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stephen gottlieb

Dear Greta,
it seems to me that you have skirted, yet not stated a specific reason to identify oneself as an atheist. the simple reason is that atheists are still in the minority. a true lack of any belief in god is still somewhat rare in our society. while most people are not butlers, to use your friends rather obviously flawed allusion, most people believe that god, or a greater power, does exist. the ability to rationalize out the theory that god does not exist is simply a leap of logic that most people cannot make. while you and I find it totally obvious, the overwhelming majority of all humanity simply cannot see it. and because religion has always been extremely forgiving and accepting of the beliefs of others, it is very, very important to be able to say out loud, that you think that others religious beliefs are a bunch of silly, superstitious nonsense first invented when we were still hunting mastodons with sharpened sticks. logic has brought our society technological greatness, yet we use it recklessly, because of a ham fisted hodgepodge of fictions that tell us it will be okay because god loves us and will help us with our screw ups. until we can all identify the fact that the god theory is insupportable with anything resembling fact, we will continue down that same, autodestructive, piddle-headed path to our true damnation, that of the extinction of our species.


Hi Greta. I like your reasons, but I have to question a little of your reasoning... particularly the bit about free will. First, I guess I should ask how you are defining free will. If you mean that as a human, one of the things that we do is weigh various options with our brains and then select one to pursue, then I guess I agree with you. But if you mean free will in a bigger sense, then I really don't believe any of us has individual free will. I believe in the laws of cause and effect and I think that all of our "choices" are inevitable based on our biological makeup, the knowledge that we may or may not have, and all the other conditions of the world in the moment that the "decision" is made.

I really do think that everything that happens is pre-programmed. Not by a programmer, if that means God or some external entity, but simply by everything that has come before. I think of the Universe as one big chain reaction. So while we may feel that we have free will, I really can't conceive of it except as an illusion. And I believe that that illusion is one of the important characteristics of humans.

I can't ask a dog or a cat if they feel they have free will, but I'll bet that if I did, they'd have no clue what I was talking about. Does a cat have a choice of chasing a bit of feathers on a stick? Not if it's there in front of the cat and the cat happens to be in a playful mood. And I think humans are really not that much different.

I think the illusion of free will is the result of several factors: not having all the information about our own internal processes to understand what is going on that causes the choices that we make, not being able to see into the future and having a very limited understanding of the past, identifying with only certain parts of our brains... the parts that rationally weigh pros and cons and figure out complex problems... and calling those parts "me." The illusion of free will is not that far off from the illusion of the soul, actually, because it implies a part of you that is separate and more "you" than the rest of you.

Giving up the illusion of free will is not depressing. In fact, it makes me feel more a part of the world, connected to everything around me, what came before and what will happen in the future.

Without free will, I can watch my own actions with objectivitiy and learn from them because my ego stays out of the way. If I don't get all tangled up in ideas that "I" made the wrong decision or "I" did something bad, then I'm better able to analyze what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done differently in the future. And yes, this does cause me to start writing in the passive voice, although there is nothing passive about this.

It also sounds kinda Buddhist, doesn't it? I don't call myself a Buddhist, but I do think they've come up with a few good ideas.

I would recommend the book, *Consciousness: An Introduction*, by Susan Blackmore. It's a very good survey of all the many theories of consciousness (including that of Dan Dennett, who wrote *Consciousness Explained*) After reading it, see if you still think we actually have free will.

Greta Christina

Stephen: I didn't say that because I don't think it. Or not all of it, anyway.

I do write in Part Two of this piece about some of what you're talking about; that part of why atheism is central to my identity is because religion is so prevalent in our society, and so much of that religion is oppressive and fucked-up.

But (a) I don't think that religion is the cause of all our self-destructive tendencies. Greed, selfishness, laziness, short-sightedness, power-hunger... none of these need religion to exist.

And (b) I don't think that all religion is "silly, superstitious nonsense." I think all religion is mistaken, I'm very much troubled by it, and I think a lot of it is nonsense; but I know too many smart, thoughtful people who have considered their religious beliefs carefully to reflexively call all of it silly nonsense. (I also wouldn't talk like that here, as I try to keep this blog civil and friendly.)

C. L. Hanson

Re: "What activities do you engage in because you are a naturalist, as opposed to say, a lapsed but nominal christian or jew?"

funny question, and I have the same answer for both: Nonstop blogging, and all of the fun socializing and introspection that go with them!!!


Well Greta as usual I feel like a total weirdo who doesn't fit into any neatly packaged little category! I'm not an atheist, I LOVE science, I find the evidence for macro-evolution shaky at best, and I believe in (for lack of a better word) the spiritual or metaphysical aspects of human existence. I believe religion is an evil created by people, and I also believe in the Bible. Howz that for a nutcase?

But I'm not really writing to pontificate in your comments zone - I'm just writing to say that, as a writer, I really like your approach and I'm glad you got me hooked on blogging. My blog is growing every day and I'm thinking of including some sort of forum for debate on exactly the same issues you discuss.

I've read many of your posts, and I really liked the "Why I'm an Atheist" 3 part series. So much rawness and honesty in those pieces! Keep up the good work!!

Tom Clark

"I personally prefer "naturalist" (i.e., someone who believes the natural, physical world is all there is)... but most people think that means, like, a park ranger or a botanist or something, so "atheist" it is."

Rats, I was hoping you'd stick with naturalist since it's so descriptive, and positive. All it takes is a phrase or two to explain what it means (e.g., opposite of supernaturalist, someone who holds a naturalistic worldview) and bingo, you're no longer identified with the more or less negative thesis about the non-existence of god (atheism).

No matter, keep up the good work, and please come visit us at the Center for Naturalism.


Tom Clark


Oh, wow, I'm deeply honored! To inspire such an essay! Sorry it took me so long to respond; life has been happening.

I have just come across a book that I really have to get and read, because it's very on point: "Nothing: Something to believe in". It's apparently a positive statement of "my religion is nothing", as opposed to a reaction against religion. In other words, your essay at book length.

(Of course, I haven't read it yet, so that summary may not be perfectly accurate.)

Yes, I truly believe that there is no higher power than me to set things right. If I want the world to be a better place, I have to do it myself.

Given the state of the world these days, that's a rather overwhelming concept, and can be rather depressing. What can I do to un-fuck what all these self-absorbed hypocritical assholes are so thoroughly fucking up? But the truth isn't what makes me happy.

Of course, as Penn's essay on the subject says, that also means that it is possible; there's no higher power mandating that the world be fucked up.

As for the small joy for the day, I can relish the fact that you spotted the Monty Python reference; that was one of the less famous quotes.

Now I have to go and read part 2!

Greta Christina

"I find the evidence for macro-evolution shaky at best..."

Sorry to pick this one thing out of a very nice comment, Chris, but I just couldn't let it rest.

I'm not an evolutionary biologist, and I can't discuss this as clearly or expertly as I'd like. But macro-evolution is really just micro-evolution over a much longer period of time. Small deviations happen within a species (micro-evolution) over a shorter period; but given enough time, those small deviations can and do become large deviations, and the different deviations within a species can and sometimes do eventually become different species (macro-evolution).

And there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support this, from multiple disciplines: DNA, fossil record, anatomy studies, etc. Recommended reading: The Blind Watchmaker (I almost wrote "The Blond Watchmaker," that'd be a very different book) by Richard Dawkins. The best "evolution for the intelligent layperson" book I've read.

I'm curious: What about macro-evolution do you not find compelling?


Chris - pardon me while I pick my jaw up off the floor. "I find the evidence for macro-evolution shaky at best"... er, howzzat?

As I am fond of saying, there is more - far more - direct physical evidence for the evolution of all life on earth from a single common ancestor than there is for the American civil War. The only difference is that the evidence for the latter is written in English.

Remember, evolution was widely accepted as a fact by natural philosophers since Linnaeus's era. the family resemblances were just too strong to ignore.

What Darwin added was a *theory* of evolution (via natural selection) explaining how the widely observed fact of evolution happened.

In the last few years, we've figured out how dinosaurs developed feathers and then flight, we've found Tiktaalik roseae to fill in the dotted line between Pandericthys (amphibian-like fish) , Icthyostega, and Acanthostega (fish-like amphibian).

We now have whole-genome sequences on many species, and are adding more rapidly. It's enabled us to watch evolution happening over the course of weeks in wild bacteria. We're finally understanding the purpose of the "junk DNA" introns that puzzled biologists for decades. Not just the genetic code, but the entire mechanism for turning bits on and off, is becoming clear.

We know so much that we're starting to seriously think about what that common ancestor, billions of years ago, was like. Abiogenesis is the esoteric and speculative part of biology. Evolution - micro, macro, and everything in between - is as settled as planetary dynamics. (Where the exciting fun stuff is finding planets around distant stars.)

The evidence is shaky in the same way that southern Libya is damp and muggy.

What part of it do you find remotely shaky? We haven't figured out the complete tree of life incorporating every species on the planet, but that's mostly because of the number of species in relation to biology budgets.

Greta Christina

Have been thinking all day about your comments on free will, Beth. And I think it's entirely possible that you're right: free will may very well be an illusion. I happen to not think so... but I will also admit that my belief that we have some sort of free will is largely based on "it sure seems that way to me."

And since I don't like it when other people insist that "it sure seems that way to me" is a valid piece of evidence in a debate, I therefore have to acknowledge the possibility that I could be mistaken about this. And not just in a dismissive, "yeah, yeah, I suppose it's possible that I'm wrong" way, but in a real, "I'm just making the best guess I can based on very limited information and I could very easily could be wrong about this" way.

What I really, truly think about free will is this: We don't know.

It's like consciousness: we don't know enough yet about how the mind works to know what consciousness is. And similarly, I think we don't know enough yet about how the mind works to know whether free will is real or an illusion -- and if it's real, what exactly that means. (Or for that matter, if it's an illusion, what exactly *that* means.)

But here's my question.

You say that, without a belief in free will, "I'm better able to analyze what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done differently in the future."


If you don't have free will, how can you choose to change what you do or don't do in the future?


Very interesting and well said. This is a subject I could talk about all day. I will try not to rant too long about it here about it though!

I have heard many times from hard core vocal christians how sad they feel for people who do not believe in god. Once I told someone that the meaning of life can be something you create for yourself. You set your own goals and opinions and work for them and that should give you a great sense of satisfaction in your life. I was then spoken to like a lost child as he responded with a 'there there, how cute...poor thing'.

The problem with most fundamentalists is that they refuse to even acknowledge that there are other possibilities out there. From my perspective, I think believing in a god who will help guide your bowling ball down the lane to get a strike (see Jesus Camp) is the same as believing that a magic unicorn lives in the woods and will grant you a wish if you catch it. I'm not saying either are necessarily impossible, but it is the same magical thinking. It is just that one is more accepted to be true than the other. Therefore, to talk to someone who chooses not to believe in such magical thinking as a lost child to be pitied and worse, saved, shows an enormous lack of understanding, open-mindedness and compassion.
As you have mentioned in your blog, it is this pressure and lack of acceptance of other beliefs that force atheists to be more vocal of their beliefs. I passed a church the other day with a sign that stated 'Atheism: a non-profit organization'. I found this extremely offensive and stupid. It is basically saying that if you choose to believe in the power of nature and the natural world you cannot have a meaningful sense of existence.
I personally think it is easy to find meaning in magical thinking where you can believe whatever comforting thoughts you want. It takes more heartache and guts to find your own sense of meaning in a world where life is fragile and a one shot deal. I have no problem with people who like to have comforting thoughts. I day dream about fantastical events all the time which will never happen, but I don't tell people they are stupid or lost if they don't live their lives by such thoughts.
This brings me to another point. The concept of organized religion is that everyone believes the same thing. Take christianity for example. The belief is that the bible is the word of god and you must follow it if you want to be rewarded and invited into his kingdom after you die. However, no two people believe the same thing. There may be an agreement on the basic ideas, like that Jesus was the son of god who died for our sins. However, there are so many disagreements on what parts of the bible mean, as well as individuals believing what makes sense to them. Some christians believe the world is only 6000-10 000 years old. Some believe it is 4.5 billion. Some believe in evolution, but that god helped it along, while others believe god created all life at once. Some believe dinosaurs are just a myth while others think they did exist but were herbivores until adam and eve at the fruit of knowledge. And these aren't even details about the teachings in the bible. Some people are sure the bible claims god hates gay people, while others think god loves all of his creations.
My point is that if no two people have exactly the same beliefs, then no one is actually following the true word of the lord. Or at least such a small handful actually have it right that most christians will be sent to hell for misinterpreting the bible. This is of course, if you believe god is a stubborn wrathful god. Then again, some people think he is kind and forgiving. So what is the point of an organized religion where everyone is supposed to believe the same thing, when they don't.
I believe everyone is entitled to self discovery and a freedom of spiritual belief. People should think hard about things, question what they don't understand and build their own belief system based on what makes sense to them.
This is not what is taught in organized religions. In fact, they are excuses for people to believe something blindly without having to think about it or question it. As long as hundreds of millions of people back them up by saying they believe the same thing, that is enough proof for them. This is the damaging effect of religion.


Sure that wasn't: 'Atheism: a non-PROPHET organization'? Because that's actually kind of funny. And true, since the belief that no one has a magical line on the future is consistent with the tenets of atheism,


Greta wrote:

"But here's my question.

"You say that, without a belief in free will, "I'm better able to analyze what went right, what went wrong, and what could be done differently in the future."


"If you don't have free will, how can you choose to change what you do or don't do in the future?"

Part of this human animal called Beth is a brain that analyzes the data that is available to it and decides on a course of action based on that data. That sounds like free will. It sure feels like we choose freely, as you have said. But is it really free? How do we know that we could have actually made any other decision? We know we had options, but do we know that we actually could have chosen anything other than what we did? Maybe our biology and chemistry and history and environment and availability of information combine to make the only choice possible at the time.

Our brains are a hugely complex system of chemical reactions. Analysis of past "mistakes" is physically just more chemical reactions, and the memory of the mistakes themselves is data in the system.

The thing is, we don't know ahead of time, as we are deliberating, what our choices will be. The brain thinks, other parts of the body weigh in (fatigue, hunger, pain, etc.), time passes adding new data to the system, and eventually, we act. Since we can't see into the future, it feels like our choices are free, but we only find out what choice was made after we have acted (or not acted.)

And how much does our conscious mind actually control what we do anyway? How many times have you made a decision to do something and then at the last minute, didn't do it? When our actions don't match our "conscious" decision, we interpret the reason to be that we changed our minds, so that we have continuity between thought and action. But perhaps this is just rationalization. Maybe there are other reasons we didn't do it, reasons of which we are unaware.

There have actually been experiments in consciousness studies demonstrating that action can happen before people are actually aware of the stimulus, yet they report the awareness and the decision after the fact. I can't cite the actual experiments right now, but they are detailed in *Consciousness: An Introduction* and probably in Dan Dennett's book, *Consciousness Explained*,which I have but haven't read yet.

It's funny. You recommended the Dan Dennett book to me a while ago but hadn't read it. While I was reading the Dan Dennett portions of *Consciousness: An Introduction*, I was remembering your telling me how important it was to you to feel that you had free will, and I was thinking that you might not like what he had to say on that subject after all.

Anyway, whether we actually have free will or whether it's an illusion, we still behave in basically the same way. It's just helpful to me to see through what I believe now to be an illusion because it takes the blame out of the equation. This does not mean that I'm suddenly going to run around killing and robbing and stealing because nothing is my fault. (At least I don't think I'm going to do any of those things, based on my current understanding of myself.) What it does mean is that instead of feeling guilty or bad about faulty decisions, I (or I should say the part of my brain that analyzes and figures things out) can look at what happened in a more detached way, unencumbered by ego, and plan future actions based on new information. Whether those plans translate into action, I'll only find out after the action does or doesn't occur.

Oh, and I do have one more thing to say about running around "killing and robbing and stealing." Ishmael Beah's book, *A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier*, is a good example of how we do not make free decisions outside of the environment to which we are connected. None of us knows what atrocities we might be capable of given the right conditions.

Anyway, far be in from me to tell anyone how they should describe their own experience. Michael and I have disagreements about saying "I don't think it's going to happen" vs. "I'm not going to do it." Using an active voice helps him feel that he is the author of his destiny and helps him psychologically. For me, that kind of language rings false. Ultimately, I say whatever works for you is great, as long as you don't insist that I see things the same way you do.

And on that point, I think you and I agree!


I don't agree that the definition of atheism should be expanded in any way beyond what it is (i.e., lack of acceptance of the theistic belief claim that god or gods exist). You discuss a number of beliefs (which I share) that have nothing whatsoever to do with atheism. It sounds like you are a well-adjusted member of the reality-based community. Atheism is only one of many components of your identity as mine as well.

Bill Jager

Dear Greta,

is awesome.

I am an Atheist, but for many years I called myself an agnostic.

I agree with your comments under the headings: “I believe that I was unbelievably lucky to have been born at all.” “a) that on the cosmic scale, I'm just not that big a deal --“ “c) that, as Richard Dawkins said, "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” I take your points even a step farther.

As a Native American, I have often said, I believe in nature and I depend on science to explain that nature to me.

Based on evidence, contrary to superstitious religious beliefs, science tells us that the Universe is approximately 12.5 to 15 billion years old. The Sun, Earth and the planets in our solar system are approximately 5 billions years old. This leaves us with a Universe existing in a span of about 10 billion years without our solar system. The Sun, Earth and the rest of our solar stem is about midway in its life cycle and should last another 5 billion years before out Sun burns out. All life as we know it on Earth will end along with our solar system. Some are hopeful that down the road, humans will evolve to the point we can travel out into the Universe and find a new home, but all that is a long way off into the future. All we can be assured of is the moment we live in.

Taking into account the vast cosmic scale of the Universe, the Sun, Earth and our solar system will not even be missed when it dies. The Universe will continue to do what it does. The Sun, Earth and our solar system are not a big deal to the rest of the Universe. It is only a big deal to us. Our solar system is one of the lucky ones; it and we existed for a moment in time.

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