The idea of gods is bad for society, because it spreads irrational dogma that causes good people to do bad things. This affects three practical areas of our lives: the quest for knowledge, treating people fairly, and civic society.
Rational thinking makes the following more likely: Enquiry: an ongoing unbiased quest for knowledge and truth. Empathy: adult ethics, based on relating to other living beings. Equality: a secular society that protects everybody’s rights.
And irrational dogma makes the following more likely: Creeds: accepting, as truth, imaginary answers to big questions. Commands: childish ethics, based on orders, desire and fear. Control: unjust laws that are influenced by religious dogma.
Enquiry vs Creeds
Nearly four thousand years ago, a man gazed inquisitively at the night sky over what is today near Baghdad, and he started to record the movement of the stars. This scientific breakthrough was used to create omens, such as: ‘If in month one the Demon with the Gaping Mouth rises heliacally, for five years there will be plague, but it will not affect cattle’. Today NASA has mapped the oldest lights in the universe, the ancient Babylonian omens have evolved into vacuous horoscopes, and religions have embedded gods into seasonal celebrations of nature.
Throughout time, this is the pattern of the quest for knowledge. Inquisitive and rational thinking has steadily helped us to understand more about how nature works – the latest major breakthrough being the map of the human genome, the ‘book of life’ which will dramatically improve healthcare – while superstitious and dogmatic thinking has hindered and corrupted this quest for knowledge, by teaching imaginary answers instead of seeking the truth, with the odd stoning to death or roasting alive thrown in for people who dared to disagree.
Empathy vs Commands
When I was five, I knew that I had to be good coming up to Christmas because Santa Claus was looking down from the North Pole and judging the behaviour of every child in the world. For many adults today, an imaginary creator of the universe has taken over Santa’s job – God’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice – except this time, instead of a present or an empty stocking, you get the bliss of paradise or the torment of hell, for eternity, after you die.
Throughout time, religious belief has corrupted our morality, by extending childish thinking into adulthood. The reason that we should be fair to other people, and to all sentient beings, is because we relate to them as fellow living beings. This is known as the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. It is common to atheists, agnostics and theists alike. It requires no belief in gods, particularly gods that boast of drowning every living being in the world except the passengers on an ark.
Equality vs Control
In Ireland in 2007, an advert for slimming pills was banned because the company could not substantiate its implausible claim to ‘soak up’ fat from your food. This is how society protects vulnerable people from being conned. In the same week, the Pope announced an even more unsustainable special offer: if you visited Lourdes within a year, you would get a free ‘plenary indulgence’ and early release from Purgatory after you die, thus getting you to Heaven faster. But there was no legal mechanism to protect vulnerable people from being conned by this claim.
Throughout time, religious leaders have influenced the law and culture of civic society. Today, many States officially protect, subsidise, encourage or even enforce religious dogma at the expense of the rights of their citizens. In recent years, Islamic States have sentenced homosexuals to death and a female rape victim to be lashed. More subtly, an atheist would be almost unelectable as President of America. In a State that respects everybody’s rights, government should be secular, culture should be pluralist, and beliefs should be personal.
18 thoughts on “Why atheism is important”
Like the new blog and although I feel atheism is as untenable as theism, I look forward to reading your thoughts.
All the best.
I’ve read this in detail now, Michael and it’s odd how I agree with everything you say in this article, yet I don’t consider myself an atheist.
I certainly feel that the general notion of God is inconsistent and I don’t understand why modern ideas of God are any more reasonable than that of Zeus or Odin.
Still, I don’t believe atheism is tenable either, because no one can say they know the universe so well as to be certain that there is no being who does not have God-like characteristics.
Who knows? Maybe there is a Q out there somewhere.
I am more comfortable calling myself a “practising agnostic”, which means I kneel beside my bed each night and recite one hundred times “Fucked if I know.”
Still, despite its title, your essay isn’t actually about promoting atheism, it’s more about promoting secularism, which I can’t disagree with, much as I would like to because that would probably my comment more interesting.
Keep up the healthy skepticism!
I do appreciate your position, Declan. I too considered myself an agnostic for years, until I realised that I was actually an atheist. Let’s look at it by analogy. Here is another very improbable idea, promoted by David Icke, the former Coventry City goalkeeper turned snooker commentator turned Green Party politician turned saviour of the world:
Most rational people, as their default position, would reject the idea that George Bush, Queen Elizabeth and Kris Kristofferson are non-human alien space lizards. They may accept, in a purely theoretical sense, that it might be theoretically possible, but – despite that theoretical possibility – they would not, in ordinary language, describe themselves as being agnostic about whether George Bush, Queen Elizabeth and Kris Kristofferson are non-human alien space lizards.
Well, the idea that gods exist is even more improbable than the idea that George Bush, Queen Elizabeth and Kris Kristofferson are non-human alien space lizards, in that the alien space lizard idea is marginally closer to being consistent with the laws of nature as we understand them. So, whatever excuse there is for being agnostic about the bizarre delusional ravings of David Icke, there is even less excuse for being agnostic about the idea that gods exist.
Your point is well made, as usual, Michael, although I do feel there is a difference between being certain that George Bush isn’t a space lizard and being certain that in the whole universe there isn’t a being with what we would regard as God-like powers.
I feel the difference between you and me is more down to semantics. I say this largely because I agree with all the points you made in your article.
For me, being a theist means saying “There IS a God and I don’t have to prove it”, whereas being an atheist means saying “There is NO God and I don’t have to prove it.”
By that measure, I consider myself neither, but respect the fact that other people feel the need or desire to be one or the other. The only time I would have a problem would be in a religious state where they would oblige me to be religious, or a communist state where they would oblige me to be atheist.
Very much looking forward to disagreeing with you further.
Although I suspect we will end up agreeing most of the time… How boring!
“In a State that respects everybody’s rights, government should be secular, culture should be pluralist, and beliefs should be personal.”
I know. These principles should be at the heart of democracy. The fact that they usually are not is a key reason why atheism is important. Atheism is not merely an abstract debate about imaginary entities; it has practical implications for both individual people and society generally.
Hi Michael, i’m an atheist because life is about living and paradoxically death is also and only about the living! i believe there is no place for so called afterlife in life or death.
let’s take christianity as a starting point, the way i see it is that a long time ago people had to address the idea of death because of the powerful emotions death releases among those who are bereaved. it became apparent to living individuals that dead people live on through their senses in a nether world mainly accessed through dreams. in this way the dreams of the living initiated belief in the afterworld and also served to dampen the horror of death among the living because it gave hope by the denial of death to the existence of an afterlife.
later ‘holy’ people, in their search for god, became venerated by their contemporaries both in life and death because of the sacrifices they made in their quest for a holy and constructive life. many of these holy people lived and died in remote locations practicing denial etc. later followers of these venerated individuals built temples around their graves usually marking the saint’s burial spot by placing the temple’s main alter above the saint’s grave.
these locations became venerated sites for pilgrims and as the influence of these churches grew the rich people living in the vicinity bequeathed land etc to the church in exchange for a good burial spot in the church close to the alter of the saint (look at tombs in old churches for example st patricks cathedral). by close proximity in death to the saint they believed they stood a better chance of the saint’s intercession and of getting to heaven. relics (dug up bones) of these saints were used to grow the influence of the churches through the establishment of more churches nearer the population centres and in this way the churches grew in wealth and influence and became the big business it is today. in the same way all religions are big businesses competing with one another.
so religion, dealing with death, afterlife etc are all constructions of the living and have nothing at all to do with the existence or otherwise of a so called god. so i believe life is for living and helping others if possible and not worrying about the afterlife or about getting caught up in the murky world of big business religions. more flowers along the path of life less along the grave!!
Michael – your point about David Icke is interesting – I often use a similar thought process – I can imagine any number of improbable beings, each of which is just as improbable as the next but I choose not to believe in them because a) I just made them up and b) They are utterly ridiculous. Can you prove 100% that there isn’t a God? Well no but only to the extent that I can’t prove to 100% that any of the other improbable beings I just made up don’t exist either – and that’s good enough for me. (Having said that, I do have my doubts about George Bush.. always thought he was vaguely Lizard-like)
I was in the Natural History Museum in New York last week and they have a timeline of the Earth’s history – the section where humans feature on this timeline is so minuscule and insignificant that the idea that we, the humans, can be bold enough to explain the existence of everything by applying a god to it is an incredibly flimsy idea. Imagine extrapolating that line further into the future – it doesn’t take much imagination to see the demise of the humans not too far in the future (we’re talking on a scale of millions of years here) and the segment of that line where religious belief was active will be even smaller. Looking at that timeline made me realise what a small and insignificant blip the existence of religion will be. Seriously, humans will look back on that embarrassing little blip in our history and laugh about how much time and human life was lost following these non-existent entities. Same way as we laugh now about how we thought we were centre of the universe.
I see an interesting point here about the validity of using words in 'our own way'.
After all if the vast majority of self-identifying atheists use the word in the 'not having an active faith in a god or gods' sense then it'll be bad communication for you to invent an unconventional version of the word.
On the other hand theists have already made it convention amongst themselves to use the word as something completely different in their minds, and you can make a case for trying to avoid starting to use the word for that reason. A sort of wish for being seen as neutral kind of way maybe?
At any rate the word is merely a label, it is the meaning behind it which could be called blabllerflush for all anyone cares that is what we are identifying ourselves as. If identifying myself as an atheist means someone who doesn't actively have a belief in a god or gods without implying any further information, to the majority of self identified atheists plus the majority of historical writing by atheists then isn't it kind of odd for you to be so scared of the word that you won't identify as such even though you do not have belief in god?
Oh, abit old comment I'm replying to. Facepalm.
In the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This might be why so many people, when they are confronted with something they don’t understand, fall back on “God did it.” That is certainly much easier than thinking and looking for evidence that might explain things.
If someone from the 18th century would be transported to 2011, that person would likely imagine all types of magic exist in the world today. Most of it, would probably be described as “the work of the devil.” Why the first reaction wouldn’t be :god: is a mark of the fear and guilt instilled by the brainwashing of organized religion.
On the topic of labels… These are my two cents:
1) Atheism says nothing about the subject.
2) Atheist is the opposite of theist. Therefore, atheist is the one who “does not believe in deities”.
3) Agnostic is the one who does not claim to know. Both theists and atheists can be agnostic, as in “I don’t know, but I chose to believe” (agnostic theist).
4) I rather be called a critical thinker, skeptical, rational, secular, naturalist, humanist than atheist. We do not go around calling things for the attributes they do NOT have.
If there is no afterlife and you should just be living for today, than why are you writing and reading this website instead of stealing from the people who have more stuff so you can have a better life?
NO, your an idiot
1. There has to be a driving force to create something
2. The universe was created by that driving force
3. No one on earth has the knowledge of what that driving force was
4. Maybe some one who no one has ever talked to or seen knows the answer
5. We haven’t seen the entire universe
6. Maybe something out there knows how the earth was created or created the earth
8. It is the only logical explanation to how the earth and the universe was made
You are 100% correct!!!
I only have one thing to add, you didn’t say where the aliens came from. But don’t start worrying, I have the explanation. Trillions of years ago, there was so much time that the laws of logic didn’t apply. Math was the created of everything. As you know 1+1= 2, but when you put time to anything, logic doesn’t have to work. You see over trillions of years math got wrong and for a split second in a different universe 1+1=Aliens. In that universe the aliens had billions of years to become scientifically mega-advanced. They figured that there is more than one universe and that if they could program a cannon to shoot a proton and electron at each other that a new universe could be formed. That Expirement resulted in the Big Bang, and thus the universe as we know it exists today.
So I believe that when we die we too become aliens and get our own moon planets that we get to watch evolve over billions of years, so you sir were completely correct.
This is where being a critical thinker, a skeptic, and a rational naturalist.
Okay, first of all you guys don’t know what what you are even talking about
1. The only truth in this world is that there is no truth
2. The only thing that I can know to be true is the thing I expirence
3. I have never seen an alien
4. Therefore they do not exist
5. I have never seen a good woman driver, therefore they do not exist
6. I have completely broken down your religion
7. Since your thinking process is skewed I invite you to be live what I belive, because your religion doesn’t exist you should not have one and just live your life, because you will just turn to dirt and then I will laugh at your grave because you are stupid. I will also steal your money because I don’t make enough welfare to be happy.
Interesting article and once again another human being claiming they know it all. Atheism is no different than theism in that the athiest has no proof there is no God and uses skepticism to argue their point.
Humans can both be curious, inquisitive, intelligent and have faith. Yes we have this ability. To criticize religious people is no different than religious people criticizing atheists.
I think atheists criticize the people who do not question religion and follow it like herded sheep. Case in point. However, there are many people who study the Bible and its historical stories, and of course the story of Jesus and his teachings. These people have many questions, they are curious and seek answers that help them spiritually.
Religion is a personal journey or at least it is for me. I used to be an atheist and argued my point very well I think.
But I came to understand that life is rich and deep. We are constantly battling within ourselves searching for the truth. We will never find the whole truth.
Thinking that we know it all, religious or atheists, is being arrogant and arrogance equals ignorance.
Socrates said “i only know that I don’t know anything”.
Keep the curiosity alive with an open mind and an open heart. There is more to life than what we think we know.