What’s your best reason for being an atheist?
I will begin by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, though not himself an atheist, raised some interesting points that nonbelievers can learn a great deal from: “There is nothing at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” I am very optimistic about the great potentiality provided by human reason, which since the beginning of human existence has allowed us to learn more and more about the world in which we live and our place in it. I have always been fascinated by the mysteries of the universe, but for me, those mysteries are not meant merely to be marveled at, but solved. I believe that scientists are getting closer and closer to solving those mysteries all the time (even if at this point for each mystery that is solved, so many more appear in its place – kind of like gray hairs, perhaps)! On the whole, I believe that approaching the world with curiosity and skepticism, acknowledging that we don’t know everything and continuing to seek for more knowledge, leads to the richest possible kind of existence – much more so than relying on any kind of “revealed” truth or supernatural fantasy. Perhaps I should not claim this skeptical approach as belonging exclusively to atheists, but my understanding of religion is that at the end of the day, despite whatever leeway it offers for questioning and disagreement, it still requires its followers to accept some form of doctrine as the absolute, irrevocable truth. This focus on dogma can lead people to believe things that simply don’t match up with objective reality (such as believing that the sun revolves around the earth, as many people still did in Galileo’s time, or believing that the entire universe was created in seven days, as some people do in our time) and if institutionalized it can become dangerous, breeding intolerance and division among people. However, my main objection to religion is that I don’t believe that it encourages the kind of curiosity or rigorous questioning that leads us to achieve our greatest human potential – to learn as much as we can about the world and work toward making it better.
What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?
To be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine any kind of evidence or experience would lead me to believe in God. Keeping in mind Ockham’s Razor (the idea that we are better off tending toward simpler theories until it becomes clear that a more complex theory has more explanatory power), I would argue that most of what happens in nature (including human nature) can be explained perfectly well without appealing to any kind of supernatural authority. Most “supernatural experiences,” even when not proved fraudulent, can be explained or at least theorized scientifically, and current theories about the origin of the universe, of life on earth, and of humanity simply don’t depend on the existence of any sort of God to make sense. The only God that I can see is the “God-of-the gaps,” the idea that God exists in the areas currently unexplained by scientific knowledge. If science were to reach some sort of definitive conclusion that it could not progress any further than it has now, that it had discovered all it could and that some mysteries simply lay beyond its grasp, then perhaps I’d consider the possibility of a supernatural realm that is inexplicable by science. However, this is not how science works, and it’s also not how human intelligence works. There is substantial evidence that humans are evolving and that intelligence is expanding, particularly as we invent better and better technology to help us. I firmly believe that eventually there will be no more “God-of-the-gaps” – all the gaps will be filled by scientific knowledge!
I know that for many religious believers religion is about much more than explaining the world – it’s about finding meaning in one’s individual life. However, values such as beauty, goodness and community are not dependent on belief in God. While I respect people who find meaning in religion, I myself do not find it necessary to lead a meaningful life
When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?
There are three main trends in ethical theory nowadays: deontology (rule-based ethics), which focuses on the nature of the act itself; virtue ethics, which emphasizes the internal character of the agent who is committing the act, and consequentialism, which focuses on the outcomes of actions. I should mention that absolutely none of these approaches are dependent upon religion in any way. Deontology has its roots in religious traditions, but it was secularized by Kant and later by Nietzsche with the ideas of the categorical imperative and the eternal recurrence, and its resonances remain in such documents as the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which declares our duty to protect certain rights which are seen as inalienable. Virtue ethics comes largely from Aristotle, who in the Nichomachean Ethics suggested that virtue was a “golden mean” or middle way between two extremes – e.g., courage is the mean of cowardice and foolhardiness. Consequentialism comes largely from the Enlightenment utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Thus, it is clear that there is no necessary correlation between religion and ethics.
In my own life I tend to rely on a combination of virtue ethics and consequentialism. I studied ancient Greek philosophy in college and became enamored with virtue ethics at that point, as becoming a person of character is something that I value very highly. However, I also believe that focusing on one’s internal moral disposition is not enough; we also have to consider the effects that our actions have on other people. I learned this the hard way during my first job after college, during which I worked very hard but still received an unfavorable result in my end-of-year evaluation. When I pointed to how hard I’d worked, my boss declared, “We’re not measuring the effort; we’re measuring the result.” Those words were very true; outcomes matter. But, I believe that the internal motives and character are also very significant.
Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?
I think that there are two reasons why religion persists. The first is a social/cultural reason: people don’t want to be alone. We humans are social animals, and we find life much more manageable if we can face it in groups. Religion provides a common framework of beliefs and practices upon which people build communities. Of course, since the eighteenth century at least, people in the West have been forming many other kinds of non-religious communities – political associations, activist groups, clubs based around a common interest or hobby, and so much more. I believe that this secularizing trend will continue as we progress further into this century. But for now, religion maintains a strong force in many parts of the world.
However, the more basic reason why religion persists, even when shown to be untrue, is that the truth is very hard for many people to handle. It takes immense courage to be a human being, particularly because remaining alive is hard work, and the simple reality is that we know we’re not going to live forever. Suffering and death are very hard realities to accept, as is the basic existential uncertainty caused by trying to find meaning in a world where no set meaning is readily available. I believe that different people have different ways of finding purpose and fulfillment in their lives, and that over time more people will come to realize that belief in a fictitious supernatural realm isn’t necessary for leading a meaningful life on earth. I believe that religion is “true” in the sense that it helps people to endure the hardships of life (and perhaps to enjoy the good things in life as well). But this does not make it true in the empirical sense.
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