Atheists (who deny the existence of any god), and non-believers (who lack any belief in a god), number about 1.2 billion. Agnostics (who state that there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God, and neither believe nor disbelieve that a god might exist), are likely to form part of this total. These individuals have been included in this brief survey because they constitute one-fifth of the world’s population, and because their opinions are relevant to the subject matter of this book.
Countless numbers of philosophers and writers, from Lucretius to the present, have expressed non-belief either in the existence of gods or in their power over humankind. However, since no census, or its equivalent, sought atheistic or agnostic affiliations in past ages, we have no estimate of the number of followers such thinkers may have had.
Atheists typically consider the Bible, Koran, Vedas, Torah and other such texts to be simply records of myths or stories, and dismiss the idea that they could be revelations from a deity. They refute the existence of any god (as creator, or as a loving, caring overseer), and reject the concepts of divine creation, a soul, or an afterlife of any kind. On the other hand, non-believers simply do not believe in such things. They do not concern themselves with denying or affirming the possibility that a god or gods exist, and leave the whole matter for others to mull over.
Atheists may provide any of several reasons for their disbelief, the most common being the lack or inadequacy of evidence. In their opinion, all of the theological proofs that a god exists (particularly the Ontological, Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments) have been clearly refuted in one manner or another. Miracles, and such concepts as the existence or presence of a satan or a god, they argue, are so contrary to the behaviour of all everyday experience and knowledge of the real world, that incontrovertible evidence is needed for them to be credible—the ubiquitous hearsay evidence being particularly weak. They counter religious believers by asking how an “all-knowing” god can also be “all-good,” how an “all-good” god can permit innocent children or animals to suffer, and how such a being could allow evil to exist.
Atheism holds no particular philosophical position, and preaches no particular code of behaviour in refuting all divinities, spiritual religions and their doctrines. Although atheists must therefore develop their own standards of behaviour, there is no evidence that shows them to be any more or any less moral than those who have adopted the moral codes of a religion.
- Deists believe that a god was necessary to start the world, but afterwards does not intervene. Theists believe that God oversees and knows everything we do. (Theism is not a necessary part of religion, as Buddhism, with its many, non-divine gods, demonstrates.)
- Lucretius (circa 99-55 BC) sought to show in his poem, On the Nature of Things, that gods have no interest or intervention in human affairs, that what is observed is always due to natural causes, and that therefore gods and death should not be feared.
- These theological arguments are as follows. Ontological: God, to be the greatest Being that can exist, must exist, for not to exist lessens His greatness. Cosmological: only a God could bring the universe into existence from nothing. Teleological: the universe and life seem intelligent in design and therefore must have been designed to some purpose. Moral: virtue, the highest duty, must be attainable, therefore God must exist to have made it so.
- There are many reasons why more people prefer to believe a god exists rather than to not believe. First, our mind's rationality requires us to aim our decisions at accomplishing some purpose; for many, a belief that God demands certain behaviours provides all the purpose they need. Second, believing that “God is responsible for all” supplies a plausible explanation for everything unknown. For example, before our current understanding of nuclear physics (to trace the evolution of stars), or genetics (to draft an accurate depiction of life's evolution), or pathogens (to account for certain illnesses), a conceivable interpretation was that God was the creator of stars and people, or was driving out evil. “Explaining” significant unknowns by attributing them to the behaviour of a god is still the simplest, most readily understood, and in many cases, the most convenient, answer for the world’s poorly educated majority. A third reason is that prominent and persuasive personalities, who may have a vested interest in the continuation of such beliefs, foster them. (Claiming to believe in God is considered to convey an image of being a caring, honest and respectable person in many societies—an image sometimes negated by the facts, but one which is nonetheless useful when seeking re-election, and vital when one's career lies within the church.)
Belief that God created all we see around us settles the question of how everything came into being, but it does not address the question of why the universe was created. This remains a mystery, to religions and to science.
To say that there was a creator is to make a statement purported to be factual. Any statement claiming to be factual opens itself up to scientific investigation. (This is the rationale for conducting the Jesus Seminars, see http://virtualreligion.net/forum.) And science is valuable precisely because it rejects any supposition that has no way of being disproved. Beliefs, by definition, cannot be disproved in the minds of those who believe, and therefore cannot be scientific. (This is why Creationism is not a science.)
Religions are based upon beliefs—or upon faith when belief is non-existent—rather than facts. Rational arguments can never deconstruct a believer’s mind, and there is nothing to be gained by embarking upon such an endeavour. However, rational arguments can shake faith (see Summary of Revelations and Conversions, footnote 1). And knowledge, particularly scientific understanding, can reduce or destroy an individual’s faith. Therein lies both danger (for purposeless minds are unhappy minds) and hope (for rationality’s future).
- Turk al-Farabi, a tenth century Islamic philosopher, pointed out that philosophical truth was universal and must be superior to religious truth which varies. The following century, a Persian Islamic philosopher furthered this by stating that religion is philosophy made simple for the masses to understand. (This conflicts with my view. While believing in a god makes things simpler, religions seem excessively complex. I find their theologies impossible to unravel.)
- For what it’s worth (given there are few true measures of “ethicality”), the following data on divorce rates might be interpreted to bear on the morality (if any) of this practice as carried out by members of different churches.
A 1999 survey conducted by the Barna Research Group in Ventura, California, interviewing close to four thousand adults in 48 American states, found that 30% of Jews, 29% of Baptists, 27% of born-again Christians, 25% of mainstream Protestants, 24% of Mormons, and 21% each of Catholics, Lutherans, atheists and agnostics, have been through a divorce. (Data source, The Dallas Morning News, 15 January, 2000, G4. This information may also be found at www.religioustolerance.org/chr_dira.htm).
Of course, one can conclude that data in this form is meaningless. On the other hand, one can think that, in as much as many religions promote the family unit, it may indicate something about the relative “morality” of followers of various religions compared to non-believers.