Why So Few Atheists?

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We should, all of us, be prepared to call ourselves atheists. But we are either too greedy for power and wealth, or too intellectually lazy to do so.
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No, that is not my statement.  Today I am handing the principal content of  Return to Paradox over to an item written by a friend.  It is he who asks, “Why so few atheists?”

It is an interesting question that comes from Lionel Strange, a retired senior public servant whom I have known well and deeply respected for more than 50 years and who was, in a previous era, a science advisor in the Science Secretariat of the Privy Council Office (not to be confused with the Prime Minister’s Office.)

Instead of blathering on (I may make a comment at the end) let me now step aside.

Why so few atheists?
by
Lionel Strange  ♦

The small but steady decay in allegiance to Christian churches, as indicated in a report from statistics Canada, is worthy of examination. Of particular interest is a comment in the  press that there is nevertheless little increase in the reported number of atheists.

An atheist is defined as someone who does not believe in the existence of a God or Gods.  So to go on record as an atheist is a much more radical assertion than to state that you don’t believe in the story of the virgin birth. The president of the United States never finishes a speech without asking God to bless America and the Brits are for ever asking God to save the Queen. So there is a natural tendency for all of us to treat God as a fundamental pillar of the state and not give much thought as to who this Almighty Power is or where He or She is located: to treat the existence of God as of about the same importance as the existence of the Conservative party.

As a one time Anglican church member who has come to realize that some basic components of  that church’s theology are no longer tenable, I am drawn to wonder how many other members are faced with the  problem that the main theological doctrines that stem from the time of Abraham, although they have a degree of verifiable historical validity, nevertheless also rely to a strong degree on supernatural or occult events that, in the light of today’s scientific knowledge, can no longer be  accepted as having actually occurred.

Anyone who has attained even the most rudimentary knowledge of  astrophysics must realize that the whole concept of the universe and our part in it is on a scale vastly greater in time and space than that described in the ancient scriptures on which our religions are based.

From time to time respected members of the Anglican clergy have come out with comments to the affect that they can no longer accept many of the tenets of Anglican doctrine, including the existence of God. These free thinkers created quite a stir for a short time but they failed to make any significant impression on the church’s  hierarchy or its congregations. When pressed to explain why he did not openly comment to his congregation on this situation, a minister (Presbyterian in this case) said that if he did voice his opinions on the unbelievable nature of much of the church’s doctrine, his congregation would simply desert him.

So, to summarize the situation, it would seem that those with the authority to lead our religious life into the present century find it personally disadvantageous to do so and we, who rely on their leadership, are too disinterested  in the wealth of new scientific knowledge available to us to face the fact that whatever power brought this universe into existence it was on a scale totally beyond any human dimension and comprehension. We should, all of us, be prepared to call ourselves atheists. But we are either too greedy for power and wealth, or too intellectually lazy to do so.

——

Thank you Lionel.  You said that in 525 words.  Back in August, 2012, it took me 3288 words to attempt much the same point. I make one comment, if only to encourage others to voice their views, and it is to say that personally I am uncomfortable thinking of myself as an “atheist” because it implies a denial of a First Cause, whereas being an “agnostic” I can take refuge in simply “not knowing”, which really means, I suppose, that I wish to reserve judgement if only to protect me from my own hubris.  On the other hand, since my finite mind refuses to accept the concept of a First Cause in a void, perhaps it must follow that I am an atheist?

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♦   Why so few atheists?
Copyright © Lionel Strange  2013

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About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
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17 Responses to Why So Few Atheists?

  1. Dave Valentine says:

    Hi Munroe;

    I call myself an Atheist in the belief that it denies the existence of a ‘God’ as ‘First Cause’. That’s the way I understand it.

  2. Diane Forrest says:

    Sorry, but I find all these arguments against the existence of God or whatever illogical. They usually seem to stem from someone having a very literal belief in some very specific tenets and/or a very narrow understanding of what truth is or what our various belief systems are about. Once those tenets are seen to be “untrue” in the literal sense, then it must all be thrown out.

    As for the idea that science somehow “disproves” the idea of a creator or a greater spirit — once you know how a car works does that mean that you no longer believe there is someone who drives the car, or that the car was never built but simply exists? Yes, science may be doing a better job of describing the mechanics of the system and dimensions we live in (although science has been known to totally change its mind about these things). But it doesn’t have a lot of answers about what’s behind those mechanics. There may be other dimensions in which the mechanics of our universe are simple toys created to help us cope with ideas that are just too big for our brains.

    That leaves me to rely on my life experience, which tells me that there is meaning and that there’s “something going on.” That’s good enough for me. And it makes a lot more sense than believing that it’s all just a collection of gigantic coincidences, happy accidents and meaningless events, and that all the intelligent and admirable people who’ve had spiritual experiences or operated on their beliefs are either foolish or lying. God does not need to fit my preconceptions or rules. S/he is free to be whatever it is and I’ll find out soon enough.

    I’m really more responding to the fundamentalist atheists such as Dawson and Hitchens, than this author, who seems to leave the door open.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Diane, I tend to agree with you that personal life experience has a great deal to do with our opinion about the Mystery of it all. But my life experience makes me question all that we have been told by earlier (very early) writers who claimed, or were acclaimed, as being inspired by God. You and I, who are both writers, know how tenuous such claims of inspiration really are. I certainly believe that the psychological insights concerning love and compassion as being central to a human being’s “good life” are highly valid — but the superstitions that are used to promote those insights are, in my opinion, degrading.
      Thanks for commenting.

    • Joe Grafe says:

      Divinity also seems to exist just past the edge of reason whether it’s Zeus’ lightning bolts or heaven in the clouds. We explore space and we perceive a linear concept of time. We delve into quantum physics and really do have a growing understanding of the building blocks of reality across the scale from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology/ecology/geology/sociology/economics to astrology. Yet we only have 5 senses. Can only see and hear certain wavelengths and frequencies. Can only be exposed to certain stimuli and process information limited by the plasticity of neurons. We are extremely limited beings and there will always be an edge to reason.

      However, if there is a “God” and it exists in the (multi/uni)verse, it is another life form even if it appears omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent to our limited perception of time, space and the changes therein. Such a being, benevolent or not, would deserve due reverence but would not be deserving of “worship”.

      The only possible definition my limited human brain can conceive of a singular “God” is if the (multi/uni)verse is itself aware and that awareness spreads through every string of quivering energy that might exist at the heart of every sub-atomic particle. A divine symphony of cosmic proportions that encompasses all matter and perceives time as we perceive space and perceives space in a way that we are physiologically incapable of conceiving.

      I don’t believe in organized religion because my God, and we do make them in our own image, would pass Grade 9 physics. My imagination of a God would be a being that imagined the millions of variables between mass, energies and cosmic fields, added the equations that govern the most exotic relationships at quantum and relative scales and then saw the ratios that would unravel over a dance of billions of years between thermodynamics and gravity to produce the first self-replicating protein in a saline catalyst that would change, adapt and evolve between species over billions of years into a being that can reject the narcissism required to believe such a God would care if I went to church, did good, married another man, solved world peace, committed adultery or even committed genocide.

      I believe in God. I just don’t believe it cares about me.

      That doesn’t mean I don’t care about you though. Quite the opposite, I think it’s a clarion call that we can’t let the “meek inherit the earth” because oppressing people in this life will not lead to their salvation in the next. Embrace our mortality and cherish this one shot at existence and experiences. Feel guilty as hell for letting life be a brief flash of misery, hunger and pain for billions of humans through history. Rejoice in bringing joy, contentment and meaning to the lives of others because we have contributed to a universal feeling of “good”.

      A deep and heartfelt thank you, Diane and Munro, for inciting this articulation of my personal thoughts and feelings.

      • Munroe Scott says:

        This may be of interest to all who have commented. In an interesting AlterNet article — Good Without God: Why “Non-Religious” Is the Fastest-Growing Preference in America — the writer states:
        “Currently more than one billion people around the world define themselves as agnostic, atheist or nonreligious — including 15 percent of Americans. Perhaps more striking, “nonreligious” is not only the fastest growing religious preference in the U.S., but also the only one to increase its percentage in every state over the past generation.”
        Of course I am tempted to give a paradoxical twist to Lionel‛s closing statement and ask if many of the nonreligious have arrived there by dint of intellectual effort or are simply becoming too lazy to be religious? I hope it is not the latter.

  3. Garth Slade says:

    I am an atheist because I cannot believe in the supernatural. It is as simple as that. If there is a supernatural being who is omnipotent and loving, why is there so much suffering and misery in the world he created. Either he is not omnipotent or he is malicious or he just doesn’t care. It makes more sense if he doesn’t exist.

  4. TheAlektera says:

    What would one call someone who believes there is some sort of unifying force, but that mankind has not or cannot yet, in its present form, define or describe it?

    • Munroe Scott says:

      A Jedi. May the Force be with you. 🙂

      Please forgive the joking response. Seriously, this problem of nomenclature is a puzzler for many of us. We may be at odds with the tenets of organized institutionalized religion and yet feel quite religious in a deep connectivity with Nature – and even then we have to define what we mean by “Nature” (even whether or not to capitalize the N). Perhaps the word that best classifies many of us is “Seeker”? That certainly includes the scientists.

  5. Lionel Strange says:

    Garth, I think you have hit the nail on the head. If you do not believe in the supernatural it is hard to imagine how you can believe in God. As I see it, one can be an atheist without denying that there must have been a first cause for our universe.The astrophysics community can document the history of the universe back to a fraction of a second after the big bang, but prior to that it is a fascinating mystery which humans may never solve. The term ”Supernatural” has a human connotation and since the creation of the universe took place about 12 billion years ago it seems unlikely that any human thought or action was involved.

  6. Herb Wiseman says:

    The human mind develops through many phases. The way I think about it is that as children we believe in magic. The psychology of that is interesting by itself. I remember thinking as a child that there is no Santa but also thinking that I better not let on I know or the goodies will stop arriving! A few years later I figured out that my belief in God was the same as in Santa but now I realized that except for corporate rule, often through government, I had some free will. So I refused to play the game Monopoly with my brothers. Thought that it was unethical. My thinking had a new facility added to the magical. It was logical thinking but it was informing my moral beliefs and choices for behaviour. (I just remembered a discussion with my wife who had spoken to a little boy who stated that there was no Santa. He then said that “Santa is just a fat old man with a beard who comes down the chimney with toys for kids.”)

    The human race is undergoing the same transformation but over a much longer time frame — evolution through the centuries or even millennia? Our capacity to believe has been essential to our species’ survival as has been the capacity to change our beliefs. Unfortunately logic and science are not enough to change our “bad” beliefs (I concede that beauty is in the eye of the beholder) nor to alter our behaviour.

    Some of us easily alter our beliefs in the face of data or evidence (so-called science if you will) but we are all also temperamentally susceptible to biases — beliefs as it were. We will sometimes accept the data that supports our beliefs and deny the data that contradicts our beliefs. Then we have a debate. Those of us who easily manage ambiguity (my own favorite poster is “Give Me Ambiguity or Give Me Something Else”) and like “new” (stuff, people, information, food, people, places for example) find it easier to look at things differently whereas those who do not tolerate ambiguity well and do not like change — the “new” if I can alter an adjective to a noun — remain entrenched in their views. It resides in the structure of the brain and how well we learn to manage our stress levels which increase when we face ambiguity and may determine how well we are able to cope with changing a belief. We also have a capability for denial and thus avoidance, again stronger in those for whom changing a thought or place of residence or job is experienced as threatening. Please note that it is likely a continuum with the majority of people clustering about the centre (the Normal curve if you will) with outliers at each end.

    The issue of human’s belief in God is reflective of these dynamics, I think. But maybe not!

    Loved all the other comments too.

  7. Jason Wallwork says:

    Atheists, most of them anyway, don’t *deny* the existence of God. They simply don’t *believe* that God exists because of insufficient evidence. Those are two different things. There are hard atheists that assert that God does not exist but I don’t think that’s the majority of them. I certainly don’t deny that God exists and I consider myself an atheist. It actually makes more sense to break it down into 4 groups between atheists and theists:

    Agnostic Atheists, where it sounds like you and I fit into, Munroe, are people who don’t *believe* that God exists but don’t claim to *know*.

    Gnostic Atheists, are atheists who claim to know that God does not exist, a logical impossibility, in my opinion. It’s pretty part to prove that something absolutely does not exist. It could be hiding, it could be beyond science, maybe it’s bored with us and can’t be bothering showing itself. You can’t prove that Santa Claus absolutely doesn’t exist. Just that you’ve never seen him and that you have alternative explanations that are more reasonable. But the likelihood is that he doesn’t exist, and neither does God, therefore, back to agnostic atheism.

    Agnostic Theists believe that God exists but don’t assert to know for sure that he does.

    Gnostic Theists claim to know that God exists.

    If you don’t believe that God exists, you’re an atheist, regardless of whether you like the word or not, but you’re agnostic atheist if you don’t claim to know for sure, which is where I think most people in Western countries fit, even many people in the church pews. I know this isn’t the way society likes to use the terms atheist and agnostic. But by society’s definition, I’d be an agnostic, too. But agnostics aren’t on the fence. They don’t believe that God exists.

  8. Earle Gray says:

    I, too, reluctantly, am an atheist. The thesis of a book (I can’t recall the title) by a U.S. theologian was that religion is the most powerful institutional force in the world—for both good and bad. The good is very good, but looking at the world, it seems to be outweighed by the bad. A Canadian writer, after a year is Israel, wrote: “Thank you God, for making me an atheist.”

  9. Munroe Scott says:

    THIS IS A COMMENT FROM LIONEL. WE HAD A WEE TECHNICAL GLITCH WHICH WAS OVERCOME BY E-MAIL
    LIONEL SAYS:
    The excellent comments that have been contributed since the initial publication of this blog have made me aware of some of the deficiencies and weaknesses. of my original contribution.
    There is nothing like a good discussion to sharpen a dull mind. So here is my revised thinking in relation to the question posed in the original text. “Why so few declared atheists?

    As I see it , there are three factors that have to be considered when one is engaged in a discussion regarding belief in God.

    The first is our definition of God.

    To some people, (I suspect the majority), God is a sort of overall stage manager who takes charge of major events and is equipped with the usual human mental attributes such as our emotions. People talk about God being angry at some human misbehaviour and believe that our prayers do actually reach God and are sometimes answered.This is the humanoid, compassionate God.

    Then there is the “First cause God” who does not have any human attributes and who created our universe and everything in it.The astrophysical scientific community acknowledge that the initiation of the Big Bang and the period prior to that event are not known and may never be known. Some of that community may describe the “Big Bang” as an act of God. Some may consider it as simply the result of some process in high energy physics that is not presently understood. The main point here is the absence of any connection between the creation of our universe and the human race. Humanity, a microscopic anomaly within the overall context of evolution, did not come on the scene until many billions of years after the creation event.

    Finally there is the concept of God being a sort of ghostly influence that is within every one of us and is perhaps best described as the feeling of happiness and warmth that we get when in the presence of wonderful works of nature,beautiful scenery,great music, and acts of unusual kindness or self sacrifice.I find this concept of God to be the one towards which church goers are tending to move. It allows them to cast off their attachment to unbelievable doctrines but still consider themselves Christians rather than atheists.So this ,in my view, is the reason that despite the decline in declared church allegiance there are so few declared Atheists.

  10. Ken Ranney says:

    Munroe and friends-

    I hope I will be forgiven for mixing science with conjecture.

    In recent weeks I have stumbled on several proteins whose amino acids have repeating patterns indicative of design. Design is contrary to Darwin’s hypothesis, which I believe is the basis of the atheism of most in the present age. Change, Darwin wrote, happened by chance. The rest of natural selection took evolution on from there. Design, on the other hand requires a designer, some type of awesome entity, creative intelligence, or whatever you want to call it.

    So here are two examples of what science has to tell us.

    1. The following is an excerpt from the amino acid sequence, in FASTA code, (to be explained later) of a honey bee protein, Amel|GB11408-PA, with 2962 amino acids.

    HTSTTVMQSTHTTVNKQKSLQANTVTVVSATAAAMAQTSSQQSAVNTSPKHCRPLPTL
    SAPPTMVSHYSGKSTYSPGSNAAVSPATSTVVAYCSESTVTSTCSNSSIRVSPSPPISSQC
    QQQLQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQARSSPPIASTIQE
    QQQQQQQQQQTNNTPLEYSLFNDTFTKVTQQSMWGGRENESQKGMNFATVAGGGGV
    SVNISGSSSSKFIDNVPPQVDASKAPGYRGTTMCSPVSSKSNNTTNTNVTSIGSGGVSSN
    TGHNPI

    2. The complete FASTA amino acid sequence of the S-antigen protein, from a malaria parasite, with 640 amino acids, follows.

    MNRILSVSFYLFFLYLYIYKTYGKVKNTDHELSNIYGIKYYLRNGLSDKKNGKGQKY
    QDLEEDENDDEEDSNSEESNNDEENKLIEGQE
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGDKGPNSDGDK
    GPNSDGEHSRSKNDNKKKKSKKNIINMFIGM

    To fully appreciate the preceding, it is essential to know that proteins are made of amino acids, usually more than 100, joined together. 20 types of amino acids are found in proteins. The amino acids in the protein fragments displayed here are in FASTA code format. (Yes, it is fasta!) Each capital letter in FASTA code stands for an amino acid.

    FASTA codes, shown next to their respective amino acids:
    A alanine, C cysteine D aspartic acid, E glutamic acid F phenylalanine G glycine H histidine
    I isoleucine K lysine L leucine M methionine N asparagine P proline Q glutamine R arginine
    S serine T threonine V valine W tryptophan Y tyrosine

    The FASTA code sequence of one of 3 proteins in the Sodium-Potassium Pump, with 305 amino acid residues follows as an example of a typical protein:

    MARGKSKETDGGWKKFLWDSEKKEFLGRTGSSWFKIFLFYLIFYGCLAGIFIGTIQV
    LLLTLSDFEPKYQDRVAPPGLSHAPYAIKTEISFSISNPKSYESFVKSMHKLMDLYNE
    SSQAGNSPFEDCSDTPADYIKRGDLDDSQGQKKACRFSRMWLKNCSGLDDTTYGY
    AEGKPCVVAKLNRIIGFYPKPLKNTTDLPEELQANYNQYVLPLRCAAKREEDREKIG
    SIEYFGLGGYAGFPLQYYPYYGKRLQKKYLQPLLAIQFTNLTQNMELRIECKVYGEN
    IDYSEKDRFRGRFEVKIEVKS

    The 39 consecutive Q’s (glutamines) in the honey bee protein and the 64 GPNSDGDK (glycine, proline, asparagine, serine, aspartic acid, glycine, aspartic acid, lysine) repeating units in the S-antigen protein appear unlikely. This should jump out at anyone who persuses the preceding. But to put it into measureable, hence scientific, terms, I have calculated the odds.

    The odds against getting 39 consecutive Qs by chance are 5.02 x 10 to the 58th power (10 multipled by itself 58 times) to 1. Over 3.8 billion years, the odds are reduced to 125,626,832,819,887 to 1, i.e. to more than 125 trillion to 1.

    The odds against getting 65 consecutive GPNSDGDKs are even greater: 9.2010 x 10 to the 692nd power (10 multipled by itself 692 times) to 1. Over 3.8 billion years, the odds are reduced to 2.304 x 10 to the 648 power (10 multipled by itself 648 times) to 1(!!)

    To put this number in perspective, the new Chinese supercomputer, which carries out 33,860 trillion calculations per second will not have time to add up to 2.304 x 10 to the 648th power before the sun dies (i.e., becomes a red giant in approximately 5.4 billion years). By this time it will have made (just!) 5.774 x 10 to the 33rd power additions.

    Question: do you think that what you have seen, highlighted in red italics,[bold] happened by chance or design?

    Note:
    Details of calculation will be supplied on request to kranney@cogeco.ca mailto:kranney@cogeco.ca

    *************************

    • Herb Wiseman says:

      This seems a variation on the intelligent design hypothesis or argument. If you accept that argument, and I do not, it inevitably leads to observations that there are many more examples of malevolent design. There are some designs that are just universally appropriate and may look intelligent. The probability argument is interesting but there may be limiting factors not included in the calculations that would change the time-line and probability.

  11. Jason Wallwork says:

    If your conjecture is true, Ken, than most biologists should believe in intelligent design. Polls done among biologists show that this is not true. Your theory should perhaps be submitted to a scientific journal if you think that you know something that tens of thousands (millions?) of biologists don’t.

    Evolution is not completely random, nor did Darwin suggest it was. It is a form of design by natural selection. Mutations, which are random, do occur at a set rate and geneticists can even calculate how far back a common ancestor occurred when comparing us to a chimpanzee, a dog or a tree. However, it’s not like the all random mutations are passed onto the next generation. Negative or “bad” genes will be selected out and “good” genes selected in. Natural selection is not at all random. We look like we were designed because evolution designed us. There is no reason to invoke an outside supernatural being.

    • Herb Wiseman says:

      I am sure that you have seen this but if not it is worth watching. It is George Carlin on God and Religion. His language is colourful but his points are incisive.

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