Some observations on life
Is there a ‘god’?
My brief general beliefs as an atheist
Language is an amazing thing to have
Do I need to know the truth about life and the truth about the world around me?
Some important differences between the views of an atheist and someone with a religious outlook.
How can I be so sure that there is no god?
Some Observations on Life
We live in an amazing and fascinating world! There are so many interesting things that we each encounter or think about. We encounter other people of all ages, houses, large buildings, bridges, fences, rivers, the sky, clouds, rain, wind, sunlight, the sun, the moon, trees, flowers, animals, insects, seasonal changes in the weather, the ground, rocks, sand, water, the sea, education, speaking, writing, advertising, television programs, toys, warmth, coldness, air, balloons, roads, cars, trucks, trains, buses, aeroplanes, helicopters, jets, maps, books, stories, science, justice, sex, sport, games, history, knowledge, colours, painting, photography, research, sleeping, birthdays, breathing, eating, drinking, clothes, pencils, paper, chairs, beds, cutlery, electricity, sound, music, radios, radar, telephones, bread, death, sickness, walking, running, skipping, climbing, driving, the stars in the night sky, celebrities, dreams, and many, many other things. How do we make sense of it all?
Each one of us experiences a unique adventure, called life. We all experience different lives, and we will all extract different things from our lives. Even if we experience similar events, we all tend to extract different things from those similar events. Each one of us has different stories to tell, based on the different things we have experienced, the different collections of other people we interact with, the different values we place on things, and the different ways we will each process the things that happen to us. I want to present some parts of my story that I think could have positive value to others.
What is really important in life?
Obviously, one of the most important things in life is staying alive. We are born, we live for a certain amount of time, and then we die. A life for an individual organism consists of a single span of time only, after which that organism is then dead, or not alive. There is a lot of management required for staying alive. We need to constantly repeat a pattern of breathing in air, and then breathing air out. We need to regularly eat and drink. We need to keep our bodies warm, (within quite a small range of temperatures). Our heart needs to constantly pump blood to all parts of our body. We need to constantly filter out waste products from our blood and digestive systems, etc.
I believe one of most important things to do in life, is to try to understand the true nature of ‘life’ itself and the world we live in. With this understanding, we should be able to live with a greater sense of appreciation for what is really important in life, and what is not. Hopefully we can build our lives on a foundation of truth, rather than on a foundation of fantasy. I believe that human beings are sufficiently developed in their language, collective scientific knowledge, and reasoning skills to be capable of doing this.
Is there a ‘god’?
The most fundamental and important question for people around the world seems to be, “is there a god”? By using the term ‘god’ here, I am referring to the commonly understood definition of a god as being like a benevolent ‘fatherly’ creator figure who watches over all that is happening in the world; or, god being an omni-present creator of the universe that has an interest in watching over his/her/its seven billion odd people currently living on this planet, with the ability to change the events and outcomes of the lives of the seven billion odd individuals at its discretion.
At the heart of the question, "Is there a 'god'?", lies a desire to understand the truth about the nature of our lives and the nature of the world we live in. You only get one life – to understand the truth behind it is surely one of the big goals of life.
I also want to present my understanding of these questions early in my writing, because the understanding I have of these questions will ultimately ‘colour’ everything I write about (I use the term ‘colour’ here to refer not to the way I am trying to write about things I have experienced, but to refer to the way that differences between my understanding of life and your understanding of life may indicate some ‘colouring’).
There are many different beliefs about ‘god’ held by the seven billion odd people around the world. I know that the question of whether there is a god, or not, is a very sensitive and important one to just about every person who has ever lived. Even now, the number of people who consider themselves either Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Buddhist, or Calvinist, or Confucianist, or Hindu, or Jainist, or Shintō, or Sikh, or Taoist, or Zoroastrian, or an adherent of any other religion (and there are many more), constitutes the vast majority of people.
All religions describe a world view where there is at least one superior creator (referred to as ‘God’ or ‘Allah’, or something similar), and so followers must fundamentally believe in a world where ‘specially directed events’ occur at least every now and then. For example, one of the beliefs that Christians have is that one can request favours from one's superior creator, or be punished for inappropriate behaviour. The superior creator has the power to create anything they want and can direct particular outcomes for individuals that are at the desire of the superior creator.
All religions say that they are the truth, and that to follow their religion properly, you have to believe that religion to be the truth – you have to have ‘faith’ in that religion, that it is the truth. Unfortunately, this is a circular argument, and is not a genuine proof of their truth. All religions have differences from all the other religions. Obviously, not all religions can be the truth. Which one might have the truth, or some truth?
Most religions seem to be trying to offer a sense of meaning or overall purpose to believers’ lives. We are fragile living organisms. We only have one life. We live for a while and then we die. Every life requires a lot of management, and no one wants to believe that it is all done for nothing. However, if you want to know the truth behind life, you need to look beyond what you want to believe, and look for the truth.
We start our lives without any concrete facts or knowledge. We must learn about everything in the world we find around us. We are each influenced to a very large degree by the things our parents or guardians tell us. Throughout our childhood we might formulate some sense of the world as a combination of what we have been told, with reflecting on what we encounter. To gain a proper understanding of life, you need to look critically at the influences around you, especially those that are asking you to have ‘faith’ in them.
With that brief understanding set out, I am now going to jump to my answer to the original question, “is there a god?” My answer is that I am one hundred percent sure that there are no ‘gods’ (as previously defined). This is the most important piece of knowledge I can pass on to others. I know that it is the true answer to this big question in life. This knowledge means that I am labelled as being an atheist.
My brief general beliefs as an atheist
I believe that everything in the whole universe is only acted on (and has only ever been acted on) by the physical laws of nature. I do not believe in ‘supernatural’ events (events that occur outside the physical laws of nature).
I believe that we are born, we live for a certain amount of time, and then we die. During our life, we may or may not reproduce a new generation of our species. One of the fundamental goals of just about every living organism is to reproduce a new generation of the same species, so the line of life through that species continues.
My understanding of life can basically be taken from the books, “Cosmos”, by Carl Sagan, and the series of books starting with “Life on Earth”, by David Attenborough.
I believe that life on our planet started from the combination of compounds and physical environment that existed on our planet at around four billion years ago. Life started as complex molecules that were able to reproduce copies of themselves. Life developed very slowly over vast numbers of generations to develop through evolution (natural selection) a wider variety of forms with more and more complex structures. Humans developed in Africa from a common ancestor to apes, chimpanzees and humans. That ancestor developed from tree shrew type mammals, which developed through natural selection from earlier forms of life (back through reptiles, amphibians, fish, proto-fish, worms, etc.).
We, as living organisms, are part of the complex mix of all life on this planet. All life on this planet is related – related by the fact that all life on this planet uses DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid – a complex but stable form of molecules used for ‘genetic transmission of inherited traits’ [DNA from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD]), and related because all life forms developed via evolution from the same starting point. I don’t believe there is a ‘god’ (as previously defined) looking down on any life forms directing special favours, etc.
I don’t believe we are overseen by a benevolent fatherly creator figure with supernatural powers who is capable of directing changes to our lives. I don’t believe there is any after-life (an eternal existence of our ‘souls’ after we have died, in a place like the Christian concepts of ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’). I believe that when we die, as a ‘being’ that existed as a living organism, we no longer exist. Our body is just a lump of organic material, and proceeds to break down according to the laws of nature. As Phillip Adams (an Australian writer and commentator) suggests, to get an idea of what it will be like after we die, consider what it was like before you were conceived – there was nothing. The only things that you will ever experience are experienced during your life.
Interestingly, there are many other people who do not believe in a God (as previously defined). I have a book by Christopher Hitchens, titled “The Portable Atheist”, which is basically a collection of short written pieces discussing aspects of beliefs and atheism, from 47 different authors, including Benedict De Spinoza, Karl Marx, George Eliot, Charles Darwin, David Hume, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Ian McEwen, Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie, A. C. Grayling, and Christopher Hitchens. Apart from the people selected in this book, I am also aware of other high-profile people who call themselves atheists, such as Phillip Adams, Tim Minchen, David Attenborough, Ricky Gervais, and Ayn Rand. I am not trying to provide a huge collection of people to out-weigh the numbers of people who say they believe in one religion or another, but just want to point out that there are plenty of outstanding observers, researchers and thinkers amongst this group of people who consider themselves to be atheists.
Hitchens, C., The Portable Atheist, De Capo Press, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, USA. 2007.
Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.
Language is an amazing thing to have
You can not know exactly what another person might be thinking or understanding, because each one of us experiences a unique set of stimuli and experiences. However, communicating, chiefly through a sophisticated language is a very powerful way that we may have some acknowledgement of shared experience or shared understanding. What remarkable things our languages are!
We can share highly detailed events, experiences, stories and ideas. We can read stories, ideas and records made by other people, whether they are are still alive, or whether they lived thousands of years ago. We can write down our ideas, stories and observations so that others can experience them.
All languages are remarkably complex things to learn and use. They will all have grammar or rules that determine how different components are combined and used.
Do I need to know the truth about life and the truth about the world around me?
As a living organism, do I need to know the truth about life? What things do I really need to know about?
I now know that as a living organism, I don’t need to know the truth about life to get by, and I don’t really need to know much at all really. All that is vitally important to a living organism is how to continue living. I don’t need to know why breathing is important. I don’t need to know why drinking water is important. Our bodies take care of most things without us needing to know what is going on. I don’t really need to know how to reproduce. Most people go through life without knowing the truth about life, and the world around us. I suspect that most animals (such as frogs, ants, cows, dogs and birds) go through life without knowing the truth of their own existence.
But I do however want to know about many important things, because I am capable of understanding them, I wish to understand them (especially about the nature of life and the world we live in) and I want to know how to get the most from my life.
Some important differences between the views of an atheist and someone with a religious outlook.
Does it really matter what we may believe? Does it really matter if different religious groups are right or wrong? Let us consider the attitudes between a religious person and someone who calls themselves an atheist.
If you believe in a god:
Just considering a few facets of living, if you truly believe in a god that can make changes to people’s lives or to the world we live in, it will make you less likely to care about things like pollution, climate change, and the value of your immediate life, because surely a god can affect all of these in good time. If you believe in a god, then all you need to really consider is positioning yourself for an ‘after-life in heaven’ after your current real life. This ‘after-life in heaven’ is the big ‘purpose in life’ provided to people by most religions. This concept of after-life relies on people having ‘faith’ that it will happen after they die. However, no one can prove that there is an after-life. It would be a very bad joke for someone to forfeit their current life for a make-believe after-life. Yet I’m sure many people do.
If you genuinely believe in a god that can make anything happen, then your life is really just an amusement for the benefit of your god. Is the world around me a stage that is for the benefit of one or more onlooking gods? Am I here just to be an entertainment for a god or several gods?
If you believe in a god, then you may also have a perceived hierarchy of value seen amongst people – that some people are worth more than others because they are ‘better people’ as judged by the ‘representatives of their religion’.
If you don’t believe in a god:
However, if someone doesn’t believe in a god, they won’t be expecting any amazing miracles to help change the world’s climate, or be living expecting to go on to an after-life. They will be generally living to make the most of their current life, and current situation. Their decisions and actions will reflect their understanding that there is no super-human being that will make wholesale changes to the world based on received prayers, and the understanding that their current life is all that there is, and that it has a very high value.
There is a huge difference between these two views:
So even with these very brief outlooks, the question of whether there is a god or not is a big one that makes a huge difference to people’s lives. People who say they believe in a god are less likely to take responsibility for their actions, and less likely to care about the sustainability of their actions on others or their environment.
If one looks at the dramatic actions of some people with religious beliefs: there are those who are willing to blow themselves and others up, or kill themselves and thousands of others by flying airliners into skyscrapers. From the perspective of an atheist, these pathetic people have chosen to throw away their own existence and selfishly taken the lives of the other people around them. It is madness and highly immoral!
How can I be so sure that there is no god?
My certainty that there is no god basically comes from honestly combining my understanding of the world from scientific knowledge, with my own observations of the world.
The world makes excellent sense when looking at it from the understanding that science provides. Yes, science doesn’t have an answer to every possible question at this stage, but it does have answers to the big questions, and the knowledge it does provide gives an excellent understanding for the way the world is, without there needing to have any intervention from a god or other ‘supernatural’ event.
I am also very sceptical about the possibility of there being a compassionate god, capable of directing favours for some people who may be good worshippers, and yet allowing so many young innocent children to starve or get horrible diseases and die throughout the world. These young children can not be considered to be bad people requiring hideous punishment. I know of many adults who are total bastards to other people, who are much more deserving of the wrath of any god – but they largely just continue in their deceitful, opportunistic and anti-social ways. The behaviour of these people goes a long way to proving that there is no compassionate god out there overseeing the actions of people.
To thoroughly prove that there is, or isn’t a god will take a lot of writing, and I know, will still not convince anyone who is committed to a different belief to the one that I am presenting. They would always feel compelled to find some ‘technicality’ in the things that I present that they could not accept. However, I am extremely proud of having found out this vital piece of knowledge (it fulfils one of my life’s main goals), and I feel proud of being able accept this vital piece of knowledge, especially when it appears that the vast majority of people who have ever lived have not been able to. I also know that this knowledge has massive implications for the way I see my life and the world around me. Again, I would like to state that I know that my understanding and view of the world around me will ultimately ‘colour’ everything I write about.
I do suspect, from observing the behaviours of many people, that most people instinctively know deep down that there is no god, but they just do not want to accept that fact. That is what they show me with their behaviour, during times when they are free to make their own choices. They seem to want to have the concepts behind one religion (or another) give their lives an overall meaning – I believe this is something that most people strongly desire. I remember hearing one woman say quite sincerely and seriously, “I need a caring god”. I would have liked to say to that woman, “Well, you are not really looking for the truth then. You are just looking for a concept to cater for something that you feel you need (really just another circular argument), and that attitude is not going to help you find or see the truth.”
I do see that one could consider the mechanical laws of nature as being ‘god’ because the mechanical laws of nature are omni-present and do truly determine the outcome of every interaction of every atom and photon of light, etc. This is a true view of the world. However, the mechanical laws of nature do not need to be prayed to and they take no special interest in the lives of humans – the mechanical laws of nature can not really be considered to be a ‘god’ as defined earlier.
I believe it is important for everyone to take time to consciously look at the nature of their life and work out their beliefs. It is important to consider what is truth and what is just “what you would like to be truth”. It is fundamental to getting meaning out of your life.
We start our lives without any concrete facts or knowledge. We must learn about everything in the world we find around us.
I became aware of living as a child, as I’m sure most people do. I found myself surrounded by many amazing things, and I wanted to make sense of all of those things: parents, brothers, a sister, family, friends, relatives, grandparents, cousins, rooms, houses, cars, trucks, buses, trains, fruit, bread, meat, vegetables, peanut butter, trees, ants, butterflies, birds, shops, flowers, wind, rain, clouds, shade, sunshine, night-time, day-time, time, television, radio, government, books, magazines, stories, wheel barrows, screw drivers, shopping, money, school, etc., etc.
I trusted that I could find out about most of those things over time, from my parents or family, or learning at school, or by playing, or reading, or from other people (who might be specialists in their fields of study), etc. We trust that our parents know what’s happening all around us, and know how to help us flourish. We are each influenced to a very large degree by the things our parents or guardians tell us. Throughout our childhood we formulate some sense of the world as a combination of what we have been told, with reflecting on what we encounter.
I remember that when I was young (about 10-14 years old), I wanted to know “what is the truth?” and “what isn’t the truth?”, so that I could have a reasonable foundation on which to build my life. By this time I had already encountered a large number of amazing stories, including some that I knew were fiction (like the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) or just huge lies (such as Santa Claus visiting the houses of every child late in the evening of 24th December each year).
As a living organism, do I need to know about all those things? Do I need to know what the truth about life is? I now know that as a living organism, I don’t need to know about those things to get by, and I don’t really need to know much at all really. All that is important to a living organism is to continue living, to possibly reproduce, and then die. But I do however want to know about many things, because I wish to understand them (especially about the nature of life and the world we live in) and I want to know how to get the most from my life.
I spent considerable time and energy in my late teens and early twenties searching for a true understanding of life and working out my beliefs. As I have lived on through my twenties, thirties, forties, and now my fifties, I have constantly held my beliefs out to the things I have seen and experienced, to see if they still echo the truth that was first understood. Looking for truth about life has been one of the most important and rewarding journeys of my life.
To me, my search for truth about life has led to a better understanding of life, life’s priorities, of personal worth, a better appreciation of other people’s diversity, and of other influencing sources, like religions and governments, etc. To me, the understanding I have come to does give a good perspective of many aspects of my life. It means that my personal values are based on a foundation of truth, not fantasy. It provides a genuine perspective on the value I place on my own life, and on the lives of other people.
I can look back now and know that the true underlying beliefs of people underpin everything they actually do in life. What you truly believe will underpin everything you do, why you do it, and how you do it. If people have different beliefs, this will lead to different types of appreciation in everything that is done. We see it so often with two groups of people fighting each other, and each believing that they are doing ‘the right thing’, and typically feeling as if they have the full backing of their god. How can this happen? Well it happens regularly.
It is important to realise that someone’s true beliefs may be different to what they say they believe in. To properly consider what someone’s true beliefs may be, you need to look at what they actually do rather than what they say. I have observed that throughout much of my society (in Australia), there is a lot of deception projected by a lot of people. Many people are trying to get an advantage over others by saying things that are exaggerated or twisted, or just lies. They seem to think that if they say something is good, and they say it often enough, that other people will eventually just accept the things being said as if they are facts. Much advertising is based on such an approach. However, things look very different if you do not just accept what other people say but take note of what they actually do.
Very few people seem to have thought through the notion that if they truly believe in a god or religion, then there are important obvious implications which do follow from such beliefs. For example, if you truly believe in an omni-present god, then you should never try to deceive anyone or anything – because your deception will be instantly seen by your omni-present god. Yet I have regularly come across people who say they believe in an omni-present god, and they still try to deceive me or other people. To me, this says that they do not truly believe in their omni-present god. I know of so-called Muslim men who still think it is acceptable for them to drink alcohol, even though their religion states that they should not do so.
If you genuinely accept a religious code, and say that you are a member of that religion, you can not just pick and choose bits out of it as you think they should be applied. When looking at our true beliefs, we are supposed to be looking for the truth behind our lives and our world here, not just what we would like to be the truth under certain circumstances! I have heard of many Christian priests who have exploited their positions in their communities to take advantage of children in a variety of ways, including sexual abuse. Obviously, these priests do not really believe in their omni-present god! Do they think their omni-present god would look favourably on such behaviour? To me, it seems that most people only have a thin hold on their so-called “belief” in their god. Their beliefs seem to only have meaning under certain circumstances, such as during times of high vulnerability, or when it is felt to be advantageous for them to have such views. Many people seem to have a ‘compartmental’ structure to their beliefs. Some things are believed under certain conditions but not under all conditions. As stated earlier, when looking at our beliefs, we are supposed to be looking for the truth behind our lives and our world here, not just what we would like to be the truth!
I guess everyone starts with some metaphysical premises. One of the metaphysical premises I started with was that the “truth about life and the world” is always present, and is available to everyone, or everything (no matter what they are), and no matter their location, language, culture, race, age, or gender. Some may not be capable of determining the truth about the world we live in. The “truth about life and the world” is not deliberately trying to hide from anyone or anything – in fact it sits there constantly, and it can be picked up at any time (but you need to deliberately look for the truth). I always find it amazing that some people think you have to attend a certain church to be experiencing truth – or even that you have to belong to a specific religion (whether Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Islam, or whatever) to experience truth. Unfortunately most of our societies are based on these types of twisted views, and it is no wonder there is a lot of bloodshed in the name of one religion or another.
Another metaphysical premise I had was that my beliefs should be based mainly on my experiences, and not based mainly on other people’s spoken anecdotes or written words.
My starting premises, which I obviously believe are sound concepts to build on, are highly sceptical of all religions as possibly holding a proper understanding of the truth behind life and the world we live in, because religions are all only stories put together by some other people that basically say that “truth will be revealed to those who worship in a particular place or manner”. All religions are constructs of people’s minds, concerned mainly with people’s behaviour rather than with truth about our existence. And when you throw all of the religions away you are suddenly left with a bit of work to do - yes, you have to think all of the big questions out for yourself! Fortunately, you are also left with a different world as well. You see that religions are just a means of controlling large numbers of people. You find that you have the power to discover the truth. It is not locked away within the experiences of a small number of monks or other followers who lived centuries ago in some exotic paradise - you are responsible for understanding your own life. This seems to be a scary idea for a lot of people, because these people seem to want to avoid it and hope that it will go away. I see the fact that I have responsibility for understanding my own life as a comforting reality, and an absolute necessity for my sense of self.
I remember that once I put religion to one side, and considered life’s important questions without religion, that things looked so much clearer and simpler. And I liked the feeling that I had the primary say in any meaning behind my life.
Many people like to put their faith in what a lot of other people have accepted as a reasonable description of truth, because we are insecure living animals with an instinctive faith in being part of a large group for survival. One big problem with this approach when it comes to personal beliefs, is that there are many religions, each with huge populations of so-called ‘believers’, all saying that only they understand ‘the truth’, and that all of the other religions are false. Obviously, not all of these religions can be correct. Yet, as I have already said, they all have a huge following of people (some have a following of hundreds of millions of people). Does one then go with the religion with the most followers? Or does one go with a religion with a large number of followers that feels the most comfortable (with values perpetuated by a particularly influential local religion - a circular argument)? Maybe ‘safety in numbers’ is not really going to work here?
Your true beliefs are something that can not really be reached by any way apart from you wanting to take time to work them out, think them through, and face the truth being reflected in everything around you. True beliefs are not built up from just one conversation or from reading one person’s views (like mine!). The real beliefs that someone has will underlie all that that person does, and so are extremely important. So many people say one thing and then do another - because they are only blurting out someone else’s idea of beliefs and they do not really believe or understand those things properly deep down. I wonder whether it is a case of not really wanting to “look truth too squarely in the face”, because, yes, there are many things in our world that are extremely difficult to live with. And yes, it does require a certain amount of courage to face the truth – although I always thought that something like that was never going to be optional.
I have the power of my own life in my hands. This is so different to someone who finds themselves in a religion and must adhere to what they are told by their religious leaders. Many people see atheism (not believing in a god as defined earlier) as being a kind of emptiness, but I see it as facing the truth about our lives and the world around us. It is having a foundation of truth on which to experience life. To have such an understanding requires ‘vision’ and courage.
I know that I am an animal. I know that all people are animals. As animals, we have a whole lot of requirements that need to be met in order to continue our survival. We must each continue to breathe suitable air, eat and drink regularly, have our heart continually pumping our blood throughout our body, keep our bodies within a narrow range of temperatures, etc.
With my understanding that there is no “god”, when I do something, I know that I am ultimately doing it for myself, and not because I think I will go to ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ (after I die) if I do it. If something does not work out, I do not go around blaming my relationship with a god. It is realising that I provide the meaning in my life, through my understanding of the world around me. I choose what I want to value. I am the one who is ultimately responsible for my life. No other person or ‘being’ is responsible for my life. It is trying for a basis of truth instead of a basis of convenience or ego.