5-minute description of atheism

Standing alone, atheism is a disagreement. Atheists do not agree that God exists. We are not absolutely certain that there is no God, but then again, we cannot know with 100% certainty that Santa Claus is not real. We think that God, like Santa Claus, is very likely a fiction.

A rejection of God is only part of the story. Many atheists, certainly most of the atheists you encounter in academic and intellectual environments, reject all supernatural claims. We think there are no gods or demons, no angels or jinn, no souls, no life after death, no ancestral spirits, no karma, no psychic powers or occult influences, no magic or witchcraft, no prophets, no revelations, no cosmic justice, and no purpose structuring the universe. We usually think this is true the same way we think that no macroscopic information in the universe today can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. The evidence, as best as we can tell, rules out communication faster than light. And our evidence, as best as we can read it, makes the most sense without supernatural agents. Naturalistic atheists think that this is a bottom-up world, where everything we know is realized by natural, fundamentally purposeless processes.

Now, when people want to know more about atheism, they usually are not looking for a science lecture. Since our culture closely associates morality with religion, their first question is more likely to involve morality. Among naturalistic atheists, many are, broadly speaking, secular humanists. We have thisworldly reasons to help one another, to not cheat on our taxes, to not kick the dog. You will find us to be decent neighbors, even though we do not believe that decency is guaranteed to ultimately prevail. We can be dependable political allies, even if we understand good and evil in terms of human interests rather than divine commandments. Still, we are different. We tend to be less conservative than the religious, more at home in the modern world. We live with less certainty, with more moral gray areas.

Naturalistic atheists are a minority almost everywhere. But our view of the world has deep roots, particularly in intellectual life. We are unlikely to take over the world. But unless our civilization collapses, we are also unlikely to disappear. You can even find us within religious traditions. There are people who call themselves Jewish atheists or Christian atheists—people who value their religious heritage but reject their theologies.

Since neither skeptics nor believers are going away, we might as well figure out how to live together. This should not be too difficult. Atheists usually dislike more fundamentalist faiths, but do not object to belief as a personal matter. We strongly support a secular political life, defending principles such as separation of church and state. If the religious do not insist on making doubt a public liability, there is no reason that our disagreement about God should not be a friendly disagreement.

 

(Later in the month, I’ll be giving a 5-minute presentation on atheism as part of a panel discussion on campus. I thought I’d jot down what I’d like to say…)

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859405216390259275 Rose

    Well said!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09891160904748206385 AYDIN ÖRSTAN

    I know with 100% certainty that Santa Claus is not real. I can track down the origin of the idea & demonstrate that it was made up by humans.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12901445956957726604 George

    Yes, but ! Friendly disagreement ? That is impossible.. They have their religious leaders who influence to a great extend the way they think or do things. We do not ! Religious people can be less conservative too by means of hypocricy of course when it serves a purpose. Are you trying to say in between the lines that atheists are people of a certain academic background or have high intellect while religious people are ignorant ? I think they are ! What is your opinion on that ?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “ Standing alone, atheism is a disagreement. Atheists do not agree that God exists. We are not absolutely certain that there is no God, but then again, we cannot know with 100% certainty that Santa Claus is not real. We think that God, like Santa Claus, is very likely a fiction.

    There are two problems I have with this.

    First, I too disagree with a lot of God-concepts. I certainly disagree with any claim that God exists in a way comparable to the existence of Santa Claus. After all God is not supposed to be a particular thing, or a particular being, within the physical universe – in the way Santa Claus is. Rather the claim that God exists is a claim about the ultimate nature of reality. According to the definition above then it would appear that I am an atheist too, and that won’t do.

    Secondly, I question whether it is possible as a practical matter to disagree with some idea without actually having some kind of a positive idea of the alternative. For example one can’t really disagree with the claim that the Earth is round without having in mind at least some notion about a non-round shape of the Earth. Similarly to say that one disagrees with George W. Bush’s policies entails that one has at least some notion about what kind of policies would have been more appropriate. Disagreeing about the existence of the largest prime number entails one has some notion of an infinite sequence of prime numbers. Now it could be the case that atheists, while disagreeing with the existence of God, entertain a whole range of fundamentally different ideas about reality – but this is not in fact the case. What characterizes atheism is rather the belief that reality is at bottom strictly mechanical, and therefore free of any non-mechanical (aka “supernatural”) content, property, or cause. In short, the atheistic position is really the naturalistic position, and that’s something I think a proper definition of atheism should make clear. Theists on the contrary believe that reality consists at bottom of a genuinely free and creative mind, and that all apparent mechanisms are caused by that fundamental mind.

    Which, incidentally, nicely brings into sharp focus a basic problem of naturalism: Our own mind, our own subjective experience of life, appear to us to be non-mechanical, and hence not amenable to a fully mechanistic/physical description. Naturalists have no choice but to argue that our mind is not really a supernatural thing, but that it too is amenable to an ultimately mechanistic description. All impression of genuine freedom or of creativity (or of purpose or of value or of responsibility) we may have can’t be but illusions produced by our brain as part of our brain’s (as yet unexplained propensity) to produce our consciousness. So, it seems to me, naturalism implies that our brain deceives us in some of the most basic aspects of our experience of reality. Such a worldview strikes me as epistemically shaky to say the least. I mean if one believes that one’s brain produces all of one’s cognitive faculties and also believes that one’s brain deceives one in some of the most basic aspects of one’s experience, then one will have grounds to doubt any of one’s cognitive faculties. I don’t see how a naturalist can then escape ultimately falling into radical agnosticism/skepticism/nihilism, or else falling into incoherence.

    Now the above depends on my understanding that “natural” describes any existent, property or cause which is amenable to scientific modeling (or, in other words, something that can exhaustively be described in a mathematical or algorithmic fashion – a mechanism) and that “supernatural” on the contrary describes anything that is not thus amenable. If the reader knows of a more appropriate definition of “natural” and “supernatural” I’d like to know about it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    “Which, incidentally, nicely brings into sharp focus a basic problem of naturalism: Our own mind, our own subjective experience of life, appear to us to be non-mechanical, and hence not amenable to a fully mechanistic/physical description.”

    That’s a question-begging way of expressing it. Try this way:

    “Which, incidentally, nicely brings into sharp focus a basic problem of naturalism: Our own mind, our own subjective experience of life, appears to itself to be non-mechanical, and hence not amenable to a fully mechanistic/physical description.”

    Appearances can be deceiving. My desk appears to be made of solid matter, but (naturalistic) physics teaches me that it’s ‘really’ like a net with particles at the nodes with energy fields connecting the nodes across enormously (relatively) wide spaces that gives the illusion to my unaided senses that the net is solid matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11532683087210250003 Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Historically, most of the more prominent atheists of the 19th Century (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and even Marx) or even the 20th (Russell, Ayer, Sartre, Camus) don’t qualify by your site’s definitions as metaphysical naturalists.

    The same is true of some famous agnostics and deists of the 18th Century like Hume, Paine, Voltaire, and many others.

    It was only in the late 20th Century that philosophical atheists in the Occident became as enamored as they now are of physicalism.

    It’s worth recalling that these non-physicalist atheists were among the most potent and effective opponents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Tanis:
    “Atheists do not agree that God exists. We are not absolutely certain that there is no God, but then again, we cannot know with 100% certainty that Santa Claus is not real. We think that God, like Santa Claus, is very likely a fiction.”

    Georgoudis:
    “First, I too disagree with a lot of God-concepts. I certainly disagree with any claim that God exists in a way comparable to the existence of Santa Claus. After all God is not supposed to be a particular thing, or a particular being, within the physical universe – in the way Santa Claus is. Rather the claim that God exists is a claim about the ultimate nature of reality. According to the definition above then it would appear that I am an atheist too, and that won’t do.”

    Bowen to Georgoudis:
    The fact that you disagree with some specific conceptions of God (i.e. you believe that a being of that specific description does not exist) does NOT make you an atheist by the definition above. You clearly believe that some sort of God exists, and it appears that the conception of God that you have appears to be a fairly traditional and common one.

    Therefore it is false to say that you believe “there is no God”. You simply don’t fit the definition given by Tanis. Your example (of your own viewpoint) fails to be a counterexample.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Georgoudis:
    “Secondly, I question whether it is possible as a practical matter to disagree with some idea without actually having some kind of a positive idea of the alternative.”

    Bowen:
    Can we not doubt the prosecution’s case for guilt in a murder trial without having to determine the true killer? Of course we have a conception of what this means: Somebody else did the killing. Or at any rate: It is unclear whether the accused did the killing. This contrasts with: It is clear that the accused did the killing.

    But whether I say “Somebody else did the killing” or “It is unclear whether the accused person did the killing” I might not have an alternative theory to offer. I might not have a alternative suspect to put forward as the guilty party. Or better, I may have a myriad of alternatives to offer, but perhaps none in which I can place much confidence.

    To disagree with the belief that God exists, may in many cases be analogous to this case: “Some other theory of the nature of the universe is more likely the truth.” Or perhaps: “It is far from clear to me that the God hypothesis is a correct theory of the nature of the universe.” Case not proven.

    In short, a “positive idea of the alternative” to belief in God may simply be: there is insufficient data to determine whether the God hypothesis is true, or the data has a rather poor fit with this theory.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Georgoudis:
    “Now it could be the case that atheists, while disagreeing with the existence of God, entertain a whole range of fundamentally different ideas about reality – but this is not in fact the case. What characterizes atheism is rather the belief that reality is at bottom strictly mechanical, and therefore free of any non-mechanical (aka “supernatural”) content, property, or cause. In short, the atheistic position is really the naturalistic position, and that’s something I think a proper definition of atheism should make clear.”

    Bowen:

    You are confusing sociology with logic. Atheists might tend as a group to be naturalists, but these are two separate and distinct logical categories. Atheism is the rejection of belief in the existence of God. Different atheists have different reasons and motivations for rejecting this belief.

    It might well be a fact of sociology that most atheists in the past few centuries reject belief in God on the basis of naturalism or naturalistic beliefs. But this is only one possible reason. Some reject belief in God on the basis of the problem of evil. Some reject belief in God because they view religious belief as the cause of cruelty, violence, and intolerance. Some reject belief in God because they find the arguments for God’s existence to be weak. Some reject belief in God because they find the concept of God to be confused and unclear. Soem reject beleif in God because they find the concept of God to contain a logical contradiction.

    In sum, there are as many differnt reasons for rejection of belief in God as there are reasons for acceptance of belief in God. Naturalism might be the most popular reason in our era, but there are other reasons for atheism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    “Tanis” = Taner Edis.

    My apologies – this odd conflation of first and last names was unintentional.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02910060898110454697 SEBASTIAN

    Paul Kurtz has been removed as leader of his organizations by his Board and CEO
    Ron Lindsay. He has effectively been summarily ousted from his position of Chairman (although he was given a token vote on the Board and relegated to Chairman Emeritus) of the three organizations (the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center of Inquiry and CISCOP) he founded and devoted 33 years of his life to making them the successful groups they are today. He drew no salary during that time. No one has been more committed to the Humanist movement than Paul Kurtz.

    I've read the statements by Paul and Lindsay which are quite
    different. Paul feels he was the victim of a "palace coup". Lindsay
    disputes this, posted a reply but gives no details and won’t discuss it further.
    The Board itself is almost mute on the big change except for a carefully
    worded press release. One wonders why? Where is the transparency here?

    I feel it is a very serious mistake for the organizations and a grave disservice, to
    say the least, to Paul Kurtz. Paul has been the driving, creative force and
    personality in these organizations building an International presence and
    establishing himself as one of the leading, if not the leading, secular
    humanist in the world. He started with a storefront and built it into
    the most influential humanist organization in North American.

    This move seems clearly about power.

    I believe that the Board should have handled this much more gracefully
    not only avoiding a tragic ending for Paul's life's work but in the best interests of the organizations. Paul is an icon in the humanist world. This divisive action will not only hurt our organizations but the Humanist movement as a whole. Those of us who respect and admire Paul will not react favorably to this devious decision. I predict this will
    undermine the respective missions of each organizations, their membership and their financial support.

    Paul has tremendous prestige and connections in the world of Humanism and no one on the Board or staff comes close to his stature. His fundraising and organizational abilities along with his vision were critical to the ongoing success of all three organizations. I might also add this reckless move also gives great joy to the Religious Right who hate Paul and will welcome this ugly split in the Humanist movement.

    Ron Lindsay seems to be trying to wash his hands of the whole affair leaving
    the responsibility solely on the Board and painting himself as a reluctant player, however, I understand that he led this effort and as an attorney provided the legal maneuvers to the Board for the action. This despite the fact that Paul had placed his trust in him by appointing him Executive Director and later CEO.

    If Lindsay and the Board truly "respected" Paul's contributions they would
    not at this late juncture humiliate him in this way. There is the strong odor of
    betrayal in this whole affair.

    Those of you who feel the way I do should express
    themselves and act accordingly.

    The Board:
    kendrickfrazier@comcast.net, rschroeder@centerforinquiry.net,
    dan@kelleherz.com,rhlawdave@frontiernet.net,ETABASH,jkurtz@prometheusbooks.com,

    and Paul's emailpaulkurtz@aol.com

    Hugh Giblin
    ——————————————————————————–


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