Posted by: Michael Logan | July 25, 2009

What is an Atheist?

1- An Atheist is without belief in supernatural or mystical entities or agencies

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time. Isaac Asimov, in Free Inquiry, Vol. 2, Spring 1982, p.9.

An Atheist is without belief in supernatural or mystical entities or agencies. This means, no God or god; no Gods, or gods; no angels, no demons, no saints, no mesiahs; no fairies, no Titans, no succubi, no ancestral spirits, no ghosts; essentially, nothing that can be attributed to the imagination and not the physical world. Also, no Heaven, or heaven, or Hades, or Hell, or hell, or Middle Kingdom; no afterlife, no prior life, no reincarnation, no cycle of death, no paradise, no virgins, nothing to look forward to or fear, no reason to expect anything after one has died. No spirit, no soul, no nirvana, no possesion; no evil or good as religion defines it, no moral absolutes as religion claims it, no salvation as religion encourages it, no sin as religion pushes it.

We are often asked, what do you believe? If you mean what do we believe in as it pertains to the supernatural or the mystical, then the answer is nothing. If you mean who do we believe in about the supernatural or the mystical, then the answer is that many people do believe in it, and we understand and sympathize with their beliefs, but ultimately they are unjustified in doing so, for various reasons. If you mean what do we believe in as it pertains to morality, then the answer is complicated, though along the lines of what we all are inclined to accept, but rarely will it be the crude and lascivious assertion that Atheists lack morals. If you mean to ask what do we believe in as it pertains to our origins, then the answer will likely defer or refer to science, almost necessarily with the caveat that we don’t know everything.

We live in a world torn asunder by religious conflict and warfare, somewhat enlightened, though still close enough to the way they used to be as to remain among our most pressing issues. At this very moment, there is armed conflict between religions in nearly every part of the Third World, an unceasing state of perpetual war between Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India, both of which are nuclear armed states, a religiously sanctioned internment camp in Palestine, a state of Jihad directed at Israel and all it’s Western supporters; in the West, the conflict is instead embodied by the culture wars, in which issues many thought resolved decades, or even centuries ago, that rage on in debates over abortion, birth control, sex ed, capital punishment, practices such as circumcision and the wearing of the hijab or headscarf by women and turbans by men, the refusal of medical treatment, both responsive and preventative for children, the segregation based on religion (and in effect race or ethnicity), the incessant debate over the injection of religious symbolism into the political and public sphere, the active denial of some of the most documented acts and atrocities in history by those who feel slighted by such recognition; all this just to name a few of the problems. Just the other day Ireland, one of the most advanced nations in the world, altered a law that prohibited that nations constitutional ban on blasphemy from being enforced, claiming to want to clarify that law, but in effect undoing the ban, and regressing the socio-religious achievements of Ireland back to the 12th century.

Atheism is an odd thing to talk about. It is the single most prevalent religious position on Earth; despite this until very recently to come out and acknowledge that one is an Atheist was not merely socially taboo; it was feasible that one’s livelihood, relationships, and even life would be forfeit upon such an admission. Which is absurd once one understands exactly what an Atheist is. First and foremost it must be pointed out, unnecessary as it should have to be to do so, that every person on Earth spends more time being an atheist than they do practicing the religion they adhere to; someone raised in the West does not need to investigate the claims of the ancient Greeks, or the Hindus, or the Taoists, or the Shintos, or the Animalistic beliefs of the original natives of the New World; you will find few Christians who could even begin to describe the belief structure of the Aztecs, the concept of Nirvana, or even accurately count the number of gods the ancient Egyptians worship; that same Christian feels no undue burden, nor should they, to justify this non-belief. They are unlikely to waste a second contemplating the millions of contrary beliefs that have been held throughout history, and like all of man, are fully capable of recognizing the ineffectual waste of time and resources doing so would entail.

There is a clear disconnect, a dissonance, or a fundamental lack of effort exerted by the religious to reach the most basic compromise between a secular society, and a religious dictatorship run by the prejudices of the masses and enforced through the cherry picking of ancient texts. Whereas Atheism could once simply be considered a mostly passive belief position that either did not accept a notion of the supernatural or mystical, or was ignorant of it, necessity has propelled it to the forefront (aided by reason, logic, and critical thinking, and armed with the tools of science and exhaustive investigation), of the opposition to religiously motivated conflict, strife, politicking, abuse, extortion, exploitation, rape, theft, murder, enslavement, subjugation, and willful submission that plagues the people of this Earth. What may, in centuries to come at least, strike many as a ludicrous situation; that so many non-reflective adherents could hold such power and such authority as to force the hand of the few who rejected such behavior into open and overt opposition, when for so long they had remained quietly subversive; Atheism has evolved thanks to a changing environment, from a lack of belief in the unproven and unnatural, into the unwitting vanguard of liberated minds and free societies.

2- Atheism addresses belief, not knowledge or evidence

It is often said, mainly by the ‘no-contests’, that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal’s wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies? Richard Dawkins, “EDITORIAL: A scientist’s case against God”, The Independent (London), April 20, 1992, p.17

Atheism addresses belief, not knowledge or evidence. An atheist is someone who says, “I do not believe” not “there is no” as is often alleged. There is a rather surprising insistence by many of the religious to declare an atheist’s positions for them. You will often see atheism defined as the denial of god, or the assertion that god does not exist. This is wrong, and quite easily refuted, but like many religious beliefs, which are also wrong and easily refuted, it is still held by those who should and those who do know better. It is difficult to find an Atheist who will assert with conviction that there is no god, end of story, or in the very least one who will say this but still concedes that there is no definitive proof to support such a position. In effect, all strong Atheists are Atheists when it comes to the belief in god, and agnostic when it come to the evidence for or against god’s existence, albeit very strongly leaning against.

The mischaracterizations of Atheism are as abundant as any prejudice, although they are almost unique in the ability of those who hold them to express their views without repercussion, or even the most basic force of outrage as to elicit even a tepid apology. It is on record that, as recently as 2005, the President Of The United States asserted his belief that, while he had never said or acted upon his belief, he did not consider the faithless to be sufficiently patriotic to be considered American; he was channeling a mindset his father had espoused, only he had said such a thing, and to an Atheist, while he was preparing to run for President; the public outcry was effective in that he was elected with a mandate the next fall. Just one year ago, Monique Davis, an Illinois State Representative, launched into a tirade against an Atheist testifying before her committee about the funneling of over a million dollars to a single church by the Governor, targeting his Atheism and asserting, in addition to suggesting that he would rather have guns in schools than prayers, that he was espousing a philosophy so dangerous that the children of the state would be better off not even knowing that Atheism existed. When he attempted to respond, the committee chairman instructed him to move on with his testimony.

Why should an absence of belief elicit such fear, such hostility, and such suppression? The answer is actually quite simple, and has two parts. People fear that which they do not understand, and when a person contrives to remain ignorant of their fellow humans and their ideas, they will find much to fear. Religions need to fear Atheism because Atheism has at it’s core one, and only one, basic principle; do not believe without sufficient evidence. Standard claims of the natural phenomena are relatively easy to confirm or challenge, but it is the extraordinary claims made in confidence and defense of religion that require an great deal of supporting evidence to even be considered. What mars these beliefs most is the utter lack of evidence; religion, having originated out of fear and ignorance, almost by definition places such restrictions on it’s assertions as to define them according to fantasy; trying to present evidence in favor of an idea cooked up by an ancient tribal leader that relied on no more evidence or observation than one finds in any modern childhood fantasy is, by definition, implausible at best, and impossible at worst. One needs not assert that such propositions are not realistic, and in effect not real, when it is sufficient to point out the outrageous nature of the claims, something often held on a pedestal by the faithful, and that only a person with a vested interest in maintaining that belief could possibly hold it, another thing readily admitted and acknowledged by the faithful. It takes no faith at all to be an Atheist, just as it take no faith at all to reject the implications of any work of fiction, or of the insane rantings of a madman, or, as it is not nearly pointed out enough, no more faith to reject the religion of a long passed civilization by a loyal and intelligent practitioner of one of today’s surviving religions.

3- Denial of and opposition to supernatural entities or agencies is Antitheism

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Whereas Atheism neither attests to the non-existence nor refutes the factual accuracy of religious assertion, a more recent and far more aggressive position has emerged, called Antitheism. As strange as is may seem to a rational observer that Atheism even be need to exist, it must be a thousand times more perplexing for that same observing to see, in an era space exploration, digital information, quantum mechanics, and unrivaled and seemingly unceasing socio-political progress, that a position like Antitheism even be possible, let alone necessary. It is a rather sad reflection on Human society that the faulty beliefs of a by gone era and their rabidly ignoble Evangelicals have set their sights on any institution that threatens to upset the status quo they perceive to still be in place; that society is not merely made up of religious ideas and institutions, but is run by it. It takes a truly determined mind to interpret the world around them almost completely contrary to what actually occurs, but that is the case with a great many people in all parts of the world.

Antitheism is a reaction to religious, for lack of a better word, stupidity, suicidal in some cases, destructive and exploitative in others, and harmful in all, in a time when such positions should for very reasons be untenable. How is it that in the wake of the eras ushered in by the likes of Darwin and Einstein that so many could be presented with the explanations they so fervently claim to seek, and reject them outright, under no other auspice or reason than denial in deference to religious conviction? It has become apparent to the reasoned people of the Earth that isolation is not feasible, education insufficient, politics too divisive, and philosophy too suspect to bring about the end of faith that human civilization so desperately desires. Antitheism picks up where Atheism left off, having established a lack of belief, and asserts that no such belief is justified. Antitheism is a rejection of religion, of god or gods, of heaven and hell, of supernatural concepts, mystical agents; essentially, Antitheism it the position that if something does not exist in the natural world, it does not exist at all. Antitheism is, for lack of a simpler description, everything thing that critics have long and incorrectly asserted Atheism to be.

4- Agnosticism addresses belief and knowledge

Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know. Michel de montaigne, Essays, Book I, Chapter 32

Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good ground for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones. Bertrand Russell, in “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish” in Unpopular Essays

As we know, There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know, there are known unknowns, that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we do not know we do not know. Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing, 12 February 2002

There exists an unnecessary complication between knowledge and belief, one that strains the relationship between the two and renders both nearly unusable. People in our society have a very strong inclination, and a profound desire to believe in something. The Philosopher Dan Dennett asserts that people do not believe in god, they believe in belief in god; the popular assumption is that it matters little whether or not you actually believe what you profess to, so long as you profess to believe in something. Probably the most common question an Atheist is subjected to is also the least informative: what do you believe in? The person asking the question in effect demonstrates the depth of their ignorance of the nature of belief, while simultaneously putting the Atheist in the untenable position in answering in the affirmative, bringing into the conversation a number of unhelpful examples of real things, or the negative, setting themselves up for criticism about their lack of morals or compassion. The fact that this line of questioning answers no questions and reaches no concensus is by design; a believer has little incentive to subject their beliefs to scrutiny (is encouraged to avoid doing so in many cases), and resorts to personal attacks in order to maintain them.

Most people who make an affirmative claim of belief are likely to be concurrently asserting this belief to stem from a position of knowledge. That it should be rare that a person makes a claim of the supernatural along these lines, it still manages to be quite common, and often contradictory, as in order to uphold one particular faith claim the person often has to reject many empirical claims. The relationship between knowledge and belief in their mind is such that a belief based on faith ultimately can be relied upon more and carries greater weight than evidential knowledge. This paradox seems on the surface to be untenable, but one has only to look at the history and current state of human affairs to recognize that this position has long been embraced widely and uncritically.

Agnosticism is a position that attempt to address the conflict by suggesting that, in the case of the supernatural or mystical, neither position is sufficiently justified in claiming to be truth. Just as an Atheist may claim that no evidence exists confirming the existence of God, a believer’s best recourse to such an argument is to present the opposite case; that no evidence exists that contradicts the existence of God.

This is a fallacy, and in more than one way. It is an argument from ignorance, because it tries to suggest that the ignorance of disproof lends to the credibility of an argument. It affirms the consequent, using the failure to present a disproof as evidence of existence. It is the fallacy of false cause, as it asserts that any proposition is legitimate until disproved. The false cause fallacy is the most egregious offender, as it is often the case that the same people who will put forth an argument for God based on tenuous or non-existent evidence will often reject many popularly held claims on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

5- There is a distinction between a weak atheist and a strong atheist

Premature as the question may be, it is hardly possible not to wonder whether we will find any answer to our deepest questions, any signs of the workings of an interested God, in a final theory. I think that we will not.Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory

If any concession need be made in the debate over religion, then it must be the distinction between the forms Theism often takes. Certainly the critics of non-theism (and just about everything else, as it often seems to be the case) have done more than their fair share of misinforming and complicating the conversation. It seems as though the objective of the apologists is not to demonstrate that their outrageous and unreasonable claims are valid, but rather to ensure that any freethinker attempting to dispel the myth they are defending will be so overburdened with the task of properly defining the argument that they would rather give up and move on than to persist. The most effective form of this deception can be found in the utter lack of consistency over the most basic definition of Atheism within the religious community. It isn’t as though the task is difficult; A, meaning not, and theism or theist, meaning a believer or belief in a supernatural entity or mystical agency.

Earlier, I had pointed out that we spend every waking second of our lives not believing in more theistic claims than we are aware, possibly even as a collective. This is Weak Atheism; or rather, Atheism concerning those beliefs that have fallen out of favor, are not known, or are insufficiently understood to merit any further investigation outside of external incentive or simple curiosity. It is unlikely that anyone could be found who would consider this Atheism to be anything other than logical; after all, the strain of considering all beliefs equally, including the ones so fanciful and so outrageous as to have died shorty after they were first composed, would leave a person without time for anything else. This Atheism is particularly fascinating, as it, while identical in composition and definition to Strong Atheism, doesn’t have a single living opponent.

Strong Atheism has many. Strong Atheism tends to be focused, much more actionable, and far less prevalent. Strong Atheism targets the popularly held religious beliefs, and is often the result of years or decades of investigation and analysis into the beliefs that one holds, an investigation that, if done properly and honestly, will invariably lead a person out of whatever intellectual stupor their faith has placed them in.

6- Knowledge, critical thinking, and honesty are the hallmarks of Atheism

All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal, valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten. Mark Twain, Notebook (1908)

I have heard it said, and not often in jest, that the Christian Bible is the single most effective tool for turning people away from that faith. It shouldn’t come as any surprise; I quoted Richard Dawkins on the Old Testament earlier, and he had likely been forced to consult a thesaurus in order to properly describe God’s less pleasant qualities. What amazes me, truly astonishes all Atheists in fact, is the ability of the faithful to read a body of work that advocates, as moral, a series of acts so abominable that today’s modern society has identified and condemned, both in law and custom, each individually; despite this, and despite the repetitious imbibing of this dreadful work, they remain absolutely certain that the lessons contained within are not merely the highest level of moral thinking, but the only moral thinking. That death is prescribed as an expected response for crimes ranging from apostasy to disobedience of ones father seems to have no effect on the believer’s fidelity to the religion they have embraced.

It is one thing to know a fallacious and immoral religion when one encounters it; it is another thing altogether to make the leap from reading of a crime to actually implementing it. Thankfully, for every demagogue and tribal shaman, there is always a Freethinker, or a Philosopher, or even a humble student of logical thinking; it is because these contrarians have voiced their opposition, often at great cost to themselves, that history can be defined as a progression away from barbarity. We have those individuals who took it upon themselves to force open the intellectual eyes of their colleagues, friends, families, foes, and communities, and to force them to see not what they wanted, but was actually written. It is an admirable quality of the Human race that we have the ability to dispense with cruelty when its full implications are laid bare to us, and even more admirable that we posses the skill of divination; we can reach these conclusions long before what is cruel on paper becomes cruel in action. We also have the allies and beneficiaries of religion to thank for the tens of thousands of years this process has taken, and for the countless lives lost, the endless suffering inflicted, and the billions of lost opportunities closed minds were unable, or failed, to embrace.

Honesty is the salvation of mankind. With personal honesty a person can free themselves, shield themselves, arm themselves, and fortify themselves against the bile that barbarity puts forth as just and righteous. With honesty towards others a person can aid in their resistance to the same. With honesty in failure and in success, men and women can progress through a sea of misinformation, a lack of confidence in people, a torrent of violence and suppression, and find themselves in a place where these things are controlled, restricted, and most importantly, no longer feared. There is a reason that religion ferments distrust; it is because, when one looks at anything with an open and honest mind, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that any religion or faith system endorses; when you look at things as they are, you cannot help but notice that this world is far more majestic and worthy of investigation and praise than anything that exists only in the mind.

Michael

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Responses

  1. Hello,

    This article came up as “suggested” after I submitted my first post on this site, “Notes to God (I)” Don’t be fooled by the title. It’s meant to be ironic. I don’t believe in God. I only analyze those that do, their convictions and reasoning. I skimmed this (not a lot of time to read through the whole thing) and I wanted to make a comment about the following:

    “Agnosticism is a position that attempt to address the conflict by suggesting that, in the case of the supernatural or mystical, neither position is sufficiently justified in claiming to be truth. Just as an Atheist may claim that no evidence exists confirming the existence of God, a believer’s best recourse to such an argument is to present the opposite case; that no evidence exists that contradicts the existence of God.

    This is a fallacy, and in more than one way. It is an argument from ignorance, because it tries to suggest that the ignorance of disproof lends to the credibility of an argument. It affirms the consequent, using the failure to present a disproof as evidence of existence. It is the fallacy of false cause, as it asserts that any proposition is legitimate until disproved. The false cause fallacy is the most egregious offender, as it is often the case that the same people who will put forth an argument for God based on tenuous or non-existent evidence will often reject many popularly held claims on the grounds of insufficient evidence.”

    I feel there is a scale within Agnosticism in which one leans toward one side, belief in God, or the other, disbelief in God. I personally lean toward disbelief in God; I think it’s a very good defense mechanism. However, I’m not atheist. Agnosticism is the “the fair middle man”, I suppose. I believe there is a strong chance God does not exist but as a ponderer and as a person that is open to theory, I consider the God theory just as it is…a theory. Anyone can say that there’s a unicorn ruling us all and it may sound outlandish but there is, even if it is the smallest, most futile percentage imaginable, a chance that is true.

    I thought of joining this group but I live in New Jersey and I’m currently studying here. I don’t think I would be of much influence as far as meet-ups and donations. I hope that some day I can fly out there and meet you all.

    Thank you,
    Yasmeen

  2. I have to disagree with you for one reason; what you are suggesting is that anything that can be postulated is automatically plausible. This is not the case. To use the unicorn as an example, I doubt that you are a unicorn agnostic. I doubt that you, or anyone, has ever truly contemplated the possibility of there being a unicorn that rules us all. To say that something that one person alone thought up may actually be the reality of our situation is foolish. There are few in this world who would describe themselves as agnostic as you have with regards to 99.99% of all the religions that have existed, and even the ones they have heard of they are unlikely to give much consideration to.

    For me, the problem with agnosticism has always been that it tends to be exclusively concentrated on the same family of religions that one is brought up in, either through their family or their culture.

    Also, whether or not something can be definitively proved or disproved does not necessarily determine the belief that they hold on that subject. You will find fewer atheists who assert that there is no god than do not, yet this does not disqualify them from being atheists. If you remain agnostic on the god question, then ask yourself whether or not you still believe in him. If you can honestly say that you don’t, then whether or not you can disprove it to yourself even is irrelevant.

    I must also point out that agnosticism is not the middle man between theism or atheism. There is no middle man, really. Atheism is the default and logical position. It is the theist who makes the supernatural claims, the theist who asserts that there is something immeasurable and undecipherable out there, and thus the theist who has the burden of proof. The language you used to describe your position sounds alot like an atheistic position to me; also, most atheists are simultaneously agnostics. Richard Dawkins for instance has never publicly declared that god does not exist, but rather stated that there is sufficient evidence for him to dismiss the theory.

    I would say that if you truly do want to take the middle position, then agnostic atheism is that position. I am not an agnostic atheist, but that is a whole other discussion.

    I am willing to bet that if you do a search, starting with Meetup, you will find a group similar to ours in your area. If not, or even if you do, go ahead and join us. We have a very active membership in our forum on the Meetup forum and through the email group, and the subject matter you brought up is exactly the kind of stuff we like to debate. You would be welcome to join us if you so decide. Thanks for the comments, btw.

    Michael


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