Many people find it hard to accept that anyone is really an atheist. When the going gets tough, they think, the tough get praying. There are no atheists in foxholes. I suppose that last part may be true. Most of the atheists I know would rather find an alternative to fighting, if at all possible, while many religions have made a fetish of dying for your beliefs. And, statistically, atheism is fairly unusual, so it’s likely that not many atheists find themselves in a foxhole, especially outside the context of a World War, like the two that consumed the first half of the 20th Century.
Still, people look at you funny if you say you don’t believe in a god. Not that I say it all that often, and not generally unprompted. Atheism isn’t something I advertise. I don’t feel any need to proselytize in the name of… well, of no one, of nothing. I don’t really want to convert anyone to doubt.
But believers often want to convert me to faith, or to convince me that I really do believe in something, and that that something is really juts another name for a god. And not just any god, but their God. After all, as Ricky Gervais likes to point out, there are thousands of gods, and most religious people only believe in one of them, and disbelieve in the rest; I just happen to disbelieve in one more than they do. Or don’t. Whatever.
Frequently the something they try to convince me I believe in is science. This seems funny to me, and shows they don’t really understand what science is. What science isn’t is a system of beliefs. What science is is a method of proving (or, more often, of disproving) hypotheses about the world. It is a useful method for developing our understanding of natural or physical phenomena, and has led to a great many technological advances (although technology, contrary to popular belief, is not the same thing as science).
There are, of course, things I believe for which I have insufficient or no proof at all, although I tend to view these beliefs as hypotheses. I don’t, however, believe these things religiously. If someone were to provide proof that I’m wrong about them, I don’t think I would have much trouble changing my mind. I’m not speaking, here, only about scientific proofs/disproofs. This could be (and often is) more a matter of philosophical persuasion. That was the case when I stopped believing in gods.
I was brought up in a religious family, as an Anglican (the Canadian version of Church of England, Episcopalian, etc). All my early life, I was trying to find ways to think about god that made sense to my young mind. When I was very young, for example, before I started school, I imagined that the bright light at the centre of a light bulb was god. Even then, I wanted some evidence that the being in the Sunday school stories was more than just an idea. Much later, it was the problem of evil that ended my faith for good. The question if god is all powerful, all knowing, all good, and the creator of everything, how is there evil in the world? didn’t seem to have a reasonable answer. It still doesn’t. I don’t buy the ‘free will’ argument, that god is just letting us choose. My will would be no less free if all the options I had to choose from were good. Also, it still doesn’t explain the origin of evil.
That problem, of course, is specific to Semitic or western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a polytheistic world view, or one in which the creator god is not all good. Those have other issues, that western religions share, such as how gods interact with the physical world and its laws, such as conservation of matter and energy.
It may be that I am wrong. That there is a god, or many gods. Perhaps even the one worshiped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I doubt it, but that possibility exists. If I am proven wrong in my atheistic hypothesis, I will acknowledge it and change my mind. (Continuing to believe something that’s proven wrong is just idiotic.) But in the meantime, rest assured I will not try to convert any religious folk (including my family) to my point of view, and I hope I can expect the same treatment in return.