Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Monday 19 January 2015

The Unthinking Atheist

There's a peculiar phenomena I see frequently on the interweb - people who think that because they are atheists, they must be better people than those of a religious leaning. These people believe that any sort of faith is the source of all evil, and that if only everyone would just stop believing things the world would be a better, happier place.

Such people range from the very, very stupid sort who can't spell, to the extremely erudite and learned (i.e. Richard Dawkins). All of them share the conviction not only that there are no supernatural deities, but that no-one else should believe in them either. While most atheists simply go about their lives not believing in magical deities, this most peculiar variety spend an awful lot of time trying to unconvert people from their faith and frequently hurling vicious abuse at anyone who dares question them.

There are two quite unrelated triggers for this rant/essay. One is that I've just finished reading The Science of Discworld IV. For readers unfamiliar with the series, they're not books about the astronavigation skills of world turtles - rather, they use Discworld as a sort of lens through which to examine real-world science. And in this instance there's also a strong philosophical leaning (which is considerably more interesting than in the previous two books) that directly relates to much of what I want to blather on about here.

Obligatory world-turtle shot.
I thought about writing a full review of the book, but it's only one-half of the trigger. The other is the horrific killings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (I'll only be tangentially referring to that though, and, lest there be any doubt let me state JE SUIS CHARLIE). So I'll be referring to SODIV frequently, but I've got my own ideas to explore as well.

What I want to raise attention to is partially the abusive, hate-filled attitude of certain atheists (a provisional label that I'll return to later) , and partially the closely-related issue that many atheists feel they no longer need to question whether religion is a good thing. For them, it is an absolute certainty : any religious ideas, even those which are very moderate, are inherently bad and must be stamped out. That they are so disgusted with religion that they feel free to openly hurl hatred at its participants is, err, testament (see what I did there ?) to their fundamentalist non-faith. Yet their unquestioning insistence that religion in any form is wholly bad, whilst they simultaneously claim the blind faith they suppose is required by religion is a major part of its many, many flaws, looks very strange indeed.

Obviously - but it doesn't hurt to emphasis this - I'm not talking about the vast majority of atheists here. Certainly my (ostensibly) atheist friends outnumber my religious or even agnostic associates considerably. Yet, bewilderingly, the sheer number of people who hold religion as a scapegoat for all the world's ills is simply too large to attribute them to being the occasional internet troll. No, unthinking atheism is a thing, and it needs to be dealt with. In principle, this could also apply to agnosticism as well, but I've yet to see a single example of this in practise. Anyway "The Unthinking Atheist" is a sexier title.

In this first half I'll examine some mistaken ideas people have about atheism being somehow a more logical, natural position. I'll also be putting in a stalwart defence of agnosticism, because it's my blog and I can if I want to. However, if sophistry and petty linguistic disputes aren't your thing, feel free to scroll down to the second section, wherein I tell Johnny Antitheist to take his bigotry somewhere else. You'll miss the bit about the invisible goat though, which would be a shame.

Atheism and anti-theism

SODIV makes a very eloquent case that science is not a belief system, "it's a disbelief system". Which is true. I've already expounded my views on science and wacky ideas at length here, so I won't repeat them, but the opening chapter of SODIV pretty much repeats a lot of what I said. What they develop much further is a passionate case for atheism being fundamentally different to a religious viewpoint, and they argue persuasively that science and atheism are not alternative religions :

"A UFO believer, for example, may argue that not believing in UFOs is merely another kind of belief. Namely, a belief that UFOs don't exist. However, when virtually all of the alleged "evidence" for UFOs turns out to be mistaken, or false, the contrary position isn't a matter of belief at all. Zero belief in UFOs is not the same as 100% belief in the non-existence of UFOs. Zero belief is an absence of belief, not an opposed form of belief."

Now, as far as science goes, you won't get any argument from me. But can we apply this to atheism ? I'm not convinced, as we shall see in a moment. The authors make another very important point, but, curiously, fail to examine its implications in any detail. They note that some scientists are absolutely convinced about things they really have no business being convinced about :

"There are some who like certainty; they like to know just where they are. They tend to get their knowledge, their beliefs, from authoritative sources : the Bible, the Q'ran, textbooks [my emphasis], or the practises of their profession. They know that those who disagree with them are wrong, and sometimes evil.
Over the years we have found, somewhat to our surprise, that many scientists are also like this... There are biologists who know that the most important feature of any organism is its DNA... There are physicists who know that the Universe is made up of these particles, with these constants and mechanisms."

Here we have examples of scientists accepting non-religious ideas on faith. Yet, what the authors only barely hint at is the fact that neither science nor, more particularly, atheism, are shields against blind faith. Somehow, they have failed to realise that while a genuine total lack of belief is possible, it is also absolutely possible to hold (in a sense) the opposite stance.

If there is good evidence either way, then a belief that UFOs don't exist is subtly, but importantly, different from a lack of belief that UFOs exist. Proponents of the first stance will seek to refute any evidence of UFOs - photographs of flying saucers, they immediately say, must be fakes - whereas those holding the second viewpoint will be persuaded either way - they will (or at least could) consider carefully if a photograph stands up to expert analysis and only then form an opinion.

Agnosticism is very explicitly this lack of belief - it is skeptical (that is, inquiring) of claims both for and against. Atheism is much more of a grey area. Often it too is, more or lesssimply a lack of belief - many atheists just aren't interested in the subject. And that's fine. For some, it's the marginally stronger statement that God probably does not exist, and that's as far as they go. But for many others, it's not skeptical at all : it's a form of denial, an anti-theism, a resolute conviction that any religious ideology is not only wrong, but a Bad Thing.

Is atheism a religion ?

Antitheists (a term that is badly needed in common usage) deny this. They claim that they're merely atheists, that they don't have a belief system and that they're different to those of a religious ilk. Actually, there's a whole spectrum of possibilities. Certainly, the authors of SODIV do not fall into the hate-mongering variety I'll return to later, nor are they unthinking - they have considered the evidence carefully (one of them trained as a Rabbi) and found it wanting. Their conclusion is that God doesn't exist, but not necessarily that all religious beliefs are bad. However, they're utterly convinced that their conclusion must be the right one, which is rather stronger than their professed claim merely not to believe in God. They're also none too satisfied with agnosticism :

"Many religious people try to reject atheism as another form of belief, with the natural position being what they call agnosticism. They then interpret that stance as the view that the chances of God existing are about 50-50. So by being neutral, you are already halfway towards agreeing with them."

Worryingly, that's the only mention of agnosticism in the whole book. Yet I doubt most agnostics would agree the chances of God existing are 50-50. The whole point of being agnostic is that you don't know. That doesn't necessarily mean you think the chances are even (though some do), it can instead mean you think you can't even assess the probability. They continue :

"The default is to disbelieve. An atheist is not someone who believes God doesn't exist. It is someone who doesn't believe that God does exist."

Sir Terry, were it up to me, I'd take all of that hack Rowling's ill-gotten gains and deliver her fortune to you in cash in a great big truck. But you're dead wrong about this one. Firstly, a lack of belief (by itself) is widely accepted to be agnosticism, while someone who lacks belief in God and also believes God doesn't exist is called an atheist. I'm sorry, but that's just what the words mean. Redefining them in this particular way is a big mistake, which I'll return to in a moment.

Secondly, the ignorance of the existence of antitheists is a major problem : failing to acknowledge them undermines a lot of the rhetoric about atheism being the more rational position. It might be if atheism were really a true lack of belief - but it isn't, that's agnosticism ! And I agree, that should indeed be the default. Once evidence is presented (whatever kind of evidence that may be), we may form an opinion and, if we are so inclined, switch from agnosticism to theism/antitheism.

Suppose I were to tell you that there is an invisible hairy goat who lives on my head and farms mushrooms. You'd think I'd gone stark raving mad, obviously. But, until I told you about said goat, you were agnostic about its existence - you totally lacked any belief in a mushroom-farming invisible goat. The instance I told you about it, however, you became an atheist with respect to the head-dwelling goat : you believe it doesn't exist, maintaining agnosticism would be crazy. And in this case, your belief would be entirely, 100% correct. That's the point. Belief isn't inherently wrong or irrational. There's nothing inherently wrong with atheism, but there's no point pretending it isn't a belief.

Sometimes believing in things is right, sometimes it's wrong. Sheer belief neither makes a thing true nor untrue.

Many atheists choose to dismiss the possibility of God existing as you can't prove a negative - a sensible, rational philosophy, if you don't think there's any evidence. But there are also antitheists who are better described as being people who BELIEVE, with the same righteous fire normally associated with religious fanatics, that God does not exist. These people are convinced that everyone else must share their view and are on a mission to unconvert people. They have no problem in attacking anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. Just as a Creationist will dismiss any evidence of evolution, so antitheists will dismiss any suggestion that religion has ever contributed anything to society.

So the question, "Is atheism a religion ?" actually has a simple answer. Many (most) atheists aren't religious at all, nor is it necessarily a religious viewpoint. But for some of the more extreme antitheists, it absolutely is. It is this small but significant subset which concerns me here. Atheism itself is not a religion, but some people are giving a damn good try at making antitheism into one. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck.... And I don't mean the sort of mainstream liberal-socialist duck- err, religion common in modern Europe (but for some reason much rarer in the US) - rather, the non-faith of antitheism is usually much closer to the extremist fundamentalism they profess to oppose most vehemently of all.


As is no doubt already apparent, definitions matter. It should also be obvious that, as usual, things are better defined as a continuous spectrum rather than discrete categories, but we do need categories to simplify things. SODIV have, by their extreme conviction that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of deities, thrown a spanner in the works. Their definition of "atheist", which is far closer to the conventional "agnostic", is not what's usually understood by the term, which is more like "antitheist".

Now, as an agnostic, I admit to some bias against using "atheist" to mean "lack of belief". I greatly prefer the standard, widely-accepted definitions :
  • Fanatical theist : Someone who believes in the existence of a deity or deities and insists that their existence is a certainty.
  • Theist : Someone who believes in the existence of a deity or deities.
  • Agnostic : Someone who lacks belief in both the existence and non-existence of deities.
  • Atheist : Someone who believes deities do not exist.
  • Antitheist : Someone who believes deities do not, and cannot, exist.
SODIV''s definition of atheism is a hair's breath from agnostic. It's true that as an atheist, you lack belief in deities. But if you don't qualify that with the additional statement "and I believe they don't exist", then you're for all intents and purposes an agnostic. Atheists, in my experience, do hold this second statement to be true - removing it would make them agnostics, which neither they nor agnostics want. And the reason we have separate terms goes far beyond pedantic hair-splitting.

The thing is, redefining atheist to only mean a lack of belief is highly disingenuous : it implies that it's only possible to believe in things, not against them. This means you've effectively declared the non-existence of deities to be such an absolute certainty that you can't even acknowledge other points of view. Which makes you an antitheist rather than an atheist in the usual sense. And yet few atheists would say they are absolutely certain no deities exist (see below), so I think the standard definitions are better. They certainly involve less semantics and, as a bonus, define a nice clear spectrum of positions. I'll be using them throughout the rest of the post.

Even SODIV acknowledge that, unlike the case of an invisible goat, they can't disprove religious beliefs :

"Science can't disprove religious beliefs. Nothing can. That's the problem... But the inability of science to disprove religious beliefs does not make it a belief system... When presented with extraordinary hypotheses, disbelief is not the opposite of belief. It is the default, neutral stance : "I'm not interested in playing this game, it makes no sense."

There's that ambiguous word "disbelief" again. If they mean "lack belief", then I agree - but that's agnosticism ! If they mean, "believe they do not exist", then that's atheism, but I don't think that should be the default stance, because it certainly isn't neutral. For some reason I cannot fathom, they seem hell-bent on ignoring agnosticism whilst desperately trying to promote its virtues. Which is a shame, because if they'd understood what agnosticism means they I could have made this post a lot shorter.

Antitheism vs Atheism vs Agnosticism

Relatively few people are convinced by agnosticism as an alternative to atheism. One argument often made against it is that by analogy, it makes no sense to be agnostic about whether Santa Claus exists. And that's true, just as with the goat... but in that case there's a far more sensible, falsifiable alternative argument : it was your parents putting the presents under the tree the whole time. So of course it makes no sense to be agnostic about Santa, unless you're six and only just beginning to understand how the world works.

I mentioned earlier that agnosticism is a sensible position if there's no evidence, or equal evidence both ways, with regard to an issue. Now, I don't propose to tell you if that's the case for the existence of God* or not. Make your own decision with regards to the evidence. If you think it supports God's existence, go ahead and believe. If you think the evidence is against God, be an atheist. If you're not sure, here's why I favour agnosticism.

* Remembering that there are many definitions of "God". The kind of people who take every word of the Bible literally are simply nuts - a classic antitheist mistake is to assume that this is what all religious people do. Certainly there are better, falsifiable alternatives to a God who constantly intervenes to cause mass flooding and hurricanes and what have you. But deities in general, such as a prime mover ? That is a much stronger, less convincing statement.

Santa Claus is a poor analogy. A better one would be something much more controversial, like climate change - at least, climate change science as it was 30 years ago, or as it is perceived by the public today. Scientists 30 years ago were very uncertain as to whether humans were causing global warming. There are several positions anyone could have chosen at the time :
1) Agnostic : Wait and see. More evidence is needed. Believe nothing.
2) Atheist / theist : Choose to believe that humans are not the cause of global warming.
3) Antitheist / zealous theist : Choose to believe that humans are not and cannot be the cause of global warming.

Do I need a reason for this ? No, I don't think so.
Obviously, I've given the theistic perspectives the wrong opinions (and given them the same as the atheist/antithesit) for dramatic effect. Of course, it's conceivable they would choose to believe the exact opposite - but at the time, this would be a completely arbitrary decision and for the wrong reasons. Admittedly, I'm not sure what the equivalent theistic position is with regard to Al Gore.

The important thing is that antitheism and extreme theism both reach "certain" conclusions, in their own minds. Their system of thought is essentially the same - it's based on what they want to believe, not the actual evidence. When evidence is lacking, the agnostic position is the most rational. Of course, both the more moderate theist and atheist will be willing to change their minds if sufficient evidence is presented - those are perfectly sensible viewpoints too. But zealous theists and antitheists will not, and those people are the dangerous ones.

Ultimately, even agnosticism is another opinion - an opinion that the evidence is equal, or cannot be judged. However, it's very rare (verging on "never actually happens") for an agnostic to say, "I'm uncertain and I think everyone else should be too." Far more often it is confined to being a personal point of view : "I can't make up my mind about this, so I don't see why I should try and change anyone else's." In contrast, someone who is convinced by evidence to hold a firm opinion one way or another is far more likely to want to persuade others to share that opinion.

People naturally assess evidence in different ways, hence they reach different conclusions. For some people, being a theist is the only view that makes sense (if they've had a religious experience, for example). For others, the concept of a supernatural deity running the show just doesn't cut it, and so these people can't be anything other than atheists. Agnostics, meanwhile, are content to remain uncertain given insufficient evidence. To me, this is better than atheism because it completely avoids making what I see as an irrational judgement. Of course, anyone who really does think the evidence is actually against the existence of deities should be an atheist.

But evidence, of course, is not proof. When something is proven beyond all doubt, it makes no sense to believe otherwise. If God decided to raise the dead tomorrow, no sane atheist would cling to their beliefs - but antitheists would. It's harder to disprove the religious beliefs, but if, say, science could find a simple alternative explanation to God (i.e. to explain why there is something rather than nothing), a lot of theists would abandon their faith - except for the most zealous. The moderates on both sides are people worth engaging with - the most extreme are beyond all hope. The problem isn't with people having opinions, it's people who've mistaken their opinions for facts.

Or as Stephen Hawking put it : "Ignorance allows you to learn. Knowledge does not."*. If you've decided to believe that deities doesn't exist, then you've closed your mind to the possibility that they do. If you're agnostic, you are no more committed to believing in them than atheists, but you're also not denying the alternative. In that sense, agnosticism is the most skeptical and inquiring of the possible viewpoints.

* That is why doubt (unless it becomes all-consuming), particularly self-doubt, is not a weakness, nor necessarily a state of fear of uncertainty, but a tremendous strength and even a source of comfort.

Agnosticism doesn't say that people should or shouldn't believe. All it says is that given the current evidence (or lack therefore), anyone who claims they are certain of the existence (or lack thereof) of God may be mistaken. It doesn't say their beliefs are definitely wrong, only that they're wrong to be certain of their beliefs. To me, this is quite different - and far more accommodating - than actually pronouncing judgement on the beliefs themselves. Saying, "you're certainly wrong" is very different from, "you're wrong to be certain".

Well, after that extremely lengthy preamble, I think we're finally ready to get to the heart of the matter.

APPENDIX : Feel free to skip ahead unless you're an enthusiast and really enjoy debating the nature of atheism.

In a very interesting discussion, a couple of points were raised on whether atheism is a belief :
1) Re : the mushroom-farming invisible goat - isn't that like saying you can believe in tables ? Your definition of belief could apply to anything, making it meaningless.
Hopefully readers won't get that impression when reading this in its proper context. Of course you can't believe in tables, because their existence is a certainty. But you can believe in things for which evidence is lacking which are later proved to be true. Hence the point stands that sheer belief neither makes a thing true nor untrue.

2) It's a logical absurdity to say you can believe that things don't exist. It's like trying to prove a negative; you can't distinguish between things which have no existence. Therefore you can only lack belief that they do exist.
I never really established what the questioner was driving at here. Belief is not necessarily at all logical. You might not be able to prove a negative, but you can still believe one. And certainly it's possible for the human brain to believe in specific non-existent things. Another way to phrase it, if you really insist that belief has to be in something, would be to say that someone who believes God does not exist is someone who believes God is fictional.

After thinking it over, I wonder if the questioner is a non-native English speaker slightly misinterpreting the word "exist". This is colloquially understood to mean, "have physical reality" - if I tell a child that Santa doesn't exist, they will know I mean, "Santa is imaginary". These two statements are identical in contemporary English. I would speculate that the questioner was trying to use "exist" in a very much stronger sense, to include the concept as well as the thing itself. In that case, telling a child that Santa doesn't exist is obviously a logical absurdity, because of course the concept of Santa most certainly does exist.

EDIT : After thinking it over some more, I realised that this is completely absurd. It's perfectly possible for things to not exist : buildings get knocked down, people die, things burn, bombs explode - all of these stop existing. So in when evidence is lacking as to whether something exists or not, it's perfectly possible and valid to hold the opinion that it does not exist, because non-existence is a real state. That things which don't exist can't be distinguished from one another is wholly irrelevant.
Or to put it another way, this idea is like saying, "I'm not saying I believe Elvis is dead. I simply lack belief that he is alive".

So yes, atheism absolutely can be a belief that deities don't exist. Note the emphasis. I am absolutely NOT trying to say that all atheists are believers of a different sort - not at all. The rest of the article, however, if focused on that subset that are believers.