A Fish Did Not Write This Essay (1995)

Richard Carrier


[This essay won second prize in a competition and was published in Freethought Today 12:7 (Sept. 1995), p. 8. The Freedom From Religion Foundation which publishes Freethought Today comes highly recommended as a very human, professional, national organization for freethinkers of all varieties, and their publication is an excellent source of relevant national news and commentary.]

It's remarkable how many people insist I am not an atheist. It seems pretty obvious to me that I don't believe any god exists, and that pretty much makes me an atheist. Nevertheless, here these people are, so insistent that I cannot possibly be an atheist. "You're too nice," they say, or "you really believe, you just don't know it" (how's that again?). Sometimes I hear something like "You believe in something, and that is really god" or "you are still looking, but you'll find Him" (he's invited to stop by my house at any time). When I have the time to converse with these people, however, it usually comes down to this: I'm really an agnostic, they say, because I am willing to admit that I don't know there isn't any god. It is apparently so important for people to believe that I'm "really just an agnostic" that I find this to be a haunting sign of the hold religion has on people. It is tragic that the mere thought of a good friend or relative being an actual, avowed atheist is so horrible that it must be denied.

Sometimes I have the chance to explain that I am an atheist not because I know there isn't a god, but because I don't believe there is. If someone insisted that their pet fish could talk, I really couldn't say I knew it didn't, especially if I could not go and see for myself, but it would still be fair for me to say that there are no talking fish. The relevance of this is that I do not believe god exists any more than I believe fish can talk. Certainly, I have not examined all species of fish, nor every single fish for that matter, nor could I ever accomplish such a feat, but the claim that they exist is so contrary to my own personal experience and reliable facts that I simply will not believe it unless very definitive proof is provided. Of course, if I visit someone's pet fish and it talks to me, I am still wiser to test the possibilities of trickery or insanity before believing it can really talk. But if I found many fish that talked, trustworthy people confirmed it, scientists published carefully researched papers about them, and newspaper headlines read "INCREDIBLE DISCOVERY: TALKING FISH!" then it would be more than reasonable to believe they existed. No one really disputes such common sense, until it is applied to religion.

I've never seen or talked to a god, nor seen a god do anything unmistakably godlike. People insist they know one exists, but most of them really say they only feel it, and don't offer any other proof. Indeed, it is odd that those few who honestly offer the more genuine proof of actually hearing god talk are branded insane even by the believers. Believers are probably right about that, but their own "feeling" that a god exists isn't any more convincing to me. Anyone might "feel" that fish could talk, but that wouldn't mean it was so, nor would that be a very reliable way to know it was true even if it was. People still say there are billions of witnesses to god's existence, but since the vast majority of them only "feel" that god exists, even trillions of witnesses wouldn't count for much. I am astonished how many people think that if the Earth stopped rotating we would all fall off into space--they just "feel" intuitively that this is true, even though the exact opposite would happen (people at the equator would actually gain a few pounds). I agree that billions of people "feel" god exists, but feelings are only evidence of what lies in our hearts and dreams. Feelings do not tell us much about reality outside of ourselves.

People also say that the bible says a god exists. The bible also says a guy lived inside the belly of a giant fish for three days, somehow failing to be digested in its stomach acids; and that a flood "so great" that it covered all the mountains with water occurred to fulfill a genocidal whim of an apparently uncreative god (why not just make everyone vanish instantly and save the world's people and animals the suffering of being drowned?). Since these all sound like tall tales to me, I think god is probably a tall tale, too. Basically, if the bible said there were talking fish, I wouldn't believe it until I saw one myself (the bible does fittingly claim the existence of a talking ass). Likewise, the bible may say a god exists, but I still won't believe it until I see one myself.

Most people I meet, however, don't realize that I am first and foremost a freethinker, and only an atheist as a result of applying freethought to the evidence available to me. The reasons I have for being a freethinker are actually rather different from the reasons I have for not believing in a god. I sometimes wear a shirt that says, "we all need humanity, not religion; reason, not faith." This has sometimes triggered interesting conversations about why I am a freethinker. "That's pretty harsh," some who read that shirt say. I ask why. It seems reasonable to me that if religion vanished from the earth, but was replaced by the entire human race working humanely together, nothing would be lost, and everything gained. Thus, we need humanity--that is, our own humanity, as well as the entirety of the human species. But we do not need religion--it offers nothing that cannot be gained through other means.

It also seems reasonable to me that if people lived by reason instead of faith, a great many tragedies would be averted, and an equal number of advances would be made, especially in human behavior. I do not claim this as a recipe for utopia, only for significant improvement. How many times do we find ourselves saying of a criminal or a politician, "They are just so stupid! Any rational person would have acted entirely differently." A criminal or politician can have all the faith we want them to, but they will still do stupid things--and that's the problem. Thus, we only need people to act intelligently. We can do without faith. In fact, the "faith" of Islamic suicide bombers and abortion clinic murderers is actually a real threat to humanity, as was the "faith" of Red Party members in their belief that communism would lead to utopia. People can do without faith. They can't do without reason.

It is usually argued, of course, that we need religion in order to get humanity to behave and work together. All evidence is to the contrary. Religion has not notably improved human behavior. The pagan Romans were far kinder than the Inquisition Christians. Nor has religion united Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews. It has quite unmistakably divided them. In fact, religion will never unite them, because a religion requires that they all share the same beliefs, without offering any reliable evidence that their ideas are more correct than anyone else's. Reason, on the other hand, is the only thing that can actually unite people of diverse opinions. Reason, by definition, bases its decisions on evidence available to everyone, and allows people to disagree when this evidence is lacking. Religion will never do that, and that is the problem with it.

It is also often argued that we need faith just as much as we need reason. Usually, this claim is based on a very loose definition of "faith." Many have said that atheists have faith like everyone else, and that no one can do without having faith in something. However, this is misleading. If you mean by "faith" nothing more than "belief" then you can dispense with the word altogether. In reality, faith is usually employed to describe a particular justification for believing something, rather than to simply say you believe it. If I say I believe there are no talking fish, it isn't very productive to say that this proves I have "faith" that fish don't talk, because I don't believe it on faith. I believe it because of the evidence of my senses and the evidence presented by people employing a reasonable method of getting at the truth about things. However, to say you have "faith" that god exists means more than just saying you believe it. It means that you believe god exists because you have faith that he does. It is this meaning of faith that reason stands opposite to. I do not believe anything on faith. I only believe things because I have good evidence to support them. And that is what reason means: basing all beliefs on the evidence of the senses, and on nothing else.

Of course, some try to take issue with this. For one, they say that I have only replaced faith in god with faith in reason, but I only believe in reason because the evidence of my senses has always confirmed that reason is reliable. I do not believe in it on faith. People also say that I actually do believe in things that I have never seen demonstrated, like the existence of uranium or that my friends would defend me in a life-or-death situation. And this, they say, proves I do have faith in some things. But even these beliefs are not really based on faith. The evidence of my senses has so far proven that certain sources are reliable enough to believe without direct evidence to the contrary. Science, responsible journalism, and people I know who honestly use tried and tested methods, have all proved themselves reliable to me through my own senses. If their claims suddenly widely contradicted my personal experiences, I would cease believing in their claims. The claims of the bible obviously fall into the 'unbelievable' category. That is why I think the existence of uranium is far more likely than the existence of a god. I do not believe this way because of my faith in science, but because the evidence of my senses tells me that science gets things right far more often than the bible. Even more than that, science much more quickly admits an error than any religion will. Likewise, my faith in friends is also based on prior experience. The evidence of my senses proves so far that honest, compassionate, mature people will defend their friends. Thus, all my beliefs are rooted in evidence, and not in faith.

Why do I think this way? It seems almost silly to ask such a question. Does it really make sense to base your beliefs on things for which you have no good evidence? "Faith in god" is not the same as faith in science or friends or even everyday assumptions like "a fish did not write this essay." Faith in god means faith that something astoundingly incredible, that is both unproven and unprovable, is true. That is simply not reasonable to me. I will never base my beliefs on such stretches of imagination, because it so easily leads to error and self-deception. Though my heart may tell me many useful things about me, only my mind has anything useful to say about the outside world. And it tells me that god, like talking fish, is the grandest of fictions.

I suspect that many people think they need to believe in a god for life to have meaning, and this may very well be the only reason they believe in god. More than a suspicion, this theory has been confirmed several times by the open admission of believers I have spoken with. However, it is not rational to believe in something only because you need to, especially when it stands a good chance of not being true. It is unwise to build an emotional investment in any idea that could be wrong, lest you bind yourself to a bad idea that can mire you in error and misery. We can all easily see that a compulsive gambler "needs" to believe he'll win in order to keep placing his bet, but that need has no correspondence with the truth. If the odds are 10 to 1 against, no matter what a gambler needs, he is not likely to be right about winning the bet.

Since I have always lived my life with meaning and joy, without needing a belief in god or an afterlife, I know that such beliefs are unnecessary. And I have also personally encountered hundreds of other people who find ample meaning in life without needing to believe in god or heaven, so I know I am not just a fluke of nature. So when anyone asks me why I am a freethinker, I usually start off with the short answer: it is not necessary or reasonable to think any other way. And as a freethinker, if any believer tries to argue that you cannot prove a god does not exist, simply ask them to prove this essay was not written by a fish. Maybe then they will begin to understand.