Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Atheism is not a faith (guest post by B!)

Editor's note: My awesome cohabiting partner B asked if I could post a somewhat rough draft of some thoughts he has had on atheism. So here you are, a guest post by B! ~Abandoning Eden

I’ll be honest: as someone who does not believe in gods, I find the idea of calling atheism a faith rather offensive. It is not that it offends my sensibilities; it is that the statement stings deeply at the roots of what I have viewed atheism to be for my whole adult life. Atheism has always implied a vastly different emotional meaning to me than of a simple, dogmatic assertion that there simply is not, and could not be, gods. This stereotypical stance is a faith in a theory that is impossible to support beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, atheism means something different to me, perhaps a warped interpretation that is far from the original intent or definition.

Growing up in a religious home and being forced to attend church and Catholic private school have imbued upon me perhaps an equally warped view of faith. As far as I can tell, the hallmark of a religion is ritual, and nothing more. Ethics and morality, while closely associated with religion in the Post-Axial Age, are independent entities absorbed by religion (previously the domain of philosophers and legislators). Ritual is the only thing that all religions share, from Neolithic shamanism to Scientology.

Religion is also primarily a group activity; while an individual can (and often may) pray alone, there is a community aspect to every religion. In Pre-Axial Age and formalized state religions, the community may be a predefined tribe, nation or race, while many Post-Axial religions, especially in the Modern age, often involve some degree of choice when it comes to the community in which a believer aspires to join.

Atheism lacks both ritual and community. It is undeniable that atheism carries with it no inherent superstition (which is not to say an atheist is necessarily devoid of ritual or superstition). However, some may be quick to point out the existence of such “atheist” communities as American Atheists, the lobbying group responsible for removing prayer from public schools. I could argue at great length that a lobbying group isn’t comparable to a church congregation because they are fighting for the rights of all American citizens to be free of imposed religion (as their fight benefits not only atheists, but frankly all non-Judeo-Christians). However, this is unnecessary.

To put it in the perspective a person of the Judeo-Christian background can relate to, to accuse atheism of being a faith or religion is tantamount to calling Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or all religions, for that matter) violent. No one can deny that some people who are religious are violent, and no one can deny that much violence has occurred in the name of religion. However (to stick with the simplicity of an exclusively Christian metaphor), Jesus did not preach violence. It is not in the nature of Christianity to be violent, it is merely a consequence that humans are often violent and many people in history have been religious. I cannot define the Christian community for them any more than they can define me.

To put it another way: suppose you asked me what my favorite sport was. If I said, “I don’t like sports,” you would not then be correct in assuming I’m a couch potato, or even out of shape. To claim that an atheist is someone who has faith in something is jumping to an enormously egregious conclusion given very little information.

Everyone has their own definition of atheism, it would seem. After September 11th, conservative commentator and TV personality Ben Stein was quoted as saying the actions of the terrorists were “atheistic.” It’s rather sad that a man who was once on a TV show where he challenged all comers to a test of knowledge would so erroneously and ironically use such an adjective for the events of 9/11. Mr. Stein can no more decide for himself that these Islamic Fundamentalists were somehow atheistic than he can decide that atheism is somehow linked to barbaric acts of violence (especially those carried out in the name of faith). Even though it is clearly not indicative of an “atheistic” act, it is also only Muslim in its overtly stated cause and purpose. While this essay is not going to argue the philosophical and theological importance, impact, or intention of jihad, it is fair to say that the actions of terrorists do not define the entire Muslim faith.

I’ve said a lot about what atheism isn’t, and this is no accident. To be frank, there is no definition of atheism. While Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. are all clearly defined religions which contain a multitude of sects, subsects, local ministries and all manner of division, there is still a cohesion that is undeniable. Within any given religion (and even between Judaism, Christianity and Islam), there is more in common than there is dividing. This is far from the case with atheism because atheism is, at its very core, a rejection of the collectivist mindset. It has less to do with the existence of god as it does an individual’s decision to seek independent ideology.

Atheism is not a label identifying a group of people as sharing something in common. Among those calling themselves atheists are many who some would be quick to judge as “agnostic.” Perhaps this is the proper technical term for someone like myself. I do not claim to know there aren’t any gods, although I have been in an airplane so I am fairly certain there aren’t any bearded supreme beings lounging in the clouds. In fact, I cannot deny with certainty the existence of an unfathomable and undetectable being or place beyond our perception of Earth, the Solar System, or even the entire Universe. However, I will not simply accept the validity of every claim. If I am to accept the existence of god as plausible, I must also accept the possibility of the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot/Sasquatch, alien abduction, and the invisible pink unicorn (a deity so amazing, it can be both pink AND invisible at the same time).

The issue comes down to the concept of “burden of proof.” If the burden of proof lies on me to disprove all claims, I should no doubt spend my entire life frustratingly arguing with members of the Flat Earth Society (a real group) about the shape of our planet. This is not how logic has ever worked; one cannot claim X and determine that it can (or worse, must) be true unless X is disproven beyond any doubt. What’s more, I am not defined as a non-Xist simply because I don’t care that someone thought up X. All sound-minded atheists admit there may be a god, but that the probability of the existence of god is infinitesimal; this does not make them an agnostic.

Someone claiming to be an atheist does not want to be called an agnostic. Perhaps it is merely semantics, but the title agnostic carries with it a bitter taste of uncertainty. While all things are technically uncertain, once the probability of something becomes roughly equal to that of the probability of a wormhole spontaneously opening and pulling me into an unknown dimension, it ceases to be a valid concept for most (if only from a practical standpoint).

Agnosticism is also, rightly or wrongly, associated with apathy. Those who do not think or care about the existence of gods are often apt to self-title themselves agnostics [although most just claim the religion of their parents, who got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, until it’s been several generations since the entire bloodline stopped and thought]. While it is granted that several great minds have settled on agnosticism (including Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha), I believe it is up to each person to define him or herself, and only him or herself. A Christian may judge others or hold grudges without forgiveness despite the nature of their self-applied faith label. Therefore, an atheist may remain an atheist while still denouncing the certainty of some, let’s call them Atheists with a capital “A.”


  1. B,

    I see you've read Karen Armstrong. I found her book interesting but her basic thesis of the axial age a litle forced.

  2. dude, take it easy. you can feel free to call yourself whatever the heck you want and i would urge you - that if someone mistakenly claims that what you practice is a religion - just let it go bro, let it go - no one really gives a hoot.

  3. Samuel Skinner
    Trust me- the reason he is ranting is because he hears this statement repeatedly, maybe not in real life, but it is pervasive on the internet. It is as annoying as being a historian and having people not that the US constitution wasn't the origional governing plan.

  4. Hee. I've been trying to get my girlfriend to write something on my blog for ages, to get a different perspective, but she refuses! Oh well.

    As for the actual post, that religion contains elements of domination and social cohesion and atheism doesn't, is certainly a truism of the highest degree.

    As for no definition of atheism, I find "a-theism" - without theism - is a sufficient definition.

  5. Good post, and I take your point that atheism does not fit the criteral of being a religion as compared to most orginized faiths. Still, at least to those with the capital A, do share somethings in common with believers. Not only do are they using a leap of faith to fill in the gaps of science, but they also are emotionally invested in a worldview which is based on their conclusions.

    As for us thin-skinned agnostics, I would take issue with how you charicterize us. If you want to bother, I have a post about this at:

  6. Samuel Skinner
    dbs, a couple things. The people you refer to as atheists would better be classified as antitheist- people actively against religion.

    And we don't use a leap of faith to fill in the gaps of science. I, for example, don't know how the Sun works. Do I believe it is unknowable? No, because I know there are people right know who are trying to figure it out. For money, for knowledge, for recognition, for glory, for the awe and wonder it brings. If it can be known, someone will try to know it. It doesn't take faith- it is basic psychology.

    Unless you are refering to the idea that everything is explainable. Seems to be it is. Could be wrong, but the batting average is 1 for 1.

    Anti-theists are emotionally invested for the same reason Dems and Reps are- we think that if we fail bad stuff happens.

    Agnostics are atheists- well not always, but agnostic isn't a third position.

  7. > All sound-minded atheists admit there may be a god, but that the probability of the existence of god is infinitesimal; this does not make them an agnostic.

    Well put!

    Thanks for the post.

  8. 1. Regardless what you say, one cannot prove an existance of G-d. Therefor being an athiest is a belief. A believe that there is no G-d, but still a belief.

    2. When athiests go around and try to remove any mention of G-d, Bible and etc from public schools that's the same as forcing one's believes on the entire nation. We have a separation of church and state specifically to prevent people for forcing their believes on others.

    And before I am attacked that Atheism is not a religion, let me restate the point. It is a believe and forcing public schools to forgo all other believes except for athiesm is tantamount to forcing one's religion down everyone's throat.

    I ended up going to public school for my senior year, because my school closed due to lack of funds. In PS, I remember a teacher was making a point about an event in the news. I did not like his point of view and quoted from the Torah that he's wrong. He said, that he could reply to me, but quoting a Bible in PSs is not allowed. To verify his claim, I then asked another teacher if that was true. She confirmed that a teacher will get fired quoting from a bible in school. However, in the same school, both my physics teacher and my astranomy teacher, were permitted to site different laws of physics as prove that there is no G-d. They went on and on about evils of a church.

    My daughter went to public school, too. For her Bat-Mitzva she receive a beautiful Sidur (prayer book) with leather binding and her name engraved. She took it to school to show to her friends. When a teacher saw it, she warned her to put it away before someone else sees it. Why? Because it is a Public School and showing off her new Sidur is considered as spreading religion. Repercusions? Her Sidur would get confiscated and she would be expelled from the program she was in.


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