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Why I Am an Unbeliever

Started by Unbeliever, October 31, 2006, 10:58:48 am

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From Thinkers on Religion:

From Carl Van Doren, Why I Am an Unbeliever, in Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds (New York: Duffield, 1926), pp. 198209.

  LET US BE HONEST. THERE have always been men and women without the gift of faith. They lack it, do not desire it, and would not know what to do with it if they had it. They are apparently no less intelligent than the faithful, and apparently no less virtuous.  How great the number of them is it would be difficult to say, but they exist in all communities and are most numerous where there is most enlighten­ment.  As they have no organization and no creed, they can of course have no official spokesman. Nevertheless, any one of them who speaks out can be trusted to speak, in a way, for all of them. Like the mystics, the unbelievers, wherever found, are essentially of one spirit and one language.  I cannot, however, pretend to represent more than a single complexion of unbelief.

The very terms which I am forced to use put me at the outset in a trying position. Belief, being first in the field, naturally took a positive term for itself and gave a negative term to unbelief. As an unbeliever, I am therefore obliged to seem merely to dissent from the believers, no matter how much more I may do. Actually I do more. What they call unbelief, I call belief. Doubtless I was born to it, but I have tested it with reading and speculation, and I hold it firmly What I have referred to as the gift of faith I do not, to be exact, regard as a gift. I regard it, rather, as a survival from an earlier stage of thinking and feeling: in short, as a form of superstition. It, and not the thing I am forced to name unbe­lief, seems to me negative. It denies the reason. It denies the evidences in the case, in the sense that it insists upon introducing elements which come not from the facts as shown but from the imaginations and wishes of mortals. Unbelief does not deny the reason and it sticks as closely as it can to the evidences.

I shall have to be more explicit. When I say I am an unbeliever, I do not mean merely that I am no Mormon or no Methodist, or even that I am no Christian or no Buddhist. These seem to me relatively unimpor­tant divisions and subdivisions of belief. I mean that I do not believe in any god that has ever been devised, in any doctrine that has ever claimed to be revealed, in any scheme of immortality that has ever been expounded.

As to gods, they have been, I find, countless, but even the names of most of them lie in the deep compost which is known as civilization, and the memories of few of them are green. There does not seem to me to be good reason for holding that some of them are false and some of them, or one of them, true. Each was created by the imaginations and wishes of men who could not account for the behavior of the universe ~ in any other satisfactory way. But no god has satisfied his worshipers forever. Sooner or later they have realized that the attributes once ascribed to him, such as selfishness or lustfulness or vengefulness, are unworthy of the moral systems which men have evolved among them­selves. Thereupon follows the gradual doom of the god, however long certain of the faithful may cling to his cult. In the case of the god who still survives in the loyalty of men after centuries of scrutiny, it can always be noted that little besides his name has endured. His attributes will have been so revised that he is really another god. Nor is this objec­tion met by the argument that the concept of the god has been purified while the essence of him survived. In the concept alone can he be studied; the essence eludes the grasp of the human mind. I may prefer among the various gods that god who seems to me most thoroughly purged of what I regard as undivine elements, but I make my choice, obviously, upon principles which come from observation of the con­duct of men. Whether a god has been created in the image of gross desires or of pure desires does not greatly matter. The difference proves merely that different men have desired gods and have furnished them­selves with the gods they were able to conceive.  Behind all their con­ceptions still lies the abyss of ignorance. There is no trustworthy evi­dence as to a gods absolute existence.

Nor does the thing called revelation, as I see it, carry the proof fur­ther. All the prophets swear that a god speaks through them, and yet they prophesy contradictions. Once more, men must choose in accor­dance with their own principles. That a revelation was announced long ago makes it difficult to examine, but does not otherwise attest its soundness. That some revealed doctrine has lasted for ages and has met the needs of many generations proves that it is the kind of doc­trine which endures and satisfies, but not that it is divine. Secular doc­trines which turned out to be perfectly false have also endured and sat­isfied. If belief in a god has to proceed from the assumption that he exists, belief in revelation has first to proceed from the assumption that a god exists and then to go further to the assumption that he com­municates his will to certain men. But both are mere assumptions. Neither is, in the present state of knowledge, at all capable of proof. Suppose a god did exist, and suppose he did communicate his will to any of his creatures. What man among them could comprehend that language? What man could take that dictation? And what man could overwhelmingly persuade his fellows that he had been selected and that they must accept him as authentic? The best they could do would be to have faith in two assumptions and to test the revealed will by its correspondence to their imaginations and wishes. At this point it may be contended that revelation must be real because it arouses so much response in so many human bosoms. This does not follow without a leap of the reason into the realm of hypothesis. Nothing is proved by this general response except that men are everywhere very much alike. They have the same members, the same organs, the same glands, in varying degrees of activity. Being so much alike, they tend to agree upon a few primary desires. Physical and social conditions brings about a general similarity in prophecies.

One desire by which the human mind is often teased is the desire to live after death. It is not difficult to explain. Men live so briefly that their plans far outrun their ability to execute them. They see themselves cut off before their will to live is exhausted. Naturally enough, they wish to survive, and, being men, believe in their chances for survival. But their wishes afford no possible proof. Life covers the earth with wishes, as it covers the earth with plants and animals. No wish, how­ever, is evidence of anything beyond itself. Let millions hold it, and it is still only a wish. Let each separate race exhibit it, and it is still only a wish. Let the wisest hold it as strongly as the foolishest, and it is still only a wish. Whoever says he knows that immortality is a fact is merely hoping that it is. And whoever argues, as men often do, that life would be meaningless without immortality because it alone brings justice into human fate, must first argue, as no man has ever quite convincingly done, that life has an unmistakable meaning and that it is just. I, at least, am convinced on neither of these two points. Though I am, I believe, familiar with all the arguments, I do not find any of them notably better than the others. All I see is that the wish for immortality is wide-spread, that certain schemes of immortality imagined from it have here or there proved more agreeable than rival schemes, and that they have been more generally accepted. The religions which provide these successful schemes I can credit with keener insight into human wishes than other religions have had, but I cannot credit them with greater authority as regards the truth. They are all guesswork.

That I think thus about gods, revelation, and immortality ought to be sufficient answer to the question why I am an unbeliever. It would be if the question were always reasonably asked, but it is not. There is also an emotional aspect to be considered. Many believers, I am told, have the same doubts, and yet have the knack of putting their doubts to sleep and entering ardently into the communion of the faithful. The process is incomprehensible to me. So far as I understand it, such believers are moved by their desires to the extent of letting them rule not only their conduct but their thoughts. An unbelievers desires have, apparently, less power over his reason. Perhaps this is only another way of saying that his strongest desire is to be as reasonable as he can. How­ever the condition be interpreted, the consequence is the same. An honest unbeliever can no more make himself believe against his reason than he can make himself free of the pull of gravitation. For myself, I feel no obligation whatever to believe. I might once have felt it prudent to keep silence, for I perceive that the race of men, while sheep in credulity, are wolves for conformity; but just now, happily, in this breathing-spell of toleration, there are so many varieties of belief that even an unbeliever may speak out.

In so doing I must answer certain secondary questions which unbelievers are often asked. Does it not persuade me, one question runs, to realize that many learned men have pondered upon supernat­ural matters and have been won over to belief? I answer, not in the least. With respect to the gods, revelation, and immortality no man is enough more learned than his fellows to have the right to insist that they follow him into the regions about which all men are ignorant. I am not a par­ticle more impressed by some good old mans conviction that he is in the confidence of the gods than I am by any boys conviction that there are fish in the horse-pond from which no fish has ever been taken. Does it not impress me to see some good old woman serene in the faith of a blessed immortality? No more than it impresses me to see a little girl full of trust in the universal munificence of a Christmas saint.  Am I not moved by the spectacle of a great tradition of worship which has broadened out over continents and which brings all its worshipers punctually together in the observance of noble and dignified rites?  Yes, but I am moved precisely by that as I am moved by the spectacle of men everywhere putting their seed seasonably in the ground, tending its increase, and patiently gathering in their harvests.

Finally, do I never suspect in myself some moral obliquity, or do I not at least regret the bleak outlook of unbelief?  On these points I am, in my own mind, as secure as I know how to be. There is no moral obligation to believe what is unbelievable, any more than there is a moral obligation to do what is undoable. Even in religion, honesty is a virtue. Obliquity, I should say, shows itself rather in prudent pretense or in voluntary self-delusion. Furthermore, the unbelievers have, as I read history, done less harm to the world than the believers. They have not filled it with savage wars or snarled casuistries, with crusades or perse­cutions, with complacency or ignorance. They have, instead, done what they could to fill it with knowledge and beauty, with temperance and justice, with manners and laughter. They have numbered among themselves some of the most distinguished specimens of mankind. And when they have been undistinguished, they have surely not been infe­rior to the believers in the fine art of minding their own affairs and so of enlarging the territories of peace.

Nor is the outlook of unbelief, to my way of thinking, a bleak one. It is merely rooted in courage and not in fear. Belief is still in the plight of those
ancient races who out of a lack of knowledge peopled the forest with satyrs and the sea with ominous monsters and the ends of the earth with misshapen anthropophagi. So the pessimists among believers have peopled the void with witches and devils, and the opti­mists among them have peopled it with angels and gods. Both alike have been afraid to furnish the house of life simply. They have cluttered it with the furniture of faith. Much of this furniture, the most reason­able unbeliever would never think of denying, is very beautiful. There are breathing myths, there are comforting legends, there are consoling hopes. But they have, as the unbeliever sees them, no authority beyond that of poetry. That is, they may captivate if they can, but they have no right to insist upon conquering. Beliefs, like tastes, may differ. The unbelievers taste and belief are austere. In the wilderness of worlds he does not yield to the temptation to belittle the others by magnifying his own. Among the dangers of chance he does not look for safety to any watchful providence whose special concern he imagines he is. Though he knows that knowledge is imperfect, he trusts it alone. If he takes, therefore, the less delight in metaphysics, he takes the more in physics. Each discovery of a new truth brings him a vivid joy. He builds himself up, so far as he can, upon truth, and barricades himself with it. Thus doing, he never sags into superstition, but grows steadily more robust and blithe in his courage. However many fears he may prove unable to escape, he does not multiply them in his imagination and then combat them with his wishes. Austerity may be simplicity and not bleakness.

Does the unbeliever lack certain of the gentler virtues of the believer, the quiet confidence, the unquestioning obedience? He may, yet it must always be remembered that the greatest believers are the greatest tyrants. If the freedom rather than the tyranny of faith is to better the world, then the betterment lies in the hands, I think, of the unbelievers. At any rate, I take my stand with them.
"Some say God is living there [in space]. I was looking around very attentively, but I did not see anyone there. I did not detect either angels or gods....I don't believe in God. I believe in man - his strength, his possibilities, his reason."
Gherman Titov, Soviet cosmonaut, in The Seattle Daily Ti


I agree with much of all that and I am just adding my view here without referring to it.  OK?

I will be 70 this year and all my adult life I have lived as an atheist. I try to simplify my thinking and my writing sometimes starting from a toad's viewpoint. A dead toad dried in the sun, a squashed rabbit, a dead human in an open coffin - hair neat, glasses on and best suit, slight smile and well embalmed - what is the difference? Dead and gone.
I have taken over 750 Humanist funerals and when I visited a family to prepare for a funeral, we may or may not get onto the subject of atheism, of there being no god, no other life than this one. Strange? I only explain where I am coming from if they ask or if the conversation goes that way. Then I say, 'when you're dead you're dead' and I believe that and I am happy with that and have no fear of death - which I really have not.
We only have one chance and we ought to make the most of it. It is strange that I haven't made the most of it and still do not really try. I am not in a rush to do the things left undone in my life. I am not in a momentous struggle to make the world a better place. This does puzzle me. You would think that a true humanist would be a perfectly good person. A person whose entire energy was used up in making it all better. Not so. I think I could quite easily decide I had had enough and just walk off into the sunset - but I guess that would make a few people very angry with me. 
I feel very much one with the Darwinian evolutionists and suppose the depth of my 'belief' comes from my favourite image of the toad and the meaninglessness of the concept of 'soul' coupled with the idea that humans have advanced so far ahead of other animals that they suffer from the ability to consider themselves in the context of others, past, present and future. They consider death and that produces the worst of fears; but it seems a weakness to invent an afterlife, a beautiful place where we will all be equal - well, those who get there. A bit of equality would be quite nice in this life. Of course, the whole thing has social class implications. I am not saying the organisers of religions have, as their prime objective, keeping the peasants quiet, but it certainly has that effect - or did.

For a powerful portrayal of this read 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' by Robert Tressell.
Another strange concept is that of a being that forgives your wrong-doing. I cannot understand the idea that something I have done that is bad can be expunged - a most dangerous concept. If people accepted that doing harm to others always resulted in others staying harmed or that one had to live with the guilt of any wrong-doing for the rest of one's life, perhaps things might get a bit better. Well could they get any worse? Incidentally, I am incensed by the so-called 'righteous' referring to the 'godless men of violence'. Most violence is committed by god-fearing people in the name of their god. Where would Muslim fanaticism be if dying in a 'jihad' did not bring automatic entry to heaven. I should say, I have Muslim and Christian friends and relatives; but I am talking about extremists here. Most of the worlds flashpoints seem to arise where there are religious extremists and there seem to be an awful lot of them in all faiths. I want compulsory religion out of our schools, I want education secularised, I want the Church of England disestablished, the monarchy removed (because, among other things it perpetuates the worst things in our class system) and I want an end to conflict [often religious] throughout the world and an end to inequality and want and hunger. Perhaps a lot to ask; but human problems can only be solved by humans and it seems to me that the best starting point would be to accept this fact.
Getting on your knees to pray might make you feel better (according to some university psychology study) but do not expect an answer. Talking to yourself or thinking constructively about your problems or playing golf or going fox hunting would probably be as useful. Horoscopes should carry a health warning by law and people who peddle Santa Claus should be prosecuted under the trade descriptions act.
Finally, I guess some of the things that reinforce my atheism will be common to many others and I would not want to go into all that stuff about 'if there was a god he wouldn't allow etc etc'. There are some small things like the attitude and actions of some people with belief, especially some of those in 'positions' in the different religions. Much faith seems meaningless - either not reflected in a person's daily life or what they say and think. Sometimes there are 'holier than thou' attitudes or again, a sort of double faced 'who said I said there was a god; it depends on what you mean by god'. Then there is the state of affairs in the United States of America - the country in the forefront of modern living, affluence and free speech where in some states, it is actually illegal to teach evolution - and god-theory is taught as fact. If theologians who know the history of the writing of the bible, the doubts about the authors, the translations, the arguments, the stuff left out and so on can then teach that it is actual fact make my blood boil - they have an agenda which is beyond my comprehension.
The big thing to me is the chaos. I see everything as chaos - not only the role of genetics in evolution but in humans' everyday organisation of their lives from putting out a note for the milk to wide swathes of economic, political things and national and international affairs. Wars, rape, space travel, white collar theft, the justice system, Gardeners' Question Time, and pop music. It is all chaos and we have to make of it and put into it what we can, take from it what we need and get on with it.

and here are a few books you might like to havea look at -
River Out of Eden, The Selfish Gene and others by Richard Dawkins
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
All in the Mind: A Farewell to God by Ludovic Kennedy
Humanism by Jeaneane Fowler
Against the Faith by Jim Herrick
The Cosmic Fairy by Arthur Atkinson
A History of Atheism by David Berman
The Humanist Alternative edited by Paul Kurtz
100 years of Free-Thought by David Tribe

- and books about death - the less the mystery, the less the fear -

The Ruffian on the Stair by Rosemary Dinnage
How We Die by Sherwin B. Nuland.
Intimate Death by Marie de Hennezel
Final Exit by Derek Humphry.


Hi jaywhat!

Quote from: jaywhat on May 20, 2007, 08:59:18 am
Of course, the whole thing has social class implications.

Yeah, there seems to be, in the minds of many theists, a righteous class and a sinner class. I'm glad to be numbered among the latter!

QuoteI am not saying the organisers of religions have, as their prime objective, keeping the peasants quiet, but it certainly has that effect - or did.

Yeah, as Napoleon noted, religion is the only thing that keeps the poor from murdering the rich.

QuoteIf theologians who know the history of the writing of the bible, the doubts about the authors, the translations, the arguments, the stuff left out and so on can then teach that it is actual fact make my blood boil - they have an agenda which is beyond my comprehension.

I think their agendas are simply to garner power and wealth - quite understandable given the history of humanity.

Intersting list of books. I've got the Sagan and Dawkins books, but some of those others are new to me. I'm looking forward to reading them. Thanks!
"Some say God is living there [in space]. I was looking around very attentively, but I did not see anyone there. I did not detect either angels or gods....I don't believe in God. I believe in man - his strength, his possibilities, his reason."
Gherman Titov, Soviet cosmonaut, in The Seattle Daily Ti


You say 'Never a god around when you need one' and this might give the impression to religionists that you might actully need one. 
I do not need one, there is no such thing.  I do not need fairies or unicorns either.
Anyway, where is everybody?


September 19, 2007, 05:53:03 pm #4 Last Edit: January 05, 2018, 04:40:25 pm by Unbeliever
Well, it certainly would be nice to have a real God around when I've made a very bad decision, and need to be bailed out!
"Some say God is living there [in space]. I was looking around very attentively, but I did not see anyone there. I did not detect either angels or gods....I don't believe in God. I believe in man - his strength, his possibilities, his reason."
Gherman Titov, Soviet cosmonaut, in The Seattle Daily Ti


No it would not.  Sorry, I do not agree.  We all have stand or fall by our decisions.  We are human beings - there is nothing above us.