By James Haught
James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.
I’m an atheist because honesty requires it.
I was born in 1932 in a little Appalachian farm town with no electricity or paved streets. It was the Bible Belt, but my parents never went to church. They sent me briefly to rural Sunday schools, and I remember trying to pray as a grade-schooler, but that soon faded.
As a teen, I landed a newspaper job and found myself surrounded by worldly cynics eager for trustworthy knowledge. They sneered at the stupidity of hillbilly preachers. Some reporters recruited me into a Great Books course, and I was amazed to learn how the finest minds through history had struggled to fathom a purpose of life, if any. The newspaper became my university.
My city editor was an H.L. Mencken clone who laughed at pomposity, especially that of backwoods religion. One day I asked him:
“You’re right that all this Bible-thumping is nonsense – but what is true? Why are we here? Why does the universe exist? Is there a meaning to life? What answer can an honest person give?”
He eyed me sharply and said: “You can say: I don’t know.”
Bingo. That rang a bell in my head that never stopped. I became convinced that the only honest approach is to admit bafflement. I saw that it’s dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that nobody can know. It’s untruthful to say you’re certain of gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons, miracles, messiahs, prophecies and other church dogmas when not a shred of real evidence exists. Therefore, preachers are the most dishonest people. A person of integrity doesn’t profess magical knowledge.
A friend told me I’m an agnostic, not an atheist. I disagreed and answered: “Do you think an invisible spirit rules the universe, listening to your thoughts, and will burn you forever because of them?” He replied: “Of course not.” So I said: “You see, we’re both atheists.”
Millions of Americans are in the same boat. They’re “functional atheists” because they don’t really think a supernatural god is watching them, waiting to punish them after death. The notion is absurd – downright silly when you think about it.
Maybe that’s why religion is dying in America, right before everyone’s eyes. Good riddance, I say. I hope supernatural beliefs shrink to a laughable fringe, an embarrassment to thinking people.
I think intelligence and education help erase religion. Researchers find that doubters are smarter than believers. Also, researchers say the average American I.Q. rises three points per decade (while tests are recalibrated to keep the midpoint at 100). As people grow more intelligent and educated, they leave supernaturalism behind.
The best argument against the existence of a god is what philosophers call “the problem of evil.” It goes like this: If an all-loving, all-powerful father-god created everything, why did he make breast cancer to kill women and leukemia to kill children? Why does he make earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and the like to slaughter thousands? Why did he design rapacious hawks to rip rabbits apart and constrictors to crush pigs? Only a monster would design those horrors. The problem of evil doesn’t disprove a wicked god – it just wipes out the possibility of a merciful one.
This insight was first discerned by Epicurus in Ancient Greece, in the heyday when the clash between science and religion began. Classical Greece was swamped by faith, with thousands of animals sacrificed to dozens of gods, and gullible folks giving wealth to oracles who spouted voices from gods, and “sacred wars” fought over the riches of oracles. But the first known intelligent thinkers began seeking natural explanations of phenomena, and science was born. The philosopher Prodicus declared: “The gods of popular belief do not exist.” Many such Greek rebels were tried for “impiety.”
In subsequent millennia, the brightest and best minds generally questioned holy dogmas, although it was dangerous. During the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne wrote: “Man is certainly stark mad; He cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.”
Ever since, outstanding “greats” mostly were skeptics. Examples:
Thomas Jefferson wrote, in an 1823 letter to John Adams: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
Ernest Hemingway wrote in the second chapter of A Farewell to Arms: “All thinking men are atheists.”
Today’s skeptical thinkers can be proud to be part of this brilliant record of honest doubt.
This essay appeared in American Atheist magazine – 2nd quarter 2018.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
Image Credit: James Haught.