The following is adapted from Clay Farris Naff’s remarks when invited to speak on atheism at a liberal church in the city where he lives on November 3, 2019. —Eds.
Thanks. I’m here in a private capacity to share my views, and the first that I want to share is my great respect for First-Plymouth Church and for its ministers, for stepping out of the pulpit and into the community to have this daring but much needed conversation.
So, why am I an atheist? Let me begin at the beginning. I was born an atheist … just like all of you. I remain an atheist because theism is a demonstrably false and harmful set of beliefs.
Let me be clear: theism is not the same as faith. It’s not identical with belief in a creator. Rather, theism—as I understand the long-held consensus—tells us that the world is governed by a supreme being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good.
Before I show why I reject that false and harmful set of claims, let me affirm: you don’t have to be a theist to have faith; you don’t have to be a theist to have religion; and you can certainly lead a moral and meaningful life without theism. Let’s see how.
Is it possible that God created the world and left it to run like clockwork? Sure. That belief, known as deism, was hugely influential during the Enlightenment. Is it possible that there’s a loving god who cares about us but cannot intervene in human affairs? Sure. Rabbi Harold Kushner argued that in his bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People—written after his son died of a horrible genetic disease.
Could there be some other kind of intentional creator? Sure. In 2011, I published a secular case for intentional creation in a Scientific American blog, and I later elaborated on it in my 2012 book Free God Now! But that’s just me. There’s a long tradition in America of faith without theism.
Our Founding Fathers were, by and large, deists rather than theists. And, quite frankly, many Christians today are not truly theists. They are, instead, what I call people of good faith.
Good thing, too. Theism is clearly untrue. If an omnipotent, loving god ruled the world, children would not die of measles … or cancer … or Tay-Sachs … or starvation. People wouldn’t be killed in earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and so forth.
Or if, as some claim, these natural evils serve some “hidden higher good,” we could at least expect them to be more selective in their destruction. Instead, infectious diseases strike the unvaccinated rather than the unbaptized. Natural disasters kill and maim with no moral pattern at all. On the contrary, until Ben Franklin’s lightning rod came into wide use, churches were especially liable to be struck by lightning … not because of sin or false doctrine but because of steeples. Many churches at first refused to install a lightning rod on the ground that it would show a blasphemous mistrust of God. I trust that this church has one—especially since you’ve invited me to speak here.
Now, apologists try to argue that such evils are entirely our fault. Until Adam bit the apple, they claim, it was a perfect world out there. Only it wasn’t. What was a serpent doing in the Garden of Eden? Why did a morally perfect god make morally flawed human beings? Is being good and decent somehow incompatible with free will? If not, then why not create angels in the first place? The claims of theism make no sense.
But who cares? If people draw comfort from believing there’s a big guy in the sky watching over them, answering prayers, and letting his plan unfold, well, where’s the harm in that?
My friends, it is everywhere. Theism licenses dogmatic beliefs. And for some people, that means placing terrible ideas and terrible deeds beyond the reach of reason, criticism, or compassion. Ideas such as “God hates fags” … or Jews … or Muslims … or Yezidis … or Rohingya.
Of course, only a tiny minority of people actually kill because of religious beliefs these days. But theism causes other widespread harms. The Catholic Church’s dogmatic campaign against condoms has added to millions of AIDS orphans in Africa. Abstinence-only policies here have led to the lasting misery of unwanted teen pregnancies.
The dogmatic interpretation of Islam has kept millions of women in bondage and ignorance. Theism encourages millions of people to believe we don’t have to worry about preserving the planet because “God has a plan.”
But all of science shows us that’s just not true. Humankind is engaged in the wholesale destruction of the forests, oceans, and other living systems that sustain us. Our burning of fossil fuels is driving climate change like a runaway freight train. Will God step in at the last moment? The answer is almost surely no.
How can I say that? Because there is no credible evidence of divine intervention in the entire history of the universe, and because experimental physics has demonstrated over and over that energy is conserved, and at the quantum level, everything is contingent on random fluctuations. There are no hidden variables. No miracles. No divine plan unfolding.
Does this mean we’re doomed? No, but it does mean that we must let go of illusion and false hope. We must act in our common interest to save ourselves.
I am an atheist because it’s clear to me that theism is bogus. But that’s just the starting point; in motion, I am a humanist. It’s in my relations with my family, friends, and all of humanity that I find a rich and meaningful life. Like all of you, I have moral instincts. They are far from perfect, and I often fall short of my own ideals. But I don’t need a fear of hell or a belief in the afterlife to motivate me to be good. And frankly, I don’t believe you do either.
Doing my best to be helpful, loving, kind, and constructive makes me happy. It fulfills me. As for meaning, I know I have only a short time to do what I can to make a better world here and now. That’s meaning enough for me.