Dan Kohn (
Sat, 13 Sep 1997 23:27:06 -0700

OK, I'm going to try something kind of dumb. I'm going to try to lay
out, clearly and succinctly, why I have become an atheist. I am doing
this because I value the opinions of people on this list, and I am
curious what your reactions will be. I am also an optimist, and believe
that as a community, FoRK may actually be able to discuss these subjects
without descending into a flame war. I am not doing this to proselytize
anyone; in fact, I will take to the streets to defend all of our rights
to believe anything we want to. This will also publicly archive my
current thinking, so that I can potentially deeply regret this post


Man is a small thing,
and the night is very large
and full of wonders
- Lord Dunsany, The Laughter of the Gods

Like many fairly well-educated people, I've been an agnostic most of
life. I was Bar Mitzvahed, but was never fully sold on the correctness
of Judaism or its applicability to my life. Today, I consider Judaism
as my ethnicity rather than my religion. Similarly, I have had vaguely
spiritual occurrences in my life, and have prayed on occasion. But, I
basically have never had strong feelings toward religion and had never
spent a lot of intellectual energy confirming (or refuting) them.


As a person of faith, I am bound by a different covenant than she.
But our goal is one and the same: the pursuit of truth.
-- Contact

One of the things that comes to mind in reading a book like The History
of Knowledge
is the question of what is the most important thing that humankind has
learned over the last 15,000 or so years? Market capitalism,
electricity, Darwinism, democracy?

My answer is not a specific piece of knowledge, but instead knowledge
about how to generate new knowledge: the scientific method.
<> contains the
following definition:

>Newton invented a scientific method which was truly universal in its
>scope. Newton presented his methodology as a set of four rules for
>scientific reasoning. These rules were stated in the Principia and
>proposed that (1) we are to admit no more causes of natural things
>such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances,
>(2) the same natural effects must be assigned to the same causes,
>(3) qualities of bodies are to be esteemed as universal, and
>(4) propositions deduced from observation of phenomena should be
>viewed as accurate until other phenomena contradict them.

Contrast this approach to Aristotle
<>, who though a
smart guy, made errors in the large majority of his theories (e.g., 4
elements, celestial spheres, slaves are necessarily inferior since they
are slaves, etc.). The problem was not that Aristotle was lacking in
any original or good ideas; in fact, he had too many. The problem was
that rather than testing their truth, he would assume it. The bio
concludes with, "In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries A. D.,
Aristotle's works came to be accepted as absolute truths, a fact which
served to effectively stifle original and experiment-based scientific
progress for centuries."

I am not saying that the scientific method provides any insights into
the origination of good ideas. The discovery of the smallpox vaccine
after all, is based on the old wives' tale about being "as fair as a
tml> My point is just that there are a lot of ideas out there, and it
is really useful to be able to distinguish the good ones.

Another book that was influential on my thinking was the History of Pi
by Peter Beckmann
which traces humankind's understanding of Pi from Egyptian times to
today. The book meanders into some scathing attacks on religion, the
Romans, and communism, mainly for the reason that all of them had such
horrendous effects on humankind's learning, as symbolized by our
understanding of Pi. When someone is burned at the stake for not
agreeing that Pi=3 (as the bible is interpreted as saying), you begin to
see the advantages of using the scientific method to settle disputes.


Do we, holding that gods exist,
deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams
and lies, while random careless chance and
change alone control the world?
- Euripides in Hecuba

I have never had a moment of revelation when it suddenly became clear to
me that God doesn't exist. But, over the last 2 years, I have been
reading a lot of things, including the New Yorker, the Economist, and
Scientific American. And as I started to connect together the ideas
from many different articles, I realized how extraordinarily unlikely it
is that God exists. (One idea that sticks in my mind is from
neo-Darwinist Charles Dawkins: Explaining complexity [the world] with
complexity [God] is not intellectually satisfying compared to explaining
complexity with simplicity [natural selection]. Or phrased differently,
if the watchmaker made the watch, who made the watchmaker?)

How likely is it that if God did not exist, the world would appear very
much like it does today? If there were no God, and the world is a
confusing and often unhappy place, would you not expect to have hundreds
of competing and mutually exclusive religions around the world, each
arguing that they represent the absolute truth?

I think everyone should read Contact by Carl Sagan
it is simply one of the best books I know. It is infinitely superior to
the movie in its imagination and intellect, and has a different ending
that is hugely more satisfying. Chapter 10, Precession of the
Equinoxes, is a wonderful debate about the existence of God, where all
three debaters (oddly enough) make their points as brilliantly as Carl
Sagan would. I find it kind of strange that the entire book appears to
be on the Web <>, but that allows
me to quote my favorite part of that chapter (which is one of my
favorite quotes from anywhere). I strongly encourage you to read the
whole chapter for yourself; it is the first chapter of part 2
<>. In the scene,
Ellie Arroway is talking to Palmer Joss and another character about
whether or not the bible is true:


"Your trouble," she replied, "is a failure of the imagination. These
prophecies are-almost ever one of them-vague, ambiguous, imprecise, open
to fraud. They admit lots of possible interpretations. Even the
straightforward prophecies direct from the top you try to weasel out
of-like Jesus' promise that the Kingdom of God would come in the
lifetime of some people in his audience. And don't tell me the Kingdom
of God is within me. His audience understood him quite literally. You
only quote the passages that seem to you fulfilled, and ignore the rest.
And don't forget there was a hunger to see prophecy fulfilled.
"But imagine that your kind of god-omnipotent, omniscient,
compassionate-really wanted to leave a record for future generations, to
make his existence unmistakable to, say, the remote descendants of
Moses. It's easy, trivial. Just a few enigmatic phrases, and some fierce
commandment that they be passed on unchanged..."
"Joss leaned forward almost imperceptibly. "Such as...?"
"Such as 'The Sun is a star.' Or 'Mars is a rusty place with
deserts and volcanoes, like Sinai.' Or 'A body in motion tends to remain
in motion.' Or-let's see now"-she quickly scribbled some numbers on a
pad-"'The Earth weighs a million million million million times as much
as a child.' Or-I recognize that both of you seem to have some trouble
with special relativity, but it's confirmed every day routinely in
particle accelerators and cosmic rays-how about 'There are no privileged
frames of reference'? Or even 'Thou shalt not travel faster than light.'
anything they couldn't possible have known three thousand years ago."
"Any others?" Joss asked.
"Well, there's an indefinite number of them-or at least one for
every principal of physics. Let's see... 'Heat and light hide in the
smallest pebble.' Or even 'The way of the Earth is as two, but the way
of the lodestone is as three.' I'm trying to suggest that the
gravitational force follows an inverse square law, while the magnetic
dipole force follows an inverse cube law.


Now, this is partly Sagan showing off how smart he is, but there is a
kind of basic point here. I find trying to accept the word of the
bible, or any religion, as the absolute word of God, as stretching
credulity to the breaking point. I do not have anything against
religion. Fundamentally, I just see it as a hypothesis of how (and why)
the world works the way it does. And I think science has provided a
much better hypothesis. In the fifteenth century, the science vs.
religion question was still up in the air. But since then, science has
provided much better experimental results.

As I have come to better understand the scientific method, I realized
that the existence of God had just begun seeming less and less likely to
me. Another fantastic book is The Night is Large by Martin Gardner,
which is a collection of his essays over his lifetime
I quote Gardner in saying that it would be "a dishonest use of the
language" to call myself an agnostic instead of an atheist.

(BTW, I am enough of a connoisseur of irony to find it fascinating that
Newton always believed in God.)


Should the wide world roll away,
Leaving black terror,
Limitless night,
Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand
Would be to me essential,
If thou and thy white arms were there,
And the fall to doom a long way.
- Stephen Crane

So, all of this leads me to the belief that there is no *intrinsic*
meaning to anything. I think physics and Darwinism explain everything
we need to know about how we got here and why (i.e., there is no why).
Although I think Darwinism is fundamentally true, I also find it a
morally reprehensible way to organize the world, and I see no
contradiction in this belief. I am not especially bothered by what came
before the big bang; I suspect that our language does not have the tools
we need to even discuss the subject meaningfully.

Does the lack of God mean that life is meaningless? Perhaps. I am
optimistic enough to think that life has all the meaning we imbue it
with, no more and no less.

For me, a lot of what gives life meaning is communication. The only
word that adequately describes my feelings toward the interaction of
individuals, our coming together, is holy. Communication separates us
from the apes, and it makes the vast loneliness of our universe livable.
It is one of the reasons that I work in telecommunications and is also
why I participate on FoRK.

Sometimes, I find it kind of lonely or depressing that there is no
greater plan; we do not have any parents looking out for us. But, every
time humankind has ever had parents (metaphorically, with the Garden of
Eden; as polities, with monarchs; and of course, as individuals), we
have always grown up and assumed our independence. It has not always
been easy, but I am trying to spiritually set out on my own.

- dan