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Atheism is more than simply ‘non-belief’

May 19, 2014

I often encounter many atheists who claim that atheism is simply ‘non-belief’ in god(s) and that this statement contains no positive statements of ‘belief’.

I’ve written a few responses to that over time including this on The Red A and this on Atheist TV and another on how absence of belief can motivate.

The debate that these posts have generated has been quite substantial and this post is an attempt to further the conversation a little further by proposing that any belief in atheism (or non-belief in god) is associated with a collection of principles and assumptions. These principles and assumptions in turn form a series of ‘positive’ statements of belief about the world and the universe in which we inhabit. For example I propose that all atheists must believe these positive statements:

  1. The universe came into existence though no external agent (possibly it was spawned from an eternal multiverse).
  2. The universe self-organised to form galaxies, stars, solar systems and planets, again with no external agency.
  3. Inorganic (non-living) material became organic (living) material when life on earth began and this event occurred by natural processes alone.
  4. The diversity and complexity of life on earth came about by random mutation and natural selection alone.
  5. Morality is socially constructed and there is no ultimate right or wrong.
  6. There is no ultimate justice or judgement in the universe.
  7. A human being is of equal intrinsic value to a tree or rock.
  8. In time the Earth will be consumed by the Sun and all remnants of Earth and human civilization will be obliterated (unless humans manage to escape the Earth and live somewhere else).
  9. Jesus was not resurrected from the dead.
  10. Jesus did not perform miracles.
  11. Jesus was wrong when he made claims to be God.
  12. (another point added 21/5) – Humans do not survive death in any form – death is the end of human consciousness.

These all flow directly from atheism. I think that every atheist (regardless of their political or sociological perspective) must affirm that these statements are true.

This post is not to offer a discussion on the relative merits of each individual statement, but merely to suggest that all atheists must believe these points and thus that atheism is more than simply ‘non-belief in god(s)’.

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12 Comments
  1. Ron permalink

    Aside from spelling, pronunciation and etymology, dictionaries exist for the express purpose of assigning meanings to common words.

    Theism means belief in gods. Atheism, from the greek ‘atheos’ (godless, without gods), means lack of belief in gods. In other words, theism/atheism addresses only one particular topic: belief in the existence of gods. That’s it. Assigning additional meanings or concepts to these words only creates confusion.

    • Thanks Ron and I generally agree. Certainly atheism means lack of belief – yet this claim then must entail further claims in other areas where the agency of God is otherwise assumed i.e. origins, morality, destiny and the historical Jesus. Hence any atheist claim must assume no agency of God in these areas.

  2. Atheism is only one thing.

    Atheists, being humans, more than likely have positions on multiple issues.

    That may be where your confusion comes from.

  3. The following claim is coherent and sensible, but also negates claims 1 and 2.
    “I do not have enough evidence to have belief in god nor to claim to understand cosmogony or cosmology”
    3 is a misunderstanding of what it means to be “organic”
    Number 4 could fall way along analogous lines to 1 and 2.
    There are plenty of atheists who believe in objective morality. And plenty of other who don’t see how religion leads to objective right and wrong.
    7 is ridiculous. You’re equating atheism to not having a system of values.
    8 is a prediction within astrophysics.
    9 and 10 equate atheism with not believing in the supernatural (which is not entirely true)
    11 does not see the difference between “is lying” and “there is not enough evidence to evaluate”. It also does not accept other interpretations, like metaphor and allegory.

    There is simply not 1 claim in your list of 11 that I would be comfortable saying is necessarily true or true for all atheists.

    • Thanks for the comments – really appreciate them.
      The statements 1 and 2 are fundamentally philosophical in nature. The point is that no agent was necessary. Hence ignorance of cosmology fails to overcome the fact that an atheist must claim that the universe was created and organised itself without an agent.
      Can you help me clarify what you mean by number 3? Perhaps my point is clumsily expressed, I’m trying to say that inorganic (non-living) matter gave rise to organic (living) matter. I’ll adjust the post and hopefully that will clarify things?

      Your point on morality is interesting. Can you point me to an atheist who believes in an ‘objective’ absolute morality?
      I think you misunderstand point 7. My point is that in the atheist universe there is no ‘system of values’. The universe is just there and that’s it!
      Yes, 8 is a prediction – but is it not a reasonable one?
      Your comments on 8 and 9 are also intriguing, perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but can you explain how an atheist can believe in the supernatural?
      Point 11 made no reference to ‘lying’ it states that he was just wrong.

      Thanks for responding but I’m interested in clarification of some of your intriguing comments. Thanks for commenting.

      • It makes sense to lack belief in both universal origins and organisation as well as I a god. Think more deeply about the difference between lacking a belief and beliefing in the negation of a claim. Only if one believes there is no god does it make sense to assert that one necessarily believes in an autonomous universe. The post suggests you understand the difference.
        Organic chemicals are carbon containing chemicals. This includes amino acids, lipids and many other chemicals. This is true regardless of whether the chemical is part of a living system. Our current understanding is that organic chemicals massively predate life.
        There are differences between morality, justice, fairness and equity. There is also a difference between objective and absolute. I believe in objective morality because I believe morality is a description of the effects of intention actions on wellbeing. That is not the same as believing the universe balances for equity or that justice must happen.
        Being a reasonable prediction within astrophysics is not the same as being a necessary belief within a positive worldview (which is the argument you are trying to make).

        Reincarnation, souls, ghosts and magic are all possible beliefs without asserting a god. I am happy you have confused confused atheism with rationalism, but it is still a confusion.

  4. Rob, others have already commented here and I agree with them.
    Ron has put quite succinctly the point I’ve been telling you in earlier post comments. Attaching all of this additional loaded baggage to a word with a simple meaning perpetuates incorrect stereotypes and doesn’t advance understanding.

    I also commented on the previous post and made the point there that your assertions are not correct.
    It is not correct to say “…every atheist … must affirm that these statements are true….”.
    Every atheist does not affirm your 11 statements to be true.

    Allalt has addressed your 11 points, and here’s my view.
    I’ll save your point 1 for the end. Let’s start with points 2, 3, 4 and 8. These are somewhat over-simplified summaries of the physical nature of our origins (and the fate of the earth), but most atheists I know – the ones that bother to think about them at all, that is – generally agree.
    However, one doesn’t need to be an atheist to accept these apparent facts. You can be a progressive, scientifically-trained Christian and accept them as well. Therefore these 4 points (out of your 11) just aren’t characteristics specific to atheism. Hence they aren’t relevant to your argument.

    Points 5 and 6 refer to moral absolutism and are arguably two branches of the same point. Those that do research in the field of psychology and/or neuroscience with an interest in human moral behaviour would probably argue that your point 5 is incorrect, in that moral behaviour clearly has a biological component to it – it isn’t simply a social construct. However, those that are interested in the question of moral absolutism would likely agree that the basis for human moral behaviour is entirely naturalistic, and that there are indeed no universal moral absolutes that exist outside of human reality. (This isn’t necessarily the same as objective morality as described by the likes of Sam Harris.)
    Again, to atheists, this is just another ‘so what?’ moment. Our human societies are flawed and we often see horrifying human behaviour and mistakes of judgement. But modern secular Australia (for example) isn’t doing too badly with the rule of law, which pays no significant deference at all to any of God’s so-called moral absolutes. We’ve come up with those rules by ourselves.
    The implications of no moral absolutes matter only to theists, who are concerned about getting into heaven when they die.

    Your point 7 is a little weird, and absolutely is not agreed with – at least at face value – by any atheist I know! The trouble you have with this one is in defining what you mean by ‘intrinsic value’. Intrinsic value is a concept that is only relevant to humans. You can be an atheist and value a human being over a tree or a rock.

    Points 9, 10 and 11 might be common to atheists, but as I’ve stated before, trying to make a factual case for the resurrection or divine miracles is a pointless exercise (and for me at least, a thoroughly uninteresting discussion). To atheists, these 3 points aren’t significantly separate, and these particular ‘consequences of atheism’ (to paraphrase you) have no significance to atheists themselves.

    I left your point 1 until the end because it is one of the most interesting, and poorly understood (by believers and non-believers alike), metaphysical questions that perhaps everyone tries to grapple with at some point in their lives. Well, perhaps theists not so much, if they can be satisfied with the Sunday School teacher’s explanation that “God did it”.
    I don’t accept your summary: “The universe (or the multiverse that preceded it) came into existence by no external cause (or is eternal).”
    This is a gross and inaccurate oversimplification of how we understand our universal origins. In fact, no-one really understands this. The statement “no external cause” seems to be loaded with assumptions that most mortals can’t even begin to process. If virtual particles colliding with each other with quantum probabilities didn’t exist before the Big Bang, then arguably they must have been external to it.
    We can imagine these, and perhaps even other “external causes” that might have given rise to this origin (indeed theists have and do), but we have no consistent frame of reference to know. However, we have no justification for leaping to a conclusion that an external intelligence was required.
    The point is, there is so little understood about universal physical origin that it is unhelpful to assert what (you think) all atheists believe about it.

    In summary, you need to accept what you’ve been told about the meaning of the word atheism, and move on from it.
    I suggest you pick a single issue at a time (and please – not the bloody resurrection again!), and work with that. Don’t start by assuming and asserting what all atheists ‘believe’ about it. Ask them. Then challenge.

    • Paul. Always appreciate your comments (sometimes I just wish we can have a coffee and talk through the issues). But anyway, I have responded to some of Allalt’s rather intriguing comments. I’m interested in your statements as well.

      I’m glad that you agree on 2,3,4 and 8. It’s nice to agree on something 🙂 They are meant to be simplified, if you can suggest ways of improving them, I’d be happy to hear that. Although I’d just want to suggest that an orthodox Christian can’t accept them because they imply no agency of God. I’d venture to propose that ‘progressive’ Christians are effectively atheists!

      It sounds like you’re agreeing with me in point 5 where you claim that there are no moral absolutes. Even if there were a biological component to morality it’s hard to escape Hume’s is/ought dilemma – which is the big problem with trying to develop a scientific account of morality. So given that there are no moral absolutes, how can you frame point 5 clearer? Perhaps ‘socially constructed’ is not the best way of putting it. But my point is clear, that all atheists must believe that there is no binding absolute right and wrong. (the ‘so what’ factor is important here, but that is secondary to my argument here – I’m trying to show that atheism does have ‘positive’ beliefs).

      I disagree with your comment in point 7. The key word is ‘intrinsic’. Certainly atheists value trees over rocks etc, but to the universe which exists and will carry on whether or not there are trees, or rocks or people it doesn’t care. We ascribe value to things, but in the atheist universe nothing has any intrinsic value.

      Points about Jesus are taken, but as I mentioned, ‘not caring’ is different from whether or not it’s real.

      In terms of my point of universe origins – perhaps my original point was poorly worded. How could the origin of the universe be described in a simple statement from an atheist perspective? There must include something about agency (or non-agency) – in fact I think I’ll modify the statement in light of your comments (thanks for clarifying). I did try to include something about the universe (or multiverse) being eternal which seems to be the only alternative to it beginning at a particular point in time.

      Would be keen to hear your thoughts. Thanks for contributing!
      Given that

  5. >sometimes I just wish we can have a coffee and talk through the issues…
    Sure – the next time you’re in Sydney…! Or I’m in Melbourne. The former is more likely in the short term.

    On the subject of origins, abiogenesis, and evolution by natural selection, I suspect no atheist believes that an intelligent agent was behind these processes. Evidence points strongly to these things arising ‘naturalistically’; ie., no supernatural force involved or required. Some progressive Christians reconcile evolution at least, as arising ‘naturalistically’ given that God has already set the initial conditions for it to occur.

    On the issue of ‘intrinsic value’, we’re actually arguing about the word value, but I suggest you come back to this in a separate post, because a response here would be too long and distracting.

    >But my point is clear, that all atheists must believe that there is no binding absolute right and wrong… Nearly, but not quite. Not believing they exist doesn’t equal believing that they don’t exist. You should already be familiar with this logic! 😉

    >I’m trying to show that atheism does have ‘positive’ beliefs…
    …And this is the nub of problem, Rob. To illustrate, try to answer what are the ‘positive’ beliefs or consequences that arise from your non-belief in Vishnu?

    Individual atheists may have their own, individual positive beliefs. But atheism itself, does not. Atheism writes no stories. It makes no assumptions and leaps to no conclusions.

  6. dave permalink

    No, you fail on all points. When it comes to the scientific statements about the nature of the universe, I don’t “believe” anything. I am aware that scientific experimentation has proven certain truths i.e. earth exists in a group of other planets orbiting a sun etc. As to ‘evidence’ of a Big Bang, well that’s just interesting. It doesn’t require a belief. I don’t care how the universe came into being other than passing curiosity.

    As for you statements about Jesus, apart from your fictional bible there is no historical evidence for Jesus or any of your claims about him. Hence why he is never the subject of a curriculum in history classes unlike tons of other famous historical people we do study. So I don’t ‘believe’ he didn’t perform miracles any more than I don’t ‘believe’ my Xmas presents aren’t delivered by Santa. I ‘know’ both to be fairy tales.

    Regarding morality, this appears to be a trait inherent in all social groups regardless of whether they had your bible or not. Early missionaries discovered tribes that had morality and historical evidence exists for several civilisations that had laws similar to judeo-christian ‘rules’ long before Jesus. It is reasonable to assume and there is evidence to demonstrate that morality is a socially learned trait and in fact non-religious societies demonstrate better morality than religious ones.

    So please don’t confuse your belief requirements to help you deal with all the contradictions and logical flaws in your fictional construct of reality with me having to believe the opposite. Not believing your version of events doesn’t require any belief in some other version of events. Its only you who chooses to dogmatically believe in something, the rest of us are happy to just go about our day being part of this wonderful mystical event called life without requiring some kind of fairy tale to make sense of living or try and pretend something happens to us after we die.

    • Dave. Thanks for commenting. I’m not sure you’ve quite demonstrated how I’ve failed an all points. I find your comment about not ‘believing’ anything to be quite interesting and contradicts your next sentence – i.e. science has not ‘proven’ anything (in the same way that mathematics has proven certain laws). Science proceeds by trust based on evidence, hence all scientific theories are in some sense provisional. Some theories are certainly very trustworthy e.g. gravity, etc, buy they are not ever ‘proofs’, they require belief. Regarding your views on the Big Bang, surely ignorance and apathy are not replacements for rational and philosophical thought are they?

      Regarding Jesus, can you please demonstrate how the Bible is fictional? The only way to claim there is ‘no’ historical evidence for Jesus is to ignore all the evidence there is! This video might help: http://youtu.be/Li8ee82Z-XY as might this one: http://youtu.be/l0czXJl51TI

      Your comments on morality are interesting and in many ways confirm point 5 on my list, which means I’m not quite sure how I can be wrong on all points.

      Can you please outline exactly what the contradictions and logical flaws of my fictional construct of reality are? Although, that is away from the topic raised in this post. This post was about the logical necessity of atheism – very little about my own views. And I do disagree, I believe that atheists must believe these things (and many of them are binary options, with theism being the explanation of the alternative).

      Thanks for commenting and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

      Rob

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