Atheism – A Necessary Primer

This comment to my Cruelest Joke thread sparks this post. Puzzled asks:

And how do you know all this? That that’s is cruel joke, that what you say it’s true.

in response to my assertion that it would be one cruel joke to live your life thinking there is a god and heaven, and then find out at your death that there was not. Aside from the fact that my post was posed as a question – a what if question – I understand what Puzzled is asking.

To answer this question, one must assume an atheist’s perspective. How does an atheist know this? Let me see if I can articulate an answer.

We are all born with the same knowledge – none. We are all atheists at birth. We have no beliefs as we slither down the birth canal. Beliefs come later, when we are taught by our parents to believe what we end up believing as adults. How do we know this? Take any child, and if our parents are Muslim, you will find that we are Muslim. If our parents are Hindu, we will be Hindu. Same with Christianity, Buddhism and the animism of a South Seas islander. Likewise, if our parents are atheists, we will be atheists.

This is not to say that as an adult, or even as an adolescent, we may not make up our own minds and convert to something else, but as children growing up, we will believe what our parents, teachers and other authority figures want us to believe. So at birth, our minds are, from a religious perspective, tabula rasa, clean slates, which, once written upon, are difficult to wipe clean again. A good indication of this is that the vast majority of people brought up in a particular religion maintain that religion through their death.

Atheists don’t believe in god(s), so atheists as adults are more akin, in our beliefs, to the way we were when we were born. Even if we were once theists, and de-converted, we are now without belief in god(s).

Atheists tend to be open-minded also, so that in the area of god-belief, we are willing to change our minds if evidence is presented to us that would convince us that god(s) exist. This goes almost without saying, as it is implied in the atheist’s insistence on evidence for god(s). If we insist on it, and then reject perfectly credible evidence, we are inconsistent, and indeed hypocritical, in our position.

Atheists, however, do not feel that it is necessary or proper for us to disprove the existence of god(s) simply because the person who inquires believes. If we don’t believe, it’s because we’ve had no reason to, and it is necessary for someone who does to present the evidence to change our minds. Again, this doesn’t mean that atheists are close-minded, and refuse to search for the evidence themselves. Most atheists I know have spent a considerable amount of time reading, researching and discussing all the evidence ever advanced by theists (including the Bible, the Koran and many other scriptures).

As a practical matter, though, this means that the burden of proof is on the theist, if the issue is the existence of god(s). In a court of law, the burden of proof is always on the proponent of the issue, whether it is the guilt of the criminally accused, or the liability of the person that caused the accident. Likewise in the court of religion, god(s) are not presumed to exist, so that the atheist must disprove their existence. God(s) are presumed to not exist, and it is the theist who must present evidence to affirm their existence, just as it is the State’s burden to present evidence of the accused’s guilt, and the injured’s burden to prove the liability of the other driver.

So to answer Puzzled’s question, I don’t know. Or more precisely, I don’t know for certain that it would be a cruel joke on us if, when we died, we found out that we were simply the same as we were before we were born – nonexistent.

What I do know is that there is no evidence, in fact, that there is an afterlife, or that St. Peter will meet me at the pearly gates, or that Mohammad will greet me with 72 virgins in heaven, or that I will be reincarnated into a pig or a prince. There is no evidence for any of this. All theists can point to is a book written thousands of years ago that alludes to this as fact, but provides no evidence – just words. Words are not evidence. They may describe evidence, but they are not evidence, per se.

I also know that everything that religion has explained as fact since religion first peeked it’s tiny little head into any particular culture (whether mine or someone else’s) has either been explained by something other than god(s), or most likely will be. Religion first arose to explain such things as weather, bad luck, death, life, illness, etc. All of those things, we now know, have natural explanations. No god is required to explain them. Religion also attempted to explain to the unknowledgeable the place of the earth, and other celestial bodies we observed in the universe. Astronomy has now explained all of those things too, along with much we had no idea was out there. Just about everything that was considered a mystery to our ignorant forebears, and originally explained as attributes or extensions of religion, have now been shown to have very reasonable, natural explanations, without any input from any god(s). Science has consistently and progressively knocked down every supernatural explanation for various aspects of life, the universe, and everything in it.

There is no reason to expect that it won’t continue to do so, for everything we still don’t know, including the biggest questions of them all – the origins of the universe and the origins of life.

In short, if I was a betting man, given the failure of religion to be right about anything, and given science’s ability to explain it all so far, I would not bet on there being a god. In fact, I’d say that there is only slightly better than an infinitesimal chance that god(s) exist.

Puzzled, I suspect that you live your life constantly calculating the odds of various aspects and exigencies in your life, in order to make decisions about what you’ll do from moment to moment. For instance, you probably calculate what the odds are that you will die in an automobile accident when you proceed to or from work every day, and further determine that the odds are slim, but not non-existent, yet you will make the decision to chance it and drive anyway. Same thing about walking up stairs, taking a bath, eating a particular food, etc. This is done subconsciously, and maybe non-quantitatively, but it’s done nonetheless.

I calculate the probability of the existence of a god as far smaller than the chance I’ll die in an automobile accident. Why would I live my life believing in god(s) with those odds stacked against me, when I still drive my car? Lest you say that my opinion of the odds amounts to a belief, which is no better than your belief in your God, then add up the things in history that religion has been proven to explain as fact, I’ll show you where science has debunked it, and numerically, we can create a statistical set of odds as to the likelihood of the existence of god(s) and an afterlife.

By my calculations, religion, and belief in an afterlife, is ridiculously unlikely. That’s how I “know”.

2 thoughts on “Atheism – A Necessary Primer

  1. Incredible post. For years I’ve been trying to figure out how to put my lack of believes into words, and you’ve done a better job than I ever could have.

    The car accident analogy is a good one, one that I’ve never heard.

    To be honest, we can’t “know” that there is no god or afterlife, but it’s hardly a belief. We’re convinced based on evidence. You can’t believe in the evolution of the galaxy, or disbelieve in god, any more than you can believe in grass. Belief implies lack of evidence, or testable evidence at least. We have that.

  2. Well, I’d have to say, it took me 50 years to be able to say all that, so it’s not an easy process. 🙂

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