I believe in humankind, I believe that a vast majority of us have enough sense to be decent human beings without some whiplash constantly ringing in our ears.

All of these ideas might be easily explained to the readers of this blog, but are virtually incommunicable in Poland, which is still vastly Catholic. There are a lot of young people who do not care too deeply about religion, do not go to any church and simply do not concern themselves with those issues but when the time comes they get church-approved marriages, baptize their children and demand a Catholic funeral. People who take a stand against religion are as rare as comets. People who share my strong feelings about science and morality are even less frequent. This is sad and disheartening. To not be understood by fellow atheists does not feel great.

Mine was the long road to atheism. I was always driven by curiosity and a desperate craving for truth. As a young man I thought I found my answers in religion but I became quickly disillusioned when I understood that religion only poses more questions and gives no sensible answers in return. I tried many things, many belief systems, many philosophical approaches and I found that all the answers are improbably simple. I just have to rely on the facts, without fairy tales, false hopes and wishful thinking. And if I could not find hard facts to answer my questions, I became courageous enough to accept that I did not know. Not knowing is not particularly worse than knowing, if you have your reason in place and solid grounding — it just propels you to ask questions and try to find out, it kindles a desire to know everything there is to know. And my greatest wish is that we eventually do.

Radek Szyroki
Poland

(I put out a simple call for your explanations for why you’re an atheist, and I’m still inundated with submissions. This will be a daily feature on Pharyngula.)

40 comments

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  1. 1
    Louise

    …Brother!

  2. 2
    John

    “church-approved marriages, baptize their children and demand a Catholic funeral” In Ireland that behavior is called “hatch, match and dispatch”. Hopefully it presages wholesale abandonment of the catholic church.

  3. 3
    Chris

    *Applause* A wonderful post, thankyou for sharing, PZ and Radek.

  4. 4
    redwood

    “Not knowing” is the first step to honesty. Christians of my acquaintance “know” there is a God because that’s what they’ve been told. I doubt any of them even considered the truth of it–if that’s what everyone else is saying and doing, it must be right.

    People are so good at lying themselves into believing something because. . . why? It’s the easy way? So sad.

  5. 5
    ManOutOfTime

    I am humbled by the courage expressed and embodied by this man’s statement, and by his eloquence – in English, no less! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. 6
    nazani14

    The Catholic church in Poland is doing a lot more than officiating at ceremonies.
    http://reproductiverights.org/en/case/z-v-poland-european-court-of-human-rights
    The death of Edyta from being denied an abortion follows the case of a woman who became legally blind after being forced to continue her pregnancy.

  7. 7
    Glen Davidson

    I think that gods don’t necessarily steal from the beauty of the world. Greek myths may tend to be the prettiest and most charming, due to taking the better ones from those with whom they traded, but a lot of them can be charming and attractive.

    Strangely, though, people cling to some of the ugliest and least interesting ones, those in the Bible. They seem to be truly designed to make the world uninteresting for the sake of magnifying God, who in consequence becomes little more than a petty tyrant.

    If they’re going to give us tales, why not some good ones?

    Glen DAvidson

  8. 8
    Ann Watson

    Thank you so much. Truth and the love of truth are beautiful things.

  9. 9
    Tim DeLaney

    This series is one of your very best ideas, PZ. You rock!

  10. 10
    Scettico

    Thank you Radek! The beauty of this post made me weep!

  11. 11
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    There are a lot of young people who do not care too deeply about religion, do not go to any church and simply do not concern themselves with those issues but when the time comes they get church-approved marriages, baptize their children and demand a Catholic funeral.

    This sounds so familiar. If you don’t at least follow the motions, some great aunt you only see at weddings and funerals will get upset and then your parents will get upset, all that with a whiff of What would the neighbors think?!
    I sometimes think that peer pressure is one of the only things that keeps religions alive (well, besides greed and hate).

  12. 12
    Michel

    Beautiful. I wish I could write that well. I did send a submission with basically the same message, but not as well written. I come from Québec, Canada, and I see the same kind of apathy towards religion/science. I feel your pain. I am slowly bringing that debate to my friends an family, and monitoring their reaction. I just hope they eventually get curious as to why I feel so passionate about the issue.

  13. 13
    Adam Podstawczyński

    As a Pole and atheist myself, I can only support what Radek wrote so eloquently above. Myself, I got married and baptized my kids according to Catholic rituals. But not as a person who does not care much about religion; rather, as a true and eager believer. I have only recently realized there is no place for God anywhere around me, and that the notion of God is not supported by anything I see, hear, smell or feel.

    I do share what you feel about science and the intrinsic — as opposed to forced upon, or learnt — nature of morality. But I would not say people like you and me are few and far between; at least judging by what I see around me, there are many like us in the generations born in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

    Also, openly stating your atheism is freakingly difficult for some of us Poles (and not only Poles). There are many young people who openly express their minds only to their partners, married or not, but keep on pretending Catholicism when in presence of their parents, parents-in-law, etc. And they do not do it because they don’t have the balls to renounce God. They do it for the fear of those dearest to them. We may debate here whether rejecting the Holy Mary and Her Son Jesus in front of an elderly person who has Her portraits hung in every room, and who has tears in her eyes when accepting the Communion is an act of courage, reason, or ruthlessness.

    All in all, Radek’s words are very close to what I think. What I can add from my own observation and experience is that the Polish nation is becoming increasingly skeptical. But Polish skepticism will only sporadically sprout in the form of “coming outs” or open declarations of atheism. More likely, due to the long legacy of Polish martyrs and saints, it will “come into” slowly and gradually. It just needs time.

  14. 14
    Thomas Lawson

    Beautiful emotion, Radek.

    It saddens me that childhoods and juvenile wonderment are being stolen throughout the world. Just as religion has stunted our scientific progress, so, too, does it stunt the passion, inspiration, and innocence involved in a child’s natural development. Where would our planet be if humans could resist the urge to scramble the minds of their offspring?

  15. 15
    theophontes, feu d'artifice du cosmopolitisme

    @ Glen

    Greek myths may tend to be the prettiest and most charming

    Greek myths are an integral part of my“Why I am an atheist.” (But the first two writers have taken the wind out of my sails. PZ should not be posting the best writings first.)

  16. 16
    PZ Myers

    Heh. I’ve got a folder of something like 130 entries. I just close my eyes and click on one and take it, whatever it is. I haven’t even read most of them!

  17. 17
    Thomas Lawson

    So far, so good, PZ!

  18. 18
    Loreo

    Wow. Moving.

    Makes the piece I submitted look like I glued a bunch of popsicle sticks together and called it an essay.

    “It beslimes the greatness of human discovery…” – that’s perfect!

  19. 19
    JamesR

    Well said. Thank You.

    Great idea PZ.

  20. 20
    AJS

    I concur.

    The real explanations for the natural phenomena we observe are more interesting than any bogus explanation cooked up by the authors of mythology.

    A universe that functions all by itself is more wondrous than one that requires a man standing out of sight behind the scenery, turning the crank.

  21. 21
    Crudely Wrott

    As I read your comment, Radek, my inner ear was hearing your words spoken in my own voice, so closely they resemble my own thoughts, my own experiences, my own story. Have you been reading my mail?

    I consider myself to be measurably more a part of the growing efforts of people world wide to break ages old chains and seek a better way to face the challenge of life than I felt upon waking this morning.

    Please accept my gratitude and warm regard. It’s very nice indeed to know you are there.

  22. 22
    Gregory Greenwood

    We’re two for two on fantastic posts.

    Well written and well expressed Radek, the universe is a wondrous place, and it cheapens that wonder to try to claim that it was created by a fanciful Bronze Age myth.

  23. 23
    Matt Penfold

    Am I alone in hoping that these essays could be collect in one place and made easily accessible ? I have a feeling they will make for a powerful resource.

  24. 24
    Marcus Ranum

    I just close my eyes and click on one and take it, whatever it is. I haven’t even read most of them!

    You mean you’re using the “yahweh algorithm”??? I always suspected that, since eathquakes and lighting and tsunamis are so inaccurate that he’s just using a point and click interface…

  25. 25
    marksteed

    Word.

    More or less mirrors my own thoughts exactly.

  26. 26
    Wojciech Spytek

    “Well put” would be an massive understatement. Excellent stuff Radek – and SO close to home. I’m sure there are more of us in Poland than we usually perceive, though. :)

  27. 27
    athyco

    After just the first paragraph, I thought of people who have told me that I must be lacking “something” because I was atheist. I always felt it untrue and belittling, but this essay helped me figure out an answer. I am a human being who–like any other–has time and energy and interest in limited quantities, so I’m lacking any desire to bind them up in, as you say, “fairy tales, false hopes and wishful thinking.” On top of that, the emotion in your writing puts paid to the notion that the atheist has to have the Vulcan demeanor.

  28. 28
    Kevin

    I think I’d better hurry up and get mine submitted before the pile gets too deep.

    But the pressure: the first two were terrific.

    I’ll probably go for snark.

  29. 29
    Gerardo Lagunes

    Well said man we in Mexico are finding out what kind of damage the catholic church has done to our country and are working to fix that.

  30. 30
    Thomas Lawson

    @23 Matt:

    I’m pretty sure we can assume these will be kept somewhere, eventually.

  31. 31
    Squidocto

    Thanks, Radek.

  32. 32
    Stacy Kennedy

    Beautiful, Radek!

  33. 33
    khms

    I found it interesting how closely this mirrors the usual Christian science-just-takes-the-fun-out-of-the world speech, including many typical phrases.

    Makes me wonder how intentional this was.

  34. 34
    Radek

    Hi All,
    Thanks for all the kind words. And thank you, PZ, for blindly choosing my piece and publishing it. I am grateful.

    I could have written more about how I saw eight of my friends die in one tragic accident and how it set me on my path from the Catholic church through a Buddhist monastery (yup, a novice for a year or so) to the place I currently occupy. I decided to skip the autobiographical and focus on the feelings I have about atheism and science (two aspects of the exact same thing, for me). I’m glad at least some of you liked it and I can’t wait to read more entries. It fills me with confidence to know that “we are legion”. The tables are tipped, we are often betrayed by our own governments, whose promises of a free secular state we took for granted. But we have truth and science on our side an they are the greatest allies. We will prevail, I am sure of it as much as I am sure of the fact that I overuse pathos! ;)

    I would like to respond to some of your comments, but I will just disagree with Adam above. I am from the generation you are talking about — born in ’85 to be exact. I have to say that I have only met a handful of scientifically-aware atheists in my life. Maybe I’m unlucky.

    If anyone (Poles or no) wants to contact me about anything, please feel free to do so at [-my last name-]@gmail.com. Discussion is welcome, but I will not follow it here, too much trouble :)

  35. 35
    Radek

    @khms: not intentional at all. I only see it now. But it’s true. Religion just takes the fun out of everything.

  36. 36
    forksmuggler

    Fantastic. Thank you.

  37. 37
    mikee

    Simply a wonderful post, as was the previous one.
    What a truly inspired idea PZ.

  38. 38
    tushcloots

    Glen Davidson says:


    10 October 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I think that gods don’t necessarily steal from the beauty of the world. Greek myths may tend to be the prettiest and most charming, due to taking the better ones from those with whom they traded, but a lot of them can be charming and attractive.

    I usually agree with almost everything you say, and Greek and Egyptian mythology I find deeply compelling, but in regards to the seemingly infinite complexity and profound awe I experience in discovering nature/existence, the reduction of all phenomena to a mere whim of some being’s fancy drains the fascinating joy of curiosity and discovery from life leaving an empty carcass of rote existence.
    It shakes me to my foundation thinking about how close to extinction humanity came when our population dropped to 2,000 – 5,000 members at one time in our history, or thinking about our atoms being plasma and radiation during inflation and the Big Bang, condensing into the atoms that are now present in our bodies.
    As Radek says, invoking God(s) as an explanation is like a slap in the face; it is like turning great beauty into a cartoon.
    The Mona Lisa into a caricature. Actually, the aroma of roses to that of a Texan outhouse.

  39. 39
    Yennefer

    Hello I’m a believer and some things you write is also like a slap in the face for me(becouse it’s like you said my best friend or my parents are a fairy tales) but… I also thank you for saying what you feel. I’ve never understood why people are non-believers and why some times they are so agressive to those who believe in God. Now I start to understand, while I can feel that God exist and truly loves me, they just CAN’T ‘feel’ and ‘believe’ it… When I’m grateful to God for creating everything , they feel gratefulness to … I don’t know… humanity. The same feeling but conversed. I don’t think the full understanding between us is possible, but coud I ask of one? Could we live in friendship and respect to each other? Mysłowice, Poland

  40. 40
    Radek

    Dear Yennefer from my home town,
    thank you for the reply.

    I’m sure we can live in friendship and respect. My girlfriend is a religious person (not overly, she keeps her beliefs to herself, never proselytizes to me) and we get along just fine. I only resent shoving religion down my throat and this is done everywhere in this country. Transfer religion classes to churches, remove crosses from schools and public offices and drop the strange deal the church has with our government. I’m only asking to abide by the Constitution which specifies Poland to be a secular nation with freedom of belief. I’d like that.

    Also, I don’t believe that I’ve written anything offensive to any sane religious person in the world. I do consider religion to be a fairy tale (a story made up to give guidance and comfort) and I believe it’s a force of more evil than good in the world. I do have a right to my opinions and since I never use any hateful language or ad personam arguments, I think I’m expressing myself in a non-offensive way. I have the same right to say those things to anyone who engages me in a discussion as you have to state your beliefs (in god, gods, or anything you like). You can always prove me wrong and shut my mouth for good — just provide evidence for your extraordinary claims and I will, assuredly, feel very stupid and apologetic. Until that happens, I will stick to my opinions, as expressed in the essay and express them whenever I am asked to do so (like here).

    Very best of luck to you in all your endeavors,
    Take care.

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