Why I Am An Atheist (In 200 Words or Less)

[Note: This month, Patheos is organizing a "Why I Am A..." blog series, challenging contributors to explain the basis for their philosophy in 200 words or less. Here's my contribution. —Adam]

I’m an atheist because personal experience isn’t sufficient.

People from every religion claim to have personal experiences that bolster their beliefs, whether it’s the warmth of God’s love or the cool knowledge of a moral lawgiver, the Buddhist satori or the Mormon burning in the bosom. Clearly, these mutually exclusive revelations can’t all be right.

To declare that a personal, inner experience gives certainty about the workings of the universe is to assign far too much value to one’s subjective sense of conviction. I’m not that arrogant. No matter how confident I am, I may still be mistaken, and the same is true of every human being. The brain, marvelous instrument though it is, isn’t infallible. It can misfire, seize or hallucinate, and it can do so in a way that’s utterly indistinguishable from reality to the person experiencing it.

That’s why the only reliable road to truth is empirical evidence, repeatedly tested and rigorously vetted, relying on no one’s testimony or mental state for its reality. And that’s just what all the religions of the world fail to offer for their outlandish, supernatural claims.

UPDATE: Here’s another post on the same theme, via Spanish Inquisitor.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    How does one contribute to the blog series?

  • Adam Lee

    I think it may only be for Patheos bloggers. But if you want to write one of your own, I’ll link to it!

  • Edward

    My version:
    “The bible made no sense, god didn’t answer my prayers, and my christians friends were no more moral than my secular friends – and frequently less so. Lacking foundations for my faith, and facing a mountain of evidence to the contrary – I left.”

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor
  • http://youmademesayit.com PhillyChief

    No one yet has clearly defined what their god is, let alone provided demonstrable evidence for its existence, therefore I’m an atheist.

    22 words. As Jesse Pinkman would say, “yeah, bitch!”

  • Hansman

    I present this as honestly as I can. Maybe I don’t know enough about atheism to speak intelligently; however, I do enjoy conversations about things I do not fully understand.

    “Clearly, these mutually exclusive revelations can’t all be right.”

    I am not sure they have to be mutually exclusive. The existence of multiple religions, varying traditions and teachings within those religions and different experiences within those teachings doesn’t invalidate them no more than variances in interaction between different sets of friends would invalidate friendship.

    “And that’s just what all the religions of the world fail to offer for their outlandish, supernatural claims.”

    To condem the possibility of the existence of God because men on Earth have perveted teachings (or outright fabricated them) for personal gain doesn’t seem to keep with the scientific process. That is similar to condemning government because of the acts of tyrants.

    1,000 years ago, man was unaware of the cosmic background radition because we were unable to see or test it. Was it not in existence then? Thanks to advances in science, we became able to see and test it. Is it not possible this is also true with God? That there are a few people who posess the tools to observe God, see his works and therefore inform the rest of us? That in due time, technology or further understanding might reveal him more clearly?

  • GCT

    I am not sure they have to be mutually exclusive.

    They don’t have to be, but they are mutually exclusive. There are competing claims that can’t all be true.

    The existence of multiple religions, varying traditions and teachings within those religions and different experiences within those teachings doesn’t invalidate them no more than variances in interaction between different sets of friends would invalidate friendship.

    Actually, it does invalidate all of them, except for possibly one. But, which one? How can you tell which one?

    To condem the possibility of the existence of God because men on Earth have perveted teachings (or outright fabricated them) for personal gain doesn’t seem to keep with the scientific process.

    What in the world are you talking about? No one has condemned the possibility of god for starters. Adam is not saying that there is no possibility of god. Adam is saying that no one has ever given any reason to believe that any god exists. It has nothing at all to do with “men on Earth [perverting] teachings.” Additionally, how in the world can you tell whether someone has “perverted” a teaching? Lastly, it is well within the scientific method to use the scientific method to ask for evidence for supernatural claims. When that evidence is not there, it is well within the scientific method to withhold belief in those claims and reject them until they can be supported.

    1,000 years ago, man was unaware of the cosmic background radition because we were unable to see or test it. Was it not in existence then?

    It existed, but there was no reason to believe that it did without some evidence.

    Is it not possible this is also true with God? That there are a few people who posess the tools to observe God, see his works and therefore inform the rest of us? That in due time, technology or further understanding might reveal him more clearly?

    It’s possible, but a couple issues arise. 1. Without evidence there’s no reason to believe that any god exists, and atheism is the only rational position. 2. In every single instance where we’ve learned about the world, god’s supposed role in it has shrunk. IOW, the more we learn, the less likely god has become, without exception. There are no cases where we’ve uncovered evidence that makes god’s existence more likely rather than less likely. It seems that god’s track record is not very promising.

  • Maricka Herrer

    A few observations concerning your post:

    If empirical evidence would be the only way to define truth, without any of testimony or perspective, many aspects of life, including the court of law would be useless. The court of law is in many cases based on historical facts (for instance, a crime cannot be repeated to prove that the convict did it).
    Furthermore one must remember that empirical data does not mean anything unless it is interpreted by a human mind. You stated that the human mind may be fallible, which is theoretically possible. However, if you question experience because it is a product of the human mind, then how can you trust a scientist’s/professional’s interpretation of empirical data?

  • GCT

    If empirical evidence would be the only way to define truth, without any of testimony or perspective, many aspects of life, including the court of law would be useless. The court of law is in many cases based on historical facts (for instance, a crime cannot be repeated to prove that the convict did it).

    This is nonsense. Courts of law don’t define truth. Empirical evidence and the scientific method are the only method we have that has any success rate at all of figuring out whether something is true or not.

    Furthermore one must remember that empirical data does not mean anything unless it is interpreted by a human mind. You stated that the human mind may be fallible, which is theoretically possible. However, if you question experience because it is a product of the human mind, then how can you trust a scientist’s/professional’s interpretation of empirical data?

    Because the process of the scientific method is designed to take out human biases.

  • Adam Lee

    If empirical evidence would be the only way to define truth, without any of testimony or perspective, many aspects of life, including the court of law would be useless. The court of law is in many cases based on historical facts (for instance, a crime cannot be repeated to prove that the convict did it).

    No, because courts of law are based on empirical evidence: fingerprints, DNA samples, surveillance camera video, to name a few. Crimes don’t need to be repeated to prove that they occurred, and there is no distinction between “historical facts” and any other kind of facts. Eyewitness testimony may be sufficient for normal, ordinary claims, where the bar of proof is lower, but I don’t think that eyewitness testimony, if uncorroborated by any other evidence, should suffice to convict someone of a crime, precisely because human memory is so fallible.

    However, if you question experience because it is a product of the human mind, then how can you trust a scientist’s/professional’s interpretation of empirical data?

    When a conclusion comes from a community of expert reasoners who understand the scientific method, I assign it a higher probability of being true. However, no single person is so absolutely trustworthy that they should always be believed.

  • Hansman

    “They don’t have to be, but they are mutually exclusive. There are competing claims that can’t all be true.”

    If we take them at face value, sure. If you believe Roman Catholicism is the only correct religion and that you have to go to mass once a week at some point between 4:00P.M. Saturday and Noon on Sunday and that the mass has to be conducted in a certain way and certain prayers have to be said at certain times, then yes, nothing else can be correct. But then we enter into the realm of human error in interpreting what God told them to be the “truth”.

    The “truth” can be found in how a giant majority of religions believe cosmic beings to be. 1 main god above all else who created everything, a few lesser but still very major gods (that typically specialize in a broad area (God of War, Goddess of Love, etc…), a multitude of other gods (that typically specialize in one specific area (the God of harvest, the Patron Saint of travellers, etc…). The main god will ask for obedience and praise mostly to him, loving others, doing generally good deeds, not doing generally bad deeds, sacrificing things to them, etc…

    It would be like saying that democratic ideals should not be followed because of the fact that so many “democratic” countries don’t set up their governments the same way. They all looked at the same basic thing and understood different parts differently.

    “1. Without evidence there’s no reason to believe that any god exists, and atheism is the only rational position.”

    Only if you believe that we have discovered and are able to discover absolutely everything about the universe and what is beyond the borders. The most logical position on the status of a God is that his existence is a possibility based on the evidence we do have but there is no certainty.

    We may even be looking at the debate all wrong. In ancient times, “aether” explained the heavens; today we have a much better understanding but even Einstein admitted that aether may just be another word for what he described in his formulas. It is entirely possible that these observations, formulas, theories, etc… are simply describing how God set the universe up to act.

  • GCT

    If we take them at face value, sure. If you believe Roman Catholicism is the only correct religion and that you have to go to mass once a week at some point between 4:00P.M. Saturday and Noon on Sunday and that the mass has to be conducted in a certain way and certain prayers have to be said at certain times, then yes, nothing else can be correct.

    It doesn’t matter what I believe to be true, it matters what the claims of the religions are. They are mutually exclusive. That you wish to pick and choose which portions to believe in order to come to some wishy-washy conclusion doesn’t make that conclusion correct. On the contrary, it makes your conclusion suspect.

    It would be like saying that democratic ideals should not be followed because of the fact that so many “democratic” countries don’t set up their governments the same way. They all looked at the same basic thing and understood different parts differently.

    Um, no, it’s not like that at all. Religions make specific claims that their beliefs are correct and others are not.

    Only if you believe that we have discovered and are able to discover absolutely everything about the universe and what is beyond the borders. The most logical position on the status of a God is that his existence is a possibility based on the evidence we do have but there is no certainty.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re confusing (a)theism with (a)gnosticism. There isn’t a continuum from theism to agnosticism to atheism. Theism and atheism deal with belief while gnosticism and agnosticism deal with knowledge. In the question of whether it is rational or not to believe in god, the answer is simple, it is irrational to believe in god. This is because we have no evidence to sustain such a belief and the evidence we do have tends to point us away from the possibility of god. Therefore, what I said is correct.

    We may even be looking at the debate all wrong.

    No, we are not. Religions make claims that supernatural beings exist. Those claims are unsupported at best and discredited in many cases, therefore we should not believe them to be true.

  • Hansman

    “It doesn’t matter what I believe to be true, it matters what the claims of the religions are.”

    And when you take the claims of the religions, on broad scales as I described above, you come to certain logical consistencies.

    I concede that there is no sensor data or mathematical formulas proving God’s existence and all we really have is “eye-witness” testimony. (Please don’t take my comments as more than someone just trying to have an open and honest discussion, I’m not trying to convert you (I call myself Roman Catholic but I am more of a “Christian” deist) but I am simply just very curious about a lot of things and like to challenge my own beliefs by having discussions) In a court of law, God has a very shaky case.

    “Um, no, it’s not like that at all. Religions make specific claims that their beliefs are correct and others are not.”

    Again, you have more of an issue with religions (man created thing) than a God. Looking at even science, you could lump that in as a religion with a belief in one ultimate being (The Grand Unifying Theory), several major but lesser beings (Newton’s (Newton, himself, could be considered a prophet for seing and understanding ) Law of Gravity, Einstein’s(another prophet) Theory of Relativity, etc…) and a whole host of other “gods” (the various sciences such as chemistry, biology, etc…, specific areas of study within those sciences, etc…). You have prophets (Einstein, Kepler, Curie, Hawkings) and a large number of people who are able to understand the “teachings” deeply but may not see the whole picture, or certain parts of their “teachings” (I am not mocking, simply placing a “religious” slant to scientific terminology) fail under certain circumstances or are later revised through greater understanding.

    My “We may even be looking at the debate all wrong.” comment is more, “What if religion and science are saying the same exact thing, just using two different languages?”

  • GCT

    And when you take the claims of the religions, on broad scales as I described above, you come to certain logical consistencies.

    If by “logical consistencies” you mean that given a completely unmerited assumption that I can come to a conclusion based on that assumption, then sometimes they get close to that. No, nevermind, they are not logically consistent.

    I concede that there is no sensor data or mathematical formulas proving God’s existence and all we really have is “eye-witness” testimony.

    Only if you include people who claim to have seen god. We can safely discredit their testimony, however.

    In a court of law, God has a very shaky case.

    That’s putting it kindly.

    Again, you have more of an issue with religions (man created thing) than a God.

    You presume too much.

    Looking at even science, you could lump that in as a religion…

    No, you cannot. This is just plain ignorant. The rest of your analogy completely fails. Science is parsimonious. It works because it is based on a very simple method that actually gets at what is real. There is no faith involved. But, I do so love when Xians imply that religion is a bad thing.

    You have prophets (Einstein, Kepler, Curie, Hawkings) and a large number of people who are able to understand the “teachings” deeply but may not see the whole picture, or certain parts of their “teachings” (I am not mocking, simply placing a “religious” slant to scientific terminology) fail under certain circumstances or are later revised through greater understanding.

    IOW, we don’t have prophets, we don’t have ultimate truths, etc. Why? You said it yourself, because we revise our knowledge based on the incoming data. Hence, by your own argument science is nothing like religion. Own goal.

    My “We may even be looking at the debate all wrong.” comment is more, “What if religion and science are saying the same exact thing, just using two different languages?”

    Have you ever really looked at the back of your hand?

    But, seriously, they are not saying the same thing. Religion is saying, “Based on faith, X is true.” Science is saying, “Based on the data we have, the best conclusion to date is that Y is true.” X and Y are completely different things. Y is much more accurate and has been determined by empirical reality. X is bullshit pulled out of someone’s backside. Whenever X and Y collide, X loses. The only places X hasn’t lost are when the claims of X are made in such a way as to keep them out of the realm of empiricism. But, they are useless claims at that point.

    No, science and religion are very much different and are saying very different things.

  • Kate Odero

    Having being a Christian, you must then be familiar with 2 Corinthians 10:12, which states that you should not compare your religious experiences with others. For it is common knowledge that one can never have a similar experience with something as another person did, at least not in the exact same way. The object of our faith is important in every case for it determines who we are. We oftentimes pray earnestly for something and wait in vain for an answer from God, one doesn’t have to be a Christian long to realize that we don’t always get what we pray for. We may often feel like God does not answer our prayers and that’s only because most of us think that the only acceptable answer to prayer is “yes”.As a follower of Christ, I am only sure of God saying “yes” to my requests for wisdom,forgiveness and salvation, on the other things, well…they might seem right to us and if He says no, we might think He doesn’t understand,doesn’t love us or isn’t listening. But truth is, He has a sense of what is right and good for us, even if it make no sense to us at that time. I mean, there are many times we don’t get what we ask for in prayer and years later, we are glad we didn’t get it. So, we should patiently wait and accept God’s answers, keeping in mind that someday we will understand why He responded the way He did.


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