Why I am an atheist – Steven Ahern

Humanity, despite existing in discrete units (which we call people), is really one grander entity which breathes and behaves in peculiar manners. The casual modern anthropologist can easily witness the human machine’s idiosyncrasies, though often these details go unnoticed for being too ingrained into the quotidian lifestyle. Why most subway-car riders, for instance, deign not to speak nor make eye contact, or why these creatures by the thousands prolong internal discomfort by withholding offensive gaseous emissions can be understood as an adaptive response to living in close, interactive proximity with one another and living to certain established social standards which evolve over time. Without consciously considering why or how these responses came to be as they are, many millions passively act them out on autopilot.

The human autopilot transcends actions and delves into thoughts and beliefs. I have wanted to perform an experiment whereby a handful of assorted passers-by would be propositioned to agree or disagree on the statement that consumption of sugar causes hyperactivity. Without a doubt the response would be a staggering ‘yes’, and my experiment would demonstrate a general understanding of this concept in the populace. The interesting quirk of this exercise is that in truth, this understanding is unfounded, and is instead the result of many generations of hearsay and anecdotal evidence. Why, then, is this non-truth so prevalent?

How does the singular human machine operate? It has up-time and down-time, ill days and well days, nutritional needs, waste removal systems, mood swings, shaving needs, clipping needs, washing needs, and dirty deeds. On the molecular level, its nuance surpasses anything Steve Jobs could have dreamed of, and it always hangs in a tenuous balance between health and death. Naturally, the ways of sustaining the singular human machine must be conservative; that is, whatever worked the day before could and should work again today. One foot in front of the other, and so on, leads man to his mate and home, and puts bread in his mouth, and allows him to breathe through the night to see the next day. He cannot afford to dramatically alter his schedule lest he neglect his body’s urgent requirements for refreshment.

By understanding that the autopilot which guides man through his living-chores also guides his assumptions and understandings, one can see the main reason for why I am an atheist. The gods are the giddiness of children after they eat too many cookies; the gods are understanding that illness is due to humour imbalance; the gods are knowing that the left-handed are evil. Without evidence to sustain it, the god-concept is the co-pilot to the autopilot of the human machine – it was there yesterday, and is therefore true today, all things coming from god, post hoc ergo procter hoc. I do not believe in gods because the concept is a human response to a lack of information about our bodies.

What I suspect sustains the non-truth concept of god or gods is a shared quasi- understanding of similar yet distinct psychosomatic phenomena. Another way, it can be understood as such: two parties who can at least minimally agree on having experienced some similar conscious feeling can more easily misappropriate the cause of that feeling to an external agent than can either of them alone. A thousand parties who can at least minimally agree on having experienced the same phenomena increases the apparent truth even more. Through generations of snowballing, the assumptions which underlie the god-concept have been taken as granted without warrant, and the result is the rainbow of devotions that exist today. They are the product of (and targeted at) mens’ minds, in order to make sense of shared sensations and feelings. Cognitive psychology and an emerging neuroscience will expose nuances of the human condition that gods once were so useful to explain.

Steven Ahern
United States


  1. claremilner says

    Apart from being a tad sesquipedalian in nature, it was ok until:

    One foot in front of the other, and so on, leads man to his mate and home, and puts bread in his mouth, and allows him to breathe through the night to see the next day.

    Just a thought but how about:
    One foot in front of the other, and so on, leads humans to their mate and home, and puts bread in their mouths, and allows them to breathe through the night to see the next day.

    I might feel as if you wanted to include the other half of the population then :)

  2. says

    Zeus…Tammuz…Osiris…The challenge is two-fold: First, to show the believer how many other gods have come and gone and second, to demonstrate to them that humanity has been around in one form or another for many thousands of years, not just a few less than ten thousand. Therefore, their O.T. cannot be correct: God did not create everything in six days, and Adam did not lay eyes on a Brontosaurus. The unfortunate thing about Dominionism and Rapture-longing is that these things are self-fulfilling prophecies. Rick Santorum is pushing for the sort of theocracy that would fulfill the Dominion part (and he could well be the Great Beast 666), and the oil fight in the Mideast appears to be heating up to nuclear holocaustic proportions. Of course, if any of these things comes to pass they result in post-hoc assumption that the Booble preordained them (“It is written,” the young sheikh in “Lawrence of Arabia” says to the Englishman). If they do not come to pass, the Santorums say, “God works in mysterious ways.” Indeed he does. Indeed.

  3. concernedjoe says

    Cool post Steven.

    Actually I am an atheist because no person, event, or thing has presented (directly or via my acquisition) evidence that passed muster to justify my being a theist of any sort.

    I remain 100% atheist and 100% methodologically agnostic. That is to say evidence of a proper sort would not be dogmatically ignored. Now mind you I cannot for the life of me envision even a sliver of worthy evidence appearing for my consideration. And think historical and contemporary evidence substantiates my lack of expectation! But if it does “magically” appear I am all scientific ears.

    However what you Steven touched on so eloquently speaks to a major apologetic argument to explain why god seems so non-existent. That argument being “free-will”.

    The primacy of “free-will” gives reason to why god cannot do such things as stop evil or even reveal himself. The notion is that would undermine our operating as free-agents – the implicit point being that we’d not be properly tested and the whole judgement paradigm would be knocked out of whack.

    Sort of like testing the honesty of a person but letting them know beyond doubt that if they try to steal something they will burst into flames upon the attempt. Doubt many would be thieves.

    But I think free-will is an illusion and thus the free-will apologetic is dispensed with a priori. As you say we are mostly on auto-pilot. Or in similar fashion we react to stimuli with learned (or neurologically wired from birth) auto induced behaviors.

    Sure it is VERY complex – so many factors in play. But Hawking nails it – free-will is an effective theory (we practically must operate and be judged like we are in control) but an illusion nevertheless.

    Additionally your eloquent essay also speaks to the memetics of behaviors and beliefs.

    We are products of nature, nurture, and environment. Just like any other animal or plant. Actually I find that absolutely awe inspiring, and liberating and hope inducing.

    Awe inspiring because it is beautifully complex.

    And liberating, etc. because like any other phenomena it follows laws and one can use that fact to make changes to the better. Ain’t it better than sitting around waiting for prayer to change the human condition!

  4. slatham says

    Sir, you are an optimist. I enjoyed your essay including that last bit.
    But … can’t we interject some selfishness into this description? Knowledge is power (as everyone knows!). It is especially valuable to know things that yield advantages to you rather than others. From tribal shaman to youth league coaches, special access to this kind of information is passed down particularly within lineages. This information can give you mystical powers to those who don’t understand it, especially if you dress it up with ceremony and pageantry. And if you don’t have special knowledge, you better act as though you do! And what could be more special than a personal relationship with an all-powerful being?

  5. yellowsubmarine says

    Tagging the belief in god as a distinct part of our “mental autopilot” is a very interesting and novel way of putting it. Not just that god is part of the schema into which we pidgeon hole the world, but it is the giant pidgeon hole labelled “miscellaneous” into which all of our ignorance and misunderstanding goes. I rather like your way of illustrating it!

  6. says

    Claremilner @3:

    it was ok until:

    That stood out to me as well. The parting shot:

    They are the product of (and targeted at) mens’ minds

    left a bad taste in my brain. I get the wider application of mens’, as in mankind, however, this essay left me feeling as though women didn’t figure in to things at all. It’s easy enough to fix, so here’s hoping any future essays will be a bit more thoughtful.

  7. says


    Drama much? Being inclusive isn’t difficult, it’s something Steven might want to consider for future writing. Gosh, how overwrought and insane, an observation! Goodness me and all that.

  8. datasolution says

    LOL, it figures that femitards would try to ruin another blog post here. What a baggage PZ created..

  9. slatham says

    Yeah, two people point out that pronoun use could have been more inclusive, and the respondents over-react and namecall. I think I used to be a reactionary jerk like that. Reading jonas and datasolution, I’m pretty proud that I grew out of whatever psychological problem they represent.

  10. claremilner says


    it figures that femitards would try to ruin another blog post here

    Oops, I think your privilege is showing. Might want to zip that up.

    I wasn’t trying to ruin the post. I think that Steven put forward some interesting ideas. I simply asked that he would consider using inclusive language. As a woman, when I read “man” (when the author is clearly talking about people, humans, humankind) it puts a barrier up between author and reader. It pulls me back out from the point the author is trying to make in the same way that a boom mike would pull you out of the story line of a movie.

    And really? Femitard? It’s a bit difficult to be insulted when you’re giggling.

  11. wayne23 says

    Male stupidity rears its ugly head again. The original poster was insensitive. All the men who chimed in to stupidly bash the women (who were absolutely right), came off looking, as they always do in these situations, bigoted and idiotic. Are you EVER going to stop blaming the victims and get it? Probably not, sadly.

  12. otrame says

    You know, a lot of words and phrases commonly used, such as”mankind”, were developed in English when women were relegated to home life (at least in the middle and upper classes–poor women worked for a living) and were patted on their heads and put on a pedestal or treated like sub-human animals or both at the same time (and honestly, I am not sure which was most damaging to both men and women).

    The use of “humankind” instead and the use of more inclusive pronouns acknowledges that this is no longer the case. The essay was interesting, but Steven really does need to consider that many in his audience lost sight of what he was saying because his use of male-dominant language was a little distracting. I am not accusing him of being an misogynist asshole–like datasolution– I just advise him to think about these issues, because ignoring them will result in discussions about how he said instead of what he said.

  13. burntorange says

    Sounds like bloviation to me. Can be summarized as: we’re creatures of habit; “belief” is a habit that’s hard to shake.

    Sorry, that’s neither profound nor novel. We can do much better than, and we certainly shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for reasoning such as this which is not much beyond the sophistry of theism.

  14. TimKO,,.,, says

    Could be word salad or could be I’m not smart enough for this one. But then I don’t get J Joyce.

  15. John Morales says


    Can be summarized as: we’re creatures of habit; “belief” is a habit that’s hard to shake.

    Can’t gainsay you on that; though my personal beef is this portion of Steven’s testimonial:

    I have wanted to perform an experiment whereby [blah].

    Without a doubt the response would be a staggering ‘yes’

    (If the outcome ain’t in doubt, in what sense is it an experiment? :) )

  16. Ze Madmax says

    cauliervassallo @ #20:

    Nobody care’s about pronouns.

    You’re clearly mistaken. The comments here clearly show that at least some people care enough to make a note of it.

    This is about theism. NOT Grammar.

    Mistaken again. It’s about atheism, and how it should strive to be more inclusive as a movement. Surely being more inclusive of half the world’s population is worth adjusting one’s writing style a little?*

    OR Political correctness. Stop ruining the comments.

    Again, it’s has nothing to do with political correctness**. As to “ruining the comments”, it takes two to tango (or “ruin” a comment section with a discussion on the pros and cons of going beyond male-as-standard writing, as the case may be)

    *Unless you’re deeply committed to arbitrary standards, and prefer to stick to them come hell or high water. In that case, any progressive social movement is better off without you.

    **Also, does anyone use the term “politically correct” in a way that does not mean “stuff I think is stupid because I’m deeply entrenched in my male/straight/white/cis/theist/economic privilege”?

  17. philboidstudge says


    Just a thought but how about:
    One foot in front of the other, and so on, leads humans to their mate and home, and puts bread in their mouths, and allows them to breathe through the night to see the next day.

    A plurality of humans would not put “one foot in front of the other” but “Feet in front of the others.” You can see how this fails, since it changes the recognizable idiom to something incoherent. (Similarly, they (feet) lead humans to their mates and homes (plurals).

    I don’t think “inclusiveness” requires butchery of the language, nor does pointing this out evince “privilege.”

  18. says

    @23 — i agree; i would’ve found it more palatable had he said something like “i suspect the results may be…” or something along those lines. i admit, my perusal of scientific literature is quite limited, but i don’t believe i’ve ever seen an abstract which said “i’m SURE we’re gonna see results XYZ!” ;)

    @18 & @24 — nice analysis. i must say, i’m a bit bedazzled by the feminism debate, because it seems like the “anti” side’s arguments are tantamount to “you’re not allowed to say how you feel.” i admit, if i were caught using gender-biased language, i would feel mighty embarrassed, and i would have to channel that embarrassment into something which i felt to be productive. the most cost-effective strategy, it seems, would simply be to reevaluate my usage, rather than to fight the same battle over and over again with people who are simply pointing out that they are perceiving a bit of inequity. actually, i find myself in full agreement with otrame’s historical analysis, and i think it’s time to elevate the discourse a bit. that being said, i still think there’s a time and place for such terms as “man(kind)” — especially in a tongue-in-cheek manner. :P but by no means does that exclude me from any constructive criticism from my FELLOW feminists on my usage. :)

  19. says

    ah, oops, i forgot to mention: despite a couple of nits to pick, i actually found this post quite good. i understand why some may have found it a bit grandiloquent, but i’m actually a fan of that type of writing(to an extent — i haven’t read any joyce, though i did read a pretty persuasive review of “ulysses” which criticized his excessive verbosity, among other things). as to the content, i also recognize that it was a bit limited in scope, only mentioning one type of sociological phenomenon, but hey, isn’t that what’s so great about all these posts(and atheism in general)? that we have SO many different compelling reasons NOT to accept all that religious horseshit, and SO many different voices with different styles of expressing those reasons? indeed, sometimes it’s worth focusing on just one — though i also enjoy reading the other comments which expound on it a bit further. ;)

  20. jand says

    “They are the product of (and targeted at) mens’ minds, in order to make sense of shared sensations and feelings. Cognitive psychology and an emerging neuroscience will expose nuances of the human condition that gods once were so useful to explain.”

    I would like to point out that “product of mens´ minds” (should be “men’s”) reads, in the XXIst century: “product of the mind of the human male”.

    Other interpretations are archaic, say (early) XVIIIth century.