Atheism Explained

  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jul 08, 2009 8:00 PM GMT
    From the many threads on religion on RJ it is clear that there is much misunderstanding about this rather simple word. So I thought as someone who studies the philosophy of religion on the university level, I would quickly cover a few points about the definition of atheism and some common memes that appear on RJ threads concerning god beliefs.

    What does Atheism mean?

    There are two distinct meanings of atheism that are used and they are often confused or conflated. The basic (and most useful) definition of an atheist is someone who does not believe in a god. This is NOT the same as someone who believes there is no god (or are no gods). This is a very, very common misunderstanding.

    Different people use different terms to denote this difference. The former (no belief in a god) is often called soft atheism or atheism with a lower case ’a’, the latter is often called hard atheism or Atheism with an upper case ‘A’. The former is simply the absence of a belief in a god the latter is a positive belief that there is no god. Personally, I am not a huge fan of any of these terms. Unless otherwise stated, when I use the word atheist I am using it in its basic, literal sense – the absence of a belief in a god.

    Consider these words: moral, immoral, amoral. If something is moral it is the right thing to do. If something is immoral it is the wrong thing to do. If something is amoral it has nothing to do with morality. The question of whether you had eggs for breakfast as opposed to cereal is an amoral question. An ‘a’ prefix simply means ‘non’. Amoral simply means non-moral.

    Atheism is exactly the same, it is non-theism. Strictly speaking, anyone who is not a theist, including an agnostic, is an atheist under the basic literal definition of the word. Depending on what you mean by deism and whether or not you include deism under the definition of theism (I know some people do for some strange reason), a deist would be an atheist as well.

    Many people have noted that the having a word like atheist is strange, and it is true. No one calls themselves an aleprechaunist, or ahomeopath, or non-astrologer, or abigfootist. The reason seems to me to be quite obvious: those beliefs were never anywhere near as widespread and influential as theistic beliefs. Up until recently atheists were in the minority everywhere in the world. But the word atheist still causes confusion because we don’t generally use words to denote a lack of belief in a particular thing.


    “Atheism is a religion”


    This is one annoying little meme that has cropped up more and more in recent years. No, atheism is not a religion. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby. Not playing soccer is not a sport. Bald is not a hair colour. The absence of something is not just another kind of that something.

    Even if what the person means is a positive/hard/upper-case Atheist, someone who believes there is no god, that is only one positive belief, one proposition. If one belief a religion makes, then this person has some weird definition of a religion.

    Arguments for atheism

    Remember we are talking about atheism as in non-theism. In debates on the topic of god’s existence it is sometimes the expectation of theists that arguments need to be given for atheism just as arguments need to be given for theism. This is of course absurd, in every other area of life the default is no belief until a case is made for it; the burden of proof is always on the one making the claim.

    There has been some good writing recently published that gives a good exposition of the way an atheist regards the belief in a god or gods. Most of the people on here are monotheists, usually Christian, sometimes Jewish or Muslim. Think about the way you regard any other god, be it Zeus, Ra, Xenu, Vishnu or Thor. The way you are unconvinced of the truth of those gods is exactly how an atheist feels about all gods. An atheist feels the same way as most Christians do about the thousands of other gods that a Christian also does not believe in, we are on the same page about almost every god that has ever been believed in. As Richard Dawkins puts it: an atheist just goes one god further.

    An atheist is simply someone who has not been convinced of a god’s existence. If the atheist has consistent standards of belief (most people don’t, including most atheists), then as soon as the criteria are met for the existence of a god(usually criteria of evidence) that are consistent with that persons other beliefs, they would accept the god claim. For most atheists, the evidence for such a claim is simply not in and sorely lacking.

    Now let’s move on to Atheism with a capital A, or positive beliefs for the non existence of god. If you study philosophy of religion at the university level and start reading the journals that philosophers of religion publish in you will find that much of the debate revolves around the question of the consistency of the monotheistic definition of god.

  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jul 08, 2009 8:06 PM GMT
    Bah i got cut off!.

    continued...

    Many philosophers argue that a being which is omnipotent, omniscient, impassable, eternal, and omnibenevolent is impossible, logically inconsistent, meaningless. This is not just atheism, this is more; this is a positive belief in the impossibility of the standard monotheistic conception of a god. There are different kinds of these arguments favoured by different atheistic philosophers. Theistic philosophers who publish in these journals are split into many different positions and responses to these arguments, each with their own definitions of what omniscience means and what omnipotence, and so on. Here are two classic examples of positive arguments for the non-existence of god.

    1. The problem of free will. God is all knowing which means he must know the past and the future. The concept of free will, however is essential to the monotheistic tradition (except for a few small camps who believe in predestination, they bite the bullet on this one). If god knows the future then it means that the future is predetermined. Either free will does not exist or god, in its standard monotheistic conception, does not exist.

    2. The problem of evil. God is both all powerful and all good. He is the creator of everything but himself and has created a perfectly good world, as an all powerful and all good being would. But there is evil in the world, intense suffering both of the natural and moral varieties. Either the god is helpless to stop it, in which case he is not omnipotent or he does not care, in which case he is not all good.

    If people are interested I’ll write up summaries of what the general responses are by different camps of philosophers on these problems. The sorts of answers that philosophers come up with are absolutely fascinating.

    But yeah, hopefully this clears a few things up. Atheism is just the lack of a belief in a god. On top of that one can also believe there is no god, and that is a very different kind of discussion.
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    Jul 08, 2009 10:50 PM GMT
    I also have a copy of Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, along with Sam Harris, Letter To A Christian Nation - a little book in which the Foreword was written by Dawkins himself.
    Basically, your argument for atheism follows the pattern of Dawkins. For example, modern monotheism such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam would all regard ancient pagan gods as nonsense - deities which would have held dear to the ancients - Thor, Jupiter, Zenu, Ra, Visnu and many others. So your point is valid: if these deities prove to be non-existant, then what proof is there that the Christian God exist? And if I as a Christian believe that the Bible is inspired by this God, then what right do I have to denounce the Islam Koran, or the Hindu Vedas?
    There is one feature the Bible has which is nowhere found in any other writings, and that is Prophecy - both fulfilled and yet unfulfilled. Let me give you a few examples of fulfilled prophecies.

    Psalm 22, a song written by King David about 1,000 BC. In it he wrote,

    "Dogs have surrounded me,
    a band of evil men have encircled me,
    they have pierced my hands and my feet.
    I can count all my bones;
    people stare and gloat over me.
    They divide my garments among them
    and cast lots for my clothing."

    Read the Gospels and you can see the stunning accuracy of this prophecy fulfilled at the Crucifixion, including the dividing of the clothing as narrated in John 19:22-24.
    Around 400 BC, Zachariah wrote a short but stunningly accurate prediction on the part of Judas Iscariot, which was totally outside the control of Jesus or his disciples, as was the case of the clothing:

    "I told them, 'If you think it best, give me my pay, but if not, keep it.'
    So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.
    And the Lord said to me,
    'Throw it to the potter - the handsome price at which they priced me!'
    So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord to the potter."

    Reading Matthew 27:1-10 and Judas does exactly that (and he was unaware of Zachariah's prophecy).
    Together with Isaiah 53 - perhaps the most heart moving prophecy of the whole Bible, it is these and many other prophecies laid out to prove the existance of the one true God - Yahweh, the God of Israel. For it is impossible for any man to predict something that will take place long after his death, and then comes to pass with every last and minute detail!
    It is exactly this that stirs faith, and causes me to believe.
    I could write much more - but as in your case, these posts have a limit, of I believe, 8,000 characters.
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    Jul 09, 2009 3:04 AM GMT
    Do try reading other religious scriptures. Prophecy, augury, haruspices, omens, clairvoyance, prediction, apocalypse, the second coming, etc. is NOT unique to the Bible.
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    Jul 09, 2009 3:06 AM GMT


    always worth watching
  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jul 09, 2009 5:07 AM GMT
    jprichva saidThere seem to me to be three types, not two.

    1) Soft atheism, which sounds like someone who might be willing to be convinced of the existence of a god under the right circumstances,

    2) Hard atheism, which sounds awfully truculent in that it implies the need to contradict the theists continually, and

    3) This one was left out---the true "a"theist, one who doesn't concern himself with such subjects at all, any more than he would seriously think about or imagine the proper spelling of words in Martian. It simply isn't on the radar screen.


    1) yes, for the soft atheist they have no trouble with god beliefs, none have simply matched their epistemological standards of evidence.

    2) same is true for the hard atheist but before you even get to evidence for the hard atheist you would have to show that the god cocnept is even logically possible, consistent. After you prove the concept is even meaningful then you can start mounting evidence for it.

    3) that is a subset of #1. An atheist (or a-anything) in the basic or soft or literal definition includes someone who doesnt know about a belief. Obviously you dont believe in propositions that you dont know about, that arent on your rader, to use your words.

    The two definitions i mentioned are the only two used in the philosophy journals.

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    Jul 09, 2009 5:24 AM GMT
    Following Hitchens, in fact, you've still left one out -- "anti-theist". This Atheist not only does not believe in god, he stands against the very idea of god. In other words, anti-theism is a kind of atheist social movement which seeks to convert others to Atheism.
  • Sirkit

    Posts: 182

    Jul 09, 2009 5:24 AM GMT
    Well done on the explanation; I'm sad that whenever someone brings up Atheism the first person that get's brought up is Dawkins -_- He's really not the best role model for playing nice with your neighbors.
  • swimbikerun

    Posts: 2835

    Jul 09, 2009 5:25 AM GMT
    I almost don't like the term 'atheist' inasmuch it is only defined by the contrast of a 'theist' or God-believer. I prefer 'Rational Humanist'.
    I'm also not a believer in leprechauns, Xanadu, or souls. Should I make up three separate terms or is in onus on those who believe to stand outside, looking inside the sphere of rationality and convince me the world is inside out?
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:25 AM GMT
    MuscleToronto saidFollowing Hitchens, in fact, you've still left one out -- "anti-theist". This Atheist not only does not believe in god, he stands against the very idea of god. In other words, anti-theism is a kind of atheist social movement which seeks to convert others to Atheism.

    hahaha wonder what they thump..
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:31 AM GMT
    Sean this forum is calling you!
  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jul 09, 2009 5:34 AM GMT
    MuscleToronto saidFollowing Hitchens, in fact, you've still left one out -- "anti-theist". This Atheist not only does not believe in god, he stands against the very idea of god. In other words, anti-theism is a kind of atheist social movement which seeks to convert others to Atheism.


    Not true actually. I follow Hitchens work closely.

    The term anti-theist seays nothing about whether you believe ina god or not, strictly speaking. An anti-theist simply thinks that the proposition of a god existing is a horrible one, somethign we would be better without. It actually says nothing about whether you believe a god exists or not, which is striclty what i limited the post to.

    The vast majority of anti-theists are atheists. If you were an antitheist and a theist you would regard god as an enemy (a real enemy).

    In one of the Hitchens lectures available on youtube this distinction was brought up. Maybe ièll find the video later and post it..icon_smile.gif
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:39 AM GMT
    But to be brutally honest the only legit religion is FSM http://www.venganza.org/
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    Jul 09, 2009 6:42 AM GMT
    i cannot help but admire some of the minds that are here on rj (bodies, well, those seem to be more common; but with incomplete profiles and vapid/non-cogent forum postings, that admiration evaporates rather quickly---and i'm trying REALLY hard to be deeply shallow). lately, there have been a few of you that i so greatly admire and am so inspired by that i cannot help but give formal condign obeisance; it even overwhelms my chronic shyness (or is that just the after-work drinks?). in this particular thread (so far):

    to delivis, thank you for your well-structured explanation of the shades of atheism. this particular aspect of philosophy was never in my primary concentration at university (although it was the history and philosophy of science, it was primarily limited to ethology and high-energy physics, oh random wonders).

    to sedative, words fall me in encapsulating how much i admire you. i am amazed that you have developed your thought as extensively as you have, and in such a wide range of disciplines. i feel like such a cerebral slacker. if i could devise a way to digitally send you edible cookies, i so would.

    and swimbikerun, anyone who would present a post about mega shark vs giant octopus is already in the pantheon of my heros. duh.

    there are so many more of you that i could attempt to list by moniker, but that would take far too long (however, it certainly would not take as long as listing the luddites and dolts that really should not be exposed to a keyboard; while i love a good argument from a differing perspective, very, very, very few people are able to properly structure a valid argument that actually contributes positively to the thread).

    and to the countless others on rj that this admiration may apply to, if you think i also admire your thoughts, you are probably right. and to those who think i would not, i know you are right.

    please gentlemen, post on, and post hard. i have so much to learn.

    be touched by his noodly appendage,
    cogitor







  • Posted by a hidden member.
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    Jul 09, 2009 7:06 AM GMT
    Delvis--

    I wrote this in the other post concerning someone's explaination of Atheism:

    "I'd also add that atheists simply believe there is not yet evidence for a belief in a god--they do not necessarily say there is absolutely no god. They base their views on evidence--there is not yet evidence for a god. Athiests need evidence--religious people don't... they have faith. Faith alone is not enough for atheists."

    http://www.realjock.com/gayforums/581322/

    Is my description correct then? I composed it from the words of Dawkins during an interview with Bill O'Reilly.

    Also, what do you think of Hitchens? To me, from some of the things I have heard him say, he appears to be just as mean-hearted as some of the fundamentalists he despises. Beacuse of this, he loses credibility in my eyes. I like Dawkins much better. Perhaps I have only heard Hitchens speak when he wsan't at his best. I haven't extensively studied Atheism like you have.
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    Jul 09, 2009 4:45 PM GMT
    Delivis said
    MuscleToronto saidFollowing Hitchens, in fact, you've still left one out -- "anti-theist". This Atheist not only does not believe in god, he stands against the very idea of god. In other words, anti-theism is a kind of atheist social movement which seeks to convert others to Atheism.


    Not true actually. I follow Hitchens work closely.

    The term anti-theist seays nothing about whether you believe ina god or not, strictly speaking. An anti-theist simply thinks that the proposition of a god existing is a horrible one, somethign we would be better without. It actually says nothing about whether you believe a god exists or not, which is striclty what i limited the post to.

    The vast majority of anti-theists are atheists. If you were an antitheist and a theist you would regard god as an enemy (a real enemy).

    In one of the Hitchens lectures available on youtube this distinction was brought up. Maybe ièll find the video later and post it..icon_smile.gif



    Ooh, I like that distinction. One can be an anti-theist and agnostic at the same time. It makes the position much more sellable, I think.
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:20 PM GMT
    Well, as a fellow atheist, I look forward to contributing to religious/belief discussions in the future and any clarifying the issue may need. icon_wink.gif
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:30 PM GMT
    NotThatOld said[/cite]I also have a copy of Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion.......blah blah blah.


    ever think that its pretty easy to fulfill a prophecy when you already know what is going to happen in your story?



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    Jul 09, 2009 5:31 PM GMT
    Delivis said
    MuscleToronto saidFollowing Hitchens, in fact, you've still left one out -- "anti-theist". This Atheist not only does not believe in god, he stands against the very idea of god. In other words, anti-theism is a kind of atheist social movement which seeks to convert others to Atheism.


    Not true actually. I follow Hitchens work closely.

    The term anti-theist seays nothing about whether you believe ina god or not, strictly speaking. An anti-theist simply thinks that the proposition of a god existing is a horrible one, somethign we would be better without. It actually says nothing about whether you believe a god exists or not, which is striclty what i limited the post to.

    The vast majority of anti-theists are atheists. If you were an antitheist and a theist you would regard god as an enemy (a real enemy).

    In one of the Hitchens lectures available on youtube this distinction was brought up. Maybe ièll find the video later and post it..icon_smile.gif


    There is some convenient rationalization here. While you did address the issue initially of those who as atheists believe there is no god, this argument above, basically creates a circular logic condition. It's like beginning an argument with the phrase "All Christians believe that..." and therefore it dismisses all Christians who don't meet that Criteria. The belief that there is no god, is just as much a belief as is the belief that there is one. jprichva, has been uniquely succinct in his statement. Most all of the atheist arguments I've heard, Dawkins included, are far more structured on anti-theist rhetoric than on the simple statement made by jprichva
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:32 PM GMT
    getfitrick saidSean this forum is calling you!


    that delivis guy seems to have it covered.

    icon_twisted.gif

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    Jul 09, 2009 5:48 PM GMT
    Perhaps we should call soft atheists "god-curious." icon_wink.gif

    When discussing beliefs (or the lack of them) with others, I have often found it helpful to discuss the words we use first.

    Atheist = a (no) + theist (god) = or no god. Simply, these are people that are unconcerned with the concept of god/s. Some might vehemently attack Christianity, but most are just quiet people who see no evidence or basis for a belief in a "higher power."

    Agnostic = a (no) + gnosis (knowing) = I don't know about god. These people are willing to accept that there might be a god, but that there is no conclusive evidence to support that there is one/or more.

    There are many more word to through into this discussion. Suffice to say, just like our myriad of faces, human belief systems vary from individual to individual. So some don't believe - let them. And others do - that's okay too.

    (Personally, I think we created and excellent political tool out of the fear of the unexplained. That fear-tool then evolved into stories and rituals to explain natural phenomenon and continued to evolve as people became more sophisticated. It is not surprising to me that religion still focuses its energy on the inexplicable - death, afterlife, forgiveness, love, compassion). That doesn't mean that I don't think religion is useful... it is for many, just not me.
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    Jul 09, 2009 5:55 PM GMT
    blinktwice4y said
    getfitrick saidSean this forum is calling you!


    that delivis guy seems to have it covered.

    icon_twisted.gif



    yes, he has a distinct talent for oversimplifying everything to a single mote of misguided wisdom.
  • Posted by a hidden member.
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    Jul 09, 2009 6:03 PM GMT
    Stamp collector. I like that. I am an acollector of stamps too.

  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jul 09, 2009 7:20 PM GMT
    cjcartist1984 saidDelvis--

    I wrote this in the other post concerning someone's explaination of Atheism:

    "I'd also add that atheists simply believe there is not yet evidence for a belief in a god--they do not necessarily say there is absolutely no god. They base their views on evidence--there is not yet evidence for a god. Athiests need evidence--religious people don't... they have faith. Faith alone is not enough for atheists."

    http://www.realjock.com/gayforums/581322/

    Is my description correct then? I composed it from the words of Dawkins during an interview with Bill O'Reilly.

    Also, what do you think of Hitchens? To me, from some of the things I have heard him say, he appears to be just as mean-hearted as some of the fundamentalists he despises. Beacuse of this, he loses credibility in my eyes. I like Dawkins much better. Perhaps I have only heard Hitchens speak when he wsan't at his best. I haven't extensively studied Atheism like you have.


    I would be hesitant in lumping all atheists together.

    "Atheists need evidence" - if you are talking stricly about god, most would say this i am sure. But some people can be atheists for bad reasons just like some people can be theists for bad reasons. If you are talking about beliefs in general it is very untrue. You can be an atheist and believe in astrology, homeopathy, UFO abductions, bigfoot, the moon landing conspiracy, and a whole host of other nonsense with little or no evidence. Not believing in a god is no guarantee of rationality.

    As for Hitchens, his style is certainly very different. Dawkins used to be the bad cop on the scene until Hitchens came around. Some of his material i like, some of it i dont particularily like. Id have to make a long post about him to explain my views about him. But if you believe what he says about religion and how evil it is (i dont entirely) then his meanness would be entirely appropriate.


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    Jul 09, 2009 7:28 PM GMT
    Delvis,

    Just curious but I read the Hitchens book , God Is Not Great. It seems that your summary of Hitchens matches my understanding of this book. He pretty much thinks of Religion as evil, at least that is my understanding of the book. Is this what you surmise from this book or am I misreading it?