Why I'm an Atheist

I am atheist. For me, that means that I have not seen evidence sufficient to convince me that God or gods exist. Technically, that makes me what's known as a weak atheist since I don't hold the position that it is impossible for gods to exist. Despite the label, I can assure you that there is nothing half-hearted about my position. Carl Sagan once said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The claim that a higher power exists, though commonplace, is extraordinary, and it would take considerable evidence to prove it to me. And since religionists have had many thousands of years to produce verifiable evidence that whatever deity they support exists and have thus far failed to do so, I do not expect proof to come in my lifetime. Until I receive such proof, I will live my life as though there is no god.

I think my point of view comes from my scientific training (or perhaps the scientific bent that prompted me to seek scientific training.) My world is made up of the sum of my observations, and my thoughts about them. As far as I'm concerned, all we can learn about the Universe is learned by making measurements and drawing conclusions therefrom. We might not always come to the correct conclusions, and therefore we must always be willing to revise them in light of new evidence.

The existence of god is one of great potential importance, since, according to some religionists, a mistake on this score can lead to an eternity of torment. But I'm not a "seeker" because number of things inherent to religion strike me as contradictory, leading me to feel that it's unlikely that any religion could be right. Religion calls for, at some point, a rejection of the evidence of our senses and our own capacity to reason. A religion which is correct should, it seems to me, be self-apparent to any reasonable person. It should produce testable predictions. It wouldn't be a shell game of faith and guilt. Another thing about religions is that there are so many of them, and most are mutually exclusive. Each religion has adherents who display impressive zeal. From an objective point of view, there's no way to choose which is right, and I don't think that any god worth following would want me to surrender my reason, pick a religion and just believe in it.

It may be of some interest to you where I'm coming from. I was raised Lutheran (ELCA), and because of this hold the rather biased view that of all the world's religions, Lutheranism is pretty much the most sensible. I announced in Sunday School in the 4th grade (much to my mother's embarrassment) that I didn't believe in God, and I've pretty much been an atheist since. My mother explained to me that she made a commitment at my Baptism to see to my religious education until my Confirmation, at which point I could take my education into my own hands, so until the 7th grade I went to church, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Confirmation Classes. At my Confirmation, I recited the Apostle's Creed with my fingers crossed, and then I was a free heathen.

A typical Christian straw man is the exclusively anti-Christian atheist. I would like to make it clear now that I am not an atheist because I don't believe in the Christian God and Jesus. I am an atheist because I do not believe in any deity. I have a tendency to disparage Christianity disproportionately because most of the religionists with whom I have contact are Christians. I would happily go at it with a Moslem, a Hindu, an animist, or any other religionists willing to explain their beliefs to me and spoiling for a good fight.

I guess I'm reinforcing the "weakness" of my atheism by saying that if you ascribe to a religion and it gives you comfort and strength and moral direction, that's great. I have no problem with that. Maybe if I'd had some of the same experiences that you've had, I'd believe in what you believe in. But the point is, I didn't, and I've come to my belief system through long thought and contemplation. What really troubles me is when someone tries to push some aspect of their religion onto anyone else. This includes going on jihads, teaching Creationism, and indoctrinating children so they are unable to think for themselves.

Lastly, a word on morality. We have a tendency to distrust what is foreign. When we find that some person disagrees with us on some point, whether it's the existence of God, being pro-choice or pro-life, or racist, or homosexual, we have a tendency to demonize them. After all, if we have different opinions on such important topics, what else might we disagree about? Well, the thing to do is find out. Don't assume that because someone doesn't follow the 1st Commandment, they've thrown all the rest of them out the window. For myself, although I don't follow many of the precepts of Christianity, and a Shiite Moslem would have a heyday cataloging my sins, I'm really a pretty okay person. I acknowledge that because I live in a society, it is to my advantage to treat my fellow humans with respect. Don't forget that I was raised by decent people (Iowans, no less) who taught me right from wrong. Even though you probably think some of my ideas are a little out there, we'll probably agree on the Golden Rule and a lot of other things. Or we might not. But if you prejudge, you'll never know.

In exchange, I promise not to dismiss you on the basis of your religion, but rather to get to know you as a fellow human being. If you don't want to talk about It, that's okay. Like most atheists, I'm not evangelical. Let's relate as thinking people, not as proponents of one belief or another, and if the subject comes up, let's deal with it gracefully and not forget that we're just flawed beings trying to make sense of a baffling Universe.

Quotes on (and off) the subject.

"A religion is a source of happiness and I would not deprive anyone of happiness. But it is a comfort appropriate for the weak, not for the strong -- and you are strong. The great trouble with religion -- any religion -- is that the religionists, having accepted certain propositions by faith, cannot thereafter judge these propositions by evidence. One may bask at the warm fire of faith or choose to live in the bleak uncertainty of reason -- but one cannot have both."

Hartley M. "Two-Canes" Baldwin
Robert A. Heinlein

". . . I have no objection to any person's religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that person don't believe it also. But when a man's religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable in to lodge in; the I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him."

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

". . . but if [men] called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things."


". . . there are so many of us who want so badly . . . to be able, really and truly, to believe -- in Someone older, smarter, and wiser who is looking out for us. Faith is clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards that impart credibility to that seal. What a relief it would be: doubt reliably abolished! Then, the irksome burdon of looking after ourselves would be lifted. We're worried -- and for good reason -- about what it means for the human future if we have only ourselves to rely upon."

The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan

"The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom, and the unknown. . . . I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."

Lord of Light
Roger Zelazny

Some Links

Please note: Just like there are many varieties of religion, there are many varieties of atheism. I don't agree with everything I've linked to.

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Britt Scharringhausen
Last modified: Tue Mar 5 14:24:11 EST 2002