I’ve wrestled with the question of God’s existence for my whole life. I was a skeptical but devout Christian for the first 20 years of my life. In college, I majored in philosophy (eventually getting my PhD in philosophy) in part as a way to give myself the time and resources to think clearly and systematically about this most important of questions. During this time, my attitude toward the Christian religion has wavered along the spectrum of skeptical belief, uncertain agnosticism, and hostile atheism. I have read most of the influential arguments for and against the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. For the most part, in my view, both sides are preaching to the choir, both the flimsy Christian apologetics and the overstated atheist screeds. What I want to do here is a little different, in a way that I hope adds to the conversation going on in our culture. I want to present my own personal and philosophical view from my own unique position. I am a non-believer. Yet I am not a firm atheist. I genuinely miss my old belief, but it nonetheless feels inaccessible to me. I am open to revising my views, but my current views seem to have solidified to a point where I feel comfortable laying them out and putting them in print. I do not think that I have a knock-down argument against God. I think that the arguments against God are good, but not conclusive – and I think that anyone who sees them as conclusive has closed their mind to the lingering questions, possibilities, mysteries, inherent in this issue. So with that, here it is – a tentative case against God.
The Hiddenness of God
In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, God is active in the lives of His people. Many of the major human protagonists of the Bible have direct contact and communication with God. And yet – in my thirty years of life, during most of which I was devoutly religious, I have never experienced anything remotely resembling an experience of a supernatural being. Nothing. All of my experiences up to this point in my life are entirely consistent with the materialist worldview of matter in motion with no supernatural elements. Think, for a minute, how utterly strange this is. In the Christian religion, God is not some abstract pantheistic force. God is personal. He created every life with a purpose, an intention, and with the ultimate hope for a personal relationship characterized by love. He created the universe for the purpose of human life, with whom He wanted to be intimately connected. And yet – He remains utterly hidden from us. He makes no attempt to show Himself to us. Instead He expects us to be convinced of His existence by a strange and ambiguous ancient text, and sheer faith. You’ve got to admit that this is strange. Sure God works in mysterious ways, but why wouldn’t God at least say hi every now and then, in some actual, tangible form? What could possibly be gained by His hiddenness, except confusion and frustration on the part of the creatures He created? If we add on top of this the Problem of Hell (more on this below), God’s behavior seems bizarre and cruel – create humans, remain entirely hidden from them, expect them to believe in God without good evidence, and then condemn the non-believers to an eternal torture in hell. This is clearly neither rational nor just. Now, of course, a few people today claim to have direct experience with God (or angels, demons, etc), but their stories all seem a little strange, and these people always tend to be a little hard to believe. On top of this, with modern psychology and neuroscience we are now aware of how easy it is to convince ourselves of experiences that we didn’t have, or misinterpret experiences that we did have, or just have random misfires of neural connections in the brain which produce temporary delusions that seem real. Because of these phenomena, those few people who claim to have experienced God are very likely just wrong about the nature and meaning of that experience. God’s hiddenness seems entirely without rationale, strongly suggesting that a personal God does not, in fact, exist.
The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil is traditionally formulated as follows: if God is all-powerful, then He can prevent evil; if God is all-knowing, then He knows how to prevent evil; if God is all-loving, then God would want to prevent evil; yet evil exists, therefore God (characterized as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving) does not exist. The concept of evil can be broken down into “natural” evil and “moral” evil. Natural evil is the suffering that comes about due to the workings of nature, such as devastating hurricanes, epidemics, earthquakes, droughts, etc, which cannot be traced back to a human cause. The suffering that comes from natural evil cannot be attributed to humans, but is instead caused by nature, and God created nature, so the origin of this suffering comes from God, and that seems contrary to God’s nature – suggesting that God must not exist. Moral evil is the suffering that comes about due to human wickedness, such as homicide, rape, genocide, etc. While human action is the proximate cause of this suffering, God created humans and their nature, so the ultimate cause of this suffering is God, and that seems contrary to God’s nature – suggesting that God must not exist. The existence of each of these forms of suffering requires different responses from the religious believer.
Let’s start with moral evil. The traditional response to the existence of moral evil is the “free will defense.” Moral evil is caused by humans, and God created humans, but since God gave humans free will, God is not responsible for the existence of moral evil. The responsibility for moral evil lies squarely on the shoulders of humanity. Furthermore, it makes sense why God would want to give humans free will – He wants humans to have a genuine choice whether or not to believe in, and love, God. Genuine relationships require genuine choice. And with free will comes the possibility of sin. You can’t have free will without this possibility.
This defense is compelling in some ways, and if accepted, clearly does address the problem of moral evil. However, while most laypersons intuitively believe in free will, genuine libertarian free will is actually very hard to defend philosophically. I constantly make choices in the face of an uncertain future, and this gives me an intuitive feeling of choosing “freely.” However, the particular choice that I end up making is going to be the effect of a complex network of prior causes – such as my particular brain chemistry, my genetic endowment, my upbringing and social conditioning, etc. As the fields of behavioral genetics and neuroscience continue to develop, we will come to understand in greater detail these causes, making human actions and decisions less mysterious and more predictable. Furthermore, it is clear that I am not remotely responsible for many of these ultimate causes of my actions. I did not give myself my genes. I did not create my brain. I did not choose my parents. Etc. And yet these things individually strongly condition and collectively entirely determine my actions. If determinism is true, and free will is indeed an illusion, then the free will defense fails to respond to the problem of moral evil. In my considered view, the case for determinism is strong, and the case for free will is weak. I’m going to leave it at this. For the sake of not getting terribly off track, I won’t further delve into the free will debate. (I will also not get into the doctrine of “compatibilism,” which is an interesting form of determinism that I do not believe would help the defender of God in this debate – the defender needs true, robust, libertarian free will in order to get God entirely off the hook for moral evil.)
Even if you’re not convinced by the argument for determinism, it is nonetheless clear that human nature contains great propensity for aggression and violence. These propensities are not all-or-nothing, but on a spectrum. Why couldn’t God create human nature with somewhat reduced tendency for aggression? Surely this would not violate free will. Humans with free will still need some kind of human nature – why not tinker with the knobs of human nature so that we get a little more Doctors Without Borders and a little less genocide? Again, this tinkering would not violate free will – it would just give humans a slightly different nature within which their free choices are conditioned and made. And presumably an all-loving God would prefer a world with a little more Doctors Without Borders and a little less genocide, and He has the power to make this happen without violating free will. So why didn’t He? The traits we find in human nature seem much more likely to be the product of natural selection than the creation of a loving God who wanted the best for His people.
The problem of natural evil is harder for the defender of God to explain. If God is the creator of nature, why did He create a world that is so volatile and inhospitable to human flourishing? If God is all-powerful, He surely could have created a world and an atmosphere so as to preclude the possibility of deadly hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. Why didn’t He? The traditional response to the problem of natural evil is the “soul-making defense.” That is, some level of suffering is actually necessary for humans to be motivated to better themselves, cultivate their moral character, practice important virtues like benevolence and charity, and turn to God out of a sense of dependence and need. God did not intend to create a perfect paradise for humans to luxuriate in hedonistic bliss – such an existence would be vapid, meaningless, and lack so many of the qualities of a well-lived life. Indeed, everyone has a sense that some of their hardest times in life actually were a blessing in disguise. Families come together over a tragedy. Individuals better themselves by overcoming obstacles. Etc. On the surface, this argument is plausible enough, and does seem to undermine the concerns behind the problem of natural evil. However, in our actual world, with the levels of suffering that take place on a daily basis because of nature’s cruelty, the defense is wildly inadequate. It feels like a defense that would be crafted and believed only by affluent Westerners who are largely insulated from nature’s cruelty. In poor countries, where a hurricane can kill hundreds or thousands of people in a matter of days, one has to wonder, “Was THAT tragedy really necessary for the people in this community to cultivate moral virtue? Was the death of THOSE children really necessary for our soul-making?” If the point of suffering is just to enable and encourage the cultivation of moral virtue, our world clearly exhibits a vast overabundance of natural evil. Surely some personal struggle and adversity is good for self-improvement and moral character – but starving or drowning or burning to death at the age of three is clearly not. The problem with the soul-making defense is that it is only plausible in the abstract, when we think about natural evil in general. However, this defense is only vindicated if it can account for every single particular case of natural evil, every single child who dies in a hurricane. Now, the defender of God may say, “That child was killed in order to build the souls of the remaining members of that community” – but then this defense becomes a weird cosmic utilitarianism in which some are sacrificed for the sake of others, totally violating God’s loving nature, thus becoming totally implausible.
Now, the defender of God has one more philosophical move – to say, “Yes, natural evil inflicts massive suffering on innocent people for no apparent reason – but this suffering is completely outweighed when we consider the eternal happiness experienced in heaven. So yes, some children will die horrible deaths because of the cruelty of the nature that God created, but God also created heaven, and the finite amount of suffering on earth is infinitesimal when compared the the eternal bliss of heaven.” Again, this response has some initial plausibility, but it’s still somewhat strange. It doesn’t really explain natural evil, but instead just seems like a diversion – “Don’t look over there at that devastating hurricane that killed hundreds of innocent people – look over here at the awesomeness of heaven!” This argument does not remotely help us understand why a perfectly loving God would permit ANY amount of natural evil above what is strictly necessary for the building of moral character. This argument is a diversion, not a justification. And furthermore, it is only plausible as a diversion if we focus our attention on the bliss of heaven, and not focus on the cruelty of hell – a problem to which I now turn.
The Problem of Hell
Even when I was devout Christian, I was always deeply disturbed that the God I worshiped and loved created a place of eternal punishment and populated it with some large percentage of the people He created. Why? Was this really necessary? Being all-powerful, God could have created any kind of universe He wanted, with any kind of rewards and punishments that He wanted. How could a perfectly loving God create a situation where billions of decent people would spend an eternity experiencing extreme suffering? The traditional response to this problem is a version of the “free will defense” discussed above. God gave humans free will in order let us make a free choice about whether or not we wanted to believe in, and love, God. With this free will comes the possibility of rejecting God. And a consequence of rejecting God is not being with God in the afterlife. This line of argument has always struck me as a totally thin rationalization for the un-rationalize-able. My problem with this defense begins with a simple, and I think unobjectionable, premise: non-belief in God is entirely reasonable. When presented with all the evidence and all the arguments for and against the existence of God, reasonable people can reasonably conclude that God probably doesn’t exist. It is plain that lots of smart and decent people have undertaken a serious and good faith effort to think through the question of God’s existence, and concluded that God does not exist. It is blatantly clear that the arguments and evidence do not point unambiguously toward belief in God. Reasonable people can disagree. If God wanted to encourage belief, He could have made His existence more evident to His people. He could have made His holy book more historically and scientifically credible. But for some reason He chose not to (see The Hiddenness of God above). If you agree with this premise that non-belief in God is entirely reasonable, then you have to explain why a perfectly loving God would condemn reasonable people to eternal torture for simply accepting the conclusions that they arrived at when using their God-given reason. Indeed, the idea that people would justly deserve punishment for holding reasonable beliefs about the nature of the universe is bizarre. People justly deserve punishment for moral transgressions. But non-belief in God is not a moral transgression – it is, at worse, a reasonable epistemic error.
What makes this problem especially disturbing is the eternal nature of hell. The problem would be less pressing if the afterlife were either an eternal heaven for believers or a temporary purgatory followed by an eternal heaven for non-believers. The idea that non-believers deserve temporary punishment in purgatory still seems weird to me, but if non-believers were ultimately (after some time in purgatory) accepted into heaven where they would experience eternal bliss with their Creator and their friends and family, then so be it. But who, possibly, deserves an ETERNAL punishment? Under what conception of justice is eternal punishment merited for finite transgressions? This seems so wildly disproportionate that if it were practiced by a “loving” and “just” God, then we would need to radically redefine “love” and “justice” so as to be almost the opposite of their current meanings. I can understand the idea that the afterlife could help us “balance the scales of justice” – so that people who get away with moral transgressions in this life could face some punishment in the next life. But since the transgressions in this life are finite, the punishments would also have to be finite. If there is a heaven, yes, Hitler should probably not go straight there, but should spend some time paying for his sins in some kind of purgatory. Maybe he should spend a long time there for the horrible thing he did. But once the price has been paid, and the moral scales have been balanced, then redemption should be possible. Again, keep this in mind: God had the power to create any kind of universe He wanted, with any kind of structure of punishments and rewards, and yet He seems to have created one that is completely morally indefensible. God seems more like a cosmic tyrant, not a loving caretaker. Something is seriously wrong here. If I were ever convinced to believe in God, I would begrudgingly worship Him – but it would be out of fear, not out of love.
So what could be going on here? How can we make sense of Christianity, with its emphasis on God’s perfect love, and also its doctrine of an eternal hell? Actually, it makes perfect sense when viewed from the proper perspective. First, it makes sense that a religion-with-a-doctrine-of-hell will be able to generate lots of adherents and strong commitment from those adherents because of the greatness of the promised reward and the harshness of the possible punishment. If religion emerged through cultural evolution in order to create strong communal bonds, preserve social order, and put a check on the anti-social elements of human nature (discussed more below), then it’s clear that a religion-with-a-doctrine-of-hell would do this better than a religion-without-a-doctrine-of-hell. If all I have to worry about is a temporary purgatory, then I would have less incentive to check my own anti-social tendencies. Second, echoing Nietzsche, a belief in hell serves a very deep but very disturbing psychological desire to cast down and crush our earthly enemies. Believing that our enemies will burn in hell in the afterlife is deeply satisfying, especially if those enemies are able to dominate us during our earthly lives. So, seen from a sociological and psychological perspective, the belief in hell makes perfect sense. It also, however, strongly suggests that the God of Christianity does not actually exist.
The First Cause Argument
Why is there something instead of nothing? What caused the universe to come into existence in the first place? These are profound questions that seem to elude rational understanding. The human mind naturally wanders backward in time in search of beginnings, including the beginning of the universe itself. One possible response to the First Cause Argument is to reject the premise that all things have a first cause, and leave open the possibility that the universe has been around for eternity, with no beginning and no end. This view is conceptually possible – nothing logically requires that the universe have a first cause. Indeed, scientists long believed in the conception of the eternal universe. However, the theory of the Big Bang does reintroduce the First Cause Argument as a plausible argument for the existence of God. If the universe did have a beginning, then … why? Why would things go from a state of complete nothingness, non-existence, non-being, lacking space and time, to suddenly, at a precise moment about 13.7 billion years ago, the explosive emergence of existence, being, space and time? This truly boggles the mind. The non-believer is forced to say that the Big Bang happened without reason. There was no intention or purpose or plan or consciousness behind it. It just happened. Perhaps. The believer sees this origin as the moment that God created the universe. God – being Himself outside of space and time, and therefore Himself needing no first cause – was the first cause of the universe. This explanation seems perfectly plausible, and provides meaningful answers to some of these profound questions. Why does the universe exist? Because God wanted to create a place in which His created beings could live, and God presumably wanted this because He wanted to form personal relationships with the people He created. That said, it is strange that God would create a universe for the purpose of populating it with human life, but then wait around for 13.7 billion years before human life emerged, and even then only after a long and brutal process of natural selection. Indeed, if God really wanted to create the universe in order to bring about humanity, then the literal text of the creation story in Genesis would make much more sense – however, the literal story of Genesis is no longer believable given our modern archaeology and modern scientific understanding of the origins of life.
The origin of the universe remains a mystery – distrust any atheist who no longer feels the weight of this profound question mark. There cannot be a materialistic account for the origin of matter itself – so the answer to the question seems to be outside the scope of scientific explanation. It is interesting how fashionable it is these days for atheists to speculate about how this universe may be a computer simulation created by some alien super-scientists. We all have the sense that there must have been some reason behind the origin of the universe, that it couldn’t have just happened, for no reason… right? But what is that reason? It could have been God, it could have been an alien, and it could, indeed, have just happened. I remain humbled by this mystery.
The Argument from Design
You’re walking across a field when you come across a watch. You open up the watch and observe the complex design and interaction of the parts, and rightly infer that this device was designed by an intelligent being. Does the natural world, itself, likewise evidence intelligent design? The cosmos, the natural world, and living organisms all reflect extreme complexity. Reflect on the structure of the human brain. It is so dense in neural pathways, so rich in information, that humans are nowhere near capable of replicating it synthetically, and maybe never will be so capable. Now, is this complexity evidence of supernatural intelligent design? For much of human history, the Argument from Design would have been entirely convincing. What else could have created such complex systems? Surely they could not have emerged through chance alone. However, the theory of Darwinian evolution through natural selection changed all of that. We now have an extremely elegant theory backed up by lots of empirical evidence that explains how complexity can emerge without a designer – not through “chance” alone, but through random variations taking place within the process of selfish genes competing for survival over millions of generations. Contemporary arguments by “intelligent design” theorists are just so many God-of-the-gaps arguments. Sure, modern science has not given detailed explanations for every single corner of the cosmos, but this is to be expected. Science is a long and slow process, and has really only been going on for a few hundred years. The gaps in our scientific understanding of the world should no be filled by appeal to God, but should be filled by future scientific discovery. The Argument from Design is no longer seriously compelling.
The Unlikelihood of Miracles
When I was a devout Christian, I always had a hard time convincing myself of the plausibility of miracles. Miracles – defined here as a violation of the normal laws of nature by a supernatural being – are all over the Bible, and are clearly a central piece of the Christian worldview. Indeed, miracles take place all the time in Biblical stories. Why, then, do serious accounts of miracles seem to take place only in the Bible? Why, for example, have I never seen a single miracle? How come no one I know has ever seen a miracle? Like the Hiddenness of God (discussed above), it’s strange that something so omnipresent in the Bible is so seemingly absent in the modern world. Everything in my experience is entirely consistent with a materialist worldview in which everything is, in principle, explainable through science. Sure, there are statistically unusual events, but those are (by definition) to be expected every now and then. Yes, some people today claim to have seen miracles, but those people always seem to lack credibility, and their stories always seem pretty unlikely. And yes, there are things in the universe that we cannot easily explain. But these days, we investigate them scientifically, and in time we usually get plausible scientific explanations. It would furthermore seem very strange and fickle of God to just intervene in extremely rare circumstances for small matters while also very clearly not intervening at times when we would seemingly need supernatural help the most. It seems very likely that the stories of miracles in the Bible are myths, exaggerations, or simply pre-scientific interpretations of confusing events. While not impossible, the phenomenon of miracles seems highly improbable.
The Unlikelihood of the Efficacy of Prayer
When I was growing up, my mom was dying of cancer, and I continually prayed for her to be healed. She passed away when I was in high school. The whole experience made me think hard about the meaning of prayer. Clearly my prayers were not answered. So why did I pray? What is the point of prayer? No answer to this question has ever satisfied me. The believer seems to have an unfalsifiable theory of prayer. If your prayers are answered, then that’s because prayer works and God answered them. If your prayers are not answered, then that’s because God chose to answer them in His own way, or His own time, but it is beyond our understanding how and why He does this. Either way, God is responding to prayer and prayer works. This just seems totally unsatisfying. Why would God cure some cancer patients and not others? Why would God seemingly answer small prayer requests but allow hurricanes and floods and droughts to kill innocent children on a daily basis? It seems much more likely that things happen for normal, non-supernatural reasons, and then religious people impose a religious interpretation upon these normal events, interpreting certain events as “answers to prayer,” when in fact they just happened of their own accord. There is simply no reason to believe in the efficacy of prayer. Skip prayer and try meditation.
The Unlikelihood of an Afterlife
Is death the end, or is it just the beginning of a new phase of existence? Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that there is life after death. As far as we can tell, human subjective first-person experience is generated entirely by complex neurological processes in the brain, and those experiences terminate entirely when the human brain and body cease functioning at death. We have no scientific evidence for the existence of a “soul” that is separate from the body, is a locus of subjective experience, and persists after death. Furthermore, it is entirely understandable that a belief in the afterlife would have become such a central part of so many religious traditions. Humans live with the incredible burden of knowing that we will someday die, and this burden causes a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. So is makes sense that a religion that promises that we survive death would be so psychologically appealing and spread so rapidly in the process of cultural evolution. Humans naturally want to survive death, so they are quick to believe in a religion that promises that they will indeed survive death. This psychological explanation for belief in the afterlife seems much more plausible than the actual reality of the afterlife. Death is, it seems, the end, and we should learn to accommodate ourselves to this fact.
The Dubious Morality of the Biblical Worldview
Growing up, I always wondered why God seemed to have such a problem with gays. Why would God be against homosexuality? Why, in general, does God seem so obsessed with sex and sexuality? What’s up with His intense concern over dietary matters? The Biblical moral worldview always seemed a little off to me. The Bible does, no doubt, contain some good moral messages about not killing and stealing and lying, etc, but the good stuff seems mixed up with a bunch of strange rules and prohibitions that I couldn’t make rational sense of. Then, of course, there is the seeming permissibility of slavery and polygamy in the Bible. And of course God Himself engages in a few acts of mass slaughter, and also directs the Israelites to engage in a few of their own acts of brutal ethnic genocide. What’s going on here? Is the Bible the ultimate source of moral truths? If so, why do those moral truths seem so often tangential to how most good-hearted people think about morality today?
The morality of the Bible makes much more sense if religion is looked at sociologically – as a set of norms and beliefs that serve to bind a community together, maintain social order, build in-group cohesion, and help communities succeed in conflicts with out-groups. What were the biggest concerns to the Israelites of the ancient world? Eating bad or spoiled food could kill you, so you had to be very careful about how food was prepared and served. Male rivalry over sexual partners could lead to feuds and violence within the community, so you had to have lots of formal regulations around sex, sexuality, and reproduction. And the natural human tendencies of aggression and deceit need to be checked in order to maintain social harmony. Lacking sophisticated surveillance and policing, groups needed their members to internalize these important rules and regulate themselves – and what better way to do this than to have them believe that their every thought and action was being watched and judged by a supernatural being?
This perspective on the morality of the Bible suggests that morality is not a set of absolute rules handed down from on high, but instead is a set of adaptive social regulations that emerge in particular situations in response to particular social problems. The Biblical moral worldview helped the Israelites survive in their harsh natural and social climate. But we do not live in those conditions today. In the modern world, we can de-moralize dietary practices, because we have less fear of dying from our food. We can de-moralize homosexuality, because we no longer require such heavy social regulation of sexuality in order to maintain social order. Etc. This altered perspective on the morality of the Bible both illuminates the nature and purpose of the morality of the Bible, while also showing us the way beyond it. We need a moral code for the 21st century, not the ancient world, and the Bible cannot give us that.
If God does not exist, then belief in God comes with no cost, and disbelief comes with no real benefit. If God does exist, then belief in God comes with infinite benefit (eternal bliss in heaven), and disbelief comes with infinite cost (eternal punishment in hell). So, on the basis of rational self-interest alone, even lacking any other evidence for the truth of religious belief, it seems that you should believe in God. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Why not?
When I teach Pascal’s Wager in my philosophy classes, students find it very compelling, and it is, in some ways. While this is not an argument for the existence of God, it is an argument for the rationality of belief in God. There are a few common critiques of Pascal’s Wager, and I’ll present two. First, if you only believe in God because of a rational calculation of your selfish interests, your belief in God will not be genuine, and surely this is not the kind of belief that God would want. However, it’s entirely possible that cynical belief will raise your odds of getting into heaven more than genuine disbelief, and it’s also quite possible that over time cynical belief can transform into more genuine belief (keep going to church, fake it ’til you make it, and eventually you might really believe).
The other, more compelling, objection is that Pascal’s Wager has nothing to say about which religion to believe in. Pascal’s Wager makes Christian belief rational, but it equally makes Islamic belief rational, and same with any other religion that includes some kind of otherworldly rewards and punishments. Now, we tend to limit our imaginations to the few major religions of the world, but we need to remember that there have literally been hundreds or thousands of religious traditions in human history. So if I’m looking to take a leap of faith into a particular religion in order to increase my chances of otherworldly reward, then I need to choose between all religions that the world has to offer. When we look at this expansive choice set, it’s clear that the odds of me choosing the correct religion (assuming that any of them are true) are very small. What this shows is that Pascal’s Wager does not give any assistance to the unbeliever. It dictates that you should believe, but it gives no direction as to which religion.
The Truth vs. the Utility of Religion
A common feature of the debate today is that religious believers tend to uniformly argue that religious beliefs are both true and socially desirable, while atheists tend to uniformly argue that religious beliefs are both false and socially harmful. But the issues of the truth and the utility of religious belief need to be separated and addressed individually. As I have made clear above, I am not convinced of the truth of Christianity or more generally of the existence of God. However, I am convinced of the social utility of religious belief. It is astounding to me that atheists, who are so vociferous in their defense of the theory of evolution, are so blind to this simple observation: Why would we see religious mythology emerge in every single human culture if it didn’t serve important survival functions? Clearly religious beliefs help bring about in-group cohesion, reduce in-group conflict, maintain social order, regulate sexual competition, encourage pro-social conduct, and provide individual meaning and purpose. I am entirely unconvinced that there are good secular alternatives to organized religion when it comes to serving these vital functions. How are ordinary people expected to cope with life’s difficulties and experience meaning in their mundane lives without religion? Secular philosophies like Stoicism, which likewise try to address these issues, appeal only to the intellectual elite, and could never appeal to the masses and hold entire civilizations together. It is perfectly consistent to not believe in the truth of religion and yet believe in the social utility of religion. However, there is something tragic about this view – I find myself celebrating the social utility of organized religion while also being unable to partake in its benefits myself.
When I first broke away from my devout Christian beliefs, I experienced both excitement and sadness. I was excited because I felt intellectually free, for the first time in my life. I felt like I could stop trying to rationalize and justify beliefs that I couldn’t really believe. I felt excited about the prospect of forging my own moral values and my own personal meaning. At the same time, I felt sad at the loss of my deeply cherished beliefs. I missed God like one might miss a deceased best friend. I felt cut off from the religious community in which I grew up. I experienced a long phase of serious depression resulting from this cosmic and social alienation. But I knew that I could never go back. My old worldview had become inaccessible to me. No matter how much I wished I could go back, I could not. Furthermore, I was somewhat disillusioned at the experience of non-belief. What I lost could not be reconstructed on a more “rational” basis. I could never again feel entirely “at home” in the universe. I could never again feel the same sense of grand personal meaning and purpose. I could never again feel certain about the trustworthiness of my moral values or my conscience. We non-believers should be honest about this. To lose belief is to experience real loss. Nonetheless, I find myself unable to believe because of the personal and philosophical path that I have taken. Here I stand, I can do no other. I cannot violate my reason.
I should conclude by saying that I do not believe that my conclusions here are the inevitable outcome of reason itself – they are simply where my reason has led me. If I were to proselytize, I would simply echo the call of Immanuel Kant in his famous essay “What Is Enlightenment”: Have the courage to use your own reason! Wherever it leads, follow.