A/N: Were there a "Religion" section for prose, this would be there. "Essay" is less satisfactory in my eyes, but it's the best I can do.
I'm an atheist. That means that not only do I not positively believe in God (which is the agnostic's viewpoint), but that I positively disbelieve in him. This in itself is not at all an unusual position – around 28% of people here in Britain do not believe in God. ("God" is here used as a useful shorthand for any sort of supreme being[s].) However, I have rather unusual beliefs in certain other ways – I am a fur, as many of you will know, which in my case means that I consider myself kin to rabbits in some respects – and so perhaps have a slightly skewed perspective on things. That might be considered an advantage in a writer, and as I'm interested in the area anyway, I've recently been reviewing quite a few pieces here which bear on the whole subject of religion.
I've tried very hard to be fair in this, and for the most part I think I've succeeded; quite a few people have explained their beliefs in more depth in emails, I've done the same in return, we've agreed to differ and we've either kept in touch or parted on good terms. In a couple of cases, though, authors have taken me on in highly detailed email arguments, and after vigorous and interesting exchanges, I've been unable to convince them that their views were wrong. Effectively, I've conceded defeat to both of them by asking them not to continue the argument as I felt there was a danger of my descending into ad hominem attacks, which never do anyone any good. (Of course, comments relating to this essay are excepted from that request).
Now, it can't be that this is because they were both completely right, as one correspondent was Christian and one Muslim. At least one of them, by definition, has to be mistaken in their beliefs. So it won't do to say, "you couldn't counter my argument(s) satisfactorily; therefore I am right" - at least one of the theists must have won, not on the facts, but simply because they argued more strongly than I did. There are, I think, two main reasons for this:
1) I don't really want to convince them they're wrong.
2) I don't actually care all that much. It's just not very important to me.
Point 1 is straightforward: I'm a great believer (no pun intended!) in diversity, and actually think it would be rather sad if everyone believed the same thing so far as religion goes. I don't like the idea of going round cajoling people into changing their beliefs in any case, and yes, that includes missionary work. I believe that, in general, the missionaries themselves are sincere and honourable people… but I don't believe that missionary work in itself is a particularly commendable thing, and even less so in those cases where aid is explicitly linked to conversion. This is happily rare nowadays, at least so far as British workers go – Christian Aid, for example, has the best charity slogan I've ever seen: "we believe in life before death".
Point 2 is more interesting, and I'm sure there are those out there who will be startled, perhaps even shocked, at the idea that God's existence or otherwise should be a matter of little import, but to me that's exactly what it is. I'm writing this essay for my own enjoyment, because it's interesting to me to turn these things over in my mind; and for others' information, because… well, because you people are nosey! There's no great driving sense of duty here: I don't feel that this is something you all need to know.
So, having established that, and that anyone who argues against me strongly enough on this subject is likely to be conceded to, if only for the sake of a quiet life, let me explain, in my familiar rambling style, why religion as such isn't for me, and also why I think that an atheistic life can be a satisfying and fulfilling one.
One thing that many religions, especially the older monotheistic faiths, have in common is a central set of writings that are considered divinely inspired: the Bible, the Qu'ran and so on. This is my first problem, in that the explanation sometimes given for this sort of thing is a circular argument:
Theist: "I know that Generic Holy
Book [GHB] is the truth."
Questioner: "How do you know that?"
Theist: "Because it was divinely inspired."
Questioner: "But how do you know that?"
Theist: "Because it says so in GHB."
That clearly won't do. It really is a bit much to expect we atheists to accept an argument as weak as that. Most theists don't, of course, but a surprising number will employ something like it. Proselytising Christians, for example, sometimes come up to me in Birmingham city centre and try to get me to repent of all my sins and suchlike. Well, repenting of sins seems like a pretty good idea to me, but I'm not going to be blackmailed into it. For that's what their arguments consist of: "if you don't accept this faith then you will be cast into Hell". It sounds like one of the nastier chain letters - frankly, I'm sometimes surprised that they don't tell me to send my prayers to the next twenty-five people in my address book. In any case, in the eyes of these people I appear to be doomed to Hell anyway for being a fur, and that ain't negotiable… so what have I got to lose?
You see, it is absolutely useless to use your GHB as evidence to try to convert an unbeliever, because as we don't believe the book has any special status in the first place, so its contents have no special persuasive power. Telling me that God will be angry has no effect, as I don't believe he exists in the first place; how can I be scared of someone who doesn't exist? As one of my correspondents quite rightly said, an atheist who is swayed by such arguments isn't a proper atheist at all.
Anyway, enough of what I don't believe. That's playing into the hands of those who would call atheism empty and negative, which is a long way from how I see it. Let's look at what I do believe. And the first thing to consider is, what do I put in the "God-shaped hole" I am left with?
That's easy. Science. Rational science. Now, there will be theists who will jump up and down here and say that science and theistic belief are compatible. Well, they are and they aren't. Certainly, in many fields, it is entirely possible to combine belief in God with a successful scientific career. But I would say that it is not so much the practicalities that cause the problems, but the very philosophy underpinning science itself.
A bold claim, I know. But think of it this way: many religions reserve certain knowledge to a select band, a priestly class if you will. They may also teach that it is not for mortals to enquire into certain mysteries of the universe. In other words, there are things that ordinary humans not only do not know, but should not know. This is anathema to science, which must be for all. It is true that certain applications of science are restricted, but any attempt to forbid dissemination of the underlying knowledge strains the system to breaking point, if only because there is nothing to stop someone else, somewhere else, from obtaining said knowledge independently.
And we can go back to that "I know" that our friendly neighbourhood theist used earlier on. That won't do to a scientist either. Mathematical proofs may be definite, but they exist in a rarefied atmosphere all their own. What science is built on is experimental proof, and this by its very nature can never be entirely certain, as no matter how many times you have seen the Sun rise in the morning, you cannot prove that it will do so tomorrow: you can only predict on the basis of prior observation. One counter-example is enough to disprove any theory, and without any possibility of such disproof that theory is worthless. (It is perhaps as well here to point out the difference between a hypothesis and a theory – the latter is a hypothesis backed with evidence, and capable of being tested experimentally. It may not be practical to do so, for example when discussing black holes, but there should be no principled objection to such testing. So dismissing something as "only a theory" as though that meant it had been dreamt up on a whim is not credible.)
Next we can move away from the more conventional religions, and instead look at ideas and belief systems that have gained ground in recent years. One of the most notable is Paganism in its various forms, of which Wicca is probably the best known. This has an undeniable attraction for me, after all, because of the strong emphasis it places on Nature, which can't help but be attractive to someone who identifies as strongly with animals as I do. However, I still reject it because I cannot bring myself to accept the idea of supernatural forces or beings in any form. Spells, rituals and so on are simply not things I can take seriously. (I can, of course, take those who practise them seriously, but not as any sort of special case: it is not really that different to me from talking to someone with different political views.)
This also goes for the mish-mash of ideas that are lumped into an ill-fitting sack with "paranormal" scrawled on the outside. Really, my take on the whole thing is very simple – some might say simplistic – and is this: if it works, it's filed under Science/Nature (which I consider to be inseparable): if it doesn't, it's filed under Trash. Extra classifications are unnecessary. However, there is also a large pile of things not yet classified at all – a sort of in-tray, if you will. This is where we find subjects such as telepathy – it is known that the brain produces electromagnetic radiation, so might it not be the case that certain people, particularly receptive to such radiation, can sense more about the "transmitter's" mental state than is the norm? Well, we don't know. More research is needed. And experiments have proved that people can move cursors around a computer screen by moderating their brainwaves: one might even consider this a very limited form of telekinesis, though that is highly arguable, because the cursor is not physically in existence, but consists of various types of radiation. (Okay, so energy can be converted into mass, e=mc² and all that, but let's not quibble here.) These things are still at the in-tray stage, but there is no reason to suppose that they will remain there forever. And they certainly shouldn't be assumed to be unsolvable.
Let's move on. Not many believers these days consider that atheists are, in and of themselves, immoral. But quite a few believe that atheism is by its nature amoral. "If there is no higher power to judge you," they will complain, "what incentive have you to lead a good life?" This actually goes back to the blackmail argument – "live a good life, or God will get you," to put it deliberately crudely. I reject the idea that there is a "grand design" in our existence, and that we somehow need an extra shove from on high in order to behave well. The subject of altruism in animals is an extremely complicated one, with vast numbers of completely incomprehensible tomes dedicated to it, but I think most would agree that humans can be altruistic. In other words, I don't help Mrs Bloggs up from her fall because it gets me "Brownie points" with God: I do it because it's the right thing to do. The notion that humans can't be trusted with their morality and need an overseer with a metaphorical big stick is actually rather offensive to me.
Extremism is a problem in all religions, and so it is with atheism. A lot of harm was done by extremist regimes such as Enver Hoxha's Albania, where atheism was made compulsory and all worship banned. On a lesser scale, I don't think that Richard Dawkins, unquestionably one of Britain's greatest scientists, does himself any good with his constant hard line against not only belief but believers. This sort of thing in fact betrays what atheism should stand for – because if we're going to say that science's strength is that it is open to argument and debate, then we can't turn around and tell people that actually, their particular brand of argument isn't included in the offer.
So, there we are. Many of you theists out there are probably thinking something along the lines of, "is that it? It all sounds very wishy-washy and insubstantial". Well, quite. As I said above, it really isn't a hugely vital part of my life. I don't need cast-iron certainty: if I did, I'd probably be religious.