A Plain Man's Atheism

A common sense rather than intellectual rejection of the supernatural

Shy Atheist

First, I make a plea for civilised co-existence. Though denying the existence of god, atheists need not be enemies of the church. Indeed, I am loath to see our places of worship diminish further, for they have brought, and bring, solace and companionship to millions over the centuries. Organised religion serves a natural need for so many, and atheists should respect that need, notwithstanding the unspeakable sins of the church. Most worshippers are guiltless of those sins.

Atheism and religion, though opposites, complement one another. God is the business of both and neither is in danger of dying. I cannot be so sanguine about the fate of the churches, and if that sounds paradoxical, it is because in my view the church has no direct relevance to the debate on whether or not god exists.

Note: References to the ‘church’ should generally be taken to mean the Christian church, my home ground, though much of what follows applies to other religions too.

I take the liberty of referring to god as ‘He’, the most preposterous assumption in human history. Should I use ‘She’? It would certainly balance things up, but I fear it would look contrived. So I shall reluctantly go along with tradition and for ease of reference use the reverential ‘He’. Besides, the plain man sometimes refers to himself in the third person and, being unfailingly modest, would wish to avoid confusion with Him.

I would never try to convert those happy in their faith (only agnostics and other don’t-knows are fair game). The religious are to be envied their certainty and inner peace and, when all is said and done, atheists can be no surer that they are right. Atheism need not be combative.

A recent convert to atheism, I remember how large a non-sectarian god loomed in my life, and this ensures my continuing empathy for believers. Nor can I entirely rule out that on my deathbed I shall take fright and yell my head off for god’s forgiveness (but I doubt it!). There will of course never be a meeting of minds between belief and atheism, but one hopes for mutual tolerance. Isn’t the world quarrelsome enough?

Christianity was the religion handed down to me, just as people born in Iran or Saudi Arabia inherit Islam. But I was a Christian in name only, being lucky enough to live in a country permitting dissent. How many in the world are as lucky? In so many countries children are practically branded with the local faith, and can renounce it only on pain of death.

It was like that in Christendom once, with dissenters murdered in the name of god. Today Islamic extremists kill in the name of their god. Isn’t it curious how much hatred the love of god can inspire? But it is the grander theme of god Himself that is my quarry, not human homage to Him. References to the church will nevertheless creep in, since its dogma has inevitably coloured our perceptions.

Modern atheist writers tend to make a meal of debunking Christianity, but in the plain man’s view they are barking up the wrong tree. I see no need to question religious dogma in asserting my atheism because the church is a red herring in all this. In their fear of the unknown, people were always going to pray to some higher authority and this fear would be harnessed by clever men. From the atheist point of view, the church that resulted is no more than a conduit for human pleading to an imagined god. It follows that collective worship should be seen more as a social or psychological phenomenon than having a bearing on whether or not god exists.

Did a supernatural being create the universe and is He still around to protect us? That is the question. The church’s answer is based in the supernatural and thus suspect in most twenty-first century eyes. It also explains dwindling Christian congregations. Since science cannot prove anything either, we should give that most reliable of guides, common sense, a hearing. It is one of the few things on which the plain man can rely.

These atheist writers are probably imbued with as much common sense as the rest of us, but the moment they take up a pen, it is squeezed out by their formidable erudition. So busy are they assembling arguments and anecdotes that they fail to capture the essence of atheism, in particular the experience of embracing it.

Let’s take Richard Dawkins, the distinguished biologist, whose The God Delusion is an excellent compendium of historical and current thinking on atheism. While the anti-religious message is clear, it contains passages of such abstruseness as to fly over the head of the average reader, including the plain man’s. Dr. Dawkins deals for example with irreducible complexity, the anthropic principle and non-overlapping magisteria. Though mischievously selected, these items suggest that he is writing as much for his academic peers as for the general public. I believe that an agnostic seeking a path to atheism will give these scholarly indulgences short shrift. One feels for Dr. Dawkins, who inevitably writes less as a human being than as a scientist (the two are not incompatible of course), but his intellectual rigour does make his work a mountain to climb.

The God Delusion also carries arguments such as the epistemological and the metaphysical and others which should have been confined to the ivory tower of their birth. Though proud products of the human intellect, they tend to confuse the man in the street, and it is against this reluctance to see the wood for the trees that the plain man conspires.

To be fair, Dr. Dawkins’ book is not entirely taken with giving Christianity a hard time. He frequently takes the broader view, as revealed by his passages on the Great Prayer Experiment (the efficacy of prayer wasn’t established), the beauty argument (how to explain the Shakespeares and Bachs) and morality without god. With his usual flair he deals with these and other areas of relevance to our debate, in most of which the plain man would fear to tread.

The God Delusion sold more than three million copies, owing much no doubt to its author’s reputation as well as to his appealing title. Yet I doubt that it converted many to atheism, or even that it meant to.

But need the debate be an intellectual one? I believe that the adoption of atheism is to a large extent intuitive and that works in the atheist cause are on the whole ill-suited to the heavy hand of scholarship. It is a less complex subject than our savants suggest, with the gut playing its part as much as the brain.

There is a section at the beginning of The God Delusion entitled Deserved Respect, which one might anticipate as a sweetener before the assault on religion. But it’s not that at all. It’s a heartfelt cry that religion receives too much respect. What chance did it have of a sympathetic hearing? Very little, and for me the relentless axe-grinding proved counterproductive. A brief recognition of the good the church has done, whatever its falsehoods and cruelties, would have struck the right note. A little magnanimity always goes down well with the reader and needn’t lead to a weakened argument.

Perhaps that is easier for me to say because I am not in direct conflict with the church, but rather with the existence of god. Dr. Dawkins is more earth-bound, by which I mean he is guilty of those same sins of myopia as may be levelled against the church. To become an atheist, one must look away from the words and deeds of men and women, for they are mere distractions in our search for the truth. We have to think on another plane, about the supernatural and whether we can believe in it.

I have criticised Dr. Dawkins for saying too much, but does this essay say too little? Maybe, but I believe the adoption of atheism is a simple rejection of god on the grounds of non-belief in the supernatural. It requires courage rather than intellect, common sense rather than knowledge. There is no need to heed the opinions of sages, because one can arrive at the truth by simple deductions such as a child might make.

The burden of proof is on those holding a positive belief, in god in this case. Since the religionists have produced no evidence of god, logically they have no case. Atheists are obliged to prove nothing, for they represent only the absence of belief, or the negative viewpoint. They can however argue the sheer implausibility of the religious view. It might be said too that atheists have a good deal of circumstantial evidence that would probably persuade a jury, beyond all reasonable doubt, that god does not exist, a benevolent god at least.

It is time to tell you why I became an atheist. For most of my life I was naïve, but so were most others. Atheism was practically a taboo subject. It never had the exposure that religion enjoyed and atheists were seen as unpleasant people going against the grain just for the sake of it. They were lumped with Marxists and men with rings in their ears. They weren’t like us, who, despite our ups and downs, stayed largely content with the order of things. It was so easy to accept the Christian god as part of that conventional world that we rarely explored alternatives.

I now see how much it stretches credulity to think that god, who made the whole universe let’s remind ourselves, would really have the time and willingness to listen to our problems. The earth is a speck in space, and yet the mighty creator listens to the prayers of each and every one of us? No, it is how we would like it to be and how society has told us that it is, but we should see it for what it is, no more than wishful thinking.

For the prayers of everyone to be heard, there would need to be a divisible god, for not even He could give a million supplicants his undivided attention. If He’s listening to you, He can’t be listening to little Millie down the road unless He is a multi-faceted god, and I never heard tell of such. When one considers the myriad of prayers offered worldwide, the futility of the act becomes clear.

But, believers argue, faith involves the supernatural and in that medium anything is possible. It is an argument difficult to refute and we must accept the reality of faith. But it is surely far-fetched to claim that our prayers are carried as if by magic into god’s presence. On this point, the plain man absolutely trusts his common sense.

As we have seen, Richard Dawkins has a section on The Great Prayer Experiment, which illustrates the inefficacy of prayer. But I think we knew that. The Battle of Passchendaele was fought in an era when probably most people prayed. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers who perished there would have prayed at some stage of the battle, as would their families back home. Did god nonetheless allow those soldiers to die by the thousand, and in the most miserable circumstances imaginable? Yes, He undoubtedly did, and being ubiquitous, He would have seen them die. The slaughter nevertheless continued unabated.

Prayers could never have been more fervent than those on the eve of that battle, but what did they achieve? No more, no less than prayers elsewhere and in other times. A god would have shown compassion in some way, there at Passchendaele and at all the other places where such horrors have taken place.

The atheist of course refuses to accept, even if god existed, that such deaths would have served His purpose. What purpose was more important than the lives of thousands of young men with everything to live for? It was coldly calculating of the church ever to pretend that such slaughter served some inexorable purpose. Wars are human tragedies of enormous proportions with no mitigating factors. They are as old as mankind and continue today, unchecked by god. Has he been content to let them happen? It seems so, if He’s there.

Do even Christians imagine that things might have been worse in a godless universe? It’s always been a pretty wretched world, with most of its creatures under threat of slaughter and consumption by others. But you can’t have a perfect world, I hear you say. We wouldn’t be the people we are had we not battled against adversity at times. How would we recognise happiness without having known despair? We love this world of good and bad, just as it is. Paradise would confuse us.

The plain man finds this a disarming argument. Life would certainly lose much of its value and interest without its ups and downs. One can look back on bleak periods in life and see that they did no harm in the long run. They might even have done some good, such as strengthening one’s character. So where does one draw the line between minor ills like breaking a leg, and greater ones like Passchendaele when accusing god of negligence? Since god’s indifference is a large part of my argument, I should do my best to answer.

It is difficult to categorise the kinds of misfortune which (this imagined) god should have prevented or alleviated. A terminally ill young person is an obvious example where compassion would be expected of a benevolent god. Yet should god intervene whenever death threatens the young or when any kind of tragedy strikes an individual? In an ideal world, yes, of course, and certainly in response to prayer. But taking the point that paradise isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, should god be excused His non-intervention in some individual cases? I fear we are entering a labyrinth here, for what is the difference between thousands dying in a plague and thousands dying in individual accidents? At the end of the day they are all human tragedies which should cause anguish in a caring god.

Clearly no lines can be drawn between misfortunes of varying severity. We can contemplate only the totality of suffering for which we feel god should have shown some pity. Had He, just once, displayed His compassion in a universally recognisable way, we would all be His devout followers. But He never has and the strong likelihood is that He never will.

All this assumes a benevolent god who has been indifferent to our suffering, but I suppose you could have a well-intentioned god with no power to intervene. But what good would a powerless god be to anyone? God is meant to be feared for his power to change things. We’ve made Him somebody who can do things for us. But might there be an impotent god who looks on as we stumble from one disaster to another? I don’t think so, but if there were such a god, he could at least be forgiven His inaction.

Once god is seen as a fiction, it is reasonable to assume that life on earth has unfolded in a totally random way. Even natural selection, also a random process, has had no need of divine assistance, being an instrument of change according to circumstance. Some say that an accidental world couldn’t have produced, for example, a perfectly formed horse. They say it must have been designed, by god it is assumed. A horse is certainly a beautiful animal and one can see why the design argument is made. But never underestimate Nature. Thanks to Darwin, we know that creatures have adapted to conditions over the millennia. Millions of years ago, the horse stood twenty inches high. Today it commonly stands at sixty inches. That’s evolution for you. It is more than capable of producing its own beauty.

My own god was based on a vague idea that somebody or something must be behind the creation of the universe and must still be around. Why would He desert his creation? I sometimes prayed to this mysterious being, especially when things weren’t going well. It protected me, knew my life history and would ensure I came to no grief if I behaved decently. It was a sort of friend, albeit an infuriatingly silent and invisible friend. This kind of religious experience is surely a common one.

I was always suspicious of god’s elusiveness. Why would He choose to remain silent and hidden? There seemed no sensible reason, based in love at least, why He didn’t manifest himself in some way. Was He too grand to make personal contact or even give some public sign of his existence? How might He have done so in any case? Wouldn’t we get the fright of our lives if He ever spoke to us, presumably in a deep bass voice like thunder? Given the automatic assumption of his maleness, how much greater the shock if revelation came in a beautiful soprano! But this is all fanciful, for no message has ever been received that was unequivocally from god; nor is it likely that there ever will be.

Never having shown Himself or otherwise communicated with us, god is a mystery, even to the faithful. Yet we talk as if He thinks as we do and knows the intimacies of our lives. To make Him intelligible, god had to be portrayed in human terms, possessing such qualities as wisdom, holiness, justice, goodness etc.; but is it credible that the creator of the universe should possess these human attributes? I think not. The fingerprints of man are everywhere.

If there really was a creation, wouldn’t it have been some impersonal force of Nature, having more in common with a mighty earthquake than an intelligent being? For me, the whole notion of god’s creation seems absurd. There is something of the mad professor about it. How long did He deliberate over his plan? Did He make a ‘decision’ one day, such as we humans make? What deadly concoctions did he mix? And what was the purpose of the experiment? Did even He not know how it would turn out? Did He care? Clearly the creation of life wasn’t a factor, and certainly not human life. That was aeons away. Where did this god come from at a time when allegedly nothing existed? None of it makes any sense. Neither the religious nor the scientific version of creation adds up for me, for nothing comes from nothing. There has always been something there.

Of one thing we can be sure. Our planet wasn’t created for humanity. If one condenses the whole 4,600 million years of our earth’s life into one year, man would appear on the scene in the last hour before midnight on 31 December. Could anything show more clearly that human beings are a tiny part of the whole, following corals, fish, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and apes, to name but a few species that were here before us. But if there really were a god, would human beings occupy a greater place in His affections than snakes or panthers? That may be a bitter pill to swallow but it’s obvious to the plain man that a just creator wouldn’t favour one species over another. Yet humans, being the cleverest and vainest of animals, have created their own, exclusive god, despite having occupied the earth for mere seconds, in cosmic terms, and already fighting for survival.

Was there really a creation? It is our way of thinking that everything has a beginning and an end. From this springs the notion of creation. But I believe there never was a time when nothing existed and that the idea of creation is simplistic. The cosmos, in my view, never had a beginning and will never have an end. I believe that is the only position an atheist can take, unless accepting the Big Bang theory.

That theory is too difficult for a plain man fully to understand, but failure to grasp details has never deterred him from voicing an opinion. Perhaps there were a number of ‘big bangs’ and the one happening in our neck of the woods misled scientists into over-stating its significance. I know it is impertinent of the layman to question scientific theory, but common sense sometimes refuses to be trampled on. That is not to say it is infallible.

Why does anything exist at all? Who or what is behind the universe, particularly a universe without a beginning? How does an atheist explain the existence of a universe that was always there?

The plain man must tread carefully here, for he is swimming in unfamiliar waters as well as mixing his metaphors. But he is bound to admit that the religious implications of such a universe, if any, cannot be explained by either religion or reason. Might the supernatural indeed be behind everything? Even the atheist must allow that the mystery of a universe without a beginning is insoluble. It cannot be explained by natural forces and I am far too disillusioned with the supernatural of our own times to believe in anything of that nature. Someone once said that the universe is just there and that’s all. It is the ultimate conundrum and should the secret ever be revealed, there might need to be a re-think all round, among both the devout and atheists. But given the odds against such a revelation, reputations are safe.

Conversion to atheism brings a wonderfully liberating feeling, and not just in the religious sense. Though sure it was the only honest thing to be, I feared reprisals of some sort, silly as it seems now. But living without god, the atheist feels a self-dependence that’s utterly refreshing. The conscience doesn’t fly out the window when religion does, and your behaviour will reflect your own values rather than conventional ones. No-one is listening in to approve or rebuke, as you imagined god did.

Here’s a question. Whom would I trust more, a devout Christian or a convinced atheist if both stood to profit from my death? The Christian (I’m talking about somebody who really lives the faith) could be relied upon not to cause me harm. The atheist on the other hand would be guided only by his conscience, and not all consciences are equal. Some are righteous as can be, while others are barely audible voices. In all honesty, I reckon I’d be on safer ground trusting the Christian, if he really did live by the book.

Isn’t this over-egging the pudding? I mean, even-handedness is one thing, but this latest bending over backwards to be nice to the church is surely a bend too far. It’s a fair point, but I seek only to show that atheism carries no moral superiority. It is disbelief in god, pure and simple. In the real world, of course, there must be very many atheists of impeccable morality, as well as a multitude of Christian rogues.

As an atheist you now realise that there is no grand plan, either for you or for the world at large. Everything comes at random, under its own accidental force. We are alone in the middle of incomprehensible vastness and what will be will be. This needn’t be alarming. After all, things will carry on much as they always have, because there never was a god anyway. Religious and political hatred will survive, with no reasonable hope of change, and wonderful people will continue to represent the best in human nature.

We live on a beautiful planet, quite unlike our clapped-out neighbours. It is an extraordinary world, blessed by rainfall and the warmth of the sun to produce ideal conditions for life and vegetal growth. It is the jewel of the known universe and my atheism in no way lessens my wonder at its beauty.

When I first read what Dr. Dawkins stood for, I felt it arrogant of him to state his atheism with such lack of doubt. How could anyone be so sure? But I now see that if one believes in the strong probability that there is no god, it reasonably justifies coming off the fence and becoming an atheist, an entirely private atheist if you wish. Agnosticism is comfortable territory but it is in my view an unsatisfactory state of indecision.

The longer I live in rejection of god, the clearer it becomes that I have gained not lost something. What I have gained is a clearer perspective on the life around me. It is as if a veil has been lifted and at last I see things as they really are, the products of billions of years of totally random development. I am under no-one’s spell, neither god’s nor my fellow humans’.

Atheism brings an uncompromising realism to one’s thoughts and actions. God isn’t in the air around us, only oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. There is no father in the sky, only the atmosphere. Rid of such delusions, one realises the scale of religion’s deception. We understand why the myths of heaven and god’s ubiquity were propagated, but now we see through them. The reality is that we are left to fend for ourselves, unaided by the supernatural. God’s help would have been welcome in our dangerously volatile world, but He will do no more to help us now than He has in the past.

Neither religion nor atheism should ever be the cause of hostility; religion because it should inspire the love of fellow beings and atheism because it is essentially a negative, passionless belief. It is no argument for atheism, but the world would be a better place without mankind’s parochial concept of god, for it is frequently the seed of hatred. In so many places religion is an integral part of the state and exerts a strong and often aggressive political influence. If leaders there are true believers, how can they degrade their god so?

When you examine the possibility of god’s existence with the cold eye of reason, the concept of a loving deity becomes a manifest absurdity. We should shake off the superstitions of yore and come to terms with the reality of a godless universe. Though a negative concept, atheism should be adopted with enthusiasm because it almost certainly represents the truth and because it expresses the spirit of our age, in the West at least. We have outgrown belief in superstition, though we understand why it took hold.

Much has been made in this essay of god’s lack of compassion, but the plain man would love to be proved wrong by some noble act that is unquestionably His. Should it happen, he would pass the rest of the day in repentant prayer, nay, the rest of his life. Until then, he will consign god to the deepest recess of his mind, lodging with other fabulous creatures.

About the author

Patrick CampbellPatrick CampbellPatrick has lived in Hindu, Muslim and Catholic countries in the course of his career, and religious divergencies have helped form his views.

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