I have met very intelligent religious people. I have also met very dumb religious people. Curiously however, I have never seen a dumb atheist. All atheists I know personally and all the ones I have read about and seen in the media happen to be exceptionally intelligent people. This is not a proclamation that I am very intelligent though I am an atheist. Rather from what I have observed, an atheist always comes out as a thinking person. I am yet to come across an atheist who does not think for himself or herself.
In this article, I wish to describe the four roads that one can take in order to discard their religious faith and become an atheist, if they so choose. These are also roughly the paths I took to convince myself and I think that any atheist who shunned his or her religion would have taken the same four paths. I hope that the reader will start thinking once he or she has finished reading this article. Please forgive me for including many quotes from famous atheists here. I hope they don’t bore or provoke you.
Without much ado, the four roads to atheism are as follows:
The Road of Science
Let us begin with a quote from Bertrand Russell – “When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted by what you wish to believe but look only and surely at what are the facts.“
Science is not just physics, chemistry and biology. Science is a way of thinking. It is not a product, but a process. It is a way of critically and skeptically looking at things. The interesting part is that you don’t have to be a scientist to think scientifically. This basic understanding regarding science is necessary to understand the scientific path to atheism or even atheism itself. If you believe that science is just a bunch of theories written in textbooks, you are missing the point.
When we look at our civilization, we see that things that were not known at one point of time are known today. History is proof that what we do not know today will be known tomorrow. Ancient humans didn’t understand why seasons change, why water flows, why things fall, why lightning occurs and so on. They feared these phenomena and started associating divine and/or supernatural entities to them. However, as time went by our species eventually did find the right answers and discarded the divine entities associated with each phenomenon one by one. Today we have convincing and evidence based answers to all those questions that intrigued the minds of ancient humans. Except for a few extremely religious people, no one really worships the thunder god or the water god today. Similarly, when we understood that Sun is just another star undergoing nuclear fusion of hydrogen, the need to worship it as a God vanished (unfortunately there are still people in India who worship the Sun).
The point is that the more we understand nature, the more God becomes unnecessary. As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.“
Knowing and accepting evolution as a real scientific fact is the next step. I have written many posts on evolution that can brief you about its current status and why it is such an important scientific theory. Of course there have been people who read those articles and told me, “No matter what you say, I will still not believe in evolution.” I feel nothing but sympathy for them because they purposely are shutting themselves off the beauty and awe that science can inspire about our wonderful world.
Thinking as I said is an essential characteristic trait of an atheist. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All thinking men are atheists.” One must show the courage to think and question established beliefs. Only then intellectual growth will happen. You don’t need a genius level IQ in order to question religious beliefs or compare them with real science. All it takes is a little guts and willingness to learn.
The unknown is not supposed to be feared. It is supposed to be studied. I fully agree that all that we see in our universe must have an origin. Our quest as an intelligent species therefore should be to work hard enough to find out how things really originated or at least pay some respect to the people who are working on those big questions at this very moment rather than thrusting outdated, medieval, pre-medieval superstitions and Bronze Age myths on them and others.
It is very easy to say, “I don’t know the answer, therefore God did it.” It takes extraordinary courage and intellect to say , “I don’t know the answer, therefore let’s find out.“ That in my view is the real beginning of wisdom.
The Road of Philosophy
Philosophy is that branch of thought that asked questions like where do we come from, where are we going, what is the meaning of life, what is the purpose of life etc. Philosophy can be termed as the ancestor of scientific thought, even though today they are two distinct disciplines. Atheism born out of philosophy rejects the notion of a creator based on logical and philosophical arguments. Contradictions in the concept of a supreme creator is often the source of arguments against God. For instance, an all powerful and yet loving God wouldn’t allow evil to pervade in this world. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270 BC) once said:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?“
Carl Sagan quotes Rig Veda beautifully in his epic documentary Cosmos, which you can listen to in this video. Statements such as these abound in philosophy so much that we can’t help wonder why the concept of God survived for so long. What I think is that philosophy, which was part of the then education system was available to only the very powerful people in the social hierarchy. It is possible that philosophical notions weren’t handed out to the common man as it is today. Sadly, even though all religious and philosophical texts are available for purchase, the mindset is still maintained by many.
Hinduism, the religion I left has profound atheistic notions. In fact, atheism exists at the core of many religious texts. The Rig Veda, the Upanishads such as Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Mundaka and Chandogya etc. are atheistic in nature. If you are interested, there are Wiki articles on Atheism in Hinduism and Irreligion in India which describe the origins and development of atheistic traditions in India. Many notable personalities in modern India such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, Amritya Sen, Javed Akhtar, Kamal Haasan and many more have been and are atheists.
I reiterate the fact that a thinking person will turn in to an atheist sooner or later. The only question is when he or she starts thinking.
The Social Way
I remember talking to a friend of mine. He told me that humans should respect someone or something and therefore believing in God is necessary. I asked him to respect other humans and he was dumbstruck by that reply. That is what we are lacking in our society today. We hardly are willing to treat another person with respect. Ironically, we whine a lot when people don’t treat us with respect. Anyway, the social way towards atheism stems from a historical and contemporary awareness about various aspects of societies in the world.
A person aware of societies will also be aware of the damage religion has done to the society. When I think about the evils of religion, a very unpleasant picture comes into mind. All organized religions in my opinion have caused great evil in this world. For instance, the organized religions of the world are so keen on oppressing and subjugating women, which is totally wrong. The aspect of respecting another human being comes into picture when I question religion in terms of society. The way religion has treated women without respect and dignity is unjustifiable. And it is not just women. The treatment of different races, homosexuals and even members of other religions has been pretty bad throughout history.
Richard Dawkins in his marvelous book The God Delusion has said:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
There have been people highly annoyed by this sentence of his. But when I think about it, there is no other better way to describe the God of the scriptures. And there are people who really take the evil things written in the scriptures literally and act accordingly. Religion has poisoned the minds of many and is still continuing to do so.
According to Steven Weinberg, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.“
This pretty much summarizes the damage religion can do to the minds of people. The Crusades, mass conversions, terrorist attacks, honor killings and many such evil have been caused because of religion and not the lack of it. In fact, I have never seen an atheist going around burning trains, doing suicide bombings, taking part in communal violence, doing honor killings or any such despicable evil acts.
Atheists are highly rational people whose only wish is the progress of humanity. We don’t threaten others to follow our way of thinking. All we do is to use logical reasoning to educate people about how things are and then leave it to them to make their own decisions.
The Empirical Way
People are almost always surprised when I tell them that I do not believe in God. They look at me like someone who has just landed from another planet or as a messenger of evil who has come to attack and falsify their most cherished beliefs. The kind of questions they ask are sometimes very funny and I intend to make another post regarding that. There was this friend of mine who once asked whether it was “science” that is holding everything together or not. I was taken aback by her ill phrased question. She thinks science is some entity that atheists use to replace God. That is the main reason in the initial paragraphs, I defined what science really is.
The empirical way is all about testing and finding things for yourself. Getting experimental data to prove or disprove something is critical in drawing conclusions. If you can test things yourself and find whether the God hypothesis is true or not, there is nothing else more entertaining and informative than that. You can start with thought experiments. For example, if you study for the exam and pray, you will pass. If you study and don’t pray, you will still pass. But if you don’t study and pray, there is no way you will pass. I have actually tested this in my life and I have found that it doesn’t work if you just pray and don’t study.
If you pray or really believe in something or someone, it ought to get your things done. It can be clearing an exam, getting job, marrying someone, buying a house etc. Unfortunately, events don’t work that way. Another experiment is checking out coincidences and studying the probability that those events would have happened anyway. The following video shows a young Prof. Dawkins doing a simple experiment to prove that coincidences do not mean anything in the supernatural realm:
It is not hard for us to find out instances in our daily life and make experiments out of them. I do that all the time. There are plenty of events in my life that allude initially to the possibility of a God. However, when I sit and think about it and start eliminating the most improbable causes, very soon I find that the events have nothing to do with a God at all. Therefore, I can confidently say that God is a highly improbable entity or just a figment of human imagination.
The key behind testing God is finding out natural explanations for things that happen. Only when you have exhausted all the natural explanations for a particular event, that you should consider the possibility of a supernatural (if you want to). What I do is, if I exhaust natural explanations, I leave it there until I find some new natural explanation later because I believe that everything in the universe is knowable. It is only a matter of time before we figure them out. There is no such thing called a miracle. They are just happy coincidences that have very natural explanations if someone bothers to find them.
To conclude, being an atheist is a very intellectually fulfilling experience. It is a process of continuing growth and it is something that teaches us about how rare and precious we are as a species of extraordinary brilliance. But being an atheist can be hard if you are surrounded by religious people. My advice to those who want to follow these four paths to atheism would be to make sure that you make a good friend circle of people who are not afraid of thinking freely. As Phil Plait puts it, “Teach a man to reason and he’ll think for a lifetime.“