Atheists in America – Part 3

Atheists in America – Part 3 May 5, 2013

                This is a continuation of my series on atheists which is based on a book I have coming out, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). You can see the first two entries of this series here and here. The comments after those entries are of interest. It seems that some who have read the blog take offense at my use of the word “belief” to characterize atheism. Given some of those concerns I feel the need to clarify and sharpen my c about stating that atheism is a belief.

                I use the term belief for atheism simply because atheism is a belief. I define a belief as something that has not been proven. Some seem to read this as an attack on atheism. But it is not an attack on atheism to call it a belief but since it has not been proven. I get it that atheists assert that atheism is the most rational belief. It is a belief that the University of Alabama will win the NCAA football championship next year. It is also a belief that the University of Wyoming will win the NCAA football championship next year. However, until the NCAA Championship game is played, neither assertion is proven and so both remain beliefs. Anyone who knows anything about college football will tell you that the first belief is more rational than the second belief. If atheists want to assert that atheism is akin to believing in Alabama while theism is akin to believing in Wyoming then I am not going to argue with them in this blog series. It is not that I fear such an argument as I am very intellectually comfortable with my Christianity, but if we started down that road then that is all I would be commenting on the next couple of weeks. If others wish to argue about the rationality of atheism in the comment section then they are free to do so. For the time being I will personally abstain from that discussion. Instead I will keep my focus on looking at atheists, as opposed to atheism.

                My assertion is that unless something can be proven then it is a belief. Some commenters have argued that I am unfairly requiring them to prove atheism. I am doing no such thing, unless they insist that atheism is not a belief. If that has gotten you enraged and you do not like my use of the term “belief” for atheism, then prove atheism. Otherwise, I do not see a better term for an unproven idea. By the way, stating that your beliefs are based on science does not eliminate the reality that they are beliefs. First, there are certain questions, such as the existence of deity, which the scientific method cannot answer. Science can only provide possible indirect evidence but not proof on such a question. Second, critical epistemology shows that science is not the objective enterprise we think that it is. I do not want to go off on a sidetrack and discuss this perspective but it is a mistake to envision scientific findings as a representation of objective reality unencumbered by larger social and cultural forces. Reading Thomas Kuhn, Karl Mannheim and Michael Polanyi can provide a more complete understanding of this reality as well as post-modern, feminists and critical theorist critiques of science.  

                I believe that these comments about beliefs help to set up a discussion on the confidence by which atheists hold their beliefs in that some atheists are so certain their beliefs are correct that they do not even see them as beliefs.  This fits a sociological term known as particularism which is defined as the degree that people feel that their beliefs are correct and all other beliefs are wrong. In terms of Christianity, there are Christian groups believing that only those in their particular sect are going to heaven, Christian groups believing that all people, Christian or not, are going to heaven and all sorts of Christian groups in between this continuum. Of course atheists do not talk of certainty of salvation but they do, as evidenced by some of the comments to my previous blogs, talk of certainty that there is no salvation since there is no supernatural. I suspect that a similar type of continuum of certainty is true among atheists. Traditional Christianity asserts that Jesus is the only path. Atheists assert that accepting that there is no god is the only rational path. I am not certain whether, as a group, Christians or atheists have higher degrees of particularism but some of my atheist respondents have a degree of particularism that matches, or exceeds, that of most Christians.

                The comments in the past couple of entries over whether atheism is a belief seem to imply that atheism is a fact. This is another way of asserting that atheism is the only rational approach to reality. We are not limited to these commenters for evidence of particularism in atheism. I found abundant particularism among my respondents. The certainty some respondents have of atheism can be typified in the comments from this interviewee:

What an atheist is?  I would say that a person that is an atheist is someone that has an objective mind.  Someone that doesn’t take any statement as truth.  You can’t necessarily say a statement is true without actually having proof, there’s proof.

The automatic assumption of atheism being accurate, objective and true this respondent made was present throughout the comments of the interviewees and respondents to our online survey. This perspective was not uncommon among my respondents indicating that a relative certainty of the accuracy of atheism is part of the social identity within many atheists. In fact, we asked atheists if they have ever had doubts about their atheism. We found that almost two thirds (65.2 percent to be exact) stated that they never doubted their atheism from whatever point in their lives that they became an atheist. A couple of typical comments to the question were:

No, never.  I know the, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and that sorta theory, but I’ve really never been tempted to think otherwise, no.

Not at all.  Never.  Never.  As a matter of fact, since I realized that I was an atheist, my take on atheism has only gotten stronger.

Atheists express a certainty of their beliefs that contributes to their confidence in naturalism. Once a person becomes an atheist, he/she generally does not find a reason to rethink or challenge that belief. Perhaps the confidence they have in science, which I discussed in the last blog, is the source of this certainty.

                I saw elements of this confidence in our initial online survey. My personality is such that I am generally motivated more by rational than emotional appeals. As such I was curious about the type of rational argument atheists relied upon to substantiate their certainty. So I made sure we included an interview question that asked what logical argument convinced them of the accuracy of atheism. I admit some surprise on my part that only half of the atheists offered a positive argument for atheism. By far the most common reason given for atheism was the lack of evidence for a deity or the supernatural. Comments like this one “…I can’t think of an oral argument for atheism besides the other lack of proof for any religion” indicate a negative argument against religion and for atheism. There were some positive arguments offered (i.e. existence of evil, existence of different religions) but none of them had an overwhelming presence among atheists. The fact that half of the atheists offered a negative argument in an open-ended question indicates that this is by far the most powerful logical justification used by atheists.

                Pulling together the elements discussed in my previous blog entries provide us with a better understanding of the social identity of atheists. Atheists envision themselves as rational and driven by science. They have determined that there is insufficient evidence supporting religious beliefs and thus have accepted atheism as it concerns issues about supernaturalism. They have a high degree of certainty in the truth of their beliefs and are so certain once they accept atheism that they generally have no doubts about it. They see religious individuals as emotional and lacking in a scientific approach to reality. This vision of religious individuals allows the atheists to define themselves as the opposite of the religious viewpoint of this day. Gavin Hyman has suggested that there is a tendency of atheists to seek to negate the religious message of that day. Thus, atheists often define themselves to be opposite of the religious tradition of that time, place and culture. Given these findings, where atheists see themselves as the rational and scientific counterpart to the emotional and religious traditional approach, I find no reason to dispute this idea.

               Please allow me to anticipate a criticism. Someone may state that he/she is an atheist and does not exactly fit the above description or that he/she knows an atheist who does not fit that description.  Of course not all atheists comport to all of the elements described in the paragraph above. Social identities do not describe every single person in a given category. But they do help us to understand some of the underlying tendencies of members in that category. Given the answers our respondents provided, these tendencies likely characterized most, but obviously not all, atheists.

                Now that we have taken an initial look at the type of social identity atheists have, we can move on to discuss more of the ideology emerging from atheism in the United States. Some Christians have argued that atheists do not have a sense of morality. That argument is incorrect. Atheists generally are not anarchists. They do have a sense of morality tied to their values, social identity and certainty of beliefs. In my next blog I start to look at elements that will help illustrate the morality emerging from our interviews of atheists.

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