On Being an Atheist
by Greg Spearritt
In some quarters, at least, atheism seems to have a bad name. In the minds of many it conjures the combative and contrarian spirit of Dawkins and Dennett.
The Psalmist famously avers that "the fool says in his heart there is no God", though it seems he was really talking about wickedness rather than disbelief. Arguably, too, the writer was casting aspersions on believers and unbelievers alike, since he goes on to say, "All have turned aside… there is no one who does good, not even one." Not a glass-half-full kind of guy. And not, in the present context, grist for our mill.
Robert Dessaix in What Days Are For tells us that:
… atheists define ’God’ and declare that this entity doesn’t exist… Trying to be an atheist strikes me as a real fool’s errand, as foolish as hunting the snark, an endeavour that can end very badly indeed, we might recall, if the snark we’re hot on the trail of is a boojum, in which case, like the baker in Lewis Carroll’s poem, we might ’softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.’ We have been warned.
I admire much of Dessaix’s writing, but for my own case of atheism this is codswallop. He’s right, of course, about atheists vanishing, never to be met with again, but that fate awaits us all, atheists or not. I haven’t met too many dogloving believers who really think their beloved Fido will survive death, so why should people? Sorry to break it to you so baldly, but people are animals too. And any genuine dog-loving believer knows dogs have ’souls’.
My beef with Dessaix’s careless prose on this subject is that I have never ’tried to be’ an atheist, and I don’t go around ’declaring’ that God doesn’t exist. My lack of belief is not my fault at all; it wasn’t a choice. The more I learned about religion and religions, the more God faded away like the Cheshire Cat until I came to realise He (She/It) was gone.
I’m of the view that the only philosophically respectable position is agnosticism. Nonetheless, I’m happy to call myself an atheist because it just rings true for me that there’s No One There. Other than in a very abstract philosophical sense I’m not agnostic about fairies or goblins either – with A.C. Grayling, I’m an ’afairyist’ and an ’agoblinist’ as well as ’atheistic’.
Further, I call myself a ’materialist’. Clearly there are ’spiritual’ realities – love, generosity, aesthetic appreciation, hatred and so on – but I’d argue these are by-products of our axons and synapses. That is not the same, please note, as saying they’re unimportant.
I’ve seen a number of purported evidences of the supernatural nature of reality, but I have yet to find one compelling. For example, I was involved in a spiritualist reading once where the dead were lining up (apparently) to talk to those gathered. It was as clear a case of ’cold reading’ as I could imagine, with the ’psychic’ making guesses and dropping the mis-hits like hot potatoes, while assiduously following up on naïve/honest self-revelations that were in any way closer to the mark. Unfortunately there was no-one waiting to talk to me that night. Perhaps those on the other side were pissed off with my sceptical attitude.
To be sure, there are stories of uncanny events for which I have no explanation. If anecdotes were evidence, however, we’d be back in the sixteenth century (or in 21st century Papua New Guinea) putting witches to death. And there are plenty of things we have yet to learn about the world/reality.
If we’re talking about the nature of reality, though, or about the reality of ’God’ (whatever that word means), my bottom line is the scientific method. It is our best means of preventing us from fooling ourselves. Before you object that God is not graspable by science, please acknowledge that many claims about Him/Her can in fact be subjected to science. God heals is one such instance. Many claim that Jesus fixes bad backs and mystery diseases. This is the view for example, of those at the ’Jesus Tent of Miracles’ which has pitched from time-to-time in Toowoomba’s Queen’s Park. However, there is no clear evidence from reputable scientific trials, that ailments can be rectified by prayer (though the power of the god Placebo is well recognised in the literature). And to be blunt, all the evidence, to boot, suggests that God hates amputees. When did you last hear of someone or some creature, other than a salamander perhaps, growing a limb through faith in Jesus? (see http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/ for more.). Similar arguments apply to messages from the dead, water divining and the power of crystals.
Atheism, then, even when informed by science, need not rule out some of what we have come to know as religious or spiritual attitudes. I love sunsets, human kindness and (some kinds of) art as much as the next man or woman. I will continue to be open to genuine evidence, and if it requires me to change my mind, that’s what I’ll do. In fact, I’ll do it without conscious choice, since we don’t choose what we believe (’belief’ here in the sense of ’what rings true’ rather than allegiance to something). Who knows? I might even be a ’theist’ again one day.