'god'

Why we created ‘god’ …

Recently I wrote about being an atheist. Following my public declaration, I received a fair amount of correspondence from people worried about my spiritual wellbeing. Some offered kind words of concern, others had interesting questions challenging, and objecting to, my self-declared atheism, and there were a few who threatened me with ‘burning in hellfire’ for eternity. I’m not sure people in the latter group understand how atheism works.

And then there were those who questioned why I felt it was ‘necessary’ to ‘impose upon others’ by declaring my atheism – presumably because the various religions, and their respective adherents, have been traditionally so private about their beliefs, and their cultural and social implications.

… humanity created ‘god’ in its own image, and not the other way around …

The correspondence I received, including the many questions put to me, did make me think further about my atheism, religion, and ‘god’.

One of the first propositions I would make in response to the comments and questions put to me, is that humanity created ‘god’ in its own image, and not the other way around.

How else do you explain the great variety of mostly petty, vengeful, and intellectually flawed gods throughout human history, whose apparent main occupation often appears to be our sex life? Our gods are but mere constructs, reflecting our historical intellectual limitations, and our underlying nature which is capable of unspeakable brutality when divorced from our humanity and reason.

My grandparents were religious and attended church regularly, especially my grandmothers who often dragged me along to their respective churches while I stayed with them during school holidays. Despite the exposure to religious ‘teachings’, I cannot ever recall having been truly convinced of the existence of a god … not even as a child.

On the other hand, I always excelled academically. I learned to read at the age of four and after that I always had a book in my hand. At school I took to my science classes, from physics to chemistry, biology, geology, and math, like a duck to water. I always prided myself on my never-ending desire to acquire knowledge.

The idea of ‘creation’ stands contrary to an ever-growing body of scientific evidence …

Although I always found religious people, including my grandparents, fascinating, I never understood how they could believe in something that, judging by all reasonable evidence available, simply does not exist.

My grandparents tried very hard to instil the concept of ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ in me, but my mind always demanded evidence of their ‘all-knowing, all-powerful entity’ who allegedly created the entire universe only a few thousand years ago. The idea of ‘creation’ stands contrary to an ever-growing body of scientific evidence in respect of the birth of our universe, and the evolution of our (and other) species.

I find the scientific explanations of the birth of our universe, and the evolution of humanity, overpowering in the face of the religious ‘alternative’.

I never became a scientist as I planned in my childhood. As a teenager I was distracted by, and became more attracted to, humanities and the arts: literature, poetry, the theatre, music and history – records of our fascinating cultural and social evolution over the millenniums.

Although I would like to believe I am clever and bright, the truth is I am painfully aware of my own intellectual limitations, just how much I don’t know and understand, and how many people are out there who are smarter than I am.

Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and many more, pop to mind on this point almost immediately. What brilliant, and beautiful minds. But I digress …

Ignorance in the 21st century has inarguably become a deliberate lifestyle choice …

However, I am not frightened by what I don’t know and don’t personally understand. Why?

First, no one is capable of knowing everything.

Second, I can go out and learn more about any topic of interest at one of our many outstanding institutions of learning. Ignorance in the 21st century has inarguably become a deliberate lifestyle choice, especially in the West, where public education is generally available, and the internet democratised knowledge and information. Unfortunately, it also democratised misinformation and conspiracy theories – but that’s where ignorance becomes a deliberate lifestyle choice.

Third, as a species, we simply don’t have the answer to everything … yet. While this latter point may frighten some, for me it’s simply an intriguing and humbling admission that opens the door to further research, discovery and learning.

The recent groundbreaking observation of gravitational waves, first postulated by Einstein over a 100 years ago, is an excellent illustration of our unstoppable march towards understanding our universe. Another was the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2012, thanks to hard-working scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

I have come to accept that no matter how intelligent humans are, or will become, we will need time, and hard work by our scientists, to fully unravel the mysteries of our universe and existence. In the meantime inevitably there will be things we don’t understand, and cannot scientifically explain.

Am I willing to fill that ‘void’ with belief in an ‘all-knowing, all-powerful entity’? No, I am not! There is no longer a need to fill that ‘void’ by imposing a supernatural entity. As a species, humanity has now developed enough, and has a sufficient enough understanding of the universe, to be able to move forward, knowing that every single day science explains more and more of the world that surrounds us.

Extremists … exploit both the ruthlessness of religious theocracies, and the tolerance of liberal democracies …

I accept there was a time during our evolution when it was ‘natural’, even an evolutionary necessity, for humans to develop the concept of ‘god’, to help us along while we lacked a sufficient understanding of our world. However, that time has now well and truly passed. At the dawn of the 21st century, the concepts of ‘god’ and ‘religion’, have arguably passed their use by date, and an age of cultural, scientific and social enlightenment is the right direction forward for humanity.

A related, significant issue today is the increasing abuse of religion, including under the guise of ‘religious freedom’, whereby it is used not as a tool to comfort, but as a weapon of hate, discrimination, war and destruction. While many religious people are truly good and decent people, and channel their beliefs in a positive and constructive manner, some cynically and knowingly, or ignorantly and hatefully, manipulate the faith of others, resulting in horrendous crimes against humanity.

Extremists, as we call them, exist in all religions and they exploit both the ruthlessness of religious theocracies, and the tolerance of liberal democracies, to spread discrimination, hatred and violence. Religious theocracies must fall, and the manipulation of ‘religious freedom’ in liberal democracies to spread discrimination, hatred and violence must end, for the greater good.

… a question is never its own answer – a question is usually the beginning of a wonderful journey of discovery.

While it is normal for a young child to have an imaginary friend to help them through a time of discovery and development, it would be considered a pathology if that imaginary friend remained once the child grew into an adult.

While human society was underdeveloped, and lacked understanding of the universe surrounding it, it was natural to create, and rely upon, the concept of ‘god’ to make some sense of a world filled with wonders and dangers.

Now we know enough to start maturing as a species, and move beyond the limitations of religious beliefs, which at this stage of our social evolution risks developing into a social pathology.

There are those who consider the mere existence of the question of the ‘meaning of life‘ as evidence for the existence of ‘god’. However, a question is never its own answer – a question is usually the beginning of a wonderful journey of discovery.

Life IS beautiful, amazing and special, especially so because the chemical, biological and physical triggers for its spark, and our consequent evolution, are so complex.

Life on Earth has no ‘meaning’ in the sense some people are trying to find through religious beliefs. It’s by pure chance we find ourselves on a little blue planet which, in the great cosmic theatre of our universe, was just in the right place, just at the right time, with just the right conditions to develop life as we now it.

Those who keep searching for ‘meaning’ through ‘god’ and religion appear to be lost in an intellectual mal-manifestation of the ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ idiom.

Life IS beautiful, amazing and special, especially so because the chemical, biological and physical triggers for its spark, and our consequent evolution, are so complex. The rare and precious intelligence we developed is the icing on the cake, allowing us the unique experience of love, joy, happiness and, most importantly, reason.

Surely, if there is any ‘meaning’ to life, it is to work towards ensuring all 7.4 billion of us get to enjoy those amazing opportunities to the fullest.

We created a world, and societies with many flaws, which offers hundreds of millions of us the opportunity to lead amazing lives. Surely, if there is any ‘meaning’ to life, it is to work towards ensuring all 7.4 billion of us get to enjoy those amazing opportunities to the fullest, and correcting the flaws of our societies.

I never understood why some need to believe, even hope, the world would soon come to an end, the ‘Rapture’ would come and set them ‘free’, and lift them up to heaven for ‘eternal happiness’, when love, joy and happiness are available right here, right now in this one precious gift of life we have been granted by the universe?

… love, joy and happiness are available right here, right now in this one precious gift of life we have been granted by the universe …

The only rational explanation I can find is that deep down they are desperately unhappy and unfulfilled with their current reality, and seek false solace in religious dogma because they failed to discover what they were seeking all along – the real ‘meaning of life’: the enjoyment of the life you have, and filling it with love, joy, happiness, and reason …

… the real ‘meaning of life’: the enjoyment of the life you have, and filling it with love, joy, happiness, and reason …

I understand why some may be disheartened from time to time when they look at a world seemingly filled with suffering, from famine to hate and wars. However, belief in a ‘god’ will not in itself solve any of those problems. The solutions have to come from within us, through discovering our humanity and embracing the best parts of our nature to make our world a better place – the secret to happiness is not an all-powerful entity, but genuine human empathy and connectedness.


Q&A

Here is a selection of the most common questions that have been put to me about my atheism, together with my responses.

‘Who do you thank for Fridays?’
‘What do you say if someone sneezes?’
‘Isn’t your atheism just another belief?’
‘Why do you hate god?’
‘How do you know god doesn’t exist?’
‘Don’t you fear burning in hell?’
‘What if you are wrong about god and hell?’
‘Why do you love Hitler?’

‘Who do you thank for Fridays?’

I thank the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the calendar.

The concept of ‘Friday’ (and all other days of the week) is another human construct, designed to keep track of the passage of time as measured by an Earth year, the time the Earth takes to complete a full orbit around the Sun.

‘What do you say if someone sneezes?’

I am relaxed about saying ‘bless you’ as it is simply a commonly used expression. It is thought the expression came about because people variably used to believe that:

  • a person’s soul could be thrown from the body when they sneezed; or
  • sneezing opened the body to invasion by evil spirits; or
  • sneezing was the body’s attempt to expel evil spirits.

Another possible historical explanation behind the phrase is that it may have been an actual religious ‘blessing’ in times of the bubonic plague. In such a scenario today I would rather head to a doctor or hospital than receive a ‘blessing’.

It’s also worth noting there are different responses to a sneeze in different cultures. For example, the correct Hungarian response to a sneeze is ‘egészségedre’, which translates into ‘to your health’, without any obvious religious connotation.

‘Isn’t your atheism just another belief?’

Atheism is in fact the rejection of theist belief, or faith. Atheism, to me, is not a ‘belief’, rather it is an educated and thoughtful state of mind, and an understanding and acceptance of the proven laws of science.

Linguistically, to term atheism a ‘belief’ is like calling non-smoking or non-gambling an ‘addiction’ or health a ‘disease’.

‘Why do you hate god?’

I don’t hate ‘god’ for a very cogent and simple reason: I can’t hate what, from my perspective, doesn’t exist.

However, I do have a healthy dose of disdain for people who use the concepts of ‘god’, ‘belief’, ‘faith’, and ‘religion’ to spread discrimination, exclusion, hate, oppression, misery and violence among humanity, whether in the form of homophobia, racism, misogyny or zealotry.

‘How do you know god doesn’t exist?’

Well, this will blow your mind: I don’t.

However, I can’t entirely disprove the existence of unicorns, leprechauns or fairies at the bottom of my garden either, but that doesn’t mean they exist.

In any event, standard (scientific) reasoning usually requires someone who makes a positive assertion, or advances a theory (for example, that (a) ‘god’ exists), to provide appropriate proof for that assertion rather than keep making that assertion, and expect someone else who disagrees with the assertion to disprove it.

However, in the absence of any tangible evidence to the contrary over our entire human existence, I find the ongoing assertion of the existence of (a) ‘god’ implausible, and I am comfortable with the reasonableness of that conclusion. If and when appropriate evidence is presented to the contrary, I will be more than happy to re-evaluate my position.

On the evidence point, I don’t accept the bible (or other ‘holy’ texts) as evidence for the existence of a ‘god’. To me, the bible is a literary creation, reflecting the intellectual capacity, morality and time of its writers and, later, editors and translators. I would argue that an overwhelming majority of its stories and ‘moral’ teachings are not a great deal to aspire to in the 21st century (in fact much of it are illegal, or socially unacceptable today).

For me, the incredible satisfaction of atheism comes from not having all the answers and the adventure of looking for explanations for the wonders of the universe around us, and the amazing revelations when the inner workings behind those wonders are revealed by science from time-to-time.

‘Don’t you fear burning in hell?’

No. I do not accept that ‘god’ exists, and consequently I do not accept the existence of hell either.

‘What if you are wrong about god and hell?’

Although I don’t believe in ‘god’ (or hell) I also reject the assertions that goodness or morality can only come from ‘god’ and religion, or that people can only be good or moral if they believe in ‘god’.

Religions, including Christianity, have no exclusivity on human ‘goodness’ or ‘morality’. Believing in a ‘god’ never has been and never will be a prerequisite for morality, or the only source of human goodness.

Goodness and morality are arguably inherent biological and social traits – nothing more than genetics enforced by societal living, which relies on codes of conduct to survive and thrive. Living in a society, the way we treat people will directly affect how those people treat us in return and by being good to others, and collaborating with them, generally we hope to elicit the same social response.

There is even emerging scientific evidence of ‘moral’ behaviour in animals. If even apes can tell wrong from right, show empathy and demonstrate the basic components of what we commonly refer to as ‘morality’, perhaps humans can manage the same naturally, without ‘divine intervention’?

Frankly, one must question the true value and real nature of human ‘goodness’ and ‘morality’ that is merely the result of fear of judgment, and eternal punishment, by a supposed deity.

I am perfectly capable of choosing to be ‘moral’ and live a good and full life within society’s expectations without ‘god’ and religion.

In my view, one of the main reason religions are struggling in the 21st century, and the tension is increasing between mainstream secular society and the religious, is that while society has been subject to natural human social evolution, religions, to a large extent, have anchored and committed themselves to ancient texts they claim to reflect god’s will and give answers to humanity’s questions, but in reality contain too many unsuitable propositions for 21st century living, and an increasingly educated and knowledgeable population.

‘Why do you love Hitler?’

Initially I found this question very upsetting. As a gay man I’m very aware of the suffering inflicted by the Third Reich on millions of people, and the fact that millions of Jewish people, and also intellectuals and gays, had perished in Nazi concentration camps.

My short answer is that I don’t love Hitler.

My longer answer comes from my deeper exploration of the history of Nazi Germany, knowing that in certain circles it’s a popular assertion that Hitler was an ‘atheist’, and the Third Reich committed its crimes against humanity due to a void of religious morality.

My reading of history seems to contradict this assertion, especially speeches and statements made by Hitler himself:

‘My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.

In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison.

Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.

As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice . . .

And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only for their wages wretchedness and misery.

When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people are plundered and exploited.’
Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922 – August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)

‘And so I believe to-day that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord.’
Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf, 1925 – 1926)

‘We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.’
Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Berlin on 24 October 1933

So, even if we are to accept for argument’s sake that Hitler was an ‘atheist’ (contrary to a plethora of historical evidence), on the basis of his speeches, at a minimum, he would have been pretending to be a Christian in order to co-opt the religious morality of Catholic Germans to take part in the murder of Jews, intellectuals and gays in the name of god, Jesus and racial purity.

The historical evidence available to us is contrary to the simplistic assertion that atheism is to blame for the horrors of WWII.

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