Why do atheists exist? 6

A question some often ask is “Why do rational sane people believe utterly irrational things?”. However, a far more interesting question to ask is to wonder why skeptics and non-believers exist. Think about it now, every culture we know has embraced some form of belief in the supernatural, so why do we have non-believers?

There are easy answers for most questions, for example, the thought that folks perhaps embrace belief for comfort, but its never that simple. In a similar manner, I find that some answers put forward to explain Atheism are not satisfactory.

In todays Guardian, Wendy Grossman writes about this. I’ll let you click the link and read, but basically she asserts (with credible references to observations made by others), that strong atheism tends to emerge under the threat of theocracy.

Its an interesting suggestion, but the problem I have is that the data does not support it. For example 43-80% of the Scandinavian population are non-believers, yet they face no immediate threat of a theocracy. Yet within many theocratic states that impose belief, non-belief is not a viable movement and does not appear to naturally emerge, and if it does, they quickly chop its head off (quite literally).

I do find some quite rational explanations exist for evolution to naturally select folks who believe in other forces. For example, Michael Shermer during a TED talk paints quite a compelling case in which he describes a couple of scenarios. It goes like this … Imagine a primitive primate out on the savanna hears a rustling in the grass …

  • If he assumes a predator and its not, no harm
  • If he assumes its just the wind, but its actually a predator, he is out of the gene pool

Michael’s point is that our ancestors are the ones who always assumed other agents were out there and so survived, and that such assumptions naturally lead to a belief in the supernatural.

OK, so if this is correct (and I’m inclined to think it is) then we have been selected naturally for belief in other agents, such as Gods, Aliens, Spirits etc… why do non-believers exist?

OK, let me ask a couple of questions … I’m truly curious … If you are now a non-believer then:

  • Were you always a non-believer?
  • If not, then why did you change your mind?

Personally, I started out as a believer and have now come to the position of being a non-believer. It has taken time and much thought. It was a matter of letting go bit by bit and appreciating that not only did the believers have no evidence, but that the claims they made were at times more than a little bit silly. The trap here is that you simply end up thinking that they have got their believe wrong and that yours is the correct one, so it does take a bit of time to think your way out of that one. A key point was a discussion I once entered into with a French Philosopher who very successfully cut directly through the religious babble I spouted and explained that I was in the grip psychological mind trick. At the time I did not embrace this, but I retained the thought and eventually used it as a lifebelt to keep myself from drowning in a sea of nonsense and finally made it to a more rational shore.

So what about you, how did you manage to escape, or were you ever a captive?

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6 thoughts on “Why do atheists exist?

  • Michael Stone-Richard

    I started out with, not a belief in “God,” but rather, a belief in magic, which eventually left me open to accepting the concept of God or other supernatural entities. Since recently embracing my inner skeptic, indeed coming out of the closet as a skeptic, I’ve begun to analyze my former beliefs and to write about them. Here’s a link to the first post on the subject at my McSkeptic Blog:http://xrl.in/8sgf

  • HaggisForBrains

    It’s an interesting question, particularly in the light of the evolutionary perspective. I was brought up in the Church of Scotland, and although my mother seemed to have a simple, old fashioned faith, I think my father (a graduate engineer) only went to church because it was expected. We never discussed this, but I was made to go to Sunday school as a child.

    To be honest, I don’t really remember ever having much of a belief, but as I became a teenager and started thinking about it, it all seemed pretty silly. Initially I lacked the courage to speak out, but by the time I went to university to study science, I was happy to call myself an atheist.

    At that point the local minister told my girlfriend of three years that she could not marry an atheist, so our relationship went slowly down the tubes. With hindsight I owe that minister my heartfelt gratitude :-).

    So the question in my mind is: was my scientific bent in any way responsible for my atheism? And why do I not seem to have the “god gene”, which as you pointed out would seem to have evolutionary advantages?

    I’m not sure that I was ever a “captive”, but on the other hand I was surrounded by pressure to conform, mostly from my mother (“you should join the church; all your friends are joining, and it will be easier when you get married”!) which I resisted. Of course, that could simply have been teenage contrariness ;-).

  • Mullah Nasruddin

    It’s a long story. It started when I turned 18, legal adult age here on Brazil. I felt responsible to take religion more seriously. My parents are spiritists (kardecism), so I started some studies for adults there. I studied with teens before, but it wasn’t serious study of the materials.

    Fast forward a few meetings they start going into the formation of life on Earth. My darwinian education at school made me feel uneasy as they taught that basically some kind of seeds were spread on early Earth and developed on animals and plants when the conditions were favorable, and then proceeded to populate the planet through sexual reproduction.

    Ok, my intellect was starting to question, but I basically convinced myself that I might be wrong on this. Later on they went on the god subject. I remember the saying that god is the origin and the cause of everything. I raised a comment on that it was difficult to grasp something existing always such as god, since we come from our parents and so on, so how can god not have a start. They labeled that as a materialist thought, and every student gave me weird looks and the coordinator proceeds telling to stick to the material. How great.

    I decided not to go to studies anymore. There are lectures on the spiritist center I went that are kind of like sermons in churches. Next one I went they said that if anyone has any trouble believing the most obvious things spiritism teaches, this person better not try anymore, because they are so obvious!

    I left spiritism since then. Best advice ever. I must remember if I ever see this person again to thank her.

    Fast forward some months I start feeling emotionally empty; the lack of religion time was getting me to seek truth. I ended up joining a cult about kabbalah that was offering free studies through the internet. Spend around six months with them when they asked to contribute with 10% of my income. I said them I was a student and couldn’t pay, they were ok with this. This money thing raised my alarm, and then I started investigating and realized my brainwash. I believed I was a bad person that needed correction. This realization opened up my mind a little more. Left the group and never contacted them anymore.

    Few months ago I was in the mood of seeking some spiritual thing again, but this time I was getting a little smarter. I ended up trying some hypnosis cds, and was trying to free my mind from all this nonsense. I ended up listening to a cd by some guy called Hypnotica. I don’t know exactly today what he was trying to accomplish with those suggestions, but one phrase stuck into my mind after listening for a few times.

    Think for yourself. Question authority.

    Googling up this and I learn about Timothy Leary, his struggles with defending legalization of LSD, and I started reading some counter-culture materials. His message on his video How to Operate your Brain really opened me into realizing that there was nothing wrong with me. This was what others wanted me to thing, wanting to control me and get my money, instead of what was real.

    At this point I was non-religious, but still a theist.

    Later on I got in contact with some material about a guy named OSHO. That old guy is the one person I’m most grateful for taking all bullshit out of my head.

    His talks on the subject God is Dead, Zen is the only Living Truth made me an atheist. This old crazy man made me left the idea of a personal god, made me value my own freedom of thought, made me learn about meditation and trusting myself, made me value science and creativity.

    The subreddit Atheism made the final touches to my new way of living, made me know others who faced something like me, and the huge harm that religion have made in the past and is making every day. Thanks Reddit.

    It’s probably quite weird that I ended up an Atheist on my journey into spirituality. Timothy Leary was cited as the most dangerous man alive once by Richard Nixon, yet his message was really important into freeing my mind from religion.

    So is the contribution of OSHO. He is called a cult leader, a destroyer of lives and I can’t really defend him on this subject, as I know that his organization made questionable things in the past, and the man is seen mostly as a spiritual leader. Yet I found that many of his discourses contributed immensely to freeing me from the worse of religion, made me rely much more on my own instead of seeking the opinion of others, and his insistence on meditation fulfilled the emptiness that was once the idea of god on me.

    Today, I’m an atheist. I don’t have any beliefs sustained by faith. My approach to everything is through science and direct experience. I value scientific knowledge and that moral and ethics are not dependent on religion or god, but a characteristic of human beings.

    So what was the turning point? My everlasting curiosity and will of meeting truth. It guided me through a most crazy path, filled with traps, but my thirst for finding it was enough to guide me into the right direction.

  • HaggisForBrains

    @ KXAR I’m afraid that your link does not answer any questions, and is a rather sad and defensive rant against “libbies” which I presume means liberals. It is also a denial of scientific and intelligent questioning.

    Typical quote:

    “You just want to be little babies and have mommy or the ninny state take care of you. In any case I don’t feel sorry for you, because its people like you who are screwing up life for everybody else. Please libbies, go back to Mars! The libby’s response – name-calling.”


  • Dave Gamble Post author

    @Karl Haggis is quite right … your blog link does not answer any questions, its just a rant.

    The essence of what you are saying is that whenever you engage what you refer to as a libby in debate, you are on the receiving end of name calling, then proceed to do just that.

    I’ve a couple of observations …
    – You appear to assume that only liberals can be non-believers
    – You appear to assume that only believers can lead good moral lives
    – You appear to assume that only believers find meaning
    Yet for all this, there is not one logical argument, not even one jot of evidence.