I am an atheist primarily because I know of no evidence for any gods. I think that gods were invented by the human mind at some point in our evolutionary development. It was probably at the time when human intellect began to develop concepts arising from the elementary awareness of cause and effect, which I think behaviorists call conditioning. Some things happened seemingly randomly or without explanation or cause. When humans came up with the idea that events in nature could bring good or bad fortune to them, they probably attributed them to some unseen forces or power. Memory played a role as well. One thing that certainly helped develop the idea of spirits is the power of memory of persons close to us who died but whose presence lingers. In times when it was hard to distinguish what was going on in our heads from the events of the external world, memories and ghosts and spirits must have seemed quite real. Although we have evolved culturally since our first appearance as a species, our brains seem to be built pretty much the same was as our earliest H. sapiens ancestors. The reasoning function of the prefrontal cortex is a Johnny-come-lately. It seems to have progressed in fits and starts, but over centuries it has given us science, the best tool we have for understanding ourselves and the universe in which we live. Science has not as yet found any evidence for the existence of gods. Today’s struggle between faith and reason is really a battle between the more modern part of our brains and the more archaic areas that evolved to help us survive in a vastly different and more hostile environment.
In fact, all the evidence that we have been able to observe points to a no-God scenario. First, why such a gigantic universe (that may be one of many—perhaps infinite numbers) in which we are ants on an infinitesimal dot in an average galaxy among billions? Not so special we are, in that context. Then there are all the examples of not-so-great body engineering that we have to live with due to the fact that evolution is a tinkerer, preferring to modify designs to adapt to new circumstances rather than start over. Think about that nerve in the neck of the giraffe that has to go way out of its way (I can’t remember the details now—Neil Shubin writes about it in “Your Inner Fish”), and snake and whale hips, the Panda’s thumb, useless human parts, the back-ass-ward design of the retina of the eye, and so on. There are many other examples that point to the universe not being designed or created. But of course if you don’t accept evolution . . .
Many persons argue that the Bible contains clear evidence for the existence of God. They point to miraculous or cataclysmic events such as the Flood and the Sun standing still. They claim that the Bible is true because it contains prophecies that later came to pass. All of these claims of miracles and prophecies have been explained away by science, archaeology, and the absence of corroborating historical evidence—to my satisfaction, at least. I am left with no good reason to consider the Bible a reliable guide to events that are said to have happened over a certain period of time in the Middle East. The main reason the Bible still has any credibility as evidence of God is that persons begin with the assumption that God exists, and then use the Bible to justify that.
Some theists claim that proof of god’s existence can be obtained through some sort of deductive reasoning, and that is sufficient upon which to base a theology. I disagree. I think that deductive reasoning that has no reference to the reality that we can experience through our senses is a dead-end road. Most theists would have to agree with that, I think. The Bible, for example, is a chronicle of events that supposedly happened in this world, with the intervention of Yahweh and Jesus, of course. The natural and supernatural are combined and mutually influence each other at every turn. But of course the Bible assumes the existence of (at least) one God, and attributes many sayings and miraculous events to him. The purpose of theology, then, is to justify through deductive reasoning what the Bible assumes.
Still others argue that it’s more important to have faith than to trust human reason. I confess that I don’t understand why they place so much importance on faith. I don’t see any difference between believing something on faith and saying that something is true just because I believe it. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking. Maybe it goes back to what I was saying about the brain and how it evolved.
Theists also love to say that God is necessary because humans need a moral standard that is absolute and outside of themselves. But I look around and see that the clergy—who should know the most about God’s morals—are no better than the population in general. In fact, as a class they may be worse than the rest of society in their morality. Atheists have certainly no worse morals than the general population, and may well be better than that. As for an “absolute” moral code based on the Bible, nobody obeys the barbaric commandments found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, many of which involve women and children being stoned to death for minor stuff like mouthing off to a parent. The human race would quickly die out if every kid who mouthed off to his parents got stoned to death. Morals are and have always been based on the customs of society, which change over time. Finally, even if God existed and issued commandments, Socrates’ question still reverberates: Are God’s commandments good because they come from God, or does God issue them because they are good?
Another reason I am an atheist is that there is no universal agreement on the nature and number of gods either now or in recorded history. Were I otherwise inclined to think God exists, I would have no rational way of deciding which god it would be, or if it were one or several. In fact, my decision would already have been made for me, by my parents and my culture. I think that is one of the best “proofs” that gods are a creation of human culture, not beings who really exist outside our minds. Richard Dawkins points out that everyone is atheist to some extent because they don’t believe in most of the gods that ever were imagined. He just believes in one fewer god than they do. But what about those liberal types who say that it really doesn’t matter which god you believe in, as long as you believe in a “higher power.” What’s up with that? What is the point of believing in something so abstract that it has no influence on humans, does not intervene in human activity? Most theists I know much prefer to think that their God has a special interest in everything they do and is looking after them. If bad things happen, they just say that our puny little minds can’t fathom God’s ways, we just have to accept them. Well, what’s the difference between that and just accepting the cards we have been dealt? We know that at some point in time our luck will run out, and the most we can do is work to decrease the probability of that happening prematurely by driving defensively not just on the road, but through life.
Although the question of whether or not there is an afterlife isn’t the same as asking whether gods exist, it relates to why I’m an atheist. Christianity depends on the notion of reward or punishment in the hereafter. The general premise is that we have a soul that does not die with the body, and somehow that is the essence of who we are in this life and the life after the body dies. I know I believed for a long time in some sort of continuation of “me” after I die, whereas my belief in God had always been somewhat tenuous. I no longer believe in any sort of afterlife for me. I know that life itself will continue after I die, because there is lots of evidence that life existed for billions of years before I was born. But whatever I think of as “me” is a product of the neural activity of my brain, and when the brain dies, there is no more neural activity. So there is no more “me.” I’ve been there before—before I was conceived! It’s a really quiet place where nothing bad happens. So if I were inclined to believe in a God capable of deciding whether my ineffable pleasure centers or my pain centers would be maximally stimulated for eternity, based on his judgment of whether I believed sincerely in him, the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for existence past brain-death should put that inclination to rest! I am carbon-based life composed of atoms formed in stars that exploded. These atoms are more or less eternal. They come together to make “me” for a while, then go on to other things.
If God does not exist, then religions that posit God’s existence are based on a falsehood. The only question is whether it benefits humanity to institute belief systems based on an imaginary being. In short, does religion make us better even if it’s based on a lie? Are there good things about religion that justify its continued existence as a social, moral, intellectual, and (in some parts of the world) political force? Is it better to pretend to believe in God—go through the motions—than to accept his nonexistence? My answer is that religion does nothing for humanity that could not have been done as well or better by completely secular groups of people. I’ve often said that if you took all the proselytizing and mumbo-jumbo out of religion and left in its humanitarian aspects, the world would be a better place. But suppose that there is some sort of human craving for a divine being who takes a personal (or at least a general) interest in our welfare? There is some psychological evidence for that. Isn’t it unfair to dismiss that? I would reply that humans surely have both curiosity and a sense of the mysterious—a longing to know—and these traits are the basis for both science and religion. This is why I believe that if everyone in the world became scientifically literate, this way of thinking would replace religion, since there would no longer be a need for the latter. People would understand that science is capable of addressing all the needs formerly known as “spiritual”—without the mumbo-jumbo.
Much has been written on the harm that religions have caused throughout history. Since atheism relates only to the nonexistence of gods, I will simply mention that Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and a few others have written excellent books on the darker aspects of religion, which have certainly encouraged me in my belief that atheism is necessary if we are to progress and flourish as a species.
Finally, I would like to say something about the notion that no one can call himself an atheist unless he can prove that God doesn’t exist. This attempt to shift the burden of proof onto the unbeliever is one of the most noxious arrows in the theist’s quiver. I personally like Bertrand Russell’s analogy of a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. We can’t know there isn’t a teapot out there somewhere. Are we therefore unjustified in not believing there is? No, because it’s vanishingly unlikely that there is a teapot orbiting the Sun. So how likely is it, given the evidence of the universe, Earth’s geologic record, chemistry, genetics, and evolution, that a God exists watching over it all, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, with our special welfare at heart? How likely is it that some remote deistic god set things in motion with a Big Bang and left the scene? Impossible to know, but we do know that even a remote prime mover type god is not necessary in order to explain the universe. Back to Occam’s razor!