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Asantaism is a religion

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?

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9 Responses to Once again, ATHEISM IS NOT A RELIGION!

  1. John Barron says:

    While I wouldn’t make the claim that atheism is a religion, I do believe it is a belief system. It has basic and foundational beliefs which necessarily follow from atheism proper. I.e. philosophical naturalism, which entails no supernatural phenomenon. A naturalistic (mechanical) explanation of the origins of the universe, and biological entities, etc.

    What annoys me is when Atheists assert they have no beliefs and therefore nothing to defend. As though they can simply sit back and make assertions without having to justify the claims or positions. I find most (but not all) Atheists who traffic on the internet to be of this kind. They believe they are in the privelaged position to play the protected skeptic.

    • mjr256 says:

      Philosophical naturalism is certainly I’d say a foundational assumption of science, but not necessarily of atheism. And not all atheists reject all supernaturalism; I know many who don’t. But I tend to want to avoid getting into lengthy discussions about philosophical naturalism because it really falls into what I believe in logic is called properly basic. Philosophical naturalism is really a bare bones essential position one must hold before any conversation about the world can even be said to be coherent. Sure, we can all imagine a hypothetical scenario in which we’re all living in the Matrix and our observations don’t necessarily correlate with some external reality we’re not privy to, but that sort of assertion doesn’t get us anywhere. It has no practical application. And further, contrary to what some will claim, it’s not really a position that anyone really holds. If they did, there’s no reason they should hesitate to slice open their eye with a razor or jump out a window, or rape a child, etc, because under the assumption that the reality we observe has no greater likelihood of being true as any other belief, nothing in our observable reality would matter in the least. Could it be true? Sure. I’m just not betting on it, not because I’m an atheist, but because I respect the scientific process.

      Now I would never assert I have no beliefs at all, but I would say that I apply the word atheist to strictly mean lack of belief in the specific insufficiently proven claim of existence of deities. Now in addition to my atheism, I will even go further to admit that I have a strong level of confidence that no deities exist just like I have a strong level of confidence that nothing supernatural exists. That is my personal belief and it’s not one that I would assert as a scientific position because science can only address falsifiable claims. So yes, as an atheist, I don’t see what position it would be my job to defend? That definitely no gods exist? I’m not going to defend that position because I accept that it’s one that is impossible to prove. The burden of proof is on those who assert the positive claim that a god or gods do exist. And when they do, As an atheist or skeptic of theistic claims, I’m not making any assertions of my own. My role is strictly to evaluate whatever evidence the claimant presents. What am I defending? It’s like in a court case. The theist is the plaintiff presenting their case and the skeptic is in the position of rebutting their arguments, not necessarily to charge the claimant with counterclaims.

      • John Barron says:

        Your role is to defend your position. If “probably no gods exist” is your position then it needs to be defended if you are going to assert it. Silence is the only position which need not be defended. I think there is the mistaken belief among most Atheists that, as in your example, the theist is the plaintiff. Sure, I can go along with that, but that makes the atheist the defendant, not the jury.

        There is no “lack of belief”. That is a rhetorical device that some atheist created to lift the burden off himself. The only thing people lack belief in, are propositions they have absolutely no information or knowledge of. For example, I lack belief in your marital status. But once you offer a claim about it, I no longer lack belief. I now have a proposition where I either reject, accept, or withhold judgement.

        Atheists don’t lack belief. They believe no gods exist. People dont not believe things. They believe things.

        For example, It’s not that I dont believe the Brewers are the best team. Rather, I believe the Brewers are not the best team. So applied here, its not that atheists don’t believe in God. They believe He doesn’t exist.

        Every position is a positive belief, whether about something present or abscent.

      • mjr256 says:

        As I’ve already stated, “probably no gods exist” is NOT the position I’m arguing. That would be a rather stupid position to argue in a scientific conversation because it’s impossible to definitely prove. While I strongly suspect no deities exist, the position I argue is that insufficient evidence exists to support the conclusion that any deities exist, and therefore one should adopt the null hypothesis, the default position that does not need to be positively defended.

        The theist is the claimant. because they are the one asserting knowledge. And as I’ve already said, the skeptic does not need to posit their own counter-claim in order to rebut their claims. Rebuttal is the role of the defense, not that of the jury. It’s the consensus of experts in the relevant scientific fields who play the role of jury.

        I’m sorry you have a problem with the position of lack of belief but as I’ve stated, everyone accepts it in every other context other than religion, which is unjustifiably given special treatment. This is why many invoke the Santa Claus analogy. No rational adult believes in Santa Claus, but nor does anyone burdened with the task of having to positively disproving Santa. Such a demand would be impossible to meet. We just universally recognize that this is a fantasy character with attributes that could not possibly exist given our knowledge of the world. Now if new evidence is presented, we can certainly reevaluate the evidence for Santa, but until then, we can reasonably reach a verdict on the matter. The only reason Jesus, for instance, is given special pleading is because massive populations have been indoctrinated to believe on insufficient evidence. Give me one good reason why I must make a counter-claim before being able to assert that I’m just not convinced by the arguments for any deity when they are all entirely insufficient. If I told you that I have an invisible dragon living in my garage, why would it be your job to actively prove I’m wrong? The answer is that it wouldn’t. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Belief should be proportional to the evidence and no one is obligated to actively scientifically disprove every claim that is put to them. Atheists didn’t make up the concept of burden of proof. It’s a commonly recognized concept in logic and in law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_burden_of_proof

        Your definition of “lack of belief” is simply wrong. What you are describing is lack of knowledge, not lack of belief. There’s a difference. So you can keep asserting that atheists “believe in no gods” to your heart’s content but that doesn’t magically change the basic laws of logic. Now I’ve explained the concept of burden of proof and the null hypothesis. If you’re going to reject the commonly understood applications of those terms, there’s nothing further we can really discuss on this matter and we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

        A great video that addresses the null hypothesis outside of the context of religion can be found here:

  2. John Barron says:

    Do you think your position is the default position?

  3. John Barron says:

    That’s an unjustified presupposition. No one get’s to be correct right off the bat. There is no default position, each possition must be argued for.

  4. mjr256 says:

    You can assert that to your heart’s content but it won’t change the fact that only the party making a claim is required to prove their claim. If I were making a specific counter-claim, then the onus would be on me to prove that counter-claim. Don’t believe? Consult a lawyer.

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