What Atheism is and is not

I’m not the loudest, most abrasive atheist in the world.  I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people who know me in person have no idea that I am an atheist at all.  It simply isn’t something I go out of my way to talk about.  Mostly because I don’t like arguing and, from what experiences I have had, religion is something best left out of most polite discourse.

Still, if the subject comes up naturally, or I am asked, sure, I will talk about atheism.  If someone wants to know what my beliefs are, or what I don’t believe in, I’m happy to explain.  But in this case, I feel compelled to write something because I am tired of hearing educated people misrepresent what atheism is so they can score a quick point with their social circle.

My friend Thad is a Mormon, and he recently posted a link to his Google+ page of a Mormon testimony as written by geophysicist Jeff Wynn.  Thad and I have had great conversations about Mormonism, his beliefs, and how they have been misconstrued by the public.  We have had disagreements over matters of faith, certainly, but it has always been respectful, and that is why I’ve appreciated the dialogue so much.  But Wynn’s comments disappointed me because they are so clearly uneducated:

In my junior year as a physics major at Berkeley, I realized that the belief system of an atheist had at least as many unproven assumptions as—and fewer explanations than—the belief system of any adherent of faith. Explain the Anthropic Principle, or what preceded the Big Bang. The unprovable idea of a Multiverse? That won’t even pass for a theory, much less a scientific hypothesis—it’s untestable, so by definition is not science.

So which is the more assumptive, i.e., non-scientific belief system?

Jeff Wynn is a fine scientist, I’m sure.  But what he exhibits here is lazy intellectualism.  Atheism is the rejection of belief in Gods.  Atheism is not itself a belief system, nor does it have a set of worldviews one must adhere to or assume.  It is, in fact, the null hypothesis.

I am an atheist for the same reason most any other atheist is – I’ve examined the arguments for the existence of God and find them unconvincing and, often, logically invalid.  Show me evidence that God exists, and I’ll change my mind.  Can the same be said of a believer?  Science has been explaining the things God was said to be responsible for for years, and yet their belief persists.  I have many Christian friends, for instance, who say that their beliefs are a matter of faith and, as such, they will not change their mind no matter what the evidence says.  Isn’t this the very definition of being close-minded?

It is certainly true that I don’t know what happened before the Big Bang.  Neither does Mr. Wynn.  I can say that scientists are working on it, and may eventually have an answer.  But for him to therefore insert a God without evidence is lazy, and yes, exactly the type of unproven assumption he appears to dislike.  It is the same, tired “God of the Gaps” argument that theists have been clinging to for years.

As far as the Anthropic principle and ideas about a Multiverse go, I don’t know enough to comment much on them.  I know the Anthropic principle is more of a philosophical argument, and that the Multiverse idea is one that is being highly contested and debated in scientific circles.  Wynn makes the mistake of assuming these scientific ideas are presented as tenets of atheism and then railing against them to make his case.  Not true.  But then, it’s much easier to knock a Straw Man down, isn’t it?

Wynn, of course, is not alone in misconstruing atheism to hold themselves up.  Many Christians I have known say such silly things as, “If you’re an atheist then you can’t have morality”  Or “Oh, you’re an atheist, so you must believe in nothing.”  It’s all very weak, but a testament to their lack of understanding of what atheism is.

Lately I have been a little more open about my thoughts on God and religion.  I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve at least taken the time to educate myself and can defend my position of non-belief.  If we’re going to discuss these matters, each of us should have an understanding of the other’s point of view, wouldn’t you agree?  So all I ask of people like Jeff Wynn is that they find out what atheism is before they open their mouth and remove all doubt of their ignorance on the subject.  If you don’t want to read informed articles or books on the topic and would prefer asking someone who considers themselves to be an atheist, I’d be happy to help.  Just drop me a line.  I’m not going to argue with you or go out of my way to convince you that you’re wrong.  I’m much too easygoing for that.

Okay, that’s enough out of me.  Good seeing you.

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4 thoughts on “What Atheism is and is not

  1. Hebrews 11:1 – "[F]aith is the realization of what is hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."Faith is a central tenant and a virtue of Christianity. Faith is also something everyone has to some extent. I have never counted all of the people that live in the United States but I have faith that the census numbers are more or less accurate. Religious faith is about answering big-picture questions. Answering big-picture questions is also something atheists do. You have faith that you have weighed the evidence correctly and that your reasoning is logical that there is no proof of the existence of a god or gods. So saying that people keeping their faith as being the definition of close-mindedness is inaccurate. People who have true faith in god should have subjected that faith to their human ability to reason. If humans have the ability to reason it would be because god created them with the ability to reason and thus god would want them to subject their faith in him to reason. I need to sum up my thoughts before I ramble on forever…C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) – "If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones — bad, muddled and out of date ideas."I formulated my opinions by referring to my copy of Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues by William C. Mattison III (PhD. University of Notre Dame and assistant professor of theology at The Catholic University of America at the time of the pressing, no idea what he is up to right now.)I am also not religious but I do accept that (some)people do have faith through reason and that has been a tenant of Christian theology for quite a long time, at least since St. Augustine and even more so after St. Thomas Aquinas.

  2. That's not quite what I said. I said it is the definition of close-mindedness when one says they refuse to change their mind based on the evidence. I also said I would change my mind once good evidence for the existence of God is presented. Personally, I'm simply not convinced by the arguments of First Cause, or arguments from ignorance, for instance. The first basically says the universe must have a cause, and we call that cause God. I ask what caused God and, of course, the answer is God is the one thing that didn't have a cause. So I'm not impressed by an argument that can pick and choose what is and is not subject to its rules. And then the other argument says that, because no one can disprove God, God must exist. But that's silly. I think we're both pretty sure invisible shaolin ninja squirrels don't exist either, but no one can prove they didn't move my socks last night.Faith, like Carl Sagan wrote, is belief in the absence of evidence. I think the quote from Hebrews basically says about the same thing. But I don't see how faith helps us answer big-picture questions. It doesn't answer any questions, actually. It just gives us something to feel better in the absence of knowing. I am definitely willing to suspend judgement on the God question, because I'm not saying I am 100% certain there is no God. I'm fairly certain though, just because science continues to explain all the things God was said to be responsible for. So I'll hold out hope that the invisible, timeless wizard who lives in the sky shows up. I just won't hold my breath or bother praying in the meantime, that's all.Gotta go! My pie is ready!

  3. Null hypothesis is exactly right. At the most basic level, all an atheist is is someone who isn't a theist. That ranges from the person who is most firmly convinced that no type of deity is possible to the person who was raised by wolves, and has never heard of or imagined the concept of deities. It makes no claims and requires no beliefs.

  4. I agree, William. I had someone recently tell me that atheists have different denominations. Can you believe that? Seems like another way to try and make it sound like atheism is a religion, too. Sneaky trick, but wrong. Thanks for reading.

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