| AMERICAN ATHEISTS: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a "radical
Atheist." Is this accurate?
DNA: Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for
emphasis. If you describe yourself as "Atheist," some people
will say, "Don't you mean 'Agnostic'?" I have to reply that
I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a
god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference).
I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It's easier
to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean
it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it's an opinion I
hold seriously. It's funny how many people are genuinely surprised
to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted
from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism
- both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about
things too much.
People will then often say, "But surely it's better to remain
an Agnostic just in case?" This, to me, suggests such a level
of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation
rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I've been wrong
all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out
that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back,
Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I would choose not to
worship him anyway.)
Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know. Isn't belief-that-there-is-not-a-god
as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which
I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god.
I don't see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don't
believe my four-year-old daughter when she tells me that she didn't
make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though
I don't know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually
trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that
England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely
enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone
who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop
of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it's the right course.
I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem
to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for
the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however,
I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do
not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there
is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to
my second reason.
I don't accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is
automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view.
My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me, "Well,
you haven't been there, have you? You haven't seen it for yourself,
so my view that it is made of Norwegian beaver cheese is equally valid"-then
I can't even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden
of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition
of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation
we'd got, and we've now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an
explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would
itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don't think
that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant
a point of view as belief that there is. I don't think the matter
calls for even-handedness at all.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS: How long have you been a non-believer, and what
brought you to that realization?
DNA: Well, it's a rather corny story. As a teenager I was a committed
Christian. It was in my background. I used to work for the school
chapel, in fact. Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking
down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped
to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was
talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think
I've put that a bit glibly. When I say I realized he was talking nonsense,
what I mean is this. In the years I'd spent learning history, physics,
Latin, math, I'd learnt (the hard way) something about standards of
argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we
had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical
fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards
simply didn't seem to apply in religious matters. In religious education
we were asked to listen respectfully to arguments that, if they had
been put forward in support of a view of, say, why the Corn Laws came
to be abolished when they were, would have been laughed at as silly
and childish and - in terms of logic and proof - just plain wrong.
Why was this?
Well, in history, even though the understanding of events, of cause
and effect, is a matter of interpretation, and even though interpretation
is in many ways a matter of opinion, nevertheless those opinions and
interpretations are honed to within an inch of their lives in the
withering crossfire of argument and counterargument, and those that
are still standing are then subjected to a whole new round of challenges
of fact and logic from the next generation of historians - and so
on. All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust,
sophisticated, and well-supported in logic and argument than others.
So I was already familiar with and (I'm afraid) accepting of, the
view that you couldn't apply the logic of physics to religion, that
they were dealing with different types of "truth." (I now
think this is baloney, but to continue
) What astonished me,
however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious
ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something
as interpretive and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly
childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge
which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual
endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn't stand up to it.
So I became an Agnostic. And I thought and thought and thought. But
I just did not have enough to go on, so I didn't really come to any
resolution. I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I
just didn't know enough about anything to have a good working model
of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything
to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept
thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary
biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins's books The Selfish
Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the
second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was
a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally,
to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it
inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious
experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I'd take the awe of understanding
over the awe of ignorance any day.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS: You allude to your Atheism in your speech to your
that was one of the few times I actually believed
in god"). Is your Atheism common knowledge among your fans, friends,
and coworkers? Are many people in your circle of friends and coworkers
Atheists as well?
DNA: This is a slightly puzzling question to me, and I think there
is a cultural difference involved. In England there is no big deal
about being an Atheist. There's just a slight twinge of discomfort
about people strongly expressing a particular point of view when maybe
a detached wishy-washiness might be felt to be more appropriate -
hence a preference for Agnosticism over Atheism. And making the move
from Agnosticism to Atheism takes, I think, much more commitment to
intellectual effort than most people are ready to put in. But there's
no big deal about it. A number of the people I know and meet are scientists,
and in those circles Atheism is the norm. I would guess that most
people I know otherwise are Agnostics, and quite a few are Atheists.
If I was to try and look amongst my friends, family, and colleagues
for people who believed there was a god, I'd probably be looking amongst
the older and (to be perfectly frank) less well-educated ones. There
are one or two exceptions. (I nearly put, by habit, "honorable
exceptions," but I don't really think that.)
AMERICAN ATHEISTS: How often have fans, friends, or coworkers tried
to "save" you from Atheism?
DNA: Absolutely never. We just don't have that kind of fundamentalism
in England. Well, maybe that's not absolutely true. But (and I'm going
to be horribly arrogant here) I guess I just tend not to come across
such people, just as I tend not to come across people who watch daytime
soaps or read the National Enquirer. And how do you usually respond?
I wouldn't bother.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS: Have you faced any obstacles in your professional
life because of your Atheism (bigotry against Atheists), and how did
you handle it? How often does this happen?
DNA: Not even remotely. It's an inconceivable idea.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS: There are quite a few lighthearted references to
god and religion in your books ("
two thousand years after
some guy got nailed to a tree"). How has your Atheism influenced
your writing? Where (in which characters or situations) are your personal
religious thoughts most accurately reflected?
DNA: I am fascinated by religion. (That's a completely different thing
from believing in it!) It has had such an incalculably huge effect
on human affairs. What is it? What does it represent? Why have we
invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love
to keep poking and prodding at it. I've thought about it so much over
the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS: What message would you like to send to your Atheist
DNA: Hello! How are you?
From The American Atheist 37, No. 1
(interview conducted by David Silverman)