The faith of an atheist

I remember my first (and so far, last) attempt at cliff diving. I was at a waterfall, maybe twenty feet high, and there were a lot of other people there, happily jumping down to the pool below and then climbing back up for another plunge. Wanting to join in the fun, I walked to the top of the fall, stepped to the edge of the cliff, prepared to dive…

…And my resolve entirely failed me. I looked down at the water below, and it seemed so far away that I could not bring myself to go over the edge. My fear got the better of me, and if I hadn’t slipped and fallen off then I would have had to withdraw in shame. (Don’t worry, I landed just fine.)

What did I lack, at that critical moment? I think I lacked faith. I saw other people enjoying the plunge, but I had no faith in my own ability to follow their example. I rationally understood that the water below would absorb the shock of my landing, but I had no faith that it would actually save my life. When it came time to make a literal leap of faith, I couldn’t do it, and I still can’t.

I have, however, successfully made more metaphorical leaps of faith, which brings me to my main topic: my leap out of theism (more specifically, out of Mormonism).

I grew up in a fairly devout Mormon household, as did both of my parents and most of my grandparents. I served a mission and married in the temple like a good Mormon should, and while there was obviously lots of pressure for me to do so, I also really believed that it was the right thing to do. Like many Mormons, I had had profound spiritual experiences that really seemed to be from God, and Mormon theology seemed pretty cool, and the Church seemed like a good organization full of good people, and while some of the Church’s truth claims were pretty weird, they didn’t seem obviously false, so I could let those slide. Bottom line, I was a happy Mormon, and I thought I always would be.

Then someone showed me the CES Letter, and it rocked my little world. The Church’s truth claims really were false. The Church itself did bad things, and it sheltered and supported bad people. And those spiritual experiences I had? Meaningless! Lots of people had experiences like that, and they interpreted theirs in ways that contradicted mine, and no one had any way of saying which experiences were real, or what they really meant. There was no good reason left for me to stay in the LDS church, and plenty of reason to get the hell out.

But how could I? I had tied my whole life to the Church. It gave me meaning. What would I do without it? What would my family say? (And could they really all be wrong, too?) And all those times I felt the spirit of God – surely that all meant something, didn’t it? How could it all be wrong?

It took an act of faith to step away from Mormonism – faith in my own powers of reasoning and in the conclusions I had reached, faith in the information I had received, and most importantly, faith that it was worth it. Faith that I could be different from my family and still be happy. Faith that the truth was worth sacrificing for, and that I could find a new purpose for my life. But this time, I didn’t need to slip to go over the edge, and when I got to the bottom, I found that the water was fine. I made a leap of faith, and I’m never going back.

I was prompted to write this after I read this Atheist Pig comic in which the artist seems to be saying that being an atheist requires no faith at all. If that is what you’re saying, Winston, well, you’re wrong. It took a lot of faith for me to become an atheist, and I know that it took other folks a lot of faith as well, maybe more faith than I’ll ever know. Even now I have to have faith to stay an atheist: faith that rationality really is more reliable than the powerful feelings I still feel sometimes, and faith that science really does work, no matter how often my Christian friends denigrate it. None of this comes automatically.

So if you hear theists say something like “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”, acknowledge that they’re right! In spite of all the facts, they really don’t have enough faith. Perhaps they’re like me, standing on the edge, wanting to make the leap but unable. More likely, they’re so sure that the water’s unsafe that they never even go near the waterfall. They have a different pool to jump into, the poor bastards. But have some empathy for them. Following the truth, no matter where it takes you, takes more faith than some people have, even when it’s what they want to do.

The Bullet Hole: Thoughts on the necessity of God (or lack thereof)

I have recently been rereading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’ve found an argument of his that, in my opinion, nicely illustrates the divide between theistic thought and atheistic thought. Here is is, from the end of chapter 3:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Dawkins’s question here is: if life, the universe, and everything could not exist without a creator, then how can their creator exist without an even greater creator? After all, if order and complexity cannot exist on their own, then how did our universe’s creator (who must be orderly and complex in order to design such a universe) come into existence? In my opinion, it’s a good question, but a theist might see it as missing the point. I shall explain with an analogy.

You are examining a crime scene, and you discover a small hole. You examine it closely, and you conclude that it is a bullet hole. If it is, then you can strongly conclude that a gun fired that bullet, and someone pulled the trigger on that gun. Now, this conclusion actually raises more questions: What kind of gun was it? Who made the gun? Who fired that gun? Why did they fire it? Where did the shooter come from? Where did the gun maker come from? And so on. But even if we never get an answer to any of these questions, we can still conclude that a human fired a gun, because we have the bullet hole, and there’s only one way to make such a hole.

The theist position is that our existence is like that bullet hole, and the creator is the one who fired the bullet. Questions like “Where did the creator come from?” are interesting, but even if we never get an answer to such questions, we still know that there is a creator responsible for our universe. Ignorance in one area does not refute knowledge in another area. (For another example, consider abiogenesis and evolution: even if we know nothing about how life got started, we can still know that life evolved)

This is not to say that theists do not try to answer questions about the creator. Indeed, most of them are quite preoccupied with the question of the creator’s motives. Consider Rick Falkenstein, who became a creationist last month. After concluding that something created us, he asserted that created things have a purpose and set out to find that purpose, rather like a crime scene investigator trying to figure out a shooter’s motive. Both of these are smart choices, if we grant their initial assumptions. Wouldn’t it be good to know why our creator made the world, just as it is good to know why someone made a shot? Of course, even if we never get answers to these questions, that doesn’t change the conditions that prompted us to ask the questions in the first place. The bullet hole is still there.

But what if the hole was not a bullet hole?

Fake bullet holes are available for purchase. Holes that look like bullet holes can fool the untrained eye, just as this hole did (and this hole as well). Forensics textbooks insist that it takes “training and experience” to properly distinguish bullet holes from similar marks. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine an unskilled investigator trying to determine the motives of a shooter that never existed as they examine a hole that wasn’t actually made by a bullet.

Now go back to the subject of creation, and you can see the point I’m trying to make: our reality looks like it was created, until you examine it more closely. Creationists have made many arguments, some of them quite sophisticated, and scientists have refuted them all. The design that Falkenstein sees is simply not sufficient to prove the existence of a designer. No bullet hole, no bullet, no gun, no shooter. It’s that simple.

Millions of people have looked at life, at the earth, and at the stars, and have concluded that someone must made all this. Some being, however strange, must have laid out the order we see. But our instincts fool us; great minds have sought that being, and have not found it, bringing back only evidence of order arising by itself. Many have desperately tried to prove a creator’s existence in the face of this evidence, but sound minds have rejected their offerings. It appears that our tendency to see a creator’s handiwork is simply part of our tendency to see patterns that aren’t there. Bullet holes, man… they’re everywhere.

We really shouldn’t go on like this. Endlessly looking for things that aren’t there does us no good, whether we’re looking for gods or guns. If anyone can offer sound evidence of a great creator, then let them come forth and do so, but as it is now, when I look at life, the universe, and everything, the only bullet holes I see are the ones we’ve made ourselves.