What is an Atheist?

Tue, 30 Dec 2014 | norman

I'm writing this in response to the Facebook post of a friend who wrote,

My prayer for Christmas this year: ... that Atheists will realise their faith has no basis in science

It was Christmas, and I (with great effort) resisted the urge to comment—great effort, I assure you.

Instead I decided to write this, and I will be sure to tag the author of that post when I'm finished.

Technically, if we take the literal meaning of the word, an atheist is someone who believes there are no gods.

But that would make Buddhists atheists.

I'm pretty sure my friend (let's call him "Fred") did not mean "Buddhists", although, if he had, at least his prayer would have made sense. (Buddhists do believe in stuff for which there is insufficient scientific evidence, like karma and reincarnation, and I'm pretty sure Fred and I would agree on that.)

By "Atheist" with a capital "A", I think he means New Atheist. New Atheism is the flavour of atheism that, although it has existed for millennia, gained a lot of attention from the work of "The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse", Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who earned their nomenclature by all reaching public prominence as atheists in the decade after September 11, 2001.

And that date gives us a strong clue about part (but not all) of their motivation. In Questions sur les miracles (1765), Voltaire wrote, "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." Sometimes this quote is turned around to place the implied responsibility on the believer, as "Those who believe absurdities can commit atrocities."

This sentiment is attacked by the religious by suggesting that New Atheists believe that religion is the origin of the violence of Al Qaeda and ISIS. Karen Armstrong recently published a well-researched book on this topic, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014). But this allegation is false. It is true that the origins of violence are complex, and include politics, economics, resource availability and societal upheaval. But religion has served as a very combustible fuel to feed the flames of violence throughout history. And New Atheists are trying hard to reduce that fuel supply; not only believers of Muslim absurdities, but of the absurdities of all religions.

Liberal Christians, and post-theist Christians like Karen Armstrong and Bishop John Shelby Spong, bemoan that New Atheists lump them together with literalists and fundamentalists. And there are prominent atheists who agree with them, like Alain de Botton.

There are times when I feel that liberal Christians owe it to the future of their tradition, not to mention the well-being of humanity, to join New Atheists in a clear and public way, calling out literalists and fundamentalists more strongly. But the feeling also wanes, because this is a very tricky thing to get right, because the way that liberal and post-theist Christians describe their interpretation of God is ephemeral, poetic, and for many, inaccessibly confusing. New Atheists call "bullshit". The liberal Christians cry, "It's obviously too subtle for you." And, perhaps most importantly, it also seems too subtle for most Christians.

Either way, it is the belief in absurdity, in all its forms, that is the problem. And it is our vulnerability to believing it that we need to cure.

Now you see them

In the wake of the last decade, a younger, larger team of activists are making their own waves. This new generation seems to be taking a softer approach. To mention just four of many:

Peter Boghossian advocates a caring, listening, and patient strategy, to allow people to talk themselves out of a faulty epistemology (i.e. faulty reasoning for believing something to be true). His emphasis is that if their reasoning for believing something is reliable, then it won't be absurd.

Dale McGowan is the director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a charitable foundation, founded on secular humanism, and dedicated to demonstrating generosity and compassion.

Seth Andrews hosts "The Thinking Atheist" podcast, contributing to a loving and supportive community of those who have left their faith.

Alain de Botton calls for New Atheists to glean from religion its institutional wisdom and beneficial practices, while leaving behind the unfounded beliefs. Many New Atheists are heeding his advice, and establishing groups of like-minded people who meet weekly, learn from each other, celebrate life together, and offer each other the kind of support that they used to get from their church.

There are many more like them, building a groundswell of care and support in an attempt to help humanity out of a dark age of guesswork supported by tradition, into a new enlightenment of reliable knowledge established by reliable evidence. Their goal is not the destruction of religious cultural heritage and tradition. But the steady dissolving of conservative, literalist religion is an obvious side-effect of reliable epistemology, and for New Atheists, a welcome one.

It would be accurate to describe New Atheists as "agnostic atheists". They are "agnostic" because they don't have enough evidence that any god does exist, and one cannot disprove the existence of something one cannot detect. This was illustrated by Bertrand Russell's teapot analogy; if Russell claimed there was a teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars, it would be impossible (certainly at the time Russell was alive) to prove that it wasn't there. So New Atheists know that they can't prove that Yahweh or Allah or Odin or Zeus does not exist.

That is the crux of Fred's mistake. New Atheists, as agnostics, don't have faith that God does not exist. If sufficient evidence was discovered, or suddenly appeared, they would believe. But until that happens, they can't show there is a god, and they can't show there isn't, so the only honest thing to do is to admit that they just don't know.

They are "atheist" because when confronted with the choice of thousands of gods, none of which have sufficient evidence for their existence, then the agnostic must live life as if none exist, until there is enough evidence to believe in at least one of them.

Fred's prayer also mentions science. Let's talk about that for a moment. But first, some ground work.

There are two ways we can know whether something can be true: Evidence and logic. Logic is used for abstract claims, like whether 2 + 2 = 5. Evidence is required for all claims that relate to reality. Science uses evidence to test whether a claim holds up. And not just science; we all do, every day of our lives. We check what people tell us against evidence. (Or at least, we ought to, don't you think?)

So what constitutes evidence? The religionists among you readers, this is the part where your ears ought to perk up. Evidence assumes an objective reality; something outside your head that we can agree on. But considering that you are reading my writing and you don't think that you actually wrote this yourself but somehow forgot, then I think we can agree that objective reality exists, and we can move on. Evidence is anything that allows you a high degree of certainty about something that happens or exists in objective reality. It could be a collection of specimens, or a sample of patients, or a list of measurements, or a pile of questionnaires, etc. Exactly how high that degree of certainty needs to be will depend on your hypothesis, and the nature of what you are testing. But seldom, if ever, is witness testimony satisfactory. And alleged witness testimony, which is essentially what you're looking at if you are reading a religious text about people who said they saw something, definitely does not constitute evidence.

While I'm on the topic, logic on its own is also not evidence.

I have to interject with my favourite example of circular reasoning in support of a literal resurrection of Jesus. It goes like this: We know that a literal resurrection of Jesus is true because, despite being a little light on physical evidence, we know that miracles are not unlikely at all, in fact they are very likely. Miracles are very likely because God exists. We know God exists, and that He is Yahweh, the God of the Bible, because the literal resurrection of Jesus is true. We know that a literal res ... uh ... hmmm.

Now you don't

Back to checking what people tell us against evidence. Of course, we can't check everything we hear. Often we use complex networks of trust and corroboration, backed by physical evidence. Daniel Dennett uses the example of knowing that Mount Everest exists without actually seeing it yourself.

If we find evidence that disproves a belief, we drop it. If we fail to find enough evidence to establish a claim, we discard it. Claims cannot be "proved". They can be disproved, or they can be established with a high degree of certainty. If a claim is neither disproved, nor established with a high degree of certainty, then we cannot honestly say that we "know" it.

If we simply convince ourselves that our degree of certainty is high enough when it's not, and that we are justified in believing something when we aren't, then we are fooling ourselves. This is an extremely dangerous state to be in. This is that state that allows us to believe absurdities. This is the state in which we take "medicine" that does not make us well and forgo medicine that does. And if we are guilty of teaching others to accept claims without enough evidence, then are we not partly responsible for future actions that those people take? Richard Dawkins calls it child abuse. People may find the accusation shocking. But if you were the parent of a suicide bomber, would you lie awake at night wondering whether you should have taught your child to demand evidence for extraordinary claims? Most parents of suicide bombers probably don't. But perhaps they should.

Now that we have covered a little epistemology, we are ready to take on science. The word "science" is used to mean a few things. It is a method of discovering knowledge (as in "I used science"), and the application of that method (as in "Let's do some science"), and also the body of knowledge that we have found using that method (as in "zoological science" or, "geological science").

The method, specifically called the "scientific method", is very simple:

  1. Observe something that nobody has explained, or that you think you can explain better.
  2. Come up with an idea ("hypothesis") of what might explain it.
  3. Test your idea.
  4. Share your results.

That's it! That's all there is to it. But its implications are huge. The combination of testing and sharing allows scientists collaboratively to get better and better at overcoming humans' extensive range of cognitive biases. And a culture where scientists establish their own credentials by improving or replacing the ideas of others overcomes entrenched dogma, or the secrecy that conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience enthusiasts imagine pervades the scientific community.

A final word on science. We don't know everything. And we know that we don't know everything. It is a challenge. It is fun, and it's also very important. With a burgeoning population, finite resources, and an environment that's strained at best, we need all the help we can get to take on those unknowns. We need people who know what they know, and can acknowledge what they don't know. That is fundamental if we are going to solve the challenges of our generation, instead of just making the same mistakes again, using the same old rationalisations, based on the same, tired, old dogma, heavy on tradition, and light on evidence.

This post is part of my attempt to address the challenges of our generation. The more of us who are absurdity-belief-resistant, the better able we are to solving not just the scientific or technological problems, but the political problems too. They are the trickiest ones.

Let's bring it all back to Fred's prayer,

My prayer for Christmas this year: ... that Atheists will realise their faith has no basis in science

As an engineer, Fred should know what science is, and what it is not. As a Christian, Fred should understand faith, and how it differs from knowledge.

Now that I have explained who New Atheists are, what they believe and why, and what they don't believe and why, can you see his mistake?

[Back To List] |

[Back To List]