The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 23, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Why Not God?

For me, the short answer is that while I was born in Louisiana it is as if I was raised in Missouri—the “Show Me State.”  I have never seen any signs of a supernatural conscious force, for good or ill, at work in the world.  The stories they try to make you believe were simply unbelievable to me, and which God was I to believe in?  Once I knew there was more than one God available to worship, how was I to choose, other than by the cultural accident of my birth?  (If one looks across time and culture, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of gods and even versions of the same nominal god to choose from.  For instance, the Judeo-Christian “God” has changed, and diverged, significantly over time.)  

Other learned people have resolved these quandaries in favor of religious belief, but I could not.  Nor have I felt any need to, as both my curiosity about creation and my ethical values have found ample support in reason and fact.  The good news is I don’t believe you’re going to hell if you don’t agree with me.

Creation and the explanation for it are quite grand, even without belief in an Unmoved Mover.  Around 13.7 billion years ago an immensely dense singularity exploded, creating the Universe we inhabit.  The physical laws that guide our Universe did not exist until moments after the Big Bang itself.  Therefore, we do not, and perhaps cannot, know the causes or conditions of the moment of the Big Bang or before.  But what does seem certain is that the processes the Big Bang set in motion were ordered but unfeeling.  Four fundamental forces interacted with subatomic particles, which formed elements and then stars and then planets.  On our planet in one corner of the immensely vast Universe, the conditions were right for the formation of complex life forms and out of the millions of types of complex life forms on Earth emerged, through the indifferent process of natural selection, one species with the capacity to eventually understand the nature of the Universe it inhabits.  Us, of course.  Humans.  Homo sapiens sapiens.   An extraordinary story in its own right that, when fully appreciated, does not need the embellishment of miracles or magic or such.

Our ability to apprehend the Universe in which we live and who we are in it has been hard-earned through common effort over millennia.  Initially, religious institutions fostered the literacy and structured inquiry necessary to acquire this knowledge.  But, as the histories of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin illustrate, religious belief and institutions became barriers to the advance of knowledge, as that knowledge challenged factually incorrect dogma.

Contemporary anti-religionists tend to focus on the terrible violence that has been committed in the name of religion, and certainly that tragic list is long and bloody.  Quite unfortunately, religious belief appears to be more the proximate than the ultimate cause of mass human violence.  We fight and scheme and kill over many things—religion is just one item on the list.  But, to the extent religious belief inhibits honest and rigorous inquiry into scientific and ethical questions, it is now the principal obstacle to the further advance of human knowledge.

In the end, for me, why not God?  Because we are unique in our capability to know, and I want to know far more than to believe.

(A fine example of the obstacle religious belief poses to knowledge is the religious outcry over the “invention of artificial life” announced last week.  (See, e.g.,  There are many important questions to ask about the implications and use of this new technology, but none of those questions involve “God.”  To my mind, the most pressing initial concern is sorting out the problem of potential unintended consequences.  Invoking “God” does not further, indeed impairs, that effort.  The danger is not godless science, but short-sighted, hubristic and profit-driven science.)  

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson


Karen Armstrong, A History of God, Ballantine Books (1993)

Fred Adams, Origins of Existence, The Free Press (2002)

Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Alfred A. Knopf (2005)

Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, Houghton Mifflin (2004)



  1. My students just completed their largest project — The Omnibus — which is a series of nine essays written in different rhetorical modes (e.g. persuasive, satirical, informational, technical) about the same controversial topic. One of my students chose as her topic the existence of God. I tried to dissuade her from this topic for many reasons (the foremost being that 35 pages really isn’t enough to tackle one of the most profound philosophical questions of all time), but she did it anyway. The first draft of her persuasive essay was replete with obviouslys, of courses, and naturallys. I wrote one word that draft: “humility.”

    You captured in this post why I am agnostic: once I discovered how many different supreme beings there were and how often the accident of one’s birth or the convenience of qualities that were appealing to the believer seemed to dictate how others settled on a deity, I found it impossible to choose. I remain curious and open, but ultimately a nonbeliever. In some ways, I think acknowledging that there is no way to know is the most humble position of all.

    Comment by Michelle — May 23, 2010 @ 11:02 am | Reply

  2. how bout Christus, he did exist. What do you say about him?

    Comment by Malcolmy — May 23, 2010 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

    • There is some evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed. There is no evidence that he was Yahweh incarnate, or that such a thing is even possible within the known laws that govern our Universe.

      Comment by SAJohnson — May 24, 2010 @ 7:58 am | Reply

  3. Hi SA, very interesting that as a Christian with a science degree, I couldn’t agree with you more the the main issue issue with ‘the creation of artificial life’ is not in the religious arena, but the risk of UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES.

    I don’t believe that the scientists have created life at all, but merely modified what was available already – a cell, some DNA, etc. And I don’t believe that they ever will, using all of the intelligence and technology that man can muster, be able to create a living organism able to reproduce to the second generation from just a bunch of chemicals.

    Anyway, your blog is not about that, but about being an atheist. I wonder did you know it is possible to prove that an atheist doesn’t exist? If you want to read on, I might just convert you to being an agnostic instead.

    Definitions – an Atheist says ‘there is no God’ while an Agnostic says ‘I don’t know if there is a God’.

    I believe I am correct in saying that all monotheistic (belief that there is only one God) religions also believe that their God is able to see everything in the universe at the same time (Omniscience). Surely the Atheist would need this ability in order to be able to look in the whole universe to be able to say categorically that ‘there is no God’? And if you had this ability (reductio ad absurdum I believe) surely you are then your own God?

    For those that doubt the miraculous working power of God, there are videos you can look at on youtube, (Like this one: – I’ve seen a longer version with better audio but can’t seem to find it) but then there are also those that call themselves Christian that would argue for a ‘natural’ explanation and confuse you even more.

    I agree that any religion should be able to converse with those of other persuasions and engage in a ‘rigourous and honest way’ as you put it. Recognise what aspects I have that require faith, and also be able to see here your faith lies. Ultimately I have decided to have faith in the Bible and the God described in there, (and no, He hasn’t changed over time, but the religious traditions about Him have, even diverging for various reasons) while if you are honest and look with an open mind He promises that you will find Him (well so my faith in Him and His word says).

    Comment by Mark Anderson — May 24, 2010 @ 8:03 am | Reply

    • Sorry typo, 2nd sentence last paragraph should read ‘WHERE your faith lies’

      Comment by Mark Anderson — May 24, 2010 @ 8:07 am | Reply

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Mark. I have also clarified with some friends that the scientists have not fabricated DNA sui generis but have copied an existing genome using basic DNA material and a chemical process. It is true that I don’t claim to be omniscient. I don’t believe in omniscience. With regard to agnosticism v. atheism, I classify myself as an atheist because I feel pretty confident on the existing record that no God exists. However, if reliable scientific evidence of the existence of God were discovered, I would not reject it in favor of my current belief. As much as possible, I try to base my beliefs on credible empirical knowledge, including changes in that knowledge. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I am not as hostile to religious belief as the more famous atheist activists in the headlines these days. Religious faith that allows for humility and incompleteness and ongoing inquiry in one’s conception of God, rather than fixed received truth, does not present the dangers of fundamentalist dogmatism.

      Comment by SAJohnson — May 24, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

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