I was invited by my neighbour, the Vicar, to address a monthly parishioners meeting held at the local church. My subject was “Why I am an Atheist”. This was obviously not a formal church service, rather a more informal gathering. Nevertheless I was delighted to be invited and this is what I said.
“Good evening, I’m David and I’m an atheist.
I feel that pronouncing my atheism in a church is a bit like having an AA meeting down the pub but I am grateful to Peter for giving me the opportunity to come here and speak to you tonight. Peter has asked me to talk about why I’m an atheist and that is what I will try to do. I have no other agenda here tonight, I am not trying to convince or convert. I am not here to ridicule. I respect people’s rights to believe what they wish. I am merely here to state my own beliefs or rather, in this context, my non-belief and my journey to that non-belief.
I was born an atheist, we all are but I’ll come back to that, and I was raised in what my parents would have believed was a ‘Christian’ family. From an age that I can remember I attended church with them on Sundays, sat in Bible Studies, and sang carols on Christmas Eve. I was christened as a babe in arms.
I say my parents would have ‘believed’ it to be a Christian household but I’m not sure that they believed in God with complete conviction. Sadly, they’re no longer with us to ask them and we rarely discussed religion or faith while they were still alive. We never said ‘Grace’ before meals and I never heard either of them say “We should pray for them” or “We should pray for that”. This was the 1960s and I think social convention played a big part in all this. It was just the ‘done thing’ to go to church and profess faith and we all went along with that.
At about the age of 8 or 9 I decided I didn’t believe in God. It wasn’t an epiphany or anything like that; just a growing doubt that a god could actually exist. I stopped going voluntarily to church, although it was obligatory to attend chapel at the school I attended during my teens. I was always slightly apologetic about my lack of belief and when confronted about it I would say things like “Oh, I’m sorry but I’m a bit of a heathen really” or “No, I’m not really a believer. Sorry”. To be honest, I’m still a bit like that today.
My parents were fearful of my new found disbelief rather than disapproving. I think it was more a case of “But what if you’re wrong? What will happen to you?” Of course, at the time, I didn’t realise I was an atheist. I’d never heard of the term. Even today, I sometimes baulk at calling myself an atheist because it sounds like I’ve joined some sort of counter-religious cult, which I haven’t. But yes, I am an atheist.
At this point I’d like to define what atheism and an atheist actually are, or maybe what they’re not. Atheism is most definitely not a belief system nor, as I’ve heard it referred to, another religion or indeed an ideology. It is a lack of belief. No more, no less than that. An atheist is simply someone who does not believe in the existence of a god or gods. It does not mean that I believe there is definitely no god. There is a subtle but important difference here.
If you ask me the question “Is there a god?” I would likely answer “I don’t know”.
If, however, you ask me “Do you believe there is a god?” I would reply “No, I don’t believe there is”
Some call this Agnostic Atheism. One side of this label deals in knowledge and the other deals in belief. I have no knowledge that god doesn’t exist, I simply believe it.
I do not believe in God because I can find no evidence whatsoever to support such a belief. The Bible, for example, does not provide me with evidence of the existence of God. A collection of stories written a couple of thousand years ago does not, for me, constitute evidence. It was written at a time when mankind had little knowledge of how or why things happened in our world. Events and natural phenomena could not be explained then, so man invented an explanation that everything must be the work of an omnipotent being. Entirely understandable at the time but, personally, it just does not stack up anymore. I have read the Bible, like a good many atheists have, and can find nothing in it that convinces me of God’s existence. I treat the Bible as a collection of ancient myths, some of which promote morality and goodness and some of which most certainly do not. Do I believe in Jesus? Well, possibly. There may have been such a man who walked this earth and was treated as a prophet. He may have preached and promoted goodness, although maybe not always. Disciples may have recorded his words. But do I think he was divine and performed miracles? No, I don’t.
I have encountered any number of debates between theists and atheists during my life. Allow me to share a few:
Theist: “Do you believe in God?”
Atheist: “Which God?” It is a flippant answer but it highlights a real issue. There are nearly 3000 ‘known’ deities out there so which one is the right one to believe in? All of them? It happens that most religious people adopt the religion of their parents and of the country they are raised in because that’s what they are introduced to from an early age. Some, including me, will call this indoctrination. That is why I say we were all born atheists. It is only events after our birth that shape our beliefs. Another throwaway atheistic line is “I just believe in one fewer god than you do”. Think about that for a moment. You may believe in one of those gods, it’s just that I don’t believe in any.
And then we have the Creationism versus Evolution debate. The First Cause Argument versus the Big Bang Theory. I choose to put my faith in the scientific side of all this as I find its evidence more compelling. I believe in the Big Bang theory. I believe in the theory of evolution, just like I believe in the theory of gravity. Science doesn’t know all the answers, it continually evolves, it asks questions, it doesn’t rely on opinion, it changes its mind and I am very comfortable with this. What I cannot believe is that the universe was created a few thousand years ago by a supreme being. I find the weight of evidence now available renders this belief absurd, yet there are still people who promote it.
When asked “So what was there before the Big Bang? Everything just came out of nothing then?” I’m more than happy to say “I don’t know”. What I’m not happy to say is “Oh, God must have created it then!”
I have been told that I cannot know true love unless I accept God into my life. I reject this completely. I love and am loved and I feel completely fulfilled by this. I marvel at the world around me, I’m in awe of beauty and power of nature. We exist on a wondrous planet and I strive to enjoy each day I live on it and make a difference to those I share it with. I do not believe in heaven and hell. I do not need the promise of everlasting life by God’s side to make me a good person. I do not need the threat of eternal damnation to stop me from doing evil things. When I die I will be just a memory to those that knew me and survive me so I do all I can to ensure that those are good memories.
I’d like to think I am a moral man. I try my best. I love my family and friends deeply, I endeavour to give something back to society, whether it is through my professional work, coaching rugby to teenagers, or helping charitable causes. I don’t break the law, well asides from the occasional bit of speeding! It may surprise you to know I donated to the Roof Fund for this very church; Peter will attest to this. I did this because it is a beautiful building and worthy of maintenance. I certainly have no expectation of divine reward.
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) is a moral guideline I am happy to try and adhere to. Not because the Bible tells me, but because it seems an eminently reasonable thing to do in order to make society a better place.
So that is why I’m an atheist.
Thank you all for coming here tonight and listening to me. Thank you again to Peter who I admire greatly for letting me say all this in this beautiful church. I like and respect him enormously. It’s just his religious beliefs I cannot reconcile myself to. And he knows this! You are lucky to have him.
Thank you again and any questions?”