10/10/2005                                                                                       View Comments

There is No God (And You Know It)

by Sam Harris

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings.

The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe -- at this very moment -- that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?


The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence -- and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend.

Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm “of biblical proportions” would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

As hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is -- and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion -- to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources -- is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

This is an excerpt from An Atheist Manifesto, to be published at www.truthdig.com in December.


Anonymous said...

I could not have said it better.
Whenever the media reports some contemptible comment of a survivor stating that they were saved by the Lord, while their neighbors perished miserably, it makes me want to puke! Whenever the media reports the doings of the Vatican with all its silly pomp and circumstance, I feel how overwhelmingly irrelevant such doings truly are. Yet I admit, I had to overcome a lot of reluctance to openly challenge the "believers." I think most people really don't believe; they maintain the fiction that they do, because it's good manners, or because they don't like to think about the ramifications of truth. The ones who really supress their doubts are the ones who want to beat others into affirming their shaky beliefs. They can't let doubt flourish because it would undermine their own "belief." It really takes moral courage to be an atheist. Speaking a few unpleasant truths is more shocking to some people than farting in public. Atheist Gal.

Anonymous said...

you must not sin and say the truth for it shall set you free.
read this and re read it untill you have understanding and understand the teaching of osirus and all the other gods. Jesus was copied from them and you must learn them to get into the kingdom of god, so get going read read read. Learn about jesuses birthday and how it is the same as all the other gods. You are my god, let me bow down and worship you all day, but you can take care of me, feed me..

LadySidhe said...

Hm. Maybe the deists are right, then...a Creator put it all here and then said, "you're on your own."

Rochester said...

The second "anonymous" is full of crap.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
tigg13 said...

Censorship need not be demonstrated only in the suppression of desenter's ability to express themselves, but also in the act of not allowing anyone else to be heard.

Case in point, anonymous's book-length posting. He appearently wanted to prove his point by not allowing anyone else room to post.

For those of you that didn't want to waste a whole afternoon and skipped to the end, let me summarize:

Anonymous is a true christian who wants to help all non-believers become brohers and sisters in christ. But, because he personally has nothing to say that would be convinsing, he has opted to cut and paste the longest postings from a different web-site (one where everyone invests a great deal of time and energy defending christianity) in the hopes that we would be so awed by this that we would instantly convert.

Now, I don't want you to think that I actually read his entire posting (I don't think any sane person would). But I did read enough of it to see that:

a. Almost none of it was anonymous's own words and therefore it is pointless to respond to him/her/it.

b. His/her/its sourses were all apologists who spend most of their time quoting other apologists so they are hardly unbiased or willing to look at the whole body of evidence.

c. Nowhere in his/her/its entire post does anonymous address Sam Harris' original topic.

Anonymous has simply posted an infomercial.

(Note to Webmaster: I know my posting would look silly if you were to delete anonymous's article, but please don't leave it on on my account.) :)

Rob said...

...Good grief! Almost every single detail in that book-length apologetic waffle was factually incorrect!

A truly instructive demonstration of how Christianity, though it claims to be "Truth" (with a capital T) is fundamentally, ideologically opposed to actual truth.

1. Many contradictory versions of various books of the Bible exist: "scribal accuracy" is a myth. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made this situation worse. For instance, apologists like to trumpet the fact that the Great Isaiah Scroll is almost identical to the Masoretic version, but they ignore all the other stuff that doesn't match (including alternate versions of Isaiah).

2. Apologists frequently lie about the number of early copies of the New Testament: from the 2nd century, a single fragment of the Gospel of John, about the size of a credit card. The number of medieval copies is irrelevant: there are, after all, millions of copies of many ancient works now in circulation.

3. There are many errors in the Bible: contradictions between different books of the Bible, and contradictions between the Bible and reality. Too many to describe here. Coming up with a "solution" to one of them won't make the others go away.

4. The Genesis creation accounts are, of course, false. Even the sequence of "creation events" is wrong (birds before land animals etc).

5. Numerous Biblical prophecies have utterly failed. Indeed, while it would be reasonable to expect some prophecies to succeed by chance alone, the overall success rate is low. Apologists like to inflate the count with "prophecies" written after the event, out-of-context verses never intended as prophecy, and so forth. There is also the issue of Gospel authors writing unverifiable "prophecy fulfillments" into their stories.

6. Ther inclusion of real places, people and events in Bible stories isn't evidence that those stories are true. I have been to London: therefore James Bond is real?

7. Luke's Jesus was born at least a decade after Matthew's Jesus. The story of the "Quirinius inscription" is apologetic falsehood. During Herod's reign, Varus was governor of Syria, and Quirinius was in Turkey. This contradiction is irreconcilable.

8. There was no "Virgin Birth prophecy". This was concocted from an out-of-context misquotation of a mistranslation in the Greek Septuagint (and its fulfillment would, of course, be unverifiable anyhow).

9. Early versions of the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of the canonical gospels) don't even include a physical resurrection: merely an abduction. The body has vanished, The End. See above about multiple versions of books.

And anyone relying on Josh McDowell has some serious problems.

believer_^1^_MSA said...

why question, why not just believe?
think about it, its all about believing, its something that you haft to walk blindingly too. but theres someone holding ur hand threw it all, jesus christ is there always i will not let any words or what people may think, make me faulter in believing in him.

Astreja said...

believer_^1^_MSA: "why question, why not just believe?"

Speaking for myself, I cannot and will not force myself to believe in something just for the sake of holding a belief. For one thing, any view that I hold has to appeal to me in some way. I find the mythology of Christianity extremely distasteful, particularly "Original Sin" and substitutionary-atonement human sacrifice. I do not consider the religion to be moral or inspiring. In short, I have no desire to try to believe in such things.

But, if I did make an attempt at "believing" something I don't even like, my unconscious mind would know better. I know very well that I don't believe, and my own brain will preserve that knowledge despite my worst attempts to overwrite it with an ancient fable.

And one does *not* want one's own mind at odds with itself. That road leads straight into madness. Not mere religious delusion, but outright insanity from irreconcilable cognitive dissonance.