Andrew Zak Williams’s piece on atheists and their reasons for godlessness has finally appeared in The New Statesman. (This is a companion piece to Williams’s survey in April of why prominent religious people believe in God.)
The new piece is in two parts. First are the short explanations written by public atheists, called “Faith no more.” All the usual suspects are there, including Richard Dawkins, A. C. Grayling (whose statement is a model of terseness), P. Z. Myers, Sam Harris, Philip Pullman, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Ben Goldacre, Dan Dennett, Maryam Namazie, and me.
For almost all of us, it comes down to one thing: lack of evidence. That’s true even for P. Z., who has previously argued that there is no evidence for a deity that he’d find convincing, since the whole idea of a god is incoherent:
I am accustomed to the idea that truth claims ought to be justified with some reasonable evidence: if one is going to claim, for instance, that a Jewish carpenter was the son of a God, or that there is a place called heaven where some ineffable, magical part of you goes when you die, then there ought to be some credible reason to believe that. And that reason ought to be more substantial than that it says so in a big book.
To me, at least, this part of P.Z.’s statement presumes that there could have been some evidence.
Others, like Sam Harris and Andrew Copson, adduce the palpable fact that religions are obviously human inventions.
A few highlights: Richard Dawkins’s note on Cherie Blair:
Equally unconvincing are those who believe because it comforts them (why should truth be consoling?) or because it “feels right”. Cherie Blair [“I’m a believer”, New Statesman, 18 April] may stand for the “feels right” brigade. She bases her belief on “an understanding of something that my head cannot explain but my heart knows to be true”. She aspires to be a judge. M’lud, I cannot provide the evidence you require. My head cannot explain why, but my heart knows it to be true.
Why is religion immune from the critical standards that we apply not just in courts of law, but in every other sphere of life?
“In the last 10,000 years there have been roughly 10,000 religions and 1,000 different gods; what are the chances that one group of people discovered the One True God while everyone else believed in 9,999 false gods?”
Bioethicist John Harris:
A rational person does not waste time believing or even being agnostic about things that there are no good reasons to accept.
I was quite puzzled by Ben Goldacre’s statement, which asserts that he simply has no interest in the question. It almost seems like an attempt to avoid taking a stand, except that Goldacre is no coward. After all, there could have been a deity responsible for the universe—at least most humans think so—and that belief has conditioned a huge segment of human culture and behavior. Why is it uninteresting? If there’s no evidence for gods, well, then that’s a good reason to cease caring, but to not care a priori?
I think probably the main answer to your question is: I just don’t have any interest either way, but I wouldn’t want to understate how uninterested I am. There still hasn’t been a word invented for people like me, whose main experience when presented with this issue is an overwhelming, mind-blowing, intergalactic sense of having more interesting things to think about. I’m not sure that’s accurately covered by words such as “atheist”, and definitely not by “agnostic”. I just don’t care.
I was deeply puzzled by Stephen Hawking’s statement:
I am not claiming there is no God. The scientific account is complete, but it does not predict human behaviour, because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model, which can include free will and God.
“The scientific account is complete”? Account of what? It’s not even complete in physics! And why on earth would our failure to make “equations” to solve human behavior (God help us, what an ignorance of biology the man has!) somehow allow models including not only free will, but God? The statement is largely incoherent.
And, after laboring a long time on my own statement, I can only envy how well Anthony Grayling says it all in a single sentence:
I do not believe that there are any such things as gods and goddesses, for exactly the same reasons as I do not believe there are fairies, goblins or sprites, and these reasons should be obvious to anyone over the age of ten.
Several people, including me, mention the problem of evil, which can be “solved” by theologians only by the most circuitious and unconvincing logic. Others take the Laplace stance: we don’t need God.
But go read them all, and take comfort that so many rational people have converged on the same reasons for atheism. I haven’t had time to read the comments (I’m off to the Hermitage), but perhaps readers can highlight some of the better or funnier ones.
In a separate piece called “The invisible Big Kahuna,” Andrew Zak Williams summarizes the answers. Although I don’t know his own stand on religion (I didn’t ask him when he interviewed me), it seems that he’s sympathetic to atheism. This is based on the peroration of his piece:
But if you rely on blind faith, what are the chances that you’re going to see the light?
For others, their religion satisfies them intellectually. Yet when they can’t reason their way past specific problems (say, suffering or biblical inconsistencies), their faith comes riding to the rescue. But faith is hardly a white horse: more like a white elephant, trumpeting a refusal to engage in debate as though it were something about which to be proud.
The atheists that I spoke to are the products of what happens to many intelligent people who aren’t prepared to take important decisions purely on faith, and who won’t try to believe simply to avoid familial or societal pressures. And as philosopher Daniel C. Dennett put it: “Why try anyway? There is no obligation to try to believe in God.”
And then, after quoting P.Z.’s very strong attack on religion, Williams simply says, “Amen to that.”