Firstly, I take issue with having to explain why I don’t believe in the existence of one possible, or few possible, entities in a universe of infinite possibilities.
Why don’t I believe that doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu while whistling Ode to Joy backwards will rain pogo sticks upon the world? (What, it didn’t work? You must have missed one of the notes.) Why don’t I believe that the world sits on the shell of a giant turtle? Why don’t I believe that having sex with my boyfriend will result in an eternity of hell fire? Just because something can be conceived doesn’t mean it has to be disproved.
But I do object to religion, and that deserves an explanation. First let me state that I take a quintessentially American view toward personal belief: That’s cool. What’s none of my business is none of my business and I am not so omnipotent that I can expect everyone to think the way I think. Nor would I want them to. I am not everyone, only myself and I want to learn from other people, I want to be persuaded, I want other people to have thoughts different from own.
I also don’t want to take things away from other people. Religious belief can be very significant, even life saving. I live a privileged life. I’m one of the few people (let alone women) throughout history who experienced genuine autonomy. I have control over what happens to me on a day to day basis. I have no major crises to attend, no survival to fight for. My life is not a series of things just happening to me. I have control, mostly because I have an education, pale skin and knowledge of how to navigate this liberal, wealthy society. Not everyone does. Many, if not most, people live lives like pinballs, tossed around from bumper to bumper, scared, depressed, anxious. They lack control. So if those people get through their days with a belief that live under the umbrella of God’s love, if they are able to get up and function because they think when this is all over they will receive their just reward (and those rewards would be just), then God bless them. I will never begrudge anyone any tool of survival.
The problem comes when those with power believe in a false cause and effect. That is dangerous, that is anti-social and needs to be stamped out for the betterment of people.
There are two obvious problems with false cause and effect. The first is quite obvious. If a child is sick with infection and her adult care-taker believes that doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu will cure her, but antibiotics won’t, that empowered caretaker will cause unnecessary suffering, and possibly death. We can extrapolate that across society. If people with power believe that giving HPV vaccinations will lead to retaliations from a vengeful god, those empowered people will cause unnecessary suffering, and possibly death. There are so many examples of this affecting OUR shared society. Psychological torture of gays, miseducation of our children, stunting the potential of young girls by refusing them access to information about birth control, shooting wars with other cultures… ad infinitum.
That is completely unacceptable. We cannot allow the hard won bounty of human endeavor, i.e., knowledge and information, to be squandered at the expense of real, live humans who have the right to the best possible lives we as a society can offer each other. We have come together throughout history to benefit from our collective knowledge and works. Those who would stand in opposition to this knowledge reap its benefits every day. They flush toilets and watch television and eat cheap food. In my view, there is no difference in avoiding cholera by means of sewage systems and avoiding the pain of ostracism by means of admitting that it’s the only downside to homosexuality.
In short, I believe that failing to proceed with the best possible information about cause and effect is a crime.
The second problem with religious adherence is more subtle, but possibly more dangerous. On an individual level, believing that there is a set of specific desires held by some higher power leads to a population of people “just following orders.” It removes all ethical and moral agency from the individual, which is, in my view, distinctly unethical and immoral. One hears the tired argument, “How can anyone who doesn’t believe in God’s retribution know right from wrong?” The absurdity of this is obvious to anyone with a deeply personal and evolved set of principles. I know it is wrong to hurt people for my own gratification and I suffer emotionally in the here and now for it. I am not so disconnected from the rest of humanity that I forget the value of other humans. I am not so mercenary that without threat to my own personage I would harm others. I am a fully formed, typical human in that way.
But I would take my response to that a step further and say that I am more moral because of it. This is because I have to choose, from my own free will, what is wrong and what is right. When I was a child, my sense of right and wrong was influenced by adults, but I am no longer a child and have to take full and complete responsibility. If I simply believe that there is a list handed down from some higher being, I can no longer say that I know right from wrong. Anything can be plugged into that list — a list interpreted by humans, no less — and I will happily go along. Don’t eat meat on Fridays? Okay. Give ten percent to charity? Okay. Kill all first born children? Okay. (Interestingly, there are some beautiful Christian works which hit exactly on this issue, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, which fundamentally posits that God chose his most beloved and beautiful angel to become the devil because He knew that there was no meaning in faith unless people chose it of their own free will. Even St. Augustine said that God values most the souls of those who sinned and came to Him by choice.)
Here’s what it really comes down to: the public sphere. There are places where I and other people have to intersect, people who believe in different sets of cause and effect. But here’s the thing: I can’t have a religious conversation with people in that public sphere, in doings of the State. I have nothing to say about anyone’s religion on a theological level and, not to put to fine a point on it, I don’t care how many angels one group thinks can dance on the head of a needle versus another group. When discussing social and public policy, I cannot have this conversation. I don’t know how strongly I can express this. I can only discuss the pragmatic outcomes of cause of and effect based on evidence and the shared knowledge created by my fellow humans.
But of course a religious person would be a hypocrite if they left their truest and deepest beliefs at the door. It’s the absolute and inevitable outcome of earnest belief. Now, I know a lot of people who identify as religious who do no such thing, who keep these spheres very separate and I have absolutely no objection. These are also the people who would walk away from any religious leader who asked them to violate their sense of right and wrong. But this is not everyone. We see people running for the presidency of the United States who quite literally cannot see any “right” besides pushing forward their own personal theology onto the nation as a whole. If you truly believe that doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu would prevent a massive tsunami, wouldn’t you hope you were the kind of person who would do everything in her power to get to Katmandu and do those cartwheels?
This is why religion is destructive. It is to this that I object. It for this reason that I would like to see it fade away into wisps of nothingness. So perhaps this doesn’t answer why I don’t believe in a god, but I hope it answer why I think it’s best not to believe in a god.