Freedom is something

Anjuli makes a good point, one that resonates with what I’ve been saying for years. Atheism is not a loss of something; it’s not about simple disbelief. It is about acquiring a more thorough and accurate and liberating understanding of the nature of the universe.

My atheism is not a loss of any kind and even when I embraced it (at the age of twenty-two), it was most certainly a gain. I conceived of it as gaining control over my own mind, and gaining the freedom to use it as I thought best. I also saw it as an escape from a particularly damaging form of social control. It was significant to me, as a twenty-two year old still settling into my identity, that I no longer had my life parameters set by people I regarded as cruel, stupid and ignorant (though I’ve mellowed somewhat on that front).

I have heard these sentiments so many times from so many people over the years, that accepting atheism was like crawling out of a straitjacket to finally be free, and to see the world with new eyes. And then there are others who shrug and just say that it was nothing, they just stopped believing in a god…and the whole damn culture that propagates god-belief and reality-ignorance at its core? An absence of oppression is not simply something that is, it’s something you have to struggle for. And free thought is more than just the absence of something, it’s a positive in its own right.


  1. Menyambal says

    Penalfire @ 1, agnostics are in two flavors. One is a casual shrug of saying “I dunno”, the other is a hard philosophical stance that God is by definition the unknowable. I dunno which one you mean there, but I’ve seen PZ explain why neither fits him often enough. My take is that he wants to know, and works hard at finding out, and that he doesn’t like the idea that God only the unknown, as he knows plenty of folks who believe in a very real God.

    That’s my response to what I feel is a trolling question. You clarify your question, and make it more of a request than an attack, and PZ might link to something you could have looked for yourself.

  2. penalfire says

    Not trolling at all. I’m referring to:

    the other is a hard philosophical stance that God is by definition the unknowable

    There’s a video of Brian Greene interrogating Dawkins on this question via the Simulation Argument. God is a matter of definition, and if one defines god as omnipotent and omnipresent, he could exist as The Simulators.

    If The Simulators are malevolent, they might put the simulation on the Christian setting.

  3. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    @penalfire, 1
    Same reason my hair’s brown and not long. Because they’re answers to different questions about the same thing. And my hair actually is quite long.

  4. consciousness razor says

    I like the sentiment, but freedom (or “liberation”) isn’t really the first way I’d characterize it. In a sense, theists are free (or act as if they are) to believe whatever garbage that comes into their heads about gods or other supernatural crap. They’re free to believe things that are disconnected from the evidence they can gather about the real world, free from epistemic responsibilities like supporting or justifying their ideas. Their thought processes which are relying on faith are free, in the sense of being independent from arguments or bits of evidence, which could otherwise influence a person to think differently about the subject.

    So I guess I associate a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness with it — not with the mere fact that I believe gods aren’t real, but with the processes and experiences and attitudes that led me in that direction. Some people go too far when they claim it’s about being scientific or liking science or using scientific methods, as if this is just something scientists do in their laboratories … the more basic issue is about intellectual honesty and responsibility, and a separate point is that of course the sciences are (or should be) aiming for that as well. When I go on to think about the consequences of the fact that there aren’t any gods (it’s not about simple disbelief on that level either, because it does entail lots of other stuff), I hope I’m being just as responsible and thoughtful about those things too. If I’m not, then I’d rather not just be free to think whatever it is I happen to think, but actively listen for some genuine useful criticism (or learn new things or look for evidence myself) so I can try to improve.

    You might want to describe that as being liberated somehow or awakened from a dogmatic slumber or whatever, but expressing it that way seems a little misleading or confusing. I mean, the connotation you take away from it might be like freeballing it or whatever — just let loose, do any arbitrary thing, doesn’t matter what it is or why, etc. — and that sort of neglects the sense of responsibility, discipline, caution, control, and so forth, that I’m rambling about here. In any case, I think that’s a good thing, something I’ve gained which really takes some work to cultivate, definitely not a loss.


    Why are you an atheist and not an agnostic?

    What exactly is your question about? There are lots of reasons to think gods don’t exist, and it would take a long time to discuss all of them. So let’s turn the tables for a minute. Why would you sit on the fence about it, or abstain from thinking about them or whatever it is that agnostics do, when reasons like that are available? Would it suffice to get a particular example of a reason, since that’s literally the request you’re making here, or are you going to insist (like some agnostics) that somehow you know a priori that there can’t be any?

  5. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    he other is a hard philosophical stance that God is by definition the unknowable

    What is the difference between an unknowable deity, and one that doesn’t exist? Once the obvious answer of none is received, the one can use skepticism to make the null hypothesis non-existence, and those making the claim their deity exists must show positive physical evidence for it. Skepticism is good way around philosophical circular wanking, as was just shown.

  6. Saad says

    penalfire, #1

    Why are you an atheist and not an agnostic?

    Your question suggests you have some reasons for being agnostic. What are they and agnostic about what exactly?

  7. birgerjohansson says

    “and the whole damn culture that propagates god-belief and reality-ignorance at its core? ”

    A well-run welfare state (coughScandinaviacough) makes it harder for that obsolete culture to hang on.
    — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
    Embracing… rational thougt sometimes means making sacrifices. SMBC:

  8. consciousness razor says

    What is the difference between an unknowable deity, and one that doesn’t exist?

    The former thing exists and you don’t know about it. The latter doesn’t. (And you either do or don’t know that fact, because those are two different independent things.) I’m fairly sure you don’t know everything, so your ignorance probably doesn’t entail anything very interesting.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    Addendum to # 8:
    When people feel secure, they are not as attracted to comforting lies (nationalism, racism, religion, social class tribalism).
    Of course “not as attracted to” does not equal “immune”. During recessions those memes can stage a return, like the herpes virus coming back during periods of stress.
    My point is, once the social infrastructure is in place to provide relative security, you do not have to work quite as hard to re-invent the wheel. But each generation has to re-learn the lessons to at least some extent.

  10. Vivec says

    Why are you an atheist and not an agnostic?

    I don’t consider those mutually exclusive.

    Gnosticism refers to what you know or claim to know, Theism refers to what you believe or claim to believe.

    I’m either an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist depending on the god claim.

    If your god is the sort that is either logically contradictory or demonstrably non-existent, I both don’t believe in its existence and claim to know such.

    If your god is the sort of transcendent god that doesn’t manifest in reality in any way whatsoever, I don’t believe in its existence but don’t claim to know such. It’s unprovable, but that doesn’t necessarily entail its non-existence.

  11. unclefrogy says

    the idea that non belief is freedom is simple the believer is not free when they believe anything that they can come up with though the believer can think anything they want. All religions are confining superstitions and constrain thought and action all in the name of some un-worldly un-provable beings existence. All put some questions and thoughts off limits.
    Giving up belief liberates you from those confines to discover what actually is the nature of reality, to find out what those things are that thought does not change nor desire alter.

    Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
    “How good, how good does it feel to be free?”
    And I answer them most mysteriously
    “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
    B. Dylan

    uncle frogy

  12. Crudely Wrott, lurching towards recrudescence says

    Seeing as I know nothing about creating universes or populating them with entities as self aware as I, even if I could create universes, and seeing as how twice in my life I laid out the fleece for any creator as might be loitering about and seeing as how the fleece was always dry, I refrain from identifying as something other than human. Trying to slice agnosticism and atheism into slices so thin that there is no difference between the two is labor that is better spent elsewhere.

    I’ve had enough run ins with religion to realize that there is no there there and I have reflected long enough and often enough to be assured that I’m not missing anything.

    The important and useful aspects of existence, list them as suits you, are for me two fold. First, that which was always obvious from my first cognizant days, requiring nothing but perception and, later, with growth, apprehension. I’ll not belabor this post with examples except to say that my self realization overlaps that of anyone reading this as well as having aspects that are entirely personal and unique. I take that as given, supported by evidence that is unique to me in detail while being common to all others in generalities.

    Second, a study of faith, assumptions of overlords and guardian angels is bereft of benefit unless one counts something like self hypnosis. My experience is that indulging in such or not so indulging has results that are indistinguishable. The arc of one’s life is dependent on scales of probability far beyond the simplicities of dogma. There are too few absolutes that accompany one on the journey through life to claim that an entire explanation of existence can thereby be derived. The ones that do exist are predictable before hand and even if unanticipated early on become obvious in retrospect. Interestingly, hindsight describes reality with greater accuracy than revelation could ever hope to do. Revelation is, after all, dependent on experience and, more revealingly, fear of repeating previous error. What use then revelation, when mere reportage would serve?

    So, you may ask; am I agnostic or atheistic? I answer thusly: what’s it to you? Will you make decisions in your life based upon my answer or failure to answer? If I say I don’t know if there is an ubermench or not or if I say there most certainly isn’t will that decide something critical in your life?

    In either case I shall live my life as if there were no meddlesome beast that stakes some claim on my life and I will only second guess myself and sometimes you. What I will not be bothered with is trying to tease out the intentions of that which makes no indication of intention. I reserve my energies to navigate my own life. You are most welcomed to do the same.

    From my perspective, at my point in life, such concerns are mere distractions. More important demands are afoot and it is my intent to see to them before I die. If, upon death, some impetuous tinkerer takes me to task I shall do my best to return the favor. I am a fair tinker myself, you see, and I don’t lightly brook interference even if it should be on a universal scale. As I said at the beginning, I know nothing of creating universes and I will not admit any accountability for any shortcomings in the one I was born into.

    Born, I might add, without so much as a heads up or and excuse me sir. If there proves to actually be some great brute as some claim exists, it is quite bereft of anything remotely resembling common courtesy. I have given that much deference and more to cows and horses and dogs. Finding no such deference given to humans by a supposed loving creator I reserve the right to withhold any such deference to it. Pending, of course, convincing evidence of its existence.

    While I can imagine someone wanting to know more I reserve the right to offer no more. It would do them no good even if I did.

  13. Rivendellyan says

    I understand where you’re coming from PZ, but look at this way:

    I’m 22. I was never religious. I grew up in a non-religious family. I was an atheist my whole life, even though I only learned the word when I was 13. Most of my friends, throughout my life, have also never been religious. All these friends of mine are apathetic atheists, they simply never believed, they never argued, reasoned or thought really hard about atheism. Most of them wouldn’t even know what that is if it wasn’t for someone like me, who actually is interested in the thought process behind atheism, pointing out to them that, by definition, they’re atheists. They’re perfectly happy just living their lives as non-believers without really caring about this facet of who they are.
    And this is in Brazil, one of the most religious and conservative countries in the world. Can you imagine how many more people like that exist there in the US? Or in countries in Europe where the majority is atheistic?

    So to me and a lot of other people, there was no loss, but no gain either. It is truly, literally, the neutral position for us. And as time goes on, and more and more people become non-religious, the bigger the number of people like that is going to be. Again, I understand where you’re coming from, but your experience (and those of other people who are similar) with becoming atheist doesn’t nullify mine (and of other people who are similar) of never being anything other than atheist.