Personal Reflections on Atheism
Hello, my dear readers.
There aren’t many things so hard to write about, or laden with emotion, as religion. Being an atheist in America is to be seen, by a majority of people, as being as morally untrustworthy as rapists. While I dispute the methodology of the study and find it highly flawed, it nonetheless fills me with apprehension. What have I personally done to deserve such prejudice? I am no more flawed or perfect than any other random person on the planet. I have a very strict system of ethics and a morality that, I think, is based on solid logical foundations based primarily on the premise that pleasure and fulfillment is preferable to pain and suffering.
This post is meant to be introspective, and covers a sensitive topic that I’ve spent a great deal of time and cognitive energy trying to resolve. I do not wish, in any way, to denigrate the perspectives of others, nor do I wish to insult anyone. My hope, and ultimate goal, is to express myself and, perhaps, have a dialogue on this topic so that the prejudice against atheists can, in some small way, be combated.
I’ve mentioned in passing on this blog that I’m an atheist. This is in need of clarification. It is more accurate to say that I’m an agnostic atheist, which to people who haven’t been in this conversation long can seem like a bit of a contradiction, in part, because of how the words are commonly used. Agnosticism itself is a label that refers to knowledge; the root word comes from the greek word for knowledge, gnosis.
In this sense, there can be gnostic and agnostic Christians (some who claim to know there is a god, and some who don’t know for sure if the Christian God exists, but believe all the same). As an agnostic atheist, I don’t argue that there is most definitely not a god of some sort; instead, I argue that any god claim hasn’t yet met a burden of proof.
It’s true that some might see the bar that I’ve set for evidence and proof as being unrealistically high for what they might consider a transcendent or supernatural entity. Can the natural sciences, for instance, be extended into such domains? Some proponents of scientific naturalism will say that, no, it cannot. Others will contend that if the supernatural can effect the natural world, we should be able to detect these changes and study them, which would possibly render the supernatural discoverable through some form of superempiricism (my term, which I just invented, but is essentially meaningless).
I’ve been asked why I don’t consider “ontological evidence” as sufficient proof of god. It isn’t because I’m biased to one epistemology or another (although I am a staunch advocate for empiricism), but because this ontological evidence, as well as much of metaphysics, may or may not actually describe reality.
In much the same way that theoretical math may describe reality if certain assumptions are true and certain conditions met, this ontological evidence works if the underlying assumptions and presuppositions are correct. This creates a firewall between statements of what reality “could be” or “must be” and what reality actually is because it isn’t entirely clear how you determine which assumptions and presuppositions are correct and which are not. While uncertainty is a natural part of the empirical epistemology and the scientific methodology, that firewall gives me pause.
I am convinced that the only reliable ways to determine the truth value of the assumptions and presuppositions is the rigorous and ordered study of reality through the scientific method. For a very long time I couldn’t completely grip the value of metaphysics in the face of the natural sciences. “What distinguishes metaphysics from fiction?” I asked, seriously looking for an answer. “Why are act and potency still relevant concepts when we have modern physics?”(Side note: I don’t think that they are relevant.)
Sometimes I would come across an argument that was, essentially, semantically incoherent. It isn’t entirely clear that anyone who argues for a timeless and spaceless entity has given a meaningful definition of “timeless causality,” or what I would call untime, that doesn’t rely on the language of time. For instance, does it make sense to say that something came before something else (or timeless A caused timeless B) outside of time as we understand it? I’m certainly not convinced, and in fact would argue that this causes an inherent contradiction in the argument that isn’t ever resolved. Causality as we understand it occurs only within time, and the language used to talk about causality in untime reflects that.
It was another blogger, Tristan Vick of Advocatus Atheist, that convinced me that I was essentially wrong about the uselessness of metaphysics. Kant, he said, argued that all empirical questions boil down to metaphysical questions. And that actually makes sense. Assumptions are made at the foundation of any philosophy or belief, and methodological naturalism has its fair share. Some of them are metaphysical in nature, but even the majority of these assumptions tend to have referents in reality that give them a fairly solid foundation as far as that can be determined.
With that said, science is not absolutely objective, but the methodology is designed to eliminate the biases and limitations of perspective that often cloud our vision. I find such methodologies useful for looking at metaphysical questions and natural phenomena and ascertaining their relationship to reality.
So let’s get to the heart of the issue: why don’t I believe that there are gods? I suppose answering this question would require a bit about my own experiences. This story starts, as many do, when I was very young. I was raised as an Evangelical Lutheran, part of the Wisconsin Synod. I attended a private Lutheran school where I was exposed to my erstwhile religion every school day and sometimes on the weekends (we had a spotty record of attending Sunday church service). Friday was a special day of worship which involved sauntering to the chapel in the single-file line and doing your very best not to get scolded for bad behavior.
To me, then, my beliefs were obvious. We learned the stories from the Bible, though admittedly they were watered-down Disneyesque representations. The unpleasant aspects of the Old Testament, like child sacrifice and slavery, were omitted (and I have no recollection of discussing the story of Job). When it came time to learn a bout Noah and the story of the flood, the lessons focused on the fairytale aspects and paid little heed to the darker more sinister consequences of a global flood. Even so, the fact that children and animals were killed didn’t escape my notice.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having some lingering emotional issues relating to the kinds of punishments the school implemented for misbehavior (or what they defined as misbehavior). Two instances stand out in my memory. The first incident occurred when, as a second grader, I was punished for play-acting as an animal with other children (in a game we invented and during a time set aside for play) by being forced to crawl on my hands and knees and barking like a dog in front of the class as they were made to watch. I don’t think I need to tell anyone that this was humiliating and emotionally traumatizing, and that it took me a long time to be able to do anything in front of audiences without becoming a nervous wreck.
The second memory is also tied to humiliation in front of my peers. Often we would be forced to learn songs to perform in front of the congregation during church services. After the incident described above I was content to dissolve into the background of the choir, participating but not standing out. The teacher, however, was not happy with this arrangement. Without allowing me to explain my reticence, he demanded that I walk to the front of the choir and stand beside him, facing them. He began to play the melody of the song on the piano, and asked me to sing it aloud in front of everyone, on my own. My voice cracked and my lips quivered as I strained to maintain my composure as I was silently laughed at and he criticized my singing as too quiet but, in the end, I managed to hold it together even if my singing wasn’t satisfactory.
Still, I sang the hymns quietly to myself and believed with all of my heart in the Christian God (or, at least, the Lutheran conception), despite the misgivings I harbored about the content within the Bible. My family gave me the nickname “preacher boy” because I would often talk about the things I learned in school. I still have the five different Bibles I collected during that time, as well as a red Lutheran hymnal that I had to keep with me at all times. They are now artifacts of my past that I occasionally explore, mostly for nostalgia and sometimes for curiosity.
The turning point in my perspective actually came from within the school. Despite the fact that religion was a major part of every school day, the school had a relatively decent math and science curriculum, and they kept it separate from the religious concerns. I can’t say for sure if this was intentional or not, but I do know that I was introduced to evolution and geology unfiltered by the religious teachings.
Eventually my family moved and I transferred to a public school. My belief waned over the course of a few years after having learned about these sciences that, on the surface, didn’t seem to contradict my religious beliefs. However, upon further consideration of the facts of science, I was confronted by a very simple fact: I had no belief in God at all anymore. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old when it had first occurred to me. I clung desperately to labels like agnostic, and even tried to square away a desire to believe in an absence of belief with different ideas about what a god might be that satisfied emotional yearning and some base fears relating to damnation, but not anything intellectual.
But my curiosity and hunger for knowledge wouldn’t allow me to fool myself for long. I continued to learn and gain knowledge in as many fields of study as I possibly could, and I had a particular fondness and aptitude for biology and chemistry. I explored passages from the Bible, and it felt like for the first time I was actually comprehending them and not just passively reading them or being hearing them. There are horrors in the Old Testament that I couldn’t rationalize. Slavery. Genocide. Many of the accounts fly in the face of history, such as the exodus (there just isn’t enough evidence to believe it actually happened), or the story of the flood.
I had no knowledge of Christian apologetics until about a year ago (good thing, too, because I’m not sure I’d be able to critically respond to it back then), and unfortunately nobody around me could articulate reasons to believe that were satisfying to me. I decided it was better to play the part of a believer. I was confirmed into the Lutheran church as a member, going to catechism classes and taking communion, even when I didn’t believe in it. It was hard to live that double life, and I still feel guilt about not being honest about it. The thought of someone finding out about my disbelief, however, only result in feelings to terror.
When I was a senior in high school I felt more comfortable talking about it, and over the course of the next six years I slowly introduced my disbelief. I’m more or less accepted for who I am in my family now, even if they disagree with me. I can’t even begin to describe the relief I feel that my fears were unfounded (and this fear even outranked my former fear of Hell).
Now I’ve gone many rounds with believers and nonbelievers of different philosophical persuasions, learning philosophy and history, and challenging my own views along the way. I enjoyed the challenge of learning uncomfortable truths about my own biases, and more importantly, finding my own weaknesses in understanding. Of course, my conclusion is still atheism, and maybe it’s an even stronger conclusion now.
Without getting into sticky questions about the historicity of Jesus and the contradictions in the gospels, what is the foundation of my disbelief of not only Christianity, but other gods as well? It is fairly tempting to talk about the lack of evidence that is non-subjective and non-anecdotal. Perhaps I could point out that any miracle claim I’ve come across was essentially indistinguishable from fantasy or coincidence. Apologies to a certain Southern Baptist, but I’ve never had a subjective personal encounter with God, even when I believed.
But putting all of that aside, the answer comes down to this: honesty. I don’t believe because I haven’t been convinced. This is not a choice, as I know some would like to claim. I’m not actively rejecting knowledge, or any kind of truth. I’m not arrogantly dismissing arguments or personal claims about an encounter with god. I am upholding a consistent standard for evidence and rationality that apply to everything.
Regarding honesty, I’d like to briefly address Pascal’s Wager. My criticism is not novel, but it is pertinent to my situation. If I regarded belief in god or gods as a bet on my eternal existence (disregarding the Wager’s original Christian framework), and I took the bet that a god existed in an effort to save my soul and claimed to believe and acted as such, it would be a lie. I do not think that a lie about a belief would be greeted with acceptance by the Christian God. Instead, I would argue that being honest and open about my reasons for disbelief is not only more ethical and moral, but more understandable to a deity like the Christian god.
Getting back to the main topic, I’m not entirely comfortable staking out specific claims on the nature of reality, mostly because I’m not certain what that nature is. Is materialism right? I don’t know. I’m convinced that functionalism is a decent model for understanding consciousness for now, and I don’t see that a soul is a necessary layer to add on to it. But what it always comes down to is that we just don’t know enough about the universe and our existence within it to make many definitive claims about what can’t exist. I suppose I’m predisposed to certain philosophies like materialism or physicalism given what we have learned through science.
In the end I have many questions and comparatively few answers. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for evidence that I can access, test, and reproduce for any god. I don’t think it is unreasonable to accept the null hypothesis if the positive truth claim is not demonstrated. Does the supernatural exist? I think the more relevant question is this: if the supernatural exists, does it matter? If, based on our current investigations of the universe, we can’t find any good reasons to assume its existence, why is its existence or nonexistence relevant? I think that’s an altogether more interesting question.
The point of all of this is to get at something I think is very important: my position on atheism is predicated mostly on uncertainty, not blind arrogance. One of the hardest things to admit is that you don’t know. “I don’t know.” Say it. It just rolls off the tongue wrong. And the truth is that I find that scientific skepticism and freethought are much more productive endeavors than dogma and tradition.
Where does the evidence take us? That’s my guiding light–the most important question to ask when thinking about what is real and what is not. I think there are facts we can acknowledge, such as gravity and evolution, and we can gain some measure of certainty because of that. It will help us build models to understand reality as best as possible, based on evidence and critical thinking, and will weed out those ideas which do not stand to scrutiny.
I would like to end this post with an obvious observation and some thoughts on it. The universe is a wonderful and beautiful place, and exploring it through scientific study is deeply fulfilling. If there is some kind of rapture one can experience from some sense of spirituality, studying the realm of existence in which we reside provokes that emotion within me. My life is rich and vibrant because of the knowledge I have gained. I feel no inner emptiness, no void that I need to fill.
I remember that when I finally understood how to properly read the Periodic Table of the Elements, I realized that it wasn’t just a logical way of ordering the elements; it was a description of reality that is clear, concise, and of a remarkable and widely unrecognized beauty. And more than that, there are so many amazing ways to represent it and connect it to the world.
When I gaze through my telescope at the stars that speckle the clear night sky I feel a stirring sense of awe. There are many poetic things that can be said about being made, as Carl Sagan so eloquently said, of “star stuff.” We are the universe, not just inside of it. Part of it. Connected to it. We borrow the energy and matter and return it when our time is up. We leave an indelible mark upon the universe, forever changing it, even if those changes are so small they seem insignificant.
And I find these thoughts more comforting than the religious beliefs that I once had because I don’t have to think that people I don’t know will be punished for making the wrong bet. They matter, as you or I matter, and not just because we are matter. Their lives are not wastes because they believe in the wrong god, or because they didn’t live the right kind of life.
If you find yourself feeling isolated because you don’t believe, just remember: you are not alone, and do not deserve denigration.