This serves as a response to Sharksterll’s article, “The Question of Life Stance”. Through my discussion I try to expose some of the mistakes that were made in that article. I hope this will bring clarity and more sophistication to the debate.
I would implore Sharksterll, and his sympathizers, to finally leave the discussion of ‘life-stance’ alone. This position, as well as a variety of others that have come up from particular contributors, are attempts, it seems to me, at obscurantism. They deviate from the real issues, and cause people to focus on what is very unimportant. I hope this discussion will shed some light on these issues.
Are children born atheists?
There might be confusion here with regards to what is known as the ‘presumption of atheism’ – the idea that ‘atheism’ ought to be ones default position. This applies, I think, to ‘weak atheism’ which we may call ‘the lack of belief in God’. Weak atheism should be the default position because weak atheists do not make any positive claims. Theists, who assert that God exists, make positive claims, and hence the burden of proof lies with those theists. I doubt this can apply to ‘strong atheism’ which we may call ‘disbelief in God’ or ‘the belief that there is no God’. This concerns, only, the proper nature of, and the correct conduct to be expected in, the debates about the existence of God.
This is somewhat unrelated to the less interesting question of whether children are atheists to begin with. Sharksterll takes atheism to be the ‘denial of God’s existence’. One can only be an atheist, he thinks, when one consciously denies the existence of God. In this way it is quite clear that children couldn’t be atheists before they were theists, for then they would have nothing to ‘deny’.
This represents confusion between ones identifying as an atheist and ones in fact being an atheist. One needn’t identify as an atheist in order to be an atheist; at the very least these are two distinct ‘ways of being’ an atheist. Children do not, probably, identify as ‘atheists’: were one to ask their religious perspectives they might not even know what such a question meant. Nevertheless they would lack a belief in God until they were taught about it. It is in this sense that children are born (weak) atheists.
This is, after all, rather intuitive. Church, Sunday-school, religious youth camps and religious education in schools are testaments to the reality that children do not, in fact, have proper knowledge of God or of religion until these concepts are taught to them.
Further, Sharksterll problematically defines atheism as ‘the denial of God’s existence’. There are, to be sure, different reasons for being an atheist (some of which I would object to). Perhaps some people hate authority, or rejecting their ‘personal responsibilities’. Perhaps some see good reasons to disbelieve, and perhaps others simply so no reason to believe. What is common to all of these ‘modes’ is the absence of a belief that God(s) exists.
If we wish to define ‘atheism’ then this is the definition which should give us the least trouble and simultaneously be the most accurate. This definition says nothing at all about whether or not one is rational if they are an atheist. Nor does it give any indication of what ones reasons (if any even exist) for being an atheist are. Nor does it say anything about which ‘kind’ of atheist one is (strong versus weak). Those are separate questions.
I think it is quite fair to say that the presumption of (weak) atheism holds, and that the believer ought to be able to provide evidence or reasons for his belief. I think if one is a strong atheist then they probably should have some reasons ready to defend their positive assertion that there is no God. It seems clear that children cannot deny the existence of God without first knowing what God is – this doesn’t mean that children are not firstly atheists. An atheist is someone with an absence of belief in God (it matters not whether someone can consciously identify as an atheist). Clearly children have an absence of belief in God, and so clearly children are born atheists. This is, of course, the reason why there are so many educational institutions which exist to teach people about God.
Is atheism a ‘life stance’?
It is easy to become confused with language, and one of the chief confusions here has got to do with what ‘atheism’ is and what (some) ‘atheists’ might stand for. Atheism, as I have defined it above, is an ontological and epistemological position. It is ontological in that it has implications for ‘what exists’ and it is epistemological in the sense that it might deal with knowledge or rational belief or disbelief in what does or does not exist.
Atheism, we can say, asks two principle questions: ‘what exists?’ and ‘what should we believe?’ To the first question the atheist must reply, whatever else he says, that were he to investigate the ‘set of all things which existed’ he would not find something that could properly be called ‘God’. As to the question of what one should believe, I imagine that a weak atheist can say simply that one should believe those propositions for which there exists good supportive evidence. He does not see good supportive evidence for the existence of ‘God’ and so fails to acquire a belief in the existence of ‘God’. This then leads him, upon his investigation of what exists, to fail to find in that set anything that can be called ‘God’.
To fail to find, in the set of things which exists, something called ‘God’ is not to be related to some theory or presumption of ultimate importance. To feel that one should have adequate reasons for believing something seems to be a general operating principle of human beings. Perhaps everyone is related to this ‘presumption of ultimate importance’; but to argue along those lines seems to deflate the concept of a ‘life-stance’ to the point of insipidity.
In any case, what one would be ‘related’ to then is not ‘atheism’, as such, but a general principle with which to operate in the world (the commitment to rationality). Atheism becomes then an indirect result of rationality, but is not rationality itself – so I don’t think Sharksterll should take this line of thought further. So, we cannot describe atheism as a ‘life-stance’ if we wish for that word to retain any of its meaning.
This is all to be distinguished with what ‘atheists’ stand for. Sharksterll had quoted Mememan who spoke about atheists being informed by science, humanism, ecology, sense experience and so on. These are Mememan’s perspectives, and it is quite clear that many would agree with him. But even if someone disagreed with him entirely, he would still be an ‘atheist’ so long as he lacked a belief in God. Mememan’s scientific, moral and political views are beside the point of his ‘atheism’. Of course, perhaps his atheism was informed by those things, but that would not change the nature of atheism itself: which at base reflects an absence of belief in God.
Perhaps Sharksterll can accuse Mememan of having a life-stance with regards to humanism and his appreciation of science. I should think the more important question is whether or not he could justify why he thought those things were of value. I should think then, ironically, that he would need to engage in some philosophy to do so. The point is, however, that I think one could certainly justify why one should have a scientific, as opposed to unscientific, world view. One might subject humanism to the same treatment. If this route of ‘justification’ represents a ‘life-stance’ with regards to rationality and reason, then I should think, again, that this reduces the concept of life-stance to insignificance.
It seems, then, that there is no real reason to classify ‘atheism’ as a life-stance. Further, it seems that what is important is whether one can justify what they hold to be valuable. This might presuppose a relation to the ‘ultimate importance’ of reason and rationality, but I wouldn’t consider that to be much of a criticism, or even escapable – to accuse one, then, of having a ‘life-stance’ would be trivial.
Other loose ends
Sharksterll believes that atheists reject God because it disagrees with what they hold as ultimately important. In some sense this might be correct. I (a strong atheist) think that there are good reasons to disbelieve in the existence of God. I think that the concept of God contradicts certain things we know about the world, and is also an incoherent concept. Valuing logic, the concept of God disagrees with logical coherence (or, so I am willing to argue). Others find that there is no good reason to believe that God exists, and so it seems to contradict some standard of rationality.
This is not to be an atheist unreasonably, nor is it to hold a dogmatic party line about the non-existence of God. Rather, it is an attempt to be reasonable, and it is from that attempt that ‘atheism’ is derived. The argument can be had as to whether the atheist position is, in fact, reasonable – but that is a separate issue.
However, someone needn’t be exercising their reason in order to be an atheist. Atheism, simply, is the absence of belief in God – how that is derived is a separate issue, and surely there are better and worse ways to derive such a position. So, perhaps, some people are atheists through an exercise of their “ability to reject responsibility for ones actions”, as Sharksterll believes. But this has no bearing on what ‘atheism’ is. Surely we should oppose those people who wish to shirk their personal responsibility. But in doing so we are not opposing ‘atheism’, but rather a particular mode of behavior and thought. Sharksterll confuses ones ‘reasons for’ atheism with ‘atheism’ itself – this is, I hope I have shown, erroneous in the extreme.
This article has not been intended as a demonstration of atheism, or as a refutation of theism. This is a commentary from someone who has been, for some time, on the sideline watching other people lead the discussion. I have been disappointed at certain people’s failure to appreciate the position of the opposite side. I hope that Sharksterll reads this and thinks about what I have written, and I hope I have expressed myself clearly enough so that he can see the genuine mistakes in his previous articles. This is much less a criticism than it is an honest attempt to rectify certain errors which only detract from the value of these kinds of discussions.