Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

My Conversion to Atheism

Thanks to newepicurean.com for the image

Epicurus

I usually don’t bring religion into this blog, but I feel it’s about time to write a post on the subject. I have recently been trying to find the right way to tell my parents I’m atheist. Now before I start, I just want to clarify that my parents are in no way fundamentalists: they believe in evolution and they’re pro-gay rights. For Christians they’re pretty liberal. They’re Republican, but they’re the ones that are Republican because they’re fiscally conservative, not socially conservative. They are anti-abortion, and they’re a bit iffy on drugs, but they can understand where those on the other side of the argument are coming from. My parents are, for the most part, very accepting. That said, they would be sad–or at least my mom would be sad–to hear that I did not believe in God. After thinking for a few days how I should come out–or whether I should–I had an idea: formulate a case for atheism so good that if they asked what caused my change in mind, I might possibly persuade them. That might not be a very realistic goal, but I can try.

Before I began to write this, I visited the /r/atheism subreddit; and one thing I noticed right away was all the hate towards those who did still believe in supernatural beings–especially the Judeo-Christian God, which makes sense most of Reddit being American. You can tell that many of them either are very recent converts, and therefore very zealous; or that they had a tough time reconciling their views with a fundamentalist family. To them the priest, reverend, or even just your average church lady was the personification of evilness, stupidity, or mental illness. There are enough people there who are reasonable if you look for them. But for the most part the religious are derided and held in contempt. But from my experience as a former theist, and one currently living with a family of theists, I have come to take a very different view of religion. It is, of course, not right to believe something that cannot be proved with reason, but most people are born into it. And when you grow up with everyone telling you something’s true, and that it’s wrong to believe it’s not true, and that you shouldn’t even consider it’s whether or not it’s true because it is true, it becomes so fundamental that it can be very hard to think clearly and rationally the way one normally might when considering any other philosophical argument. I know that this was the case for me.

It was more than a year ago when I actually  even started thinking about my faith and why it was the way it was. I had always be Catholic, went to parochial school, went to Mass every Saturday, was Irish-Italian (still am!), the whole deal. I thought once or twice about the existence of God; but I figured it was wrong to question it because if I came to the conclusion that God did exist, I already knew that; and if I came to the conclusion He didn’t–well . . . that was wrong.  Every year you would here the story of Jesus appearing to the apostles after he was resurrected, and the way Thomas doubted it was real. After which Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). We were taught that Thomas was wrong for wanting to have evidence–for wanting to observe–before believing. Rather than rationally and scientifically verifying what is truth and what is not, we were taught to just accept it.

My doubt all started in the summer before freshman year of high school. During this time I had shifted from enjoying watching TV to reading; up until then most of the books I had read were either assigned, or was recommended to read multiple times by my friends. I wanted to read a novel, so I went to the fiction shelves of the nearby library and picked up the biggest tome I could find. It just happened to be Atlas Shrugged. I had no idea what it was about. I heard it mentioned a number of times on TV–mostly in a negative light–and knew that it was a political or philosophical work, so I figured it would be pretty interesting. Anything they were so against must have something interesting in it.

Being a fairly slow reader–I like to take my time–reading an 1,168-page book, it was long overdue when I returned it. I would have regretted paying the fine if the book had not so much an effect on me. Just like any 14-year-old reading Ayn Rand, I was so swept up with her philosophy, believing everywhere should be like Galt’s Gulch. I have settled down now, and while I would not consider myself a die-hard objectivist, it has contributed a lot to both the political and economic views I hold today. I am more egoistic, capitalistic, and reasonable for having read it, but there are a number of her views I’d be less willing to embrace.

Ayn Rand portrait from back cover of Atlas Shrugged

The one thing that had a hard time changing after I read it: my religious views. All Rand’s protagonists were atheists, and there were a number of attacks on religion. I had become a victim of the Christian-Randian paradox that characterizes so many Tea Partiers. I have always had socially libertarian views on things such as sexual orientation, drugs, abortion, race, etc. Some of these were hard to reconcile with my Catholicism, but I had somehow found ways to lawyer my way out of the problems and through some form of mental gymnastics justify holding both views. With Atlas Shrugged, this was impossible to do. It had not converted me, but it was definitely the book that set the foundation for my shift in views.

Ironically, it was a Christmas gift that really caused the change. In addition to getting my very own sitar and a number of vinyl records–including a Piper at the Gates of Dawn record from 1967–I received an Amazon Kindle. I had some money to spare, so immediately upon setting it up I subscribed to two magazines: Fantasy and Science Fiction and Philosophy Now. The latter is the one of concern here. When you subscribe to a magazine on the kindle, you immediately get the most current issue, which on Christmas Day just happened to be Issue 99: “The God Issue.” It featured many different philosophers and theologians from all sides of the debate arguing for theism, agnosticism, atheism, and everything in between. By the end of the issue–which since I had really liked the publication came two days after–I had made it official to myself that I was an agnostic atheist. But just as my lesbian friend was closeted to her family about her sexual orientation, so was I with my beliefs. My parents are nice, as I mentioned above, and they wouldn’t kick me out of the house or punish me for my beliefs, or anything like that. But they still would be pretty unhappy. Whether I was Christian or atheist, however, I figured there was one thing I didn’t want to be: Catholic. Even before I had converted I had begun to distrust organized religion and I began to drift towards Protestantism. When I did convert, I chose to tell my parents I had become a Quaker. This was the Christian sect that I had had the least problems with. From my understanding, they were always very socially liberal and anti-authoritarian–not believing that one inherently higher than another. Since I have “become Quaker,” I have been trying to think of a way to tell my parents I do not believe in God. A few days ago, the idea popped into my mind to gather all the reasonable arguments against religion I could think of: some from atheist thinkers and some personal arguments from me. This is what I endeavor to do in this post.

First, I’d like to acknowledge the problem of evil, which is perhaps one of the most commonly cited arguments against the existence of god(s). The idea was first proposed by the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus sometime in the second or third century B.C. :

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both willing and able? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither willing nor able? Then why call him God?

Also called the “Epicurean paradox,” this argument refutes the Abrahamic view of God as an omnipotent, benevolent being. A number of Christian apologists have countered that, “God gives humans free will, and humans do evil.” I have to agree with Christians here when they argue that in order for one to be good–or evil–they need free will. Otherwise we would just be, as Anthony Burgess puts it, “clockwork oranges”–programmed machines with the appearance of life. The argument of free will, however, does not cover every evil. Firstly, I believe many Christians would agree that it when an evil act is done, it is the act that is evil, and not the results of the act. God doesn’t need to stop someone from trying to murder someone, but if he’s omnipotent, then he can surely save the victim from the murder. If one disagrees with this, then one would have to believe that while murder is evil, attempted murder is all right. Secondly, all the people who are hurt or killed by natural occurrences, such as disease, storms, animals–these things do not have free will (well, most animals don’t). God might not stop the murderer from killing, but can he not stop the hurricanes from spinning, or disease from spreading?

One argument in support of the existence of God that you hear a lot is that “you can’t disprove God.” Even when I was religious, I never really liked this argument. It is a classic example of the argument from ignorance fallacy: something is true because it has not been proven false (or vice versa). There are two problems here. Firstly, according to many theists God transcends reason. This makes it impossible to use reason to argue against it. You could make any assertion and say it transcends reason, and there would be no way  to disprove it. Secondly, it is not always the case that something is true because it has or cannot be proven false. Bertrand Russell offered the well-known cosmic teapot analogy: if one claims that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars,  and that this teapot cannot be detected by our current technologies, he can’t expect others to believe him on the grounds he can’t be proven wrong. The burden of proof, Russell illustrates, lies upon the person making unfalsifiable claims.

And who could debate religion without mentioning St. Thomas of Aquinas? His most famous Christian apologies are known as the Five Proofs of God–the Argument of the Unmoved Mover, the Argument of the First Cause, the Argument of Contingency, the Argument from Degree, and the Teleological Argument. The first three are all cosmological arguments and are very related, so I’ll address the Argument of the First Cause–which is the most cohesive–as well as the last two arguments. The Argument of the First Cause goes as follows:

  • Some things are caused.
  • Everything that is caused is caused by something else.
  • An infinite regress of causation is impossible.
  • Therefore, there must be an uncaused cause.
  • The cause is what we call God.

Ever since the advent of quantum mechanics, it is unclear if St. Thomas Aquinas’s second premise is correct. On the quantum level, it has been observed that things come from nothing all the time. I, personally, am not quite sure how this works or if it is true; and if you don’t know something about the natural world, you should just accept that you don’t know and try to figure it out, for if you attribute what you don’t know to God then you know just as  little about God and you have not solved anything. Aquinas third premise is also debatable. Multiverse theory would allow for infinite regression. Another one of Aquinas’s proofs, the Argument of Contingency, asserts that it is impossible that everything in the universe is contingent, because that would mean that there was a time when there was nothing, which means that there would still be nothing, for there would be nothing to bring anything into existence. Therefore, there is something incontigent that caused it. But for all we know, existence might exist because nonexistence literally can’t exist! And if everything is caused by something else, than how can God be an uncaused cause?

Even if there were a supernatural being, uncaused cause, unmoved Mover, etc. and you were able to prove this being through reason, it is very unlikely that this would be the Judeo-Christian God. There is so much disagreement even between Jews and Christians about the characteristics of God and divinity, and when you add all the other faiths to the mix–worshipping the “right God” seems to be less probable than winning the lottery! I always used to think when I was Catholic that I worshipped the right God. It was obvious. But then I thought, ‘Hindus, Pagans, and Zoroastrians believe theirs is the right one just as much as I do. If they didn’t feel there’s was the right one, they wouldn’t be worshipping them in the first place!’ How can we even say that this uncaused cause is even a personal being? It could just as likely be, as in Russell’s analogy, a teapot that created everything, pouring everything into existence. This raises the question, “Who created the teapot?” The same question can be applied to God. I remember reading an article in Philosophy Now written by William Lane Craig where he jumps to the conclusion that whatever initially started the universe is personal, when this is certainly not the case. The best way to decide which God to believe in would be to take into mind Pascal’s Wager. Seventeenth-century philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal states, rather honestly, that God cannot be proven. He continues, however, that God exists or he doesn’t. If he does exist, then the believer will gain infinite happiness when he dies and the nonbeliever will be punished forever. If he doesn’t exist, then the believer will suffer only a finite loss and the nonbeliever a finite gain. This means that nonbelievers, are either punished eternally or unaffected, whereas believers either gain infinite happiness or are unaffected. Therefore, the rational person should believe or learn to believe in God and not wager their life that he doesn’t exist.There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly, it presents a false dichotomy: either the Christian God or no god. As I stated above, the gods of Valhalla are just as probable as the Christian one. Therefore, if people accept Pascal’s Wager, they should join the religion possessing the best heaven and/or worst hell. In my opinion, this should converts Wagering Christian to Islam–a deep burning pit for hell, and 72 virgins in heaven.

I will include one more argument: the one from personal experience. Some people, including one’s I know, have said that they believe in God because they have personally experienced Him themselves. Whether or not that actually happened, such an experience can only offer substantial proof to the experiencer, and cannot be expected to persuade the nonbeliever–a fact acknowledged by some of those I know who claim to have had a spiritual experience. The only way to accept this argument then is to have an experience oneself, something I can say has never happened to me. I prayed everyday for more than 14 years, went to church every Sunday, I read the Bible, and I was an altar boy for a short time. I was a firm believer. I remember hearing about miracles, but I wondered why none affected anything in my life. Some people report different results, but none of my prayers were ever answered as far as I can remember. Even the smallest things I asked God for, even when I was really devoted, he never helped me in return.

But I’ve been ranting a while so I think it’s about time to wrap it up. I just believe what I can observe, and what I feel has enough supporting evidence. I concede that I don’t know everything about the universe; it’s as much a mystery to me as it is to believers. I don’t believe that the solution is to make things up. Even if there were a creator, I don’t believe we’d ever know enough to even basically characterize it. And if there is a God, well, in the words of Bertrand Russell when asked what he would say if he died and God were real:  

‘God,’ I shall say, ‘God, why did you make the evidence for your existence so insufficient?’

The great Bertrand Russell

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A few short articles and entries I’d suggest:

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