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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why I Am An Atheist

I don't know if Tim Minchin had this post in mind when he wrote this song but it's possible. He's a fiendishly clever fellow. I'll just give him credit for helping to inspire this little essay while listening to this song.

There are lots of reasons for me to be an atheist; the lack of evidence for gods, the mountain of debunked religious claims, the a priori arguments and assorted fallacies and so forth. Many trees have given their lives to record the multitude of reasons people have for not believing in any gods. Skepticism on the topic goes back as far as ancient Greece and the early philosophers who urged us to question everything, even the gods. There isn't much new to say on the topic since apologists are still trying to catch up with the fury of "New Atheism," but all these high-minded arguments from philosophy and science tend to go above the heads of the average believers and non-believers like myself. There are some simple very reasons why I don't believe, and Tim Minchin helped me realize one: existence isn't perfect.

It's so obvious that it's a tautology, of course. Nobody really thinks reality is absolutely perfect; if it were we wouldn't have suffering and death, constant conflict and struggles to survive in a universe where 99.9% of everything will kill us instantly. Even when we limit our focus to our immediate surroundings human nature is deeply flawed and that's one of the big reasons why people invented religion. Religion is intended to give us comfort, guide us around those flaws and give us hope. But it does so by claiming perfection. Perfect gods deliver perfect answers even if our understanding is imperfect. It's a lovely idea but it doesn't work. There are no perfect answers, and it causes problems when we insist that the answers we embrace are beyond criticism.

The other day I was arguing with a self-professed Jewish scholar who is very taken with his scholarship. He brought up sexual fidelity as an example of why I should deem his god worthy of praise and worship; the argument goes that it's a contract that I'm obligated to follow just as I'm obligated to sexual fidelity with my spouse. To his shock and horror I pointed out that no, sexual fidelity isn't a given, it's negotiable like any good contract. If neither my spouse nor I are threatened by sexual experimentation, why shouldn't we explore an open relationship? It's been working well for most of a decade and we're closer than ever. He immediately passed judgment on me and my relationship with my spouse in spite of the fact that he knows nothing about either of us. He already an answer handed down through his religion that he considers perfect and he won't hear of anything to the contrary. At one point he had this to say:
I didn't say what it is FOR YOU, I said what it is. If I get in a business relationship, that means we're in a contractual bind with certain agreements which means I can't use his competitor and he can't use mine. That's what a relationship is.
Pause with me for a moment to savor the audacity here in which the person claims the moral probity to declare what can or cannot be part of a relationship. He has it all tied up in a neat little bow, perfect and pristine and not to be sullied by anything so petty as human nature. Nevermind that my Lady and I are very happy together, and we don't need to pretend that no one else can catch our eye. Nevermind large communities of people who are happy with the staggering variety of arrangements with their significant other(s); he's decided that no matter what reality shows him we're all unstable and emotionally sick people whose relationships are doomed.

This is the problem with perfection. It sets an impossible standard that creates havoc when we try to live up to it, let alone when we attempt to hold others to it. Why does this man claim this perfect standard? Because of his perfect god. He's found his answer and his search is over. The discussion is done.

Gods offer perfect answers, but perfection is a lie. There are no perfect answers. There are good answers and answers that fit the data but they're never complete; the discussion is never done. No matter how much we learn about things like physics, chemistry, morality and so forth the more there is to learn. We progress by challenging what we think we know and seeing what works. Even if all we're doing is refining our understanding we're not standing still. We're not satisfied with incomplete answers and we never should be.

So for now my answer is atheism. It's not perfect, but it's mine.

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