Saturday, July 28, 2012

Repost: Why I Am An Atheist - Gregory Greenwood

As I have mentioned before, PZ Myers has started a "Why I Am An Atheist" series of essays submitted by his readers - something that I suggest anyone who is struggling with coming to terms with their own atheism, or anyone who has misconceptions about atheism, should read. 

A perfect example of addressing the common misconceptions surrounding atheism was wonderfully and concisely summed up in this essay, which I have had permission from the author to repost here. I would love to use it as a starting point to delve into some of the key arguments later on, but for now I would like to start with this. As of course I cannot presume to speak for the author please leave any comments or queries relating directly to his essay on the original post

Why I am an atheist – Gregory Greenwood

In order to properly address why I am an atheist, I think it might be helpful to first deal with those common misconceptions about why atheists don’t believe in god.

I am not an atheist because I am ‘angry at god’. As an atheist, I don’t believe in god, any god, at all. I see no reason to express anger at a fictional character. Declaring that someone’s atheism is motivated by anger at god is as irrational as saying that it is caused by anger at Sauron. I am angry about the harm that religion causes to innocent people all across the world, but this is hardly the same thing.

I am not an atheist because of a commitment to ‘nihilism’. I am not a nihilist at all. As a secular humanist, I believe that all human life has value, but not because of any unevidenced deity. As a rationalist, I find the universe beautiful and fascinating, but I do not believe that it was designed, and I do not believe that its beauty is somehow lessened by the absence of a designer. I do not refer to any undetectable phantasm to inform my sense of what has worth and value. If anything, it is religion that is truly nihilistic – to the fervent believer, the world and all the people in it have no innate worth, their value is dictated solely by the supposed edicts of god – a non parsimonious god asserted without evidence. Take that all pervasive construct of god away, and on what basis can the theist claim that anything has value on its own merit?

I am not an atheist because I am an immoral or ‘evil’ person. The idea that a person ‘cannot be good without god’ is one of the most repugnantly offensive and dehumanizing tropes of religion – it asserts that people are inherently vile and unethical creatures that are only kept in line by the threat of fire and brimstone. I do not hold such a low opinion of our species, and I believe that it is nobler to strive to act in the best interests of your fellow humans simply because it is the right thing to do rather than as a means of buying your way into some postmortem Disneyland.

I am not an atheist as a means to make some nonconformist statement or to appear ‘trendy’. Atheism is hardly associated with anything remotely fashionable. For the most part we are misrepresented and demonized by those who are either ignorant or actively malicious – the Pope even went so far as to seek to directly link atheism to nazism, and he was far from alone in making that assertion.

I am not an atheist because atheism ‘is just another religion’. Atheism is a loose catch all term for a very broad and decentralized community of people who only have to share a single factor in common to claim the title ‘atheist’ – a non-belief in gods. Beyond this, we are extremely diverse. Many atheists are also sceptics, rationalists and humanists, but not all. We have no dogma, no rigid authority structures and, contrary to the more hyperbolic claims of our opponents, no ‘high priests’ (or priestesses).

Now that we have had our little bonfire of the strawmen, lets return to the original question; why am I an atheist? The answer is simple; it is because there is no evidence for god. I think that the fundamental importance of this point is hard to overstate. Religions make all sorts of sweeping claims about the nature of physical reality based upon the supposed agency of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent godhead and yet no evidence for this supposedly all powerful being is provided. As with any truth claim, if no evidence is forthcoming then the null hypothesis must stand. More than this, I think it downright irresponsible to confer belief on such a radical claim that is so often used as a basis for political, legal and social authority without the most comprehensive evidential base.

If the god proposition cannot be established, then all the theological manouevring of so called ‘sophisticated theology’ becomes moot. Asking ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ is pretty pointless if you cannot prove that angels exist. In the absence of evidence for god, atheism is the only intellectually consistent position to adopt.

And yet theists are never convinced by this simple point. They claim that they have an explanation as to why there is no evidence for god – apparently this entity has a strange fetish for using its power to cover its tracks. An all powerful being that demonstrates its power by rendering itself undetectable? This is perhaps the quintessential circular argument.

Even if we set aside the lack of evidence for a moment, that still doesn’t suffice to justify a belief in any one god over another. The fact is that atheism is actually highly ubiquitous; even the most committed theist is an atheist in regard to every god in the history of humanity bar their own, and there seems no rational basis for their choice of that god over any other. Why is belief in Yahweh or Allah somehow better than belief in Odin, Ra, Mithras or Zeus? Or, for that matter, belief in vampires, werewolves or fairies? In terms of evidence, each  is the equal of the others, and all are fictional. Religion demands that we treat certain classes of fictional character as sacred (and thus above debate) but not others, and never gives a compelling reason why this should be the case. The only reason why people afford the myth of god such greater standing in our culture than other classes of unevidenced superstition is because religion enjoys an unjustified, privileged status in our society as a relic of the theocratic past.

When I say that ‘I don’t believe in god’ I say it for the same reason that I might say ‘I don’t believe in fairies’. Very few people would argue that belief in fairies in the modern age is anything other than ridiculous; our understanding of science is such that positing the existence of fairies flies in the face of all that we know. I am an atheist because, if you look objectively at the evidence, there is no more reason to believe in god then there is to believe in fairies.

Gregory Greenwood

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