Why I am an Atheist: One Scientist’s Perspective

This post is a departure from my usual content, and will obviously be approaching some sensitive issues, so let me begin with a few things up front. I am an atheist. This blog entry, like all writings and discussions on religion are an (in this case, my) opinion; there is no hard fact to date about atheism vs. theism vs. agnosticism, so I plan to do no preaching of “truth.” I will be discussing my beliefs and why I think there is evidence for atheism…however, I mean no offense to people and individuals. Many of my close friends and family are religious, and I respect their right to believe what they wish. I present arguments against religion, not the people who believe in it; decide what you yourself want to believe. This entry does not reflect the general beliefs of any place I am affiliated with, be it a school, organization, or science as an institution. This is just my perspective.

Yes, I am an atheist. That’s probably not terribly surprising…a large number of scientists do not believe in God. But it was not an easy or quick journey. I was born into a Jewish family, with many members believing in God, and either Judaism or Christianity. I went to Hebrew School, had a bar mitzvah, believed in Santa Claus, and spent plenty of time in my youth accepting what I was told.

Though satisfied for a time, I began pretty early to question my beliefs. Bible stories started to feel contrived and absurd, praying felt empty, and my approach to life started to shift towards critical thinking and evaluating evidence. And things were scary at first, because it’s difficult when your beliefs are so deeply shaken. What does it mean if this religion is wrong? Are people lying to me (what else could they lie to me about)? If religion isn’t true, what does that mean about death? I have come to a resolution for some of these questions, and not for some others, but I’ve learned to take advice from Richard Feynman: “It’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Like many people who found themselves questioning the religion they grew up with, I began to dabble in other religions. Perhaps I could find a meld of what fit me best. I liked a lot of ideas, including Karma, reincarnation, and animism. To me, religion became less about a belief in God or many Gods, and more about being a good person and having comfort in the face of the human condition. But ‘morality’ is fuzzy, and as I started becoming more skeptical, even these ideas started sounding like fairytales. Things weren’t adding up, so I became an agnostic. If there was no evidence for God and religion, and there was no evidence otherwise, I would just have to stand on the fence.

Agnosticism is an odd system of belief (or non-belief), as it is often defined differently. Generally speaking, it’s the view that you cannot know or prove the existence or non-existence of any supernatural phenomena (be it a God, psychic powers, or what have you), so you’ll take the stance of “I don’t know.” There are many nuances to it that I cannot easily explain, but it’s the quintessential non-decision belief system. There are many merits to this philosophy, especially since it places such value on skepticism, critical thinking, and evidence evaluation. It was a natural place for me to gravitate as I became more versed in scientific thought, and could no longer find myself aligned to any supernatural belief system.

In recent years, I’ve changed my mind: I cannot stay on the fence. I think there is evidence out there, and I think it’s in the atheist camp. This may sound strange to you–how can there be evidence for no God? You can’t prove He/She doesn’t exist! That’s true…I can’t prove it. But we can’t prove anything, really (ok, now for the science part of this entry, since this is a science blog after all).

In science, we put out hypotheses meant to explain the world around us. These hypotheses are meant to explain what we see, and are put forth to make predictions of new things we may not have seen yet. We then go out and try to find evidence for or against these hypotheses. This implies there are two major types of evidence for or against hypotheses: verification results, and null results. Verification is the most obvious: the hypothesis made a prediction, and behold, we found it!

So what is a null result? It means we didn’t see something. At first, you might think that’s a useless result. You didn’t see it! But it is very important in science. Let me give you an example. Before Einstein, there was a problem with the physics theory of relativity (yes, that concept existed prior to 1905). If you throw a ball while on a moving train, an observer on a platform sees the ball move at a speed corresponding to the train’s and ball’s speeds combined. So it intuitively made sense that if you shone a flashlight on a train, the light would have a combined speed. But that wasn’t the case at all–light always moves at a constant speed while in the same medium. To fix this predicament, physicists believed in something called the aether. To test it’s existence, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley performed some experiments…and came up with a null result each time. Thanks to not observing the prediction made by the hypothesis of the existence of aether, they provided concrete evidence that is does not exist. It does not prove the non-existence of aether, but when special relativity came along, the evidence became so overwhelming that is it universally believed to not exist.

I choose these words carefully. You never prove anything in science, but we can find overwhelming evidence in favor of things such that we believe them to be true. Gravity is well accepted to be a true theory, and there is no evidence against it in the broad sense (things that go up come back down). It makes predictions that experiments validate, and tests for competing hypotheses come up with nulls. Many theories (including gravity) have some issues, but as theories improve, we learn more and explain more phenomena. But even in science we cannot fully escape belief and faith—we have faith that the scientific method works, that objectivity reigns, and we believe that evidence points to facts.

So let’s apply this mode of thinking to religion. Most religions make predictions. Some are untestable, like life after death, so we cannot apply science to it. Nonetheless, as Richard Dawkins would point out, that does not place it on equal ground as atheism—to quote Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It’s up to you to convince me why it’s so, not up to us to explain to you why it’s not. But fine, this is not strictly evidence in any sense, nor is it a satisfying argument, so let’s move on to actual, testable predictions of religion and atheism.

Religions put out a lot of claims. Usually these tend to be of a similar form—if you do good and you pray and you accept God, He will take care of you. Religious doctrines make predictions on how the Universe works: there are endless examples in many religions of statements of how the Earth was formed, or Mankind, or even how the stars and moon and planets do what they do. Like mysticism (psychics, astrology, homeopathy, etc.), religion has never been able to show evidence in a scientifically/statistically meaningful way that their claims are true. Null results abound in every aspect of religious prediction, and almost, if not all, religious predictions of how the world works remain evidence-less or even disproven. In terms of evidence for good reason to believe in religion and God, we encounter a barren wasteland of nulls. If one religion had hard evidence for the existence of God, and for their religion to be correct, there’d only be one religion: the correct one. People starve, many good people of faith die young and unexpectedly, and the evidence for evolution is so substantial that even prominent theists have changed their position on it despite doctrine. On this alone, one has more reason to believe in Atheism than in God’s existence.

But what does atheism predict? If God does not exist, it predicts just what we find: null results on mystic answers, and that the Universe is knowable only through natural (not supernatural) means. Science is how we’ve been able to gain knowledge, cure diseases, create iPads, and understand the motions of the real “heavens.” In my opinion, there is more evidence to support that God does not exist than otherwise. I am no longer an agnostic: I am an atheist.

Why do I share my story and reasoning? Because a lot of Americans don’t like atheists, or they at least don’t trust them. Especially thanks to a number of billboards, some tasteful, and some not tasteful. With atheism on the rise, I think more of us need to share our stories, not so much as a need to convince others to convert, but to allow others to understand where we are coming from, why we reject religion, and why we are still thoughtful, intelligent, respectable people. We have to show that we come in all forms, not just the militant kind. I think I am a good, moral person, and I think that if people know I am an atheist, then maybe that is one small step towards acceptance of non-believers. If you are reading this and identify as an atheist, I urge you to share your story in whatever means you think most appropriate. Be heard. Be respectful but truthful. Be frank and honest. Help encourage thoughtful and productive dialogue. Let’s have progress towards a way forward.

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