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How to be a Good Atheist
By Nick Harding
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2007 Nick Harding
All rights reserved.
What is Atheism?
Atheism is based upon a materialist philosophy, which holds that nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair, founder and president of American Atheists.
I believe in the religion of reason – the gospel of this world; in the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature to feed and clothe the world.
Robert Ingersoll, Why I Am an Agnostic.
Despite efforts by theistic apologists to level the accusation that it is just another faith-based position, atheism, by its very nature, cannot be labelled a belief. To call atheism a faith is an oxymoronic statement. It is the absence of belief in deities or the childish idea that there are supernatural forces that control human existence. One cannot possess absence of faith or belief by having faith in atheism. Atheism can be seen as the opposite of theism but this is not always so. Some freethinkers do not like to be called atheists as, by definition, this means that there is theism and one must therefore accept the preposterous idea that there is a god (or gods) to deny. This is a perfectly understandable position to take. Contrary to what theologians claim, atheism is neither a cult nor a religion.
The basic argument is simple. Theists state categorically that a deity (or deities) exists; atheists say there is no such thing. Of course, it is for the theist to prove his or her position not the atheist. The atheist asks to be shown just one jot of evidence for the existence of god and has yet to see any. Without evidence of any kind it is impossible to make a judgement as to the veracity of theist claims. In fact, it is clear that the theist position is becoming more and more untenable as time passes. Atheism is the most logical stance to take. It provides a baseline of reason, the bedrock of thought. If we have preconceived ideas about a subject, in this case the existence of god, they will bias any investigation into it. Misconceptions of reality convince certain theists, the creationists, that the world really was formed in six days. They have gone to the subjects of earth history, geology and Darwinian evolution with their minds tainted and sullied by biblical myths that are read as fact. No matter what they see, theists will reject any empirical evidence that does not fit into their worldview. Evolution is wrong because it counters the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Geology is false because it proves the Earth is 4.6 billion years old and not 6,000 years – a figure originally reached in the seventeenth century by totting up all the bearded begetting that goes on in the bible.
In many respects becoming an atheist means adopting clarity of thought. For that reason, it must be seen as the highest aspiration of human consciousness. Atheism, by its very nature, represents mental freedom.
We despise dictators and tyrants yet we are asked by the god-fearing to prostrate ourselves before a capricious despotic ghost and beg forgiveness. We are told that prayer works. How? Surely an omnipotent deity can see, know and sense all anyway. Why pray? We are taught the nonsense that we are all tainted by original sin and thus all of us are damned by the actions of a mythological character – the sins of non-existent ancestors are visited upon us. What have the theists ever done for us? They have led us down the biggest garden path in history. They have taken us down a cul-de-sac of thought and brought us to a complete and utter dead end in morality and ethics. We really have been sold a celestial lemon.
Atheism as a general belief can be broken down into a number of different positions. It can be divided into two basic standpoints. In the broad version of atheism, people simply do not accept the basic premise of theism; in the narrower and more determined position, they believe that the theistic position is not only misguided but actively wrong. Sometimes this is called 'fundamentalist atheism'. (The concepts of fundamentalism and atheism should not really be mixed but critics and theistic apologists like to label the extreme end of atheism as 'fundamental'. See Defending Atheism below.) These positions are also known as implicit atheism – the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it – and explicit atheism – the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it.
Some prefer to break atheism down into five different subsets for a more specific analysis. A dogmatic atheist may be at odds with, say, a sceptical atheist but they are all part and parcel of the same thing.
The subsets are:
Dogmatic Atheism – No god. Critics call this a 'fundamentalist' position.
Sceptical Atheism – The mind is incapable of discovering if there is a god or not.
Critical Atheism – Evidence for theism is inadequate.
Speculative Atheism – Kant's position, wherein it is impossible to demonstrate existence of god.
With dogmatic atheism we see disbelief at its most hardcore. This is a perfectly understandable position to take. Freethinkers who take a long, hard look at the world around them realise that there can be no god. Where's the evidence? Why, after all this time, is there not one maker's name under a stone, a label that says © God, or even the slightest suggestion that this 'god malarkey', to quote writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades, has any truth in it? As time passes and scientific understanding of the universe grows – often in the face of rabid anti-science, either from the left where some deny DNA and evolution because it suggests social Darwinism and eugenics or from the religious right who deny science because it treads on all their holier-than-thou toes and makes a mockery of the bogus twaddle that is creationism – it becomes more and more unlikely that there is a super-intelligent ghost running the show. Biologists like Richard Dawkins, known by some as 'Darwin's Rottweiler', can illustrate the natural world in biological terms without the need for the divine spark and physicists like Victor Stenger can show the same for the quantum universe. Both hold up a spotlight into the shadows and state with confidence, well I can't see him ...
And they are far from alone.
Sceptical atheism may one day become redundant. In many respects, it already is. The advances in scientific discovery within the disciplines of neuroscience are making great strides in understanding the processes that operate within the 3lbs of grey matter called the brain. Susan Blackmore and others can now show that the personality within is nothing more than a fiction. There is no one inside looking out. There is no 'me', 'I' or 'you'. Consciousness is a by-product of the constant buzz of neuroprocessing. If this is so, then faith is, at best, an ephemeral chemical spectre.
So, where is this god in whom the theists believe? Who is he?
God was sitting on his ass in Nowhere, since at that time there was not even a universe, for hundreds of millions of years without an idea in his head, picking his nose and farting, when suddenly he became bored one moment in particular and said, in clear Hebrew ,"From nothing I will create something," and he created the entire universe (whatever that may be) for the express purpose of creating you in his own image, complete down to the belly button.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair, discourse entitled Fundamentalist
There's absolutely no evidence for a divine creator. When looking at how the natural world is constructed, critical atheists can see nothing that lends weight to the notion that it was all the work of some lonely creator. Nor can any other variety of atheist. There is an intellectual paucity to creationism or its latest reincarnation 'intelligent design' (often described as 'creationism in a cheap tuxedo' and about as intelligent as theism gets, which isn't very intelligent). Intelligent design is a conceptual dead end but it is often cited by hardcore theists as 'proof' as they make demands that politicians and educationalists submit to their propaganda. With nothing to back up their arguments, they resort to creating ghastly theme parks in which Stone Age children play with Tyrannosaurus Rex pets or reconstructing large-scale models of Noah's Ark complete with an animatronic Noah. Some woefully ridiculous illustrations of the Ark, such as that seen in the madhouse Institute of Creation Research Museum, now have dinosaurs in stalls surrounded by lions, lambs and amoeba.
To show the absurdity of trying to turn a myth into a science, one has only to consider the realities of fitting two each of millions of species, let alone their food, into a boat 450 by 75 by 45 feet. Consider the logistics of feeding and watering and cleaning up after all those animals.
Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things.
Indeed. But creationists continue to promote this simplistic and infantile view that somehow all the animals of the world could be contained within a big boat. Not only that, they reinterpret certain facets of the myth in an attempt to make it workable. Not all animals went into the Ark, they claim; it was just 'kinds' of animal. (Whatever 'kinds' of animals means?) See eSkeptic 23 May 2007 and the article 'New creation museum opens in Kentucky' for further details of this. We would be hard pressed to contain our laughter at such naiveté were it not for the fact that these people are pushing to have this nonsense accepted as genuine history.
Irreducible complexity is another favourite con-trick of the creationists. They state that the 'perfectly formed' eye, the bacterial flagella motor or a banana (apparently) are irreducibly complex creations and could not have arisen through evolution. They are, therefore, examples of god's hand. They are not. Each evolved and this has been proven as fact. (See Dawkins' book Climbing Mount Improbable.) However hard they try, creationists, like the founders of the Christian church, resort to cheating and invention. There is no evidence for a deity. If there were, it would have been found by now. There would be neither doubts nor so much variation. Theists are pulling the equivalent of nylon rabbits from hats with holes over trap doors in fake tables to prove their magic works.
Philosophical atheism, with its broader strokes, casts its net further afield but takes in evidence drawn from all scientific and philosophical angles. By drawing on various disciplines an overall picture of the natural world can be built up. Is there a reason for the supernatural? (No) Wouldn't the existence of a god contradict the laws of physics? (Yes)
By dealing with the traits that the particular, more specialized sciences have in common, the branches of philosophy serve as unifying forces, enabling man to integrate the specialized sciences within a systematic framework of knowledge.
George E Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God
By comparing biology with psychology and chemistry, and so on, we build up, by degrees, the big picture of reality wherein evidence for a god is nowhere to be found. Theists use the 'design' argument. There is order in the universe and that could only have come from god – the order implies a designer who has created it. But, as we know, order can come from disorder quite naturally – the most obvious example of this is the universe itself. (See Not By Design by Victor Stenger.)
The (very rarely stable) philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was an advocate of speculative atheism. He decided that it was impossible to prove the existence of a deity. Kant has always been seen as a religious man although some have argued recently, rather convincingly, that he was, in fact, an atheist at heart. (See AC Grayling's article in New Humanist of July/August 2006.) He is most famous for his revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason in which he turned his attention to the role the mind has in constructing the outside world.
The Blindingly Obvious
Two arguments for the non-existence of a deity are linked to the fact that there are non-believers. The Buddhists and the Jains, for instance, have developed whole religions (religio-philosophies) based on non-belief and they are highly moralistic. This obviously runs counter to the theists' nonsense that we all need to bow down to the gods to be decent people.
The other is the most obvious. Why is there so much evil in the world? It is wrong to define natural disasters as evil, but this still leaves the death and destruction humanity inflicts on itself. Why the starving, the sick and homeless? Why the incessant warfare? Environmental destruction? Disease, deformity and the loss of innocent life? Why do young children die at the hands of murderers while theistic despots are allowed to run rampant, killing and maiming in the name of their god? A benevolent and omnipotent god looks on and does nothing. The inescapable conclusion is that he is, in fact, neither moral nor all-powerful – indeed the most likely and logical conclusion is that he doesn't exist. Even if he does nothing, claiming that we have freewill and that it's up to us, it is the height of immorality to do so. Where's the morality in the death of an innocent child just to teach us his love?
For further discussion of these arguments, see: Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Non-existence of God by Theodore M. Drange.
Atheism and Morality
[Atheism] equips us to face life, with its multitude of trials and tribulations, better than any code of living that I have yet been able to find ...
Joseph Lewis, Atheism and Other Addresses.
Theists like to hold up the bible as the source of their morality. A little investigation shows that this is not a very wise thing to do. Most, if not all, 'holy' books are full of rape, torture, racism, murder, misogyny and genocide and provide a carte blanche to destroy unbelievers. Moses told his armies to destroy everything and to keep captured virgins for the use thereof. Jesus (let's just for argument's sake say he existed) seems to come across as a racist. At one point in the gospels of both Matthew and Mark he even refers to Gentiles as dogs. He also made it clear he didn't care a jot for anyone who did not belong to the lost house of Israel. Love thy neighbour? Jesus didn't. Anyone who wasn't his follower was, in his view, going straight to hell. These are not isolated examples. The whole bible is full of instances of very dubious morality yet it is seen as a book that must be revered. To many, it is inviolate. It was the screaming contradictions in the work that led Thomas Paine to quip that the bible seemed to be more the work of a demon than a benevolent deity, such was the horror that occurred within its pages.
So what's the best way to define morality? Well, here's a list of a few words that might help in defining it: sincerity, truthfulness, benevolence, fidelity, honesty, fairness and justice. There are, of course, many more and not one of them requires people to believe in some big ghost in order to achieve them. Despite what the god- fearing claim, one can be a perfectly decent upright and moral citizen and still be an atheist. Morality actually occurs readily throughout nature and there are numerous examples of altruism, including reciprocal altruism, in many animal species, e.g. dolphins, elephants, meerkats and ants. Since humans are animals, it is only natural that they behave in similar fashion. Morality is hot-wired into our brains.
Atheists are decent, moral people. We do not need a despotic deity to tell us what to do or not do. Theists, on the other hand, view humanity as children that have to be threatened with a reward/punishment process in order to coerce them into right behaviour. Religious morality is nothing more than authoritarian diktat from on high. Obedience is right, disobedience wrong. Religion has been built upon the basic fear of death or rather what happens after death. The rationalist says there is no afterlife (why should there be?) while the theist says that not only is there life after death it has two levels – a heaven and a hell. Two totally abstract fantasy worlds that defy logic and reason but are there as part of the system of control through reward or punishment. This is not morality. Instilling fear in individuals, especially children, is deeply immoral – whatever excuses are mustered in its defence.
Atheism is not immoral nor does it promote immorality – being an atheist does not give non-believers carte blanche to run riot. To accuse atheism of the misperceived decline in morality is like a pyromaniac priest blaming the fire in his church on an innocent stranger who happens to be walking by. Religion is in no position to dictate to atheists about morality.
Our morality and the awareness of the plight of others; we are better now than we have ever been in terms of the awareness of human suffrage, has improved and all this in the face of religion. To claim that morality is purely a Christian creation is also false. The Greeks had developed a system of ethics before Christianity anyway as in deed had most societies.
Excerpted from How to be a Good Atheist by Nick Harding. Copyright © 2007 Nick Harding. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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