Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

Is Faith Crazy?

Question from Alfredo:
The “What is an Atheist?” video did a terrific job of explaining the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and “theist,” pointing out that it is possible to be an atheist-agnostic. Logically, if one can be an atheist-agnostic, one can also be a theist-agnostic, but the video made no mention at all of theist-agnostics. (Logically, it should even be possible to be an atheist-gnostic in the same way that one can “know” that super-position, quantum-entanglement, and quantum tunnelling are real phenomenon, but be unable to (really) believe that the universe works this way in one’s gut.)

At one point in the video, Jake addressed the popular notion that an agnostic falls somewhere between an atheist and a theist. He used the analogy of being a little pregnant to convey the idea that believing and not believing at the same time seems a bit muddled. I’m inclined to think that the reason that most people think of an “agnostic” as being half-way between a theist and an atheist is that popular culture often muddles “belief” and “knowledge.”

A theist believes in God, but also KNOWS that there is a God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God and (as many understand the term), KNOWS that there is no God. Therefore, an “agnostic” is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t know FOR SURE, the way that an “atheist” does.

My question addresses the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, and how it contrasts with the DISBELIEF-AGNOSTICISM of the “weak atheist” and the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong atheist.” (I’m posing this question within the context of the full-broad issue of whether or not there is a god or gods– not the narrower, and much easier to answer, question of whether or not the Islamic-Judeo-Christian God exists.)

Even Richard Dawkins defines himself as an atheist-agnostic with regard to the full-broad question of whether or not any sort of god or gods exists. I’m going to tentatively assume that we all agree that the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, as long as we aren’t talking about profoundly anthropomorphic, logically self-contradictory entities.

Belief and faith are intimately interconnected, but there are two kinds of faith. There’s conventional religious faith, in which one defines one’s belief to be knowledge– to be fact– either because one wants it to be fact really, really badly and thinks this justifies defining it as fact, or because one is incapable of distinguishing between belief and fact. Then there’s secular faith– the faith that one has in one’s children, in one’s country, or in the human race. If my daughter has cancer and I say that I have faith that she’ll be okay, I’m actively and willfully marginalizing the thought that she may die in my mind, but I’m not denying the possibility. I also have some rational justification for believing that she’ll be okay, otherwise my secular “faith” is actually nothing more than hope. Secular faith is more than hope, but less than knowledge.

So, here’s my question in a nutshell: If we can differentiate between agnosticism and atheism, why can’t we differentiate between faith and psychosis? Why can’t we make a distinction, conceptually and verbally, between a religious person who believes and has faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of god– in the same way that Richard Dawkins disbelieves and lacks faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of God? Why, in other words, is being a theist synonymous with being batsh*t crazy?

Answer by SmartLX:
Being a theist, from the perspective of an atheist, is simply synonymous with being wrong, or at least likely to be wrong. There’s no need to lump crazy in with it at the conceptual level. Of course it is sometimes accompanied by some level of crazy, but so is atheism or any other position. I wrote about this once before, and I’m still happy with my earlier piece.

A rational mind can accommodate an irrational faith if it has a “rational justification” which is flawed, and does not see the flaws. Rational is not the same as infallible, and no one expects us to be right about everything, only to try to be.

Otherwise, the “rational mind” can simply be somewhat irrational with regard to the object of faith, not accepting its flaws, and mostly rational the rest of the time. A parent with a deathly ill child might be like this. Some degree of irrationality is intrinsic to our nature as instinctive, emotional beings. It’s why we should try to be rational when we can, to compensate for the other times.

If there is a god, wouldn’t faith be insulting to it?

Todays question comes from DK who asks…

Name: DK
Message: I have read enough of the questions and responses to gain a general understanding of why you have chosen to be an atheist…  In saying that, I do believe there is a God.  I was raised in a Christian home, and have been taught Biblical principles my entire life.  I am actually a student pastor at the church I attend, and I am in the process of creating a message series proving the existence of God through Biblical and physical evidence.  My belief, much like yours, is that Christians, as a whole, are viewed as ignorant and hypocritical, because their behavior and the claims they make personally, come from very little understanding of who God is and why they actually believe in him.  For most, Christianity is just what they were always taught was “the right thing to believe.”  Without a belief in God being built on a firm foundation of evidence, any belief you express in that regard, whether in word or deed, will lack conviction and lead to instability.  While I am still searching for all the answers, my conviction comes from having personally experienced God’s intervention in my life.  I am not referring to a sense of a being I have never seen that I have made a blind assumption is the presence of God; I am referring to him making a way for me in times when I, despite my greatest effort, could not accomplish something or meet a desperate need.  Ultimately, whether you believe in Christianity or science, Creation or Evolution, we will all be searching for answers until the day we die, some of which we may never be able to answer completely or even at all.  In an effort to gain a better understand of your perspective as an atheist, have you considered the possibility that you are attempting to justify your position from an intellectually finite perspective, when the answers we are all looking for come from an infinite origin?  The Bible says in Proverbs that men judge the outward appearance; God judges the heart.  While having enough understanding of God to be confident in your belief of Him is im!
portant, we can allow our relentless pursuit of understanding God through everything we see to push us away from Him when we don’t find all the answers, when the truth is, we will never have all the answers.  Even a scientist when he verifies a hypothesis understands that, while he may have uncovered a portion of the truth, there is still much left to discover.  Does that make his belief in his original findings any less true?  God does not expect us to have all the answers before we trust Him.  He only wants to bring us peace in the midst of uncertainty – to bring joy and hope to our hearts in a world that is in a constant state of moral decay.  He wants us to trust that if we believe in Him instead of working tirelessly to solve a problem on our own, He can help us through the trials we face.  However, He has given us the free will to choose whether we give Him the chance to do so.  I say these things not to preach at you, but from the first hand experience of, at one time, being in your shoes-of questioning the existence of God.  You cannot experience God’s true purpose until you stop trying to answer everything with your head, and give Him the opportunity to change your heart.  That is the choice He has given you.  What are your thoughts?

Great question and I want to get right to what’s bothering me about what you just said, in fact, it’s one of my biggest problems with the judeo-christian belief system.

It’s dishonest.

Let’s for a minute assume that there is a god and that it wants us to find it. How has it set things up for us to determine how everything else exists? What is the criteria for determining existence? In short, ( I go into greater detail here. ) it’s through objective, verifiable means. So why is it, then when religion comes around, it says that “god” wants us to find it not with the rational, the intelligence, and the brain that said god gave to us, but in a way that’s exactly the opposite? Remember, god through it’s creation has already taught us how to determine what exists and what doesn’t. So why ask it’s creations to toss that out the window? It’s like telling us that dirt is water, the sun is dark, things fall upwards, and that women get pregnant from kissing. We know it’s not how the world, ( which in this scenario has a god ) was set up.

If there is a god, faith would be insulting to it.

A lot of believers at this point like to tell me that faith is a test, and that we need to let go of everything that said god has already taught us, and believe in it despite all of that. Well isn’t that exactly what a person or organization who wants you to think that god is on their side would tell you since they can’t actually produce a god? They would try to convince you to stop thinking about it. After all, you’re human and can’t begin to understand the ways of god. They would tell you that it’s better to believe without evidence because it would show their god that you really trust it. They would show you places in the world that match places in their stories and try to use that as evidence. They would villainize anyone who didn’t agree with them, telling you how evil and immoral everyone else is, and how you need to convince them to believe as you do for their own sake. They would tell you that everything good in your life was given to you by their invisible, anti irrational criteria for a god. It’s insidious and it’s dishonest. I believe that it can be said that the only honest seekers of the divine are atheists.

There was one more thing that you said that bothers me. You said, “I am referring to him making a way for me in times when I, despite my greatest effort, could not accomplish something or meet a desperate need.” I hear this from time to time from believers, and it disturbs me not only because of the underline message of human devaluation, but because I can’t believe that a loving god would want it’s creation to think so low of itself. I go into deeper explanation in my post titled “How do I overcome adversity without a god?

I hope this and the other two articles I mentioned here answered your question for you. If you have any further thoughts please feel free to use the comment section below.

Faith in Science

Question from Markus:
Quite frequently I read the argument that it takes faith to “believe” in atheism. It’s quite easy to falsify this argument and I won’t repeat that here.

However, as opposed to answering this question on a logical and abstract level, I see a problem if we apply it in the real world.
All scientific facts we know today are well documented and proven by various methods that are verifiable. But while for science as a whole this holds true for me as an individual it doesn’t. For example I couldn’t reproduce the experiments that are necessary to prove that a Higgs particle is most likely. So I have to believe that these experiments where actually done, that the results were correct, and that the scientists doing it came to the right conclusions and were honest. I lack the resources and the knowledge to be able to verify the results.

But it doesn’t have to be something as complex as the experiment mentioned. There are a lot more basic questions which I might be able to answer had I enough time in my lifetime. The scientific knowledge available today is so vast that even the brightest individual could only verify a tiny part of it even if he dedicated his whole life to it.

It is quite easy to verify that the scientific methodology is reasonable. Furthermore it is possible to verify parts of it and therefore create personal evidence that all scientific facts might be true.

One might say that it is possible to verify random parts of science and therefore create evidence for its validity. But let’s say an individual is able to verify 0.0001% of all knowledge available today during his lifetime does he then really have enough evidence for not having to refer to faith instead?

The issue get’s even bigger if we think about the whole world population. I would say that 90% of all people don’t have the resources or the education to even try to understand basic scientific facts.

So if applied to the real world doesn’t it take faith in science?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s quite true that although we can all apply the scientific method to some degree and gain justified confidence in its results, we can’t each do all the experiments to confirm the wealth of existing scientific knowledge. So rather than faith in science, it’s more a question of the need for faith in scientists.

Fortunately, we don’t immediately have to resort to faith in the absence of what you call “personal evidence”. Through proper documentation, second-hand evidence can also be valid. For centuries scientists have made public not only their findings but their methodology, their preparation and even the results of individual trials. Nowadays, the physical experiments can be watched online or on educational DVDs as well. Simply seeing something happen in a video and believing it right away is of course a bit dodgy, but it can be part of a body of documented evidence from which one can reasonably conclude that the experiment really happened, really gave the expected results and really does demonstrate a real-world scientific principle. This in essence is the conclusion that must be reached by a peer-review board before the work is even recommended to the public.

So, individual experiments can be researched and confirmed by anyone who’s interested even if the means to actually perform the experiments are hard to come by. There’s still the issue that lay people aren’t about to research and confirm every experiment ever done. For anything you can’t check yourself for some reason, you do have to trust the writings and other materials of working scientists, past and present. Above all, that’s a good reason for everyone to check everything they can themselves, because this kind of trust can end up being simple acceptance of an argument from authority.

That said, even third-hand evidence (e.g. articles on science published by anyone but the scientists themselves) can be justifiably accepted if you know enough. Scientific journals publicise their criteria for peer review, and you can decide for yourself whether the measures they take are sufficient for you to accept what they publish. If the scientists in question have other work available, you can look up the kind of scientific rigour they apply to their lab or field work. Knowledge of and confidence in the methods of a scientist, as opposed to his or her standing in the scientific community, can lead to real confidence in his or her findings even without knowing the specifics of a particular experiment.

It is sadly true that there is a lot of blind faith placed in science as a whole, by theists and non-theists alike. This is sad because it’s a straightforward process to become scientifically literate, to know how science is done and to have ways of judging the merits of a scientific or scientific-sounding claim. Without these tools it’s terribly easy to be taken in by pseudo-scientific scams and anti-scientific zealots using science’s own language against it. So in fact there’s a practical reason to apply as much critical thought to science as to everything else, regardless of the philosophical implications of relying on some form of faith.

The Best Defence Is To Take Offence

Question from Rieno:
Many Christians express views about many aspects of life. In addition, they also express their honest beliefs in their deity and even preach it. Atheists also express their views on many aspects of life (morality, politics, science, faith, etc.)

Why is it that when Christians express themselves, it is deemed acceptable, but when atheist express themselves it is considered offensive? I, personally, have been called a blasphemer once just by saying “I don’t believe in god”.

I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you very much in advance.

Answer by SmartLX:
This unequal treatment of views springs from an intrinsic asymmetry between believers and non-believers. This asymmetry is genuine, and the reason for the outrage is sometimes clear, but that doesn’t truly justify it.

Religion is claimed by many to be the sole source of their morals, comfort and/or reason for being. If you question some people’s faith, you are ostensibly shaking the very foundations of their lives; no wonder they take it personally.

This can be taken to extremes, as you’ve already discovered. Recently a bus company refused to run an ad with a one-word message: “Atheists.” It was deemed controversial to do nothing more than alert the public to the existence of people who don’t believe in gods. There are people, the ad says to believers, who think you are wrong.

By way of contrast, atheists usually protest religious advertising either because their own advertising has been refused or because the religious message is effectively delivered by a secular state authority. Aside from these practical concerns, why don’t atheists take as much personal offence from the topic as believers? Because atheism is not an equivalent source of morals or purpose. Atheists source these essential parts of life from other places (I briefly delved into this here), so when their position on the existence of gods is challenged they do not feel that their entire worldview is under attack.

The important thing to get across to believers, though of course it’s not easy, is that the targets of criticism are religions themselves, not their adherents. Religion really is under attack, in a sense, but believers aren’t. The statement that one’s religion is false implies merely that one is wrong, not that one is stupid, insane, wicked or deceitful. If more believers understood this, organisations as the Catholic League would look a lot sillier with their persecution complexes on show.

Atheism and Agnosticism

“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”

Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?

Answer:
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.

SmartLX