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Why I Am An Atheist

June 2005

I am an atheist. There, I said it. Are you happy, all you atheists out there who have remonstrated with me for adopting the agnostic moniker? If “atheist” means someone who does not believe in God, then an atheist is what I am.

But I detest all such labels. Call me what you like — humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nontheist, freethinker, heretic, or even bright. I prefer skeptic. Still, all such labels are just a form of cognitive economy, a shortcut into pigeonholing our fellow primates into tidy categories that supplant the deeper probing of what someone actually thinks and says.

When asked, “Do you believe in God?” I reply, “No.” When queried on the God question, I simply say, “I don’t believe in God.” No far-left rants, just simple answers. But the bottom line is what we all know: In America, atheists are associated with tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, bottled water-drinking, American Civil Liberties Union-supporting, pinko commie fags hell-bent on conning our youth into believing all that baloney about equal rights and evolution. I’m not one of those bastards, am I?

Well, technically speaking, yes, I am. I think biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the Earth, although I also think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that nature is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists believe. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive a sport utility vehicle because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. The only thing bottled water is good for is the bottle; science tells us most tap water is just fine. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be different. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.

I don’t know why the God question is so enmeshed with all of these other social issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s OK to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl. There is no afterlife. We just die, and that’s it.

Which is why what we do in this life matters so much — and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and over the millennia, philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the Earthly consequences of what we are doing.

I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right’s hypersensitivities and politically correct “tolerance” for diversities of belief — as long as one believes in God. Any God will do — except, of course, the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in God have had enough of this rhetoric. In America, we are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.

It doesn’t matter what God you believe in, which religion you adhere to, or even if you don’t believe in any God and are nonreligious. If you want to live in the United States, there are rules about how we treat other people. Religion and politics should be treated as Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, in paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s apt model for religion and science. “Non-Overlapping” means that religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the Capitol. Don’t go to church to politick, and don’t go to the Capitol to preach.

With this confessional, then, it may surprise you to learn that I was once a born-again evangelical Christian who attended Pepperdine University (a Church of Christ institution) with the intent of becoming a theologian. Although living in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean was a motivating factor in my choice of college, the primary reason I went to Pepperdine was that I took my mission for Christ seriously. I thought I should attend a school where I would receive serious theological training, and I did. I took courses in the Old and New Testaments, Jesus the Christ, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. I attended chapel twice a week — although, truth be told, it was required for all students. Dancing was not allowed on campus, as its sexual suggestiveness might trigger already-inflamed hormone production to go into overdrive, and we were not allowed into the dorm rooms of members of the opposite sex. Despite the restrictions, it was a good experience; I was a serious believer, and thought this was the way we should behave.

But somewhere along the way, I found science, and that changed everything. When I discovered that a doctorate in theology required proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, knowing that foreign languages were not my strong suit (I struggled through two years of high school Spanish), I switched to psychology and mastered one of the languages of science: statistics. In science, I discovered that by establishing parameters to determine whether a hypothesis is probably right (like rejecting the null hypothesis at the 0.01 level of significance) or definitely wrong (not statistically significant), it is possible to approach problems in another way. Instead of the rhetoric and disputation of theology, there was the logic and probabilities of science. What a difference this difference in thinking makes.

Truth be told, however, the switch to science was only one factor in my deconversion. There was the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong. There were the inevitable hypocrisies that arose from preaching the ought but practicing the is. (One of my dormmates regularly prayed for sex, rationalizing that he could better witness for the Lord without all that pent-up libido.) There was the awareness that other religious beliefs and their adherents existed, all of who were equally adamant that theirs was the One True Religion. And there was the knowledge of the temporal, geographic, and cultural determiners of religious beliefs that made it obvious to me that God was made in our likeness, and not the reverse.

By the end of my first year in a graduate program in experimental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, I had abandoned Christianity and stripped off my silver ichthus, replacing what was for me the stultifying dogma of a 2,000-year-old religion with the worldview of an always changing, always fresh science. The passionate nature of this perspective was espoused most emphatically by my evolutionary biology professor, Bayard Brattstrom, particularly at a local bar where his after-class discussions went late into the night. This was the final factor in my road back from Damascus: I enjoyed the company and friendship of science people much more than that of religious people. Science is where the action was for me. But from where would I get my spirituality?

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality — art, for example. Consider the 1889 impressionist painting The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity’s tiny abode.

The Starry Night is awe-inspiring art, but it is the product of centuries of scientific discovery, coming after Nicolaus Copernicus displaced us from the center of the cosmos; after Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion; after Galileo Galilei discovered the moons of Jupiter, mountains on the moon, and sunspots; after Isaac Newton united celestial and terrestrial physics; and after Charles Darwin put us in our proper place in nature’s ancestry. No one, especially an emotionally volatile impressionist painter like Van Gogh, could look up at the night sky and not be daunted by the vastness of the minuscule portion of the galaxy we can observe from Earth (about 2,500 out of the approximately 100 billion stars in the Milky Way).

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother Theo: “I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing my tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things — however, I don’t mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on the canvas.” In fact, Van Gogh described The Starry Night to his brother “as an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God.” Read spiritual for religious.

As magical as The Starry Night is, Van Gogh painted it decades before astronomer Edwin Hubble expanded our universe by orders of magnitude through his observations from the 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson in Southern California. On October 6, 1923, Hubble first realized that the fuzzy patches he was observing were not “nebulae” within the Milky Way galaxy, but were, in fact, separate galaxies, and that the universe is bigger than anyone imagined. He subsequently discovered through this same telescope that those galaxies are all red-shifted — their light is receding from us, and thus stretched toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum — meaning that all galaxies are expanding away from one another, the result of a spectacular explosion that marked the birth of the universe. It was the first empirical data indicating that the universe has a beginning, and thus is not eternal. What could be more awe-inspiring — more numinous, magical, spiritual — than this cosmic visage? Darwin and the geologists gave us deep time. Hubble and the astronomers gave us deep space.

Since I live in Southern California, I have had many occasions to make the climb to Mount Wilson, a twenty-five-mile trek from the bedroom community of La Canada up a twisting mountain road whose terminus is a cluster of old telescopes, new interferometers, and communications towers that feed the mega-media conglomerate below. As a young student of science in the 1970s, I took a general tour. As a serious bicycle racer in the 1980s, I rode there every Wednesday (a tradition still practiced by a handful of us cycling diehards). In the 1990s, I took several scientists there, including Gould, who described it as a deeply moving experience.

And, most recently, in November of last year, I arranged for a visit to the observatory for the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the other great bard of life’s history. It was during his trip to Los Angeles on a book tour for his just-published opus, The Ancestor’s Tale, itself a source of scientific spirituality in its 3-billion-year pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution. As we were standing beneath the magnificent dome housing the 100-inch telescope, and reflecting on how marvelous — even miraculous — this scientistic visage of the cosmos and our place in it all seemed, Dawkins turned to me and said, “All of this makes me proud of our species.”

As pattern-seeking, storytelling primates, to most of us the pattern of life and the universe indicates design. For countless millennia we have taken these patterns and constructed stories about how life and the cosmos were designed specifically for us from above. For the past few centuries, however, science has presented us with a viable alternative in which the design comes from below through the direction of built-in self-organizing principles of emergence and complexity. Perhaps this natural process, like the other natural forces of which we are all comfortable accepting as non-threatening to religion, was God’s way of creating life. Maybe God is the laws of nature — or even nature itself — but this is a theological supposition, not a scientific one.

This article was originally published in Science and Spirit.

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53 Comments to “Why I Am An Atheist”

  1. Neil McCabe Says:

    Outstanding! One of the best essays I have ever read. From this point forward when asked about my worldview I think I will just refer them to this small piece of writing. Thank you Michael.

  2. John F. Says:

    This is a particularly relevant essay for me right now. I am devouring books and information on science, spirituality and, in particularly, atheism, which has progressively more appeal for me as time goes on. I have read Dawkins’s God Delusion and have just finished his Ancestors tale. Your take on spititualiy is particularly interesting to me. I get mine from mountaineering, although my recently discovered brain tumour is keeping me off Table Mountain and other mountains in South Africa. When my treatment is over I MUST get back up there to recharge my batteries and get my spirituality levels functioning again. You are right, it is spirituality. Thank you for the gift of your essay.

  3. Neil McCabe Says:

    I also have a lot in common with John F. I too have been on a quest the last few years. The study of the empirical natural world and it’s origins. My sprituality comes from that study along with backpacking and flyfishing. I have read 6 of Shermer’s books and every single one is a substantial breath of fresh air!

  4. William Foster Says:

    I did not realize that in the USA atheists were associated with such prejudiced narrow minded views. Nor did I realize that God wants us to destroy the planet? So this is very interesting to me; that religios are a lot of narrow-minded bigots.

  5. bipolar2 Says:

    ** why all near-eastern fundamentalisms fail **

    At some point atheist and theist must come to an impass. An atheist says “not-G”. And, the theist responds “G.” If “G” is a statement about the world . . . testable in principle . . . then the theist faces a number of undesirable options. Among them, recognize and absorb the full impact of science on traditional religious beliefs.

    Science is the arbiter of which statements about the world, empirical statements, are or are not “known” — that is, are given the always provisional metalinguistic accolade, ‘is true.’

    Such statements are ‘empirically fit’ according to the relevant testing procedures within science itself. This is the meaning of ‘the scientific revolution’ — in what “realm” is power to decide vested?, who shall decide what is true?, and by what criteria?

    Neither ‘ethical fitness’ as in Heraclitus and his Stoic followers, nor ‘theological fitness’ as in Plato and his xian followers, is any longer considered a viable principle for assessing the truth of an empirical statement. (Naturalism accepts neither that “man is the measure of all things” nor that “god is the measure of all things.”)

    Methodologically, whenever so-called “sacred” writings make claims about the natural world, they are subject to exactly the same forces of potential refutation as any other empirical claim. There is no “executive privilege” for God.

    Some xians can perhaps jettison God’s misogyny and masculinity as culturally limited metaphor, but it’s hard to see how personhood could be eliminated as Hinduism has done with the Absolute (Brahman). And by parity of reasoning, Islam and Judaism are likewise inflexible.

    Theological concessions to empirical sciences demand that xianity grapple with how much of its so-called sacred text can be characterized as time-bound metaphor, myth-managed history, and reinterpreted. This task has been on-going for about 200 years under titles like “higher criticism” and “de-mythologicizing the NT.” [You can make evil spirits fly from the mouths of fundies if you dare to utter either of these phrases. Atheist exorcism!]

    Two very liberal bishops have tried to rescue xianity from fundies and accept the full impact of empirical science on xian myth. John A T Robinson, most famously in “Honest to God” and John Shelby Spong in “Why xianity must change or die.”

    bipolar2

  6. Lizette Says:

    You remind me of a friend here in SA who thinks just like you. I understand how you feel, been there done that. It’s much easier though when you drop the control and ego and let God do His mighty work on you, because he will – like it or not.

  7. Jamie Arpin-Ricci Says:

    Excellent essay. I am a Christian, so obviously come out differently on some of the core questions here. However, I found myself agreeing with you on more than I was disagreeing. Measured against how Christianity has behaved (especially in the current expressions of Evangelicalism in our context), I would opt for atheism too. I find your essay fair, honest and balanced. Thanks!

    Peace,
    Jamie

  8. J.M.J. West Says:

    Very well written; I’m a convert to Catholicism from Agnosticism, so kind of the opposite of you; I am, however, also a humanist and a “free thinker” though many in that camp are opposed to my use of the term.

    Your essay has summed up everything that I felt before my conversion, and still very much of what I believe now.

    However, you do speak of a few things that I think are ultimately unfounded, such as the “intolerance generated by absolute morality” which is more endemic of evangelical protestants than more classical Catholic Christianity. One can believe that one is in possession of the fullness of the truth and that others are mistaken and still love them; I do this daily. I do engage in lively debates about faith and morality (I’m a Catechist by trade), and I do think that we can come to knowledge on this matter if we sit down and talk (because often enough it happens in my experience); but nevertheless conversion cannot be forced and liberty of the will is to be respected.

    Incidentally, however, the reverse problem seems to affect Atheism in two ways: lacking moral absolutes, Atheism often becomes simply about cultural preferences (I don’t LIKE killing 6 million Jews, but that Austrian in charge of Germany did); but lacking moral absolutes will also not stop the average “I-just-read-Dawkins-for-the-first-time” Atheist from calling Christian moralizing “wrong”.

    Meh. I enjoyed your article, and I’ll probably link to it from my site in a day or two, with a brief writeup and review.

    Pax Christi,

    -J.M.J. West

  9. Chris Says:

    “There was the awareness that other religious beliefs and their adherents existed, all of who were equally adamant that theirs was the One True Religion.”

    The thing that tends to bother me is that Atheism falls into this category itself, though none of its adherents acknowledges it.

    Other than that, good article. It’s refreshing to hear a person’s genuine personal approach rather than condescending rantings :)

  10. Karan Says:

    Could not have put it better.

  11. Scott Says:

    Fantastic work! Your essay beautifully transcripts many of the thoughts I’ve pondered for quite some time. As a “freethinker”, I too have struggled with telling people I’m an atheist simply because I disdain the labels people associate with being an atheist.

    I see eye to eye with virtually the majority of your thoughts/statements and I’m grateful I took 5 minutes out of my day to read your essay. Thank you.

  12. Chester McEnroe Says:

    I better get to work on my own essay. “Why I am a Christian”. Then again, I don’t really care what other people think of my beliefs, so I don’t think I’ll waste the time on it when I could be working on my crappy science fiction novel instead.

  13. Michael J. Green Says:

    What an excellent essay! I feel the same way after decades of being a Roman Catholic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  14. Kyle Says:

    Too bad humans have this innate drive for something greater. How much better the world would be if we didn’t. (and just imagine how many pointless God/No-God arguments we could avoid)

  15. Lindy Says:

    Thank you for articulating the way so many of us feel so nicely. This was a very well written essay and I’m glad to have read it.

  16. Ray Says:

    Many of us (Non-believers) are troubled with the word ‘atheist’ and would like to have another word to describe our
    non theism. A few years ago I stumbled across a word that I find most apt – nillifidian a [n] 1) one of no faith or religion; a skeptic in matters of religion
    2) transf. one who lacks faith; a disbeliever
    [adj] having no faith or belief. The word was coined by the playwright, Ben Jonson (1572-1637

  17. david hom Says:

    please note that bi-thinking (dividing the world in 2 or more view point) defers from reality…

    nice writing tho, but a choice between some two things, explains diversity instead of whole-ness… The point of our “ethnical” liberation is seeing that all is infact one… not devided…

    your choice between one for yourself, pronounced you equally stupid as either side…

    keep up the good thinking tho…

  18. Gareth Says:

    An excellent article (and a companion to the recent jeremiads i have read by Dawkins and Hitchens), although i’m beginning to get annoyed by the whole “not believe in god” thing assigned to atheists. It’s not that i don’t believe in god (s), it’s that i don’t believe in the entire framework of thinking that sets “god” up. It might sound precious, i don’t know, but it’s a step beyond “is there a white haired old geezer in the sky?”. I don’t accept the parameters, fundamentally (hah!) that the argument is framed within. I have to assert non existence? NO! They have to assert and prove existence. If that makes sense. Which it may not, as i’ve had half a bottle of whiskey tonight (oh gosh oh golly, that demon drink, i need a taste of that ole time religion…)

  19. Kay Says:

    Please don’t take this down. Ever.

  20. MagdaDH Says:

    Wonderful text, and one whose large parts I would happily have written myslef (though I am empathically NOT a fiscal conservative if it means a corporatist Friedmanite, and I have never been a fundamentalist or any other Christan).

    J.M.J. West:
    My face to face experience of Christans has been largely limited to Roman Catholics and Anglicans and I have to say that I tend to agree with what you say about rabid intollerance being ” more endemic of evangelical protestants than more classical Catholic Christianity”.

  21. Jorge Fernandez Says:

    I’ll file your story under ‘Tragic’, the same category that contains Charles Templeton’s story.

  22. Shaw Says:

    Michael, I appreciate much of your work. I would like, for the hell of it, to take exception with one of your statements. You wrote that, “Religion and politics should be treated as Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA, in paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s apt model for religion and science. ‘Non-Overlapping’ means that religion is private and politics is public.” Many writers (I’m thinking specifically of Dan Dennett.) have, in my opinion, satisfactorily shown Gould’s NOMA to be fatuous. But I want to focus on this business about religion being private. Also, religion is not being kept private, for matters of conscience cannot, nor should they be kept private. If religion is kept private how can we break the spell, the taboo (Dennett) against criticizing belief or faith? So, I would like to recommend “Secular Conscience” by Austin Dacey (2008). The decrepit ideas of religion cannot be properly dispensed with if we insist that they be kept immured in the dark, dank, dusty, cobwebbed cellar and not be brought out into the light of Carl’s candle.
    (This reminds me that Carl Sagan also rode the fence of agnosticism as the supposed only intellectually honest position to hold. Anyone who has read at least as much as I have knows that from all that we know today, that is, all that the branches of science have illuminated for us, evinces that it is reasonable to say that a concept of a god is only a hypothesis, but not a very good one since a hypotheses is supposed to be an educated guess, and that it is also reasonable to say that the denial of a concept of a deity is a theory supported by mountains of evidence for phenomena that explain everything that the god hypothesis was supposed to explain. Including values and meaning. It all comes from the brain. Cranes not skyhooks. Agnosticism can only be a position of transition, sort of like a half-way house or a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; or maybe a position from which to be tactful so as not to step too firmly on the toes of believers, i.e. potential converts. This, I think, is why the gentle Carl Sagan took to the fence.)
    Sam Harris was correct that beliefs (Ideas, memes and matters of conscience) have effects outside of us. Our “subjective” beliefs become public (and therefore objective) once uttered or acted upon.
    I’ll close with a Sam Harris quote which is not so tactful, “[T]heology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.”

  23. Bill Says:

    Bravo!

    I’m 50, an atheist, social liberal and definitely a free market type. I enjoyed reading how you changed from a theist to an atheist. I never had the opportunity of deconversion. At age seven I convinced myself that I loved the wonders of this world so much that there is no way I would want to die and go to some place called “heaven” to be with some entity described to me as a “jealous God.” I told myself that I could not believe in God.

  24. Brad Says:

    I was a life-long Church of Christ member who discovered science and as a result became and atheist. Your process mirrors my own almost exactly. I can read between the lines and know it wasn’t always an easy process. I’m just glad to have found a fellow former Church of Christ atheist.

  25. Jen Says:

    Nearly every self-described atheist that I have ever met is a former believer who didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas or had a bad experience and blamed it on God. I feel utter sadness for Shermer, who undoubtedly knows in his heart that his work to lead people away from God is going to lead to eternal separation from Him.

  26. James Smith, João Pessoa, Brazil Says:

    Blame it on my parents. They always told me to “think for myself”. I doubt if they ever considered what might happen if I actually did that.

    Now, I suspect what they meant was, “Think what we tell you to think but think it in your own words.” Too late, I began to question everything and soon the total absurdity of any religion became apparent.

    When I refused to accompany them to their church, they said they “would make me go.”

    I asked them, “First, what is your plan for doing that? and second, how would forcing me to attend change my mind rather than harden it against that and everything else they told me?”

    Their next idea was to have their minister talk to me. I told them it was a waste of everyone’s time. They persisted and after about 15 minutes he became very angry and told me I was going to hell.

    I told him, “well, if there is a Hell I’ll see you there. Save me a nice place, OK?” He said I was an impertinent, disrespectful child. By then, I was pretty angry myself and for the first time, I told a “christian that he was a hypocrite, a liar, and a fool.’ My parents insisted that I apologize. I refused and left the room.

    For the next four years, I heard about this at least once a week. The night I graduated from high school, I left my parent’s home and didn’t see them again for over a year. By then, I had completed some college, which fortunately, I was able to pay for myself. I was entering the army and wanted to try to make peace with them, but had to listen to the same old arguments again.

    The next time I saw them was two years later when I was getting married.

  27. dglas Says:

    “With this confessional, then, it may surprise you to learn that I was once a born-again evangelical Christian who attended Pepperdine University (a Church of Christ institution) with the intent of becoming a theologian.”

    As a pure skeptic it doesn’t surprise me in the least. I see the evidence of his past fanaticism in his new fanaticism. All he did was replace one god for another, and it shows. He presents skepticism as an unassailable affirmation, thus stripping skepticism of its primary function and permitting the metaphysical nonsense to go unchallenged. To so artificially limit the scope of skeptical inquiry is not just indefensible, but also redefines skepticism in almost precisely the same way ID seeks to redefine science – such that it’s primary critical nature is eradicated in favour of a very religious-like uncritical affirmation.

    Some of the particulars of the religion may have been left, but the primary mentality is still there. All I see is another cult leader aspirant, complete with outlandish political and economic philosophy, exploiting a market niche.

    For any demanding evidence, please refer to the introduction of any “Skeptic” magazine under the heading “What is a skeptic?” Hint. Look for a sacred cow, above or beyond the scope of skeptical inquiry.

  28. Randall Says:

    This is a refreshing article to read. I was once a big church-uh-christ member myself, and I know how being in that group can infuse a person with all kinds of anxieties. Life has been really so much better now that I’ve thrown off a belief in deities, ghosts, talking donkeys, worldwide floods, blood sacrifices, etc. On occasion, I’ve spoken with old CofC friends and told them of my deconversion. Interestingly, they usually just giggle nervously and change the subject.

  29. Randall Says:

    Actually, I still hold to the possibility that, at least on occasion, beasts of burden might speak to men, warning them of calamities or otherwise imparting to them some salient information. Otherwise, I no longer believe the miracles recorded in the Bible actually occurred.

    Prof. Shermer is one of my favorite authors, along with Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Steven Gould. E.O. Wilson is another great writer, although his work will be challenging for those baptized in the dogma of political correctness.

  30. Maria Says:

    This is an excellent piece of writing that I’ll be very pleased to point my non-atheist friends to when they question my non-belief. This makes me proud to be an atheist, since it clearly shows how we strive to rise above the petty concerns of the religious right — how we try to see the big picture beyond our brief time on this planet rather than obey the sometimes silly rules set forth by outdated belief systems.

  31. Evy Says:

    All I can say is that, one need to have more Faith to be an Atheist than a Christian! :-)

  32. Dog of Raw Says:

    I was born an atheist. Weird, huh?

  33. Thomas Adcock Says:

    Perhaps two verses from the Bible itself are appropriate here; the first is from Isiah: “Why do the people imagine a vain thing?” and from Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

  34. drunkpirate Says:

    God is equivalent to absolute infinity, being one dimension that contains all others, all knowledge, power etc; the problem is that the human brain rejects infinity because it is so terribly big. It,s self evident, but nonetheless painful to contemplate. (sighs..)

  35. drunkpirate Says:

    God is equivalent to absolute infinity, being one dimension that contains all others, all knowledge, power etc; the problem is that the human brain rejects infinity because it is so terribly big. It,s self evident, but nonetheless painful to contemplate. (sighs..)

  36. Joe Thinker Says:

    I imagine that even most atheists must occasionally have a strange, nagging intuition that there must exist something “out there” beyond our ability to comprehend.

  37. The Blind Watchmaker Says:

    “I imagine that even most atheists must occasionally have a strange, nagging intuition that there must exist something “out there” beyond our ability to comprehend.”

    Many atheists spend a lot of time wondering about what is “out there”. We hope one day to find out.

  38. The Blind Watchmaker Says:

    “All I can say is that, one need to have more Faith to be an Atheist than a Christian! :-)”

    I don’t think you understand. We take the null position. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  39. Don Says:

    Excellent essay. Michael, I’ve been a big fan of yours and Skeptic Magazine over the years, and you’ve helped clarify my thinking on a variety of topics. May I presume to clarify your thinking on one subtle point? The latest thinking in big bang cosmology is that the “bang” is not so much the event that brought the universe into being (which would imply that the universe had a beginning), but rather an event that occurred within a pre-existing universe. Here’s why:

    Physicists tell us that the laws of physics themselves break down at extreme densities and temperatures, back before what’s called the Planck time. So, perhaps a more accurate way to describe the very earliest universe is with a question mark. That is…not at all! As densities and temperatures approach infinity, the traditional laws of physics cease to be a good explanation of what’s going on. So, we can’t use such laws to bring us back to time zero or even to conclude that there was a time zero.

    String theorist Brian Greene clarifies this point in his wonderful book, Fabric of the Cosmos. He argues that the “bang” in the big bang may have been produced by a short-lived, rapid expansionary event that physicists call inflation. The bottom line, however, as Green argues, is that we still don’t know what banged, why it banged, or even what caused the bang.

    An important implication of all this is that physicists aren’t sure if the universe indeed had a beginning. Stephen Hawking has argued that it may not have, and that spacetime may be akin to a finite or infinite, unbounded surface. We just don’t know, since no science known (so far anyway) gives us much insight into the configuration of the universe before the big bang.

    Thanks, Michael, for all you do.

  40. Kay-Julia Says:

    Very interesting article, it put into words many of my feelings and beliefs. I may refer back to it to clarify my own statement of beliefs. Since accepting my own belief that I am an Atheist I have become more peaceful within myself and with many others even theists, it is like a heavy weight has been lifted off my shoulders and blinders have been removed from my eyes, I see much more clearly now and I face the future with calmness.

  41. Annabeel Says:

    Allah’s Apostle said, “A woman was tortured and was put in Hell because of a cat which she had kept locked till it died of hunger.” Allah’s Apostle further said, (Allah knows better) Allah said (to the woman), ‘You neither fed it nor watered when you locked it up, nor did you set it free to eat the insects of the earth.”

  42. Annabeel Says:

    Allah’s Apostle said, “While a man was walking he felt thirsty and went down a well and drank water from it. On coming out of it, he saw a dog panting and eating mud because of excessive thirst. The man said, ‘This (dog) is suffering from the same problem as that of mine. So he (went down the well), filled his shoe with water, caught hold of it with his teeth and climbed up and watered the dog. Allah thanked him for his (good) deed and forgave him.” The people asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving (the) animals?” He replied, “Yes, there is a reward for serving any animate.”

  43. Annabeel Says:

    I think that the Atheist have nothing like this.

  44. Frank Waszut Says:

    There are alot of good arguments made in this essay and with the advent of science today humans have made great strides in understanding and solving the mysteries of the universe. Shermer is right that we should look at all things around us with an objective and scientific mind. For many years blind faith has led to some of the worst atrocities of all time, i.e. 9/11, the Inquisition, the ongoing turmoil in the MIddle East etc.

    I will say first before I say anything else is that I DO believe in a God or Higher Level of intelligience that is beyond our comprehension. And that is the whole point. The beliefs that Mr. Shermer has and the beliefs that I have can’t be substantiated or found to be true until we die. Sorry there is no cheat sheet, no study guide, no one absolute answer. Anyone that claims to have an answer is wrong, how can you know the answer without running the experiment first? While there is no empirical evidence of a supreme being, i.e. God, Allah, some elephant with 8 arms, or some guy in Missouri that gave rise to people that wear suits, ride bicycles, and ask you to read some other book about some deity that says if you follow his lead you will go to heaven, there is also no empirical evidence to prove the contrary.

    There is no answer as long as we are living and breathing which leads to how there is contradiction in the world in the first place. Some people believe in god, some don’t, and both sides can make compelling arguments for their beliefs. Who’s to say who is wrong? Maybe both are right.
    If you believe in a God, Heaven, Hell, or whatever you believe an afterlife to be then there for that individual there is. If you don’t believe and that when you pass on your consciousness ceases to exist then thats what happens to that person. It’s all about choice; If you believe then you consciousness will act accordingly and when you die that is what you will experience. If you don’t believe then it’s lights out, game over, hopefully enough people like you to show up at your funeral or ash spreading.

    It depends on the individual because the choices and beliefs they have are theirs to live and ultimately die with which is when their questions will be answered.
    Seeing as how TRUE objectivity is next to impossible with that all too awesome human factor I will be a little biased here with this question. Does anybody think that its funny how the more answers we uncover we come across an even greater amount of questions? It’s like humanity as a whole is chasing a unicorn. Some continue the pursuit some choose to let it find them if there even is one. And even scientists take a leap of faith sometimes. Black holes for instance. A black hole has NEVER been seen because a black hole is impossible to see since no light can escape from it. However scientists KNOW that they are there. Its all about faith. No matter how smart you are or how much evidence you have there comes a point in everyone’s life that a leap of faith is required to make sense even if that faith is no faith at all.

  45. Chris Says:

    First you say about we Americans:

    “In America, we are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively.”

    And then you say about your religious education:

    “There was the intolerance generated by absolute morality, the logical outcome of knowing without doubt that you are right and everyone else is wrong.”

    I’m assuming your worries about absolute morality dissipated because you now hold that view (considering you believe that all of us have value.) As you know, some would consider you intolerant, and that’s sad. This is why theism makes more logical sense than atheism. Not only are we here in an expanding universe that must have had a beginning (as you note), but we also are morally conscious and adhere to the same absolute sense of what’s right. This is best explained by the existence of a personal Creator.

  46. Karen Says:

    I am an atheist too!
    While I detest labels of most kinds, I admit I love this one!
    Thank YOU Dr. Shermer for fighting the good fight!

  47. Andrew Says:

    Nice to here an honest opinion though one thing I’d like to point out is in the beginning of the essay. You said it is better to focus on helping the worldas it is instead of working towards the afterlife but I would disagree with that logic. What I’m getting at is what is commonly known as pascals wager. If Christians are right, we go to heaven when we die. If we’re wrong we don’t but since there is no true right or wrong we literally have done nothing. I’ve had a good life so far I’d say and I don’t mind spending the rest of it as a Christian. However, if you’re an atheist and you’re right then what? Nothing really. Again there is no right or wrong or any moral basis so youre living just to live which is fine so long as you’re happy I guess. But if youre wrong, well then it’s through the fire and the flames. If you don’t have joy in Christianity then don’t be one. If you think it’s wrong don’t be one. But honestly if youre an atheist whether you’re a Christian or not really shouldn’t matter. I do have a rather negative view of atheists honestly cause every time I talk to one they just throw scriptures at me and I explain then they throw more and I pray and explain I’m like are we going to go through the whole bible? Haha. I know generalizing isnt cool but it’s difficult not to. Anyway hope you find what you’re looking for on your search for truth! See ya!

  48. Phillip Says:

    My version of Pascal’s Wager: I can be the worst scum on the face of the earth but if, when I die, I repent and profess faith in Jesus, I get to go to heaven. Meanwhile, the saintly fellow next door who did nothing but good his entire life, but failed to profess his faith in Jesus, is consigned to burn in hell for eternity. Now that’s a God I can do business with!

  49. Phillip Trosko Says:

    Dear Dr. Shermer:
    I don’t think anyone should give a damn if you claim a belief in God or not. I even agree with Sam Harris who wonders why the term exists! I forget whom to credit but I like the definition of an atheist as one who finds a lack of evidence to accept a theistic position of any kind. I find in my own conversations this definition prevents others from classifying me for their own agenda. Since I cannot be tagged then the conversation shifts to the believer to defend their position.

    Q: “Why are you an atheist?”
    A: “A what…?”
    Q: “An atheist. You know one who doesn’t believe in God.”
    A: “I can answer that but first lets clarify what God we are talking about. Would you tell me please?”
    Q: “The Judo-Christian God.”
    A: “Oh, thanks! Well then I must tell you I do not find any compelling evidence to acknowledge the existence of such a God. That being the case then I seek understanding elsewhere.”
    Q: Are you blind? Look all around. You can see the evidence of his mighty power! How can you not believe?”
    A: “You are going to have to be specific and give me an example of what you mean. Like I said I seek understanding elsewhere.”
    Q: “OK, what do think keeps the planets in their orbits? If it weren’t for God they would collide. It’s his handiwork that warms the Earth and guides the heavenly bodies in their orbits. How else can you explain that?!”
    A: “You’ve got to be kidding! The great Sir Issac Newton first answered your question 400 years ago. Closer to our time Albert Einstein refined Newton’s answer and added his own contribution. As far as the heavenly bodies following a stable orbit, take a look at the surface of the Moon and explain why is it so pocked marked?”
    Q: “You think you are pretty smart! Unless you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior you will spend eternity in the fires of Hell! I assume you don’t want to do that?
    A: “By the way where is this Hell? But let me see if I understand where you’re coming from. You acknowledge an all knowing, all present, all powerful, merciful, loving but just God. Yet you claim that as an act of love that same God will condemn me to an eternity of misery simply because I say ‘show me’. As a parent if I treat my children the same way and inflict all manner of pain because they questioned my authority, you would call the police and have my children removed from my care! Still you insist I must believe in a contradictory being who I can’t even acknowledge because of a lack of valid evidence, any valid evidence will do! Like a meatless bone given to a dog you offer me threats of eternal damnation and little support for your belief. You need to take a breather. There’s something wrong with what you say…”

  50. Bill Johnson Says:

    Michael,
    “For a difference to be a difference, it has to make a difference.”

    If someone asks me “do you believe in God?” I answer: “Yes, I do.”
    This “Yes, I do.” responds to the questioner’s desire for alignment and conformity.

    But then I always ask: “If I didn’t, what would I do differently next week, differently than you will do next week?”

    These generally leads to interesting discussion. And often I will say something like, “Yes, but I will do that Good Work next week for reasons that don’t need to be found in the Bible, though they may be found there also.” Generally, at that point, my conversational partner is unprepared. And if he is, I can say, “then we will both do the same Good Work.”

    Just as “scientists” desire alignment, so do “religionists” in fact so does everybody. But the real test is What you Do.

    A powerful paradigm has four dimensions of power:

    1) Explanatory Power It must explain observations – though there is Kuhn’s problem of sticky paradigms limiting what is sought to be observed. Phlogiston Theory was powerful until people started observing things. The Theory of Evolution has explanatory power.

    2) Predictive Power. It must predict future observations If it can’t predict what will happen, then our intended actions and Doings will have unforeseen outcomes. And we’ll update oour paradigms.

    3) Usefulness. It must provide paths of inquiry and choices of actions. The Big Bang Theory isn’t useful to me, though to curious people or grant seekers, it may be useful. An Age of the Universe Theories (or Doctrine) flunk this test for me. As Steven Covey says: it is beyond my circle of influence, and beyond my circle of concern, even though it may be within my circle of curiosity.

    4) Valuable – the paths and choices should be promote values. An “eye for an eye” paradigm explains some of the past events, is predictive of some people’s responses, is useful and tells us what to do, but does not promote values I like – I don’t want to live in a world with that paradigm as a guide. Some people do want to live in such a world – I suspect they find it simpler, simple enough to manage.

    And so I do a switch up and do not engage in the Truthfulness discussion, but switch to the Usefulness discussion. I would hope to find conversational alignment in the arena of values.

    If someone insists on my quaffing their Kool-Aid, out conversation will end. Just as if I assert the supremacy of my worldview, the conversation will stall.

    But IF each of us can explain our intentions (intended Doings) and our reasoning and emotions undergirding those intentions, AND we can understand those of our conversants, THEN we have the basis of collaboration and co-Action. And a deeper complexity of our society.

  51. Bryant Tucker Says:

    Brilliant…………

  52. J Mc Says:

    Funny this one – I don’t tick any of the boxes that some atheists or anti-religious people list for a “typical” religious person. I wasn’t brought up in a religious household (to the contrary), I wasn’t even brought up in a religious country. I don’t believe in 99% of the weird stuff that many atheist give as an example to show that religious people have a screw loose. I just believe that there is a God. I also believe in science, however how do you explain that a good bunch of scientists believe also in the existence of a creator or something that made us (even if he is not a person who sets universal morals for us – I leave that to another discussion)? Are they also uneducated? Or do they just come to a different conclusion. You say in one of your talks that people perceive what they want to perceive based on bias. But would that not apply to absolutely everything in life? Including science? Science is great but it’s not infallible. People told me that I have to prove that God exists not the other way round. Well that means that the question “where we come from” is not worth being asked – but it’s a natural question. Everything we see, everything that moves – we know has or had a cause. That’s a physical and scientific principle. So of course you guys have to prove that NOTHING exists that caused the universe – if it was energy, where did the energy come from? If God exists do you really expect that he can be measured with scientific instruments? A being that made every atom in the universe can’t be physical.
    I don’t believe in God for emotional reasons – I believe in God because for years and years I looked at every possible explanation under the sun – including science. When I came to the conclusion that God must exist, my father nearly disowned me. Over time I think he understood – even though he never came to the same conclusion. But that is his free choice. I still am a deep thinker and nearly every day I look and look again at the evidence before me and I keep coming to the same conclusion. By the way: I do believe when we die, we die – but I believe in a physical resurrection. Shouldn’t be a great deal for the greatest scientist in the universe. I believe there is a spiritual world – there must be since this being must be immensely powerful. But I also believe that there are many misconceptions about religion and many false beliefs – of course because religion contradicts itself a lot of the time. But all these reasons don’t disprove that there must be a creator. If that means that he set a universal moral code, well I guess he knows what’s best for us. The problem isn’t God, the problems are humans who hide behind a religious curtain in order to push their own political or moral views. People need to be brought to justice for such actions – being religious doesn’t mean that you can get away with killing people. Suchlike people are not truly religious, they just use their belief in God as an excuse. Well, I could go on forever, I guess I just wanted to get the message out that no matter what we believe, we must respect each others viewpoints – otherwise neither atheist nor believer can truly claim that their morals are superior.

  53. Rob Says:

    Very typical atheist take – his world of proof is science EXCEPT when it is applied to him, thus exposing the exclusion fallacy. It’s everyone else that is deluded by false belief systems EXCEPT well, the author! Does this sound like a man of science who understands his own biases? Read the article – it’s a emotionally-driven piece based on opinion – that’s “why I am an atheist. The very victim, alas, of his own argument.

    Remember, it’s what we ALL know. See, another overeducated intellectual intelligentsia member of the elite letting all of us deluded God people how off we are. Whew, good to know! Check out the scientific and deep words of the author below, a psychological, non-factual projection:

    “But the bottom line is what we all know: In America, atheists are associated with tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, bottled water-drinking, American Civil Liberties Union-supporting, pinko commie fags hell-bent on conning our youth into believing all that baloney about equal rights and evolution. I’m not one of those bastards, am I?”

    Thanks for clearing up the bias of my own thought through your rigorous and unbiased scientific thought!