I don’t think I ever really believed in God. I was christened, and went through the same watered-down rituals at Christmas and Easter as every other schoolboy in England, but I don’t remember believing; not like I believed in Father Christmas. (There was evidence for Father Christmas: presents!) It was not until I was in my early teens that I even gave much thought to the subject. By this point in my life I was busy questioning everything that I thought or was told in an attempt to find out who I was, and what I stood for. My natural inclination was towards cynicism, skepticism, and negation. Therefore I decided I was an atheist. Religion just didn’t make any sense to me.
My lifelong best friend is a moderate Christian, and it was through discussions with him that I realised I had made the decision I was an atheist mainly on strength of feeling; a natural assumption that ‘felt right’. I certainly didn’t, at this time, have the intellectual muscle to back up this primary non-believing impulse. So I went searching for answers. My first port of call was philosophy: Nietzsche and the Existentialists. Here I found much that was consoling and confirming, but I was still left with many questions. I didn’t waver from my original conviction that God and religion failed to make sense of the world as I saw it, but I wouldn’t say I was 100% sure either.
It wasn’t until many years later, when a neuroscientist friend turned me onto science, that I found some real answers. He lent me ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and it changed my life. Although not a book about religion, it answered that most elementary of religious/philosophical questions: where did I come from? Answered the question; moreover, with clarity, economy, style, and wit. Overnight any clouds of doubt were blown away. Not only that: I also found a surrogate for religion. I remember walking around after finishing the book and gazing at the world around me; noting the grass and trees and weeds and birds in the sky, and feeling enraptured and intoxicated by this busy, fizzing world which seemed so drunk on life. And now I understood my place amongst it. This gave me a sense of peace the likes of which I had never truly felt before. There are those religious who say: “This can’t be all there is.” To which I would reply: take a look around you – it’s more than enough. I had – to borrow that charming metaphysical expression – seen the light.
It’s funny, but almost all the atheists I talk to say the same thing: 9/11 was a paradigm shift in their thought. I, like many, was extremely disturbed by these events and the subsequent intensifying of religiosity throughout the world. I recall ‘crisis’ talks with my atheist friends where we all expressed similar disquiet about the state of the world and the return of apocalyptic fundamentalism in its modern, hi-tech form. We all agreed that the secular world had – assuming the war against reason won – let its guard down, and that our innate liberalism has had the unfortunate side-effect of allowing room for these lunatics to grow unchecked. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that Islamic fundamentalism, rather than appearing out of thin air on 9/11, was in fact the culmination of a stream of thought within politicised Islam that had been gaining momentum since the 60s. Nobody was paying attention though. They wanted our attention. They got it. Likewise with right-wing Christian fundamentalism, which has been trying since the 1980s (and in many cases succeeding) to creep over Thomas Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ between church and state. Religions, by their very nature, are a group activity, whereas the typical atheist/secularist is an individual; content to be alone in his non-belief, and naturally shies away from such institutionalised thought. They are organised, rich, and powerful. We are not.
It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to see the tide turning slightly, and to observe the zeitgeist forcing a response from (the formally silent) non-believing members of the world. First we had Jonathon Miller’s landmark ‘ATHEISM: A Rough History of Disbelief’, then Richard Dawkins (who’d been complaining for years but was now being listened to) stepped in with his ‘The Root of All Evil’ television program and ‘The God Delusion’ book, as well as the fabulous resource that is his website (www.richarddawkins.net). Joining them has been author Sam Harris, the philosopher Daniel Dennet, and the physicist Steven Weinberg. And now that old bulldog Christopher Hitchens has waded in with perhaps the most vituperative articulation of non-belief yet: ‘God is Not Great’. Concomitant to this flurry of media activity has been organised events such as the ‘Beyond Belief’ conference, and the forthcoming ‘Atheist Alliance International Convention’. Perhaps we are learning.
All this is to be expected and welcomed: it is only in the light of vocal religion that non-belief has any need to express itself. The term ‘atheist’, like all such negations, presupposes the existence of that which it denies. If religion disappeared tomorrow, so would the need for atheism. Atheism in a godless world makes no sense. This is why – contrary to the accusation constantly levelled at us by believers/apologists/relativists – atheism is not a faith, or another type of belief system. If all religions except Christianity disappeared tomorrow, Christianity would merely claim itself as proven to be the one-true-religion. Atheism is not simply one set of beliefs among many: it is a deliberate lack of belief. People who talk about atheism as ‘just another faith’ also fail to understand the meaning of the word faith. It doesn’t take faith to believe in phenomena that there is evidence for. Evidence negates faith. If God appeared tomorrow, of course I would believe in him. There would be no need for faith. Atheists are not the ones making outlandish claims about the nature of the universe. We argue for no more than what is demonstrably there. There are gaps in our knowledge (vast, unimaginable gaps), but we don’t appeal to non-evidential based concepts or fictional entities in order to explain them, because we understand that ‘God’ is simply not a good answer; that ‘God’, moreover, isn’t really an answer at all.
The long history of antagonism between religion and science is often viewed simple, dialectical terms, and there has been a long trend that is still fashionable in seeking to find a working synthesis between the two (see the Templeton Foundation). Although, in one obvious sense, science is deleterious to religious belief – because it provides rational explanation where once there was mystery and wonder – the truth is more complex, and often paradoxical. As has often been pointed out, many revolutionary scientific discoveries have been made by scientists who were also good God-Fearing men: Newton and Galileo, for instance, both saw the ordered, mechanized nature of their discoveries as incontrovertible proof of God’s majesty, even – as in the case of the latter – in the face of persecution from church authorities. It was Darwin, more than anyone, who made it intellectually tenable to reject this deduction. After Darwin, you don’t need God in your picture of nature, but you can still stick Him in there somewhere if you so desire.
A further blow to the idea of a perfect designer has come from quantum physics and modern cosmology. We now know that the underlying structure of the physical universe, far from being regular and ordered is, in effect, uncertain. And as we gaze further and further out into the universe, we see more and more collapsed stars, failed galaxies, as well as collisions and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Some design, you might think, some perfection. Even so, science is still not mutually exclusive to religious faith: there is still a sizable minority of scientists who profess faith. However, these people are usually moderate believers who have had to reduce their God from the murderous interventionist of the Bible to some remote first cause/underlying will or intelligence in the universe.
Indeed, this position highlights the differing responses to the faith shattering discoveries of science. At first they tried suppression, but it soon became obvious that such discoveries could not be contained. Since then, the mainstream church has learned to roll with the punches and has sought to incorporate any significant new discoveries into their theology. (Though how effectively this had been done is open to question.) On the other side are the fundamentalists, who are in brutal denial of science because it contradicts the view of the universe and our place in it put forth in their holy literature. Again this is often presented as an equal fight – “in the red corner God, and in the blue corner science”. This makes a fundamental error. It is often discussed as if God is the only alternative to a scientific worldview. If science loses: God automatically wins (or vice-versa). The origins of the universe and us are not questions with two possible answers, both of which carry equal validity. This point is shown by the creationist debate. What creationists fail to realise is that even if it were possible to disprove evolution (which, so far, they have spectacularly failed to do) that would still not prove the bible right.
What fundamentalism has also failed to recognise – in its focusing on science as the enemy – is that it isn’t necessarily science that causes the erosion of belief. Witness the many plebian, thoughtless atheists, who may spend their whole life without a belief in God, as well as without a working knowledge of the sciences. You don’t need scientific understanding to be an atheist (though it can certainly help). The biggest sustained blow to religion has always been the problem of evil. (Even Jesus struggled with this one while he was on the cross.) The standard theological answer is free will. I have an Irish Protestant friend who says the answer is easy – ‘God put us in charge’. I find this answer deeply unsatisfying. If God was a man who had it within his power to end suffering in some way, but (for whatever reason), chose not to, we would judge him very harshly. We wouldn’t consider his non-action a moral choice (we might consider it amoral). We certainly wouldn’t be expected to worship him. Besides, God does interfere: He steps in to change the course of events many times in the bible. Even those moderates who see biblical texts as largely allegorical must concede that God interferes with the natural order when He sees fit, in order to be able validate central tenets such as the virgin birth and the resurrection.
My moderate friend, who helped start me on my journey to atheism, wrote to me a while ago, and chastised me for calling myself an atheist in my previous letter. He said he disliked its ‘cold’, ’empty’, ‘meaningless’, connotations. He also said that I couldn’t be an atheist because I clearly believed in things. Indeed I do, though they stop short of non-material beings and invisible entities who demand our worship. To know that when you die, you die; that there is no one looking after us; that there is no purpose imposed from without, can seem frightening at first, but after a while you begin to see how it is actually both liberating and empowering. It seems to me that only by acknowledging life’s finite nature can you live it to its fullest; that whatever meaning there is to be had in our existence comes from whatever is meaningful for us; that we take all the blame for man’s ills, and all the praise for man’s achievements. It is often argued that without religion there is no morality. This ignores history, which clearly shows that morality – rather than being some fixed constant imposed from without by a deity – is something innate in us that evolves over time. Each period finds its own morality. It used to be morally acceptable to own slaves (after all: it was sanctioned by the bible). We no longer think so (bad bible!).
In fact this last example points precisely toward the opposite conclusion: that it is very often religion that leads people to act in immoral ways. The crimes of religion don’t need listing. It is at the heart of most of the world’s major conflicts. Religion is seldom the only reason for conflict. We would be foolish to suppose the eradication of religion (were such a thing even possible, let alone desirable) would lead to ‘peace on earth’. We are a murderously rapacious ape: if religion disappeared tomorrow we would still find plenty of reasons to kill each other. However, even when it is not the only ingredient in the mix, religion is always and everywhere the most inflammatory. At this point the religious and their defenders usually counter by sighting Hitler and Stalin. The biggest mass-murderers of the 20th Century, they point out, were atheists. While Stalin certainly was an atheist, Hitler’s religious beliefs are less certain, as he made several, contradictory statements about them. However, neither Hitler nor Stalin sent people to their deaths ‘in the name of atheism’. They sent people to their deaths in the name of Nazism and Communism. Nobody sends someone to their death because of the things they don’t believe in. Bertrand Russell was not alone in pointing out the similarities between communism and religion. More recently, Michael Burleigh has done the same for Nazism. Nazism and Communism are utopian belief systems, whereas atheism (as I’ve pointed out) is not.
Religion (in the form of its three great monotheistic traditions) is a hangover from man’s immaturity, owing its origins to dark-age texts written at a time when we had no knowledge of disease or natural disaster, and no knowledge of our relatively parochial position in the universe. In the modern world it is an anomaly. Even the fundamentalist tacitly admit this: for when he goes to the hospital, steps on a plane, or posts messages on the internet, he is placing his faith in science, rather than God. Recently my brother was telling me that he was discussing religion with some friends, one of whom asked him if he believed in God. He told him he was an atheist. For the first time, he told me, he felt proud to be saying it: free from doubt or shame. That made me really proud, because I knew exactly what he meant. I am proud. We have a great tradition: antecedents that stretch back through Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius; to Hume, d’Holbach and Paine; onto Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Einstein, and Russell (to name but a few). Maturity means facing up to your own mortality, and the harsh reality of the human condition, by drawing on the majesty of science and the consolations of philosophy and art. What’s not to be proud of?