Recently, I gave a talk in Abilene that was intended to be an introduction to atheism for an audience of theists. Although only a few Christians showed up to argue, I’m proud of having written this speech and intend to use it again. Unfortunately the recording didn’t turn out well enough to share, so I’m just posting the text instead. Enjoy.
Hi, everyone, thanks for showing up today. My name is Russell Glasser. I’m a software engineer in Austin, so I’m not a professional atheist, but sometimes I get to look like one on TV. And not even real TV, just the local public access station in Austin. We do a show called the Atheist Experience. Our show won the Austin Chronicle award for Best Public Access TV Show for three years running. Don’t feel too proud of us though, because on a public access TV station, we’re not exactly facing stiff competition.
Like for example, on channel Austin we used to share time with a guy who calls himself Reverend Ricky, who liked to wear a toilet seat around his neck.
There’s also this guy here, who calls himself Phartman for some reason.
And… also this… whatever this is.
So we try to not let winning “Best Public Access show” go to our heads.
Now, I’m here with you in Abilene today, which I understand is a part of Texas that doesn’t have a public access station, and probably doesn’t have a lot of atheists either. I was told to expect a fair number of Christians in the audience, so I guess I should start by giving you all a little background material on me. But first, I’ll give you a pretty simple road map of where I’m going with this talk.
I’m not here today to recruit atheists. When people ask what is the mission of The Atheist Experience, I generally say the most important aspect is outreach to other people who are already atheists. That’s because people who say they don’t believe in God make up less than 5% of the country, compared to about 85% who identify as Christians of one type or another. That’s a difficult situation for people to be in, especially because some Christians are openly hostile to atheists, and accuse us of wanting to destroy morality or ruin faith for everyone. Often young adults realize they no longer believe in God, and then they are afraid to tell their parents for fear that they will be kicked out of their houses or cut off from their education.
So if I do have a message for Christians who are in the audience today, it is a request for some understanding and compassion. I mainly want to give you some insights into how atheists think, how we answer questions about morality, and get some friendly dialogue going. With that in mind, I’ll be addressing two different categories of big questions: questions of fact, about the natural and scientific understanding of our world; and questions of value, about morals and ethics. Then I’ll briefly talk about how atheists approach the question of purpose and meaning in their lives, and then there should be over an hour left for you to ask questions.
So let me talk about my background for a minute. I’ve been an atheist all my life. My parents are both non-believing physicists, and I’m a fourth generation atheist on my fathers side. So I was an atheist in Kindergarten. In Auburn, Alabama. Living in the middle of the Bible Belt, I discovered pretty quickly that the other kids found me a bit of an oddity. I remember a period of a few weeks when I’d be waiting outside after school every day for my parents to pick me up. This little gang of kids would come up to me, and one of them come and say, “Do you believe in God?” Then I would say, “…No.” And then he’d turn to the rest of them and say, “SEE? Isn’t that WEIRD?” Then they’d just walk away, and come back the next day with a different group.
I think I got off pretty easy that time. The other kids at my school were just confused, but I’ve heard enough from other atheists to know that I could have run into far worse kinds of bullying. Some young atheists get beaten up. Many grown up atheists lose their jobs, or custody of their kids, or they receive harsher jail sentences because of their unconventional beliefs. Then again, some Christians, like the kids in my school, just aren’t sure what to make of us.
So just to clear things up, let me tell you what I mean when I call myself an atheist. The short answer is: An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in any gods. It gets a little trickier once you get past that basic statement, because atheists tend to be really argumentative and they don’t necessarily agree on anything beyond disbelief in God. I’ll tell you a little bit about my other positions: I am pretty liberal politically, I’m a humanist, I’m a skeptic, and I believe in taking a scientific approach to understanding the world. I believe in civil rights, social equality, and the separation of church and state. That’s a basket of opinions that you’ll find a lot of other atheists share, but they aren’t shared by everyone by any means, and none of those are actually required to be an atheist.
If I said “I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in God or Jesus, and I think every word in the Bible is wrong,” you’d probably say that I don’t really understand what “Christian” means. Right? As soon as I say I’m a Christian, there are a few things you can probably assume about me. Pretty much all Christians believe in God, believe that Jesus was a real person, and at least he was the best person who ever lived; most also believe he was the son of God, and that the best thing to do in life is to either be more like Jesus or do all you can to make yourself appealing to God by getting closer to Jesus in some way. Is that all fair to say? (Check for agreement)
But if someone says “I’m an atheist,” pretty much all you can know about them for certain is that they don’t believe in God. I know atheists who don’t like science at all. I’ve met atheists who believe in an afterlife. I’ve met atheists who believe in ghosts. I know a lot of atheist libertarians, and a much smaller number of atheist Republicans, but they’re out there.
So I don’t pretend that I’m speaking for all atheists today. I couldn’t do it if I tried. But there are a lot of us skeptical scientific secular humanist naturalist atheists out there, and to the extent that there is any kind of an atheist “movement” out there, I think a large segment of them of them are pretty well aligned with me. So now you know my biases.
But there aren’t very many of us atheists, and we don’t always get the opportunity to define ourselves. Often we get defined instead by people in church and on TV, who don’t know or care to know any atheists, and have some very strange opinions about what we must think.
So for the rest of my talk, I’m occasionally going to throw in some actual things that people who aren’t atheists sometimes say about atheism. They’re not all what you’d necessarily call mainstream Christians, but they do all express some common and incorrect opinion about atheists.
So here the first example of: stuff people say about atheists.
This guy is Alex Jones, he lives in my hometown, Austin. He has a show, he has a website and a tabloid called “InfoWars,” he kind of leans towards conspiracy theories. I’m not really sure if he’s a Christian or what, but this is what Alex has to say about us:
“Every time I study the groups that fund and run the atheist, they’re not atheist, they’re occultist! …This is their religion! You see, you’ll find that at the highest level, the atheists aren’t really atheist, they write books, these people worship Lucifer.”
Okay, I don’t worship the devil. Really, truly, the thing about atheists like me is that we don’t just reject the idea of God; we reject the whole framework of supernatural, magical thinking that provides an infrastructure for God. That means no angels, no demons, no Satan, no afterlife. No ghosts or witches. No exorcisms. From my point of view, it’s all just stories.
So when I say I don’t believe in god, it’s not because I have picked a side and chosen to ally with God’s enemy. The real reason is actually kind of boring. You see, I think that before you believe in something, you should have good reasons to think it actually exists. You could say that I’m biased because I was raised in an atheist household, but I have spent a fair amount of time looking into the reason why so many other people believe in God, and I have never found any of those reasons to be good ones.
Okay, here’s another one.
This is Kirk Cameron. Kirk’s original claim to fame was playing sassy teenager Mike Seaver in a sitcom from the 80’s called “Growing Pains.” Later, he became an evangelical Christian, played sidekick to a guy named Ray Comfort, and played ace reporter Buck Williams in the direct-to-video movie Left Behind. Kirk says:
“There are two things you must cling to by faith to be a good atheist: One, there is no god. And two, I hate him!”
Kirk is actually right, in a way, because he’s making fun of the idea of an atheist hating God. That would be a ridiculous thing to do… if that’s what we actually did. But I just want to repeat once again: We don’t worship the devil, because we don’t believe in the devil. We don’t hate God, because we don’t believe in God. For all practical purposes, you can assume that if atheists are discussing stories found in the Bible, it’s because we have literary criticism.
Atheists don’t believe in God, but we do believe in religion. Religion exists. Often we disagree with its principles, but I know that I live in a world where most people disagree with a lot of my opinions, so that’s not news. As I mentioned in my outline, there are two broad categories of questions that people try to answer with a god: Questions of fact, and questions of value.
Questions of fact are those which deal with information about the reality we live in. They generally have some kind of objective answer behind them which can be discovered, in principle, by exploring and testing the physical world. There are a lot of people who say that the only way to explain everything we find in the universe is to assume that there is a single, all-encompassing intelligence that designed it all. That’s certainly one point of view.
Questions of value are those which deal with things like morality and ethics. What do we value? How should we treat others? How would we like to be treated? And again, a lot of people would say that you can only answer questions of value if you assume that there is one ultimate decider in the universe who knows what is best for humanity and tells you what you should and should not do.
I’ll get back to questions of value a little later in my talk, and I know that those are very important to many of you. But first I would like to spend some more time talking about:
Questions of Fact
Examples of questions of fact would include: How was the universe formed? How did human minds come to exist? Why is the sky blue? Why do things fall down when you drop them?
Like I said, my parents are both physicists, and I’ve wound up as a bit of a science brat, so I have always felt that the best way to answer these questions is to systematically study the universe, and come up with explanations which consistently hold true everywhere, and can be tested and repeated by everyone. But all that testing is hard, and there’s an easy answer for every question of fact — it’s one that people have been using for thousands of years.
“God did it.”
When you use God as an explanation, it’s convenient because it requires no further thought or explanation. It’s a very handy way to dispose of all questions of fact… as long as you don’t actually care whether your answers will turn out to be true in the long run. Because this has turned out to be an extremely unreliable way of learning the truth about the way things really are.
Let me give an example. If we had lived a few thousand years ago, I might ask: “Why does the sun rise in the east every morning, travel across the sky all day, and set in the west, only to repeat the cycle again? And if you came from a certain culture, you could confidently answer: “Simple! Ra rides across the sky in his barge, carrying the sun along with him. Then at night, he rides in an underground channel from west to east so that he can get back to where he started. Duh!”
You can plug in “God did it” for any question, but the more we learn about the universe, the less we actually need it to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Of course almost nobody believes in Ra anymore, and one of many good reasons is that now we know the sun doesn’t move across the sky at all. All motion is relative, but most of what we perceive as the motion of the sun is actually due to the earth rotating on its axis. And the earth doesn’t rotate because a god turns it manually; it rotates due to conservation of angular momentum. It also travels in an orbit because it continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted on by an external force, and that force comes in the form of a steady gravitational pull from the sun.
None of this activity requires a god to constantly intervene, subtly correcting earth’s course. It just keeps happening. Not only is “Ra” the wrong answer, but the Egyptians weren’t even asking the right questions.
What changed is that humanity learned to use the scientific method, which is a way of systematically studying the world and gathering information which can be independently verified by multiple people and repeated across multiple trials. And while “God did it” does provide an explanation, of sorts, it is notoriously bad at providing any level of reliable accuracy, or insights that go beyond the sort that you get from reading Kipling’s “Just So” stories. In many cases throughout history, religion has actively hindered the progress of science. Like, for instance, in Galileo’s time, factions of both the Catholic and Protestant churches were trying to suppress the idea that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the other way around. Of course, the Pope did apologize for that. Unfortunately, it was Pope John Paul II, 300 years later.
So in general, I think the scientific method has a better track record than the Bible when it comes to a reliable way to find out about factual truths. When we face questions that are still unanswered, like where the universe came from in the first place, we can still always take the easy answer and say “God did it”… or we can keep digging until we find a more thorough and provable answer. Or, we can also set the question aside and say that we don’t know. I just find that this way is a little more honest.
But some people don’t believe me when I say that I don’t believe in God there’s no evidence. And this brings me to the next slide of stuff people say about atheists:
Dinesh D’Souza is the author of several books such as What’s So Great About Christianity and Life After Death. He used to be the president of King’s College in New York, for two years. Dinesh says:
“Atheism is motivated not by reason but by a kind of cowardly moral escapism. Atheists don’t find God invisible so much as objectionable. They aren’t adjusting their desires to to the truth, but rather the truth to fit their desires. . . . This is the perennial appeal of atheism: it gets rid of the stern fellow with the long beard and liberates us for the pleasures of sin and depravity. The atheist seeks to get rid of moral judgment by getting rid of the judge.”
— Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity
This brings me around to the second part of my discussion about questions that God answers:
Questions of value
God is the moral lawgiver, and we humans would have no real sense of right and wrong without being grounded by divine authority. Dinesh D’Souza here is expressing another pretty common view about atheists: Maybe we really do secretly believe in God, but we just hate being told that we can’t go off and do whatever we want! and what do we want? It’s like Bill Murray said in Ghostbusters: Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! Atheists are amoral agents of chaos, that’s what Dinesh D’Souza is saying here. And that’s a superficially appealing way for Christians to look at it, because it lets them feel a certain moral superiority to atheists, and makes them feel proud to be a member of the tribe.
It seems a little unkind to bring this up, but in 2012 Dinesh resigned from King’s College after being caught in a sex scandal. He and the woman were both married to other people at the time. Then in May, he pleaded guilty to illegal political donations, and now he is about to serve a year in prison.
Now I do think some of the moral issues at play here are worth a second look. But regardless of what you think of D’Souza’s actions, I would just like to point out that it wasn’t God who punished him for his sexual adventures in this case. It was a reporter who caught him, and a board of trustees that pressured him to leave his position. Dinesh’s punishment for political corruption wasn’t handed out by a supernatural force; it was decided by human judges in courts.
So even though Dinesh says that atheists get rid of moral judgment by getting rid of the judge, we actually haven’t gotten rid of any judges at all. Atheists are not free to do things that harm other people. Here in the United States, we still have a lot of human judges. We also have this elaborate support system for judges, that involves state and federal governments, and laws and policemen and municipal buildings and jails and appeals courts and all that stuff.
Now, it’s at this point that Christians sometimes start jumping in to take credit for the fact that we have laws at all. They tell me that everyone knows that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments and the Bible, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that God wrote “don’t kill” and “don’t steal” on some stone tablets, we would have a society where all of that stuff is okay.
That view isn’t what we see in history, though. Ever since there have been informal agreements among people to live together in groups, there have been laws that deal with those kinds of things. Modern scholars think the Old Testament was written sometime around the sixth century BC. Long before that, there was a Babylonian king named Hammurabi who died around 1750 BC. Hammurabi is famous for writing up a code of laws. Here’s part of the code of Hammurabi:
- 8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death. (As you can see, “don’t steal” was already codified before the Old Testament was written.)
- 196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
- 200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out. (So there we have the precursor to “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”)
- 229 If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death. (Here’s an example of someone being executed even for accidentally causing another person’s death. They took “don’t kill people” pretty seriously back then.)
Neither Jews nor Christians invented laws. You can find codified laws in the Xia dynasty of ancient China, dating back to 1600 BC, long before any news arrived about a bunch of nomadic Jews and their tablets.
And even though some of those early laws sounded pretty unpleasant, as a general principle: laws are great. You know why? Because I like being alive. I like owning stuff. The reason every civilization throughout history has wanted laws against things like killing and stealing isn’t because they were trying to make God happy; it’s because as a practical matter, I want to be able to walk around every day knowing that I won’t get stabbed in the back for no reason. I want to know that if someone takes my cow without my permission, they’ll get in trouble. In medieval times that trouble might have been of the “we cut your hands off” variety, and I’m not so okay with that. But I am okay with trouble along the lines of “They have to pay me back or go to jail.”
As an atheist I have a consequentialist view of morality. That means that actions can be considered right or wrong based on the consequences they have on the lives of real people. Why do we want laws against murder? Christians would say it’s because God said “Thou shalt not kill,” and we should do whatever God wants. Atheists would say it’s because when you kill somebody, the consequence is that somebody winds up being dead. That is undesirable in its own right, since people don’t want to be dead. That is the humanist philosophy in a nutshell: Morality in general should be seen through the lens of what is important to humans. When murder goes unpunished, I do not benefit because I am less safe. So I am happy to trade the freedom to kill and steal, for the security to know that I live in a place where those things aren’t allowed.
On the reverse side, I don’t actually see the Bible as being a consistently good role model for humanistic values. I’m sure you all know the story of Abraham from the book of Genesis. God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac and make a burnt offering of him. Just as Abraham is holding the knife to Isaac’s throat, God interrupts him and tells him to sacrifice a goat instead, but he says “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son.” Abraham is praised for being willing to kill his son, even though he doesn’t actually do it, so the story ends there.
This story has never quite sat right by me. I feel a little uneasy at the idea that it’s praiseworthy to kill a child if somebody asks you, even a divine being. Even so, at least Abraham didn’t actually kill Isaac.
But you may not be as familiar with the story of Jephthah. This appears in the book of Judges, chapter 11.
Jephthah was a warrior. One day he had a big battle to fight, so he made a vow to God: “Lord, if you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will sacrifice first thing I see coming out of my house when I return, and make a burnt offering of it.”
So Jephthah goes to war, he beats his enemies handily, he comes home, and the first thing he sees coming out of his house is… his daughter. Needless to say, Jephthah was kind of upset about this, but a promise is a promise. So you know what happened then? No divine intervention. No last minute call from the governor. The Bible says he kept his vow, and the daughter died, and people lamented her fate. And that’s it. End of the story.
Now, I don’t doubt that if you work at it hard enough, you can twist and reinterpret this story to justify why it’s not okay to follow it. But I think this gets to an important point. For most of us, even devout Christians, our morality does not come straight from the Bible at all. It’s hard to read a read a story like Jephthah’s without saying “Ewww, that can’t be right!”
This past April, an Oregon woman named Jessica Dutro was convicted of murdering her 4 year old son because she suspected he might be gay.
I think everyone here is going to have a similar reaction to this story. That’s a monstrous thing to do, nothing can excuse it, Jessica Dutro was almost certainly mentally ill. But nobody stops for a moment to wonder if maybe Jessica was succeeding at a test of her faith, or maybe she was doing the right thing by keeping a vow she made to God. Nobody wonders those things because it makes absolutely no sense with our understanding of morality now.
And so I would say that even if you say that you get your knowledge of right and wrong from the Bible, a certain amount of critical thinking is required to understand morality no matter who you are. A straight reading of the Bible won’t get you there.
What I want to make clear in the end, is that no matter how you approach morality, it has to be based on a set of clear principles that accomplish a goal. No single book I’ve seen has ever been a good final word on morality, so you can‘t just take somebody’s word for it. You have to understand what the goal of moral behavior is, and follow that goal the best you can.
So we’ve covered questions of fact and questions of value. Now I’m going to return to one more example of stuff people say about atheists:
This is Pat Robertson, Baptist minister and TV network mogul. Pat says,
“Atheists don’t like our happiness, they don’t want you to be happy.They’re miserable so they want you to be miserable.”
Pat Robertson was on the 700 Club when he said this, and on this particular occasion he was talking about the fact that atheists are all grinches who want to steal Christmas. But in general, one of the biggest questions I get is: Aren’t you unhappy all the time? How can you find any joy or meaning in your life?
And the answer — I hope this won’t shock you too much — is no. No, atheists don’t find their existence empty or meaningless. I’ve already talked about how a belief in God isn’t necessary to explain scientific facts about our world, and a belief in God isn’t necessary to make people behave properly. Now I’m saying that belief in God isn’t necessary to make your life fulfilling either.
People take pleasure and satisfaction in a lot of different things in their lives. Living a long, healthy, and productive life is its own reward. We feel proud when we work towards a successful career. We get meaning out of helping other people, out of volunteering for a cause greater than ourselves. We enjoy delicious food, great art, beautiful music, amazing architecture. We can be moved by beautiful plays and movies and novels, or excited by dumb summer action movies. We enjoy spending time with people we love deeply. We enjoy having sex with our husbands and wives, or sometimes just really good friends. Traveling the world. Spending a quiet evening at home, playing board games with friends.
These aren’t “atheist answers” to the question of what makes people’s lives fulfilling. These are things that everyone, Christian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, pagan, we all partake of some of these things. Atheists just don’t give special credit to a being they don’t believe in for those things. One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He once wrote:
And I think, if you’re going to take anything away from this talk, that is a pretty good message to keep in mind in the future. As an atheist I have never felt like I was lacking anything fundamental in understanding wonder, beauty, and joy of life. The world is a wonderful place. It is a great time to be alive. As a software guy, I absolutely love living in a time where all the people in the world are potentially connected through a giant network of cables and software that transmits information almost instantly. I mean, come on! We are living in the future now! We have practically free video calls! Amazing entertainment options! And we have medical advances that help us live longer!
Some ministers seem to have a very negative outlook on humanity. Not all of them, but there are those who think the most important fact about people is that we’re fallen, and we can only lead miserable, pointless lives without God. The 18th century Calvinist Jonathan Edwards wrote that “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” And only God’s mercy overcomes his general disgust about your existence.
I don’t agree with people who think humanity is terrible, and sad, and without hope. On the contrary, I think it’s a wonderful time to be alive. And I know that not all Christians think poorly of their fellow man, but say that the message of Christianity is primarily one of love and peace.
That’s why I say that as much as I’ve emphasized our differences today, I also think that those differences shouldn’t make us enemies. We all want pretty much the same things: we want to live a good life, and we want to make the world safe for our children, and we don’t want our loved ones to be robbed, or victimized by physical violence. I don’t believe in God. But I believe that it’s possible to be friends with people who think differently from you, and I want to see a world where theists and can come together on equal terms and talk through what’s best for all of us.