A personal historyI grew up Catholic, attending church weekly and going to Sunday School, but started having doubts about my religion in high school, around the time that I went through the sacrament of Confirmation. There wasn’t any great personal crisis that preceded it, but certain aspects of the religion didn’t quite make sense to me in light of the discoveries of science and other facets of the world we live in. But at the time I didn’t think I had enough information or time/inclination to fully consider and resolve my doubts, so I considered myself to be a “Catholic agnostic”. A terminology note: “agnostic” formally refers to the philosophical position that one cannot have knowledge about whether or not something is true, but colloquially it has come to refer to an intermediary position of doubt between belief and nonbelief, which is how I am using it here. And by “Catholic agnostic” I meant that at the time I considered that of the religions, Catholicism was most likely right, if any of them were.
In my senior year of college, I had the opportunity to take a philosophy of religion class which I thought would finally allow me to fully consider my doubts, one way or the other. The class covered all of the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of god postulated over the years. On the elliptical at the gym one day late that semester, I took the time to synthesize my thoughts and made my decision. I made one last prayer to lay out my reasoning, and I became an atheist.
The problem of selective revelationThough there have been many aspects of religious belief that people have struggled with for centuries, and which I have also factored into my decision, there is one problem which I think trumps all of them: selective revelation. That is to say, assuming for the moment that there is a divine being, not all people seem to have equal access, or any access at all, to the supposed divine being.
The basic explanation goes like this: God wanted us to be free to do as we like, but if we knew that he definitely existed, we would no longer have free will.
That’s fine as far as that goes, but that would suggest that the world should be completely ignorant of the existence of god. However, that is clearly not what we see. We have various prophets over the years who have spread the word by convincing others of the truth of their words, which have been written down and multiply translated, and many followers of various religions claim to have some sort of direct evidence or contact with god.
Assuming for the moment that god does exist, he has apparently seen fit to give a subset of people proof of his existence, thus supposedly taking away their free will. But why?
The argument might continue that this is okay because it allows most people the choice of whether or not to believe. But the choice offered here isn’t really the choice to believe in the existence of god, but the choice to believe whether the supposed prophets are sane, honest, and not succumbing to well-known human flaws (see my post on anecdotes for a taste of this), as well as whether the texts we rely on have said have been properly chosen, translated, and interpreted.
On top of the general argument, I do not have any personal experience of any divine reality. A common response to a claim like this is that belief must come prior to the evidence. There is one simple reason why this cannot work: We humans are very good at seeing what we want to see, finding agency where there is none, interpreting events to fit our beliefs, and we tend to better remember those things which match our beliefs than go against them. For instance, 32% of participants in a study who were told that they might hear fragments of the song “White Christmas” during a white noise track reported they heard it at least once. And that’s something they probably didn’t really care about—imagine how much stronger the motivation would be when someone very strongly believes in something.
Since there is no way for me to tell whether any prophet, ancient or modern, meets all of these criteria, there is simply no reason for me to accept any of their claims.
Of course, we do sometimes trust people about things that we cannot (not “do not”) personally verify. We accept them, through some combination of previous experience or because it is too minor to take issue with. But there are certain classes of claims which we should not usually take on this sort of faith. For instance, claims that a substance cures something, or claims that giving someone your money will get you rich, or claims that someone has psychic powers. Claims about how the world fundamentally works, which includes religious claims, are of the same type.
Problems of plurality/inconsistency and geotemporal dependenceTwo complementary problems to the idea that only certain humans have access to such revelations are the sheer diversity of revelatory claims, and the geographic and temporal dependence of the claims.
If there is a real universal religious truth to be accessed, then I would expect:
- that there would be far more similarity in religious beliefs than we currently see;
- that the same beliefs should arise in multiple geographic locations independent of human communication; and
- that the beliefs wouldn’t change over time with human culture.
If these were true, even with selective revelation there would be somewhat compelling reasons to consider the beliefs even without personal experience. Of course this isn’t what we see. Over human history there have been thousands of different religions. Each society had/has its own disparate deities and associated stories, and these stories and beliefs changed over time as the societies developed and interacted with others.
Plurality/inconsistencyEnter the blind men and an elephant allegory. As the story goes, several blind men were touching different parts of an elephant, and making different and conflicting claims about the elephant. The point of the story is that we are like the blind men, and each disparate spiritual tradition is really talking about the same elephant which is somehow being accessed or interpreted differently.
Usually this is brought up to suggest that all faiths are equally correct in their own way. However, some of the claims made by different religions truly are mutually exclusive: Why would the same entity require one group of people to pray five times a day in a particular direction, and another group to consume symbolic flesh and blood? How could the same reality have both reincarnation after death and heaven or hell after death? It also isn’t clear why different people would come up with different ideas—at least with an elephant we would be able to explain why one person had a different experience than another.
One solution to plurality is to construct a new religion out of the commonalities. Unitarian Universalism does something sort of like this, though every individual has their own beliefs rather than a true common denominator. But the lesson I take from plurality is that even if there is a spiritual reality, it is highly unlikely that any human has got it right.
Geotemporal dependenceIn researching for this post, I encountered this animated map which shows (loosely) the origins and spread of the current major world religions, which does a good job of illustrating the temporal and geographic dependence of religion:
A more expansive map could easily be drawn for all of the world’s religions over time. Religions would arise, spread, change, split, and fade away to become what we consider myths (more or less… there are some reviving the worship of Zeus).
One relevant example of the change over time is the Jewish god Yahweh. Originally, Yahweh was likely a member of the polytheistic Canaanite religion which preceded the Hebrew people. Yahweh was one of 70 children of the chief god El and his wife Asherah, each child-god controlled its own nation, and each nation was only as powerful as its patron deity. Only later, after conquest by Assyria, did monotheism develop out of these beginnings. And of course, this same god served as the basis for both the Christian and Islamic gods.
Just think for a moment on the idea that the current beliefs of three of the major world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—may well all have their roots in a single Middle East tribe’s version of god which used to be a minor member of a pantheon of gods, in a world containing a multitude of different religious systems.
I further observe the recent origin of Mormonism in America which is relatively well-documented: Joseph Smith reported many things which no one would be able to confirm (including, conveniently, that he was commanded not to show the divine golden plates to anyone). Today there are ~6 million Mormons in the U.S., and some more around the world. I would challenge anyone who wonders how Mormonism grew so much from what (to a non-Mormon, at least) would seem to be questionable roots to consider why it is that their own religion could not have started out the same way.
Additionally, the primary predictor of one’s adult faith is the faith their parents brought them up in; the secondary predictor are the faiths of the surrounding community (how likely is it that a person would convert to something which isn’t around them?). In the U.S., 56% of adults have the exact same faith as their childhood faith. Add in Protestant-to-Protestant conversions (15%) and Catholic-to-Protestant conversions (5%), and that means 76% of Americans more or less retain the faith they grew up with (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Faith in Flux). It would be easy to imagine that in a country with reduced freedom of religion or reduced knowledge of other religions, these numbers would be even higher.
What the combined observations above demonstrate to me is that religion is primarily a cultural phenomenon, rather than a representation of a universal truth.
Other argumentsAs you might imagine, the arguments for and against the existence of god or a spiritual level to reality is an extensive philosophical field, and I don’t have the space here to delve into every one of them. During the Philosophy of Religion course, I did consider many of them, and found the arguments for lacking, and the arguments against compelling. Though I would be happy to discuss any of them more fully if prompted.
To me, the world makes more sense without a godI often hear theists say that they find that a creator makes the world make more sense. The most often citation here is “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “things are so complex they must have been designed by something.”
But consider that if god exists, you need to come up with some intelligent reasoning for why the world is the way it is: Why do bad things happen to good people (especially when the bad things are not other humans)? Why do we have immune systems which are having trouble dealing with a more sterile world? Why is so much of the universe inhospitable to human life? Why are we co-dependent on bacteria, rather than being self-sufficient? Why do our cells have an energy-producing organelle that has its own bacterial-like DNA, rather than basing it on our own code? You get the point: Why is any part of the world exactly the way it is and not some other way?
To maintain in my mind the idea that a god exists—or at least, the gods claimed through most religions—I feel like I would have to do extensive mental gymnastics or else just wave my hands and pretend that the apparent incompatibilities don’t exist by asserting that any possible reason or plan is beyond my comprehension. As I mentioned in my post on Armageddon, this feels like a superficial dismissal of the problems, rather than a resolution to them.
Bad things happen to good people because they can happen and there is nothing out there which is responsive to our ideas of good and bad to stop them from happening. Our biology is the way it is because our ancestors had to adapt to the world they found themselves in, and it worked just well enough for them to get by, rather than the world and us being expressly and perfectly designed for each other. The world is the way it is because it is what is allowed for by the underlying dispassionate laws of nature.
Why are the laws of nature the way they are? I don’t know. We may never fully know. But just because we may not be able to figure out how everything ultimately works, that doesn’t mean that there must be something that does know.
Pascal’s wagerBefore I conclude this section on arguments, I need to mention the often-cited Pascal’s wager. The idea, proposed by the man of the same name, is that if Christians are wrong they have nothing to lose, but if non-Christians are wrong they’re screwed. Seems like an easy choice when stated this way.
However, If we are talking about belief and belief alone, it would be hard to think that a god that cared whether you believe wouldn’t also care why you believe.
If we are talking both about both belief and behavior, we have an even bigger problem. What if Christianity isn’t right but something else is? Even if we assume that Christianity is broadly right, how does one determine which particular sect has it right?
Even if the logic of the wager was sound, there is no way for any person to apply it to their lives.
Stereotypes about atheistsWhile I’m on the topic, I want to quickly address two common myths and stereotypes about atheists. I haven’t encountered them in person, thankfully, though from seeing some comments and articles online, I know they are out there.
Atheists don’t hate god.A common theme out there, at least among some people, seems to be the assumption that atheists hate god, or didn’t get something they wanted from him, or fear the idea that they might be judged for their actions. Now, there might be some atheists who fit into this model, and there are bound to be certain conceptions of god (e.g. one who sends anyone who believes the wrong thing to hell) which they would not like. But this generally isn’t true. I personally would love for there to be some sort of afterlife, and for truly evil people to get punished and truly good people to get rewarded. I no more hate or fear god than I hate or fear the chupacabra, Zeus, Robin Hood, unicorns, or Darth Vader. Plus, no right-thinking atheist would conclude that simply disbelieving in god would allow them to escape what would be punishment for their actions. Which brings me to…
Atheists are not less moral than theists.Another stereotype about atheists is that people lacking belief in god therefore have no moral code, or that they become atheists in order to escape morality. This is untrue. Morality is to some extent innate and to some extent learned. After all, humans are social animals—we could not have developed any sort of families, tribes, or civilizations without it. The so-called golden rule of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” which is often attributed to Jesus is far more ancient than that, existing in various forms in China, Greece, Egypt, and Babylon. Morality is older than civilization, and you don’t get rid of that by no longer believing in god.
Here I would also like to make a point about those who counter this by pointing to the bible as a guide to living a good and moral life even aside from belief. Although I won't detail all of them here, consider the books of the Old Testament which contain morally dubious acts apparently sanctioned by God, particularly Leviticus and Numbers. An especially disturbing tale can be found in Numbers 31, where God orders the Israelites to murder the men, women, and boys of an enemy tribe, taking the girls for themselves (as servants, I'm seeing some apologists say, though the text itself sounds worse). And then there’s the famous story of Job, where God lets Satan destroy Job’s life simply to settle a bet.
These are sometimes dismissed as irrelevant because it is the Old Testament, which is argued to have been nullified by Jesus, despite Jesus’s teachings drawing from and directly referencing the Old Testament—he was Jewish, after all.
Anyway, my point is that even though the bible contains some good teachings, it also contains many things that we today (I hope) would find objectionable. Since one would have to actively reject some parts and accept others, there isn't really a compelling case to rely on the bible, let alone belief in its god, for moral guidance. There are lessons to be found in all manner of human writings generated over the millennia, as well as careful philosophical thought on ethics and morality.