Friday, October 18, 2013

Why I am an Atheist (and not an Agnostic)

--- first posted to OKCupid journal 8/2/09 ---

Someone recently emailed me asking why I call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic. It puzzled her, as my profile describes me as an intellectually curious person. To her, agnosticism seems more open-minded, by allowing for the possibility of deities.

The following was my response.

First off, there is the "Intelligent Design" argument: how could anything so complex as, say, the human eye, come into being without being designed by some intelligent being? I think evolution is the ONLY explanation that makes any sense, and an excellent one, well-founded in the physical evidence we have. Richard Dawkins sums it up well at the end of The Blind Watchmaker:

"If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it!"

Next, there is the absurdity of being asked to disprove the existence of something for which there is absolutely no evidence of existence. To me, accepting the possibility of any gods (christian, greek, babylonian, mayan, or otherwise) is akin to accepting the possibility of leprechauns. Can I *prove* leprechauns don't exist? No. Therefore, should I be "agnostic" about the existence of leprechauns? No, because the probability that leprechauns (and gods) are folklore, simply creations of the human psyche, is entirely credible (there are abundant examples of all manner of fantasies dreamed up by humans, to satisfy our need for order), whereas the actual existence of such mystical beings has no real evidence, ever, anywhere. 

Just because one can postulate something that can't be proven doesn't mean one should give such arguments any weight, unless there is real evidence to indicate it is worthy of consideration. I could say that the moon was once inhabited by human-like creatures who stood 10 feet tall. Can you prove me wrong? No, no more than I can prove there isn't a christian god or a roman god. But is my statement worthy of consideration? Not unless I can actually show real evidence that would indicate 10 foot tall human-like creatures may once actually have lived on the moon. Likewise, there is absolutely no evidence any godlike creatures have actually existed. None. On the other hand, are there creatures that create stories to explain that which they don't understand? Yes! Humans regularly make up and believe all kinds of crap that has no basis in reality.

So, on the one hand, no actual evidence of gods; on the other, mountains of evidence that humans are prone to make up and believe fantasies to satisfy their own psychological needs.

As for the labels, I think most who call themselves agnostics are really atheists, but as not to ruffle the feathers of god-believers, they accommodate by saying "hey, not for me, but what do I know?" As for "curiosity and open-mindedness," I think atheism is far more so than agnosticism. Agnosticism gives weight to a narrow-minded human-centric (egocentric, narcissistic) view of the universe: that we are special, God/Daddy/Mommy made us in his image and will take care of us. It's the same mindset that had us believing the sun revolves around the earth. It's natural for humans to project their neediness (and desire for Mommy/Daddy love/structure) on the world even after we've left childhood and our families (we see the same projections in our political system; read George Lakoff). However, the atheist takes an objective "open-minded" perspective and sees these manifestations of human emotional needs for what they are.

It's also arrogant and narrow-minded to think we can know everything. Creating an entity called "God" to tie up all those disturbing loose ends about the nature of time-space is not, as it might appear,  an example of human humility, but rather another manifestation of human arrogance, and our need to label everything, in order to feel in control. I have no problem with not understanding the complete nature of time-space. Though we may continue to draw better and better maps of reality, we may not EVER be capable of perfectly doing so, given the limits of the senses we have and the limits of the cognitive maps our brain cells allow us to draw. So what? It's still fascinating- no gods necessary.

Thus, I am an atheist. I also don't believe that angels exist, nor pigs with wings.

I certainly understand why it's comforting for people, especially those with exceedingly difficult lives, to believe in gods and other fictions. I'm sure it makes many of them happier, and many of them better kinder people. But I think the overall destructive downsides of belief in such fictions more than outweighs any benefits to society.

[NOTE:I've no interest in debating the existence of deities with those of you who choose to comment on this post, anymore than I care to debate the existence of Santa Claus or leprechauns. If you believe in deities, it's a matter of faith, not logic, and as such, can't be debated. Comment, if you feel like it, but it's quite likely I won't respond.

Also, for those of you who have not seen the Mr. Deity sketches, I highly recommend a visit to the website. They are brilliantly done. ]