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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  • ScottyO

    In order to win an argument, you have to change the definition of a word? “I define a belief as something that has not been proven.” Actually, if you bothered to look at a dictionary, you would see that is the definition of faith (“firm belief in something for which there is no proof” – Merriam Webster; “belief that is not based on proof” –

    I believe in gravity, the Sun, that the sky is blue, etc. and guess what? There is evidence for those things.

    • George Yancey

      According to Websters a belief is conviction that certain things are true. So tell me how atheism is not a beleif? Furthemore if you believe in the Sun, sky is blue and other things becasue of evidence and atheists attact theism than provide positive evidence for atheism then you cannot state that your beleif in gravity or the sky is the same as a belief in atheism can you.

      • ScottyO

        You are correct that my “belief” in atheism is not the same as my belief in the Sun. That’s because atheism is not a belief, but a lack of belief. Since you like Websters, Websters defines atheism as “a disbelief in the existence of deity”.

        • George Yancey

          According to my Modern desk edition that is not correct. The first defintion is what I stated it to be. However it is true that the second defintion is “religous faith”. But if that is the only defintion there was on beleif then we would have not have four other definitions. You see this is a word with different defintions and that is why I defined how I used the term. This edition also defines a belief as “an opinion” which we could also say of atheism. Finally using your own defintion of atheism as “a disbelief int he existence of deity” is just another way of saying “believing that there is no deity”. If there is a difference between those two statements then please enlighten me.
          For the life of me I cannot understand why this argument arises. I am stating that atheism is an idea that is not proven. I simply use the word belief to repersent that concept. Nothing you have said challenges that concept. Instead you seem to want to play semantics with word beleif. If you have a better word for accepting an unproven concept then by all means subsetitute that for belief. It changes nothing in what I have said in the blogs.

          • ScottyO

            *I* am playing semantics with the word “belief”? Did you forget you started your article with your own definition of the word?

          • ScottB

            Unless you guys just like arguing past each other, you should make sure to read what mhesidence posted above.

            It sounds like George is arguing about positive (hard) atheism, which is a belief/assertion; and ScottO is arguing about negative (weak) atheism, which is a lack of belief in God.

            I’m a weak atheist myself. I am not claiming there can not possibly be one or more gods, but do not actively believe there is. (To muddle it slightly, I’d say that in fact I go a step beyond that: I believe, but do not assert, that there is not.)
            If you’ll let me make up a term, I’d say a “good scientist” atheist cannot be a strong atheist. Using the scientific method may let you prove the nonexistence of a certain kind of god (a god that makes you burst into flames every time you say “flame on” would be trivially easy to disprove), but not every kind of god.

          • George Yancey

            When there are different definitions of a word, as there is with belief, it is appopriate to define the word so that it is not misunderstood. The meaning of religious creed is not the one I am using and I was merely making it clear. When I say “I believe in the San Antoino Spurs” I am not being religious. So yes people use the word belief and not mean religion all the time. Once again this dicussion does nothing to challenge the basic points in the blog.

          • ScottyO

            Your entire article is based on the assumption that atheism is a belief, when it is the exact opposite. That is the very definition of a straw man argument. It would be like me defining light as dark, and arguing that the night sky is actually bright.

          • George Yancey

            Okay since you want an updated definition of belief you can look at it here at Webster. None of the three definitions used are directly connected to religion. In fact they can be used to describe atheism, especially the last two defintions. I tried to keep my definition simple but did add that beliefs are unproven. If something is proven then I see it as a fact. Atheism is not a fact unless it can be proven.
            By the way the article is based upon the certainty that atheists have of atheism. That argument does not turn on semantics about the meaning of belief. I choose to address that in response to others in earlier blogs. So your analogy about light as dark makes no sense whatsoever. Your argument that atheism is not a belief is defeated by the fact that atheism is 1) a tenet or body of tenets held by a group or conviction of the truth of some statement when based on examination of evidence. Thus if you do not like my definition of belief because of the proven comment either of those will do.
            Finally it seems to me that you have not read beyond the first couple of paragraph because you are so fixated on the belief thing. So once again I have to point out that this topic really does not address the meat of the argument made in the blog. Unless you can specifically point out the weaknesses in the blog, then making claims of a strawman argument is merely a distraction.

          • mhesidence

            “For the life of me I cannot understand why this argument arises.” And that is why there is such a fuss. Its like saying to an Xian, there are three gods (father, son, holy ghost) not one.

            Here nice, simple, and short.

          • George Yancey

            My comment was all of the argument of atheism as a belief. It is not about the viability of atheism. I have choose to abstain from that argument in this particular blog series.

  • George… I missed part two it would seem, so I’m gonna head back over there. But I wanted to leave this link for you, if you don’t mind. It’s a post I did about agnosticism and atheism. It comes from a place of frustration, so it does have some strong words, but that frustration comes from people trying to tell me “you don’t sound like an atheist. You sound like an agnostic.”

    This I actually find insulting because a) I think I know better than anyone else what I am (an agnostic atheist) since I’m the only one in the world who’s… you know… me… and b) because the absence of belief cannot be, by definition, a belief, since it is the absence of such.

    Anyways… here’s the blog post:

    • Mike Cahill

      Let’s look at the “absence of belief” term. You’re not saying you don’t believe in ANYthing, but that in matters of God, you don’t believe. In other words, there has to be a particular subject about which you claim non-belief. But this is logically equivalent to an assertion that “there is no God.” In other words, you believe there is no God. But that’s a belief. It may be true or it may be false, but it is a belief. Sure, the absence of belief is not a belief. But in this discussion, what would the absence of belief actually be? It would say “I don’t believe one way or the other about this subject.” There are only two ways this could be true. One is if someone were in total ignorance of the subject, not even knowing the topic existed. That is not the case here. The other way is if someone believed neither that God existed nor that he didn’t exist. That absence of belief is close to the traditional definition of agnostic. But an atheist cannot logically claim to be without a belief about God.

      • Coffey3C

        “But this is logically equivalent to an assertion that “there is no God.”

        This really isn’t correct. Atheism means that I’ve rejected the premise of the theist. As an atheist, I would tell you that you can never disprove an invisible omnipotent entity that exists outside of reality… but that there is no reason to believe such a thing. Atheism does not go so far as to prove or demand that there is no god. Yes, Atheism is a position with regard to that one premise, of the existence of the supernatural/gods and god.

        However, as a rational person, I absolutely believe that there is no god, because given the breath of human history, and the complete lack of any objective evidence for that claim, it feels to me to be irrational to believe other wise. As I look at all the the religions, theologies, and gods that man has created, it would be psychotic to assume that some thousand or so gods are absurdly unlikely, but that the most unlikely of all must true, and to be believed in on faith. I believe there is no god, which makes me technically an agnostic atheist… but I can get pretty darned gnostic about it.

      • When I say that I’m an atheist, what I am effectively saying is that I do not believe the theist’s claim that God exists. Therefore, I’m waiting for it to be proven, which I don’t think it has, yet. Obviously that quite nicely takes the burden of proof off of me, but that’s always been the way anyways… the theist has always been the one with the positive claim, and thus it’s up to the theist to prove it.

        Perhaps I’m a rarity in the world on this, but as I noted in my blog, I do think the question of the existence of a higher power or powers is a scientific question because, if so, that would essentially be the Theory of Everything. It is a question about the nature of reality and these questions are the questions we use science to answer.

        I also contend that *everyone* is agnostic, and this is why it’s not a middle-ground between atheism and theism. So with atheism and theism, you are either one or the other. That is… an atheist is someone who is not a theist. To me it’s that simple.

        (And for the record, I do consider deists and such to be theists.)

    • George Yancey

      Nathan. I will take a look at your blog later. There is an scholarly argumennt about defintions of athiesm and some have defined themselves as both agnostic and atheists. For the purpose of our reserach we simply allowed people to define themselves and then ask them to define atheism. There were a few wh omention a type of agnosticism but most exhibited a certainity in the non-existence of God. Indeed most atheists argue for the non-existence of God but admit that they cannot prove that God does not exists. Even Dawkins says as much. The atheist social identity I am discussing is probably more connected to that type of atheism and as I stated it is not the case that every single atheist falls into all of the aspects of that identity. I hope that clarifies a bit on the defintion we used for athiests and why I see the assertion of it as an unproven claim or as I see it as a belief that there is no deity.

      • I think it depends on *which* god. You believe in God, also known as Yahweh, Adonai, etc. As I said in my post, I am also quite certain that he doesn’t exist because there is no way logical way he can exist. His attributes essentially don’t allow him to.

        But when talking about the definitions of theism and atheism, we can’t use one specific concept. We have to take every single postulated deity that has ever been thought up during the whole of human existence. This changes things. One cannot be certain about the God Hypothesis in genera because there is not enough information to decide either way. But there is information about specific concepts, and that’s where the certainties and uncertainties can come in.

        • George Yancey

          Wow. If you can prove that Jehovah cannot exists you should write a book, make a million dollars and throw all of the Christian philosophers out of business.

          • It’s a logic issue, dealing with paradoxes brought up by his attributes. Some of my favorites include:

            “Can God make a rock so heavy even he can’t lift it?”

            “Can God make a being more powerful than himself?”

            And of course Karen Owen’s wonderful little poem:

            Can omniscient God, who
            Knows the future, find
            The omnipotence to
            Change his future mind?
            And then you have that classic dilemma:

            And, of course, Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
            When it comes right down to it, an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent deity cannot exist. He is too complex (indeed, infinitely so), and his attributes are too contradictory. Not only do the attributes conflict with each other and, in the case of omnibenevolence, the as-yet-unsolved problem of evil (“free will” and Satan do not solve this problem… at all), but they are also contradictory within themselves, as well.

            An existing being’s attributes have to be, by definition, limited… by reality itself. Nothing can be beyond reality, because the only thing beyond reality is fantasy. You have the issue of spacetime as well, since spacetime is required for the concept of “outside” to have any meaning, so there can’t be any kind of “outside spacetime” since both space and time are required to define “outside” in the first place. Thus, nothing can exist “outside spacetime” (let alone have created it).

            So ruling out the omnimax Yahweh isn’t that hard, actually.

          • georgeyancey

            Nobody argues that God does what is logically impossible such as create a square circle. As far as a good God and the existence of evil, philosophers both Christian and nonChristian have dealt with that objection long ago. You do not have to agree with them but clearly this is not proof that Jehovah does not exists. To be honest nothing new under the sun here. Just because we cannot totally understand the attributes of a deity does not mean that we have proven that the deity does not exists.

          • CoffeyC

            The fact that something can’t be proven is the poorest basis for belief; because it requires, first and foremost, that there is no proof of the claim. What is more, as the ‘mysteries’ of the god conjecture build, mysteries that without the blind faith of belief are just so many absurdities, you are still faced with a claim who’s absurdity grows, but who’s justification has never moved beyond the human capacity for credulity and self deceit. It’s the old theist pedestal of apologetics, to claim that these competing ‘Beliefs’ are equal somehow. Our most fundamental disagreement is that they are not.

            When a scientific theory has been vetted, and withstood all that can be thrown at it, no sense of fairness demands that it be treated merely as equal with something that someone clearly just made up and which violated much of what we actually know… or that it be included in a science education. A preconception, preconjectural bias if you will, that a god is the root cause, is not equal to the demand that there should be some proof for a claim for it to be reasonable. All ideas are not equal, and the insistence and lobby demanding that they be treated as such out of fairness, is the acme of unfairness, and absurd demand, anyone could make.

            The claim of yet another nonsensical, unknowable,
            inscrutable, omniscient being, one that is merely the latest of, and hardly indistinguishable from, the many thousands of claims that have already been discarded, isn’t something that gains credit or credibility by being
            unproven. This is the seminal point about this whole issue of belief you cannot equate the logical and the demonstrably real, with an absurd and un-demonstrated fiction, and demand that they are equal in credibility.

            This is also why none of those philosophers who has dealt with the issues of an evil and obdurate god
            – who is never the less all loving – have never produced a single persuasive argument. There has never been a persuasive argument to justify it, because without blind faith, belief based on nothing, they are merely absurd and self contradictory claims made to mystify and justify the
            even more absurd premise.

            When Einstein looked at the forces of nature, knowing that they were all so intimately related so as to be equivalents in variable forms; he took what we knew and was able to deduce that space itself has a curvature (or a density function) to help explain those forces. He came up with a seemingly absurd premise, that space must be curved… an extraordinary claim for which he then made predictions regarding what we might be able to see if it was true. He was born out.

            In the absence of lesser evidences that support the non-natural premise, senescent magical fairies, and wealthy leprechauns, or unicorns who’s tears can cure any injury or ill… it is harder to make the step in finding something even more remarkable exists, because all the evidence points to a real universe and specific laws of physics. Perhaps, if someone could come up with even one pile of magic pixie poop that can remove dents or rust from five feet away… but until then we are hardly justified in devoting the efforts of our lives to live as if it does, and wind up only lining the pockets of greedy, unscrupulous, men. And… no matter how many times this equal footing is demanded, one can not equate the credibility of the two. They are not even in the same realms of possibility.

          • georgeyancey

            My point was whether Nathan logically proved that Jehovah did not exist. I merely pointed out that he did not make such a proof. I fully agree that one does not have to disprove the existence of an entity to not believe in it or I would have to believe in the Golly Green Giant. But if a claim that one can logically prove that an entity does not exists then proof has to be produced.

          • CoffeyC

            I understood you, George. My point was that after four, five or six thousand years,not only without a proof, but also without any demonstrable and empirical evidence… it’s not longer worthy of consideration… let alone belief.

            My wife won’t take me to see iron man 3. I was good too, but I’ll have to wait for the DVD. Oh well.

            I know this is and article/book and not a paper, and that you are probably not prepared to share data, but I would love it if you could post a link to question-airs and questions you and your colleague used to develop your data. Now that the work is published.

          • georgeyancey

            The interview data is not public information at this time. Probably never will be due to issues of confidentiality but if we can be sure that the identity of the respondents remain hidden then we may make it public one day. But the data we gathered through the online questionnaire is public at this time in the Arda website. You can see the info for it at

          • CoffeyC

            Thank you.

          • georgeyancey

            Your welcome. Too bad your wife will not go to IM with you. It is worth going to see on your own.

          • I understand that you think Theodicy is a good response to the problem of evil, George, but it very simply simply isn’t.

            Original Sin is just plain cruel and idiotic. Blaming all of humanity for the “sin” of two naive idiots (through no fault of their own, I might add) who may or may not have existed some 6000 years ago is, in my humble opinion, evil.

            Free Will is also cruel, and no excuse whatsoever. I’d personally rather be a robot in a world of robots than have even a remote chance of another Adolf Hitler coming into power.

            As to the logical conundrums I presented… they are conundrums because they put the lie to the “omni”. “Omni” means “all”. The minute you put even one limit on it, you can no longer call it omni. “Nobody argues that God does what is logically impossible such as create a square circle.” Then he is *not*, by definition, *omni*potent. He can’t be omnipotent anyways, because such a concept is logically impossible.

            So unless you have redefined the idea of Yahweh to be a being with immense amounts of knowledge and power, but is still limited by logic, an omnimax deity simply cannot logically exist.

          • georgeyancey

            I am not the only one who considers theodicy is a good response. Just about every modern philosopher on this subject does as well. For example, you state that free will is cruel. But you have no basis for making such an assessment if there is no deity. Read Camus and Nietzsche who are atheist philosophers and agree that we cannot determine evil without an external standard (I am paraphrasing a little). So your argument that there cannot be a good God because of the existence of what you see as evil fall apart immediately. As to the logical conundrums I would challenge you to find a serious Christian theologian or apologist who argues that Omni means that God suspends logical definitions. Just because you can define something that is defintionally impossible such as a squared circle means nothing about whether God is all powerful or not. In fact Christians today acknowledge that even though God is all powerful that he will not force us to change our minds against our wills, and thus limits Himself. It seems that you have warped the definition of Jehovah into one that you can then refute. So with all due respect this is not logical proof that Jehovah does not exists but rather it is a philosophical argument that has defeated by those with a lot more knowledge of philosophy than I.

          • Well, I disagree with those philosophers (sure you don’t mean theologians?).

            As to “omni”… that’s not my definition; that’s the definition:

            a combining form meaning “all,” used in the formation of compound words: omnifarious; omnipotence; omniscient.


            1.the whole of (used in referring to quantity, extent, or duration): all the cake; all the way; all year.
            2. the whole number of (used in referring to individuals or particulars, taken collectively): all students.
            3. the greatest possible (used in referring to quality or degree): with all due respect; with all speed.
            4. every: all kinds; all sorts.
            5. any; any whatever: beyond all doubt.

            So if God is limited by logic, than he is not by definition, omni.

          • georgeyancey

            Who just says omni? The argument is that God is omnipotent or omniscient. God has all power and all knowledge. Neither attitubes implices that God does what is logically impossible such as develop a square circle or to go against his nature and take away free will. No one goes around and just says that God is omni. They attach it to certain attributes. It seems that you are creating a definition of Jehovah that no one else has and then tearing down the straw “god” to prove your point.
            By the way Christian philosophers such as Ron Koons and Alvin Plantinga are not theologians. They are just as legitimate academicians as an atheist philosopher would be. Plantinga is known for his powerful defense of free will and is well renowned.
            I understand you do not believe in these arguments. That if fine. I do not believe your arguments are powerful either. But I respect that they are coherent arguments. What I do not accept is that they are logical proofs against Jehovah. Since there are powerful counter arguments against your positions thus your positions are not the only logical conclusion one can come to. Thus, I maintain that Jehovah cannot be logically proven or unproven to exist.

          • The burden of proof lies with those making extraordinary claims. It is rational to say that Christians must prove the existence of God, not that atheists should prove it’s non-existence.

    • George Yancey

      I read your post. While we do not agree on the existence of God we do agree that everyone has some sort of unproveable belief. Ultimately that is what I am trying to clear up in the first few paragraphs. Have a great day.

  • Coffey3C

    There is already an perfectly acceptable definition of “Belief” in Anthropology and Sociology, i.e., that a belief is something that is held to be true. It may be held so by an individual or groups of individuals, to whole cultures. It is only the belief that something is true is what makes it a “belief,” without regard to the actual truth of the premise Unlike your definition, which you have narrowed to include only those things you consider as yet umproven, the actual data or premise that is being held as a belief may or may not be true. The salient point is that the group or individual holding that belief acts on the assumption, and bears expectations as if, that belief is true. I believe that the bases of laws in this country are primarily the constitution of the United States, the decisions previously handed down by the judiciary, and the presidents set by common law. Whereas, others may believe that George Bush was behind the flying of planes into the world trade center towers, or that the moon landings were faked.

    Observation indicates that theists rely on the concept of supernatural entities to explain the unknown, or anything they find mystical or frightening. Depending on the denomination, and the degree of zeal, there are many who seem to think that the lights don’t go on from throwing a switch in an electrical circuit, but rather that god has approved that action and allowed the lights to go on. Atheists believe that they are wrong. Thus, it is all together fitting and proper to clarify this issue as one in which atheism is not an independent belief, but rather the rejection of the theistic premise.

    However, even with this narrowing, so much of the discussion of ‘Belief’ too often degenerates into semantics, because as it is used in the common vernacular, and by sociologists, the term is perfectly acceptable. To me, and the atheists with whom I’ve discussed this, it is the equating these positions as merely opposing beliefs, that is fundamentally objectionable. The reason is purely a rational one, that given the conjecture of a god, or indeed any premise that relies on the supernatural, the null hypothesis is to not accept the truth of such premises in the absence of some conclusive proof. To accept based on faith is logically false. To request that atheists prove a negative is an actual logical fallacy, and likewise, to request that they disprove theistic conjecture, regardless of any special condition you seek to set up, is a shifting of that burden of proof.

    Atheists bear no burden of proof here, regardless of whatever special conditions or definitions (special pleading.) may be called for, and the fundamental disagreement stands. If there is proof of any supernatural claim, then it need only be presented. If it is true, then faith becomes completely unnecessary and nonsensical, and any proof brought forth will by its very nature, be reproducible and repeatable. Needless to say, no book, philosophical construct, nor any number of feelings, dreams, impressions, beliefs, or really nice stories serve as proof. Such standards are rightly seen as nonsensical in any other field of human inquiry, except perhaps Psychology and Economics, and that is the standard by which all the heretofore presented evidence, has been adjudged, and found inadequate.

    My much deeper objections to the presentation of this series, reside both in what is written in the articles, and in the available excerpts of the book. Atheism today is not just a response to the fundamentalist Christians of today, or the religious climate that may have existed in the past. Atheist arguments and refutations, however, are by necessity framed as direct responses to those claims and religious mores that exist at the time. This results in the direct mirroring the questions, assertions, and dogma, presented by those theists. I think that it is incomplete and highly inaccurate not to claim that the reasons for atheism run deeper, in incredulity to a fantastical and unsubstantiated assertion , the internal logical inconsistencies that are rife within the contrived dogmatism and theism created to support that claim, and the offense to morality that many atheists feel in light of the character of monsters like Allah and Yahweh. Reacting to fundamentalists, in any age, only explains why atheists appear angry, cranky, and nearly incoherent with frustration at times, but the atheism itself is far more deeply founded in the critical analysis of the theism.

    Never forget that for most of human history, that to question the prevailing theism, was to directly invite torture and death – in the interest of morality and cohesion. For the twelve hundred years or so, it was to invite crucifixion or stoning – in the interest of inclusion For several hundred after that, it was hanging, beheading, and burning at the stake – to show gods mercy. So with all that time, and a perfect lack of evidence therein, to have fundamentalists demanding to include their nonsensical claims on a level footing as the science that feeds, houses, clothes, and cures us all, in the spirit of fairness, will give the impression that atheists are cranky people who are just reacting to theists .

    Lastly, and likewise, the premises that atheists adhere to a generally more scientific view, and that that view is part of a self image, are certainly true. However, congruent to the arguments above, they are not universally causal. I would argue that theists who are accomplished scientists (Ken Miller), would have the same self image, as scientists. The argument trivializes and largely ignores that the exquisite reason for the scientific view, is that it is our best tool for understanding the nature of the universe. It not only provides testable and negatable hypotheses, but its value is evident in the ubiquitous technology that has made our culture and population possible, since the wider adoption of the scientific method. Thus, in light of all the evidence available, it is the more rational position, and to argue that it is not, is simply wrong.

    Of course, you might see all of this as merely one example that everyone is entitled to their beliefs; but, as I’ve said, though a belief may be either true or untrue. Until one understands that atheism is most often the result of an attempt to reason and argue from proven facts, well supported evidence, and logically consistent reason – that have been shown to be true and not negated, then whatever term you used to collect this evidence under, the point of atheism has been missed by a rather broad margin. And… A presuppositional bias that everything in human existence proves and unfalsifiable deity, is never the mere equivalent level of bias evidenced by demanding that assertions must have tangible proof.

    Given that level of understand, yes: I hold my beliefs as firmly as any theist who ever lived – but they are even in their most fundamental subject to question and analysis – and I will dump them the moment they are proven untrue. No hesitation, and no regret.

    I hope you had a pleasant weekend, Dr. Yancey.

    • George Yancey

      I know that atheist see their ideas as ratioanal while others are not ratioanal. That is the particularism I am talking about. All groups develop ideas that they see as most rational or supported by their observations. But people in those groups often do not see the social forces that inhibit their ability to achieve the objectivity they envion themsevles having. It is us sociologists who are foolish enough to study epistemology and realize how knowledge is social constructed. So I fully accept that you see yourself as being more rational than people with religious beliefs. I am not even contending that y0u are not. But I am looking at athiest as a group and trying to understand the type of social aspects and constructions that tend to be linked to atheists. In this sense we may be looking at different questions in our conversation.
      Hope you had a great weekend as well. My was good. Saw Iron Man 3.

      • Coffey3C

        Other scientists study epistemology and logic, and yet we still wince a bit when we see well proven physical laws and constants, quantum mechanics, or evolution (to name but a few), put on the same standing with religious faiths, termed knowledge by being merely things we all agree upon. There is a fundamental difference. I don’t think that supports the conclusion that theists are as a group irrational, though. I’ve know many who were rational and brilliant men, and I have read the works of many more. A few even argue quite effectively, with as much honesty as they can muster, until their need to ratify that one conclusion betrays them.

        And… it always has, or this discussion would not be taking place. One way or the other, faith would not be so much in vogue.

        As I’ve said, I think it’s more a point of indoctrination. Even when you see theists who are clearly unable to deal with concepts that require more than a simple flat assertion answering everything, or who are rife with an archetype Dunning-Kruger fixation stifling their ability to reason objectively, we really hesitate to refer to people in that way. Some are clearly quite rational people, but hampered by bad assumptions and information, and thus it is their conceptualizations and conclusions that lack a rational basis. There are enormous blocks of data to show that an individual may be brilliant yet delusional, or intelligent yet trapped by a given way to thinking.

        I like the Iron-man franchise as well. Stay well, professor.


        • George Yancey

          I do not see good epistemological work as putting science the same with religion. None of the theorists do that. They do point out that science is not the objective enterprise people state that it is. Other philosophers have argued that religion and science generally answer different questions and thus are not conflicted with each other. That statement is controverisal however, I think there are questions some scientists try to address that cannot be addressed by the scientific method.

          • Coffey3C

            it is an odd sort of view those philosophers hold, when the virtual mountain of everything written by religion for the past four thousand years (and beyond) is an attempt to explain existence and the natural world – explanations that have been undertaken far more ably by Science. Even if you can find a scientist, somewhere, who is trying to raise daemon spirits in the lab, it hardly serves as a comparison. The equating of these concepts here, as well as many others, has formed one of my two primary objection regarding both the work and the comments I have seen.

            I will repeat one thing, though, which is that I find some Philosophers to be in the same vein that I do theists. They are like cartoonists in creating their own self contained world, which can be mighty entertaining when you are lounging around drinking wine, but it’s always those few who don’t realize that they are not actually manipulating the real universe who ruin the party for the rest of us.

            Governments, societies, or moral understanding, they are the practitioners of bringing new ideas forth. However, it is other men who create governments, people create societies (where they are not directly imposed.), and moral decisions are seldom quite so neatly framed in the real world. Theirs is but a commentary, with an occasional good idea reflecting on the potentials of the human condition, but the responsibilities belong to us all; and, theology and philosophy have nothing what-so-ever to say about the nature of the moon, the stars, or Biological life. Yet, they endlessly try.

            I would not slight their efforts to create peaceful and stable societies, because once the argument is made that this is a christian nation, you’ll quickly see me arguing that it was the contributions of philosophers that tipped us toward the secular values and government that we actually have; but, there is still a very obvious reason why either are inapt to further the advancement of humanity, and why so little in the way of improving the human condition came from areas other than technology. … Despite our Judeo-Christian heritage and culture.

            I suppose it’s always easier to see the loose bits sticking out of the other guy’s mountain, rather than to assess the mountain we ourselves are standing on; but, that says nothing whatever about the relative size and stability of the hills and mountains themselves.

  • BenW

    I can’t prove to you there is no creator. But I can’t prove there is no Santa Clause, Easter Bunny or magic fairies either. There are plenty of books about Santa. That doesn’t make Santa real any more than the sky god books make him real. It certainly doesn’t justify all the violence and hatefulness from the religious.
    Someone once told me that my son should be raised in the church to instill a strong moral compass. My answer is that I expect him to live by a higher set of morals than any religion would allow. I know that may sound offensive to some, but look around. Religion is mucking up the world. It’s very existence dictates there will never be peace on Earth. It fosters hate and undue hardship. It’s sad really.

  • aveteran

    While there is unlikely to be consensus on application of the word “belief” to atheism, spending time debating it is fruitless. The fact that this particular article does not sink to vitriol or semantic gymnastics to prove or disprove atheism or religious faith is refreshing and commendable.

  • Joe Cogan

    “I define a belief as something that has not been proven. ”

    That’s nice. I define a “horse” as “a sandwich made with pastrami and lettuce on rye bread”. So what? Playing at being Humpty-Dumpty by using one’s own personal definitions for words isn’t a particularly useful way to further a discussion.

    • George Yancey

      Would you prefer Webser’s “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence” the only thing missing is unproven because if something is proven then it is a fact. Atheism is not a fact.

      • Joe Cogan

        By that definition, atheism is not a belief either. It’s the response “I don’t believe you” to the existential claim “God/s exist”.

        • Keith

          Well, the definition does not state it has to be a positive conviction in order to be classified as a belief. An atheist is a person who is of the conviction that God does not exist after the examination of the evidence.

          Personally, I’ve always been confused by the incredibly negative reaction that I get from atheists whenever atheism and belief are mentioned close to one another. My personal opinion is that it is nothing more than an identifying tool that allows them to criticize others for having “ignorant, simple, beliefs”, while acting like their own position places them on a higher level.

          I can’t think of another system of thinking other than atheism that identifies its members primarily based on what they don’t believe, as opposed to what they do. It would be a bit like me saying that what I hold to be true is not a belief, considering it’s really nothing more than the response “I don’t believe you” to the existential claim “Nothing more than the physical, observable universe exists”.

          I much prefer the use of the term materialist over atheist in these discussions because it focuses on what a person does believe, rather than what they don’t; mainly being the belief that the physical, material universe is all that exists. That certainly is a belief that is held by atheists, and stops the arguing around semantics of what is/isn’t actually a belief.

          • George Yancey

            Keith. I could not have said it better myself. And what you point out is the source of my frustration with this discussion. Thanks for clearing things up.

          • Peter

            Kieth, a couple of points:
            Firstly, your “An atheist is a person who is of the conviction that God does not exist after the examination of the evidence.”
            Actually it is more accurate to say that ‘an atheist does not believe that there is a God after examining the evidence’. An important thing to remember here is that there is never actually any evidence to examine. A few arguments are regularly put and after the usual rebuttals dismissed, but no examinable, testable evidence for any particular deity is ever presented.

            Secondly, merely exchanging the term “God” with “more than the physical, observable universe” does not shift the burden of proof.
            The positive claim becomes “more than the physical, observable universe exists”. the materialist then, quite rightly says “evidence please or forget it, its just wishful thinking” just as the atheist would of any particular god.

  • Psy

    Disbelief is belief,
    war is peace,
    hate is love,
    evil is good.

  • George, Disappointed that you dropped my reply to Keith in the comment thread, I meant it in all seriousness, what did you object to?
    Bit annoyed, that you have blocked me from seeing the other comments merely because you disagree with my views. Most magnanimous of you!

    • georgeyancey

      I have not kept you out and I read your comments here in the post. I also see no other comments that have been kept out in the dashboard. Anyone who goes to my posts know that I welcome dissenting opinion and only stop someone who is rude or trying to use the posts to attack one of the other posters.

      • georgeyancey

        I just see what might have happened. They are installing some new commenting system that temporarily took down some of the recent comments. So hopefully all is well with the system now. Sorry for any mixup.

        • Cool, Thanks, that would explain it. I was surprised, as you do seem very reasonable.

  • Mathew Goldstein

    I am an atheist who says I believe there is no god and I get this same flak about my use of the word belief from what I call “no beliefs atheists”. I detect a difference in epistemology. I tell them that a belief doesn’t became a fact until we have a consensus of experts asserting it is a fact. While I take what I call an evidence first approach to justify my beliefs, and I express my beliefs in positive terms, “no beliefs” atheists tend to think that their convictions are justified by virtue of having no positive content. It is an exaggerated, distorted, misapplication and misunderstanding of Occam’s Razor, and it is unfortunate that so many fellow atheists fall for this, particularly because this also interferes with adopting an evidence first approach to justifying beliefs. I do, however, agree that atheism comes close to being a scientifically supported fact, more so than almost anyone who is not an atheist recognizes, and more so than religious scientists in particular can concede. There is a conflict between science and theism.

    • Raymond Houser

      I happen to be one of those “no beliefs” atheists. I would be happy to have a discussion on this point. It is very simple, actually. It has nothing to do with Occam’s Razor. I might be able to illustrate the stance if you’re interested. It all starts with the “null hypothesis.” If you understand this concept, it will make the conversation easier. Let me know.

      • CoffeyC

        I am familiar with a null hypothesis. I’ve always tried to explain the concepts in this way. I’m an atheist, which means that I reject the premise of the supernatural. Logically, this is not a belief, no matter what anyone may try to claim, it is merely the failure of an unsupported premise.

        The confusion begins, in the mind of many theists, who can not understand, intellectually or viscerally, that this rejection takes you no father. You can not disprove a negative, the rejection has not burden of proof,etc, etc. etc. My atheism is by logical definition, strong atheism and agnostic, because you can’t rationally apply logic to a premise that has not defined or definable properties, other than some absurd unboundedness. My atheism is derived by a lack of supporting evidence, absurd premises.

        On the other hand, I am a human being. I also have a distinctly separate, but equally firm belief that there is not god. I’ll admit that a good part of that has to do with the sense of moral outrage I feel whenever a theist tries to explain theology to me. It also has to do with the behavior of theists, which often comes across as running the gambit from hubris to insipid, narcissistic to doctrinaire insanity. I can’t help it. After five thousand years without supporting evidence for the premise, with the majority of human history recording the why’s and way’s of how these religions have been created through fear, greed, and megalomania .. To any remotely rational person, it is long past the time to dismiss the conjecture of any god as unworthy of consideration.

        If only religion involved rationalism, but religion is no more subject to rationalism and logic, than science is a suitable tool for dealing with the unreal. All that the tools of human intellect can do is to point out where this conjecture is not in effect, in each and ever area that humans have looked; but, that is not enough to dissuade the religious, and never will be.

        God is not only a logical absurdity, it is an absurd waste of time, and I don’t believe it. To believe such a thing requires indoctrination, an extreme credulity, and a level of ignorance of the understanding of what things actually mean; and, I have none of those qualities within me.

        • Raymond Houser

          There’s no need to be frustrated with the people who still believe false things. We are living in the age where religion will go by the wayside. A few generations from now, people who follow religion will be met with the same level of incredulity as alien abductees. Loosing ourselves from archaic belief systems is a process; not unlike women’s rights, or the race movements 70 years ago.

          The religious systems that are presently established are very well entrenched, and they have mechanisms in place to combat any attack on their authority. I think Matt Dillahunty once said that we will have to wait for a few generations to die off before we can get rid of this burden for good. I tend to agree.

          These systems have been around for thousands of years. They can’t be thrown out in a day. We have to wait for everyone who is raised under a religious regime to have kids of their own. Those children will, thankfully, have the benefit of the internet. Hopefully this free flow of information can prevent those children from following in their parents footsteps. Even today we can see this very thing happening. Children of religious parents who discover some atheist site or show on the internet, start to question what their parents are telling them.

          This is what is so exciting about this point in history. We may get to see the death of religion. The last vestige of mankind’s childhood is finally being shed. Once the black hole of religion is gone, all that money that is wasted can be put to good use. Imagine for a moment, if we took the billions of dollars that people waste in support of their religions, and instead invested that into the school system. Or cancer research. Or technology. Or a universal health care system. Or research into alternative fuels. Or feeding the hungry in our country. Or any number of other vital things. We aren’t there yet, but things look hopeful.

          But it is vital, if we hope to throw off this burden that holds us back, to calmly and clearly challenge every false belief. There are people who will not let go of the burden. I feel sad for them, but that is certainly their choice. Make the connection with the people you can, and know that you’ve done your part to change mankind.

          • CoffeyC

            I wish I could agree with you, after spending fifty years with the ‘just be nice to people when you can, and it will die out of it own accord’ view; but, the truth is that I think that this view that religion will die off is a bit naive. The horror of this situation is, that although we in secular societies can see that it should die, that it deserves to die, even normal people are easily subjected to manipulation. Uneducated and ignorant people are even more so. The pendulum could very easily swing back the the other way.

            If you look with an unbiased eye at the lessons of history, even from as late as the 20th century, you can find even fairly advanced westernized cultures filled to the brim with people calling for, and acting for genocides, based on what was a catholic antisemitism. From what I can see of this pendulum, it is already swinging back. Secular societies like those in northern Europe have already committed cultural suicide. Many others, even some that were staunchly nationalist, and jealously proud of their culture, are taking those very same steps leading to the same result.


            One of the handful of things that I disagree with Matt on, is this idea that religion will die out soon. I disagree with him most in his statement that Islam poses no eminent threat. i think that Islam, as long as people are taught that they should respect religion, has the potential to be one of the greatest threats we have ever faced.

            In our own country, we face many critical issues, but our education systems aren’t even a joke, they are a cruel trick which has not provided the people we need to help solve these problems. Worse, a significant number of our elected representatives spend their time trying to out-christian each other, in finding ways to eviscerate our science curricula. Not only are they scientifically illiterate, or just scientifically numb, they are completely incapable of forming meaningful solutions to these problems themselves; so instead, they are actually spending our rapidly diminishing resources and time actively trying to undermine those few people who may actually have a chance to develop said solutions. They get reelected for doing it.

            Although we agree on the benefits of throwing off religion, and that the time is critical for speaking out as clearly as possible and in every possible venue, we seem to disagree on two points. The first is, that I not only don’t see the result as a fore-drawn conclusion, much of the evidence suggests we are moving in the opposite direction. The second is that although it is my nature to calmly confront this nonsense, as politely as possible… I don’t think that’s necessarily the most effective response.

            The biggest thing that we must confront is this pervasive cultural bias that all religions are automatically given an extraordinary, and an extraordinarily undeserved, respect. If reason were the tool to cure the infection of religion, it would have died out some hundreds of years ago. We not only need to point out the fallacies, but we also need to to deal with it as we would other values that are aberrant. Not with invective, or the excesses that theism uses, but certainly not while telling people that we respect them for having such beliefs. A sad shake of the head, and dismissiveness, is a much better tool for teaching primates when they have stepped outside of acceptable social norms.

            It may seem a little High-school to such reasonable men as we, but it works, and as reasonable men we will have a much better ability than children, to maintain that it is the ideas and not the people who lack value.

            Thank you for the thoughtful response, Raymond, which I enjoyed reading and thinking about.

          • Raymond Houser

            I disagree on two main points. First is the notion of “being nice.” I believe I said to “calmly and clearly challenge every false belief.” I did not indicate that it always had to be nice.

            I absolutely agree that a certain amount of dismissiveness and even rudeness can be integrated to great effect. I firmly believe, however, that passion is counter-productive. We do not want to incite passion in people over this issue, since passion is playing into the hands of the religious message. I also believe that by utilizing all of our facilities to address theistic belief, we are inherently paying it respect. If we didn’t give it due respect, we would just plug our ears, shake our head, and say “it’s not true” over and over: like a misbehaved 8 year-old.

            I think it is clear that belief in a deity of any kind is nothing more than our human brains finding patterns where there are none: or assigning purpose to an existing pattern where there is none. However, for someone indoctrinated from birth to believe it, this seems like the “truth.” So whether we like it or not, we have to argue against it as though reason and faith are on equal footing.

            The second thing I wanted to mention is the straw-man you threw up about what Matt Dillahunty said. I happen to disagree with him on a number of points, and the “eminent threat” of Islam is one of those points. I cite Matt, not as an authority, but simply to indicate where the idea originated. As a veteran of Afghanistan, I understand better than most the threat posed by Islam.

            As for the bulk of the rest of your message, I would like to start by saying that, it seems, you and I are coming from different directions. For me “the glass is half full” and for you “the glass is half empty.”

            You do give a lot of talking points regarding the pervasiveness of theism, specifically christianity, here in the States.. But you said “much of the evidence suggests we are moving in the opposite direction.” I believe this is an unfounded statement. For every instance you bring up about how religion has control, I can provide an instance where religion is over-thrown.

            Even in our Judicial system, the idea of putting creationism in our science classes has been brought up to the federal court dozens of times. Each and every time, it has been shot down. The only two instances of it succeeding are on a state level (Louisiana and Texas, if I’m not mistaken). Obviously private religious schools teach their message as fact, but that will likely be true even if god was completely disproven. Some people will never let go.

            Also, studies repeatedly show that countries with secular governments flourish in every appreciable category of national health. A study was even done here in the US showing a correlation between religion and such things as low education, high crime, teenage pregnancy, and other aspects of community health. Though I want to be absolutely clear that I am not citing causality, only correlation.

            In fact, I think the studies show that there is an increasing polarization between religious areas and secular areas. This disparity is starting to show up clearly throughout our society, and will lead to large numbers of “grass is always greener” theists, jumping ship. Combine with the power of open communication channels, like the internet, I think it’s clear that we are uniquely situated to throw off these burdens.

            One cannot help but look at history, though, as you said. We, as the atheist community, must look at the turn of the 20th, when atheism enjoyed a several decade-long vogue. Complacency allowed religion to get a foothold again, leading to the religious vogue from the 60’s to the 90’s. If we look at history, it should be to cite the mistakes we made a century ago and avert them..

            Thank you for the interesting conversation. I, too, enjoyed reading your response.

          • CoffeyC

            I think that by addressing the premise with honesty, logic and reason, we are paying respect to the person, to ourselves, to logic, honesty, and reason – but most of all to the truth.

            If you sit in conversation with someone, and it reveals unarguably that their opinions are formed to justify the fact that they are an insecticidal pederastic rapist… do you intend to treat their opinions with respect? Even if, in every other respect, She is a nice person, do you respect the ideas? If you speak to an incorrigible misanthrope, not mentally ill but a died in the wool burro-foramen, should you show his view respect beyond the point that you’ve already explained the harm that he is doing to others, and tested that he is unwilling to try and change?

            This is special pleading for a specific ideology to have privileged that we extend in almost no other area of human inquirer y .. and it is the heart of the problem. I’m sorry that it will hurt some people to feel belittled, but when I do some thing stupid, other people laugh, and I don’t do that anymore. Religion is not subject to persuasion by systems of logic and reality, that a mass delusion may so easily overcome by denial.

            We need to show, that if that Christian Right congressman insists on gutting any knowledge he finds contradictory to his preconceptions, that they next boat that shows up, will have people buying the lands of his district for beads… and they will probably be selling him the string to put them on.

            “Equal Footing” – No. Because it’s not equal by any objective measure, other than numbers of adherents (Argumentum ad Populum.), and you don’t mitigate the harmful nature of a delusion by pretending to agree with it. You are granting the error that I’ve argued so vociferously with the author in making that very claim. In essence, I give the same answer as above.

            I see the Straw-man thing. I freely admit that fault. It was not deliberate, I was typing faster than I can think, and had two thoughts working at once. I don’t think that Matt believes Religion will die off either. He is dead wrong about Islam, though. I’ve never taken issue with this, though, because i think it is deliberate. Their visibility is such, that they could easily find themselves at grave risk from “The Religion of Peace” which they have no resource to manage. My humble apology.

            “religion is over-thrown.” I think that saying this is about Christianity, may be another potential straw-man I think that the danger is Islam. I think that if you try to reason with them as if your ideas are equal to theirs, they will kill you. I did not want to change the subject to Islam, however, so I purposely used multiple other examples.

            We completely agree about secular societies, and societal health, which is often a very inconvenient truth for theists to face. In fact we can point to factors of divorce and teen pregnancy in this country, and show that those areas that have the highest areas of christian fundamentalism, often score highest in those types of measures (violence, Teen pregnancy, divorce) as well. Although there is not justification in claiming causality, you can show explicitly that the fundamentalist religion and “Objective” morality, are less effective for the population as a whole. The analysis is far worse, if you disregard the data mining that Christians do, whenever someone does something reprehensible, and they immediately report that that person “is not a real Christian.”

            Glass half full. … … ???

            I have a view from reading broadly on many subjects, probably because I lack mental discipline, and the view of a natural philosopher, which I feel I was born to be. Dr. Yancey can come up with a Sociological hypothesis about why humans do what they do. Warm and fuzzy as it may be, it is not a law, and humans being human, it has as many exceptions as corroborations, or changes in definitions. Many other Anthropologists and Sociologists (or Fundamentalist Christian Colleges) may even like it. In Chemistry, Biology, Math, and Physics, the universe stamps it’s judgment on even my fondest preconceptions. I have only my magnifying glass, and it is neither half-full, nor half-empty. It allows me to see things only as they are, and how they might have been; Not as I want them to be.

            En Vogue… : What we need is a national standard for education. We did not allow anything. These people have always had the numbers to control the politics – right to the limit that the constitution denies them access. They push by creating unconstitutional educational laws, to force what has already been deemed unconstitutional in the schools, but though they may ruin a decade or so of science education, when challenged they will not pass judicial review. Would you respect their opinions as equal, or merely a waste of time?

            I think that we agree on most things, Raymond, to a great degree. But as you mentioned history, I would remind you of a man who seems particularly germane to our conundrum: Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. When Winston Churchill gave his eulogy, he said that he was only a man who believed that the world was a better place than it actually was. He believed that people / statesmen were fundamentally as honorable as was he.

            It was the best summing up of the man’s utter failure as I’ve ever seen; and, that was one of the worst failures in all of recent history – even if, ultimately, the result was unavoidable. The failure didn’t leave Mr. Churchill a glass either half full or empty. He was left with a war to fight.

            If you subvert honesty with politeness, you wind up being nicer, but ultimately ineffective. Unjustified Respect, does not garner respect in return, only contempt. If your goal is to be nice, and enjoy a good discussion (as used to be my want.), then have at them, nicely. If, however, you actually do expect that religion will die out (which I do not), then you will have to be honest or waste your efforts pointlessly.


          • Raymond Houser

            Your first point is ignoring several aspects of the argument regarding religion.

            First, since you bring up an extreme case, most people do not fall into this category. The vast majority of the situations the average, outspoken atheist will find himself in will not involve such extremes. It is the same problem theists have with secular morality. They always want to know what keeps me from stealing, murdering, and raping wantonly.. While I would never say that such situations don’t arise, those situations must be handled differently. And, even then, an argument could be made that the situations require a more gentle approach, not a more aggressive one.

            Secondly, you must remember that theists have personalized their belief system. Any attack on their belief systems is tantamount to an attack on their person. If it was possible to address a theist and only criticize their ideology without attacking them directly, we would likely not be in the situation we are in now. For the vast majority of theists, it is not possible to criticize their thoughts even as much as you and I have done to each other in this venue.

            To your next point, I agree with it almost completely. You are absolutely correct that the ideologies are not equal. One is truthful and one is not. That is the objective reality of the situation. And I agree that by giving them equal standing, the Argumentum ad Populum fallacy arises. But this is no different than conceding that evolution is false to make a point about what that says about the existence of a deity.

            They believe that because there are so many people who believe it, it must be true. So you can sit there all day trying to get someone to understand that you can’t multiply anything by 0 and get 1; or you can concede a point in an attempt to get to the heart of the matter.

            For the point you brought up about Islam. It would be an interesting study to see a ranking of the correlation between the popular religions and violence. I imagine that Islam would be at or near the top, but what might be surprising is where Christianity would fall on that list. My argument would be that it would be quite high on the list as well.

            What’s my point, you might ask? We may not have to tackle those religions that promote violence. You specifically brought up Christianity as an example of a religion that doesn’t kill you just for questioning them. I would insist that we go further than that. The vast majority of the existing religions do not promote violence against people who openly question. If we could bring down the religions that don’t promote violence, the remaining religions would die out over time naturally.

            Your next point is invalid, and this is why I think it is. If I look at a set of studies and notice a positive trend, it does not mean that I am wearing rose-colored glasses. If you look at the same data and see the negative trends, that doesn’t mean your a pessimist. In neither case are either of us making an unjustified claim, the only difference is our emotional state when we read the data. Because I think we can both agree that there are both positive and negative trending data to be found. This is the exact reason for peer reviews.

            As for the political power of the right wing adherents, it would be intellectually dishonest of me to assert that at any point up to the present they didn’t have the numbers to affect any change they wanted. But exploring American politics in the relevant time periods shows that it wasn’t until Regan that the right wing banded under one flag. There had been an increasing trend toward right wing political power up until then, but that is when they became most effective utilizing their numbers.

            Since sometime in the mid 90’s — Clinton, I believe — the polarizing of the political parties has become extreme. I think it’s telling about the actual state of affairs in our country that the Democrats, far from being blown away in each election, won 4 of the last 6 popular votes.

            To conclude, I would never sanction subverting honesty for any reason. Just ask my girlfriend what I tell her when she asks “Does this dress make me look fat?” But I don’t believe that an aggressive stance is likely to touch people who cannot separate there identities from their religion. Is it a concession, yes? But I think a necessary one.

            Raymond Houser

          • CoffeyC

            Well, it seems we are at an impasse on how to proceed, because I’m not making the points clearly enough.

            My first point ignores nothing about religion.

            The extremeness of my examples serve to point out that if your best intention is implemented by showing respect for the idea that deserves none, the very idea you seek to modify, then you fail as you begin. They were about confronting demonstrably damaging ideas. I am not talking about convincing a single theist exclusively, I’m talking about changing the way society will deal with theism.

            I understand theists as well as anyone, but your point about evolution is unclear. From our view, there is no intersection of the two, and from the theist view it is a perceived threat. Even if evolution and gravity were thrown out tomorrow, that would not improve the proofs for gods. So… concede what?

            ‘Zero product.’ I’m not trying to convince a theist, I’m trying to convince an Atheist. However, just to be clear. I think we need Christians now to help us with Islam. Second if you look at Christians thought history, there are more than enough examples of christian bigotry and brutality; However, I am talking about now. Right now. Islam is at the top of the violence tree, and Christians can’t be compared. This is nonsense – PC nonsense. In fact, tonight, throughout the Muslim controlled lands, it is the Christians who need our help most of all. They are suffering conditions ranging from actual genocide and ethnic cleansing, to being discriminated brutally, but more slowly into non-existence and flight in much of the muslim world.

            “Tackle religions…” I’m very sorry, but this is self delusional nonsense. There are only two solutions to Radical Islamists and jihadi. One is to fight them on their own terms. Neither I, nor the vast, vast, majority of people in the west would willingly do this. The other solution would be to let a moderate Islam handle it. Unfortunately, since Islam is probable the religion that is most resistant to change, as even to suggest the slightest alterations in interpretation is apostasy, punishable by death as the daily intersect violence clearly demonstrates, this task is nearly impossible. My biggest fear, is that option one may become necessary.

            “Sanctioning subverting honesty.” That’s nice, but you argue exactly this. Remember, I’ve never said we should beat the daylights out of theists. My points do not advocate aggression against anyone, and certainly not with some really nice person who just wants to talk. Those are your examples, not mine. I am advocating honesty in giving religions only the respect that they earn, and Theism only that respect it deserves. That is the problem we face.

            Lastly, I’ll say that I would wish that there were figures out there that suggested that we were making progress, but you can not be so encouraged by a marginal growth in the “undecideds” on a Pew survey of Americans, to the same degree that you are alarmed by the genocide non-Muslims face in Mali, Syria, Nigeria, or the oppression brutality and Murder they face in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt… Tonight, Raymond. Just like yesterday, and Just like they will face tomorrow.

            Your arguments remind me of those used by the nice and reasonable progressives just before WWII. And… Much of this discussion of the problems of the more violent religion is no longer an academic exercise. … Which, or politicians and our media are doing just about all they can to hide If we survive the clear and present danger posed by that religion, then we will have to change society’s acceptance parameters for all religions. How ever it comes, the hope that it will just peacefully fade away has been lost in these last thirty years, which you seem to think are the fault of a missed opportunity on the part of vocal atheists.

            Also, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to check a comment of mine that is related to some of this:


            Finally, if you really don’t mind., Contact me via


          • Raymond Houser

            I will certainly contact you, but I would like to get this last comment on the record. I happen to associate closely with a number of people who live in various cities around Europe. You are exaggerating, rather extensively, the European aggression against the Jews and Christians. Now I don’t know about the small towns of Europe, but in the vast majority of the cities in Europe, religion can be discussed in a, much more, civil manner than here in the States. I have a number of friends who are baffled by the American attitude regarding religion. In fact, you don’t have to go any further than Canada to run into this curiosity.

            What you just said about evolution, was exactly what I meant. Sorry it wasn’t clear, but that’s point I was attempting to make. Even if I concede that evolution is false, it doesn’t get the theist any closer to god, let alone their personal god.

            As for your “subverting honesty” paragraph, I apologize for misrepresenting what you said. You are correct that you did not mention aggression. I think of all our points, we are missing each other on this one. Let me try to be clear. I do not believe that faith and reason are on equal footing. I do not think that anyone should put faith and reason on equal footing. When I talk to people about faith, I have no problem calling them out on their multitude of fallacies.

            Certainly the conversation you and I have had should give you some idea of how I communicate. The thing that I would caution against is using passion to make our point. That tactic is sure to fail. Passion is what leads people to make bad decisions, and I don’t want someone to make the right decision for a bad reason.

            As for the rest, I have to say a few things. First, it is sad to admit, but I am numb to any violence that takes place over in that general area of the world. The pleas of the people, that should shake my soul, metaphorically speaking, don’t. Not that I don’t care, but I know that there is nothing I can do. So I do the only thing I can do, work to reform the systems that cause those problems. Partially for that reason, I come to articles like this and attempt to engage people. That is also part of the reason I have chosen the vocation I have (Physicist).

            I read the article you linked, and your post. The news is replete with all the negatives in this world. Sadly we have to work somewhat harder to find the good things. This is exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned the “glass is half-full” situation. If you go looking for the bad, you will certainly find it. If you go looking for the good, you will certainly find it.

            One thing I do know, is that one man cannot change things over there. A concerted effort by a million people probably wouldn’t make the slightest dent in the attitudes prevalent in that region. My point when I mentioned violence associated with various religions was precisely this: no amount of direct attack on the Islamic religion will ever be successful. The only thing that will ever work is to ostracize them. This can only be done effectively in a unified manner. And the only way we will ever have a unified stance is when non-violent religions either unite or die.

            I know very well that Christianity isn’t even in the ballpark of Islam, but my argument is that it is still ranked pretty high. Therefore if we can throw off Christianity, we should be able to throw off the religions “below” Christianity on the list. Only then, I believe, will we have a realistic possibility of uniting the people into a group sizable enough to do what needs to be done to allow Islam, and the other violent religions, to die out.

            Raymond Houser

          • CoffeyC

            In rereading all that you’ve written here, it is true that we agree on most things remarkably well. I’m also left with the impression that you are more hopeful than I am. If you had spoken five years ago, you would have found that probably agreed even more with your surmise.

            As a Physicist, however, it’s not about looking for the good, or looking for the bad. It is about looking for both, and then making the best estimation of the situation as it actually exists.

            You constantly suggest behavioral tweaks, as in looking for the good, or not arguing from passion. You should reason dispassionately, you should assess dispassionately – in as much as humanly possible, but even civil discourse loses its meaning without the bit of passion that I suggest; and, far more importantly, no social change comes without it. You may think it a better course, but the lessons of history show that passion is the effective and reliable engine of social change. I work every day for the slower evolution of the society, the improvement through economic and technical innovation, but given the threat, and the decline in western character that I’ve witnessed in the past thirty years… I’m no longer sanguine that the latter will be sufficient.

            Also, my directing you to the Catholic blog article, was to see my comment, because though I thought the news video was a good one, it is merely one of many thousands of the same. What I wanted to point out was that it garnered only two other comments. I hope you saw that one The apathy that represents, or fear, is really inexplicable in this day and age, but It looks a lot like the decline of many other civilizations.

            And… I don’t think we have time to deconvert, reeducate, and recruit a significant part of humanity to be able to contain the greater more imminent threat. We do have time appeal to the better part of the nature of the majority of westerners; however, in an appeal to their morality. No matter how confused or deluded they may be as to how those morals are derived, that is still the strength of our heritage and our western culture.

            We are far from perfect. We sometimes do things badly, and so painfully so, that it is excruciating to have to witness; but, we are almost always on the side of trying to do what is right, and our history has as many examples where we offered our treasure and our lives to protect not only ourselves, but other men simply because of their humanity. This character, and our Bills of Rights, if you will, is what makes our culture and nations better.

            I wish you were right about my assessment of Islam, but I’m sure you are not. That region is only the base of the problem which has already spread beyond those borders. Far too many are both dispassionate and silent about it, and I can’t be any longer. I won’t be.

            What frightens me the most, though, is something else, that the feckless civil people can’t solve either. What frightens me is, that after being an atheist and a scientist, I would describe myself mostly as an empath. I can’t look at people, no matter who, and not see so many good people just like you and I and most of the others watching, and not want to help them in any way we can.

            But… I’ve come to believe that is a mistake. We also have to be honest about whom it is we are aiding, and the uses they will put that aide too. To do so, would be a suicidal stupidly.

            Give encouragement and exposure to our more secular values. Give humanitarian aide in specific crises, but beyond that, let the pressures arising from the inadequacies of that system play out. Giving people money that they will use to buy weapons to use against us and our allies, is almost as silly as fighting to give them democracy before they have the will to create a more humane form of government for themselves. Until the people themselves want a change for the better, so badly that they are willing to change the most fundamental aspects that hold them back, “democracy” is only a meaningless catch phrase for our domestic consumption. Worst of all, as is has been in the recent years, it only enables our mortal enemies.

            The reason for my asking you to contact me directly, was to keep such… semi-off-topic commentary off the blog. If you have not, I hope you check out my comment on that catholic blog.

            Hope Dr Y is enjoying this.


      • We do not just stare at the null hypothesis, we compare the null hypothesis against the evidences. The key point is this: The available evidences are not neutral, they strongly favor the hypothesis that our universe is naturalistic. It is not merely a lack of evidence one way or another, we have lots of evidences that our universe operates naturalisticly, and very little, if anything at all, that favors the conclusion that our universe operates supernaturally. So I cannot say I have no belief. No belief means no evidence, or at least no direction to the evidences overall.

  • Alex W

    If I may, the massive negative reaction to the “atheism is not a belief” thing is probably largely inpart due to the underhanded attempts of religous apologists saying that since atheism is a belief, an opinion on a matter that has not been proven, then it must rely on faith.

    What atheists reject is that notion of putting religious beliefs on equal grounds with atheism. Whereas a religous person might see it as a preference, opinion, or belief, and assume that since both a person’s chosen religion and an atheist’s non-religion are preferences, they must both rest equally on faith or other assumptions.

    It is this argument atheists try to head off, because it invariably follows on the tail of the “atheism is a belief” argument, even if it is not intended. A well-meaning and honest researcher like yourself would put the “atheism is a belief” line in your research, because that’s what it is, and then theists of every stripe would quote-mine your article and claim that atheism relies on faith, and cite you as a supporting authority.

    I do agree with you on this blog, and with Matt Dillahunty from the Atheist Experience in Austin, when saying that knowledge is a subset of belief. We believe in a huge amount of things we don’t have the time, the inclination, or the need from a cost/benefit ratio, to prove. If something is critical enough, we gather evidence and data to change from belief to fact.

    In that sense atheism is a belief because there are no facts to gather, no data to compile, about something that assuming atheism true, is not there. There can be data and evidence against religion, but there can be none to prove that a god doesn’t exist. Negative arguments are impossible to prove.

    Where the line is drawn is that theists believe in something that has no empirical evidence, and as such require faith.

    Atheism, while a belief in and of itself, does not require belief in any unprovable matters, and requires no faith.

    Perhaps the next time, using the term world-view instead of beliefs could help prevent future disagreements.