A Determinist Atheist’s Story

I find it amazing that people look at the chaos and the beauty of the world and somehow come to the conclusion that there is a god. I know that sounds like it’s backwards, but I mean it. The other day I was watching a spectacular sunset. The sun hung low in the sky and painted a picture of orange, pink, and red across the wispy clouds, and I found myself thinking, “Wow; that’s absolutely beautiful. How cool is it that we’ve evolved to be able to appreciate that?” People have been appreciating the colours of sunsets for thousands of years, of course, and it’s no less amazing since we came to the realisation that the Earth is not the centre of the universe (what a stir that kicked up amongst the devout!), that the picture painted by a sunset is just a result of atmospheric effects, and that our ability to enjoy things which are aesthetically pleasing is the result of a long line of evolutionary changes in our long-distant history. I didn’t need to think about any of those things to enjoy that uncommonly pleasing moment during my walk home from work. Most folks don’t . You could probably just about put a man on the moon without thinking about the relativistic implications of non-geocentrism, never mind the living of your day-to-day-life.

A friend of mine wrote a post in her blog (sorry; she’s protected it, most of you can’t read it) a little while ago about how she’d come, over the course of her life, to her current beliefs. This kicked off a few dozen comments including one from me, promising that I’d write something similar in the near future. This is it.

My upbringing, for the most part, was very much secular. My parents seemed to be careful not to try to overly influence me or my sisters in any particular religious direction, giving us a childhood which was, to all intents and purposes, agnostic, with as little bias as they could manage. This is best expressed, I think, through an anecdote: I remember quite vividly a discussion that took place between one of my sisters – quite young at the time – and my mum. My sister came into the kitchen where my mum and I were sat and asked, “Where do rabbits come from?”

“Well,” said my mum, in her most matter-of-fact way, “Do you remember how we were talking about how mummies and daddies make babies?” At this point, she had assumed that this was going to be an elaboration of the “birds and bees” talk they’d had some time ago. Except about rabbits and… er… rabbits.

“No, no, no,” my sister replied, “I know all that. I mean: where did the first rabbits come from?” This was, of course, a whole different topic.

“Where did the first rabbits come from?” my mum repeated, “We’re not completely sure; but there are two main schools of thought about it. Some people think that rabbits came from other animals which were a lot like rabbits, but not quite; and they came from animals that were not quite like them, and so on, until eventually; a long long time ago, every animal came from tiny little animals that were a lot like germs. Some other people think that rabbits – and everything else; even people – were created on purpose by someone super-powerful, who they call ‘God’.”

I was impressed. This was a basic summary of the widest possible views of many evolutionist and creationist philosophies, summarised into a couple of sentences that a precocious primary school child could comprehend. My mum had successfully condensed the beliefs of over 90% of the world’s population into something that made sense on any level; and, better yet, she’d done so without needing to superimpose her own beliefs on the top.

My sister, evidently, was also impressed. She stood quite still for some time, contemplating what she’d been told and visibly going over these two concepts in her mind. Eventually, she piped up, “I think that rabbits came down from the sky like bogies from God.” And that was that: she’d been given the space to make up her own beliefs from the evidence given. Undoubtedly these beliefs have changed over her years (I’m pretty sure she no longer subscribes to “Mucusism”), as she’s had the chance to be exposed to more evidence from both these major camps, and probably from some systems of belief that don’t directly agree with either one or the other. I’m sure if she’d asked my mum what she believed, she’d have got an honest and reasoned answer. As it happens, it’s rather irrelevant.

We’re all born atheists: we have no concept (or the mental faculties to comprehend) of deities, and therefore we have no belief in them. Later; at the first point we discuss religion, or question the possibility of a supernatural creator, we become momentarily agnostic, and then start to form a set of religious beliefs of our own. This is based on the evidence we are presented with, and our young and malleable minds can easily be shaped by well-meaning individuals like our parents and teachers. My primary school was typical of others in our area and at that time: we sang hymns, had prayers, even had “scripture” lessons (which were later replaced by religious education when the school adopted a more secularist attitude), and were exposed to other elements of Christian mythology. Like most rational people of any age, I came to understand children’s’ stories like Noah’s ark to be exaggerated (at best), and probably just metaphorical or entirely imaginary. However, primary school did expose me to a peer group laden with children already indoctrinated into a belief system that I found to be complicated, confusing, and un-necessary. Arguments for the existence of a supreme being, woven into stories and songs, challenged me with questions that I didn’t yet have the philosophical depth-of-thought to be able to contradict. Simply put; I wasn’t sure what to believe. And that’s just fine.

There’s no problem with agnosticism, especially amongst children (who, lets face it, are given a simplified model of the world in all senses anyway – a necessity for their survival and a means to provide them with valuable information without having to resort to unanswerable questions). But amongst a group of 10-year-olds who haven’t yet learned to question the “facts” given to them by their evangelistic parents, it’s difficult to be the one to say, “I can’t see any reason that God has to exist at all.” Many of the most popular arguments for the existence of God are so simple that a child can explain them, and the reason for that is simple: they’re not very good arguments (it’s sad that so many theists continue to use these flawed arguments into the adulthood, unwilling to listen to their faults). Nonetheless, it’s not easy to defend an agnostic viewpoint when you’re unready for the kinds of arguments you’ll come up against. In hindsight, these (rare) playground discussions would have been easier had my parents brought me up as an atheist, rather than simply areligious. However, that – I think – wouldn’t have given me the open-mindedness to actually investigate these beliefs that others held, which, in turn, has ultimately made me surer of my current beliefs.

By the time I was 14 I’d formulated a well thought-out set of philosophies in my mind; primarily an atheistic one, with sufficient unanswered questions and seemingly equally-viable explanations to be agnostic on particular issues. It was at about this point that I realised that the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient deity that is concerned with human behaviour was completely ludicrous to me. I had no difficulty seeing the similarities between belief in a god and belief in, say, Santa Claus, or with the fact that while neither is entirely disprovable, this does not mean that existence and non-existence are equally likely. It’s about this point that I became particularly fascinated with religion in general. I tried to learn as much as possible about as many as possible, and I began to love hearing about what people believed and why. Content with my own model of the world – with its few unanswered questions themselves not requiring God (and certainly not the God described by any religion I’d ever come across, with all their hypocrisies and illogical arguments) to fill in the blanks – I turned to trying to understand others.

I read a lot about religion and about philosophy. I became familiar with the major arguments used by theists for their beliefs, and by atheists for their disbelief (although I’ve always found the latter to be less necessary, just as arguments against the existence of anything are less necessary by scientific theory – the burden of proof comes from the hypothesis of existence). And everything I read confirmed more and more for me how illogical and unnecessary this image of a god was, most of all a god anything like those that the major religions subscribe to. And, gradually, over the coming years, I came to iron out many of the other quirks in my beliefs (by, for example, finding myself a determinist without tripping over any of the usual, often theistic in nature, arguments against it).

The only significant change to my religious views of late has been a reduction of my tolerance for the activities of others as a result of their religion. While I’ve previously been very open to other people’s beliefs, not caring what other people believe (however wrong I think they are), I’ve more recently begun to see how dangerous religion can be when used as an excuse for some awful things. While I don’t believe it’s true to say that most wars are started over religion, it is true to say that religion provides an excuse for such behaviour. And somehow, lately, religion has become something that’s taboo to argue against.

In a legal case a few years ago by a San Diego student against his school – who had banned him from wearing a t-shirt that carried an anti-homosexual message at school – the student made his case not on the grounds of freedom of expression but on the grounds of freedom of religion. Had he tried under the former, he would undoubtedly have failed, because while it’s okay to express whatever opinions you like, the court would have said, it’s also okay for schools to maintain order and a civil atmosphere. But under an argument of religion, he was far more likely to be untouchable – in the current socio-political climate, no judge wants to be seen to infringe upon somebody’s religious views. Small cases like these help to enshrine (hah!) religion into a status where it can’t even be criticised, even where it’s used as justification for some of the most disgusting acts of genocide, war, hatred, and terrorism. It’s a big scary world, and while it might still be as big and scary without the fundamentalist theists, at least we’d have removed from people an irrational excuse for their actions. And meanwhile, the majority of people still brainwash children with disputable beliefs that they haven’t got the cognitive abilities to question.

I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the chance to be whoever I wanted to be.

So; there’s a 10-minute summary of how I came to the beliefs I currently hold. Perhaps in another couple of decades I’ll write it again. In the meantime, I’ll happily argue the non-existence of God with any of you until the sun goes down, but I’d still prefer to hear what it is that you believe, because, for the time being, religion still interests me far more than fighting over it does.

Further Reading

Some stuff other people have written, that I think you should read:

17 replies to A Determinist Atheist’s Story

  1. The other day I was watching a spectacular sunset. The sun hung low in the sky and painted a picture of orange, pink, and red across the wispy clouds, and I found myself thinking, “Wow; that’s absolutely beautiful. How cool is it that we’ve evolved to be able to appreciate that?”
    I’m the same with things like that. Again, I think it comes from not being indoctrinated with religion from birth, because you see the splendour in the non-paranormal explanations of things, as you haven’t come up from the carry-cot with the attitude that there’s always something more spectacular than the natural explanation, and that’s the supernatural one.

    In the same way, I’ve never found the idea of evolution insulting – I think it’s awesome in the truest sense of the word – but I can imagine how people might think very differently if they’d grown up to expect to see themselves as somehow set apart from the rest of ‘creation’ – or to put it crudely, that their shit doesn’t stink. It’s a shame, because it robs people of the ability to see beauty in reality, instead of having to make it up.

    A friend of mine wrote a post in her blog (sorry; she’s protected it, most of you can’t read it)…
    I would guess that none of them can – I don’t think we share any online contacts.

    And finally, I may yet convert to Mucusism.

  2. Like you I’ve been fascinated by what others believe and why and picking holes in their beliefs as well. Not to convince them they’re wrong, of course, but to challenge their beliefs. I’ve never seen religion as untouchable and I haven’t met any who do. I’ve heard of them but I’ve never met them.

    Lately, my attention is shifting away from debates of whether God exists but rather to why science seems to be accepted as the best way to determine that once and for all. I’ll need to meet up with you again soon, ’cause I can’t think of anyone with whom I’d rather argue it.

  3. my childhood was secular and yet i have ended up in the ‘other’ camp, interesting.

  4. Faye (#1 – faerie): Thanks for your comment, there. I know you feel particularly strongly about atheism to the point of stupidity (failing to see the beauty in the world just because you don’t believe in fairy stories).

    You’re probably right about us not sharing many contacts; although I have had comments on my blog from your readers before, so it’s not impossible. Plus, it’s also a possibility that present readers of this may become future readers of your blog, if you at any point extend your friends list or even (shock!) un-friends-only some or all of your blog. In any case, I like hyperlinks, because I can follow them. It’s my blog, after all.

    Faye (#2 – feebee): Maybe. My post was meant to imply that a secular upbringing better empowers a child to later make it’s own choices. That your choice and my choice were different lends evidence to that.

    I’d certainly be interested to see a similar blog post from you. Hell, we could make a meme out of this yet…

    Thanks for sharing, both of you.

  5. I think that’s probably the longest journal entry I’ve ever bothered to read, but it was definitely worth it, a good read. Interesting to hear the perspective of an atheist brought up in a religiously neutral environment. I’m one of those people who were slightly driven into atheism because of an overly strict religious upbringing, but I have this perspective on religion; I’m like a woman who had a nasty break-up with a particularly horrible boyfriend, swore never to touch a man again and then later discovered she was a lesbian all along. Does that make sense? I agree that people are naturally atheist and I particularly enjoy the way reason, logic and cynicism are the cornerstones of atheism (if there are any) because I always treasured those traits in myself, even when I believed in a god.

  6. As I have a lot of free time in work I spend a lot of time reading stuff on the net. Not much of it holds my attention for long, and certainly not for as long as that piece. It was particularly surprising as when I see a long post on you blog I always assume it’ll be about something techie that I don’t understand.
    Your sister must be a lot like you, I think the most intriguing part of the post was that she was more interested in where rabbits came from than where people come from. Or maybe that’s just my old, cynical brain thinking “surely rabbits aren’t that important?”

    I was brought up in a similar way to yourself, although I never really asked questions about things like that. My mum and dad had me and my brother Christened despite being atheists/agnostics themselves (I’m not really sure. They might have just never thought about it). I think that this was because it was “the done thing” and they fancied a bit of a party. I was taught Scripture at school and, maybe because I’ve always had a lack of imagination, never really separated the stories that we heard there from the stories in the books that we read in english literature, or whatever it’s called at primary school level. That’s not to say that the Bible is as unbelievable as, say “James and the Giant Peach”, just that I didn’t believe either.
    My best mate from home was one of the leading figures on the Christian Union at the university that he went to. I know that his religion brings him a lot of pleasure, and we’ve had many a debate in the pub about Christianity vs Scientific Evidence (I’m only using that term as I can’t think of a better one).

    I only feel comfortable believing in things that I can see evidence for. And I can’t see any evidence for the existence of any gods. I can see evidence of evolution (having done A Level Geology we spent a lot of time looking at fossils) and I can follow the thought process of how life began on Earth following the “big bang” (well, as much as I understood of it from lectures in Aber).

    Many of the religious people I know are very sensible people and for so many people to believe in a god there must be something in the stories that makes people separate them from “James and the Giant Peach” and devote so much time to their meaning. And there are obviously gaps in whichever theory people believe – for example “why are we here?” or even “why are rabbits here?” can not be answered by any scientific explanation, but this is the model that makes the most sense to me.

    I do think that a belief in a god has its place in that it can bring a lot of pleasure to people’s lives, particularly for people that have been through difficult times. Any comfort that they can take has to be good, even if it is only that things will be better after they’ve passed on. It’s just not for me.

    If your sister wrote down her rabbit creation theory and it was passed down through the generations I wonder if they’ll be teaching mucusism in scripture lesson in a few millennia.

  7. Strokeyadam:

    Thanks for your extended comment. Yeah; my sister thinks a lot like I do.

    While it may be true that a belief in a god can bring a lot of pleasure to people, I’m not sure that this alone justifies it “having it’s place.” Personally, I don’t see how a belief in a god can be justified for the happy fluffy feelings it gives in any greater a way than anything else must. Moreover, the psychological benefits of theism are only ever benefitial, surely, to those that believe faithfully enough that they could not be persuaded otherwise anyway, making a study of this – like any study of belief – somewhat difficult.

    In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

  8. I might do my own post, but just to say one thing first: From the quotation Dan posted, I deduce that belief has its place in society as much as alcohol does. I do wish churches were as well regulated as alcoholic beverage producers, though. Believe Responsibly.

  9. Dan this post is scarily close to one I’ve been contemplating for a while. I’m getting back into reading a lot of science texts. For example I’ve just today started reading ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ by Richard Dawkins a fervent atheist and darwinist. This has partly arisen out of boredom with endless tedious debates about art/music and partly out of feelings similar to those you discuss at the end of your post which are mirrored in this quote from dawkins:

    “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”

    All to often i find myself listening to dear friends talk of their religious views and my face glazes over a little into a kind of unsettled politeness that I’d also employ when the crazy guy on the bus tells you what he’s got in his paper bag. Like you I concluded for myself at a relatively early age that God was impossible and ever since have felt bemusement at highly intelligent people who also have religious faith. I’m not going say much more because, as i said, I was idly planning to write a little on this myself but, for now, good work & good post.

  10. Well, as the daughter of a priest and a determined hippy scientist atheist, I found the whole religion issue quite baffling for most of my childhood.

    Since then, and largely since discovering Quakerism, I’ve decided I do believe in God. It’s not really to do with the arguments on either side, it’s more to do with what feels ‘true’ to me. It’s just one of those things.

  11. restlessboy: Yeah, I’ve read a few of Dawkins’ books, including his latest little controversial piece, The God Delusion. It’s good stuff.

    restlessboy, Claire: I’m glad you’ve decided to write a similar piece yourself. I was hoping I could make it slightly memetic. Particularly after all the Dawkins references! (if you don’t get that, go read The Selfish Gene)

    Fleeble Widget: What feels “right” to you is yours, and none of us can touch that. Particular arguments for god (a personal god, an omnipotent god, an omniscient god, blah blah) we can argue about all day, but we can never tell you you’re wrong for what you feel.

    On the other hand, it’d be interesting to hear about how you came to feel that way. If you’re bold enough, please go ahead and write a post of your own. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  12. hmmm… no way to get that onto my home puter at the mo. also i hate reading long documents on screen. i’ll either go to the library or wait. thanks though.

  13. I’ve just picked up my own copy of The God Delusion and I’m going to start making some headway into it. Originally I didn’t want to support The Idiot but then I realised I’m going to have so much fuin getting angry and debating the whole thing that he should be rewarded for that.

    My first, mysteriously disappeared, comment waffled on but the only thing that was close to a point was why is science the right yardstick for determining (G/g)od?

    Having read the more recent comments I’m kind of worried. I’m worried that this is going to sound like personal attacks but some of the things here seem to be an atheist parallel of religious fundamentalism. Strokey said that he didn’t believe in the Bible. Now I’m assuming that you believe it exists, so do you disbelieve what it says? In what way? Is the whole thing a pack of lies? Do you disagree with the message that it puts forward? The Bible (in litteral terms) contradicts its message a couple fo times so disbelieving the whole thing can be tricky. Where would your morals stand if you reject entirely a wide-ranging book of morals? I do not believe in many of the Buddhist ‘teachings’ and would not call myself Buddhist should anyone ask, but I do not reject everything about the faith.

    Secondly, restlessboy quoted The Idiot. He says that nobody thought that religion was dangerous from the start of religious beliefe up until 11/9/2001 ACE? I want everybody reading this to come up with five different examples of when religions has been dangerous prior to 11/9/01. You can all do it and if you put in the time you could come up with fifteen examples from before the birth of Jesus.

    But he’s invoked the magical touchstone of 9/11! Command! And we shall follow unquestioningly! Well, he says that because of 9/11 we shouldn’t just wipe out Muslims, we should wipe out every religious person.

    No, I’m not being unfair when I say that. That’s what he’s saying. That I am too dangerous to be allowed to live in case I decide to murder a few thousand people under the instructions of God. If I forsake religion, join the military and man the firing mechanism of thermo-nuclear weaponry and commit wholesale slaughter of thousands for my county that’s hunky-dory. But if I want to go to church on Sundays and donate to the charity collection I must be stopped, for I am in the same boat as those 9/11 hijackers.

    The Idiot can’t seem to realise that being a twat and being religious are independent of each other. Neither implies nor necessitates the other. He also seems to think that religion is a reason behind all wars that had a religious influence. I’m not stupid enough to say that no war in history has been fought on solely religious grounds but I’m also not dense enough to believe that there would be significantly fewer conflicts if there were no religion. Aesop said that the strong will find a reason to do what they want. Getting rid of religion will not change what the strong want to do.

    Let’s assume that Dawkins gets what he wants (God forbid), will he go after countries next? When people start doing and believeing things without evidence will he go after countries? When people commit terrible acts in the name of their families against people “labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition” and surname will he propose that the family unit be scrapped? Or will he realise that some people are just twats.

  14. I still love that mum didn’t try to prove the ‘boogie’s from god’ theory wrong in any way. If i had cared more about it i could have gone on in life with my own little religion, as it happens the TV was on so…well yeah.

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