Misconceptions about atheists, part 1.

“Atheists have never been able to prove that God doesn’t exist. And they expect Christians to prove that he does? Not fair.”

Well, no. We haven’t been able to prove that God doesn’t exist. Well done, you.

But this doesn’t mean that atheism is an illogical position. Far from it.

We don’t need to prove beyond any conceivable doubt that God doesn’t exist. We just have to show that the theories of God and creation put forward by religions are false. And evolution, geology, cosmology, all suggest that the claims of religion for God are wrong.

And yes, if theists want us to live according to the Bible, or the Koran, or any other religious law, then it’s reasonable to demand some evidence. If you’re going to insist that we’re all going to hell unless we follow your holy book to the letter, then you’re going to have to prove what you say is true. Atheists don’t do this.

The burden of proof is on the religious, not on atheists.

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“Please read this book. It will change your life.”

I get a lot of book recommendations on Twitter. Sometimes they’re books that intrigue me, and inspire me to do further research – Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is one that I must look out for in the near future – but most of the time it tends to be yet another book claiming to reveal new truths to me about Jesus, or Muhammad, and comes with a comment like, “I used to be an atheist, but this book opened my eyes.”

I try to deal politely with this. A simple thank you usually suffices. But I try to make it clear that I have no intention of reading any of these books. Often, I’m informed that I am only rejecting the book because I’m scared it will destroy my beliefs, or change my life, or some other such nonsense.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I find it pointlessly time-consuming to read books where I already know the major arguments, usually because they’ve been rehashed to death on Twitter. Is it really plausible that some obscure Christian apologist has written a spiel that’s going to turn my life upside down? No. It doesn’t matter how many times they argue that Jesus had to be either mad, bad or a liar, a la CS Lewis, it’s not going to turn me into a believer.

These people fail to realise that I’m an atheist because I have already rejected the arguments that religion has to offer. The reverse is rarely true. They’re all too eager to offer me books that they think will bring me round to their way of thinking, but suggesting they should read Why Evolution Is True, or The God Delusion, is often met with indifference.

It would be unfair to say that theists never read any perspective other than their own, but it’s always been my experience that those who don’t accept evolution, for example, don’t have a reasonable understanding of the theory, and aren’t in a position to criticise. Whereas it doesn’t take detailed knowledge of theological arguments to reject the possibility of deities, just a decent understanding of scientific discoveries and theories on the nature of the universe and life on earth.

So if you’re a theist planning on recommending me a book that will change my life – thank you, but I’d rather read something that’s going to expand my knowledge, not try to belittle it.

A few thoughts on morality

Is morality absolute? No, I don’t believe it is. I believe that there are no objectively moral or immoral acts, only acts which can be labelled moral or immoral. Here’s some examples.

1) A small boy steals an apple from a shop.

Situation A: The boy is spoilt, not necessarily rich, but well fed and cared for. He has never wanted for anything – in fact, his parents have always bent over backwards to assuage his desires. As such, he feels entitled to take whatever he wants in life. He sees the apple, he wants the apple, he takes the apple.

The shop is a small corner store, in a poor neighbourhood close to a huge new supermarket. The owner has been robbed at gunpoint on more than one occasion in the previous few years. His insurance premiums have been rising steadily, he is just about keeping his head above water. Every penny of profit is important for the survival of his business. Clearly, the stealing of the apple is an immoral act.

Situation B: The shop is a massive supermarket, whose profits each year run into the millions, to be shared out among wealthy directors and shareholders. The apple was picked by a poorly paid migrant worker in East Anglia, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. The loss of a single apple will not be noticed in the slightest, except possibly in the bonus of a shop floor attendant.

The boy is hungry, and has been for days. His mother has recently been evicted for non-payment of rent, and the family has been shunted from one B&B to the next. While stealing is not ideal, it’s surely preferable for the child not to starve than for the supermarket to sell another steeply discounted piece of fruit.

2) A man and a woman have sexual intercourse.

Situation A: They are both in their mid-twenties. They met through friends a couple of years ago, gradually grew closer, and this is their wedding night, spent in a hotel in Paris. They plan this to be the first night of the rest of their lives, and desire to start a family together, the sooner the better.

Situation B: The man is in his mid-thirties, the woman is barely out of her teens. The location is an alleyway behind a nightclub, which the slightly drunk woman has just left. She attempts to cry for help, but he clamps his hand over her mouth, and she is powerless to stop him.

3) A man shoots another man through the head.

Situation A: The shooter has broken into his victim’s house. The victim is the new lover of the shooter’s divorced wife. Jealousy is a powerful motivation. In the dark of the night, the shooter enters the victim’s bedroom, places the barrel of his gun on the temple of his sleeping target, and pulls the trigger.

Situation B: The shooter is a police marksman, called to a hostage situation. The hostage-taker has threatened to behead one hostage with a sword. As he leans back, ready to strike, the marksman gets a clear opportunity to shoot. If he does not take it, a hostage is certain to die. He pulls the trigger.

I can’t think of an act that could only be considered moral or immoral, in any given situation. If anyone could provide an example, I’d be interested to hear it.