Is There a God? Why I Am an Atheist and Humanist

UnknownMany different religions have been practiced throughout history and around the world – with endlessly different and conflicting stories. Can anyone be sure their faith is true, and all others are not?

You must ask yourself, “How does one know?” And with God, it’s impossible; a God as generally defined is quintessentially unknowable. We can know things about the natural realm, but not anything outside it; and if God created it, he would stand outside it, and thus outside the reach of human knowledge. No mortal could have special, privileged access to such information; all theologies are built upon nothing but imagination.

But actually, if there were a true religion, we would all know it. Because the world would be different. A fundamental truth about the very essence of things ought to be self-evident. God would not play hide-and-seek. images-3Of course, some believers think they see God in every butterfly. But Darwin gave us a more down-to-earth understanding; yet one, in its way, beautiful and awe-inspiring too.

What would a world with a God actually be like? For one thing, there’s the matter of evil and suffering. imagesStraining to reconcile this with the idea of a benevolent God has, from time immemorial, tied religious apologists in knots. None has ever made any sense. If God existed, things would be different.

Yet still believers assume God must be good. Why so? And what would “goodness” mean to God anyway? Why should it mean what we think? An omnipotent God could make evil good. And if we supposedly get morality from God, where did he get it from?

images-4This is just a taste of the tangles the God idea entails: a quicksand of incoherence and contradiction. If you think only God can explain creation, a being so powerful and complex would himself require an explanation bigger than the one he’s supposedly supplying. There is no such explanation – except for humans wishing that reality were different than it is – especially the reality of death – and that there’s so much injustice. Isn’t it obvious that religion was made up by ancient people, with limited knowledge, to fill such wishes, and explain what seemed inexplicable? And that common sense (and Occam’s Razor) tell us such fairy tales can’t possibly be true?

All the holy books were written by humans. Unknown-3Calling a book God’s word doesn’t make it so. None contains anything that ordinary people couldn’t have written. Indeed, they’re all such flawed books that any self-respecting deity would disclaim responsibility.

In sum, the world we see is totally inconsistent with the idea of a God, and totally consistent with nongoddity. Everything is natural, explicable in terms of nature itself, requiring nothing “supernatural” outside it. One by one, science has been solving the mysteries, and the answers never include God. We shouldn’t expect a different outcome regarding those questions yet to be answered.

Bigfoot -- at least there's a photo

Bigfoot — at least there’s a photo

Can I prove there’s no God? Well, nor can I prove there’s no Bigfoot. But the burden of proof is upon proponents of improbable theories. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And God is more improbable than Bigfoot.

So why do people who refuse to be convinced by conclusive scientific evidence for evolution accept religious doctrines with no evidence at all?

Because they want to. Human psychology seems highly susceptible to such beliefs; we crave them, and suspend our skeptical faculties. Faith is a belief divorced from facts or rationality; a choice to believe regardless. One can come up with rationalizations, but that’s just trying to justify a belief that’s already been chosen.

Atheism, in contrast, is not merely another “faith” or belief; my atheism is not a choice, it’s simply acknowledging reality. But it’s not a “belief in nothing” and it isn’t bleak. I’m fine with this reality, which gives us the opportunity to live rewarding lives. images-1Rather than being playthings of an inexplicable God, our fates are in our own hands. And we have not done too badly. We’re products of a natural world wherein goodness, justice and morality don’t even figure; but we’ve progressed to achieve at least some.

Indeed, this is modernity’s big story: the cynics and pessimists are wrong. Life is improving, with democratic and humanitarian revolutions, rising quality of life, and declines in violence and suffering.* This progress has occurred not in spite of religion’s weakening, but because of that. People freed of religion are better, not worse. Humanity is being liberated from the hindrance of religion’s stultifying fatalism and false beliefs, with our confidence now lodged instead in our own selves, and our ability to understand reality and thereby to change it.

images-2Thus my humanism is properly focused on humans. This world is the only one we’ve got, and making it better is what gives our lives meaning.

* See again my review of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

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31 Responses to “Is There a God? Why I Am an Atheist and Humanist”

  1. doughawes Says:

    Liked it. Very well done.

  2. Jorg Lueke Says:

    “but actually, if there were a true religion, we would all know it.” We do Frank, we all live it. Whether you call it a yearning, seeking enlightenment, individuation or anything else humans naturally grow into the mystery.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you Frank and it’s so difficult to have a conversation with many “believers.” Like last year at a picnic — “What, you don’t believe in God? Look at this child I’m holding, and tell me you don’t believe in God.” And he walked away, and steers clear of me since the encounter. At 75, I’m not only in tune with all you’ve written but I’ve become very hostile to religion — I see it as an evil force.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    To Jorg — “We all”? Nope, not me. And if you say (as you did on Facebook!) that I would be a machine — yes, of course I am a machine, a biological machine. But there is nothing mysterious about it, it’s all explicable by natural principles, as is everything else in nature. I do not “grow into the mystery,” I seek to learn more about reality.

  5. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Hi Frank. It’s all explicable? Even the existence of the universe? Maybe if you by into Hawking’s infinite universes idea where every choice leads to a parallel universe but that is pretty mysterious. I certainly don’t advocate for any dualistic religion, or any religion at all for that matter. But for me, rationally sitting quietly and observing my mind and thoughts has opened up a much richer world and it is mysterious to me.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Explicable, yes. That’s not to say we are in possession of all the answers yet. As I indicated in my post, there remain questions. I have written previously here about the problem of “why is there something rather than nothing?” An extremely difficult problem — for which religion is completely useless.

  7. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Let me follow up with one more point about certainty whether religious or atheistic. You say, “it’s all explicable”. Is it really? Lets take a lake where does a lake end and the air begin? Science has shown that conditions at boundaries are rather complex, the most famous example being fractals like the Mandelbrot set. So there doesn’t seem to be an easily explainable boundary at all. Even those fractal descriptions of boundaries require imaginary numbers. How you can explain something that can’t exist by it’s own definition? Electrical engineering also requires imaginary numbers, and cosmology requires dimensions no one can see or measure. Sounds kind of like invoking a creator (trust us we understand everything so long as we can make up the solution with things you cannot see and that aren’t real). Then, of course, you cannot know anything about any given particle without observation and observation changes the result so how separate from everything is the individual? Could we not be united in a single mysterious entity? I certainly don’t know and that’s about the only certainty I have regarding God or not God.

  8. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    The debate on religion, if that’s what it is, reminds me of something the venerable Dr. House once wisely observed: “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    Jorg– complex conditions at boundaries certainly don’t mean there is some “mystery,” certainly not a SUPERNATURAL mystery! It is merely a matter of properly understanding nature. Just about the only thing I feel I know with absolute certainty is that there’s no such thing as “supernatural.”

  10. Pedro Dunn Says:

    I share your attitude towards proof and the need for hard evidence. If God is the all powerful creator of all things, then his presence should be graded MS70 by all. On the other hand, the idea that there is no God, and that the universe simply has existed for all time, well, that’s also difficult to explain. Was there ever nothing, and if there was nothing, how did it turn into something? If there always was something, how can it have been always? Sorry, this is way above my pay grade – I’d like to go back to arguing about the government shutdown, or why one grading service is a better choice than another.

  11. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, Pedro. As noted, I’ve written recently about the problem of why the Universe exists: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/why-does-the-world-exist/
    Both the idea that it always existed, and the idea that it had a start, run into “How could that be?” There’s got to be a naturalistic answer, but it’s beyond our capabilities so far. But the idea of God doesn’t help at all. After all — where’d HE come from?

  12. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Frank, if one can’t explain anything in nature without imaginary numbers. If keeping track of more than three particle interactions is too much for the largest computers doesn’t it make more sense to acknowledge that we are ignorant rather than stating any certainties? It seems to me we are all connected with everything that exists and a conception of God as the being of Universe (the I AM and the I EXPERIENCE and the I FEEL) ties things together more nicely than the hope that someday we’ll understand logically all of creation.

  13. rationaloptimist Says:

    Jorg — no disrespect — but statements like “we are all connected with everything that exists and a conception of God as the being of the Universe” and so forth are meaningless statements. What I think they attempt to express is some vague feeling one has, but any attempt to actually explain them in unambiguous and meaningful terms will run into a ditch. This does not help me to understand reality.

  14. Scott Perlman Says:

    As Douglas Adams said in The Hitchhiker’s guide,
    “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

  15. rationaloptimist Says:

    Fairies is something else. I never said I don’t believe in fairies.

  16. Herb Van Fleet Says:

    Lack of a “felt presence” is not the only problem with religion. We can’t even agree on what the same religion is supposed to teach us.

    “Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book?” — Sogoyewapha, “Red Jacket” – Senaca

  17. Gregory Kipp Says:

    If there is such thing as a true religion, I would venture it could be found by comparing all human religions and finding those elements they all have in common. This core essence would be that truth which exists across all human cultures.

    But having a “true” religion doesn’t imply a god. In my view, religion is almost certainly a human construct emanating from a natural need for emotional and spiritual security.

    But if all religions are man-made, that still doesn’t disprove the existence of a god. Science informs us the cosmos is much stranger than it first appears, and higher dimensions may be possible. Who knows what sort of multi-dimensional intelligence could exist or what role they/it (?) might play in our lives if any.

    All one can really say is, there is no evidence that anything other than natural forces are at work in the world and cosmos around us. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there is no god active in our lives. But if a god does exist, it could act in ways not apparent to us here on Earth, so nothing is provable. I will just have to stick with being an agnostic, I suppose.

  18. Nol Says:

    Frank, while I basically agree with your stances of atheism and humanism, I’m not sure I agree with your reasoning.

    Regarding the supernatural, you said:

    “We can know things about the natural realm, but not anything outside it; and if God created it, he would stand outside it, and thus outside the reach of human knowledge.”

    And:

    “Just about the only thing I feel I know with absolute certainty is that there’s no such thing as “supernatural.”

    These statements seem to contradict. How can the supernatural be outside of human knowledge, and yet you still “know” there is no supernatural? Doesn’t that imply that you have (absolute!) knowledge of the supernatural?

    There are many reasons to disbelieve in the supernatural, but I don’t think your stated reasons are convincing. What do you think?

  19. rationaloptimist Says:

    I don’t see any contradiction. We can only have knowledge of the natural, and there is NOTHING else. But even if you THINK there is something else, it isn’t anything you can have knowledge about. (Though people often think they “know” things that they actually don’t.)

  20. Nol Says:

    Ah, I think I see what you are saying. I think you’re right that there is no necessary contradiction between your two statements. I do have some further issues that I’m curious about:

    How can you have absolute certainty that there is no supernatural? Is there no possible observation that could counter your certainty?

    Further, how can you defend the claim that one can never know anything about the supernatural? That appears to be a big assumption that most believers do not share. Whether it is direct experience of angels, demons, or God, it seems possible in principle to gain some knowledge of the supernatural.

  21. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Supernatural” is a contradiction in terms. If something exists, it’s natural. There’s nothing else.

  22. joel Says:

    Hi Frank,

    I’m not really sure what constitutes being a “humanist”. I think I might be a humanist myself, because I like humans. But I have noticed that quite a few of the humans I really like are religious. I disagree with them on this point, but I would never consider abandoning their friendship over this issue, as a previous comment reports. And they seem to tolerate me. I feel that I’m much better off without staking out my territory in the religious space, even if it is at the origin.

    Joel

  23. Nol Says:

    ““Supernatural” is a contradiction in terms. If something exists, it’s natural. There’s nothing else.”

    That’s an interesting view, but I think even many atheists find this questionable. However you’re defining supernatural does not fit how we use the word. Harry Potter style magic and incorporeal angels are not self-contradictory as you seem to claim, but they are basic examples of supernatural things. I agree that they do not exist, but their existence would not be a contradiction in terms.

  24. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Supernatural” means anything that violates the laws of physics or other natural laws, which cannot exist.

  25. Nol Says:

    I certainly don’t see a contradiction in terms, with such a description. Why should we accept “absolutely” that nothing could violate the laws of physics or other natural laws?

  26. rationaloptimist Says:

    Umm . . . because they are laws.

  27. Nol Says:

    Unless you’ve demonstrated with absolute certainty that the “laws of physics” hold in all cases, all the time, then you can’t say that they are unbreakable with absolute certainty.

    Just calling them “laws” doesn’t an argument make. It’s like defining God as the necessary foundation of the universe, and saying it’s contradictory to say God doesn’t exist, because he’s necessary.

  28. rationaloptimist Says:

    OK, one last time: I am not saying that the laws of nature as WE UNDERSTAND them are inviolable. Our understanding may be imperfect. But if we DID understand them perfectly (someday), those laws would be (are) inviolable. That IS an axiomatic principle. End of discussion!

  29. Nol Says:

    Well thanks for your patience in responding so much in the comments! I still don’t quite buy your formulation of natural laws, but I suppose the conversation has gone far enough. I appreciate the interesting subject matter.

  30. John salo Says:

    Dear people:
    Millions of people deal daily with God. Religion works and so does the bible.

    Sorry to burst your bubble.

    Diogenes

  31. rationaloptimist Says:

    Well, I guess that settles it.

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