A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Monday, January 6, 2014


A former pastor's journal A Year Without God has been generating some buzz so I took a look around. On the whole I approve of his approach. He starts out with some misconceptions, but the religious community clings to those misconceptions so I can't say I blame him for it.

Not everyone who gives atheism a try is going to find it to their liking. It is a genuinely scary outlook. There are no gods to offer comfort, no afterlife in which to reunite with loved ones, no divine plan to ease our confusion in this messy and complicated world. Of course an atheist would point out that this was always true, it's just that we now acknowledge it. The world is the same whether or not we worship one of the thousands of gods we've invented over the millennia, the only thing that's different is the solutions we construct to address our problems.

Let's start with some misconceptions. There are atheists who still pray, believe in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon and so forth. Such individuals are still atheists, they're just not very skeptical. Most atheists who pray do so out of habit, acknowledging that they're talking to themselves to make themselves feel better. When we face crisis it often comforts us to fall back on familiar routine. As for belief in ghosts and magic an atheist is not necessarily a skeptic (although I think we ought to be). As long as you aren't asserting that a god is the reason behind the ghosts or magic, you can still be an atheist.

Atheists do not hate God, and we're not rebelling against Jesus. Neither do we worship Satan or engage in any religious beliefs. In order for any of that to be true we would have to believe that those are real people, at which point we can't call ourselves atheists. Don't let the Laveyan Satanists fool you, they're atheists who adopt the label of "satanist" ironically. I can't hate, rebel against or worship something I don't believe is real.

Atheists don't reject gods because we want to sin. Sin is defined as a crime against God and if there's no one to commit a crime against then no crime is possible. See above.

Warning us that we're doomed to hell for rejecting God isn't a threat we take seriously. You might as well threaten to punch me in the aura; I won't feel it either way.

Atheists are not inherently immoral. Neither are we inherently superior. We're just people who don't believe in gods, that's all. But if you want to make the claim that we have nothing preventing us from being bad you should probably back up your claim. Penn Jillette explains how that works.

That brings me to the initial misconception from Ryan Bell that caught my attention:

“If I have to be absolutely certain that there is no God, I don’t know if I can ever qualify for that group,” he said.
I see this repeated endlessly. I must have faith to be an atheist because I claim certainty that there are no gods! Well, no. I've been an agnostic for almost twenty years now. I'm still an agnostic and that's unlikely to change. However, just because Thomas Henry Huxley established precedent regarding agnosticism over a hundred years ago doesn't mean that precedent is set in stone. I am an agnostic because I don't know whether or not any gods are real. I am an atheist because I have no reason to believe they are.

I've talked with "gnostic" atheists who assert that they're convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that gods are false, particularly the ones based on the Abrahamic tradition. They're logically incoherent, internally inconsistent and every claim that can be tested about them has been proven false. I'm glad that the evidence convinces them, but I continue allow for the possibility that I could be wrong. The problem with a claim that can't be falsified is that there's no way to verify that it's true or false. Therefore the only response I can reasonably give is the Scottish verdict of "not proven."

And no, gentle readers. The burden of proof does not rest with me. If you claim your god is real, it's up to you to prove it. It's not my job to chase the ever-moving goalposts to claim that your gods aren't real. I simply rest on skepticism and wait for positive evidence to support the claim. And no, your anecdotes and personal conviction aren't evidence of anything but your willingness to believe. The more tortured the apologetics to explain why your god isn't subject to evidence, the more you convince me that this is simply an exercise to rationalize your belief rather than a belief that's justified.

So good luck to Ryan Bell in his quest to explore life as an atheist. I'm sure he'll find, as I did, that it's not really that different from life as a believer. You still have to pay your bills. You still have to interact with family and friends. You still have to make choices. The primary difference is that the choices are his to make, not his god's. I wish him well.

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