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Atheist or Agnostic? May 16, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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In this post I want to address the issue of whether I am atheist or agnostic which I will do by exploring my history of “religiosity”.

I grew up largely ignorant of religion and the issues around it but as I started to question the big issues I quickly identified with the agnostic viewpoint and defined my world view around that. A big part of this came not from any belief that religions might be valid but a distinct lack of knowledge about them. I knew a lot of people believed and I didn’t know why and until I figured that part out I knew it would be kind of foolish to dismiss the notion out of hand. I also was very aware of the stigma associated with being an atheist – in fact I didn’t associate with atheism because I was a bit daunted by my (mis)perception of atheists as church burning zealous satanists.

I had tendencies towards deism or spiritualism in my mid to late teens because I came up with a pretty clever theory about life and what was behind things being ‘alive”. However these ideas, while clever in one sense, were pretty weak thinking in hindsight. I had started by observing something and then lept straight to a conclusion which I then used logic and quick thinking to defend (on the occasional times when i discussed it). What I failed to do was to explore how everything works, how it all fits together, and to actually research things to figure it out.

I kind of grew out of my theory over time, more from being too busy at uni than anything else, and it wasn’t until I met this girl who was a catholic that I started exploring these things again. It all started with my curiosity as to why other people believed and not with the religion itself. This I think has given me a fairly unique perspective on religion compared to most people. What made me start to realise that religion didn’t make sense was that every religious person I talked to eventually boiled their belief down to one basic premise:

I believe because I believe.

This is something I want to spend a long post on in the future because I think it is fundamental but the important point right now is that everyone I talked to couldn’t give me any better reason that that. It frustrated me because I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I started reading books, watching documentaries etc and it all boiled down to the same argument. At this stage I was pretty much still agnostic although it was agnosticism more born of the “don’t know” side than the “can’t know”.

Then I hit upon a revelation of sorts. I almost simultaneously stumbled across two largely unrelated topics.

The first was introduced to me by one of my lecturers which was the concept of complex systems. After reading Mitchel Waldrop’s Complexity my curiosity was piqued, but it wasn’t until a bit later I discovered John Gribbin’s Deep Simplicity that it all fell together. The two basic models Gribbin mentioned that I started playing with was the sand pile model (cool example here) and Conway’s Game of Life (wikipedia has a very good article here). These led me into the realm of cellular automata and then to Wolfram’s epic A New Kind of Science (available online here). This large tome was, while at times arrogant and rather too self assured, an inspiration for me. It finally brought home the reality that simple systems can produce complex results. I want to repeat that because it is a HUGE point. Simple systems can produce complex outcomes. Irreducible complexity is usually only irreducible because we don’t know how to reduce it. This really appealed to a reductionist structuralist like me and it was the coherent world view I had been missing for so long.

While I was discovering about complex systems, I also read Richard Dawkin’s Unweaving the Rainbow. This immediately opened my eyes to another very important fact about life. Firstly , in combination with the complex systems theory, it showed that paranormal things can be easily explained by his magical PETWHAC (read the book!) with no need to refer elsewhere. Secondly it very clearly explained why understanding the world is so important. It showed why so much beauty, inspiration, wonder and magic exists in a world that inventing supernatural things on top of it all just doesn’t make sense. You don’t need a god or ghosts or fairies to have a world of wonder and magic. Just open your eyes and look at the world we live in!

This feeling was massively reinforced by a second discovery. Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos. This 13 fifty minute episode TV series is the most inspirational, awe inspiring, wonder inducing TV ever made. And it was made in the late 1970s. I challenge anyone to watch this and not feel a sense of wonder at just how amazing the world is. A small excerpt of it can be seen here – tell me you don’t feel goosebumps watching it!

As I discovered more about all this I read more widely including several books of Sagan’s, in particular A Demon Haunted World: Science a Candle in the Dark. Other books that influenced me include Stephen Jay Gould’s Life’s Grandeur and James Gleick’s classic Chaos.

I started reading more widely and as it happened the big atheist revival that we are experiencing at the moment started with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion which I read and which really started me thinking not only how religious people were missing out on the wonder of how the world worked and the beauty of the simplicity that most likely causes it – but that religions were actually harmful. Not so much in the Islamic suicide bomber/inquisition way, but in the dulling of curiosity and the promotion of faith (belief without or even in spite of evidence) as a virtue. I started realising that religious organisations are a problem in this very subtle and rather unfortunate way. I read Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, David Mill’s Atheist Universe and several others.

I also started reading the rest of Dawkins back catalogue and developed a pretty solid understanding of the evolutionary process. I highly recommend The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, River out of Eden, and The Ancestor’s Tale. These four books will tell every lay person everything they will ever need to know about evolution. It is remarkable how well evolution fits into the complex systems model of the world by the way.

Anyway the upshot of all this reading and exploring (and the above are just the highlights) was that I started to realise I wasn’t agnostic. From a purely objective point of view there was no reason to even ask the question for which agnostics sit on the fence. Does god exist is exactly a meaningless question. It means nothing. I became an atheist not because I believe there is no god, but because the question of whether there is a god is a nonsense. Its answer is not needed for any important question in life. If there is some form of deity out there somewhere it is part of this world not apart from it. If there is some form of supernatural “creator” beyond the comprehension of humans then there is no point trying to comprehend it!

We only live once and wasting that opportunity trying to prepare for an “afterlife” is the biggest crime I can imagine. We have a beautiful and magical world to play with right here in front of us. Let us explore that world, understand it, live in it. We are a few billion cells existing on a tiny pale blue dot circling a star on the edge of a spiral galaxy of billions of stars, one galaxy among billions. We are insignificant on our own but in the presence of the splendour of this cosmic playground, let us enjoy our fleeting visit to consciousness and try and make the most of all there is. It would be a shame to belittle this experience by seeking something more. And that is why I am an atheist.




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