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Why am I an atheist?

May 18, 2011
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Quick note first: When I say I’m an atheist, I mean that I do not believe in anything which I would call a God or gods.

Part of the trouble with this whole question is that the definition of ‘god’ is very nebulous and slippery.  People use it to mean big-supernatural-dude-in-the-sky, but they also use it for object-of-worship (as with a statue or sacred tree), or for member-of-a-pantheon.  Even within big-supernatural-dude-in-the-sky, there are several options – there are many world religions, which all worship different gods and define god differently.  There are also philosophical definitions, such as the First Mover, or the being than which no greater can be conceived, or the source of morality.

So, there are a lot of potential gods out there.

I can’t disprove all of them because it would take too long and is utterly pointless, since the definition shifts all the time.  Therefore I am what is called a weak or agnostic atheist: I say that I don’t believe in god, rather than saying I believe there is no god.

Most of the things people call God or gods, I just don’t have any reason to believe in them.  Or any good reason.

As an example, take Thor, the Norse god of thunder.  There is evidence, of a sort, for his existence, because we hear the thunder.  However, hearing the thunder doesn’t cause me to believe in Thor because thunder is adequately explained in other ways.

However, there are some gods which I do believe exist, but I don’t believe they are gods.  Pantheists believe that the universe is god.  I believe that the universe exists, but I don’t have any reason to call it god.

So in order for me to become a theist, I would have to be convinced firstly that something existed, and secondly that it was reasonable to call that thing a god.  So far nothing has passed that test for me.

What is atheism?

As above, atheism is a lack of belief.  Because I do not believe in any gods, I am not a theist, and therefore I am an atheist.

Atheism is the absence of belief in gods.

Atheism is not a religion, just as it is ridiculous to say that ‘not collecting stamps’ is a hobby.

Why I am not a Christian

However, many of the people who may read this are probably Christian, and certainly Dad is, so it makes sense to address the Christian God in particular.

Strange as it may seem, I immediately hit the same problem of definition.  When you ask people to define the Christian God, they either think it’s obvious, or they say ‘as described in the Bible’, or they say that God is so far beyond our understanding that he cannot be defined.  None of this is terribly helpful, particularly as the Bible can be contradictory.  It also makes things harder, as whenever one addresses one definition of God, people always come out and say ‘oh but God’s not like that’.

Anyway, I’ll go with the following for simplicity.  Mainstream interpretations seem to agree that the Christian God is all of the following:

  • Creator and sustainer of the universe and everything in it
  • All-good, all-powerful and all-knowing
  • A Trinity made up of Father, Son and Holy Ghost
  • Sent Jesus to die on the cross to save us from our sins.

I know plenty of people calling themselves Christians who don’t believe one or more of the statements above, but I have to start somewhere.

So, why don’t I believe in this particular God?

Firstly, I don’t see any particular need to think that the universe has a creator and sustainer.  Just as the existence of thunder isn’t evidence for Thor, the existence of ‘creation’ isn’t evidence for the existence of a Creator.  Everything we have discovered in the universe so far works by natural processes.  Science hasn’t discovered everything, but it’s a very good process for getting closer to the truth.  I don’t think that relying on a 2000-year-old book written by a bronze age society is going to be a better option.

Secondly, the idea of an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God doesn’t fit with the nature of the world as we see it.  If I were to become aware of a child being abused, and had the ability to stop the abuse, it would be absolutely repugnant of me to choose not to stop it.  However, we are asked to believe that God knows about every abused child in the world, is able to stop the abuse at any time, but for some reason does not.  Such a God is far less moral than I am and thus is not worthy of worship.

[People sometimes answer that God does not intervene because he wishes us to have freedom – but a God who could not both protect the child and give us freedom is not all-powerful.]

Thirdly, the Trinity is pretty incoherent, and poorly understood even by Christians.  It’s not even stated clearly anywhere in the Bible, but derived from interpretations of other statements.

Fourthly, the whole idea of Jesus’ death and resurrection to forgive our sins doesn’t make sense.  We are asked to believe that God created humans, set up a situation in which they would be tempted to sin, was surprised and hurt when they did, and is unable to forgive them despite being all-powerful.  However, he is able to forgive them if one part of Himself is born and lives as a man and dies on the Cross, but is only dead temporarily.

Even the existence of Jesus is not universally accepted, let alone particular details of his life.  It depends on writings dating from, at the earliest, 30 or 40 years after his death.

If we take a modern-day death as a parallel, that of Princess Diana, we can see how rumours and competing versions of events swirl around.  Her death occurred only fourteen years ago.  Even in our information age, and with the benefit of CCTV and forensic evidence, the nature and cause of it are still subject to interpretation, and claim and counter-claim.  The early Christians knew much less about Jesus’ life and death than I do about Diana, but we are still asked to accept their writings as evidence.

My own view is that Jesus (or some other religious teacher) probably did exist at that date, and preached to crowds, claimed to perform miracles, and irritated the Roman authorities.  However, stories of his life have much in common with stories about other religious leaders or other deities.  For example, Dionysus shares many of the properties of Jesus (virgin birth, water into wine, descent into hell for three days, etc.), but the Dionysus legends were recorded earlier.  So my opinion is that when early Christians wrote about their saviour, they incorporated aspects of other legends and traditions.  They would also, being human, have incorporated wishful thinking, and reinterpretations due to hindsight.

There were also many competing traditions and stories around Jesus’ life, and they were only winnowed and codified into the Bible we know much later on.  I would see this more in terms of particular political factions winning than in terms of divine inspiration and truth.

Certainly arguments couched in terms of Bible verses are really not convincing.

So I’m an atheist.  I don’t believe in the Christian God or in any other god I’ve ever heard of.

Over to Dad.  Why is Dad a Christian?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Frances permalink
    June 4, 2011 1:08 pm

    Just a historical correction: 2,000 years ago society was well into the iron age, not the bronze age.

  2. June 6, 2011 6:04 pm

    Apologies for the imprecision, Aunt F!

    I should have clarified. Although the Bible was put together 2000 years ago, which as you say was the iron age, much of the cosmology of creation etc. which we are asked to accept as fact dates back to the Old Testament and the bronze age.

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