This essay has rather rambled on without much focus and really needs to be tidied up. Sorry.

I have always called myself an atheist, but recently Graham's expressed disklike of the term got me wondering if I was right to do so. His objection to being labelled "atheist" is that it was coined by theists to label those who had other opinions contrary to their own. Its etymology is, after all, a "negation" + theos "god". Others have objected to this labelling-by-the-opposition too. Richard Dawkins says: Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a word of our own, a word like "gay". You can say "I am an atheist" but at best it sounds stuffy (like "I am a homosexual") and at worst it inflames prejudice (like "I am a homosexual"). He then goes on to spread the bright meme.

I wholly approve of the sentiment, but I can't see myself saying "I am a bright" somehow. I am quite happy to say instead that I am a rationalist.

I believe that the only fair principle of law is that you should be free to do whatever you want to do, provided that you extend the same freedom to everyone else. This reciprocity is self-limiting, but this is what is lacking from religions which attempt to tell me that I cannot criticise them.

My parents were both nominally Christian, but neither attended church or observed any but the most general religious traditions. My mother had a somewhat more religious upbringing than I did; she enjoyed the social aspects of church and, I think, felt some mild guilt that I was not part of a community as she had been. She told me, somewhat apologetically, that she did not have me baptised.

I was always encouraged to make up my own mind on any topic, and books were my tools. Topics included religion, although I don't recall ever having a deep discussion about that subject with either parent. When I was very young, I started reading widely. I was serenely happy when I was reading anything, be it an encyclopaedia or a novel. I could immerse myself in a story, particularly, later on, science fiction and be oblivious to the world for a few hours. I think reading fiction innoculated me against implicitly believing anything I read. I recall reading the New Testament of the Christian bible and being very unimpressed with its disjointed and parochial stories. It had considerably less impact on my understanding of the universe than the galaxy-spanning concepts in Isaac Asimov or the weekly episode of the "All About Science" encyclopaedia I collected. I remember distinctly the sadness that accompanied the last installment of that multi-volume tome.

I didn't set out to read much about philosophy, but it sneaked in as some of my favourite authors were interested in the subject. I have always had a completeist tendency; if I find a book I like, I read every other item written before or since by the same author. I began with Carl Sagan's excellent works on astronomny, then followed him in to the more social works such as his famous Demon-Haunted World. Similarly, the eminent biologist Richard Dawkins wrote good science articles but also Viruses of the Mind. I can't say that these works formed my opinions, since I had already made up my mind that science could provide a perfectly adequate explanation for everything I observed, but they did give me the concepts and vocabulary to reason about these beliefs. Also, for the first time, I became aware that there were people who held mental models of the world that were utterly unreconcilable with my own. When you first encounter this sort of thing, your first instinct as a scientist is to see if the alternative hypotheses are perhaps better than your own. You might be wrong, after all. Fortunately, there are some simple tests you can perform before accepting any hypothesis: is it self-consistent; does it conflict with recorded fact? If it isn't self-consistent, it can't be right. If it conflicts with recorded fact, it it less likely to be right (records can be wrong, but the more instances and different types of observations it contradicts, the harder it is to believe that all the observations are in error). When I do these tests and investigate why science holds some particular view, I consistently find that observations and reasons exist to strongly justify that view. In contrast, the people with unreconcilable mental models of the world invariably have their models based on information from a single source; typically an authority interpreting a specific set of writings. It seems preposterous to me that people following this way of looking at the world can think that they are doing it right. As Peter Harrison writes:

When we study the world and find that your primitive scripture is incorrect, we are siding with your god if he exists. We're appreciating his creation and not attacking it. You are attacking the very details of your god's own creation simply because you've been convinced that a book is more valid than your creator's own reality.

So, why do I not believe in a god? I do not need to. I can explain everything that I have personally observed with what I know of science.

It goes a little further than that, at the cost of more uncertainty. I have read many convincing scientific explanations by others of things that they have personally observed. It isn't safe to implicitly trust this second-hand evidence, but it is possible to increase one's confidence in it by cross-checking and personally spot-checking points where one can. At this point in our history, we have excellent records of a huge range of phenomena; thanks to the Internet, I can now consult many of these records with unprecedented ease. I have very high confidence that every natural phenomenon that our civilisation has observed and accurately recorded has been convincingly explained by science to a very precise level of detail. I have high confidence that phenomena that exist at the boundaries of our current knowledge (typically those things at the scales of the very, very small and the very, very large) are susceptible to scientific explanation, although that explanation may still need to be refined.

There are certainly things for which we have multiple explanations and with the evidence currently available, we may not be able to decide between the possible explanations. There are cases where our explanations are still approximate, rather than having the ideal form of a mathematical equation; there is still scope for refining these explanations.

Is it possible that some of these as-yet-unexplained things could be explained by the existence of a god? Of course. But, while I haven't got perfect explanations for everything worked out, I don't feel that a god is a good explanation. Why not? I suppose it's starts as a matter of elegance. This is a difficult argument to make because it relies on some quality I can't readily quantify, but I think I know when it is present. That may sound like an argument based on faith, and if that was all it was, I'd have to agree. But what I mean is that the "elegance" thing helps you know if you are on the right track or not. It doesn't prove or disprove anything; it just lets you know where a closer look and a bit of streamlining might be justified.

I write computer programs. But before I write programs, I design programs. Designing them takes much more effort than writing them because the design process requires you to strive for the best, most compact, most useful, most complete mental model of the task to be performed. Once you have such a model, it's trivial to write the code. How do you obtain the model? That's something I wish I knew how to explain, but I don't---and, it seems from the vast collection of software engineering waffle nobody else does either. But after you've been doing it for a while, you get to know when things are going right. It's something I have read other disciplines find too: mathematicians like C. P. Snow and physicists like Richard Feynman said they could tell if a theory was wrong by how elegant it felt. Good theories are simple.

So the first hint that something is wrong with the god hypothesis is that it isn't elegant. It invents something of vast complexity, for which there is no direct evidence. It's too complicated. Does the god hypothesis explain anything we can observe that we can't explain in a simpler way? I don't know, but I suspect not.

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject, which brings several shades of meaning to light. Atheism is the state either of being without theistic beliefs, or of actively disbelieving in the existence of deities.

It's hard to have sensible discussions about religion because the term is used to mean so many different things. People who like to get in to such discussions seem to be willing to redefine words so they mean what they want them to mean. This makes debate completely unproductive.

Unexplored topics

organised religion self-propagating, memes benefits disease therapy brights purpose ethics
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