Atheists in America – Part 1

This is the start of a series on atheists. I am not sure how many blogs I will write on them but it is connected to a book I have coming out titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). It is a book I co-wrote with David Williamson. Being a Christian, I believe it to be important to understand those who do not agree with me. Furthermore, atheists have been understudied, and I love doing research on understudied topics.
A disclaimer or two is in order. Although I do not share the beliefs atheists have, this series, and my book, is not a critique of atheism. That critique has been made by smarter people than I. My work is intended to describe atheists, not atheism. It is about the community in which atheists sustain their social reality. On the other hand, whenever a researcher looks at a social community, one usually sees strengths and weaknesses. I do not intend on describing atheists in a particularly negative or positive light, but if some of the findings create those impressions then so be it. I know that many atheists see themselves as marginalized, and there is research backing their claims. I have no desire to add to that feeling, but I am not going to fake a glowing report on atheists just to be politically correct.
This entry will help to set up the rest of the series. I basically want to discuss how we did our research. The findings I will talk about in the rest of the series are based on that methodology. Actually our idea for this research emerged when we did research on cultural progressive activists. We used an online survey with open-ended questions to gather their ideas about the Christian Right. Our sample was 61.7 percent atheists, which is an incredibly high percentage for a group that is 3-5 percent of the population in the United States. We ran some preliminary tests comparing the atheists to the other cultural progressive activists and knew that we had the potential to do interesting research.
But it was research that needed to be augmented. To do this David and I decided to interview about fifty atheists. We wanted to see if atheists have a different experience when they lived in a highly religious region of the country as compared to a more secular region. As a result, we interviewed half of the atheists in an area in the Bible Belt and the other half through an atheist organization located in a less religious region of the country. The atheists we found in the city in the Bible Belt were found through networking contacts we found in a small atheist group. There was no large formal organization we could use to find respondents which is likely a feature of the lack of a non-religious presence.
Our research question focused on why individuals became atheists, how they logically justified their atheism, their perceptions on religion and the sort of society they want. We developed a questionnaire to address those issues. We asked about our respondents religious background, how they became atheists, their logical reasons why they became an atheists, what they saw as the benefits of atheism, their concerns about religion and what their ideal society looked like.
It is worth telling why we spent time trying to learn how atheists logically justify their beliefs. We had learned that rationality was a core value with cultural progressive activists (See our book What Motivates Cultural Progressives by Baylor University Press). The atheists in our previous research consistently argued that religion is illogical, and atheism is logical. So we wondered what sort of arguments atheists used to justify such confidence in their claims. Thus, we did ask them for the most powerful argument that supported their beliefs in atheism. I will provide you the answer for that in a future blog (this is my nerd version of a teaser).
Over the next few blogs I will summarize some of the findings from our work. But to understand those results, it is important to consider who atheists are. In our sample, we had a high percentage of individuals with college and post-graduate degrees. This is reflective of the reality that atheists have higher levels of education than others in our society. We also interviewed more men than women. We even made an attempt to interview more women but still interviewed almost three men for every woman we interviewed. Research has shown that men are more likely to be atheists. I wished we had interviewed more women so that we would be in a position to look at possible gender differences between the atheists and non-atheists. Our respondents were also highly likely to be white which also matches what national probability samples have indicated about the racial makeup of atheists.
The educational, racial and gender status of atheists suggests that this is a group with a relatively privileged societal position. As I pointed out earlier, many atheists feel marginalized, and there is research indicating that atheism is less accepted than other religious beliefs. In fact, I have done some of the research showing that atheism generates more relative animosity than other religious beliefs. So it is true that as it concerns religious status, atheism is a marginalized position. But in other ways, atheists are not so marginalized. Being more likely to be white, male and educated means that they have advantages in society that offset the disadvantages their beliefs about religion can bring them.
It seems to me that the term status inconsistency applies here. It is a term developed by Max Weber that describes the fact that status indicators such as wealth, power and prestige are not perfectly correlated to each other. A gangster may have a lot of wealth and power but that person does not have a lot of prestige in our society. Likewise, someone like Mother Teresa has a lot of prestige and even some power but not a lot of wealth. People living in status inconsistency are in a position to use their status advantages to compensate for their status disadvantages. So a gangster may not be able to enjoy status but the ability to enjoy wealth and power helps that gangster to feel good about him or herself even with this low status. Status inconsistency is part of what makes atheists fascinating. They generally have educational, racial and gender advantages to help compensate for their religious disadvantages. I believe that some of the findings to be presented in the next few blogs are connected to this attempt to manage status inconsistency. For example, in the next blog I will look at the values atheists place on science. Using science as a way to legitimate their beliefs is logical for some atheists to work towards a society where their education, rather than religion, becomes a source of status. Hope you come back in a couple of weeks to check out that

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  • Jay Egenes

    You discuss the status disadvantage of being an atheist.
    My perception of our culture is that we are primarily secular, not primarily religious. That is, although a majority of Americans are nominally Christian, something under 50% of us (of any religious background or faith group) take our faith seriously.
    I’d go further and say that for the 40% or so who try to take their faith seriously, the ability to do so is at least partially undermined by largely imperceptible cultural biases that are in fact not compatible with the teachings (at least the ethical teachings) of biblical Christianity.

    For example, many “Conservative Christians” today seem to have embraced a kind of libertarian philosophy, probably not realizing that libertarianism embraces all of the “Liberal” with a big “L” assumptions about the sovereignty of the individual and the capacity of people (either as individuals or as a group) to solve their own problems. As much as I found Edmund Burke overly pessimistic when I read him 30 years ago as a college student, today I recognize that his less optimistic view of human nature is much more biblical than the Liberal (with a capital “L) that he opposed.
    Burke’s less optimistic view of human nature would constitute a better background for Christian conservativism. But it wouldn’t justify the kind of radical individualism we see expressed today by folks who consider themselves both Christian and Conservative.

    In a culture where under 50% of people take faith seriously, and fewer than that can separate the values of their faith from other cultural assumptions (such as individualism), I’m curious as to how atheists are any more disadvantaged than people who actually understand the implications of Christian faith.

    I look forward to reading your continued posts on this topic.

    • George Yancey

      Our society may indeed be heading is a secular path. I have my doubts about such secularization but it is a viable theory. However, several studies have shown that atheists are teh least trusted “religious” group in the United States. In my Review of Religious Research article I found that about 27 percent of all Americans can be labeled as anti-Atheists compared to about 13 percent that can be labeled anti-Fundamentalist. So as of right now I would have to say that atheims is the belief about religion that is least accepted in the United States.

  • http://natehevens.wordpress.com Nathan Hevenstone

    I’ll be following this… just keep the tags consistent.

    I wish I had seen this a while back. We’re gearing up for the second Women in Secularism conference in Washington, DC. You want to talk to women who are atheists (and also feminists)? I imagine there won’t be a better place.

    I’m just an attender, though. I’m not in any position beyond that. You’ll have to Google to find out who to contact.

    • George Yancey

      Thanks. I will try to remember the tags but if I do not then the next blog will be two weeks from now. Probably will not make the conference as I have moved to other subjects now but the gender difference is facinating to me. I have attracted a graduate student who is interested in studying atheism and I may turn her on to that research question.

  • Psy

    First off , referring to atheism as a belief is blasphemous according to our doctrine and punishable by a lawsuit.
    I don’t get the part were you think atheist need to justify not believing something. I live in Bigfoot county and have never seen any evidence of a Bigfoot and see no reason to justify not believing in Bigfoot. I have seen pictures claiming to be of Bigfoot and the only conclusion is that if Bigfoot is real he is also blurry.
    I’ve never felt marginalized for not believing but I don’t live in the Bible Belt either. Nobody here in the Pacific North West cares whether I’m an atheist or believer. Though a one forum I visit there is a girl who is trying to keep her sanity in the Bible Belt dealing with her fundamentalist Christian family. Did you know the Earth is only 6,000 years old?

    • George Yancey

      Until someone proves atheism it is a belief just like all beliefs with religious content. But your attitude is one that came up in my research and I will dealwith it in a future blog. Not all atheists feels the need to defend those beliefs but in light of the level of rejection some of them feel, some of them do. Furthermore, people work towards finding justification for any belief that cannot be proven. In this atheists are not different from those in other groups except for their source of justification. Finally, if athests did not feel a need to justify their beliefs then certainly the sales of the books from the new atheists would not have been as great as they were. So I will stick with my terms and take my chances on the lawsuit. lol.

      • Coffey3C

        I’ve read the comments at your suggestion, and now you are not doing so good.

        If this was a serious academic interest on your part, I would have thought that you would understand that Atheism is not a belief. It is not remotely congruent to religious beliefs. It is the rejection of the premise to which the majority of people in our culture adhere. The vast majority Atheists are clear on this fundamental difference. Most even know that to attempt to prove a negative premise, on any subject, is a logical fallacy in and of itself. It’s an absurdity, just as if you were to attempt to disprove the weightless invisible sea-monkey who lives on my shoulder and whispers winning lottery numbers to me, which I have as yet chosen to ignore.

        (Your readers should look up the tea pot in orbit around Mars theory, that they may be prepared.)

        Likewise, there are indeed many… many Theists who firmly believe that they could never trust, let alone vote for an atheist, despite the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that says that they are as a group, more likely to act ethically. [ Some actually believe that atheists are still legally barred from holding an office of public trust, evidencing their lack of legal understanding as well.] I hope that you at least realize, as a serious academic or journalist, that this datum speaks exclusively to the bigotry inherent in the respondents in such polls, and gives no actual date regarding the nature of atheists, unless it intends to generally addresses responses to foibles inherent in the society in which we all live.

        There are a lot of logical inconsistencies here, even to the astonishing level where Christians are unaware that their religion was not the first one, or of it’s clear development from other preexisting religious mythologies. Many are the same people who also believe that ethics and morality are the exclusive preview of not just religion, but even go so far in consideration of what they consider to be moral, that they are exclusive to their own religion.

        Since this is just your opening statement, I will abide and trust you to use the coming weeks in fruitful clarification.

        Respectfully,
        CoffeyC

      • Psy

        There are apathetic atheist who simply have no internist in the subject of theology, its just another topic like poetry, knitting, classic cars or ufos, to them and many don’t identify themselves as anything.

        • Coffey3C

          Agreed Psy. As a matter of fact, I’d go much farther. I’ve known priests and clergy who were, in fact, atheists, and I’ve know many more atheists who never even bothered to examine the term. Although I was never a militant atheist, I’was always prepared to answer such questions, honestly and directly; and, my almost universal experience was that those who most wanted to question this, were the ones who were the least happy with the answers.

          I also suspect, that there are many more people, and many times more than the small percentage of people who openly identify as atheists, if it were in any way worth the trouble. Today, most of the results are almost all negative. In fact about the only positive is in the approval of a small group of very nice folks. My impression is, that absent the very negative response you are more likely to get than not, more like fifteen or twenty percent of people would be openly atheists in the first generation sans the indoctrination.

          As for the religion, believe me, for nearly fifty years, if asked if I’d read the bible, I’d have freely admitted that I had. . When asked if someone else should read the bible, my immediate answer would be: “Why would you ever bother to waste your time.” That which you need to know for a full understanding of the literature and mythologies of our culture are more than well enough indoctrinated into most folks at an early age, but if your curiosity demands, then go nuts. For my part, I was always more fascinated with the angular momentum and charge of black holes, or the evolution and the diversity of life on this earth.

          In the last, about eighty years or so, though, there have been many interesting analyses of the document. There have also been enough interesting archaeological discoveries, to be able to clearly understand the real and human story of the cultures and peoples who contributed to the bible. For those reasons, as well as the number of questions I’ve fielding on the subject of late, I have a renewed interest that nicely meshes with my two most consistent drives: To first know how things work, and then to be able to explain them clearly enough that others can understand as well as I do.

          Today, the historicity of the bible is a fascinating subject that dovetails quite cleanly in many places in our history, in largest part, due to the acceptance such secular inquiry making all of that possible. A hundred years ago, most people took it on faith that Moses wrote the first five books of the bible, where the truth is far more intriguing.

      • Libertarian

        Until someone proves aunicornism, aunicornism is a belief.

      • Explicit Atheist

        Some atheists say they will only believe that for which there is evidence which is lacking on this question, other atheists say that the overall evidences do speak clearly on this question and favor atheism. I am in the latter camp, so I have no problem with the notion that my atheism is a belief, as I actively, positively, definitely, believe there are no gods. However, everyone has to be agnostic to some extent about the unknown, and the less self-confident position of “no belief” atheism is popular.

        • Coffey3C

          I agree, but:

          Pointing out that atheism is not a separate belief system when considering the question do gods exist, isn’t a lack of confidence, is is a clarification of the same kind of mistake that leads people to think atheism is a religion, or that it is based on faith. As for myself, I see no evidence for any other conclusion, other than the wretchedly poor evidence of feelings, dreams, visions, and unappealing desert stories. I tend to agree that Theism and Atheism address belief, and gnosticism and agnosticism address knowledge regarding that belief. Reflection on the nature of the question, however, clearly indicates that we recognize that gnostic atheism would be a limit toward which we may tend, but which can’t logically be achieved. Careful explanations, however, need not denote any lack of confidence.

          I just call myself an atheist. Given the limits in logic and the preponderance of evidence, anything else is redundant.

          CoffeyC

  • Darren

    George, sounds interesting.

    I am curious about your data, and not doubt my questions will be answered in future posts.

    Firstly, though, you cite a U.S. prevalence for Atheist of “…3-5 percent”. The last ARIS data I saw (2008) runs this to be 0.9% with an additional 0.6% Agnostic, if you would like to lump them.

    Having just participated in a University of Tennessee study on Atheist, I can only assume I am not one of your data points.

    Best regards;

    Darren

    • George Yancey

      Good point. As you probably know the estimate of atheists varys from study to study. Generally most of the research estimates it to be in the 3-5 percent range but I know that some have it lower than that. I have not done an intensive examination to see which estimate I prefer but the general point of atheists being a small percentage of the U.S. population is what I was trying to make anyway.

  • Coffey3C

    And you were doing so well too.

    ” Using science as a way to legitimate their beliefs is logical for some atheists to work towards a society where their education, rather than religion, becomes a source of status.”

    I will, of course, reserve judgment until I’ve had the chance to see a little more of this blog; but, this statement, seems to indicate several issues that certainly must have come up in discussions with a number of atheists. Atheists accept science as a way to understand reality, the natural universe, which is something that it has been proven to do better than any other tool for understanding that humans have yet devised. Acceptance of a demonstrable reality, especially those phenomena that have been educed through empiricism and science, is a measure of mental health rather than an attempt to legitimate that reality.

    Likewise, reserving judgment on, or the rejection of, any claim that has seemingly failed to meet the burden of proof, is the only legitimate course. I somehow feel sure that the logical issues with disproving a negative, or the null hypothesis in a conjecture surrounding supernatural causation, must have come up.

    Lastly, Atheism, isn’t actually a claim, because it is fundamentally, the rejection of of the theitic claim. It would be a theist who would seek that legitimacy, which is why the phrase struck me as both slightly biased, as well as being a subtle shifting of the burden of proof. After all, regardless of the fact that a person is a theist or an atheist, Science deals only with the natural universe. Absent the presence of an actual phenomenon that both, demonstrably subverted the laws of the universe as we’ve come to understand them, and was reproducible in providing empirical evidence of that fact, science would have not intersection with anything which was by definition, supernatural. And…. There would be innumerable scientists liked up to examine any prospect for such a phenomenon.

    We do, more often than not, defend our understanding of reality with science, often while explaining a step further that accepting a proven reality really is not congruent to holding a belief. Having been called upon to explain such once or twice, when this subject came up, I can tell you that my expectation would be that many of a theistic view will find these point superfluous – at best. All I can say to them is, that to me, this phrasing was as noticeable as someone addressing an interfaith council with: “Coptic Christians line up over here, and the rest of you heathens over there.”

    I do look forward to reading more of your blog, Mr. Yancey. I can’t imaging imagine any group that would need analyzing more than a group of fifty well educated atheists.

    CoffeyC

    • George Yancey

      I think I addressed this issues to Psy. The issues you bring up were brought up were discussed by the atheists in my sample. I probably will be able to discuss these issues in more depth in about a couple of blogs.

      • Coffey3C

        Perhaps you did, but when I posted my comment last night, there was only one other comment on the board. I got an error message saying that the server had not responded in time, and then a second attempt said that was a duplicate, even though my original was not showing up till at least an hour later when I last checked. I’m surprised there seems to have been such a delay.

        The simple fact is, that when a creationist or a global warming denier tries to talk about some aspect of the science that they’ve heard about, there very quickly comes a point where that lack of understanding on some fundamental level becomes glaringly obvious. Even with one of the later batch, who my have been awarded a degree in the biological sciences say, there is always a tone that gives this away on some fundamental level. You can even hear it in the few holding eminent degrees, who comes up with something like ‘Irreducible complexity.’ You can explain why there is no such thing, and walk through every instance where that premise has been proposed and utterly failed; and yet, they still cleave to their fondly held evidence, and ultimately, to that ‘belief.’ That’s when you realize this honestly held opinion was based on an emotional perception, and not on empiricism. This hallmark of theism is to interpret all phenomena within the preexisting paradigm, gods exist, forcing the outright rejection of those premises that can’t be bashed into a shape that fits. History and theology both are replete with examples.

        It would be like me, walking into the Boston Symphony, picking up a violin and scratching out a few wretched notes in some musical screed, and then asking them to join the next performance. I may even think I did pretty well. Just as I’m sure you did, when you wrote that last…. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

        Perhaps after your no doubt insightful exegeses on the atheist personality, we can turn to other deeply mysterious yet meaningful subjects such as why the comment system would hold my comment so long, or even, why Google can seemingly pull up any bit of human knowledge based on three keystrokes, while your spell checker can’t even begin to recognize a twelve letter word that has only a single letter out of place… at the end. These are areas where I wold be deeply grateful for any rational theory. Perhaps we may even divine the intention of some creator within this irreducibly complex programming with some deeper goal beyond typographical errors, misspellings and redundant commentary. You never know.

        I am very much looking forward to your next posts.

        CoffeyC

        • George Yancey

          We have a comment system whereby we have to approve the first comment a person makes. We have unfortunatly had to do that because some of the comments were not fruitful for discussion. But after we approve the first comment, and we know that it is not a spammer or someone who is unnecessarily rude, then later comments from that person can come through without needing our approval. So you can comment away on this blog entry from this point forward and your comments will show up immediately.
          This will be the process for every blog written so in my future blogs. Your first comment will have to be approved before we can have free flowing conversation. I am sorry for this hangup but certain individuals have made it necessary.
          As to your argument about atheism not being a belief system I am talking as a sociologist, not as a philospher or theologian. As a sociologist I know that individuals who advocate atheism have certain propensities and values. As a sociologist athiesm acts like a beleif system in every meaningful way. Right now I will leave it at that. In a couple of more blogs I will look more deeply into the common assertion atheists make about it not being a belief but I feel it is premature to do so at this time.

          • Coffey3C

            Thank you, so much. I assumed with the commenting it was something like that; and, I certainly understand. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

    • Ron Cram

      CoffeyC,
      You write: “Atheists accept science as a way to understand reality, the natural universe, which is something that it has been proven to do better than any other tool for understanding that humans have yet devised.”

      I don’t believe this is accurate. When scientists are committed to the atheist worldview, they are more likely to make mistakes. For example, Victor Stenger was once a physicist and now a philosopher who is committed to his atheist beliefs. The problem is the science does not support them. Victor wrote a book titled “The Fallacy of Fine-tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed For Us.” Most atheist physicists are willing to grant the extreme fine-tuning exists but they simply refuse to draw any conclusions from it. Stenger admits that the appearance of fine-tuning is a powerful argument and so he feels compelled to write a book saying the appearance of fine-tuning is not real. The problem, of course, is that Stenger makes a huge number of scientific mistakes that finds him in conflict with all physics textbooks.

      Another example is the brilliant Roger Penrose. The issue that got Roger’s attention was the low entropy Big Bang. Nature does not do low entropy. The 2nd law makes clear that (unless life is involved) entropy always increases. Roger did a famous calculation to determine the chances the Big Bang could have resulted in a low entropy universe. He calculated them as one in 10 to the power 10 to the power 123. That is a number so great that if you tried to write it out … 1,000.000…. etc, then you could put a zero on every particle in the observable universe and you would run out of room. So, if the Big Bang cannot result from a vacuum fluctuation or colliding branes (if you like string theory), then how did the universe start? Being an atheist, Roger could not go with the result Allan Sandage, Frank Tipler and Hugh Ross chose (Christianity) so he had to find another explanation. Penrose returned to the discredited cycle theory. We know the cycle theory is not going to work because the expansion of the universe is accelerating. At any rate, Penrose wrote a book titled “Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe.” The book received a great deal of acclaim early on. The problem is that Roger has made some errors that have been pointed out in the scientific literature. http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101210/full/news.2010.665.html
      One critic says Penrose is not even wrong. http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3734

      It is my view that devotion to atheism leads scientists astray from the truth. I will be pointing this out in my future writings.

      • Psy

        Personally I think the Big Bang theory is wrong for several reasons. Science isn’t unchanging gospel nor does it claim to be. There is the complaint by many that the Big Bang Theory is nothing more than the Biblical “Let there be light” masquerading as science while ironically its usually religious followers denouncing the Big Bang Theory.

        • Coffey3C

          Fortunately, Psy, when there is an objection of substance, or even a proof that overturns that argument, it will be ratified by the Nobel Committee. (Fortunately the ones for the hard sciences still have quite a bit more credibility that the Peace committee, who have turned into a real cult of the absurd.) I would hazard, in the meantime, that if it is ever done, it will not be by anyone who objects to Physics theories based on theology, or who organize colors based on their inherent moralities, or worst of all, by someone who evaluates all science based on some universal left/right points value.

          CoffeyC

          p.s. If you’d like to discuss these objections to the Bib Bang theory, an off-topic for here, Coffey3C@gmail.com

      • Explicit Atheist

        There is a single post-doctoral critic of Stenger’s argument. The large majority of astro-physicists apparently have no major problems with Stenger’s argument that the universe is likely not nearly as fine-tuned as the fine- tuning argument asserts, and in particular that there are good reasons for the five constants that are central to the fine-tuning argument having the particular values that they have.

      • Coffey3C

        These are very common types of arguments, Ron, that are oft made from the theistic view. I can see several fundamental errors in these premises, and to be completely fair, the first was one that I made. In reading that quote, I wish I had said “Atheists who understand Science,” or “Atheists who base their views on a Science.” The truth is, I’ve known atheists, one a literary professor for instance, who’s depth of understanding of anything scientific’al, ended at pushing the up arrow to make the elevator go where he wanted.

        The second flaw is an implied appeal to authority. It does not alter the fact that in the whole of human history there is no single definitive proof of the supernatural. If there were, no one would be talking about faith, they would be talking about proof. There are any number of scientists throughout history, who had any number of… unsubstantiated… beliefs. Newton’s alchemy, Shapley’s little gnome coming in his window, are but two of many. So what. The truth is that we do revere men of science who are smart, have proven track records, and who are professionally eminent in their field. However, once their latest theory goes down on paper to be corroborated with empirical evidence, it had better be air-tight and bulletproof. Their reputation buys exactly nothing beyond that point. Even if we’d like to have their autograph.

        It is true that the top scientists in any number of fields are far more likely to be Atheists; even though, clearly there are many excellent scientists who are also theists. If they are good at their job, it is because they keep these beliefs separate. If they can’t, at best their conclusions are utterly dismissed, and at worst they wind up running creationist blogs, like Caroline Crocker, or a Richard Sternberg. Science by its nature is neither theistic or atheistic. Anyone who describes it in those terms, has missed a fundamental point, so I’ll feel perfectly justified in restating that fundamental without apology.

        Science is a method whereby we compare a set of existing conditions to another set of conditions, or to some conjecture, all in the real world. The hypothesis we evaluate is conjectural, but the evidence for its proof must exist in the natural world. The natural world, that based on all of human experience, comprises the whole of our reality. With regard to the supernatural, God or gods, there is this simple test. If the entity may exist outside of, tamper with, or is unbounded by the natural universe, then science simply does not apply. You may consider the existence of that proposed deity in any number of ways, but in the absence of any valid empirical evidence, those considerations are something other than Science.

        That is not to say, that there are not those few out there, who might come up with some theological hypothesis… that those big saguaro cacti in the south west were made in that form, by God, to remind the indigenous peoples of of Christ on the Cross. They can pray for the truth, though it’s a method that has provided no conclusive proof in all of human history; or, he can do the science. If he does the science, then the question is how to design the experiment or test. If god is everywhere, then he can’t devise a test to grow cacti in its absence to check their shape. If God exists in some extra-universal aether, playing pinochle with the great Goldfish of Zoo (who runs the nearby goldfish bowl universe.), he still can make no test. There is simply no intersection between the scientific method, the supernatural balms for human emotional needs. This is ignorance of the method.

        Moving on, there is also the argumentum ad ignorantium that is clearly a basis for these discussions. There is no fine tuning, nor is there any evidence for conscious design. There are a set of laws in this universe, and all life, matter, energy, and space, as well as the existence of any concurrent transitions or phenomenon, are governed by a set of relationships that we group under the designation “Laws” for convince. Everything that exists proves that.

        And…

        Where there is no proof that other universes exist, and where we can have no good understanding of the nature of those existences (like an intelligent whale lacking the conception of fire, for example.), we are left with this single universe to measure and observe, and that single set of data supports no other conclusions. An atheist Physicist Floral Arranger, who speaks to concepts such as design or find tuning, is struggling to convey concepts he does not yet understand. A theist who does so, is imposing a conclusion, based on an emotional need or fear. That single set of data still supports only the conclusion that this existence is the result of those relationships or Laws – No matter how badly the argument is made, or what mistakes are made in the process.

        Roger Penrose, was right that our understanding is insufficient to explain all that we know of consciousness, but that does not show the unknown is unknowable. The proposition is still true, or not true. It is not, True or God. Theology is the solution to an emotional problem with “I don’t know” as an answer, in that formulates the universal answer. Science has no such problem; and, “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid and ubiquitous answer that initiates all scientific inquiry.

        Moving on, via a different method, the nature of Philosophy from the viewpoint of a natural philosopher, or a philosophical naturalist:

        I admire that some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known where philosophers, who have convinced me that although we should always trace the beginnings of human explorations to those early philosophies, they are the consistently clear reason why science accomplished so little of value till it threw those buggers out. Philosophy is good exercise for the mind, but in any argument related to the natural world, it is a stationary bicycle that in reality gets you nowhere. No matter how carefully crafted the argument, or how elegant the reasoning , like Plato’s assertion that the only thing worthy of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity’s consideration, was that god himself, you can’t argue something into existence. No matter how elegant or beautiful, it is still a self contained construct in thought.

        “Something can’t come from Nothing!” I don’t know what Nothing is. As a chemist and Physicist, I can’t point to a single example of your nothing. To me, nothing is a philosophical concept, or a philosophical place marker, like a zero in mathematics. I don’t think ‘nothing’ exists. “If something begins to exist, then that beginning must have had a cause!” Well… sure… if you consider transitions from one form to another, or the input of energy… This would be a good time to talk about string theory, perhaps. “Ah-ha! Well the universe exists, so it must have had a beginning!” No. There is a point beyond which we may never be able to explore into the past, but there is no evidence that this constitutes a boundary between existence, and non-existence. I can point to several ways it might be explained as a transition from one state to another, all evidenced by real observations and existing theories
        .
        I think the first rule of epistemology should be: Ignorance, is never proof of anything.

        In fact, I may be seen as overly pragmatic, but even as it applies to the strictest predicate logic, where there are recognized transcendent truths: Identity, non-contradiction, and the Excluded middle. I believe that based on our understanding, that these seem to universal, and conceivably extra-universal/transcendent truths. That is because they are, to my mind, only conjectural reflections of experience. Given a single universe, they are merely a definitional statement of existence within this set of universal laws. Asserting these as applicable to other universes is just a neat idea… by an old bearded man on a stationary bicycle; but, the fact that even I think it’s a good argument, does not prove it so.

        How did the universe start? Other than a finite and very fallible human intellect, I can find no reason to suggest that it needed to; and certainly not to suggest that is more likely than an alternative infinity that is equally difficult to grasp. As my dear Maggie Thatcher might have said “I give you my former answer back.” The big bang, membranes, vacuum quantum fluctuations… Whatever theory you choose to try out, they can be transitions, or interactions, more easily than they can be creations. You can’t get hung up on the fact that there had to be a start, where it all started from nothing. There is no evidence for that. There is only evidence that the universe exists.

        Lastly, the Second Law of thermodynamic does not say that. Closed or isolated systems tend toward entropy. That does not mean that the solutes in a solution cannot crystallize, increasing order in a non living system in one aspect, while perhaps decreasing it in the conversion of a liquid to a vapor. Nor does it mean that enthalpy cannot continually increase in a system like life, with our earth being provided energy by a star. Trying to construe that this has a philosophical meaning, (even if it’s in an attempt to get back at that bearded guy…), is meaningless. The only system that I know of that even seems as if it could be closed, would be a universe.

        Trying to assign numbers in this way is like a creationist trying to use probability to prove design. They never get it right, because if they really understood the underlying principles, they would not make the argument. The probability that this universe exists: 1 Random probability as it applies to life, and other physical phenomena: Oops. They are not random, though they may be chaotic, which isn’t the same thing. There are physical/chemical laws that limit and direct outcomes.

        The probability against a protein coming out in the correct shape is enormous, if you misconstrue they are random, but they do, and in a very short time. Same with DNA chemistry. The processes of life seem quite complex, but following a pattern, even a very complex one – as governed by those natural laws at every step – is still just a pattern or a system of reactions. It’s not proof of consciousness.

        All these arguments belie an understanding of how the universe actually works. It takes a trained physicist to understand Physics these days, because beyond a certain point, because Physics is no longer commonly sensible. [It makes you envy Leonardo da Vinci, who only needed to be the smartest person in the world, and have the patience to make actual tests and observations.] The sad truth is, nowadays, even very smart people who talk about random chance in this way have usually missed a very large part of a subtle and intricate thing called reality.

        I make plenty of mistakes, Ron. Some were so outrageous and unique that I was left rather perversely proud of them; but, the fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science within these arguments don’t bring any of those to light, because these were nothing more than theistic prejudice writ in scientific jargon. Nor, do any failures of mine reflect on these two simple axioms, in that theology is more and more constrained by what science proves to be true, where bit by bit faith is proven credulity, and the mystical is merely the irrational. Science, on the other hand, with its implicit absence of the unnatural, suffers no such constraint.

        Thank you for your thoughts. I hope my responses were sufficiently clear to be worthy of your attentions.

        CoffeyC

  • Psy

    As for atheist being the least trusted in the US, my ex-wife’s Evangelical Christian Church told them not to associate with non-believers as they will turn them to Satan and how evil non-believers are. Personally I never tried to influence her beliefs one way or another nor did she try get me to go to church. I thought is was a good thing that she and her mother could spend time at a common interest whether it was church or shopping or whatever they like to do.

  • Ed babinski

    Female progressive leaders, who were either universalists or atheists, include Florence nightingale, Clara Barton, elizabeth cady Stanton, and I think the founder of hull house. Females back then were quite progressive. I also have two posts online concerning women who debunk christianity, including a catholic world theologian, and Anglican theologian, among others.

    • Erp

      @Ed, Universalists aren’t the same as atheists (though most atheists are universalists in the sense we think all people have the same fate). There are Christian universalists though for many Christians universalism is considered a heresy.

      While many atheists do have the advantage of being white, educated, and male. Quite a number are not and tend to be quiet in their stance. Searching for Black humanists should yield some.

  • Sharon

    It has taken me several years to be open about being an atheist. The burden of proof does not lie on the atheist but the religious. I feel the discrimination for my lack of beliefs andam scra to come out the atheistic closet of sorts .


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