From the archives: Atheism is just thinking there aren’t any gods

Yet another post originally published in June 2011. Good month.

Andyman writes:

Also, if there is one criticism of atheism I see too often its that naturalism is, apparently incoherent. It would be great if you could explore this a little bit more, as I’ve seen far more theists attack naturalism than actually defend their own arguments.

I’m probably only going to do one post on this, because I don’t find this topic very interesting, but it’s worth one post. Basically, I’m a naturalist in the sense that I think there aren’t any gods, the miracles claimed by the world’s various religions didn’t happen, there isn’t an afterlife, magic spells don’t work, and so on. But I’ve never heard anyone say naturalism in that sense is incoherent, and I can’t imagine how you’d argue that it is.

When people say naturalism is incoherent, they’re generally talking about some very broad philosophical thesis that’s supposed to have lots of implications for lots of other philosophical issues. I don’t find those debates very interesting, since I’m a David Chalmers-style dualist in philosophy of mind, and don’t care much about most of the other philosophical issues that get roped into debates about “naturalism” (say, abstract objects issue).

Worse, I can’t think of any critiques of “naturalism” I’ve seen that are careful to say, “in this article, I’m going to be arguing against the version of naturalism defended by professor so-and-so.” If they did that, their critique would at least be of interest to people who care about the philosophical issues involved. But instead, critics tend to come up with their own definition of naturalism, and then attack that. I don’t know why anyone would find that sort of critique terribly interesting.

Andyman is right that criticisms of naturalism are often presented as criticisms of atheism, and this is one of the things that makes me think most theistic arguments are best ignored. Atheism is just thinking that they’re aren’t any gods. Arguing that some very broad philosophical thesis is wrong doesn’t do anything to show that there are any gods. When apologists suggest otherwise, they’re no longer making anything remotely like a reasonable argument.

  • Sqrat

    Atheism is just thinking that they’re aren’t any gods.

    That’s going to get you in trouble with the folks who say that “atheism is not thinking that there are any gods.”

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    My own nitpick is that I’d say atheism is the lack of belief, but we’re all familiar with that subtle but important distinction.

    As for naturalism/materialism, I just prefer to think of it as monism, the belief that there’s one type of “substance” as opposed to dualism, which draws a line in the sand to establish an arbitrary double-standard for measuring some things through science, but not others.

    If we stumble on something real that would be called “supernatural” by popular definitions of the term, I see no reason why we wouldn’t apply scientific methodology to understand it. As far as I’m concerned, it’d still be “material,” just exotic because we wouldn’t yet understand it.

    • Sqrat

      My own nitpick is that I’d say atheism is the lack of belief, but we’re all familiar with that subtle but important distinction.

      It’s an important distinction, certainly. If it’s subtle, I think it’s because of the way we speak in casual conversation. We often say “I do not believe x” when we actually mean “I believe not-x.” Suppose we were to define “theism” as “the lack of belief in the non-existence of gods”?

      If we stumble on something real that would be called “supernatural” by popular definitions of the term, I see no reason why we wouldn’t apply scientific methodology to understand it. As far as I’m concerned, it’d still be “material,” just exotic because we wouldn’t yet understand it.

      For the most part I agree. It might not be “material,” but that wouldn’t mean that it wasn’t “natural.” Are there definitions of “supernatural” that aren’t, at bottom, incoherent?

    • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

      Hey look, it’s me :)

      Anyways, I guess the problem is defining what is supernatural and what is natural. I know that the material is typically understood as something that takes up space, but that doesn’t mean that all natural things have to be material. One could be a dualist of some sort and hold that the “mental stuff” is natural, yet not material.

      • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

        It largely depends on how inclusive you’re being about “material” things, and if there are significant differences in the new stuff’s way of operating to justify adding a new label.

        Does make things fun for one thing I’ve roleplayed a few times: A sorcerer among non-magical sci-fi engineers.

        • mnb0

          The vast majority of psychologists assumes that psyche is material, ie in the end reducible to matter/energy dualism. But I have a limited imagination. No matter how hard I try, I cannot think of anything natural that’s not reducible to matter/energy.

          • Sqrat

            No matter how hard I try, I cannot think of anything natural that’s not reducible to matter/energy.

            Space? Time?

          • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

            You don’t need to sell me on physicalism, I’m studying Cognitive science next year :)

  • Sqrat

    Or hold that the space which matter occupies, but which is itself neither matter nor energy, is natural rather than supernatural.

  • CeePeeThreeOwe

    Atheism is just a word and therefore can mean whatever you want it to mean. I favour KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – and therefore define atheism as “an absence of belief in a god or gods”.

    Why? Because if you use the definition that “Atheism is just thinking that they’re(sic) aren’t any gods” you open the floodgates to being told that what you are saying is that you believe in there being no gods. Believing that there are no gods means (since you cannot disprove the existence of everything that someone may call a god) you are undertaking an act of faith and that therefore atheism is a religion “because every one needs to believe in something”.

    I have no problem with the idea that some supernatural being(s) might exist but the lack of evidence for them suggests that (should they exist) they either can’t, or choose not to, interact with our world. Their existence or otherwise is therefore irrelevant.

    If I believe, as I do, that the many gods that have been worshipped by humanity are all figments of someone’s imagination that is not atheism – it’s a step beyond, anti-theism perhaps?

  • Sqrat

    Because if you use the definition that “Atheism is just thinking that they’re(sic) aren’t any gods” you open the floodgates to being told that what you are saying is that you believe in there being no gods. Believing that there are no gods means (since you cannot disprove the existence of everything that someone may call a god) you are undertaking an act of faith and that therefore atheism is a religion “because every one needs to believe in something”.

    I have long thought that this is indeed precisely the reason why some people want to insist that atheism is “an absence of belief in a god or gods” — because “believing” something is always to “undertake an act of faith.” Atheists, it would seem, should only be knowers, never believers, and the wise atheist is the one who has an absence of belief in the existence of gods, but also an absence of belief in the non-existence of gods. To believe that gods do not exist is OK, maybe, but that’s kind of like a religion, so also to not believe that gods do not exist is better.

    Go out in the woods and look at a rock. One of the things that is true about it is that it is characterized by an absence of belief in a god or gods. By saying that atheism is an absence of belief in a god or gods, and by saying that one is an atheist, does one perhaps open himself or herself up to the argument that he or she is dumb as a rock?

    Atheism is just a word and therefore can mean whatever you want it to mean.

    And so one could never be accused of using the word “atheist” incorrectly? Can it mean “Someone who is dumb as a rock” if someone wants it to mean that?

    If I believe, as I do, that the many gods that have been worshipped by humanity are all figments of someone’s imagination that is not atheism – it’s a step beyond, anti-theism perhaps?

    This “belief” that you have that the many gods that have been worshipped by humanity are figments of someone’s imagination — is that an act of faith, and therefore a religion?

    • josh

      “This “belief” that you have that the many gods that have been worshipped by humanity are figments of someone’s imagination — is that an act of faith, and therefore a religion?”

      No.

      This has been another edition of simple answers to silly questions.

      • CeePeeThreeOwe

        I don’t think that my belief is a religion, but it can save a heck of a lot of time arguing with a theist about whether or not atheism is a religion if we don’t give them the chance to seize upon the words we use and use them back in a way we didn’t mean.

        We can’t sell someone something if we can’t communicate with them. If we don’t use words to mean what our target means by them we will fail to communicate with that target, and therefore fail to sell.

        It’s like unintentionally implying that evolution has an end it’s seeking to attain – if we say an animal was made to occupy a particular niche we mean it was fashioned by natural selection, but to some theists the use of the word “made” equals a creation and therefore a creator – and that means they win.

        When I was younger I used my way with words (such as it was) to impress others with my cleverness. I’m no longer young and I never was very clever – that’s why I try to do things the easy way (that and experience which suggests it sometimes works).

        K.I.S.S..

  • Sqrat

    I don’t think that my belief is a religion, but it can save a heck of a lot of time arguing with a theist about whether or not atheism is a religion if we don’t give them the chance to seize upon the words we use and use them back in a way we didn’t mean.

    Granting that, especially in English, words can have a variety of meanings, I would argue that we should select our words with an eye toward what they actually mean and not with an eye toward scoring a debating point against people who aren’t going to be convinced by the point anyway. Otherwise, we risk being rather too much like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that’s all.”

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”


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