What If Atheism Really Is Just A “Lack of Belief in God”?


There’s no reason to think that we’re better
There’s no reason to think that we’re worse
There’s no reason to think we’ve been chosen
Or are damned by some ultimate curse
There’s no call to put faith in the Torah
Or in any or all of its sequels
And without such a misguided compass
We are free to treat others as equals.

There’s no reason to think there is magic
There’s no need for an ultimate cause
There’s no need for some stellar mechanic
Who’s unburdened by natural laws
There’s no need to infer a creator
Looking on as creation unfurled
And without all those misguided questions
We are free to examine the world.

So today’s title comes from a bit of musing on a religious blog–they don’t have comments there, so I had to write here.

The author starts out largely in agreement with me. He defines (for purposes of this essay) atheism as the privative, the empty category of faith systems, the “none of the above“. It is a “lack of belief”. (The author notes that this view clearly does not encompass all of atheist thought–including things like atheism plus in his additional examples. He is addressing only the “lack of belief” view.) He points out that this non-belief, while it may be associated with any number of positive beliefs, is not itself a positive belief at all.

And this is true. But then, he makes some judgments that are poorly framed.

Atheism Is Not Pro-Reason or Pro-Science
This point is just a clarification of the prior section. Because atheism cannot offer support for any positive belief, atheism is not intrinsically pro-reason or pro-science. Individual atheists might be in favor of reason or science, but they are not in favor of reason or science because of their atheism.

True. More on this later.

Atheism is Not Morally Progressive
If atheism cannot offer support for any other belief, then atheists may or may not value the abolition of slavery, gay marriage, equal pay for women, abortion, communism, and greedy Wall Street bankers.

Also true. And more on this later as well.

Atheism Is A Comfortable Belief
Christians are often accused of believing in God because it is such a comfortable belief system, especially when we consider death.

Note, this stands in opposition to the recent “Where are the honest atheists?” moaners and groaners. Atheism, if the author is going to be consistent, cannot be seen as either comfortable or uncomfortable.

It depends on what you are comparing to. Ay, there’s the rub. Atheism is a comfortable belief, if you compare it to the notion of original sin, fallen humanity, and grace only at the whim of a deity known for death, destruction, and the threat of eternal punishment for simply not worshipping Him. And not, if you compare it to the notion of psalm 23.

But then, let’s be consistent. Atheism is not pro-reason or pro-science… unless our standard of comparison is religion, in which case, religion’s giant step back leaves atheism looking quite pro-science by comparison. And atheism is not morally progressive, unless our standard of comparison is religion once more.

Conclusion: “Atheism” Is Unworthy of Our Respect
Because this kind of atheism is such an impoverished position, unable to establish any other beliefs, and unable to support a pro-reason, pro-science, morally progressive worldview, it does not deserve our respect. Furthermore, because this atheism is clearly appealing to people who want to live selfishly, and not necessarily for the good of others, this “lack of belief” is not worthy of anyone’s respect.

As a Christian, I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, and that Jesus died out of love for every human being, and that God offers forgiveness to all who trust in Christ for salvation. Christianity ought to lead me to respect every person, which most certainly includes these atheists. So I believe in treating all people with respect.

Even though he concludes atheism is not worthy of our respect. Love the sinner, hate the sin. It’s the idea of atheism that is bankrupt, but even heathens deserve respect. Mind you, the notion of atheism being appealing to people who want to live selfishly does not stand up to scrutiny–witness any number of counter-examples from prosperity gospel to the recent study of religious beliefs of criminals justifying their actions (Jesus forgives all!). And mind you, “unable to establish any other beliefs” does not mean “incompatible with other beliefs”. The often-cited fact that there are scientists who are christians has been used to argue that christianity and science are compatible. Well, they are, if you compartmentalize; atheism, even “lack of belief only” atheism, need not even be compartmentalized. It is perfectly compatible with a pro-reason, pro-science, morally progressive worldview.

There are times when it is better to start out from nothing, when the alternative is worse. Better to avoid making up answers to questions, and to avoid making up questions that can’t be answered, than to take bold steps in the wrong direction.

Atheism, as just a lack of belief in god, doesn’t have much going for it (which is why we have A+, and humanism, and naturalism, and more). But at least it’s not actively telling lies and doing harm. And that makes it a better starting-off place than religion.

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    I think this looks at ‘atheism’ or lack of belief in gods in a vacuum, as if a person just decides to be an atheist for no reason. If atheism is the product of rationally examining the claims of religion and finding them lacking, then atheism is part of a commitment to rationality and evidence-based reasoning. The thing that came first was reason, and atheism is one result, or possibly the most notable one.

  2. Randomfactor says

    I think he may be neglecting a point or two. Like the not-inconsiderable possibility that we might be RIGHT.

    Even if he doesn’t believe atheism is able to establish other beliefs or positive actions, it is perfectly capable of establishing negative actions.

    Like NOT forbidding others to do things which cause us no harm, “because god”
    Like NOT beating ourselves up for natural behaviors which cause no harm “because god.”
    Like NOT making decisions based on dogma to the exclusion of observed evidence “because god.”

    Even if atheism’s effect is solely to keep us from making religiously-based errors, that’s a heckuvan improvement.

    PS, that’s why A+ is important. It’s largely involved in saying to the atheist establishment “that’s good, you aren’t burdened by the dogma the religious are. So why are you still doing things they way THEY insisted they had to be ‘because god?'”

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    The blogger is probably an atheist regarding Zeus, Mithra, and Osiris but somehow he is able to overcome all the negativity. Apparently it is only when Yahweh is being denied that the atheist becomes unreasonable.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    But in this case, grumps, he’s explicitly taking on the privative atheist definition–so the difference between only believing in one god and believing in none is roughly the difference between being just a little bit pregnant and not being. Or between dead and mostly dead, if you prefer Princess Bride analogies.

  5. says

    @grumpyoldfart #3 – Exactly the point I was going to make.

    “If atheism cannot offer support for any other belief, then atheists may or may not value the abolition of slavery, gay marriage, equal pay for women, abortion, communism, and greedy Wall Street bankers.”

    I cannot parse the point. It was religion that created and supported slavery in the US; most religions are adamantly opposed to gay marriage because of the delusion that marriage is exclusively a religious prerogative; religious justifications remain the principle force behind pay inequalities; religion continues to deny a woman bodily autonomy; and the vast majority of Wall Street bankers openly identify as theists. I’m not sure about the poke regarding communism, except that the early church held everything in common and gave to each according to their needs (see Acts 2:42–47 and 4:32–35; as well as Matthew 19:16–26, 21:12–14 and 25:31–46, Mark 10:17–27 and 11:15, Luke 1:49–53 and 18:18–27, and John 2:14–16. And don’t miss Leviticus 25:35–38 and Isaiah 58:3-7.)

    “… and unable to support a pro-reason, pro-science, morally progressive worldview….”

    Religion does not do this: the vast majority of anti-reason, anti-science and morally regressive worldviews are based quite solidly on religions.

  6. hexidecima says

    mmmm, Religion, especially Christianity is not pro-reason or pro-science; is not morally progressive; is a comfortable belief system in that one gets to believe a omnipotent/omniscient thing agrees with your personal hatreds and desires.

    Therefore, religion, especially Christianity, is not worth respect. “Because this kind of religion is such an impoverished position, unable to establish any other beliefs, and unable to support a pro-reason, pro-science, morally progressive worldview, it does not deserve our respect. Furthermore, because this religion is clearly appealing to people who want to live selfishly (assuming that theirs is the only right way, refusing to give up all they have to follow their supposed savior like he said, attempting to force their religion on others by law), and not necessarily for the good of others, this “claim of belief” is not worthy of anyone’s respect.

    As an atheist , I believe that every human being is a result of evolution, and that a primitive religion that needs human sacrifice is not worthwhile or moral. I do not bleieve that any god offers salvation for sins that he caused in the first place. Christianity does not lead anyone to respect humanity, but claim that they are “dirty rags” and deserving of hellfire. Believing in humanity does lead me to respect people as beings that should have the chance to be treated equally but not to automatically respect their ridiculous claims, based on a series of myths that have no evidence to support them. There is no need to respect someone who thinks that they are better than everyone else based on lies.

    Alas, the idea of “hate the sin, love the sinner” isn’t a biblical view at all. Sin and sinner are inseperable and the bible repeatedly says that this god hates both. To deny this is to deny that the bible says it and well, that should be anathema to any TrueChristian ™

  7. Kiwiheathen says

    This seems like a classic case of question begging. ‘Theism’ doesn’t have a position on any claim/world-view other than the belief that ‘god(s) exist’. There is no other baggage attached to the label, in exactly the same way that there’s no baggage attached to ‘atheism’.
    The author is comparing:
    “Theist who also believes X regarding morality and and Y regarding science” (which theism as a position does not necessarily hold)
    with
    “Atheist”. Period.

    There is no reason for a theist to hold any position other than their god-belief: to find out their position you have to dig deeper. Christianity is not a separate view from theism; it’s theism with stuff added to it. Why you can dig deeper into a theist to find a Christian world-view that says that “I believe in a god, who also gives reason for morality and science” and not into an atheist to find a sceptical and/or humanist view is beyond me.

  8. says

    @ Gregory in Seattle

    I’m not sure about the poke regarding communism, except that the early church held everything in common and gave to each according to their needs.

    Well, he’s poking at a strawman. He would seem to be talking more specifically about Marx’s ideas of communism and/or the type of communism that Russia adopted. (In which case, should he perhaps capitalize it “Communism”?) Because, as you suggest, Christianity is not incompatible with (lower-case) communism.

  9. freemage says

    Note that he’s also playing word games, describing atheism as a ‘negative’ belief. It’s not–it’s a “Null” belief, that is, at the zero-mark. Thus, it has an ability to not interfere with other beliefs, including reason-based attempts to determine ethical behavior. Positive religious beliefs, on the other hand, establish non-reason-based thresholds which must be accommodated before adopting a particular scruple. Atheism is not, in and of itself a motivating force, but that’s a feature, not a bug.

  10. BradC says

    It’s a curious case of narrowing the definition, then picking on the fact that the definition is so narrow.

    He is correct that atheism, strictly speaking, doesn’t take any position on those areas he mentions. But we have (different) labels for what does:

    Naturalism: Consistency and testability of nature, the foundation of modern science.
    Humanism: Reason, ethics, and social justice.

    Neither of these are direct logical consequences of atheism, I suppose, but they both certainly have a natural connection, and each can be defended on their own merits.

  11. Margaret says

    Atheism does not necessarily lead to a pro-science, pro-reason, morally progressive view, but it is compatible with all of those. Christianity is not compatible with any of those views. In the other direction, a pro-science, pro-reason view leads to atheism, and a morally progressive view leads one to reject Christianity.

    (By ‘Christianity’ I mean any of the various religious sects which at least claim to be at least vaguely based on the Christian bible. I know there are some liberal and vaguely ‘spiritual’ people who call themselves Christian despite agreeing that it is all just myth and ‘metaphor’.)

  12. Mars says

    Just a small comment, not relevant to the main discussion above.

    At one time, the English language included the word “agnostic”. In those days, “atheism” did not mean “lack of belief”; it meant active disbelief: Belief that there is/are no god(s). Lack of belief, either in god(s) or in their absence, was then known as “agnosticism”. This word has been lost from the language because, I gather, lack of certainty has also disappeared from the human race.

  13. Cuttlefish says

    Rather, Mars, the terms atheist and agnostic are orthogonal; atheist refers to belief, and agnostic to knowledge. An agnostic does not know that god does or does not exist, but may choose to believe or not to believe. My sister is an agnostic believer. I think, knowing the limitations of human perception, memory, and thought, that it would be impossible to know whether a god exists (as apart from some superhuman demigod–I mean, how would *I* know that someone was not quite omniscient, not quite omnipotent, not quite omnipresent, not quite omnibenevolent, so long as that entity was smarter, more powerful, etc., than *I* can tell), but I don’t believe in any gods, so I am an agnostic atheist. Others claim to know with certainty that god exists (I think they are wrong); they would be gnostic theists. Others claim that any god thus far proposed is logically impossible, and cannot possibly exist; they would be gnostic atheists.

    Words change, of course, but atheism’s path began in the denial of some, but not all, gods, and evolved to the privative it is today.

    Oddly enough, the people who “actively believe there is no god” must necessarily have a particular god to deny–since Christians actively disbelieve in Thor (as per the first commandment), does that make them atheists in your book?

  14. Randomfactor says

    Agnosticism is a philosophical stand. An argument that in the abstract, it’s not possible to rule out every conceivable god including the ones who actively conceal their existence.

    Atheism is a scientific stand. When it’s time to design the experiment–or live your fucking life–it’s not necessary to control for that variable. The results will be the same whether you do or you don’t. When that situation changes, it will show up in the results and we’ll start controlling for it. Not before.

    You don’t have to believe in gods to live a good and fruitful life. You don’t have to believe in gravity to expect your car will not have floated off when you leave for work in the morning. Prayer, and chaining the car down “just in case,” are equally unnecessary.

    And if the car ISN’T there some morning…don’t look UP for it.

  15. Ben P says

    I think this looks at ‘atheism’ or lack of belief in gods in a vacuum, as if a person just decides to be an atheist for no reason. If atheism is the product of rationally examining the claims of religion and finding them lacking, then atheism is part of a commitment to rationality and evidence-based reasoning. The thing that came first was reason, and atheism is one result, or possibly the most notable one.

    I’m not 100% sure of this.

    I was raised in a fundamentalist household, but I never really made any conscious decision regarding belief or lack thereof. I’m not just not a “religious person.” I can marvel at the universe without resorting to god to explain it, and at this point in my life I’ve never felt the need to resort to religion to resolve some emotional issue or emotional need.

    Once I moved out of my parent’s house I stopped going to church and just gradually drifted away from Church and religion. At some point I realized I didn’t really believe much at all, but there was never a deconversion or a rational examination of the merits of religion that resulted in that.

  16. Cuttlefish says

    I suspect that smrnda (whom you quote) would not claim that there is only one path to atheism. Indeed, note the “if” claus in the quote.

    And yay! It’s nice to see that, without constant upkeep, the fundamentalism stuff can just… fade. High maintenance beliefs, those.

  17. qwerty says

    I went and read the whole post which seems to imply that if a person lacks a belief in God; then, you cannot believe in anything.

    It seems like he is using atheism as a strawman to convince the unbeliever or doubting Thomas that there is a god.

    And, knowing that my life is finite doesn’t make atheism the “comfortable” belief that he blathers about. Yes, as a gay male, I know that he would probably say I am selfish in thinking his Biblical morality doesn’t apply to me, but he can keep his morality that is used to make so many lives miserable.

  18. lorn says

    Atheism is not necessarily pro-science, reason, or ethics in the sense that you can be anti-science, reason, and ethics and be an atheist. But, if you wish to do science, make best use of your reason, or establish a coherent ethical code atheism can certainly help by eliminating empty, useless, and meaningless categories and distinctions.

    Accept the existence of supernatural, particularly supernatural beings like God, and assume that God’s opinion matters means you are going to spend a whole lot of time and effort trying to figure out what God thinks and wants and allowing that nonsense to bias your otherwise logical answers. Excluding the supernatural greatly simplifies all aspects of logic, life, and decision making.

    An example is the well publicized case where a girls school caught fire and the local morality police wouldn’t allow the girls to escape the building for fear they wouldn’t be properly covered and the immodesty would insult God. Adding considerations of what God might think confused the otherwise dead-simple ethical issue beyond what the guy acting as morality police could handle. If he hadn’t been brainwashed into fearing a mythical supernatural being with a lust for blood he would have easily drawn the correct conclusion and helped the girls escape.

    The fact is mythical supernaturalism has much the same brain numbing effect as a Zen koan, except that a the koan is structured to sidestep logic and avoid conclusion, not structured in such a manner, as is religion, to distort logic and reach an incorrect conclusion.

  19. Andy says

    I recall a conversation I had once with a Christian while we were overlooking a picturesque, but dammed and flooded valley in Tasmania. I expressed concern about the environmental cost lost whereas she felt national parks and heritage-listed reserves were silly because God put everything here “for us”. She explained that everything in nature is ours to exploit, to the point of extinction if need be, and if it’s of no direct use to us then it’s of no use at all.

    Yeah, and atheists are selfish.

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