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Apr 3, 2007

Why I am an Atheist
David J. Venable E-Mail:

.............. 8 1.............. but have yet to find reasonable answers.................. there came a distinct moment (and I remember it quite well) I finally set aside my beliefs........ I have written the paper in the format commonly used by those in my field....................... A Brief Explanation of Evolution by Natural Selection by Richard Dawkins....................5 So Why Does Religion Exist?.......................................0 Why I Became an Atheist.1 Common Misconceptions about Evolution.................... followed by two appendices...... By and large........0 Conclusion.............. Some of you may recall debates lasting late into the night on a variety of porches........ I was sitting outside of a coffee shop in San Antonio....................................3 Ok.... and several days of writing...... 2 2............... I even planned to become a priest............................................................... I suspect).................................. As many of you who have known me for some time will undoubtedly recall (much to the surprise of my newly-acquired friends.................2... religion.......... "So what happened?" seems to be the question........... 7 3............0 How I Became an Atheist.. So.......................................................... is an impressively brief explanation.. ........ Appendix 1....................... I hope that you will all read it and consider what I have to say.. and I ask anyone not intimately familiar with the ideas of both evolution and natural selection to skip to this section first (it’s only six paragraphs).........................0 How I Became an Atheist I've recently been asked a surprisingly large number of times just how it is that I became an atheist.................... Unfortunately the answer is not so succinct................... 1.....................6 Common Arguments against Atheism.................................... After many years of scientific education I still believed in God.... So Why Isn’t There a God?............... I was actually quite religious for some time............................... probability.... I have divided this paper into three primary sections............... and I asked large numbers of people............................... I had spent quite a bit of time over the previous years honing my knowledge in a number of areas: evolutionary biology..... 3 2..... where I strongly opposed the atheist view (Cort)...................4 Why Not Agnosticism?...Apr 3.............................................. I hope that this is not an obstacle....... 1 2......................... as that is comfortable for me.................................. history................ more and more questions came to mind (I'll list a few later)... 2007 1 Introduction This paper is the result of several years of study and thought....... 4 2.... A Brief Explanation of Evolution by Natural Selection by Richard Dawkins........1 The Bible......................... 6 2............2 Evolution.......................................... 8 A1.......................... and had several "good" arguments to support this stance............. instead of explaining it several times... 4 2... Over time..................... It suddenly dawned on me that I essentially believed in a god for the same reason that I had once believed in Santa Clause: it's what I had always believed (not to mention what I'd been taught to believe from a very early and impressionable age).. 6 2....... In fact................ I decided to write this essay................. 2 2.......................... and systems theory to name a few.... Texas one evening....

and that the sun revolves around the earth7. you’ll have a better understanding of why you believe what you do. I'd have probably planned to become either a Rabbi or a Mullah). The Christian creation myth is almost entirely based on the creation myth from the Babylonian Enuma Elish. Death is not final. I'll get onto why it is that I became an atheist. After many years of studying not only The Bible. What happened to all of those poor Christian souls prior to that time? The "supposed contradictions" in the Bible that are glossed over. and wholly inerrant. it's likely that most of the apostles were illiterate2.5 While. I learned many interesting things: ● The gospels were written well (2-3 generations) after the death of Jesus (not to mention well after the deaths of the apostles who supposedly wrote them)1. and weigh them against my current knowledge -. It all came crashing down around me. yet they insist that it be taken literally. but inspired by God. I had to put aside my age-old beliefs that I'd essentially been born into (had I been born in the middle east.Apr 3. but also the history of The Bible. etc). complexity. Why did I still believe in a god? I could reasonably explain everything that I had previously needed a god to explain (existence. what I learned over the years that led me in that direction. these contradictions with what we know to be fact are never taken into account when discussing literal interpretation of the creation myth.0 Why I Became an Atheist So now that the story is out of the way.objectively. another common belief seems to be that bad things happen to us because we deserve them – despite The Bible containing the Book of Job). 2007 2 Belief in a god is terribly comforting. Even if you come out of it with unchanged beliefs. or explained away. but one that I highly recommend. 2. This is a difficult and painful process. Most people are largely unaware that two vastly different (and conflicting) creation stories exist in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Interestingly enough.1 The Bible I always believed that The Bible was the word of the Christian god: written by man. All of the bad things that happen to us happen for an explicit purpose: to learn a lesson or to better us in some way (on the other hand. and more specifically.the oldest writing known to man. the biblical flood story is almost entirely based on the Epic of Gilgamesh6 -. ● ● ● ● ● . There's someone up there looking out for us. The protestant idea of salvation or "getting saved" is only about 200 years old4. Modern day Christianity is so very different from Christianity during the time of Christ that it would largely be unrecognizable3. Of course. 2. One rather humorous note is that the Bible often implies that the earth is flat. by the clergy are actually rather significant. intervening on our behalf in ways that we can only imagine (no pun intended).

” which results in eternal damnation Luckily. The funny thing is that evolution is very well documented. I wouldn't believe it either. performed miracles. He was also worshipped by three Magi when he was born. and believed by non-evolution-believing people everywhere: dogs. died by hanging on a tree and rose from the dead.2 Evolution Granted. many fundamentalists don't believe in the scientific fact of evolution. came back to life 3 days later. his body was eaten by his worshippers. "the good shepherd". came back to life 3 days later. the son of the Sun. and "king of kings". his body as bread was eaten by his worshippers. However. a god could have created things via evolution.Apr 3. a sacred meal of bread water and consecrated wine. God took the form of man and sacrificed himself to himself in order to forgive us of breaking rules that he put into place to begin with This entire situation is so ridiculous that it would be laughable if it didn’t affect so many peoples’ lives. Jesus. and almost wholly unoriginal8:  Mithra (a roman god). "redeemer". 9  Attis (a greek god). In fact.10 Dionysus (greek and roman god). Interestingly enough. was born of a virgin on December 25th. and the Holy Spirit are the same entity: God God created the world. 2. and made up a bunch rules that we should. but could not possibly. ● The story of Christ (and the way he's often worshipped) is a conglomeration of myths about other gods. he was crucified and his blood redeemed the earth. This seems to come from a few misunderstandings. the son of Zeus. follow Not following these rules is “sin. died. Different species of dogs have been "designed" by man. was born of a virgin on December 25th and was placed in a manger. . 2007 3 ● According to mainstream protestant Christianity:     God the Father. was known as "the way the truth and the light". was called "alpha and omega". Dogs are a great example of evolution (and. "intelligent design" by humans). The only difference is that in the Theory of Evolution. Christian apologists have claimed that these early pagans had mystical or prophetic foreknowledge of Christ. This results in the process taking place over much greater periods of time. his priests were celibate. the process is led by natural selection rather than some intelligent designer. and incorporated Christian ideas into their deities. in fact. "savior". etc.11  Note that all of these “gods” came centuries before Christ. an explanation is not provided for how or why this occurred. Not surprisingly. was born of a virgin on December 25th. if evolution consisted of what most of the creationists I’ve talked to think it consists of. for centuries. Mithra religious ceremonies involved baptisms. died for the salvation of man. who was both the "Divine Son" and the "Father". by breeding for certain characteristics. and anointments.

Even Darwin said that evolution couldn't explain the eye. and there is. The second law of thermodynamics states that the amount of disorder in a closed system never decreases. And then there have been more vague gods. and we clearly share a common ancestor.1 Common Misconceptions about Evolution ● It's "just" a theory. but it is. Wrong. It's been observed many. So Why Isn’t There a God? The god idea has been with humans for quite a long time. hopefully that day will be soon. are our closest relative. Evolution has never been observed. It was a rhetorical device. Wrong.. You never hear that it’s “just” a theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Each culture has had their own god or gods. an avowed atheist. Even if he had meant it in the way it is often misrepresented. often based on those of previous cultures (as I showed Christianity is). This process occurs over huge periods of time. There are no transitional fossils (missing links). in fact. Natural selection. Wrong. or a lack of surviving). with whom we share over 99% of our genetic material. in fact. Misleading. Wrong. The following three pages went into much greater detail. whereas the less-fit organisms do not (either via failing at the mate selection process. ● ● ● ● ● ● ● ● 2. There is no evidence to support this. Even if he had. science relies on evidence. And the Bible disputes that as well. many times.3 Ok.Apr 3. Einstein. Evolution is a random process. not the word or beliefs of any particular person -. and there have been several types of gods over the years. Darwin recanted on his deathbed. Probably wrong. often used the word “god” to refer to the laws of the universe 15 – this . There are thousands of them. Note that God and creation (or intelligent design) are merely hypotheses – untested. unverifiable hypotheses. This mischaracterizes what a scientific theory is12. a horrible misrepresentation of what he wrote. it doesn't matter as I pointed out in the previous item. the fact that the most fit individuals survive and produce the most offspring. an eyewitness account to the contrary.. and the rest of that paragraph explained much about how eyes form. Wrong. Evolution violates the laws of physics. Primates. This is.2. Wrong. Organisms evolve in response to their environment. Evolution occurs via the entirely non-random process of the natural selection of randomly varying replicators13. why do you think we keep coming up with new antibiotics (and flu shots) to fight the same illnesses? Because they evolve. Man came from monkeys. and demonstrably results in speciation. Wrong. 2007 4 2. dictates that the most appropriately equipped individual organisms have a greater chance of passing on their genes..and the various stages of eye development exist all throughout nature14.. The people who make this claim (who never happen to be physicists) may one day discover the sun.

In the last 300 years alone. Explanations are tricky things sometimes.” is one of the primary foundations of critical thought. those questions are likely to be answered. Needless to say. while the entire explanation is far beyond the scope of this paper. solving that problem is significantly easier than solving the “who created God. We’ve been conditioned into thinking of these as two separate things. the simplest solution tends to be the best one. Many theists take the “God lives in the gaps” approach. Using god to explain the unexplained (and just because something is unexplained. these gaps are often boiled down to nothing more than constants in physics. 2007 5 often led to confusion regarding his beliefs.” The fundamental problem with the God Hypothesis is that it does just that. While we may not have enough data to form a concise. “all things being equal. doesn’t make it inexplicable). as Dawkins points out. The problem with assigning this to God. and who created the thing that created God” question. Stephen Jay Gould proposed the idea of “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” (NOMA). As science has explained more and more. the gaps of knowledge where God has long hidden have become vastly smaller at a much more rapid rate than at any other time. in fact.Apr 3. the simplest explanation in these cases is the scientific one. religious claims are. however this has a long history of not working out well. although a careful reading of his work leaves no question. Once the God Hypothesis is invoked. we wouldn’t be here considering these questions any of those other times. you are 100% guaranteed that it will come out the way it has at some point. Either there is a God or there is not one. it compounds the problem. science has given us a reasonable explanation for how we went from nothing but chaos to where we are today. And. These are testable claims. If these constants were off by a fraction. is that given a highly improbable likelihood of the universe occurring in this way. However. While there are still questions. Unfortunately for the religious. Either God spoke things into existence or he did not. is an exercise in futility. While I am not saying that “there is no god. saying that science didn’t touch religion and that religion didn’t touch science16. there are gaps in knowledge here and there. No reasonable person would ever say that there is . and likely unable to support life. it creates more questions than it answers: “How can God ‘speak’ things into existence?” and “where did God come from?” to name a few. then we would not exist because the entire universe would be vastly different. So. 2. invoking God to explain what is currently unexplained. Occam’s Razor. when taken over a near-infinite amount of time and number of formations.4 Why Not Agnosticism? All atheists are agnostics. and without invoking a supernatural being. And sometimes using an explanation that only compounds the problem feels more comfortable than saying “we don’t know yet. accurate explanation for a problem. all of the evidence (and there are mountains of it) point towards unguided evolution. Granted. but those gaps are rapidly filling. Agnosticism merely says that there is not enough information to absolutely know whether there is a god. scientifically testable 17. Science has done an excellent job of explaining how things got to be the way they are. and this has become the accepted view for many years.” I am saying that the likelihood of a god existing is so horribly small that it is negligible.

There are many gods that no one believes in anymore: Zeus. i. Thor. the primary answer to adult conversion to theism is accounted for by lack of . Odin. arguably Christianity is nothing but a continuation of Mithra-worship). for that matter). The mind is very much like a computer.Apr 3. One of those mechanisms is that when we are small children we believe our elders. right? Unfortunately. According to Dawkins. right? It’s succeeded over time and despite evidence that directly disproves religious claims. “some of us just take it one god further. As Dawkins has said. we have all become “atheists” to all of these things. And they all meet the same criteria for disbelief as our current god or gods. and there was no evidence to support this belief. and it has many mechanisms that ensure our success. seeing as he’s the one that decides that sort of thing But some people become religious later in life. Atheism is the belief that there is no god based on the overwhelming evidence to support that belief.e. and of course. As we have learned more and more about the world around us. Unfortunately. So. even dragons. as would the complete lack of evidence. leprechauns.” Unfortunately. that’s not quite the case. the Christian. Bertrand Russell once proposed that there was a small teapot orbiting the sun. but we can fix it by sacrificing something or performing a dance • Fairies will come into your room and replace the tooth under your pillow with money • Some guy came back to life after sacrificing himself to himself in order to forgive us for breaking rules that he put into place – despite the fact that he could have just forgiven us anyway. this doesn’t account for all cases of theism.) 2. Jewish. and Muslim god. The same is true of fairies. “don’t go in the river because the alligators will eat you. Odin. The teapot was so small that it couldn’t be seen with even our most powerful telescopes. Those children who did not have such a mechanism were probably unable to reproduce as they likely would not have heeded the warnings of their elders.5 So Why Does Religion Exist? If there really isn’t a god and Darwinian Natural Selection is correct. that belief in a sun-orbiting teapot would be ridiculous. religion is a meme that propagates in much the same way that computer viruses do18. (It saddens me to think that so many lives have been lost over the years to fighting over something even remotely like Russell’s teapot. children do not have the critical thinking capability to determine which of these things are correct and which are not. everything worked exactly as it would be expected without the teapot existing. Furthermore. there are many other things that we have believed over time: fairies were commonly believed to exist up until the 19th century. etc.” Importantly. we process information and make decisions based on the information that we have. The funny thing is that we are all atheists. So why believe in such a strange thing? Occam’s Razor would dictate. as they are able to protect us and keep us alive. Therefore the following statements would be indistinguishable: • Don’t put your finger in the light socket • Don’t swim in the alligator infested river • Plant crops during a particular season or they won’t grow • Drought is caused by the gods being mad at us. then religion must have an evolutionary benefit. 2007 6 absolutely no god (or that gravity absolutely and always exists. Mithra (although. The brain has developed in such a way that humans are able to do things that no other species has been able to do.

and stealing then?”). This is nothing more than a misuse of the word. Ridiculous. No one is born with a scientific education or critical thinking skills. which often leads to things like flying airplanes into buildings or blowing up abortion clinics. The people who make this claim inevitably have almost no scientific education (high school at best) and no understanding of science whatsoever. Anyone who was an atheist prior to this point. we are left to be convinced by whichever religious group happens to cause an emotional stir. or despite evidence to the contrary. 2007 7 understanding of science and probability. People observe chairs supporting other individual’s weight. basing their beliefs on what they want to believe rather than what evidence would show to be truth. This is not only wrong. would have been. the god hypothesis was the best explanation that we had to explain existence. and it’s unfortunate. I’ve also witnessed people staying religious because they • • • • • . torture. however encouraging the act of believing things despite contrary evidence. but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” The downright frightening part of all of this is that religion seems to be the cause behind numerous crimes: countless wars. Interestingly enough. believing things that are even harder to believe than the run-of-the-mill hard to believe doctrines is a more “saintly” act. What’s wrong with faith? Several things. and innumerable other crimes against humanity. This argument often reminds me of Matthew 7. raping. it’s a fullfledged scientific theory. but missing some information. There are undoubtedly some people who become atheists for this reason. it’s also very telling. People become atheists because they were forced into religion. Much of science is counter-intuitive. it would seem that they haven’t yet learned that what they believe has no impact on how things are. while less than 1% of the prison population is comprised of atheists19. And it takes many years to acquire both. It seems that within religious institutions. I’ve witnessed this many times. However. It frightens me when people even think to ask this. deprivation. and without learning how to think about problems. “so what prevents you from killing. 2. Correct. People become atheists because they don’t want to be accountable to God. they have tested the hypothesis several times by sitting in a chair. Not out of fear of eternal torment. Prior to Darwin’s discovery of natural selection. Certainly. Possibly. Without a scientific education. much like a theist living in today’s world.Apr 3. believed in God.6 Common Arguments against Atheism • Atheists have no morality (i.. It requires more faith to believe in the big bang/evolution than it does to believe in god/creation. Personally. and by the time they plop down in the chair themselves (even if it’s a new chair). Just like evolution. Faith in and of itself is harmless.e. atheists make up around 10% of the population. because it tends to make me think that they do want to do those things.” A common example seems to be that people have “faith” that a chair will support them. I don’t do those things because I don’t want to do them. The word “faith” in this context refers to “belief without evidence. where Jesus asks “and why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye. Newton. or despite a complete lack of evidence encourages the sort of thought patterns that allow fundamentalist thinking to occur. terrorism. a brilliant scientist.

it took humanity until the mid-19th century to realise that it is an illusion. Not to mention that it bears no relevance to what is actually true. Richard Dawkins. and made an educated decision. and discovered the gene-centric view of evolution. Every living creature has ancestors. considered the alternatives. none of whom died young and none of whom failed to reproduce.Apr 3. All inherit the genes of an unbroken sequence of successful ancestors. Charles Darwin announced one of the greatest ideas ever to occur to a human mind: cumulative evolution by natural selection. So. So powerful is the illusion of design. He is the founder of the field of memetics. an evolutionary biologist who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It is merely to be heard. this is why I’ve become an atheist. nor is it to attempt to convert anyone to my own. Darwinian natural selection can produce an uncanny illusion of design. and most dismiss it as hearsay (which is why I’ve cited references) or arrogance (despite the fact that they are the ones insisting that they know the absolute truth without hearing what you have to say). the only valid reason to possess a belief is because you have considered it. don’t want to take the time to hear the answer. Genes that program embryos to develop into adults who can successfully reproduce automatically survive in the gene pool. 3. by the man who probably understands it better than anyone alive: Dr. They do something well: for instance. weighed the evidence. you can reach prodigious heights of adaptive complexity. To me. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant. That cumulative build-up is evolution. The diagnostic of things that look (or are) designed is that their parts are assembled in ways that are statistically improbable in a functional direction. This is natural . Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed (submarines and tin openers) and those that aren't (sharks and hedgehogs). Anything less is no better than the very thing that the people who make this claim are complaining about. A Brief Explanation of Evolution by Natural Selection by Richard Dawkins The world is divided into things that look designed (like birds and airliners) and things that don't (rocks and mountains). at the expense of genes that fail. But only if we assume that all the luck has to come in one fell swoop. but only a fraction have descendants. fly. In 1859. Most people. Below is a brief explanation of what evolution actually is. Its guiding force is natural selection. When cascades of small chance steps accumulate. A1. 2007 8 were forced into it. I welcome evidence and rational debate against any of the claims I have listed. Living complexity is indeed orders of magnitude too improbable to have come about by chance. These are both horrible reasons to do anything.0 Conclusion My goal in writing this paper is not to attack others’ beliefs. which is also unfortunate. despite asking the question.

starting from a single bacterium-like ancestor. and selection removes them from the pool in a way that is non-random. yet it is lamentably often miscalled random. Natural selection is quintessentially non-random. we have the origin of a new species. some fly.Apr 3. Among sexually reproducing species. some climb. What makes for success in the business of life varies from species to species. Some swim. Evolution by natural selection is the only workable theory ever proposed that is capable of explaining life. . 2007 9 selection at the gene level. and they go their separately evolving ways. speciation is said to have occurred when the two gene pools have separated so far that they can no longer interbreed. some walk. Copies of newly mutated genes are reshuffled through the gene pool by sexual reproduction. Each branching event is called a speciation: a breeding population splits into two. and we notice its consequences at the organism level. which lived between 3 and 4 billion years ago. some root themselves into the soil and tilt green solar panels toward the sun. This one mistake underlies much of the sceptical backlash against evolution. Design is as bad an explanation as chance because it raises bigger questions than it answers. and it does so brilliantly. All this diversity stems from successive branchings. When separation has reached the stage where there is no interbreeding even without a geographical barrier. and it is mutation. There has to be an ultimate source of new genetic variation. Speciation begins by accident. Chance cannot explain life.

45: 434-439.wikipedia. http://www. Nonoverlapping Magisteria. For example.wikipedia.. Babylonian Origins of the Creation Myth 6 Tobin. Charles The Origin of Species 15 Dawkins. and the theory which explains why the apple behaves so is the current theory of 17 Dawkins. Frederick L. a logical explanation. Sir James G. The Paganism in Our Christianity 10 Frazer. The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine (1758). Arthur. and the Bible (1979) 8 Ancient Paganism and the Dangers of Compromise 9 Weigall. The Golden Bough (1922) 11 Aletheia. M.stephenjaygould. http://en.. p. Richard The God Delusion 18 Dawkins.html 19 Rice.cscs. and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical” From wikipedia (http://en. Thomas J. it is a fact that an apple dropped on earth has been observed to fall towards the center of the 4 Swedenborg.. Cambridge University Press 3 Various The Earth. New Scientist 14 Darwin. Richard The World’s Ten Biggest Ideas.1 2 Brown.umich. Paul. Stephen J.. The Rationalist’s Manual 12 “In science.. Paul N. Atheists Supply Less than 1% of Prison Populations. Richard The God Delusion 16 Gould. 216-217 Kraus. New Testament Studies (1999). It follows from this that for scientists "theory" and "fact" do not necessarily stand in opposition. Early Christianity. Emanuel. capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind. or a proven model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena.htm .. Paul N. a verified hypothesis. 13 Dawkins. http://www. An Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor Bible Reference). para 159-162 5 Tobin. Richard Viruses of the Mind. the Stars. Raymond E. The Flood Myth: Babylonian Origins 7 Steidl. a theory is a mathematical description.