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On being an atheist

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The son of French and Portuguese families, I was brought up Catholic. I went to Sunday school every week – it actually takes place on Wednesdays in France – until my early teens. It was a good excuse to meet friends to trade Pokemon cards, so I didn’t mind. I also got dragged to mass every now and again, which was dull and seemed to last for a billion years.

While my family thought religion would have a positive impact on my upbringing, it was never rammed down my throat, and I could never claim to have been traumatised or scarred by it in any way. In fact, it quickly became a non-topic once I stopped practicing.

During my teenage years, I said fuck off to the big guy upstairs – and my parents downstairs, and frankly everyone else. Religion had been out of my mind since. I’d found myself a comfortable seat on the fence – the one that says that because I don’t know for sure, I must be agnostic. Simple math. Easy. Sorted. Right?

The great paradox

In recent years, as extremism has made religion more current and touchy a subject than ever, I’ve started pondering my own outlook again. What fascinates me is our reluctance to talk about faith (not religion) openly. Taking shots at institutional religion is now a fully accepted practice, for which there’s tons of ammo lying around. It’s really not edgy. Scrutinising the validity of believing in God, on the other hand, remains a taboo topic.

It’s a paradox that whilst we live in a society which values rational thought, many simultaneously regard faith – by definition, the purposeful suspension of critical thinking – as somewhat virtuous.

This paradox comes from the assumption that faith is tied with religion, itself a source of morality constructive to society. I disagree, for two reasons. Firstly, most religious practices deal with customs rather than ethics: restrictions from eating pork, have sex or cutting hair fall under the category of cultural heritage. They may have once been sound medical advice, but are spiritually and morally unnecessary.

Secondly, major religious texts are scattered with morally awful fables anyway – I won’t bother justify this point with examples, we ain’t got all day. Simply put, religion can’t be categorised as intrinsically good or bad.

Xenu the galactic warrior

To me, faith is confusing because it demands one follows contradictory outlooks on life. I’ve spent years in education studying, debating, assessing evidence. I’ve been encouraged to not take things at face value and be inquisitive. I try to make decisions in my everyday life in that way – and it’s working alright so far.

How can such principles coexist alongside the unquestionable belief in the unlikely existence of a superior being, and the magic tricks it comes with? How does one reconcile the laws of natural sciences with the myth of a week-long creation (Old Testament), or the water turning into wine party trick (New Testament) or the flying to heaven on a winged horse (Koran)?

How do we square the circle of intelligent design with our knowledge of evolution’s fascinating mutations and grim imperfections? The short answer is we can’t.

Scientologists believe that 12 trillion years ago, a galactic warrior named Xenu brought all the souls from his planet down to Earth, buried them in a volcano and blew them up with atom bombs to create life as we know it today. Funny, right? But is it ultimately more absurd than the stories mentioned above?

There are hundreds of different beliefs in hundreds of Gods, yet everyone’s convinced their man’s the one. Statistically, someone’s gotta be wrong – at least 99% of faiths. Anyone who follows a monotheist religion is only really one God away from atheism. Join the team, honestly, we’re a cool bunch.

Religion’s most fantastic claim

So why not God? There are things we can’t yet comprehend: about nature, life and death. We’re also yet to pinpoint the reasons behind our apparent neurological need for a greater purpose, or being. But as with other big questions before, the answers lie in research, not scripture. To accept the holes in human knowledge as evidence for God – the God of the gaps theory – is not enlightening, nor helpful.

Many pious people now accept nonsensical theology as figurative parables aimed at teaching life lessons, rather than literal accounts. It doesn’t rescue the credibility of their stories to do so. And there are plenty who reject religion’s Willy Wonka fairytales altogether, but still ‘believe in something’ – that means God. To you, my question is this: as ancient writing is gradually and inevitably falsified by scientific progress, what reason is there left to believe religion’s most fantastic claim, namely the existence of God?

Some atheist writers, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins have been wrongly dismissive of the positive impact of faith. Belief in a God provides great emotional comfort, and a reassuring feeling welcome in the face of death. I’ve experienced it myself. But that doesn’t make it real. To think God would be a nice idea isn’t even irrelevant.

Nobody can incontestably disprove the existence of a deity. But we can pinpoint millions of reasons which make it overwhelmingly unlikely. In any case, the burden of proof lies with those who make extraordinary claims, not their skeptics. Religion fails to address this. That’s why, like Santa and the tooth fairy before him, I had to let God go. That’s why I’m an atheist.

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