Pete's Log: on the non-existence of God

Entry #1218, Fri, February 22, 2002, 02:59 EST (Spirituality)
(posted when I was 23 years old.)
I promised some time ago to write a detailed journal entry about why I became an atheist. Since then I've put a good deal of time into further study of some issues, as well as figuring out how exactly to express my views on these matters. So now I present to you the result of that effort. I do not seek to offend anyone, I am simply stating my opinions on these matters. If you're not comfortable reading arguments against God, please proceed no further. However, if you're at all curious or if you have any wish to better understand my view of the universe, please continue.

A good beginning to such an enterprise would be to quote scripture. So I will share my favorite Bible quote: "What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9. Much of what I present here comes from having put a lot of thought into the matter. Much of what I present also comes from having read a lot on the matter. But regardless of whether I came up with a particular argument myself, none of what I present is original. Many have come up with the same ideas. I simply am presenting what my view on God is, and why. Writing it down has helped me to understand it better. And this is an issue fundamental to my perception of life. What better thing than this to write in my journal?

Dismissing Christianity
The God I was raised to believe in is the Christian God. As I became more aware of how illogical the Christian faith is, it became harder to reconcile my beliefs with my observations of the world. In fact, once I had lost my Christian view of the world, there was little additional motivation to keep me believing in God. Yet, for a little while, I still somehow felt I believed in God, even after I could no longer accept Christianity. So what led to my dismissal of Christianity? Two things were the prime causes. First, the teachings and practices of the church (primarily the catholic church) were at times inconsistent with what I felt was the right thing to do. And second, study of the Bible led me to realize that basing a belief system on that book is a bad idea.

The Bible is little more than the fairy tales, legends, and moral codes of an old society that lived in the middle east. It is not the word of God, it was written by men. It is full of absurdities, atrocities, inconsistencies, and obscenities. I have found my share of passages that serve both to amuse and sadden me. And before anyone complains that I quote the old testament here, I'd like to point out that I quote the new testament as well and that the old testament is used to justify some of my least favorite Christian activities. You cannot claim that the Bible is the word of God and then excuse any odd behavior in the old testament simply because it's in the old testament.

Let's see.... "As in all the churches of the holy ones, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church." 1 Corinthians, 14:34-35. That's the new testament for you.
"Those who are under the yoke of slavery must regard their masters as worthy of full respect, so that the name of God and our teaching may not suffer abuse." 1 Timothy, 6:1. Yup, that's right. The new testament endorses slavery.
"There she lusted after her loves, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses." Ezekiel 23:20
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that stubborn children should be stoned to death.
Matthew 1:16 claims that Jacob was the father of Joseph (Jesus' grandfather, sort of) while Luke 3:23 claims that the father of Joseph was Heli. In fact, the genealogy of Jesus listed in Matthew differs greatly from the genealogy listed in Luke. Basically, they made these genealogies up. If they made that up, who knows what else they made up?
"They observed the ban by putting to the sword all living creatures in the city: men and women, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep and asses." Joshua 6:21. This is the will of a loving God?
The thing I understand least, however, is that Jesus teaches that we should be forgiving and that we should love our enemies. Yet anyone who does not believe in him is going to spend eternity in hell? Is this not a bit hypocritical?
Here's some more fun with Jesus: Mark 11:12-14: "The next day as they were leaving Bethany he [Jesus] was hungry. Seeing from a distance a fig tree in leaf, he went over to see if he could find anything on it. When he reached it he found nothing but leaves; it was not the time for figs. And he said to it in reply, 'May no one ever eat of your fruit again!' And his disciples heard it." Mark 11:20-22: "Early in the morning, as they were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered to its roots. Peter remembered and said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." Jesus said to them in reply, "Have faith in God." Matthew 21:18-19 "When he was going back to the city in the morning, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, 'May no fruit ever come from you again.' And immediately the fig tree withered." In response to this bit of scripture, I want to start producing bracelets that say "W.T.F.J."

Which reminds me of another occasion when I was at a soccer game played by young (pre-high school) girls. A father was at the sideline, very agitated, frequently yelling at the referees. I noticed he was wearing a W.W.J.D. anklet.

Here's some more fun: "Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh..." Romans 1:3. I thought Jesus was made without any seed.

There is plenty more. I simply cannot understand how people can base their religion off this book. It is so vague and at times offers so many contradicting moral teachings that just about any sort of behavior can be justified using the Bible. Is this vague book the best that an all powerful God can come up with to let us know his will? The idea that the bible isn't meant to be taken literally is also silly. Given the diversity of the bible, the book can be interpreted to justify any action you want. And once you say that you shouldn't interpret all of it literally, what reason do you have to interpret any of it literally? It's a fun circular argument. God exists because the Bible tells us so. And the Bible is a reliable source because God tells us so. Well, I don't buy it.

Also, the Christian God is supposed to be perfectly just, which is why sin is a problem. If he was just loving, he could forgive sins, no problem. But because he's perfect, and because perfection apparently means just, he's got to make a big deal about judging us for our sins. So my question is, what messed up system of justice is it when a perfect and loving God judges us for all eternity by our actions during our short existence on this planet. Actions which, I might add, are to a significant degree influenced by the imperfections of the minds we have. I have a hard time believing that that is perfect justice.

So in addition to my disappointment in the Bible, I am also disappointed in christian institutions. While I feel that many christians are good people, I can't help but notice all the bad things that have been done in the name of christianity. And even today the christian institutions fail to demonstrate that they are influenced by a wise and loving God. I simply cannot agree with the Vatican's teaching that condoms are evil and should not be used to help deal with overpopulation and disease in the third world. I also am appalled by how the catholic church seems to have been covering up sexual misconduct by its priests. And I won't even begin to discuss how much fundamentalists frighten and anger me. Instead I will now discuss a few of the arguments in favor of the existence of God that actually made me think a bit. There are plenty other arguments for the existence of God that are just plain stupid. I won't bother dealing with those. Then I'll look at some of the arguments against the existence of God. Then I'll finish up with what atheism means to me from a moral standpoint.

The Argument from Design
The argument from design basically says that the world is too structured and too complex to have happened by accident. Thus, there must be a God who created the whole thing. For a while I sorta bought into this thing. It was not proof of God for me, but I saw it as a valid reason for others to believe in God. But then I realized an inherent flaw in the reasoning. For it seems to me that in order to create a universe as ordered as this one, God would have to be even more ordered. And if the universe if so ordered that it must have been created, then what does that say about God?

Science is doing a good job of explaining how we came to be. There are still many things we don't understand. It seems silly at this point to use God to explain the things we don't understand, since we now understand many things that we used to blame on God. Why assume that we won't at some point in the future understand more of the things we don't yet? It doesn't matter how unlikely it is that we would exist. The fact that we do exist is enough to show that regardless of the odds, life happened.

But there's so many Christians ... that many people can't be wrong!
Religion through peer pressure? No thanks.

First of all, this argument lacks credibility simply because of how many differing views there are on what the divine truth is. But beyond that, there are simpler explanations for how many people have faith other than some mysterious person watching over us. People are religious because they fear death. God gives people a reason to live. However, I'd rather know the truth and be slightly less optimistic about my chances after death than spend my time lying to myself in order to be happier. And as it turns out, I wasn't happier when I believed in God.

Pascal's Wager
Pascal's wager is cute, I'll admit. But it is weak, and it is without merit. First, it relies on the assumption that the existence of God is as likely as the non-existence of God and that there is little or no cost associated with believing in God. Both of those assumptions are false. More importantly, it assumes that there is one easy way to believe in God that will get you into heaven. Unfortunately, there exist many different viewpoints on how to best worship God. And as it turns out, many of these viewpoints share the belief that worshipping God in any other way will lead to eternity in hell. So which means of worshipping do you choose? No safe choice presents itself. Finally, wouldn't God know that you're only praising him "just in case?"

The problem of evil
It is the problem of evil, I think, that caused me to really begin doubting the existence of a god. If God, as the general claim goes, is omnipotent and loving, then why is there suffering in the world? It makes no sense.

The only response I've seen to this point is that the reason there is evil in the world is that God gave us free will. I don't buy this. First of all, it seems to me that if God is omnipotent, he could figure out some way to give us free will without all the suffering. But more importantly, the evidence seems to suggest to me that we don't really have free will. We don't really choose most of what happens to us. And of the choices we do seem to make, it seems our actions are really determined by chemical reactions in our brain rather than by the free will of a soul.

Other than the free will response, which I don't buy, I've seen no other explanation for why there is suffering in the world. Until I see a reasonable explanation for suffering, I will have a hard time believing there is a god.

I have no soul
A basic premise of theistic worship is the existence of an eternal soul. Take away the soul, and the whole system collapses. I am no longer able to conceive of the existence of a soul.

The soul is supposed to be the part of us that survives death. It is the part of us that God will welcome into heaven (or banish to hell) when we're done with our time on earth. In order to survive death, it would seem that the soul must have some supernatural properties. The soul is something more than just chemical reactions.

But what part of us seems able to survive death? Certainly it isn't our physical body. Is there any part of our mind that is more than just chemicals that would be able to survive? Our memories certainly don't seem like they'd be part of our eternal soul. They are quite fragile. Time alone does a good job of destroying memories. But in addition to that, things such as disease, trauma, and alcohol can have significant adverse effects on our memory. Our memories have a hard enough time surviving while we are alive. How can we expect them to survive death?

Instead maybe our soul is in the emotions we feel? But I've discovered that emotions seem to be little more than the results of chemical processes in our brain. Physical things such as diet and exercise have a significant effect on my emotional state. Even greater is the effect of alcohol and caffeine. How can my emotions survive death if they are the result of physical processes?

Beyond my memory and my emotions, what else is there that could possibly be part of a soul? I can't think of any part of me that seems able to survive death. And thus it seems I have no soul. If I have no eternal soul, the whole premise of many religions is gone. And if I have no soul, it does not matter if there is a god or not, since once I'm dead, it's all over anyway.

The Final Step
All this brings us to where I am able to firmly say that I have no reason to believe in God. When I first reached this point, I was unwilling to label myself an atheist, preferring instead to consider myself an agnostic. Somehow it seemed that it was more rational to take the agnostic approach to religion, to consider as the basis of my belief system the fact that the existence or non-existence of God is ultimately unknowable.

And while I still cannot deny that the existence of God is ultimately unknowable, I have since come to the conclusion that atheism is, to me at least, more rational. While I do not believe that the non-existence of God can be conclusively proven, the same holds true for the non-existence of fairies, unicorns, and petelings (invisible beings that follow me around). Yet I do not hesitate to claim I do not believe in those things. Why then should I make an exception for God? How is the hypothetical existence of God different than the hypothetical existence of petelings? Based on my observations of the universe, there is no evidence for the existence of either. It would be frightfully inconsistent to claim that I believe there are no petelings but that I feel I can make no claim either way about God's existence.

And thus, in order to maintain a consistent approach to how I perceive the universe, I must, until presented with sound, scientific evidence to the contrary, believe that there is no God.

The Meaning of Life
But if there is no God, what is the meaning of life? As far as I'm concerned, there is none. Personally, I don't even believe there is a point in looking for a meaning in life. I feel it is remarkable that we came to be, and that we should make the most of our unlikely existence. In fact, looking to God for meaning in life is ultimately futile. For if there is only meaning for our lives if we were created by God, then what does that say about the meaning of God? Where does God derive meaning from? Does God need a creator to have meaning?

Believing in God in order to gain meaning in life seems, to me, to be pathetic. It is nothing better than wishful thinking. I prefer to face the truth, even if it is harsh, than to deceive myself in order to feel better. And, it turns out, I feel quite happy without God in my life. Let's investigate why.

The Basic Consequences of Atheism
After becoming atheist, I quickly became aware of three philosophical advantages that atheism has, in my opinion, over any religious views. First, if there is no supreme authority, then all our decisions on how to treat others become based on actual feelings of what is right and what is wrong, as opposed to being simply based on following the command of some creator. I find this very appealing, because I would much rather treat somebody with respect because they are a fellow human being than because I fear I will be punished otherwise. Second, if there is no creator, then the beauty of the universe becomes that much more astonishing. I would much rather marvel at the wonders of the universe and think how amazing it is that they exist and that I exist to behold them, than to attribute everything to a creator and waste my time worshipping that creator instead. And finally, if I realize that there is no afterlife to reward me for my suffering during life, then I will no longer want to put up with needless suffering. Instead, I should make as much of life as I can, because that's all I get.

Atheism is not evil
I am lucky, I think, to be in an environment where I do not get branded as evil (at least not yet) for confessing my atheism. I have, however, encountered many stories of atheists being labeled evil and informed that they will burn in hell. I do not fear hell, because I think there is no such place. Even when I still maintained some sort of belief in God, I was unable to conceive of a place where souls are sent for eternal torment. But regardless, I find the notion that atheism is evil hard to believe. First of all, I do not consider myself evil. But beyond that, I know a good number of atheists. All of them I consider to be good people. On the other hand, I have met plenty of people who claim to be christian, whom I would have a hard time classifying as good people. I'm definitely not saying that all christians are bad. Most christians that I know aren't. But from my personal experience -- which can hardly be considered representative, but is relevant to me nonetheless -- the percentage of christians whom I would consider to be lacking in moral qualities is greater than the percentage of atheists of whom I'd say the same.

My moral system
So to sum everything up, let's see what my moral system becomes, when I base it off my opinion that there is no God. Simply put, I think I am what one might call a humanist. Here are my basic premises:
1. I exist. I came to be through an unlikely chain of events. I have a very short time to live, and when my live is over, that's it. Nothing more will follow.
2. I enjoy living. I am lucky enough to have been raised in a wonderful family. I have never lacked in the basics needed for survival. I suspect that I will, for the most part, enjoy the rest of my life. 3. I enjoy the presence of other people. I am happier if the people around me are happy. The lives of those around me are just as short as my own. 4. If I want to survive death in any way, my options are to live on through children and to live on throuch achievements.

Those four premises are enough for me to base my moral views of the world on. I feel that the most important thing for me in life is to enjoy myself and to make the most of it. In addition, I feel I should do the best I can to help those around me enjoy life. The reason for this is both selfish (if I treat others well, they will probably treat me well in return) and unselfish (their lives are short enough, there's no reason for me to cause them any suffering I can avoid causing). Basically, what it comes down to is that I am in favor of anything, so long as it doesn't hurt anybody. I don't believe in victimless crimes. And I believe we should live for this life, not for some life after death for which we have no guarantee.

The world has made much more sense to me since I cast off belief in God. I will, of course, never claim to have all the answers, but I will go with what seems most rational. I gladly welcome any comments anyone might have.
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