I’m not an eminent scientist, or a philosopher, or a sociologist, or a ‘religious expert.’
I consider myself a simple man – an average man.
I’m not here to ‘convert’ or convince – I’m here to explain why, when and how I became an atheist, and why I reject the concept of god and religious interference in politics and public life – my life.
I speak only for myself – I don’t speak for other atheists because unlike the collective grip of organised religion, atheism is always an individual journey of intellectual discovery.
“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987)
The most recent pondering of my atheism was sparked by the ‘Pray for Paris’ meme that circulated widely on social media in the wake of the barbaric Paris terror attacks.
I was wondering, why would people think prayer was an appropriate response when, presuming for a moment there is a god, clearly the god they would be praying to didn’t take steps to prevent this atrocity in the first place – why pray now?!
On the night of 13 November god would have been sitting up there, on his celestial throne, watching as over 100 people were slaughtered in his name. Not to mention the thousands of people who die every year in horribly unnecessary circumstances from war, terrorism, hunger and diseases. What ‘divine’ entity would create such things as Ebola, cancer and multiple sclerosis, just to mention a few? Such an entity would have had a clear choice at the time of ‘creation’ not to bring such things into existence.
Stephen Fry talks about god with Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life
The response to such questions by religious people varies, and it is often framed by the concept of ‘free will,’ or explained away by saying it is our ‘sins’ that cause such horrors, or that it is part of a greater plan by god who, by his nature, is a disciplinarian.
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
I do have free will, and I choose to use my human intellect to its full capabilities: to question and explore the world around me, and I refuse to settle for anything less.
Religion is faith.
But blind faith is ignorance with no room for reason.
And where there is no reason, there is no room for humanity.
“Life without Liberty is like a body without spirit. Liberty without thought is like a disturbed spirit … Life, liberty, and thought — three persons in one substance, eternal, never-ending, and unceasing.”
Khalil Gibran (1883–1931)
As a child I had exposure to a range of religious beliefs. I was raised a Catholic, but in my extended family there were relatives of the Jewish faith, and also Protestants.
My troubles with religion began early. To my grandmother’s shock and horror, as a child of nine and ten I started asking questions about the countless contradictions in the bible that made no sense to me. I also expressed concerns about what I saw as the bible’s questionable morality and values.
My exasperated grandmother and the local priest, bless their hearts, tried very hard to explain to me that at the heart of religion lied unwavering faith and unquestioning obedience to god.
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Even as a young child, this made my head explode. The more religious instructions I received, the more it contradicted logical examination, from Adam and Eve, to the virgin birth and a man walking on water and performing ‘magic tricks’ with bread and fish.
Of all the stories I was told, the concept of Jesus rising from the dead was perhaps the most fantastic and implausible story to me.
By the age of fourteen, I concluded the bible wasn’t for me and I came to consider it an amoral, violence filled, badly written piece of literature.
I preferred to read and appreciate the writings of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare, and discovered the beauty of biology, chemistry and physics.
The sheer implausibility of a god, and what I consider to be circular arguments of faith, led me to atheism and appreciating science and its rigour.
Can science explain everything? Of course not. Not yet. Our universe is incredibly complex and it offers up its mysteries slowly, and only to the curious, questioning and open-minded. However, I’m not compelled to fill those gaps with religious beliefs.
“Informed doubt is the very essence of science.”
Lawrence M. Krauss (1954-)
To me, the true beauty of our universe lies in the search for answers and knowledge through the scientific method: from raising a question, to developing a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis through experiment and observation, analysing the results, checking whether the outcomes of the experiment and observation can be repeated and, finally, drawing scientifically supported conclusions.
“All great truths begin as blasphemies.”
Annajanska (1919), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Science is a beautiful, rigorous and reasoned process that takes full advantage of the gift of human intellect bestowed upon us by evolution.
To put simply, some ideas and thoughts become scientific knowledge – others stay a ‘belief’. As to which, depends on the quality of proof offered to back it up …
“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”
Socrates (469-399BC), Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers
To me, atheism isn’t a ‘belief’. To me it is an educated and thoughtful state of mind, and an understanding of the proven laws of science. Atheism is the absence of belief.
To call atheism a ‘belief’ is akin to calling non-smoking or non-gambling an ’addiction,’ or health a ‘disease.’
As an atheist I don’t ‘hate god’ either. I simply don’t accepts its existence. What doesn’t exist, I can’t hate. Were a god of the bible ever proven to exist, frankly I would have a few questions for him.
“If god exists, I hope he has a good excuse.”
Woody Allen (1935-)
While I’m a non-believer, I’m very comfortable with the fact that many people need faith in their lives.
However, I draw the line when faith interferes with my personal freedoms and liberties, and when it pushes teachings into the public arena that contradict observable facts, and consensus science.
I’m prepared to consider modifying my conduct and life for reasons supported by social and natural sciences. But not on the basis of ‘morals’ and ‘values’ captured in ancient religious texts that derive from an uneducated, unenlightened and intellectually primitive humanity from millenniums ago, who didn’t even know where the Sun went at night.
I’m particularly concerned by the push to enshrine in the law the historical privileges of religion to spread often ignorant, uniformed and scientifically discredited and unsupported ‘opinions,’ unimpeded and with impunity.
I would argue that, in the absence of evidence, a ‘belief’ or an ‘opinion’ is usually an ignorant, uninformed and sometimes even malicious prejudice, and as such no one is simply ‘entitled’ to an opinion. There is only ‘entitlement’ to what can be rationally argued, and factually supported.
“He that knows nothing doubts nothing.”
George Herbert (1593-1633)
It’s one thing to have personal faith in an ‘absolute truth,’ no matter how untenable it may be in the 21st century, and it’s another to legally protect it from challenge under discrimination laws and to try to enshrine such beliefs in public policy.
So-called ‘religious exemptions’ to 21st century anti-discrimination laws are intellectual cowardice. They are also a capitulation to the ‘morals’ and ‘values’ of an uneducated, unenlightened and intellectually primitive humanity from millenniums ago, captured in ancient holy texts even believers are forced to interpret selectively, because many of those ‘values’ are considered morally repugnant, or even illegal, in modern, liberal, secular societies.
In a 21st century secular, liberal democracy the right to ‘religious freedom’ cannot be unfettered. For example:
- religious beliefs cannot be equated with, or override, proven observable facts, and social and scientific theories; and
- freedom of religion must give way when it comes into conflict with the dignity of human beings.
‘Religious freedom’ is a human construct designed to assist the creation of stable societies, by preventing religious people persecuting each other due to their differing beliefs and faiths. ‘Religious freedom’ was never designed to be used as a weapon to deny others their innate, inalienable human rights.
In a liberal, secular society, rights that protect mere intellectual constructs, no matter how historically sacred, must bow to the dignity, and inalienable human rights, of actual people. For this reason ‘religious freedom’ must bow to the rights of women and the LGBTI community, among others. Being a woman or LGBTI is innate, and unchangeable, and their rights to full protection under the law and equality is not negotiable nor can it be subjected to ‘religious freedom.’
There is a significant difference between attacking a person’s human rights and right to equality on the basis they are LGBTI, a ‘sinner,’ or a woman, and questioning an intellectual construct such as religion and its surrounding ideology.
Attacking a person because of their inherent biological characteristics, which are neither harmful nor illegal, is unlawful discrimination.
Questioning ideologies, including religions, and debunking their mythology, is not a crime, but an integral part of humanity’s cultural, intellectual and social evolution. If you choose to prescribe to a particular ideology, in a 21st century liberal society you have to be prepared to argue and support your case.
Religious institutions should always observe the separation of church and state and abstain from interfering with politics and public policy.
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Only public policy guided by common decency, human dignity and fairness, and informed by proven observable facts, and social and scientific theories, will be good public policy.
Such policies will arguably also always satisfy the fundamental principles of all religious beliefs, without importing the uninformed bigotry and prejudices developed and retained by their institutions over the centuries.
“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”
Le dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (1767), Voltaire (1694-1778)