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

Atheism: The inverse religion?

“Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms…”

Question from Virginia:
I’m a first year college student, and right now I’m up at 3am working on a paper on atheism for a class about Religion, Ethnocentrism, and Terrorism. My question is this: what do you have to say in response to those who would point out that certain branches of atheism resemble a sort of inverse/dark matter religion? Allow me to explain.

History has given us several examples of this phenomenon, most notably the Cult of Reason forcibly instituted during the French Revolution and the secular ‘religion’ that was spread during the early years of the USSR (and I use the word religion quite literally– they had hymnals singing the praises of the state and the proletariat). Recently, I’ve noticed a trend that I’ve labeled evangelical atheism whereby very strong atheists gather together to celebrate their mutual ‘enlightenment’ and seek to convert all the poor slobs still following the delusion of religion. They base their group identity on intellectual and moral superiority, citing their adherence to the scientific method and their tolerance of others.

And while you may be nodding and going, “Yeah, so?”, allow me to further point out the similarities between these actions and American Christianity. Historically, Christians have staged mass (and sometimes bloody) takeovers (think inquisition) in the same way large groups of atheists have staged takeovers. Christians define themselves by their belief in the bible and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe; atheists are defined by their fervent belief that there ISN’T a god and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe. Christian fundamentalists are intolerant of people who aren’t christian; evangelical atheists are intolerant of people who aren’t tolerant (though they claim to be open to all ideas). Christians seek converts; atheists seek converts. You see where I’m going with this?

Now I realize that not all atheists are like this, but I’ve had personal interactions with enough who are to know that they are not a minority. Do you agree with this interpretation of events, or do you think it’s just complete non-sense? Any input I could get from a genuine atheist on this matter would be great. Thanks for listening.

Answer:
Well, it’s not complete nonsense, since at least some of what you say is true. No offence but it’s also somewhat cliched in places; “evangelical atheism” isn’t just your word for it. Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms: “evangelical”, “zealous”, Dawkins as the “high priest” and so on. What amuses me is that so many religious folks choose to deride us by saying we’re just like them. What does that say about them?

I’ve used the Cult of Reason before to demonstrate the difference between what atheism might look like if it were a religion, and what it is now. It actually personified Reason as a goddess, so whether it was strictly atheistic is debatable. It was physically violently anti-religious, something which wasn’t seen again until Communism. And of course Robespierre shut it down within a year, and no one seems to have even tried to revive it. Call it a failed experiment.

From what you say about the USSR, it’s clear that you don’t see religion as necessarily based on belief in the supernatural. Generally that is one criterion, and a major reason why atheism doesn’t qualify.

What the Cult and Communism had in common was the main problem with both, really: they were pseudo-religious all-encompassing ideologies, which happened to not only be superficially atheistic but see themselves as incompatible with even the existence of nearby religion. Atheism itself isn’t an ideology, a philosophy or even a worldview. It’s a position on one specific issue, which allows for the existence of contrary positions in the same room. It just doesn’t have the same drive behind it.

You start getting a bit broad when you compare atheism to American Christianity. How do you define a religion, as a group of people with a common opinion who wants to convince others that it’s correct? If so, then every political party or action group is a religion. So is every labour union, and the fan following of every football team (and some of those can get very violent). So are Amway and Avon. If you define it that broadly, then atheism probably is a religion too, but it doesn’t mean much.

One other specific issue with your descriptions of atheism: it isn’t a belief that there isn’t a god, though some atheists might believe that (they’re called strong atheists). It’s just a lack of belief in gods, usually accompanied by the acceptance that they are at least possible, though unlikely. Even Richard Dawkins, who invented a scale of total belief to total belief-in-absence from 1 to 7, only rates himself a 6.

I’d have to say that the most likely reason why you think the majority of atheists you’ve met are the aggressive, convert-hungry type is that those are just the ones who’ve bothered to identify themselves as atheists in public. Most atheists in religious countries don’t speak out about it at all, except to criticise the “evangelical” “New Atheists” for being so loud.

I hope this helps you out, Virginia, and reaches you before you fall asleep at your desk.

SmartLX

The Basics

“You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”

Question from Matthew:
I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?

2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?

3. What is the purpose of human existence?

4. How do you know what is right and wrong?

5. What happens to a person at death?

Answer:
I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.

1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.

2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?

Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.

3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.

If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.

4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.

Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.

5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.

Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.

SmartLX

Dilemma in India

“Belief exists at different levels in different people, and the sooner you plumb your own to find the depth of it, the sooner you can deal with it directly.”

Question from Ron:
Hi,

Just stumbled upon your site, I am from India, and here questioning the existing of god is like painting a red sign on your back here.

I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember (i.e never went to a place of worship), and my immediate family never imposed on me.

However when I was young I always used to thank or curse a faceless entity in my mind for good fortune or misfortune.
Then when I discovered the atheistic ideology and openly told everyone, I started feeling a sense of estrangement from my family. It has been so ever since (since 7 years).

Lately I have been going through many rough pathches and good times, and I sometimes find myself speaking to the above mentioned faceless entity. But then I right myself calling it stupid.

However how do I get rid of this internal conflict?

Answer:
Depends on where it’s coming from, and it’s hard to tell that from over here.

If you really did believe in some such entity as a youth, perhaps you still do on some level. There are religious folks who think all atheists are believers in denial, and of course this is nonsense, but nevertheless there are those whose belief persists despite their sincere intellectual acceptance of the unlikelihood of gods. Maybe you’re one of these unfortunate individuals. If so, it likely surfaces in times of stress or great emotion. So face it head-on: has your entity ever answered? What’s it done for you? Is it even an entity worth talking to? And be patient – expect such a subconscious belief, however light, to fade slowly.

If on the other hand you don’t think you ever really believed, and you started praying after a fashion as an imitation of your religious peers (or out of loneliness or estrangement, like some kids invent an imaginary friend) then it’s basically a habit. It probably does you no harm if you know you’re talking to no one, but if the fact that you do makes you uncomfortable then treat it as any other habit that needs breaking; address the root causes (the occasions which cause you to do it), or just find another thing to do.

Human beings are conflicted creatures at the best of times, so don’t feel alone. Belief exists at different levels in different people, and the sooner you plumb your own to find the depth of it, the sooner you can deal with it directly.

SmartLX

Evidence For Atheism

“…absence of expected evidence can indeed be evidence of absence, like the absence of any bat guano in your attic.”

Question, often asked of atheists by Shockofgod:
What is the proof or evidence that atheism is accurate and correct?

Answer:

Sometimes an apologist will hit upon a question which is not easily answered off the cuff and, by asking it repeatedly, give the impression that there is no good answer and the opposing position is unsupported. You can usually tell such a question by the fact that it’s asked with almost exactly the same wording every time. The above is Shockofgod’s personal weapon. Obviously, asking tough questions is a valid persuasive technique, but if they’re intended to be tough then one may need time to answer them the right way. A written response can be a great help, especially when you’ve read it before being asked the question verbally.

The question is hard to answer as is because atheism itself is the absence of a certain type of belief, not the presence of an equivalent belief. It feels wrong to advance the lack of a belief as correct, let alone proven.

What we need to sort out beforehand is the position of atheists (or at least the majority of them) on the existence of gods and the truth merit of religions. This can be defended, as “what atheists think”, far less awkwardly.

This attempt is probably not definitive, but here goes: the atheist position is that there is no available, substantive evidence for the existence of any god. Therefore it’s likely that there isn’t one.

Now that we have a defined position, what evidence or proof can we offer? It’s hard to support a negative like this, but “available substantive evidence” narrows the field a bit. It essentially means significant evidence which we’ve actually got. There might well be evidence which is not available, like God’s signature in three-inch letters on the surface of Ganymede. There’s plenty of “evidence” which is not substantive, like claims of personal experience and unverified miracle stories. Neither of these is a good reason to abandon atheism. Available substantive evidence for a god, on the other hand, would be good reason.

Therefore the evidence (proof is going too far) is the appearance that there is no such evidence for gods. If it did exist, and were substantive and available, it would be paraded around the world. Whichever god it supported would be vindicated. So it’s very unlikely that evidence is available and substantive and yet appears as though it’s not there.

Another possible piece of evidence for the likelihood of the absence of gods (remember, the position on gods is a statement of probability) is precedent. Unsubstantive “evidence” for gods often takes the form of supposedly impossible things, everything from the beginning of the universe to the diversity of life to Peter Popoff’s inexplicable knowledge of his audience members’ business. As Tim Minchin says in his brilliant beat poem Storm, every such mystery which has been solved has turned out to be “not magic”. Evolution explained the diversity of life brilliantly. Popoff’s earpiece, through which his wife fed him information, was revealed by James Randi. Such cases speak well for the chances that many remaining mysteries will soon be solved. Most importantly, gods seem less and less likely to be necessary in the areas where we have no good natural explanation yet.

Finally, we must address the possible impression of an overreach or a non-sequitur. Why does the absence of good evidence make it likely that there are no gods? Because gods as described by religions which have them (a) have visible, even obvious effects on the world and (b) want people to believe in them. (One or both is usually true even for deistic gods.) The lack of available substantive evidence suggests that either they aren’t both true, or there isn’t a god. Of course theology has reconciled this many times over, but not in ways with any evidential support behind them.

The evidence for atheism, in short, is the lack of available substantive evidence for gods when there probably should be a lot. On hearing that response, an apologist will probably retort in one of two ways:
1. Argue despite any clarification you make that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, in which case it’s helpful to remember that absence of expected evidence can indeed be evidence of absence, like the absence of any bat guano in your attic.
2. Actually present some supposed evidence for the existence of a god, in which case the discussion will then be about that.

In any case, the unanswerable question isn’t.

SmartLX

God is Good, Existence Notwithstanding?

“Atheists aren’t entirely blind to the possible benefits of religion. Its perils, however, are substantial enough to make any judgement of its ultimate worth on its own merits very difficult.”

Question from James:
Why must atheists be just as equally hard core biased about their beliefs as Christians?

I do not believe in the existence of a deity. Although I do highly condone God. As no one can logically argue that “God” is not simply the best thing for mankind.

I just want to know why despite your beliefs you can fail to see reason, and even if there is no God, why shouldn’t we all just pretend for our own sakes?

Answer:
Some non-believers are nevertheless very supportive of religion, like you. They argue that believing in gods is beneficial even if the beliefs themselves are false. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this position “belief in belief”. Biologist-blogger Jerry Coyne calls it “faitheism”.

When trying to logically determine whether belief in gods or in a particular god is ultimately beneficial, you need to look at both sides of the issue.
Pros: There are in fact several studies which show small but significant differences in happiness, health and longevity between theists and atheists, always in favour of the theists. (Atheism is generally favoured in studies which focus on certain other attributes.) Fear of God may very well encourage good behaviour, though it’s not the only way to encourage this.
Cons: believers may devote huge amounts of time, money and effort to their churches which might be spent more productively, they tend to antagonise members of other churches and religions, and they live their lives by laws which may not in fact be backed by an absolute authority, and therefore may steer them wrong.

Atheists aren’t entirely blind to the possible benefits of religion. Its perils, however, are substantial enough to make any judgement of its ultimate worth on its own merits very difficult. In the absence of a clear verdict, atheists like me tend to encourage people to be atheists, simply because there don’t appear to be any gods.

SmartLX