Ben Watkins: Why I Am an Atheist

I recently asked my friend Ben Watkins, a contributor to the Real Atheology Podcast, to write an article explaining why he is an atheist. Why did I ask him to do this? I think it’s important that we Christians step out of our comfort zone and closely examine the arguments against our beliefs. We don’t want to live in a bubble–it does no good to avoid thoughtful objections. In this article, Ben explains why he is an atheist, giving several arguments to that effect. Take some time and work through it. Don’t skim and brush it aside. Take it seriously. Think about it, ask questions, and comment. Btw, I’ve asked Dr. Mike Almeida to pen a response that will be published at a later date.

Some people are atheists. This claim raises at least two questions. The first is what is meant by this claim? The second is what reasons are there to think this claim is true? Since these are fair questions anyone who takes on the label of atheist should have answers for them. That is what I will layout here. It turns out the first question is straightforward, but the second will require argument. As an answer to the first question, atheism is the denial or rejection of all gods. Atheism is contrasted with theism or the belief there is at least one god. When some people deny or reject theism they merely mean they lack the belief or are absent a belief there is at least one god. This overlaps with our ordinary sense of the term non-theism. We can say these people are atheists in a non-theist-implying sense. Historically, the ordinary sense of atheism has been understood to mean the belief there are no gods. We can call this stronger denial or rejection of theism the belief-implying sense. This stronger sense allows us to clearly distinguish between views by asking, does at least one god exist? If we believe the answer is Yes, then we are theists, and if we believe the answer is No, then we are atheists. If we believe the question is indeterminate or otherwise unanswerable, then we are agnostics. Atheists and agnostics are both non-theists as both lack the belief there is at least one god. Since I’m not merely a non-theist, I will focus my discussion to why I’m an atheist in the stronger, belief-implying sense. I want to answer my second question by giving reasons to believe there are no gods. This question is where my journey to atheism began.

Religious Skepticism

I grew up in a Christian home and regularly attended worship services. Though I was never a particularly devout believer, I did take for granted the religious beliefs of my upbringing and only ever flirted with doubting them. It was not until my mid twenties when I began to seriously reflect on the question of god’s existence. Who is more likely to be getting things right? Theists or atheists? One of them must be right because they are exhaustive and mutually exclusive possibilities. Whose opinions are based on better reasons and evidence? Who has been less good in judging what the evidence gave them reasons to believe? Have atheists or theists deceived themselves or been misled by some distorting influence? Who should we believe is responding to reasons correctly and who is merely rationalizing their beliefs?

Before I could attempt to answer any of these questions, I had to understand what it was I actually believed about the existence of a god. I was at least a minimal theist or theist in a broad sense because I believed there was at least one disembodied mind of religious significance. I was a perfect being monotheist or theist in a narrow sense because I believed there was exactly one maximally perfect disembodied mind always worthy of our worship. I was a Christian theist who believed the god of the Bible was the only maximally perfect disembodied mind always worthy of our worship. When I began to seriously reflect on my religious beliefs, I found them challenged by the incredulity of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens,

In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25 years, dying of their teeth. Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years. Heaven watches this with complete indifference. And then 2000 years ago, thinks ‘That’s enough of that. It’s time to intervene,’ and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East. Don’t let’s appeal to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization. Let’s go to the desert and have another revelation there. This is nonsense. It can’t be believed by a thinking person.

This sort of challenge resonated with me because for years I had struggled to make sense of what I read in the Bible. What I previously took as problems to solve had suddenly become reasons to doubt. Documentaries like The Atheism Tapes shook my Christian theism to its core, and documentaries like The Case for Christ did little to ease my growing religious skepticism. How much were my religious beliefs in tension with my scientific and ethical beliefs? Did religious skepticism help resolve any of these tensions? Should I give up theism, or would my religious beliefs survive religious skepticism and be vindicated?

Science and the Supernatural

I first aimed my religious skepticism at miracle or otherwise supernatural claims. Since my Christian beliefs were a collection of supernatural miracle events, the question of how confident I could be such events really took place became of crucial importance to me. Alleged miracle events could, in principle, validate my religious beliefs. Miracle events are a suspension of or intervention in the laws of nature. By laws of nature I mean the causal regularities or principles we have confidently established by our best methods of science. Miracle events are in tension with science, and we are not so confident in our methods of establishing them. Eyewitness testimony and oral traditions are prone to error, exaggeration, and deception. 

(1) The evidence for any familiar miracle event is weaker than the evidence for our best scientific theories.

And,

(2) Familiar miracle events conflict with the implications of our best scientific theories.
(3) We should have more confidence in claims we have better evidence for.

Therefore,

(4) We should have higher confidence in the implications of our scientific theories than we have in any familiar miracle event.

We have more reason to believe the universe is a causally closed system working in accordance with non-intentional, natural laws than we do to believe the causal order is intentionally suspended from the outside. If this is right, then our best scientific theories imply miracle events probably do not happen. In other words, dead people probably do not come back to life, people are probably not born of virgins, and water probably cannot spontaneously turn into wine. Insofar as religions make claims about supernatural interventions into the causal order studied by science, those claims will always have to compete with the confidence we currently have in our scientific theories and their implications. When we are faced with claims of miracle or otherwise supernatural events we have to ask ourselves a question: Have the laws of nature been suspended in favor of some group of religious authorities or has some other mistake been made which does not conflict with our best scientific theories? The latter is more plausible.

Ethics and the Bible

New atheists did not limit their criticisms to doubting miracle claims and the supernatural. They went on the offensive and challenged Christian theism on ethical grounds. I became increasingly aware of how many of the events and actions described in the Bible were in tension with my most basic moral intuitions.

Noah’s Flood

Putting aside the extraordinary nature of such a flood story, the scientific complications of accepting it as an actual event, and the practical impossibilities of building an ark, I could not make any moral sense of how a wholly good and perfectly loving being could kill all but a handful of human and non-human creatures. Did the dignity of these people matter at all? What about the suffering of non-human animals? If such a world was not worth preserving, then why was it worth creating in the first place?

Commands of Genocide and Endorsements of Slavery

How could a wholly good and perfectly loving God command soldiers to slaughter men, women, and children while taking others for slaves? I believe the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, and the ownership of other persons morally objectionable. Any being with this character and having performed these actions could not possibly be wholly good and perfectly loving.

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin implies finite beings are (somehow?) ethically blameworthy for Adam and Eve abusing their free will. But it does not make any ethical sense to suggest we could somehow be responsible for actions we did not perform. Why do we deserve to live in a fallen world if we did not previously understand good from evil (and presumably right from wrong)? Why didn’t God create finite persons such that they always freely choose rightly, thus, avoiding original sin altogether? Why not create a heaven-like world from the start?

Vicarious Redemption

The notion Jesus can somehow bear the responsibility of our sin by willingly being crucified and resurrected also does not make any ethical sense. If we are genuinely responsible for our actions, then someone else cannot absolve us of that responsibility. Why was Jesus’ crucifiction even morally necessary? Could not an unsurpassably merciful God simply forgive mankind of their sin without a human sacrifice?

The Problem of Hell

Why does God’s justice demand eternal punishment for finite transgressions? How can people deserve to suffer in ways such as eternal separation from God or eternal conscious torment in fire? How could a wholly good and perfectly loving God create finite persons for the purpose of relationship, yet orchestrate the circumstances of their eternal, irreversible condemnation thus making relationship permanently impossible?

When I put these questions squarely before myself, it was plain I could not satisfactorily answer them without some extensive rationalizations. I found myself believing,

(5) Acts and attitudes of the god of the Bible cannot be immoral.
(6) The Bible is a divinely inspired and generally reliable account of the acts and attitudes of the god of the Bible.
(7) The Bible describes a god causing, condoning, or commanding immoral acts and attitudes.

I could not keep all of these beliefs because they formed an inconsistent triad. If I accepted any two propositions, then I could deduce the falsity of the third. I had to give up at least one. (5) is implied by the conjunction of perfect being monotheism and Christian theism, (7) seemed true to me on a common reading of the King James Bible, but there is an obvious alternative to (6). I could instead believe,

(6*) The Bible is not a divinely inspired nor generally reliable account of the acts of the god of the Bible, because Christian theism is false.

Perhaps someone like Hitchens was right and Christians were making some mistake when they accepted the Bible as a divinely inspired and generally reliable account of the acts and attitudes of the god of the Bible and his purposes for us. Perhaps these are merely historically contingent stories invented by superstitious humans as a byproduct of other cognitive mechanisms with survival advantages e.g. agency detection. Or perhaps some other theistic tradition is closer to the truth e.g. Islam or Hinduism. My religious skepticism pushed me out of the comfort of my own religious tradition and into the landscape of competing religious beliefs.

Widespread Religious Disagreement

What sort of consideration could count in favor of theism? I have always believed the best evidences for particular religious beliefs must be first-person experiences like revelations. People’s deepest and most intimate religious beliefs obviously arise from their immediate religious experiences. Nothing could be more of an immediate religious experience than a revelation. I have not had any cogent religious experiences, and this fact deeply worried me. If there is a perfect creator with a common purpose for us, then the shared revelation of that purpose would count strongly in favor of theism. Such an intersubjective experience would invite widespread consensus about the nature, content, and significance of that revelation. But that is not the case. Not everyone has theistic religious experiences, and most subjects of religious experience disagree about the fundamental nature, content, and significance of religious experiences. We can call this the problem of inconsistent revelations. These inconsistent and competing religious beliefs could not all be true. Most of them must be false. If that’s the case, then we know most people through time have, in fact,  systematically deceived themselves or have been misled by some distorting influence when it comes to their religious beliefs.

Additionally, those who do have theistic religious experiences are almost always primed either by a prior belief in theism or extensive exposure to theistic religious traditions within a certain culture. This makes religious beliefs geographically and temporally predictable. We can call these facts the historical contingency of religious beliefs. Any true religious framework would play an integral role in the external understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and the life we ought to live. But there is no such religious consensus about such explanations or forms of life. In fact, the most widespread consensuses in science and ethics are secular. They make no reference to religious traditions nor do they make any use of theistic assumptions. We can call these facts the success of secular sciences. God’s perfect goodness is a reason to believe theists would live significantly more moral lives than non-theists, because worshiping God would be a source of moral strength not available to non-theists. Moral intuitions vary dramatically on important moral issues such as war, abortion, the death penalty, religious violence etc. People pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, and none of them seem to bear abundantly more moral fruit than any other. We can call this the problem of moral disagreement. Our concept of a perfect being implies a concern for the religious content of our beliefs and the moral value of our characters and acts. But if we assume theism is true, then it seems as if God has inconsistently or inaccurately revealed what He wants us to believe and how He expects us to act. By contrast, if atheism is true, then there is no disembodied mind who cares about the content of our religious beliefs nor the moral worth of characters and acts. Widespread disagreement about the nature and significance of experiences which do not correspond to a shared objective reality is not surprising if atheism is true. I concluded facts about widespread religious disagreement count in favor of atheism and against theism.

Special Creation and Biological Evolution

As my religious skepticism grew, my focus shifted from religious disagreement to human origins. God had played the role of creator in my worldview, but if God might not exist, then where could we have come from? I had previously believed humans were specially created by God in a single creation event. However, according to biological evolution, complex and conscious life forms are the gradually modified descendants of relatively simple life forms. Human beings and all other life on Earth are the products of the long, inefficient, and inevitably cruel history of the universe since the big bang. We are made of stardust and descended from bacteria over billions of years of natural selection. Why would a wholly good and infinitely resourceful God choose to create humans through such a long, inefficient, and inevitably cruel means? Theism gives us reason to believe human persons are special in creation because we were supposedly created in the image of God for the purpose of relationship with Him. So the non-intentional process of biological evolution makes little sense. Our experiences of pain and those of other non-human animals are systematically connected to the biological goals of survival and reproduction and not to a relationship with God or moral growth. Additionally, 99.98% of all species which have ever lived are now extinct because all living beings are in savage competition with one another for limited resources. In the state of nature, survival is the exception and extinction is the rule. If we were to infer facts about a creator god who used biological evolution as a means to create, then we would infer an indifferent god, a tinkering god, or perhaps a malevolent god but not the God of perfect being monotheism. On the other hand, if atheism is true, then there is no perfect disembodied mind who creates us for a purpose. Something like biological evolution must be true if atheism is true. I concluded facts about biological evolution counted in favor of atheism and against theism.

The Problem of Evil

Considerations about the inevitably cruel process of biological evolution points us towards perhaps the most serious challenge facing perfect being monotheism. The problem of evil for theism is the tension which arises between the properties attributed to God and facts about the kinds, amounts, and distributions of evil in our world. The biological role of pain ensures our world is full of suffering, and the distribution of it appears mostly random. 99.98% of species which have ever existed are now extinct because sentient creatures are in savage competition with one another for limited resources. Some people even suffer so horrendously they lose themselves entirely. They come to believe their lives are, on the whole, not worth living. Why would a perfect being create a world full of so much seemly random evil like human and non-human animal pains, natural disasters, and circumstances of injustice? These facts about suffering seem in some way incompatible with an infinitely powerful and wholly good person. What reasons could such a being have for allowing evil? God might use some evils as a means to achieve some greater good or as a means to prevent some evil equally bad or worse. We can call evils which achieve neither of these goals pointless evils.

(A) An all-powerful God has the ability to prevent or eliminate all pointless evil,

and

(B) A wholly good God would be maximally motivated to prevent or eliminate pointless evils.

Therefore,

(C) Perfect being monotheism implies a God-created world would contain no pointless evil,

So it must be the case either,

(D) There has never been any pointless evil, and all seemingly pointless evil is illusory.

Or

(E) There has been at least one pointless evil. Most evil seems pointless because it is pointless.

I found (D) implausible. The agony of being eaten alive, the terror of being raped, and the anguish of losing a child to disease really do seem pointlessly evil, and we have no reason to believe them necessary for achieving any greater good or preventing some evil equally bad or worse. Our world would be, on the whole, much better if there was less evil in it. However, (E) is just what you would expect given the non-intentional process of biological evolution, the indifferent laws of nature, and finite creatures with limited altruism. Appearance and reality about pointless evil would coincide if atheism were true. But if (E) is true, then it follows,

(F) Perfect being monotheism is false.

I concluded facts about seemingly pointless evil strongly counted in favor of atheism and against theism.

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

As my journey continued, my religious skepticism eventually eroded my belief in God. The god of perfect being monotheism began to seem indifferent, distant, silent, and hidden. Eventually, I no longer believed there was a perfect being and this lack of belief or absence of belief was not the result of emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with Him. I had become a non-resistant nontheist. So why was God’s existence not more obvious to me? A wholly good and loving God would create a world of finite persons such that anyone could enter into relationship with Him simply by trying.

(G) God’s perfect goodness and perfect love imply He would always be open to relationship.

God’s openness would ensure no action He took put relationship out of reach of finite persons. Additionally, a belief God exists is a necessary condition for entering into a meaningful and positive relationship with Him, so all non-theists must be resisting God in some way.

(H) If God is always open to relationship, then every finite person believes God exists unless they are somehow resisting such a belief.

Therefore,

(I) If perfect being monotheism is true, then there are no non-resistant nontheists.

Former theists like myself were already in a relationship with God and a loss of belief terminated that relationship. Some lifelong seekers are open to finding or being found by a perfect being without ever achieving that goal. Additionally, isolated nontheists have never even been in a position to resist belief, because they’ve never had the idea of a perfect being. Consequently, isolated non-theists unavoidably live their entire lives within the influence of a fundamentally misleading system of religious meaning. So since clearly,

(J) There are non-resistant nontheists.

It follows,

(K) Perfect being monotheism is false.

I concluded facts about non-resistant non-believers strongly counted in favor of atheism and against theism.

The Physical Dependence of Minds

After several months of reflection I became convinced it is much more likely perfect being monotheists have been making some mistake. All their claims about God are false. But what about a minimal theism? What if there is at least one less than perfect disembodied mind? I soon learned five facts which made me doubt the plausibility of a disembodied mind,

(i) When an individual’s brain is directly stimulated and put into a certain physical state, this causes the person to have a corresponding mental experience.
(ii) Some injuries to the brain make it impossible for a person to have any mental states at all.
(ii) Some injuries to the brain destroy various mental capacities. Which capacity is destroyed is tied directly to the particular region of the brain that was damaged.
(iv) When we examine the mental capacities of animals, they become more complex as their brains become more complex.
(v) Within any given species, the development of mental capacities is correlated with the development of neurons in the brain.

These facts give us reason to believe all mental activity probably has a physical basis in embodied brains. We cannot infer mental states are identical to brain states from these fact, but they do give us reason to believe mental states are at least causally dependent on complex physical structures. This inference is also consistent with the causal closure of the universe and seems to be implied by the conservation of energy. I reasoned,

(L) All known mental activity has a physical basis in embodied brains implying disembodied minds probably do not exist.
(M) Minimal theism implies the existence of at least one disembodied mind.

Therefore,

(N) Minimal theism is probably false.

I concluded facts about about the apparent physical dependence of minds counted in favor of atheism and against theism.

Conclusions

In the end, I made a full transition from theism to atheism. My journey began with religious skepticism towards miracles and some events described in the Bible. I was much more confident in secular science and ethics. I then journeyed through the landscape of religious disagreement, the inefficient and cruel process of biological evolution, the problems of evil and hiddenness, and finally the physical dependence of minds. These are among some of the reasons why I am an atheist in the belief-implying sense. Admittedly, I did not give a serious consideration of the arguments for theism here. This piece is written under the assumption there are no successful cases for theism to be made. But that is certainly controversial. Any adequate defense of atheism would need to address the leading arguments for theism which I cannot do here.

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Jessica Wade
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Jessica Wade

How can you question such? I would love to talk to you because God has moved in my life in tremendous ways. Please, email me back! Thanks!

Mitch Devonshire
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Mitch Devonshire

Hi Jessica, if I heard how your god has moved in your life, and then also heard how a different god has moved in someone else’s life, how could I tell who is correct and who is mistaken?

Jessica Wade
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Jessica Wade

There is only one true God– the trinity consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! He created the heavens and the Earth; he created you in your mother’s womb, whether you choose to believe in Him or not! He has brought me through many trying times in which no physician on Earth could fathom! He worked through the physician’s hands. If there is no God, then where did we come from?

Mitch Devonshire
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Mitch Devonshire

Thanks for the response Jessica. Respectfully, I wasn’t asking what you believe, I was asking how I can determine if your god claims are true, especially when they are incompatible with similar claims of someone who follows a different faith. As for who/what created us, it very well may be a god or gods who did it — but again, each faith gives credit to their particular god. How did you determine that it was specifically the Christian God of the Bible that made us? Thanks in advance for your thoughts….genuinely trying to understand.

Mitch Devonshire
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Mitch Devonshire

Just so all parties are aware: These are my honest questions that I carry around all day long. It doesn’t feel very good to have them delegitimized by asserting that I’m just “doing” some technique.

If honest questions aren’t welcomed here, I’ll move along…

Michael Finch
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Michael Finch

I am not going to do a good job on explaining this, so please cut me some slack. As a human being, the huge majority of what we believe does not require significant deductive reasoning. We believe it because we experience it. This is how it is with faith in God. We believe, because on some level, even if it is something no one else would guess about us, we have a relationship with God. It really is that simple, yet very difficult to articulate with language. It is not a question of science, or reason, or understanding things in… Read more »

James Alan
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James Alan

Well put. One of the best things you’ve ever posted.

Dustin Letchworth
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Dustin Letchworth

I do appreciate Mr. Watkin’s time for preparing this article. It gave me an opportunity to think about what I believe and why. However, I do respectfully disagree with him, but I think his article can be viewed by Christians as a representation of the challenges we face in our belief.

James
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James

I do not need to tell you of all people were your arguments fall short; I would just encourage you to re-read through your arguments. You are an agnostic my friend 🙂

I love this new Kik of atheist who will not endorse naturalism nor nine naturalism but they somehow read to find it to be atheist? Again just food for thought re-read through your post

Michael Finch
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Michael Finch

As a Christian who categorically disagrees with Ben’s reasoning and conclusions, i also want to thank him for offering up such a soul searching argument for his position. It is a rare quality in a person to be so publicly introspective. And i especially admire his inclusion of his own bias. I am bias too in my position of theism. There is more to it than i just “believe” in God, there is a very important factor that i also “need” to believe in God. So, yes, i certainly have bias. The people that i see a burning flag on… Read more »