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10 April 2007

I believe in one less god than monotheists…

Ciarán Hanway explains he's not a man of faith ... he's an atheist

By Ciaran Hanway

Let’s start with the basics. What does “Atheism” mean? It’s a word derived from the Greek word “theos”, meaning “God”, and the prefix “a-“, meaning “without”. An atheist is someone without a belief in god. It is as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a belief system that tells me how to behave or what to eat. It is a simple statement of my lack of belief in God. I could be a fascist, a communist, a monetarist, a narcissist. All of these other belief systems and characteristics are supplementary to, or supplemented by my atheism.

My atheism doesn’t make me special: I’m one of about 15 million other people in this country who do not describe themselves as religious. I’m not writing this blog to “evangelise” either: I’ve argued through many a night with religious friends, but never seen any wisdom in trying to “convert” them. I know all too well that what we don’t choose to believe what we believe – we just do. I’ve been invited to contribute to this column, and I see this as a good opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions.

Typically, one might frame a debate about god by first defining what god is and isn’t, then seeking to disprove the existence of god. I’m not going to define what I think “god” is. Nor am I going to give it a capital “G”, since my lack of belief extends to all gods. What I’ll apologise for in advance, though, is my frequent references in this series of blogposts to Christianity. This is simply a product of my cultural environment and the religion I left as a young man, but I think my points apply to all religions equally.

I’m guessing that the majority of readers lack a belief in Zeus or Thor or Huitzilopochtli. We don’t think twice about not believing in them and it would be absurd and time-consuming to work through all of the many thousands of deities that have been revered throughout history and refute their existence in turn.

So there’s not much point in proving that Zeus or the Tooth Fairy don’t exist. Similarly, there is no onus on atheists to prove that the Christian God, Allah, Vishnu etc. do not exist. The burden of proof is on the people claiming that these things exist. Some atheists take this a step further and say that they know there is no god. Since the burden of proof is on the believer, I don’t see a need to positively affirm that there is no god, just as I don’t need to prove that there are no faries at the bottom of my garden.

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Monotheists reject all other gods but their own. I just happen to believe in one less god than they do.

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Outside their own scriptures, there’s nothing conclusive that points towards the existence of god. The Argument from Design, philosophically tenuous anyway, has been successfully neutered on a philosophical level by a succession of philosophers and holed conclusively on a biological level by Darwinism.

The Cosmological Argument (“First Cause”, or “Something must have created the Universe” argument) misses the obvious question as to why the First Cause should not require a cause. We can’t explain everything yet, but god is increasingly forced into the gaps of what we don’t know.

We should continue to look into those gaps and rudely evict god from them. What if thinkers and scientists throughout history had chosen to be theologians rather than discovering electricity, x-Rays, antibiotics, nuclear power, vaccinations, semiconductors and DNA to name a few advances we take for granted?

I fully accept that all of my beliefs might change. I might have a change of heart one day and look back on these years as an atheist with regret. I’m happy to make judgements about reality based on my observation, experience and reflection. I do hope that I continue to live my life with my beliefs and assumptions about the world as a work-in-progess.

I’d hate to think that one day I might end up convinced and arrogant in my beliefs. This is why I have so much respect for the scientific method; theories are tested against observation and reworked to explain the world. It never claims to have all the answers or the complete truth, it just tries to do the best it can with what it knows already. I think that’s respectable and realistic.

So by way of introduction, that’s all there is to it. I don’t believe in any gods but that doesn’t define me. I don’t believe in any gods because the evidence isn’t there and I don’t need to prove a negative. However, I’ve got an open mind and I’m willing to use observation rather than revelation to explain the world around me.