Atheism Explained
Copyright © by Joe Homrich, 4/21/03  

What is an Atheist?  

  Atheists are people who do not believe in the existence of gods, demons, elves, ghosts, unicorns or other mythical creatures whose existence is not proven by science or reason. Atheists do not believe that life has an arbitrary meaning assigned by some invisible agent. Instead, atheists believe that people must find meaning and purpose on their own.
  As a group, atheists tend to be educated and intelligent. Every atheist that I have ever met supports the right to hold and express any religious belief, but opposes religious behavior that is politically or socially predatory or harms innocent people.

Why are you an Atheist?

  I’m an atheist for three reasons.
  First, there is absolutely no scientific evidence of any kind that gods, demons, elves, ghosts, unicorns or other mythical creatures might exist. Zilch. Nada. Nichts.
  Secondly, if such creatures did exist and possessed the attributes that believers claim they possess, then many laws of physics, chemistry, and biology must be wrong. And there is no reason to believe that they are wrong.
  Finally, previously unexplainable natural phenomena that some people cite as scientific evidence of a god have always been found to have perfectly natural scientific explanations.
  The first reason has been around for thousands of years. The second reason has existed for the last couple of centuries or so. The third reason has grown explosively in just the last twenty years due to rapid advances in the study of the human brain and the science of sociobiology which seeks explanations for human behavior through the mechanisms of natural selection. This new knowledge has allowed scientist to posit explanations for phenomena which only a few years ago seemed impenetrable to scientific investigation. Consider the following examples.
  Optic nerve trauma has long been known to cause tunnel vision where the victim sees a tunnel of white light penetrating a black background. People who report this phenomena during near death experiences are probably undergoing nothing more mystical than oxygen depravation of their brain’s visual cortex.
  As part of ongoing efforts to map and understand the various different regions of the human brain, researchers recently began using hand-held electromagnetic coils to temporarily dampen functioning of specific areas of the human cerebrum. The procedure is non-invasive and the effects are temporary. The coils are simply held to the outside of the subject’s head over the targeted area. Researchers have discovered that the application of a magnetic field over the temporal lobe causes subjects to feel the presence of another person in the room even if the subject is seated in an obviously empty room.
  Recently an epileptic patient in Switzerland undergoing pre-surgical evaluation had subdural electrodes implanted in her brain. The subsequent application of electric current to certain electrode sites reliably produced an Out-Of-Body experience or OBE. In addition, the patient also experienced feelings of levitation and lightness. For more information see Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions, Nature, Vol 419, 19 Sept 2002, www.nature.com/nature. Research was conducted at the Laboratory of Presurgical Epilepsy Evaluation, Functional Neurology and Neurosurgery, University Hospitals of Geneva and Lausanne Switzerland. E-mail: olaf.blanke@hcuge.ch

Why not just say you’re an Agnostic?  

  Perhaps the most common questions that atheists have to answer is: “Why not just claim that you’re an agnostic since some doubt must always remain? You cannot be 100 percent certain.” We, yes I can. I can be certain beyond any reasonable possibility of doubt. If that seems like too grand a statement, please consider the proof of the following two propositions.

  Now I’ve always had a special talent for mathematics. So I was very excited when I learned the mathematical proof that the square root of two could not be a rational number. The proof is very simple and was deduced by the Greeks over twenty three centuries ago.
  Okay, what do mathematicians mean by a “rational” number? The word is slightly misleading. The key is the word “ratio” not “rational”. A “rational” number is any number which can be represented by one integer (counting number) divided by another integer. If you create an adjective of “ratio” you get “rational”.
  Twenty three centuries ago, the Greeks discovered that if all the common prime numbers were removed from the top and bottom of the ratio (numerator and denominator) then one of the two numbers had to be odd. This we can term reduced form. Obviously, if top and bottom were both even, then both had the prime number two in common and this could be eliminated from both.
  The Greeks then went on to show that for a right triangle with sides [1:1:square root of two] that the hypotenuse of the triangle, the square root of two, in reduced form could not have either top or bottom number odd. Consequently, it must not be a rational number.
  The proof is so simple that I can demonstrate it in about 15 minutes to any reasonably intelligent high school student. Yet the proof was so powerful that it caused the ancient Greeks to concentrate on geometry instead of mathematics once it was discovered. The ancient Greeks believed that all numbers had to be rational numbers. Thus something must be “broken” with numbers but not geometry.
  This type of proof may be termed a mathematical or logical proof. Once all parties agree upon the meaning of things like integers, one, two, the square root of a number, even and odd then the proof is easily demonstrated using elementary mathematical and logical operations. Once shown, there can be absolutely no doubt that it is correct. Further, a mathematician from a planet in a distant galaxy could be shown the proof and immediately grasp and understand it. The proof is also independent of time, place, or history. These qualities characterize mathematical/logical proofs.
  Now consider the existence of Thomas Paine as a proposition. Any serious student of American history knows the story of Thomas Paine. Author of Age of Reason and the pamphlet Common Sense. creator of the phrase “The United States of America”, friend of Thomas Jefferson. All over the world, students of political science are taught that Thomas Paine really existed. But how do we know this? He has no grave. His body was lost during transport across the Atlantic after his death. There is no way to make DNA comparisons to any surviving family members. He didn’t marry and left no direct descendents. Also, we can’t start with elementary principles and prove mathematically that Thomas Paine existed like the irrationality of the square root of two. So how do we know?
  Well, there are records from his life. He left an impressive body of written works (all of which I’ve read by the way) which show a consistent philosophic perspective. There are contemporary portraits of his likeness. There are official records of his birth in England and his travel to the Americas. He was well known to many other famous and infamous political figures of his day. He was with George Washington at Valley Forge. He was a friend and confidant of Thomas Jefferson. He was known to all the founders of the American Revolution. He participated in the drafting of the French Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen. Many people on two continents knew him, spoke of him and wrote of him. There are surviving records from friends, foes, and disinterested parties alike that reference him.
  And there is no evidence that the story of Thomas Paine is a hoax.
  We know that Thomas Paine existed because there is an overwhelming amount of empirical and historic data that shows by its weight, consistency and volume that such a person did exist.
  This is not a mathematical proof. But it is proof. We can’t state it as a logical certainty. But it is certain. If we express our certainty as a confidence level, then we can say that the historical evidence is so overwhelming as to create a confidence sufficient to justify it as an incontrovertible fact.
  The same is true of atheism. For as long as believers continue to ascribe attributes to gods which make it impossible to logically refute the existence of said gods, then it will by definition be impossible to logically refute their existence. But this does not mean that gods therefore exist! There is ample scientific evidence that gods, demons, warlocks, elves … are all products of the human mind. Similarly there exists an impressive knowledge of the workings of the natural world which must be violated without cause if gods exist and possess the attributes that believers claim.
  We know that gods are imaginary because there is enough scientific evidence which shows by its weight, consistency and volume that gods are imaginary. And there is no positive scientific evidence of any kind that gods do exist.

Didn’t philosophers like Immanuel Kant prove that you can’t rely on sensory data?

  We all experience the natural world through our senses. Immanuel Kant noted that there is no way to prove that our senses are relaying accurate information by using our senses. After all, evidence about the validity of our sensory experience would have to be made available to us through our senses. It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation.
  This does not mean, however, that our senses are therefore relaying inaccurate information. Just because one cannot prove something to be logically true, does not mean that it is therefore logically false. Immanuel Kant could not logically prove that a material universe existed outside of his sensory perceptions, but he did believe it. So do I. So do we all.
  Is this an act of faith? Of course not. Faith is accepting something without proof. And there is more than sufficient proof that our senses are reliable. Since the moment of my birth, my perceptions of the natural world have been wonderfully consistent. Tables that appear to be within arms' reach are always within arms' reach. Materials that appear to be visibly liquid also feel liquid upon investigation. Hard tables are always hard. I have never accidentally put my hand through a table which offered no resistance to the movement of my hand.
  Similarly cause and effect as I observe it has always been reliable. When I drop vases on hard surfaces, they always shatter immediately upon impact – not thirty years later and not twenty seconds before. When I speak audibly I see the look of registration in my listener’s face.
  Physical laws, as I have learned them, act reliably. Smoke dissipates in the air. Chopped trees fall down - not up. And heat flows from regions of high intensity to regions of low intensity. My cup of ice water has never spontaneously started boiling on the kitchen table while the air suddenly chilled.
  And the universe has behaved in this completely consistent manner from the instant of my birth and has never acted in any way to controvert these natural laws. This is more than sufficient proof for me and more than sufficient proof for others as well.
  Even those people who enjoy debating the validity of their senses to make some sort of self-serving point behave as if they believe their senses reliable. Fundamentalist Christians who deny evolution will insist that the cancer drug used to treat their child be tested on monkeys and chimpanzees. Buddhists who declare that the world goes away when they close their eyes will leave written wills. Our entire system of laws, courts, judges and juries rests upon the belief that a real material universe does exists and that cause and effect apply. All scientific evidence points to the existence of a real material universe apart from me. I believe that it objectively exists and so does everyone else. 

Why do you think that people believe in God?

  Surprising as it may sound, the answer to this question is very simple. It is deducible from the science of sociobiology.  In one sentence: “Humans believe in the existence of intelligent invisible agents in the natural world because those people born with brains predisposing them to believe in the existence of intelligent invisible agents have enjoyed a great selectional advantage in passing on their genes.”
  If that is too concise an explanation, let me explain in somewhat greater detail. Let’s consider the plight of two proto-humans out on a hunting trip a few million years ago.
  One of the hunters, let's call him Dean, was born with a brain which predisposes him to believing that natural phenomena have natural causes. So when the wind causes nearby bushes to rustle, Dean guesses that the wind is the cause of this phenomena. Ninety Nine percent of the time, Dean will be right. But there will be no reward for being right. One percent of the time, Dean will be wrong and the penalty will be death. There will be a leopard or a saber tooth lying in wait behind the bushes, and Dean will die, possibly before he has had a chance to pass on genes to recreate his reasonable, accurately thinking brain.
  The other hunter, let’s call him Martin, was born with a brain which predisposes him to believe that natural phenomena are the handiwork of invisible intelligent agents. So when the wind causes nearby bushes to rustle, Martin panics and jumps to the conclusion that a saber tooth is hiding in the bushes causing the disturbance even though he cannot see the saber tooth. Ninety Nine percent of the time, gullible Martin will be wrong. But there will no penalty for being wrong. One percent of the time, Martin will be right and the reward will be an extension of his life, possibly enough time to pass on the genes for his more gullible but safer brain.
  Thus, only humans with brains which predispose them to believe that natural phenomena is the handiwork of intelligent, invisible agents tended to survive in the greatest numbers to the age of reproduction to pass on the genes to create the brains predisposed to believe in invisible intelligent agents.
  And guess what? We are not the only species to believe in gods.
  Primatologists have discovered groups of rain forest dwelling chimpanzees who appear to exhibit the same behavior. When storm clouds arrive in monsoon seasons, knocking chimps out of trees and killing some of them, these chimps will shriek and bare their teeth at the approaching clouds and behave in the same manner as when trying to frighten off hostile chimps from another group or a hungry leopard. Why is this? Well in a chimpanzee’s experience only leopards, chimps, and humans can kill a chimp. What do these things have in common? A great deal. They are all predatory mammals with varying degrees of sentience that can stalk and kill chimps. Consequently, the chimps probably believe that the approaching clouds must be in this same category. It must be a big, invisible sentient chimp with nefarious designs on them.
  This may also help to explain why many people feel the presence of gods, dead ancestors, and ghosts despite the complete absence of any supporting evidence. People’s brains are just predisposed to thinking in this manner. 

How do you explain the fact that intelligent people believe in gods?  

  This is absolutely untrue especially among scientists.
  Recent demographic surveys of the United States of America indicate that as of the year 2000, 14% of Americans did not consider religion to be an important part of their lives. This figure is up from 10% in 1990. Only 0.5% of the population at large responded that they were atheist. However, this number skyrockets when you switch the focus to scientist and rises even higher when one considers “greater” scientists.
  In 1914, psychologist James H. Leuba conducted a landmark survey of belief among scientist. Leuba found that the majority of a randomly selected scientist doubted the existence of god. When he narrowed his sample to the “greater” scientists, doubt rose further. He repeated the survey 20 years later and found that the percentages of those doubting the existence of god had risen further.
  In 1998, the publication Nature repeated Leuba’s survey. The results are summarized in the table below. For purposes of the modern survey, “greater” scientists were defined as members of the National Academy of Science. 






52 %

68 %

72 %


21 %

17 %

21 %


27 %

15 %

7 %

  Doubt is highest among NAS biologist at 95%. Physicists come in a close second at 93% while mathematicians are at the low end with 86% either atheists or agnostics.
In addition, most well known and widely published scientists have stated publicly that they are either atheists or agnostics including Noam Chomsky, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson and the late scientists Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Feynman. Surveying the history of physics, I can only find one notable name of an individual who believed in the existence of god and was a regular attendee of a religion, namely James Clerk Maxwell who born, lived and died a Scottish Presbyterian.
  See Leading Scientists still reject God. Nature, Vol 394, July 23 1998, www.nature.com/nature.

What about Albert Einstein? Didn’t he believe in god?

  In a letter dated March 24, 1954, Albert Einstein wrote to a friend "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it".
  Albert Einstein was very outspoken about his antipathy towards religion and his skepticism concerning gods. He used the word “God” on occasion, usually as a euphemism for what most people would call the laws of physics.
  Perhaps it would clarify matters if rather than citing exactly what Albert Einstein believed, I first enumerated all the things he did not believe: 

  1. He did not believe in a personal god. In other words, he did not believe that god was a person with a person’s whims, desires, intellect, or consciousness.
  2. He did not believe in prayer. You need a person to listen to prayers, and if you don’t believe in a personal god, this is not possible.
  3. He did not believe in an afterlife.
  4. He did not believe in reincarnation.
  5. He did not believe in heaven.
  6. He did not believe in hell.

    What Albert Einstein did believe was that there are certain fundamental forces which govern the universe. This he called “god”. He also realized that the existence of his god is at odds with the existence of the god of Moses or Jesus. The two could not co-exist.
  So when wishing to avoid an unpleasant argument, some atheists just smile to themselves and claim that they believe in Einstein’s god.
  See quotations in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, published by Princeton University Press.

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share