This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.
2009 update: These days I think of myself as an agnostic atheist, meaning I don't claim to have knowledge either way, but I consider the atheistic interpretation to be much more likely true.
I am an atheist, and I often meet people who consider themselves agnostics. "How can you be sure God doesn't exist?" they ask. I answer that I call myself an atheist not because I'm certain that God doesn't exist, but rather because, given the information that we have, the most likely scenario is that there is no God.* And I always say, if God came and clearly announced his presence tomorrow, I would switch from a non-believer to a believer in an instant.
But for now, I am a definitive non-believer. And given that certain prominent political figures -- such as the horrible Sam Brownback -- want more God in government as opposed to less, I am not ashamed to declare my unequivocal secularity, and wish to fight against that which I believe is threatening our society: organized religion gone wild.
To help explain why I choose the term "atheist" rather than "agnostic," I'll use an analogy. Imagine you are out dining with friends, and while leaving the restaurant, you are conked on the head by a falling flowerpot from an apartment window above. You are knocked unconscious but are otherwise okay. The next morning you wake with a headache; the last thing you remember is leaving the restaurant. Opening your eyes, you look around. Ahead you see your television. To the left you see your clock-radio on your end table, and to the right you see your reading glasses, where you last left them. Under you is your bed. Given this information, within the first five seconds, what do you conclude?
The simplest and most reasonable conclusion would be that you are in your bedroom.
Yes, there are other possibilities -- unlikely, but possible. For instance, you could be in someone else's bedroom, and by sheer coincidence, their room looks exactly like yours. Or, you may have been unconscious long enough for someone to build a museum in your honor, complete with a perfect full-scale replica of your bedroom, and that's where you woke up. But neither of these possibilities is likely to cross your mind. You'll simply assume that you're in your own bedroom, based on what you see, because anything else would be, well, a stretch of the imagination.
This is exactly how I see the God question. We have certain information about the size, age, and structure of the universe, on the grandest scales as well as the smallest. We have discovered certain physical laws, and there isn't a single reliably recorded case, in the history of the world, of those laws being violated by an external influence, whether in the form of a "miracle" or otherwise. There are stories and speculations about purported miracles happening, but when was the last time one was scientifically observed? It's just never occurred. Which is interesting, because if the laws of physics ever were observed being violated, I don't think the scientific community would want to cover it up or ignore it. That's the kind of thing that wins people Nobel Prizes.
Given what we know, then, the simplest, most reasonable, most rational conclusion is that God does not exist. To wake up in our bedroom after a minor head injury and conclude that we're in a museum built in our honor would be the height of delusion. So it is that finding ourselves on earth, and concluding that just because we're here, an omnipotent external power must have created it all (and perhaps even that it was created all for us, as some zealots believe), is equally delusional. Yes, it is possible, but highly unlikely, given what we know.
Furthermore, I just don't buy the notion that even though something is remotely possible, it should be considered a real possibility, to the point that it affects our worldview and behavior. To make another analogy, yes, it is remotely possible that a bridge could collapse at any minute -- but if I then refuse to cross that bridge, based on this remote possibility, most people would consider that an irrational decision, a delusional take on reality. Generally, people accept the risk of bridge collapse because it is astronomically small; they don't cross the bridge "uncertain" that it will hold up; they don't say "the jury is still out" on whether the bridge will stand; they don't call themselves "engineering doubters." They just go on the damn bridge! Is it a form of faith to believe the bridge will hold up? Yes -- but it's faith that the most likely outcome will prevail, based on the history of the bridge and the tradition of bridge-building. Unless you see metal sagging and cracking, or the span swinging back and forth in the wind, or a van marked "Al-Qaeda" driven by a guy holding a detonator button, you'll operate based on what you know: the bridge was designed and built by professionals and has held up for years, so, most likely, you will be safe to cross it. It's a simple conclusion based on simple information.
Some will argue, then, that the simplest explanation for the universe's existence is that God created it. But as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, there's nothing simple about that explanation at all: It assumes the universe began with immense complexity -- as any omnipotent, creational God would have to be. And then of course there's always the old saw, if God created the universe, what created God? It is astronomically, mind-bogglingly more likely that the universe had simple beginnings, and that the complexity we now observe is due to the fact that it's had some 15 billion years to get that way.
The problem is, as a being that stands roughly six feet tall and lives 80 or so years, humans have a difficult time comprehending scales of time in the billions of years, or scales of size in light years. It's so much easier to think small and say "God created the universe" -- or even, "Maybe God created the universe" -- and leave it at that, rather than contemplate the vastness of time and space and our insignificance in it. And that was a hell of a lot truer millennia ago, when organized religion took root.
So, here's to the advancement of reason and rational thought, and the drawing of simple conclusions about the world -- however difficult they may be for our limited brains to wrap themselves around.
Signed, an atheist. For now.
* A definition is important here. By "God" I mean any sentient entity that created the universe with some kind of intent aforethought, and/or that can (and does) influence the course of events at will universe-wide.