Why I Am An Atheist, Physicalist, And Antideist

Warning: Probably Offensive

This post was requested by someone close to me, who asked for an atheist perspective (mine specifically) on life and death and religion. I feel I owe em honesty. As such, this essay pulls no punches. Normally, I try really really hard to not be an asshole about being an atheist, but not this time.

My actual views on this subject, which I rarely share, are actually pretty extreme. In particular, the antideism section is pretty much guaranteed to deeply offend anyone who believes in a benevolent deity of any kind (and, in fact, that's sort of the point). You have been warned.

Having said that, please note that I do not believe that deists are deluded or crazy or broken, any more than I believe that of people who enjoy fiction or have sexual jealousy or have any number of other weird human built-in quirks. The tendency to religion seems to be built in to humans; I would no more rail against that tendency than I would against people tending to enjoy beautiful art. It's part of who we are.

I do think that deists haven't thought about it very hard, but I refuse to be judgemental about that. Some people don't have the intelligence of self-reflective capability to work this sort of thing to its final conclusion; this doesn't make them bad people, it just makes me lucky that I can. Some people take great comfort from their deism and rely on that comfort; who am I to judge then for that when my life has gone so well?

I can think your beliefs are crap without thinking you're a bad person, and outside of this essay or explicit request, I never would say or indicate anything like that at all. Pardon the stereotype, but some of my best friends are deists (in fact, the woman I live with and am trying to have a child with; we show each other respect, neither thinks the other is bad or going to hell, so it works out fine).

Introduction And Terms

The term that really needs defining here is "god". When I say "god" or "deity", I mean a being (or beings) that is consciously, deliberately responsible for the creation of this world and capable of changing it or having created it differently, including responsibility for all aspects of humans themselves.

Everybody pretty much knows what atheism is, but so we're all on the same page: an atheist is some who doesn't believe in god (as just defined).

I don't actually use the term "atheist" much; people tend to get the wrong idea.

Defining the term "physicalist" and explaining why I am one is what the first half of this essay is about, but the short version is: I don't believe in non-physical things. This is not quite the same as not believing in any of the things that people call "supernatural", but given the current state of the evidence, it's pretty close.

There's not section on atheism as such because it follows from physicalism.

Antideist is a term I and some friends coined. Defining it and explaining why I am one is what the second half of this essay is about, but the short version is: if you absolutely proved to me that there is a god, not only would I not worship em, but I wouldn't piss on em if ey were on fire. My most likely reaction to proof of a god would be to devote my life to eir destruction, no matter how futile that was. Well, to be fair, I'd try to talk em out of being such an evil asshole first. Even if that meant eternal torture, I would never worship or support such a being.

There, see what I mean? Don't say I didn't warn you.

The Argument From Reality

This half basically boils down to: humans cannot trust their own beliefs about much of anything without an extensive structure to correct for systemic errors (which we call the scientific method). Applying these checks to "supernatural" events shows that there's nothing there but our own broken minds staring back at us.

Humans Have An Extremely Poor Grasp On What Happens

To start with, our actual sensory perceptions and the immediate processing of them into memories is fraught with problems.

There's a giant amount of research on this, because when modern police procedure became formalized enough and communications became good enough that various law enforcement groups were talking on a large scale about their experiences, is was discovered universally that competent witnesses with no reason to lie would still tell radically different stories.

This surprised and confused everybody, as it rather threw the bedrock of our legal system, the witness, into question fundamentally. So people started testing this issue and discovered that people being paid for accurate descriptions could not so much as consistently get the color of someone's jacket right. A jacket covers half a person's body; when being asked to report on what you saw this should not be a difficult task.

And yet, it is. For almost everybody.

So, how much of what you see can you actually trust? We don't really know, but the answer is probably "not very much". This is why science has systems to restrict how observations are made, and why a fundamental part of science is experimental replication.

Basically, science is a bunch of people looking for weird or interesting things and then turning to each other and saying, "Did you see that!?". Which pretty much everybody does; the difference is that scientists (in theory anyways) take everyone else saying "No" as evidence that what they saw doesn't actually exist, rather than as a reason to argue as though we were sitting around the primordial campfire and our futures depended on it, which is what the human default is.

The point is, you can't draw any conclusions from something only you saw or experienced. If you could, we wouldn't have needed the scientific method in the first place. With interpersonal stuff this isn't a big deal, although I certainly spend a lot of time checking with friends that we're on the same page. For understanding how the actual world works in the abstract, though, nothing less than a well-repeated experiment is good enough to fix how bad humans are at perception.

We're Not So Great At "How Often" Either

Humans have a really amazingly bad grasp of how often some things happen, rather than other things. More importantly, we have a staggeringly bad grasp of when an occurrence that just happened is unusual, relative to the actual real-world frequency of such events. We're so bad at it that we have a whole science for it, statistics, that is generally considered to be a very difficult science to learn.

In other words, when two people try to pass each other, and they both go the same way, apologize, recover, and the repeat that, say, 8 times, they would each go away thinking that this was an incredibly rare event, maybe unique. This belief is totally wrong. Assuming only one event of "needing to pass" occurs per thousand humans each day, and assuming that the side people choose to pass on is random, this happens more than twenty thousand times every day. The odds of it happening to one person are four times in every thousand; most people will probably have it happen to them. If human behaviour would actually allow it, which is unlikely (I would expect one person or the other to simply stop moving after a few rounds), but that's a separate issue.

This is a typical problem: humans see something that they don't usually see, and because they don't have a view over the whole mass of events in the world, and no background in statistics, they decide that it is so special and rare that it must have a supernatural origin. More on that in a bit, but first another example of just how much human statistics intuitions fail.

Let's say I tell you that I have a test for a disease called NASTY (the numbers I'm using are similar to HIV numbers in some communities, but I don't want to argue about the details of that disease; this is about statistics intuition). The test is 99% accurate. It has only false positives. That is: if you have NASTY, the test always comes back positive. If you don't have NASTY, there's a 1% chance that the test comes back positive anyway. You live in a country with 100 million people. The actual instance of NASTY in the population of your country is 1 in ten thousand people.

You are tested. It comes back positive. What are the chances you actually have NASTY?

The whole point here is that human intuitions are wrong, so it would be best if you think about it before reading on. Even if you get it right, though, that just means you're exceptional.

The vast majority of people answer 99%. The actual answer is 1%. (Which, by the way, is why the western blot test for HIV is normally run six times on the blood sample you give if it comes up positive.)

No, really. If the NASTY test comes back positive, the odds you actually have NASTY are one in a hundred.

The reason in general is worth learning, but the simple explanation is easy:

Suppose you administer the test to everybody in the country. About a million of the tests would come back positive. (That is, 10, 000 legitimate disease cases plus 1% of everybody else, which makes it 1, 009, 900 total positives). Out of that million of positives, only ten thousand people actually have the disease. Ten thousand out of one million is 1% (if you use the full number above, it's actually about 0.992%).

if one in ten thousand of one hundred million people have NASTY, that means ten thousand people have it. If you administer the test to everybody in the country, and one percent are false positives, you'll get just over one million positives total (1% of 99,990,000 people, which is one hundred million people less the ten thousand actual positives, plus the 10, 000 actual positives, for a total of 1,009,900 positives). Ten thousand real cases out of one million false positives is one percent (actually, 0.992%, approximately, but who's counting?).

The human brain just doesn't have any built-in concept of numbers much bigger than 100. Our brains are optimized to deal with tribes that max out at about 100 people, and that's about it.

We can't really comprehend what living on a planet of 6, 000, 000, 000 people means in terms of how often weird things happen. Weird things happen all the time when you have that many people to have them happen to. If the odds of a coin landing on its side is one in ten thousand, and one in ten thousand people toss a coin each day, then a coin lands on its side sixty times a day (I totally made those numbers up, by the way).

Where things really break down is that this applies to everything else, too. If a child that just drowned has a one in a million chance (totally made up number) of their body just figuring things out after five minutes, so that they suddenly cough and start breathing again, that means that, over the whole world, this happens routinely. Certainly at least one a month.

But for the people who witness it, it will be such a profound event that the only explanation they will have is supernatural intervention.

The point is this: the plural of "anecdote" is not "data" or "evidence". You can't draw any conclusions from a single experience you have had just because it was extremely improbably. Six billion people over a hundred years means sometimes people see some really improbable stuff; maybe you just got lucky.

On Top Of That, Our Minds And Memories Trick Us

There is an entire area of study called Heuristics And Biases, which is the study of the way in which human minds interpret reality via fast-and-loose methods (heuristics) that reliably result in significant errors (biases).

That bears repeating: there is an entire science devoted to how human minds tend to get things wrong.

We're not just talking about things that only come up in obscure situations or when doing calculus or something. We fail to grasp reality when trying to understand other humans, which is probably the single thing our brains are most designed to do. We fail to grasp reality when judging whether other humans understood us in turn.

Having said that, we do, in fact, fail to grasp reality when dealing with more cerebral things, like large numbers, where large is more than about 100. We also fail to grasp reality when dealing with money; it is possible to prove that most people have inherently contradictory preferences; preferences for A over B and C over D that cannot be reconciled as making any sense no matter what you do.

This means that even when we see what is actually there, our minds take what we learned, and twist it against us. We lie to ourselves, routinely and dramatically.

There's a tendency, faced with the heuristics and biases literature, to think or say something like "Well, that's all well and good in your laboratory, but in the real world, things are messy and complicated". I already linked to this, but just so we're on the same page here: people will spend more money to save 2, 000 birds than they will to save 20, 000 birds. There is no amount of "messy" or "complicated" that makes that make any sense.

Your mind is lying to you. Dramatically, repeatedly, and often.

So, the question is, what can you do about it?

Enter the scientific experiment.

Your mind will impel you to notice only things you want to see, but if you write down everything that happens during the experiment as soon as it happens, this can be avoided.

Your mind will impel you to avoid searching for other explanations, which is why you publish your results (ideally, you publish your raw data as well; in the age of the internet, there's no excuse for not doing so except when there are ethical considerations).

Further, even if you've managed to trick yourself, chances are the next person who reads the paper and cares about it won't share your exact view on things, so if they decide to replicate it, they'll trick themselves differently.

If an experiment is replicated many times, and all experimenters are careful about recording everything that happens, the true results become obvious, even to such broken creatures as ourselves.

It gets weird when you do experiments that involve humans, though, because they lie to themselves about what you did. The obvious solution is to not tell the patient whether the treatment you're giving them is the treatment you're testing, but it turns out humans are really, really good at reading other humans, so that the placebo effect turns up even when the doctors don't tell the patients what they're taking. Also, if the doctor knows, then the doctor can skew the results, intentionally or otherwise, by concentrating on some patients and not others.

Hence, the double blind experiment.

A successfully repeated (ideally, including at least one researcher or group antagonistic to the original result) double blind experiment is about as close as humans can get to actually discovering true things. Doing so has led to our current understanding of the universe, which has in turn led to cars, indoor lighting, hot running water, computers, and basically everything that makes the present a better place to live than the past (and believe me, the present is a much better place to live than the past was).

Or, to put it another way: my god (science) allows me to fly through the air as a faith-based miracle.

My Epiphany

None of the above explains why I myself am a physicalist, but it's all necessary background (being an atheist sort of follows from that, but I'll cover that specifically in the next section).

At the time of my epiphany, I was a practicing neopagan (mostly of the Celtic re-creation variety, but I had Ganesh and a few ancient Greek gods in my pantheon) and chaos mage.

I had, however, taken some psychology courses, which touched on the human mind's immense ability to deceive itself, and a statistics course, which had touched on how outliers (results that are statistically improbable or far away from the rest of the results) are not actually all that uncommon if you can see the whole system.

And then a friend pointed me at The James Randi Educational Foundation's web site and, for reasons I no longer recall, I actually went.

You have to understand that this was long before I was trying to be any kind of rationalist at all. I used to get very indignant when people challenged my beliefs. I used to repeat things I had heard without trying to confirm them. Hell, I used to not even bother to remember where I heard something; I would just hear things and if I wanted to, I would believe them, and then I'd spread them. Also, I really, really want magic to be real (yes, that's present tense on purpose; this is still true even though I no longer believe in it). Big ol' pile of biases. I would have made a great cultist.

Except for one thing: I could never deceive myself effectively. It might take a really large sledgehammer, and it might take years, but if you show me a well-backed-up fact that actively contradicts my beliefs, I will integrate it sooner or later, no matter what this does to the rest of my beliefs. I do believe in reality, and when push comes to shove, I care more about what is real than what I believe. I'm much better at all of this stuff then I used to be; the friend who pointed me at the JREF had been working on me for something like 5 years at that point.

Anyways, I was poking around on the JREF site. If I recall correctly, I was looking for them to be misunderstanding magick and spirituality so I could scoff at them for missing the point, as I had scoffed many times in the past. I bumped into this article on dowsing, which explains how dowsing actually works, and that it never passes double-blind trials. Ever.

This article was important for a few reasons:

  • I don't care about dowsing as such, so I had no personal involvement
  • Dowsing is, as the article mentions, something of a litmus test in the magickal community: everyone "knows" that dowsing works, and it is used as a baseline; "there must be magic, after all, dowsing works"; I had never heard anyone before state outright that dowsing simply does not work
  • My basic resistance to self deception is such that I didn't want to be the sort of person who ignores repeated double-blind trials

More important than all of that, however, it explained what was going on in the minds of the dowsers:

As a result of some imagined or real hint from nature water dowsers are often familiar with the topological or geographical signs or conditions that indicate the probability of water in any given spot the operator unconsciously tilts or impels the device, and believes that it is indicating the presence of the sought-after material. That is simply not true. It's a trick of the mind, a very convincing trick, but a self-deception nonetheless.

This means that:

  • The dowsers themselves are certain that it's working
  • They absolutely refuse to respect evidence to the contrary
  • What is actually happening is that they have learned how to read the land via long practice, and are acting out that learning

When this all sunk in, I realized that every mystical experience I had ever personally had could be explained by self-deception (that is: nothing outwardly observable had actually happened), luck ("I asked the goddess for money and found a ten dollar bill in my couch! What are the odds!?" (answer: pretty good, actually; study statistics)), or psychological priming (you'll be more likely to notice lost money after a money-seeking ritual; you'll be more confident with potential romantic partners, and hence much more effective, after a love ritual, etc).

I couldn't think of anything supernatural I had experienced that couldn't be trivially explained by one of those things or something like them.

In that moment, I decided that while I wanted to live in a world with magic very much (and still do), I had no interest in messing about with magic that couldn't pass a double-blind test. Seriously, what is the point? Either something effects reality, or it doesn't. If it does, you can test for it. You might have to be creative, but you can test for it. If something doesn't actually effect reality, why should I spend my time on it?

At this point, it became very important to me that the JREF has a million dollar prize for any double-blind demonstration of supernatural ability.

Which means that either they're a bunch of frauds (and since they write up every test, that seems really unlikely), or no-one in the last 30 years has ever managed to come up with enough magickal power to win their asses a million dollars.

I do not need to waste my time with that sort of crap. I have things to do. Seriously.

What It Means To Be A Physicalist

I once summarized physicalism to my mom as "there is nothing that is real that can't be tested by a double-blind experiment". This is perhaps slightly unfair, in that you have to be really creative to do double-blind tests in human psychology, for example, but it mostly gets the point across.

It is not particularly obvious how you get from that statement to, for example, general atheism. So that's what this section covers.

On Invisible Dragons And Atheism

Carl Sagan once shared a lovely parable about someone having an invisible, intangible, inaudible dragon in their garage. This parable has been reused by others, as well. The basic point is that it's very easy to come up with untestable things and then say "Well, you can't prove I'm wrong, can you?".

Well, no, I can't prove that there isn't an invisible, intangible , inaudible dragon in your garage. But there are an infinite number of such assertions. Simply replace "dragon" with every possible animal, in every possible combination, in every possible number. I can't prove that there aren't a million golden monkeys, and one extremely upset and confused badger, all of them invisible, intangible, and inaudible, in your garage.

So what?

Seriously, does that bother anybody?

I also can't disprove people's belief in various invisible imaginary friends that they call God or Allah or Jesus or whatever. At least, not if they keep moving the goal posts. They say their holy book is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. I point out the contradiction. They say that it was written by humans who are fallible. And so it goes.

I can't possibly go around trying to disprove every invisible dragon, even if they were disprovable, which of course they aren't. For one thing, there are A LOT of invisible dragons. For another, humans are really resistant to changing their minds.

In the total absence of evidence, there are only two consistent stances: believing everything for which there is no evidence that anyone suggests, ever, and believing nothing without evidence. I choose the latter; the former would make by brain very full, mostly with crap.

I don't believe in any invisible dragons. This happens to include yours, if you do believe in one.

As Stephen Roberts put it:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours

Also, a list of gods that you and I both don't believe in, probably.

(Although it's not actually that simple, for what it's worth.)

Since it's the flavor of the millennium where I am, I feel like I should comment on Christianity specifically.

I have no problem whatsoever with the personal-relationship-with-Jesus sorts. I have no problem with Christians who stick to what Jesus actually said and ignore the old testament and all of Paul's puritanical ranting (let alone Revelations). I do have a great deal of trouble with people who think I'm going to hell, because that makes them evil (there's a section on it below). The woman I live with is a Lutheran who totally ignores the old testament, and largely ignores Paul because he thought the second coming was going to be any second now and hence was exhorting people to maximum awesomeness just in case. She also believes that Jesus came to save everybody, so I'm not going to hell. Having said that, I've suggested that she not read this essay; just seems simpler.

That doesn't mean I believe in their invisible dragons, it just means that such people do not actively offend me. The stuff Jesus actually said (according to the Bible) is pretty decent; he seems like he was a nice guy before he died.

As for literalistic biblical Christians: your book is repeatedly false to fact and contradictions, and if you actually believed your book, rather than just believing in your book, you'd be doing things like stoning all stubborn and rebellious teenagers to death (Deuteronomy 21; yes, it really does say exactly that). Your book says that you must kill anyone who works on the sabbath, which is at least one day out of seven no matter which day it is; see Exodus 20:8-9 and 31:15. Kill them. You are supposed to kill all nonbelievers (Deuteronomy 13:7-12), anyone who takes your god's name in vain (Leviticus 24:16), anyone who curses their mother or father (Leviticus 20:9), any adulterer (Leviticus 20:10), any homosexual (Leviticus 20:13), silence all women (1 Timothy 2), keep slaves (Leviticus 25:44), and smash the children of your enemies to death (Isaiah 13, others).

The Christian Bible, taken in its entirety, is a vile pile of repulsive, evil filth. It is the opposite of a good moral guide. It is a guide to evil. Get a better book. Something that provides a better guide to human behaviour and morality. Like, perhaps, The Lord Of The Rings.

(That's not an actual suggestion; one can make a guide to morality far better than that. Start with the Wikipedia page on applied ethics, or just your own sense of how not to be an asshole.)

(Since we're on the topic of ethics, a side comment: "do to others as you would have done to you" is not a good way to be ethical or kind, because you need to take into account what other people actually want: I really like mayonnaise, but that doesn't mean that my putting mayo on everybody's food is a very nice thing to do. What you want is "do to others as they would like you to do to them".)

On Evolution

Just about every conversation about religion and magic and so on seems to come back to evolution eventually, so I'm going to talk about my understanding of it briefly.

Evolution is a simple mathematical consequence of things that are so obvious that no-one actually argues with them:

  • Children are different than their parents in ways that are not fully predictable.
  • Sometimes those differences are positive/helpful.
  • Sometimes those differences are passed to their children in turn.
  • There are limited resources in the ancestral environment

That's it. That's all evolution requires. It mystifies me that anyone actually argues about this. (Never mind the fact that we can read the genes.)

How evolution falls out of those three facts is simple:

  • One day somebody, let's call him Bob, is born with extra-good eyesight that happens to be genetic (that is, inheritable).
  • The real numbers would be smaller than this, but let's say that this makes him a really good hunter. So good that he can support 4 children, where his friends can only support 3.
  • Let's say the female children can't do anything directly with the super-eyesight, but it does let them avoid danger more effectively. So all four of Bob's children survive, where normally each couple only produces 2 surviving children (to make the math easier).
  • There is only enough food to support 100 adults and 100 children in his tribe. Therefore, for him to support 4 children means someone else's fails to live, so there are now 96 normal children and 4 super-eyesight children.
  • 2 of the 4 special children are boys, who each have 4 children, all of which survive because of the super-eyesight. The other 2 are girls, who each have 3 children, all of whom survive because of the super-eyesight. All of the hundred adults from the original group have paired off, everyone else has had their usual 2 surviving children, except some that didn't make it because they were squeezed out by the super-eyesight children, and died, so we've got 100 new adults (4 super-eyesight, 96 normal) and 100 new children (14 super-eyesight, 86 normal).
  • This progresses until the entire tribe (and, before long, all humans; our most recent common ancestor was only some couple of thousand years ago) have the super-eyesight gene (and it stops being the "super-eyesight" gene and is just part of the complex we call "sight"; this is how eyes developed in the first place).

The actual math is way harder than this, but that's the gist: it's a very simple mathematical result of very simple facets of reality that no-one really argues with.

If you've heard particular objections to evolution or natural selection, I assure you somebody else has already thought of them and it's been covered: the proof for both evolution and natural selection is absolutely overwhelming at this point. The whole "young earth" thing is particularily bizarre and laughable. All you need to do to see how old the earth is is take core samples of a river bed over a few years, and see how long it takes the resulting sedimentary rock to form. Then go to a nearby cliff and add up the time it would take for all the same kind of rock in the cliff to form. Feel your eyes bug out as "millions of years" starts to fall out of your math.

Having said all that, people often expect me, as a physicalist, to, like, worship evolution or something?


Evolution is vile and nasty. It is based on death and killing. It produces bizarre things that do amazingly stupid things. The human eye has a blind spot right in the center, where focus is best. Your brain spends a huge amount of effort moving your eyes around so you don't notice and then lying to you to pretend that you don't have a gaping hole in the center of your visual field, thus wasting a bunch of brain space that could surely be put to better purposes.

There are a lot of things evolution has done stupidly. So stupidly that the idea that a sentient being could be responsible for our design is utterly laughable. But this sort of thing is exactly what you'd expect if you know how evolution actually works because it's a blind search algorithm, and such things are guaranteed to get stuck on local maxima. That last comment just means that evolution can't get from a horse to a horse with wheels because on the way there would be at least one transitional form that couldn't walk at all, and would die.

As a particular example, a lovely video of a giraffe's laryngeal nerve, which travels from the brain, around the heart, and back up to the throat again, for total trip of about 15 feet, ending about 2 inches from where it started. Exactly the sort of thing we'd expect out of the blind idiot god.

On Other "Supernatural" Things

I don't consider the word "supernatural" to actually make a whole lot of sense. Either something effects reality, and hence is natural, or it doesn't, and hence is boring.

As for particular supernatural things, show me. I'll believe in just about anything if you can demonstrate it. I'll believe in werewolves if you introduce me to one and I can watch it transform and maybe see how it works.

I'll believe in homeopathy (specifically, homeopathy where there isn't anything left, so beyond 12C or 24X dilution; almost all "homeopathic" remedies are 6X or 12X, which just means there's small amounts of real substances doing real things) if you show me a well-repeated double-blind experiment that it does something. Which, by the way, would be easy and not terribly expensive to produce.

There probably isn't such a thing as psychic powers, for the simple reason that they are an aspect of human variability and, as such, are affected by the mathematics of evolution. Being able to know in advance of everyone else when danger was coming or where to find buffalo would have been far more powerful a mutation than even the super-eyesight example I gave above. Such a power would have been fixed in the population (that is, everybody would have it) almost immediately. It doesn't matter what the mechanism is, either: even what you had to do was most effectively worship the great buffalo spirit, being the kind of person who does things the great buffalo spirit prefers is an easy mutation given the complexity of human psychology, and as soon as it occurred would have become fixed in the population very quickly. (This would be an argument for god if we all believed in the same god, but since there are many religions and they are mostly mutually contradictory, all we know about religion at this time is that it's natural to humans at a very basic level, and hence either it helps us in some way or it simply never killed anyone fast enough to be weeded out of the population).

As I said before, I'll believe anything you can demonstrate to me, but I default to not believing in things I have no evidence for. This includes the soul, as I discuss in my essay on why I'm getting cryonic suspension. In the particular case of the soul, however, there actually is something that can be addressed directly, because the soul is suppose to be a repository of our personality and memories. The problem is that for any aspect of the human personality that you care to name, someone has had it altered by brain damage. Friendliness, honesty, ability to speak, ability to recognize objects, etc, etc, etc. There's really nothing left for a soul to do.

The obvious answer is that there's some part of the brain that interfaces with the soul, so that the personality stored in the soul filters through the brain and we see it. The problem there is that for just about every part of the brain you can name, someone has had it knocked out and not had any personality changes. The brain is amazingly resilient to local damage. There are few, if any, parts of the brain such that removing them simply makes a person stop, as you would expect of the part that connects to the soul, and we understand what all of them do, and it's all very natural and physical. The big exception there is the brain stem, but that's because your lungs stop. Again, very natural and physical.

So, I'll believe in a soul when you show me what difference it makes.

The Argument From Disgust And Terror

The short version here is: if you look at what is possible, without even changing any of our physical laws, this world is a hell hole, and any being responsible for it is wholly evil to allow the atrocities we see all around us.

This World Is An Awful, Disgusting, Terrifying Place

That may sound like a bit much, but that's only because you're used to it. Try to take a broader view.

Why, for example, are there people who are crippled, or who live in constant pain every day for years on end? Clearly, organic systems must be capable of self-repair, at least in theory. Your body built itself from your food once already; why can't it correct problems? If we were lizards, there'd be no limb surgery; if you arm was messed up you'd just lop it off and wait a few weeks for it to regrow good as new.

Unless you were born with some horrible deformity, of course. Why is that allowed to happen? Clearly it's possible to be born with a body that mostly works; it happens all the time. Why, then, are some people born with horribly painful deformities that leave them unable to function, in horrible pain until they die?

Evolution, as discussed earlier, is a great example of how horrifying this world is: all of the good and moral beings of met (i.e. humans) were created by a system that requires death to function. That's just amazingly horrifying.

Why is there death? Single-celled organisms don't die. There's a jellyfish that never dies. Clearly biological immortality is possible. A standard answer is that there's death because there are limited resources. But so what? Why not have beings that naturally stop reproducing when food is scarce? Then they wouldn't overpopulate. For humans, if you simply had them only able to breed when intaking at least 2500 Calories per day, you would solve a lot of the world's problems all at once. An easy task for a god, surely?

Imagine a world in which populations were self-limiting based on the resources actually available to them. In which every baby was different, but none of them were broken. A world with no viruses, no bacteria, no crippling deformities. A world in which any injury can be healed. A world in which the only things that have to die are plants, and maybe not even them; maybe we can eat rocks in this world for our nutrition, or live on sunlight.

As far as I can tell, none of this (except maybe the "any injury" part) requires any changes to physics or chemistry or even biology in general. It just requires that the beings in this world have been designed by someone who wasn't abjectly evil. Any human biologist with the ability and knowledge to alter DNA arbitrarily to get exactly the results they wanted could, in fact, produce such a world.

But that world isn't what we have.

We have a world in which young children are trying to feed themselves out of garbage heaps, children die of starvation all over the world right this moment because adults went out of their way to kill them and to kill all of their friends and family too.

We live in a world in which death, the total destruction forever of someone we love is something we take for granted. Like it is acceptable. It is not acceptable to me. Not even a little bit.

On top of that, many of the people that do live are suffering, some of them are suffering horribly and will die young for reasons that have nothing to do with them and have no benefit to them or anyone else.

Given the possibility of the world I described, what kind of sick, evil, twisted asshole would produce this world instead? Seriously, what would have to be wrong with you to do this?

It gets better, though. Even when moral beings (humans) are trying their best to be good and moral to each other and avoid suffering, we still cause atrocities. Let me give you my favorite example.

In Chinese traditional (pre-Communist revolution) society, one of the most important things in the world is having children to care for you in your old age. In particular, if no-one cares for your grave, you become a vengeful spirit, a plague on the living. Basically, someone has to care for your grave or you're going to hell.

The Communist revolution has tried to erase that sort of mysticism, but it's only been a couple of generations; it's still an important part of Chinese culture.

Then the one child policy came into play.

This interacts poorly with something I haven't mentioned yet: male children care for their parents, and take their brides with them. In other words, if you obey the one child policy and have a girl, you're going to hell.

This has lead to a huge amount of female infanticide.

What god would allow such a thing? None that I would follow.

Infinite Torture Is Infinitely Evil

As sort of a side point, a lot of religions seem to have this concept of "infinite torture" if you're naughty, i.e. hell.

Given the horrible conditions we find ourselves in, I'm not sure that god punishing us for anything makes much sense. It's like locking a bunch of people in a building with enough food for 2 days, locking them in there for a month, and then punishing them for the resulting murders and cannibalism. Just doesn't seem fair.

But that's besides the point. I want to poke at this concept of infinite punishment.

Do you think it's fair to torture someone brutally for a year for stealing a candy bar?

Just checking.

Therefore you do believe the punishment should fit the crime, at least somewhat.

So, let's take Hitler. Let's say that Hitler was directly, personally responsible for killing a hundred million people (it was nowhere near that number; WW2 as a whole is only considered to have killed 60 million people, but let's pretend).

Let's say that you think that a person should be horribly tortured for every minute of every life that would have been lived had they not caused the person's death. Let's say further that each of these people (to make the math easy) would have lived for 100 more years. That's 10,000,000,000 years of life destroyed.

But wait! You're not content with an even ratio. You want murderers tortured for 100 million years which is a really really really long time for each year of life they destroyed. That means that Hitler will be tortured for (wait for it) 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Make sure that you imagine what just a few minutes of really horrifying torture would be like before you continue.

Now, I think that's rather excessive myself; I don't think that fits the crime. I think one-to-one would be plenty.

Here's the fun part: do you know how much of "forever" is left after you torture Hitler for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 years?


In fact, Hitler will be tortured for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 years an infinite number of times.

That's what "forever" means.

There is no crime that fits that punishment. None.

That is just as evil as horrifically torturing somebody for a month for stealing a candy bar, except times infinity. No matter what punishment you think fits the crime of murder, Hitler will receive more than that, and then more than that, and then enough to disgust you, and then an infinity times that again.

But not everybody is Hitler. According to many contemporary Christians, I will be tortured just as much simply for not believing what they tell me to believe.

No matter how good I am. No matter how kind I am. No matter how many people I help.

I will be tortured forever.

Just. Like. Hitler. There is no difference between our punishments at all.

That's evil. Pure, black, infinite evil.

A Plan Does Not Make This OK

Some people say that god has a plan.

This is, somehow, suppose to excuse everything.

What is wrong with a god whose plan requires locking a girl secretly in a tiny room for 24 years and repeatedly raping and torturing her?

Seriously. If god's plan calls for that, I want no part of it; god can shove that plan up his almighty anus.

People specifically talk about god's plan calling for some people being assholes so that they can be punished. To which I have to ask: what has to be wrong with such a god? To create people that might be total raving assholes just so you can punish them for being the way you created them?? WHAT!?

This is where people start talking about free will, but what humans decide to do doesn't occur in some kind of magical vacuum. Humans in fact have a great number of universal traits. There is a thing that it means to be human, a set of things that one can do or become or achieve given that one is born human. On that list are horrifying atrocities. Why? Why not worry about free will over, I don't know, selecting an art style or something? Send people that play bad music to hell, instead of grotesque mass murderers.

You could make humans a lot nicer without getting rid of free will. You could make humans a lot nicer and still have plenty of bad things happen to them that could then be part of god's plan. Why doesn't god do that?

A Different Moral Point Of View Does Not Make This OK

There are no "higher morals" that make this OK. I am a being with a clear moral sense; a clear sense of right and wrong. It also happens to align with the best parts of many of the holy books of many religions. Be nice to people. Don't take their stuff. Treat them as they wish to be treated.

These are the things that, I am told, god wants from us. Apparently, though, god can't stick to them emself, because ey created a world in which all of those things are trivially possible. Did we really have to have murder and torture in this universe? Are you sure?

Even if it's really important that god select between humans based on their actions... Really? Murder and torture? No. I don't buy it.

I am a good, friendly, moral being. No deity has ever come out of the sky to tell me which aspects, exactly, of all the moral statements in all the invisible-dragon-related texts ever produced are correct and should be followed. So I can only go with what I see, and I see that murder and torture are wrong, and that any being that allows them should be destroyed.

Imagine telling someone on the way to the ovens in Auschwitz that you personally set all this up, but it's OK because you have a plan. They would try to claw your eyes out, and you would deserve it. Why should we not hold god to the same standard?

Secret Heaven Doesn't Make This OK

Most theists tell me that after all this horror and suffering, if I'm a good little boy, I'll get to go to a place of rest and happiness (which sounds very boring, by the way, as usually described).

This imaginary place is, apparently, supposed to make all the horror I see around me OK.

I ... I just don't get it.

How does causing horrible suffering now make any sense if you've already got a place all ready to go where everything is great? Why not just send us all there right now? Then you wouldn't have to punish anybody, because they've had no reason to do anything awful.

Let me give you an analogy. If I took away, by force, all your money, every bit you make, so you are starving on the street and begging for scraps (and it has to be begging for food scraps because if someone gives you a coin I'll show up and take it before you can use it), that would be bad, right? That would upset you, right?

Would you be OK with it if, after 50 years of such horror, I gave you access to infinite wealth? Would that make my actions OK? It certainly wouldn't justify them, because the no-money state and the infinite-money state have no relationship, but would it make them OK? I certainly don't think so. Is there any court anywhere that wouldn't send me to jail forever for doing that? I doubt it. Why aren't we holding god to the same standard?

Even if you think that example makes perfect sense, why hide it from us? Can you imagine someone locking people in a warehouse and randomly torturing them, claiming it was OK because they were going to get great lives after the 50 years of suffering was over?

They didn't agree to it. They have no choice. They have no way of knowing that the reward is actually going to happen. The only evidence for it is that the bastard who set this up left a few slips of paper saying "it'll all get better soon" lying around the warehouse. Does that sound moral to you? Does that sound ethical? Does it sound like anything other than blackest evil?

This is the world deists tell me I live in.

If they truly believe that, how can they not then devote their lives to tearing god's throat out? What other response makes any moral sense at all?

Summarizing My Views

Any god that would allow the world we have is purest, blackest evil. Any god that additionally would punish anyone for just about any response to this horrifying world is more evil still. Any god that provides infinite punishment is infinitely evil.

I will not worship any being responsible for this universe, now or ever. If a booming voice came out of the sky and demanded I obey, I would start studying the phenomenon to figure out where it came from so I could get there and talk to it. If, after a brief explanation of what was actually going on, it didn't try to fix it, I would kill it, or die trying.

I would accept eternal torture to stand against a being that punished non-believers with eternal torture.

There is nothing I would not give up to destroy an unrepentant being responsible for this shit-hole of a world.

Or, to put it shortly: I wouldn't piss on your god if he were on fire.

It Wouldn't Take Much To Make It Better

It might sound like I'm holding god to too high a standard, but I'm really not.

In the first section of this half of the essay, I suggest what a world could look like, without changing the laws of nature as we understand them at all, that would actually be a half-way decent place to live. Any god responsible for all the various life on earth could have easily accomplished such a thing. There would still be arguments and struggles and difficulties and free will. All the things that make humanity great would still be there. Just with less of the horror.

I would not call the creator of such a world evil.

It wouldn't even require something so grand. What if people were, by default, just a little nice to each other? Think of the nicest, kindest, friendliest, and also most open and honest person you know (if that's two people, pick the one you like the most, but both honesty and kindness are important here). Obviously, such a person is possible, since you know them; no changes to human nature required.

What if that level of kindness was the default? What if basically everybody was at least that nice? Clearly this wouldn't violate free will or anything, unless you think your friend has no free will. There would be more nice people and less nice people, and some people would be all the way mean and would be treated much the way the criminally insane are now, but the default would be way, way nicer.

What would that accomplish?

I am, myself, a very kind person. I never give money to beggars, no matter how desperate they seem, because I don't trust them. I don't trust that they're really as badly off as they say they are, I don't trust that they're trying to fix their lives, I don't trust that they'll use my money to better themselves and not just get blasted on crack.

What if I could trust them? What if a person begging for money to get a quick buck was so far outside human norms that I could reliably count on such a person having been locked up for their own good long ago? How much positive difference could I make to the world if I gave a twenty dollar bill to every beggar I saw, with the near-certainty that this would actually make their lives twenty dollars richer and more successful? What if everyone else with spare money did the same thing?

I don't think there would be beggars in such a world, because the people around anyone who was failing at life would make sure they got the help they needed. There certainly wouldn't be starving children, or genocidal wars, etc, etc, etc.

You'd still get individual crazy people, but the world would be a far better place. The people who are doing well would probably be doing slightly less well, but there wouldn't really be anyone who was suffering alone, lost and forgotten and doomed to die far from home and comfort and love.

That's all. One tiny change: just make people a bit nicer.

You can still have all the sinning and punishment you like in the afterlife. You still have free will, and good people, and bad people, and good decisions, and bad decisions.

But the world would be brighter in every respect. I wouldn't be afraid to turn on the news.


The world I just described, where people are a tiny bit nicer, wouldn't be a perfect world, and I wouldn't actually respect a god that created it, but I wouldn't consider them flat-out evil, either.

And yet...

And yet your god couldn't even be bothered to do that, could he?

Fuck him. Let him die starving on a garbage heap, as he has condemned so many children to do. Hopefully history will see to it soon.

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