Why Are There Atheists?


Most of us like to think we believe what we believe because we’ve thought it through and have clear rational grounds for our convictions though why we should exalt reason above emotions isn’t clear. Without going into needless details on that let me simply say that if it’s true at all it’s only true about a very few and very specific convictions. We draw conclusions not only based on “facts” but on the weight we give to some facts more than others. And we relate facts to other facts in different ways, don’t we? If you live in a run-down area of high unemployment you don’t deny the unemployment figures you insist on them! And they generate a higher level of passion with you than the same figures generate in a politician who lives on Silk-Stocking Row. The reasons for this aren’t surprising. But this passion (or lack of it) leads us to weigh differently any proposals on how to handle the problem. Emotions, personality, experiences, environment and a host of other factors affect and shape our beliefs. For good or ill we’re not breathing logic-boxes or human computers. (I’m glad we’re not those.)

Our parents shape us long before we know it. Friends we greatly admire, teachers we esteem, experiences we’ve been subjected to, dreams we dream, social conditions that frighten or sadden us these and more we can’t fathom affect how we think and feel and come to believe. Should that surprise or worry us? It should not. We’re human and there’s no way for us to step outside of (our) humanity and see the whole spectrum of things.

Should we despise our rationality because all this is true? That would make no sense and no one should be encouraged to park his or her brain or let it degenerate into mush for want of exercise. Though reasoning to conclusions is only a part of who and what we are it’s still a part of us and we ought to respect it–and why wouldn’t we?

Part of the reason I’m a Christian is because I was born and raised in a part of the world where the Bible was revered and proclaimed. Closer to home, I am a Christian in part (chiefly) because of influences in my home and then because of other significant people who were Christians. Significant events occurring at critical moments, the right people or the right result at the right time all this and more has played its part in my being a Christian. (At this point I won’t try to make the case that I believe God was at work in all this, bringing me to faith in Jesus Christ.)

Non-believers are non-believers for similar reasons. In early childhood influences of home and the wider environment had their effect. Kind and caring people who were non-believers showed that you didn’t have to be a believer in God to be gentle and socially useful. Perhaps parents never spoke of God and much less did they attend church assemblies so the child never went to Sunday school. Some painful disappointments at critical moments made the universe seem unfriendly and the thought of God’s non-existence began to nibble at the edges of the mind. The pain and suffering in the world that Christians keep “explaining” (rather than alleviating) add to the picture. Unanswered prayers (prayed at a time before faith was lost) made you wonder if any prayer, however selfless it appeared, would get a “yes” vote from the great Manager of Blessings in the sky. And then there was the disgraceful behaviour and attitudes of a lot of church-going people. Add to all that some fearful doctrines like eternal conscious torment for all non-Christians and a hyper-Calvinism that says God created multiplied millions of humans for no other reason than to eternally torture them “according to the good pleasure of his will.” An atheist is made!

by Jim McGuiggan