on atheism

I have been getting some (appreciated) heat by the atheist ‘community’ for my why-i-am-not-an-atheist post, especially from one mojoey who thinks i’m a nutcase (and whom i thank for the referrals 🙂 ) . So i thought i should try to clear things up, if only a bit.

One of the comments on mojoey’s post by one RG sums up exactly my intentions:

You guys crack me up. Just as defensive as any other fundie. He makes a sound, and to me a compelling point about the image that Atheists themselves are projecting. Telling him that “his thinking is flawed, what a shame” is annoyingly similar to the way Xian fundies argue in circles from the source. And you know how effective that is “The Bible is God’s word and it says God exists therefore God exists.” (Head explodes) Your position appears to be “Atheism is logical and you aren’t an atheist therefore you aren’t logical.” SWEET! Sign me up. You make his point for him.

Some of the comments to my post are quite virulent in complaining that i get atheism all wrong, others think i’m a closet atheist and some just want me to bash religion (which i have already done here, here, here, here, here, and here and have gotten bashed in return for it too). I feel caught between a rock and a hard place, not able to please the religious or the atheists. I believe this is primarily due to the fact that Americans (the USA ones) have a horrible tendency to polarize many discussions beyond any semblance of reason. Americans will never stay in the middle: you are either a democrat or a republican, either conservative or liberal, either pro-life or pro-choice, either religious or atheist. And anyone trying to walk a fine line between the two warring camps gets lambasted by both. Moreover, each discussion – especially here in the freewheeling blogosphere – tends to degenerate into a raving carnage that accomplishes absolutely nothing except to divide the two camps even further.

All that being said, i will try once more to explain what i believe atheism to be, and also to explain not so much why i am not an atheist (i actually don’t believe god exists) as why i do not wish to call myself one. So here goes: all i ask for is a charitable reading!

Atheism is, like theism and agnosticism an epistemic position: it makes a propositional claim about the way the world is. Theism asserts that there exists at least one god. Atheism makes the contrary claim that there exists not one god and certainly not many gods. Agnosticism (from gnosis, knowledge) asserts that there is no knowledge available as to whether or not one or more gods exist. Those who passively do-not-bother-to-believe that there is a god are not, properly speaking, atheists, but are simply non-religious.

The great atheists of our western culture: Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre and now Dennett (i only name philosophers because they are the people i know best) were and are most certainly active atheists, going out of their way to criticize and belittle religion. These and the newer crop of atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor J. Stenger, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, just to cull the most recent NYT Bestseller List) have placed themselves squarely against religion, and it is precisely this squareness to which i object. Atheism, in flat-out denying gods and religion in general, is not helping to solve the problem (of religious stupidity and violence) but is only throwing oil on the fire. It is concocting an alternative to religion that looks suspiciously like its mirror image. And trash talking religion will only infuriate the religious and cause them to dig in their heels a bit deeper still.

I want to advocate a position that does not immediately say “yes” or “no” to the ideas of religion, nor one that lazily stoops to the “i don’t know” retort. We must be careful, patient and thorough, and maintain, though it is quite clear that neither Zeus nor YHWH exist in any scientific – ie verifiable – sense of the term, that religion (a human practice that has survived and reproduced through millenia of cultural evolution) might have some practical use and that, moreover, its far-fetched dogmas, as silly as they might be, could well be very flawed attempts to express something important and true. Jettisoning the baby ‘religion’ with the bathwater of our ‘historical religions’ is rash, but it is what atheism has always done and continues to do.

I am just as scientifically-minded as any good atheist, and i spit upon the graves of every creationist since Darwin! I do not believe we should build ships based on Noah’s blueprint in Genesis and i do not believe that states, and esp. heads of states, should spout or pay for religious nonsense from their white or otherwise-colored houses. Yet, i do not think atheism is true anymore than religion is true. Both are mostly wrong because they are either too complicated or too simple; we need to keep on searching with an open mind and lots of good, hard-core science.

May atheists be charitable and theists reasonable!


11 Comments to “on atheism”

  1. “I feel caught between a rock and a hard place, not able to please the religious or the atheists.”

    You can’t please either crew. Don’t try. Just state your case. Keep on thinking. In the end, that’s what counts. Doing the thinking.

  2. Your definition of atheism is incorrect; from there, all other errors flow. Instead of attributing attitudes and dispositions you dislike to atheists, perhaps it would make sense to take a look at how atheism is actually defined and work from there.

  3. I find myself struggling with some of these issues… I don’t believe in God, specifically the God of the Bible (I’m a former Christian) and really any man-made definition of God I’ve read, hence I’m an atheist… However, it would be irresponsible for me to close the door to the existence of God (no matter how this is defined… The universe, force, supernatural being(s), etc.) Hence, I’ve labeled myself an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe in God but not in an absolute sense. It’s confusing but so is trying to put any label on ourselves or others.

  4. Hi Rick,

    I’ve been too hard you on. You are in many ways very much like me. I find the new crop of hard atheists do not help the situation. I can’t even read their books. They make me angry. What other people believe is non of my business. When they cross over into trying to tell me how to live my life, I push back. My blog is full of this. I track fundies of all sorts and from all religions. I make long snarky posts with the hope the some people will move towards the middle. Some have, some have not.

    As to why you drew my attention. Well… we need the voices in the middle. When you say “not an atheist”, it takes another voice that people can identify as being reasonable and an atheist at the same time, out of the game. That leaves the Harris’s and Dawkins’ to represent us – and they do so poorly.

    Your decision seemed childish to me, so I posted on it. My long time friend RG rushed to your defense. My sniff test is that if RG says I’m being a jerk, he’s usually right. All I’m really saying is that I don’t agree with your decision you should claim the atheist title. You should use it, and join the moderate team. I think there are only four of five of us…

    I cannot speak for the other atheists who read my blog, some share my viewpoints, some do not. I can tell you that moderate voices are encouraged. I run the Atheist blogroll. It has 200 atheist blogs from all across the spectrum, your voice would be a valuable addition. Plus it will drive a bunch of traffic your way. Drop me a note if you want to join.

  5. @ Mojoey: once you stop calling me Rick (i go by eenauk or Michael) i’ll burry the war hatchet 🙂 and if ur comment was indeed intended for me: As for your atheist blogroll, if you think it wouldn’t be a travesty, u’r welcome to add my little name. I agree that we don’t want to let the Dawkins’ give atheism a bad rap and need to try to keep the idea healthy and beautiful. I’ll go on the record as a mystical atheist. How’s that?

  6. @ Ric and Agnosticatheist: Thanks! and courage to us all!

  7. @ Joe: do u have any specifics? i pretty much took the dictionary definition.

  8. Michael: did you? I’ll bet you read a dictionary that defined atheism as “disbelief in or denial of god(s),” then focused solely on “denial” and forgot about “disbelief.” That’s what a lot of people do – I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen it.

    In standard, unabridged dictionaries, “disbelief” is defined with a passive and active sense: not believe (in) or reject belief (in). Neither means the same as denial. So, with a little substitution, atheism is defined as: not believing in gods, rejecting belief in gods, or denying the existence of gods. Simply “not believing in gods” is certainly not a “propositional claim” that “there exists not one god and certainly not many gods.” Even “rejecting belief in gods” isn’t that – if you make a claim and I refuse to believe it’s true, I’m not necessarily asserting that it’s false. I may find it poorly supported or may not understand it enough to say either way.

    That’s not agnosticism, by the way. Agnosticism is about knowledge, not belief.

    Theism is *belief* in the existence of at least one god (not an assertion of knowledge, but of belief). Atheism is the absence of any such belief (think: a-political, a-moral, a-stygmatism, a-tonal, a-syncronous).


  9. “@ Mojoey: once you stop calling me Rick” – sorry eenauk, my bad!

    And for the record – I am an Agnostic Atheist. I do not belief in god, I assert there is no god, and I do not think science can prove or disprove the existence of god.

    If anything, I lean toward naturalism.

  10. Michael,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and provacative posts on Atheism… the discussion that has ensued is interesting and perhaps will lead to better understanding for all involved.

    Logic, though essential, is limited and can only grasp a tiny portion of the infinite universe. Religions occur because there are some who experience “something” that feels whole and holy. One feels this; one doesn’t think it. If it is has the potential to open others to new levels of feeling, new experiences, we call it art. The art may be science or religion. Gandhi was an ethical artist, a nondenominational religious artist, with genius. Einstein was an artist of science.

    Logic has little to do with the experiences of Love, Beauty, The Sublime, The Sacred… they are not rational experiences. There are probably evolutionary reasons why we feel them, but does this make the experience of the above feelings logical? Is love merely a hormone, a bio-chemical connection in the brain, an olifactory reaction, a trick of biology to assure propogation of the species? If it is some or all of these things, does this logically (and adequately) define the experience of love? Does Love not exist?

    The above experiences aren’t so much irrational, as supra-rational… though with all the poisionous snake oil being sold these days I understand and appreciate a healthy skepticism.

    Einstein on the Religious Spirit of Science:

    “You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religiousity of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands, so to speak, in a personal relation, however deeply it is tinged with awe.

    But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignifigant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possedded the religious geniuses of all ages.”

    For an hour of audio about Einstein’s God I recommend this fascinating discussion on public radio: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/

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