A commenter recently posted a link to an interesting article about science that I actually think is mostly pretty good. One of the things that briefly comes up is the common canard that atheism is a religion, in a section with the headline, “Atheism is a religion, too!”
My problem with it is that it conflates what’s called “hard atheists” with “soft atheists” and as a result, creates a straw man argument against anyone who identifies under the term “atheist.” No prominent atheist figure I’m familiar with legitimately holds the absolutist position that they know for certain that “there is no Designer.”
And while I may be guilty of occasionally making off the cuff remarks that might give some the impression that that’s the position I hold, it certainly does not describe my actual position. And I find really annoying the fact that I have to constantly clarify this silly semantic point when nobody ever similarly accuses people who say there is no Santa Claus of being too dogmatically certain.
The author points to several quotes cited by creationists to justify the argument:
An advocate for Intelligent Design provided the following quotes from leading evolutionary biologists:
- “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind” (George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution);
- “If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species” (Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature);
- “By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of life processes superfluous” (Douglas Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology).
These are not scientific conclusions. These are statements of sincere personal belief by these authors, who doubtless feel strongly that their beliefs are consistent with their experiences as scientists. But they are essentially statements of faith, and they are out of place in a textbook.
The author goes on to acknowledge that two of the books mentioned are not textbooks but rather are opinion pieces, while the only one that is a textbook, Futuyma’s book, leaves out that quote in the current edition.
But there’s a bigger point here I’d like to make. Merely pointing to arguably audacious quotes that could, in their least charitable interpretation, be interpreted as implying the quoter holds an absolute certainty doesn’t actually prove that they do hold such absolute certainty. For instance, just because George Washington may have once said, “I cannot tell a lie,” doesn’t really mean that he truly believed he literally could not tell a lie, nor would any reasonable person assume such an interpretation. Sometimes public speakers use language that suggests greater confidence than they really hold. This is especially obvious in this age of media punditry. So what? To build an entire point around assuming people are as certain of things as they come off in their rhetoric is silly.
Sure, you can find some random atheists on the internet who will insist on the hard atheist definition of the term but random people on the internet are not legitimate representatives for all atheists; no one is. If the definition you apply to a label does not include all who apply the label, the problem is with your rigid definition, not with those who have adopted that label but don’t fit into your definition.
The fact is that the atheist position I hold, which I covered in my very first article, is simply that no compelling evidence currently exists to support the existence of any gods. That position cannot reasonably be confused for a religion because it neither comes with any dogma, nor is it immune to evidence. Show me compelling evidence for any deity’s existence and I’ll happily change my mind on the subject. Otherwise, you’ve given me no reason to change my position and therefore it would be unreasonable to accuse me of being immune to sufficient evidence. Scientifically speaking, if I’ve never been presented with such evidence, how could you possibly know I would refuse to accept it if it was presented?
- Ye Olde “Atheism is a Religion” Canard [EvolutionBlog] (scienceblogs.com)
- Atheism is not a religion (atheistdave.wordpress.com)