Wednesday August 20, 2003

Atheism - a personal view

Category: Opinionated | 19 Comments | Posted 21:28

I've been meaning to write something about the reasons why I'm an atheist for a while, partly because people have asked and partly because I think it's important. The reason I keep putting it off is that I know it's going to take me ages and will need to be revised many times. Many of these things I've said before in different parts of my diary. Some I haven't. Anyway, here it all is in one place.

First off, a short disclaimer:

1. These are my own opinions & arguments. They have evolved through discussions with believers as well as atheists, through personal reflection, and through reading. I'm not a theologian, nor a historian. I haven't read that much about atheism, tho I think I know quite a bit about (Christian) theology. Either way, I haven't spent months studying this or anything.
2. Most of what I say will be centred around the Christian God, as this is the one I grew up with and the one I've most argued about. I don't claim to know an awful lot about Allah, Buddha or Brahma. But the most important of my arguments are universal and apply to any God.
3. I'd like to stress that it is not my intention to convert anyone to atheism, or to demean anyone who believes in God. I'm aware that most of these arguments won't convince anyone who strongly believes in a deity. I just wanted to explain my own point of view. All I ask is that you respect me for my beliefs - don't insult me and don't tell me I'm a lost soul and that you pity me. Feel free to bring counter-arguments though.

Right, let's get to the point. I will try to approach this from 3 different angles which, put together, make up my atheism.

  1. historical (how history deconstructs religion)

  2. rational (why there is no need for a God)

  3. theological (how the God I know contradicts himself)
These will probably overlap at times. They are also heavily interrelated, which is why it is so hard to structure them. I'll start with history.


Religion put in perspective

Historians and archaeologists have in the past one or two centuries allowed us to study the evolution of religious rites and beliefs from its very early stages - from the first burials and religious sacrifices right through to organised religion and esoteric sects. This gives us an idea of what, and more importantly, why people believed, and in my opinion it provides a revealing insight into the workings of religion itself.

People's gods have always been firmly rooted in their world-view: they emerged as a response to problems they were facing, and they were always constructs of things people could grasp or imagine. The fact that Gods are a reflection of mankind (rather than the other way round) is so clear and obvious to me that I find it hard to believe that so many people don't see it. But I guess the very fact that they are makes it so deceptively easy to believe in them.

To give concrete historical examples: people started out believing in "Nature Gods", and they turned to them for a better harvest or more favourable weather. Monotheism developed relatively late: first off, people looked for Gods in what they saw around them. God of the forest, God of the Water... only later did they transcend the purely visible. And of course they have always been shaped on ourselves. Could you imagine your God as a heap of goo? Of course not, that would be gross.

One more thing that baffles me is every religion's claim to truth. Of course this has to be part of it for the whole thing to work, but again, doesn't history destroy the whole illusion? You may know the Parable of the Three Rings which illustrates this problem (though of course it maintains that one of the religions does hold the true ring, i.e. the truth).

The sign o' the times

But this is not the only inconsistency. If you look at the whole thing historically, you can clearly trace how one belief evolved from the other, why one religion rose and found followers, while another died in its wake. Religions don't find adepts because they are the most compellingly true, but because of the circumstances of the time, or in fact because it is imposed on them by their leaders, invaders, colonialists or others.

You can also see what one religion takes (in traditions and values) from its predecessors (this is an important element of conversion). A striking example of this can be found in the main Christian holidays, which are all based on old Pagan ones: the birth of Christ corresponds to Winter Solstice or Yule (around 21st December), All Saints and All Hallows (these are still celebrated in Catholic countries) to Samhain (now "reborn" as Halloween), and Easter to Ostara. Christ chose rather convenient days to be born and crucified, didn't he. And while we're on the subject, isn't it the strangest thing that Chanukkah and Kwanza happen around the same time?

Similarly, Islam can be seen as a revised edition of former religions, mainly Christianity, adapted to the times and customs of the Prophet Mohammed, when debauchery and loose morals were shaking the region. This is why, for instance, alcohol is forbidden to Muslims (for more on the subject, read here).

God: nothing but a victim of history?

These are only examples of course. The point I'm trying to make is that you can trace the evolution of deities and religions through the times. But if you want a theocentric approach to it, I ask this: if, say, the Christian God was the true God, would he really let humankind stumble around in the darkness for thousands of years until he made his first appearance in the Old Testament? Or let's assume the old Greek Gods were the true Gods - would they simply accept their demise and let people move on & believe in somebody else? How does the idea of one sole truth make sense in light of the past 5000 or so years?

I know this doesn't prove the non-existence of ANY God - and that more and more people these days tend to manufacture their very own little deity (usually along the lines of "well yeah, I don't know, I don't believe in any of those organised religions, but I think there must be something, some sort of Creator..."). We'll get to that next.


God explains it all - or does he?

This is something that has only really become obvious within the last century - or more so than before. It is rooted in a historical analysis of people's doubts and their quest for answers. We can say that gods were created to explain things. For ages, they provided a good enough explanation - the best we could find in fact.
A crude example: Thunderstorms scared us. Now before we could explain it as a meteorological and electrical phenomenon, it sounded plausible enough that it was the wrath of a God - most wonderfully exemplified in Zeus throwing lightning or Thor swinging his hammer. When people were exposed to the (often inexplicable) whims of the weather, it must have been comforting to pray to the Gods for rain, rather than feeling completely helpless, with nothing better to do than wait for a change.

The same goes for all the rest of creation. Of course it was hard to grasp how we had come to be. There we were, the most sophisticated beings on Earth, adorned with speech, consciousness, logic, and self-reflection. How could this be, and what was the point of this? The most accessible explanation seemed to be that someone had created us. This also gave us a purpose in life, should we require one. We should aim to please our creator. Hooray - all sorted!

Getting rid of God

Then came the Enlightenment, and Darwin, and astronomers, and prehistorians, and the world started to make more and more sense. Old religious world pictures have long lost their validity - only reactionary sectarian freaks still believe that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it, or in fact that God created the World in seven days.

What's happened is that what was formerly believed to be a historic truth (descendance from Adam and Eve and the like) is now considered a fable, an allegory. Which is rather lame: religious theories are conveniently adapted to fit in with scientific knowledge (though often not without a struggle - must I remind you of Copernicus and Galileo). Fact is: today the Bible, or any other religious interpretation of the world, can't really offer anything more plausible than what we have in front of us. This is the general gist of the American Atheist interview with Douglas Adams.

Few people today will refute the theory of Evolution and the creation of the universe (big bang etc). So where does God fit in there? What does he actually explain? What was his role? There is simply no need for him, things make perfect sense without him. We may not have worked everything out up to the last quark, but we're getting there, and considering the progress we've made in a few hundred years, chances are we'll crack the rest of 'em too. God has become obsolete - he has outlived himself.

So where's the explanation for God?

In fact, a God creates infinitely more problems than he solves. Why is he there? Why did he create us? Who created him? Why does he let things happen the way they do? The World without a Creator leaves very few questions open. But the Creator himself... big fat catalogue full of dead ends. I know deists don't like being asked those questions, but from a detached and rational point of view they impose themselves.

And no one so far has been able to offer a satisfactory answer. They tend to conveniently hide behind clichés such as "God moves in mysterious ways" and "thou shalt not question the origin of the Lord". This is where they lose in any discussion: they end up referring to these postulates that cannot (and in their opinion need not) be proven. These are of course constitutive elements of their belief, but they don't withstand a logical and objective analysis. This is what Adams calls the "burden of proof" - there is absolutely no reason why believers should be exempt from proving the existence of their God. I maintain that they can't.

A Fable: the aliens have landed

Let me recapitulate this, as it is the most important part of my argument. In fact, let's play a little mind game. Imagine an alien landing on our planet, someone who has never come across the idea of religion before. This alien is a "tabula rasa", a clean slate, he has never even considered the idea of a God. Even atheists have grown up around God, therefore they are not "unburdened" - notice how we define ourselves by negating God (A-theism).

So the alien has a look around the world, he studies it in detail. He takes some measurements, estimates the age of the Earth as some 4.5 billion years (he's not far out), and congratulates us on our planet. Not quite as far evolved as his, but we do have those pretty colourful flowers and all. He reckons we're probably at the best possible distance from the sun, which has allowed for a varied fauna and flora.

Then the alien studies humans and their customs, and he goes "what's with the God thing? What is that all about?" So someone tells him "well he's the one who created all of this!" and the alien goes "What?? But I've studied your planet in detail, I couldn't find any creator! In fact when I flew in with my ship I saw it from afar, there was no one around! Where is he? What did he do?"

Everything the alien needed to understand the world was right there before his eyes, he had it all worked out and he's written a nice little chapter about our evolution for his "Guide to the Galaxy". So now you explain to him why this perfectly self-sufficient and logical world needs a creator. Prove it to him! You can't. The world made perfect sense before and he will see absolutely no reason to accept, to even assume the existence of something no one has ever seen, something that doesn't seem to have done anything, since we can trace the creation of our planet, even our galaxy or the entire Universe, from its early beginnings.

The burden of proof

Most believers will react to an atheist's assertions by saying "you can't prove that there is no God". No I can't, but I can prove perfectly coherently that there is a world without a God. Therefore there is no God. It's the same as if I told you "you can't prove that there is no pink elephant floating in this room." You'd go "but there clearly isn't, I can't see it and neither can you". Well so it is with God. The burden of proof lies with you. I've disposed of mine. I know this is incredibly difficult to get across, as the presence of a God is so strong in believers' mind that they cannot see how it doesn't logically flow from the world around us. But fact is, it doesn't.

What I believe, in fact what I know, is based on what I see around me. It's all there, it makes sense, there is nothing missing in my world view. God on the other hand is a conjecture, an abstract idea that was created when there was a need for it, but based on nothing. None of what we can see proves the existence of a deity. God is a nice little story, no doubt more glamourous than slowly evolving out of a pool of goo in an infinite chain of coincidences - but pure fiction (I recommend reading The Life of Pi btw).

I wouldn't wanna rob anyone of their nice little story, as long as they do no harm. Religion has created evil, but that evil is rooted in the human nature just as much as belief itself is. Religion has its beauty to me, I wouldn't want to live without it, it has inspired the most beautiful music, architecture and fiction. But it's a human construct, nothing more.


This is purely related to the Christian God and the Christian doctrine.
The basic argument here goes like this:
Apparently, the Christian God is
1. perfect,
2. benevolent
3. omniscient
4. omnipotent.
Considering the evil, the suffering and the injustice in the world today, this is impossible. Either he is omnipotent but indifferent, or he is benevolent but powerless. If it weren't so, how could he create humankind the way it is now? I think this makes sense so far.

Now Christians have answers to this of course. First off, God gave us free will. So basically all the evil in the world is our own fault. Does that sound like a perfect God? Remember: he created us in his own image. We are flawed and have created an utterly imperfect world. Surely if God was omniscient, he would have known this in advance. So why did he create us? For his own entertainment? -> Sadistic, i.e. malevolent. For lack of better knowledge? -> clearly not omniscient.

Second argument: the reason we suffer is because we must seek redemption for the Original Sin. OK, apart from the fact that the whole of Genesis has become obsolete and ridiculous: how come virtuous people or innocent children in Liberia die of hunger or in massacres whereas evil, selfish Mafia bosses in Moscow live a life of plenty? Were the former more closely related to Eve?

Third argument: God will reward us all later to remedy all the injustice in the world. So the Liberian child will go straight to heaven (provided he was baptised, as otherwise he will end up in limbo), whereas the evil Mafia boss will roast in hell. This again creates injustice as no one has any influence on where they are born and how much they will suffer: so will the Liberian child be on a higher & softer cloud than I, just because I had the "misfortune" of being born in rich Luxembourg?

And that's disregarding the technical intricacies: Anyone repenting before they die will be forgiven and granted access to heaven. So as long as the evil Mafia boss feels truly sorry at the end of his vicious life, he'll be rubbing shoulders with the innocent child. Oh and let's not forget 500 years ago he also had the possibility of buying his place in heaven in the form of indulgences. That of course wasn't the will of God but only the evil doings of the Catholic church.

We could go round in circles forever... as I said, this is strictly in relation to the Christian God. I know this leaves room for an indifferent or amoral God - the only one I'd be willing to accept if it weren't for part 2 of my argument. The way things are, there is nothing but atheism. No God.

I'm looking forward to any replies to this. Any objection, counter-argument, proof that I am wrong is welcome. However, because I've had countless theological discussions in the past, I will be selective about what I react to. I am particularly interested in the following:

  • explanation/justification/proof of the existence of God (please spare me with "you are not meant to question Him" and "but look at the pretty flowers!")

  • my first anti-Christian argument: how can God be omniscient as well as benevolent? And if he is, why did he create us?
I'm not too interested in plucking apart the Original Sin, nor the different levels of heavenly bliss. Feel free to let me know if you have sth clever to say, but don't expect me to reply.
The same goes for any part of my historical approach. I have very few questions & doubts about what I wrote there, and the ones I have you probably can't answer, so don't bother.


Wow, that's long... but interesting! If I wasn't so exhausted these days, dann würde ich jetzt meinen Senf dazu geben.

But just wanted to let you know that I was interested in your view and read your article. :)

Posted by: Suha at August 20, 2003 10:06 PM

Aaawww thanks that's cute of you

Posted by: Clarissa at August 20, 2003 10:34 PM

Pfft God's friend on mine, I'll invite you both for dinner one of these days so you can see for yourself that he does indeed exist!

Interesting read!

Posted by: Jar Jar at August 20, 2003 11:05 PM

4th entry *faints*
After recovery will read the entire essay.

Posted by: Lo at August 21, 2003 08:44 AM


Posted by: The BML at August 21, 2003 10:28 AM

Wow - I've just read the History part, and will read the rest in few mins! It's v good reading actually. I like the way you say Christ chose very convenient days to be born etc. I'm always saying funny how we celebrate his birthday when all the shops are trying to get rid of their stock?? And I know, it's sad the way some people really do believe that if there is a God, it's a man.

Posted by: Sinead at August 21, 2003 12:09 PM

>>When people were exposed to the (often inexplicable) whims of the weather, it must have been comforting to pray to the Gods for rain, rather than feeling completely helpless

Posted by: Sinead at August 21, 2003 12:25 PM

>>I'm always saying funny how we celebrate his birthday when all the shops are trying to get rid of their stock??

Yeah... coz that's the REAL reason behind it all....

Posted by: The BML at August 21, 2003 12:31 PM

Bejesus! All the spelling mistakes in that!!! *lol*

Posted by: Sinead at August 21, 2003 12:32 PM

LOL @ Lo & Jarjar.

Yes @ Sinead, I agree with most of what you said (tho my essay isn't about why ppl believe, but why they are wrong to believe *lol*).
You're right about the planet being unable to 'recover from us', but of course it couldn't be helped - things needed this long to evolve. Then again there's probably some other planet somewhere out there that hosts life. Maybe they'll do better than us

Posted by: Clarissa at August 21, 2003 12:57 PM

Hopefully so, Citz. :)

Btw, just read more... God, I didn't know that 500 yrs ago you could pay to have a place in heaven. Typical. LOL@ "You'll get your reward in heaven". Indeed. Will be no good to me then, pal. I'll be dead.

"However, because I've had countless theological discussions in the past" *lmao!* Ohhhhh that brings back memories of "debates" I had with someone I used to know - what a comPLETE waste of TIME!! Time is everything. Life is based on it, you know. Without it we'd be this big blob of mass, with... no music or anything!
Ok, I'll shut it!

Posted by: Sinead at August 21, 2003 01:16 PM

LMAO @ time is everything.
How is music related to time tho? Just cuz you need time to listen to music?
Errr... anyway

Posted by: Clarissa at August 21, 2003 02:10 PM

Why are some of the entries in italics btw?

Posted by: The BML at August 21, 2003 02:22 PM

It's cuz they're intros and the actual entry follows.

Posted by: Clarissa at August 21, 2003 03:15 PM

Posted by: The BML at August 21, 2003 05:15 PM

Yes, you need time for music. Rhythm. Also you need time for everything. The music of the spheres....

Posted by: Sinead at August 22, 2003 06:27 PM

You went to Paris, so you will understand French!

D'abord, d'abord
Je me crois atheist! (chacun ces raisons!)
Puis je crois ne pas du tout avoir aimé cet article! Puorquoi? Parce-que!? Je crois que tu te pose les mauvaises questions.

Pour moi le départ ne compte pas, ni l'arrivée (le but, la fin) (la mort). L'important c'est le chemin parcouru (Pourquoi et comment?)

En gros j'en reste la pour ne pas écrire autant d'aneries!

Je cite:

BREL: la quête
...rêver un impossible rêve pour atteindre l'inaccessible étoile....

J'ador cette phrase: M. Ghelderode
La sagesse est d'attendre, de laisser agir l'IMPONDERABLE!

Je reviens à moi: Je crois en l'amour!!!
Un jour qqn. me dit l'amour est dieu!
Comment prouver l'un ou l'autre. (Comment prouver les sentiments et puorquoi?)(impondérable?)

Donc laissons les religieux et le reste en paix.

Il doit y avoir bon nombre de religieux qui écrivent mieux que toi, qui ont une vision plus ouverte du monde que toi. Et le reste...

Alors marche, car je crois, comme tout le monde, tu as encore un bout de chemin devant toi.


Posted by: Solrack at September 15, 2003 05:17 AM

Fuck you. I hate condescending people like you.

Posted by: Clarissa at December 22, 2003 03:22 AM

I read this a while back but didn't comment.

I like it and agree with it all.

Posted by: squiZZle at January 29, 2004 07:25 PM