Saturday, February 22, 2014

Atheism - what it is, and what it ain't

Think you might be an atheist? Well, there's all sorts of advice out there as to how to tell your friends and family, but let me give you a bit of advice that I don't hear very often:

Get ready to have people tell you what you think.

Honestly, I have to wonder if there is any other viewpoint I have that has people feel as though they understand what I'm thinking better than I do. When I say that I prefer beer over wine, for instance, I don't get people making all kinds of assumptions about what other foods and beverages I like.

I suppose that people of various religious beliefs run into similar situations. I know that I have some Christian friends who get annoyed when, for instance, people assume that they're against gay rights just because they're Christian. That's a pretty lame thing to do, and I try to avoid assuming anything about a Christian other than the fact that he or she accepts the basic doctrine of Jesus dying for our sins.

Perhaps a cool response to this blog, if there are any Christians/Muslims/Hindus/etc. out there reading it, is to write some sort of an equivalent where you dispel the common misconceptions about you. This can be all in the name of improving communication.

So, here's my little guide as to what being an atheist IS and what it ISN'T.


An atheist doesn't believe in any gods. They don't believe in a single, capital-G God. They don't believe in multiple gods. They don't believe in a deistic god or even a pantheistic god. For whatever reason, they simply don't believe in one, and they don't feel the need to call out to one in times of stress. (And yes, there are atheists in foxholes. Sorry folks, but not every aphorism is true.)

That's pretty much it.


Being angry at God - We don't believe. We're about as angry at God as you're angry at Superman for not helping you when you need him.

A choice - You can't believe what you don't believe, just as you can't not believe what you do believe. Perhaps a person makes a choice to not be open-minded or to not hear the other side of the story, but you believe things because they make sense to you, not because you've made some kind of willful decision.

Us being stubborn - While it might make you feel better to think that somehow, deep down inside, we really DO believe in a god, we don't. Get over it.

An indicator of intelligence - Sorry, fellow atheists, but being an atheist doesn't make us smart. (I realize that most of us already agree on this point.) While it's true that there seems to be a correlation between higher education levels and a lack of belief, I've known plenty of atheists who were pretty slow on the draw. (And I'm sure that's true for most of us.)


The following reasons MAY be true for some atheists, as they don't cancel out the "WHAT IT IS" part of this, but don't assume it's true for every atheist you meet. This means that you might have to actually talk to them and listen.

A world-view - It can very well be a part of a person's world view, but it's not one all by itself. Keep reading, and hopefully the following examples will help to illustrate this idea.

A presupposition - This is my current pet-peeve. I often hear from believers that the main difference between us is that we both start off with different conclusions. To this, I must retort: NO, NO, NO and NO. My starting point is as follows: don't start with a conclusion. Draw your conclusion from the evidence and be ready to change it as new evidence comes to you. While starting with a conclusion might very well be what a lot of theists do (notice how I didn't make the same mistake and say "all" of them?) that has got to be the most dishonest way of investigating the truth of anything.

Mutually exclusive with agnosticism - Agnosticism deals with what you know; atheism deals with what you believe. I don't claim to "know" that there isn't a God, and I'll give you a hundred bucks if you can find one instance of me EVER claiming that. But I also don't "know" that there are no Frost Giants. In both cases, I feel comfortable enough with the lack of evidence for either of them to continue living my life as though they don't exist though.

Cynicism/Nihilism - Do some atheists believe that everything is pointless and therefore "don't believe in anything"? Sure. That sure as hell doesn't describe me though - or any other atheist I know.

Skepticism - There are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, psychics, astrology, etc. While certainly some of us (myself included) came to atheism through skepticism, it doesn't necessarily follow that an atheist is a skeptic.

A response born out of emotion - I've had both positive and negative experiences with religion. Neither one is a factor in my thought process. Do some people become atheists simply because they are rejecting an abusing religious experience? I suppose, but don't assume it about all of us.

A flat-out refusal - Most atheists I know can list off a number of things that would convince them that a God exists. I think that many of them would agree with me that if there IS one, then what we "believe" doesn't mean much of anything. Show me verifiable evidence, and by "evidence" I mean the sort of thing that you'd accept as proof no matter what we're talking about. Oftentimes what gets submitted to me as "evidence" is something that the believer thinks is a compelling reason to believe what he/she believes, yet this same person would reject the same argument for a faith that contradicted his/her own.

That's all I've got. Fellow non-believers - have I missed anything?


Andrew Nolan said...

Under "It isn't," I'm surprised you didn't mention "A religion." To quote Bill Maher, "Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position."

Michael Geddes said...

There shouldn't really be a 'No God' on the right-hand side.

This is a side of the term 'atheist' that many atheists object to; people don't describe themselves as a-toothfariests or a-teapotists (referencing the Betrand Russell's celestial teapot), so why is theism somehow special?

While I agree with this argument to some degree, I recognise that 'atheist' as a description is important because stands in opposition to the special brand of magical thinking that is theism.

john said...

Actually, atheism IS its own 'religion'. And, a Christian CAN NOT be for 'queer rights' and be a Christian - they are mutually exclusive. God says such choices - homosexual activity - are an abomination. Period.
Stumbled in here by hitting that 'next blog' thingie- obviously not a regular reader.
Repent while you have time...

Lance Johnson said...

How do you define "religion", John?

Many Buddhists are also atheists. Is their religion Buddhism or atheism? Or is it both? And by this train of thought, is simple theism a religion unto itself?

You're right about what God said about homosexual activity. I take it that you also don't wear clothing of mixed fabric - because that's an abomination as well.

I'm gonna go repent to C'thulhu now.

Tony from Pandora said...

The bible doesn't call wearing mixed fabrics an abomination... it just says not to do it... just to clarify... and to stir the pot

Lance Johnson said...

Fair enough, but the point is that nobody gives a crap about it anymore (except ultra-Orthodox Jews).