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Some Thoughts on the Decision to Embrace Atheism

Posted by on Nov 1, 2013 | 25 Comments

Atheism and religion are topics that frequently pop up in social media. Personally, I love discussing the topic. My friend Chad posted an audio clip about why college students choose atheism. While I think the speaker was pretty accurate regarding the specific group of college kids, the podcast really can’t be generalized to all atheists. The podcast did cause me to pause and reflect on my own decisions that led to atheism, most of which are common among my atheist acquaintances.

Note- this is my own personal rationale and is meant to serve as a window into one perspective so my readers, both theists and atheists, may gain a better understanding of the issue. This in no way represents what I believe to be the “ideal” for anyone. In other words, I’m not trying to convert anyone. ;-)

Quick and Dirty History

I was raised in a Catholic family in a predominantly Catholic community. For the most part, religion was mere window dressings… a place for people to show off their new clothes. I more or less hated attending. In high school, I had a brief embracing of religion, quickly followed by apathy. College brought the realization there were other religions around the world. As a history major, I learned of the history of the major religions outside their dogma. As a psychology major, I learned about the workings of the brain and what we know about “religiosity.” All of that conspired to turn me into a militant atheist. Over the next few years, I mostly mellowed out once I came to see the positive religion provided to different individuals.

So… what is the rationale I used to reach where I a today? Here’s a list:

Why I Choose Atheism

1. Christianity has a poor explanation for suffering. This one is specific to the Abrahamic religions, but their God seems… well, like a dick. It’s a biggie for me, though. Why do good people have terrible accidents? Why do kids get cancer? Why do natural disasters kill thousands of people?

The standard answers to these questions, to me, are entirely inadequate and seriously turn me off from religion. This quote is overused by atheists, but it sums up my thoughts on the matter:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”  -Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.)

2. I don’t like authority figures or absolute rules, nor the associated hypocrisy. I’m a bit of a lone wolf that doesn’t like to follow rules, nor do I have a need to be “led.” In fact, I’m a terrible follower. I have no problem following as long as the leader and/or group’s ideals match my on, but the moment there’s a disagreement, I need to either take the lead or leave. This isn’t specific to religion as I tend to do it in every facet of my life.

3. I don’t like the rituals. I find the ceremony of religion to be annoying. If there was a god, it seems silly he’d insist we follow the pomp and circumstance that is the “church” experience.

4. The hard-core followers scare me. I find great comfort in the unknown. I like gray areas. People that insist they have “the answer” are just shutting themselves off from alternate explanations. Once we adopt an extreme position, we also lose the ability to empathize with others. This goes for anything from exercise to parenting to diets. It even includes atheists.

5. History of religion. The development of any religion seem to suggest religions developed to explain natural phenomena or gain sociopolitical control. This includes the wide variety of schisms that occur with established religions. In light of that, it is exceedingly difficult to accept the dogma within any given religion as the “truth.”

6. Low internal and external reliability, no means of assessing validity. This is related to #5. There a thousands of variations of religions world-wide, many have dramatically different stories. The very general themes are the same (“Don’t be a dick.” – a quote from Doug Evick, the dude that planted the ultra seed in my head years ago.) Still, the hows and whys are MUCH different. Also, there’s no way to “prove” if any religion is right or wrong. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it’s the very definition of belief… but it does set up a situation where we get to choose a religion that’s the best “fit.”

7. Need for moral code troubles me. I live by a moral code that’s internally generated. It’s developed by moral reasoning of various situations. In my head, there is no “right” and “wrong” a the situation my fluctuate. That’s part of the reason I love debating and discussing… it helps me see things from other perspectives which gives me more data points to assess moral issues. I always assumed everyone did this. However, the older I get, the more I realize it’s pretty rare. Many (most even?) people rely on an external moral code, usually provided by their religion. This scares me a bit. I don’t like to invoke Godwin’s law unless I’m being snarky, but what happens if your religious leaders decide to commit a horrific crime? Many of the people that carried out the Holocaust claimed they were just following orders. Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t being threatened… they willingly went along. They were told their actions were moral. It scares me to think a large number of people are willing to base their morality off an source outside their own head.

8. Logic of the spreading… what about the isolated tribes? Why weren’t hose isolated tribes in the jungles of Brazil God’s “chosen people?”

9. Absence of skepticism. I have a very difficult time taking anyone seriously if they’re not willing to admit they could be wrong. I value skepticism, and self-directed skepticism is the best. The same rule applies to religions. I would be a lot more likely to follow a religion that would acknowledge they may be wrong. Instead, almost every one claims to be right.

10. Most followers can’t answer questions outside their particular flavor of dogma. I have a VERY small number of friends that are intimately familiar with the history and workings of their particular religion from a perspective outside the religion. Like skepticism, I value this mindset. It allows the to answer questions without relying on more dogma. If you need to quote scripture to answer a question, I have a hard time taking you seriously.

11. The idea of prayer seems ridiculous. There are tangible benefits to prayer, including receiving prayers. However, I see A LOT of people using prayer for ridiculously selfish stuff. During the ALCS (baseball for you non-sports fans), my Tigers were playing the Red Sox. It seemed whenever the camera panned to the crowd, people were praying. About the outcome of a baseball game.

This is a partial ist of the rationale that I use to choose to be an atheist. None of it is especially well-explained, so feel free to ask questions or engage in discussions in the comments section of this post.

Why Atheists are Douche Bags

While I like to poke fun at my religious friends and occasionally post Jesus humor, I’m a pretty pro-religion atheist. My philosophy is simple- figure out what works for you. Hard-core atheists, from my perspective, aren’t better than the hard-core religious. Here are a few of my annoyances:

1. Dogma. Once atheists start to organize, they start to develop their own dogma that begins to take on religious-like cognitive biases. Indeed, this was the topic of the podcast linked at the beginning.

2. Invoking science without understanding science. As an undergrad psych student with aspirations to be a researcher, I had the scientific method drilled in my head. Repeatedly. That included the idea of skepticism, the need for research to be falsifiable, and a host of other such ideas. A good scientist will understand there is no such thing as “proving something right” or a “truth.” Everything must be able to be tested and falsified. As such, we have to consider anything as a possibility, even if it’s remote. While we may not be ale to measure it today, we may develop an instrument that will allow measurement tomorrow. Let’s take the evolution versus creation science debate. Based on the nature of science, evolution wins (Occam’s Razor, and CS isn’t falsifiable via empiricism.) HOWEVER, a good scientist won’t completely dismiss the possibility that the CS hypothesis is what really happened. Of course, there’s probably as much possibility of CS as the FSM, but that’s beside the point.

3. Fail to understand how personal liberties work. This is more of a Unite States-only issue. The separation of church and state doctrine produces some weird arguments. Atheists tend to fight to strip religion from public view. The religious tend to fight to interweave religion in every element of society. Both parties fail to understand a very basic idea- their freedom to do so is entirely dependent on their willingness to allow the other side to express themselves. If you demand to have prayer in school, you have to be comfortable with any religion expressing the same right. Likewise, if you’re trying to stifle people’s right to religious expression, you’d better be wiling to give up your right to things like free speech. This issue gets tricky because people can’t seem to see beyond their own perspective.

Conclusion

This post rambles a little more than I’d like, but it conveys the basic idea. Atheists tend to have a wide range of reasons to reject religion, and many are misunderstood by the religious. My ope is this post will start a discussion on the topic. To that end, I welcome any comments, questions, or other discussion in the comments section.

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25 Comments

  1. Aaron
    November 12, 2013

    I was raised Catholic. I stopped pretending to be Catholic in my mid twenties. Now I’ve fallen under the influence of druids and some self-proclaimed magicians. Alan Moore’s BBC Radio Thought for the Day for Dec 31, 2011 did well to illustrate how one can use their religious sensibilities while keeping their gods on a short leash. I don’t believe in gods, but I believe that people are generally wired the same way. So if I take an honest look I’m sure I’ll my own versions lurking in my view of the world. I think it may be better to acknowledge that part of our minds in a controlled way and avoid all the abuses and dogmas of controlling, organized religions.

  2. Adam
    November 11, 2013

    You should check out the Sunday Assembly. It kind of an atheist church, but isn’t really. There is no easy way to describe it. The founders are currently in the States promoting it.

    https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=sunday+assembly&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=fflb&gws_rd=cr&ei=FteAUgPRq4QH2PWBqAo#channel=fflb&q=sunday+assembly&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&tbm=nws

  3. Rich Frantz
    November 7, 2013

    Not all Christian faiths have a poor explanation of suffering. This site has lots of info, simply and biblically explained.

    http://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/

  4. Ely
    November 6, 2013

    Mother Theresa is a cunt

  5. iamadirtyfoot
    November 6, 2013

    At one point, I was a pretty fundamentalist Christian. But, as I explored the world and met more people who weren’t like me, I became more open to other religions. Then, a series of unfortunate events occured and I began to serious question the notion of an Abrahmic deity. A few years later, I’m pretty much on the side that Christianity is bunk (but not Christ for some reasons). There is one thought that prevents me from ever completely being an atheist, this is simply, ‘I am sentient dirt, essentially, a rock that thinks, what the fuck is up with that?’

  6. Kate
    November 4, 2013

    Yep, I can definitely see where you are coming from. I like to call myself an ‘potential agnostic’. I see there is a potential for a God, but until it is concretely proved then I will not say definitively is a God. I don’t discount religion because I think when you take fundamentalism out of religion there is a lot to be learnt, (if you need the guidance). I -like you- believe that if you live by your own idea of ‘don’t be shitty to anyone’, you won’t upset God if he/she does exist.

    I am always reminded of the quote from the film Dogma. “God was always a really good idea until religion got in the way'”.

  7. Bare Lee
    November 3, 2013

    If the Barefoot Running University is secular, do you get more state funding?

    If God doesn’t exist, what happens to the Devil? Do we still have good versus evil?

    Anyway, it’s all about belief. No use trying to convert someone unless you have a sword.

    • Jason
      November 3, 2013

      BRU = least successful religion ever. :-)

      • Bare Lee
        November 4, 2013

        I didn’t realize you were a religion. This would explain the absence of classes and degrees, and seeming inability to stay on topic. Does becoming a religion make you tax-exempt? Maybe you need the pageantry and glamor of the Roman Catholic church to attract more followers. Try running with a purple robe and big hat next time. Oh, and don’t have sex. People respect that.

        The really great thing about religion is that these days it’s pretty much whatever you want it to be. Like I can run 16 miles and say I ran an ultra, because that’s my interpretation of really far. Like you say, you can even be religious without being sure about the existence of God. Just a sense of the uncanny might suffice. Mere coincidence is my interpretation of mysticism. I like the simplicity of this faith, although I miss the rituals and cheap wine.

        • Jason
          November 4, 2013

          We pay taxes because we believe exempting religions is lame. We have a small pamphlet in lieu of classes and degrees, we find it’s much easier. As much as I like the idea of a sexless run in a flowing robe, I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid sex when wearing a robe. :-)

          • Bare Lee
            November 7, 2013

            “I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid sex when wearing a robe.”

            That’s so true. Multiplying intent raises the robe pole into an intense tent.

            Didn’t sex mogul and plastic fetishist Hefner work in a robe?

            Maybe the pope should get the priests to put on some tight pants so that all these sex scandals would simmer down a bit.

            Is barefoot running an an excessive ancient Aztec ecstatic ascetic asstech practice? Can we activate our god by activating our glutes while sacrificing our shoes?

            Is irrational fantasy the knee-jerk yet necessary rejoinder to mystery?

            If we keep ourselves occupied with silly questions, do we really need serious, ultimate answers?

  8. Barefoot TJ
    November 2, 2013

    Under Atheist Douchebags, you said you were a pro-religious atheist. From reading your Dogma section, I think you meant to say you were an anti-religious atheist.

    • Jason
      November 3, 2013

      No, I’m pro-religion. To anyone outside my head, my rants tend to be confusing.

  9. Barefoot TJ
    November 2, 2013

    Do you believe you have a soul, Jason? -TJ

    • Jason
      November 3, 2013

      I guess it depends on the operational definition of “soul.” In the commonly-used immortal sense- no. I might consider our meta-cognition to be our “soul”, in which case I would say yes.

  10. Bisaya Muleng
    November 2, 2013

    always awesome boss!

  11. Henrik
    November 2, 2013

    Great points. I can agree to most in all of them. And I am a believer.

  12. Paul Wallis
    November 2, 2013

    As an atheist I can understand most of your reasons for not believing in a god. I’ve always thought the fact that god was so well hidden to be one of the good evidences that god does not exist. If assuming the Christians are right we have this god who makes it the most important thing in the world to believe he exists and worship him. Yet we have all this confusion which god to worship (or none) and how. You would think an all powerful being would be able to at least show with some certainty that he exists! I can’t remember which philosopher said it but “If I had 14.7 billion years and this was the best I could come up with I would be ashamed of myself”

  13. Shannon
    November 1, 2013

    I guess I hope you can read through your own writing and allow yourself to be open to the idea that there could be a God…many of your reasons for not believing also should allow you to use them for believing that there is a possibility. I am a Christian, but I don’t really feel that most of your reasons apply to me. For instance, I am a Christian….not a pusher of a specific denomination. I don’t claim to have any answers above anyone else. I also don’t attend a church on a regular basis because God doesn’t “insist” on it…it isn’t a requirement. A true Christian just believes that there is a God and that s/he has to have a personal relationship with God. God isn’t any more present in a church than in your house or the grocery store. I understand what you say about liking Gray areas. I think that could also apply to religion. I accept that I don’t have all the answers…and I don’t need them. If I truly believe in God, how could I have the answers without being Him? I guess it all comes down to just having that belief that there is more….faith. I have always just felt that there is. And if there is, then how do we not know that all the kids with cancer aren’t just being given a gift….a fast track to a better place? We don’t know. Is it wrong to be gay? I don’t know or care. I believe that it isn’t my place to pretend to know or just make a guess and then treat someone accordingly. That is between God and that person. My heart has my moral compass and it tells me to treat people with care and love, and that’s is simply my job. Those lost tribes? I think that it is possible that they are not forgotten. Maybe God just has a different way of “encompassing” them. Who knows? Well, I think God does. If you like Gray Areas, then I would think that the possibility that He exists should appeal to you. I just encourage you to keep an open mind. But, go back and read #4 and #10. You can’t say you don’t like it when people swear they have the answers, and then also say you don’t like it if they don’t. And, prayer over a baseball game IS B.S.! :) Not what prayer should be used for. Anybody with a brain knows God is a Tigers fan! (hee,hee) But, there are religious people who don’t really “get” it. Please don’t let them be the ones to give you the reasons to not believe. And by the way…I also majored in history. Am I ever skeptical? There are times I can see why people don’t believe. Mother Theresa was a skeptic. It is always good to listen to the “other” side. So, I hope you do too! :) Enjoyed the read!

    • Jason
      November 1, 2013

      I really should have mentioned this in the post, but I am open to the possibility that there is a god or gods of some sort. I often joke that if there was a God, according to my understanding of my religion (Roman Catholicism), I’m pretty much guaranteed to get into Heaven. Technicality? Maybe. But it does alleviate some cognitive dissonance. :-)

      • Otto
        November 2, 2013

        Nice article an good post Shannon.
        Agnostic atheism is nice. Some trouble you get when you get away from a rk Background is: Whats goin on after death. As a religious (christian) its easy for the good ones: heaven. Ok bad Guys suck here badly; different storry :-( But for the new atheism (rethinkprocess) is a little vacuum. What is nothing and how does it feel? Obviously you can not feel. Some hellish bad English inside sorry.

        • Jason
          November 3, 2013

          I never really understood the “atheism = nothing” sentiment as I would have trouble defining my reality as “nothing.” I think it ultimately comes down to our inability to empathize with people that experience a different reality. The best way to see this in action is to discuss morality. Specifically, where does morality come from? In my experience, the religious can’t fathom how atheists can develop a moral code and atheist can’t fathom how the religious can rely on an outside source for a moral code.

          • Otto
            November 4, 2013

            I ment the specific point: Whats after death? Nothing? For some RC there is heaven. Its so nice to believe that and fall in love with that point, i would say the ego wants it so badly: heaven. Obiously the ecosystem of the RC stands on the 16,66 inch drop shoe of: Come to us we give you heaven, otherwise go to hell. But i now believe there is simply nothing after death which is either good or bad. It purely is. English is difficult for me butitry.

          • Jason
            November 4, 2013

            Yes, I more or less believe in the “nothing” thing. While it depresses some, it energizes me to live each day to the fullest and enrich the lives of those around me.

  14. Juha
    November 1, 2013

    As atheist, I think believing is way to invoke placebo effects, self confidence, feeling of security, hope, purpose etc.. Best religion for that is probably some primitive naturalistic stuff that doesn’t have much philosophy and rules incorporated into it, you just carry some symbol and do some rituals to gain those effects when you need them. Just thinking about something (silent prayer) is too easy and vague as ritual, it won’t convince your subconscious mind that effect should be gained. ;) Sacrificing a two headed lamb while under affection of psychdelic mushrooms is much more convincing.

    But it doesn’t work so well if you don’t believe in such…