Few people have the courage to look beyond their contexts, and fewer still the courage to embrace what they find. Thus most will turn a blind eye to my logic, but perhaps there will be a few who will bare themselves to the raw implications of my story. Be the latter.
The aim of this essay is to explain how I arrived at the conclusion that atheism is the most probable answer to the God question. Note that it is not to convince you of my position, though you may find it convincing; the only persuasive aim I may have is to prick your curiosity. I have chosen a narrative format instead of a logically argumentative one because I wish for you to understand the events and thought processes that led to the formation of my position, as I believe many people reading this will find themselves in positions similar to my previous one. My essay is a bit long, but I assure you it is worth your time.
Before I begin it is necessary to briefly address the myth of certainty. I am nearly certain that it is impossible to know anything with perfect certainty. What we call “true” is simply an artificial construction of our minds based strictly upon the empirical sense-data we receive and organized by our intelligence’s faculties. Nothing more. Evidence and an attempt for proof of this point is outside the scope of this essay. However, the essential implication of such a view is that a proper epistemology will recognize the limitations inherent to the human and consequently employ a probabilistic heuristic over against an absolutist model. The best ontological formulation one therefore can hope for is a highly probable map of absolute reality with full knowledge it may not be entirely accurate. Accordingly, my quest for the truth about God will be couched in terms of probability rather than absolute existence or non-existence.
I, like many of my American generational counterparts, am a victim and beneficiary of information-age modernism. A beneficiary because of the unprecedented body of freely available information and a victim because of the confusion which arises due to contradictory claims contained in such a global body. With respect to religions, never before in the history of humanity have so many minds been acutely aware that their people group is part of a larger global community fraught with mutually exclusive conceptions of God. For example, even during early American history, arguably one of the most religiously heterogeneous experiments theretofore, most of the immigrants, while being divided doctrinally, still adhered to some version of Christianity. In addition, no mechanism was available whereby one could vividly demonstrate that a great number of intelligent, spiritual people in different parts of the world held conflicting supernatural beliefs. Given this extremely localized context compared to our own, it was much more practical to write off large swaths of humanity as irrational or simply incorrect. Now, however, in an increasingly “flat,” or connected context, it has become imminently necessary to find some way to reconcile the competing conceptions of the supernatural. I believe this to be the zeitgeist of my generation—finding truth in the midst of an unprecedented number of widely held, contradictory truth-claims. The popular answer, which I find insufficient, is the rejection of the absolute. The essence of postmodernism is this: if I trust George, Gracie and myself, but George, Gracie, and myself all hold mutually exclusive ideas, then what is true for George is different from what is true for Gracie is different from what is true for me. Never before the twentieth century would such a preposterous view of reality have been widely adhered to and the only reason it is commonly accepted today is the mammoth of plurality facing this new generation. Fundamentally, however, postmodernism merely surrenders to this giant rather than slay it. I have the intuitive gusto to believe there is a rational explanation for these disparate phenomena, particularly of the religious type, and it is in this spirit my story is framed.
After I obtained my undergraduate degree, I embarked on a study of world religions. I assimilated information about, in addition to others, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism and also about the history of their formations. In the process, I was confronted with the fact that fundamentalism, the idea that God has always been experienced the same way by all people, is antihistorical. I had always believed, as a good Christian does, that the God of the Jews was precisely the same God of the Christians and that any sufficiently exhaustive examination of their histories would reflect this. I was mistaken. In fact, the conceptions of God within only Judaism itself were mutually exclusive. For example, I, for the first time, understood that the Jews enslaved in Egypt initially conceived of YHWH as merely a tribal deity dedicated to their survival and material success. When it became inconvenient to believe this, however, for example during the time of the prophets when the northern and southern kingdoms were being destroyed by their enemies, they quietly abandoned this belief and chose instead to believe YHWH was an omnipotent being that either conquered or encompassed other gods and was using the other nations to judge the kingdoms. There are literally thousands of examples of this type where beliefs morph into contradictory yet more pragmatic versions of older ones both within Christianity and other religions. The examples listed are not meant as proof, but merely as representative samples of a large species of alike instances.
One can see the plurality of the conceptions of God I had to deal with extended now not only through the third dimension, but the fourth as well. In other words, not only did the diverse landscape of religious beliefs about God come from currently held ideas in other areas of the world (spatially), but also the immense amount of ideas held in their iterative versions throughout all of history (temporally). The mammoth had multiplied itself to gargantuan proportions.
In the face of such a behemoth of plurality, a key shift in the burden of proof took place. Before, naively assuming there were relatively few conceptions of God to deal with, it was reasonable to hold that since my theory of God seemed to be consistent with my reason, experience, and tradition, the burden of proof would rest with other religions. But two factors changed this: first, the amount of possible conceptions of God increased dramatically, and second, I realized there were billions of people who also had beliefs they considered consistent with their reason, experience, and tradition, and yet they were quite contradictory to mine. If a great many other people were using the same methods to justify their beliefs and yet many of them came to vastly differing conclusions, I could no longer trust those methods prima facie as I had before. This warranted a far more thorough analysis than I had previously given it.
On my new ground I was as neutral as possible. At this point, the chief question in my mind was epistemological, viz. “How can I know the true conception of God?” I believe there are three primary epistemological tools available to man: tradition, experience, and reason. Many protestant Christians would add Scripture to this list, but it is clear that Scripture is nothing more than an extension of tradition. I will digress a moment to further clarify my beliefs here, specifically because much of my audience is probably protestant. Scripture is merely a set of books containing narratives, poetry, wise sayings, apocalyptic writings, and incidental communiques, usually transmitted orally first (in most cases for a long time), then compiled, edited, and voted on. There was no magical aura placed over the “right” books and the authors were not magically possessed to say precisely the right things. Acceptance into the canon was determined by criteria as simple as a vote. Furthermore, Scripture contains many doctrinal contradictions which reflect its varied and colored formation. Martin Luther himself, widely believed to be the father of the Protestant Reformation, vehemently decried the canonization of James as it disagreed with his theology, closer associated with the Pauline view, and went to his grave calling for its removal. This is not to say that Scripture does not contain truth—in fact I believe it contains quite a bit of it—but it is to say that truth does not contain Scripture. In any case however, what is of chief importance here is that one recognize it is an extension of tradition. This is readily seen considering the oral tradition which formed much of it and the latter councils which canonized it.
Back to my original point. We have only tradition, reason, and experience at our disposal to evaluate the world. But how could I use these same methods to arrive at a more accurate conclusion, given that I had used them to justify my previous beliefs? The key is that I now employed these tools a priori, vs. a posteriori. Candidly, I had used my tradition, reason, and experience to shore up or tweak my position after I had assumed it was true. Now with the burden of proof shifting, I was forced to abandon my old position and evaluate all other positions impartially. This yielded a more accurate conclusion.
Presumably, to evaluate the traditional, reasonable, and experiential merits of each conception of God that has ever existed would take a great deal of time. In addition such an enterprise would have been very confusing because so many highly intelligent, spiritual, educated people have disagreed so vehemently. For example, regarding tradition, Protestant Christians would have argued to their graves that the Old and New Testaments were inspired, but so would the Muslims of their Qur’an. With regard to reason, as far as I can tell, every single religion on earth has considered itself reasonable, and as a result of modernity, arguments from reason supporting religions have increased considerably. Finally, with regard to experience, there were millions of loyal followers of each religion that would have died for the conviction that they had a personal experience with their version of God, though they be mutually exclusive. Though this confusion did not render the problem insurmountable, it was clear a more elegant way was needed to evaluate religions.
Such a method came to me after evaluating the problem for some time. In order to understand it, it will be necessary to establish some background information. When studying world religions, I came to understand that most Eastern religions believe in karma and reincarnation. In fact, they believe this to be the universal human condition, that the endless process of rebirth and redeath causes a great deal of pain. This is a completely different notion from the Western conception of the universal human condition, which says that separation from God causes a great deal of pain. These two different notions also have very different supposed remedies. In the West, it is reconciliation to God (through a number of avenues) and in the East, it is the ending of the cycle of rebirth and redeath (also through a number of avenues). It is imperative to realize if one were to split the world into these two categories, literally billions of ardent adherents would be represented on each side.
And it is here I had a stroke of genius: how could both of these broadly defined religious groups have been successful? It logically follows that if the Western religions were true then the universal human condition is that of a need for reconciliation to God, and no religion could be successful if it did not address this concern. And yet the while the Eastern religions did not remotely address such a concern, they were wildly successful. And conversely, if the Eastern conception of the human condition were true, that humans needed a way to end the cycle of rebirth and redeath, then the Western religions could never have succeeded and yet they did. Note that I am not saying popularity determines correctness. What I am saying is that since both religious groupings make unavoidable claims about the popularity of other religions, we can use popularity as a metric to evaluate these claims.
The main objection to this argument is that a religion can be successful without being optimal. In other words, that, say for example, the people in the East are living a suboptimal life compared to the truth of the Western religions. This objection is inadequate in two ways: it fails to recognize the severity of the predictions of each religion, and it it cannot account for the overwhelming satisfaction reported by adherents of each side. The fact is that if the Western conception of the human condition is true, there could be no satisfaction found in the East, and vice versa. Each side vehemently argues for their human condition as an innate and inextricable need. It is not fair to say the remedies proposed by each religious grouping are even close theologically. It follows then, that no halfway solution could have ever propagated a successful religion. And yet we see very high acceptance rates in each religious grouping. Some would argue that since religion is usually passed down generationally and is so tied to people’s cultural contexts the acceptance and satisfaction rates are meaningless. This fails because it cannot account for the original, very large group of people who found the religion satisfying in the first place.
The question then was “why were the Eastern and Western religions so successful?” If it was not because they were true, what elements contained within these religions made their acceptance rates so high? What was the true universal human condition of mankind that could account for the success of both religious groupings? Again after some time and study, I came to the conclusion that fear could universally describe the success of both Eastern and Western religious groupings. There are several basic fears that each religious grouping addresses: the fear of death, for example. In the West, it was believed one could inherit eternal life and admittance into heaven and therefore avoid death. In the East, it was believed one would either experience rebirth, or one would come to the point of realization that life is just a temporary bundle of consciousness and death was nothing more than the separation of this bundle. In either case (rebirth or nirvana) the fear was alleviated. Let us take the fear of the absence of security. In the East, such a fear was no longer necessary if one followed the religious plan because one learned to take refuge in nothing, which was ultimately a source of peace. In the West, the fear of the absence of security was alleviated because God was supposedly looking out for his followers. Adherents found great peace in this doctrine, just as in the East. Another example of fear would be the fear of the absence of meaning in life. In the West, the meaning of life was to become reconciled to God, a task which took a great deal of time and provided men a means to living a moral life. In the East, the meaning of life was to become nothing, or to extinguish the process of rebirth and redeath, which also took a great deal of time and provided support for morality.
There was no other logically probable possibility that could account for the success of both sides. Therefore I was forced to believe that the universal human condition was not what either side said it was; that both sides were being shortsighted. There is one other item I became aware of in the study of religions which pounded the last nail in the coffin. It turns out that historically, religious beliefs have always developed much more along the lines of convenience than of truth. In the Israelite example earlier, the beliefs about YHWH changed not because of some a priori, impartial logical or philosophical realization about God. Instead the change occurred because it was far more convenient to believe something different about God that provided a more meaningful and secure existence. In other words, it is highly probable that religions have employed tradition, reason, and experience after the fact to justify whatever convenient conception of God is needed at that moment. This is well documented and I do not intend to convince the novice theologian of this point here. But taken together, the formation of religions based on convenience vs. truth, and the truly universal human condition of fear that neither current Western nor Eastern religions can explain, it seemed to me highly probable that God was nothing more than an imagination.
An analogy will help: suppose you are in a room with a flyswatter and several flies. After you had swatted a few of them, to deal with the fear of the absence of security and meaning in their lives, they would develop beliefs about what is going on to help them cope. In order to deal with their fear of being swatted, it is possible they would develop the belief that you are a benevolent creature who only swats flies who have violated some sacred order, and therefore based on their fly-righteousness (or perhaps the righteousness of a Super-fly) they could be saved from swatting. In order to cope with their fear of death in general, they would perhaps develop the belief in the fly-afterlife wherein they would continue on in their fly-souls, and thereby alleviate their fear of death. In order to cope with the seeming injustice in their fly-world, it is possible some would develop a belief in fly-heaven and fly-hell where final justice would be enforced, and some others would possibly develop a belief in fly-karma and fly-reincarnation whereby in the next life based on their actions in the previous one, they would be repositioned on the scale of fly-importance accordingly. The analogy shows us that essentially, religious beliefs are a coping mechanism.
When, in the absence of meaning and security, humans could find none, it seems probable they simply reached beyond the realm of the visible and created beliefs that would shore up this deficiency. It was likely an evolutionary necessity that allowed mankind to ensure its survival in the face of extreme adversity. In our own time, given the new conditions of free access to information and globalization, if people will shed their biases, I believe there will be an increasing percentage of atheists who will “come out.” Whether or not “God” is still necessary to our survival is up for debate, but what is clear to me is that it is nothing more than an illusion.
When I came to this realization, I exclaimed “Oh my God! I’m an atheist.” And then I cried. So much of my understanding of security and meaning were wrapped up in these ideas that without them I felt naked and vulnerable. I was faced with the choice to go on as a Christian, laboring with enormous doubts, or to simply jettison faith altogether. It was an incredibly difficult decision to make considering the investment I had (and for that matter, others had) in my faith. But after much deliberation, I decided that regardless of the consequences, I had to believe that “veritas vos liberabit,” or, “the truth will set you free.” And that is how I came to be an atheist.