PrefaceThis book was born out of my own search for truth, the supernatural, and the meaning of life. Let me tell you how I came to write it.
GodI grew up in a Christian family in Germany. I went to a Christian school. I went to mass. I took courses on Christianity where I learned about Jesus, the Bible, and God. I was even an altar boy. And yet, the idea of God and biblical miracles always seemed implausible to me. Even as a child I could not believe that Jesus walked on water. (People cannot walk on water.) So I discarded all these stories, and the existence of God along with them. Thankfully, this did not cause much trouble: religion is seen as a private affair in Germany, and even though I was taught about religion from a young age, nobody ever had the notion to ask me whether I actually believed in any of it.
However, I was still considering the possibility that a god existed, in large part because I did not know what God would be if he didn’t exist. What does it look like to not exist? I pictured God as somehow floating around in some dark nonexistence. But if that were true, didn’t that mean that he existed?
It was only later, in my twenties, that I discovered (by help of the Web page GodIsImaginary.com) what God is if he doesn’t exist: He is a fictional character of a story. Just like Cinderella is a fictional character of a fairy tale called “The Little Glass Slipper”, God is a fictional character of a fairy tale called “the Bible”. He is a product of our human imagination. Once I understood this, I could finally answer the question of why I did not believe in God: because he is a character in a story. Nobody believes in Cinderella either. If you close the book of fairy tales, Cinderella is gone. Likewise, if you close the Bible, God is gone. I explain this way of thinking in the Chapter on Gods.
But even though God was a fictional character to me, I did not have proof that this was indeed the case. Did I have to prove it in order to qualify as an atheist? I reasoned that if that were the case, then no-one could actually ever be an atheist — or a theist, for that matter. Hence, I resolved, theism and atheism are not about proofs. They are about belief and non-belief. Atheism is the belief that the supernatural does not exist (or, more generally, the rejection of belief in the supernatural). I develop this definition in the Chapter on Atheism, and look more closely at those who call themselves atheists in the Chapter on Atheists.
TruthThe belief that gods are but fictional characters still left me with the question of why this would be the case. To complicate matters further, I was surrounded by many other, decidedly non-Christian, worldviews in the international environment of my research institute. Some people believed that there is a conscious being (a god) behind every object in the universe. Others held that God is the one-ness of this universe. Still others considered God the ultimate reason of existence of the human soul. I was pretty sure that none of these arguments held water, but I did not know how to prove it.
It was only much later, in my thirties, that I discovered the magic sword that separates truth from nonsense: falsifiability. Simply put, something is falsifiable if it can, at least in theory, be proven false. For example, the hypothesis “The Earth has only one moon” is falsifiable: if we ever spot two moons orbiting the Earth, the hypothesis is false. The hypothesis “God exists”, in contrast, is not falsifiable : there is no event (even hypothetical) that a believer would accept as proof that God does not exist. God cannot be seen? That’s because he’s invisible. A prayer is not answered? God answers prayers at his own discretion. And so it goes, on and on. This means that theism can never be proven false – and atheism can never be proven true.
Does that make the atheist position hopeless? I was happy to find that this is not the case: A simple logical transformation shows that if a hypothesis is not falsifiable, then it cannot be used to deduce any statement about the real world. For example, the hypothesis that God exists does not allow for a single prediction about the natural world that could not be made without the hypothesis (theists have no advantage over atheists when it comes to understanding the natural world). The hypothesis is thus literally meaningless. The same goes for all the other supernatural theories of my friends and colleagues : they allow for no statement about the real world. Intriguingly, the same is not true of atheism. The belief that God does not exist is falsifiable: A single appearance of God falsifies it. Atheism is thus meaningful. The meaning of atheism is: no god will ever show up in a scientifically verifiable way — which is not just meaningful but also true so far.
Falsifiability reliably cut away all the meta-physics to reveal only the real world. I elaborate on this theory of truth in the Chapter on Truth. We will also see how falsifiability can conveniently dismantle all major “proofs” for the existence of gods .
Thank God I’m an atheist!
ScienceI was happy that I was now better at refuting unbased supernatural claims. However , I reckoned that it was not sufficient to just reject theistic claims — as many of my fellow atheist writers had done . One also has to offer an alternative. How did life come into existence? Where do moral values come from? What is the meaning of life if there is no god? It was to find answers to these questions that I set out to write what would eventually become this book.
I started with an exploration of science. I was amazed to find that science already knows a great deal about life and the universe. It is fascinating to see how small our planet is in the context of the universe, how life can be explained by chemical reactions, that different species of our early human ancestors co-existed at the same time, and how a snowflake can be so beautiful by purely natural processes. I came to intimately appreciate what a great job science does in explaining the physical world; it deserves far more credit than we usually give it. I can only warmly recommend the summary of all this in the Chapter on the Universe.
MoralityEven if I could now better understand the physical world, I was still left with the question of morality. How do we know what is good and what is wrong? I was particularly intrigued by the fact that different eras and cultures developed such different moral rules: slavery was once common and is now shunned; equal rights for men and women before the law are a desideratum in the Western world, but not so in many Muslim countries; the death penalty remains in place in some countries while not in others. So, I came to understand that morality is not an absolute. It is not a property of a behavior that we can discover, like the weight of an electron. Rather, morality is an attempt by humans to regulate their society. Humans want to live their lives unharmed. Therefore, they make moral rules to make sure no-one harms them. Thus, a behavior becomes “morally bad” or “morally good” by a simple human decision . I elaborate more on this insight in the Chapter on Morality.
This was a very frightening conclusion for me to draw. It meant that there was no objective criterion to say, for example, that slavery was wrong. The prohibition of slavery was, in reality, just a convention between humans (and a rather recent one, by the way). Can we just define “good” and “bad” in any way we want? It took me some time to understand that, yes, indeed, we can define them any way we want. This, of course, heaps an enormous responsibility on us. Some people shy away from this responsibility by retreating to a set of rules that they are told are divine. But once you accept that humans make the rules, there is a huge problem to solve: What are the “good” rules? With a Western background, I quickly arrived at the conclusion that, for me, the good rules are those that give equal and maximal liberty to everyone. This simple constraint is, in my view, already far superior to religious rules, which usually don’t extend the same rights to women, slaves, or adherents of other religions. Based on this, it is possible to develop a liberal moral framework, which I also briefly discuss in this book.
The great conundrums of lifeI long hesitated to investigate how morality could work together with a naturalistic view of the human mind. In the atheist view of things, there is no soul; our thinking is just chemical reactions in the brain. But how can we then punish someone for “bad” behavior if what they have done is merely the consequence of a chemical reaction in their brain? On top of that, these chemical reactions seem to be determined in large part by the environment and society in which that person lives. Is “bad” behavior then ever really someone’s “fault”? Here, too, I learned to be bold. If you think through to the end the naturalistic view of the mind, you do not land at fatalism, anarchism, or meaninglessness, as some detractors would have it. Rather, you arrive at a surprisingly simple concept of morality. We humans have a hardwired desire to avoid harm (as species that did not have this desire died out ). When others cause us harm, we punish these others — be it by physical intervention, legal recourse, or social ostracism. The others, driven by their own desire to avoid harm, then stop causing harm. This holds no matter how it is implemented in their brains. Punishment is thus a technique that can be used to prevent future harm. If we want to reduce the total amount of harm, it follows that punishment should be the mildest means necessary to make someone refrain from repeating their harmful action. This is what we should have in mind when we punish – not some ill-guided notions of “fault”, “guilt”, or “revenge”.
Despite my new insights , I was still left with the question of all questions: What is the meaning of life in such a world? This question is usually understood to mean: What is the intention that someone pursues with my life? But in an atheist worldview, there is no god who pursues an intention with anyone’s life. And so the role is vacant. Therefore, I volunteered myself for the job. I am the one who pursues an intention with my life. And this intention is the meaning I give to my life. I elaborate on this idea in the Chapter on the Meaning of Life.
HumanismAll of these reflections led me to a system of liberal values, a belief in science, and the rejection of myths. So, I was happy when I found that there was actually a word for this combination of ideas: Secular Humanism. In a nutshell, Secular Humanism is the idea that we should care for our fellow humans instead of for the supernatural. I now know that there is a sizable proportion of people in the world who share this view — even though they probably don’t know it’s called Secular Humanism. Following the path of this philosophy, I came to rediscover the value of the Human Rights, democracy, free speech, and freedom of belief. I arrived at the conclusion that these values do not just work hand in hand with the other values of this book, but also that they need constant questioning, development, and support.
ReligionSecular Humanism addresses questions of truth, morality, and society — all without reference to the supernatural. So why does religion exist at all? To answer that question, I started to trace how different peoples had constructed different religions across time. Thanks to work by archaeologists and historians, we know quite a bit about the major world religions . For example, did you know that Hinduism and the religion of the Ancient Greeks share some gods, and most likely had a common ancestor? Or that the Israelites (the ancestors of the Jews) first had several gods, and then removed the others so that only one was left? Curiously, they forgot to remove some references to the other gods from the Torah, so that there are still traces of this maneuver in the Christian Bible. I was mesmerized .
If it is so obvious to the atheist that religions are human constructions, then why do people follow religions at all? There are numerous reasons for this, and I will explore some of them in this book. However, by far the most intriguing idea to me is an analogy that Richard Dawkins proposed: religions “live” in humans like viruses. In order to survive, the religion has to make sure that its human host survives, and that it spreads the religion to other hosts (most importantly to its children). Religions that are more successful at this process outlive those that are not. Indeed, I have found more than 20 “strategies” that religions have developed to this end: from the encouragement of followers to have many children (to which the “virus” can then be spread) to the invention of hell (which scares adherents into sticking with the religion). I will show that most major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) have bought into at least some of these schemes.
That said, there is no need to demonize religion as a whole. Humanism differs from many other ideologies in that it accepts criticism, and that it strives for a balanced and truthful view of reality. In this spirit, I dedicate one chapter to the benefits of religion and one to the harm that it causes.
The Abrahamic ReligionsMy study of religion is driven by the desire to give weight to all major religions — not just the Abrahamic ones, as unfortunately many of my comrades-in-arms have. Shintoism or Spiritualism are as much a religion as Christianity, and I believe that it is in this diversity that one can find insights about religion in general. However, given the importance of Abrahamic religions in the world as we know it today, I do explore these religions in more detail.
In the Chapter on the Abrahamic Religions, we will trace how the concept of God was developed over the millennia. Due to his old age, God has over time accumulated an almost amusing number of contradictory properties: he is vengeful, but all-loving; he is omniscient, but regretful of his creation of humankind; he is benevolent, but brutal. I then dedicate a chapter to Christianity. I trace how its supposedly God-given tenets have changed over time on topics from slavery to women’s rights, abortion, evolution, and the death penalty. I also take a closer look at the Bible, with all its oddities and inconsistencies. I conclude that if the book we hold in our hands contains factual errors on the parts we can verify , then there is no reason to trust it on the parts we can’t verify. Hence, the book should be discarded as a source of evidence. However, the Christian god, Jesus' miracles, his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned only in the Bible and nowhere else. Therefore, if we discard the Bible as a source of evidence, there remains no reason whatsoever to believe in Christianity...
I also dedicate a chapter to Islam, the world’s second largest religion. Islam is very controversial: It is seen by its detractors as an ideology of hatred and terrorism, set on submitting the world. By its liberal proponents, it is presented as a religion of peace, in tune with Human Rights. I have come to see that neither view is correct: Islam spans a wide spectrum of interpretations, from the liberal to the conservative and extremist. By presenting Islam as a religion of extremism, one does injustice to the millions of Muslims who adhere to more liberal interpretations of the faith. And by presenting Islam as a peaceful religion in tune with Human Rights , on the other hand, one brushes aside the millions of Muslims who practice more conservative or even dangerous variants of the faith.
My experience is, unfortunately, that any discussion of Islam inevitably gravitates towards the question of what the “true” interpretation of the faith is. Any critical thought is drowned out in endless elaborations of what the Prophet Mohammed supposedly said or did. But I am happy to share the antidote to this type of discussion: It is not up to an atheist to decide or take part in the debate about what the “true” Islam is. May Muslims clarify that first among themselves. The atheist can only observe that there are different interpretations of the faith (whether “true” or not). Each interpretation has its adherents, and some are manifestly incompatible with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
This BookThis is how far my journey through religion, science, truth, and morality has taken me. I am happy to share the result of my work with you. At the same time, you are kindly asked to bear in mind that this book is not a scientific treatise, but a personal project. I am a computer scientist, and I have no education in philosophy, theology, history of religion, or anthropology. Thus, I cannot guarantee that what is written here is correct and complete (see the legal fine print at the end of the book).On the contrary, my journey is not over. I continue to discover and develop new insights, also through the writing of this book. Thus, loyal to its own principles, this book may change over time, and definitions, theories, and claims may be updated.
Finally, I am not writing this book to make money (in fact, it is unlikely that I will ever recover the cost of editing it). I am writing this book to share ideas. So, just in case you are browsing a physical copy of this book and are considering buying it: The book is also available online for free at https://suchanek.name/texts/atheism. Enjoy!