An apology is necessary at the start. Like panicked buffalo, the word count of this article has run wild, and stampeded over the cliff. I would’ve done well to publish in several instalments, but another project awaits. Here it is then, in one fat lump. I hope you stick with it, even if it takes several sittings.
Here is a fair summary of my journey to Christianity and my adventures on the way back: I was raised Christian, and after initially deflecting the advances of Jesus, I married him out of guilt, shame, and fear. But the relationship made me unhappy. After seven years, we separated, and then—some time later—we divorced.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when I abandoned my belief in God, just like I can’t point out exactly when I became an adult. But I do have a vivid memory of the event that kicked off my non-religious education, and that was watching a YouTube clip of Christopher Hitchens in December 2011—coincidentally the same month that he died of cancer. It only took one hitchslap, and five years of trying to avoid religious contemplation abruptly came to an end.
Up to that point, the foundation for my disbelief was made up out of my personal feeling that God wasn’t real, and my sincere hope that I was right. These are not concrete reasons that one can build upon with any confidence.
Over the last two years, I’ve laid a new foundation by educating myself, and sharing my thoughts with both like-minded and unlike-minded people. My disbelief is no longer just a function of feelings; the parameters now include knowledge and reason. As a result, I find that the troublesome hope quotient, which accounted for the remainder of my fear, has diminished in the face of peace—an unexpected and welcomed perk, I might add.
I now enjoy a confidence in my convictions that—so far—keeps growing as my journey continues. Of course, I’m not ignorant of my ignorance. If anything—by virtue of my invigorated interest in the topic—I’ve gained awareness of the great many things there are to be ignorant of.
I am brave enough, however, to conclude my trilogy with this article that is my case for disbelief. Here is my answer to why are you an atheist?
There isn’t one. At least, there’s no silver bullet for me. Instead, I am convinced by a range of arguments that (a) make the God proposition unlikely, (b) offer more satisfying explanations for the way things are, and (c) show that God—and religion by extension—is not necessary.
Which God? Which Faith?
The majority of the arguments here will assume the Abrahamic God of the Christian faith—it is, after all, my background. However, any God may be substituted without too much effort.
Let’s start with Abraham’s God, and ask which is the real one? Who is to say that Christians aren’t serving the true God? Perhaps, Jews have the right of it. God forbid, Muslims might be correct.
Believers experience the transformative power of God, no matter which of the three “great faiths” they practice. They share the sentiment that their faith is different. All of them say that their God answers prayer. They each believe simply that they are right, and that billions of other people are misguided.
Many are so sure of their faith because it’s what they grew up with; it’s their culture. But, the virtue of being born and raised in a particular faith can’t be a measure of its authenticity. What then—believers should ask themselves—are the odds that they were born into the right faith? If we accept only the God of Abraham, one’s optimism may be forgiven, but Yahweh and Allah aren’t the only actors in this play.
There are, if fact, a plethora of Gods, making for an impressive ensemble cast. Allow me to name a few celebrities: the Hindi God Shiva, the African God Shango, the Aboriginal God Wandjina , the Greek God Zeus, the Egyptian God Ra, the Chinese God Guan-yin, the Inuit God Aakuluujjusi, the Mayan God Xbalanque, the Finnish God Ukko, the Norse God Odin, the Japanese God Raijin, the South American God Bochica, the Celtic God Morrigan, and Lucifer, a Roman God.
It’s easy to find a resource that lists thousands of deities. Many of the Gods are dead, but at one point, they were worshipped by billions of people—who were just as sure of their convictions than the believers of today.
Plainly said, If I believed in God, I’d probably believe in the wrong one.
The God Experience
A basic—and perhaps the most compelling—proof for believers is their subjective experiences of God, and I can testify to how powerful they are.
I’ve been overcome with emotion in the presence of God—even to the point of crying joyful tears. I’ve prayed in tongues, and felt victorious. I’ve “heard” the shepherd’s quiet voice in prayer, guiding my life. Without reservation, I believed that I had a relationship with the creator of the universe. And why would I question it? The intimate moments with God were proof enough for me. The first clue that should’ve alerted my suspicion is that God prefers to be intimate in congregational settings; in the every day, he tends to be a little frigid. Nevertheless, the point is that these feelings of joy, peace, and purpose are very real. Non-believers don’t necessarily appreciate this point.
In my case—I’m happy to say in hindsight—the highs were fleeting, and fated to be over-powered by lows. If it wasn’t for my growing pain of self-loathing, I might still be a Christian.
With the benefit of objective clarity, it’s obvious to see that religious experiences are not unique to any one faith. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, you name it. All of them share this phenomenon. Curiously, practitioners of godless faiths such as Buddhism arguably experience the transcendent most acutely. These feelings can even be induced with contraptions such as the God Helmet.
Subjective experiences are simply not credible; we are too easily fooled.
Author and Purveyor of Confusion
There are reportedly over thirty-four-thousand Christian denominations. This is staggering, considering that there are only so many holy books to go around. The bible is all about interpretation, and everyone has a different one.
Historically, different interpretations have caused significant suffering. People have been persecuted, and wars have been fought over matters of revelation. Even seemingly insignificant issues have caused pain. John Calvin famously condemned Michael Servetus to a heretic’s death—of stake and fire—for a disagreement that was effectively about the misplacement of a preposition!
Today, it’s no different—apart from the church burning people who disagree with them. Christians still lack agreement. Why? They base their morality on the same holy book; they pray to the same God for guidance. This is a curiosity, but it also causes harm. You’ll find believers campaigning on both sides of important social and moral issues, such as women in ministry, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, gay marriage, assisted suicide, and stem cell research. It’s hard to imagine now, but not too long ago, Christendom hotly debated slavery.
There’s no guide to the bible; perhaps that explains the lack of cohesion. What parts are literal, what are metaphorical? If God is the guide, there are over thirty-four-thousand reasons supporting the hypotheses that he’s not doing a good job. Curiously, as science fills the gaps in our knowledge, the trend seems to be that greater portions of the bible are viewed as allegories.
If God is not the author of confusion, as Paul claimed, what then is confusion?
We should expect God’s manual for life to be nothing short of perfect, considering God’s supposed nature, and the stakes involved. It’s not in believers’ favour that their holy books, such as the Bible and Qurʼan, are rife with contradictions.
Unsurprisingly, Christians refuse to accept that the “word of God” is flawed. They either reply with unsatisfying rebuttals, which often bring the game of twister to mind, or they don’t have an answer at all, and just accept that there must be one. I concede that they occasionally make thought-worthy points that could be persuasive if certain contexts are accepted. But why is this conversation even necessary?
Let’s pretend that we perform the acrobatics required to satisfactorily solve the hundreds of contradictions in the bible. The least that has to be conceded is that the “word of God” is ambiguous. That, on its own, is enough for me to doubt an all-loving God. The contradictions merely lend more weight to justified scepticism.
The Christian proposition is this: God created humans, and he greatly desired to have meaningful relationships with them. However, the first humans turned away from God, and fell so far out of his favour that there was nothing that they—or their decedents—could do to make amends. Fortunately, God had a redemption plan. He asked his son, Jesus, to fix what the humans could not, and it was agreed. Jesus was born as a mortal through his virgin mother, and he lived with humans to teach them about his heavenly father, and to demonstrate how to live a God-pleasing life. When the time was right, Jesus offered himself as a vicarious sacrifice, and God accepted his suffering and death. The humans’ transgressions were forgiven, and they could once again have a relationship with their creator, provided that they accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit—the third entity of God—was sent, in Jesus’s stead, to dwell within humans, to act as their guide and counselor.
If this proposition is true, then it’s of utmost importance that future generations of humans have clear and accurate information—to accompany the Holy Spirit—on which to base their decisions and lifestyle. Enter the bible; the New Testament, in particular. We should expect the bible to be, if not unfalsifiable, at least, difficult to question. Anything else would be counterproductive to God’s endgame.
A common misconception is that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Not so. The majority view—of biblical scholars—is that the authors are unknown. Furthermore, there’s doubt that eye-witness accounts were used as sources. In other words, the documentation of the single most important person in history was written by people who didn’t witness any of the events, and who used hearsay as reference.
The gospel of Mark—chronologically the first—was written between 65 and 73 CE. That’s roughly thirty years after the death of Christ. The next gospels were Matthew (70 to 100 CE), Luke (80 to 100 CE) and John (90 to 110 CE). These are the dates that most scholars agree on; there are other less plausible theories, but even then, the earliest proposed authorship date is 50 CE, for the gospel of Matthew.
The early followers of Christ spread the news through Oral Tradition, which is a method to transmit cultural material and tradition from one generation to another through spoken word. This method was well practiced at that time, and it’s said to have been very accurate. That may well be, or it may not; there’s no way to know. Christian Oral Tradition certainly doesn’t increase the likelihood that the gospels are accurate. It’s another question mark to heap on the doubt pile.
According to the bible, Jesus caused quite a stir in his short human life—as one might expect from the son of a God. He made such a big impression, in fact, that not a single secular historian mentioned him for—almost—the entire first century. Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian, mentions him first in his work The Antiquities of the Jews in 93 CE. Tacitus, the Roman historian, mentions Jesus only in 109 CE. Both of these scholars were born after the crucifixion. The fact is, if we exclude the bible—of which the historicity is in doubt—it’s neigh on impossible to conclusively prove that Jesus even existed, let alone that he defied the laws of nature and death.
The history of the bible itself doesn’t inspire confidence. It was effectively compiled and re-compiled, edited and re-edited by committees over hundreds of years. Here is a worthwhile article on the bible’s compilation that talks about the legend of seventy Jewish scholars, Aquila, Theodotion, Lucian, the Councils of Nicaea and Trent, and Athanasius of Alexandria.
Considering the gravity of God’s redemption plan, I think the following are reasonable questions to ask. Why wasn’t there an organisation of scribes that witnessed the birth of Jesus, and followed him until his death, documenting his every word and act? Why isn’t there a mountain of documents—with source references—that explain how, where, to whom and by whom the gospels were written? Why didn’t Jesus write any texts, nor his parents or his disciples? Why aren’t there thousands of secular references—by people who lived in the time of Jesus—to validate the gospels, and to prove the historical man? Why did the bible take so long to be compiled, and why was the process so convoluted? Why, in summary, does God allow so much doubt over something that’s so important? If your answer is that an “undoubtable” bible would negate our free will, then consider Christ’s eye-witness followers who personally experienced “undoubtable” miracles. Did they not freely choose to follow Jesus?
The way in which the bible was produced is simply too counterproductive to be seriously considered as an expression of a loving and powerful God.
Flood myths are common throughout history. Of particular interest is a story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the Genesis flood myth by several centuries. In this story, the Babylonian Earth God, Ea, warns Utnapishtim that the “great gods” intend to flood the earth—to rid it of mankind’s sin. Ea instructs Utnapishtim to build a boat, and to bring two of every animal onto the ship for their survival. There are many similarities between the two stories, which I won’t go into here—the point having been made—but it’s worth looking up if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Virgin births are another common theme. Here are a few religious figures—pre-dating Jesus—who have no earthly fathers: Attis, Perseus, Chrishna, Horus, Mercury and Romulus. See An Old Story, by Chapman Cohen.
There are also striking parallels between Jesus and several other—older—mythological figures, such as Dionysys, Attis, Horus, Mithra, and Osiris. For brevity—which at this point is probably a ridiculous word to use—I’ll mention some interesting points about the first three.
Dionysus was born on 25 December to the Virgin Semele. He turned water into wine, and bore epithets such as “Only Begotten Son” and “Savior.” Three days after his death, he was resurrected, and ascended into heaven.
Attis was born on 25 December to the Virgin Nana. He was considered the “Saviour” of mankind. His worshippers ate his body as bread. He was both the “Divine Son” and the “Father.” He died fixed to a tree, and his holy blood ran down to redeem the earth. Upon his death, he descended into the underworld, and after three days, he was resurrected.
Horus was born to the Virgin Isis, and he was the “Only Begotten Son” of the “Father of Heaven”, the God Osiris. His birth was heralded by Sirius, the morning star. Ancient Egyptians paraded a manger with a child through the streets on the winter solstice—around 21 December. He was baptised at the age of thirty, and his baptiser ended up being beheaded. He was known to have walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind. He died by crucifixion, descended into hell, and—you guessed it—was resurrected after three days.
Flood stories, virgin births, miracles, saviours, resurrections: not original to Christianity. What response, other than scepticism, can one employ?
A Little Too Late
This is a transcript of a Christopher Hitchens argument that he used in debates when he was promoting his excellent book, God Is Not Great.
We don’t know exactly how long homo-sapiens have existed as a species. Richard Dawkins thinks it might be as much as 250,000 years; Francis Collins, who is a Christian and the man responsible for the Human Genome Project thinks it may be as little as 100,000 years. Either way it’s a flash of a second in evolutionary time. I’ll take the lower estimate that our species has been around on the planet for 100,000 years.
As a monotheist, or at least someone who believes in an Abrahamic religion, you have to believe something like this: for about the first 96,000 years, homo-sapiens were born, a great number dying in child birth, often taking the mother with them, not living more than 25 or 30 years at the most and then probably dying of their teeth—if they were lucky—or the other needless mammalian things that show us that we bare the stamp, as Darwin put it, of our lowly origin, where we were designed to live on the Savanna where we escaped from: the appendix we don’t need any more and innumerable other short comings in our design; terrible disease, suffering, misery, malnutrition, and fear. Where do the earthquakes come from? Why is there an eclipse? What are the shooting stars doing? And awful cults of sacrifice to try and ward off what are, in fact, natural events. And war, and rape, and the kidnap or other peoples and the enslavement of them. All of this goes on and on, gradually inching up to the point where they can brew beer—a breakthrough in my view—domesticate animals, separate one kind of corn from another so they can farm etc. Slow progress, but terrible struggle, sacrifice, pain, misery, and above all fear and ignorance.
So, for the first 96,000 or so years, heaven watches this with complete indifference. “Oh there they go again! That whole civilisation has just died out. Wah, what are you gonna do?” “They’re raping each other again.” “They think that the other tribe has poisoned their wells and so they’re going to kill all their children.” Then 4,000 years ago, at the most, heaven decides it’s time to intervene. And the revelation must be personal and so we’ll pick the most barbaric, illiterate, superstitious people we can find, in the most stoney area of bronze-age Palestine. We won’t appear to the Chinese where they can already read. We won’t appear in the Indus Valley where they are already well civilised and far advanced, no! We’ll appear to this brutal, enslaved, hopeless, superstitious crowd, and we will force them to cut their way through all of their neighbours with slaughter and genocide and racism and settle in the only part of the middle east where there is no oil.
The Winds of Change
Despicable and vile as they are, I have a certain type of respect for organisations such as Westboro Baptist Church and fundamentalists of other faiths. They interpret their holy book in a certain way, and they stick to their guns, regardless of outside pressures.
Most religious institutions, however, are more adaptable. And that’s a good thing, at least in the sense that the religious world is, if not friendly, at least friendlier towards woman, and minority groups. It’s great that more people are being accepted for the equals that they are.
But when a religious organisation changes its position on a social or moral issue, such as say, allowing a gay bishop to be ordained, I can’t help the urge to cry, “Foul! You’re changing your ‘objective’ morality. That’s not allowed!”
Christianity has changed its tune on many issues. The persecution of “heretics”, the abjection of woman, and the endorsement of slavery are cases in point. Believers should ask themselves why they, and their leaders in particular, were wrong for so long. It’s also concerning that the catalyst for change can be introduced by the secular world, such as the case with gay acceptance.
I’m suspicious of institutions that claim divine revelation and then change their mind. I suspect the often reluctant changes are efforts to remain relevant in a maturing world. And it has stood them in good stead. Change over time is indeed an effective survival mechanism.
Nothing Fails Like Prayer
Prayer has two purposes in my view: to cultivate a relationship with God, and to request God’s intervention in the material world.
I have some experience with this, and I’ll admit that the first—cultivating a relationship—was quite useful. I spent a lot of time talking with God about the mundane and the intimate. Often, after my “quiet time”, I gained resolution and comfort.
But I can replicate the same results now, without godly discourse, through contemplation, and sharing my hopes, fears, and struggles with my wife; she even gives me audible feedback!
As for the second—asking for stuff—I wholeheartedly believed that God granted my requests. I’ve had money appear in my account, when I needed it. I’ve had job opportunities come at the right time. I’ve had my dream of owning a car come true.
Of course, the answers to the answers to my prayers are simple. My parents knew my financial state, and helped me out. I was looking for a new job. And I took the steps necessary to buy a car.
Answered prayer isn’t all that interesting; there’s always a more plausible explanation than God did it, be it psychology, or the laws of probability and inevitability. What’s more thought-worthy are “dead letter” prayers.
My prayers to reduce my desire to “sin”, especially sin of a sexual nature, were never answered, and that was a big factor in my decision to leave the faith. In fact, many of my requests weren’t granted, but I explained it away; I wasn’t ready to receive it, or I didn’t have enough faith. To my shame, I might have had too much faith. I once “laid hands” on my boss, in our office, and prayed for him to soften his hardened heart, and accept Jesus!? This gives insight to the conviction level I had achieved. I wish I could apologise; my boss handled my arrogance with more grace than I deserved.
And then there are the non-trivial supplications. The people who pray—and who are prayed for—the most ardently, are those who live in poverty, pain, oppression, disease, and fear. Yet, they receive no useful and lasting intervention. The prayer of a girl being raped is eventually answered, but not her parent’s daily whispers for her safety. Children with cancer die at the same indifferent rate; it makes no difference if the parents are godly or not.
No, answered prayer is the drowned-out sounding of a triangle in the crescendo of God’s failure to intervene when it matters. He may choose to remain mysterious. I, in turn, will remain suspicious.
If it could be demonstrated that prayer makes a difference in the material world, not just a physiological change, but an actual physical difference, that would be something for believers to bring to the table. But all attempts to prove such have failed. Why? It won’t affect free will, and it’ll only help God’s endgame.
The Need For Faith
When you accept a claim on faith-value, you immediately admit that the claim can’t be accepted on its own merits. Religious faith, according to Hebrews, is the conviction that what you hope to be true, is true, and the evidence for this, is the conviction itself. In other words, the ability to believe the unbelievable, and the strong desire to believe it, is proof that the unbelievable is true. This is unlike say, my trust in science, which is an earned trust. I believe science is reliable because it’s proven itself to be an excellent method to interpret our reality, to make accurate predictions, and to improve our lives.
Even though it’s our nature to believe rather than to doubt, we’ve developed the skill to question, and for good reason. Scepticism helps us to limit our belief in false claims. But curiously, when evaluating the most profound claim of all—that of God’s existence—it’s not scepticism that is valued, it’s faith. To be the best believer you can be, you must ask questions less and practice faith more. A peculiar strategy to be sure.
Using faith as a foundation for belief makes it vulnerable to doubts—as it should—and as a result, it requires a frequent re-fueling and a constant puffing-up. Like a mantra, it’s repeated, “I believe, I believe. I may have doubts, but I have faith, I believe!” Despite believers’ claimed certainty, I think they’re inherently insecure. I know I was.
Faith is a cog in a cleverly designed self-perpetuating belief machine, and I don’t trust it for a second.
Tim Minchin says it well in his nine minute beat poem Storm. “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”
Like the phoenix, one may say that apologetics rose from the ashes of the final execution pyre. When the church could no longer force people to believe, it became necessary to justify their position in another way.
This from Iron Chariots, a counter-apologetics wiki:
In a nutshell, apologetics is the discipline of attempting to justify a theological position through evidence, philosophy, science, metaphysics, and history. However, when these apologetics arguments are actually reviewed under scrutiny, we find they rely on:
- evidence so incredibly poor that even the apologists using it wouldn’t accept such evidence as proof of anything in any other argument than for that of their personal god,
- horrific straw man representations of true scientific theories,
- convoluted metaphysics that ultimately have no real world underpinning, and
- the distortion of historically documented events and evidence in a fashion similar in degree and irrationality to holocaust denial.
There are many conflicting arguments which attempt to support the existence of many conflicting gods. Being often mutually contradictory, they can’t all be correct – but they can all be wrong. Indeed, every “argument” presented for gods thus far has one or more problems with validity or soundness. At their core, even the most seemingly persuasive apologetics are founded upon cognitive biases, magical thinking, logical fallacies, or basic unproved assertions, and the fact that theists of all stripes tend to use the same arguments for their specific god or gods speaks more to the common flaws in human thinking than it does to the usefulness of the arguments.
Iron Chariots admirably deconstructs a wide range of arguments, including apologist “favourites”, such as, First Cause, Pascal’s Wager, Argument From Design, Argument From the Meaning of Life, Ontological Argument, Transcendental argument, Kalam, and Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
The irony of apologetics is that it largely defends God in the deistic sense. A Christian apologist may as well play for the Muslim team. They still have all their work ahead of them to upgrade God to a theistic deity who cares about human affairs—not to mention nailing God down to a specific religion.
There are several arguments against God’s existence that are compelling and worthy of investigation. Detailing the arguments here will balloon the article beyond what’s reasonable, if it hasn’t already. Again, I’ll hitch a ride with Iron Chariots, who does a good job of explaining the arguments, the counter-arguments, and the counter counter-arguments.
Perhaps the biggest contribution that evolution makes to the discussion of God’s existence is to show that a Designer isn’t necessary to the explain life and its diversity on our planet. The fact of evolution doesn’t necessarily disprove God, but it does, in my view, increase the likelihood that God is man-made. When holy books are viewed in the light of evolution, there are many awkward questions to ask. What does made in His image mean? What makes us different from our Neanderthal brethren and chimpanzee cousins? When did this change occur? Why was this not communicated to us? Why do humans carry the weight of “original sin”, and why was the Jesus-solution even necessary considering that Adam and Eve did not exist?
In cosmology, we’ve not quite had a revelation of Darwinian proportions. We know a great many facts about our universe, and we have models to describe and predict its properties to an astounding level of accuracy, but we can’t yet describe how it came to be. It’s not clear that we even have the capacity to understand our cosmological origins, but several pieces of the puzzle are taking shape. Lawrence Krauss, for example, wrote a book called A Universe From Nothing, in which he demonstrates how a universe of “something” can—and even must—come from “nothing.” It’s worth reading his book, or watching his lectures. It’s mind bendingly fascinating.
There’s no denying that we have gaps in our understanding. And scientists freely admit when they don’t know. Indeed, it’s the mystery that ignites the passion for scientific inquiry. Without it, we’d live in a perpetual dark age of paused progress. That’s why the scientific community generally frowns at the answer, it was God. It’s a conversation-killing non-answer, equivalent to saying it was magic. It doesn’t explain anything, and there’s no reason to think an intelligent agency is involved in the first place. Using a bigger mystery to explain a mystery only leads to ad infinitum.
It’s better to stick to what we know, admit to what we don’t, and seek to improve through intellectual honesty. The answer, after all, to the mystery of thunder was not magic.
Given the arguments presented, it’s my view that active belief in a God, especially an intervening one, requires the convoluted reasoning of a self-deceiving wish-thinker. There are just too many square pegs.
That’s harshly stated perhaps, but there’s no spite or vindictive tone intended. I say so plainly because I was that person, and I know what I did. It’s also why I try to avoid believer bashing and name calling. I understand how compelling it can be.
Now, if we submit that belief—in agency—and religion are the products of natural and cultural phenomena, we suddenly find ourselves with an abundance of round pegs—or square holes if you prefer. All the pieces fit, I mean to say.
God can’t be disproved, but it can be proved that humans created Gods and religions. This process is already well understood, from the anthropology of religion, the psychology of religion, the evolutionary origin of religions, the evolutionary psychology of religion, the sociology of religion, to the neuroscience behind it.
This from Dr Michael Shermer debating at the Oxford Union:
Our story goes back millions of years. So put yourself back in time, let’s say three-and-a-half million years ago. You’re a little homonid on the plains of Africa. Your name is Lucy. And you hear a rustle in grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Well, if you assume that it’s a dangerous predator and it turns out it’s just the wind, you’ve made a type-1 error—a false positive. You thought A was connected to B, but you were wrong. That’s a relatively harmless error to make. You just become more cautious, vigilant, skittish, like you see animals on the plains of Africa today. On the other hand, if you think the rustle in the grass is just the wind and it turns out it was a dangerous predator, you’re lunch. Congratulations, you’ve just been given a Darwin Award for taking yourself out of the genepool early, before reproducing. And we are the descendants of those who are most likely to make type-1 versus type-2 errors—false positives, rather than false negatives.
Now why can’t you just sit there in grass and collect more data until you get it right? Because predators don’t wait around for pray animals to collect more data; they’re stealthy, and stalk their pray.
So we evolved a propensity to make snap decisions. The rule of thumb is: assume all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind, just in case. Assume everything you read, and hear, and see, is real.
Now, what’s the difference between the wind and a dangerous predator? The wind is an inanimate force; a dangerous predator is an intentional agent. His intention is to eat me, and that probably can’t be good. So we also evolved the capacity, not only to find these patterns—and make those type-1 kinds of errors instead of the others—we also infuse into those patterns intentional agency. We just think everything is not just real, but real and animated. Alive. Even if it’s invisible.
We now have a lot of evidence from cognitive psychology that this begins at a very early age. Perhaps as early as age two or three.
Dr Shermer goes on to give an example of an experiment done with children, and makes the point that our evolved capacity for agency is our early God beliefs.
Here’s what happened about five to seven thousand years ago. These animistic, simple God beliefs—that sort of social religions—that evolved to help us live together as a social primate species, began to break down as populations grew from a couple dozen to a couple hundred individuals, to thousands, tens of thousands, and millions of people in state societies. We needed some more formal means of behaviour control and enforcing the rules of social cooperation.
Two institutions evolved for that. Government and religion. Government says, “here’s a copy of the rules, everybody gets one, and here’s the punishments if you break the rules.” Religion says, “if you think you got away with it, and you cheated the state, na-ah, there’s an eye in the sky that knows all, and sees all, and in the next life, justice will be served!”
That’s a very powerful force for social control.
See also his excellent TedTalk on this topic of patternicity and agenticity.
We’re Quite Happy, Thank You
Quoting Dan Barker, a former Christian ordained minister of nineteen years.
Finally, there’s no need for a belief in God. Millions—tens of millions—of people on this planet, live happy lives. Productive lives. Moral lives. Purposeful lives. Lives of hope and meaning without deluding ourselves that there are invisible personalities populating some supernatural realm. We’re quite happy, thank you, without that belief.
I’m a weak-position atheist because I reject the theistic claims—of God’s existence—by Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and all other religions, on the grounds of insufficient evidence and strong hypotheses to the contrary.
For all intents and purposes, I’m a strong-position atheist because I think there’s enough evidence to conclude that the existence of a God is unlikely enough to warrant belief that God doesn’t exist.
I’m an agnostic atheist because I don’t claim to know that my beliefs are true. I’m rationally convinced they are true, but I don’t claim certainty. Anyone who claims certainty is on a slippery slope, and closed to new discoveries.
You’re still here!? I wish I could reward your persistence. Thank you for sticking it out; I hope my article was worth it. Please write a comment if you have any thoughts.
- The God Helmet
- Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of John
- Oral Tradition, Christian Oral Tradition
- Historicity of Jesus, Jesephus on Jesus, Tacitus on Christ, Do Any First Century Historians Mention the Jesus of Christianity?, Biblical Criticism
- Epic_of_Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh Flood Myth
- Anthropology of religion, Psychology of religion, Evolutionary origin of religions, Evolutionary psychology of religion, Sociology of religion
- Acharya S’s Truth Be Known
- Iron Chariots
- Arguments for the existence of God
- First Cause, Pascal’s Wager, Argument From Design, Argument From the Meaning of Life, Ontological Argument, Transcendental argument, Kalam, Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism
- Problem of Evil, Argument From Locality, Who Created God?, Euthyphro Dilemma, Moral Argument, Santa Claus Argument
- krauss.faculty.asu.edu – A Universe From Nothing
- nas.edu – Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?
- BigThink – The Neuroscience of Religious Experiences: Andrew Newberg
- TED – Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception
- atheismresource.com – Biblical Alteration: Discussing the Canon
- An Old Story – Chapman Cohen
- Demography of Unbelief – Gregory S. Paul
- Project Reason – Contradictions in the Bible
- The Skeptic’s Annotated Quran – Contradictions
- Listverse.com – 10 Christ-like Figures Who Pre-Date Jesus
- WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com – Proving that prayer is superstition