Why I am an atheist – K. Davidson

Firstly, I take issue with having to explain why I don’t believe in the existence of one possible, or few possible, entities in a universe of infinite possibilities.

Why don’t I believe that doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu while whistling Ode to Joy backwards will rain pogo sticks upon the world? (What, it didn’t work? You must have missed one of the notes.) Why don’t I believe that the world sits on the shell of a giant turtle? Why don’t I believe that having sex with my boyfriend will result in an eternity of hell fire? Just because something can be conceived doesn’t mean it has to be disproved.

But I do object to religion, and that deserves an explanation. First let me state that I take a quintessentially American view toward personal belief: That’s cool. What’s none of my business is none of my business and I am not so omnipotent that I can expect everyone to think the way I think. Nor would I want them to. I am not everyone, only myself and I want to learn from other people, I want to be persuaded, I want other people to have thoughts different from own.

I also don’t want to take things away from other people. Religious belief can be very significant, even life saving. I live a privileged life. I’m one of the few people (let alone women) throughout history who experienced genuine autonomy. I have control over what happens to me on a day to day basis. I have no major crises to attend, no survival to fight for. My life is not a series of things just happening to me. I have control, mostly because I have an education, pale skin and knowledge of how to navigate this liberal, wealthy society. Not everyone does. Many, if not most, people live lives like pinballs, tossed around from bumper to bumper, scared, depressed, anxious. They lack control. So if those people get through their days with a belief that live under the umbrella of God’s love, if they are able to get up and function because they think when this is all over they will receive their just reward (and those rewards would be just), then God bless them. I will never begrudge anyone any tool of survival.

The problem comes when those with power believe in a false cause and effect. That is dangerous, that is anti-social and needs to be stamped out for the betterment of people.

There are two obvious problems with false cause and effect. The first is quite obvious. If a child is sick with infection and her adult care-taker believes that doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu will cure her, but antibiotics won’t, that empowered caretaker will cause unnecessary suffering, and possibly death. We can extrapolate that across society. If people with power believe that giving HPV vaccinations will lead to retaliations from a vengeful god, those empowered people will cause unnecessary suffering, and possibly death. There are so many examples of this affecting OUR shared society. Psychological torture of gays, miseducation of our children, stunting the potential of young girls by refusing them access to information about birth control, shooting wars with other cultures… ad infinitum.

That is completely unacceptable. We cannot allow the hard won bounty of human endeavor, i.e., knowledge and information, to be squandered at the expense of real, live humans who have the right to the best possible lives we as a society can offer each other. We have come together throughout history to benefit from our collective knowledge and works. Those who would stand in opposition to this knowledge reap its benefits every day. They flush toilets and watch television and eat cheap food. In my view, there is no difference in avoiding cholera by means of sewage systems and avoiding the pain of ostracism by means of admitting that it’s the only downside to homosexuality.

In short, I believe that failing to proceed with the best possible information about cause and effect is a crime.

The second problem with religious adherence is more subtle, but possibly more dangerous. On an individual level, believing that there is a set of specific desires held by some higher power leads to a population of people “just following orders.” It removes all ethical and moral agency from the individual, which is, in my view, distinctly unethical and immoral. One hears the tired argument, “How can anyone who doesn’t believe in God’s retribution know right from wrong?” The absurdity of this is obvious to anyone with a deeply personal and evolved set of principles. I know it is wrong to hurt people for my own gratification and I suffer emotionally in the here and now for it. I am not so disconnected from the rest of humanity that I forget the value of other humans. I am not so mercenary that without threat to my own personage I would harm others. I am a fully formed, typical human in that way.

But I would take my response to that a step further and say that I am more moral because of it. This is because I have to choose, from my own free will, what is wrong and what is right. When I was a child, my sense of right and wrong was influenced by adults, but I am no longer a child and have to take full and complete responsibility. If I simply believe that there is a list handed down from some higher being, I can no longer say that I know right from wrong. Anything can be plugged into that list — a list interpreted by humans, no less — and I will happily go along. Don’t eat meat on Fridays? Okay. Give ten percent to charity? Okay. Kill all first born children? Okay. (Interestingly, there are some beautiful Christian works which hit exactly on this issue, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, which fundamentally posits that God chose his most beloved and beautiful angel to become the devil because He knew that there was no meaning in faith unless people chose it of their own free will. Even St. Augustine said that God values most the souls of those who sinned and came to Him by choice.)

Here’s what it really comes down to: the public sphere. There are places where I and other people have to intersect, people who believe in different sets of cause and effect. But here’s the thing: I can’t have a religious conversation with people in that public sphere, in doings of the State. I have nothing to say about anyone’s religion on a theological level and, not to put to fine a point on it, I don’t care how many angels one group thinks can dance on the head of a needle versus another group. When discussing social and public policy, I cannot have this conversation. I don’t know how strongly I can express this. I can only discuss the pragmatic outcomes of cause of and effect based on evidence and the shared knowledge created by my fellow humans.

But of course a religious person would be a hypocrite if they left their truest and deepest beliefs at the door. It’s the absolute and inevitable outcome of earnest belief. Now, I know a lot of people who identify as religious who do no such thing, who keep these spheres very separate and I have absolutely no objection. These are also the people who would walk away from any religious leader who asked them to violate their sense of right and wrong. But this is not everyone. We see people running for the presidency of the United States who quite literally cannot see any “right” besides pushing forward their own personal theology onto the nation as a whole. If you truly believe that doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu would prevent a massive tsunami, wouldn’t you hope you were the kind of person who would do everything in her power to get to Katmandu and do those cartwheels?

This is why religion is destructive. It is to this that I object. It for this reason that I would like to see it fade away into wisps of nothingness. So perhaps this doesn’t answer why I don’t believe in a god, but I hope it answer why I think it’s best not to believe in a god.

K. Davidson


  1. says

    What seems so astonishing–aside the fact that we’re numbed by encountering it so often–is that the abrogation of (classical) cause and effect by God is frequently couched in arguments that cause and effect hold everywhere and always. Quantum fluctuations can’t explain the beginning of the universe, no, it has to be magic, something never observed, rather than something akin to what is observed all of the time.

    And even something like abiogenesis is “too improbable,” hence we have to resort to something that, by all of our present knowledge at least, is fully impossible.

    By the time they’re saying that evolution is too improbable, thus the effects expected from evolutionary constraints were in fact designed, we’ve lost any semblance of reason, even the sort that begins by privileging the notion that God fills the causal gaps. To talk about a design cause for evolutionary limitations is to use words while leaving meanings behind.

    Glen Davidson

  2. Sastra says

    Excellent explanation, very well expressed. Thank you.

    A minor nitpick:

    But of course a religious person would be a hypocrite if they left their truest and deepest beliefs at the door. It’s the absolute and inevitable outcome of earnest belief. Now, I know a lot of people who identify as religious who do no such thing, who keep these spheres very separate and I have absolutely no objection.

    I think you mean that a lot of self-identified religious people do manage to keep leave their views at the door when they deal with outsiders in political forums … which is certainly true, to a point.

    My quarrel is with your having “absolutely” no objection to this. I think it’s actually clear from the rest of what you write that you do have objections, as do I.

    Beliefs in supernatural entities knowable through subjective means are not only factually wrong, they’re epistemically wrong. Faith is not a virtue; it’s a vice — a bad, sloppy, and dangerous habit of thought that may be convenient in the short term but does nobody any good in the long run. Compartmentalizing one’s thinking and special pleading a conclusion into a separate, sacred, untouchable and unquestionable area is objectionable. We need to object.

    I think though that you’re really pointing out what happens at the personal level when an individual asks (or psychologically needs) to be let alone — and the common courtesy that request demands. So I agree with you there. It’s just that I’ve grown very suspicious of the religious tactic of trying to stifle atheist critique of their ideas by invoking a sudden request to live and let live, respect each others opinions, pity the weak, and go on to some other topic.

    They say “Religion is private, it’s therapy, it’s a matter of taste and disposition. It’s also the most important, significant, valuable, true, and deep understanding any human being could have, charging them with meaning and wisdom and a connection to the purpose of the universe … but please, when it comes to me dealing with nonbelievers, I keep it all to myself. I just quietly think what I have to think about you, is all.”

    I’ve become wary of that. I think religion is destructive and divisive even at the personal, private level. I can and do choose to forebear in specific cases, sure — but I think the religious want us to make more of this ‘virtue’ than it deserves, and extend it further than it warrants.

  3. prospect151 says

    This was an excellent post. Nice job, K.

    I very much liked the clear distinction that you are not opposed to taking away things that are important in the lives of people, things which cause actual solace and hope (i.e. religious faith). Instead, the problem is either a) a destructive trust in false cause/effect relationships which cause damage in reality, and b) replacing of a true morality with obedience to an absolute higher ‘power’ (“just following orders”).

    Too often the dialogue surrounding religion, especially in America, is of the in-group and an out-group trying to rip the teddy bear away. Instead, it should be as if the out-group understands the comfort the doll brings, and the positives that can come of it, but thinks the fur needs a bit of scrubbing to get some rather nasty parasites away from it.


  4. says

    I too thought K’s piece was insightful. What Sastra said so elegantly and p151 so directly was what PZ always (or nearly so) advocates: ya gotta rip away the teddy bear. I understand the need to be “nice”. A few years ago, I politely challenged a group of 20somethings in a bible study at Starbucks, as we were all leaving at closing time. I asked them what they thought of YEC, evolution, etc. We fell into a very politely toned discussion for about 20 minutes out on the sidewalk. I asked how they could reconcile what they believed to be true with the challenges science made to their beliefs (they all had, on their persons, the little flood / dinosaur / carbon dating tracts); they, in turn, cleverly asked me why I couldn’t be open-minded enough to consider an alternate viewpoint about the world. The whole time I was thinking “how do I get them to see the truth?”, which, I think, is exactly what they were thinking about me. After 20 minutes I gave up, thanked them for the chat, and went home.

  5. says

    Disclaimer: Starbucks coffee is wretched: boiled charcoal. I much prefer a brand named after a small new england state that is available at the world’s largest fast food chain. But I like Sbux’ chai tea lattes.

  6. MetzO'Magic says

    Very well put, K. It’s very much like something I would have wished to write myself. Perhaps, some day, I will add myself to PJ’s endless queue.

  7. RFW says

    One quibble: the phrase “religious belief”.

    It’s time to stop using that phrase and start using “religious opinion” instead, as was done in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

    Words have considerable power, and sometimes even a small change in phrasing can have important results. By saying “opinion” instead of “belief”, it is made clearer that it’s all just a matter of individual opinion. Even devout RCs, for example, start with the opinion that Mr. Papa is right.

    And subliminally, opinions are more obviously subject to change, whereas “belief” carries a sort of immovable-object aura with it.

    Yours for dialectical precision!

  8. olc27 says

    Much more eloquently said than I ever could have done.

    I do, however, have to point out that the belief that “doing three cartwheels down a particular road in Katmandu while whistling Ode to Joy backwards will rain pogo sticks upon the world” is just silly. We of the Pogoist Hoppists know for a fact that the Day of the Pogo Rain will come, with or without the cartwheels, on May 21st…no wait, October 21st…damn. Sometime in 2012!

  9. besomyka says

    Good read, and a nice change of pace that brings up a topic that is worth discussing!

    You’ve stated an interesting line between where you feel it’s okay to allow someone to hold onto reality-contrary beliefs (people in desperate situations in which the effort needed to examine beliefs is trivial compared to the need to have the mental fortitude to get through the crisis of the day – say, finding enough food to survive, or avoid being beaten to death in an abusive relationship).

    On the other hand, there are times in which allowing those beliefs to guide action is no longer tolerable. Where is that line? I think you may have hit on a good starting point: the moment your beliefs begin to affect others around you and not just yourself. Once faith begins to push out into the world, the rules of that world take precedence. It’s no longer just about how your mind works, now it’s how external reality works.

    If your faith is inconsistent with reality, we’re gonna have a problem.

  10. treefrog says

    Thanks, K, I enjoyed this post and the way you worded it.

    Assuming you could pick out all of its destructive effects in the public sphere, I’m guessing you’re left with something more new agey & “spiritual,” more “do unto others” than “eye for an eye,” and taking mythical stories as metaphors.

    Maybe what’s left is just that “tool of survival.” My gut reaction is to lose respect for someone when I learn that they believe, but I guess like you I can’t begrudge anyone their crutch, because I think many people (even us lucky ones) do use various psychological crutches and don’t always recognize them as such.

  11. jentokulano says

    “So perhaps this doesn’t answer why I don’t believe in a god”

    Maybe, but A+ !

  12. shaftesbury says

    K. Davidson: I loved that post all over. I loved what it said, yes, but also the attitude and straightforward style of writing. It was a joy to read. Thanks!