Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast. I have been an atheist for the most of my life. It wasn’t a big deal for me. I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist. I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers. That was an interesting discovery for me.
To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show. The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers. There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority. I visited a few atheist forums. What I saw there was even more shocking. Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt. For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any. I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC. Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with. But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype. I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis. For instance,
- “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
- Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
- “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)
I thought about these statements. I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”. I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later. I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism. I read about cognitive dissonance. I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method. I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God. But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God. The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable. People who know how science works, know this. People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist. Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments. It was a good experience. Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions. I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations. I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs. So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God. After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.
Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”. I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs. In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God. I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit. But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion. That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling. After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it. So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God. I think, religion is very powerful. And, as any power, it has many dangers. But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it. I’m going to write about it soon.
I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions. At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues. Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time. It was the first TED talk I watched. Something did not sound right in this talk. I smelled too much agenda. It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc. Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning. TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums. I found a lot more understanding there. A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions. These days however, I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.
In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics. And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?). There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them. I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang). That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering. I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already. By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it. It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues. This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting. It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.
So, science fanatics, sorry. Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions. Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe. The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.
All in all, my experience with religion is very positive. I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc. It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.