Yes, I'm an atheist.

There are a number of arguments I have with belief in a deity, but the reason I'm an atheist is that I fit the definition of atheism: I don't believe in the existence of a deity. It's really that simple.

In theory I should be an agnostic. I don't know that a deity doesn't exist. However, being agnostic about a deity is on the same useful level as maintaining that Santa Claus might exist. Why should I even bother to consider the existence of a deity when it doesn't do anyone any good? The universe seems to continue on its way without intervention from a deity. My life proceeds without any evidence of such a being's existence. Why add something to a model of the universe that makes everything else arbitrary? The universe already works.

Let's change tack for a moment and consider Pascal's argument for belief in a deity. If there's no deity, then belief doesn't matter. If a deity exists, then the sensible thing to do is believe.

But what should we believe in? Allah? Buddha? God? Odin? Yahweh? Pascal's wager gives us no help in deciding which deity to follow. We might as well believe in the invisible Pazoozas that live on the far side of the moon and want us to do everything contradictory to [insert name of religion]. So we should believe, but that only does us any good if we know what to believe in. Rather a catch-22, isn't it?

I was raised in a Roman Catholic family. It didn't seem to make much sense. I can't say that I knew anyone who really followed the teachings of Jesus - you know, giving to charity more than you could spare. This lackadaisical spirituality rather soured me on the true impact of religion on people's lives.

One of the major problems I had with religion was theodicy. Why does pain exist? The answer seemed to be that people learned from it. Here's a thought experiment: what if a baby dies alone, in pain, and his or her remains are never found? If that suffering doesn't lead to the baby's salvation (and I find it hard to believe a baby can repent), then there is nothing gained by that pain, and the whole idea of pain falls apart. (Note that this thought experiment is not verifiable - so there's no way to know if pain has any purpose.) You could respond that pain has some reason that only a deity could understand. I'd answer by saying that by human standards such a deity is irrational, and I'm not about to follow something irrational.

The Christian doctrine of original sin was also bizarre. Okay, a baby dies unbaptized - and it doesn't go to heaven, because of something one person allegedly did thousands of years ago? Ooh, that makes so much sense.

A more interesting take on the whole deity biz is gnosticism. There are a lot of different flavors, but they all seem to be concerned with a deity that isn't in control of the world. Philip K. Dick used this extensively in his later fiction (VALIS, The Divine Invasion). Jim Cowan wrote a wonderful story on the subject called "The Spade of Reason". I'm not a gnostic, but a gnostic universe makes more sense than a deistic one.

Donald R. Going dismantles one of the memes underlying religious belief in the chapter "On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures" of Douglas R. Hofstadter's book Metamagical Themas. The meme is obvious in retrospect, but it's fascinating that I didn't see it when I was young. Now it's painfully easy to recognize it at work around me.

In the end, I don't believe in a deity. I'm not evangelical about it; you can believe what you want. Just don't ask me to believe what you believe, or to modify my behavior because of what you think your deity wants. There are better, rational ways of interacting with other people. If belief makes you a better person, great. But not everyone needs it.

Related story: How to Leave Christianity

Last updated 26 June 2001
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons