Atheism isn’t a guarantee of anything

BeggingSomething I’ve been reading and enjoying a lot recently is Kids Without Religion, Deborah Mitchell’s blog. Today, she posted another excellent piece about a heroin addict being given some money and finding God. Really, it’s very good. But there’s just one short passage that fired something in my brain and inspired this post. It doesn’t really relate to the basic story – as Deborah says, the addict never explicitly identifies as an atheist – but it touches on something I was thinking about anyway.

This is what prompted me to respond:

It’s also frustrating to hear people say, “I was once an atheist, but then god blessed me with ________.” And it is always some sort of perceived good fortune that recently happened. However, it seems that these folks weren’t really atheists to begin with. How do you suddenly talk yourself into believing there’s a higher power simply because you silently prayed and a stranger gave you cash the next day? This fails any test of formal logic. The two events, in reality, have no correlation.

What makes me uncomfortable about this is that it sounds uncannily similar to the sort of thing I used to hear Christians say in the opposite direction: If you lose your faith, you were never really a Christian; it’s just a superficial reaction to bad things happening; your reasoning makes no sense.

All very No True Scotsman, and I think everyone can do better than tit-for-tat personal criticism, but this highlights something I’ve noticed before – the idea that a “proper” atheist should have made a conscious decision that there is no God. That an atheist should have a strong interest in science, should make every decision based on a careful, rational and logically sound chain of reasoning – basically, that an atheist should be better than other people.

LogicI don’t think that’s right. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods. It doesn’t say anything about how you reached that decision, your knowledge or interests, and it doesn’t make you superhuman. People can honestly be atheists and still be swayed by bad arguments or poor logic. It’s tempting to restrict atheism to clever people, people we admire, people we agree with and who show our beliefs in a good light, but that’s not our call, and it’s not honest. Besides which, one thing atheism really doesn’t need right now is more in-fighting and schisms about who’s in or out.

When people don’t believe in gods, that makes them atheists. Sure, maybe they haven’t considered it much, maybe they’re susceptible to fallacious arguments or just a sudden coincidental experience, but they’re atheists, because that’s what the word means. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to redefine words to suit our preferences.

Images courtesy of bjearwicke and bewinca, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

24 responses to “Atheism isn’t a guarantee of anything”

  1. ryan59479 says :

    How would one arrive at the conclusion that there is no God(s) without the use of science and logic?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Any way you like! You could say there’s no God because your girlfriend just dumped you, or because the sky is blue. I think it’s easy to get drawn into the appealing but fallacious idea that reaching the right conclusion (I’m assuming here that you think atheism is the right conclusion) means that your reasoning is sound. It ain’t necessarily so.

      There’s a slogan I see a lot from atheists which says that we’re all born atheist, and are subsequently indoctrinated into religion. I have some issues with that, but it carries an element of truth. So how much logical consideration has a baby given to the question of God’s existence?

      • ryan59479 says :

        Hmm. Interesting. I guess I never thought about true atheism as a conclusion. I think a lot of people–some atheists included–tend to think of a disbelief in God as a definitive statement. I would say, as an atheist who basis my assertions in science, that atheism is only ever a statement rooted in the present. That is to say, based off of the evidence available to me NOW, I see no evidence that suggests the existence of a God. But that’s not a definitive statement, for as any scientist worth his or her salt will tell you, the body of information available to us and our understanding of it is always expanding, so it would be impossible for me to state that there will NEVER be evidence to suggest the existence of a God.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Maybe to avoid confusion, it would be helpful to call it a provisional conclusion. In this context, whether someone’s likely to change their mind in response to new evidence isn’t as important as what led them to that position in the first place.

  2. jonnyscaramanga says :

    Ryan, they might come to it emotionally. They might have been brought up to believe it. It might just be a hunch. I’m an atheist (weak sense), would argue that it would be impossible to come to the conclusion that there are definitely no gods or godesses of any kind purely through science and logic.

    I like this post. People who want to form an atheist movement should remember this. Not believing in God is not a great predictor of much else about a person.

    • ryan59479 says :

      I usually cringe at the word impossible. I guess I would say that decisions made emotionally are almost never rational decisions. And it seems to me that if atheists believe that it’s irrational to believe in God, then by suddenly making atheism equally irrational, atheism becomes another belief system. And I think you’d be hard pressed to find an atheist who would call atheism a belief system.

  3. Deborah Mitchell says :

    Well, here I am, just like you asked.

    I think you’re dealing with two separate issues here: faith and reason. See your statement here:

    “What makes me uncomfortable about this is that it sounds uncannily similar to the sort of thing I used to hear Christians say in the opposite direction: If you lose your faith, you were never really a Christian; it’s just a superficial reaction to bad things happening; your reasoning makes no sense.”

    “If you lose your faith….”

    You don’t need reasons to believe because faith, by its very nature, means you push the hold button on logic and just jump. That’s why you hear statements such as, “I just know God exists. I just believe. I feel….”

    However, atheism rejects the belief in god. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism)
    That implies an awareness and active rejection. If you do not believe, and you decide that the “blue sky” (I think that was your analogy) is the reason why you no longer believe, then you have a reason. (The sky is blue.) It’s not a GOOD reason, but it is yours. You can prove the sky is blue. But you don’t need to prove that the blue sky means god doesn’t exist anyway. The burden of proof is on those who believe. Just like I would have to prove to you that you have an invisible woman living in your attic. See?

    If you’ve rejected the god you were raised with, you have your reasons. You no longer have your faith.

    I think you are bringing assumptions to the table here: “It’s tempting to restrict atheism to clever people, people we admire, people we agree with and who show our beliefs in a good light, but that’s not our call, and it’s not honest.”

    Says who? You? Which authority? Please clarify.

    Anyway. Rambling a bit. I’m hungry. Thanks for sharing!

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Thanks for stopping by. I thought it was only polite to let you know what I was writing, and it’s not really aimed at you, but it’s good of you to add your thoughts.

      I think faith and reason aren’t as separate as all that in most cases. In my experience, believers tend to try to justify their beliefs rationally at first, and only resort to faith when it doesn’t seem to make sense. Regardless of that, the well-worn dogma that anyone who loses their faith (or “deconverts” if it helps the discussion) can’t have ever been a true believer is one that I’ve heard often enough to make it a cliché.

      On the topic of who gets to be identified as a proper atheist, I’ve seen quite a bit recently of people trying to exclude this person or that person, because they don’t like their opinions on something or other, or think they haven’t given the matter enough thought. There might be a case for a separate word to describe people who never really considered the idea of gods, but as things stand, “atheist” is the obvious word to use.

      Rushing off to work now, I’ll review this later.

      • Deborah Mitchell says :

        I think you bring up some great questions and points. Thank you for including me in this discussion.

        I do agree that people try to justify their beliefs. A lot of times, though, we’re socialized into religion as babies, before we are even able to understand the beliefs we’re being programmed with. So we just repeat what we’ve been told. I’m not sure that we’re rationalizing as much as just regurgitating. And I’m often baffled when people start quoting the Bible with its outrageous tales as a source, yet those same people criticize a book like Harry Potter for all of its outrageous tales.

        I have not seen the discussions that you mention about who is a proper atheist yet. (If you provide a link, I’ll check it out.) As I said in my post and in the video that started this discussion, Thomas Coates never identifies himself as anything. Coates just says that his girlfriend says he didn’t “believe in him.” CBS calls him an atheist. Maybe he’s an agnostic. Maybe he just didn’t believe that god would help. Who knows. But he is not a good example of a person who doesn’t believe anyway. The guy is a desperate, down-and-out-drug addict. Religion should never have been overlaid on top of that interview. So, it seemed to me much more of a propaganda campaign than an example of a conversion.

        This is an interesting statement and I’ve heard this before, too: “Regardless of that, the well-worn dogma that anyone who loses their faith (or “deconverts” if it helps the discussion) can’t have ever been a true believer is one that I’ve heard often enough to make it a cliché.” I’m sure many would argue that it’s not about being a true or blind believer, but about the lack of evidence to support their continued beliefs. Folks who use that cliché are usually believers, and I’m sure they are trying to bolster their faith and explain why their fellow Christians (or Muslims, etc.) are leaving religion and god.

        Some good food for thought. Thanks again.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Thank you for getting involved. I agree that this isn’t directly relevant to the case you mentioned.

        I’ll see if I can dig up some links on defining people out of some group or other, but it may be tricky because that’s usually not absolutely explicitly stated. In keeping with much of my blogging, this is addressed to me as much as anyone, because I find it so tempting to explain why certain people don’t belong to “my” group. Not long ago, I wrote about a survey on spirituality which annoyed me partly because the methodology was dodgy, but also because it showed that a lot of “no religion” respondents had some pretty wacky beliefs that I didn’t want to be associated with.

        I think atheists are going to have to get used to this sort of thing. Once, atheism was a fairly extreme position that was only held by people who’d given the matter a lot of thought. As the influence of religion declines, there are likely to be more and more atheists who’ve never really considered the matter, but were just brought up (dare I say indoctrinated) as atheists. The mention of indoctrination is deliberately provocative, but I hope you see the point.

      • Deborah Mitchell says :

        I absolutely have seen this, too, and agree with you here: “…it showed that a lot of “no religion” respondents had some pretty wacky beliefs that I didn’t want to be associated with.”

        I don’t identify as an atheist for that reason. I prefer humanist or naturalist, though these terms will probably get corrupted, too, as they go more mainstream.

        I’d just like to make a quick comment about this: “As the influence of religion declines, there are likely to be more and more atheists who’ve never really considered the matter, but were just brought up (dare I say indoctrinated) as atheists.”

        Remember, we are not indoctrinating kids by not teaching them made-up stories. We don’t indoctrinate them against belief in fairies, trolls and dragons. We can still teach them about the history of religion, we are just no longer brainwashing our kids. 🙂

    • janeyeadon says :

      Ah, but what if you were raised atheist, as I was? I know it is unusual, especially in my age group (I am 57), but my Dad was an atheist by raising too. It was my grandfather who rejected religion when he joined the trade union movement. So although I am now a scientist and reject belief in any god in the same way as I reject belief in anything with insufficient evidence for that belief, I never understood what religion feels like and never found a need to believe… Is there anyone else out there like me?

  4. Deborah Mitchell says :

    I just read your “about” page and found it very interesting! In the end, if faith (whether strong or weak) brings you comfort as you said below, then you should keep it.
    “Truth be told, there are parts of Christianity that I quite like in some ways,….”

    Life is short. Why give up chocolate, wine or religion, if used in moderation?

    My only hope is that religion will stay in church where it belongs….

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      My story’s moved on quite a bit since I wrote that “about” page, and it’s always complicated. There’s more details in the posts filed under “History of Me”. My main dilemma right now is how to bring our kids up when my wife and I believe different things.

  5. raintreebranches says :

    while I heartily agree with your point that atheism just means a lack of belief in god(s) and thus any one who fits that description is technically an atheist, I do that that people who would call themselves atheist would mostly be people who are interested in science, pretty cynical of religion and so on.

    Since atheism describe a lack of something, one wouldn’t normally see the need to use such a label on themselves unless they are particular interested in issues highlighting this lack, or they came from the other side of the fence previously. I would think people are apathetic about religion wouldn’t identify with the label at all, even if they didn’t believe in god.

  6. I'm Not Your Role Model says :

    As someone who was brought up as Atheism as my “religion” I can identify with your blog. I like it, and I’ll keep reading. So keep writing.

  7. dreamdecipher says :

    Quite interesting topic. I´ve recently been getting a vision about wether one can call him self an atheist or not. An atheist is someone that doesn´t belive in any form of higher power right or supernatural things? And most of them whom i´ve met says with an utter determination that they know there is nothing like that based on science. The picture i´ve been thinking about is if we picture a piece of paper, fairly large paper. Now i draw a tiny dot on that big paper. The dot represents all the knowledge i have or all the knowledge there is up until this day. The large paper represents the whole universe and all the knowledge left to explore or better said what´s still unexplored. I would say that it is impossible to claim that there´s no higher power or vice versa. Would a more proper label be Agnostic to the Atheists? Dunno? Fun reading though 🙂

  8. Eric says :

    At some point the existence of a creator becomes self evident and atheism becomes silly.

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