Atheism isn’t a worldview. It isn’t a belief system. It’s a single belief, or as many of us phrase it, a “lack of” a single belief. It’s not a religion, it has no dogma or doctrine, and it only unites us under the same wide umbrella as the label “theism” unites the rest. Theism, as many of you know, includes categories such as polytheism, monotheism, pantheism, and dystheism as well as specific faiths like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity–some of which are further broken down into even more specific faiths. A diverse spectrum of belief systems falls under the “theist” label. Atheists don’t have this plethora of sub-genres because each of us are ideological free-agents. For the most part, we don’t bundle opinions, opting to make a belief system unique to the individual. There have been attempts to deviate from our ironically shared nonconformity, such as the formation of the Brights, Atheism+, and “New Atheism”–but I don’t know many proud members, and I’ve come to know a lot of atheists. I consider these groups valid for what they are–the vocal minority.
I used to wonder why uniting atheists is like herding cats. I’ve concluded (correctly or not) that it’s because the disbelief of God is based on doubt while the belief in God is based on faith. Atheism is a very skeptical mindset that is a product of nurture and nature. I see it as nurture in that critical thinking is a learned skill that is more often valued in the secular communities that atheists were either raised in or happened upon during a deconversion. I see it as nature in that genes for both skepticism and gullibility are likely selected for different reasons from an evolutionary standpoint. For example, an early man who thinks twice about berry consumption will likely survive longer than one who concludes that if one berry is a good food source, they all must be equally good. Conversely, it will benefit that man’s friend to believe his theory of dangerous berries. This results in a population that has varying degrees of a trusting and a questioning instinct. I have the more skeptical variety.
Speaking of evolution, I’ve heard claims that belief in science is a part of the alleged atheist belief system. First, I’ll say that’s not necessarily true. There are those who don’t believe in God, and thereby textbook atheists, while having significant doubts about accepted scientific discoveries. For example, you’ll have a hard time finding a more outspoken atheist than Bill Maher, but he doesn’t accept germ theory and is sympathetic to the anti-vaccination community. Still, I realize that there is significant overlap between atheists and science enthusiasts. To this I’d point out that accepting observable data is only a part of a belief system in the same way that trusting our own senses is part of a belief system. Anything demonstrated to work repeatedly and consistently on reality’s terms requires no belief…but you might as well believe it. The tendency for theists to deny science is a product of their need to cling to the dogma that runs counter to the way things are, or at the very least, the way things appear.
Generalizations of atheists are no more informative than stereotypes of any other diverse group. If nothing else, this should be the takeaway from this post. We’re all unique snowflakes. That said, I’d now like to provide as much insight into me personally as I can. The following traits and tendencies all contribute to my dismissal of the God hypothesis.
I am comfortable with the unknown. I’ve often heard Christians say that divine creation makes more sense than “something from nothing”–as if that is the generally accepted atheist view. It is not. I imagine this started as an innocent straw man that captured the imaginations of apologists across the globe. I’d blame William Lane Craig, but then I always blame William Lane Craig. The most accurate model for our early universe is the Big Bang Theory, which most atheists and many theists accept. However, this model only explains the early expansion of the universe, not its ultimate origin. It can be fun to speculate…but you know what you do when you assume. Therein lies the problem with the so-call Cosmological Arguments. Like much apologetic reasoning, it relies on a gap of human knowledge and either inserts a new claim or retrofits old claims. As we advance, the gaps keep closing, but I’ll be the first to admit that many still exist. I’m simply comfortable with my lack of omniscience.
I am comfortable with chance. To quote a prolific philosopher, “s#!t happens.” God provides meaning and worth to a life that can’t possibly matter in the grand scheme of a natural reality. Regardless of how many lives you touch or how much wealth you accumulate, in a million years your only legacy will be atoms dispersed across the galaxy. I see the appeal of God, I really do, but desire doesn’t dictate reality. We used to think there was a design to life, but now we know that we are products of evolutionary trial-and-error. The most successful organisms live long enough to find similarly successful mates to pass the best genes on for future generations to build. At the most fundamental scales of matter, we see particles that can only be represented as probabilities as predicted by the uncertainty principle. Our concept of “God’s plan” has been continuously altered to conform to new information. I have to ask at what point will the goalpost be so moved that the game is no longer relevant? For me, that moment has already passed.
There are other reasons an unplanned existence is more reasonable. An unguided world allows for answers to huge theological dilemmas, most notably the Problem of Evil–which is only a problem when a divine puppeteer is held responsible. The Problem of Evil can be distilled down to a Problem of Fairness in which everything from natural disasters to drunk drivers can ruin the lives of good people. If this occurs according to God’s plan (according to all but the most deistic theists) then they are decidedly unjust by every human standard. Saying that God’s standard is higher than ours or that he works in “mysterious ways” is an admission of a problem with the only solution boiling down to turning a blind eye. When I am posed a complex moral dilemma, I weigh who is harmed against who benefits and make the most informed decision possible — knowing that there may be no objectively right answer. In my eyes it’s a more honest than artificially raising the contrast of a gray world to black and white.
I am comfortable with the possibility of nonexistence. When I tell people that I don’t think anything happens to us when we die, my audience usually perceives me as the ultimate pessimist. Somehow, this is true even when my audience thinks hell is a real option. This baffles me. I think, “how narcissistic is it to think ceasing to be is less favorable than eternal torture?” I’m aware that many theists overlook the fire and brimstone of their holy book, hoping their God relies more on a reward system for obedience. That’s fine. I honestly don’t have a problem with belief in heaven, but I, personally, don’t have it. I’m comfortable with returning to my preconception state knowing that, while I may not be happy about it, I’ll be incapable of being sad. I’m of the opinion that there is no point worrying about something I can’t control and I’m as certain as I can be that my belief in heaven isn’t going to change my prospects of the hereafter. I see no good reason to believe in an afterlife and until there is, I won’t. That’s how I form every belief. Besides, by lowering my expectations I save room to be pleasantly surprised.
I am uncomfortable with absolute authority. If there is anything we can learn from history, it’s that leaders often do horrible things when no checks or balances are in place. In fact, there is no one there to tell them what they are doing is horrible–because if anyone did, something horrible would happen to them. This is a function of relative power and authority. God, if He exists, has ultimate power and authority. The authors of the bible knew this and have depicted Yahweh and/or Jehovah accordingly. Both experience and scripture inform my aversion to absolute authority, but it doesn’t contribute to my disbelief in God. It contributes to why I wouldn’t worship Him even if He did exist.
Lastly, and I think most importantly, I am uncomfortable with the supernatural. I am skeptical of the accounts in most holy books because they come from a time before photography, video, the printing press, and widely adopted reading and writing proficiency. I’m skeptical of holy books because their authors and distributors had a vested interest in maintaining and gaining control by leveraging the power of legend. I’m skeptical of holy books because scholars have reached little or no consensus as to which books were forged, exaggerated, plagiarized, misinformed, or authentic. However, all this could be overlooked if I really wanted to believe. What I can’t overlook is the miracles. There’s the splitting of the Red Sea, walking on water, resurrections, talking snakes and donkeys and shrubbery, water turns to wine and sometimes blood, the divine duplication of seafood and baked goods — I seriously don’t see how anyone can believe this and not be just as credulous reading tales of Dracula and King Arthur? The rotation of the earth stops at some point so Joshua can have more daylight to kill Amorites. It just stops.
I don’t want to come off as insulting, but I see this as fantasy and I have a hard time understanding how other adults do not. The above applies mostly to Christianity, but only because I know my audience. Other religious texts take just as many liberties with our experience of reality. I believe everything has a rational, natural explanation free of magic and divine intervention only because it’s been true (or looks like it will be true) for everything anyone has investigated in my lifetime. If you don’t feel the same, fine, but please try to understand. This isn’t a hurdle an apologetic argument can or should overcome. It requires a childlike faith. I just don’t have it anymore. I’m glad I don’t.