This is just a personal essay, written one Easter Sunday.
For me, atheism means not a disbelief in any god in particular.
Atheism instead means a disbelief in all gods, just as many disbelieve in fairies or goblins.
This is not to say that I would still disbelieve in gods in the event of good evidence to the contrary; but that is not really different from saying I would also believe in fairies and goblins, should there be good evidence for such magical folk.
In this way, my atheism differs from what I understand to be “agnosticism”.
It is not that I do not know whether gods exist or not.
For me, it is not an open question.
I positively disbelieve in gods, and I have never encountered any good evidence that they exist.
I believe that every god I could ever hear about in human history, and there have probably been thousands, to not exist; that each and every god is nothing more than a human construct; and that just because someone believes in a god does not mean that god exists.
In one curious way, my atheism is not dissimilar to someone else’s monotheism.
I disbelieve in all the gods I could have ever encounter; the monotheist believes the same, but with one exception.
One could be glib and say that plus-or-minus-one is nothing more than a rounding error.
However, there is the more important point that the typical Christian or Muslim invariably disbelieves in gods as readily as a typical atheist, and often does so with less thoughtfulness.
So if I am an atheist, what sort of atheist am I?
I do not think of myself as a militant atheist, but I suppose few actually do. It is the sort of phrase which one applies to other people, and not yourself. I certainly would not want to impose my atheism on someone else, and nor would I go out of my way to argue or debate with a non-atheist. I have known people derive great comfort from their religious views, and I do not wish to be the sort of person who wants to take such comfort away.
However, I derive great comfort from my atheism.
This does not stop various monotheists, usually Christians of one kind or another, wanting to convert me. There are even people who pray for me, which is both nice and rather pointless.
I am at ease with a godless universe and with a detailed understanding of natural and human history which has no need whatsoever for divine planning or intervention. The earnest people who wish to take this away from me may mean well, but they are offering only constraints where my curiosity and sensibilities otherwise would range freely.
To start believing that any part of the universe or any course of human conduct can be explained only by divine agency would constitute a narrowing of my horizon; it would seem artificial and contrived, and I suspect I could not keep it up, or indeed keep a straight face.
My atheism dates back more-or-less to university days, twenty years ago. I do confess to a brief flirtation with Christianity when I was about nineteen, but it lasted only a week or two.
There are two bases to my atheism. The first addresses the claims of “natural religion”; the second is my response to the contentions of “revealed religion”.
In terms of natural religion, I can never get the hang of thinking about the universe with gods in it. Nothing seems to require a godly explanation. For example, evolution by means of natural selection is capable of explaining natural history. Though it is a complex theory, and one which can seem counter-intuitive, development by random mutations and the survival of the fittest is at least capable of being true, given a sufficiently long time-scale.
Arguments from creation and from design, on the other hand, seem to just trigger more questions. It seems to me that there was no need to posit a creator or a designer if there was any merit in evolutionary biology.
Similarly, and as far as I can tell, the existence of the universe, including the solar system and this planet, also does not need reference to any gods.
Such godlessness, of course, does not make the universe and life on earth any less wonderful and beautiful.
Indeed, freed from the requirement that everything has to be explained by reference to what some god allegedly did, one can have the sheer thrill of intellectually trying to work out answers where there are none prescribed.
A universe explained by a god seems rather drab in comparison.
However, my secular view of the universe would count for nothing if “revealed religion” was true.
My understanding is that revealed religion means that there has been some intervention in earthly affairs which demonstrates as a fact the existence of a particular god and endorses the truth of a particular religious form.
As someone who studied history at university, and whose day jobs (as lawyer and journalist) now involve the intense assessment of documentary and other evidence, such a prospect is exciting.
The strident assertions of Dawkins and Sagan would have no efficacy at all if it could be shown that there was good evidence of divine agency; that there had been some evidence which could only be explained by there being a god at work.
Christianity, for example, makes a number of historical claims for their god revealing itself in human affairs. Many of the Christian claims are familiar in modern culture: the virgin birth and nativity of Jesus, the miracle-working and exorcisms of the ministry of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus after his execution.
And this is where I have my greatest problem with Christianity.
I cannot see why the bundle of stories and historical texts which provide the basis of Christian belief are inherently more plausible than any other cycle of ancient legends and scripts. Many Christians seem to believe that their religion has an inherent priority over other religions; that one has to accept the historical basis of Christian claims, whilst they deny the historical validity of the claims of other religions.
However, I have never understood why Christianity, which is essentially a Mediterranean-based religion known only to a minority of the world for most of its history, and indeed a more recent religion than some other world religions, has any inherent priority over other religions.
There is no reason why the badly-documented historical claims of Christianity are likely to be any more true than the claims of any other religion.
And, in turn, there is no reason why any other supposedly “revealed” religion is any more true than Christianity.
As far as I am aware, there is no event in either natural or human history which can be explained only by the design or intervention of a god, either in the Christian tradition or otherwise.
Take, for example, the Easter ‘resurrection’ stories in the New Testament. We are told that after his public execution, that there was a public resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This would have been an extraordinary event. However, the evidential base is not at all compelling.
The earliest version of Mark stops abruptly with an empty tomb and its discovery by people being instructed to say nothing about it. Acts has Saul/Paul being converted on the road to Damascus after encountering Jesus by means of a ray of light and a voice from heaven.
The later Gospel accounts, written down decades after the supposed event, add more detail, most of it inconsistent between the different Gospels.
Fairly straightforward points, such as who visited the tomb, what was found there, who was told next (if anyone), and who Jesus appeared to and with what effect, are all hopelessly confused. And, for an alleged physical resurrection, the ascension of the physically-resurrected Jesus figure upwards into heaven seems at best implausible.
Of course, the resurrection and ascension are plausible if one has faith. I understand faith to mean a certainty in something being true when there is no evidence otherwise. (Some people even seem to have faith that something is true even if the evidence is actually to the contrary.)
It may well be that some people can look at the evidence, such as it is, and conclude that the resurrection was a historical fact. They are free to do so, and the “who moved the stone” tradition is fondly invoked by many Christians; but there may be a problem in them adopting this approach.
As Paul himself recognised in his first letter to the Corinthians, Christianity ultimately must be a religion of faith. This is even the case in respect of the purported resurrection of Jesus, and Paul’s letter may indeed be the earliest evidence we have of the belief in a resurrected Jesus.
However, many Christians seem to want to know better than Paul, and so wish to say that a belief in the resurrection requires no faith at all.
In my own personal judgment – and I am fully aware of the “who moved the stone” tradition – there is nothing in the Easter story which actually requires a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus as a historical event.
Indeed, as someone who admires the Gospels both as historical and literary documents, the post-resurrection narratives are disappointing and unconvincing.
It is clear that the Gospel narratives are a consequence of a belief in some form of resurrection of Jesus, rather than the evidential basis of the belief.
And there is no need to deny that the earliest Christians believed in a resurrection of some kind, physical or otherwise; there are religious enthusiasts in every age, most of whom are readily dismissed by Christians and atheists alike.
The fact of religious enthusiasm does not prove any historical fact, other than that enthusiasm exists.
To be a Christian thereby requires a leap of faith, just as it is required of any supporter of any “revealed” religion.
A wise Christian surely knows this, and will value any exposition of what can be shown without faith as an index as to what the effect their faith has on their beliefs.
As such there is actually no real tension between the Christian and the atheist: the former can use the latter as showing what difference their faith has to their view of the universe and human affairs.
However, I would like to invite any Christian (or Muslim or believer in any religious form) to try and see the universe as an atheist does: to have a sense of wonder in respect of both natural phenomena and ancient writings which is not easily satisfied by the conventional answers of others; and to enjoy the sheer rapture of working out things for oneself, with an evidence-based approach following one’s curiosity.
There may well be gods, fairies, and goblins; atheism and scepticism does not mean not admitting the ultimate possibility of any such things.
But you may well find that you do not need to believe in such things to understand and be awed by the universe; and you may also find that you do not need gods to appreciate what great (and awful) things humans can achieve by themselves.
So, if you have never tried it, do give atheism a chance.
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