Clarifying Atheism For The Biblically Promiscuous

Christopher Hitchens calls it ‘white noise’ or ‘static’ whenever someone approaches him with a flood of Biblical verses. Frankly, I have to agree. I’ve seen some scary looking passages the length of major European cities on the internets, completely filled to the brim with verses and quotes and numbers with colons. Clearly, referencing is something evangelists have completely misunderstood – to say they abuse it would be an understatement.

One of the more ridiculous arguments I’ve seen thrown in my face is the one of ‘anti-God’ or hatred of God, or irrationality for not accepting God. It implies an incredible misunderstanding about atheism, how it works and what it’s about. With this post I hope to clarify it for those Biblically promiscuous people who reach for their Bible quotes before they think about an answer through twice. Hopefully, some will understand the position of atheism for once and for all, so that when they do slam it, at least they will be doing it properly.

Atheism is very bluntly the absence of a belief in God. This does not mean a God has been ‘rejected’. Often, someone who ‘rejects’ a God will quickly find a new one more to their liking. Atheism is not about rejecting a God. Atheism is about living without one. If God descended from the heavens tomorrow, an atheist wouldn’t necessarily hate him (unless it were one of the ‘evil’ gods like Yahweh, Loki or Set).

It is not an irrational decision borne out of childhood trauma. It is not a Judeo-freemason-communist conspiracy belief. It does not imply immorality.

Atheism is very much a thought out position. To be fair, everyone’s born an atheist. You are taught your religion. A baby who has no exposure to religion (as perhaps might happen in the prosperous Scandinavian countries) will simply have no need for a God and will be none the worst for it (often, it will be all the better considering the stellar quality of life in Scandinavia). This is known as implicit atheism, when someone has simply not had the time or the need to believe in anything.

Explicit atheism (non-belief in the knowledge of all the possibilities) is a reasoned decision. You could argue that the only truly sceptical position is agnosticism, since you can never know for sure whether there is a God or not. But this position is very misleading. It’s a fallacious argument – if one took that stance on other scientific hypothesis we would be stuck in a horrible ethical quagmire for every experiment.

Atheists usually consider the question of God as another scientific hypothesis. As such, one would formulate a statistical test for his existence by establishing a negative hypothesis: There is no God. You collect the evidence, and see the probability of the evidence occurring under the negative hypothesis model. Since the current evidence has comfortable naturalistic explanations, you establish that at the time, there is insufficient evidence to reject the negative hypothesis so therefore, although there may be evidence somewhere, as things stand, for all intents and purposes: “There is no God”.

In fact, it is this precise pragmatic stand which makes atheism such a beautiful and elegant way of viewing the Universe. Look outside. Absorb the life thriving around you (unless you live in the Gobi desert). Now think of it as for what it really is: quick, futile existence of a rock hurtling through space. The product of remarkable chemical changes over billions of years which led to this exact moment. Look up into the night sky on a clear night. Absorb the stars around you and think of how each and every one is a bright sun, an unfathomable distance away. Every one of us is lucky to eventually die because it will have meant that we have lived. Atheism gives you all the more reason to live your life worry free and not for it immorally.

It is a foolish atheist who proclaims 100% certainty in the absence of a deity. But you would be hard pressed to find one. The Gospel of Reason is certainly not written with that in mind.

What is ‘faith’ to an atheist? Faith to an atheist is the dictionary definition: “Belief in the absence, and sometimes in the face of, evidence”. An atheist will always strive to explain seemingly supernatural events in terms of scientific models. If said models are incapable, it does not automagically grant “miracle” status to an unexplained event. Instead, a refined scientific model is created using, once again, the principle of testable hypotheses and statistical tests. Can faith be positive? Rarely. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence. It demands the surrender of critical thought. You could say you have ‘faith’ in your family or in the ones you love, but this is mixing two different animals. Faith is not the same as love (no matter how much people proclaim that God is love or they love God or God loves them or any other permutation I may have missed). You can certainly love something for whose existence there is no evidence whatsoever, but you do not need to have faith to love.

An atheist will not display faith. He may have belief in, for example, evidence. But evidence is not something you can have ‘faith’ in. He may have belief in science, but again, science is not something you have ‘faith’ in. You do not punch in 15 x 3 into a calculator and leave it to faith to work out the answer. Science works in a similar fashion. It may, and often does, produce errors, but this is the beauty of science, since it’s a self-regulating mechanism. Any errors are observed and studied and the models are refined, if necessary, to more accurately represent reality.

I have no idea where this idea of a ‘secular agenda’ came from. It’s a phantom invention by fundamentalists to give a demon face to atheism. The US is by definition a secular nation. It is hard to push a secular ‘agenda’ (whatever that means) in a nation already secular from the start. If there is a push from secular people it is to slow the hybridisation of Church and State, which is diametrically opposite to Jeffersonian politics.

An atheist will completely gloss over ‘white noise’. A bible quote can be meaningful in the appropriate context. It does not mean that 50 bible quotes in the same sentence is 50 times more meaningful. You will not ‘convert’ any atheists by reading rhetoric contrary to scientific principles, just like a Creationist will not profess disbelief in God if someone read Darwin to him.

I’m very willing to answer any questions, personal or otherwise that pertain to this. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of reading bible quotes as arguments, and I’m very tired and a bit worried of reading ‘secular agenda’, ‘militant atheism’, ‘anti God’, ‘God loves you’, ‘why do you hate God?’. It honestly is quite simply what atheism is not about.

A chart for quick reference (great for arguments!)

Atheism is

  • A thought out decision borne out of science and reason
  • A humanist, naturalist world view which can explain events in terms of science
  • A world view which is moral and incredibly elegant
  • An individual decision
  • What babies are born as

Atheism is not

  • Anti-God, God-hating or any combination thereof
  • A conspiracy
  • An agenda
  • Immoral
  • A belief that requires faith
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20 Responses

  1. Technically, if you hated God, you would be a Misotheist, not an Atheist.

    I call myself an Agnostic Atheist to avoid the typical straw-man version of Atheism.

  2. Very interesting article. I ran across this in my Tag Surfer. That gives me a lot of material to think about. Your definition of atheism is very true to the etymology: a-theism, or non-theism. Atheism is simply a worldview that does not depend on any god, as distinguished from theism, pantheism and polytheism.

    Your comment on faith brought up a question I have been working through. I have noticed some people are far more inquisitive about things than other people. Some people, constantly ask the questions why and how, while others will tend to shrug and say it doesn’t matter or we can’t know about almost any topic. What do you call an inquisitive person who doesn’t buy the party line, someone who is not so sure about what everyone else is sure about?

    I originally called a person’s willingness to go with conventional wisdom without investigation faith. So a person who constantly questions and reexamines is someone with very little faith. But I had a friend correct me and say that people could live completely without faith, and without really questioning or investigating. It seems that we are using different words here so I’m at a loss to describe something I would consider very important. If we can approach science with no faith, then what do you call the belief that your instruments are accurate. Or the belief that your calculator is not lying to you. I’m a computer programmer, so it is part of my job to constantly question seemingly authoritative programs (like calculators). Without slipping into religious terminology how do you describe the reassurance that scientists know what they are talking about, or that our educational system really works?

    I would appreciate your thoughts.

    http://blindinglight.wordpress.com/

  3. I think it might be helpful to distinguish behind explicit and implicity atheism. Children are atheists, but implicitly, in that they don’t have the ability to believe in anything. Adults, on the other hand, can explicitly believe or not believe something, which I think is different. Young infants can’t ‘believe,’ for example, in many things that adults have good reason to, such as an object being present after you hide it from them. So, their not believing in God is really more based on an inability to have complex beliefs about reality anyway. They’re just as incapable of not believing in God as they are in believing in God.. if that makes sense. You might head off some arguments at the pass, so to speak, by adding this disclaimer (implicity vs. explicit atheism) when you talk about children being atheists. Cheers!

  4. Good point globalizati, I’ll include it, thanks.

    josiah42: When a scientist builds a hypothesis test and looks for evidence, assuming he knows how to pick correct evidence, he does not need to have ‘faith’ in the scientific model. The scientific model builds upon all the previous knowledge accumulated so far, and all of it is demonstrable. You know that when you drop an object near the Earth’s surface it’ll fall accelerating at 9.81 m s-2
    It does so every time. You couldn’t ask a priest to repeat the virgin birth or walking on water, so it takes faith to believe these actually occurred.

  5. Hey there,

    Just a thought…

    I looked up the word faith on dictionary.com. It included among the word’s definitions “belief that is not based on proof.” I am thinking that it would be just as impossible for you to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t exist just as it would be impossible for me to prove that God does exist.

    I appreciate your thoughts.

    Cheers,

    Paul

  6. Paul,
    Where have you seen in the writings of this blog or other atheists that they think they can “prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t exist.” That would be silly and irrational. But, the burden of proof lies on he who believes an improbable thing, right? Just because we are unable to prove that God does not exist does not make it reasonable to believe that God does exist.

    And certainly, it’s easy to prove that certain types of God don’t exist–like the one who created the earth 6000 years ago. But you don’t believe something as ridiculous as that without proof, do you?

  7. Hi globilazazti,

    Sorry, I didn’t complete my thought. In the post he remarked that atheism doesn’t require faith. I guess my point is that it does.

    Cheers,

    Paul

  8. No, Atheism is a pragmatic stance. Technically, I’m an agnostic atheist. I cannot hope to disprove the existence of a deity.

    However, if I tried to lead my life like this I would have to apologise for everything I said. For all intents and purposes, given the complete lack of evidence in a deity, I lead my life assuming there is no God. But this is not a leap of faith, it’s a logical outcome designed to make one’s life more practical, without having to stop and pause every time you do something minimally controversial.

    Believing in a god is a leap of faith because it’s an unfounded assumption. Believing in the absence of a god is not a leap of faith because it’s a well founded assumption.

  9. eltower,

    Good points all. However, from the outside it seems atheism has it’s own dogma, maybe I am wrong in thinking that.

    I suppose though, that we all have our own dogma, even within the same school of religious (or irreligious) belief. We all have made assumptions based upon our experience.

    Cheers,

    Paul

  10. I came across this site the other day, which I found useful, don’t know if you already know about it but didn’t notice it in your blogroll:

    http://www.ethicalatheist.com/

    🙂

  11. From what you have all said, I suppose I am in the awkward state of trying to describe something for which there is no name. A common problem in linguistics is when a translator is trying to say something that has no equivalent word in another language. Imagine trying to explain human anatomy to a tribe that has no word for “kidneys”. Just because they don’t have a word for kidneys doesn’t mean they don’t have them, it only means that they are probably unaware of it. It may eventually be necessary to make a new word.

    Eltower, you said: “The scientific model builds upon all the previous knowledge accumulated so far, and all of it is demonstrable.” I’m sorry but I don’t really think that is true. Technological innovation and the observation of natural laws (for the most part) can be demonstrated. However, there are large areas people refer to as science that do not fit this criteria. Historical science, the study of things in the past, is inherently not repeatable. Also things on very large scales of either space or time, or both, cannot be repeated or demonstrated for practical reasons. Also some of the soft sciences, like psychology, can be demonstrated and repeated but their reliability can still be questioned. I suppose I do not share your ____ in human’s abilities of observation.

    The problems with relying solely on one’s knowledge get far worse when you take into account obstacles of practicality and the possibility of deception. For practicality, imagine if I stomped over to NASA (which I have never seen) and told them that I didn’t actually believe the Apollo missions ever happened. What if I pointed to Apollo 11 and told them that I wanted to see that rocket fly for myself. They’d laugh at me, and for good reason. It’s expensive to launch those things. But what if people are deceptive, that magnifies all problems 100 times. Yes, I’ve seen video of the Apollo missions and nuclear tests. But I’ve also seen Jurassic Park where dinosaurs were very obviously eating people.

    Before you dismiss the idea of mass conspiracy I would remind everyone that the world does not agree with you. Period. There is no one on this planet who holds the majority view. In fact, atheism is an extreme minority. But I suppose we don’t need to be reminded of that. So why have people come to so many conflicting conclusions? Perhaps there is widespread deception across most of the planet, that should bring a lot of things into question. Another possibility is that human’s ability to observe correctly, and without bias is actually extremely limited. I tend to believe the second possibility because it means you can still have a lot of well-intentioned people be totally blinded, and it explains the layout of the world pretty well.

    Most people apparently have a lot more ____ than I do. Because I think the assertion of relying solely on human observation with absolutely no ____ is absurd. You have to trust someone at some point, otherwise they lock you in the crazy house. Who you decide to trust seems to ultimately come down to personal preference. What other criteria could you possibly use if everyone is either lying or blind? It seems that having a fair amount of ____ is just inherent in being a functional human being.

  12. In fact, atheism is an extreme minority.

    Right, about a billion nontheists is an extreme minority.

    Historical science, the study of things in the past, is inherently not repeatable.

    He was talking about natural sciences. And even in history everything is based on evidence, not wild speculation like in, say, theology.

    Also things on very large scales of either space or time, or both, cannot be repeated or demonstrated for practical reasons.

    Tectonic plate movement can’t be repeated in a lab too, unless you count making simulations. But it’s a theory that’s based on many facts in many disciplines. It’s the best explanation that fits the observed reality we have.

    There are also things like the LHC that will repeat the conditions after the Big Bang, and so on.

    I suppose I do not share your ____ in human’s abilities of observation.

    No, you just are bent on downplaying human rationality for selfish reasons. And what’s up with not typing faith? Do you have one of those petty deities that concern themselves with how you spell their name?

    For practicality, imagine if I stomped over to NASA (which I have never seen) and told them that I didn’t actually believe the Apollo missions ever happened.

    You don’t? That’s just rich.

    Before you dismiss the idea of mass conspiracy I would remind everyone that the world does not agree with you. Period.

    Reality isn’t democratic, so power in numbers won’t work.

    There is no one on this planet who holds the majority view.

    Are you sure? How about the Earth being round? I’m willing to bet that there’s just a couple of thousand flat-earthers living at this day.

    Because I think the assertion of relying solely on human observation with absolutely no ____ is absurd.

    Of course, you have to trust that the Sun will still rise tomorrow, or that the people who put their unjustified faith before their reason don’t blow us all up, but it’s not the same as taking as a fact that one of the man-made religions is true.

  13. A very interesting read. I always find “Why do you hate God?” to be the most irritating non-sequitur that can be thrown at an atheist in any sort of religious debate.

  14. Sorry if I offended anyone. That was not my intention. I have merely been looking for other people who are asking questions and taking a hard look at things. I have not found a better way than to ask a series of hypothetical questions and see how people respond. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. I’ll be moving along now.

  15. One thing is to ask questions and make uninformed statements as hard fact, adapting the evidence to the theory: theology.

    Another completely different one is to adapt the theory to the evidence and make informed statements and inferences: science.

  16. Historical science, the study of things in the past, is inherently not repeatable.

    But the necessary observations of the artifacts, fossils, or rocks are entirely repeatable anytime. That’s enough. As long as you can answer the question “if I were wrong, how would I know?”, you are doing science.

  17. remarked that atheism doesn’t require faith. I guess my point is that it does

    Paul: the null hypothesis is the default position in science. It takes no faith to believe that something does not exist. It takes no evidence either. The burden of proof lies on existence.

    For example: In the absense of evidence to the contrary, I do not believe that there is an axe-wielding maniac hiding in my closet.

  18. Perhaps to “why do you hate god?”, the short form answer “why do you hate Zeus?” would be apposite.
    = = =
    Just discovered your blog (link surfing from others). I like your style and would like to see if you’re interested in participating in my new atheist/skeptical podcast.
    Ideally as a panelist, alternately just providing a recording in your voice of some of your posts I’d select. They’d be used with attribution, of course.
    Didn’t see an email contact option, so I’m putting it here. More details by email. You can reach me at spammersbiteme
    I’d prefer that you deleted this comment (or at least the email address). Thanks.
    Yours in blasphemy,
    Bruce B
    Ontario, Canada
    Ed: This post was immaculately conceived.

  19. Thank you for an eloquent and accurate account of what atheists believe.

    No, non-theists do NOT eat babies. 😉

  20. That’s not just logic. That’s really snebisle.

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