12 November 2011

You've Become An Atheist, Now What?

All right, you've decided that god doesn't exist. I'm right there with you, but please forgive me if I question your motivations. If you're new to atheism, I'd say it's a good bet that your foundation of non-belief is still a little shaky. I don't assume to know why you've decided to declare yourself as a godless heathen, and don't think that I don't believe you, but as I'm about to explain, there's more to atheism than simply declaring that god doesn't exist. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: all that being an atheist means is that you don't believe in a god. There is no doctrine or set of morals that you have to follow. What I mean by "more" is this: the idea of god is so pervasive in our society and its believers are so persistent in touting their arguments, it is thus imperative that you reinforce your raw disbelief with real knowledge and rational thoughts.

Many people find themselves turning away from god because they cannot fathom why evil exists despite his omnipotence and supposed benevolence. Others still have had bad experiences with Church clergy. There are even some who simply never grew up with much religious pressure and gradually realized that there wasn't anything to believe in. I'm one of those. However, if you're a logician, you may notice that none of these reasons for turning away from god are actually arguments against his existence. They're primarily emotional intuitions that god probably doesn't exist, but, at best, you can say that you merely doubt his existence or maybe even misunderstand his nature. That's what a believer would pounce on when trying to turn you back to the flock, anyways.

When you think about it, no matter how you define god, the question of if one exists or not is ultimately a question about how reality works. If we believe that god actually interacts with reality, then studying the world should reveal god's nature. If god does not interact with the world, then contemplating one's existence is futile. The quick truth of the matter is that the people who are intimately involved in studying the world are the ones who are most likely to not believe in god. Why is that? Two reasons: the more we understand about the world, the more we see that it follows predictable and unbiased physical laws, and personal experiences of god can be generalized with well-understood psychological principles. What that means is that if god does exist, the most specific definition we could give it would be that of the unchanging, unpersonified laws of physics. That's a far cry from the classically defined meddling god of the bible.

But let's be honest, it's not always the big broad views of the world that inspire all of us to believe in god, sometimes it's the personal touches that we experience in our lives. It's the coincidences that make us feel like someone is looking out for us. It's the privileges we have that we must thank someone for. It's the strength we cannot find anywhere else but in something greater than us. Sometimes, it's even the voice inside our head that we cannot deny. The best response to all of that is always skepticism; is it really god? Do we have any proof? Could we be mistaken? Could it be that we are misled about the rarity of luck? Could it be that for every good thing we experience, we're ignoring a dozen bad things? Could it be that we have the strength within us already? Could it be that the voice is really our own?

If I were a doctor treating you for religion exposure, this would be my prescription:
  1. A basic understanding of the natural sciences: physics, biology (especially evolution and neurology), and cosmology.
  2. A basic understanding of the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics.
  3. Exposure to logic: the black swan theory, and probability theory.
  4. The cultural history of religion.
Here is what I would not suggest:
  1. Countering apologetic arguments.
  2. Pointing out flaws in your old beliefs.
  3. Reconciling your old beliefs with your new knowledge.
The reasoning behind my method is as follows. Arguments in favor of god's existence do not matter. With a competent knowledge of the natural world and how it works, any possible definition of god falls into one of three categories. God is either a) irrelevant to existence, b) confined to the gaps in our knowledge of the natural world, or c) precluded from existing because his definition conflicts with verifiable facts. Of those three categories, only one need be taken semi-seriously; the god of the gaps. But this is a pathetic position for god to be in, as the all-powerful creator of the universe is now confined to nothing more than an ever-receding pocket of ignorance while the scope of our knowledge expands with every new scientific discovery.

Many born-again Christians claim that they used to be atheist as well. This is a tactic to make the atheist position appear to be assailable, but the truth may be that they never really understood what it meant to lack belief in a god. It all boils down to a single idea: reinforce your understanding of the world with real knowledge and the understanding of how knowledge is defined. With that foundation, any argument that seeks to tell you that you're wrong must pass through the same gauntlet of scrutiny that every other truth that we know about the world had to survive before we called it truth. You'll find that god, any way you look at it, fails the test every time. Then you'll know that you're really an atheist.

My personal resource list:

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - Introduced me to a new way of thinking about historical analysis, probabilities, and so-called "experts."

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely - Helped me understand that decision-making is not always about our preferences and abilities.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins - Gives a thorough-but-basic overview of evolution and all of the sciences that go into understanding it.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - Details the nature of natural selection by analyzing it's smallest unit; the gene.

A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss - This hour-long talk will update you on the current state of physics and cosmology in terms of understanding how the universe may have begun and how it may end.

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene - A thorough understanding of the physical nature of existence. Was just turned into a NOVA miniseries for easy consumption.