Atheism Inherently Offends

by Jesse Galef

I don’t often disagree with Herb Silverman but it does happen on occasion. The man is a constant source of clever phrases, inspiring ideas, and good humor. But there’s a reason I stopped quoting him where I did in my earlier post about the American Humanist Association’s new ad campaign.

In his most recent On Faith piece, he made a case defending the new ads reading “No God? …No Problem!”.  I didn’t want to get off-topic in that post, but I take issue with the very next sentence after the passage I quoted:

Saying you don’t believe in God is no more anti-Christian or anti-religious than saying you are black is anti-white, saying you are female is anti-male, or saying you are gay is anti-straight. In the words of that great philosopher, Popeye the Sailor Man: “I yam what I yam.”

There is a fundamental difference between saying you are an atheist and saying you are black, white, female, male, gay, or straight. Those are all personal statements and don’t reflect on others.  Identity is pluralistic – there are as many identities as there are people, and none of them are “incorrect”.

Declaring myself an atheist states what I think is true in the world.  Unlike the other examples, the assertion is not simply a personal statement about identity.  It is a truth-claim about the objective facts of reality – and I am saying I think religious individuals are wrong about those facts.  That is anti-religious.

There is one reality and some of us are correct while others are incorrect.  It’s no longer merely a statement about myself – in essence I’m saying, “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”

Many people base their lives around their god-beliefs. Of course it rubs them the wrong way for us to publicly attack their foundations. I believe all things should be subject to scrutiny, but we know that people are often emotionally invested in their beliefs. Challenging them – as we have a responsibility to do – will upset people.  We know it will.  It’s the cost of living in a free society in pursuit of the truth.  As Silverman said, people will likely hate us merely for stating who we are and what we believe.

We need to recognize that our existence as atheists upsets people in a way the homosexuality doesn’t.  Gays don’t, by their very existence, tell straight people that they think everyone should be gay.

Given our starting point, even our polite signs are going to ruffle some feathers.  We’ll have to live with that.  I’m  certainly not saying that we should tiptoe around the issues in public or, conversely, that we should embrace our ability to offend people.  Where we should each fall on the spectrum is for each person to weigh, and there’s a place for all kinds of approaches from Greg Epstein to PZ Myers.  But when we’re each making that decision, we should take into account the reality that people are emotionally attached to their beliefs and will be upset when we publicly doubt.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • littlejohn

    I’m not sure I agree with you. Atheists come in all shapes and flavors. An infant, for example, is an atheist, but has no views on the subject. I am using the word “atheist” in it’s most literal sense, of course.
    But there are differences among adult atheists, too.
    There are crusading atheists, like Hitchens, who go to a great deal of trouble attempting to win converts. There are quiet, almost apologetic atheists, like Darwin, who leave those things to others.
    One thing we have in common with blacks, gays, and others, is that we have no choice about our identity.
    This idea will upset conservatives – the same ones who insist on separating homosexuals from homosexuality.
    But honestly, could you be anything other than an atheist? I couldn’t.
    Of course I could attend church, just as a homosexual could marry someone of the opposite sex, but we’d both just be faking it.
    I think – and I’m being serious here – this would make an interesting topic for an essay, or maybe even a book.
    Maybe I’ll write it.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”

    I respectfully disagree with you on this one. Nothing in the ads say that no one should believe in God. They simply say that there are people that believe in God, and if you are one of these people then you are not alone. If anyone reads anything further into the billboards then it is their problem and not the fault of the people who wrote the sign.

    And I certainly don’t believe that others shouldn’t believe in God. The world is big enough for all kinds of points of view. I just don’t want anyone to unnecessarily impose their religious beliefs on others. Especially if they use government resources to promote these beliefs.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yes.

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Jesse, you’re absolutely right. If we’re going to insist that religion is a hypothesis about the world — and that therefore atheists have not only the legal but the moral right to criticize it and point out its errors and persuade people that it’s mistaken and generally treat it like any other hypothesis — then we don’t get to turn around and claim atheism as a core identity, in the way that being black or female or LGBT is. If religion is a hypothesis, so is atheism.

    It’s certainly true that some atheists are more “Live and let live, I really don’t care what other people believe as long as they don’t force it on me”… while others are more about actively trying to persuade people out of religion. But I totally agree that there’s no way to say “I don’t believe in God” without implying “If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.”

    I’m not sure that makes atheism inherently offensive, per se. I’m not automatically offended when someone tells me they think I’m mistaken. But I do think it’s going to upset people, pretty much no matter what — since lots of people do get upset when people tell them, “I think you’re mistaken.” Especially when it comes to ideas that are very important to them.

  • http://gaytheistagenda.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”

    That may be your take on it, and that may be how others perceive “atheists” (hence their negative reaction to us), but that’s not how I feel. I don’t believe in gods, but I don’t care if other people do–so long as they don’t use their belief/faith to infringe upon my rights or the rights of others.

  • mkb

    I think you’ve got it Jesse. There is room in the world for all kinds of beliefs to the extent that those beliefs are not harmful, and people can debate all day whether a belief in a god is harmful; however, there is room for only one reality. Atheists by their existence challenge theists perception of reality and that is discomfiting.

  • Jesse Galef

    @Iason Ouabache & Buffy

    Important distinction here: we can “care or not” that someone is wrong. But we do think theists are incorrect.

    “And I certainly don’t believe that others shouldn’t believe in God. The world is big enough for all kinds of points of view.”

    Truth is not pluralistic. This is not a discussion of preferences – either people, looking at the world, should have confidence in the truth-claim of a god, or they should not. By saying that I don’t believe in a god, I’m stating that I find the evidence for such a belief unconvincing and those who find it convincing I consider incorrect.

  • redion

    I think that wrinkle in this argument is that you can make the same point about any pair of religion. Does being christian automatically offend all jews because christians think they have the one true religion? And vice-versa? And muslims vs satanists? Etc.
    I think that, in the end, the only people that would take offense to someone’s atheism are those who are aware of how ridiculous their faith looks when looked upon rationally.

  • Trace

    I have to agree with IO an Buffy.

  • JHGRedekop

    “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”

    What’s often ignored, though, is that every religion says something very similar about every other religion: “I am right about the fundamental nature of the universe and you are not.”

  • Bekka

    I agree with redion – that while religious identities do claim a particular worldview, they don’t inherently claim that all others are invalid – and moreover, that those that DO fall into a separate, more dangerous category. It is the difference between a Christian who believes what they believe and doesn’t bother others, and one that believes that their sole purpose in living is to convert as many people as possible, because any way of living other than evangelical Christianity is a path to hell. Moreover, those who are doomed to hell after death are therefore to be treated differently in life. There ARE factions who believe this way in most religions – sections of the Bible, Torah, and Koran all variously state that unbelievers can be cheated, robbed, even killed, with fewer repercussions because of their beliefs. But modern religion frequently does not follow these injunctions, rather concerns itself with the spiritual life of those who voluntarily follow that faith.

    I think atheism functions the same way – it is enough for many to be satisfied with their worldview, their hypothesis, and they don’t treat religious people differently AS HUMAN BEINGS because of their religion. We may be atheist and anti-religion, but there is a difference between that and anti-religious people. Just as Jews may be “anti” Christian theology, in that they don’t subscribe to it, but they aren’t inherently anti-Christian.

    In regards to black/white gay/straight female/male, the identity implies a person, the ‘identified.’ With religion, it is possible for people to change their minds, there is a difference between organized religion as an institution and the beliefs and practices of those who affiliate themselves with it.

    PHEW! Long winded, sorry.

  • PrimeNumbers

    One thing that the religious have always had is numbers. And they community together in churches and surround themselves with their number. And all nice and cozy and well in the world.

    And then the atheist comes along and reminds them that there exist those that are not of their number, and that is the crux of it. Numerically, every atheist (and everyone of a different religion) removes some of their comfort zone.

    And worse still, atheists don’t appear to either need numbers of the cozy surroundings of fellow atheists (other than on blogs like this) and that again reminds them that their comfort zone is being eroded.

    If 100% of the people on this planet were of the same religious thought, there’d be no doubt, no worry. The existence of a single atheist would start to add doubt and worry. Imagine what the millions of us do to their doubt and worry.

    But it’s not our fault, and it’s wrong of them to complain about our very existence.

  • bigjohn756

    Being an atheist and stating so is a challenge to faith. Any challenge to faith is a challenge to a person of faith because faith is so weak that any challenge is detrimental to a person that believes. People of faith will not, indeed cannot, subject themselves to any statements contrary to their faith. Most of the faithful will, as is often stated, stick their fingers in their ears and yell LA, LA, LA, instead of daring to hear a statement which might make them think about their beliefs. As WE all know, thought is the worst enema enemy of faith.

  • Zach

    While I think Jesse is generally right on, one note did strike me as a bit off, coming from my experience as a gay atheist. I have two shirts that perform roughly the same task: one indicates my atheism by reading “Atheist” and the other indicates my homosexuality by reading “I’m so gay”. I live in southern Mississippi, the strongest antithesis to a progressive oasis imaginable. I have to confess that I feel much more intimidated while wearing the shirt that says “I’m so gay”.

    One reason for this that has occurred to me is that many people advertise all sorts of varieties of religious belief. It’s a legitimate sphere of discuss. Sexuality, on the other hand, is more taboo (unless it involves scantily clad women). Heterosexuals can claim they never broadcast their sexuality with more ease, even it that’s not true at all. Also, an atheist is a challenge, but still a potential Christian. There are far more stories of successful converted atheists than successfully de-gayified homosexuals.

    Anyone have similar experience?

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  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    By saying that I don’t believe in a god, I’m stating that I find the evidence for such a belief unconvincing and those who find it convincing I consider incorrect.

    This is true but it is not the message that the billboard was trying to project. The point of the billboards is to let atheists out there know that there are others who also don’t believe. If people are offended by that message then we should be equally offended by every billboard that pretends to be a message from God and every advertisement for a Christian church. They believe that we are not only wrong but unrighteous people that are going to burn in hell for all of eternity.

    While it bothers me that they believe this, I’m not going to flood the phone lines of the advertising company or make death threats to the person that owns the property that it is on. I believe in freedom of religion and speech unlike some of them. They have a right to be offended (even if it is unwarranted) but they don’t have a right to stop us from advertising our message.

  • mikespeir

    I don’t think the intention here is so much to deal with our motives. We may not intend to offend. Regardless, the kind of Christian I grew up with and was myself does in fact take the simple fact of my atheism as an affront. Sadly, there’s no way to smooth that over completely.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    I don’t think that’s what the quote was saying. He said that the label “atheist” is not synonymous with “anti-theist” and he is right. I am not anti-Christian and I am an atheist, but people often assume I am. I think that is all he was trying to say.

    And homosexuality *definitely* inherently offends some people. If it didn’t, we would have gay marriage by now. If it didn’t, Christians wouldn’t have coined such lovely phrases like “hate the sin, love the sinner” or campaign to make sure that gays receive as few rights as possible. Those in the church who are anti-gay rights have the exact same attitude toward atheists, thinking they are anti-Christian.

  • Ben

    Atheism only offends the devout. I’m sure there are many deists out there, and I’ve met a few, who can hold casual conversations with atheists about religion and philosophy and not be in the least bit offended. You can be in disagreement without taking offence, but it all depends on your intent and approach to the discussion/argument. It might be different in the U.S., where religion is a bit more enshrined, but I wouldn’t confuse the fanatics with the casual Christians.

    I also think your comparison to homosexuals is also a little off, if only because it looks at the issue objectively rather than subjectively from the Christian point of view. Many Christians do in fact believe that the gays are out to convert them and their children. A message of “It’s okay to be gay” has been met with equal offence by Christians because of it’s apparent “promotion” of homosexuality. Any message that even slightly suggest that there is nothing for homosexuals to be ashamed about, is met with offence.

    Christians want gays and atheists to do exactly the same thing: be quiet, don’t make waves, do what we say, and be good Christians. To many them, it’s no different, and often are one and the same.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    Reading some of the comments (and a line in the post I missed originally), I see more what I think you were trying to say; that atheism isn’t part of our identity just because it’s true. But I think I disagree with that, too.

    Saying that we can’t have an identity of something just because it’s true when we don’t know for sure it is true is fallacious. It doesn’t matter anyway: it’s true that Whites are White, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t form an identity based on that. Even within academia, those who prefer one hypothesis over another form a professional identity based on that. For example, a Freudian or a behaviorist in the psychological field. Even that can bleed over into a person’s personal life, too, because our perceptions of reality color our view of the world. How we perceive the world is a big part of who we are as individuals. So you can form an identity based on something that is true and something that you believe to be true about the world.

    Secondly, atheists DO form identities around their atheism, right or wrong. We have campus groups, community groups, online groups, literature, etc, all that cater to atheists. We wear atheist t-shirts and read atheist books, and put up signs. And what I believe is *part* of who I am. It’s not all that I am, but especially since we are a minority group, identities form as part of that.

    Thirdly, I don’t think that is inherently anti-religious. It’s a scientific belief. Deists can still believe that there is a god and still believe in science, and certain religions cater to that belief. UU, Episcopalian, certain sects of Judaism, paganism, etc. So it is not anti-religious OR anti-Christian just to be an atheist. That would be anti-theism. There is a difference.

  • Richard Wade

    I respectfully disagree in the strongest terms.

    Jesse, I think you’re making the same mistake that so many theists make when they consider atheists. They cannot comprehend the absence of belief. They assume that if you don’t have a belief in X you must therefore have a belief against X. That is not necessarily true. It is possible to not be busy believing something. Belief is a distinctive mental activity, and a person does not have to be constantly doing it, just as one does not have to be constantly reciting the alphabet backwards in one’s head. I’m not busy reciting it forwards or backwards.

    As an atheist, I don’t have the belief that “there is no God.” I simply lack belief in gods. In the absence of evidence, my default setting is refraining from belief in a claim, instead of adopting the belief that the claim is false. To believe the claim is false, I’d need the presence of evidence refuting the claim. For gods, there is neither evidence for or against. When I say I’m an atheist, I’m not making a truth statement about the world, I’m making a truth statement about myself and nothing more.

    Theists decide to be offended because they make this common error in what they think an atheist is saying. Even if they do understand that so many atheists simply lack belief, they will still take the stance of “offence” as a defense mechanism. They are disturbed when they meet a sane and intelligent person who is unconvinced by whatever convinced them. It makes them feel insecure.

    There is nothing “inherently offensive” in my being not yet convinced. Any offense is the activity, the choice and the responsibility of the person feeling that emotion. You miss the proper assignment of this responsibility in your own analogy:

    We need to recognize that our existence as atheists upsets people in a way the homosexuality doesn’t. Gays don’t, by their very existence, tell straight people that they think everyone should be gay.

    The gays dont, but plenty of homophobes claim just that. They are convinced that gays have the “gay agenda,” which includes trying to somehow turn straight people into gays. That is just as ridiculous a claim as the assumption that my saying “I’m not convinced” means I’m saying I want someone else to stop being convinced. No I don’t. That’s none of my business. By my very existence, I’m not saying everyone should be an atheist. That assumption is only the fantasy of theists, and now apparently some atheists, about me. Sorry, wrong.

  • Tizzle

    I sometimes use the term ‘non-believer’ in the presence of people I suspect may be religious. I wonder if this word is less prone to this kind of interpretation.

    I’m sorta new to speaking out as an atheist, and have always been one to find common ground rather than differences when I meet people.

  • Miko

    No.

    If that were true, it’d be equally true that being Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc., would be inherently offensive since they too claim that the teachings of other religions are incorrect factual statements.

    If someone gets offended when I’m doing something which isn’t offensive, that’s their fault, not mine.

  • JulietEcho

    Thanks, Richard, for eloquently writing what I was thinking!

    I do think that the mere existence of atheists/atheism offends some people – that’s demonstrably true, and we’ve heard plenty of personal stories on the site to prove it. However, I don’t think that my saying, “I’m an atheist” is the equivalent of telling my theist friend, “You’re wrong and I’m right.”

    Atheists often (and rightly) point out that we’re taking what we view as a default position. The ball is in the theists’ court – we haven’t seen anything that’s convinced us. Show us what you’ve got. Any given atheist can’t be assumed to have read/seen/heard all the different reasons/proofs/anecdotes/texts that different theists might present for their personal god hypotheses.

    Someone who’s had a personal religious experience – like a vision or a dream – might accept that as good evidence but understand why another person wouldn’t be convinced simply by hearing an account of it. They’d have to experience it for themselves and *then* decide if it was good evidence or not.

    Anyway, just throwing in my two cents to compliment Richard’s twenty :-)

  • Hammurabi

    If the point is that “no matter what atheists do, someone will be offended” then I agree, for now, for the reasons laid out by the OP. However, if the point is that “religious people are justified in being offended by the existence of atheists” then I wholeheartedly disagree.

  • noel44

    “It is a truth-claim about the objective facts of reality – and I am saying I think religious individuals are wrong about those facts. That is anti-religious.”

    The sign in question is directed at those who do not identify as “humanists” and not just at those whose atheism is the same as yours.

    Frequently, those in the atheist blogosphere speak as if all atheists have come by their atheism via science and reason. Yet there are atheists for whom their lack of a belief in a deity would not fit into something as formal as an hypothesis or truth-claim. Indeed there are those who regard their atheism as a private matter: something that is “right for them” and not necessarily right for everyone else. I may not agree with them but they can all lay equal claim to being “atheist” as you or I may do.

    As regards a disagreement over the facts being anti-religious, you’ve set the bar ridiculously low. That’s not anti-religious. My positions are anti-religious: that religious belief has a marked tendency to render its adherents: prideful; fearful; susceptible to manipulation; dangerous; insular; hypocritical; reactionary; illiberal; and stunted emotionally, intellectually, and ethically.

  • Charles in Cincinnati

    I see both sides in this debate, and it reminds me of vegetarians, which seem to come in two types. Some are activists and see their position as one that is “universally right” (i.e., at odds with any other position) and should be spread. In contrast, other vegetarians see their position as “personal” choice and tend to let carnivores dive in without a sermon. As someone who is content in my diet, I have to say that the latter are far more agreeable to have a meal with.

  • Hisham

    Looking at Silverman’s original comment, it appears that there are differences about what being anti-christian or anti-religious would mean.

    I can disagree with the beliefs of various religions, but I can still believe in their right to practice their beliefs (within reason) while they agree to not force me to follow along.

    I believe that is what Silverman was getting at.

    “Think for your self and let others enjoy the same privilege to do so too”
    - Voltaire (I think).

  • AxeGrrl

    Greta Christina wrote:

    But I totally agree that there’s no way to say “I don’t believe in God” without implying “If you do believe in God, you’re mistaken.”

    I completely (but respectfully:) disagree.

    Saying “I don’t believe” is not the same as saying “I don’t believe and I know that I’m right“……

    Any statements about one’s belief are just that: about belief, not knowledge. If one isn’t claiming knowledge in their statement, then the additional assertion “you’re mistaken” isn’t necessarily inherent in that statement.

    I have no doubt that many believers could/would choose to interpret an atheist’s statement as you have, but I don’t think that would be valid, for the reasons I’ve expressed above.

    Now, if you’d worded your 2nd statement like this: “If you believe in God, then I think you’re mistaken“, I would have agreed with you :)

  • AxeGrrl

    Jesse wrote:

    either people, looking at the world, should have confidence in the truth-claim of a god, or they should not. By saying that I don’t believe in a god, I’m stating that I find the evidence for such a belief unconvincing and those who find it convincing I consider incorrect.

    I think you’re making a bit of a mistake here Jesse, to do with your use of the word “should” in the above. Yes, there is only one ‘reality’ and someone is wrong and someone is right, but unless a person claims to have knowledge about which position is right, then imo, there can be no suggestion of “shoulds” because we’re talking about beliefs and not unequivocal truth.

    As an atheist, I would never suggest that another person “should” come to the same conclusion that I have. I may not understand why another person believes something that I can’t get my head around, I may think their reasons for believing don’t hold water, but because I don’t know what the ‘ultimate reality’ is, the idea of suggesting (either directly or by implication) that the other person “should” believe (or not believe) as I do doesn’t enter my mind.

    Sorry if this all seems unduly ‘nitpicky’, but when the subject of belief vs knowledge comes up, it seems almost inevitable that the discussion will get ‘sticky’ with the subtle difference between those two concepts.

  • Philoctetes

    I am an atheist. If a believer chooses to take that fact as a statement that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, so be it. I am not responsible for the reactions, rational or irrational, of that believer any more that s/he is responsible for mine to his/her statement of faith.

    I do agree with Jesse’s statement:

    There is a fundamental difference between saying you are an atheist and saying you are black, white, female, male, gay, or straight.

    I am proud to say that that my atheism was a conscious choice, not the result of semi-random combination of DNA. I was confronted with a comfortable fantasy and a merciless reality. I’m happy to say that I passed that test – a much cooler thing than inheriting an identity!

  • Mister Trickster

    Hmmm. A few points. But first, of course, Jesse, I appreciate the risks you take in your positions. Certainly these things are worth debating.

    Bear with me, because I think I’m making a reach here, but you seem to be falling into the can-ought gap.

    Back when Kant was making his categorical imperatives, there was an assumption that there was a higher authority to appeal to that would grant that the way things should be are the way things are (this is more commonly discussed as divine command theory, I believe). You could make a “truth statement” then, about the universe, because there was something out there that supposedly could validate this truth statement. But now we (at least you and I) don’t believe in a divine commander who could allow for the possibilities of the way we think things are as being necessarily true, so in that way you’re making the same argument the theists are making: that the world is the way it is, and that you can accurately speak to that way of existence.

    Sure, you and I can agree that this is the way the world is, but to claim that this is a universal truth, and a threatening truth, at that, is not only dubious, but it also seems counter-productive for having a reasonable dialogue (separate point, I know, but I feel it’s worth repeating).

    Perhaps I would be more understanding about your position if you said that you are explicitly in conflict with a specific conception of God, say, the Jesus-God or the Old Testament God, and with the people who believe in that God explicitly.

    I also have to take issue with this statement you made in the comments: “Truth is not pluralistic.” According to what? Mathematics? Geometry? Astrophysics? Whether we are talking about quantum physics (I’m thinking of Schrodinger’s cat in particular), multiple frames of reference for the universe (Newtownian gravity for the big stuff, and quantum for the small, isn’t it?), or even good old fashioned logic, truths can and are matters of perspective and choice (although some choices are arguably better than others, especially depending on the context).

    Truth alone, as it is expressed in language, is especially pluralistic, since language and cognition are analogical in nature (that’s Douglas Hofstadter’s argument, but I agree with him). So if we are constantly making analogies and metaphors with the way we describe the world around us, then truths will never be so cut and dry as A is A and only A. To be a truth act is, in that sense, to be pluralistic.

    Heck, I’m even reminded of a pluralistic truth statement from our Greek metaphysics debate in Origins of Science, buddy: “Yes, but when you said that yesterday, it was funny.” So the world is both static and changing, after all, as we come back again to that single moment.

    Ah well, I look forward to your response!

    And Richard, yes, very well put! I agree completely.

  • AxeGrrl

    JulietEcho wrote:

    Anyway, just throwing in my two cents to compliment Richard’s twenty

    JulietEcho, if I’d read yours and Richard’s posts before posting mine, I would have just done the same thing! :)

    I think Richard basically nailed it here:

    As an atheist, I don’t have the belief that “there is no God.” I simply lack belief in gods. In the absence of evidence, my default setting is refraining from belief in a claim, instead of adopting the belief that the claim is false. To believe the claim is false, I’d need the presence of evidence refuting the claim. For gods, there is neither evidence for or against. When I say I’m an atheist, I’m not making a truth statement about the world, I’m making a truth statement about myself and nothing more.

    Theists decide to be offended because they make this common error in what they think an atheist is saying. Even if they do understand that so many atheists simply lack belief, they will still take the stance of “offence” as a defense mechanism. They are disturbed when they meet a sane and intelligent person who is unconvinced by whatever convinced them. It makes them feel insecure.
    *snip*
    By my very existence, I’m not saying everyone should be an atheist. That assumption is only the fantasy of theists, and now apparently some atheists, about me.

    Perfectly said :)

  • Mister Trickster

    One more brief point:

    Is atheism a completely chosen identity? One could make the argument that it is as chemically-driven+context driven as being religious.

    And if it is not only the result of chemical processes (how can you argue for sure that it isn’t, Philoctetes?), then it is free will–or is it even possible to argue for free will? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to argue both for determinism and free will–a pluralistic truth if ever there was one…

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Jesse Galef

    Some disagreement seems to center around whether or not we atheists assert that we are certain of our position or not. Obviously we aren’t certain – even Richard Dawkins puts himself as what, a 6.5 on the 7-point scale? I absolutely agree; we can have varying degrees of confidence about beliefs as we weigh the evidence of a given claim being true. There’s an analogue spectrum of confidence, not a digital “yes/no”.

    But once we come across a claim, I don’t think there’s such a thing as having no opinion. We come to the table with experience in the world with which we judge whether a claim is likely or unlikely to be true based on our evidence.

    This is where I think I disagree with Richard Wade – which is an uncomfortable thing to find myself saying, as I respect and admire him.

    [Mistaken theists] cannot comprehend the absence of belief. They assume that if you don’t have a belief in X you must therefore have a belief against X. That is not necessarily true. It is possible to not be busy believing something. Belief is a distinctive mental activity…

    Would you rather I use the term “think that something is likely to be true” instead of “believe”? That’s how I was using it.

    In this conception, when we say that we do not believe in gods we are in essence saying that when we heard and weighed theistic claims based on the evidence, we found them unlikely to be true and likely to be false. It’s possible not to have much confidence in our assessment, but we will always have a weak opinion on the claim’s likelihood of being true or false.

    A couple qualifiers – this ignores the people who might be considered atheists because they have never come into contact with the notion of God. I can live with that omission. It also means that we can never be certain that someone else is incorrect because they might have encountered different evidence in their life. I can live with that too – this provision applies to any claim we ever make. We’re always operating with different degrees of confidence and limited evidence.

    We are still saying that when we evaluated the theistic claims, we consider them likely to be incorrect.

    (I should stop writing – it’s 3:30AM)

  • Philoctetes

    Señior Coyote,

    Let’s not use the tactics of the creationists, who say that if everything is not completely explained by evolution that it fails as a theory. In turn, if there were a few non-conscious factors in my decision to accept atheism as a world view that does not make my decision any less conscious.

    Secondly, I make no claims that my decision to be atheist was any freer or more determined than a believer’s decision.

    Thirdly, while a brief romp through determinism v free will arguments might be amusing, it is unlikely that it would ever shed any light on the matter at hand. Unless you choose to be a strict determinist (and how can you argue for sure that this is true?) you might see that there is a difference in probability of choice between your race and your philosophy.

    I believe that your contention that the possibility that one element in my decision to choose atheism may have not been under my conscious control inevitably means that it was only the result of chemical processes would not pass Ockham’s test.

    Clever, though.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Jesse Galef

    @AxeGrrl – your point is well taken re: “should”, and I often find misunderstandings occur when the word is used. I usually try to be more precise, and regret not finding a different word (tough not to use ‘should’ even in this short paragraph!)

  • AxeGrrl

    Jesse wrote:

    We are still saying that when we evaluated the theistic claims, we consider them likely to be incorrect.

    I hate to say it Jesse, but I don’t think the qualifier ‘likely’ helps clarify things much. It still just comes down to whether we’re convinced or not and doesn’t have anything to do with objective reality.

    We may think/believe that we’re ‘more likely’ to be right, but it doesn’t change the fact we don’t know. “I think believers are likely to be wrong” is not the same as the more declarative “they’re wrong“. The fact that most atheists are saying the former and some believers are choosing to hear the latter doesn’t make them the same.

    I think part of the problem some of us are having with your position is your suggestion that your belief/lack of belief is “a truth-claim about the objective facts of reality” combined with “It’s no longer merely a statement about myself

    Expressions of belief are not ‘truth claims’, they’re expressions of what we think is true. And yes, that is ‘merely a statement about myself’. As long as it’s a belief and not knowledge, the only thing it tells us about is the person holding the belief.

    You seem to be describing what some believers choose to interpret (which we don’t have much control over) rather than what we’re actually saying*.

    *(if I’m wrong about this, please let me know!)

  • AxeGrrl

    Jesse wrote:

    @AxeGrrl – your point is well taken re: “should”, and I often find misunderstandings occur when the word is used. I usually try to be more precise, and regret not finding a different word (tough not to use ’should’ even in this short paragraph!)

    I definitely understand the problem of ‘finding the right word’ (and the problem of still writing past 3:30am!) I think I just noticed it because I have kind of a ‘thing’ about the word ‘should’ in general…..it’s such a ‘loaded’ word, in almost any context, you know? :)

  • benjdm

    To the extent that theists are more offended by atheism than atheists are offended by theism, that’s the theists’ fault. (And their problem.) (And vice versa.)

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com pinkydead

    My three children are Christians (well one of them is too young to be anything, maybe she’s a Doratheexplorian – so I’ll say 2 of them). But if I didn’t think the should believe in a god, they wouldn’t. If they start saying that “God” created the world, I’m quick to correct them, but I will go no further.

    I can’t tell them that “God” doesn’t exist, because I don’t know that – but I do know that the big bang started the universe and evolution create the diversity of life and that 1+1 is 2. And if they grow up knowing those things and still believe in a god – then that’s their business.

    The word “atheist” means “without god” and that’s all you can derive from it. Anything else is a wrong step on the road to creating the religion that we are so often irritatingly labeled with.

  • littlejohn

    At the risk of hair-splitting, I think it’s absolutely important to define what we mean by “offensive.”
    There is no question that some theists “take offense” at atheism, just as some racists “take offense” at interracial marriage and some homophobes “take offense” at gay marriage.
    But does that make any of those things offensive?
    It seems to me, at least in those instances, “offensiveness” is not intrinsic to the act or the identity, but rather intrinsic to the person taking – or pretending to take – offense.
    I realize this takes us in the direction of subjective ethics, where things like cannibalism and rape are arguably not offensive per se. But I’m OK with subjective ethics.
    My own ethical outlook is that things that cannot harm other people are inoffensive. I don’t care what other people believe regarding god-belief, but I am offended by the persecution of people with unpopular religious beliefs.
    I don’t care what consenting adults do in their bedrooms, but I’m offended by rape.
    There is a real difference.
    By this standard, atheism in not offensive. It cannot cause offense. Others, however, may chose to take offense. The problem is with them, not us, unless we do something genuinely harmful, like burn their churches down.

  • D.

    I completely disagree.
    1. As others have already pointed out, atheist is not = anti-theist.
    2. Most atheists are not into converting others as logn as they’re not bullyied.
    3. On the contrary, religions are intrinsically offensive to each other, since their dogmas contradict each other (a believing jew or christian is necessarily saying muslims get it wrong – after all if he didn’t, he would be a muslim (and vice versa), and if he didn’t find it important, he wouldn’t be an observing jew/christian/muslim).

  • Frank

    I hate to get all philosophical, as I’m really not a fan of philosophy, but here I feel I have to. In order to get to the conclusion that others shouldn’t believe in god, we need two premises:
    (1) it is not the case that a god or gods exists, and
    (2) all people should endeavor to have their beliefs about the world conform to the actual state of the world. In other words, people should believe only true things.

    Despite what Richard Wade and a couple of others may think, I think belief in (1) is entailed in atheism, and I suspect that Wade is being a little bit dishonest (perhaps with himself as well as us) in denying it. After all, Wade lives his life in the same way he would if he knew that the claims of christianity were false, despite having heard those claims and the arguments for them. How could he do that if he didn’t believe, on some perhaps unconscious level, that the claims of christianity were in fact false?

    Belief in (2) is perhaps not entailed in every definition of atheism, but is essential not only to any meaningful form of atheism, but also to any serious form of religion, to science, to all rational discourse. How can you discuss any truth claim with anyone without accepting (2)?

    No one really rejects (2) across the board, but some people do reject (2) in particular domains, often in the domain of religion. I find this view to be more opposed to atheism than evangelical christianity. And this view is what the people talking about the distinction between belief and knowledge are getting at. Since knowledge is justified true belief by definition, and I accept (2), I cannot ever assert both that I believe some proposition p and that I do not know p. That would be a contradiction. I can assert that other people both believe and do not know something, as I do for example with christians, but I can’t assert that I both believe and do not know something. The people telling us that we should distinguish between belief and knowledge in our own case are asking us to reject (2), and to me that would be worse than converting.

    I hope the above helps shed some light on this issue. That being said, all this means is that atheists think christians are mistaken in a particular subset of their beliefs, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask in a free society that christians not be offended by that.

  • Claudia

    As has been covered before on other posts and other comments, atheism is a somewhat different label than other religious labels. It merely describes a lack of religious belief. On it’s own, this needn’t be a “truth claim” onto itself. Young children, even the ones of religious parents are all atheists because they lack god-belief, but that doesn’t mean they are saying it’s incorrect.

    Of course pretty much every adult atheist DOES know what theism means and therefore by self-labeling as atheist they are implicitly making a statement about their view of reality.

    It’s confusing enough that it would be nice if we could separate the indiferent/unaware of religion as nontheist and the theism-aware crowd as atheist (or whatever terminology would be best).

    Still, even being an “aware” atheist should be no more offensive than being a Democrat or a Republican. If you take offense at the mere fact that someone is willing to say they view things differently, you need to grow a thicker skin.

  • http://lyonlegal.blogspot.com/ Vincent

    AxeGrrl,
    you remind me of writing essays. It used to be taught as rule 1 that you never insert yourself into an essay. It should always be in third person voice.
    In college though, I had several professors reject that position. Their reason? It’s an essay and therefore contains your opinion and everyone knows it’s your opinion so why go to effort to hide the fact?

    In other words, when I say a Christian is wrong, of course I’m giving my opinion and everyone knows it’s my opinion and therefore “you are wrong” is absolutely no different from “I think you are wrong.” The “I think” is implied in everything I say. Now I may or may not have good and convincing reasons for thinking what I do, but sticking the words “I think” in front of a declaratory statement does not soften it at all.

    (though it may imply weakness and that I don’t have evidence to back me up)

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I think that whether atheism is anti-religion depends strongly on the individual atheist.

    For some, their atheism is a response to religious claims – a rejection of those claims. They are essentially saying “I don’t believe that those claims are true”, which leads to the belief that anyone with the same degree of evidence is wrong to hold those beliefs. (Yes, they have every right to believe whatever they want, but if you don’t believe something is true, you can’t simultaneously believe that someone else is correct to believe it unless they have some evidence that you don’t. Otherwise, you would believe it.)

    For others, their atheism is the result of lack of exposure to religious belief, in which case it’s not a response to anything, but more of a default position.

    In any case, they have every right to believe whatever they want, and we have every right not to care if they believe things we think are incorrect, but it simply isn’t logically possible for us to disbelieve something and say that someone with equal evidence is correct to believe it. If it’s correct for someone with equal evidence, it must necessarily be correct for you as well. Assuming, of course, that there is some objective truth to reality.

    Richard Wade said:

    When I say I’m an atheist, I’m not making a truth statement about the world, I’m making a truth statement about myself and nothing more.

    I disagree. Our position is also making a truth statement about the evidence we’ve been given – “this evidence is not sufficient to justify belief”. True, this is a subjective perspective of the evidence, but it’s still a truth statement. Were we to hold any other position, we would believe; but since our position is what it is, we’re also saying it’s incorrect to believe based on the evidence we’ve been given.

  • Claudia

    Now I may or may not have good and convincing reasons for thinking what I do, but sticking the words “I think” in front of a declaratory statement does not soften it at all.

    That’s only true if language functioned in a way that was fully rational. It doesn’t. The way language is interpreted not only depends on strict rational interpretation, but also on cultural context and emotional charge. Saying “I think” you are wrong will sound softer than “You are wrong” to most people. The “I think” tells the person you are speaking to that you are actively aware that you are expressing an opinion, wheras not inserting “I think” gives the impression that you are stating undisputed fact.

    Certainly in both cases you are expressing what you think, but in practice both statements are not treated equally.

  • Matt

    I don’t comment very often, but I was so annoyed by this post that I felt compelled to. I disagree with you completely. I’m not anti-religious by thinking I have a firmer grasp on reality than other people. I think people can believe in whatever fairytale they want so long as it doesn’t impede on other people’s freedoms. We don’t have a responsibility to challenge people’s beliefs. We — collectively — don’t have a responsibility to anything. We atheists are individuals. We don’t fall into the constraints of needing to behave any certain way. We’re not a religion, so I’m amazed that you would want us to act like one.

    “I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.”

    It’s that sort of rhetoric that keeps me away from most atheists I come into contact with. And it’s that line of thinking that makes my attempts at tolerance in my own community even harder. It only adds to the unnecessary “us vs. them” divide.

    And you’ve got to be kidding me with the gay stuff. My existence as a gay man inherently offends, just as much as — if not more than — my lack of belief in a spooky man in the clouds. People think that I have an agenda to undermine their Christian values and their way of life. Does that sound familiar? It should! I don’t expect people to be atheist any more than I expect them to play on my team or surrender their bigoted views. I just want equality and tolerance between people. Tolerance does not equate to acceptance or adapting to that way of life. It’s about letting other people live their lives as they want without instilling our values on them.

    To think atheists want theists to be like them is a ridiculous generalization. I do not want to be associated with that sort of outlook. Prefacing “some atheists…” or “I think…” would do a world of good, rather than balling us all up in your idea of what a good atheist is, Minister. I will not be assimilated into the Borg!

  • JS

    Jesse, this is a great post. If you can’t say there are facts of the matter on the reality of God, then you are one step closer to truth relativism. What could be more real than the nonexistence/existence of God? (And if someone here stands up and says science…)

  • Ron in Houston

    Applying Jesse’s logic we’d all be offended by the theist truth statement that God exists.

    While I think that’s true for some, I’d say for the majority they couldn’t give a crap about whether they believe in God, Santa or the tooth fairy.

  • http://www.theyoungturks.com Ron Brown

    I agree that there’s a difference b/w saying what your sex, race, or sexual orientation is, on the one hand, and your religious views on the other. But I do not fully agree with the assessment that being an atheist necessarily means that one believes that others should believe as they do. While this reasoning may be true in some cases – I’m an atheist who go to where I am by thorough reasoning, and so I believe that unless new evidence is put forth, others should believe as I do if they’ve done their homework (and I’d prefer they did their homework). However, some atheists are more like apatheists; they would often not fall in the same boat as me. Some atheists might be of the opinion that the world can be interpreted in various ways and not believe that religious viewpoints are misguided (I think they’re misguided, but they may not).

    And, to give the contrast, how many of us perceive that by virtue of a person being Christian, Muslim, Mormon or whatever, that they necessarily believe that we should believe as they do? There might be a difference here, as there may be more religionists than non-religious people who are willing to give comparable value to alternative belief systems simply because it’s hard for them to give conclusive evidence that their particular religious beliefs are epistemologically superior to those of other faith groups.

    Just my two cents.

  • Richard Wade

    Frank,

    Despite what Richard Wade and a couple of others may think, I think belief in (1) is entailed in atheism, and I suspect that Wade is being a little bit dishonest (perhaps with himself as well as us) in denying it.

    The quickest way to show yourself to be incorrect is to assume that you know the innermost thoughts of another person. The most popular way that people make such assumptions is to use their own innermost thoughts as their reference, instead of ASKING the other person about theirs.

    If you’re going to resort to calling me a liar about my innermost thoughts, then all I can say is that it’s on your shoulders to prove your claim about my dishonesty. Saying that the reason my statements don’t match yours is because I’m being dishonest is an arrogant and asinine position, the absurd exaggeration of the very same thing that Jesse has done, assuming to know other’s minds, and making blanket statements about an entire category.

    Frank, your atheism may be expressed by the statement, “it is not the case that a god or gods exist,” and that is fine, but that is not mine. My statement would be, “it is not the case that anyone has convinced me yet that a god or gods exist.” You’re welcome to your view, but please don’t speak for me. You are probably a nice enough fellow, but you are not the prototype of all atheists. Don’t use yourself as a reference to make assumptions about other’s thoughts. Ask them. I think my own thoughts differently from you. I know what I’m thinking, so I can’t be “dishonest” with myself about them.

    After all, Wade lives his life in the same way he would if he knew that the claims of christianity were false, despite having heard those claims and the arguments for them. How could he do that if he didn’t believe, on some perhaps unconscious level, that the claims of christianity were in fact false?

    How I do live and how I might live were I to (secretly?) harbor the active belief that Christians’ beliefs are false are supposed to somehow be different? What the hell would the difference be? This is silly. I live my life according to my principles and my needs. I don’t see what demonstrable difference there would be in how I live whether I simply am not convinced of their claims, or do all that hard work of believing that their claims are false. (Well, I suppose I would be more tired if I did all that work, which is why I don’t.)

    Jesse made this error in his original post when he very honestly made a statement about his own views, but then assumed that his views contain an inescapable statement that is contained in the views of all atheists. Nope. I know my own mind better than anyone else, and I know what’s in there and what’s not. Later he re-asserted:

    In this conception, when we say that we do not believe in gods we are in essence saying that when we heard and weighed theistic claims based on the evidence, we found them unlikely to be true and likely to be false.

    That’s what you do, Jesse, but not what I do. When I am unconvinced because of the lack of evidence, I’m just unconvinced. That really is as far as it goes. My default position remains unmoved from refraining from belief. I don’t take that extra step into “finding them to be likely to be false.” I’m too lazy for that. That moves into putting the burden of proof onto me, to support the assertion that it’s likely to be false. I’d rather let the other guy do all that work. I have better things to do.

    My atheism is only a consequence of my skepticism, which has far broader influence in my life than the narrow issue of gods.

    It really is possible to be a purist in skepticism, and I strive every day to be meticulous about it. Being unconvinced of a claim is just that. It is not being convinced of that claim’s opposite. I stop at step one.

    Frank, if you want to be skeptical about my claim about myself, then go ahead. The only evidence that I can offer you about my innermost thoughts are my own words. If that is not convincing to you, oh well. But if you want to publicly assert that my statements about my innermost thoughts are in fact false, PLEASE PRESENT YOUR EVIDENCE.

  • AxeGrrl

    MikeTheInfidel wrote:

    Our position is also making a truth statement about the evidence we’ve been given – “this evidence is not sufficient to justify belief”. True, this is a subjective perspective of the evidence, but it’s still a truth statement.

    I have to disagree, at least with that very specific wording.

    ‘Subjective perspectives’ are never ‘truth statements’. Personal beliefs are inherently subjective and don’t necessarily reflect objective reality…..they only reflect our opinion/personal assessment about objective reality.

    And, for me, ‘this evidence is not sufficient to justify belief’ does NOT reflect my view as an atheist. My position is ‘this evidence is not sufficient to convince me. That’s it. That’s all I’m able to comment on, because I don’t know the specific personal reasons the other person has for believing.

    The only thing I’m ‘justified’ in expressing is my perspective/opinion on the issue….and that’s all I’m doing when I express my atheism.

  • AxeGrrl

    Vincent wrote:

    AxeGrrl,
    you remind me of writing essays. It used to be taught as rule 1 that you never insert yourself into an essay. It should always be in third person voice.
    In college though, I had several professors reject that position. Their reason? It’s an essay and therefore contains your opinion and everyone knows it’s your opinion so why go to effort to hide the fact?

    In other words, when I say a Christian is wrong, of course I’m giving my opinion and everyone knows it’s my opinion and therefore “you are wrong” is absolutely no different from “I think you are wrong.” The “I think” is implied in everything I say. Now I may or may not have good and convincing reasons for thinking what I do, but sticking the words “I think” in front of a declaratory statement does not soften it at all.

    Vincent, I understand what you’re saying and normally, I would agree with you, but not in this very specific case….because the crux of this entire issue comes down to belief vs. knowledge.

    Anyone who frequently engages in discussions with believers knows that one of the big ‘issues’ they have with atheists is their assumption that we’re talking as if we know we’re right. It comes up so often, it becomes tiresome to correct (can anyone else here identify with that?)

    It’s important to me that what I’m saying is clear to whomever I am speaking/addressing ~ therefore, inserting ‘I think’ isn’t unnecessary or superfluous in this case, it has a very deliberate and specific purpose: to underscore/make sure that it is clear that I’m not saying ‘I know I’m right’ when I merely express ‘I’m not convinced’.

    Does that help clarify my position (and specific verbiage:) a little?

  • AxeGrrl

    Richard Wade wrote:

    Frank, if you want to be skeptical about my claim about myself, then go ahead. The only evidence that I can offer you about my innermost thoughts are my own words. If that is not convincing to you, oh well.

    Wow.

    Isn’t it ironic that a fellow atheist here is doing the same thing that some believers are doing? Namely, ‘reading’ something into an atheist’s words that isn’t necessarily there.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen/heard believers accuse atheists of being disingenuous about what we’re expressing ~ things like: “you’re being dishonest if you’re denying that atheism says…..”

    This has become a very intresting thread :)

  • Richard Wade

    MikeTheInfidel,

    Richard Wade said:

    When I say I’m an atheist, I’m not making a truth statement about the world, I’m making a truth statement about myself and nothing more.

    I disagree. Our position is also making a truth statement about the evidence we’ve been given – “this evidence is not sufficient to justify belief”. True, this is a subjective perspective of the evidence, but it’s still a truth statement. Were we to hold any other position, we would believe; but since our position is what it is, we’re also saying it’s incorrect to believe based on the evidence we’ve been given.

    Please see my comment to Frank, above.

    What do you mean “I disagree.” You disagree with what I’m saying about myself?? I’m not saying something about you, or us, or the world, or the King of Siam, something with which you could disagree. Look closely at my statement that you quoted. I added some emphasis so that you can see something:

    When I say I’m an atheist, I’m not making a truth statement about the world, I’m making a truth statement about myself and nothing more.

    That sentence contains the word “I” four times and one “myself.” See them? It’s about me. I’m not saying “we,” or “us” or “atheists.” Why is this so hard to get? “Me” means ME, not you, us or anybody else. Please don’t put words into my mouth. It spreads germs.

    What is this “Our position”? That joke about Tonto and the Lone Ranger comes to mind. “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?” Your position is whatever it is. I don’t say “this evidence is not sufficient to justify belief,” I say “This evidence is not sufficient to convince ME.” I’m not saying “it’s incorrect…” (for everybody else) “…to believe based on the evidence we’ve been given,” I’m saying it is incorrect FOR ME to believe based on insufficient evidence.

    Some people around here seem to spend so much time thinking they can read other’s minds, they don’t seem to spend any time reading their own minds.

  • Frank

    Richard,

    No offfense, but where on earth did you get your psychology degree? Cause any competent undergraduate psychology or cognitive science major should be able to tell you that one of the most basic things we have learned from the scientific study of the mind is that people do NOT know a lot of what goes on in their own heads. Most of the things the brain does are unconscious. So to suggest that you are consciously aware of everything that goes on in your mind is either ignorant (unaware of basically any psychology ever) or arrogant (thinking the science somehow doesn’t apply to you).

    I find your claim to be at least somewhat dishonest because I don’t see any difference between “finding the evidence for god(s) unconvincing” and “believing that god does not exist.” They mean the same thing. A person can believe that god doesn’t exist (or anything else) without having explicit conscious awareness of that belief at every moment. And yet you explicitly accept the first and reject the second.

    I also don’t view belief solely, or even primarily, in terms of what propositions a person verbally affirms or rejects. Beliefs guide behavior, and so I judge a persons beliefs partly by their behavior. And you seem to agree that you live your life exactly as you would if you believed that god did not exist.

  • AxeGrrl

    Frank wrote:

    I don’t see any difference between “finding the evidence for god(s) unconvincing” and “believing that god does not exist.” They mean the same thing.

    ‘I believe that God does not exist’ is an assertion.

    ‘I’m not convinced that God exists’ is merely a response to someone else’s assertion.

    Yes, there’s a difference.

  • AxeGrrl

    Frank wrote:

    to suggest that you are consciously aware of everything that goes on in your mind is either ignorant (unaware of basically any psychology ever) or arrogant (thinking the science somehow doesn’t apply to you).

    So how should we characterize your claim that you know even MORE than that?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Jesse Galef

    @ Richard Wade –

    Unlike the celestial teapot, the theistic claims rejected by atheists (‘not theists’) assert that God has interacted with the physical world. That puts their claims into our realm of speculation and evidence-evaluation. We have a lifetime of experience on which to evaluate the claims’ likelihood of being correct.

    What if a defense attorney asserted that his client’s DNA was magic and, when tested, had changed to look like the DNA found in the blood sample at the crime scene. This is a magical claim about the real world, and any judge would hold the attorney in contempt of common sense. The evidence against the claim is our understanding of DNA, the laws of physics, and our trust in inductive reasoning.

    The same applies to theistic claims. Just as we have an opinion on the attorney’s technically unfalsifiable claim (we would find it unlikely to be true, wouldn’t we?) we can have an opinion on the theists’ claim that God has interacted with our world.

    I understand, Richard, if you say we have no opinion on the existence of the celestial teapot or a deistic God – indeed, how could we have an opinion on a claim for which we can observe nothing? But theistic claims have components that we can observe and assess. And we DO have opinions on those – if we considered them likely to be true, we would be theists.

  • Richard Wade

    Frank,
    Are we sinking to ad hominem now? Thanks for saying “no offense.” That makes your insinuation that I’m incompetent in my profession all okay.

    Yes, I understand psychology’s concept of the unconscious, and after counseling more than 10,000 patients very intimately, I also am aware of the very wide range of self awareness that people can have. Some are unfamiliar with a great deal of their minds, and others are familiar with a great deal of their minds. The unconscious is not made with a cookie cutter, and people, as they grow and mature, tend to become more aware and intimate with themselves.

    But after getting to know all those people, the very most important thing I learned was that I CANNOT JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THEIR MINDS. If I think they are missing something about themselves, I might suggest it, but they are the final authority. I’m not going to arrogantly insist that no, no, I know them better than they do. This is the ridiculous argument that you keep insisting on, that your crystal ball trumps what I say about myself. Bullshit. You wouldn’t accept me making statements about your unconscious based entirely on my own fantasies, and claiming that you don’t know yourself but I do.

    I find your claim to be at least somewhat dishonest because I don’t see any difference between “finding the evidence for god(s) unconvincing” and “believing that god does not exist.” They mean the same thing. A person can believe that god doesn’t exist (or anything else) without having explicit conscious awareness of that belief at every moment. And yet you explicitly accept the first and reject the second.

    Just because you haven’t yet seen the difference doesn’t mean there is no difference. The huge and important difference between having no belief in the existence of X and having a belief against the existence of X has been explained by me here and on many other threads, usually to some unsophisticated theist who comes to this blog trying to tell us all about ourselves instead of asking, or using a dictionary as if it’s the frikking Bible.

    A vacuum is not an atmosphere. An empty lunchbox is not full of anti-lunch. If my pocket is not full of dollars, it does not follow that it must be full of pesos. If I’m empty of belief in gods, that does not mean that I am full of belief that there are no gods. Two completely different things. Belief is a thing to do. One does not have to be constantly doing it, one way or the other.

    The difference between weak and strong atheism has also been well explained by others countless times. If my efforts have failed with you, I give up. Maybe someone else can try, or refer you to some other source.

    I also don’t view belief solely, or even primarily, in terms of what propositions a person verbally affirms or rejects. Beliefs guide behavior, and so I judge a persons beliefs partly by their behavior. And you seem to agree that you live your life exactly as you would if you believed that god did not exist.

    I just don’t get this argument about the way I live. Please describe the observable differences in my behavior that you would expect to see if I were to simply have no belief in gods, versus if I were to have an assertive belief that there are no gods.

    Since you seem to insist that you know my unconscious better than I do, maybe you can also observe me remotely and tell me how I live. Oh Swami, who sees all and knows all, what do you see both in my mind and in my life that proves that I actually spend time believing in the non-existence of gods? I eagerly await your gift of enlightenment.

    No offense.

  • Julia Galef

    @Richard Wade — You wrote:

    When I am unconvinced because of the lack of evidence, I’m just unconvinced. That really is as far as it goes… I don’t take that extra step into “finding them to be likely to be false.”

    Richard, would your refusal to take any position on the likelihood of God apply similarly to all the other claims that are unsubstantiated yet not conclusively falsified (ghosts, spirits, demons, the invisible pink unicorn, etc)?

    I mean, you’re right that I can’t presume to know your state of mind, but do you really have no opinion at all on the likelihood of all those unsubstantiated claims? Not even a rough guess? If you had to bet on it, what would you choose: probably the ghosts/demons/gods/invisible unicorns are real or probably they’re not?

    Seems like the only way you could really have no opinion on the likelihood of these claims is if you simply refuse to think about it.

  • Frank

    Richard,

    You aren’t unfamiliar with the claims of theists, you aren’t a person who simply hasn’t thought about the question or considered the evidence. The gods that theists believe in are such that if they existed, we would have evidence of it. If they weren’t, we’d call them deists and not theists. By your own admission, the evidence for the existence of god is unconvincing. Therefor, by the rule of inference known to philosophers as modus tollens, god does not exist. Refusing to take this step is like understanding arithmetic yet refusing to either affirm or reject the proposition that 2+2=4, perhaps for fear of offending people who believe that 2+2=5. There is an element of dishonesty in it.

    As to how you live your life, I can’t tell you how that would be different depending whether you believe that god does not exist or only find the evidence of gods existence unconvincing, as I don’t think the two are actually different. You are the one who believes that the two are different, and if they are different it’s not unreasonable to expect that the difference might influence your behavior in some way. So the burden is on you, you tell me how it makes a difference.

  • Mister Trickster

    Jesse, you wrote: “What if a defense attorney asserted that his client’s DNA was magic and, when tested, had changed to look like the DNA found in the blood sample at the crime scene.”

    And yet, people have proven that crime scene DNA can be manufactured in such a way that someone could be arrested because of fraudulent evidence. Not by magic, yes, but by science. Only someone from outside this frame of reference would be able to speak convincingly about what is and what is not. Sure, we can make claims, but it’s disingenuous to say our claims are right “just because they are.”

  • Mister Trickster

    Philocetes, you say:

    “Let’s not use the tactics of the creationists, who say that if everything is not completely explained by evolution that it fails as a theory…Secondly, I make no claims that my decision to be atheist was any freer or more determined than a believer’s decision.”

    That’s not what I was doing (and thanks for the ad hominem attack, by the way). I could care less about an argument for free-will or determinism, or for why you have faith in atheism, and other people have faith in religion.

    What you took out of context was an address to uncertainty and the existence of pluralistic truths.

    You also say: “Unless you choose to be a strict determinist (and how can you argue for sure that this is true?) you might see that there is a difference in probability of choice between your race and your philosophy. I believe that your contention that the possibility that one element in my decision to choose atheism may have not been under my conscious control inevitably means that it was only the result of chemical processes would not pass Ockham’s test.”

    I’m not arguing for strict determinism. So there’s that. Instead of saying that it was inevitability only the result of chemical processes, what I was saying, and what I continue to take issue with is the belief that you can speak convincingly and certainly about the world in such a way as to impose your own truth claims on people who believe differently…much the way I get frustrated with religious folks who do the same thing.

  • AxeGrrl

    Frank wrote:

    Beliefs guide behavior, and so I judge a persons beliefs partly by their behavior. And you seem to agree that you live your life exactly as you would if you believed that god did not exist.

    Frank, could you describe the difference between these 2 things:

    1) behaviour that reflects “I believe that God does not exist”

    and

    2) behaviour that reflects “I’m not convinced that God exist”

    ?

    Unless you can do that, your comment that Richard seems to live as though “he believes God does not exist” is pointless.

  • Mister Trickster

    Frank,

    You’re right, it’s not too much to ask for Christians not to be offended by atheists. It’s also not too much to ask for atheists not to be offended by Christianity.

    If you’re going to proselytize to them, they are going to proselytize to you just as much. Personally, I do get annoyed when people proselytize to me, almost no matter what they are saying.

    And I mean, let’s be honest here, for a lot of people religion isn’t even about God, it’s about having a religious practice, or community, or tradition. That doesn’t mean those people should believe in God, but they do. So for all of this truth-claiming, what’s really at stake? (Yes, I know I’m ignoring the zealots. They don’t exactly help their cause…)

  • Richard Wade

    Jessie, (and others)

    All of my comments here have been solely about how I approach belief in the existence of gods, nothing more. Nothing about additional claims of what gods do in the world, or using gods to explain what we see in nature.

    In those claims, yes there is often plenty of very convincing contradictory evidence, and so I might have active and assertive beliefs that those claims are false.

    So if someone suggests that I should believe in the existence of their favorite rain god, I’ll ask for evidence. If whatever they offer is not convincing TO ME, then I’ll remain unconvinced.

    However, if they offer a description of how their favorite rain god actually makes rain, such as by crying, pissing or using a big bucket with holes in the bottom, then I’ll have some actual belief, opinion or assertion against that particular claim, since I have plenty of contradicting evidence involving evaporation, condensation and so on.

    In your example of the attorney claiming that his client’s DNA can magically change, I’d simply ask him do demonstrate this remarkable ability. It’s up to the attorney making this remarkable claim to support it with remarkable evidence to match. If he can’t, I am unconvinced of that particular claim and I must continue on trying to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence based on demonstrable claims and physical evidence.

    My skepticism is a discipline. I work at it. I work hard to keep cleaning away unsupported assumptions about lots of things that collect in the corners of my mind, like dust. I try to not persist in assuming the truth of anything if there is no supporting evidence that is convincing to me. So far I’ve encountered no convincing evidence for or against the existence of gods, so my belief is zero on both fronts. In order to get along in life, I’ll make some working, temporary assumptions loosely held, a hypothesis if you will, just to try something, but if confirming evidence is not forthcoming, I’ll eventually drop it and go back to the default of not actively believing for or against.

    And to everybody else, once again, I’m describing only myself. I’m not saying that anybody else is like this, or not like this, or should be like this, or should not be like this. I’m just talking about me.

  • Mister Trickster

    By the way, Frank,

    Is the universe symbolically/formally logical?

    Is the universe mathematical?

    If you can prove it so, then your claim about religion being wrong like 2+2=5 will have merit.

  • ckitching

    Unlike the celestial teapot, the theistic claims rejected by atheists (’not theists’) assert that God has interacted with the physical world.

    I think you’re conflating the Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) god with the general term god. It’s possible to have an opinion on if this god exists, while being otherwise neutral or agnostic on the idea of god (or gods) existing in general. Plenty of other gods produced throughout the ages are non-interventionist, and some are even flatly malevolent.

    To me, a benevolent interventionist god seems almost completely incompatible with the world in which we inhabit. A non-interventionist god, on the other hand, would fit fine. I don’t believe in either, but my disbelief in one is different from the lack of belief in the other.

  • AxeGrrl

    Frank wrote:

    By your own admission, the evidence for the existence of god is unconvincing. Therefor, by the rule of inference known to philosophers as modus tollens, god does not exist.

    Being ‘unconvinced’ regarding an assertion does mean one is justified in stating, as fact, that the assertion ‘is not true’.

    I’m not sure what’s so hard to understand about that.

  • muggle

    Okay, as a “hard” Atheist (or “strong” if you prefer, personally I abhor these hard/soft, weak/strong labels) — there is no “God” dammit — I have to wade in here.

    So I think they’re mistaken? So what? Why should someone who thinks I’m mistaken take offense at that? I’ve always had Christian friends — all my life — and I’ve been Atheist for decades and Agnostic for four years before that.

    The reason these Christians (and some I could discuss religion with and some not) and I get along is because we have respect for one another, so much respect for the other as a person that we respect their right to believe differently than we do. Yes, that does come down to agreeing to disagree in this one area we are polar opposites on. Implicit in that disbelief is the understanding that I believe them mistaken and they believe I am.

    I am sure my Christian friends, though they would never be rude enough to tell me so, pray that I’ll find “God” just as I occasionally wish they’d see the light of reason and break free of the shackels of religion but, likewise, would not be rude enough to say it.

    But just the fact that Atheists have Christian friends — I highly doubt I’m the only one, especially since I have no qualms about stating there is no God — would negate your theory. Obviously there are many, many Christians out there who do not find it inherently offensive for someone to be Atheist.

    Or they would reject our friendship. Just as the gays here who have put in their personal experience find themselves rejected just for being gay. Yes, there are bigots who would but to overgeneralize that to apply to all those of faith is, well, bigoted. What a terrible thing to think of those theists who do fall into your stereotype of them — and it is a stereotype.

    As to choice, no, it is not. Perhaps recognizing that would go a long way to dispel such overgeneralization so I’ll repeat what I’ve said before and will again (because I fully intend to keep repeating it). Belief and disbelief are not a choice, even though they may change over a person’s lifetime. Plain and simple: either a person finds a thing credible or they don’t.

    Thus, I am able to totally overlook my believing friends their belief and they are totally able to overlook my absence (it is not a lack, damnit, we’ve got to stop using that erroneous word) thereof. :D

    Oh, yeah, and what is with all this Atheist evangelism crap? My reaction to those who actively seek to deconvert people:

    Well, the nice, polite: Why are you being as obnoxious as the evangelistic Christians who annoy you so? (Yes, that’s the polite.)

    The gut reaction is rather the same as it is to the evangelistic Christians: Shut the fuck up, you intolerant asshole!

  • Richard Wade

    Frank,

    By your own admission, the evidence for the existence of god is unconvincing. Therefor, by the rule of inference known to philosophers as modus tollens, god does not exist. Refusing to take this step is like understanding arithmetic yet refusing to either affirm or reject the proposition that 2+2=4, perhaps for fear of offending people who believe that 2+2=5. There is an element of dishonesty in it.

    “By my own admission”. I’m not confessing a crime, I’m describing my thoughts. Someone comes up to me. I don’t come up to him. He makes a claim about the existence of a god, ghost, spook, magic, whatever. I politely ask him for evidence that he might think will be convincing to me. If what he offers does not convince ME, ONLY ME, NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYBODY ELSE OR EVERYBODY ELSE, then I remain unconvinced. I don’t know who these philosophers are whom you say insist that if I find myself unmoved in one direction, I must therefore be moved in the other direction. My reaction to the evidence provided is NOTHING MORE THAN my reaction to the evidence provided. It is not proof that the evidence is universally unconvincing, or that the claim is universally false, or that I must therefore be actively believing the claim’s opposite.

    As for your arithmetic example, I’ve got plenty of evidence that 2+2=4 and plenty of evidence that 2+2 does not equal five, and I’ll come right out and argue with someone who claims that it is five.

    My position on refraining from belief is not about being “afraid to offend” a believer. It is as I said earlier about keeping a discipline, keeping my mind clean of all sorts of unsupported assumptions.

    I’m sorry about the confusion about your mentioning how I live. I thought you were saying that I’d somehow behave differently with the non believing than I would with the believing against. Okay, then if you say that there is no difference between the two ways of thinking and/or no difference in how such different ways of thinking would cause me to behave, then how I live is neither evidence for me sincerely and actually having no belief in gods nor is it evidence of my secretly, unconsciously or dishonestly harboring active, assertive and declarative beliefs that there are no gods. “By your own admission” how I live does not indicate this one way or the other.

    This is getting tiresome and apparently futile. I’ve wasted the entire day on this. Please stop calling me a liar about how I think when you can’t prove that, and then suggesting that I have to do the proving that I’m being honest about my thoughts. Please stop trying to attribute secret or unconscious thoughts to me, when you cannot prove that, and then suggesting that I have to do the proving that those aren’t there. Please stop trying to invent meanings to my statements about myself that say I’m talking about somebody else. Go ahead and think differently, but don’t keep up this crap that I think differently from you only because I’m either unaware of myself or dishonest. I’m not trying to get you to change your own views about gods, only get you to correctly understand mine.

    Agreement is not important. Only understanding is.

  • radio over tv

    The offensiveness of atheism has very little to do with any substantive evaluation of its claims. (Is there widespread substantive criticism of anything?)

    Jesse’s on point with the analogy to homosexuality because the current impoliteness found in the mere mention of atheism comes from the same source as the old mainstream problem with homosexuality: to mention your existence is to engage in consciousness-raising.

    People never used to have to even think about the existence of gays. The Archie Bunkers of the world still rankle when they have to. That’s where moaning about “shoving it in our faces” (and DADT?) comes from. And it’s just the same with atheism. The animosity doesn’t come from a considered threat to theistic belief. It’s simply annoyance at being presented with the existence of “those people” whom you never had to think about before 2000-something.

    Social Conservatism is very much about defending a fixed ontology. Any critique of a new claim is an afterthought.

  • AxeGrrl

    Richard wrote:

    Someone comes up to me. I don’t come up to him.

    I think you’ve just isolated the issue at the heart of all of this Richard.

    No matter what the claim/belief/opinion, when person A ‘puts something out there’, person B who isn’t convinced by it will be seen as actively ‘going against’ them ~ even though (and here’s the important part) person B is merely reacting to person A’s assertion and NOT necessarily making an assertion themselves.

    That’s what’s inherently ‘problematic’ about the basic scenario itself….and what’s contributed to the confusion/nitpicking we’ve been doing here I think.

  • Richard Wade

    Julia Galef,

    Thank you for asking me instead of telling me.

    Richard, would your refusal to take any position on the likelihood of God apply similarly to all the other claims that are unsubstantiated yet not conclusively falsified (ghosts, spirits, demons, the invisible pink unicorn, etc)?

    Gods, ghosts, spooks, fairies, magic, bigfoot, old Elvis, any remarkable claim demands, in my mind, just for me, remarkable evidence to match. A lack of acceptable evidence results in a lack of belief. A lack of contrary evidence results in a lack of contrary belief. It is so clean and roomy and freeing inside to be rid of all that unsupportable stuff. Left, right, up, down, for, against, is, is not. What a bunch of useless clutter. I have confidence in some things based on experience and evidence. Long term assumptions without evidence are put out with the trash.

    I mean, you’re right that I can’t presume to know your state of mind, but do you really have no opinion at all on the likelihood of all those unsubstantiated claims? Not even a rough guess? If you had to bet on it, what would you choose: probably the ghosts/demons/gods/invisible unicorns are real or probably they’re not?

    To be (ahem) honest, of course I have my sense of likelyhood of some things. That is a far cry from an assertive belief for or against. As far as betting, it would take extraordinary circumstances to get me to bet on such stuff, like perhaps the presentation of actually convincing evidence for or against them. Without that, if I absolutely had to, I’d probably reluctantly bet against them, simply because of so many other remarkable claims without evidence that I have heard and have then seen borne out to be false.

    I am not pretending that I have this purist skepticism down perfectly. It’s just a discipline that I”m constantly working on, and I’ve gotten much better at it.

    Seems like the only way you could really have no opinion on the likelihood of these claims is if you simply refuse to think about it.

    Julia, the other way is to think about it a great deal, very carefully and meticulously.

  • Ben

    If I was to relate to anybody, it would be Richard.

    Critical thinking requires the ability to not make assumptions, to not assume that just because something has not yet been proved that the opposite must be true. Lack of evidence only indicates lack of belief, not lack of truth.

    While most of us can categorically rule out that the Bible is true, and other religious texts, it’s not as easy to rule out that some sort of greater being exists. It’s just that there is no evidence, so there is no reason to believe in one.

    However this does not automatically mean you should believe the opposite: that none exists, that it is not possible. You could make the assumption, but then you couldn’t claim to be truly critically thinking about the situation unless you are in possession of some sort of evidence to prove your stance.

    Absence of belief does not automatically equate to belief of absence.

    Honestly, this whole “atheists believe in something, too” is a false dichotomy and thrown at us in religious arguments by believers all the time. We’re quite happy to use the above quote to refute that, which is why I’m surprised some here have forgotten that message.

    Think of it this way (not the best analogy, but you’ll get the point): if you were blindfolded and somebody asked you to name the colour of the flower in their hand, what would you say or believe? If they told you it wasn’t red, would you automatically assume that they didn’t have a flower at all? If you put your hand out to touch the flower, but still couldn’t see it, would you assume that a flower that is not red must be transparent? If they told you the flower was blue but you had only ever seen red flowers before that they must be lying and the flower is in fact red?

    What if they told you the flower was striated, you’d never seen a striated flower before, but admit the possibility that striated flowers exist? Would you automatically assume it must be striated because they say so? Would you assume that because you’d never seen one, the possibility of striated flowers existing is so low that they can’t possibly be holding one in their hand?

    Or would you say “I don’t know”, that you can’t know until you see it for yourself?

    Even betting on the colour of the flower would be futile because your brain would probably, if pressed, simply pick the colour of the last flower you saw.

  • Richard Wade

    AxeGrrl,
    Thank you for your support. Not so much about agreeing with me, which is of course nice, but in understanding me. Even if you disagreed, it’s being understood that is important to me.

  • Karen

    As an atheist, I would never suggest that another person “should” come to the same conclusion that I have. I may not understand why another person believes something that I can’t get my head around, I may think their reasons for believing don’t hold water, but because I don’t know what the ‘ultimate reality’ is, the idea of suggesting (either directly or by implication) that the other person “should” believe (or not believe) as I do doesn’t enter my mind.

    My thoughts exactly, so I fall on the R.W. side of the scale, apparently.

    After 30 years of fundamentalist religious belief, I’m loathe to declare now that I know there is no god or that others should not believe.

    To me, there’s no hard and fast evidence on the question of god’s existence, and plenty against (at least a theistic god), and so I choose to withhold belief.

    But there’s enough ambiguity for me not to make that decision for other people. If and when they begin to question their presuppositions about theism, I’m happy to discuss it with them, but I’m not looking to make deconversions.

    Been there, done that on the other side of the fence and I won’t waste time on it from this side.

  • Frank

    Ben,

    Absence of evidence for a proposition p sometimes is evidence that p is false, and sometimes is not. Thinking critically requires distinguishing the two cases. In the most general case, you are of course correct that inferring “p is false” from “we have no evidence that p” is completely invalid.

    The case in which we can make such an inference is when the truth of p implies that we should have evidence for p. For example, lets consider the proposition that there is a pen hovering in mid air one foot in front of my eyes. If this proposition is true, I should have evidence for it. In particular, I should see a pen hovering in mid air one foot in front of my eyes. As it turns out, I have no such evidence, and I can therefor conclude that the proposition is false. This form of reasoning (A implies B, not B, therefor not A) is what philosophers call modus tollens, and it is universally accepted as valid.

    This is exactly the form of reasoning that I used in my last post to show the equivalence of finding the evidence for god unconvincing and believing that god does not exist. I was quite explicit about my premise that the existence of the gods theists believe in implies that we should have evidence for their existence. It is unfortunate that Richard and AxeGrrl both chose not to quote that premise. In any case, I hope this helps you understand where I am coming from.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    AxeGrrl:

    ‘Subjective perspectives’ are never ‘truth statements’. Personal beliefs are inherently subjective and don’t necessarily reflect objective reality…..they only reflect our opinion/personal assessment about objective reality.

    That’s exactly what I mean by a ‘truth statement’ – a statement we make describing something that we believe to be true. If we didn’t believe it was true, it wouldn’t be our subjective perspective; it would be somebody else’s. Your subjective opinion of the nature of reality is inherently a truth statement of this sort. It isn’t possible to have a belief about reality and simultaneously think that that belief isn’t true, because the instant you say “I don’t believe this is true,” you’ve just altered the truth statement you’re making.

    And, for me, ‘this evidence is not sufficient to justify belief’ does NOT reflect my view as an atheist. My position is ‘this evidence is not sufficient to convince me‘. That’s it. That’s all I’m able to comment on, because I don’t know the specific personal reasons the other person has for believing.

    That’s an important distinction to make. But if the evidence is not sufficient to convince you, would you say that a person for whom it is sufficient is correct to believe? If so, then the difference is in your standard of evidence, not in the evidence presented. I don’t necessarily see that as an illegitimate disagreement; some people are more credulous than others, or less discerning in their appraisal of the evidence. And you’re absolutely right, we can’t judge the subjective experience of another person, especially with respect to matters of proof or faith. One of those pesky limitations of being stuck in our own brains :)

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    What do you mean “I disagree.” You disagree with what I’m saying about myself?? I’m not saying something about you, or us, or the world, or the King of Siam, something with which you could disagree. Look closely at my statement that you quoted.

    Upon reflection I think I need to retract my disagreement. It’s a bit messy to deal with people’s various concepts of atheism, and I wasn’t quite right about yours. You’re right; your position is just a statement about yourself. Even in the case of “this evidence doesn’t convince me,” that’s not a statement about the quality of the evidence, it’s a statement about your standard of evidence (as I mentioned above).

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Frank:

    The gods that theists believe in are such that if they existed, we would have evidence of it. If they weren’t, we’d call them deists and not theists. By your own admission, the evidence for the existence of god is unconvincing. Therefor, by the rule of inference known to philosophers as modus tollens, god does not exist. Refusing to take this step is like understanding arithmetic yet refusing to either affirm or reject the proposition that 2+2=4, perhaps for fear of offending people who believe that 2+2=5. There is an element of dishonesty in it.

    This is quite possibly the largest load of unadulterated nonsense I’ve seen lately.

    First of all, you’re placing all theists of all stripes into a category for which you have absolutely no basis – that is, people who believe that a god who exists would provide evidence for itself. This is an unjustifiable basis for an argument. There are plenty of theists – especially evangelical Christians, like those of Ray Comfort’s ilk – who say that existence itself is the evidence. They don’t believe that we should ever expect any more evidence to be provided.

    Second, you make the rather astonishing claim that disbelieving people’s claims means you’re saying their claims are false. There are more categories than “true” and “false” – for example, “undetermined”. It is possible to disbelieve a claim because its truth value is undetermined, rather than because it is false.

    Your analogy to arithmetic is severely flawed. In this instance, the equation we’re presented is not “2+2=4″ vs. “2+2=5″ – it’s “2+2=x”. X is undetermined. I am unconvinced that x=5, since, due to the evidence we have at hand, it seems more likely that x=4. It’s not a matter of fearing to offend the x=5 believers. It’s a matter of their claims going against our investigation of the evidence. And if this is dishonest, then algebra is dishonest.

    You’re making a gray problem into a black and white one.

  • AxeGrrl

    MikeTheInfidel wrote:

    And you’re absolutely right, we can’t judge the subjective experience of another person, especially with respect to matters of proof or faith. One of those pesky limitations of being stuck in our own brains.

    Yeah, that’s the bottom line for me (not being able to judge another’s subjective experience(s)

    And being stuck in one’s own brain does suck, doesn’t it? :) I’m constantly saying ‘damn, I wish I could get inside their head for even just 30 seconds!‘ ~ whether it’s about someone with an opposing opinion, a hockey player as he approaches the net in a breakaway, or my dog!

  • AxeGrrl

    Frank wrote:

    I was quite explicit about my premise that the existence of the gods theists believe in implies that we should have evidence for their existence. It is unfortunate that Richard and AxeGrrl both chose not to quote that premise.

    The point I made about not knowing the other person’s personal reasons for believing was in response to issue of ‘evidence’.

    How can I possibly know that if I had had whatever experiences the believing person has had that I wouldn’t believe differently as well? I don’t/can’t know that.

  • AxeGrrl

    MikeTheInfidel wrote:

    Even in the case of “this evidence doesn’t convince me,” that’s not a statement about the quality of the evidence, it’s a statement about your standard of evidence

    Exactly!

  • Frank

    MikeTheInfidel,

    As to your first point, the only category I placed all theists into is the one that the word “theist” refers to, which is people who believe in a god who interacts with the universe (in other words, provides evidence of his existence). That’s just what the word “theist” means, I don’t know how else to defend that premise, you can go look in a dictionary if you don’t believe me.

    If there is evidence for god, either existence or something else, that’s completely irrelevant to the point I was trying to make. I wasn’t trying to present a general argument that god doesn’t exist, I was merely trying to show the equivalence of believing that god does not exist and finding the evidence for god unconvincing. Half of that equation, the only half that I imagine anyone ever disagreed with, is showing that finding the evidence for god unconvincing implies believing that god does not exist. So I assumed the antecedent (the evidence for god is unconvincing) and attempted to derive the consequent (god does not exist). This is very standard logic/mathematics, assume A, reason your way to B, and therefor conclude that A implies B.

    As to your second point, I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say here. Despite what others may have attributed to me, I never made a general claim that finding the evidence off a proposition unconvincing means believing that proposition is false. I only made the claim for the specific case of theistic gods, and I presented my argument for it. Nothing you say here, so far as I can tell, refutes that argument.

    My analogy to arithmetic was only meant to show the element of dishonesty in refusing to acknowledge the obvious logical consequences of ones beliefs, nothing more.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Frank:

    the only category I placed all theists into is the one that the word “theist” refers to, which is people who believe in a god who interacts with the universe (in other words, provides evidence of his existence).

    That’s simply not true. A theist is a person who believes in a god of any kind. The type of god isn’t specified.

    So I assumed the antecedent (the evidence for god is unconvincing) and attempted to derive the consequent (god does not exist). This is very standard logic/mathematics, assume A, reason your way to B, and therefor conclude that A implies B.

    “God exists” and “God does not exist” is a dichotomy.

    “The evidence for God is unconvincing” and “God exists” is not a dichotomy. It may well be that the evidence is convincing but no god actually exists, or that the evidence is unconvincing and a god exists.

    Your argument is a false dichotomy. You are combining a statement of fact with a statement of perspective and setting them in opposition to each other. They are not.

    My analogy to arithmetic was only meant to show the element of dishonesty in refusing to acknowledge the obvious logical consequences of ones beliefs, nothing more.

    And it was a horrible analogy, as I pointed out. Not to mention that it’s obnoxious to call it dishonest. It is not dishonest – your analysis is severely flawed.

  • Philoctetes

    Señior Coyote,

    I will accept your word that you did not intend to imply that I was mistaken when I thought I had consciously chosen atheism. I am also happy to know that your reference to the impossibility of proving free will was not an attempt to use creationist tactics to disprove my claim that I had consciously chosen atheism.

    I will nod and accept that when you said

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to argue both for determinism and free will–a pluralistic truth if ever there was one…

    you really could care less about an argument for free-will or determinism.

    Whtph, hfmthp. Ahem. Now that I have spit out all the words you put in my mouth about, “having faith in atheism’ and “impose your own truth claims on people who believe differently”, I can get back to the core of the point that you appear to have missed.

    The fundamental difference between saying you are an atheist and saying you are black, white, female, male, gay, or straight is the strong element of conscious choice in the former. This is one of the reasons that the existence of atheism offends so many theists. – we saw the same evidence they did and do not believe.

    I’m sorry if you felt that pointing out an error in your logic was an ad hominem attack. My policy is to love the mistaken, but hate the fallacy.

  • Ben

    This is exactly the form of reasoning that I used in my last post to show the equivalence of finding the evidence for god unconvincing and believing that god does not exist. I was quite explicit about my premise that the existence of the gods theists believe in implies that we should have evidence for their existence. It is unfortunate that Richard and AxeGrrl both chose not to quote that premise. In any case, I hope this helps you understand where I am coming from.

    You were not explicit in saying “the gods theists believe in” in your initial post. You just said “god”, which may or may not conform to Christian ideal of a deity depending on the individual’s interpretation, and then qualified it in a later post to change the focus of your argument. Some people call the general concept of a deity “god” despite not believing in religious versions of deities.

    As for all deists/theists believing that a god must interact with the universe, and that the interaction MUST leave evidence, that’s simply not true. It’s arrogant to claim to know what everybody’s concept of god is.

    As for modus tollens, as I understand it your argument is as follows (framed in reference to general deity concepts, not specific theisms):

    If a god exists, there must be evidence
    There is no evidence of a god’s existence
    Therefore a god does not exist.

    There are couple of problems with this argument. The first is that your initial premise is no more valid than if I say that a requirement for a god’s existence is that there not be any evidence. Observable evidence is your requirement, but is not necessarily true of reality. We just don’t know that for a fact, though we can probably rule out theistic concepts of gods because of it.

    The second problem is with the second premise: that there is no evidence. You can’t possibly know that. Human beings have explored no further than our solar system in an immense universe. We don’t even fully understand how our brains function. One cannot claim to have observed and understood the entire universe to be able to dismiss the existence of evidence.

    That we do no have any evidence does not mean that none exists. This was the point of my flower analogy. Not being able to see the colour of a flower does not mean the flower has no colour, and not having seen striated flowers before does not mean such things do not exist.

  • Richard Wade

    Frank,

    I was quite explicit about my premise that the existence of the gods theists believe in implies that we should have evidence for their existence. It is unfortunate that Richard and AxeGrrl both chose not to quote that premise.

    The reason why I don’t share your premise is because firstly, it’s based on your characterization of the god that theists claim, a god that according to you should be highly provable if it exists. But that’s your characterization, and not necessarily the theists’ characterization. Secondly, we are entirely dependent on the descriptions of theists to consider the gods they want us to believe in.

    I don’t make broad assumptions about somebody’s proposed god. I don’t go by broad brush descriptions of their gods from their magic books, because I have found that individual theists so often only agree with some of those described traits, they disregard other traits, and they also add their own. I haven’t met a theist yet who, when questioned carefully, will render the exact same portrait of their god as that of another theist. So I have to take each of their personal concepts individually. When I have the time and patience, I carefully ask them to describe the god they want me to consider.

    The more I ask them for details, the less provable or disprovable their gods become. They keep adding on caveats and excuses for this lack of evidence or that lack of evidence. When I have finally come to understand the details of the particular god they’re proposing so that I can determine if there’s any evidence that will convince me of its existence, there’s nothing left that I would say “should” have evidence if it exists. Quite the opposite has happened. So the lack of evidence for their extremely coy, shy, evasive and deliberately unfindable god does not qualify as proof that it doesn’t exist. Or the silliest, silliest argument of all, that the lack of evidence is somehow proof that it does exist.

    If I’m really meticulous about it, and the theist doesn’t get exasperated, these conversations go something like the following. I have actually had this admittedly inane conversation a few times:

    Me: “Ah. Nice sitting here, watching the clouds go by.”
    Theist: “Hi! Do you believe in God??!”
    Me: “Huh? Oh, hello. Uh, what are you asking?”
    Theist: “I’m asking if you believe in God.”
    Me: “Please define and describe this thing you call ‘God,’ so I can tell you whether or not I believe in it.”
    Theist: “Well, God of course! The Lord Almighty!”
    Me: “Excuse me, I’ve heard this term before, but every person who has asked me about it has had a different definition and description. So not wanting to make the wrong assumptions, I need you to give me some details of this thing so that I know what you, yourself, personally mean, and then I can hopefully determine if I believe in it, and so answer your question.”

    (Here begins a long series of questions and answers which I will spare us all, where the theist usually describes an all knowing, all powerful all good creator of all the universe, yada yada. At this point, Frank, you might think that this is a god that “should be highly provable if it exists,” but that’s where I start asking questions about how this god is perceived.) We now return to the exciting dialogue:

    Me: “Why don’t I see this god?”
    Theist: “Oh, you can only see him if he wants you to see him.”
    Me: Ah. Okay, can I hear him?”
    Theist: Oh, you can only hear him if he wants you to hear him.”
    Me. Uh huh.
    (And so we go through the rest of the five senses, and then the theist may offer accounts of warm, happy feelings, or the beauty of a sunset, or the enormity of the universe, or how I myself feel seeing a baby smile, or hundreds of other subjective, emotional experiences that the theist thinks are wonderful and obvious evidence of his god’s existence, but which I find unconvincing.)

    So by this point, this conceptual entity that at first glance might have been immense, profound, undeniably obvious and extremely provable if it exists, has had every possible “proof” covered and excused by a stipulation that basically says he’s only going to reveal himself if he damn well pleases, and he usually doesn’t.

    This is what that particular theist has brought to me. I can’t help that. I can only work with what he brings. I’m not going to describe his god for him, the way I think his god ought to be. That’s his job, not mine. How the hell could I know what he’s talking about better than him? I really avoid making assumptions about people’s minds. I just ask them and listen. When he’s finally done, I carefully consider all the vague, amorphous, fuzzy and subjective twaddle he’s offered as evidence and I say,

    “Well, given your definition and description of this thing, and given what you’ve offered as evidence for its existence, I am not convinced that it exists. Hey, isn’t it nice sitting here, watching the clouds go by?”

  • Frank

    Ben,

    As to whether god interacts with the universe, I may not have been explicit at every step, but I believe this all started with the god(s) of christians who would be offended by the existence of atheists, and that is certainly an interactionist god.

    As to whether there should be evidence for god, please see my previous comment addressed to MikeTheInfidel.

    Richard, I believe you had indicated in your previous comment that you did not wish to continue this discussion. Well neither do I.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I believe this all started with the god(s) of christians who would be offended by the existence of atheists, and that is certainly an interactionist god.

    What are you even talking about? Christians certainly don’t believe that their god is going to step in and smite atheists who offend him. Their entire schtick is about the afterlife. They DON’T expect evidence. You’re kind of intentionally ignoring this point.

  • Pingback: Need Atheism Offend? « Submitted to a Candid World

  • Brian Macker

    Hemant,

    You are slightly wrong in this case. As a young child it was put to me that believing in god was a choice and that not choosing to do so was wrong, and evil. I was told that I should accept faith as the means to believe.

    I discovered that it was my nature not to believe things on faith. I was rational not irrational. Therefore it is an identity issue for me. I can no more decide to be irrational than I can decide to change my skin color or flap my arms to fly.

    Despite your demarcation of atheist from religious I’m religious but not irrationally so. That is I have beliefs that cover all the areas normally claimed by religions as their sole domain and area of authority. So my atheism cannot be a at odds with religion in general as you seem to think.

    What my identity is at odds with is irrational supremacist religion, the kind that believes its adherents are superior. My atheism gets in the faces of religious bigots in the same way that uppity blacks get in the faces of racists. My insistence that my religious beliefs are just as valid as theistic based ones draws the same ire as a black who claims they are the equals of whites.

    “Gays don’t, by their very existence, tell straight people that they think everyone should be gay.”
    Some heterosexuals do find gays to be a threat for this very reason. They think, incorrectly, that gays are asking them to consider all options.

    So I disagree to an extent.

  • Mister Trickster

    Philocetes, you said: “The fundamental difference between saying you are an atheist and saying you are black, white, female, male, gay, or straight is the strong element of conscious choice in the former. This is one of the reasons that the existence of atheism offends so many theists. – we saw the same evidence they did and do not believe.

    I’m sorry if you felt that pointing out an error in your logic was an ad hominem attack. My policy is to love the mistaken, but hate the fallacy.”

    The condescension is one thing, but that’s fine, we don’t need to have a reasonable debate.

    The logic is one thing, although we are still disagreed.

    Saying that I am using the tactics of the creationists was the ad hominem attack. Maybe not the most ad hominem, but ad hominem nonetheless, given that your evidence was insufficient to be linked with your claim. So there’s that.

    But let’s break it down to what you feel is your most important point– your “strong element of conscious choice in being an atheist.”

    Great! You’ve just made a claim without any evidence behind it. But I will allow it. Let’s say that yes, you do believe that you have a strong element of conscious choice. I’ll let you have that statement. You then say that this is what offends the religious, although you provide no evidence beyond your supposition that it just does.

    So you think this is what offends the religious, well then it must be what offends the religious! Great logic! You must never be wrong about your claims, ever, and never have to provide supporting evidence to link one claim with another. With logic like that (I’m sorry, not logic, but opinions), how will anyone ever be able to disagree with you?

  • Richard Wade

    Frank,

    Richard, I believe you had indicated in your previous comment that you did not wish to continue this discussion. Well neither do I.

    I didn’t say I wanted to discontinue the discussion. I said that it was becoming tiresome and apparently futile. Whether I choose to continue trying to discuss things is a different matter. Since you have indicated that you do not wish to continue the discussion, I’ll leave it alone, unless of course, you once again mention me in your argument to someone else. Then I’ll decide whether or not to respond to you about that.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Very interesting post and comments.

    I am a fan of the “lack of being convinced that there is a God” definition of atheism. This seems to be most inclusive. Specific people are free to have stronger beliefs (perhaps most do) but it is important to have an inclusive definition of atheism that can include all of us. If not, we need some additional terms.

    I do agree with the weaker part of the statement by Jesse, though, that a conscious belief is different than an “accident of birth” like what race you are of or your sexual preference. But it is clear from the comments that Jesse’s rationale applies more to a subset of atheists rather than the whole population.

  • Eliza

    I’ve been following this thread on/off since Jesse posted the OP. Very interesting.

    I suspect that non-theists don’t “offend” monotheists so much as “threaten” them. (Their response may look much the same.)

    Not ever having been religious, I can’t quite connect the dots, but perhaps we threaten their belief in the afterlife, or their carefully maintained conviction that they’re going to heaven. Do they think our lack of belief is contagious? That we’ll drag them down with us, kicking and screaming, into the bowels of Hell? I’m not sure (and, of course, not every monotheist reacts this way).

    On a separate note, as Brian Macker said recently, and others said earlier, there are some of us who don’t feel our lack of belief is a choice. I’m a died-in-the-wool lifelong rational skeptic who started investigating Christianity around age 8 or 9 (because other kids went to church & we didn’t, so I wondered what it was about) and quickly decided it was chock full of contradictions, was basically punitive, and it offered no basis for rational belief. This tiger can’t change its stripes.

  • Richard Wade

    Eliza, I think have an important insight. You’re right, it’s not about feeling offended, it’s about feeling threatened. An angry, offended person takes time to come to a boil. A fearful, threatened person reacts instantly. And that’s what we see. Instantaneous urges to shut us up. Afraid people are far more dangerous than angry people.

    Regardless, the reaction is their emotion, their creation, their responsibility.

  • Philoctetes

    Señor Coyote,

    Whatever is true about how atheists offend theists seems no longer to interest you. My agreement with part of Jesse’s original post, however, seems to have set you off. Your comments have been nothing but men of straw; things I didn’t say, conclusions I did not reach and claims I did not make.

    You appear to base your disagreement with my position on Jesse’s post on your belief that either I cannot make, or that cannot be aware of a particular conscious decision. You base this belief on the mere possibility that there is even one non conscious element in every decision. Again, I must risk the charge of ad hominem by pointing out the similarities between the anti-evolution fallacy and the one you are using.

    Your argument that the possibility of one non conscious element in my decision renders it totally non conscious is not a cogent one. The argument particularly falls when taken in the context of my argument, which was that there are more conscious elements in being an atheist that in being male or female. Since there are no conscious elements in my being male or female, all I would need would be the possibility of one conscious element in atheism for my claim to be true.

    I hope I have not bored the other readers of this thread, all of whom are sure to have understood my point days ago and have agreed or disagreed with it based on whether they believe atheism is subject to conscious choice.

  • Bob the Chef

    Babies are not atheists because atheism is a positive assertion or belief. You might as well say that a baby’s ignorance of evolution theory means the baby is creationist. Thinking in these kinds of antinomies is dangerous, and to confuse positive belief with ignorance is stupid. In fact, the phrase “positive belief” is redundant because there is no such thing as negative belief.

    Likewise, it is a false generalization to claim that all religious are invested in their religiosity only emotionally. I know more atheists which are far more emotional than any of the religious I personally know (I don’t know any evangelicals, maybe that’s why!). And in the public sphere, it’s enough to point to the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (Dawkins et al) to see exactly what I mean: a rabid, emotionally-charged hatred of religion, and the religious, that saturates every statement they make. To question their atheism is blasphemy deserving of the highest derision and public humiliation possible. The irrationality emanating from such closed minds is either scary, awkward or laughable, behavior worthy of a French absurdist play. I get nauseous just from watching them getting chummy with the audience while taking shots at some sophistic characterization of anything remotely religious. It seems petty and alienated from the real problematic of atheism.

    My point is that fanaticism is not limited to religion, and to predicate the value of atheism on the belief that there are no radical atheists because atheism does not permit fanaticism is building a castle on sand. The only science atheists object to is theology (hence the “a” in “a-theism”). It should not be built on the flimsy, self-satisfactory defining principle of the New Atheism which is the hatred of religion. If religion were to vanish, then the parasitic New Atheism would lose its founding dogma and collapse.

  • Richard Wade

    Bob the Chef,

    Babies are not atheists because atheism is a positive assertion or belief.

    Here we go again. Not thinking X does not necessitate thinking non-X instead. Not thinking X does not necessitate thinking Y instead.

    For a few atheists, their atheism is a positive assertion or belief. For many more, it’s just the absence of assertive beliefs in gods, and nothing more.

    Whence comes this compulsion of so many people to try to lump all atheists and all atheism into one narrow definition, the one that is actually the hardest to find in the real world?

    You seem to contradict yourself in your very next sentence:

    You might as well say that a baby’s ignorance of evolution theory means the baby is creationist.

    Yes, exactly. You’re right, if you are saying that it’s ridiculous to contend that a baby’s or even an adult’s simple lack of belief in gods, whether from never having heard the proposition, or from being left unconvinced by inadequate evidence of that proposition, is by necessity an assertive belief in the opposite, the non-existence of gods. No, it ain’t necessary at all.

    Of course the baby’s and the adult’s atheism are from different causal processes, but their simple lack of belief in gods is very similar. There’s just no belief there. There does not have to be an assertive contrary belief in its absence.

    It really is possible to be empty and free of such beliefs and counter-beliefs. I wish more people would try it. The quietude inside is very nice.

    As for the so-called “new atheists,” I haven’t yet read or heard the shrill, horrifyingly malicious bile that some theists wail about. Maybe you could direct me to some outrageous examples that I’ve missed. What I see are some very spoiled, thin-skinned theists who have had a cushy time in their privileged status, protected for centuries by an absurd social convention that forbids anyone from ever critically challenging or even questioning their beliefs even in the most gentle, polite ways possible, simply because they are religious beliefs.

    I can understand that from the point of view of such people, who have had their ideas and opinions so pampered and sheltered, even the most well-mannered and tender questioning or disagreeing with their precious beliefs would seem “rude,” “hateful,” “vicious,” and all the other hysterical hyperbole that they cry.

    I don’t think they are, but rude or not, rabid or not, the tone of the “new atheists’” arguments does not take away anything from the strength of their arguments. All that complaining about their ill manners is just ad hominem whimpering.

    The era of the “hands off” rule for religious ideas is over. In the marketplace of ideas, everything is subject to challenge, as it should be. The only people complaining are the ones who are used to getting a free ride.

  • We Are The 801

    If theists are offended by the mere statement “I am an atheist” I think that says more about the one who “takes offense”– he or she must be awfully insecure in their religious belief to be “offended” or whatever.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I find it useful to define atheism with the following Venn diagrams. They show the relationship between “not being convinced, being sure, and hating either religion or God.

    My apologies if the link comes up slow.

  • GMNightmare

    Atheism says I don’t believe in god, not you don’t believe in god.

    Now if we were talking about gnostic atheism, and the claim god doesn’t exist, that might be true, but the sign doesn’t say that.

    Saying I’m an atheist is very much just like saying I’m white. Taking offense to that is absolutely ludicrous. Again, atheism doesn’t say your god doesn’t exist, it’s a personal revelation.

    .

    However, religion, like Christianity, likes to declare god exists, in this certain way, and everyone else is wrong. The actual truth is, that organized religion “offends” everyone else. Because they are making a claim that everyone else is wrong.

    In any case on any way you want to argue it, any form of religion that claims that natively offends hundreds of times greater than just the lack of belief in god.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    ** You don’t get it — atheists don’t have freedom in the US

    Nonsense: we’ve been brainwashed to make nice with idiot religionists who wear crosses and stars of David as God bling.

    If I wore any in-your-face T-shirt proclaiming garbage like “Jesus is Lord” in bold nobody would criticize it and I’d get others who would praise me with a friendly Amen.

    What I won’t get will be criticism from anyone in the US telling me to stop being a pushy Jesus propagandist, threatening me, or trying to harm me.

    However, I guarantee that publicly wearing “Bored with Jesus” or “Atheists have more Sex” or “God is dead” on a Tee with get stares, yells, threats, and physical intimidation. I’m free to wear only if I dare.

    Not wearning an anti-xian shirt — it’s not being polite; it’s being careful. After all we atheists are the most hated minority in Ameristan, our xian Taliban dominated America. [For solid evidence from well run surveys visit the Pew Memorial Foundation http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_category.aspx?id=318

    There should be equal time for disbelief in a secular society — insist on it, but only anonymously in print. Because we don’t live in a land which permits “freedom of conscience” to non-believing minorities.

    Which is why I protect myself from the great American thug by signing myself:

    the anti_supernaturalist

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