Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, October 14, 2011


PZ has solicited people to write "Why I am an Atheist" essays which he is selectively posting. I'm not going to enter the competition because a) I wouldn't be a winner and b) it doesn't really make sense to me to apply an affirmative label to myself based on what I don't believe. True, I'm not religious but I don't believe in Santa Claus either, and neither fact constitutes my identity or serves to explain or describe me.

What I do believe is not simple to explain. To begin with, there are various senses of "belief." I could say that I believe Shakespeare was a great writer, for example. One true fact about me is that I am an admirer of Shakespeare. Some people are either unfamiliar with Shakespeare's work, or don't care for it as much as I do. Our lack of shared belief in this case does not entail any contradiction. You can feel any way you want about Shakespeare as a writer, including having no opinion at all, without in any way calling into question my feelings about the Bard.

I also believe that the plays were written by the son of a local official and glove maker from Stratford-upon-Avon. Some people don't believe that. Therein does indeed lie a contradiction. We cannot both be right. This is what is called a truth claim as opposed to a personal preference or taste. However, we might have these opposing beliefs while sharing pretty similar criteria for evaluating truth claims. Perhaps we have not seen all of the same evidence, or make different judgments about probabilities. We might argue passionately but the fundamental nature of reality is not at stake.

Next, I believe that Shakespeare was the descendant of creatures that lived in Africa around 6 million years ago whose descendants also include chimpanzees. You might believe that he is the descendant of people created magically from dust by a supernatural being less than 10,000 years ago. These opposing claims cannot possibly be based on similar criteria for judging truth, because the kinds of evidence that exist for them are completely different. The evidence for my conclusion consists of an overwhelming body of observations about the remains of ancient creatures preserved in rock; the biology of chimpanzees, humans, and other creatures including their DNA and everything having to do with genes and gene expression; geology; cosmology; and observations about the distribution of all sorts of creatures around the planet and their interactions with their environments and in many cases, their observable evolutionary change over time. And more. It's based on a broad, complex picture of reality built up painstakingly, piece by piece, from evidence.

The supernatural being making the man from dust, however, is based entirely on the contents of an ancient book written by people who had no evidence whatsoever for the story they told. They were just imagining it. And it is full of both internal contradictions and contradictions with observable reality. Believing such a story is just silly. We know more than they did because we have been studying the world, and writing down our observations, and passing them on to the next generation, so each knows more than the last.

So the question is not why am I an atheist. I'm an atheist because there is no meaningful evidence whatsoever for the existence of God; and because the concept of God is both internally contradictory and contrary to readily observable reality. That isn't really even worth an essay. I find it trivially obvious. The question is why so many people cling fiercely to silly stories. That requires an essay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful and wonderfully logical.