Guest Column: Life Without An Afterlife: Atheism Explained

By Peter Sloan

Something has been happening this year on campus that I find very encouraging. More than in my previous three years at the University, students and faculty have been engaged in an extended, critical discussion of religion. More than in the past, members of our UA community of all different religious backgrounds, including “none,” have been talking to each other—and have defended their beliefs.

I am proud to say that Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, the student organization of which I am vice president, has been centrally involved in contributing to and shaping the discussion. Our members have chalked the sidewalks, contributed to this newspaper, and organized a public lecture series. Last week, we hosted a display in the Ferguson Center, inviting all to “Ask An Atheist” anything they liked. I would like to share some of the most frequently asked questions and some of the answers we gave.

“Why are you an atheist?”

I am an atheist because I think there is no good evidence that suggests God exists, and a lot of evidence that suggests he does not. I think the best way to form beliefs about the world is through experimentation, observation and logical interpretation of data—the process called science, not through deference to authority and reference to an ancient mythological text. If strong evidence for God’s existence is ever discovered, I will change my beliefs.

“How can you be sure God does not exist?”

I cannot. But I also cannot be sure that I am not surrounded by invisible, magic unicorns right now, or that I am not actually living in the Matrix. We do not have to be completely certain of something to believe it. We just need good evidence.

“Aren’t some things unexplainable by science?”

No. Everything that exists is subject to experimentation and reason. There are certainly things about the world that we currently do not understand, but that does not mean we can never understand them. To say that we can understand things like love, morality or our origins does not belittle them; I think it makes them more beautiful.

“How do you form your sense of morality without God?”

Like most people, I just want to do good for myself and for others. I want to leave the world in better shape than I found it in, and science helps me do this. Biology and psychology tell me how individual people behave, while economics and political science tell me how we act in groups. Moral philosophy helps me think critically about what I value and how I should act. But it is not necessary to be an expert in all these disciplines to lead a moral life. All we have to do is have a sincere desire to do good and do our best to figure out what exactly that is.

And anyway, it is not clear that anyone actually gets their moral values from their religion. Take Christianity. Morality has changed over time, but the Bible has not. Is it not possible that people have been forming their values in other ways and then selectively interpreting the Bible to support what they already believe?

“Don’t you believe in anything bigger than yourself?”

Of course I do. I value things like democracy and public education, and I believe in things like historical trends and the laws of nature that shape my world. I believe there may even be intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe far more advanced—biologically, technologically, morally—than we. But I do not believe they are supernatural.

“What do you believe happens when you die?”

I believe that my soul is made of my body and my brain. I am a unique organization of biological matter. When my heart stops beating, and my lungs stop breathing, and my brain stops thinking, I will be gone forever. This sobering fact inspires me to live the most fulfilling life possible. “You live only once.”

“How did the universe begin?”

I do not know. But I do know that “God did it” is not a good answer. After all, who created God? If you can say God does not have a creator, then why not say the same about the universe? The sciences of physics and cosmology are working toward a real, testable answer to this question. Theology is not.

Remember, unlike religious people, we atheists do not have an official doctrine or creed, so not all atheists will agree with my answers. And I do not consider these answers to be the end of the discussion, but rather the beginning. Let’s keep asking each other questions. We might just learn something! And isn’t that what we are all here to do?

Peter Sloan is a senior majoring in music and philosophy. He is vice president of Alabama Atheists and Agnostics.

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