Why Are There Atheists?

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But,” say Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t though of that” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

— Douglas Adams from “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – 1979

An article on ChristianityToday.com asks the question: Why are there still atheists? “Still” is in reference to Romans 1:19-20 and Psalm 19:1 (as well as Creationists—young- and old-earth alike) that declare God has made it plain that he exists through the things he has made. The author, Shawn Graves, argues that the lives Christians lead and their own words must also be the illustration of proof that God is real.

I am relieved that Graves (more so than Jim Spiegel in a previous piece for the same website) acknowledges respectfully that atheists have rational, evidence-based objections against the Hebrew god Yahweh.

Spiegel asserts that for many atheists, it’s not “cool, rational inquiry” that led to their atheism. Rather, in many cases it’s complex moral and psychological factors that produce atheism.

… Surely some people accept atheism due in part to such powerful motivational factors. For some atheists, it’s not merely a matter of evidence. Yet, as Spiegel grants, these motivational explanations don’t hold for all atheists. Consider some of the personal essays found in Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise Antony. Some testify that their move from theism to atheism came at tremendous personal cost and required significant, and painful, existential reorientation. A few even express a deep longing for Christian spirituality. Apparently, these philosophers had plenty of strong psychological motivation to retain or embrace theism. Yet they didn’t. Their atheism really did seem to be a matter of evidence and argument.

Yes! Someone gets it. I, for example, was extremely happy and content with Christianity. It had never done me wrong, and I benefited from it. As I’ve said before, I left theism kicking and screaming. I was horrified by the idea that I had been mistaken all my life, and that there really wasn’t a great and magic solution to suffering or evil.

I’m intrigued by the humility in this conclusion:

We should acknowledge that we have our own powerful non-rational motivations for belief. We ought to confess that our religious proclamations haven’t been as clear and compelling as the heavens and the skies in proclaiming “the glory of God and the work of his hands,” that our lives haven’t “made it plain” that God exists. We need to grant that our God is a God who sometimes hides and is silent. Finally, we need to concede that all of this does make a genuine evidential difference for plenty of atheists. Maybe that helps to explain why there are atheists.

Do you think Graves ever answers the question about why there are still atheists? Do you think it’s up to theists to fix this, or are they still incorrectly assuming that what keeps us atheists from belief is a lacking in humanity (namely pride, sin, etc.) and not because there truly is a lack of evidence?

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16 Comments


  1. At a quick glance, I’d say this jibes with me. It manages to better describe the chasm rather than resorting to base head-shaking incredulousness that accompanied my own difficult, inner struggle.

  2. I also left theism kicking and screaming. That’s why the whole “you’re not really an atheist! You just say that because you love your sin!” bit is so offensive to me.

  3. Trying to discredit a person’s positition (atheism) by calling into question that person’s motivation is simply an ad hominem tactic best saved for talk radio.

    Would one question Coperinucus’ relationship with his mum in order to test the validity of the heleocentric model of the solar system? Of course not.

    • Nicely said, Andrew!

      People are born atheists. We are born not believing in gods. Members of society teach us (or try to teach us) to believe, largely to assuage their own guilt/fear/whatever that they, too, have been hoodwinked into believing a lie.

      Individual members of any religion are “carriers” or “hosts” of that religion. Pastors, preachers, priests and the like are “vectors.” The religion itself may be likened to a virus–they do act as viral infections, after all–bent only on propagating itself, regardless of what said propagation does to its hosts.

      Much like a cancerous cell, too, I suppose…

  4. “We need to grant that our God is a God who sometimes hides and is silent.”

    Define, “sometimes.”

  5. From Spiegel’s article: “Could their rejection of God—and, in particular, Christianity, with its exacting moral standards—have been entirely intellectual and dispassionate?”

    The “exacting moral standards part” is extremely questionable.

    From Graves’s article: “What seems obvious here is that God’s existence is not obvious, even to some devout followers. As the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal writes, ‘As God is hidden, any religion that does not say that God is hidden is not true . … What can be seen on earth points to neither the total absence nor the obvious presence of divinity, but to the presence of a hidden God.’ Perhaps some atheists happen to be people particularly impressed by the dreadful silence of God—and unimpressed by the noisy, idle chatter expressed by far too many theists.”

    I like that Graves acknowledges that there is doubt among theists as well and that God’s presence is not obvious. I think he makes some thoughtful points about the characteristics of God as described in the Bible, acknowledging that it may be a quality of God rather than a quality of the person hearing about God.

    The part I disagree with is that he thinks it is the demeanor of theists (e.g. lack of humility) that might leads to atheists finding the arguments for God unconvincing, rather than the actual content of the arguments.

    Personally, I left religion gladly (due to disagreements about the doctrines about women, people of other religions, etc.). I didn’t leave religion because I wanted to sin or be immoral, but because I thought religion’s ideas of “morality” were actually immoral.

    I continued believing in God for some years after leaving religion, without being a member of any particular faith (though my ideas of God were probably heavily influenced by characteristics of God commonly found in the monotheisms). I really believed in God and even feel that prayer helped me. Looking back, of course, I don’t think any God was listening, but I think it helped me sort out my thoughts and feel better after expressing myself and my worries. I slowly started to doubt God. It wasn’t a difficult or agonizing process, as I found other sources of comfort and expression, but the process was slow with my changing ideas of God leading ultimately to disbelief in God.

  6. I thought we were atheist because we were never ‘true’ Christians…n-stuff.

    Kriss

  7. This seems like a silly question for the Christians to ask. If they believe that God took individual interest in creating each of us and he never makes mistakes, then obviously he wanted some atheists. Why? I dunno. Probably some part of that inscrutable plan they claim he has.

    • My cousin, now 21, was only 14 when he told me that God did everything for a reason. After much thought and debate about my particular purpose as a non-believer, he told me that God had probably created me as a test for others. I’m told him that I’m totally cool with that and if his god does exist, I hope he’ll tell me I did a great job.

  8. I was impressed by that article. GASPO, substance and respect for atheists and what we call evidence! (Wording out of respect for the author.)

    Also, this: We should acknowledge that we have our own powerful non-rational motivations for belief.

    We need more conversations like this and less daddy-issues crap like we got from the person the author was responding to.

  9. Atheists never went away. We’ve always been here, and thinking otherwise is just one of the many forms of denial a person needs to remain a bible thumping extremist nutjob when, really, one is wracked with doubts about their deity of choice all the time.

    I can easily reject the gods who allegedly write those holy books, because they’re just evil books. But I can still see how perhaps some sort of deity might exist. I simply don’t have faith in it. No angry break with religion, no painful break, no emotional trauma, not much drama at all.

  10. Why are there still…? Given that at least since the seventeenth century the general progression has been pretty steadily from belief to unbelief, asking why there are still atheists about gets things the wrong way round. It’s a bit like alchemists (if there were any left) were to ask why is it that there are still scientists around. I mean, come on think about it, folks. With present economic difficulties you’d think they’d all be putting all their efforts into trying to turn base metals into gold. Scientists must be completely bonkers not to realise that.

  11. Colie the Magical Closet Athiest

    More importantly, why are there Theists?

  12. “I was horrified by the idea that I had been mistaken all my life, and that there really wasn’t a great and magic solution to suffering or evil.”

    I’ve enjoyed and appreciated reading your blog posts but was struck by this sentence. It made me wonder why is it that religion is thought of as “supposed to” offer a magic solution ro suffering or evil? That’s really not its job. I’ve often wondered why so many atheists feel the world’s suffering & evil is an argument for atheism. That’s not any more valid than arguing that God is exists because of nature’s beauty or humans’ joyful experiences. Both arguments are weak and baseless.

    Just mulling things over – I was raised in a tradition and have cultural ties to it but am plenty agnostic at the moment. Reading exchanges of ideas is helpful and educational – thanks for the opportunity.

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