Tom Gilson

Trying to Get A Handle on What Atheism Is

I’m still trying to get a handle on what atheism is. My last post on it did not meet with much approval from the couple of atheist commenters who had something to say.

But I’m learning, and I think some, maybe many, most, or maybe even almost all atheists would put reasons for God, or evidence for God — the lack thereof — at the heart of their position. Here are some samples of where I gathered this information

1. Recently on this blog I wrote,

The terminology of “no evidence” is far too absolute to be rational, but atheists use it all the time. The existence of life is evidence for God. The existence of the universe, when considered against the question of how it came to be is evidence for God. The historical record of the Bible is evidence for God.

David P, atheist, answered,

None of these is evidence for the existence of God. That is a huge mental leap.

2. Yesterday, also on this blog, Michael wrote that an atheist may be “someone that makes their own decisions based on evidence provided, and has encountered no evidence for a God or Gods.”

3. Dan Barker defines atheism as “the lack of theism, the lack of belief in god(s). I am an atheist because there is no reason to believe.

4. Richard Carrier, writing his definitions on “What is Atheism Really All About?” says, Christians find no reason to believe that Zeus exists, so they do not believe in him. For the same reason, I do not believe in Jehova.”

At the basis of these “no reason” claims there is the matter of evidence, just as my two local commenters affirmed: There is no evidence for God.

5. rationalwiki’s “Atheism” page says,

At the root of the worldview of most atheists is evidence, and atheists point out that sufficient evidence for the existence of gods is currently very lacking, and thus there is no reason to believe in them. Evidential arguments are less ambitious than logical arguments because, rather than proving that there is reason not to believe in a god, they prove that there is no reason to believe in a god.

6. Argumentsforatheism.com, on its “What Is Atheism?” page, says, “Atheists believe that there is no proof or evidence for the existence of gods, and they see no need for, or use for, gods.”

Atheists reading here, do you agree? Is it fair to conclude that atheism generally includes the belief that there is no reason to believe in God or gods, and/or no evidence for God or gods?

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39 thoughts on “Trying to Get A Handle on What Atheism Is

  1. Atheists are diverse. There’s no canon dictating what an atheist must be. Personally, I agree with you that reason and evidence are secondary, even though most atheists put those things front and center. For me the key thing about atheism is rebellion. Atheists don’t just trust what priests and other authorities say, but they question things. That’s where evidence comes in – but the rebellious questioning comes first.

  2. Like Michael, I can only speak for myself, not for all atheists, but what I think when I think about your and most believers’ concept of God, is, “that’s ridiculous.” I think, its just not possible for what you believe to be true. Even when I read all your well-developed rationales, I still think it’s not possible. It just doesn’t fit with what I think is real about the world.

  3. ordinaryseeker, do you have any idea what kind of response I would have gotten from atheists if I had offered that kind of reason for believing there must be a God?

  4. Tom, I don’t agree that an absence of belief is a belief. That to me is contradictory. However, I don’t really care that much any more as I’m no longer going to use the words atheist or agnostic to describe myself.

    Out of interest, do you take L. Ron Hubbard’s writings as evidence of the existence of operating thetans and engrams?

  5. The whole “no evidence” schtick doesn’t hold any water. A more honest response would be to say that the evidence we do have is insufficient.

  6. When I say “no evidence”, it’s shorthand for “no evidence of any worth”. I’m happy with “insufficient evidence” as a verbalization.

  7. A possible variant to discuss: “empirical atheism” is the assertion that there is insufficient empirical evidence to support rational belief in any god.

  8. You’re overthinking this: atheism is the theory or belief that God does not exist.

    That doesn’t imply any particular path to that theory or belief, but usually, if you ask a human “why?”, you get back “a reason”, and if you ask “why not?”, you get back “there is no reason”.

    There are widely held views that often accompany atheism, but I doubt that any of them are required.

  9. What are we saying when we use the adjective “atheistic”? For example, when we say that people have atheistic beliefs? Or, when they hold to an atheistic world view, like atheistic naturalism?

  10. DaveP, if that’s what you mean by no evidence then you should just say it. Otherwise the temptation is to dismiss what you have to say on the topic.

    Keith, I can think of at least two definitions for atheism that are commonly used by atheists.

    1) The belief that there is no God(s)
    2) Lacking belief in the existence of God(s)

    I personally think that 2) is a recent definition and an equivocation at that. Though I can see it being handy in a debate as it doesn’t require the same level of justification.

  11. JAD @9:

    I’m confused, can you please restate your question? Or maybe this answers it: When you say “atheistic literature”, why does that mean anything other than literature concerned with a lack of belief in gods?

    I believe the definition of “atheistic naturalism” is strong atheism based on naturalistic arguments. In that case, there’s a statement of why the person is an atheist — is there anything else?

  12. Billy Squibs @10:

    I think you’re differentiating between strong/weak atheism/agnosticism, and it’s more complicated than that. Here’s my go-to diagram.

    As far as equivocation: when someone says “I believe there is no God”, or, “There is no evidence God exists”, it’s short-hand for “the evidence of which I’m aware did not persuade me there is a god”.

    For some reason, nobody ever gets in my face when I say “witches, mermaids and unicorns don’t exist” (when we can all agree that if eyewitness testimony means anything at all, there is a significant body of evidence that all three do, in fact, exist).

    But if I use the same phrasing about God, everyone suddenly transforms into a language lawyer, and looking up how to spell “epistemological”.

  13. I aware of the distinctions. But as I said I’ve gone straight to the horses mouth and it is atheists themselves who are very keen to make theses distinctions when describing their atheism.

    When you say that “atheism is the theory or belief that God does not exist” you are correct. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. There is a large epistemological (fortunately spellcheck takes care of that word for me) difference between the two definitions I listed. So it is potentially important to understand what people are saying when they say, “I am an atheist”, especially when you are getting down to the nitty-gritty.

    Finally, people are unlikely to have a go at you for you your amermaidism because they are of a similar mind. Though do spare a thought for those poor alincolnists out there.

  14. Tom Gilson –

    Is it fair to conclude that atheism generally includes the belief that there is no reason to believe in God or gods, and/or no evidence for God or gods?

    No conclusive evidence, I’d say.

    Look at, e.g., the idea of life on Mars. We haven’t exhaustively studied every environment on Mars; indeed, we’ve literally only scratched the surface. So far, we haven’t come up with any solid evidence that life exists or even existed there. That doesn’t mean it’s certain that life doesn’t exist there. At this point, I’d be kind of surprised if we found some, but not stunned.

    As noted here (and here, FWIW) agnosticism in the philosophical sense is the belief that a question is unanswerable. I’m not agnostic about life on Mars, I’m just somewhat skeptical. I think we’d see more signs in Mars’ chemistry if life were around.

    Similarly, I think the evidence for supernatural beings is pretty slim. I’m pretty sure some forms of gods are ruled out on evidential grounds – the young-Earth creationist version of God, for example. I’ve got some issues with logical consistency of the general Judeo/Christian/Islamic conception of God – but I also don’t see much in the way of positive evidence for It, too.

  15. Keith:

    I believe the definition of “atheistic naturalism” is strong atheism based on naturalistic arguments. In that case, there’s a statement of why the person is an atheist — is there anything else?

    Atheistic naturalism describes a world view that is atheistic in it’s presuppositions, meaning that it assumes that there is no God. In that sense it is diametrically opposed to theism. In other words, natualism or materialism is not in any sense an agnostic position.

    This is how the Center for Naturalism describes it’s world view:

    [N]aturalism is simply the understanding that there exists a single, natural, physical world or universe in which we are completely included. There are not two different worlds, the supernatural and natural. Since we are completely included in the natural world, there’s nothing supernatural about us. For instance, we don’t have immaterial souls that survive after death. We are fully physical, material creatures, and everything we are and do can be understood without supposing that we have souls, spirits, or any other sort of immaterial supernatural stuff inside us. Your thoughts, experiences, feelings, decisions, and behavior are all things your brain and body does…
    http://www.centerfornaturalism.org/faqs.htm

    Again, naturalism assumes (believes) there is no supernatural or God.

  16. I think it’s too simplistic to simply say that “There is no evidence for God”.

    If you define God as “The creator of the universe” then the existence of the universe is evidence of God. Of course, if you define the Flying Spaghetti Monster as “The creator of the universe” then the existence of the universe is equally good evidence for the the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This doesn’t really prove anything, of course, except that “The creator of the universe” is a woefully inadequate definition of God.

    So what’s a better definition? Unfortunately you could ask 10 Christians that question and get 11 different answers, all of them vague and half of them probably including some kind of caveat that God “can’t be defined by man”. Invariably this leads to arguments over who or what God is, and blog posts by Christians about how atheists go around proving that “God*” doesn’t exist, whilst ignoring “God”.

    One thing that I have noticed in common among atheists is a desire to understand things. And the first step in understanding something is properly defining what it is that you are trying to understand.

    A poor definition will invariably lead you to a poor understanding. For example, if you define the thing you are trying to understand as “That which causes the sun, the stars and the planets revolve around the earth” then you are going to have difficulty understanding it. If, however, you define it as “That which causes the sun, the stars and the planets to appear in different places in the sky at different times” then you might have a better shot at at.

    The key here is to define the phenomenon only in terms of things that you actually directly observe. In the case above, you don’t actually observe the sun revolving around the earth, you merely observe it appearing in different places in the sky, so this is what your definition should be.

    If you use the above methodology to try to define God then you will end up defining God as a series of observable phenomena. You will gather data about these phenomena, then you’ll think of theories that can explain your data, and eventually you’ll start understanding these phenomena and being able to predict the future data that you are likely to observe. Then you will be an atheist.

    If you decide that God can’t be defined or reduced down to observable phenomena, you will observe those same phenomena and say “These phenomena are evidence that God exists”. Then you will be religious.

  17. Yet Another Tom,

    The enlightenment produced the belief that you can only know what you can understand which I see coming through in your post above. Do you think this is true? If so why? Are you sure there isn’t anything you know that you don’t fully understand?

    If you decide that God can’t be defined or reduced down to observable phenomena, you will observe those same phenomena and say “These phenomena are evidence that God exists”. Then you will be religious.

    Can a person be defined or reduced down to a series of observable phenomena? I hope you don’t think that is true. Persons are not objects that can be reduced down. If you think about the kinds of ways we might describe people and how they might differ, then you can understand why you might get varying descriptions of God that might still be true (of course some might be wrong.) Now you might know the argument from contingent beings to God which concludes that God is Being Itself. That offers us some knowledge of God and there are other arguments plus revelation that expand that picture of God, but it is true that you cannot comprehensively define God, or pin him down and you especially cannot reduce God down to observable phenomena.

    You have just provided another instance of the atheist disproving God*. Of course you don’t believe in God*, neither would I, but God … that is a different story.

  18. The enlightenment produced the belief that you can only know what you can understand which I see coming through in your post above. Do you think this is true? If so why? Are you sure there isn’t anything you know that you don’t fully understand?

    It depends on what you mean by “know” and what you mean by “understand”. I “know” that if I press a certain button on my computer, my computer will switch on. Of course, I don’t understand the inner workings of the computer, but I understand that if I press that button, the computer will turn on.

    My standard for what counts as “knowledge” is being able to reliably predict future observations. Obviously if you “fully understand” something, then you will be able to do this, but there are situations where you can predict certain observations without understanding the underlying mechanism that causes the observations. In such cases you still have “knowledge” but not “full understanding”.

    Can a person be defined or reduced down to a series of observable phenomena? I hope you don’t think that is true. Persons are not objects that can be reduced down.

    Just because I can’t describe a person down to the level of quarks doesn’t mean that they aren’t a collection of quarks.

    Sure, humans are really complex, which is why we can’t yet model a human brain down to the level of individual neurons (let alone quarks), so for all practical purposes you are correct in saying that we can’t completely reduce a person down to “a series of observable phenomena”. However, there are still many observable human phenomena that can be understood, and many behaviours that can be reliably predicted. And as our knowledge and technology improve there’s no reason to believe that we won’t be able to, sometime in the future, model a human brain down to the level of individual neurons (or even quarks).

    it is true that you cannot comprehensively define God, or pin him down and you especially cannot reduce God down to observable phenomena

    Humans have been attributing observable phenomena to God for centuries. If we were to catalogue those phenomena one by one, we would see that, as scientific knowledge has improved, the number of phenomena attributable to “God” has diminished. Do you think we will reach a point where there will be no observable phenomena attributable to God at all? If not, which observable phenomena do you think will remain forever attributable to “God”?

  19. Yet Another Tom,

    My standard for what counts as “knowledge” is being able to reliably predict future observations

    So you don’t know what you had for breakfast thus morning

    Most of the rest of your argument assumes that everything may be reduced to mechanistic processes and that a person may be reduced to brain activity which means that your whole approach to knowledge is question begging, unless you can put up an argument to support those assumptions.

    Humans have been attributing observable phenomena to God for centuries. If we were to catalogue those phenomena one by one, we would see that, as scientific knowledge has improved, the number of phenomena attributable to “God” has diminished

    Maybe to God* but not to God. (Please don’t make me laugh by offering up Thor as an example – that would be god not God.)

  20. Another type of atheism which is worth describing is the Politely Questioning Atheist.

    This atheist has not observed any evidence that God exists, and in fact is profoundly confused about what God is, and why people believe in God. The contradictory nature of all theists’ explanations, the vague and Willy terminology, the confusing and highly complex philosophical wordplay, this atheist thinks things are generally fairly simple and this complexity must be hiding a simple answer.

    With simple atheism as a starting point, questions of the how’s and whys of theism begin to appear. Every theist gives a different explanation of how they know God exists, they give different explanations of what God is and what he does, and many of the explanations are self-contradictory and some downright silly.

    The Politely Questioning Atheist patiently asks questions in the hopes that someone will finally give a simple explanation God’s resistance that can be checked independently to make sure it’s right.

    You might argue that this is not a strong atheist position, but it is. As long as you keep asking questions about how a theist comes to their knowledge of God, so far is this person’s life the questions result in contradictions and delusional thinking coming to the fore.

  21. So you don’t know what you had for breakfast thus morning

    I know I had porridge for breakfast this morning. How do I know that? What can I predict using that knowledge?

    Firstly, I can query my short-term memory to recall what I was eating this morning, and I predict I will observe a result of “porridge”. How do I know that this observation is reliable (obviously it can’t be independently verified)? Well, I can get verify the effectiveness of my short-term memory by observing how well it correlates with other people’s short-term memories of various events. I can also look at what sorts of things people usually have for breakfast and if “porridge” is a common one then that will increase the likelihood that I have remembered correctly what I had for breakfast (if I queried my short-term memory and it returned a result of “Ostrich Feathers” then I would be much less inclined to say that I know what I had for breakfast this morning, because that is a strange thing to eat for breakfast). So although my short-term memory isn’t infallible, I can confidently rely on it, at least for relatively unimportant things.

    What else can I predict using my knowledge of what I had for breakfast? I can predict that my wife would say that I had porridge for breakfast. I can predict that when I walk into the kitchen the pot in which the porridge was cooked and the bowl from which it was eaten will still be there with traces of porridge in them (I haven’t done the washing up yet…). I can predict that a forensic analysis of my digestive system would yield traces of oats and milk and honey and sultanas and banana.

    Suppose someone tested those predictions. Suppose they asked my wife and she said that she didn’t have breakfast with me this morning, and then they looked in the kitchen and there were no dirty bowls and no dirty pot, and then they collected a stool sample and found no traces of oats. Would they not rightly conclude that I actually don’t know what I had for breakfast this morning?

    Maybe to God* but not to God.

    Are you saying here that people haven’t been attributing phenomena to God for centuries? Or that they have, but we should still be attributing phenomena such as tides or the changing of the seasons to God?

  22. Yet Another Tom,

    All if your “predictions” fall into the category of evidence for a past event rather than predictions of future events but if that’s all you meant then we have exactly that, but we just don’t call them predictions because we already have the evidence in hand.

    Are you saying here that people haven’t been attributing phenomena to God for centuries? Or that they have, but we should still be attributing phenomena such as tides or the changing of the seasons to God?

    I’m saying go and look up secondary causation.

  23. Why does something or anything at all exist?

    It’s self evidently true that something cannot come from nothing.

    Therefore, something has always existed or is self-existent. What that always existing something is, is what needs to be explained. What’s the atheist’s explanation?

  24. YATom, I’m having trouble finding anything in your account of “knowing” that applies to knowing persons as persons. I know my brother. I know my kids. I know my wife.

    Does that mean that I can make successful predictions about them? Or (using your porridge example as a jumping off point) that as I sit here alone in the living room, I can predict that if I follow the sounds to the family room I will find that the appearance of the woman standing there matches the appearance I have formed of my wife in my memory?

    That’s terribly convoluted, and frankly that’s not how I experience my knowledge of other persons phenomenologically; i.e., that’s just not what it’s like to know another person.

    Descartes did more damage than he could ever dream.

    Your account of knowledge is strange, to say the least, when it comes to knowing persons. It’s question-begging when it comes to knowing God.

    I need to write on who God is, what faith is, and what it means to know God. I’ll do it before long.

  25. Does that mean that I can make successful predictions about them? Or (using your porridge example as a jumping off point) that as I sit here alone in the living room, I can predict that if I follow the sounds to the family room I will find that the appearance of the woman standing there matches the appearance I have formed of my wife in my memory?

    That’s terribly convoluted, and frankly that’s not how I experience my knowledge of other persons phenomenologically; i.e., that’s just not what it’s like to know another person.

    You might not consciously think about it this way—most of the time I don’t either—but inside your head you have a mental model of your wife that encompasses everything you know about her (her appearance, her likes & dislikes, her goals, her sense of humour, etc) and you are constantly using this model to make predictions. Most of the time these predictions are accurate so you don’t even notice them—everything just feels normal—but occasionally you get a prediction wrong (it’s not a perfect model, after all) and you feel surprised, or you feel like your wife is behaving “out of character”.

    The better you know someone, the more detailed the model of them in your head is. This will lead to more confident predictions that are generally more accurate, but will mean you’re more surprised on the rare occasions when your predictions turn out to be wrong.

    I know it really doesn’t feel like your brain works the way I have described it here, but if you take a step back and ask yourself “What’s really going on in my head?” I think you’ll find it’s actually a fairly accurate description.

  26. YA Tom:

    I know it really doesn’t feel like your brain works the way I have described it here, but if you take a step back and ask yourself “What’s really going on in my head?” I think you’ll find it’s actually a fairly accurate description.

    You don’t see the problem with this? Hint: what do you mean by “[your]self” or “your” or “my”? (There are other problems…)

  27. Yet Another Tom:

    I know it really doesn’t feel like your brain works the way I have described it here, but if you take a step back and ask yourself “What’s really going on in my head?” I think you’ll find it’s actually a fairly accurate description.

    That’s how we do neuroscience?

    Okay, what is consciousness and how does your brain create it? Can you tell me how to program a computer so it can become self conscious?

  28. JAD:

    The usual “trust us” come back from most neuroscientists is: “we will… give us some time.” What’s lurking in the background is a reductionist understanding of complexity: they’re hope is that with time, the complexity and sophistication of artifacts will “become” human consciousness and rationality. Funny, though: a mountain is roughly a million times bigger than a human, hence much, much, more complex… and yet it can’t think. The usual response is, “because it’s not alive.” Oops, a blue whale is alive and is much bigger than a human being… apart from the begged question “what exactly is life?” Don’t accept a non-existent rain check from these guys…

  29. Tom:

    I’m trying to focus on “self” in YA Tom and others: there’s no way these guys can avoid a reductive destruction of the self given their reductionist view of reality, and they can’t rely on any MES to validate a reductionist view because view is philosophical. So, they turn to sophists like Dennett who betray the philosophical guild by explicitly subscribing to a scientistic world view…

    … and around and around the squirrels race in their self-made wheels.

  30. Holopupenko,

    Actually it sounded like YA Tom was referring to a technique developed by 19th century psychologists known as introspection. It apparently fell out of favor because it wasn’t considered to be very scientific… I thought maybe maybe contemporary neuroscientists had resurrected the the technique to study subjective states– something MRI’s can’t do. (If you can’t tell I am being a little tongue-in-cheek about all this 🙂 )

  31. Jad:

    🙂

    I plead ignorance on the introspection theory… but am ever happy to ask them: who or what, precisely, is “introspecting”?

  32. One region of the brain “observes” another region and there you have it – “you” are being introspective. “You” exist as a region of your brain. But aren’t the other regions, “you” also? Hmm…this is complicated

    🙂

  33. Just because we don’t fully understand how our brains work doesn’t mean we don’t know a lot about how they work. And by “know” here, I mean we can make reliable predictions about how our brains will behave (i.e. what behaviours we will observe) given certain stimuli.

    If you look at studies done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, they have identified a variety of different ways to predict what decisions people are likely to make in different circumstances. In those studies, the people participating didn’t realise that their decisions were so predictable because they weren’t conscious of the heuristics that they were using to make their decisions.

    If I make the assumption that my brain operates in a very similar way to other people’s (which I think it a reasonable assumption given that human brains are structurally very similar to one another), then I can use “introspection” (I’m not sure if this word has another specific meaning, but I’m using it to mean “examining my own thought processes”), along with the results of studies done on other people, to better understand how my brain works and, hopefully, to be able to use it more effectively.

  34. Yet Another Tom:

    Just because we don’t fully understand how our brains work doesn’t mean we don’t know a lot about how they work…

    From that we can conclude that mind, consciousness and person-hood can be explained how?

  35. It appears to me that YA Tom starts with the assumption that everything can be explained reductively. Is that correct?

  36. It appears to me that YA Tom starts with the assumption that everything can be explained reductively. Is that correct?

    I wouldn’t call it a “starting assumption”. More a “theory”. I’m yet to find anything that I can satisfactorily explain in a non-reductive fashion.

  37. From that we can conclude that mind, consciousness and person-hood can be explained how?

    I don’t know. I’m yet to encounter a theory for any of those things that fully explains them. But my point is that, even though we can’t yet fully explain those things, we can still know lots of things about them.

    When X-Rays were first discovered, scientists couldn’t fully explain them, but they still learned a lot about them and were able to make successful predictions about what they would observe when certain objects were exposed to X-Rays in certain ways.

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