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I was planning to spend this essay writing about my religious beliefs, but when I read the following definition of religion in my dictionary,

Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe.

I realized I don't have any religious beliefs to write about. However, the definition does suggest the correct two topics, namely, my beliefs regarding supernatural powers and regarding the fundamental nature of the universe.

I don't intend to say much here about my beliefs regarding the nature of the universe, simply because I don't think there's much to say. I believe that there is an external, objective reality and that we can learn about it empirically, by experimenting … the standard scientific worldview. The planets revolve around the sun, matter is made up of atoms, life evolved from raw chemicals in one way or another, that kind of thing. The details are always getting checked and corrected, but the big picture is there—we have a fairly sound understanding of everything from the present day back to a moment when the universe was exceedingly small and hot.

Offhand, I can think of only two questions the scientific worldview doesn't address.

  • What is consciousness? Why does it feel like something to be a bunch of atoms arranged in a particular way?
  • How did the universe get started? Why does it exist at all?

I have no answer to either of these questions, but see below for some comments on the latter.

So much for the nature of the universe; now what about my beliefs regarding supernatural powers? Well, really I only have one such belief, namely, that there's no such thing as supernatural powers. In other words, I'm an atheist.

When I tell people that, there are a couple of different questions they commonly ask, starting with the following.

  • How can you know for certain there's no God? Shouldn't you be agnostic instead?

There are two points to be made here. First, the whole premise, that we can know things for certain, is flawed. Do I know with absolute certainty that there's no God? No. But, in the same way, I don't know that matter is made up of atoms, that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that I'm even typing on a keyboard right now. So, when I say I know something, I don't mean that I know it with absolute certainty, I just mean that I'm regarding it as provisionally true, or something like that. One could debate what, exactly, I mean, but that's not the point; the point is that I know there's no God in exactly the same way that I know anything else.

The other point has to do with how one confirms a hypothesis that something doesn't exist. It's true I can't point to positive evidence that demonstrates the nonexistence of God. However, the same can be said of many other things. Take purple cows, for example. I've never seen one, and I have no other reason to believe they exist in nature, so, applying Occam's razor, I believe they don't exist. If someone were to show me one, and it didn't look like it had been painted, well, maybe I'd change my mind, but until then I'll continue to know there's no such thing.

This brings me to the second question people ask. I may never have seen God myself, but don't I have other reasons to believe?

  • What about all the other people who believe in God? They can't all be wrong, can they?

Again, there are two points to be made. First, there's the thing that led me to atheism in the first place: those other people can't all be right, either. Different people have different religious beliefs, and these different beliefs aren't all consistent with one another. As long as you've only been exposed to one or two belief systems, it may seem plausible that only one of them is true, but once you've been exposed to several, it's hard to imagine that exactly one is right—it seems much more likely that all of them are wrong. It's a symmetry argument, really.

In this context, it's interesting to note that when one studies the Greek and Roman belief systems in school, it's not Greek and Roman religion one studies, it's mythology. After all, if it's all just a bunch of myths, it doesn't have to be taken seriously as a viable religious belief system.

Anyway, although I'd figured out that these other people couldn't all be right, the fact that they all had religious beliefs continued to bother me until, years later, I came to understand the dynamics of it. It turns out it's all just memes. Some memes, or sets of memes, are better at grabbing your attention and getting you to propagate them than others, and religious belief systems happen to be good at it. Weak forms arise spontaneously and are tuned by mutation and selection until they're quite virulent. Virus of the Mind has a whole chapter about what factors make religious belief systems propagate so well, but I won't try to summarize it, I'll just give an example of the kind of factor I'm talking about.

Problem. This one is especially pernicious and effective at lassoing in smart, educated people. The idea that there is a mysterious body of knowledge that can be attained through a lifetime of problem-solving is a powerful lure. This is the cornerstone of such Eastern religions as Zen and Taoism, although adherents would probably tell you it isn't. (That's what makes it so mysterious!)

As another example, belief systems that have evangelism memes also tend to do well.

There's one last question people tend to ask me about atheism. It goes something like this.

  • How do you explain the existence of the universe? Something must have created it. Isn't that God?

As noted above, I regard the former as an interesting question that I wonder about but don't know the answer to. The latter, as I verified in A History of Western Philosophy, is basically a rehashing of one of Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God, which in turn is really Aristotle's argument of the unmoved mover. But, as Russell wittily observes in a footnote,

But in Aristotle the argument leads to 47 or 55 Gods.

Seriously, though, the argument goes something like this. The universe must have been caused or created by something; that, in turn, must have a cause or creator; there can't be an infinite regress, therefore there is a first cause, which we call God. I have two objections to this argument. First, choosing to call the first cause God proves nothing; we could call it George Washington, but that wouldn't make it the first president of the United States. Second, if we're going to allow a first cause without a prior cause, why not make the chain of causation short, and let the universe itself be the first cause? So, although I have no explanation of my own, I still do not find the unmoved mover to be a convincing argument.

As long as I'm on the subject, let me present one final thought. It's not my own thought, just something I heard once, but I don't have a reference. Just because we have the words “create” and “universe”, it's not necessarily true that questions about the creation of the universe have any connection to reality at all—they could just be linguistic phenomena, along the lines indicated in Words Are Not Reality. I don't find this thought particularly compelling, but it's as good an explanation as any I've heard.


  See Also

  Alleles and Loci
  Cricket, The
  Dirty Old Men
  Do I Push Buttons?
  Footnote (Antiviral Memes)
  How the Universe Expands
  In Other Contexts
  Not Liking Uncertainty
  Personality Types
  Trash and Death

@ August (2000)