A friend of mine posed the question the other day “Andrew, why aren’t you religious?” I found myself thinking long and hard, but it was not easy to come up with an answer on the spot. Instead, I decided to reflect for a while and compose my thoughts. This entry outlines my reasons for choosing not to belong to any of the organized faiths. For those of you who DO belong to a religion or a church, remember that I’m not writing this to aggravate you, nor to change your mind; this is only a summary of my own personal exploration of religion, and so you can expect it to be somewhat heated.
In the interest of clarity, I’ll organize my reasons for being atheist into a list. I openly welcome discussion on any topic that I touch on.
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1) The Necessity of Denying Science
Science is an interesting concept. When people think of science, they tend to think of laboratories and labcoats, test-tubes and tesla coils. I have come to learn that, while these things are iconic of modern science, science itself is actually as ancient as civilization itself.
At the very core, the “scientific method” is just a way of reasoning; a logical process. Consider a hypothetical scenario: a small ancient village gets all their water from two different wells. One day a bunch of people in that village get sick. Somebody in the village decides to ask all the townspeople which well they drank from that day. All the people who were sick drank from the same well, whereas the people who drank from the other well remained healthy. Given this information, the villagers determine that one of the wells causes illness.
That is science. It really is that simple.
So why is it that people sometimes don’t accept science? Well, the reason is also simple. After the villagers found out that one of the wells caused illness, they naturally wanted to explain why it caused illness. Since our hypothetical village is set thousands of years ago, they had not yet developed the technology to answer that question. Science helped them to get closer to the answer, but the answer still ultimately managed to elude them. So they came up with their own answer:
The well had been cursed by another power – a force that controlled all of nature – a force that they called God.
Do you see how my example is relevant? Religion and science have always had to coexist. Faith has always been there to give answers to the questions that science cannot answer. Sure, people had the common sense to figure out which well it was… but why? This question goes ever unanswered, and no matter how far reaching our science becomes, it always will be unanswered.
The wonderful thing about science is that it never claims to explain why. It claims only to explain how. Centuries passed, and our villagers developed new and better tools. For example, using the same very same scientific method of trial and error, somebody eventually discovered that certain kinds of metal and sands, when subjected to the proper heat, could be made into glass. Later on, somebody used the same method to figure out that curved glass could help us see things that are really small, and they called it a microscope. From there, it was only a matter of time before someone saw little tiny bugs, and figured out that they were actually in the well, and making people sick. They called it biology. Science is really not that complicated.
But even after being told about the tiny bugs, and even after seeing the bugs through a microscope, some people in the village still choose to believe that the well was cursed by God. This is because science has yet to show why the bugs were there, and because people get very attached to their beliefs.
There will always be a stalemate between religion and science. I accept that, and I actually think it’s a good thing. In fact, I don’t think science and spirituality were ever meant to conflict. Why should they? Clearly, science does not provide humanity with all the answers, nor does it try. In fact, I’ve often felt that it tends to produce more questions than answers. For example, we may be able to see tiny bugs in the well, but where did they come from? How do they work? Science has today only begun to explore those questions, and there are certainly lots more to come.
I realize how hard it must be for strictly religious people to accept certain areas of science (most notably evolutionary biology, paleontology and astrophysics) because they make the scripture’s version of the creation look false. I wish people wouldn’t think of it that way. Instead, I think the ancient scripture was people’s best understanding of creation for the time it was written.
Everybody, even devoutly religious people, have been forced to accept that much of the scripture is, in a strictly scientific way, just plain wrong. For example, I don’t know a single Christian who actually still believes that the Earth is the center of the Solar System. Thus, religion has a capacity to adapt, and rethink even it’s oldest and most fundamental beliefs regarding life and the Earth. This process is apparently slow, considering that there are still some people in the church who choose to deny evolution, or the age of the Earth, even despite the Pope’s own admission that it is fact.
And so it comes to this, my first reason for choosing atheism: to selectively deny certain areas of science seems, to me, totally unreasonable. It seems pretty clear that these sciences are only picked on because they erode the plausibility of a few religious doctrines and thus threaten the power of the church. Furthermore, I just don’t want to live in a world where we treat fascinating fossils, awe-inspiring galaxies and ancient ruins as being nothing more than “tricks from God” or “tests of faith” simply because they don’t fit in with ONE BOOK’s account of history and creation. What a sad boring world that would be. But again, that’s just me.
2) Organized Religion Is Dangerous
So if you are a believer, which one are you? (Circle your answer)
Catholic? Hindu? Protestant? Jehova’s Witness? Christian? Scientologist? Jew? Buddhist? Mennonite? Sunni? Shi’ite? Mormon? Jainist? Shinto? Sikh? Pagan? Rastifarian? Unitarian? … … …
That’s the funny thing about belonging to a religious organizationg. No matter which religion you belong to, most people in the world still consider you and atheist. As Richard Dawkings once said, “Atheists just go one God further.”
Nobody can deny that religion is geographical. What that basically means is that religion spreads, fractures and reconstitutes in much the same way that nation-states have over the last few centuries. Here is the current international map of all the known religions in the world today. You can actually see that Christianity spread through Europe, and was brought over to the Americas, Australia and the African colonies. Also, Islam began through the Middle East, and spread throughout Africa and South East Asia. In other words, religion is not divined from the heavens to all places on Earth; rather, it is contingent upon human societies, and thus must be economic, political and cultural by nature:
Some places have churches, some have mosques, and some have temples. Different religions are, thus, inventions of different cultures. Clearly, religions have been evolving and spreading throughout the globe for much (if not all) of human history. And yet, through all of this, each religion preaches consistently and unwaveringly to be determined by their own “one true God.”
To me, this is highly suspicious. Why do I need to choose a side? If there are so many different ideas and attitudes about God, why should I pick one and claim it to be absolute truth before all others? Furthermore, why do churches have so much freaking gold? Why does the Pope live in a lavish palace constructed by slaves? I don’t know about you, but this makes me think that, perhaps gradually through history, religion became a way of controlling populations, solidifying laws, justifying military service and exerting imperialistic power. Actually, I don’t think there is an historian alive who could deny that.
Of course, I don’t believe that’s what religion is for, but I do believe that is how it has been abused. If you think I’m wrong, I implore you to explain to me the Crusades, the Holocaust, Jihad, and Zionism. Nearly every war on Earth has been somehow related to faith, and that is an ugly fact that people of all religions tend to ignore (or perhaps, don’t get taught).
But it’s a fact of history. In fact, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen churches and mosques of such breathtaking scale and grandeur that one can only imagine what incredible power the religious institutions must have had throughout the centuries. And they weren’t built by the hand of God. Saint Peter’s Basilica didn’t drop from the sky. It was built brick by brick, and that translates to gold. Slaves. Power.
And so it comes to my second reason for choosing atheism: I believe that religion should not be organized, because that inevitably divides people into groups with different (often conflicting) interests. I believe that churches are simply not necessary for a belief in a higher power. Why would God demand military service, unremitting allegiance to a wealthy king, and material offerings? Why should I attend seminars and meetings that tell me the way the world is, and the way I should think? Why is the church so interested in colonizing Africa, South Asia and South America with missionaries? I know the answer: it’s because religion needs new members and resources to survive, and that makes it an empire just like any other. I believe that churches, be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish or other are no different than any ordinary cult. Give us your allegiance, and we’ll give you life after death. It’s an easy promise to keep; I’d rather stay neutral on this one.
3) Moral Unaccountability
When people ask the question “Do you believe in God?” it is taboo to say “no” because it makes you seem soulless and empty. That bugs me.
Many people make the mistake of presuming that people who belong to a religion are necessarily “better people.” It’s a subtle double standard, but it’s detectable nonetheless. I strongly resent the notion that people of faith have higher moral standards. Thus, many Christians (certainly not all) tend to be very judgemental of non-Christians.
Maybe they don’t drink, or they don’t smoke pot. Well, I think that’s easy. It’s much more difficult to treat your friends with respect, to tell the truth, to be selfless and to love your enemy. I don’t know many people who even try to do that.
At the end of the day, I think I’m a good person. I do what I think is right, I try my best to be kind to the people around me, and I don’t expect anything in return. If I do something wrong, I believe it’s more important to apologize to the person I’ve wronged, rather than apologize to God. But still, many people of faith would consider me a bad person simply for not subscribing to their belief.
I don’t want to go into a long philosophical rant about moral relativism, because I shouldn’t have to. People in this world are just going to have to accept that other people have different ideas about what is right and what is wrong. There isn’t going to be any consensus anytime soon: gays are going to be gay, teenagers are going to have sex, people are going to have abortions and divorce is a fact of life.
I’m not saying that Christians should have pre-marital sex or feel good about divorce. I’m just saying that organized religion needs to keep it’s values internalized, and be careful not to impose judgement on any non-religious people who might, for example, see nothing wrong with pre-marital sex.
Muslims, for example, do not have the right to tell all women in Canada to wear burqas. They can choose to wear burqas all they like, but it becomes a problem when they start telling Canadian women that they are bad people for showing skin. Do you see the analogy? I think it’s fair, and simple.
And if you think that there is no double standard, imagine yourself in my shoes: I drive by several churches every day with big signs that tell me that “Jesus is my lord.” How would a Christian feel if they had to drive to work every day and read a sign that said “Jesus was a normal guy?” They would probably have a problem with it. And that’s my third reason for not picking sides: I don’t think it’s my place to be imposing my judgement or my beliefs on the society around me; I don’t want to belong to an organization that uses big signs on the highway to attack other people’s beliefs.
4) I’m Spiritual Anyway
The other night, I looked up at the stars and I saw the Big Dipper. I thought back to a poster I’d seen of all the different constellations. There are literally hundreds. I thought to myself “Science has proven that these dots of light are, in fact, stars that are billions of light years from each other. In fact, even if two stars look like they’re close to each other, they might not be, because it’s just an illusion based on our perspective: we don’t have depth perception when we look at the stars, it just looks like a bunch of dots. Yes, science has proven that constellations aren’t really there.”
But I don’t believe that. I think they are there. Because we believe they’re there. That is precisely what makes them real, and I think God is the same.
I may accept science, but it’s not my religion. I think there is a force that is beyond comprehension in this universe. I believe we have developed a word for it, and that word is “God.” If that means that I believe in God, then by golly let it be known that I believe in God. The symbols, the wars, the rules, the books, the stories: they have nothing to do anything. I just think that, considering the vastness of the universe, they’re all so incredibly irrelevant. So why bother with them?
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There you have it. Again, I know I have a few Christian readers, and I hope they could maintain an open mind while reading this. It’s hard to hear other people’s beliefs sometimes. Some of you might see my view of the world is upside down, backwards and inside out. Even though I’m critical of religion, I hope that you don’t consider this entry an attack on your beliefs. I know there is a lot of good in religion too, but remember this is supposed to be an entry about the things I don’t like about religion, so it’s supposed to be negative. I know I made a few generalizations in there, so please don’t take anything personally. I’m talking religion in a very BROAD sense here. Like I said, sometimes I just like putting my thoughts out there for people to see. We can all learn something from each other.