Over the last year (as of writing this) I have come to a life-changing conclusion, God (god) most certainly does not exist. I am an atheist. But, like many other non-believers I have no affinity to the label, I do not see why the non-belief in something needs any labelling.
My non-belief was a work in progress, I do wish it came sooner, and for those who have known me for many years it came as quite the shock. I have always kept a healthy degree of skepticism and questioning in my life, but somehow I applied that level of critical thinking to everything else in my life except religion. As I begun becoming more vocal about my skepticism and atheism, as well as my unhidden disappointment with religion, many have asked how I came to this conclusion. This has lead to many discussions, heated debates, and others simply making assumptions of my declining character due to the lack of God. Even, hate-mail. I have decided to publish this.
Before I begin, I would like to start with the following warning which could not have been said any better than as described by my virtual friend, Mark Jacquith:
I should warn you that if you are a person of faith, I’ll probably offend you gravely with this tome. Make no mistake: I have no compunctions about doing so. I’m not one to hide the truth behind deferential embroidery. Still, if you are the type who is likely to take offense and refuse to continue reading, it would be most courteous of me to offend you early on, so as to respect your valuable time.
To that end: God is almost certainly a lie, religion is a scourge upon the world, and you are wasting your life with a cultish devotion to nonsensical superstitions and soul-crushing dogmas. Also, you don’t have a soul.
Now that I’ve dispensed with the discourteous courtesies, and we are rid of the chronically hyper-offendable, let us begin.
Originally, I wanted to publish a book (as a decision like this, is not merely suitable for a few words, and to help others going through similar thinking from similar backgrounds). But, that task presented to be too extreme, and others have already done far better jobs – my time is better spend elsewhere. For those curious, the book was to be titled, Uncreating God: The Resurrection of Reason (cover image here).
Early Religious Years and Believing
I spent the first few years of my life living in an ashrama at a local Hare Krishna Temple that my parents had dedicated their lives too. My mother and father were both initiated as Brahmanas (like a priest in Christianity) which was to say, they were serious – my siblings were not far behind.
Most of the memories I have of my childhood are religious ones. I remember learning and reciting stories from our scriptures about heroic feats of the God Krishna, and his many avatars. I would memorise scriptural verses. I would also spend hours a day in meditative repetitive chanting of a single mantra (sanskrit verse). I have an identifiable tuft of hair growing as a pony-tail that symbolises my servitude to God. Needless to say, the childhood indoctrination was a success.
As a Hare Krishna, I was born a vegetarian and have still not eaten meat – however, it is now for reasons of compassion not religion.
There are also the other 3 of the “Four Regulative Principles”: No Gambling, No Intoxication, and No Illicit Sex.
I believed everything.
I believed all the amazing stories of heroism, mysticism, many demigods, battles of the demons and the demigods (good versus evil). Everything.
I also felt a great deal, it was all real to me.
The First Question
In high school I had two really close friends; a muslim and a christian. We would share our cultures with each others and do so quite respectfully, we even went to each others places of worship. The First Question of my journey was asked one day after attending Church when I realised that logically, there had to be a “right” religion and a “right” God because in the Mosque they say Allah is the only way and in Church they say Jesus is the only way, and finally at temple they say Krishna is the only way
The First Question I asked was: Which Religion is right and which God is real?
I spent months reading, studying, and discussing the various Major religions in the world with friends and respected priests, monks, spiritual masters. Eventually, I concluded that they all have their own variations of profundity and flaws.
I then carried on as was before and put the question on the backseat.
It will be a few years before I ask the question that changes everything.
Some Bitter Tastes
There were a few events that forced me to view the world differently, I will tell you about a few.
When I was seventeen, I had decided to become more serious about my spirituality with God and my place in my religion. I even wanted to work my way up towards also being initiated. After finishing high school, I began staying over at the temple that I grew up in to help with my mission (and to help the mission).
An unfortunate event took place that was both horrific and cliched. On a sleep-over, during a road-trip for a religious festival, a devotee (read: Priest) decided to get frisky with me while I slept. It ended with my pants on the other side of the room, tears from the perpetrator, offerings of help from me, apologies from him… and then he did it again to another boy.
Upon hearing about the second incident, I reported both events to the temple authorities, who then proceeded to give him a temporary ban from the temple. He was back a year later to the esteemed position of which he had left, like paid suspension. Though, what disgusted me was the lack of human understanding and basic levels of support the temple authorities displayed. I expected them to offer some form of help, some form of counselling or therapy to us both, but the only person that spoke to us was the temple lawyer who basically told us to keep this just between the temple so that the movement (as they called it) would not receive a bad reputation and fall apart (Because a society ordained by Gods will can be taken down by the words of a seventeen year old boy and his unwilling penis).
The second event relates to my mother. Three years ago, during one of the most auspicious months in the religious calendar, after coming home from the temple, I had to struggle with my father to carry my mothers near-lifeless body in the rain to the car and to the hospital. She had suffered her first hyper-glycemic episode. Her health has been a struggle ever since.
That event was something I would never forget. The fear, the anxiety, the tears, the hopelessness of it all. Thats the first time I asked the question of why do bad things happen to good people most sincerely.
These bitter tastes were the catalyst to my final question.
The Final Question
I was then lead through the path of trying to ask more sincere questions. The first question I asked was: “Which God is the Right God?” – because logically, one had to be right, right?
But, that was when I thought that following a single God and religion was the only way, I soon found that there was an alternative. New Age Spiritualism.
The New Age Spiritualism offered a very appealing alternative to the mainstream God approach. It replaced a personal God with an autonomous ‘Universe’, the idea that we are all consciously connected, that this life is merely an experience, nothing is good or bad (everything is just an experience we are playing with), that love connects all of us, and when we die we become one with the Universe.
It was beautiful.
The only trouble I soon had with that was that it had so many version and all versions were apparently true, because its part of each individuals reality. That thinking soon faded and I asked the biggest and final question of this Journey:
Is God Real, Does God Exist?
The search continued.
Losing my Religion
Shedding my religious was no easy journey. I had over twenty-years of indoctrination to break through.
During this journey, I moved away from being a Hare Krishna as soon as I realised that there are a lot of stories, contradictions, rules, and no evidence. Everything was expected that you accept it as law. This still, however, did not rule out the possibility of there being a God – but I was finally decided that this religion was to be striked off the list when, at a religious festival, a speaker preached for intelligent design as scriptural truth and the theory of evolution as being a conspiracy – as s student of Science, I did not appreciate that at all.
To reject a process that has mountains of evidence, and to believe something merely because it allows us to believe something we want to believe did not seem right anymore.
Logic needed to be more solid.
I was then drawn to Christianity and Islam to strike-off the list of possibilities. This was not difficult either as neither had any evidence for Gods existence either.
The burden of proof (in logic) lays with those who claim something to be true, the default in science that a claim is not true unless there is sufficient evidence to suggest it ‘might’ be true and then further evidence that proves it to be true. There were none of these for God.
In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
Some of the below has been temporarily borrowed from Mark, until I am able articulate all of it to more closely match my own experiences.
Regarding the crucifixion: why should God have to sacrifice himself to himself to save mankind from a penalty he himself imposed? That sort of plot wouldn’t pass muster on a daytime soap opera, and yet it was supposed to be the event of ultimate cosmic importance. It didn’t make sense.
Free Will in God’s Playhouse
While taking a “Philosophy of Religion” class in college, I tackled the idea of free will. If God is omniscient, then he knows everything that will ever happen. He knows what you’ll do tomorrow. He knows whether you’ll go to heaven or to hell. Denying this is denying God’s omniscience. In a class discussion, I proposed a scenario. “If God says that you’re going to mow the lawn tomorrow, there are two possibilities: you have to mow the lawn, or you can make God a liar.” Well there goes free will. If God knows what we’re going to do, we don’t have free will, because we can’t choose something other than what he has foreseen. In order to have true free will, you have to have options, and you have to be able to choose from those options without compulsion. That simply isn’t possible in a universe controlled by an omniscient deity.
That was a depressing thought. If our actions are predestined, and thus our eternal fate is predestined (heaven or hell), why even bother with creating this physical universe at all? It all seemed so pointless. And what kind of god would create beings fully knowing that they would unavoidably be subjected to eternal torture? That certainly wasn’t love. It was sadism. Christianity depended on the concept of free will, but at the same time made it philosophically impossible.
I am a rational person. I have an insatiable desire to know the truth. The world should make sense, and it should be rationally consistent. There can be open questions, but not conflicting truths. To quote Ayn Rand, “Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” Thus religion posed, for me, a lifelong mental crisis. I had to hold, in my head, two sets of truths. Observed truths, and religious truths. But there was only one truth! Even the church said so. So when religious truths clashed with observed truths, I had a serious problem. I have trouble explaining how I juggled that contradiction for so long. I’m ashamed I didn’t address it sooner. But finally, in my early twenties, I began to take an honest look at truth, science, and religion. I was done with evasive answers and irreconcilable facts. I wanted to discover what was actually, objectively, and coherently true about life, the universe, and everything.
I’ll spare you the suspense. Religion lost.
Science is Real
I’ve always been interested in science. In my late teens and early twenties, that interest deepened significantly. I stopped seeing science as just a collection of facts, but as an approach to discovering the truth.
Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking… a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.
— Carl Sagan
Any conflict between science and religion had to be zero sum. Thousands of years ago, we knew far less about science, and so we embraced religious explanations. It seemed that the more we learned about the universe, the more religion had to retreat. Science explained things in a way that was objectively true, and independently verifiable. Religion couldn’t compete. So it shrunk away. If God occupied the gaps between our knowledge of the universe, we were slowly but surely putting him out of a job. Some people respond to this by denying or vilifying science. I couldn’t do that. Science is real. Whatever I decided about religion and God, it would have to be integrated with the fact that science is real.
The Futility of Prayer
“Why do people pray?” I wondered. Specifically, why did they pray and ask for certain, specific outcomes? If that outcome wasn’t in God’s plan, it wouldn’t happen. And if it was, it would have happened without the prayer. Prayers of petition seemed wholly unnecessary, and frankly, a bit of an insult to God and the plan he crafted in his omniscience. But people keep doing it, and they swear by it. Some people would even get cute about the futility of prayer. “Sometimes God answers your prayer and the answer is ‘no’”, they’d say, thinking that to be quite a clever thing to say.
I read a study that had been done on the efficacy of prayer. One part was double-blind, where patients didn’t know they were being prayed for. They did as well as the control group. In another group, where the patients receiving prayers were told that they were being prayed for, that group did worse than the control group. The proposed theory was that knowing that someone was praying for their recovery created a sort of performance anxiety, with that stress causing subtly negative effects on their health. That seemed fairly conclusive, and lined up with my experiences throughout my life: prayer doesn’t work. So either God doesn’t care, God is not benevolent, or God doesn’t exist.
God & Amputees
I’d long been skeptical of miracles. They didn’t seem to fit into a universe of fixed natural laws. And yet we are bombarded daily with miraculous claims. “God sped up my wire transfer!” “God found me a job!” “God cured my eczema!” I was struck by how unimpressive God’s supposed miracles were. He seemed to be limited to things that have a chance of working themselves out naturally. In cases of “healing”, God would just be given credit for things for which doctors should be receiving the praise.
I stumbled upon a website. It asked a simple question, but one that delivered a death blow to the idea of a hands-on god who can heal us and answer our prayers.
“Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”
Certainly an all-powerful god could heal amputees. And in terms of benefit to the person, it falls between alleviating eczema and curing cancer. So it’s not outside of those bounds. The only things notable about limb regeneration are that (a) it doesn’t happen to humans naturally, and (b) the results, if it were to happen, would be undeniable. But it doesn’t happen. Nor does anything else that satisfies those two conditions. I was left with no alternative but to conclude that miracles do not occur. If God existed, he had to be a hands-off god. I had effectively become a deist.
A Universe from Nothing
It was physics that got me from deism to atheism. I was still taunted by the Cosmological Argument for God (the so-called “first cause” argument). A universe couldn’t just happen, could it? Surely the big bang needed a spark… some outside source of energy. I read up on physics and cosmology. As it turns out, the universe is energetically neutral. No outside source of energy is needed, because net-net, there is none in the universe. We, and everything we can observe in the universe, are nothing more than specks of energetic pollution. We are one side of the equation. But the equation balances. Moreover, quantum fluctuations create “something” from “nothing” all the time. The most nothing nothingness we can observe is actually a boiling caldron of particles spontaneously popping in and out of existence. No god needed. That was the last straw for me. I ceased believing in any sort of hands-off creator god. The universe, for the first time in my life, made sense to me. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
It is almost indescribable how happy I was when I finally came to terms with the fact that I didn’t in any way believe in a god, and that I had a solid basis for coming to that conclusion. I finally had the coherent, integrated view of the universe that I’d been struggling to find for my entire life. The full beauty of biological evolution became apparent to me. I stopped viewing science as merely a tool for making our lives better and started seeing it as an approach to life and the best way to uncover objective truths. Everything was illuminated. My eyes were finally fully open, and I experienced a profound intellectual and emotional euphoria. It was transcendental in a way that religion never was, and never could be. I had rid myself of the last vestiges of irrational and incoherent ideas. And everything that replaced them was not just objectively true, but more amazing and more wonderfully resplendent than anything I’d ever encountered before.
I fell in love with the universe. I wasn’t just “in” the universe. I was part of it. It hit me that because of evolution, I was physically related not just to every other human, but to every other animal on earth. And not just to every other animal, but to every plant. The atoms that composed me were the products of stars that had gone supernova and spilled their rich guts across time and space. I realized that I was, quite literally, “made of stars”. How remarkable! And how true.
I found that my demeanor was massively improved. I think that much of it was related to the immense cognitive burden caused by holding contradictory ideas. I didn’t feel comfortable in the universe, because the universe didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t reconcile everything. It was like the universe was an M. C. Escher staircase. Losing that feeling of disconcertment was a great relief.
This bears repeating, as it seems to be a common misconception among believers: I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m not “mad at God”. I don’t resent my parents one tiny bit. I don’t feel abandoned, alone, or like nothing means anything. Those clichés about atheists are nothing but a discouragement by theists against questioning one’s beliefs. They are simply not true. There is nothing empty or unsatisfying about a godless view of the universe. It’s the only view that can be justified with evidence, and there is great comfort in knowing that the things you hold to be true are not “true for you”, but are true for everyone. Which is to say: they’re actually true.
I spent a good couple of months with my atheism being completely private. I had to be certain that it wasn’t just a phase. I read a lot more. But once outside the veil of feigned religiosity, I found it impossible to give that position any respect. It was, in a word, silly, and now that I had come to terms with my position, I couldn’t ever imagine re-embracing a bunch of superstitions. It honestly didn’t take me that long to get acclimated. I realized that a naturalistic view has always been my default view. All there was to do was just recognize that and stop pretending it was otherwise. I decided not to tell my parents directly, at the moment.
So I’m an Atheist
Atheists are not a monolithic group, so I should explain exactly what my position is. I do not believe in any gods, in any “higher power”, or in anything mystical or outside of nature. If you pressed me really hard, I’d admit that I do not rule out the idea of a god completely. You might be able to craft some definition of a god which is entirely unfalsifiable. I’d have to ultimately be agnostic about the existence of such a god. But only as much as I’m agnostic about the possibility of there being a miniature, invisible, pink unicorn perched on my shoulder at this very moment. In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
I most certainly do not have “faith in atheism”. I lack faith in all gods. Atheism isn’t a religion or a creed. It just means I don’t believe in any gods. Religious people sometimes use the “faith in atheism” phrasing when talking about atheists. Maybe that’s because they can’t imagine having a position that isn’t faith-based. Part of me thinks that they recognize that faith is a poor justification for an idea, and by characterizing atheism as faith-based, they’re attempting to put the two positions on even footing.
I characterize myself, additionally, as an “antitheist”. That is, I not only do not believe in any gods, I think the idea of believing in a divine power is harmful, and I oppose it. Being wholly without evidence, the idea of God is not bounded in any way by facts or logic. The belief becomes its own justification. Thus, faith in God is carte blanche for every imaginable evil. There can be no rebuttal, because the justification claimed has no basis in reason.
Religion is, I think, ultimately a way of dealing with our own mortality. Different religions handle death differently, but almost without exception, they provide for some continued existence after death. This is a powerfully alluring idea. We have an inborn desire for life. No one wants to permanently cease existing. Religion offers an alternative: we can all live forever! There is, of course, no reason to think that this is true. But still, it is one of the issues that is most in need of addressing when rejecting faith. So, what happens when we die?
There’s a good quote about death that is attributed to Mark Twain, but is almost certainly apocryphal. Nevertheless:
I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
That is spot on. Where do we go when we die? Well, where were you before you existed? Another way to think of it is to recall nights when you slept without dreaming a single dream. Or when you went under general anesthesia. If you went to sleep one night, and never dreamt, and never woke up — that would be the same as death. It may be something to avoid, but you certainly shouldn’t fear what comes after it. You won’t care, because you won’t exist.
Why Does Faith Persist?
Since I’ve been “out”, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why religion and superstition have such a hold on the world. Why, in this age of unprecedented scientific knowledge, do people continue to accept vague, irrational, and unsatisfactory explanations for how the universe works? I have a few theories. One is that tradition is hard to shake. Indoctrination into a specific religious tradition is a powerful agent of thought suppression. There are also cultural disincentives to skepticism. For many, religion is the primary source of community. They go to church to socialize and connect with people. Abandoning their religion would cut them off from that community. I also think that people are scared for our species to be alone in the universe. It might be comforting to some to imagine that there is an all-loving, all-knowing god looking out for us. It makes our problems here on Earth seem transient. It’s an easy escape from having full responsibility for knowledge and morality in this existence. Finally, people fear their mortality. Religion pretends to offer an antidote to death. The allure of that proposition blinds people to truths they might otherwise acknowledge.
My Wishes for the Faithful
I’m not trying to deny anyone their faith. That’s not my job. That’s their job. If you are a person of faith, I’d like you to stop being afraid of asking difficult questions, and stop accepting weak answers. If your faith is in something that is true, then scrutiny can only improve it as you discover more. And if your faith is in something that is not true, don’t you want to know? The truth has nothing to fear from inquisition. You should demand answers that are intellectually satisfying. And you should withhold your belief if the answers don’t satisfy you.
Everyone of faith should contemplate the improbability of their birth in a specific place and at a specific time. What are the odds that you were born in the exact right time, to parents of the exact right religion? Isn’t it odd that the children of Muslims grow up to be Muslims and the children of Catholics grow up to to be Catholics? If there really is a one true religion, and you just happen to be alive at a time when it exists, shouldn’t the evidence for it be so overwhelming that people of other religions readily convert? Rather, isn’t it the case that your religion is as nutty to people of other religions as their religions are to you? What basis do you have for saying your religion is more likely to be true than any other?
Congratulations on getting through that. Seriously. Just a bit more, and I’ll release you.
My experience with religion is part of me. I might wish that I’d figured out it was all nonsense earlier, but that’s wishing for me to be a different person. I’m happy with who I am, including my religious past. I came to this realization later in life than most people do. But it’s never too late to question your fundamental assumptions about the universe. Whatever you’re struggling with, you don’t ever have to just accept your current position. Stay hungry, and keep searching for the truth. You won’t ever find all of it, but what you do find will blow your fucking mind. It’s a wonderful universe, and we are all incredibly lucky to be here.
A great debt of thanks goes out to those authors and speakers who helped me come to terms with my atheism and naturalism and have provided me with a much more numinous and coherent view of the universe and my place within it: James Randi, Ayn Rand, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Two are dead. I hope someday to meet the rest.