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Atheism

Introduction

As Richard Dawkins points out,  I have no obligation to explain why I am an atheist, it’s for those who believe in a god to supply evidence.

Atheism, religion, science and ethics are linked:

Religion provides a simple world view based on the existence of one or more gods.  Gods are super-beings who are unscrutable, far superior to humans and endowed with supernatural powers.  Such a world view starts from the axiom that humans will not be able to understand the world around them.  There is no further argument possible:  one lives "by the book".

Religions are supposed to be respectable, their leaders have considerable political influence.  Sects are viewed differently, but why?  What defines a religion?

Some quotes and articles

Pope Benedict XVI said in 2006:  "don’t make your own ‘do-it-yourself’ religion".  Perhaps, but was Christianity not a do-it-yourself sect in the beginning?  Why should I not be allowed to start a new one now?  What is so special about four or five books written almost 2000 years ago, many decades after the "facts"?

Also in the year 2006 Prime Minister Iyad Allawi backed the referendum vote on Iraq’s constitution, noting that unlike the Koran, a constitution can be modified.  What is so special about a book written 1400 years ago?

In 2006-06 an Afghan citizen was nearly condemned to the death sentence for having switched religion.  You can join, but you cannot leave.  The same death sentence is pronounced in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah for the same act of apostasy.

In an interview (2006-08) with the Italian popular science magazine "Newton" I said this:

Q.:  Do you believe in God?  (or alternatively, what is your relationship with faith?)

No I don’t.  Religion is a superceded explanation of the world around us. From early animistic ideas it became a well-organised set of beliefs attempting to explain physics as much as psychology.  It comforted people by relegating the unexplained to a "God".

Religion lived alongside autocratic government.  The Renaissance discovered that government is better by democratically constructed laws, changing laws when necessary through elected governments.  It also discovered that explaining the world is better through theories tested by experiment against reality, changing theories that fail the test.

There is no place for dictators once you have democracy, there is no place for blind faith once you have the scientific method.

Clerics and spiritualists don’t like people who think for themselves.  They try to separate the scientific method from everyday life.  But the experimental method checks with reality.  We use it all the time:  you gather evidence and check it before deciding.

Thinking independently, checking with reality and remaining intellectually honest is in direct conflict with religion.

Right up to this very day, wars are caused by stubborn beliefs in ideas that are wrong, most of them of religious origin.  Religion is a nasty side-effect of our imperfect brain structures.

For that interview I was allowed only 200 words, so I had to be brief.  I would have liked to add:

Yes, almost all of us use the scientific method in everyday life, irrespective what culture we grew up in.  Common sense tells us it is better to check before taking a decision.  People don’t normally buy cars on "faith".  Those who do usually end up with the wrong product.

Time does not allow checking everything and hence sometimes we regret decisions with a sigh of "Had I only known..."

Common sense is just a first level of the scientific method.  Applying common sense is formalised in science.  Huxley pointed this out long ago.

Atheism however does not by itself give me a set of values and rules by which to live.  The criticism most often used against atheism is that crimes were committed by atheists, notably in the communist regimes.  The link between communism and atheism is tenuous:  any belief/value system becomes dangerous when it becomes dogmatic.  Communism looks more like a religion to me.  But there are links between behaviour patterns and belief systems.

For a more detailed set of points and arguments, you can consult "The God Delusion".

There is more to say about the irrationality of religion.  The Daily Mail Online published reactions to an interview with Richard Dawkins.  I reacted to that article:

"It is a woman’s choice if she wishes to wear a burka, a niqab or not"
Ah, but is it? Or is it social & family pressure? If a woman wants to hide her features, fine with me, but we suspect these women do not have the choice, even when they say they do.  It is very difficult to find out the truth.
However, much more important:  racism is about human beings, but Islamophobia is about ideas.  I am against all organised religion, I’m Islamophobic, and that should not be confused or amalgamated with racism.  I’m not a racist and have many friends in Arabic countries.  I’m equally Judaism-phobic, Catholicism-phobic and communism-phobic.  I have the right to be that.  I’m in favour of enlightened thought, I hate dogma.  Leading one’s life by accepting blindly what is written in old books is dangerous.
Do not confuse racism and ideologies.

Then I remembered another article:  some British schools went to halal-only school meals "because it was too difficult to have two kitchens".  Indeed, in strict Judaism and strict Islam, kitchenware shall not have touched unclean food, which leads some practicing Jewish families to operate two separate dishwashers.

Strangely enough, people are not required to have two separate intestinal tracts.  How far does this “touching” of “unclean” stuff go?  Does it go down to the molecular level?  Suppose anything that has ever touched a pig cannot be allowed to touch any halal or kosher food?  Bad news from Avogadro:  if there had existed only a single pig in the entire history of the planet, and it died some long time ago, then the water in this pig would now be diluted over the planet.  We know mammals are composed of about 90% water, suppose this pig held 60 litres of it (perhaps a large pig, but we’re talking about only one pig in all history).  Do your calculations:  each and every litre of water on the planet, including the oceans, would hold a million molecules that were once part of that pig.  Of course, they would also have passed through many other places and animals.  But the fact remains:  the purest mountain spring water has molecules in it that have once been inside a pig somewhere.

A change of heart

Since I first wrote this page, I have somewhat refined my point of view.

A well-written article published in New Scientist by David Eagleman on “possibilianism“ made me lean towards a more general view.  Unfortunately for copyright reasons I cannot reproduce the article here, and the Wikipeadia article linked to above does not give enough clarification.  In essence, the idea is that nothing is a priori ruled out:  we might live inside a giant computer simulation or the universe may be a dream.  But the testable theories of science do let us progressively rule out concepts that do not correspond to reality.  With Eagleman then, I cannot be a strict atheist because I cannot completely rule out other possibilities;  yet I know enough to reject organised religion of the traditional kind.

Calculation for fun

For calculation’s sake:  there are about 1.39x1021 litres of water on Earth (that’s not only the drinking water, but all water:  oceans, clouds, rivers, lakes, …).  Our pig held 60 litres of water, or 60’000 grams.  A mole of water holds 6.022x1023 molecules (Avogadro’s number) and a mole of water weighs 18g (H2O = 1+1+16 atomic weight).  There are thus 60’000/18 = 3’333 moles of water from our pig, and there are 3’333x6.022x1023 = 2x1027molecules in that amount of water.  Divide that up over the litres of water on the planet, and you get 2x1027/1.39x1021=1.44x106=1’440’000 or somewhat less than a million and a half water molecules from that single pig in every litre of water on Earth.  Not much perhaps, but it was only one pig.