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Tallis in Wonderland

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Why I Am An Atheist

Raymond Tallis examines his happy disbelief.

I suppose I have been more or less an atheist since my teens, although, given my early exposure first to Catholicism and then to Anglicanism, it was probably some time later that I entirely shook off the feeling that a posthumous comeuppance might be awaiting me. Recently, I was invited to join a panel at the Glasgow Book Festival to debate atheism with the philosopher Julian Baggini and the crime writer and humanist Christopher Brookmyre. We were asked to begin by stating the reasons we were atheists. I would be deceiving myself if I thought I knew which reason had most contributed to my present happy state of unbelief, even less which was decisive.

There are bad as well as good reasons for deciding that one is, or that one should be, an atheist, and I suspect the bad reasons may be more influential. The worst reason for not believing in God (though the least obviously bad), is that there is no evidence for His existence. This is a bad reason for atheism because no-one can agree what would count as evidence. Miracles, scriptures, the testimony of priests and prophets etc, can all be contested on empirical grounds: but for some people the fact that we communicate intelligibly with one another, or that the world is ordered, or even that there is something rather than nothing, is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a Creator who not only made the world but also made it habitable by and intelligible to us. Therefore the appeal to evidence, or lack of it, will always be inconclusive.

Another bad reason for being an atheist is hostility to religious institutions because of the delinquent behaviour of believers, and more generally, on account of the evils that organised religion has inflicted on the world. I am sure this was important in my own case. The local Catholic priest’s walk past our house every morning on his way to St Austin’s Church would prompt a brief outburst from my father on the wickedness and, above all, the hypocrisy of clerics. I therefore entered maturity fully persuaded of the Lucretian doctrine Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (‘So potent was religion in persuading to evil deeds’).

Increasing knowledge of history made me even more aware of the abominations inflicted on human beings in the name of religion: sectarian cruelty, unspeakably bloody confessional wars, the oppression of women (and the destructive and cruel obsession that priests have with what goes into and comes out of the female pelvis), and a cynical and opportunistic alignment with temporal powers to maintain an unjust status quo that benefitted the few at the top of the heap and kept the many at the bottom. Even saints seemed largely unattractive. Their behaviour was often wrong-headed, ludicrous or repulsive. One of my most cherished examples is St Catherine of Sienna, who wanted to impress God by fasting and managed to overcome her residual desire for food by carefully gathering into a ladle the pus from the suppurating, cancerous breast of a lady she was attending, and drinking it – a dish not even Heston Blumenthal (a British chef famous for eccentric dishes) could have dreamed up.

So what? Even if the evils caused by religion were relevant to the question of the existence of God, we do not know whether religion is a net force for evil, despite the documented horrors. Apologists have pointed to the moral codes which have been inculcated by religions and which have distanced us from the dog-eat-dog ethos of most of the other representatives of the animal kingdom. Ivan said in The Brothers Karamazov, “If God did not exist, all things would be permitted” (or what amounts to the same thing, if He ceased to command belief). This is not true, of course, since humans have other powerful sources of altruistic concern for their fellows, although one can see why so many have been impressed by this assertion. However, the jury must still be out over the net benefit, because we cannot run the course of history twice, once with and once without religion, to determine whether religion has overall made us treat each other worse. Or, come to that, whether religion has blocked progress in understanding nature and making the world more comfortable to live in and life more bearable, or vice versa. Notwithstanding the obstacles religious institutions have sometimes placed in the way of scientific advance, it can be equally argued that it fostered scientific inquiry in other ways: monotheism may have inspired the search for unifying laws of nature; and many deeply pious scientists – Newton and Faraday being obvious examples – saw their inquiries as an expression of their love of God. It would be a travesty to reduce the relationship between religion and science to emblematic clashes such as over the heliocentric solar system or against the inanities of the creationists.

Another bad reason for being an atheist is that religious beliefs scare people witless, particularly children, with their doctrines of salvation and damnation. That argument won’t wash either. If God expects certain things of you – including belief in Him – and the punishment for disappointing Him is eternal damnation, then it’s a supreme kindness to frighten you into obedience to His Will, as interpreted by the experts.

Nearly all the bad reasons for being an atheist are rooted in a fundamental confusion between what one might call the ‘metaphysical’ as opposed to the ‘institutional’ or ‘societal’ aspects of religion – between that part of religion which makes claims about the origin, the nature, the shaping forces and the meaning of the universe and the lives of humans; and that part which prescribes how we ought to live, who is authorized to guide us in this respect, and what we should be guided to do – precepts, rituals, observances, codes of behaviour and so on. An intelligent defence of atheism should separate religious institutions, with their protean prescriptions and the powers for good or ill that result, from sets of propositions about the origin and nature of the universe and the bit of it we live in. Badly behaved priests and sickeningly venal and powerful churches do not demonstrate the untruth of religion. While they remind us of the corrupting influence of power, particular when it claims to have transcendental authority, this fact doesn’t support the Big Bang against the Six Days of Creation. Atheists might argue that religious believers themselves do not separate these aspects of religion: God’s Wisdom, for example, is often both a metaphysical concept and a non-negotiable set of instructions about how we should live with one another. True – but this doesn’t make the argument any better. However, it does bring me to the first good reason for being an atheist (not before time, you might think).

According to the religions in which I was brought up (though not, of course to all religions), God unites in His Person a risibly odd combination of properties. In order to uphold a world picture which links the great events that brought the universe about with the little events that fill our lives, it has to conflate metaphysics and morality, physics and politeness – something of the significance of the Big Bang with an Angry God who sulks because he is not adequately praised, and who intervenes at a personal or political level in an often random and sometimes quite repulsive way. It unites the origin of the universe with finger-wagging armies of priests speaking in His name. The notion is almost comical, and certainly infantile, and it betrays how this idea of God is clearly a mirror of local and historical human preoccupations rather than eternal feature of the universe. The God who merges the power that slew thousands to avenge the slights felt by other thousands, or to lift a righteous person up, with the power to bring the boundless totality of things into being, is an ontological monstrosity – like a chimera uniting the front end of a whale with the back end of a microbe.

But shouldn’t one humbly admit uncertainty, and be an agnostic rather than an atheist? No; and here’s the reason why. A quick glance at the metaphysical claims associated with the 100 or so religions on offer at the present time shows that they are in profound and often bitter conflict. But unless you have been indoctrinated from birth into a particular religion you are forced to make a seemingly random choice in the Shopping Mall of Theological Ideas. If in the spirit of humility you seek what they have in common, very little of substance remains: the highest common factor between Christianity, Paganism, Hinduism, Jainism and all the other theisms is pretty small, and what little remains is incoherent. To be a sincere agnostic you would have to be able to entertain the notion of a God who is infinite but has specific characteristics; unbounded, but distinct in some sense from His creation; who is a Being that has not been brought into being; who is omniscient, omnipotent and good and yet so constrained as to be unable or unwilling to create a world without evil; who is intelligent and yet has little in common with intelligent beings as we understand them; and so on. The ‘apophatic’ God, defined in terms of what God is not, of the Greek philosopher Xenophanes and some strands of Orthodox Christianity, is some acknowledgement of this unthinkability of the deity. But agnosticism requires one to keep in play the notion of a square circle. Not, I would think, worth the effort.

So, whatever my actual reasons for being an atheist, intellectually the case does not rest on the lack of evidence for God, or the bad behaviour of believers and religious institutions, but on the idea of God itself, which insofar as it is not entirely empty, is self-contradictory, and makes less sense than that which it purports to explain.

It doesn’t follow from this that I believe we have a complete or even a properly grounded understanding of what we are. For example, we do not understand consciousness – how it is that we are aware. Atomic materialism does not explain it, that’s for sure. And the very concept of matter has become unintelligible, as we know from the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. I also do not understand how it is that individually and collectively we make sense of the world – how knowledge is possible. But this sense of the limitation of our knowledge and understanding makes me more, not less, happy in my atheism: I am not obliged to imprison a thrilling intuition of transcendent possibility arising out of my sense of the unknown, in a ragbag of confused, contradictory and often (but not always) malign beliefs, culminating in logical impossibilities. This nothwithstanding, we should be grateful for the monuments of art, architecture, ritual and thought that we atheists owe to others’ belief in God.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2009

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head is published by Atlantic.

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