I find religion to be quite fascinating, despite the fact that I’m a soft atheist and don’t personally believe the fundamentals of any of them. This post will be a bit of a meander through thoughts kicking around in my head related to religion and atheism.
Hard vs. soft atheism
I would say that I fall somewhere in the vicinity of weak agnostic/soft atheist. By that, I mean that I’m open to the idea that a deity (or deities) exists and is knowable, but I’m not inclined to believe such a thing does exist without some sort of evidence that it does. I was raised in an atheist family, which certainly shaped my worldview, but I’ve always found religion interesting. For the sake of curiosity, I’ve read the Quran (obviously in English translation) and a fair bit of the Bible.
I’m not a hard atheist who believes there is no deity or deities, full stop. In my mind, that’s a hypothesis with no more evidence to support it than the hypothesis that God does exist. If theism is the hypothesis that there is a deity (or deities), I’m going with the corresponding null hypothesis that there isn’t proof for a deity’s existence; if that’s soft atheism, I guess that’s what I am.
To put that in non-scientific terms, let’s talk purple people eaters. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone’s notion of God is a purple people eater. I design a little experiment to try to find evidence of a purple people eater. I run my experiment and don’t find any evidence, so obviously, I haven’t proven that they exist. Those results also don’t prove that purple people eaters don’t exist (the equivalent of hard atheism); it just means we don’t know yet. Faith is believing that purple people eaters exist anyway, and that’s what I don’t have. Show me a purple people eater, then we’re good to go.
This post is quite Christianity-centric, but that’s mostly because it’s what I’m most surrounded by; I’m an equal-opportunity non-believer. It’s not my intent to criticize anyone’s religion; there are just things I don’t get. I think it’s great that people find comfort and a sense of meaning in religion; I’m just not one of those people.
It’s harder to prove a negative than a positive
Looking at provability, the non-existence of something is always much harder to prove than the existence of something. Let’s get back to the idea of purple people eater as deity to illustrate this.
To prove that purple people eaters (or deities) exist, I only need to find one.
To prove that purple people eaters don’t exist (the equivalent of hard atheism), I would have to scour every corner of the known world, and then I’d have to keep looking for the remainder of my life, as well as the life of everyone yet to come, because I might have missed a purple people eater hanging out in a black hole somewhere.
So why haven’t atheists proven there is no God? Because no one has managed to check every last black hole for that stray purple people eater that might be kicking around. Proving that things don’t exist is very, very hard. For me, anyway, the burden of proof in a logical argument falls on whoever is arguing that something does exist, be it God, purple people eater, or otherwise.
When bad stuff happens
There’s a lot about religion that I just don’t get. If there is an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God, who many people believe does directly get involved in the human world in a good way, why does He let bad things happen? I’m not talking bad things on the scale of someone losing their job; I’m talking the really nasty, large-scale stuff, like genocide, war, or famine. I’ve never come across an argument that doesn’t have the feel of wildly scrambling to reconcile things that don’t really go together.
The argument that bad things have to happen so something good can come of it, or that there’s a reason for bad things to happen but we’re just not aware of it, is fine if we’re talking about job loss, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard when we’re talking about genocide. Was there good to be had as a result of the Holocaust? It seems rather gross and all kinds of non-loving to think so.
In the anti-atheism arguments I’ve come across, there seems to be a lot of faulty logic. There was one article that I came across that said that evolution didn’t happen, but the way people say it supposedly happened, lots of species died out, and therefore it’s reasonable that God allows people to get killed off. Huh?
Another article said that choice and accountability are necessary for spiritual growth, so God doesn’t save people from their decisions. But again, bringing it back to genocide, no one chose to be in an ethnic group that was going to be slaughtered. That same article argued that tragedy is okay because it empowers others to act in a positive way. Really? Another article said pain awakens us to God; if God is so glorious, why on earth should pain be required? There’s the argument that God has his reasons, and we’re just not capable of understanding them. Except that’s not an actual argument, because what do you do with that? You could argue basically anything and wrap it up in a bow of God has His ways and we just don’t understand.
The main argument, from what I gather, has to do with free will. But I still don’t get it. Let’s say we were to accept a few things as a given:
- God is omnipotent
- He has given humans free will
- He loves us because God is love
- people believe they’re interacting with God on a regular basis and He is intervening in their lives, answering prayers and letting the holy spirit do its thing (I still don’t really understand what the holy spirit is)
- people believe He intervenes to perform miracles on at least a somewhat regular basis, given that there are 10,000+ Catholic saints
- God parted the Red Sea to save the Israelites from the Pharaoh, yet, for reasons unknown to us, decided to go hands off when the Nazis came along and started gassing every Israelite they could get their hands on
Given all of these things, when Hutus started slaughtering Tutsis in Rwanda, somehow God is bound by His choice to give humans free will, so sorry, but He’s out? God is claimed to perform everyday miracles for people, and the Holy Spirit is all up in people’s business (in a good way, presumably), but He can’t circumvent His own prior choices to stop people from slaughtering and torturing each other? I don’t get it.
More atheist questions
I also don’t understand why Jesus had to die. Sure, it’s the whole basis of Christianity that He died to absolve all of humanity’s sins, but my question is, why couldn’t God have forgiven people without sending His Son to be tortured?
I also don’t get the whole notion of original sin, and I’m not clear on whether I just don’t grasp what the concept is, or whether I know what the concept is and still don’t get it. Was God’s creation flawed? How could that be if God is perfect? Is it necessary to hold a grudge against humans forever because Adam and Eve weren’t well-behaved? If your children disobey you, does that taint stay in your family for a gazillion generations to come? If so, that seems like a pretty harsh punishment given all the love that’s supposed to be floating around.
Focus on the Family assures me that I’m going straight to hell for not believing in Christ as redeemer. They say it doesn’t matter if I (or anyone else) is good or sincere; God doesn’t want my despicable sinful self in his presence. I’m guessing that Focus on the Family is of the fire and brimstone persuasion. To be honest, it seems a bit wonky that a serial killer who believed in Jesus as redeemer would go to heaven, while a kind and caring person who thought Jesus was a purely human preacher spreading positive messages would go straight to hell.
I’ve come across a lot of arguments for theism that rely on some faulty logic. There may well be better arguments out there, but I haven’t stumbled across them yet.
I’ve seen the enduring popularity of the Bible used as an argument to support the existence of God. Those two things have nothing to do with each other, though; popular and long-lasting suggests that something is meaningful and it resonates with people, not that it’s true. Being popular and accurate are independent ideas, so the truth of one doesn’t speak to the truth of the other.
Then there are shut-down arguments, which are much like a parent saying “because I said so.” It may be true, but offers no chance of gaining any new understanding on either side. For example, there’s the argument that if things in the Bible don’t seem to make sense, it’s because humans just aren’t capable of understanding why God does what he does. I get that if there is a deity, He/She couldn’t be fully understandable by us, but “it just is” is certainly not going to bring me any closer to believing what someone’s trying to convince me of.
There’s the argument that the world is amazing, therefore there must be intelligent design. There is no more logical must in there than me saying our governments act like puppets so there must be a purple people eater pulling the strings.
Some of the Christian sources I’ve come across refuting atheist arguments choose particular arguments that are weak to the point of ridiculousness, which makes me wonder if those arguments actually came from atheists, or perhaps from a purple people eater, or a human inside the stomach of a purple people eater. This is a form of the straw man logical fallacy.
There’s a book by Ray Comfort that’s rather amusingly titled God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists. In the first chapter, which is viewable in the Kindle preview on Amazon, he argues that atheists don’t exist because no one has any way of proving the absolute assertion that God doesn’t exist. He adds that the Bible says ignorance of God is willful, therefore atheists don’t see the evidence of God because they choose not to. But if you flip all of that on its head, then theists don’t exist either. Neither side of that argument is any good, but there does seem to be a blind spot to seeing the flip side.
The good and the bad of organized religion
I’m not anti-religion, and I can absolutely see how religion can be quite beneficial for people looking for a sense of meaning and community. People want answers and direction, and religion is very good at giving answers to that kind of thing. On an individual level, I can see spirituality being a very positive thing.
I do have issues with organized religion, though, and that’s less about the religion itself and more about the fact that people suck. A lot of people do a lot of shitty things. When you get a bunch of stupid people together, and they’re feeling all kinds of self-righteous about their religious fervour, they start doing shitty things in the name of their religion. Those shitty things aren’t part of the religion, and in many cases, they may run contrary to the core values of religion, but people suck, so they go around killing each other.
Sociologically, when groups of people have strong belief systems, it can be very easy to Other groups that don’t believe what the in-group beliefs, and Othering can produce some very messy results. A Washington Times article rather brilliantly says “The most violent religion on Earth is any that have people in them.” Christianity comes to mind as having had a whole buttload of killing done in the name of it, but I’m pretty confident in my assumption that that’s not what Jesus would do.
God and science
I see no reason for God and science to exist as opposing ideas. Take the big bang, for example. Accepting the big bang requires rejecting what Genesis has to say about the world being created in seven literal days (as we understand them), but it doesn’t mean rejecting the notion of divine creation. Science knows about what happened from the big bang forward in time; it knows nothing and doesn’t claim to know anything about what came even an instant before it, which leaves plenty of room for God to come into play.
There’s nothing inherently anti-theist about the scientific method. Science isn’t about a certain body of knowledge; science is a method. You come up with an idea that you formulate as a hypothesis; you design an experiment to test that hypothesis; you run that experiment; you determine whether the results support your hypothesis or not. People get it wrong sometimes, but that’s all part of the process, and by continually questioning, hopefully, people will reach more accurate conclusions eventually. Science is about always questioning.
None of this was meant to try to argue or persuade anyone of anything, nor am I saying I’m right and anyone else is wrong. It was just the thoughts that have bubbled up in my head.
I think what it really comes down to is that there is no one right way. No matter what any of us happens to believe, and there are a lot of different beliefs out there, we’re all fumbling around in the dark to some extent. Since the beginning of humanity, people have looked for meaning in this world and sought answers to questions like what happens after death, or whether there’s anything more than just this life we’re living.
People have come up with many different answers over the eons, and chances are, no one is fully right or fully wrong. Maybe the best we can do is to accept one another and try not to expect others to adhere to our own beliefs, and acknowledge that no matter what deities may or may not exist, humans are fallible, and that means each and every single one of us.
And to close, this fabulous quote from George Carlin comes via Nick at Fiction & Ideas:
Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.
This is a very broad question, but what are some of the key ideas that fuel your own religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?
This video of a talk by Dr. Dennis Hiebert on the social construction of reality is an interesting look at how human understanding of religion is socially constructed – and yet, he’s not an atheist.
79 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on My Version of Soft Atheism”
I was brought up as a Christian and elected to get saved and baptised in my early teens. Yet I questioned the Bible and other various books, texts, speeches, etc because I’m a very curious person. As you pointed out, how can God allow atrocities to happen yet am told it is man’s doing because of free will and sin. Sin, another weird concept that’s really varied depending on global cultures, beliefs, etc. Gives me a headache! I do believe there is a higher power because of the perfection of creation/evolution and personal paranormal experiences. Very OMG WTF!!?? My husband is a borderline soft atheist – but we get on fine! Loved this post Ashley.
So many questions, so much to think about! It certainly keeps things interesting!
Oh man alive, it sure does and never ever can be 100% proved/disproved. Keeps us on our toes eh 🙂
You have made your decision. You have exercised your free will. At the present, your elect to reject God’s offer to be gathered with Him and his son, Jesus, in heaven. It is not my place to judge you. If you have a change of heart, God’s offer will always be there.
I feel that those who choose to take a path other than what God has intended, have lost any opportunity to reside in heaven or preserve whatever life force may exist upon your death. Maybe you are the smart one and I am a gullible fool. I know that I have put my faith in God and have tried to allow that elusive Holy Spirit guide me through my life. So far, I’ve survived war and over 40 years of active law enforcement. God has provided me with a wonderful wife and a rewarding family. God has given me the opportunity to be prosperous enough I can help others.
If my life is the life of a fool, I am content in my ignorance. I hope you can say the same.
I grew up believing in God and Jesus and despite looking into different religions i can’t not … not believe in it. Though interestingly i have raised children who are atheists mainly because i didn’t want to choose for them if that makes sense. I do find it fascinating though had i been born into a Muslim home or a Jewish… Wiccan etc home that is where I’m sure my allegiance would be. I think religion is not typically chosen by us but generationally chosen.
I agree. And while some children might leave the religion the become atheists, switching to a different faith seems pretty rare.
Interesting to see all this from your point of view and you raise a lot of very important things here, even if we definitely have very different shoe sizes! 😀 One of the things I do agree with you on is that science and God can definitely go very well together, and, to some extend, I guess they even should, or at least sort of complement each other where possible.
I agree. If I were to accept that there was a God, I would see science as a way of better appreciating and understanding what He has created.
Yes, that’s exactly how I see it too.
A basic belief I hold with regards to my religion is that if God exists and He wants me to know more about it, then He’ll guide me to it if I ask.
I find the beliefs we hold and how we reach it to be interesting too. It’s something I’d love to talk about, but I’d also like for it not to get in the way of making sure that everyone’s safe.
It’s a very interesting topic, and it seems like we’re all united in looking for some sort of meaning. We may look for it and find it in different places, but I think the searching part is pretty universal.
Religion cannot be proven or disproven so I choose not to waste my life on it. I’m too logical to believe something that can’t be proven beyond a doubt through trials. Personally, I think that religions were likely made up by mankind to control each other. But, still, no proof haha.
I love it – a girl who knows what she believes and isn’t afraid to say it.
I’m with you. There has been no evidence in my life to inspire belief in God. Others say they have evidence, but mostly their “facts” seem like coincidences. They prayed for X and X happened. What about the people who didn’t get their prayers answered? Plus all the horrible suffering through the ages, etc. But you know? I get the need for belief. I think it’s a good thing to have when life gets tough. As long as they aren’t telling me what to think, I’m fine with it. Who knows… maybe faith will suddenly appear for me too!
You never know! I think religion will always have an appeal when it comes to trying to understand death and grieve the deaths of others. I guess the “when I’m dead, I’m done” approach isn’t universally appealing.
What a great post. Thanks for sharing your thought 🤗 I grew up with parents who didn’t practise Christianity overly but thought it important that I know the basics of the main religion in our country. So I got a good Christian training but like you always had problems to understand the illogical bits of it. In Sunday School some friends and I discussed with the pastor how on Earth all the people who lived before Jesus could be doomed just because they lived before Jesus saved us all. We never got a satisfying answer 😁 Then I read Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphos” and thought:” that makes sense 😁”. There is no sense (or God) and we just keep doing what we do because that’s all there is. Live and let live. But there is something in me that believes in a spiritual world so today I have a strange mixture of existentialist spiritualism 🤪
Oh that sounds cool!
I’m a special kind of atheist who has a chocolate egg at Easter (cos you get loads of chocolate for the price of a couple of bars) and has pancakes on Shrove Tuesday because pancakes are delicious and the date reminds me of this. I also do Christmas because I like a family get together and gift giving! Oh and I agree with many of the principles of Christianity because basically they’re about ways you can be a decent human being! I don’t however, believe in God or some superior being.
Yes, being a good human being is a good thing! My family has always celebrated Christmas as well. I think of the nativity as myth rather than literal truth, but it certainly makes for some good Christmas carols!
When you say “God”, I say “Whose?” Quite obviously man created “God” not the other way. ’round. Before there was the patriarchal Judeo-Christian god there were other deities. Mono-theism is a rather new construct. Christianity is based on Judaism and Judaism is based on the Babylonian religion and on it goes backwards. Islam and Judaism share so many tenets I wonder why they are at odds with each other. Buddhism pre-dates Christianity. That’s just covering the major religions. Shinto is a multi-deity nature religion and I think most Native American religions can be considered nature religions as well even tho most have a Father and Mother head figure.
Religions were invented to explain the unexplainable, which 20,000 years ago was nature itself – birth, death, disease, weather…Women were the first deities because of the transformation mysteries (as they are called) – women bleed every month and do not die – OMG – literally.
I have to disagree with the idea floated that people don’t change religions – it is very common, converts abound. I chose ‘my’ religion when I was 8 – even at that age I detested the Roman Catholic Church, switched to Lutheran, then Congregational all by the age of 12. My family followed from church to church tho my mother always wanted to convert to Judaism.
Can you tell I studied comparative religion – LOL and this is a favorite topic of mine?
All of that said, I am a person of Faith – thankfully no one has given that Faith a name, there are no buildings and no rules and regulations. If I had to name it then I call it the Universal Intelligence.
(And I really don’t get the Jesus thing – the church I grew up in basically said “There’s you and there’s God, work it out between you.” )
There’s also Hinduism, the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans… one God just isn’t enough?
I wonder how much of the Judaism/Islam issue comes down to geography and too many people competing for too little area and overlapping holy sites.
This is a nitpick but to me it’s important: there is no such thing as “judeo-christian”. The two religions have nothing to do with eachother. The people who invented Christianity stole the books of the Jews and actively defiled them to make their own very antisemitic religion. A better term that means what you mean would be “abrahamic religions”. Again I didn’t expect you to know this by any means but I find it important to share, because it’s very offensive to Jewish people to be clumped in with their oppressors. I am not Jewish or Christian in fact I am an ex member of both religions.
I like the quote about the shoes! So very true, we all believe in something or someone and as long as that works for us that’s what matters.
I was pretty happy with that quote too!
The video was interesting and a bit erudite. Our head aches a little. Consider us social constructionist, too.
Not surprising that we find refuge in nature. When we think of the names of birds, we remember the names are human-made, like all language. A Robin by any other name would still eat worms 🪱 😂
We agree that people suck. Individual faith can seem beautiful to us. Organized religions (ie groups of people), though, seem male-centered, power- and money-focused at the top. This does not meet our needs for connection, compassion, choice. Are there any exceptions to our poorly researched and poorly worded observation?
Dunning Kruger comes to mind when religious spats arise.
We were raised a religion and rejected it. We tried another and rejected it. We will not affiliate. Nature is our connecting place. We don’t believe in afterlife as some sort of continuation of this life. Every May persist or be recycled but no everlasting life. Hell is the most preposterous fear mongerinf we ever heard of. Scaring little kids into compliance with religious tenets under threat of eternal torture. Makes us so sad 😭.
Original sin, likewise.
People, you are social beings by definition. Life existed long before these stories of god, etc.
The sun doesn’t actually rise or set each day. We spin around. It’s like dancing. We are often at our best when we are dancing in the sun or in the dark or any time.
I’ve been enjoying the dawn chorus lately. Such happy birds. Nature is wonderful. Guinea pigs will always be poop factories no matter what name they go by.
I’m not sure if wicca counts as a religion, but that could be an exception.
Great post! And thanks for the shout-out – that Carlin quote is great.
I have a million thoughts about religion, too, so I’ll try not to ramble too much. I guess I consider myself religious but, at the same time, I recognize it’s impossible to prove or disprove God’s existence (as you write). Also, though I was raised Catholic in a sort of half-assed manner, I don’t go to church or really practice a religion. I got sober in AA (and despite what they say, AA is like a religion unto itself), but I rarely go to meetings anymore.
I’m also fascinated by religion and God. For myself, I’m a believer in something rather than nothing, largely because it gives me a sense of purpose and helps me through hard times. However, organized religion kind of sucks and it’s because of what you write – people. Most times, organized religion has very little to do with God – it’s just a human institution.
For instance, the Holy Catholic Church recently re-decided that priests couldn’t bless the marriages of gay couples. What in the world does that have to do with God? Nothing. It’s simply a decision by a backwards-thinking human institution.
As for the problem of evil and suffering, yeah, that’s a big one. A lot of Christian apologists have tried to reconcile why God would allow such tremendous suffering in the world, and none of the arguments really make any sense. That’s a big one for me, too, but I tend to believe anyway, for whatever reason.
It does make me think of the Book of Job, though. God makes a deal with Satan to torture the hell out of Job, and at the end of the book, he offers no apology or explanation, pretty much telling him that he’s a weakling human and how dare he question God. Perhaps that’s the answer! Our human lives are just much more insignificant than we tend to think they are, and we’re mere specks of dust in the cosmic mystery.
Lastly, I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” (almost done) and I think you’d like it. It’s a concise summary of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam over the millennia they’ve been around. It’s not too long of a book and I learned a lot about how the idea of God has developed over time in the three religions. The biggest lesson is humans’ conception of God changes rather frequently to adjust with the times.
Sorry for the super-long response!
That book sounds really interesting; I’ll have to check it out!
It’s interesting that you say AA is almost like its own religion. It seems like a belief system more than any other kind of treatment for anything that I’ve ever stumbled across.
I wonder if the higher ups in the Catholic Church ever wonder if they’re going to start losing followers if they don’t get with the times.
Yeah, AA is strange in that way. It helped me tremendously, so I won’t rant about its negatives. But it can become very religious and there are quite a few people in the program that become fundamentalist about it. It’s all based on the history of how it started – in the 1930s, derived from a Christian evangelical group called the Oxford Group.
About the Catholic Church, I think they realize this, which is why Pope Francis was so popular for a while. But the old guard is pretty locked in and prob won’t budge.
Too bad. Maybe in a few more centuries.
I too have been wondering about many things I was taught to believe. I have felt robbed when my mother died at the age of 57.
I am a former Pastor and I have no answer. no answer that would pass the smell taste. why God(?) allows suffering.
The late Kathryn Kuhlman was asked, “why doesn’t God heal everybody?” Her response was simple and to the point. “that’s the first thing I will ask Him when I see Him”
What a good question at the end of your post, and I appreciate hearing your musings on religion and God!
I personally have had too many extraordinary experiences through prayer for me personally to deny the existence of God (and since I was praying to a perception of God I have through Christianity, that’s the religion I happen to believe in). But you’re talking about many of the same logical problems that I’ve been working through.
The difference, I think, is the conclusion we reach. I’ve concluded that God is good and loving and tries to do all She can to have as much good in the world (I alternate pronouns for God); yet, at the same time, sometimes the evil of some people unfortunately can be more powerful than even the goodness of God (so I am not convinced God is omnipotent). Jesus to me exists as the ultimate example of what it’s like to live a “Godly” life, even when faced with the most extreme adversity. Many other Christians would consider me a heretic, soooo…
I love that idea of alternating pronouns. And the idea of God as not entirely omnipotent would account for some of the elements of the Christian narrative that seem to have holes in them.
I do too! It’s also not an entirely radical or new idea either–do a search for “Julian of Norwich female God” and you’ll read a lot about how even a Catholic saint talked about “God our Mother.”
And yeah, there are a lot of holes in the Christian narrative in my opinion too. I used to try and reconcile all these contradictions, but I’m in a place where I try to let my beliefs be shaped by what I believe to be my own encounters with God more than anything else.
That makes sense.