The following article dates from the late 1990s, and used to live on my old web site. As I’m slowly moving my old content into modern tools, this is its new permanent home.
I grew up Christian. In the Spring of 1995 at 30 years of age, I began a completely self-honest inventory of what I really believed and why. Although I think that the sweeping doctrinal changes taking place in my church (the Worldwide Church of God) at that time probably acted as a catalyst for my undertaking this review, I feel I would have followed the same course eventually anyway. For this evaluation, I put none of my past beliefs off-limits from critical examination. I began a review of the laws of rational inquiry, and for the first time in my life I began to seriously study atheist refutations to theistic arguments for belief.
I also studied Christian apologetics for the first time in my life. The field of apologetics deals with Christian scholars presenting the best rational reasons and evidence for why an intelligent person should come to the logical and necessary conclusion that
- some kind of “supernatural” being must exist,
- that this is the judeo-christian monotheistic God,
- that God must have certain specific attributes, such as omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, and
- that the tenets of Christianity are true.
—And they must do this all without resorting to the Bible. (The reason resorting to the Bible won’t work to convince a non-believer is that since the authority of the Bible is what the apologist wants to prove, requiring that someone else accept it beforehand would be committing the logical fallacy of circular reasoning, or “begging the question”).
In the balance, I found the apologists’ arguments unconvincing, and came to the considered conclusion that I didn’t have any credible evidence or irrefutable reasons to support the idea that God exists, or even “just have faith” that some kind of god exists. Rather than stop at simply lacking a positive belief in God, however, I realized that people allege the existence of other entities (such as unicorns, UFOs, ghosts, or gods from religions other than what I was raised in), and that I cannot absolutely prove the non-existence of these entities, but I nonetheless positively deny their existence. It is notoriously difficult to absolutely prove the non-existence of anything, but you also probably don’t believe in lots of things which you can’t absolutely prove don’t exist. For instance, imagine attempting to prove to someone who firmly believes in leprechauns that they simply don’t exist.
An excellent saying I have heard is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I can positively deny that leprechauns exist because no credible evidence has been presented for their existence, and because claims or stories of the exploits of leprechauns have plausible explanations based in the realm of what we already know. Some explanations could be:
- The person telling the story lied to cover up an embarrassing truth,
- The person telling the story lied to protect someone else,
- The person telling the story misperceived or misremembers reality,
- Someone deliberately deceived the person telling the story,
- The person is deceiving themselves into believing something they find comforting or simply want to believe,
- The person draws upon mythology to explain an event for which they have no other good explanation,
- The story has been told and retold by many people and has gotten “better” in the telling.
I don’t think many would deny that all of these things happen quite often to well-intentioned people, and must be ruled out before stories or anecdotes can be accepted as supporting an extraordinary premise.
The procedures of scientific investigation such as experimentation (a premise needs to be testable), falsifiability (a premise must suggest ways to show that it is or is not true), and verifiability (a result needs to be repeatable by independent experimenters) are designed to make sure that conclusions reached are not contaminated by any given experimenter’s personal biases or faulty methods. In my opinion, humankind has developed no better way than the scientific method to advance knowledge.
So, if extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, why then should I make an exception for the claim that God exists?
At this point, many would point out that the entire universe exists, and surely it must serve as extraordinary evidence for an extraordinary creator of some kind? Actually, I used to primarily base my belief on this point. I used to believe that since the universe was such a wonderful place, it must have had a creator, and that’s that. I came to realize, however, that this explanation replaces the big question of the physical universe’s existence with an even bigger one of God’s existence. If we claim that God simply exists as a neccessary fact, but can’t directly show his existence experimentally, then why can’t we simply believe that the physical universe simply exists as a necessary fact? Another useful scientific principle in this regard is “parsimony” (also known as Occam’s Razor), which says that when you observe a phenomenon (such as the existence of the universe), but have more than one theory to explain it (such as “God made it,” or “a committee of ten trillion gods made it,” or “it simply exists as a necessary fact”), choose to believe the simplest one that fits the observed facts, until the observed facts necessitate a more complex theory. God (as described by those who believe in him) would obviously be a very complex entity (at least as complex as the universe itself). And so accepting the idea of “God” merely increases the complexity of the theory without providing any really fundamental answer.
So, do I have a fundamental answer as to why the universe exists? No. Do I think humankind will ever come up with a good one? I don’t know. Part of my transition to atheism has involved reaching a place in my life where I don’t demand pat answers to fundamental existential questions.
In short, I decided I must base my life on the principles of evidence and reason, rather than those of mysticism and irrationality. In other words, for lack of evidence, skepticism (open-minded non-belief) becomes the default position, and is the only position which now makes sense to me. So, I am now a non-believer, and no longer live as if “God” exists any more than I live as if “unicorns” exist.
There are other related questions I have had to grapple with, such as “Can a person lead a moral life without believing in an absolute moral standard?” (my conclusion was yes) and “Can a person lead a positive, meaningful existence without believing in an externally-defined ‘higher purpose’, or life after death?” (again, yes).
Coming to this worldview has not been purely a cold, calculated process, however. I have also had to deal with feelings of anger directed at religion in general for the pain and suffering it has caused humankind throughout history as well as many of my personal friends, and grief resulting from no longer believing promises of a glorious-but-vague life after this one: the only life I truly know.
Probably the hardest part of my transition has been coming to terms with what I have heard called the “horror of being,” that is, the realization that we will all, as individuals, each in our own time, die and cease to exist. To greater or lesser degrees, we all find our personal annihilation “unthinkable”; we find it very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a future in which we do not exist. Furthermore, we have all lost loved ones and have wished to be reunited with them in some distant time and place. I too like that idea, but I have no evidence it will happen.
I don’t blame people for believing in an afterlife and a “God” to offer them a way into it. My choice is now to content myself with the positive impact my loved ones have had on my life, to live as long and as well as I reasonably can, and to try to leave a positive impact on those who will be around after me.
Overall, I feel that life is now more precious to me than ever, and my life is meaningful and happy.