Why most people’s ideas about atheism are incorrect
Most people in most places at most times have believed in one or more gods. It’s one of the great deep constants of human nature. We project our own psychology out into the world in order to account for phenomenon that (to us) would otherwise be inexplicable and overwhelming.
For most of our evolutionary history we lived very tenuous lives, full of disease and early death. We didn’t know about bacteria and viruses, we knew nothing much about meteorology or seismology. Large-scale events like earthquakes and floods and small-scale events like sickness and death were seemingly random and so our pattern-seeking brains sought explanations. What better explanation than that all these events and more were intentionally caused by all-powerful beings that were just like us, only bigger and stronger and invisible?
Hence all the early records we have of gods are essentially anthropomorphic. The gods are us, only larger. The gods are why we are here, why the world is as it is, why things happen.
This is an entirely understandable adaptation to circumstances. Belief in gods therefore is an historical artifact arising from the conditions of the ignorance in which our species lived for most of its evolutionary history.
Today, however, we don’t need to invent gods and goblins to explain the universe around us. If we didn’t have the historical accident of gods carried over into the present it’s extremely unlikely that we’d invent them today because they answer no question, provide no utility, and are intellectually vapid.
Thus atheism is not an active disbelief in one or more invisible magical creatures; it is simply a coherent intellectual position that says “let’s explore reality and see if we can understand why phenomenon occur.” An atheist no more disbelieves in gods than a religious person disbelieves in invisible magical squid that make waves by pushing water forward at the shore and then pulling it back afterward.
As there is no phenomenon requiring gods, rationally therefore we need not waste time thinking about them any more than we’d waste time thinking about invisible magical squid or what flavor of cheese the moon tastes like. We now know enough about reality to rule out all the core beliefs of all religions everywhere. (For anyone curious about whether this sweeping statement can be justified, I recommend downloading my eBook The Praying Ape, available from Amazon. Or, if you’d rather not pay for the book, private message me with your email address and I’ll send you a pdf copy for free.)
The atheist therefore doesn’t say “I am sure your gods don’t exist.” The atheist says, “I see no reason to posit the existence of gods.” This is why agnosticism is philosophically weak; it says in essence “well, I don’t really understand the issues and I don’t have much empirical knowledge so I don’t want to make up my mind about things one way or another…”
Atheism is also not a rejection of morality. Indeed, the only moral position available to us as a species is atheism, because only atheism requires each of us to determine for ourselves our core moral values. Religious people merely accept whatever values they are handed down and thus abdicate personal responsibility for their beliefs and actions. One cannot argue that abdication is a tenable moral position.
Furthermore the notion that without religious belief we’d all behave badly toward each other at all times is evidently absurd, because it fails to account for the fact that we’re a group primate species and therefore have evolved a wide range of hardwired behaviors that constrain psychopathic tendencies (except, of course, for those whose brains are malformed and who thus lack the necessary cognitive hardwiring). As history shows clearly, the opposite argument is true: untold horrors have been perpetrated in the defense of religious dogmas; not a single murder has been recorded in all of history for the purpose of defending or promoting an atheist position.
Atheists don’t resort to demanding that people who believe in gods, goblins, ghouls, and ghosts be burned or otherwise suppressed. This is because atheists don’t need to defend beliefs for which no supporting facts can be assembled. When two physicists disagree on a theory, for example, they can look more carefully at the mathematical underpinnings or wait for experimental confirmation or refutation. Some theories sit waiting for decades until they can be proven or disproven by empirical evidence — as was the case with the Higgs boson. Atheism is always outward-looking, a position of conscious investigation, of curiosity. Religionism, conversely, lays claim to absolute knowledge and is thus often in conflict with a reality that does not conform to primitive superstitious beliefs. The only recourse available to an ardent religionist is repression by whatever means are available, which is why history is littered with horrific crimes committed by people in the name of their gods.
The atheist therefore neither invents spurious magical creatures nor relies on the dictates of supposed authority figures. The atheist merely tries to understand and operate in the real world as best as possible by relying on evidence gathered in ways that overall tend to lead to more adequate accounts of reality than can be found in any historical record of primitive cult beliefs.
Atheism is therefore not only intellectually and morally superior to mere belief, but it is also demonstrably far less harmful to others.
The primary problem of atheism is cognitive. It may be the case that many people lack the cognitive development necessary to understand the fundamental intellectual structures that result in atheism. When basic education is lacking, many people will simply not know everyday facts and thus will be susceptible to spurious “explanations” for phenomena that are in reality well understood by more educated people. Many people may always need to accept passively whatever they are told because they will be incapable of developing coherent intellectual and emotional positions by themselves. This is why religious belief correlates negatively with intelligence and education.
Today, it is rare to encounter a religionist capable of understanding the arguments made in this essay; I’ve had countless personal experiences of the futility of exegesis in the face of cognitive incapacity and fundamental ignorance. But someone else’s failure to comprehend something does not render that thing invalid, any more than the calculus is rendered invalid merely because a small child cannot understand it.
Atheism, therefore, is not disbelief. It is simply the only coherent intellectual position available given our present knowledge of reality.