This is the first of three posts that will explore how I came to be an atheist, what the moral and ethical ramifications are, and what it means to live in a world without God.
This post, titled “The Road from God,” will describe how I became an atheist, including the role that studying Christianity played in the eventual development of my understanding of the world. I will also provide an argument for ignosticism – the reduction of propositions about God to either contradictions or meaningless statements.
The next post in the series, titled “A Radical Morality,” will present an argument that atheism challenges us to be more, not less, moral.
The final post, titled “A World without God,” will describe how transcendent religion devalues the experience of living on Earth. The post will also examine how the lack of an afterlife colours our experience of the here and now.
The Road from God
Throughout my teenage years, I considered myself an agnostic but closer to the theist than the atheist. In fact, I considered converting to Lutheranism for a time. I also read some influential books when I was a teenager. One was called A History of God, by Karen Armstrong. It was on a bookshelf in a place my mom and I were housesitting while I was in high school. This fortuitous book suddenly opened my eyes to a vast horizon of religious exploration. The book introduced me to the God of the mystics and the philosophers, completely erasing my vague notion of some arbiter in the sky with a new vision of a vibrant and mysterious deity. I also read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and I was fascinated with the lush and sensuous experience of religion it offered. I attempted the King James version of the Bible when I was eighteen, but gave up when I found I couldn’t really understand it.
I entered college and decided to take religious studies classes to feed my interest in faith and also so I could understand the true source of Christianity – the Bible. I was placed in a Hebrew Bible course in my first semester of freshman year. My professor presented a scholarly angle that completely changed how I viewed religion. Much of her course centred on disentangling the different authors, views, and social forces at work in the Old Testament. After listening to her lectures I came to see religion as a social rather than transcendental force – one that required no greater explanation than human nature. The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed that a book as heterogeneous, contradictory, and patched together as the Bible could contain the message of universal salvation.
I was also not content with searching through the world’s religions in order to try them on like clothes at a mall. Either something was, or it was not. I realized that my task had to be to determine the truth as best I could, and then live by the consequences of my discovery. This was my project for the last two years of college.
I concluded that agnosticism was untenable. I grant that “agnosticism” does not have to be just shrugging your shoulders and saying you don’t know the answer. It could be a whole way of life, one that says mystery is the inherent nature of reality, and that we must go on our journey through the world with this in mind. But it was inadequate. It flies in the face of science, which is a philosophy that states the world is inherently knowable. Incidentally, it is scientific principles that got us to the moon, increased our life expectancy, made it possible to put Lady Gaga ring tones on our cell phone, etc. Without science, we’d still lacking all this. I would miss the first two, that’s for sure. Maybe even the third, for all I know. But the point remains – what about the question “is there a God?” makes it exempt from the sort of principled rational investigation that has raised us from the dust to the stars?
I flirted with dogmatic atheism for a while. I considered the idea that the majority of the world was deluded, and in my youthful arrogance enjoyed looked upon these religious masses with a pitying smile. Then I took a step back and considered my position with respect to the immensity of time and human experience. Who was I, barely two decades old, to blithely shove aside the collective wisdom of a thousand thousand generations? It became apparent that to state “there is no God” without nuanced and considerate discussion is equally as dogmatic and fallacious as saying “there is a God.” It may stroke our ego to assume we have the truth and the hoi polloi their opium. However, it disrespects the vast majority of people on this planet and is hard to defend even using the very principles of enquiry we supposedly espouse.
Then, a Protestant chaplain at my college introduced me to the concept of ignosticism. Ignosticism is the assertion that statements like “there is a god” or “there is no god” suffer from a fundamental flaw that eliminates our ability to determine their truth or falsehood. Simply put:
1. If you define a god as all powerful, transcendent, and beyond human experience
2. You cannot say anything meaningful about such an object – even whether or not such a thing exists.
Why? Because it is beyond human experience. It is not conceivable by human reason. We cannot describe it in language, we can only circumscribe it. To quote Wittgenstein:
“Of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.”
I choose silence – with a catch. The ignostic approach depends on the idea of the divine as “beyond human comprehension.” But on the contrary, we could postulate a deity that is comprehendable by human reason. Such a god is not the Christian one, as far as I can tell, because I get the sense from studying the Bible that God is quite transcendent. However, I have heard (but can’t verify) that the Mormon concept of God is more like a supremely powerful human rather than an unknowable deity. But I digress.
When it comes to a comprehensible god, I am utterly and unreservedly in the atheist camp. I am a geologist by training, I am interested in spirituality and religion, I am inquisitive by nature. If there is a god that is understandable, I expect to see evidence of such a being. Failing that, I expect to see evidence in history. Instead, I see a multitude of different factions, each claiming truth, each convinced everyone else is wrong. I expect to see scientific investigation of the properties of the deity. I see no such thing. Q. E. D.
So here’s Danny’s Creed:
1. If the definition of god includes “incomprehensible,” we can say nothing about such a god, including whether or not this god exists. In fact, we have already constructed a paradox by attempting to say anything at all about god!
2. If the definition of god stipulates that god is accessible to human reason, I expect to see evidence of the existence of such an object. I see nothing.
And that, as they say, is that.