Thursday, 28 June 2012

Why I Am an Atheist

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has been running a regular series with the title of this post.  It's based on reader submissions, and each day he selects one at random.  With his readership he has a lot of submissions, so if I send this to him it might never get posted.  If only I had my own place to put my thoughts ...

My parents are not religious.  I'm not actually sure if they are agnostic or not, but we would only go to church for, in my father's words, "hatches, matches and dispatches": Christenings, weddings and funerals.  We didn't even hit Christmas and Easter.

That's not to say that my upbringing was devoid of religion, though.  Not by any means.  I am British, and we have an established church, and that meant a lot of religious education at school.  This was true both at the state schoolsa I attended before I was 11, and at the boarding school I went to after that. Indeed, at boarding school we had church every day except Saturday, though during the week the services were thankfully short.

The effect of all this religion was that I believed in Christianity, because I seemed to me the right thing to do.  All these teachers telling me about religion wouldn't do so if it was false, right?  And I've always had a tendency towards accepting things without really questioning them.

At the same time, however, I was learning a lot about science.  For as long as I can remember I've found science fun, found learning fun.  So I never was a fundamentalist; but I interpreted, for example, the big bang cosmology as simply the way God had done things.  Evolution was how God had done things.

It should not come as a surprise that science led to my atheism, though.  One of the first steps came with the Royal Institution Christmas lectures.  These are an annual series of lectures on science, aimed particularly for children and shown on TV.  I remember a few of these, but the one that is relevant here is Richard Dawkin's lectures in 1991, Growing Up in the Universe.  In those lectures, Dawkins describes the evidence for evolution in his effortless style, and eviscerates creationism.  He also, in retrospect, slips in a couple of sly jabs at religion as well; in fact, it is amazing how many of his arguments from The God Delusion are to be found in the book that came out of that series.

Dawkin's lectures convinced me of the truth of natural selection over creationism.  They did not make me an atheist.  But by pointing out in a few places the differences between scientific and religious ideas of truth, he opened my eyes a little.

The next major step on my path was another scientist: Steven Hawking.  His famous book, A Brief History of Time, had been bought by my Dad for himself.  But as with all books in our household, it was passed around, and I read it.  And I was fascinated by it.  I was already interested in physics, but this book definitely helped develop my interest.  Indeed, for a time Hawking was something of an idol for me; I dreamt of making the same kind of splash on the scientific arena.2  The part of the book that is relevant to this tale comes towards the end; I forget exactly where, and don't have the copy handy.  But in it Hawking suggests that if we ever knew the Theory of Everything, we would know the face of God.

Now, I read this literally.  And yet ... if a single equation is sufficient to describe the Universe, where would God lie?  God's role becomes small.  Further, Hawking considers the possibility that the Theory might be necessary, might make the Universe exist.  This veers off into philosophy (and any philosopher will tell you that this is a weak argument even before I've misremembered it).  But we again have the possibility of God being unnecessary added to the mix.

The third individual who helped push me on my way was Terry Pratchett.  Pratchett remains my favourite author, a post he has held for over half my life now.  But in his book Small Gods, there is a comment about how gods must come from people, not the other way around; for gods behave the way humans wish they could.

I laughed, applying his ideas to the "obviously wrong" Greek and Roman gods that his own pantheon was based on.  My God was different.  But, again, a seed has been set; something that I start to worry over when thinking to myself.  Why was this obviously not true for Christianity, as I interpreted it?  Was I deceiving myself?  How could I be sure?

These three people I have mentioned were far from the only ones I consulted on the matter.  But they were the earliest ones that left an impact one me.  With questions raised, I began to explore the matter more.  I found that religion itself served little purpose to me.  I realised that we can do a very, very good job of explaining the world without needing to invoke any god; the gaps it could hide in keep getting smaller.  I read the standard arguments for a God, and their rebuttals, and found the rebuttals more convincing.  It probably wasn't till after I graduated from university that I would be willing to identify as an atheist.  But the motion was always in one way.

So that's my deconversion story.  Of the various arguments as to why there is no god or gods, the lack of evidence is to me the supreme one.  Sure, you can invoke a god if you really want, it's just completely superfluous.  The problem of evil is also, to my mind, compelling evidence against any good  god worthy of the name (at least, without there being an equally powerful evil god).

At least, that's how I see it.

Public schools for USAliens.
Obviously I have learnt better :)

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