Philosophy with Attitude

From [email protected]
Sat Jul 5 16:23:04 1997
Date: Tue, 29 Oct 1996 1654:58 -0500 (EST)
From: Jan A Nielsen < [email protected]>
To: Editor of TNH < [email protected]>
Subject: Forum -- "Why I am an Atheist (the Major Reasons)"

Hello again from the world of the nonbeliever! I've received several replies to last week's forum piece, titled by TNH as "Christian God wants you to examine beliefs," all of which I have greatly enjoyed answering. Though they all addressed some different points, there was a common theme: everybody wanted to know what makes me so sure of my disbelief. Now, this was nowhere near a representative sample of campus -- all of those who wrote to me are practicing Christians of one denomination or another -- but I must imagine that for any theist, the atheist viewpoint is a hard one to fathom. Therefore, for those of you who are interested, I present to you the major reasons that I do not believe in the Judeo-Christian god (or any other gods, for that matter).

After I became a Christian in my sophomore year at UNH, I thought that I would never go back to my previous mode of thought -- I imagined that I would always be a Christian henceforth. I studied the bible extensively, on my own and with a CCC bible study group, so I was quite aware of the implications of not being a believer, be they the social, moral, or emotional consequences. At the time, it seemed unthinkable to me that I had ever believed otherwise.

But the more I learned about the bible and the god described within it, the more I was forced to remember the other holy books I had read. What made Christianity so fundamentally different from the religions of past and present cultures? Those around me said that it was the figure of Christ, who had come to earth via the virgin birth, and was crucified for our sins. However, a short study informed me that this in itself was not an original idea: the Sumerians had an identical figure (even with a similar name) who had been sent to earth to pay for the sins of mankind, and who was even martyred in a similar fashion.

Was it the presumed inerrancy of the bible? That didn't take long to confound; there are so many contradictions within the New Testament alone that my faith was shaken. Some may claim that these result from different interpretations of the stories between gospel writers, but as an example, read about how Judas was supposed to have died, and the fate of his payment for betraying Christ. One writer says that used his blood money to buy a field for his own use, and then after finding out about the crucifiction, he fell onto the field and essentially exploded. The other writer says that he died by stabbing himself -- an entirely different manner -- *before* any such purchase was made, and then the remaining disciples bought themselves a field on which to build a church. These two authors both sound very sure about themselves, yet no amount of interpretation can reconcile these stories. If the bible is truly infallible, as I was told -- if God himself were responsible for its authorship -- then no such errors could possibly exist.

What about the universe itself? Doesn't the very fact that the universe exists, and that we are here to wonder at it, suggest the existence of some higher power? In short -- no. There is much that we still do not understand about the universe, but this does not necessitate the invocation of a deity to get everything started. The argument that a god must exist because the universe is so perfectly ordered for our existence is known as the anthropomorphic principle. However, this argument is faulty in that it fails to take into account that without the previous history of the universe, we *could not* exist: were the basic properties of the universe different at its inception, we would not be here to ask the question. I have not yet encountered a scientific question so confounding that it demands the existence of a deity -- certainly, there are things that cannot yet be explained, but is it not more sacrilegious to make God merely a God of that which we do not understand, and take observable fact for the rest?

As I told one of my correspondents, I have read far too much to be able to see Judeo-Christianity as more than just another story to help people get over their fear of dying, or as a primitive culture's attempt to explain the mysteries of life and the universe. I have read the holy books of several contemporary religions, as well as the mythologies of cultures past, and their similarities are striking -- humanity has a need to explain, and for centuries, mythology was their only method. I have spoken to followers of many different faiths -- Hindi, Muslims, Hari Krishnas, Mormons, Jews, and Christians -- and all of them claim that their god is the One True God, their holy book is the One True Book. (Did you know that "Bible" means "book"?) Why should I assume that any one of them is correct over another? They all present me with the same "evidence," and all share many of the same aspects. Nothing in the Bible suggests to me, more than other holy books, that it is the correct one.

As for more minor reasons, I was basically raised an atheist; my parents encouraged my siblings and I to examine religion, by going to church with our friends and whatnot, but it wasn't explicitly discussed until we could understand metaphorical thinking and the like (that is, we were never indoctrinated with anything as children). During my religious period, I was as serious about it as I could be; I went to Durham Evangelical, bible studies, even tried to "spread the gospel" to those around me, namely my family and close friends, whom I could not imagine being tortured in Hell forever.

That was actually one of the reasons that led to my rejection of this belief system -- these were people who were good, would never deliberately hurt another, tried their best to help people and make the world a better place -- but because they refused to surrender their reason, they would be punished for all eternity. How could a god who is claimed to be so just and loving do this? Even having heard the "reasons" that the bible offered, I was unsatisfied, and so even before I stopped believing that god existed, I decided that he was unworthy of my worship, as disturbing as that may sound to some of you.

The most recent correspondence I have received states that I should not be using my sense of reason at all to decide whether or not Christianity is valid. Paul wrote in I Corinthians that to unbelievers, nothing in the bible makes sense, but to believers it's all very clear. All very well and good if you're willing to accept the inerrancy of each biblical author, but since Paul himself never even met Christ (if he even existed at all), I am not willing to accept him as being God's fax machine, as it were. To me, this verse says more tellingly that once you've made the initial assumption, certainly, everything will make sense. If, however, you are unwilling to take that first giant leap of faith, very little of the bible can be assumed true (as I discussed in my first piece).

There are many more points that I have not addressed, both because I have run out of time (since Forum articles are due at 5pm on Tuesday, no ifs ands or buts!), and because I'm sure this has been quite enough atheism at one sitting for many. I will close with the same invitation as before -- I can be reached at [email protected], and although my replies may sound frustrated (I've done an awful lot of this lately...), I will endeavor to respond quickly. But I see now that I never gave a concise answer to the topic of this piece -- why I am an atheist. Simply, because I have not yet found a good reason to be otherwise. Peace! :)

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