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2 Comments | Nov 01, 2013

An Atheist’s Prayer

Oh, Lord, allow me to begin this potentially awkward conversation by directly and succinctly addressing the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. No, I do not believe in you. I do not believe you exist in any real corporeal sense (though I am prepared to concede acceptance of the concept of you). What I believe is that you are the fabrication (many different ones actually) of people desperately searching for answers that will enable them to make sense of a world they do not fully understand. Which is not to say I feel that I fully understand the world either, only that I choose not to resort to believing in supernatural entities in order to get my head around it. That said, if belief in you was simply a means of trying to get a grasp on a complex world, if that were the extent of it, I would actually be okay with others believing in you as an essentially harmless pastime. If only.

In point of fact, there are two main issues I have with you. One could be argued to not be altogether your fault. The second is, though, entirely on you. My first problem is all the bizarre and frequently destructive things believers have done in your name down through the years. Because of you people routinely act in sanctimonious and overbearing ways. They strive to frighten others into belief by repeating fairy tales about hell fire and damnation. They solicit money from people who can ill afford to give it. They argue incessantly about whose god is the correct one. In ages past they slaughtered animals in grotesque ceremonies. Today they use notions like human dominion and a presumably imminent second coming to justify abusing the planet we live on. And, most troublingly of all, people have spent the better part of their history persecuting, torturing, and murdering one another in your name. Even if I knew with certainty that you were real, I would still enthusiastically denounce you for this latter reason alone. Still, as unpleasant as all of these things are, it’s at least plausible that all this overzealous behavior on the part of adherents is not entirely your fault.

Which brings me to the second issue—human suffering. It is widely accepted by believers (of all faiths) that you are both omniscient and omnipotent. If the former is true, then you are aware of the millions of people who suffer and die needlessly every day here on earth. And if the latter is true, then it is within your power to bring an end to that suffering and death. The combination of which leads to only a handful of possible outcomes. Either you are not aware of all the suffering, meaning that you are, in fact, not omniscient, or you are aware and you either choose to let it continue (which would make you just plain mean spirited) or you are unable to stop it (which would mean you’re not omnipotent after all). I find all three of these potential outcomes grossly unacceptable and most certainly unworthy of any deity who aspires to command the reverence of the human race. Nothing personal—just putting all my cards out on the table here.

While the foregoing is easily sufficient justification for refusing to believe in you, there’s yet another aspect to this whole thing that bears some discussion. Despite everything I’ve said so far, it would, nevertheless, seem a reasonable hedge to espouse belief in you, especially given that a) no one can be truly certain of your existence (all assertions to the contrary notwithstanding) and b) the presumed consequences to me are not inconsiderable if, as I readily concede is possible, it turns out that I’m wrong about this whole thing. As I think through this, it occurs to me that my initial two reasons are less grounds for disbelief and really more grounds for not much liking you if, in fact, you are real. As for why I choose not to believe in the first place, it boils down to a simple lack of proof on your part and concomitant lack of faith on mine. And let me state here, for the record, that I readily accept the long-established logical maxim that a negative cannot be proven (i.e., that you incontrovertibly do not exist), which means I can be no more certain of your nonexistence than believers can be of your existence. Nevertheless, your manifest failure to make known your existence and to oblige me to instead rely solely on faith, demonstrates a degree of hubris and narcissism that is yet another reason to not like you much even if it does turn out that you’re real. Put simply, I believe in those things that can be directly observed and objectively scrutinized, both of which tests you fail profoundly and continuously. I should add, at the risk of sounding callous, that I am utterly unmoved by the fact that billions around the world do believe in your existence, or at least say that they do. Don’t take this the wrong way, but millions of people also used to believe that the sun revolved around the earth and that earth itself was flat. Humans have historically learned to apply science and observation to evolve in their knowledge and to outgrow manifestly nonsensical beliefs. Well, some of them have, at any rate.

I am, as I suggested above, enough of a realist to concede that I may be utterly mistaken about all of this. It’s conceivable—not terribly plausible, but at least conceivable—that you are actually real, and that there will come a time in the distant future when I come face to face with that inconvenient fact. If that tragic day should arrive, and if I am, prior to being sent on my way to eternal damnation, granted a moment or two to converse with you one-on-one, I will not hesitate to again bring up the numerous points raised in this prayer (on the chance that you never actually hear this attempt at communication). I’m sure, by the way, that you’ve been presented with all of these arguments plenty of times in the past, and I’m sure as well that you have your own reasons for carrying on the way you do. Don’t get me wrong—I totally get that it’s kind of cool to be mysterious and to want to test people’s faith and all that. It’s just that the idea of suspending all rationality and believing in the reality of supernatural beings and events simply because there happens to be a book that says they exist—well, there are plenty of books out there (not to be snitty in the middle of a serious conversation, but much better written books at that) that assert all sorts of strange things, but I don’t believe these things simply because I saw them in a book. I actually happen to be of the view that it’s a pretty senseless thing to believe in something simply because someone wrote it down or because some authority figure told you that you should believe in it, particularly when what you’re being exhorted to believe is in the supernatural realm and fails even the most basic test of plausibility.

So I guess what we’re left with is simply agreeing to disagree. If it turns out I’m right and you are nothing but a fantasy, then that means no one will have heard my prayer and my life will go on pretty much as it always has until I eventually shuffle off this mortal coil and end up in a box in the ground. If, on the other hand, I am horribly wrong and you’re really out there someplace (and you find the time in your no-doubt busy schedule to listen to my humble exhortation), then I hope you’ll have the decency to at least drop me some sort of sign to show that you heard my prayer. Though it may not have come across in this discussion, I’m actually a pretty open-minded guy and if I’m faced with the incontrovertible truth about a thing as important as this—well, let’s just say that I reserve the right to change my mind.

Thanks for listening and, really, give some thought to that whole believe-in-me-with-all-your-heart-even-though-I-offer-no-proof-whatsoever thing. We’re only human after all.




Pat Sharp 10:02 pm - 5th February:

Brian, I enjoyed your “atheist prayer” story. I am just beginning to read your works. Great to meet you today.


BKS 5:19 am - 11th February:

Thanks! You’ll find that I write quite a lot about religious topics, despite being a nonbeliever. I find the topic utterly fascinating.

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