Atheism an “argument from ignorance”?

“I don’t know for sure that there isn’t a god, and I never said I did. I simply don’t believe that there is one…”

Question from Jay:
How is an atheist’s argument that there is no God any different from a Deist’s argument that there is a God? Both are unfalsifiable stances. How is an atheist’s view any better? You maintain your stance because it is the best answer you can come up with. You cannot rationally explain your stance any better than I can. How do you rationally know there isn’t a God? I know, you’ll say I don’t know 100 percent, well nobody does. But you asked this same question to a Deist, can you answer it?

Answer:
I don’t know for sure that there isn’t a god, and I never said I did. I simply don’t believe that there is one, and I don’t think it’s likely either for reasons I’ll go into when answering your subsequent question.

Deists have an easier time defending their position than theists because they don’t have to establish any interference by a god since what they see as the act of Creation. Of course they do have to argue for Creation the same as theists, and there’s your overlap. I’ve laid out my basic position on the cosmological argument here in response to both theists and deists.

SmartLX

Untouchable

“So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.”

Question from Brian:
Hi, it’s me again. Why is religion given such an untouchable status in the minds of so many? They think they can say whatever they want, but if we respond it’s a “personal attack”.

Answer:
The following is a gross over-generalisation, but that doesn’t stop it from being essentially true.

2 or 3 generations ago, Christianity in Western countries was happily assumed to be the religion of everyone you were likely to meet. Arguments over religion either happened between Christian denominations, very occasionally between Christians and Jews or in universities where nobody was listening. In this situation, not only was there no reason for anyone to criticise religion as a whole, anyone who did was attacking beliefs apparently held by society as a whole, beliefs which were there for the good of all. Atheism had little or no public presence and those who knew its position on such things didn’t sympathise with it.

There are a great many people who think we still live in that world, and judge recent public criticism of relligion in that light. Religion is Good, and attacking something Good is Bad. Also, religion hasn’t had to seriously defend itself in public for some time, which means many believers haven’t learned how. There are a lot of crash courses going on now, after the advent of “new atheism” (which is really just ordinary atheism after a few authors made everyone take notice), but it’s still not a universal skill.

So when you criticise religion these days, you encounter people who 1. are on some level shocked that you would do so, 2. may not think they can argue effectively with you and 3. have passed judgement on you because of your criticism and may not think you’re worth arguing with.

On top of all this, there’s another line of reasoning which shows no empathy with anti-religionists at all. Basically, some people don’t understand why anyone would criticise or attack something given to us by God, who is all-powerful and loves us. This doesn’t take into account the fact that other people don’t think there is one, or think there’s a different one. It’s roughly the same logic that causes people to threaten atheists with Hell. This thinking does exist despite the obvious flaw.

As for criticising the non-religious, whether it’s honest or not there’s a catch-all rationale for it: it’s good for us, we need it, they’re doing us a favour.

SmartLX

Naturalistic Pantheism

“The only practical difference between a naturalistic pantheist and an atheist, therefore, is that an atheist doesn’t bother to call the universe a god. It’s just a universe.”

Question from Jim:
I wanted to ask you if atheists in general, consider a person who is naturalistic pantheist to be an atheistic person.

Answer:
Generally, I think we do. I certainly do.

A pantheist thinks that God is everything, that is, the whole universe. The naturalist view is that the laws of nature, whatever they may actually be, cannot be broken. A naturalistic pantheist, therefore, thinks that God is beholden to His inherent natural laws and cannot go against them to serve His own purposes. In other words, not only can’t He perform miracles, He can’t make anything happen which wouldn’t happen anyway.

The only practical difference between a naturalistic pantheist and an atheist, therefore, is that an atheist doesn’t bother to call the universe a god. It’s just a universe.

SmartLX

Why do you care?

“Simply thinking that what people believe is wrong isn’t the only reason to try to convince them otherwise.”

Question from Katie:
I am a very strong Christian. I have studied my religion in depth and I have no doubt that it is true. My sister recently married an Atheist. He is intent on destroying my family’s faith. We have had several theological arguments and always run into the same wall, his logic versus our faith. I recognize that faith and belief in God is not logical. But that does not diminish my faith.

I have told my brother in law that I will never take away his right to not believe in God and that I will never try to convert him. He can not show me the same courtesy. He is determined to “stop the Christian movement”. What I want to know is why does he care so much? If I believe something he doesn’t why is he so adamant to change my feelings? I don’t believe in the tooth fairy but I don’t visit local elementary schools to tell children the truth about the fairy conspiracy.

I have never tried to convince him that he is wrong because I believe everyone has the right to believe in what their conscience dictates. He is constantly trying to change my thoughts. I am not an Atheist hater and I mean no disrespect by my question. I am looking for an answer and I hope you can shed light on this dilemma.

Answer:
Simply thinking that what people believe is wrong isn’t the only reason to try to convince them otherwise.

Imagine if the tooth fairy wasn’t just a game of pretend that children grew out of soon after the “age of reason”. Imagine if a huge number of people believed in the fairy their whole lives. (Practically speaking, since parents were still the ones taking the teeth from under the pillow, they’d have to believe that the tooth fairy received the teeth after parents ritually disposed of them.)

Imagine therefore that:
– A child losing a tooth was a huge event, and the child was severely punished if he or she lost (or, Fairy forbid, swallowed) any loose teeth.
– Once they were adults, people nursed a feeling of inferiority from having no more teeth to give, and some even knocked out their adult teeth as offerings.
– Zealous Toothians travelled to Third World countries with the primary goal not of helping the people with their existing problems but of collecting as many of their children’s teeth as possible, and some Toothian missionaries even refused aid to those who didn’t offer teeth.
– Those very rare occasions when a person grows a third set of teeth in adulthood were treated as miracles, and unscrupulous people conned Toothians out of their life savings and adult teeth by claiming to have the power to give them that third set.
– Toothian politicians legislated in favour of Toothian interests whenever possible, at the expense of everyone else’s rights.

If you personally didn’t believe in the tooth fairy but all of this were happening around you, you would see that these people weren’t just wrong in their beliefs, but were also spending huge amounts of time, energy and money on an essentially pointless enterprise at the expense of their own finances, health and wellbeing. Furthermore, you’d know that some of the more extreme Toothians were doing great harm to others and to their own, physically and psychologically, some unknowingly and some deliberately, as a direct result of being Toothians.

After realising all this, you might well come to the decision that it would be better for everybody if belief in the tooth fairy were dispelled. Whatever benefits humanity had to gain from Toothianism in terms of community, comfort and so on could come from other sources, but the specific excesses of radical Toothians simply would not occur without Toothian doctrine. So you’d do whatever you could to challenge general fairy belief as well as belief in the specific fairy which is most popular. You’d see it as doing people a favour.

I’ll let you draw your own parallels to elements of Christianity which appear to non-Christians in much the same light, Katie. The main issue is not usually the simple idea that one is right and others are wrong; it’s the effects that incorrect beliefs have on people that make those beliefs worth challenging.

I will say that your brother-in-law is being awfully confrontational about it, causing so much strife in what is now his own family. It’s obviously not having the desired effect either, so it’s not a great approach in this case.

SmartLX

P.S. Don’t bother spelling “atheism” with a capital A. You wouldn’t spell “theism” with a capital T.

Who’s an atheist then?

“I don’t know whether you simply mean people who are known to have been atheists, or people who actually tried to advance atheism itself.”

Question from Richard:
What are some famous atheists in the 18th, 19th 20th and 21st century?

Answer:
I don’t know whether you simply mean people who are known to have been atheists, like Angelina Jolie or Eddie Vedder, or you want people who have actually worked to advance atheism itself, like Richard Dawkins. Here and here are the two most comprehensive lists I’ve seen. Let me know if you’re after a specific kind of person.

SmartLX

Atheism: The Null Hypothesis

“The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.”

Question from Ted:
I’m debating a friend who, although he is surrounded by scientific-minded people in University, chooses to embrace Christianity. I want to demonstrate to him that in any scientific research condition, the null hypothesis is favored over the alternative hypothesis by default, unless contradictory research can be produced. This would indicate that before the research is even commenced, it is more reasonable to assume that the null hypothesis is true than to remain undecided or accept the alternative hypothesis.

What are some good references that I can use to get this idea across to him?

Answer:
It’s a good way to look at the question of gods, and nobody’s ever challenged me on it when I’ve used it before (not, I think, on ATA). If someone did fight me, though, I think I know how they’d do it.

Any textbook on high school or college/university statistics would be sufficient to give your friend the necessary grounding in the concept of null and alternative hypotheses. This is the easy part, because what you say above is straightforward and self-evident; the null hypothesis by definition is what you accept to be the case if no contrary evidence is found. The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.

Regarding #1, a huge amount of believers are of the opinion that the burden of proof is on atheists because they can’t imagine the world, life, art, love, logic, etc. having come about without a god, and therefore (though they don’t often put it like this) atheism is an alternative hypothesis which needs to be supported with proof that a god wasn’t/isn’t necessary. This response is essentially equivalent to the cosmological, transcendental and/or design arguments for gods, which I and many others have written about before.

Regarding #2, there’s a huge variety of anecdotes and phenomena that believers present as evidence for gods and therefore good reason to reject atheism as a null hypothesis, whether or not it’s actually good evidence or evidence at all. Your friend is liable and entitled to present you with just about anything, so you’ll have to take it as it comes.

The well-known text which comes closest to treating the issue in this manner is God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. So that’s the one I recommend to you and your friend. Read it yourself first, obviously.

SmartLX

Can I still become atheist after confirmation?

“An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods, not someone who’s gone through some kind of ritual or ceremony to “join” atheism.”

Question from Mandi:
I’m 12 and I’ve gone to a Catholic school for all of my school years. Ever since I was young I wondered if there really was a god. I never was really close to my parents and I don’t think I would be able to tell them that I want to become atheist. I was wondering if I could still become atheist after I receive confirmation?

Answer:
Yes.

An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods, not someone who’s gone through some kind of ritual or ceremony to “join” atheism. Whether or not you’ve had the ceremony to officially become a Catholic is irrelevant. If afterwards you don’t actually believe in the Christian god or any other, you may be a Catholic for life in the eyes of the church but you’ll still be an atheist. Even if nobody knows but you.

SmartLX

How do I “come out” as an atheist?

“Ultimately your parents will come to some form of understanding. That understanding could be anything from complete tolerance to the idea that you’re the devil incarnate.”

Question from Jarod:
My parents take me to church and expect me to believe in whatever they tell me to. I have had a limited say in anything regarding religion. After many months of questioning and doubt, I have finally come to terms with the fact that there is no god. A lot of my friends know and they don’t mind (in fact, a lot of my friends are atheists), but now I’m contemplating coming out to my parents. I am extremely nervous about telling them because they expect me to be a Christian. How do I approach them, and is now a good time? I’m only 14, by the way. Thanks.

Answer:
It’s never a good time for something like this, from your parents’ perspective. It’s got to be done sometime though, because (among other things) if they still think you believe when you grow up and have kids of your own, they’ll expect you to indoctrinate the kids too.

I’m sure you realise that if you do it at 14 they have the ability to make your life hell for 4 years, whether or not they actually would. That said, if you think the situation will improve after you get this out in the open, or you don’t relish another 4 years of pretending, go for it and best of luck to you.

To soften the blow, say that you don’t believe in God anymore. The word “atheist” over and above that would probably be more shocking as the first thing out of your mouth, as if you came in and said, “Mum, Dad, I’m a Communist/Nazi/anarchist.” Sad in this day and age, but true. Not believing in God is a personal conclusion you’ve come to which they’ll need to deal with, whereas atheism might seem more like a bad crowd you’ve fallen in with and need shielding from. (That’s enough phrases ended with prepositions for today.)

There’s a chance, especially if they think your disbelief is a form of rebellion, that they’ll threaten you with punishment. Speak the simple truth: that it wouldn’t make you believe again. It might coerce you to pretend to believe, but an all-powerful god would see right through that. No, something would actually have to convince you to believe again.

They may subject you to some form of apologetics: a book, a video, a private session with a local preacher, or they might try their own hand. Look at it as an opportunity to crash-test your atheism. (That’s exactly why I started at ATA.) If they come up with an argument you haven’t already considered and dismissed, you can probably find a reply to it on this site. If they come up with something this site hasn’t answered, I want to know about it.

Ultimately your parents will come to some form of understanding. That understanding could be anything from complete tolerance to the idea that you’re the devil incarnate. Sorry, I can only predict the thoughts and actions of strangers up to a point. Regardless, you’ll have done it, you’ll have been honest and you won’t have to lie anymore.

Let us know how you go, if you like.

SmartLX

A Curious Wiccan

In fact, the ancient Romans referred to the first Christians as atheists because Christians didn’t worship Jupiter and the other “true” Roman gods, but nobody uses that definition anymore.

Question from Jill:
My question is this… Do atheists ever question other dieties? I was brought up Christian but always questioned many things that Christianity taught us. When I was around 25-26 I realixed that I was a Wiccan person at heart. Though I don’t believe in a God I do believe in a Goddess. I don’t see her as sitting somehere surrounded by light and clouds, I see her in everything in nature. The birds, the trees, etc.

Do atheists ever think of a “higher power” of any kind? I have no ill feelings towards atheists. I think every person has the right to believe what they want and nobody should tell them they’re wrong. That pisses me off. Thanks!

Answer:
An atheist isn’t just a non-Christian, or Hindus and Zoroastrians would count as atheists. In fact, the ancient Romans referred to the first Christians as atheists because Christians didn’t worship Jupiter and the other “true” Roman gods, but nobody uses that definition anymore. By modern definition an atheist doesn’t believe in any deity or similar “higher power”, and it goes without saying that this includes your semi-pantheistic Wiccan goddess.

By stating one’s atheism or else belief in any particular deity, one is essentially telling anyone who doesn’t share one’s position that one thinks they’re wrong. Your Wiccanism, for instance, is not just different from Christianity but in open defiance of it. The sooner you and others learn not to take it personally, the happier everyone will be. Having said that, people are entitled, often motivated and in many cases commanded to convince others of what they think or believe is correct.

SmartLX

Atheism and Parents

There’s a theological compromise that a lot of religious people eventually reach when faced with the prospect of loved ones who will never come around to their way of thinking: that God will forgive them (you) for the error.

Question from Andrew:
Since I was a small child I have been taken to church nearly every Sunday of my life. My mother and father being very religious people. They have attended many different denominations but the belief that the Bible is not only infallible but that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old remains.

When I was 12 I had to start to attend confirmation classes at the Lutheran church my parents were attending at the time. After hearing verse after verse I started questioning Christianity and the Bible all together and accepted Atheism by the end of that year. (In this particular church confirmation took three years) I remained a closeted Atheist until I was 16 and finally admitted to my parents that I was an Atheist (Other than a couple of Girlfriends I had never admitted that I was an Atheist) They were shocked and kicked me out of the house for about a day and then came looking for me. My mother said that she would always love me but I would have to repent or spend eternity burning in Hades.

Well, I’m still an Atheist and my parents still make me attend their church (I am 17 right now) They have never come to terms with my Atheism and whenever I question a facet of their religion they simply refuse to talk about it (My mother and father have both said that I will either repent or spend eternity burning in Hades). I will go to college next year, My question is: Even though I will leave their home and hopefully have a decent relationship with them will they ever come to terms with my Atheism?

Thank you very much.

Answer:
If you and they maintain a relationship, they will probably come to terms with it. The difficulty may be in maintaining that relationship.

There’s a theological compromise that a lot of religious people eventually reach when faced with the prospect of loved ones who will never come around to their way of thinking: that God will forgive them (you) for the error. This is denied by the evangelical doctrine that everyone must personally accept Christ, but it’s an easy thing to believe given that God’s supposed to be able to forgive anything. Given enough time, it’s bound to occur to your parents.

Unfortunately if it does and they mention it to those in their church community, it will be flatly denied. They may end up having to keep your atheism a secret from their congregation in order to reconcile it for themselves, or be peer-pressured to keep witnessing to you.

That aside, I think it’s worth getting across to them that simply getting you into church won’t win you back to the flock. The Word isn’t much good to someone who’s already rejected it, without a bit of actual persuasion to make it stick. They must risk analysis of their own beliefs by opening an actual dialogue, because they’ve got no way to force it in.

Honestly, once you move out they’re not likely to cut you off entirely. That’s the time when they’ll miss you the most. And given time, and love which I’m sure is there, they will find a way to accept who you are and what you don’t believe. Just keep the lines open.

SmartLX