In recent years – years since I began writing this blog – I have come to realize that I do not believe in God. This is not a mere agnosticism; I believe that God does not exist. The idea of God once helped us make sense of the physical world in a way that it no longer does; the learned men and women who have studied living organisms have been most successful with a paradigm that has no need for a divine plan. Moreover the suffering of the world gives us active reason to disbelieve in God. It makes the idea of an omnipotent omnibenevolent creator seem almost absurd. There is no particular reason to believe an omnipotent being exists; if he did, he could not be omnibenevolent. He would likely be indifferent at best, evil at worst. Certainly not a being to worship or trust. I have become increasingly sympathetic to the drastic atheism of the Speculative Realist philosophers, who take their metaphors for existence from H.P. Lovecraft.
I have tended to think the non-design-based arguments for God’s existence are not taken seriously enough, and have defended them here in the past. But in the end I do not think they succeed. Anselm’s argument is a brilliant piece of reasoning, but it depends on a view of concepts that I do not share. If the very concept of the most perfect being requires that such a being exist, that must express an incoherence in the concept, not a necessity in reality.
Nor do I accept other arguments for God that I’ve toyed with here in the past: ibn Rushd’s First Explanation argument, or the related idea of God as value at the heart of reality. When we continue asking material explanations (what is this object made of, what is that “made of” itself made of, and so on), the explanations may take us down to quarks. When we get to “what are the quarks made of”, the answer seems difficult, but I have seen no reason to indicate it must be all one single substance, as ibn Rushd seemed to think it must be. And I think a similar logic goes for the other three Aristotelian explanations (aitia): it is not clear where explanations terminate, or even if they terminate, but there is no reason to postulate a single substance at the end. And so on value itself, while I do think it probably has a basis in actual existence, I would likely agree with a comment Ben made long ago that that existence has to do with the nature of humans, not with a divine source. I still have a great deal of respect for these arguments and find them profound and powerful, but in the end they do not convince me.
For all of this, though, I never call myself an “atheist”, as my grandfather did. To describe oneself as an “atheist” is to identify oneself with a particular community which I have no interest in belonging to. Certainly the snarky, arrogant, boorish behaviour of a Christopher Hitchens, let alone a Richard Dawkins, makes me eager to disassociate myself from such a group. That is not a sufficient point by itself, however; one should not judge any community by its worst members. I do not refuse to identify with Buddhism simply because of the existence of Wirathu.
The more salient reason: to identify as an atheist is to be hostile to “religion”, which I am not. I am a Buddhist, affiliated with a “religious” tradition that recognizes no God. (There are some Buddhisms, like Pure Land and Tiantai, whose practices and beliefs recognize a godlike entity as their focus. They are not my Buddhism. I have indeed found it helpful, as one Buddhist practice among many, to pray to a godlike being – but one who I don’t believe exists.)
And in many ways my identification with that “religion” is more important for me than the denial of God. That is not true for atheists. Even those atheists who proclaim a strong sympathy in Buddhism (like Sam Harris) do so while explicitly rejecting that in Buddhism which they take to be “religious”.
The attack on “religion” qua “religion” is an attack on tradition and history – since those are usually what constitute “religion”. It says nothing worth knowing comes from before the 18th century, and most knowledge of value comes well after that – most of it written in English.
It can also become an attack on self-cultivation. In the same teaching job where I grasped the seriousness of the problem of suffering, as a reason not to believe in God, I also gained more respect for Ecclesiastes’s grappling with the injustice of the world, and for the ways we could be improved by attempting to live up to biblical injunctions. The kinds of texts and practices typically called “religious” aim at making us better than we are, and that is something we desperately need, given all the problems with human nature. When we do not take our guidance from something larger than ourselves, we are much likelier to become self-absorbed brutes like Dawkins and Hitchens. I may meet the requirements for membership, but I have no desire to join their club.