Monday, December 19, 2011

On Theism

I write this on the day I learned of the death of Christopher Hitchens, one of the three best-known writer on non-theism of our time, the others being Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

It seems that we who do not believe in “God” are in the eyes of most people the moral equivalent of rapists.  Such is the conclusion of a recent scientific study conducted by professors at the University of British Columbia. 

Now, my position on “God” is pretty simple.  As the Marquis de Laplace, a great French mathematician once reportedly said to Napoleon, “I have no need of that particular hypothesis.”  As a scientific hypothesis, “God” is a spectacular failure. 

The fact that most of humanity believes in one or more deities is not the result of rational deduction but childhood indoctrination leading to adult belief.  It mystifies me why belief in “God” survives into so many adult lives when Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and other childhood icons do not.

As a non-believer, it mystifies me why belief in “God” is considered the normal or default state, and not a slightly shameful secret carried over from childhood, like wetting the bed or eating Oreo cookies by eating a layer at a time.  But “God” persists in our world, and in increasingly troubling ways as “God” continues on being the justification for hatred and intolerance, as of course has been the way of the world for as long as we can tell.

My own childhood had enough “God” in it.  I went to Sunday school, and occasionally to other church services.  In little Scottish country schools we read from the Bible every day and got the strap if we forgot to bring our Bible (something the headmaster of Liff Primary School visited on me one memorable day, a day that perhaps cured me both of religion and discrimination based on class).

The fact is that I love church music.  I love Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  I love Requiems, especially Mozart’s and Faure’s.  I love choirs and organs.  I love stained glass and old wood.  I love high-ceilinged chambers.  I love most of the great art that has been created to honour “God.”  But for some reason “God” never managed to get a toehold in my belief system.  As a child I was always a skeptic, asking about the meaning of our existence until I realized that the adults in my life were not interested in the answer (or perhaps were too afraid of it to confront it, I now realize.)

To me, non-belief has always been the natural state of being.  I don’t feel that there is any reason to believe in “God,” and so the question of theism has never troubled me.  To me the existence of “God” has nothing to do with what most people believe religion consists of.  Let me enumerate some of those things here.


Many people would argue that you can’t know right from wrong without “God” and rules supposedly promulgated by “God” to help.  This is utter nonsense.  Right and wrong are right and wrong regardless of the existence (or not) of a deity.  You can be moral without “God” and I would argue that having to figure out the rules of right and wrong without having them handed to you on stone tablets creates a more innate and meaningful appreciation of morality.


Closely related to ethics are the values we adhere to in ordinary life.  We don’t need “God” to be ethical or to have values or to have morals.

The Meaning of Life

Do we need a “God” to give meaning to life?  No we don’t.  Inventing a fictitious “God” for this purpose is puerile. 

An Afterlife

Does this life lose its meaning if there is no afterlife?  I don’t really know.  But I also don’t know why there has to be a “God” for there to be an afterlife.  There was a pre-life.  There will be an afterlife.  Whether we will retain our consciousness in that afterlife is something I don’t know.  Whatever life or afterlife has in store depends on the laws of nature not the existence of a “God.”


People pray for the silliest things.  Football players pray to win.  People pray for the suspension of the laws of nature, or miracles as religious people would call them.  The only prayers that make sense to me are the prayers we might make to our own selves, to our sometimes inaccessible inner strength, to our deep innate wisdom when we are losing sight of our bearings.  This is prayer to something real, something within ourselves.  We should pray to be better.  But for people to pray to some “God” for a miracle in a state of extremity is just sad.

Being Part of a Community

Church gives people a community.  This is a good thing, and I often think to myself that my life may lack something there.  When I attend a small community church or synagogue, I understand the importance that being a part of a group of like-minded people can bring to a life.  They are there when you are weak, and they will be there when you have strength to offer.  So, on the whole I like the idea of a church.  It is good to have a place where you can congregate to celebrate life and to draw on the higher things in life and on the support of your community.  I just want to get the whole idea of “God” out of it.


This is a word that really rubs me the wrong way most of the time I hear it.  Because most of the time it is used as a synonym for “something I believe without evidence, or worse, in spite of the evidence.”  Faith-based this and that are on the rise.  People talk about their faith as if their belief in things that have no objective reality is what gives their life meaning and purpose.  To me this is simply mass delusion and I don’t understand how people can confess that their lives are based on “faith” without feeling absolute humiliation.  Instead, the faithful profess their faith as a badge of pride.

You begin to get my picture.  One of the things we must do is to expunge the word “atheist” from our language.  To call me an “atheist” is to define me as someone who is outside the normal order.  Why on earth have the theists managed to set themselves up as the default state?  It isn’t really a question that concerns me, to be truthful.  But I just don’t get it.

Theists need to be put on the defensive.  Most theists never have to explain their faith.  It is a given.  Most theists live in mutually supportive communities of belief.  When everyone you know believes the same thing people do not question those beliefs.  Well, actually that is not always true.  During the last few centuries we have developed an intellectual tradition based on evidence, deduction, the testing of hypotheses and experiment.  Why have the religions of the world had such a free ride?  Why have they been exempted from critical thought?

Now, fundamentalist theists are attacking the fruits of modern science, inventing things like the absurdity that is “Creation Science” and so forth.  They are attempting, or say they are attempting, to reconcile science with received belief.  It is like trying to make relativity or quantum theory account for Santa Claus’s amazing ability to supply toys to all children in one night.

The antics of theists are for the most part an annoying part of life in the twenty-first century.  I avoid televangelists on television but on the occasions I happen to see them when I am channel-surfing I can’t help but wonder what level of ignorance people must possess to find these clowns anything other than laughable.

I get more worked up when I think about the political scene in the United States.  No person could hope to be elected to a high public office in the United States without espousing some brand of theism. 

But it is when I see headlines that compare atheists and rapists that I get really upset.  I will make a confession here.  For most of my life I have been afraid of religious people.  I have only recently tried to understand that fear, and to control it.  Obviously it is not rational.  Religious people are not likely to harm me.  But I think that fear comes from two sources.  First, religious belief equates to the irrational and usually non-doubting belief in a set of unproven hypotheses.  Second, in my childhood, persons in authority were espousers of religion and with that, were also providers of arbitrary authority.  For example, the headmaster who strapped me for forgetting my Bible had just excused a higher-class female student for the same offence.

But I don’t believe that my non-belief can be attributed to some infantile anger against a headmaster.  I really don’t understand how people can believe in a “God” and I can’t help feeling that those who do can’t really be trusted.  I know this is not fair.  Some of my best friends and some of the finest people I know are theists.  Most people are, in fact.

But the human race will be better off without “God” and only then can we face our future with our eyes open and our minds clear.

1 comment:

Rose said...

Never thought of it that.