Terror of the Truth

As an atheist, there are some theist arguments that I hear so often I have long since become inured to them. One is Pascal’s Wager. Another goes something like this: “You’re just clinging to your atheism because you’re afraid of the truth! You don’t want to believe that there’s a God who rules over you and will judge you when you die.”[1]

What is the motivation for such presumptuous and insulting assertions? What leads proselytizers to believe that they know what or how atheists think better than atheists themselves?

The answer to this question is undoubtedly related to the perspective-narrowing effects of extreme religious belief. Fundamentalists naturally want to believe that the evidence for their religion is strong and convincing, but many of them take it one step further – they can find refuge only in absolute certainty, and cannot abide doubt of any kind. To those who possess such brittle, dogmatic faith, it is frightening to believe that anyone has looked at the same evidence as they have and has found it unconvincing. Threatened by the mere idea that anyone could honestly disagree with them, to protect their own beliefs they conclude that everyone thinks and believes just like they do; therefore, whoever doesn’t act like they do must be living a lie. One might well ask whether the people who are really afraid of the truth are the ones who deny the very existence of the opposing viewpoint.

In my experience, atheists are never afraid of the truth. I know many who used to be theists, often devout, passionate theists. I’ve met atheists who’ve read the Bible cover to cover, frequently in multiple translations, sometimes in the original Greek or Hebrew, in addition to those who have read many other holy books of various religions. There are atheists who used to be priests, pastors, ministers, missionaries, famous evangelists. Why would an atheist afraid of judgment read a book that could only reinforce that fear? And by what logic could one possibly conclude that a former believer is now afraid of the existence of God?

I personally have also read the Bible, as well as numerous apologist books that specifically attempt to build a case for belief in God. I have attended the church services of several denominations. I’ve debated with theists of several religions and explored the claims of even more; in fact, in the beginning stages of my atheism I actively sought out theists and invited them to do their best to convert me, to see for myself if there was anything to their claims. I will still gladly debate the merits of any religion with anyone who asks. And I’ve been a regular contributor on forums such as the Usenet newsgroup alt.atheism, which is regularly besieged by proselytizers preaching hellfire, presenting Christian apologetics and otherwise doing their best to convert everyone in sight. I have investigated religious claims in detail, at length, and have concluded there is nothing to them. And of course, if I was afraid of God’s existence, why would I write about my reasons for rejecting belief on a public web site where they were open to review and critique? Why would I put a feedback link on each page? The truth is that I am not afraid of the truth, and that my nonbelief stems from an honest consideration of the evidence, and from no other reason. Theists who presume to know what I think and who would say differently are not only calling me a liar; they are simply wrong.

If there was convincing, empirical evidence for the existence of a god, I would be the first one to accept it. But after all my investigation, I’ve reached the conclusion that there is no creditable evidence for the existence of any deity, or anything at all beyond the natural world. I say this because I honestly believe it to be true, not because “I don’t want to be judged.” That statement is absurd. What does it imply? That I know there’s a god and yet I deny him? Is it really possible to believe anyone could be so illogical? I have no interest in believing any proposition which is not true, and to stubbornly cling to one that I know is false would only be to do myself a disservice. In any event, as many former believers will testify, the psychological strain of acting in accordance with a set of principles one does not believe in is immense. I claim no such fortitude of will as to be able to withstand it indefinitely. If what the fundamentalists say was really the case, I would become a theist before long, like it or not.

It would be foolishness to say that I deny the god hypothesis because I do not want it to be true, since I accept many other propositions whose consequences are disturbing. For example, I accept it as true that human beings are currently destroying our environment – our one and only planetary home – at an unprecedented pace, by razing irreplaceable habitat such as old-growth forests, coral atolls and wetlands; causing the extinction of numerous species; releasing toxic pollutants into the earth, water and air; and changing global climate in unpredictable ways by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Any of these changes may disrupt the fragile food webs and weather patterns upon which we depend, potentially leading to mass famine, outbreaks of deadly disease, even the extinction of the human species itself.

Furthermore, I accept it as true that human society is currently menaced by fanatic religious terrorists bent on creating a totalitarian theocracy and willing to kill anyone who would stand in their way. I accept it as true that a massive cosmic impact could destroy all life on Earth at any time, and that we are doing very little to even watch for such dangers. I accept it as true that terrible weapons continue to proliferate, with little oversight or control. Finally, is atheism itself such a comforting proposition? After all, it makes the potential consequences of the other dangers even worse. True, it grants us maturity and freedom, but the other side of that coin is that it burdens us with responsibility. Atheism tells us that if we do not solve these problems, there will be no saviors, no second comings, no messiahs descending from the clouds to rescue us. If we fail, humanity will die; the light kindled so briefly on our planet will go dark, and that will be the end.

Why do I accept these propositions as true? It is not because their consequences are comforting – they certainly are not. The simple truth is that I accept them because that is where the evidence points; the question of their consequences does not enter into it. And likewise, if the evidence pointed to the conclusion that God existed, I would have no choice but to accept that, regardless of how it made me feel.

I am not saying that if I knew God existed, I would definitely worship him. Only a supremely morally good being would deserve that, and existence by itself does not automatically confer moral goodness, nor does supernatural power. Even if I came across conclusive evidence that there was a god, important questions would remain, especially the problem of evil. I would need to see additional proof of God’s moral goodness in the form of satisfactory answers to these questions before concluding that such a being was worthy of worship, and if such answers were not forthcoming, I would have no choice but to conclude that God, rather than being worshipped, should be opposed.

But if such problems could be resolved, if I was presented with convincing evidence that there was a supremely morally good deity, I would gladly set aside my atheism and devote my life to worshipping and serving him. Why on Earth would I do otherwise? If I had solid evidence that an all-benevolent God existed, I would have every reason in the world to follow him and none to deny him. If, on the other hand, God does not exist, then I lose nothing by my atheism and gain a life unfettered by ancient fear and superstition. I have no reason to be afraid of the truth, whatever it is – and that’s a fact, contrary to the convoluted rationalizations some people invent to explain away their failures to convert people like me.

However, there is a group of people who have good reason to be afraid of the truth – the fundamentalists.

If the truth is that there are no gods, then many theists have lost a great deal: the time, effort and money (often a lot of money) spent on worship; the years of their life expended in intellectual servitude to erroneous beliefs (often many years); and the comforting illusions they have grown to depend on. (Reality can be a rude shock to someone unused to it.) They have been taught that life without god-belief is bleak, futile and meaningless, without purpose or hope, and that only through theism can one possess basic human traits like morality and love. And to top it all off, many of them sincerely believe that if they abandon belief in God, they will be punished with an eternity of conscious torture in a pit of fire too horrible to imagine. How’s that for being afraid of the other side’s viewpoint?

Although I know many atheists who have detailed experience and often first-hand familiarity with religious claims, the reverse is almost never true. Of the theists who accuse atheists of being afraid of the truth, how many can say they have read any atheist books? How many read articles about atheism written by actual atheists? How many have engaged in civil, constructive dialog with atheists in an honest effort to find out what and how they think? In short, what evidence can these people present to show that they have given any serious consideration to the nontheist viewpoint?

In my experience, it is the theists who seek to promote their own point of view while trying to block out all others. Prominent Christian websites very frequently refuse to link to atheist or other sites that dispute their viewpoint. Most Christian message boards and other such online forums are heavily moderated. Christian apologist books rarely, if ever, interview any critics of the dogmas they advocate, even when the books are put forth as a critical investigation of the evidence. As the old saying goes, those who are most eager to preach their religion to others are usually the least willing to be preached to in return. They approach the issue with a one-sided view that will not allow any viewpoint other than their own to be correct, and indeed often try to actively suppress ones that upset and disturb them. They have been taught for so long that they live in a godly universe that a godless one is unthinkable and frightening to them.

But in reality, there is nothing frightening about atheism – much the opposite, in fact. It’s a simple recognition that the world works just the way we observe it, according to natural rules and governed by natural phenomena. It’s an understanding that there is no reason to believe in a cosmic Big Brother watching us, an angry deity ready to hurl our souls into the fiery pit of Hell, or a sadistic demiurge who created fallible humans and then punishes them for being the way they were created to be. It’s a realization that we don’t need religious belief to invest our existence with meaning: we can choose our own path and decide for ourselves what we want our lives to be. It’s an awakening to the clear light of logic and reason, no longer letting our path be guided by fear, superstition or wishful thinking. And it’s the philosophy chosen by people who have no fear of the truth, whatever it might really be.


[1] This view is not confined to the fringes, either. For example, a fairly major Christian evangelist website, Christian Answers, makes this assertion in its article on atheism, http://christiananswers.net/evangelism/beliefs/atheism.html, adding the charming remark that an atheist “can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman”.