There used to be almost no conversation I enjoyed more than ‘is there or is there not a god?’. I didn’t think there was and the conversation took place usually with other sceptics, but it was fun to go through the proofs and speculate. Today I find this an absolute waste of time. The verdict is in: no, there’s no god.
At least not one that matters.
The only god worth debunking is the personal god in the sky who can write holy texts and observe people and reward or punish them accordingly. If there isn’t that, then whatever Spinoza-type god that may be out there might be extremely fascinating, but it is less immediately important. Once it’s taken for granted that the cartoon god of holy books doesn’t exist, it’s impossible to look at religious wars, oppressive religious social customs and religious privileges embedded in otherwise secular legal documents with anything other than tragic absurdity. Put another way, that so many millions are oppressed and dying over a god that doesn’t exist might possibly be stupider than it is sad.
Thought experiment: imagine it could be proven without a doubt that such a god doesn’t exist. What would change? That there would still be conflict is obvious, as human nature wouldn’t suddenly become benevolent (in fact, it wouldn’t change at all), but on the surface there’d be much less reason to kill and spit on one another. For me this lens isn’t an experiment, it’s precisely my current outlook. (I don’t say I’m 100% certain there’s no god because obviously you can’t disprove something that doesn’t exist, but for all intents and purposes I live as if I’m 100% sure.)
There are a couple useful things atheists can talk about.
Even though, as Mark Twain said, “[religious] faith is believing what you know ain’t true,” I do understand why many otherwise intelligent people aren’t just religious, but profess belief in what I’ll crudely call a sky god. They’re born into it: their family, their school, their society, their culture is of this one thing, and if it’s removed so is the grounding of their life. It doesn’t benefit them to question it. It’s dark and difficult and there’s no longer a compass without god. Some people have nothing else to live for and they’re very happy, so there’s no reason to change. Others are in poverty or they’re horribly disfigured, and it’s a necessary clutch. Or they are rich and able-bodied but have no other values in life they think are worth pursuing. There are different understandable reasons to buy into religion. But none of them make sky god any more real.
Still, no decent atheist would strip from a person the core of their being. I wish everyone would voluntarily stop their belief in sky god, but they don’t. Fair enough. Correctly, there are measures in place ensuring people are free to pray and observe however they want. But like anything, freedom of expression for example, there are limits. Finding this balance is one of the interesting discussions for atheists today.
The subjugation of women in Islam, for example, is to me an abomination. They say they cover their women so men can control themselves. It’s clear that Islamic men in that culture, like men everywhere across time, think with their dicks. So do men in the West, but rather than conceal women here, we exploit dick-think by removing their clothes to sell ads. This gets people to buy shit they don’t need with money they don’t have simply by attacking the self-esteem of impressionable children, adolescents, and even adults. Advertising and vapid material culture isn’t a religious obligation, but it might as well be, so deeply is it entrenched. Clearly sex is at the root of both secular and extremely religious cultures. But this isn’t to call them equal, and I refuse to pat either one on the back.
This is also why secular people are just as capable of raping a child as the most pious priest. Even if the hypocrisy of the latter is greater, both are just as human. Nobody should expect a priest to be above child rape because everything he purports to believe doesn’t exist but in his own mind and in the mind of other misguided people. He was never made of different, let alone better, stuff.
Finally, religious homophobia. I despise homophobia, but I understand how it comes about. It takes a man and a woman to produce a child, so you’d expect heterosexuality to predominate and any subversion to become taboo. This explains why most people aren’t gay, and why gays are generally despised. Secular people can be homophobes too. Personally, I’m just as indifferent to people’s homosexuality as I am to people’s heterosexuality. I only take umbrage when religion causes people in love to be forbidden from marrying each other, or when religious states bury people up to their neck and stone them to death or hang them from cranes as examples to others.
Anyway, in all the above cases it isn’t religion per se that’s making people awful, that’s just people. It’s only tricky when someone feels justified to do something horrible because they feel compelled by religion.
But notice one thing: can it be coincidence that religion is obsessed with the only thing required for our species to evolve? What else is the subjugation of women, child rape, and homophobia a response to, but sex? That’s why sex is central in religious and non-religious societies alike.
We aren’t here because god put us here, but because the people who came before us had sex with each other. So of course sex, the main aspect of human nature, is reflected in religious texts—not the other way around. This is the main thing. Of course you can profitably look at religious writing metaphorically, but that assumes they’re fictional. I have written before that I regret that so many people are unfamiliar with the Bible and other religious texts, because they are indeed wonderful, and, practically speaking, they are the central influence of so many writers. Northrop Frye called the Bible the Great Code. But once you remove the divine significance, the text can be judged on the same terms as any other piece of fiction. Religious texts may be beautiful, but no longer special.
The conversation of the day is this: what replaces the sky god? Religion didn’t just cause wars and other horrors, but also the world’s greatest architecture and social coherence. Without religion, we wouldn’t know John Donne and George Herbert. Our species obviously has a strong predilection towards believing in the metaphysical, and the void needs to be addressed. Personally, I don’t feel any lack in my soul whatsoever, and I’m not alone in this, but on a macro level the gap needs filling. It’s not for me to say exclusively what this will look like, as the answer will vary hugely.
Here are my suggestions in a very particular order: Nabokov, other writers, nature, chess, Grateful Dead, hockey, other musicians, other art forms, booze and food and humour throughout, and, in some limited cases, people. The above can fill ten lifetimes, and if you don’t like this stuff there’s lots more stuff to fill your list. My god, atheism is boring. It’s a void. It’s not trying to be a thing and it isn’t. It’s just the start of the basic frame of an outlook, and I’d much rather write about and live for anything in the list above. Also, I have definitive proof they all exist. There’s something to be said for that.