Atheism

No logos
I think the time has come to get rid of theology departments from universities. Theology is a fake. Like Scientology, it is an activity appropriating a false name to pretend to be something it isn’t – identity theft on a grand scale.

Before you start jumping up and down on your couch – take a pill, calm down, let me explain.

As it happens, we can pretty much define the year in which science and religion parted ways, thus consigning the latter to the dustbin of history. The year is 1538, and Vesalius publishes anatomical drawings based on his own dissections of the human body. It was the beginning of the end for a tradition which simply accepted as fact what had been said by the Ancient Greeks, notably Galen, even when what they said contradicted what you could see with your own eyes. If you saw something which appeared to contradict what Galen had said 1500 years earlier it was not Galen that was wrong but your eyes. Andrea Vesalius began believing the evidence of his eyes, and science was, effectively, born.

Biology is often translated as the ‘science of life’, and there are many sciences with the logy ending – paleontology, physiology, archeology, endocrinology and so on. It comes from the Greek word ‘logos’, which can be translated as reason. So ‘biology’ means applying reason to the study of the living world, or using our brains to analyze life. The scientific method of course uses reason in a particular sequence of observation-analysis-hypothesis-observation-analysis-new hypothesis, and so on. So when Vesalius began actually observing the body, instead of taking on faith what he had been told by an authority, he was setting in motion the process that led next to Harvey developing an hypothesis about the flow of blood, and ever onwards to our highly developed understanding now of how bodies function.

By 1538 religious students had also had some 1500 years of taking on faith what they were told, in spite of the evidence of their eyes and ears and brains. And although the Reformation had begun two decades before Vesalius published his drawings, the religious reformation had nothing in common with the scientific one, since it merely replaced one set of beliefs, one kind of faith, with another. And for the last 500 years this has remained the situation.

Similarly ‘theology’ has nothing to do with reason, the scientific method, to the questions of religion, and everything to do with maintaining, unchanged, the beliefs handed down from even before the time of Galen. It is not a science, just as Scientology, which merely reinforces its own beliefs instead of testing them, is not a science. In both cases, using the ‘ology’ ending lends a spurious air of respectability, a pretense about being seekers after truth and wisdom, instead of being merely followers of long discredited myths. Having departments of theology in universities is a cover for religion, it is the respectable face of irrational belief, and that cover should be removed.

It is sad though. If theology had followed biology in the use of reason to address the questions of the day, had cast aside the received wisdom and been determined to test the propositions that had been handed down from ancient times, then it could have done the world a great service. By now, after 500 years of the systematic application of reason to the question of religion, there would be no more religion. And just as modern medicine has reason to look back with gratitude to Vesalius, so modern society would have had reason to look back in gratitude to Martin Luther if he had really been a ‘theologian’ and not just another religious leader, relying on faith to maintain his position.

Who was it who pointed out that ‘if only’ are the saddest words in the English language?

15 May 2007

67 comments on “Atheism

  1. Eric Snyder says:

    If you define superstition as a belief not based on reason or knowledge (and that is a dictionary definition), then atheism is anything BUT “living the superstition-free life.”

    There is certainly no “reason” or “knowledge” that would lead any rationally reasoning person to come to the conclusion that a creator/designer does not exist. Reason most definitely dictates that one does and it requires an unreasonable approach to our existence to believe otherwise. Thus, the atheist is a very superstitious person living a “faith-based” life believing life came from non-life and order came from disorder; requires a lot more faith than I have for sure!.

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    • David Horton says:

      Yes – I suspect you may be one of those people for whom black is white and up is down Eric. It is hard to see how your belief could be more back to front. But thanks for dropping by, come again.

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    • Belungerer says:

      If there is such a being as a Creator, who created the Creator?

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      • David Horton says:

        Hi Sam, welcome to blog, hope you will come often.

        Your question has always been such a good one that creationists have not only not answered it but not understood it!

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      • Team Oyeniyi says:

        I’ve always wondered the same thing, but never come up with a suitable answer!

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      • Peter Bright says:

        If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?

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        • David Horton says:

          The universe is the universe, it is not expanding “into” anything.

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          • Peter Bright says:

            As you’ve conceded that the universe exists, and as nothing can possibly occur without a cause, who or what created the universe, and why?

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            • David Horton says:

              Mate, don’t come here with your foolish old arguments as if they have just been discovered for the first time. If you are serious about understanding the world around you read some modern physics/cosmology, instead of relying on the mythology of a bronze age goat herding tribe from a small part of the middle east 2500 years ago.

              You might start by asking yourself the same question – if I think there was a creator who created the creator?

              But don’t come back here with frivolous nonsense please, my tolerance for ignorance is very low.

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              • Peter Bright says:

                To what tribal mythology did I refer? That absurdly diversionary and insulting reference is wholly your own, one apparently rooted in deep hatred.

                In your ignorant, pathetic determination to avoid deeply contemplating underlying realities you’ve made entirely groundless assumptions.

                You’ve rudely implied that I am ignorant, yet I have a Diploma in Physics from the Christchurch Technical Institute, a well-earned high-level consequence of five years’ study and verified practical application which included Atomic Physics, Mathematics and Electronic Engineering.

                I do not engage in any form of frivolous nonsense. It’s quite evident from your arrogant, intolerant hostility that you have yourself retreated into that domain, and that you are an extremely embittered man.

                I was going to ask why that is so, but as your response would likely have been just more contempt and insults for a new reader I won’t bother.

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                • David Horton says:

                  Look Peter, apologies for sounding rude, but if you think that the old chestnut “a universe therefore a creator” is a sophisticated argument then I don’t have the energy to be polite. Try reading Krauss “a universe from nothing” or some recent Brian Greene.

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                  • Peter Bright says:

                    David, I regard “a universe, therefore a creator” as axiomatic.

                    As for Krauss, I quote this comment from the Web ..

                    “In brief, an interesting book which leaves an aftertaste of somehow having an ulterior agenda, perhaps a pamphlet against mindless religiosity rather than a bona fide, purely science book”

                    .. and so I’m wondering if your hatred of creationists is more rooted in the obvious madness of crazed religions and their gullible, loopy adherents than in the humble intellectual discernment of a truly rational mind.

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            • Declan Allison says:

              You are assuming the universe had a beginning. We can make no such claim. We simply don’t know what happened prior to the Planck Epoch.

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              • Peter Bright says:

                True, but doesn’t everything have a beginning?

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                • Declan Allison says:

                  I don’t know. I think ‘beginning’ is a pretty meaningless concept. As far as we can tell, everything we have experienced ‘beginning’ is really existing material being re-ordered, so in what sense has that thing really begun? Even if we could establish that everything in the universe began, it is a error of composition to assert that the universe must have begun.

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                  • Peter Bright says:

                    In the same way that I cannot conceive of limitless space, I similarly cannot comprehend the absence of a beginning.

                    The Bible’s very first words are “In the beginning … ”

                    It’s such a huge mystery to me and alas, I’ve failed to crack it.

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                    • David Horton says:

                      And so we come to the Middle Eastern Bronze Age mythology.

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                    • Declan Allison says:

                      Your argument is one of personal incredulity. It’s a huge mystery to me how people can enjoy the music of Justin Bieber, and yet they do. Whether or not you or I, or anyone else, have cracked the mystery or not has no bearing on reality. In the absense of supporting evidence the intellectually honest thing to do is say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s keep looking’. Positing a creator has no explanitory power and shuts down further investigation.

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    • Tanya says:

      Eric, you respond admirably against a headstrong foe. And “foe” is certainly how he situates himself. This is not a friendly guy!

      I was wanting to ask you, Eric, a question, but couldn’t find your email. Don’t know if you’ll get this, but my email is tanyakhughes@yahoo.com. Drop me a note if you would.

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  2. Eric Snyder says:

    Not really sure I understand your response. But just to clarify, my world is one where black is always black, white’s always white, and up’s always up. It’s a simple matter of objective and observable truth/fact. It’s the same world where life only comes from life and design reasonably indicates a designer.

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    • Declan Allison says:

      Eric, a reasoned approach would be that until falsified, the null hypothesis stands. You, and your fellow theists, have posited a creator god hypothesis, therefore the null hypothesis must be that there is no creator god. Theists have failed to falsify the null hypothesis. Evidence, Eric, evidence.

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    • Human Ape says:

      Mr. Snyder, why do you call your magic-wand-waving fairy a designer? Wouldn’t it be more honest to call it a magic fairy?

      Sir, you believe in magic. Are you sure you want to call your childish fantasies rational?

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  3. Eric Snyder says:

    I agree, let’s look at true evidence which refutes the null hypothesis that there is no creator/designer.

    I think you would agree that the “simple” cell is a pretty amazing piece of complexity what with its ability to replicate, synthesize, metabolize, etc. The cell is designed to perform all these tasks and more. Something this complex doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. Neither does it evolve from inorganic material.

    So, the alternate hypothesis contends that design (the cell) indicates a designer. The null hypothesis that no designer exists must be nullified or refuted.

    The very existence of design demands a designer, hence refuting the null hypothesis.

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    • David Horton says:

      I know this is a futile suggestion Eric, but you could actually try reading some biological science.

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    • David Horton says:

      So which “cell” are you talking about Eric? Perhaps a nerve or a liver cell in a human body eh? How about a human skin cell or a red blood cell? How about a bacterium, a virus, an amoeba, an algal cell, a yeast, the cells of a sponge, or stromatolite, slime moulds, volvox, fungal cells, flatworms? What about the traces of cells in the early rocks?

      Why on earth do you think that the varied cells of the human body, the mouse body, the reptile, amphibian, bird, dinosaur, fish, arthropod, mollusc, flowering plant bodies, the products of hundreds of millions of years of gradual evolution and specialisation, tell you anything about the first cells that evolved?

      A little learning together with fundamentalist religion and an “infallible” set of mythological writings by bronze age pastoralists at various times several thousand years ago (before Aristotle) and assembled into an imaginary “book” by a religious conference 1500 years ago, are clearly a dangerous combination when it comes to common sense in the twenty first century.

      I repeat, go and learn some modern science Eric, come back when you have something sensible to say.

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  4. Eric Snyder says:

    On another subject, your position “atheists don’t blow up planes or anything else” would likely be contested by anyone living in Ukraine under Stalin or China under Mao.

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  5. Eric Snyder says:

    Of course I don’t agree with your accusation that I’m ignorant of all areas of biological science. One thing I did learn in my first high school biology class was that abiogenesis/spontaneous generation pretty much was disproven by Francesco Redi in the mid 1600’s. And that since then, most scientists are convinced that mice don’t come from straw, frogs from mud, or maggots from meat. That much I do understand about evolution.

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    • David Horton says:

      Redi is strange choice to base your scientific knowledge on. At the time the ignorance about biology of the living world, except for observations on domestic plants and animals, was almost total, and relied on the error filled work of Aristotle some 1900 years earlier. Redi, to his eternal credit, was one of the first people we see as an experimental scientist. People were puzzled, in these days before refrigeration or even proper storage of food, as to why meat rotted away while being attacked by small “worms” which were not seen at other times and about which nothing else was known. The idea therefore was that these creatures arose spontaneously during the rotting process and were just a natural part of it. For some reason Redi wasn’t convinced about this and set out some experiments (as we would now say).

      What he found was that the maggots were produced (I guess either from eggs or as live maggots, it varies between these fly species) by several species of flies, and that the maggots (as we would say now) were the larvae of these flies, changed into pupae, and then these hatched into adults, a life cycle completely unknown previously. If you covered the meat the flies couldn’t get in so no maggots. Brilliant.

      Redi was of course a religious man, few people knew better at the time, and part of his aim was to show that life didn’t keep on being “created”, as spontaneous generation would require, but had just been created the once, as in Genesis. However you could also interpret his work to show that complex animals weren’t created at all!

      But in any case, why you would think that the obvious (to us) conclusion that complex animals don’t arise from nothing today has anything to do with the origins of very simple first life forms several billions of years ago, in radically different conditions of geography, geology, chemistry, temperature and climate, is beyond me and all the scientists who lived after Redi.

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      • Eric Snyder says:

        Hi David,

        I can’t imagine why you would think Redi was a “strange choice.” It was his work that first disproved abiogenesis. I think Redi is a great choice because he discovered the foundational truth that life does not come from “non-life.” With that truth in mind, it’s pretty difficult to support the opinion that life came from rocks.

        Of course, I don’t “base my scientific knowledge” on Redi. I simply think he’s a great place to start. Additionally, I believe his conclusions still stand. I have no knowledge of his religious convictions or any of his efforts to prove anything about Genesis; not saying you’re wrong I’m just not aware of this.

        I do disagree that there were “radically different conditions” of geology or chemistry billions of year ago. I believe the periodic table was pretty much the same then as now with the exception of the short-lived elements since the advent of accelarators. Inorganic elements and chemicals will not produce organic “life” today and they didn’t then. Changes in climate, temperature and geography don’t make a difference. Redi was right.

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  6. Declan Allison says:

    Eric, you haven’t falsified the null hypothesis. You’ve simply asserted there is design and therefore a designer. You haven’t provided evidence for design. You state complexity needs a designer. Such a designer would also be complex therefore, by your logic, must also require a designer. So who created the creator?

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    • Eric Snyder says:

      Hi Declan, the original hypothesis posited was (according to you) there is a creator (designer) god. The null would then be there is no creator (designer) god. The scientifically observable (evidence) fact that there is creation/design refutes the null. Doesn’t repeatable and verifiable observation of design count as evidence? By the measurable, repeatable, and verifiable means of the scientific method, design (apart from human intervention) exists.

      You have now posited a second and new hypothesis wherein complex design demands a complex designer. The new null is there is no complex designer of the designer. Refute the null.

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  7. Declan Allison says:

    Eric, repeatedly asserting there is design is not evidence for design. “The scientifically observable (evidence) fact that there is creation/design refutes the null.” Design is not a fact and repeating your assertion without supporting evidence does not make it so. “By the measurable, repeatable, and verifiable means of the scientific method, design (apart from human intervention) exists.” Perhaps you could post links to peer-reviewed scientific papers that show design. “You have now posited a second and new hypothesis wherein complex design demands a complex designer.” On the contrary, it is you who suggest design needs a designer – “So, the alternate hypothesis contends that design (the cell) indicates a designer” and “The very existence of design demands a designer”. I’m merely following your argument to it’s conclusion – an infinite parade of increasingly complex designers. I’m sure you agree that is a preposterous suggestion.

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    • Eric Snyder says:

      Hi Declan, I concede the absence of peer reviewed papers supporting design. And, I don’t have any problem with the whole peer review process. But, you must admit, there is considerable bias in the scientific community to consider design as anything other than bad science. This is at least a partial explanation for the absence. Also, scientists don’t “poll” for verification. Historically, any ideas going contrary to contemporary science are traditionally excluded from consideration by current thought.

      I do, however, disagree with you discounting observation as supporting evidence. Observation is evidence and the first step of the scientific method. I observe the cell and how it functions. Functionality indicates design. Observing design is supporting evidence (not conclusive evidence, but certainly supporting) no matter how strongly you oppose it.

      And, you did bring a second hypothesis into the discussion.

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      • Declan Allison says:

        Eric, I don’t discount observation as a valid, indeed essential, part of the scientific process. My problem is with your assertion that there is design. That isn’t an observation, it’s a subjective interpretation of an observation. “Functionality indicates design” – again, an unsubstantiated assertion.

        “But, you must admit, there is considerable bias in the scientific community to consider design as anything other than bad science.” Perhaps because it is bad science, devoid of supporting evidence, contradicted by well supported theory. Contrary ideas are not excluded by ‘tradition’, they are excluded because of the lack of supporting evidence. In fact, ‘excluded’ is the wrong word. They are simply not developed by following scientists because of the paucity of evidence.

        Again, I haven’t introduced a second hypothesis, I was merely following your ‘design needs a designer’ argument to its logical conclusion. Actually, I don’t have a problem with ‘design needs a designer’. It would appear to be an a priori statement. However, you haven’t provided evidence for design yet.

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  8. Declan Allison says:

    Eric, about Redi you state,”It was his work that first disproved abiogenesis.” Aristotelian abiogenesis, yes. Abiogenesis per se, no. Contemporary abiogenesis theories do not predict complex organisms will arise spontaneously. “it’s pretty difficult to support the opinion that life came from rocks” – whose opinion would that be? I don’t know anyone who has said anything as simplistic as that.

    “I do disagree that there were “radically different conditions” of geology or chemistry billions of year ago…Changes in climate, temperature and geography don’t make a difference.” Really? Are you really suggesting life that has evolved to survive in conditions of today could survive on the earth of 3.5 billion years ago? That’s a bold claim, if that’s what you are claiming. Perhaps you can provide some supporting evidence for it.

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  9. Eric Snyder says:

    Hi David, Yes, I was vague about a “simple cell.” I was referring to an early cell much before animal or human cells. Let’s confine it to whichever cell you think was the first cell, a primitive cell.

    When human DNA is a 99%+ match to chimp DNA, I think we can draw some reasonable conclusions about how single cell creatures compare to early single cell creatures. We can compare contemporary plant cells with ancient plant cells. Sponges are a good example, they’re quite old and yet very complex organisms as well as not a lot different from today’s sponge. So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to look at today’s cells (primitive organisms) and draw conclusions about the past. You fault me for that while doing it yourself to support your argument.

    I’m not discussing any of this in the light of any “mythological” writings; I reject all mythology as having benefit for discovering truth. And, I’ve never taken an insulting tone with any of your comments. But you obviously have difficulty conducting a civil debate using 21st century common sense. So, if you prefer, I will refrain from any further comment.

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  10. Eric Snyder says:

    David, I have read “real” history (contrary to your accusations) and the multiplied millions killed by atheistic systems are documented facts as compared to your emotional rant about the religious deaths that are pretty difficult to quantify.

    I will leave you to your warm cocoon of close minded blind faith and not challenge you with any more real world knowledge.

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  11. Declan Allison says:

    Undoubtedly the regimes under Stalin, Pol Pot and others killed many millions of people. They did so, however, because Stalin and Pol Pot were megalomaniacal, homocidal sociopaths, not because they were atheists. The Crusades and Arab Conquests, for example, were expressly religiously motivated.

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    • Eric Snyder says:

      Hi Declan, I will most certainly defer to your formal training in matters scientific, but you are absolutely wrong about the Crusades being “expressly religiously motivated.” The Crusades were as much about halting the complete European takeover by Islamic armies as anything religious.

      Along with Stalin and Pol Pot, don’t forget Mao. There’s pretty solid evidence for 200 million + murders. I don’t share your conviction that their atheism had nothing to do with the murders they were responsible for committing.

      Again, I do not condemn “atheists” as murderers but “atheism” has certainly been at the root of some of society’s greatest acts of evil.

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      • Declan Allison says:

        Eric, I’m not suggesting the Crusdaes were exclusively religiously motivated. Like most geo-political events they were multifaceted. Religion was, however, a major motivation. The were often called by the Pope, all but one was endorsed by the Pope. They’re primary objective was reclaiming the Holy Lands for Christianity, or in the case of the Northern Crusades, to Christianise the Baltic pagans. Religion was at the very core of the Crusades.

        I think the question is whether or not atheism was the rationale behind the attrocities carried out by Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao. I don’t think it was. They had established quasi-religious personality cults centred on themselves. They were ‘atheist’ only because they could not tolerate any dilution of loyalty or obedience of the people and religions represented just such a dilution. They were megalomaniacs who constructed the architecture of control, unlike megalomaniacal religious leaders who took advantage of an existing architecture of control. This is an entirely subjective debate though. We can’t hope fully to understand the motives of these people. I think we can agree they were violent sociopaths.

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        • Tanya says:

          But Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao’s disregard for human life, I would guess, had a lot to do with a lack of any belief in human life being sacred or special, which had a lot to do with a lack of religious sense. The thing is, these regimes killed orders of magnitude more people than the Crusades. Comparing them to the Crusades is comparing bowling balls with oranges.

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          • David Horton says:

            Ok, Tanya, this is the “not friendly guy”. You are a guest here, and welcome, but mind your manners.

            I set high standards for what I write on my blog, and I expect high standards from my commenters. That is I expect you to think for yourself, not repeat evangelical rubbish you’ve been told. This stuff about Stalin and so on (at least you had the sense to leave Hitler out) being “killer atheists” has been said thousands of times and answered thousands of times. I have no intention of going through it all in detail again – do some reading.

            But because I’m a nice fellow, let me summarise. Most wars have little to do with religion – they are caused, directly or indirectly, by greed or need for resources. Both World wars, Korea, Vietnam were unrelated to religion. In addition just as what Hitler did had nothing to do with him being highly religious, nor did what Stalin and Pol Pot did have anything to do with their “atheism”.

            But beyond those resource wars there have been many, from before the Crusades to present day, where people slaughter each other purely because of religious differences. You don’t see atheists going to war or indulging in ethnic cleansing because of differences in atheist belief. You do see catholics killing protestants, different protestants killing each other, muslims and christians slaughtering each other, different muslim sects killing each other ferociously, hindus and muslims and christians hacking each other to pieces, etc etc etc. In all those the reason for the killing is religion, and over the last few thousand years it must have accounted for many millions of people. So don’t go telling this athest about how much the religious value human life.

            And how dare you accuse atheists of not valuing human life. How dare you. Go meet some atheists.

            Come again. Do some browsing around what I write. You might learn something.

            Oh and by the way I don’t include links from people I don’t know and have no reason to trust. Guess I’m a bit headstrong.

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  12. Eric Snyder says:

    Yes Declan, on that point we can definitely agree. It’s been an interesting and challenging discussion with you and I appreciate your civil tone even in disagreement.

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  13. Tanya says:

    David, are you telling me that you don’t think there have been any violent atheists? Do atheists never go “bat-shit crazy”? Really? I remind you, at least, of all the wars fought in the last century in the name of atheist ideologies. These were very large in terms of how many people were killed.

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    • Declan Allison says:

      Tanya, which wars of the previous century were fought in the name of atheism?

      On your previous post, as an atheist I can certainly agree that human life isn’t sacred. However, I profoundly disagree that it isn’t special. As an atheist I cherish life precisely because it’s the only one we get. Life is special. I suggest that if you believe there is an afterlife you are more likely to consider people to be expendable than if you believe this life is all we’ve got. Stalin, Mao, Pot et al did what they did because they were violent sociopaths, not because they were atheists.

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  14. Colin Samundsett says:

    Each to their own favourite God.
    I confess that when I want a God, I turn to the irascible red-bearded Thor: not because he is perfect or all-powerful; but because he is forgivable for his imperfect moments. What is more, the books about him are more readable than the dusty old tomes of the Tora, Bible, Koran, –.
    As for stimulating my neurons and synaps about life, its components, its development and origins: on the one hand there is the philosophy embodied in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life; on the other is the material so cogently put together by Mary White in her 2003 book Earth Alive (Rosenberg Publishing).

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  15. Gruffbutt says:

    Ooh! A dead post resurrected! It’s a miracle!

    Reading some of the comments, I’m reminded of the officer in ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ who will never ‘get it': ‘In my heart, Sir, I know I’m funny’.

    Dismissed.

    Like

  16. I would so fly that airline.

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  17. Michael says:

    Eric Snyder deserves a medal for arguing as much as he did. I disagree totally with 98% of what he said and if the shoe was on the other foot, I would have given up well before he did. Much like I did over at the Australian Climate Madness blog…..

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  18. If I were a signed up, bomb toting terrorist, I’d call Atheist Airways a gift from god:)

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  19. George @ Isa says:

    Perhaps at the check-in passengers could be asked to swear on all the holy books that they are atheists and all gods can go to hell.

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  20. f1retree says:

    Dear Eric, please consider the following:

    If you’d been born into an atheist culture you’d be an atheist, assuming that there was no religious culture available.

    Belief systems evolved just like cells, only the medium for the evolution of belief systems is the human mind, an evolved biological instrument. Religion is a cultural artefact, artefact being the operative word and concept – a feature of evolving cultures, there are dozens if not hundreds of belief systems, perhaps when we contact other races in other star systems we’ll see the same cultural patterns there (along with extinction caused by petrochemical dependancy).

    When I asked you Eric, a year or so ago, why do you believe in god, you came up with a lovely argument the nub of which was that it was a very personal belief, and I appreciated that reply. I feel similarly about my atheism, its personal and comes from many years of thinking about belief systems and atheism and the need for any kind of philosophical operating system. I’m happy with my atheism, it has a nice fit to the universe.

    We need to all get on together, somehow, without resorting to weapons to solve arguments or acquire materials. So bottoms up Eric, see you at the pub, coffee shop etc for a friendly argument (metaphorically speaking of course since you’re in America and I live down under).

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