From agnosticism to atheism

In my last post, I wrote of how – as the culmination of much reading and thought on the issue – I became an agnostic. I’m now going to jump forward twelve years from that decision and explain how I eventually moved on to atheism.

I was somewhere around seventeen (I can’t remember exactly) when I became an agnostic. It was a decision I was happy with, but never something I regarded as a ‘that’s it, case closed’ moment in life – I retained my keen interest in the whole topic and continued to read and think a lot about it, open to new arguments I hadn’t come across before. While I did in fact find one – C.S. Lewis’s moral argument – and found it quite intriguing, that one didn’t stand up under examination either (another topic I need to post about!) and I remained agnostic.

That was fine by me, but I’d also have been happy to find a convincing reason to believe in God (as long as it wasn’t the tyrant version of God that supposedly sent people of the wrong beliefs to eternal torture). I didn’t, however, think seriously about becoming an atheist, because that always seemed fairly silly to me. Sure, we couldn’t prove that God existed, but how could anyone prove that he didn’t? Surely agnosticism was a far more sensible option?

Fast-forward….

I was twenty-nine, and I was chatting to the boyfriend with whom I’d recently got together. (Who would, in fact, go on to become my husband, but that’s also a different story.) He was (and still is, for that matter) an atheist. Curious, I asked him why. How could he be an atheist when he couldn’t be sure that God didn’t exist?

And he asked me “Well, do you believe in fairies?”

Lightbulb moment. As silly as it sounds now, this way of looking at things had honestly, at the time, never occurred to me. No, of course I didn’t believe in fairies. Or ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves, or…. well, name your mythological being, really. And for none of those things did I feel the need to hedge my disbelief with disclaimers about how of course they might exist, since we couldn’t really know for sure that they didn’t and surely it was important to keep an open mind… No-one would expect me to. There was no good evidence for the existence of fairies, so my response to that was not to believe in them. Simple as, end of.

When I clung to my agnosticism about God, when I tried to tell myself I was right to be open-minded about the matter… I was actually cutting the notion of a deity a level of slack that I wouldn’t have cut for any other theoretical creature.

I rapidly realised two things:

  1. Logically, I really should be an atheist.
  2. While my commitment to open-mindedness and fairness was quite genuine… it hadn’t actually been my only reason for wanting to remain an agnostic, rather than an atheist.

Being an agnostic, you see, also allowed me to continue with the hope that maybe – just maybe – there was a God of the non-horrible type out there. (The kind of God traditionally believed in by Christians was a rather different matter, but that is yet another whole other issue for yet another of the increasing number of blog posts I totally mean to get round to writing sometime.) I liked the idea that, at the end of the day, the universe might be in charge of someone wise and kind and powerful who would a) make sure that nothing went too disastrously wrong for humanity and b) give us some kind of afterlife in which some kind of justice was done.

(That, I can see, may be misinterpreted. There seems to be a widespread belief among Christians – and among other religions too, for all I know, but Christianity is where I’ve encountered it – that we unbelievers all lead meaningless lives without God and just don’t want to admit it. My life has never felt meaningless in the slightest; I’ve been very happy and fulfilled in the here-and-now without belief. My discomfort came from the feeling of being without a safety net if things went wrong.)

However, the facts remained. Despite years of searching, I had been able to find absolutely no good reason to believe such a being existed. And I’d always striven to be as honest as I could about where my exploration of the issue led me. So… it wasn’t the kind of rapid shift that my shift to agnosticism had been, and took some months of gradually coming round to the idea, but I did eventually identify as an atheist. And, eighteen years on, I still do.

How I became an agnostic

This is – very belatedly and with apologies for the long gap – the fifth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer (first an agnostic, ultimately an atheist).

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading, and my thoughts on the matter.

I wasn’t originally going to include either this or a post about how I moved from agnosticism to atheism, since I did write both those posts on my old blog, but then I decided that it would be good to have the whole story together in one place.

For those who haven’t read the previous posts, here’s the story so far: I’d spent a lot of time reading about why I should/shouldn’t believe in God, trying to make up my mind, but the arguments I read ranged from ‘inconclusive’ to ‘absolute rubbish’ and I was left feeling unable to reach any kind of sensible conclusion. This didn’t, as some believers would have it, mean that I was desperately searching to fill a God-shaped hole; I would have liked to be able to conclude that God existed (apart from any other considerations, it would have meant I could join a religion, which seemed to my lonely introverted teenage self to be a great way of finding instant community and the sense of belonging I craved), but I certainly didn’t feel my life would be meaningless without reaching that conclusion. I just felt it was something I ought to decide one way or the other. But none of the arguments I read were helping me do so.

And that’s where I was in my life when, browsing the shelves of the local library, I came across Yvonne Stevenson’s ‘The Hot-House Plant‘.

As I recall, it was in the biography section, not the religious section; I can’t remember why I looked at it. I guess the title must have caught my eye. The description, however, certainly did; Yvonne Stevenson was a vicar’s daughter who had written about her experience of converting from Christianity to atheism. That intrigued me, all right. Something had obviously led her to that decision; would her reasons be any help to me in my own?

No, as it turned out. But this book would still be the turning point in my search; my definitive ‘How I became an unbeliever’ moment.

Before I get to that, I’m going to switch genres for a moment into Book Review Mode, because, regardless of how it was to end up impacting my beliefs, this book was a joy to read. Yvonne Stevenson was a lively, irrepressible, strong-minded woman who threw herself into life and into her search for answers with engaging enthusiasm. It was quite an old book even then – Stevenson had been born in 1915, and was describing events in the first twenty-one years of her life, leading up to and following her conversion – but it was one of those delightful books that are timeless.

If Stevenson had lived a century later, she’d have become one of many bloggers telling similar deconversion stories. She grew up in a loving but strict Christian (Church of England) family, with a controlling father who encouraged her to think about her faith… as long as she was reaching the same conclusions as him. While she was happy with this situation for a long time, she came increasingly to question it as she grew older – and her questions weren’t getting satisfactory answers. Lost and seeking, she arrived at university and was initially shocked to meet an atheist for the first time. However, she was increasingly won over to her new friend’s worldview (which included Marxism as well as atheism) in a series of late evening discussion sessions. Eventually – to the fury of her family and her own great relief – she converted to those beliefs herself.

I loved the book (years later, I ordered a second-hand copy online just to have one for myself) but I also took its subject matter seriously and read it with the same careful analysis that I’d tried to bring to all the arguments I’d read – both pro and con – on the subject of belief. The questions Stevenson raised, the points her friend made – did they stand up? Or were there valid alternative ways to look at the issues?

In each case, unfortunately, the answers were ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively. The pro-atheism arguments were interesting to read, but ultimately just as unconvincing to me as everything else I’d read. For one thing, a lot of them weren’t even directly about theism or Christianity as such -they were about the very rigid and classist form of Christianity with which she’d grown up, and, even as a teenager, I understood that I shouldn’t judge a whole religion by some of its participants and that her points, while very valid in their way, had nothing to do with the overall truth of Christianity. Even where the book did deal directly with the question of God’s existence, though, I didn’t feel any of her arguments were conclusive; I had little difficulty in thinking of counter-arguments. As much as I loved the book, I finished it feeling I had no more hard evidence for or against God’s existence than I’d had before I started it.

So, the book didn’t give me the Final Conclusive Argument on the matter for which I’d hoped. What it did, however, was to deal a knockout blow to the one teetering prop that had so far propped up my shaky such-as-it-was theism.

A key part of the book, you see, was Stevenson’s account of her actual conversion experience. As conversion accounts go, it was a good one. It was vivid, it was dramatic, it involved actual visions – including one of being born again – and it left her with a new, glorious sense of purpose and a life so joyously changed that she actually described her experience as seeing the world in colour and in three dimensions for the first time in her life. It was a conversion account so marvellously convincing that it would have done any apologetics book proud. Except, of course, for one little detail… this was her conversion to atheism. Her vision of being reborn (which she herself fully understood to be hallucinatory) was of being reborn as a child of nature and evolution, not of God; her joy and purpose were those of a person who has finally resolved a stressful dilemma and found a meaning that makes sense for their own life.

On top of that, there was her atheist friend’s excited comment on hearing the news: “It’s the most marvellous feeling, isn’t it, when you shake off Christianity? Everything comes alive! It’s indescribable. Like springing free from a great, heavy, black cloak that’s weighed you down.” (pp 157 – 8) Different vivid simile; same sentiment. Another person whose life had been left vastly happier and more positive by conversion… to atheism.

Under the circumstances, I felt it seemed quite fair to say that neither of these experiences could have been the work of God… which answered a key question for me. To recap something I wrote in the previous post in this series:

[T]here was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
And there, at last, was the answer: Yes, it could. This book had just given me clearcut, categorical evidence that it was perfectly possible to have a dramatic and utterly life-changing conversion experience for purely innate psychosocial reasons, without a deity being involved in it at all. I still couldn’t prove that God didn’t exist; but I’d just been left without any convincing remaining evidence that He did.
So I took the obvious route and started seriously considering atheism.
I rapidly realised something. During all the time I’d been considering the matter, while my conscious mind had been unable to decide, another and unrecognised level of my mind had always taken belief in God for granted. This had nothing to do with any genuine feeling of my own; it was the result of having grown up in a society where the prevailing message was that there was some sort of God out there, and of having internalised this and taken it for granted. While the logical part of my mind was analysing the matter, the part that went along unthinkingly with what I was told had accepted God as unquestioningly as it had accepted other beliefs. I found myself unable to look at the world around me without taking it for granted that there was a God behind it, like a presence behind a painted image. Trying to see the world another way felt not so much like an emotional wrench as like looking at an optical illusion and trying to make the mental shift from seeing it as two faces to seeing it as a candlestick.
So, I started focusing on trying to make that shift. Throughout my day, I practiced looking at the world and replacing my mental picture of a God behind it all with a mental picture of an absence behind it all; in what subtle ways would the world look and feel different if I believed there was nobody out there? It didn’t take very long; within a few days I felt I’d made the mental shift to seeing the world as one without a god behind it. The only thing was, this didn’t give me any more of a sense of ‘Aha! This way of looking at things is correct! I have found the right answer!’ than the background assumption that God was there.
Was there a god or wasn’t there? I thought over all the reading I’d been doing. All the inconclusive arguments, each one of which seemed to have its possible counter-argument. (The world must have been created by God – but what if it was actually created by some natural process that we didn’t yet know about? There was no sign of any Supreme Being directing human lives – but what if there was a Supreme Being who just didn’t direct human lives, for whatever reason? Round and round, on and on and on.) How long had these arguments been going on between humans? Centuries? Surely, if there actually was conclusive evidence on either side, the whole question would long since have been settled by now?
Finally I faced facts: If there was such a thing as conclusive proof that God did or didn’t exist, by this time I would have found it. We didn’t have such proof. I certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of it showing up at some unspecified time in the future, but what we had right then was what we had right then. Right then, we simply couldn’t prove the matter either way. There was, in short, only one sensible recourse; to become an agnostic.
And thus, with a sense of considerable relief at having resolved this, I became an agnostic. I would keep on actively searching for new arguments or evidence – but, in the absence of same, agnosticism seemed by far the most fair and sensible conclusion to draw on the matter. I was an agnostic, I was happy with that, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I would continue to define myself as an agnostic for the next twelve years.
To be continued…

Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?

This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But without God we wouldn’t have any morals!’ argument

This is the third in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

This one is probably self-explanatory, but can be briefly summarised thus: ‘Without God to tell us what to do, we’d all be scratching our heads trying to figure out what right and wrong are, since there is obviously no way anybody could work this out for him/herself without some sort of Supreme Arbiter defining it for us. And you obviously don’t want that to be the case, do you? So better believe in God.’ *

I have to say that this argument, when I read it as a teenager, did send me to particular levels of facepalming “Are they serious?!” In the first place, as you’ve probably noticed, this argument is subject to exactly the same flaws as the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument that I discussed in my last post; it falls apart logically (to be technical, it has the form of logic flaw known as an argument/appeal from consequences), and it isn’t even factually correct, since, despite not being a believer, I found myself perfectly well able to make the sort of basic distinctions between right and wrong that the authors using this argument were insisting I couldn’t possibly make. But this argument also has an extra flaw over and above the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument; namely, that the very fact that someone is using it indicates that they don’t actually believe it.

After all, apologists surely use only arguments that they at least think have a chance of being effective? The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument, despite its flaws, at least has a chance of convincing someone; a person who does feel their life is meaningless is going to want it to be meaningful, so that argument has a potential audience. But a person who doesn’t care about morals… doesn’t care that they don’t care about morals. If we unbelievers genuinely were all indifferent to right and wrong, then we wouldn’t care when someone pointed that deficiency out to us. It would be as meaningless to us as the fact that we don’t keep to kosher dietary laws. The very fact that apologists use the no-morals-without-God argument as an attempt to convert non-believers shows that – at least on some level – they know perfectly well that morals matter to non-believers.

I was quite intrigued by the twisting of logic that must be required to use an argument that could only be used if you didn’t believe it was true. Surely there has to be a name for that particular logic flaw? Maybe not; I can’t think of any other examples of it that I’ve heard. If anyone knows what that logic flaw would be called, do please tell me!

*Note that CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, used a different type of pro-theism moral argument which effectively contradicts this one; the argument that precisely because we all have innate knowledge of right and wrong, we can conclude that God must exist, on the basis that the only way such innate knowledge could exist within us would be if a deity had caused us all to be born with this type of instinctive knowledge. While I don’t agree with that form of the argument either, I do find it rather better than this form. However, I’m writing this as the story of what arguments I looked at when originally deciding whether I should believe in God or not, and this particular argument was one I didn’t run across until some years later; therefore, in the interest of vaguely chronological accuracy, I’ll leave it to a later post.

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument

This is the second in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument almost got left out of this list, as it was such a poor argument I’d actually forgotten about it; however, I was reading John Blanchard’s ‘Does God Believe In Atheists?’, which spends a lot of time on it, and I thought ‘Oh, yes… now I come to think of it, I do recall coming across this when I was researching the whole God subject’. So here it is.

This argument consists of telling the reader or hearer, in impassioned terms, about… well, obviously, about how meaningless lives are without God, with the implication that we should therefore believe in God. Or, to put it another way, ‘We should believe in God because we really want [our version of] Him to exist’.

This is what is technically known as an argument from consequences (or, if you want to get fancy about it, an argumentum ad consequentiam) – the claim that a particular viewpoint is true because the consequences of it being false would be bad. (Or, conversely, that a particular viewpoint is false because the consequences of it being true would be bad.) It’s the logic flaw that’s the downfall of the cancer sufferer who ignored that lump or worrying symptom for too long because they didn’t want it to turn out to be cancerous, the gamblers who convinced themselves that that long shot just had to pay off because they so much wanted it to.

It can work if used as an appeal to emotion, but it’s an argument too flawed to stand up in the light of day. Which is why you will probably never see anyone spell it out quite as blatantly as I did a couple of paragraphs above – if anyone attempting this argument ever did explicitly state ‘And because it feels so awful not to believe in God, God must therefore exist’ then the crashing failure of logic would (hopefully) be far too obvious to take seriously.

(Ironically, if this type of argument actually had worked well in converting me, it would have backfired on any Christian apologist who tried it, since I always found the idea behind Christianity quite horrifying. The idea of God existing – a wise, kind, all-knowing being in charge of the universe and steering its ultimate destiny – sounded lovely to me, and I always hoped my studies would lead me to theism as a conclusion. But the idea that this being had set things up so that people would burn in hell forever simply for having the wrong beliefs? It appalled me. If I hadn’t recognised the fallacy behind this sort of believe-what-you-want-to-believe argument, I’d have rejected Christianity in a heartbeat without further thought, simply because I so much didn’t want it to be true.*)

A more important problem I had with this argument as a teenager, however, was that the premise was so obviously false. Plain and simple, my life did have meaning without God. Plenty of meaning. I loved being alive, I loved enjoying life’s pleasures, I loved looking forward to everything life had to bring. Sure, I liked the idea of a God existing (as long as it was a nice one, not the horrible variety of god that I was hearing about from Christian sources), but I was in no way dependent on God’s existence for finding meaning in my life.

So all of these arguments about how meaningless life was without God got a rather blank look from me. I was sorry for the people who felt that way, who obviously needed very much to hold on to their beliefs and who seemed to struggle inexplicably with enjoying life for its own sake; but their attempts to persuade me that I felt the same way simply fell flat.

 

*Obviously, I ended up rejecting Christianity anyway. But I did so only after spending a lot of time, over many years, reading and thinking about the various arguments and holding myself to strict standards in terms of whether I felt any particular argument actually disproved the belief system or not. It was not just a case of ‘I don’t want to believe it so I’ll assume it’s not true.’ (All of which will make for another post series which I do hope eventually to get round to writing.)

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘So how could X have happened without God?’ arguments

This is the first in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time.

The ‘So how could X have happened without God?’ arguments, as I now think of them, are the main ones I remember coming across in this period of reading and examining different arguments for theism. Looking back from a perspective of somewhat greater knowledge of the debate field, I think I was getting my kalam cosmologicals lumped in with my design arguments (for the uninitiated, the kalam cosmological argument is a philosophical argument around the supposed necessity of a First Cause for the universe to exist at all, and the design argument is the argument that various specific aspects of the universe couldn’t possibly have reached their current form without a creator). But the basic formula always seemed to be to be similar; how could [the universe, the origin of life, some specific complex aspect of life-forms] have possibly happened without God to bring it about?

I didn’t, of course, know. I just didn’t see how that could logically lead to a certainty that ‘God did it’ must be the only possible answer.

I was perplexed. Scientists were continually working to find out new knowledge, and, as a result of this, we now knew the answers to a lot of questions about the universe that baffled humans in the past. So surely the most logical assumption to make about any question about the universe to which we didn’t know the answer was that that sentence should probably end in ‘…yet’? Why should we leap straight to assuming that this question, unlike the many that baffled humanity similarly in the past, will be insoluble? And, as long as the possibility exists of us someday finding a natural process that could explain this problem, surely we can’t logically use its existence as an argument for the existence of God?

Of course, there was a logical difficulty with that approach as well; it also couldn’t be used to prove the non-existence of God. After all, let’s suppose that the answer to one of those ‘How could X have happened without God?’ conundrums actually was ‘It couldn’t; this time, God really did do it’. How could we exclude that possibility, given that ‘We don’t yet know what natural process caused X’, and ‘X happened because of God’ were effectively indistinguishable for any as-yet-unanswered question for as long as it remained unanswered?

I thought it over, and pictured a scenario: Scientists the world over throw up their collective hands, declaring “We’re stumped. We have absolutely no idea how this could have happened through natural causes. We don’t even have any theories left as to how to investigate this. We’re clear out of ideas.” The years go by, scientists continue to rack their brains, and yet no-one can come up with a thing. At that point, it seemed to me, theists really would have a good case – not watertight, but very good indeed – for saying “It must have been God.” And, if that happened, I would take that seriously as an argument.

Until and unless that happened, though, I couldn’t see how the argument held water. I couldn’t see any way that ‘How could X have happened without God?’ questions could be used to establish the existence or otherwise of a god.

Why I am not a religious believer

When I first started atheist-blogging, on a blog prior to this one, I figured the obvious place to start would be with the story of how and why I became an atheist. So I wrote a series of posts about the story; about growing up in a non-practicing family of mixed religious heritage, about considering different religions, and about eventually becoming first an agnostic and ultimately an atheist. Looking back, there’s a rather important aspect of the story I didn’t cover; the details of why I ended up as a non-believer rather than a believer. The short answer to that, of course, is that I didn’t find any of the supposed evidence to be convincing; but it would be worth blogging about the question of why I didn’t.

I’m therefore going to write a short series of posts on the arguments I encountered while researching the question of whether or not God existed, my reaction to them, and why I ultimately found each of them unconvincing. I weighed up the evidence as well and fairly as I could, and I’ll try to do the same in recounting it (although bear in mind that I’m relating things that mostly occurred thirty or more years ago). I’ll link each of them back to this post to give me a single place to refer back to if the general question ‘So, why don’t you believe in God?’ ever comes up.

This list will be for posts on the topic of atheism vs. theism. While I was looking into this, I also spent a lot of time researching the more specific issue of whether I should believe in Christianity. However, while this is obviously a linked subject, it’s not one I’m covering here; I want to write a separate series of posts on that issue.

Becoming an atheist – posts:

 

‘So how could X have happened without God?’

‘But your life is meaningless without God!’

‘But without God we wouldn’t have any morals!’

‘What about prayers and personal experiences?’

How I became an agnostic

From agnosticism to atheism

Thoughts on the ‘Proselytising to Children’ Issue

I recently read a post by Hemant Mehta over at Patheos (which I initially took to be recent but which was actually posted a year ago; I guess there must have been some recent commentary on it moving it temporarily into the ‘now trending’ section) titled An Atheist Dad Left His Kids with a Relative… Who Used the Opportunity to Proselytize. What Should He Do? The title is fairly self-explanatory, although it turns out that what went on was above and beyond even proselytizing:

The Pastor and my sister in-law told my girls “They needed to accept Jesus as their master, and maybe if they prayed hard enough god would change their dad’s mind and he wouldn’t burn in hell.” Who would tell A 6 & 8 year old that shit??

Someone manipulative, emotionally abusive, and devoid of appropriate understanding of boundaries, that’s who. Happy to clear that up for anyone who was wondering. Have a nice day.

Anyway, while I hope it’s obvious to everyone reading that that approach (which also included the guilty parties trying to tell the children to keep the meeting a secret – guys, when you’re using a line that makes you sound like a child molester, it might just be a sign that you need to totally rethink your attitude) is so far beyond the pale that they don’t have ‘pale’ in their colour range, this did get me thinking more generally about the issue. What would I do if someone wanted to invite my children to a church service/talk to them about Jesus? Obviously, if there were any alarm bells to make me think that the person was likely to pull this kind of manipulative crap, then not a chance, sunshine – but suppose I didn’t have any reason to fear that this was going to be the case?

The answer’s simple; I’d leave it up to my children. If they were invited to a church or Sunday school session, I’d pass on the invite and let them decide. If someone wanted to preach to them, I’d check with them whether they were OK with listening and respect their decision. If they did decide to attend the session/listen to the spiel, I’d want to stick around to check what they were hearing and chip in with my two cents on the matter, but I wouldn’t stop them from hearing it. (Unless, of course, it did veer into the kind of abusive territory described above. Not staying quiet for that, thank you.)

By the way, I guarantee you that at this point in time, neither of them would be interested. My son sees life as divided into things which involve electronics in some way, and the boring bits. He reluctantly accepts that life intermittently forces him to endure the latter for periods of time between playing/talking about/watching YouTube videos about computer/console games, but he doesn’t have to like it and he doesn’t like it. Anyone trying to convert him would probably find themselves sitting through one of his autistic-fervour monologue accounts of every detail of every level of whatever game he’s currently into. My daughter has a more normal range of interests, but actively dislikes Christianity and religion. That, I swear, wasn’t me, and I’m not sure how she even reached that conclusion; but, there you are, she wants nothing to do with anything of that ilk, and anyone wanting to talk to her about Jesus would likely get short shrift.

But if they change their minds in the future and do want to accept any offers of proselytising sessions, or even seek the information out themselves, that’s fine by me. I’ll let them know my views, but I won’t try to stop them looking for different ones.

The Wyndham Fallacy

Hi again! Sorry for my long absence! I had a pretty busy week followed by a week of being absolutely wiped out by a horrendous cold, so I haven’t had a lot of energy for posting.

I came across another Answers in Genesis post that I thought was worth a mention (via the same route as before; a post on Libby Anne’s Love, Joy, Feminism blog. So hat tip to her once again.) This one was written by someone called Avery Foley and is called Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen? The answer, in case you were wondering, is apparently because anyone who’s a Christian eventually gets to go to Heaven for all eternity. So, uh, that’s quite all right then and glad we cleared that up. Anyway, here’s the bit that I (like Libby Anne) wanted to comment on:

Evolution supposedly progresses by the death of the less fit and the reproduction of the most fit. So, if this the case, why should we help the old, sick, infirm, and disabled? Shouldn’t they be eliminated as less fit? After all, in the world of evolution the strong survive, and tough for you if you’re born weak or less fit. According to an evolutionist’s own worldview, how can death, disease, suffering, cancer, and disabilities really be “bad”? In nature, the weak and ill die off and the strong survive, passing on their good genes to the next generation—this is how evolution supposedly progresses. Death and weakness from disease and mutations is a must for “bad” genes to die out. So by what standard do evolutionists call these things bad? Certainly not by their own standard! To claim a standard for good and bad, they have to borrow from a different worldview—the biblical one—to define what good and bad even are.

Well, first off, I don’t have to borrow from the biblical or any other worldview to say that it’s bad for people to suffer pain or distress or loss of autonomy, and good to take steps to help or prevent situations in which those things happen. Sure, there’s room for plenty of complexities and grey areas and debate around those basics, but I’m still baffled as to why the ‘So how do you even define good or bad without a God, huh? Huh? Huh???‘ question is meant to be such a ‘gotcha’. But what I mostly wanted to comment on here is this bizarre claim that a belief in evolution as a scientific fact somehow requires us to also accept it as a moral imperative.

This is a fallacy that shows up now and again in creationist writings, and it is exactly as logical as saying that, having discovered that gravity causes people to hit the ground when they fall over, we are now morally obligated to push them down. I have for some time thought of this as the Wyndham Fallacy, because it’s rather nicely summed up by a line author John Wyndham wrote in his novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’; the main character tells his wife ‘Darling, if I happen to mention that, as a process, autumn follows summer, it does not follow that I am all for getting a ladder and pulling the leaves off the trees.’

‘The Kraken Wakes’, by the way, is unrelated to evolution and uses that line in a different context. In general, though, it’s in creationist writings about evolution that this fallacy typically shows up. After all, the story creationists believe about how the world got started is one that’s heavily tied in to their morality and their worldview in general; not only does this make it virtually impossible for a creationist to question that version of events (because they so strongly believe it’s morally wrong to believe anything else), but it actually makes it difficult for many creationists to get their head round the fact that beliefs about origin don’t, in fact, automatically have to tie into our moral beliefs, and that the two can be independent.

Or maybe they just push that line as a way of making non-fundamentalists look bad. Why go for accuracy when you can have propaganda?

But either way; no. Yes, in nature the less fit are more likely to die. No, that doesn’t put us under any sort of moral obligation to kill them off. If you think otherwise, I look forward to seeing you at the end of summer with that ladder.

Yay! Questions!

OK… I know I promised you guys a post on Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series, but then Trav found this list of questions for atheists (which Great American Satan has also answered, if you’re interested) and, as I like these question list thingies, I couldn’t resist. Here are my answers to Today Christian’s list of 10 Questions For Atheists.

(Edited to add: Oh, look. Apparently it isn’t their list at all. Apart from the ‘And there is a HELL!’ line in question 3, which the Today Christian author seems to have added, this list comes verbatim from a post by an atheist. The actual author is Robert Neilsen at the Whistling in the Wind blog, who wrote it as a summary of some of the main questions he runs across. And wrote answers. Which Today Christian did not include. Which tells you quite a bit about their morality. Maybe because God didn’t actually tell ’em not to republish other people’s work as their own, they think it’s quite OK? Although even then, surely that ‘shalt not lie’ thing becomes a bit of a problem when you’re claiming that these are questions that atheists cannot answer despite having got them from a post in which an atheist was answering them??)

 

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

I assume this one wasn’t meant to be one of the ‘Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!’. Unless the author thinks atheists somehow suffer from amnesia, or something.

Anyway, I’ve already written about this, in a four-part series on my previous blog. Part 1 is about my background in terms of religion, and my early interest in the question. Part 2, which is not that important a part of the series but might be interesting, is about my childhood/adolescent impressions of different religions and why I ended up not joining any. Part 3 tells how I came to consider myself an agnostic, and Part 4 tells how, in response to a key question from the man who would become my husband, I took the step to atheism.

 

2.       What happens when we die?

If it’s in this society, someone has quite a bit of paperwork to do. Especially if you’re being cremated.

 

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

If they’re the versions traditionally preached by Christianity, then a very great many good, decent people will be suffering eternal torture due to not being the officially approved-of religion.

 

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

Same place you do, I hope – from my understanding that other people have feelings like mine, that they are distressed by pain or harm and have far greater chance for happiness when life’s necessities are available, and that it is therefore far better to aim to help others, or as a minimum to avoid hurting them where feasible. Then there are virtues such as justice, and honesty (which promotes trust), and respect for the rights of others to make decisions about that which affects their own lives and bodies.

 

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Obviously not; if you try committing murder, you’re likely to find yourself arrested, tried, and imprisoned. The same may apply if you commit rape, although, horribly, we still live in a society where you’re a lot more likely to get away with that if you play your cards right. However, there do seem to be several important further questions that arise from this for the author of this meme:

  • Do you feel that the only thing holding you back from rape or murder is your fear of being sent to hell? If you have other reasons for feeling that rape and murder are wrong (such as, say, the horrendous distress and heartbreak that these actions cause to other people), why should you believe that an atheist wouldn’t also have such reasons?
  • Given that this meme was on a Christian site, there seems to be a high likelihood that you hold the traditional Christian belief that God forgives sins in Jesus’s name, yet sends non-believers to hell. If not, then disregard this question as irrelevant to you; but wouldn’t these beliefs also imply a belief that any murderer or rapist who sincerely asks Jesus for forgiveness would go unpunished in the hereafter, whereas the good deeds of a non-believer would go unrewarded?
  • What about the times when God allegedly commands murder, or explicitly or implicity permits rape? In fact, what is there in the entire Bible to tell us that rape has any moral impact beyond that of using a vagina that was supposed to be reserved for another man’s use?

 

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

My life has meaning because it’s wonderful. I live in a world filled with good things, and I’m lucky enough to have the health and working senses to be able to enjoy them – music, beautiful sights, delicious food, walks, fascinating books. I do a job I love, which carries the satisfaction of helping others. I have two lovely children. This world is full of people I can get to know and joyful experiences I can have. I’m genuinely baffled by the claim that life is somehow meaningless without a god in it.

 

7.       Where did the universe come from?

No-one knows for sure at this point, although scientists have many theories. If you’re honestly interested in finding out more about this, you can probably find out quite a lot by googling. Of course, if you’re just asking this as a ‘gotcha’ then that doesn’t apply.

 

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Since these stories come from and appear to bolster many different religious traditions, either multiple gods exist, or natural non-god-related explanations exist for such phenomena. I believe in the latter (obviously, or I’d be a polytheist and not an atheist), but neither looks that good for the Christian god.

 

9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

My view of Dawkins would require the kind of language I try to avoid using on a blog that’s read by my mother. Hmmm…. let’s go for ‘toerag’.

I don’t know much about the other two. I found Hitchens’ exposé of Mother Theresa useful, and Sam Harris apparently said some dubious stuff about racial profiling, but that’s as far as my knowledge goes.

 

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

That’s not actually quite true; the Piraha people don’t (unless you count a belief in animal spirits, but that seems to be more akin to a belief in fairies than to religion as we’d understand it). As for the reason most societies have religions, I think it’s because it’s a natural human trait to try to come up with explanations for the world around us, and, when you don’t know anything about cosmology or how evolution or the laws of physics work, it’s natural to start attributing the world’s existence and current form to some kind of nonhuman power or powers. A much better question, I think, is ‘If there is a God who really wants to communicate personally with every single human being and who wants every single human to believe in him and have a relationship from him, why has such a huge proportion of humanity throughout history had no apparent knowledge at all of such a God, instead holding irreconcilably different beliefs such as pantheons or animism?’

There you go. Hope that helped and enjoy your day!