Quantcast

«

»

Mar 16 2012

Why I am an atheist – Fiona Wallace

I am an atheist because I’ve seen hundreds of people die.

Around the time of my brother’s birth, my father decided that we should all start attending the CoE chapel on the local naval base (he was a retired naval officer) and within the year, my brother and my ten-year-old self were baptised. Some four years later I was confirmed, after being forced unwilling to confirmation classes. This class demanded a weekly essay on some biblical topic; deeply unfair, I felt, when I was the only one in the class who went to a highly academic school, and already had 4-5 hours of homework each night. I bought into the mythology, because adults were always right, or so my obedient self had been taught, but the essay was usually scribbled sitting in the back of the car on the way to class.

I think the chaplain knew.

On leaving school for university I fell in with a very catholic contingent, and here the first cracks really showed. They used condoms instead of the pill ‘because it’s easier for god to make a condom fail if he wants you to be pregnant’.

Hmm.

I found out that engaged couples had to attend a class where celibate, single men told them how to be married, because god says.

Hmm.

And confession magically erased any bad stuff you’d done, but didn’t really explain why you still needed a day of judgement.

And I began to see people die.

The first was an old man gasping his last with acute pulmonary oedema.

The next was a young cyclist.

A nine-year-old boy, of asthma.

A girl with cystic fibrosis.

A fifty year old woman with teenage children.

The list lengthened, and now I can no longer remember all their deaths, though some of them do stick in my memory.

What they had in common was…nothing other than death. Old people, young people. Children and babies. Sick and healthy. Deliberately or accidentally. Fighting all the way, welcoming it or simply giving in to the inevitable. Distressed or peaceful. Merchant bankers and newborn babies, elderly paraplegics and young athletes. Road accidents, cancer, lifelong disability, infections, heart disease, respiratory failure…I learned all the ways a human being can die.

Now at this point a religious person would be nodding sagely and deciding that I had got angry, and turned away from god. That I raged against him and his cruelties.

Wrong.

Have you ever seen someone die? One moment they’re there, a person, the sum of all the experiences they’ve ever had, a fantastic bundle of memories, desires and hope. And then it’s gone.

The match sputters out, the clockwork toy winds down, the tree falls to earth, and it’s over.

And it’s only in the last sixty years that we’ve really made a difference. Before that, we died like flies.

Were the people back then less deserving? Were they more evil? Were they less religious? I don’t think so. In fact, I know they weren’t. So why were they not deserving of all the things we have today? Why did two of my father’s siblings, twins, die before they were five years old of preventable childhood diseases and end up buried in Egypt in the 1930s? Why is every advance that humanity has made been paid for in blood, again and again and again?

No apologetics can explain the way the world simply is. No amount of hand-waving can hide the fact that the majority of humanity still suffers, much of it beyond our coddled imagining. I cannot compartmentalise this, for to do so would be to deny that suffering was real, to wave it away, salving my conscience with the lie that it was all for some hidden purpose. I am not willing to lie to myself and even less am I willing to lie to those around me.

I don’t have parables of how I do good in the world, or trite recitations of lifesaving heroics. I’ve saved lives, but that, to put it bluntly, is my job. There is no god to be pleaded with, bargained with; it is us, homo sapiens, who save each other’s lives, who offer comfort to the dying, who create and invent and build a better future for ourselves.

Send that mythological monster away. Your child died because there was nothing further human beings could do to save him, your sibling lived because human beings successfully pulled her back from the brink. And that effort belongs to all of us.

And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s enough.

Fiona Wallace
UK/Tasmania

55 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Thomas Lawson

    My new favourite. Outstanding, Fiona.

  2. 2
    pedantik

    Thank you, Fiona.

  3. 3
    Glen Davidson

    That’s the trouble with atheists, they say that it’s all purposeless and accidental for the very reason that many turn to religion, because it’s apparently purposeless and accidental–and they, the religious, want it to be otherwise.

    Spoil sports.

    Glen Davidson

  4. 4
    otrame

    Yes. Just yes.

  5. 5
    Loud - warm smiles do not make you welcome here

    Love this. Great piece, thank you.

  6. 6
    thunderbird5

    As a nurse (NHS), this I can understand.

    23 years of being the last voice, sight, touch that numerous dying people have had would be enough on its own to not only convince me of the absurdity of religion but also if its mendacity and hypocrisy. As it is, I have lots of other reasons too. But Fiona has articulated a very important point – and one that the goddists can never answer to anyone’s satisfaction but their own.

    I know what its like, Fiona. Thanks for writing this.

  7. 7
    chigau (違う)

    Well said.

  8. 8
    grahammartinroyle

    Thank you, well said.

  9. 9
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    This is an argument that has been articulated by famous atheists (JS Mill and Bart Ehrman spring to mind*), but always as a one step process. Arbitrary suffering may be a better reason to suspect that the god of the bible is a shit-heel negligent drunk-daddy kind of creator, but that kind of god seems certainly no less probable than cuddly-bear kumbaya George Burns-in-the-sky. If the latter god engenders belief, there isn’t any rational reason to reject the former. It boils down to “I cannot believe in the existence of a cruel creator”.

    There are all kinds of rational reasons to reject supernatural belief. This doesn’t seem to be one of them.

    Nonetheless, I found this post moving. I’m saddened that your atheism came from having witnessed so many endings. It must be difficult each time.

    *I could be wrong

  10. 10
    chigau (違う)

    AE
    “I cannot believe in the existence of a cruel creator” has been an excellent first step toward atheism for many people.
    It works!
    (sometimes)

  11. 11
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    chigau…given the frequency with which this argument has been articulated, it seems a very effective motivator (even if not completely rational).

  12. 12
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Excellent post.

  13. 13
    Randomfactor

    Very well stated.

  14. 14
    TriciaG28

    This one.

    This one is my favourite.

    Thank you.

  15. 15
    Chris Booth

    Beautifully said.

    Moving.

    Thank you.

  16. 16
    psychodigger

    Wow. Bravo, beautiful words. Thank you for that.

  17. 17
    Beanoglobin

    I echo the general appreciation of this post. It does seem to conflate the existence of a death-surviving human soul – and by extension, though not necessarily, either an afterlife for it to inhabit, or a soul-recycling system – with the existence of a deity. It took me an age to realise that these concepts are only connected by tradition; one doesn’t make the other any more likely.

    The thing that really interests me is that for thousands of years, people have tended to interpret death in exactly the opposite way, even though they generally saw much more of it than most modern Westerners. Something has obviously and permanently stopped, but the body is still there, so the source of animation must be a separate entity – and because it’s clearly no longer in the body, it must have gone somewhere else. Also, that blood contains a life-force, since if you lose enough of it, you die.

    I suspect the missing ingredient is scientific knowledge. It requires a real effort of imagination on my part to grok that if I did not have this knowledge, death would probably appear to be a deeply mysterious thing, instead of a brutal lesson in physiology (and also that, without any knowledge of microbiology, decomposition might well strike me as solid evidence that without the soul, the physical body is innately corrupt, just as many religions have taught). Like a lot of people throughout history, I would probably also conclude that animals must have souls too.

  18. 18
    busterggi

    So you learned all the ways to die eh?

    “Frank: A good cop – needlessly cut down by some cowardly hoodlums.
    Ed: That’s no way for a man to die.
    Frank: No… you’re right, Ed. A parachute not opening… that’s a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine… having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that’s the way I wanna go!”

  19. 19
    samsalerno

    Thank you. That message is exactly what religious people need to hear. It is us and us alone that can and do help our species. I would love to hear from more doctors. Fiona you are truly the first doctor I’ve ever heard state the facts about who saves lives.

  20. 20
    ursulamajor

    Excellent. Having been on the front lines of 5 close family deaths in the last 12 years, this resonated with me. Thank you Fiona, for this and for all you do for humanity.

  21. 21
    grumpypathdoc

    Fiona,

    A very moving post and completely to the point. Death is a biological event, fraught with emotion both from the person dying and their loved ones. I have seen death also. Both my parents, my mother-in-law, a five year old boy thrown out of the bed of his stupid parent’s pick-up truck, a 35 year old with cirrhosis, a 40 year old with tears still in his eyes, shot to death by a bartender. In old age or in youth, death is never pleasant for those leaving or left behind.

    I believe that humans invented religion, and an afterlife, to give them comfort with the loss of someone. That they moved on to higher plane, a better place, that they were still around-somewhere. That they would be reunited again.

    Of course the perverse use of religion to justify killing and corruption negates any positives.

    Science saves many people and, regretfully, sometimes kills them, I’ve seen that also.

    Reason and science however trumps mythology.

  22. 22
    mikecarlo

    My new favorite, absolutely beautifully said.

  23. 23
    claremilner

    Bravo. Powerfully written.

    There is no god to be pleaded with, bargained with; it is us, homo sapiens, who save each other’s lives, who offer comfort to the dying, who create and invent and build a better future for ourselves.

    Yes.

  24. 24
    'Tis Himself

    Thank you, Fiona.

  25. 25
    codyreisdorf

    Excellent post, thank you Fiona!

    Many people have been pointing out that it’s not entirely rational, I’d like to argue otherwise. Faced with a claim about how the world worked (a good creator) she assessed the evidence (indiscriminate suffering) and concluded the claim was false—a rational conclusion for the given claims and evidence. If she had also been presented with ideas of misotheism or dystheism, suggestions of a god that hates us, or does both good and evil things, then she maybe couldn’t have rationally rejected those claims on evidence alone, but she was not presented with those claims.

    I see no rational reason to alter the evidentially-false hypothesis of a good god into the evidentially-compatible hypothesis of an not-entirely-good god. (Though I’m reluctant to say it’s irrational either.)

    It surprises me how uncommon the idea of a not wholly good (or worse) god, is. The classic problem of evil is largely ignored by most theists. I was raised in Christian Science, where they bizarrely solve the problem of evil by denying the reality of evil/suffering/etc.. It’s an impressive mental gymnastic.

  26. 26
    Algonquin on the Bayou a/k/a Sharon

    Wonderful!

  27. 27
    frankb

    I second claremilner #23, beautifully writen.

  28. 28
    sarahcowling

    fina – wonderfully put. Thank you.

    Antiochus – you are a fool and a pretentious one at that. The point of Fiona’s story is not disbelief in a cruel god but rather, and more simply, disbelief in a non-existant god. Also, my take is that Fiona’s atheism started long before she became exposed to death. Re- read the story; you might just agree without the validation (and comfort blanket) of Messrs Mill & Ehrman.

  29. 29
    zxcier

    …a person, the sum of all the experiences they’ve ever had, a fantastic bundle of memories, desires and hope

    Brilliantly written piece, and I particularly liked this perfect definition of a person. Imagine if everyone could understand that this is the true value and beauty of life.

  30. 30
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    sarahcowling: what on earth are you on about? The argument presented here by Fiona is essentially the same as that of Mill and Ehrman. I counter that suffering and stupidity in the world is not evidence that god doesn’t exist, just evidence that if it does exist it permits suffering and stupidity.

    This wasn’t intended as an attack on Fiona. Like I said, I found her post moving. It’s just that I don’t find that argument rational, even when it’s presented eloquently.

  31. 31
    sarahcowling

    Antiochus: it was on your “nevertheless” that I based my accusation of pretentiousness (oh and the M&E reference) and it was on your use of of “it all boils down to” that I based my accusation of foolishness.

    Fiona’s story simply does not “boil down” to the argument that she cannot believe in a bad god. She references theist hypocrisy, childhood indoctrination and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that we – homo sapiens – are alone with each other and with our memories and dreams and that it is at death that this fact becomes clearest.

    Whilst you may attack Fiona per se, your statement that “There are all kinds of rational reasons to reject supernatural belief. This doesn’t seem to be one of them” is at best patronising.

  32. 32
    John Morales

    [meta]

    sarahcowling:

    Whilst you may attack Fiona per se, your statement that “There are all kinds of rational reasons to reject supernatural belief. This doesn’t seem to be one of them” is at best patronising.

    No more so than that very paragraph. :)

  33. 33
    speedweasel

    sarahcowling,

    Try reading for comprehension. Antiochus was speaking about the argument from incredulity against god.

    This argument ‘boils down’. Fiona’s story doesn’t ‘boil down’.
    Antiochus was highlighting and then attacking a particular line of argument, not Fiona.

  34. 34
    speedweasel

    Clarifcation:

    “Antiochus was highlighting and then attacking a particular line of argument, not attacking Fiona.

  35. 35
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Fiona’s story simply does not “boil down” to the argument that she cannot believe in a bad god. She references theist hypocrisy, childhood indoctrination and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that we – homo sapiens – are alone with each other and with our memories and dreams and that it is at death that this fact becomes clearest.

    I think it’s obvious that I was not referencing Fiona’s argument in particular, but a general argument that has been made many times before and that parallels what she has written. However, in regards to theist hypocrisy, childhood indoctrination, and the conspicuous absence of Gob’s soothing hand at death…these are all perfectly in line with the god of the bible, and therefore poor evidence against him.

    Whilst you may attack Fiona per se, your statement that “There are all kinds of rational reasons to reject supernatural belief. This doesn’t seem to be one of them” is at best patronising.

    I don’t know what to tell you about my tone. I don’t know how I may have written that any more tersely and with less innuendo.

    I admit that experiences like Fiona’s are powerful motivations for many to alter their belief system. This doesn’t make them rational. I would guess that just as many people would experience these things quite differently and may become believers or more ardent in their belief. How many times have survivors of natural disasters been heard to attribute their survival in the face of the terrible suffering and death of others to the love of god? Clearly, that conclusion is irrational as well.

    That doesn’t mean that Fiona’s experience is invalid or not moving. It may be a good explanation of why Fiona is an atheist, but doesn’t provide much basis for others to make the same choice.

  36. 36
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Oh. Sorry. While I was choosing my words, I see that speedweasel explained my position. Which has now become bloated and dull in comparison.

  37. 37
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Oh. Sorry. While I was choosing my words, I see that speedweasel explained my position. Which has now become bloated and dull in comparison.

    In comparison to speedweasel’s explanation of it, that is.

  38. 38
    michaelpowers

    As I started reading, part of my brain began yelling, “yes! That’s it!”

    The part of my atheism I’ve had so much trouble articulating to those who actually look at me with pity when I tell them that the end is just that. They think I’m angry. I’m not. There is no one to be angry at.

    Sure, the fact that there is no god is a hard thing to know, but not that hard. The average human lifespan is too short for my liking. Then again, eternity is way too long. Beginnings and endings are an integral part of the universe.

    So Fiona, that you for stating so eloquently what I could never find the words for.

  39. 39
    Crudely Wrott

    Well spoken, Fiona, and thank you for your story. You’ve captured the temporal limitations and unfortunate happenstance that we all must consider.

    Facing uncertainty with knowledge works better than being certain of myths and old tales; things can change
    –>SNAP<–
    just like that.

  40. 40
    tielserrath

    Antiochus, the issue is not that suffering exists in the world, but that we (essentially through scientific advances) can make a bigger reduction in that suffering today than at any time in history.

    Why us? Why now? What makes us so especially deserving, from a religious perspective, of something that has been denied to every generation that has preceded us?

    If you took from what I wrote that it was the ‘absence of god’s soothing hand at death’, then you have entirely missed my point. It was watching death, encountering it head on in a westernised medical environment, that made me consider the greater question of our current longevity, a lifespan that we owe entirely to our own efforts, not some inscrutable god-creature.

  41. 41
    Rolan le Gargéac

    Très beau.

  42. 42
    rogerfirth

    Beautifully written.

    You had me up to that last sentence: “And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s enough.”

    It may be enough to satisfy our minds as an explanation of why things are the way they are. We have to acknowledge things as they are, otherwise we’d go crazy. But it’s not enough. We don’t have to be satisfied with the way things are. We shouldn’t. Things can always get better. As long as people die of things like disease, cancer, etc., human capabilities are not enough and they can always be improved.

    That’s one of my biggest objections to religion. The god botherers have their myths: Goddidit, and that’s enough. There’s no reason to strive for more, because god wants things the way they are. (We’re done here. No need to delve into the genome or out into the cosmos. We have all the answers. Worship the big sky daddy and wait for death.)

    But sane, rational humans know that things are the way they are because we live in a cold, uncaring, and incredibly old universe. As long as we’re unsatisfied with the way things are, we’ll continue to learn about the universe, continue to develop ways to deal with it. Continue to wipe out disease, poverty, suffering, etc.

    And if we keep it up, perhaps we’ll eventually head for the stars before our sun goes nova and fries this pale blue dot. The god botherers will gladly accept that as our fate. I won’t.

    If we *ever* accept things as “good enough”, we’re doomed.

  43. 43
    AussieMike

    Wow! So powerful, so beautiful. Thank you.

  44. 44
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    If you took from what I wrote that it was the ‘absence of god’s soothing hand at death’, then you have entirely missed my point.

    Did you see the blockquote above what I wrote? I was clearly responding to what sarahcowling had written. And there were three things in that list, not just one, and she compiled them, not me. You seem to be willfully misrepresenting my argument.

    It was watching death, encountering it head on in a westernised medical environment, that made me consider the greater question of our current longevity, a lifespan that we owe entirely to our own efforts, not some inscrutable god-creature.

    This doesn’t provide any evidence for or against the existence of god, especially if that god is expected to be inscrutable. I don’t know anything about the CofE, but if their god is anything like the one that I was raised with in the Catholic church, his motivations are not ours to understand. His signature…his fucking stamp, if you will, is the arbitrary apportionment of prosperity and suffering among his followers*, past and future.

    The second step that one could make from your observations is that an inscrutable god, or an arbitrary god, offers no explanatory power yet requires tremendous amount of explanation, adding up to a big negative as far as worthy concepts go. My guess is that most people who make this argument in general, make that conceptual leap without ever needing to articulate it. However, your reasoning alone doesn’t lead you away from the god of the bible. If anything, it just demonstrates that he is every bit as arbitrary and/or cruel as his own book makes him out to be.

    *You could try splitting hairs, and say that western medicine has snatched something back in this apportionment. I assure you that the believers reply would simply be that arbitrary god allowed that to happen…has blessed us in fact, and that this is evidence of his love.

  45. 45
    markr1957

    Thank you for telling this Fiona. Your courage and your strength amaze me.

  46. 46
    markr1957

    @ Antiochus Epiphanes = the thing I wish I could forget, and reason I am certain Christianity has no answers was being first on the scene of a sectarian murder in Belfast on 5th June 1976, having tell a woman I couldn’t save her husband whose brains she was trying to push back in his skull – killed by Protestants who believed they were Catholic. 4 more dead and 7 wounded for god? Fuck your god and fuck your religion.

  47. 47
    John Morales

    Markr1957, you’re making the very error that AE has highlighted — your reason might be emotive, but it’s a non sequitur.

    Also, AE has not indicated he’s either a goddist or a religionist, so where you get that from is beyond me.

    (Bah)

  48. 48
    markr1957

    @ John Morales – I am well aware of my personal bias. It made it far harder for me to even consider the possibility that there is no god when I knew the exact source of my personal hatred of religions in general and Christianity in particular.

    What I saw was no evidence for or against the existence of god but it was clear that these sectarians believed it did and they couldn’t have been more wrong. Someone taught them to be so full of hate based entirely on religion and nothing could be less justified. I lost faith in religion that day is all. It took me many more years to realize that there is no god, so all religion is pointless.

  49. 49
    John Morales

    [meta]

    Markr1957, it’s pleasing that you got me, and I hope I too get you.

    I too have no doubt that a big part of the self-serving hypocrisy of the religionists is their simultaneous praising of the good while ignoring of the bad that religion engenders.

    (I feel I should add that in no way do I seek to minimise the power or awfulness of your experience!)

  50. 50
    markr1957

    John, thank you for understanding. I really didn’t want that memory back so I have responded emotionally and very probably wrongly. I want to credit Fiona for her strength in dealing with death daily and for the courage she shows in continuing to face it.

    My experience forced me to ask why people kill each other over the definition of a fucking cracker, and to realize that they’re all equally fucking stupid to use myths and legends as excuses to kill fellow humans. However, once I had those feelings about religious beliefs I had to work hard to make sure my agnosticism wasn’t just wishful thinking ( confirmation bias).

    Ultimately I have come to realize that since life on this planet did not develop the way ANY religion has described it none of their gods are necessary for life to exist, and when each and every god of every religion knows exactly as much as his or her most knowledgeable believer it is extremely likely that said god is a human invention.

  51. 51
    petzl20

    Antiochus/#9, you were not being patronizing. Don’t sweat it.

    All readers in this thread agree there are no supernatural being(s) controlling our fate, nor is there some magical paradise/inferno afterlife, OK?

    That being said, I would agree with Antiochus, that Fiona’s arguments, about death and suffering, are easily swept aside when read by a theist. That’s the very first thing religions have to explain, how death and suffering persist in the presence of a loving, all-powerful God.

    They array several mutually contradictory arguments. Only one needs to resonate with the adherent for religion to “work”:
    * Suffering only happens to others, who are not of the elect.
    * When suffering does happen to you, it’s God’s plan.
    * The alleviation of suffering, by way of God’s miracles, routinely occurs. (But never “demand” a miracle.)
    * Don’t worry about your current suffering; eternal non-suffering awaits you.

    All Antiochus was saying was that suffering per se is only effective towards pushing someone to atheism if they already have their doubts.

  52. 52
    deludedone

    Well said Fiona,another one for the favourites.

  53. 53
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Markr1957 #46:

    O,o

  54. 54
    markr1957

    @ AE – please accept my profound apologies for an unwarranted ad hom attack. The thread unexpectedly brought back painful memories and I reacted emotionally to what I mistakenly thought I’d read. My lesson from this is that I’m a long way from being ready for prime time, and that maybe I should finally think about getting some counselling if it still hurts so bad after so many years.

  55. 55
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    markr1957: S’alright. I’m sorry that you’ve had to deal with such things*. For what its worth, no one has ever said what you said to me. I found the novelty of it strangely refreshing. I was so surprised that the only response I could muster was owl-face.

    *I extend the same sentiment to the author of the post. I have never seen much trauma up close, and have no real understanding of what that requires of a person.

Comments have been disabled.