A friend of mine recently wrote a little note in her blog about the argument about God being pointless, and we should look at the good effects of God. This is an expansion of my reply. (It was found buried underneath the rubble of the area formerly known as My Career.)
I agree that stressing over the existence of God is a waste of time. I am not an angry atheist; in fact I wish I had the capacity to numb my existential dread with a belief in God. But as a rationalist, there is no reason to believe in God. There is no evidence or indication that God should exist; to say our universe is preposterously unlikely assumes we have some measure of its likelihood against other alternatives, and by definition, there's nothing against which to measure the universe. Since it does exist, I'm obliged to think it was physically inevitable, for whatever reason.
I resent the recent atheist crusade (hah!) to stamp out Abraham's god, because it is futile, excessively confrontational, and often misses the point in the straw man debates. The ultimate question of why are we here and where are we going is not the ground on which to make a case against religion. Personally, I find science more aesthetically pleasing than religion, but that's a subjective view, and doesn't win me many friends in either camp.
The ground where atheists get frustrated is in the comparison of science and religion. They are fundamental opposites. Science is about questions, and necessitates a fundamental lack of faith in evidence. A theory or hypothesis must present a consistent, logical formulation that explains, and is supported by, observable phenomenon. Even given this, the method and trustworthiness of the observer and means of observing must be questioned, and at the end of the day, if all goes well, the best possible outcome is "to the best of our ability to tell, this appears to be happening according to these rules". If any single inconsistency shows up in the calculation or the experiment, the theory gets tossed out, and faking it will end a scientist's career. One of the saddest bastardizations of the language is that most people think "The exception that proves the rule" means there's one exception to the rule that proves the rule is intact, which is a meaningless assertion. The phrase actually means they tried the rule out in an exceptional situation and the rule held. As soon as the rule breaks, even in an exceptional or ridiculous circumstance, it's not a rule, and they have to start over.
Religion is precisely the opposite. There are no hard rules, there is no evidence, and to seek evidence is blasphemous. Religion survives only on its ability to make people accept something and then spend their lives rationalizing their acceptance of something someone charismatic told them to accept. This is faith. You believe it, or you don't. In science, you never believe it. We only treat it as faith because of our ignorance, and if we wanted an explanation, we could learn enough to find one, until we get to things science has not uncovered or explained, at which points the scientists say they don't know either, but they're trying to find out. Even as we laymen take gravity for granted, scientists warn us with "that might not be what you think it is". My favorite quote from a scientist is "As a person, I assume the sun rises every day. As a scientist, I have to get up and check."
The ground where atheists get angry and I get sad is in the species ability to live with one another. God, in all His/Her manifestations, has been a far greater instrument of destruction than creation or cohesion. The anger spouts from God's very real ability to manipulate and destroy. The reason the debate boils down to first causes and the creation of the universe is because if God created the universe, he comes out morally even; he made, he gave us the gift, he may take it away as he pleases, and if he rewards us again, that's just gravy. If he didn't create the universe, he's a rapacious murdering bastard, tacked on as an afterthought and an explanation for our own inherent greed.
The point of God is that he provides an explanation that can be passed from authority to people needing a reason for the various horrors of life. God is a cure for death. The other institutions that followed this logic all draw strength from the same kind of offering: Nazism is a cure for the Jews, Ritalin is a cure for puberty, Walmart is a cure for poverty, and the latest cult is a cure for people of the right mindset but the wrong demographic for Judeo-Christian indoctrination.
People congregate and help one another with or without God. Atheists fall in love and give to charity as readily as anyone else, and we do it in a meaningless vacuum, in an effort to satisfy our genetic propensity to mingle with stable groups of people. Better yet, when we have to justify our actions, we have to answer to ourselves, and not an abstraction. We can never use the existence of an omnipresent and constantly misinterpreted will to justify an act of murder. Nor can we justify anything without questioning ourselves.
I would rather see human ethics develop on the strength of common discovery and fairly well grounded empirical data, than on vague and outdated parables describing a storyteller who must be at least schizophrenic. The cohesion and survival of the human race would be much better served by basing itself on its members being answerable to each other and themselves, rather than basing itself on servitude to an unknowable will. A well developed sense of empathy outstrips deeply ingrained guilt any day.
I want people to doubt themselves in all things. I want people to have to find answers on their own. Someone could say to me, "Do you really want someone to doubt themselves and think about this crap in the middle of a gunfight?" to which I say YES. I want EVERYONE in the gunfight to doubt themselves, think about it, go the fuck home, get laid, and try to have only one child for a few hundred years until we get the population back under control. I don't want anyone to ever have a good reason to kill or die. And I wish we could take away all the ideals that people think are more important than life.