(this is a work in progress)
There’s been a bit of debate on twitter around some dude I’m very vaguely connected to who felt that he could finally out himself as an atheist. Skipping over the idea that anyone should feel wary of disclosing what they believe, this has prompted me to try and explain my own thoughts.
I was brought up as a Christian, but I stopped going to church at some point around being 16 or 17, I think. I can’t actually remember exactly when it was, although I can remember the actual moment where my mother came to try and rouse me and I said that I wasn’t going.
However, I don’t think there was an event or a point wherein I firmly “change my mind”. I think it was just a gradual realisation that my heart wasn’t in it, and continuing would be hypocritical. Perhaps many people who were raised religiously had similar experiences.
I don’t regret my upbringing; on the contrary, I view it as a valuable experience of an alternate philosophy, and I am quite sure that without that upbringing I wouldn’t have nearly the same preparation to explore these ideas as I do now (whatever amount of preparation that is).
What is Atheism?
Simply put, it is the belief that the existence of any deity is sufficiently unlikely that it should be dismissed, and not be considered the foundation for any system of beliefs. “Theism” is the belief in the existence of a god or gods; “Atheism” is the belief that there are no gods.
Agnosticism, which is related, is the belief that is known or can be known of the existence or nature of god, or anything supernatural. I consider Atheism to be the natural conclusion of any agnostic train of thought; if nothing can ever be known of a deity, is the (omni)potency of such an entity even relevant? However, I cannot speak for agnostics, and perhaps they would disagree.
Most of us are probably most familiar with Richard Dawkins as the archetypal atheist – a strong minded but stubborn academic, often dismissive or scornful in debate. Now, I should say that I agree with him, but I don’t find his methods the most compelling. The philosophical medicine he offers is frequently bitter, and it’s not surprising that it turns many people off (even agnostics or atheists).
For a genuinely inspirational advocate of atheism, I choose Carl Sagan.
Critics of I find Sagan’s vision of our place in the Universe so much more poignant, so much more achingly, breath-takingly beautiful, awesome, important, and so much more likely than anything I ever encountered during my upbringing as a Christian.
(That video only hints at Sagan’s ideas about the challenges we face, and the amazing opportunities that await us as a species should we survive long enough to realise them.)
As Sagan says above
Knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than the reassuring fable.
Now, I realise this will do little to convince anyone away from their faith. This is not to say that “all difficult things are true”, but it is no wonder many would subscribe to an alternative instead. It’s a difficult and humbling recognition that we are cosmically insignificant.
But if we allow him to continue:
Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Common-sense intuitions can be mistaken; our preferences don’t count; we do not live in a privileged reference frame.
We are driven to hope that we are significant. Surely to be insignificant is the worse, most complete, most total abandonment. Unloved, irrelevant and without purpose – how can we measure our worth when an objective measure, even if one were possible, would barely measure us on such a scale? What point in continuing to labour in a world full of joy and suffering when, ultimately, it cannot count for anything? Why care? Why continue?
My personal opinion is that rather than seeking answers to these questions, we should challenge the questions themselves. We should explore why these questions arise. Why do we feel compelled to discover meaning or purpose? Are these concepts grounded in reality? Can they be objective stated? Are they even truly useful?
Science as just another religion
A common response to advocacy of science over faith employs the argument that “science is just another form of faith, and can no more prove anything without certainty than faith can.” While this is superficially persuasive, it fails to recognise the fundamental difference: it’s a fundamental aspect of science that every aspect can and should be questioned, without any exceptions.
Science is a methodology of enquiry which values repeatable observations and evidence from the external world in order to derive and revise – often completely – theories which attempt to explain phenomenon. Science accepts and embraces that our knowledge is partial and imperfect, and so strives to revise itself continuously.
Our models of the fundamental nature of the world around us can completely change as we improve our ability to peer deeper into matter, and farther into space, improves. There are no absolute facts, but often the weight of tangible experimental evidence gives confidence to say something is almost certainly, and to the best of our knowledge at present, true.
This is not to say that such things are never presented as unassailable truths – scientific theories often are presented in such absolute ways, often lending apparent support to the view that “Science” can be as dogmatic as the churches. This is an unfortunate but likely unavoidable consequence of the ultimately useful shorthand
The Scientific method
Science operates in a constant cycle: produce a theory about some phenomena; devise an experiment to test that theory; observe to compare the results of that experiment with the predictions of the theory; finally, improve the experiment or revise the theory to better fit the observed behaviour. This cycle continues forever, as new theories improve or replace old ones, in an ever continuing refinement of our understanding.
In its ideal for, the operation of this cycle is independent of the individuals who perform it. Their preferences and biases will naturally influence it to some extent, but by sharing knowledge of theories and experiments we can work to remove the influences of any individual on the interpretation of the observed behaviour. Scientists may not enjoy when an experiment casts doubt on their favoured theory, but a true scientist is compelled to abandon their darling in the face of a theory which better explains the set of available observations.
In the scientific process, everything can and should be questioned. Every fundamental truth is open to challenge, and can be replaced in the presence of evidence that clearly demonstrates the superiority of the replacement.
Faith and evidence
Faith, however, relies on introspected, individual experiences. The “evidence” for religious truths is circumstantial and/or subject. When I say “religious truths”, I do not mean any correspondence between religious texts and archeological investigations; I have no wish (nor am I qualified) to challenge or not there was an Ark, or a person called Moses. I am referring to the more fundamental ideas, such as:
- there is a supernatural entity which influences and is influenced by our actions;
- this entity is responsible, in whatever capacity, for the universe as we have observed it;
- this entity provides a meaningful distinction between “right” and “wrong”;
- there is an afterlife, and our present existence is to a lesser or greater extent a trial.
There is not, and can not be evidence for the truth of these things. Each individual point has provided an eternity of debate between believers and non-believers, which all ultimately terminate in “I cannot prove that there is a god, but you cannot prove that there is not, and so I am content in my position.”
Challenges to God as creator, fuelled by advances in both cosmological and quantum physics, along with evolution, force the most moderate theist into positions like
Well, perhaps God didn’t mould humans in their final form, but maybe he influenced evolution, or perhaps it was simply his carefully-balanced recipe in the melting pot of the Big Bang, which resulted in our wonderful uniqueness.
… but such an appeal increasingly forfeits the omnipotence of God as its interventions in the genesis of our species recede into the ever-more-distant past. Assuming you permit evolution as a process which occurs, however it was instigated, if I step on the bacteria that might have eventually developed into complex life, am I not as potent as that God?
The final bastion of the moderate theist are the cosmological constants; the six numbers which, to the best of our current understand of the nature of reality, determine how matter and energy react and so on. With slightly different values, the universe would be a wildly different place. Depending on the values chosen, stars may not be able to form.
These values of the cosmological constants make an appealing and convenient recipe for an instigator deity, one present at the beginning of time to kick-start the carefully calculated causal chain. But even in the presence of the clear and fundamental question – why those values in particular – I do not see the need for so swift a resolution as a god would provide.
Isn’t it simpler and more consistent to simply acknowledge that we don’t know why, yet, but lets keep trying to find out, shall we?
The important distinction between science and faith that I am ambling towards is this: Science operates in the realm of likelihoods, and faith in the realm of ultimate truths.
It is fundamental to science that we can say “to the best our our knowledge, there are 16 fundamental particles which make up all matter and energy, but there is a chance we are wrong”. I have not encountered a faith whose foundation includes “we believe it is very likely that there is a god, but there remains a chance that we are wrong”. Furthermore, I do not believe that any faith could sustain the existence of any such doubt.
Eternity and a test of faith
“Unshakeable faith” is seen as a virtue in a religious lifestyle, whereas it translates to closed-mindedness when corresponding behaviour is demonstrated in any other context. As tragedy strikes and confounds our expectations (“how can God allow me to suffer?”), instead of revising our philosophy (“perhaps there is no God?”), we revise events to fit our existing perspective (“my faith is being tested!”).
This notion of the testing-of-faith, combined with the idea of an ultimate reward for faithfulness, is evidently an incredible idea (a ‘meme’ if ever there was one), perfectly adapted to perpetuate itself. Any challenge simply strengthens its grounding. The infinite reward of “eternal salvation” more than adequately offsets the minor curtailing of inquiry during the moment our lifespan is in comparison. Doubt is effectively quashed.
The promise of an afterlife is a common theme in religious belief. Despite seeing countless lives begin and end around us, with no tangible evidence of interaction with supernatural existence either before conception or beyond the grave, I think it’s our self-awareness which really reinforces the idea of a life beyond this.
We are caught in a trap by our own consciousness; by our very nature we are unable to definitively ascertain what lies beyond the limits of our own self-awareness in either space (i.e. what other people are thinking, or indeed if they are not mere puppets), or time (i.e. beyond our own deaths).
We cannot answer for ourselves the question of what lies beyond our own death, so we draw upon the only experience we have - our present life - and extrapolate. What surprises me a little bit is that we don’t draw on our experiences of other people’s deaths, and integrate that into our prediction: Johnny hasn’t come back from the dead, nor do I have any reason to believe that he continues to exist, so perhaps the same will be true of me?
This is why I’m an atheist: I find it very difficult to subscribe to any philosophy that:
- places our species in a central role in a Universe as vast as ours apparently is;
- can provide no testable evidence but our own demonstrably-fallible interpretation of experience;
- forbids, explicitly or implicitly, the revision of its own fundamental axioms;
I find no compelling reason to believe in a deity, or in the supernatural. I am content that there will always be boundaries to our knowledge, and that certain aspects of existence may always elude us, or upon achieving understanding reveal new mysteries. But resolution of the present absence of explanation does not require an invocation of the supernatural. I do not require the presence of an omnipotent entity to provide bumpers the edges of what is explicable. It only requires the humility to know that there are things we do not know.
The awesome wonder of a natural universe
Those with faith often feel sorry for those of us without, because they feel we have denied ourselves access to the epiphanic experiences they ascribe to religion.
When I think about the world, marvelling at the beneficence of a parental sculptor seems so small, so conveniently relatable, compared with the evidence-based explanations we have. The now-tiring phrase that “we are all made of star dust”, when genuinely considered, is as awesome as it has ever been. Every atom in our bodies was in the heart of stars, in space, long before our Sun - so seemingly eternal, and yet itself so cosmically trivial - even existed. Isn’t that amazing enough?