The Rationale for Atheism

I consider myself an atheist, a freethinker, a scientist, a skeptic, and a secularist. As an atheist, I do not believe in the existence of any gods. I don’t know for certain whether there is a god, and neither does anyone else. Perhaps we all find out some day; perhaps we do not.

People may choose to believe in the existence of one or more gods because it gives them solace in difficult times, a feeling of purpose in life, a sense of community, comfort through the rituals of their church, a hope of eternal existence in some form, or an explanation for the universe. Many, I suspect, believe in god simply because that’s what they were taught as small children and they have always accepted it as truth without any evidence, investigation, or thought on their own.

I have never felt the need for a god for any of these purposes. I’ve never felt anything was missing in my life because I didn’t believe in, or feel the presence of, god. It’s not important to me whether I exist in some form after my natural death. This is the only life that I know for certain that I have (yes, even if we’re living in a computer simulation), so I will live it as well as I can instead of hoping for a fabulous but most likely nonexistent afterlife. Would I like to have my own eternal existence in my personal concept of heaven? Sure; who wouldn’t want all the wine they could drink and chocolate they could eat without consequence? But it doesn’t exist.

Skepticism

As a scientist and a skeptic, I trust in evidence and rational thought over faith and belief. Faith simply is not a part of my psychological makeup. I have never seen any evidence for the existence of god. There is precisely as much reliable evidence for the existence of god as there is for Santa Claus, unicorns, tree spirits, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster: zero.

While there’s a great deal that people don’t understand yet about ourselves, life, and the universe, I do not feel a need to invoke a supernatural explanation for any of it. It is possible that ultimately there will be some limit to natural knowledge and that certain aspects of existence must be attributed to a supernatural cause. But I don’t subscribe to a “god of the gaps” explanation for things we don’t understand at present. That gap continuously shrinks as science advances. Will it ever go to zero? No one knows. Let’s keep trying to find out.

Secularism

As a secularist, I believe religion has no place in government and public discourse. While I’m sure individual faith can be of great comfort to individuals, organized religion as a whole has been a highly destructive force to society. Just think of the countless episodes of discrimination, vandalism, persecution, genocide, and outright warfare that occurred because members of one religion pitted themselves against those who believed something different, often only subtly different.

There’s a disturbing trend in the United States today of passing laws in the guise of “religious freedom” that in practice justify discrimination against anyone who offends some individual’s religious sensibilities. I don’t understand why it is acceptable to permit people to use their beliefs and prejudices (which are malleable) to discriminate against others because of the way they were born (which is not).

An individual has the right to believe anything he or she wishes to. However, an individual’s — or a church’s — right to practice religion absolutely may not intrude on the rights of others. If your religion teaches that slavery is appropriate, subjugating women is the natural course of things, and birth control is a sin, you may follow those dictates except when they impose on someone else’s rights: the enslaved person, the woman, or someone who does not wish to have a child. You do not have the right to prohibit a woman from having an abortion simply because your religion teaches that abortion is wrong. A pharmacist may not impose her feelings about birth control on a customer by refusing to fill a prescription for contraceptives or Plan B. Religious rights do not trump human rights.

Theism and Religion

To me, religion is ludicrous on its face. There are more than 4000 identified religions and sects at present, with vastly conflicting dogmas. Obviously, they cannot all be right. However, they can all be wrong. I believe they are. I could be wrong too. However, I differ from the adherents of these religions because they’re all convinced that theirs is the one true religion and all the others are wrong at best, evil at worst. This is not logically possible.

I find it curious that practitioners of monotheistic religions accept the existence of only one god, whereas the ancient Romans and Greeks had dozens or hundreds of gods, and Hindus might believe in thousands or millions of gods and goddesses (or maybe only 33; it’s not clear). That is, monotheists reject everyone else’s plurality of gods. As an atheist, I only believe in one fewer gods than does a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

Sin

I don’t believe in the concept of sin in the religious sense. I certainly believe in the existence of evil, human mistakes, meanness, violations of human laws (crime), violations of social and cultural norms, and assholes. Not believing in god frees me from the burden of worrying about sinning against god’s dictates and the punishment I might incur as a result.

When I have transgressed against others, either inadvertently or deliberately, I am punished adequately through my own feelings of guilt and social repercussions. I’m not at all concerned about the existence of hell (where would this mysterious place be anyway? The opposite of heaven, wherever that is?) or being damned to it for eternity because I violated one particular rule book. One person’s rule book might reward an action that someone else’s rule book prohibits. It makes no sense; no one has a lock on universal truth and knowledge, regardless of how confident they are in that belief. And most believers are equally ardent in their beliefs. I’m right; you’re wrong, they think; it’s that simple. Really?

I cannot accept the Christian concept of original sin. Why would I want to worship a god that would start out each of his premier creations in the deep hole of sin — not through anything they did but merely through their intrinsic existence as human beings and the sins of their forebears — and then declare that to be saved from eternal damnation they must dig themselves out of that god-imposed hole by believing in the divinity of a specific individual? Why is that belief important to god? Silly god.

Isn’t it peculiar that original sin stems from Adam and Eve’s disobedience of god’s instruction not to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? I think a just god would want us all to have as much knowledge as possible.

When I die, no matter how I lived my life, all bits of my existence will terminate. Full stop. I have no worries about reward or punishment thereafter. I have no soul, nothing to live on in eternal bliss, eternal torment, or another chance at life on Earth. That doesn’t frighten me. Not believing in hell frees me from a lifetime of worry about winding up there.

The Purpose of Life

Some people wonder how an atheist can find purpose in life without god and the hope of a joyous afterlife. My answer: there is no intrinsic purpose to life. We are simply here, each an accident of nature, evolution, and human procreation. I had no existence prior to being conceived and born; I will have no existence afterward. Life is just what you choose to make of it. Why would you need more than that?

My view of the purpose of life is that — assuming you have the ability to do so — if you aren’t taking actions regularly to make someone else’s life easier or more pleasant, then you’re just taking up space. That’s why volunteering and contributing to charity are important to me. I derive meaning by making someone else’s life nicer or helping someone who is less fortunate than I have been. God didn’t tell me to do this. For me, it’s just the right thing to do.

Nothing happens for any particular reason, and I wasn’t put on Earth for any particular reason. Instead, I choose the value that I wish to contribute to my fellow humans — or not. Along the way, I’m entitled to pursue happiness for myself in whatever forms I find meaningful, providing those do not conflict with someone else’s opportunities for happiness.

Some religions teach predestination. In one view of this, god determined in advance which people will be saved and which will not. An individual’s actions don’t matter, because you can’t alter your post-life destiny. Such predestination strikes me as being a Get Out of Responsibility Free card. Any choice you make is the correct choice because it doesn’t change your predetermined outcome. You may as well be as hedonistic and self-centered (or as noble) as you wish. There will be no consequences other than the consequences you’re going to experience anyway per god’s will. This doesn’t make any sense to me.

Ethics, Morality, and Hypocrisy

There are those who claim that ethics and morality must come from god. Without a belief in god, they argue, why don’t atheists just do whatever they want, including committing crimes? There are no cosmic repercussions for bad behavior, so what’s holding you back?

Ethics need not emanate from the dictates of a god or a set of religious dogma. I try to behave ethically simply because there are other people on the planet who are entitled to the same rights and privileges that I enjoy. The Golden Rule — treating others as you want to be treated — long predates Christianity and appears in many religions. It’s simply a good policy for getting along with the other people and societies with whom I share the Earth.

One of the most irksome aspects of religion is those who would impose their own ethics on others. There are many peoples on the Earth, with different sets of values and practices. Who is to say which group is more moral and which is less? Ethical behavior arises from the society in which one lives. Ethics and morality offer another example in which the “god-given” dictates of one religion, fervently accepted as truth by its followers, can conflict dramatically with those of another. It all boils down to respecting the rights of other people around you to be treated fairly, just as you wish to be treated. Model the behaviors you think are right, without trying to impose them on others.

I have a serious problem with the hypocrisy that some religious folk exhibit. If you accept the Bible as being the literal and inerrant word of god (as written in English more than 2000 years ago in all its hundreds of variants, right?), then you must accept all of it, not pick and choose among the parts you wish to follow.

If you believe homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible tells you so, then you must also obey the Christian god’s many other laws, which include: doing no work whatsoever on the Sabbath; circumcising every male child; stoning to death adulterers and girls who are not virgins when they marry; not eating sea life that has neither scales nor fins; and many more. If you’re not willing to follow every one of these laws, then they are all meaningless and you should not follow any of them simply because they appear in the Bible. Opting to follow certain religious laws but not others because of your personal preferences or for the sake of convenience is hypocritical. A religious text is either an infallible rule book or it is not: choose one.

Some religious leaders are hypocrites by living in ways contrary to what they preach, often slanted to their own benefit. Prosperity ministries are a good example of that. God wants this or that church to have a new private jet, they say, so please donate to the cause. Televangelists are among the worst offenders. Such “leaders” hoodwink well-intentioned but gullible members of the congregation for their personal gain. If I promise you the eternal salvation of your soul, would you please buy me an airplane? I’d settle for a Tesla Model S.

These are but a few examples of what appears to be a principal objective of many organized religions: power, control, and money. They won’t state it that overtly, but that’s what it boils down to. Certain major religions amass vast amounts of wealth through tax-deductible donations from church members. This gives the church itself a tremendous amount of power and control over individuals, communities, and governments, all in the name of worshiping and serving god. This infuriates me.

And why are so many religious people so concerned about what goes on in someone else’s bedroom? It’s none of their damned business.

God’s Mysterious Ways

When people “miraculously” survive some terrible accident, act of war, or illness they often say god spared them. I want to ask such people what they’re going to do differently with the rest of their lives after being selected by god as worthy of surviving when others did not. If god has called a fortunate few out to be special, how will they change their lives other than simply praising god for apparently saving them? Surely god does not expect them just to go back to living their lives as usual or there would be no point in saving those individuals over others. How do they plan to repay that extraordinary chance at continued life?

Let’s think about god. Here we have an entity of infinite power and knowledge. He created the entire universe in its inconceivable vastness. Each of us humans is but one of several billion occupants of a small planet near one star out of perhaps one hundred billion in a single galaxy out of a trillion or more. And yet this almighty god is jealous and vengeful; he demands that we worship him and obey all of his many laws (pick a rule book, any rule book). Or else!

Why would I want to worship such a petty god who allegedly has these extraordinary powers? Do you worship god because you are afraid of eternal punishment if you do not? Why do some people consider being “god-fearing” a positive human characteristic? I cannot take seriously a god like that.

Bad things happen in life for no apparent reason. Children get cancer, suffer, and die. Good people are traumatized or die before their time through accidents or criminal acts, while evil and destructive people live on to wreak havoc on others. Some people dodge bullets; other innocents are caught in the line of fire. If you ask why these unfair things happen, religious people might tell you that god works in mysterious ways and everything happens for a reason. However, there’s no way to distinguish a god who works in mysterious ways from simple wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time random events.

Occam’s razor advises that when there is more than one hypothesis for a phenomenon the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is preferred. Which is the lesser assumption: that accidents, illnesses, and other bad things happen in life sometimes for no known reason, or that an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal deity created the entire universe and has full control over what happens in it? I’m thinking the former is a simpler — and hence preferred — explanation.

Christian dogma states that the only path to heaven is through accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. Why should god allow me into heaven only if I aver a specific belief as embodied in one of the many existing rule books associated with particular religions, all of which conflict with each other anyway, and sometimes with themselves internally? What happened to all the people who lived before Christianity existed or who never heard of it in the past 2000 years? Can none of them make it into heaven? That hardly seems like the action of a fair supreme being who loves his creations and is worthy of praise.

And what exactly am I being saved from? As I understand it, believing in Jesus saves me from infinite punishment for my sins, as defined by god. Why doesn’t a loving god just forgive my sins directly and avoid the Jesus middleman? This seems more efficient.

I don’t understand why god should be more concerned about what I believe in my heart than how I practice my life and interact with others. I cannot respect, let alone worship, a deity that’s more concerned with my beliefs than with my actions. I’m not trying to earn my way into heaven through good deeds, but rather just trying to ease the lives of some people around me. If that’s not good enough for god, then god’s not good enough for me.

Whence Religion?

Many people believe they received the tenets of their religion directly from god through miraculous means. We must believe those tenets and behave as instructed because god has told us to in some holy text. But I think the origins of religion are more mundane and practical than that.

First, there’s the obvious notion of inventing one or more powerful, magical beings that were responsible for all the properties of the natural world that people otherwise didn’t understand. A god that pulled the sun across the sky in a chariot, gods that animated trees and other living creatures, a god that blew the winds, a god that caused volcanoes to erupt. As science progressed over time, mankind acquired natural explanations for most such phenomena. The need for such a multiplicity of gods faded. Of course, there’s still a great deal we don’t understand about the composition and workings of the natural universe. Perhaps we’ll understand it all someday; perhaps not.

Second, suppose there was a clan or a village in ancient times in which certain older and wiser individuals took on leadership roles. Such a leader might instruct a young man not to take his neighbor’s woman, food, animals, or life because such offenses disrupt the peace and balance in society. The young man might reject the old man’s advice and just do whatever he wants, knowing the consequences are minimal.

However, suppose the old man warns the young one, “Don’t do these things because there’s an all-powerful creature called god who told us not to do those things, and this god will smite your ass if you do.” That young man might think twice about offending a mighty and invisible entity that could strike him dead at any moment. That is, wise men invoked god as an authority to enforce beneficial societal norms on people who otherwise might not respect them. This god also served as a convenient enforcer to help keep the wise leader in power.

Third, throughout much of human history people have lived in tribes or clans. These groups often clashed over resources: food, water, slaves, and so forth. In tribes, as in nations, strength comes from numbers (Luxembourg is unlikely to invade China). Increasing the size and hence power of the tribe benefits everyone in the tribe.

Prohibitions against homosexuality, birth control, and abortion may have come about because those actions do not contribute new bodies to the tribe. It’s not that god has any real concerns about such mundane human matters. The tribal leaders could have invoked this imaginary, powerful, and vengeful god as a tool to drive members of the tribe to reproduce so as to strengthen the tribe. Those injunctions eventually became codified into the bodies of religious writings claimed to have been issued by god, giving them more weight than if they were merely good ideas from wise men.

So rather than imagining religion to be divinely inspired by gods, I believe it was conceived by men to explain the unknowable, to reduce the fear of reaching the end of life, and to build stable, rule-based communities. While these motivations can yield both individual and societal benefits when applied in moderation and with respect for others, that in itself doesn’t make any religious belief true, including the very existence of a god.

My Conclusions

There is no god; there is no devil. Man created god in his own image. There is no heaven or hell, no angels or demons, no afterlife, no past life, no reincarnation, no predestination, no cosmic judgment, no soul. I am a bit of organic matter representing the pinnacle of life’s evolution on Earth to date. I exist for no specific reason or purpose. The value of my life is precisely what I choose to make of it through my own actions and my relationships with people around me. I find that to be enough.

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Karl Wiegers is a software development and project management consultant, educator, and author. Karl’s most recent book is The Thoughtless Design of Everyday Things.

Author of 12 books on software, design, management, consulting, and a mystery novel. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids. https://karlwiegers.com

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