In Defense of Atheism

Last week Josh offered a pretty sound criticism of agnosticism, but neglected to mention the elephant in the room: atheism. Part of the reason agnosticism is such a popular position, as Josh says, is that “atheism” is still a dirty word: Atheists are dogmatic, unreasonable, and extreme. These perceptions, however, are based on several popular myths about atheism. Atheism properly understood is not only reasonable, but, in fact, the only reasonable religious position.          

Myth #1: Atheists believe there is no god. This myth is largely the result of syntactical sloppiness. I, too, used to get tricked up by the difference between, “I don’t believe in any god” and, “I believe there is no god.” I thought that atheism meant the latter, which I was unwilling to support.

But this is an unfair standard. Atheism is not a belief, but the absence of a belief. Just look at the etymology: Theism means, “belief in a god” and the prefix a means without. If you are “without belief,” then you are an atheist.

Now, this may seem like a semantic point, but it is crucial. A “belief” is defined as “confidence in the truth of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.” Understanding atheism as a belief or system of beliefs is akin to understanding it as a religion of its own, which it is certainly not. Atheists are not confident in any truth: It is there lack of confidence in a purported truth that defines them and this is not, by definition, belief.

The fact is that atheism does not denote an active “belief” in anything: not god or science or nature or Richard Dawkins. Someone who calls himself an atheist is not obliged to think or endorse any particular belief; he is merely asserting a belief he does NOT hold.

Myth #2: Atheists are intent on disproving the existence of God. A concession: the existence of a deity is neither logically impossible nor empirically disprovable. Virtually every attempt to do so fails spectacularly (almost as spectacularly as the attempts to prove God).

But, as Josh pointed out, you can say the same thing about a lot of ideas: You cannot logically disprove the idea that every experience you have in the world is an illusion. The relevant question here is not “proof” or “knowledge” (which is yet another reason why agnosticism is ultimately misguided), but “belief.”* I cannot disprove the “everything is imaginary” hypothesis, but I don’t believe it because it is essentially nonsense, so I will act as if it were false. By the same token, I cannot disprove Yahweh (or Zeus, or Thor), but I don’t believe in his existence, so I don’t act as if he has any authority.

*The “knowledge/belief” distinction is a tricky one, because we often misuse the terms. We tend to view a belief as a weaker version of knowledge: “John, how many Jonas Brothers are there again?” “Three, I believe.” But this is not really an accurate use of the term. The realm of belief is totally different from the realm of knowledge: I know that 2+2=4—it can be no other way—but I believe Bob Dylan is greatest recording artist of all time. The latter idea is an object of belief because it cannot be known, i.e. it is neither provable nor disprovable. Similarly, God’s existence cannot be proved or disproved, it can only be believed in. Unlike Bob Dylan’s awesomeness, however, a belief in God is a belief in something’s objective truth, as opposed to subjective truth; God cannot exist for one person and not for someone else. Atheists essentially think that objective truths must be falsifiable: Any claim to objective truth that cannot be tested is nonsense.

Myth #3: Atheism is depressing. A personal anecdote: I picked my sister up from the train station once, and during a lull in the conversation, the song “We Suck Young Blood” was playing. “No wonder you’re an atheist,” she said, “the music you listen to is so depressing.” First of all, let’s ignore the fact that she happened to get into the car when a Radiohead CD was playing, when there’s a good chance the next disc would have been the exceedingly uplifting Miley Cyrus.

The other most annoying thing about this comment was the implication that atheism is motivated by despair. I think this is where the conversation between theists and atheists starts to get into that “two ships passing in the night” area: Many theists seem convinced that atheists are missing God in their lives, whereas most atheists find the idea of surrendering themselves over to a deity incredibly bleak.

I don’t want to caricature faith or deny the fact that some people do get meaning from it, but I personally do not feel depressed because I don’t believe in god. It seems unfair to me that “religion” and “faith” and “God” should have a monopoly on things like “hope” and “optimism.” Personal happiness is another complicated subject, and it probably has to do with a lot more than the mere presence or absence of faith.

Not to rehash old “opium of the people” arguments, but lots of things that tend to make people “happy”—alcohol, chocolate, pornography, cigarettes, Taylor Swift, Dane Cook—are not exactly good for you. On the whole, I think religion causes much more suffering than happiness—and I’m not just talking about the extremists who kill abortion doctors and try to ban the teaching of evolution. I’m referring primarily to dogma that discourages independent thinking, that upholds outdated morality, that encourages a completely Manichean way of the looking at the world, and that tells people they ought to live their life in the service of something completely unidentifiable (seriously, people, did the season finale of Lost teach you nothing?).

I understand that most religious people see it much differently, but this is not meant to show them the error of their ways; it is meant to demonstrate that the absence of religion is, to most atheists, akin to the absence of tyranny.

Myth #4: Atheists cannot appreciate natural wonder. This myth seems to result from the false binary of religion vs. science. For one, this dichotomy is insulting to most religious people, who have a pretty reasonable regard for evolution, medicine, etc.

On the other hand, this idea tends to identify atheists with science—and not the good parts that give us penicillin and video games, but the bad stuff that leads to the atom bomb and eugenics. The fact is, however, that atheism is not a “belief” in science, as I said above.

Atheists, on the whole, do tend to be naturalists. We trust empirical evidence and testable/verifiable claims. As a result, we like science. But we don’t think science is infallible or perfect or the answer to every question. There are certainly things that are (currently) without explanation and we can sympathize with the tendency to find awe in the world—we just don’t think a deity has anything to do with it. Theists look at the Grand Canyon and see God while atheists look at it and see erosion, but either way it’s beautiful (actually, the Grand Canyon is kind of boring, it’s just the best example I could think of).

Myth #5: Atheists do not have a moral code. Everyone has a moral code, whether they want one or not. (The Bunk said it, so it must be true.) Atheists simply do not have one that was handed down to them from a religious institution.

Now, obviously it would be a mischaracterization to imply that religious individuals simply accept ethics blindly. This would shortchange the amount of serious thinking everyone has to do about moral questions.

But it’s just as naïve to presume that not believing in God takes away these questions. Every mundane action, from deciding whether to give money to some homeless guy to deciding when to let other cars merge, requires at least some moral calculus, and whether you believe in God or not, you still need to consider the ethics of what you do.

Atheism, then, does not lead to amorality, but diverging moralities; when people think independently, they are likely to arrive at very different answers about the ethics of property, marriage, drug use, sexuality, and even violence. But even within the realm of religion, we haven’t decided on a single moral standard. This is, perhaps, scary, but free-thinking in general tends to lead to right-thinking (see: John Stuart Mill), and without challenging ethical dogma, we’d all still be very busy figuring out how much to sell our daughters for.

 

It should be clear now that atheism is not dogmatic or closed-minded or depressing. Instead, atheism encourages free-thinking, open discussion, logic and tangible, as opposed to deferred, happiness.

Now, obviously, atheists do not have a monopoly on these things, just as theists don’t own happiness or hope, but it does seem to me that religion often stands in the way of them.

Everyone has to think hard about questions of morality and happiness, but atheists, unlike theists, do not rely on easy, pre-provided answers, the mythical reward of heaven, or appeals to the unverifiable “truth” of something. Instead, we do it through it appeals to reason and the objective world around us.

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18 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex Harris on July 7, 2009 at 4:58 PM

    John, I think there may be some dispute about Myth #1. Eliezer Yudkowsky has a good explanation of the two meanings of “atheism” as “antitheism” and “untheism”:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/11m/atheism_untheism_antitheism/

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on July 7, 2009 at 6:22 PM

      Thanks Alex. That’s an interesting distinction, but, in my view, a largely unnecessary one. For one, it seems kind of unbelievable to imagine running into a pure “untheist” or someone who has never encountered the concept of a God before, so the exercise seems largely academic. Most everyone is acquainted with some concept of a god, so pretty much everyone has a basic grasp of at least some explicit argument in favor or against theism.

      Beyond that, though, I don’t think antitheism, defined as “explicit argument against explicit theism” by Yudkowsky, amounts to any sort of “belief.” As Yudkowsky even says, “the Untheists are not inventing new rules to refute God, just applying their standard epistemological guidelines that their civilization developed.” This sounds more like a conclusion or an argument based on reason than a mere belief. This may be a semantic distinction, but I merely meant to imply that if you do not answer the question “Do you believe in God?” with “yes,” then you’re an atheist (at least as far as I’m concerned).

      Reply

  2. Posted by Ryan Minyard on July 8, 2009 at 6:13 PM

    There many contentious points in your post, but I think perhaps the most important thing to address involves your overall portrayal of atheism, which I do not believe is accurate. Perhaps this is how you view your own atheism and hence want to project it onto atheism as a whole, but all in all, most atheists are a great deal more dogmatic then you would have people believe and do have a much greater faith in science then you would suggest. Some of the most prominent self-identified atheists, such as Richard Dawkins or Chistopher Hitchens, could be fairly labeled as dogmatic.

    Certainly, not all atheists are dogmatic, but to make such blanket assertions seems short-sided, especially considering that atheism is a notion that is in so many ways the offspring from a long-standing Christian tradition.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on July 8, 2009 at 11:12 PM

      Thanks for posting Ryan, but I have a slight disagreement. Calling Dawkins, Hitchens et. al. “dogmatic” isn’t really fair, because there is no dogma that unites them. As I say in my post, atheism is not a creed of its own. Perhaps a better word for Hitchens and Dawkins (and, yes, most atheists, even myself) is “stubborn” or even “obstinate.” But, as Barry Goldwater might put it, obstinacy in the name of reason is no vice. Hitchens/Dawkins/etc. may come off as closed-minded, but that is really just a by-product of their short patience with some of the claims made by religion and its proponents which, in many cases, is entirely justified.

      I am also intrigued by your last sentence, about atheism being “in so many ways the offspring from a long-standing Christian tradition.” What do you mean by that?

      Reply

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  10. Posted by Douglas on September 21, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    I have a lot of free time at work today, so I’ve been perusing old posts. A quick question for you to clarify:

    “…God’s existence cannot be proved or disproved, it can only be believed in.”

    Is it not then also true that God’s non-existence cannot be proved or disproved, and can only be believed in? Therefore is it not reasonable for an atheist to say “I believe that there is no God”? In Myth 1 you say you are unwilling to do this. Also, understand that I’m not trying to create a universal atheist belief; I’m not suggesting that an atheist by definition must say this, but why can’t he? Or why wouldn’t you?

    Isn’t our hesitation to do that a product of the distortion surrounding the whole God debate? I’m thinking of Russell’s teapot example again–just as we can say “I believe there’s no teapot out there” without saying “I know there’s no teapot out there”, can’t we say “I believe there’s no God out there”? This doesn’t seem to contradict the way you’ve defined belief: “confidence in the truth of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof”.

    I had been thinking about this after reading about so-called “strong” and “weak” atheism on Wikipedia, and wondering, skeptically, if there’s a meaningful difference for the naturalist atheist.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on September 21, 2010 at 7:19 PM

      Yes, I would agree with the claim that “God’s non-existence cannot be proved or disproved,” but this is concept is often misconstrued as equivocation or agnosticism on my part. I’m reluctant to say “I believe there is no God” for a couple reasons, both political and epistemological. First, I’m wary of theists common criticisms that “atheists are just as dogmatic/irrational/closed-minded as theists, since they posit that they know something they can’t.” For political reasons, then, I think it’s wise to refrain from positive assertions like “I believe there is no God,” since it more accurately represents atheism as an absence of beliefs, and not a replacement system of beliefs.

      In a more substantive, epistemological sense, I do not believe that the existence of God is something that can be strictly “known,” in the sense that we can “know” a priori truths or direct observations. Of course, practically speaking, we use the term “know” to refer to all kinds of things that we can infer with reasonable certainty (“there is no flying teapot,” “the Yankees won the World Series in 1927” etc.), and in this sense I “know” there is no God. This makes me an atheist. (In “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins makes the claim that anyone who thinks the probability of a God existing is somewhere between “very high” and “very low” is an agnostic; I think this is a fair distinction and I myself would put the probability at far below “very low,” at something more like “barely negligible,”). On the other hand, I think the term “I believe” should, strictly speaking, refer only to things that are neither true nor false. In other words, things that haven’t happened yet (“I believe the Yankees will win the World Series”), or subjective judgments (“I believe Inglourious Basterds is better than Avatar”), etc. In this sense, the existence of God is not something that can really be “believed in” one or the other.

      So, in a sense, I agree with the claim “I know there is no God” but not the claim “I believe there is no God.” Does that make any sense?

      Reply

  11. Posted by Douglas on September 21, 2010 at 8:10 PM

    Yes–both of your reasons made sense, as does your distinction between belief and knowledge. I’m not sure I’ll adopt your semantic distinction for myself, but it’s certainly acceptable. And maybe you read this into what I was saying, but I should clarify (respond again if you disagree) that the question of God’s non-existence is “practically” or “currently” unknowable, and theoretically unprovable, but NOT theoretically unknowable, by which I mean unfalsifiable. This to me is the great strength then of atheism, which often goes undetected because people misinterpret the claim of atheism as an unprovable dogma, rather than as the converse of a positive belief (specifically, that the non-existence of God is the converse of the existence of God). So it breaks down as follows:

    The incorrect/incomplete premises are:
    Claim of theism: There is a God. But the claim is unprovable.
    Claim of atheism: There is no God. But the claim is unprovable.

    The incorrect conclusion: atheism is a dogma; atheism is just as dogmatic and close-minded as theism, etc.

    The correct premises are:
    Claim of theism: There is a God. In theory, this is provable, if God himself were to reveal himself empirically and his examination held up to the central tenets of the scientific method. However, it is not disprovable, not falsifiable.
    Claim of atheism: There is no God. This is unprovable. However, as this is the converse claim, we can see that atheism is in fact disprovable, if God were detected empirically and through the rigorous application of the scientific method.

    The correct conclusion: Theism insists upon an unfalsifiable claim, which is dogmatic, presumptive, and irrational. Atheism puts forth a testable, falsifiable theory–even if it’s not practically easy to deal with it– and is neither dogmatic, presumptive, or irrational. So it is with every scientific theory by definition.

    I haven’t made any attempt to be particularly political here, but I don’t think I’ve been unfair either. And I think we’re on the same page…

    Reply

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