Since its inception, Daylight Atheism has been first and foremost a platform for atheist thought. We’ve had plenty of theist commenters, but never an entire post written by a theist – until now.
Some of you may recognize Quixote, who’s been a commenter here for some time. There have been many theists commenting on Daylight Atheism whose beliefs I’ve strongly disagreed with, and (I like to think) many theists whom I’ve been able to converse with in a spirit of civility and friendship, but I don’t think any other visitor on DA combines those qualities in as high a measure as he does. That’s why I thought it would make for interesting reading for the two of us to engage in a dialogue, one that avoids the usual cliched arguments and gets down to the most meaningful differences in respective worldviews. When we more clearly outline the chasm between us, it may be easier for one side or the other to see across it.
My model is the 2007 debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan, which I thought was both civil and illuminating. I hope ours will achieve a similar standard. I don’t have a specific plan for how many rounds this will continue; I trust the time will become clear when we’ve both spoken our peace. My opening statement follows below, and his will be posted tomorrow. Your comments are welcome as well, but please be sure they show the kind of civility that attracts commenters like Quixote here in the first place!
So, as I believe we had agreed, we were going to talk about the most fundamental reasons why people become atheists or theists. In my case, there are two main ones. These are similar to arguments I’ve made before, but in this letter, they’re described more personally: I wanted to emphasize the reasons why I’m an atheist, the ones that I myself find most convincing. You may disagree, of course. If you want to respond to these, or if you’d rather discuss the reasons that motivate your beliefs, either is fine with me.
The first reason is that, when I look at the world, I get the strong impression that no one’s in charge. History lacks a discernible moral order. Happiness and misery are distributed randomly, without regard to morality; good people sometimes succeed and sometimes suffer, and evil people sometimes are punished and sometimes prosper. Humanity has made some moral progress by its own effort, but even so, this world is not one that consistently rewards virtue or punishes vice. In short, the universe gives every sign of being ruled by pure chance and mechanistic, unintelligent natural forces. And when people are suffering unjustly – by which I mean, suffering in a way that bears no relation to any choice they have made – there is no divine help for them.
That last point is the one that sticks in my craw the most. If there is a god that loves us and cares about our well-being, why doesn’t he do anything to aid people who are suffering or in need? How could he not?
If I were God, I would pass through all the hospitals in the world and heal the suffering in their sickbeds. I would miraculously cure AIDS, so that millions of children don’t have to grow up orphans. I would calm hurricanes before they could hit coastal communities, or at the very least, send angels to pluck people from the raging floodwaters. I would send rain where there’s drought and turn deserts into fertile breadbaskets where crops grow in abundance, so no one would go hungry. When violent people tried to harm the innocent, I would make their guns turn into flowers in their hands. I can’t believe that, if there is a god, I’m more moral or more compassionate than him. Yet all these evils and many more remain unalleviated, and the only aid for those in need is the aid that we give each other. My sense of conscience rebels at believing that a god is responsible for this state of affairs.
The second major reason why I’m an atheist is the diversity and confusion of religious beliefs among humankind. When you look out at the world’s cultures, you don’t see a uniform testimony of faith; you don’t see the same creeds arrived at independently in different societies, you don’t see prophets preaching the same god and the moral lessons among every people. Instead, every culture has its own beliefs and its own stories, all of which are wildly different from the ones that predominate elsewhere. If every culture in the world past and present held what was recognizably the same faith, that would be extremely difficult for an atheist to explain. But what we see instead is a vast sea of religious confusion and discord, and this suggests that what we’re dealing with is the diversity and creativity of human imagination.
Again, if I were God, I would not leave humanity in darkness and ignorance. I would not communicate through hazy oracles, ancient anonymous writings, or vague promptings of conscience. I would make my message as clear as daylight and as brilliant as the sun. I would not have a chosen people; I would raise up prophets from among every people, from every region and every era, speaking my message to the populace. Or better yet, I would speak to all people individually – not in an ambiguous inner voice, but in visible, tangible manifestation, making it perfectly clear what I desired from them, so that even people who chose to ignore me would know exactly what my message was. I would not remain silent, hidden, invisible, leading some people to doubt my existence and others to cause chaos and strife as they battled over competing ideas about my wishes. This strikes me as the more rational course of action by far, and again, my sense of reason rebels when I’m asked to believe that an all-knowing god chose a plan so obviously inferior.
In my eyes, these are the two most persuasive reasons. What do you think?