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Apr 10 2012

Why I am an atheist – Erik Abretske

I once had a believer ask me “Every atheist I’ve met believes in something. So what do you believe in if not God?”

“Nothing” I replied. At the time, this was probably true. Even now, I can’t say that belief takes any part in what I consider to be transcendent, but there are some things I know to be true, and this knowledge, gained through science, is what allows me to comfortably call myself an atheist.

I don’t have to believe that mankind is like a newborn baby who’s eyes are darting around a lit room for the first time and noticing things, it’s self evident. To a newborn, everything is surprising, everything is new. As her attention shifts from her mother’s nose, to her eyes, she is learning. She’s adding it all up and forming a cumulative collage of her surroundings. Over time she’ll begin to understand who she is and develop a sense of self.

Humans are doing the same thing as we focus our telescopes at the farthest depths of a vast and incomprehensible universe, or hurl protons at one another at close to light speed to see if we can catch a glimpse of what they are made of when they collide and break down into even smaller pieces. Mankind is an infant in an infinite universe. It doesn’t require belief to recognize or understand this.

Just as a newborn would feel alone and helpless if she didn’t see the soothing eyes and hear the gentle voice of her mother, so does humankind look out into her universe and pray that there is something there, some comfort to be found. Here a believer would say that there IS something there. They claim they can see their celestial father smiling back at them and stroking their hair. “It’s all right” they hear him say, “I will take care of you if you trust in me.”

I do not share that delusion, but I do however feel that sense of longing. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. All mammals, most birds, and a smaller percentage of cold blooded animals exhibit extremely tight bonds between at least the mother and her young through infancy and adolescence. Not until they are ready to survive on their own do parents cut ties with their offspring. Evolution has thoroughly conditioned us to need that relationship. It doesn’t surprise me that we collectively long for a cosmic hug.

However, as we humans open our eyes for the first time, and let out that first intergalactic scream, we are coming to the conclusion through science that our virgin birth has luckily not rendered us helpless or alone at all. More like a colt or a fawn, we are able to hit the ground running and fend for ourselves. Billions of years of evolution have already done the job of making us self sufficient. No parenting is needed, no hand holding or teaching; we will learn and grow, and when we reach adulthood in some distant future we will be beautiful, strong, confident and humble for having made it so far; together, not alone.

The sense of awe and wonder I feel when thinking about such things doesn’t require me to believe in anything supernatural or irrational. It doesn’t require me to take anything on faith.The feeling that comes over me when I’m able to just sit and think about the universe and how lucky I am to be a part of it, but yet how small we all are in it’s presence, is a transcendent experience that requires me to “believe” nothing, only to come to “know” as much as I can in the blink of an eye we call a lifetime.

I find comfort through knowledge, not faith. Life has meaning because there remain things to be known. To the believer, a life with unanswered questions is void of meaning, to me, a life with all the answers penciled for me is pointless.

Erik Abretske

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Jasper of Maine

    This seems to be one of those times that “belief” carries a different meaning.

    My understanding is that belief is “accepting a claim as true”. For instance, I believe evolution is true.

    “Faith” is believing something without sufficient evidence. There’s nothing wrong with believing something with sufficient evidence. Knowledge is justified true belief, and is a subset of belief.

    So in that regard, sure, I believe all kinds of things as an atheist.

    … not to nitpick too much.

  2. 2
    No One

    The “what do you believe in” question is rarely asked in good faith. Eriks answer is one of the best I’ve seen so far considering…

  3. 3
    atomic1973

    I love that PZ is featuring these. I read almost all of them and have enjoyed them.

    I have to say, this one is definitely in the running for my favourite.

    It speaks well to the awe, wonder and quite frankly dizziness that I get when I attempt to picture the vastness of the universe, etc. Can’t say I ever got anything the same from a grade-school catechism class…

    Well done!

  4. 4
    allencdexter

    I really appreciate PZ for including these personal accounts. We all come by our atheism by different, although similar in many respects, routes. I find it a mind broadening experience to read these excellent accounts and seldom begin my day without looking up the latest.

  5. 5
    Dhorvath, OM

    Ooh, I like this one. Firm grounding in the notion that the search is ongoing for knowledge and short circuiting that search is not an admirable tendency always makes me smile and nod.

  6. 6
    IndyM, pikĨiurna

    I once had a believer ask me “Every atheist I’ve met believes in something. So what do you believe in if not God?”

    A friend and I had a similar convo the other day. After I said that I was an atheist, she said something along the lines of, “I’m not religious, but I need to believe in something.” I told her that I believed in science–and she actually liked that answer.

  7. 7
    generallerong

    “I find comfort through knowledge, not faith. Life has meaning because there remain things to be known.”

    I spend Easter morning on the beach during the major low tide of the full moon, discovering that the starfish were spawning. I had no idea they did it like that. [Starfish volcanos of orange custard or smoky clouds, I guess depending upon which sex each starfish had decided to be that year.] At any rate, a beach featuring a thousand starfish in multitudes of colors from blue through hot citrus to magenta was a beautiful scene.

    Plus the thousand ducks gabbling and doing their mating soap operas, sand pipers zooming around in synchronized flocks, a pair of Canadian geese making a celebrity appearance. Sun and tidepools and mountains and fresh air…

    So I had my Moment of Smug later at the family Easter brunch as I recounted my beach expedition to my relatives, who were complaining that Easter Mass was so boring, stuffy, crowded and interminable.
    “Well, hey, you shoulda been at the starfish orgy on the beach!”

  8. 8
    erikthebassist

    ^ = me, thanks for the kind comments =)

  9. 9
    erikthebassist

    @jt #1 – I parse it differently. A belief is some idea that you hold in your head, true or not. Knowledge however is an idea that you hold with good evidence to back it up.

    I try not to believe things if I can help it, I prefer to know them. That’s not to say that it’s entirely possible to go through life with out having to believe some things. I believe someone when they tell me something trivial, like what they did yesterday or that they have a cat, or an octopus.

  10. 10
    newname

    Nice essay. I usually don’t read these, but you expressed yourself very clearly in a way I identify with. What stands out most to me is your focus on learning and identifying your place in the universe.

    I would say “I believe that we are agents in a universe of information, and I believe there is value in contributing to the state of our knowledge.”

  11. 11
    Stacy

    Erik, this was lovely. Thank you.

    I’m mostly with you. I do have one quibble:

    However, as we humans open our eyes for the first time, and let out that first intergalactic scream, we are coming to the conclusion through science that our virgin birth has luckily not rendered us helpless or alone at all. More like a colt or a fawn, we are able to hit the ground running and fend for ourselves. Billions of years of evolution have already done the job of making us self sufficient. No parenting is needed, no hand holding or teaching;

    I understand what you’re saying; you’re furthering your metaphor of humanity (conceived as a mature adult) in relation to the imagined father-god.

    But to me this paragraph cuts out something important: humans don’t “hit the ground running”. We do indeed arrive helpless into the world, and we need parenting, hand-holding and teaching for a long time afterward.

    There is no sky-daddy to provide those things for us; the more reason we need to care for one another, and to value the work of caregiving.

  12. 12
    erikthebassist

    Stacy, I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m referring to the species as a whole, not as individuals. In this context, I’m imagining us as newborns when it comes to our understanding of the universe we live in.

    We’re just now, as a species, beginning to understand how vast and beautiful the cosmos is. Hell, we’ve only discovered exo-planets in the last 15 years. Prior to that, for all we new we were the only solar system with planets in it.

    By “just now”, I mean since the beginning of the age of science, some 400 years ago, which is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

    I agree that as individuals we need a lot of help from birth and through adulthood, but that’s not at all what I was talking about. I’m confused as to why you would take issue with this metaphor, when you clearly understood my intent.

  13. 13
    Stacy

    Never mind, Erik. I was overthinking it. And not very clearly. Quibble withdrawn.

  14. 14
    erikthebassist

    Not a worry Stacy and thank you for taking the time to read it and have an opinion either way.

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