Why I don't believe in a god (but respect your belief in one)

Introduction

I must say at the outset that I approach this topic with a great degree of reluctance and caution. I once went to a pub that had a sign forbidding discussion of politics or religion; this is presumably because both subjects are fraught with potential for hostile argument – argument that usually cannot be resolved (at least, amicably!). People tend to have a large emotional investment in their political and spiritual beliefs and any disagreement relating to these beliefs can "cut close to the bone". So the conventional wisdom is: "Don't go there."

And yet I will "go there" – at least in relation to religion. Why? For this simple reason: to explain my worldview.

I think I can do this without disrespecting others – including many of my friends and family who are religious. After all, one can fail to be convinced by another person's religious reasoning without finding fault with the person. The two do not need go hand-in-hand.

Perhaps this is where some of the "New Atheists", as they are termed, appear to go wrong: rightly or wrongly, they are seen to attack individuals as well as their reasoning. (I shall discuss the New Atheists later; many are intellectual "heroes" of mine because even if they are inclined to be more "argumentative" than I might be, I believe they perform a very useful – indeed necessary – function in arguing for a separation between church and state, among other things.)

Regardless of what some New Atheists might say or do, in this article I intend to focus squarely on outlining my position – without casting aspersions on people who disagree. In other words, I shall outline why I don't see any reason to believe in a supreme being of any kind. What others believe is entirely up to them and I absolutely respect them in this. Belief, or non-belief, is a totally personal thing.

We might not have much time for the particular belief, but we simply must respect individuals who hold such beliefs without affecting anybody else. Freedom of religion, or non-religion, is a basic right for a reason. The New Atheists would, I think, wholeheartedly agree.

So why bother writing this essay?

In writing this essay, I merely wish to give my religious friends and family some insight (should they be at all curious) as to why I am an atheist. Why should they be curious? Well, for starters, had I not been raised in an overwhelmingly religious (specifically Christian) world, I think I would be curious to know what they believed and why.

As it stands I think I have a fairly good idea of what Christianity is all about. For those who might say I "don't know enough about God", consider this:

Most of my schooling was characterised by morning prayers and Bible readings. We had religious education classes at least once per week. I've attended countless church services at the insistence of Christian friends of a variety of denominations (including the Catholic, Anglican, Calvinist, Uniting Church, "Born Again"/"charismatic"/"evangelist", etc.) as well as Christian events such as music concerts. I even attended two Christian youth group sessions when I was a teenager.

Then of course you have the obligatory weddings, funerals and baptisms etc.

Despite the fact that my parents were secularists, religion (specifically Christianity) was everywhere when I was growing up. It was impossible to avoid. And my parents never objected to me being exposed to religion. They actually encouraged it.

Studying the religions of the world

I think it is important to study the religions of the world; they have played such an important part in the history of human society.

I've read most of the Christian Bible (I haven't read it cover to cover – I tried but couldn't!). I've thumbed through the Q'uran and skimmed the Book of Mormon. I've read many a "Watchtower" newsletter left at my door and laboured through a third of "Dianetics" on a friend's recommendation. I've read widely concerning Buddhism and Hinduism. I've researched rarer religions like Zoroastrianism. Lately I've read works by Christian apologists such as Dr William Lane Craig and Dinesh D'Souza.

I've also studied the philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Daoism. Most importantly, I studied both philosophy and psychology at university. My philosophy course covered (in some depth) arguments for the existence of God and the related subjects of free will, determinism and morality. The study of psychology gave me some insight into human perception and general brain function while also examining factors such as conditioning and more generally environmental factors shaping our worldview.

In other words, I think I have a fair handle on religion, particularly the Christian kind, and I think I have a fairly good reason for assessing the role that religion plays in human society.

So, with due respect to some of my Christian friends, I really don't need to see "Preacher X" or "Pastor Y" in action; I don't need to "read the Bible more closely" or to "pray harder" or "be more open" (more on "open-mindedness" in a moment); I don't need to "consider arguments I've never considered before" (contrary to what some young Mormon proselytisers who came to my front door said recently).

I just don't believe in a god – of the Christian variety or any other. The suggestion (thankfully, made rarely) that my view can only be attributable to the fact that I "haven't read the Bible enough", or something similar is, frankly, insulting.

The impossibility of lying to yourself

To my religious friends, I always feel I must say "sorry" for not believing in their god. Because, in a way, I am sorry: I'm sorry for causing them distress (many of them feel I'm destined for Hell and I know they are genuinely concerned for me). I'm sorry that some have chosen not to associate with me because their beliefs dictate that they must do so (more on "division" later).

So I sometimes wish I could make them happy by "accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal saviour" etc. But, in the end, you can't make yourself believe something you don't. You can't lie to yourself. You can try – but in the end you must fail. Self-deception is unsustainable in the longer term (just ask any gay person who thinks he or she has, at one time, been "cured" of what is a manifestly innate and unchangeable orientation).

I liken attempted self-deception to waking from a dream: perhaps one where you can fly; or where you've discovered the cure to AIDS or the key to clean, renewable energy; or where a departed loved one is still alive. As pleasant as such a dream is, once you wake up you can't convince yourself – even for a moment – that it was true. You're awake and you know it didn't happen. It wasn't true. No matter how desperately you want it to be true, you know it isn't.

That's how it is for me and religion.

At least, that's how it used to be. I used to describe myself as a "reluctant atheist" because I really did wish there were a god with an afterlife in heaven etc. but just couldn't see a justification for believing it.

However I've lately come to the view that I would not positively wish for such a thing. In other words, I'm no longer "reluctant" in my atheism, but ambivalent - maybe even relieved (if we consider some of the religious models of an "afterlife"). I'll explain why I feel this way in another essay. For now it is sufficient for me to say that while I can see myself wanting to live for a couple of hundred years or perhaps even a thousand, I don't know how I'd feel after 100,000 years. Or a million. Or a billion. Or a trillion. Or the trillion after that...

Being "open-minded"

Christopher Hitchens once debated a Christian named Dennis Prager. Prager asked him whether he ever felt "doubt about his atheism" in the way Prager occasionally doubted the existence of God. Prager was trying to evidence that he, and other Christians like him, were more "open-minded" than Hitchens because they could admit to "doubting their position" occasionally.



But the comparison Prager was trying to make was misconceived. The fact that Hitchens did not feel "doubt about his atheism" is not comparable with Prager's doubts about his faith. These are really like chalk and cheese. Because Hitchens didn't "believe" in atheism. Rather, he didn't believe in a god. This is a subtle, but significant, point of distinction, as I shall soon detail.

I suppose that if Hitchens had had the time to give a fuller reply (the context prohibited it) he might have said something like: "Are you asking me whether I've ever had doubt about my doubt?"

By contrast, Prager has a positive belief. It is very easy to have doubts about a positive belief – especially if that belief is based on faith and on faith alone. Hitchens commonly said that he did not believe anything without evidence. I'm a bit the same. I can't make myself believe something on pure faith. I simply can't.

An appropriate counter question to Prager would have been: "Do you sometimes have doubts about the non-existence of Zoroaster, Amun-Ra, Zeus or Thor?" Prager would presumably have said "Of course not!" So it was with Hitchens – like Richard Dawkins, he simply went "one god further" and was atheistic about all gods.

We all have things in which we don't believe. For any of us, the list is quite large – possibly infinite (considering that we can't possibly believe in things we haven't even heard of!). The things in which we don't believe hardly ever come into our minds. When was the last time any of you considered Zoroaster, Amun-Ra, Zeus or Thor and had some "doubts" about your "disbelief" in those gods?

So was Hitchens being "narrow minded"? I don't think so. Had irrefutable evidence been presented for a deity, I'm fairly sure he would have had to accept it. This is how a rationalist approaches proof. And I have no reason to suspect that Hitchens was anything but a rationalist – even if I disagree with his views on certain subjects (eg. the invasion of Iraq).

Belief vs non-belief

Now I consider myself a rationalist. I don't believe in unicorns. By the same token, I don't believe in a god. That is because I don't see evidence for either (I'll say more on the "unfair" comparison between unicorns and gods in a moment). Neither comes into my mind on a daily basis. If tomorrow someone gave me compelling evidence for the existence of either gods or unicorns, I couldn't deny it. In the same way that I can't convince myself to believe something I don't, I can't convince myself to doubt something that has been proven to me. I don't think I have a capacity for that sort of self-deception.

So I'm an "atheist" not because I "believe there is no god." I'm an atheist because I don't believe there is a god. There is a big difference. One is a belief, the other is an absence of belief. My atheism is about as much a "faith" as "non-smoking is a habit", "not collecting stamps is a hobby" and "abstinence is a sex position" (to quote Bill Maher).



Put simply, I don't believe in a god because no one has ever given me any evidence that has come close to convincing me to do so. It's not because I "want to deny God so that I can sin" or because I'm "hiding from the truth". I really and truly don't believe there is a supreme being.

Denial, anger and emotional investment

It's important to note what I just said: my position isn't a position held defiantly or aggressively or defensively. It just is. It is a true a statement about my state of mind as it is true that most Christians don't believe in unicorns. I'm sure unicorns don't enter Christians' minds most of the time. And similarly, a god doesn't enter mine most of the time.

It is nonsense to say that I am "angry at God" just as it is nonsense to tell a Christian that he or she is "angry at unicorns". We are not "angry" about our non-beliefs. How can we be? Non-beliefs are, by nature, something in which we have no emotional investment whatsoever.

I have no emotional investment in there being no god. If tomorrow someone gave me evidence there was a deity, I'd say "cool" and carry on with my life (of course, being mindful of doing what this deity wanted and didn't want). As it happens, if that deity were the Christian God (as interpreted by moderates today) I'd pretty much live the same sort of life that I'm living now (the only real difference is that I'd probably go to church!). In other words, I suspect that my life is pretty much lived in accordance with how most modern Christians would say their god wants me to live.

It's a similar situation with unicorns. If tomorrow someone discovered credible fossil remains of a unicorn, I'd say "cool" and carry on living my life the way I'm living it now (although I still wouldn't go to church!). There would be no reason to "deny it" or "hide from it" or "be angry" at those who bore this news. It would be a fact, and that would be that.

Unicorns, god and "unfair" comparisons

Whenever the analogy of unicorns is raised I sense an increased tension among religious people and I think I understand why. It seems somehow deeply unfair for the god that they sincerely worship to be compared to some frivolous, imaginary or mythical construct such as a unicorn (or Bigfoot, leprechauns, fairies, the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus, Flying Spaghetti Monster etc.).

First, let me assure my readers that I'm not citing unicorns to denigrate the belief in a god. I've not chosen a mythical creature as a kind of caricature. I've cited it only to illustrate that fact that both "hypotheses" are inherently incapable of being falsified.

What do I mean by this?

Something that cannot be falsified is something that can be neither proven nor disproven. If I said to you that I had a unicorn in my garage, you might be inclined to go and see. If you found no unicorn there, you would have falsified my claim. But if I said the unicorn was magically incapable of detection by any of the five senses, my claim would not be falsifiable. I might have an invisible, undetectable magical unicorn in my garage – or I might not. There would be no way of testing the claim one way or another.

As unfortunate, uncomfortable and seemingly insensitive as the analogy might be, the same argument applies to the existence of a supreme being. You can't test the claim for such a being; the claim can't be falsified. In this respect (and only in this respect), it is no different from a claim that unicorns exist.

The lack of evidence

In order to distinguish a "god hypothesis" from a "unicorn hypothesis" we would need some evidence for the former. However, as much as people would have you believe otherwise, none has ever been provided.

For all the claims of "proof" of miracles (eg. the resurrection of Christ) we simply have no evidence for any of this – never mind evidence that is persuasive or conclusive (ie. that constitutes proof). It is, at its very best, the most distant form of hearsay. At worst it is transparent myth. Either way, it isn't evidence – not in the sense of the word as used in law, science or logic.

The same applies to proof by way of "Biblical (and other holy book) prophecies coming true" etc.

If you believe there is such evidence exists we'll have to agree to disagree. Let's just say that if it did constitute evidence, there would be no debate; science would have recognised these "miracles", prophecy "fulfilment" and other phenomena long ago.

I have previously dealt with "a priori" proofs, ie. proofs based on "logic" alone and without evidence (although I left out the infamous "ontological argument" which is really so absurd that I won't dignify it with a rebuttal – it involves "defining god into existence"!). Such "a priori" proofs don't amount to "evidence", as is hardly surprising; how could a few words being shuffled about on a piece of paper prove anything? To prove something you need evidence!

The amazing "design" of our world

The immediate retort to my preceding discussion might be: "Of course there is evidence! What about the world around us?"

This response reflects a kind of background assumption that very existence of the universe somehow necessitates a supreme being – someone or something that acts as an "intelligent designer".

This is commonly called the "argument by design" or the " teleological argument", and has as its progeny the "fine-tuned universe" argument. At the core of these arguments is the notion that the universe seems to be so intricate, orderly and "finely tuned for life" that there must be a designer; the universe couldn't possibly have arisen from natural processes.

I will address those arguments in detail in another essay. For the time being it is sufficient to note that they are necessarily baseless; any appearance of "design" or "fine-tuning" in nature is explicable entirely by that which we choose to see or how we choose to interpret what we see in the universe – not how the universe truly is: chaotic, impersonal and almost exclusively hostile to life in the form we know it (ie. considering the miniscule - even on the most generous estimates - percentage of the universe where life of our kind might be sustainable).



The idea that life is "designed" belies the many flaws in biology that the most rudimentary engineer would have eliminated. Indeed, if life is consistent with any paradigm, it is overwhelmingly consistent with an impersonal evolution, governed by factors such as natural selection, genetic drift and small mutations from generation to generation. We survive as a species despite our "flaws" in "design" (eg. the fact that our heads are too big for our mothers' birth canals or that our functionless appendices are prone to rupturing, or that we have mouths too small to accommodate our teeth, our eyes have blind spots where octopus eyes do not, etc.). We can and do survive as a species. But it remains evident to me that even the poorest "designer" would have spotted certain obvious flaws in our "design" and fixed them instantly.



The notion that other patterns in nature are "designed" might seem intuitive, but it only arises out of an insufficient understanding of science. For example, science has perfectly good natural explanations for the intricate patterns in nature (eg. a snowflake or rainbow), the structure of atoms and molecules, the synthesis of proteins, the electrochemical brain processes that comprise our thoughts, the formation of a planets, stars and galaxies, etc.: there is no need to resort to supernatural explanations for any of these. And, as I have argued previously, nothing presently requires or suggests an "intelligent designer" to have "started things off".

What about personal "revelation"?

Last, evidence by "personal revelation" is also not "evidence". As convincing as it might be to an individual who feels he or she has been "spoken to by God", to the outside observer, his or her claim is indistinguishable from a hallucination or delusion. It's important to note that I'm not saying that it is either. I'm saying that it is indistinguishable from either to a person who has not had this "revelation". It is a claim that, like the invisible, undetectable unicorn in the garage, is not capable of being tested in any way.

Richard Dawkins, one of the New Atheists, has gone further to claim that it is a hallucination. I'm not going to go that far.



For my purposes, all I need say is that "revelation" is not evidence, as powerful as it might seem to the "recipient".

Okay – you can't prove anything and I can't prove it: doesn't that make us even?

In the end, there is simply no evidence, never mind proof, for the existence of a god. Absolutely none. (If you disagree then take it up with the scientific community and publish a peer-reviewed paper citing your evidence!)

I can hear the response: "But, that doesn't prove God doesn't exist!"

Indeed this is completely correct. I have never asserted, nor will I ever assert, that I can prove that there is no god. The existence of a god can be neither proven nor disproven.

I remember in my first year at university being accosted by a fellow student after a philosophy lecture. He was determined to bend my ear on the subject of the existence of a deity. "We can't prove it either way – so we're on equal ground."

Sorry, but that's not correct. Remember the question of whether a claim can be falsified? Well a claim about the existence of a god can't be falsified – just like a claim regarding unicorns can't. By now you should be getting a clearer idea of why people like me use unicorns as an analogy: just because something can't be disproven doesn't mean its existence is as plausible as its non-existence.

If the unicorn analogy still seems somehow "offensive" to you, then consider Bertrand Russell's famous "celestial teapot": Russell wrote that if he claimed that a teapot were orbiting the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, it would be nonsensical for him to expect others to believe him on the grounds that they could not prove him wrong. The same applies to the existence of a god. You can claim a god exists, but my inability to disprove this doesn't mean your claim is somehow validated.

The person making a claim is the one who bears the burden of proving it. No one else is required to consider it as plausible, never mind true, until some evidence is provided.

The burden of proof

There is no shortage of (let's be frank) idiotic Youtube videos proclaiming "The atheists worst nightmare" as the question: "Can you prove there is no God?" This isn't any kind of nightmare for atheists. The validity of our position does not depend on such proof.

It reminds me of when a Christian evangelist named Douglas Wilson commented in a television interview with Christopher Hitchens that: "Christians and atheists are both scrambling for the high ground of who has to do the proving".

No, they're not.



The burden of proving a claim something always rests with the person asserting it. This isn't some annoying atheistic contrivance. It is simple logic:

If I assert something (like the existence of Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot) I have to prove it. It doesn't fall on someone else to "disprove the existence of the teapot". People who "don't believe in the teapot" don't positively believe there is no teapot. They just aren't convinced by my assertion there is such teapot. I have the burden of convincing them. If I didn't then I could pretty much make up anything and get away with it.

For example, I could claim that someone owed me $10 billion dollars and they would have to cough up the cash and we could argue about it later. People could be arrested, convicted and punished – and only then tried by judge and jury. But that isn't how logic works. A person making a claim has the burden of proving it.

Atheists do not claim "there is no god". The theist claims there is one. The theist bears the burden of proving this claim.

I recall watching a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dr William Lane Craig. During the question and answer time after the debate, Hitchens evinced similar sentiments to those I have just related about the difference between "believing" and "not believing". Craig declared the argument to be what he called, with some apparent surprise, "ah-theist" as opposed to "ay-theist".



That a "doctor" of philosophy should feign ignorance about the meaning of "atheist" is, to me, patently disingenuous. Craig knows too well what "atheist" means. He knows it just as he knows that "amoral" is not the same as "immoral". The distinction Craig is drawing is, I believe, purely for his audience in the debate. No first year philosophy student (never mind a "doctor" of philosophy) would be ignorant about the fact that atheism is, and always has been, the absence of a belief – not a positive belief.

And if you have a positive belief, you have the burden of proving your belief. I don't have to "disprove" anything in order to hold a contrary view. When it comes to the existence of a supreme being, atheism is the default position in logic, just as the non-existence of celestial teapots and unicorns is the default. In logic they are indistinguishable from each other.

Why this comparison might still seem "unfair"

I suppose what makes this hard for some religious people to accept is that they are coming from a background where, very likely, the existence of a supreme being – particularly their version – has never been questioned. In fact, if in some Muslim countries where Sharia law applies, it is even a capital offence to question the existence of a deity (in other words, you could face the death penalty for apostasy).

Leaving aside such extreme examples, it is true to say that even in predominantly Judeo-Christian Western societies (eg. the USA) there are areas where people are surrounded by religious conviction "from the cradle to the grave".

By contrast, we can be fairly sure that no one is raised in a community where people believe in a "celestial teapot" or in unicorns, never mind where such a belief is ubiquitous or mandatory.

So the analogies with teapots and unicorns seem, intuitively, "unfair". People might say: "The overwhelming majority of my community – in fact an overwhelming percentage of the world's population – believe in a god. Why are you still comparing this to celestial teapots and unicorns?"

Truth is not decided democratically

Well I'm making the comparison for this reason: truth isn't decided by popular vote. Evidence isn't a democratic institution. It is fact. Truth is truth even if no one believes it. An assertion for which there is no evidence at all is not made any "firmer" because many people, or even a majority, believe it. If it did, then we could simply tally the number of followers of religions today to determine which one was the "right one".

Even then, we might find that the fastest growing religion is not the one that is presently the most popular. While Christianity might have the most followers today, in 50 years time Islam might well have eclipsed it. Should we then base our "democratic truth" on projected figures of religious belief? What will we do in, say, 5,000 years when (in all likelihood) most of today's religions (including the most "popular" ones) have died out (as happened to the Ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman, Pagan European etc. beliefs)?

Truth is not determined by a vote. This factor alone should make Christians suspicious about, say, the First Council of Nicea where the orthodox canon of Christianity was determined. At the Council, whole books of the New Testament, with equal claim to historical validity, were "voted out" of the New Testament. More importantly, the Council determined other issues now central to Christian beliefs, eg. Christ's divinity as the son of God (rather than his status as a mere prophet – a position taken by many early Christians and still taken in Islam) and the existence, and nature, of the Holy Trinity. These issues were all decided by a committee of men – by vote!

Truth can never be determined in such a fashion. It can only be determined by evidence.

So what kind of evidence are we talking about?

Spanners in the garage vs. extraordinary claims

Carl Sagan famously said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". What did he mean?

Well I might make a claim that isn't extraordinary at all. For example, I might say that I have a spanner in my garage. You might be inclined to believe me without any further evidence. Why? Because the claim seems quite likely given other evidence you've seen in your life. You've been to countless garages and seen countless spanners there; that is where most householders keep their spanners. In other words, you might accept, as proof, my direct evidence that I have a spanner in my garage.

Now if I said that, say, David Bowie kept a spanner in his garage, you might think it likely. But you probably wouldn't accept my testimony as "evidence" – it would be second, third or fourth hand hearsay at best (particularly since you would have good reason to suspect that I don't know David Bowie – or even whether he has a garage). At worst the claim would be fictitious. Regardless, this claim would still be fairly "unextraordinary" – so you might still accept it certain circumstances.

If, on the other hand, I claimed that I had just seen Elvis and Michael Jackson flipping burgers at my local McDonalds, you would be inclined to doubt my "direct evidence". Ditto with any claim that I had been abducted by aliens. You might consider me honest and sincere – but under a hallucination or delusion. Or you might suspect me of lying. Or merely joking. Either way, my extraordinary claim would require some far greater proof than my word. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary levels of proof.

If I told you that someone else had seen Elvis and Jackson at a McDonalds, you'd have reason to be even more sceptical. Which is more likely – that this extraordinary hearsay is correct or that, at some point in the chain, the "evidence" is fundamentally flawed?

"Two men say they're Jesus – one of them must be wrong"

There's a line in the song "Industrial Disease" by the band Dire Straits that goes: "Two men say they're Jesus – one of them must be wrong." It encapsulates perfectly the problem with extraordinary claims that are not accompanied by extraordinary evidence. Because the most likely answer to this conundrum is not that "one of them must be wrong". Yes, it is true that at the very least one of them must be wrong (unless of course Jesus, being a god, made a copy of himself). But the (far) more likely truth would always be that both are wrong.

To paraphrase David Hume: "Which is more likely – that the whole natural order is suspended or that Jesus has come back again and is arguing with an imposter?"

In the same vein, which is more likely:
    that a man who allegedly lived about 2,000 years ago was actually the "son of god", was born of a virgin, died and came back to life after three days; or that we have before us a myth that, like so many other myths in history, contains supernatural elements?
The New Testament vs. other religious miracles

Since it is without any evidence, the Christian story is really indistinguishable from similar tales from other religions which contain the same elements. Consider just the question of a "virgin birth":
  1. The Hindu god Vishnu descended into the womb of Devaki and was born as her son, Vaasudeva (ie., Krishna).
  2. In Sufism the poet Kabir is said to have been born of a virgin widow.
  3. In Buddhism, the Great Being entered Maya's womb from her side, in the form of a white elephant and she then gave birth to Buddha.
  4. According to Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, Marduk was born of a virgin.
  5. The ancient Egyptians believed that Horus was born of the virgin Isis...
And so on.

The same parallels exist with all the other elements of the New Testament narrative. For example, death (sometimes by crucifiction) and resurrection (often after 3 days) etc. are common to many mythologies. The notion that the person dying was the "son of a god" or a "incarnate deity" is another strong parallel. I won't bore you with the details – you can look them up fairly easily.

Suffice it to say, I'd need some pretty extraordinary evidence to satisfy me that the laws of the universe were suspended for a brief time 2,000 years ago – and that the story of the New Testament is not just another myth, borrowing from a long line of similar myths predating it in the Middle East.

"But that isn't proof against the existence of God!"

It is important to note here that I'm not "mounting a case against" the existence of a god (Christian or otherwise). I'm merely pointing out that the claims made by religions are, by their very nature, extraordinary. So extraordinary that they warrant extraordinary proof. Yet I have seen no such proof. Accordingly I see no reason to believe in a god. (In a future article I propose to deal with specific issues I have with claims about the Christian god – and why I find these claims to be especially extraordinary. For now, my general remarks should suffice.)

This doesn't mean that there definitely is no god. It just means that, from my perspective, belief in a god has no basis in reason. It must rely solely on faith.

I'm not going to go further and say that "no one should believe something without evidence". In this regard I'd like to remind you of my opening remarks concerning respect. I am aware that my preceding remarks might offend some of my readers, but that is not my intention in saying them. You can't say "I am not convinced by your argument and here's why" without saying something that casts doubt on the veracity of another's (cherished and sacred) beliefs. In other words, to explain my position I must, regretfully, say something that is contrary to another's beliefs. But I haven't said anything with the intention of ridiculing another's position. In fact, I haven't said anything that is extraneous to explaining my position, ie. why I don't believe there is a god.

And what I have said should in no way be read as a recommendation that you too shouldn't believe in the existence of a god. Because while I hold that there is no evidence justifying a belief in a deity, this doesn't mean that I disparage the idea of a belief based on faith alone.

Back to the question of respect

For example, I personally don't believe in lucky charms. But if a friend likes to carry a lucky charm to a sports event, what business is it of mine? None. It only becomes my business if the friend insists on making it my business – by trying to convince me join him/her in believing in the powers of the charm to help our favoured team win. If the friend quietly goes about his or her belief, I have nothing but absolute respect for that. (I have even bought lucky charms for friends, knowing that it pleases them.)

We all have a right to believe things without evidence if we want to; particularly when those beliefs are harmless and can give us some hope or comfort – as per my "lucky charm" example. Humans seem to have the capacity for a "blind spot" when it comes to certain matters. I suspect most people have at least some beliefs that can't withstand logical scrutiny (perhaps even avowed "rationalists" like me!). Perhaps we, as a race, need to have this in order to cope with the "human condition". I don't know. All I know is that this ubiquitous human trait is worthy of respect when it presents itself in this harmless and personal way.

And in the end, I don't have proof that all beliefs based solely on faith are wrong. Proposing that would be ridiculous. For example, I simply cannot demonstrate that the lucky charm will never, ever work. There is a chance (albeit a very slim one) that I am wrong about it. I have already stated that I cannot prove the non-existence of a supreme being.

So if I ever denigrated a friend for his or her quiet, personal beliefs, then I would indeed be crossing the line; I'd not only be crossing the line in a personal sense by disrespecting my friend as an individual with feelings (feelings about which I should, and do, care) but I'd be starting to make my own positive assertion – one that itself requires proof.

The nature of atheism

This is not what "atheism" is. "Atheism" does not foist itself upon others. It does not proselytise. It is not, itself, a "worldview" with an accompanying dogma. Atheism is not a statement that "I find your beliefs to be false." It is the statement that "I find your beliefs to be unproven."

Yes, atheism is often part of a broader scepticism (as evidenced by my own scepticism of lucky charms and other superstitions) but it does not need to be. I know many atheists who are "spiritualists" or believe in a host of other "paranormal" phenomena. Many Buddhists are, in fact, atheistic since their religion does not relate to a deity. Other atheists are "secular humanists" with their own specific ideas of morality shaped by modern philosophy.

So atheism is not some sort of over-arching philosophy or worldview: Rather it is a position taken on one single issue, namely whether or not there is a supreme being.

And when it comes to this position, atheism is, as I have previously noted, the default position – the "null hypothesis".

Atheism and humanity

Atheism also happens to be the default position into which we are born. Despite talk of a "god gene" I don't think there is any evidence that we are even born "religious". At best we are born with a natural curiosity that morphs into religion when we are faced with the mysteries of the this incredibly complex universe, coupled with an awareness of our own a very limited personal knowledge about how the universe works.

Regardless, no one is "born" a Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, etc. If you are religious, the chances are very high that the religion you choose to follow is that which you were taught, if not by your parents then by others from the society into which you were born.

Yes, there are exceptions: I have a friend who was born a Christian but converted to Islam. I have many friends born into Anglicanism and Catholicism who have converted to the "Charismatic" or "Born Again" churches. Others have converted from Christianity to Buddhism. Others still have converted from a "mainstream" religion to become Jehovah's Witnesses or Scientologists. But these conversions happen by choice – not at birth.

Regardless, in the main, most people adhere to the religion of the society into which they were born. Most fundamentalist Muslims would have been fundamentalist Christians or Hindus etc. but for a twist of fate, namely where and when they were born.

And as I've mentioned (and as Richard Dawkins has pointed out), most religious people tend to be atheists about every other god but theirs. Dawkins and I just go that one step further to disbelieve in every god.

The "New Atheists"

Despite my own lack of belief, I accept that religion is a fact of human life. I am not going to say that it can or should be "eradicated": I am pragmatic enough to recognise the former as impossible and too respectful of people to suggest the latter. Religion is, and always will be, is an important part of many people's lives.

Where New Atheists like Dawkins appear to be controversial is their uncompromising criticism of religion. Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" might well accord entirely with my atheistic views in a logical sense, but I can see that it is insensitive to the beliefs of others. Consider this:

We might conclude that certain beliefs are lacking in evidentiary foundation; but to imply that those who hold those beliefs are "deluded" is, in my view, going too far. While Dawkins is, I believe, manifestly correct in his logical assessment of religion, I wouldn't have phrased my argument quite so insensitively. It is one thing to disrespect an idea. It is another to disrespect an individual.

Similarly, Christopher Hitchens' book "God is not great: why religion poisons everything" is, for me, a great read that outlines many of the pitfalls of faith-based belief. But I can see why it upsets many religious people. It is clearly quite disrespectful of them as individuals (even though Hitchens might have asserted otherwise when confronted with such an allegation).

And I don't think it's true that religion truly poisons everything. I know a great many religious people who quietly adhere to their faith without hurting anyone. I wouldn't go so far as to say their faith is what makes them "good people": I think they would be "good people" regardless of whether religion was part of their lives; they happen to be empathic, decent human beings. But they certainly aren't made "poorer" by the fact that they go to a church/synagogue/mosque/temple once per week – or if they light candles at a home altar. Religion needn't "poison" anything. That it can and does in some cases is another matter. I think it is inaccurate and unfair to link religion inextricably with the evils committed in its name.

The necessity of separation of church and state

However what Hitchens and Dawkins do highlight, emphatically and persuasively, is the paramount need for separation of church and state. It is only through this separation that we can eliminate, or at least hamper, the potential for evil done in the name of religion.

People can and should hold onto their religious views. But such views should play no part in forming the policy of governments. The state should, in every instance, be secular.

It is only through secularism that we can protect freedom of religion – or non-religion! We can't be teaching religion in a science class (government policy on education), enacting laws that discriminate against homosexuals (government policy on "morality"), denying birth control (eg. the pill or vasectomies) in public hospitals (government policy on health) or starting wars based on "jihads" or "crusades" (government international policy on external affairs). Government and religion need to be kept separate (as is enshrined in the US constitution, but ironically in few others).

Because religion is supported entirely by faith, not evidence, it cannot be the basis of decisions that affect the way a society functions.

A godless morality

We don't need religion as the moral basis of our laws. Consider that only two of the ten commandments are laws in most Western, Judeo-Christian countries around the world (ie. murder and perjury). The rest of the commandments are, frankly, repugnant to the law: why should a government pass laws criminalising adultery, working on the Sabbath or coveting your neighbour's ass? Most of all, what would the commandment against "having no other gods before me" be other than a denial of freedom of religion?

I propose to deal with secular morality in another article. For the time being I will simply say this: we don't need, nor should we want, religion to tell us the principles under which we should run our societies. The religious beliefs of one section of society should not be forced onto another – even if those beliefs are held by the overwhelming majority. Consider this for a moment: If 99% of a particular society felt it was correct to enslave 1%: would that make such slavery "right"? Of course not!

We have seen how a society looks when its laws are shaped by "absolute morals" dictated by religion. The laws of European nations during the middle ages (with their "witch hunts" and Inquisition, crusades etc.) provide a good example. Sharia law in Islamic republics provide a modern equivalent. Saying "the Taliban have the wrong religion" is not the answer; they are sincerely following what their religion tells them. Once you accept a union of church and state, the question of whether their religion is "correct" or not is just a matter of opinion as to detail.

No, the true answer is that religion, of whatever kind, has no place in government. It should stay completely out of it. In that way, the potential "poison" of which Hitchens spoke can be avoided (at least to a large degree).

Society as a "secular contract"

So where does "morality" come from in a secular state if not from a supreme being? I see it like this:

We live under a kind of "social contract"; we agree to live together in a harmonious and orderly fashion. Our "morality" stems from universal, pragmatic and democratic considerations governing this contract – not some absolute morality as dictated in different (often incompatible) religious texts. Our laws embody a democratic consensus as to the terms of that contract – not a view as to what is "divinely ordained".

When the separation of church and state starts to break down and extraordinary beliefs, unsupported by extraordinary evidence, start to dictate how we must live our lives – whether we share those beliefs or not. And when this happens, I hold it to be self-evident that division and harm follow.

The New Atheists will assert that "offending" people is a small price to pay for bringing attention to this potential. I tend to agree: while I'm not the type to openly denigrate the firm, but quiet and private religious convictions of, say, my dear beloved great aunt, I can see why the New Atheists feel they have to. Someone needs to break down the barrier of "political correctness" that surrounds discussion of religion in a public forum – particularly in the United States where Christian fundamentalism has, for decades made any objective criticism of religiously-driven policy "off limits".

This is to say nothing of the need to draw attention to the burgeoning new fundamentalism in predominantly Islamic countries – as well as in Western countries where religious tolerance and, in some cases, asinine political correctness, have conspired to give radical Islamism a power and influence it should never have been allowed to have.

Why we need the New Atheists

So I think we need the New Atheists to offset the "religious right". It is only in this way that we can negate the threat posed by those who seek to depose, or at least erode, secularism in our governments.

Whatever else one might say of them, it is almost entirely thanks to the New Atheists that we now have a kind of “social permission” to question certain extraordinary beliefs that motivate acts of division and harm – where in the past we dared only question the acts themselves.

Accordingly, while I don't share the insensitivity of the New Atheists towards a large portion of the populace, I see their role as vital to preserving fundamental human rights and shaping the future of society. Ironically, the New Atheists are directly engaged in protecting the very religions they criticise. And I'm certain they wouldn't have it any other way. That's why I continue to admire Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dan Dennett and others – why they are "intellectual heroes" of mine – regardless of the fact that I wouldn't dream of adopting their confrontational, and occasionally disrespectful, approach to discussing religion.

Conclusion

I hope that in writing this essay I have been able to meet my main objective, and that is to explain my own atheism as arising out of an honest and sincere inability to believe in a supreme being – not a "rebelliousness", "avoidance" or "disillusionment".

To me, belief in a god is entirely a matter of faith. This is because the existence of god cannot be proven. Yes, neither can the contrary. But the burden of proving a claim rests with the person making it. So far, the burden in relation to a supreme being has not been discharged – at least, not to my satisfaction.

This is not to say that I wish to disparage anyone else for believing in a god. I respect the beliefs of my friends and family because I respect them as individuals. I know many wise, intelligent, honourable, and decent human beings who happen to be religious. I would not "judge" them by their belief any more than I would want them to judge me for my non-belief.

And anyway, I might be wrong (even if I think the chances are very slim, I can't discount the possibility)!

We must all be true to ourselves. For my religious friends and family, this means a faith that there is a "higher power". In my case this means not believing until I have sufficient proof. If that proof is ever established, I'll become a believer. But until that time, I will remain an atheist. I can't make myself believe something that I do not.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic
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