“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.
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.
“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?
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.
“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:
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?
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.
“…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?
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.
“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?
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.
“Going by the word alone, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.”
(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)
Question from friendlyagnostic:
I go back and forth between deism and straight up agnosticism, so normally I call myself an agnostic deist (not theist). Most of the time I don’t know and I really don’t care (unless religion is in my face), but when I do think there might be a “higher power”, I think of it in deistic terms. theism makes no sense to me. I would never be arrogant enough to say “I know” or that “I can prove” b/c this is impossible. I consider myself a non-theist. however, according to the defintion on rrs’s website, I am considered an atheist too, just b/c I am not a theist. Is everyone who is not a theist an atheist? Am I, even with my deistic leanings? I honestly want to know……thanks
A deist is not a theist, that much is clear and easy.
If you think there’s a good chance of a deistic god, but you don’t know, then you’re an agnostic deist. That’s pretty clear too. So we just have to work out what else you could be called at the same time.
An atheist by the everyday definition is someone who doesn’t believe in gods of any sort, even deistic gods. That rules you out.
Going by the word alone, though, an atheist (a-theist) is someone without a theistic belief. That includes deists.
Regardless, I couldn’t comfortably call you an atheist without qualification, because the way people understand the word it includes the position of a-deism.
If you really wanted to nail it to the letter, you could say that you’re an atheist but not an a-deist. If I shared your position, though, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just self-identify as an agnostic deist and not worry about whether I was technically an atheist too.
“Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there.”
Question from Ace:
I attend my local Unitarian Universalist church, engage in or observe other people’s ceremonies and Celebrations and once a week I have my own ‘Ritual’ Day where I might light some candles, Incense and Sage to set the mood, Meditate, Read, Dance, Drum, Garden, Do Yoga and engage in many other Practices that would help me to feel re-connected to myself and able to go back out into life the next day…
I do not believe in any God or gods of ANY Kind-Not The Universe, Not Nature, Not God is within or God is love, I also do not believe in the supernatural-No Ghosts or Angels, Magick or Prayer, I am not superstitious as far as I know..I have tried to ignore and deny these needs and desires to be involved in these Rituals and Celebrations and I have even explored different traditions such as Buddhism, Pantheism, Paganism and Though each of them can be Atheistic I dont find them to be a complete fit and they still have beliefs and practices that are outside of common sense and logic for me…Help!
I think you answer your own question, by being a very spiritual atheist. The rituals and activities you mention all have documented benefits for the human body and/or mind, and do not require supernatural assistance to be useful or pleasurable.
Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there. This is what a lot of people think of as spirituality.
Get on Google and read some articles by Sam Harris. He’s one of the four major “New Atheists”, but he takes from Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies a great deal of instruction in spirituality. He actually catches a great deal of guff for it from other atheists, but I don’t think he’s actually contradicting himself.
“If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false.”
Question from Sigurd:
If I belive in science and darwinism and do not belive in any god what so ever.
But I belive the persons in the bible are stories of actual people and their lives.
Am I then an atheist?
I think it’s safe to say that you are.
If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false. Some characters are known historical figures: Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Caiaphas and several different Pharaohs. Many events after the Resurrection probably have some truth in them, as they concern the early mortal Christians’ doings and are light on miracles. At the very least the Bible is set in some real places, such as Jerusalem and Memphis (in Egypt, not America).
Not believing in gods is what makes you an atheist. If you’re of the opinion that the Bible is accurate to a lesser extent when it comes to more mundane matters, it makes no difference unless it then convinces you that the Biblical God is real.
“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”
Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?
Yes. I consider myself an agnostic atheist.
An agnostic lacks gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (if any). He or she does not know whether there are any gods. Some agnostics go one step further and think it is impossible to know this.
An atheist lacks belief in any gods. An agnostic, who does not know, may not believe either and therefore be an atheist too. That’s my current position.
On the other hand an agnostic may believe in spite of not knowing, and therefore be an agnostic theist. Most religious folks who don’t claim personal experiences of their gods are in this category.
The only atheists who aren’t agnostics are those who think they know that there are no gods. This is a step further than “strong atheists”, who positively believe there are no gods but don’t claim to know for sure.
Most of the time, however, atheism co-exists with agnosticism.