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Jul 26 2012

Why I am an atheist – Gregory Greenwood

In order to properly address why I am an atheist, I think it might be helpful to first deal with those common misconceptions about why atheists don’t believe in god.

I am not an atheist because I am ‘angry at god’. As an atheist, I don’t believe in god, any god, at all. I see no reason to express anger at a fictional character. Declaring that someone’s atheism is motivated by anger at god is as irrational as saying that it is caused by anger at Sauron. I am angry about the harm that religion causes to innocent people all across the world, but this is hardly the same thing.

I am not an atheist because of a commitment to ‘nihilism’. I am not a nihilist at all. As a secular humanist, I believe that all human life has value, but not because of any unevidenced deity. As a rationalist, I find the universe beautiful and fascinating, but I do not believe that it was designed, and I do not believe that its beauty is somehow lessened by the absence of a designer. I do not refer to any undetectable phantasm to inform my sense of what has worth and value. If anything, it is religion that is truly nihilistic – to the fervent believer, the world and all the people in it have no innate worth, their value is dictated solely by the supposed edicts of god – a non parsimonious god asserted without evidence. Take that all pervasive construct of god away, and on what basis can the theist claim that anything has value on its own merit?

I am not an atheist because I am an immoral or ‘evil’ person. The idea that a person ‘cannot be good without god’ is one of the most repugnantly offensive and dehumanizing tropes of religion – it asserts that people are inherently vile and unethical creatures that are only kept in line by the threat of fire and brimstone. I do not hold such a low opinion of our species, and I believe that it is nobler to strive to act in the best interests of your fellow humans simply because it is the right thing to do rather than as a means of buying your way into some postmortem Disneyland.

I am not an atheist as a means to make some nonconformist statement or to appear ‘trendy’. Atheism is hardly associated with anything remotely fashionable. For the most part we are misrepresented and demonized by those who are either ignorant or actively malicious – the Pope even went so far as to seek to directly link atheism to nazism, and he was far from alone in making that assertion.

I am not an atheist because atheism ‘is just another religion’. Atheism is a loose catch all term for a very broad and decentralized community of people who only have to share a single factor in common to claim the title ‘atheist’ – a non-belief in gods. Beyond this, we are extremely diverse. Many atheists are also sceptics, rationalists and humanists, but not all. We have no dogma, no rigid authority structures and, contrary to the more hyperbolic claims of our opponents, no ‘high priests’ (or priestesses).

Now that we have had our little bonfire of the strawmen, lets return to the original question; why am I an atheist? The answer is simple; it is because there is no evidence for god. I think that the fundamental importance of this point is hard to overstate. Religions make all sorts of sweeping claims about the nature of physical reality based upon the supposed agency of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent godhead and yet no evidence for this supposedly all powerful being is provided. As with any truth claim, if no evidence is forthcoming then the null hypothesis must stand. More than this, I think it downright irresponsible to confer belief on such a radical claim that is so often used as a basis for political, legal and social authority without the most comprehensive evidential base.

If the god proposition cannot be established, then all the theological manouevring of so called ‘sophisticated theology’ becomes moot. Asking ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ is pretty pointless if you cannot prove that angels exist. In the absence of evidence for god, atheism is the only intellectually consistent position to adopt.

And yet theists are never convinced by this simple point. They claim that they have an explanation as to why there is no evidence for god – apparently this entity has a strange fetish for using its power to cover its tracks. An all powerful being that demonstrates its power by rendering itself undetectable? This is perhaps the quintessential circular argument.

Even if we set aside the lack of evidence for a moment, that still doesn’t suffice to justify a belief in any one god over another. The fact is that atheism is actually highly ubiquitous; even the most committed theist is an atheist in regard to every god in the history of humanity bar their own, and there seems no rational basis for their choice of that god over any other. Why is belief in Yahweh or Allah somehow better than belief in Odin, Ra, Mithras or Zeus? Or, for that matter, belief in vampires, werewolves or fairies? In terms of evidence, each  is the equal of the others, and all are fictional. Religion demands that we treat certain classes of fictional character as sacred (and thus above debate) but not others, and never gives a compelling reason why this should be the case. The only reason why people afford the myth of god such greater standing in our culture than other classes of unevidenced superstition is because religion enjoys an unjustified, privileged status in our society as a relic of the theocratic past.

When I say that ‘I don’t believe in god’ I say it for the same reason that I might say ‘I don’t believe in fairies’. Very few people would argue that belief in fairies in the modern age is anything other than ridiculous; our understanding of science is such that positing the existence of fairies flies in the face of all that we know. I am an atheist because, if you look objectively at the evidence, there is no more reason to believe in god then there is to believe in fairies.

Gregory Greenwood

23 comments

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  1. 1
    douglaslm

    You seem to have stated (and expanded) my own position much more clearly and concisely than I can. Thank You

  2. 2
    Louis

    Gregory Greenwood,

    Your name seems familiar. Have I seen you around somewhere before?

    Either way, you nicely summarised most of my views on the subject very nicely. Good work fella!

    Louis

  3. 3
    birgerjohansson

    As a Scandinavian, it is fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) to read about the debate climate in `Merica. Here the non-existence of Thor, Odin and Yahwe is the default position.
    And -after reading about how Abraham et al conned various people in Genesis- I think the stories about Loki tricking the giants of Nifelheim are far superior.
    Abrahamic religions are boring, even when compared to other religions.

  4. 4
    Dick the Damned

    Nice essay, Gregory.

    Of course, you don’t feel the imminence of ‘GOD’. Therefore, you lack the insight of the religious person. Or, you don’t suffer from delusional disorder. (I’ll go with the latter.)

  5. 5
    Dick the Damned

    Arrrrgh! I meant immanence.

  6. 6
    Menyambal

    Bravo, Gregory Greenwood!

    A very well-written and insightful article.

    Thank you.

  7. 7
    Dhorvath, OM

    I dunno, seems kind of short. I kid, I kid. As usual, Gregory Greenwood, you have much to say and it stirs my thought in welcome ways.

  8. 8
    Sastra

    Well done. You hit a lot of important points. I prefer however to say that the evidence for God is bad rather than nonexistent. I’m afraid that if I don’t, believers will think I have never read any theology, never happened across any accounts of miracles/paranormal happenings, and have not heard or considered anything like their personal story. They only revert to an unreasonable faith when the piles and piles of reasons they start off with fail to convince.

    I also have problems with the “belief in fairies” analogy — but that’s for personal reasons. I have friends who DO believe in fairies. Hardcore pagans, I guess. So that particular argument isn’t going to go anywhere.

    Of course, when someone actually believes in fairies it’s a major challenge to get anywhere using any rational argument. You have to attack “belief in belief” at that point, I think.

  9. 9
    Iain Walker

    If anything, it is religion that is truly nihilistic – to the fervent believer, the world and all the people in it have no innate worth, their value is dictated solely by the supposed edicts of god

    Perhaps not so much nihilistic as intrinsically authoritarian. After all, such a position at least implicitly accepts that value can only be assigned by a valuer (i.e., an agent of some kind), but asserts the only values that really matter are those of the valuer at the top of the hierarchy, and that everyone else needs to conform to them. An authoritarian ethical system is still recognisably an ethical system, at least in terms of content. Although I suppose one could argue that theistic ethics is at heart just a disguised form of power-worship, which would go at least some way towards making the charge of nihilism stick.

  10. 10
    kreativekaos

    Gregory-

    A very cogent, articulate and well-rounded expression that covers the basic facts and arguments against theism and supernaturalism.

    I was pleased to see you mention that we can have a deep appreciation for the beauty of the universe and the limitless opportunity for fascination and understanding of it and our relative place in it, without the need to grovel ourselves in the dirt of ancient superstition.

    One thing that I noticed your essay didn’t mention (although your paragraph addressing nihilism did touch on it, I suppose), is one key aspect that is brought up by everyone from the average person to the ‘sophisticated’ theologian: the defense of ‘purpose’ in life, or in the universe in general.

    That certainly is one of the last dregs in the barrel that theists scrape up in defense of deity. They can’t seem to connect with the idea (and the rational evidence they see in the universe around them) that there is NO apparent ‘ultimate’ purpose; NO discernible evidence for a defining reason for this universe or anything in it (i.e., quantum effects, the theoretical possibilities of multiple or parallel universes, ideas such as hyperspace/’the bulk’, and any number of yet undiscovered/un-proven aspects of the universe), relying instead only on the usual vague ideologies of a necessity of purpose, mostly driven by human psychology and sense of need.

    Anyway, thanks for a great essay. Nice job; we need more like this.

  11. 11
    r3a50n

    Very well stated. I appreciate you making the point – that cannot be overstated – that everyone is an atheist with respect to every god but the one they claim to exist. Atheists, OTOH, are atheists with respect to only one additional god than theists (or multiple additional gods if we’re talking about Hinduism).

  12. 12
    notthehockeyplayer

    That was a very nice, very well-written essay, Gregory. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a great piece, and for sharing it here.

  13. 13
    lanceleuven

    Nice piece. Well written, well thought out. Well done.

  14. 14
    AJ Milne

    Nicely succinct, well put.

    (You know… for those of you who like that sorta thing.)

    Seriously: I quite like. Linking to this one.

  15. 15
    spamamander, internet amphibian

    I believe that it is nobler to strive to act in the best interests of your fellow humans simply because it is the right thing to do rather than as a means of buying your way into some postmortem Disneyland.

    So stealing this.

  16. 16
    Useless

    How can you say there’s no evidence for God? (Judges 6:37-40)
    37 Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.

    38 And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.

    39 And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew.

    40 And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.

    See? It’s impossible to explain without God. And tide goes in and tide goes out; never a miscommunication. Explain that!

  17. 17
    boadinum

    Excellent post, Gregory, thank you so much.

    When I read such great articles such as yours, or others that can be found here on Freethought Blogs, or when I watch Youtube videos from our wonderful skeptical community, I am always elated to know that so many others feel the same joy and liberation that I do.

    I am also saddened when I think that, for the past 4000 years or so (the approximate timespan of the Abrahamic religions), the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived have wasted their lives. One way or another they have used their short time on earth as a penance for someone else’s sins, or as just a miserable dress rehearsal for a much better, though fictional, afterlife.

    Those of us who know that there is no afterlife try to live each day to its fullest, with no expectation of reward or fear of punishment. We are good because it suits us to be so, and we are far more moral than the believers of any religion.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to babble so. I thank you again for your wonderful words, and I look forward to your next post.

  18. 18
    Gregory Greenwood

    Thanks for asll the kind words and thought-provoking feedback from everyone. I appreciate it.

    ——————————————————————

    Louis @ 2;

    Your name seems familiar. Have I seen you around somewhere before?

    That would be the other Gregory Greenwood. They say that he can be an insufferably arrogant bounder, and that he gets his kicks making creationists cry and eating babies lightly grilled.

    Still, damned handsome rogue, or so I have heard…

    ;-P

  19. 19
    Rike

    If I had a way with words, I would write exactly as you did. Thank you for doing it for me!

  20. 20
    crys

    I was thinking about addressing the misconceptions surrounding atheism on my blog for a while, but you just laid it out perfectly and concisely. I would like to repost this, with your permission and full credit, of course.

    It is also the perfect introduction into expanding the argument of “you cant be good without god”, in the specific addressing of the argument “you think religion causes ills? shit look at stalin and mao! checkmate atheists!”

  21. 21
    Gregory Greenwood

    crys @ 20;

    I would like to repost this, with your permission and full credit, of course.

    Go right ahead. I just hope it is of some use.

  22. 22
    crys

    @Gregory Greenwood

    Thank you very much! It is wonderful food for though

  23. 23
    crys

    @Gregory Greenwood

    Thank you very much! It is wonderful food for thought

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