Why I Am An Atheist
James C. Rocks
I am an atheist, proud of it, but I don't usually start discussions on atheism or religion because of it ... something or someone will bring up the subject. That's in public but mostly it's online where I'm challenged as to why it is, I'm atheist. There are several reasons...
My friend supplied me with pamphlets on these claims all hinting at an Earth much younger than was generally claimed. At some level I knew these claims were wrong but lacked the specific information I needed to debate them so I approached my BBS colleagues. Answers varied, but what struck me most of all was that most of those supporting my friend's position amounted to little more than dismissals of science, character assassination & appeals to higher authorities, whereas the sceptical ones tended to be written in a more sophisticated fashion, citing scientific papers and evidence. I still hadn't realised my friend was a fundamentalist and so our apparently frank & open debate progressed. Upon his recommendation I read a number of creationism-oriented books and found them all, without exception, to be deeply unsatisfying in rational terms … always there seemed to be an almost desperate plea, to accept the existence of the Christian god where in a conventional science book everything seemed reasoned and directly related to the subject.
I left to work elsewhere but more recently he contacted me again and found my views, with another 7 years' experience, somewhat hardened. Now I knew him for what he was; recognised some of the techniques he had been trying to use on me and answered him in a way that showed just that. Our renewed acquaintance was short-lived.
At my new work place, the IT department of another pharmaceutical, I rapidly made new friends. At that time in IT, almost everyone was smart, geeky and tended to have a somewhat cynical & sceptical outlook on life. It was the mid-90s, the internet was taking off and online web-forums had begun to replace the older style newsgroups and bulletin boards.
Scientist & popular science author Richard Dawkins considers faith to be "the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence", that faith is "belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence", that "the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them … it is possible for one side to be simply wrong" and that he is against religion because "it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world."
The late Isaac Asimov wrote of the bible that "properly read it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived … to surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today." He also said "imagine the people who believe such things and who are not ashamed to ignore, totally, all the patient findings of thinking minds through all the centuries since the Bible was written. And it is these ignorant people, the most uneducated, the most unimaginative, the most unthinking among us, who would make themselves the guides and leaders of us all; who would force their feeble and childish beliefs on us; who would invade our schools and libraries and homes. I personally resent it bitterly"
Ultimately the reason I am an atheist is that I consider the belief in anything without evidence irrational (premature at best), because belief in deity represents a caging of the mind and, ultimately, a curtailing of freedom. I know I am not free but the laws I accept & adhere to are, at least, understandable within a given society and generally exist to provide a framework within which we can all live our lives in relative freedom & safety. It is also the reason why I oppose religions, particularly the fundamentalist ones … because I recognise the danger they represent.
To end on a quote by my favourite scientist, "scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results … myths and faiths are not and do not" I believe I should be (and am) open minded but that doesn't mean we should necessarily tolerate all cultures and worldviews … "there's this thing called being so open-minded your brains drop out." (Richard Dawkins).
I dedicate this to my late brother Paul who once asked me why I was an atheist ... an early version of this was written to him in answer to that question.
My Family & EducationMy brothers and I were raised as Christians, we all went to Catholic schools at various times and to church and, as a young Catholic, I was confirmed and even became an altar boy. I don't remember specifically liking church as a child but I certainly believed in God, at least up until I was about 13 when my first doubts began to surface. I even prayed to God occasionally, admittedly to help me out of some problem or other. But, like many today, my parents believed in good education and strived to educate their sons (I had no sisters) and over time I developed a particular aptitude for the biological sciences. My brothers and I were raised as Christians, we all went to Catholic schools at various times and to church and, as a young Catholic, I was confirmed and even became an altar boy. I don't remember specifically liking church as a child but I certainly believed in God, at least up until I was about 13 when my first doubts began to surface. I even prayed to God occasionally, admittedly to help me out of some problem or other.
Science Fiction & ScienceAs a young child I loved reading and visited our local library at least twice a week but it was in secondary school that I fell in love with science fiction reading as many of the classic SF authors as I could get my hands on. SF was not only imaginative (good fiction should be) but educational with many early writers being scientists or at least scientifically literate and there was a surprising amount of real science you could pick up from them. It was predictive ... virtual reality, mobile phones, tanks, submarines, office cubicles and much more besides all existed in SF long before it became a reality. I gained a healthy level of contempt for those who dismissed science fiction (or speculative fiction as it was initially known) and, at its best, it remains perhaps the most vibrant, flexible, creative & educational form of fiction around. SF, imaginative and mind-expanding stuff, gave me the push that led me to the sciences, to a degree in Applied Biology, towards my philosophical stance of humanism and ultimately to the atheist that I am today. SF opened my mind, allowed consideration of possibilities other than those I was being taught. For a while I knew the bible was right, but science was right too but my mind began to rebel ... I was no longer blindly certain there was a "God" and even went as far as to say so in class; getting myself hauled in front of the headmaster only to be told I was too young to make such a decision; standing up to my father when threatened with punishment after I sang slightly offensive lyrics to the tune of a well-known hymn and even informing a teacher that I thought Jesus might have been an astronaut. I had graduated to agnosticism. I studied for a degree in Applied Biology, afterwards working as a senior technician at the same institution, working with some of the most intelligent people I'd ever met. I gained a deep trust in science & of scientific methodology and an understanding of its practitioners. Science became part of my being, my soul if you will ... it was both observable & reproducible; that which occurred in one system would also occur in another unless there were specific reasons why it shouldn't. I even understood that I could, in principle, take any experiment described in any science publication and reproduce it myself, given the necessary resources.
My First CreationistI got heavily into early PC gaming, programming and database design which led to an IT career in a pharmaceutical company so combining my two passions. Early in that career I was befriended by a colleague who introduced me to a number of ideas, alternative explanations for things I was now taking pretty much for granted. He suggested that light speed had decreased over time, that fossil evidence was rather less reliable than I understood it to be, that the flood myths of many of the world's cultures had a degree of truth in them. He also introduced me to a book that claimed it was possible for a boat to have been constructed that saved the world's species from a global flood. I later understood he was my very first creationist but even then, not really aware of what he was or his game plan, something didn't quite add up. I started checking on pre-internet bulletin boards and discovered a group that was debating the very same thing ... religion versus science! I was intrigued and began to talk about these claims.
The Church & Internet FundamentalistsBy this time, I was married and a father of two children, girls with nearly 6 years difference in age. Although increasingly edging towards atheism I was still very much agnostic (what some would call a weak atheist), very unwilling to pass on my cynicism to my children for fear of being dictatorial so I decided that it was the right thing for my oldest to go to church once a fortnight. I figured that it was OK for me to be agnostic and if I was wrong, I would take my chances but my oldest girl was not yet able to make that decision on her own. I still worry I might have somehow damaged her by wilfully exposing her to fairy tales masquerading as truth. Meanwhile, one of my new friends told me of an internet forum where science and religion was debated. After a short period of observation where, my friend aside, it was clear the science defenders were relatively inexperienced or lacking specific scientific knowledge, I decided it was time to get my hands dirty. The forum was my first direct contact with American creationists and was a formative experience where I learned that the views being expressed were not just the views of a few harmless individuals but that there was a recognised style to creationist debate. In time the claims became more complex to deal with and I had to research the issues and, in doing that, found that my experiences were being duplicated all over "the net" and, presumably, elsewhere. I began to see patterns … few ordinary creationists really knew what they were talking about and instead just parroted questions they'd been told we "evilutionists" couldn't answer (frequently asked but never answered questions or FABNAQs), mistakenly thinking they were being clever. It seemed there were 20 or so distinct questions and all the others were superficial variations on those themes; I found sites providing reviews of the huge amount of evidence supporting evolution and the various scientific methods and also sites that provided, time and time again, full and complete answers to these questions. These so-called "unanswerable" questions were not only anything but unanswerable, they had been answered repeatedly, rubbished, dismissed, debunked. They were little but nit-picking and destructive attempts to pick holes in scientific explanations, a complete fraud being perpetrated on the followers of the creationism sham. They tried, exceptionally badly, to criticise specific scientific theories but utterly failed to propose reasonable and scientifically testable alternatives. Science, on the other hand, had a number of fully embodied theories all of which had an immense weight of properly derived, scientific evidence supporting them. Ironically it was this forum and my consequent realisation that the leaders of the creation science religious movement were highly organised, well-funded and dangerous to our accepted freedoms that finally led me to abandon agnosticism and become a hard-line & very militant atheist. We stopped going to church.
My Brand of AtheismI am no longer new to the "game" and, though I didn't know it to begin with, I've been debating creationists for nearly thirty years. I fight the good fight, with vigour, but that should not be mistaken for some early rebellion stage I am going through as I am genuinely angry at these people threatening, as they do, my freedom and that of my friends & family. The time for complacency has passed, September 11th & the Balkans demonstrated just how far religion can go. Modern communication technologies such as satellites and the Internet have changed everything ... nowadays anyone can field truly impressive websites, persuasive books & TV programs. If a woman can make millions off a claim that we no longer need to eat and only need "divine light" to survive and a follower of those (to me) criminal teachings is actually stupid enough to starve herself to death then there is a clear & present danger from these kinds of people. These days the violent religionists seem over-shadowed by Islamic extremism but make no mistake, Christian fundamentalists can be (and have been) just as dangerous. I realised fairly early on that the leaders of the creation science religious movement were highly organised, well-funded and dangerous; that their aim was not to persuade the more rational of us, but to capture the hearts & minds of the ordinary man & woman. A century ago science defeated creationism but it has taken its eye off the ball and in the late nineties there was a new generation of American creationists out there that was slick and persuasive. They've got better, they've learned. Back then I predicted they were only a few years away from hitting British shores ... now they're here, they've been here for more than twenty years. Outside of a few vocal speakers, most scientists genuinely seem to believe extremist religions no longer threaten, it falls to others to defend the things they value. I value freedom and the accumulated wisdom of our best philosophers so that is why I fight these people.