Copyright © 2003 by Ian Lance Taylor
This document is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
"I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
|George H. W. Bush|
"I am an atheist, myself. A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days."
|Ezar Vorborra, in Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Shards of Honor|
Last changed on $Date: 2003/04/08 22:22:04 $.
I'm an atheist. This essay discusses why, and some of the consequences. I wrote this more for myself than for anybody else. If you don't care, I don't blame you.
I think that most people have an opinion about the overall nature of the universe and about the role which humanity plays in the universe. (I've met people who don't, but I think they are a small minority.)
What I mean by this is that most people have some sort of answer to questions like
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why are we here?
What happens to us after we die?
How can we tell right from wrong?
These questions range from metaphysics to ethics, but for most people the answers are tied together. I think the best word for this combination is religion, although it stretches the dictionary definition somewhat. Whether you believe in a traditional religion or not, one of the clear advantages of religious belief is a coherent set of answers to these questions.
I am using the term religion here to include non-traditional beliefs, including beliefs which do not include any sort of traditional god. For example, many people these days profess to hold beliefs like "the universe is over time moving to a more perfect state" and "the right thing to do is to increase the amount of love and happiness in the universe."
I'm not sure whether it is possible to discover the true answers to these questions—to discover a true religion—without at some point relying on faith or some sort of personal mystical insight. I am sure that nobody has yet found a religion which is generally convincing; this is obvious from the wide range of religious faiths which are currently believed.
I think that most people want to have a religion because it gives them a secure place in the universe, and because it gives them guidance for their actions in ambiguous situations. It's easier to live with some sort of explanation, even one that may be incorrect, than it is to live with perpetual ignorance.
Most people get their religion primarily from their parents and secondarily from their culture. It's common for people to let their religion lapse; this means that they no longer follow traditional practices, but they often continue to use the religion as a basis for their beliefs about the universe. Conversion to a different religion is a different matter; while it happens frequently enough that one hears about it, most people don't do it.
I was baptized in the Lutheran church, but my parents are not church-goers. I did not attend any sort of church service, except that my parents sent me to Sunday School for one year when I was 11. This was not particularly successful. I recall taking it fairly seriously, and although I do not remember this my sister says that the teachers got quite annoyed with my incessant questions. I read the entire Bible that year, although I was too young to understand the more philosophical parts. After leaving Sunday School, I once again had no experience with traditional religions.
When I thought about religion in my later teenage years, I soon decided that there was no logical way to decide whether there was a god, or why there is something rather than nothing. It seemed unlikely to me that it would ever be possible to answer questions of that sort. (I was a logical fellow at the time, probably more so than I am today.) So I considered myself to be an agnostic in the strict original sense: one who does not believe that we can know whether god exists. (The term agnostic is now also used to describe people who are uncertain whether god exists, which is a slightly different point of view.)
Unfortunately, agnosticism, while logical, is not for me an emotionally satisfying position to hold. It's hard to find a secure place in the universe, or a guide to action, by professing complete ignorance. However, the inherent logic of the position held me there.
I shifted my position thanks to a book by Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (the same Martin Gardner who wrote the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American for many years). I read the book in my sophomore year in college, so I was perfectly primed for philosophical decisions.
Among other things, the book explains why Martin Gardner is a theist. Ironically, his discussion encouraged me to become an atheist. The key point for me was his summary of arguments by William James (whom I have not read).
According to Gardner, James defines a live option as a forced choice between momentous and plausible alternatives. A simple example is a person who is seriously considering marriage. The alternatives (marriage or no marriage) are both momentous and plausible. The choice is forced—one way or another, one alternative must be chosen.
Given that, Gardner says, still describing James's thoughts: "Belief in God and immortality are unsupported by logic or science, but because they are live options we cannot avoid an emotional decision. If for you the leap of faith makes you happier, then for you faith is the best bet. You have much to gain and little to lose. You have a right to believe." (emphasis in original).
I found that argument to be immediately compelling, and I continue to believe it today. I would phrase it like this: if you have no logical reason to choose between alternatives, but choosing one alternative will, on balance, make you happier, then you should go ahead and wholeheartedly choose that alternative. You should do more than merely act as though your preferred alternative were true; you should go further, and make a leap of faith, and really believe that your preferred alternative is true.
That argument enabled me to shake free of my agnosticism and choose a position of strong atheism—the denial that any god exists—and, further, to choose the belief that the universe is the result of random processes and that there is no higher purpose. I choose to believe because these beliefs make me happier.
Atheism makes me happier for the simple reason that it means that I am responsible for my own choices in life.
I find the traditional Judeo-Christian god to be very paternalistic (hardly an original thought, I know). We can be good children and obey, or we can be bad children and rebel. We have no other choices, and we will never grow up—to god, we will always be children. Some people have told me that they find this to be comforting. It makes me feel trapped. We must live our entire lives following a set of rules imposed from above, and can never be free to decide for ourselves. I am happier in a universe in which we are free, one in which we can be the adults.
I feel more or less the same way about any other belief that there is a purpose to the universe. Whether the purpose is imposed externally, or created retroactively from the hypothetical Omega Point, it constrains our actions to acceptance or rebellion. I am happier if we are unconstrained.
I'm not trying to argue that the universe which I am describing, the one I believe to be the actual universe, is somehow better than some other universe, such as the one in which the Judeo-Christian god exists, the one which many other people believe to be the actual universe. I'm arguing merely that I am happier in the universe with no god, and, since there is no logical reason to believe otherwise, I choose to believe that there is no god.
Using the definition of religion I gave earlier, it should be clear that I am saying that atheism is my religion. I choose it as a matter of faith, not logic. I know that some atheists describe atheism as the logical choice, but I've never found their logic to be any more convincing than the various proofs of god's existence. I sometimes describe myself as a religious atheist. Obviously I'm stretching the usual meaning of the word, but at this point I hope it is clear where I am coming from.
I admittedly can't explain why there is something rather than nothing, but belief in god doesn't help much there either. You still have to explain why god exists rather than nothing. I've never heard of a reasonable way to answer the question.
I'll now briefly discuss some of the consequences of atheism.
It should be clear from my reasons for choosing to be an atheist that I have no interest in convincing other people to become atheists. I think people should choose to live in the universe which they prefer. I don't think that somebody who believes in god is wrong; they just follow a different faith. After all, many people who believe in different gods are able to live together comfortably, despite the clear contradictions between their faiths.
Of course, some religions include the belief that they know the only truth, and the further belief that they should convince everybody else to embrace that truth. That's OK as long as it stays peaceful, though personally I prefer that such people don't come by and bother me. Sometimes it turns violent, and I think that most of us can agree that that is bad for all sides.
Incidentally, I don't think that religion has caused as many wars as people sometimes claim. I think that religion is more often used as a rallying flag to convince the fighters that the desired war is just. Still, religion has undeniably caused many wars, and has made many more wars much worse. Moreover, I can easily imagine a war fought in the name of atheism, although I don't know of any actual examples (I don't count the wars started by atheistic communist countries, because atheism was not a significant reason for starting or continuing the wars).
When I discuss atheism with other people, which does not happen often, they sometimes bring up ethics. Some people even question how it is possible for an atheist to behave ethically. Of course, such a question implies that the questioner only acts ethically because they must, perhaps through fear of hell or a desire to look good for god. I doubt this is actually the case for most people.
It's true, of course, that atheism by itself does not address ethical questions. Nevertheless, I think I'm a basically ethical person. I try to follow the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—and, more generally, Kant's categorical imperative—roughly, act in such a way that anybody in the same situation could reasonably choose to act the same way. These are simple guidelines which are not sufficient for a fast moving world with imperfect information, but a full discussion of ethics probably requires a different essay.
I follow these guidelines primarily for two reasons. The first reason is a logical one: they tend to lead to a world in which I am more comfortable. If I choose to be mean to other people, then other people will be mean to me, and sometimes unpleasant things may happen to me. The second reason is an emotional one: it makes me happier to be around people who are happy to be around me, and the easiest way to achieve that is to be a nice guy.
I think that ethical behaviour in ordinary situations is no more complicated than that, and there is no need to import ethical rules from beyond. There are certainly morally ambiguous situations, where it is not clear what to do, but those situations arise for atheist and non-atheist alike (I don't know of a word which means the opposite of atheist; logically it should be theist, but that means something slightly different).
The only case I see where one must seriously consider ethical differences between atheism and non-atheism is temptation, in which you are strongly tempted to do something which you believe to be wrong. Temptation occurs to everyone, and most of us give in to it once in a while. If there were any evidence that non-atheists resisted temptation better than atheists, that might deserve examination—not that all atheists have the same ethical beliefs. However, I know of no such evidence.
Finally, I note that there is no contradiction between my desire to be free of god's rules and my choice to constrain my actions by following rules of ethics. If I were following god's rules, they would be imposed on me from without. Choosing my own rules is a free choice from within.
A corollary to atheism is materialism, in the philosophical sense. I don't believe there is anything supernatural in the universe. Although there are of course many things we don't understand, I don't think there is any reason in principle why we can not understand them.
In particular, I don't believe there is such a thing as a soul, or a mind separate from the body. Our selves and our consciousness are solely the result of chemical and physical reactions in our brains and bodies. Many people find it hard to conceive how this could be so. While I believe that it can be understood, I'm not going to tackle this complex topic here.
I don't believe that there is any such thing as literal life after death. I think it may have been Woody Allen who said "I believe in death after life—the other way doesn't make any sense."
The only true immortality we have is to be remembered after our deaths. We are remembered by our friends and children, and our influences live on through them, although they naturally dilute over time.
To be remembered in a more personal fashion is a form of immortality attained by only a few in the past, starting perhaps with Gilgamesh and the Yellow Emperor, or, rather, the real people behind the myths. It's interesting to think that, with the information explosion of today's world, many more people living today will be known in the future, if only as a photograph or a web page.
Without a belief in god, is it possible to have free will? If we are just matter without soul, then our actions boil down to just one molecule bumping into another.
Of course, we must first ask whether it is possible to have free will if there is a god. If we assume an omniscient god, then he (or she) can predict, and arguably even control, all our actions, so how do we have free will? Presumably only in some ineffable sense.
Anyhow, when it comes to free will, I am convinced by the arguments Daniel Dennett makes in his book Elbow Room. Free will really just means that we are able to do what we choose to do. And, for most of us, that is true regardless of our beliefs about the universe.
Since humans evolved from other forms of life, and since I believe that humans have no soul, it follows that there are great similarities between humans and other animals. In particular, I must consider ethical behaviour toward non-human animals, and must ask whether non-human animals have any rights.
One of the basic ethical principles is that it is wrong to treat other people solely as means, rather than as ends in themselves. You must consider their needs and desires. To what degree does this apply to non-human animals?
I won't discuss this at length here, but I am a vegetarian and a supporter of the animal rights movement. For me, these beliefs are related to my belief in atheism.
I live in the United States, where atheists are clearly a minority. As can be seen by the quote above from George H. W. Bush, who at the time was Vice President, there are people in power who are skeptical about the whole idea of atheism, even questioning whether atheists can be citizens. Fortunately, we are protected by the first amendment.
Even after all these years, it continues to be startling to me to see how deeply theism permeates U.S. society. God and prayer are invoked for all sorts of endeavors, both routine and extraordinary. I've seen crank arguments here and there that the U.S. is run by secular humanists; those people should try looking at it from the other side for a while.
Still, I have nothing to complain about. People in the U.S. are free to believe as they choose. Even the few who really object to atheists are relatively harmless, since atheism is invisible. Unless, of course, you start putting essays about it on the web.