Main article: On Why I Remain an Atheist
This article aims to communicate my understanding of atheism, and a few related topics, and it concludes with a description of my specific position, setting the context for my overall defense of why I remain an atheist.
What you can—and cannot—infer from the atheist label remains a common area of confusion. Allow me to clarify…
Atheism, like theism, is not in itself a worldview or religion. The label can’t reliably inform you about beliefs, values, or even religious convictions—Buddhists are atheists, in point of fact.
Yes, there are atheist movements, and yes, there are atheists who share common worldviews and political ideologies, but there is diversity also, and sometimes spectacular differences of opinion. Many atheists—particularly in the west, like myself—adopt secular humanism as a worldview, have leftist political inclinations, and care deeply—the principal reason for atheist movements, I suspect—about social justice, separation of church and state, and the environment. But it’s a mistake to infer these, or any other qualities, as a matter of course.
Contrary to the tropes, atheists are not necessarily smart, rational, or logical. Neither are they immoral, arrogant, or joyless; that is, not any more than their theist friends. No, atheists are diverse. They are regular people. They are your friends, family, and fellow humans.
The one thing—indeed, the only thing—that can be inferred safely is that all atheists lack belief in Gods.
My preferred definition reflects this minimum requirement, “Atheism is the rejection of all theistic claims of a God’s existence.” Oxford Dictionaries defines it as, “the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” I also like, “An atheist is someone who can’t truthfully say, ‘I believe a God exists.'”
Under these definitions, an agnostic—in the Thomas Henry Huxley sense of the word—is also an atheist, at least in my view. Theism and atheism address belief, whereas gnosticism and agnosticism address knowledge. It’s accepted by orthodoxy that belief is a condition for knowledge, meaning that we can think of knowledge as a subset of belief. Theism, atheism, gnosticism, and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive either; they can be combined to help clarify a person’s position.
We also have to recognise that, when it comes to labels, people have preferences, and that’s okay. I might judge someone to be an atheist given the description of their position, but the person might want to identify as an agnostic instead, or a humanist, sceptic, freethinker, etc. Some people think that the atheist label should be strictly restricted to its definitional meaning, and they reject any sticky add-ons; it is technically, after all, only a position on one question. Others avoid the label because it’s often misunderstood or vilified; there are many places in the world where admission of being an atheist will buy you abuse and cost you friends, family, and even your freedom or your life.
It’s obvious that no one label can fully describe a person. I’m an atheist and I love discussing the topic, but the label—despite having a significant impact on my outlook—describes little about me. Humanist, sceptic, and critical thinker, on the other hand, these labels do a better job of revealing who I am and want to be.
There is, however, an argument to be made, mostly for political reasons, that disbelievers should publicly unite under a single label—like believers did when they pushed the Christian label to fight Roe vs Wade in early 1970’s. I would embrace atheist to that end, if required, but secular humanist is my preference; atheism is naturally contrasted against the behemoth that is theism, whereas humanism is more inclusive with a counterpoint that is less clear. In the UK, the British Humanist Association, of which I am a member, does good work to protect and promote the things that I care about. Many organisations, particularly in the US, that have been successful in defending secular values are openly atheist movements. That’s unfortunate for secularists who don’t publicly identify as atheists, but it is what is.
Before I continue, allow me to indulge in a philippic. I’m wary, and indeed weary, of those who are so dogmatic about labels that they turn a deaf ear to people’s descriptions of their position. I’m all for correcting people who misuse or misunderstand words—definitions are important—but I have little time for interlocutors who attempt to invalidate a person’s described position simply by waging definition wars. Neither do I have the inclination to engage with people who hyper-define terms—an oft-used apologetic tactic—to “win” an argument. To such as these, the endeavour to learn or to educate means little. So, why indulge them?
Right, let’s get back to atheism. I’ve explained that atheists do not believe that Gods exist. Many people, however, take this to mean that atheists must therefore believe that Gods do not exist. On the flip side, there are many people who say no, atheism is only the lack of belief in Gods, nothing more, end of discussion. Both these views are false. You see, atheism describes a position—with respect to belief—on whether a God exists, but it does not necessarily describe the position in full, and in this sense, there are two forms of atheism that are both philosophically valid as I will demonstrate.
What’s the difference between the lack of belief in existence and the belief in non-existence? Are they not effectively the same thing? Intuitively, we may be tempted to think so, but that’s a mistake. Let me explain with an analogy.
Consider a jar of coins and the two claims that can be made of the coins’ parity: (a) an even number of coins exists, and (b) an even number of coins does not exist. We can say of (b), by definition and for simplicity, that an odd number exists. Only one of the claims can be true; they can’t both be true; they can’t both be false; and there are no other options. Now, if I reject claim (a), that is, I don’t believe that an even number of coins exists in the jar; does that mean that I now automatically believe the opposite claim, that there is an odd number of coins? Think about it while I scribble down a few crude thoughts on belief…
In neuroscience, philosophy and psychology, belief is a non-trivial topic, which I don’t pretend to comprehend in full, but there are common definitions—gross generalisations, admittedly—that are nonetheless useful. One such is: Belief refers to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. Another description—the one I’d like to share a few thoughts on—is: Belief is acceptance that a proposition is true, and acceptance is a result of becoming convinced. Ask yourself, can you choose to convince yourself of something of which you are not convinced? If you try, you’re flirting with self-deception, and if you succeed… well, what does that say of your mental health and integrity? You can’t, then, choose what you do, or do not, believe; at least, not in any simple sense. For example, I did not choose to lose my belief in the Christian God. Instead, over time, through experience and education, my standards of evaluation changed and I came to understand that my reasons for believing were deeply flawed. As a result, my state of being convinced crumbled, until, at some point, I realised that did not believe that Yahweh existed anymore.
Now, let’s return to the jar of money. If I look at a collection of coins, I’m not convinced that the number of coins is even—because I lack the skill to accurately count coins as an observer—and I’m likewise not convinced that the number of coins is odd. I cannot, therefore, believe either claim, and happily, I’m not required to. This is called the default position. It’s a wonderful place where judgement is reserved.
The coin problem is easily solved, of course; it’s simple to investigate and gather evidence. But it’s not so simple for a deity, and here the analogy to God’s existence breaks down. In the case of the coins, the probability of either claim being true approximates 50%. That is because we know a lot about coins and jars, and we understand how coins generally get into jars. However, our probability calculation assumes an everyday use case, which may, or may not, be reasonable, but without fully understanding the context of how the coins got into the jar, we must concede that our calculation could be incorrect and our judgements should be tempered accordingly. What if the jar is owned by a person with disparnumerophobia? When it comes to supernatural entities, we have to make many big assumptions due to lack of information. God’s existence has not even been demonstrated to be possible. How can we guess at probabilities? Remember that anyone can conjure up a fantastical creature in their mind and say of it that it either exists or not, but the conjuror doesn’t automatically get to claim that its existence is equally probable to its non-existence. This is one of the reasons why Pascal’s Wager fails to be persuasive.
Why did I bring up the jar of coins in the first place? Oh yes, to illustrate that the rejection of a claim—of a binary proposition—does not mean a necessary acceptance of the opposite claim. I invested in this clarification so that you may understand the following: there are atheists who do not believe the claim that God does not exist—called negative atheism (also soft/weak atheism)—and there are atheists who do believe it—called positive atheism (also hard/strong atheism).
I would be remiss not to mention that we can also make a distinction between “implicit” and “explicit” atheism to account for the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection, and due to a conscious rejection, respectively.
In conclusion, let me describe my exact atheistic position: I am an agnostic, positive, explicit atheist. I reject all theistic clams of God’s existence (minimum requirement). My absence of theistic belief is due to conscious rejection (explicit atheism). I believe that the claim, “God does not exist”, is true (positive atheism). I do not, however, claim to know that my belief is true (agnosticism); I’m merely convinced, but I could be wrong. Indeed, if my reasons for believing are demonstrated to be unsound, I’ll cease to believe it, leaving me in the position of being a negative atheist.
References and Notes
- ^ “The Analysis of Knowledge” essay by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa (Nov 2012), from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved Apr 2015.
- ^ “Atheist vs. Agnostic” article from Iron Chariots wiki. Retrieved Apr 2015.
- ^ “An Atheist’s Guide to the 2012 Election” video interview with Penn Jillette for Big Think (Nov 2011), starting at 7m18s. Note: I don’t agree with all of Penn’s views. I’m also for individual thinking; I don’t think that negates movements.
- ^ “Politics and the bugnut Christians” op-ed opinion piece by Penn Jillette for Los Angeles Times (Oct 2011).
- ^ “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” book by Susan Jacoby (Apr 2004).
- ^ “Guilt, Gumballs and a clarification” video by Matt Dillahunty (Apr 2013), starting at 4m50s. I adapted the analogy by substituting coins for gumballs, because reasons…
- ^ “Belief” essay by Eric Schwitzgebel (Aug 2006), from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved Apr 2015.
- ^ “Belief” video lecture by Matt Dillahunty (Aug 2008), starting at 6m20s.
- ^ “The Presumption of Atheism” essay by Antony Flew (Sep 1972), page 3 of pdf (page 30 of journal).
- ^ “Negative and Positive Atheism” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2015.
- ^ “Atheism: The Case Against God” book by George H. Smith (1974), page 13.
- ^ “Implicit and Explicit Atheism” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2015.