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Jul 05

My Atheism

I thought I could get away with leaving information like this out of this blog. I wasn’t expecting any of our audience to be uninformed on these subjects. So for those who don’t already know…

My Position Regarding the Existence of God(s)

I do not believe in the existence of any deity. I do not reject the very slim possibility that some deity might exist. I don’t feel like that is something that I am in a position to know conclusively one way or the other. Every deity that I have been presented a case for I have rejected. I reject the likelihood and in some cases even the possibility of those particular gods and goddesses. This is my personal metaphysical position. I am an agnostic atheist. This position is a single statement on a pair of metaphysical questions: Do I believe and can I know? It does not represent a world view or a philosophy on its own. One can not predict with certainty my political, moral or philosophical positions on any other unrelated subject based on nothing more than my position on this one. There are conservative, progressive, libertarian, pro-life, pro-choice, socialist, capitalist, optimist, pessimist and don’t give a damn atheists out there and their atheism in no way conflicts with these positions.

If the above statements make perfect sense to you (and you wonder why I would even have to bring it up because it is so obvious) then I see no real need for you to read further. I welcome you to but I imagine the topic will get boring pretty quickly. If, on the other hand, any of what I said above is new to you or you disagree with any of it then you had better read on.

Of Atheisms

Humor me while I muse about a one of my favorite words, disinterested. From the eighteenth century well into the twentieth (some would argue even now) the word meant essentially the same thing as impartial or unprejudiced. The generally accepted meaning of the word began to shift in the early part of the twentieth century, though not among linguistic purists. Today you can poll an advanced college literature class or any educated demographic and you will get almost universal consensus that the word means uninterested or indifferent. Forget the fact that the original meaning of the word was more closely aligned with its present common usage. The meaning of the word changed from the seventeenth to the eighteenth and then changed again in the twentieth.

There are many who would still insist to this day that the eighteenth century use of disinterested is the proper usage. This ultra-puritan approach to language is not uncommon. A philosophy such as this must, as a matter of practice, utilize archaic sources of linguistic authority. The problem with this approach is that the sources of authority, dictionaries and lexicons, were never intended as such. These are not prescriptive works. They are descriptive. A dictionary is supposed to be a portrait of a language as it exists. That is, after all, why they change so regularly. Any dictionary that fails in this respect loses its utility except for the purpose of amusement. Noah Webster, along with other of the biggest names in lexicography have always understood this fact.

Most people who call themselves atheists these days, when asked how the word atheist is defined will give an answer similar to lacking belief in a god or gods. You will find no shortage of this definition in articles, books, blog posts and comment sections, etc. The sentiment here is often backed up with the breakdown: (A) meaning without and (Theist) meaning one who believes in God or gods. Clearly it means lacking belief in god(s). Breaking the word down in this way gives the impression that we are talking about the etymology of the word and will quickly inspire salivation in opponents who know better. There are a number of problems with this definition.

The first objection one is often met with after making the “atheism is a lack of belief” (A-theism) claim is that this is not, in fact, how the word originated. The word atheism comes from the root atheos which meant godless and denoted an active rejection of the theistic concept. It was used to mean a belief in the non-existence of god(s). I accept this objection. Throughout the history of the word, this is how it was most commonly used. The world in which this definition operated was a world where belief in a supreme supernatural entity was endemic. One could not so much as learn to speak without being thoroughly immersed in the idea of God. To come to a position of non-belief in such a world was to require an active rejection on par with that of the first heliocentrists. In the historical, social and linguistic context of the time and place, simple lack of belief was not possible. Some of you may find it hard to believe but we don’t all live in that world any more. There are people who grow up with only the most fleeting exposure to the idea of god. I have met some of them. They are few and don’t represent a significant portion of our demographic but they exist.

It will also be pointed out that a simple lack of belief in something is not a statement of a metaphysical position. It gives very little real information. I have heard many people state that babies are born atheist. A baby is atheist in the same way that a squirrel, a rock, or guacamole is atheist. The critics are right to ridicule such a loose and imprecise definition of a word due to how utterly useless it is. Sure, if you can find me a person who has never been introduced to the concept of deity then I will readily admit that they are not a theist but to call them an atheist is stretching a rhetorical device beyond recognition. It is lazy and sloppy and gives the impression that we are trying hard to hide from the burden of stating an actual position on the matter. Anyone who understands the subject at hand enough to refer to themselves as an atheist has been exposed to the concepts enough to take some position on the matter. Simple lack of belief on par with that of babies just doesn’t work.

There are many who will then conclude that we atheists must, therefore, disbelieve in god by definition. Well, yes and not necessarily. I can take a default position on something for reasons other than a deeply felt opinion. Say, for example, someone approaches me and tells me that crocodile excrement can cure cancer. I know a few things about cancer. To be honest I know considerably less about crocodile dung but I know enough about biology to be highly skeptical of this claim. It has now reached the point of cliche to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Crocodile shit as a cure for cancer is an extraordinary claim by any reasonable stretch of the modern imagination. Does this mean that I absolutely disbelieve that such is the case? I could be convinced that crocodillian fecal matter has anti-cancer properties given enough evidence in the form of peer reviewed clinical studies. The fact is I just don’t know, but I sincerely doubt it.

While I don’t claim knowledge I don’t possess about the existence of god or the healing properties of croc shit, knowledge plays a significant role in how we justify taking a default position in the case of a given claim. It is because I have the benefit of modern scientific knowledge that I can be comfortable taking a very skeptical position about crocodile shit cures by default. I can explicitly acknowledge that it is a tentative position, subject to change while never having to feel bad if I turn out to be wrong. An Egyptian peasant three thousand years ago, even an exceptionally skeptical one, would have less justification for that skepticism than we do today. Knowledge makes a difference and the healing potential of crocodile dung would be a far less extraordinary claim in that context than it is today.

Knowledge of science and history, psychology and comparative religion all give us more and more justification for taking disbelief as a default stance when dealing with the question of god(s). Enough information is available to us about how reality works, in fact, that we can say god(s) are imaginary with about as much certainty as we say that leprechauns or flying dragons are imaginary. When specific claims are made about a particular god, say one that is simultaneously omnipotent and omniscient for example, we can go even further than a tentative default position. In this particular case we can assert a firm position of disbelief because the fundamental qualities of any real thing cannot be literally contradictory. This is tantamount to that elusive “proof” that one never really finds in real life. It is as close to “proo”f of something’s non-existence as is possible. Anyone who takes five minutes to consider such a being must realize that a truly omniscient, omnipotent being is a contradiction in terms. We might as well speak of a square triangle. Don’t worry though. Inevitably there will be people who talk themselves into rhetorical circles trying to wiggle out of these problems. They never quite make it work but they can tie the concepts into such intricate knots that some people give in out of sheer confusion.

These atheisms involve statements of belief. We have briefly discussed how knowledge can inform our position on belief or lack thereof. When I say I am agnostic I am making a statement of what I feel can be confidently known. When someone says they are agnostic many people assume it is a statement of indifference on belief. It is no such thing, though some self-identified agnostics take such a position. When speaking on the question of God’s existence, an agnostic doesn’t feel we can confidently know the answer with any degree of certainty. Since god(s) are a potentially wide ranging set of phenomena, from the Deistic to the personal savior, many of us feel it is foolish to take a hard line on the issue. So while gnostic theists are a dime a dozen* it has been my experience that gnostic atheists are extremely rare. I can count on one hand those I have met. This is another one of those places that popular opinion and reality do not coincide well. Take a poll of religious people and I would guess that most would assume gnostic atheists are the norm in our community.

The terms gnostic and agnostic are still quite solid in their meaning in spite of the occasional confusion with uncertainty in belief. As we have seen though, the term atheist has a number of possible meanings depending on how it is used and who is using it. That is why I felt the need to clarify my own use of the word here. When I use the words atheist or atheism I am not referring to the mere lack of belief such as a baby might possess. I am speaking of a lack of belief in the face of the knowledge that such beliefs are a reality. In this way it is, at least in part, a rejection of theism even if it goes no further than to take a default position of skepticism. Personally I lean toward the gnostic atheist label but I never really assert much of anything with what would amount to absolute certainty.

What my Atheism is not

My atheism is not nor has it ever been a world view any more than so general a term as theism can be considered a world view. No Christian, for example, would conflate their world view with that of Muslims or Zoroastrians and yet they are all theists. Atheism is not a philosophy. It is not a religion. Atheism says absolutely nothing about what someone should or should not do, should or should not think, or how someone should feel about any issue aside from the singular issue of god(s) existence. There is no shortage of people who insist that atheists have no basis upon which to make moral decisions. Such people must be profoundly ignorant on many levels to make such a statement. One can find atheists on every side of every major social issue, in every political party, and subscribing to nearly every philosophical system.

This is not to say that my atheism is inconsequential to my world view. My atheism informs many facets of how I experience reality. It saddens me to live in a world where atheism is even a thing. It seems like we should just be calling it the recognition of reality and it should be as commonplace as recognizing the effects of gravity. My primary quibble is with those who associate very specific philosophical systems with the label of atheism and will saddle anyone who identifies as an atheist with whatever pet philosophy they believe we all adhere to.

To people who still subscribe the whole “your atheism is a belief system” mentality without actually taking the time to inquire into someone’s belief system: Every time you demonstrate such sloppy, lazy and willfully ignorant thinking and reject the honest statements people make about what is going on inside their own minds, you lose all credibility. You cannot be taken seriously and expect people to listen to anything you have to say if you can’t listen yourself. If you can’t get past this one blind spot then you will not get anywhere in a conversation with me. If you want to know something about my worldview then ask me. If my answer doesn’t fit what you expected of an atheist then don’t plow ahead in your delusions. You are going to have to take my word on what my own feelings and opinions are. I have no intention of being deceitful. I’m not ashamed of how I feel. When I feel like I have been wrong about something I will admit it.**

 

* This assertion is based on the self-identification of believers. There have been interesting experiments that suggest that many who profess strong belief and knowledge of the existence of God aren’t really very confident in those positions at all.

** Some passages have been edited for clarity after initial publishing. All my opinions are subject to change upon further reflection.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Michael Harley

    Using the term agnostic is really more of a question of philosophy in my mind. We can’t know that there are not pink elephants that wear shoes somewhere in the cosmos because how can we? We can’t possibly go to each planet and look at every location to verify. Even if we did, who’s to say that said elephants didn’t evolve between the time we started our search and the time we searched the last planet? I’m much more in the camp of Richard Dawkins on this one. He said in the God Delusion that scientists and skeptically minded people understand that we can’t really know there isn’t a god but the percent is so small that we’re OK rounding that .001% from agnostic to atheist.

    PZ Myers calls the “atheism isn’t a worldview camp”, dictionary atheists and if I may quote him on it:

    I was saying that dictionary atheists, those people who say they’re just atheists because they don’t believe in god, were simply reciting an equivalence and not addressing any of the interesting reasons why they were atheists, the stuff that we need to communicate to get other people to recognize our values and appreciate them.

    1. 1.1
      Jarreg

      I agree with Dawkins’ assessment and put myself firmly in the 6 position on the belief scale. I have also met enough people who identify as atheists whose world views are so dissimilar to my own that I can’t bring myself to suggest that the one outstanding similarity between us should constitute a worldview. I actually agree with PZ about those who would use the equivalence to sidestep taking a position on these issues. There is a considerable difference between that and assuming that one can predict how a person will interpret and interact with the world based on their belief or disbelief in god(s). Many people who use the “atheism is a worldview” gambit fall into that latter category. If PZ reserves the term dictionary atheists for those who would substitute the equivalence for proper conversation then I don’t think we disagree. My atheism is more than the mere fact of my disbelief but the label of atheist is no more than that. It significantly colors my worldview for sure but without knowing anything else about one you can’t possibly predict what that worldview will be.

    2. 1.2
      Jarreg

      After reading back through my post I can see how some unintended meanings might easily be taken from it. Your objections are valid ones. When I wrote the post I had a particular recent discussion in mind. My words came exclusively through the lens of that exchange. A common problem with me I’m afraid. When I have some time I will try and make some clarifications.

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