A clearer definition of atheist

(This is my article that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of the New Humanist magazine that appeared there with the title No Doubt.)

Charles Darwin believed that God was not required to explain nature and strongly opposed the later attempts by Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, to argue that some form of divine intervention was necessary to explain human intelligence and consciousness.

From this, one might reasonably conclude that Darwin was an atheist. And yet he firmly rejected efforts by others to stick that label on him and insisted on calling himself an agnostic. Edward Aveling, a self-professed atheist, tried to convince Darwin that “the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ were practically equivalent”. Darwin did not challenge Aveling’s characterization that an “agnostic was but atheist writ respectable and atheist was but agnostic writ aggressive”, but merely questioned why anyone would want to be aggressive.

Darwin’s response highlights the fact that calling oneself an agnostic is much more socially acceptable than saying one is an atheist. As a respectable member of the Victorian establishment he likely did not want to disturb the comfortable social world in which he lived. Religious believers are far more comfortable with agnostics. Atheists appear to directly contradict their views; whereas agnostics seem to allow for the possibility that God might exist and thus confer some intellectual respectability on those with belief.

But what exactly is the difference? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an atheist as “One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.” That part of the definition as one who “disbelieves” in God is unexceptional. Atheists say that there is no evidence for the existence of God and so it makes no sense to believe in one. It is the word “denies” that creates problems. If by “denies” we mean a willingness to publicly declare disbelief, then it too is acceptable. But if interpreted as implying that the atheist is certain that there is no God, then it is too strong. Since one cannot prove the non-existence of a god, or anything else, no thoughtful atheist would sign on to such a statement.

The OED definition of an agnostic – as “One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing” – hardly banishes the confusion either.

One problem is that this definition fails to distinguish between not knowing something and there being nothing to know. As Ricky Gervais said in response to a challenge as to what right a mere comedian had to make pronouncements on whether God exists; “Since there is nothing to know about God, a comedian knows as much about God as anyone else.”

It is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, however absurd (whether it be a god or unicorns), so the purely logical answer to whether anything exists, when the answer isn’t “yes”, is “I don’t know”. By this definition we are all agnostic about practically everything.

But there is a difference between saying one is agnostic because of the logical impossibility of proving a negative, and being an agnostic because the evidence is not (as yet, anyway) convincing either way. For example, the currently popular theory of elementary particles postulates the existence of a particle known as the Higgs boson that has as yet not been directly detected. The new Large Hadron Collider at CERN has the detection of this particle as one of its major goals. Until it is detected, it is perfectly reasonable to be agnostic on the question of its existence. If at some point it is detected, agnostics would shift out of the agnostic camp and into the camp of believers. But when would it become possible to say that it does not exist?

A state of permanent agnosticism in such situations seems unwarranted. After all, we are perfectly comfortable in saying that some things simply don’t exist even if we cannot prove it logically. So in the absence of any evidence for existence, what distinguishes those things we can confidently assert don’t exist (like unicorns) from those things (like God or an immaterial soul) whose nonexistence some are loth to proclaim?

Science can help here because in that world, when something becomes unnecessary as an explanatory concept, it is confidently asserted not to exist. For example, take the concept of the ether. This was believed to be a material substance that permeated all of space and was necessary in order to explain the propagation of electromagnetic waves. As more and more experiments failed to detect it, the properties of the ether had to be refined and modified to explain away the negative results. Even though the theory of the ether became quite convoluted, it was still thought to exist because it was necessary as an explanatory concept. When Einstein came along with his theory of relativity, he did not prove that there was no ether. What he did with his alternative theory was make the ether unnecessary as an explanatory concept. As a consequence, scientists now comfortably assert that the ether does not exist, just as they were comfortable thinking earlier that it did exist. We are no longer agnostic on the question of ether’s existence.

So rather than “One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God”, a more accurate definition for atheist would be “One for whom God is unnecessary as an explanatory concept”. This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think that God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say “no”, they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say “yes”, they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

This proposed definition of atheist may not make agnosticism about God completely redundant, because determined people of a philosophical bent can always find ways to salvage any cherished proposition from being rejected. But it would go a long way towards clarifying what atheism represents.

African-American atheists

The New York Times had an interesting article (which for some reason was in its Fashion & Style section) about the growing open atheism in the black community, one that has traditionally been seen as more religious and more disapproving of atheism than the population at large.

The article says that less than one-half of one percent of African-Americans are atheist, much lower than for whites. It is possible that the fraction is as large as that of white atheists but that the greater taboos against it meant that they kept quiet about their disbelief and even went with their families to church just to avoid making waves. A young man said that his mother was more bothered by his revelation that he was an atheist than that he was gay, another issue which the black community tries to keep under wraps.
[Read more…]

The journey from priest to atheist

Eric MacDonald is a former clergyman who became an atheist and he has a blog Choice in Dying which began as a tribute to his wife Elizabeth who chose assisted suicide at the late stages of a serious illness. The original purpose of the blog was to counter the religious objections to assisted suicide but it is now a lot more than that. McDonald is very knowledgeable about theology and is able to counter the arguments of theologians using their own language. His blog is well worth a visit.

He recently posted a thoughtful analysis on the Q&A session of the Haught-Coyne debate. But in the comments, in response to some questions, he describes his own painful transition from priest to atheist and provides insight into how unbelieving priests have to choose their words very carefully to avoid being exposed as apostates. It takes them a long time to explicitly acknowledge even to themselves that they are no longer believers. He suspects that Haught is in the same situation.

While I was a priest, and had to say something to people every week in a homily, I knew within a hair’s breadth what I could say. My wife Elizabeth, who was a nonbeliever, would sometimes correct me, and say: “You can’t say that” or “You can’t say what you want to say in that way.” The point she was making was simply that dispelling the clouds too rapidly would make it impossible for us, the congregation and me, to take the next step, if we were going to take it together. So it was essential to lay down some fog, artificial fog, which would allow me to say what I wanted to say, but at the same time not to let people get too close a grasp on what I was saying, which would lead them to say, “Well, you really don’t believe at all, then, do you?” As I got closer and closer to retirement, a friend (a retired priest) used to say, “You’re going too fast. You’ll have talked yourself out of a job if you keep going at this rate” — because, at the time, I was finding it harder and harder to find anything positive to say about Christian belief.

Now, I suspect — though I may be wrong — that Haught is in this position. He wants to be able to speak about faith in very general terms, but he also wants faith to retain its position as a confidence in doctrines that he has really let go of a long time ago, and he’s developed a very comfortable way of speaking about his loss of faith in terms of what he considers faith, but most believers would not see as faith at all. He can retain all the usual Christian language, but he doesn’t believe any longer in a straightforward way — and this, by the way, is not a fundamentalist, literal style of believing, but believing in the highly intellectualised way in which the Roman Catholic Church defines its doctrines. He simply doesn’t notice that when he talks about Jesus he’s making a claim to divine intervention in the world for which there is not a shred of substantive evidence. If he noticed that, his house of cards would simply fall apart, so he has to keep it general and unfocused. As Kevin says (#7), theologians are in a tough position. If they dispell the fog the all too human levers are visible, but if they don’t dispell the fog, questions will continually arise. In other words, as Haggis says (#5), instinctively it seems that what Haught is saying is rubbish, but it’s not easy to see why, and the reason its hard to see why is that Haught has gone to a great deal of trouble of deceiving himself first.

In a later comment, he adds:

I think I went through the same process that Haught is going through, and it took years. When faith is the ground bass of one’s life, then, even when faith is breaking down, there are often more reasons to keep a hold on it than to let it go, and it is done, not through deliberate dishonesty, but through a veritable maze of self-deceiving rationalisation.

What looks to an outsider like dishonesty and hypocrisy, to an insider is just common sense. A lot of people, like Haught, go to a great deal of trouble to define faith in such a way that practically anything that is done is done on faith, so religious faith seems innocuous. But that’s all part of the smoke-screen. But the fact that he is laying smoke doesn’t even occur to him, and it won’t until he can get outside of the faith box that he’s in. It took a pretty vicious jerk to rattle me out of it, and I daresay it will take as big a bump in life’s road to lead Haught out of the maze.

Looking back I can see how careful I had to be not to work too far out of the box, but at the time what I was doing it, it seemed — nay, was — perfectly sincere and honest. Haught, given his situation, will find it almost impossible to get out of the box. It’s a very comfortable one. He has status. He is respected. He enjoys the theological game. What would lead him to leave? Of course, something might. But I know, from experience, how much a religious leader loses when he has made the decision that he can no longer speak with integrity about faith. One has to step outside a society in which one had honour and respect, and into a world which is — as the world in fact is — very uncertain. sometimes confusing, and never sure.

When you find religious people, clergy or otherwise, uncomfortable with talking about the concrete aspects of their beliefs, such as what god actually does, and shifting the conversation to the social benefits of religion or in vague terms about meaning and morals, it may well be a sign that they are on the road to unbelief or are already unbelievers and are unwilling to explicitly acknowledge it even to themselves.

No atheists allowed

Richard Dawkins was due to speak at a function hosted by the Center for Inquiry that was to be held at the Wyndgate Country Club in the Detroit area. But some official of the club saw Dawkins interviewed by Bill O’Reilly and decided that he/she did not want to have an atheist soiling their premises so the club canceled the event at the last minute forcing the organizers to find an alternative venue for the sold-out event. The CFI is considering suing the country club for its actions.

Of course, what the country club achieved is to give a huge amount of publicity to an event that otherwise only CFI members and supporters would have known about.

Sexism, atheism, and the volatility of internet discourse

My post on the topic of sexism in the atheist movement generated a lot of comments. As is often the case with heated discussions, a lot of different issues quickly got added into the mix and so it might be good to step back a bit and look at the big picture.

My original question was whether the atheist community had a problem with sexist attitudes towards women as evidenced by the response that Rebecca Watson received when she reported on her blog about an incident in an elevator at an atheist gathering.
[Read more…]

Sexism in the atheist community

It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?

I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.

What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.

Dawkins’ response to Watson’s comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting ‘big battles’ and that ‘lesser’ battles don’t count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.

For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.

But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university’s Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

The ontological argument for god

Here’s an attempt to explain Saint Anselm’s original argument that theologians love. Apparently Immanuel Kant pretty much destroyed it in its original formulation. But in this clip, theologians like Alvin Plantinga claim to have resurrected it in a better form that shifts the burden onto some thing that he refers to as a theorem in modal logic.

In this next clip Plantinga tries to explain what this ‘new’ modal argument is.

I must admit, I just don’t get it. As I have said many times, I simply do not see how you can answer an empirical question of the existence of anything using pure reasoning without any supporting data. Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

Another philosopher Colin McGinn tries to explain to Jonathan Miller what the ontological argument is and the problems with it. This part begins at around the 11:30 mark and continues for the first 30 seconds of the second part.

If this is the best argument that theologians can come up with, then god is done for.

The coming godless generations

Adam Lee points to data that show the rapid rise of nonbelief among young people, and points to stories of young people challenging the religious privilege that their elders took for granted.

Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones.

But what’s different now is that young people who speak out aren’t left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there’s a thriving, growing secular community that’s becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.

The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it’s much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I’ve mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they’re the leading edge of a wave.

All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation.

[T]he more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that’s been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.

This is why it is important for atheists to not rest on our laurels just because we have won the argument. We have to continue to be a very visible and vocal presence in public life, so that those who are hesitant to speak realize that atheists are everywhere and that they have a support network.

I myself have been heartened by the number of people in my own institution who tell me that my atheist presence via this blog has helped them.

Victory for atheists in Little Rock

I wrote earlier about how a bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively high insurance for an atheist group to place the message “Are you good without God? Millions are” on its buses, claiming that they feared vandalism by religious people, providing an unintended ironic commentary on religion.

Now a federal judge has ruled in favor of the atheists saying that the bus company’s policy violated the free speech rights of atheists.