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An atheist FAQ

04 July 2012, 09:29

From the recent religious debates on MyNews24 it’s clear that many misconceptions exist in the theistic community over what atheism actually is. In some cases the asshattery reached Malemian proportions, and so I’ve decided to have a quick conversation with myself and post the results.

What is atheism?

Atheism is the lack of belief in any God or gods; nothing more, nothing less. It says nothing about the afterlife, angels, spirits, demons, psychic abilities, political alignment, stance on death penalty or what colour eyeliner goes best with those bitchin’ new shoes you bought. All people are born atheist and are then indoctrinated, usually with the religion of their parents which is heavily geographically bound (e.g. if you are born in Israel you’ll likely be Jewish, in India likely Hindu, in the Middle East likely Muslim etc).

If atheism is just the lack of god beliefs, why do atheists often deny angels or the afterlife too?

Atheism says nothing about what other beliefs you hold. It is rare, but you do find atheists that also believe other supernatural things, but not god(s). It is rare because atheism is often born out of skepticism, and skeptics question all things. The fact that you’ve run across somebody who is both a skeptic and an atheist is no more than a high probability coincidence.

Is atheism a religion or cult?

No. Atheism is not a belief system it is the lack of belief in a particular belief system: god(s). It has no rituals, no doctrine, nothing to worship and no political affiliation. A popular example is that calling atheism a religion is like calling not-collecting-stamps a hobby, or calling abstinence a sex position. This would also be akin to saying that a Christian who does not believe in the Greek god Zeus belongs to a religion that doesn’t worship Zeus.

But doesn’t atheism make a claim about God’s existence?

Here it is helpful to differentiate between positive atheism and negative atheism. Simply put, negative atheism involves disbelief in god(s), but keeping it to yourself, and positive atheism asserts out loud “there is no god”. The term “positive atheism” is sometimes used interchangeably with “New Atheism” and sometimes even “anti-theism”, though they are not strictly speaking the same things. Let’s just say that positive atheism, New Atheism and anti-theism all have a more aggressive and in-your-face attitude towards religion. Positive atheists are those seen debating with and challenging religious beliefs in public spaces.

Even though positive atheism, New Atheism and anti-theism often openly states that god does not exist, it still does not qualify as a religion. Disbelief is the de-facto status on any claim for which no evidence has been provided. Stating it openly does not magically change it into a cult. For example, you might not believe in hobgoblins, but stating it out loud does not make anti-Hobgoblinism your religion. You are simply rejecting the positive assertion that hobgoblins exist. Similarly positive atheism simply rejects the positive assertion by theists that a god exists.

Okay, but then prove that god doesn’t exist!

In philosophy and science there is something called a “burden of proof”. What this means is that it is up to the person making the claim to prove that it’s true. If I say that I personally know the Tooth Fairy and that we regularly exchange ideas on the future of dental practice in South Africa, you would be well within rights to be skeptical about my claim and reject it. The burden of proof would be on me to demonstrate that the Tooth Fairy is real, visits me and possesses useful information on modern dental care. The situation is exactly the same when a theist makes a god claim. Nobody expects the Christian or Muslim to provide evidence for the non-existence of Thor. To make an exception for the deity that you favour personally is called “special pleading”.

Fine, but then how can you be so sure that God doesn’t exist?

We’re not. Well, not 100%, but near enough as makes no difference. Most atheists reach their position through an endless process of debate, education and evaluating evidence. Our position is not set in stone and can be swayed given adequate evidence. No person can claim to have searched the universe and all its dimensions and have found no god. What we do say is that there’s no good reason to believe that god exists, and a sufficient lack of evidence to think he doesn’t, given the extraordinary claims made about him in texts like the Bible.

We cannot disprove that magical rainbow farting unicorns don’t exist somewhere in the universe, but we have no good reason to believe that they do. Most people would reject the Magical Unicorn Hypothesis out of hand, and yet don’t apply the same thought process to faith. We can be 99.9% sure there are no Magical Unicorns, because they are so unlikely and no proof exists for them at all. Atheism is saying there is no difference between the non-falsifiable claim for unicorns and the non-falsifiable claim for god(s), and therefore no reason to believe either is true.

Occam’s Razor is a principle that essentially states that the simplest answer, that makes the fewest assumptions, is the best one. God is an overly complex, assumption ridden answer to the question of the origin of the universe. God would need to be more complex than anything else in existence and even more complex explanations would be needed to explain God. Since the dawn of science scientific explanations have continuously replaced religious ones. Never in human history has a religious explanation replaced a scientific one as the better answer. We can expect this trend to continue. In the end, while we do not have all of them yet, the naturalistic explanations we do have offer far simpler and more beautiful answers. The beauty of the naturalistic vision of the world is how elegantly it explains complexity from simplicity, whereas the theistic world view tries to explain simplicity from complexity. The naturalistic world view also has the added advantage of being supported by evidence.

Why don’t you just leave religious people alone? It doesn’t hurt anyone to believe in God!

False beliefs hurt the people who believe them and those around them. They cause people who hold them to do silly things like fly planes into buildings. They cause mass hysteria, witch burnings and the incarceration of scientists. In the case of the big monotheistic religions, they also attempt to shape government policy, and deny certain groups of people the right to marriage. They hold back progress. There have been cases of parents trying to pray their children well instead of taking them to the doctor. Sometimes these children die of easily treated diseases or conditions because of it. Non-evidence based superstitious and paranormal beliefs are dangerous. We don’t care what you believe in the privacy of your home, we just don’t want it affecting public policy or the welfare and happiness of other human beings. We think that knowing the truth has merit and that holding false beliefs, especially in positions of power, is damaging to society.

Lies! You just hate God! You’re rebelling against Him!

By that reasoning, am I then to conclude that you hate Zeus, Thor, The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Ra? Of course not. You don’t believe in any of them because there is no compelling evidence that shows that they are real. We merely extend this to your god. We’re sorry that you disapprove.

What if you’re wrong? If I’m wrong, no big deal, if you’re wrong… oh boy!

This is called Pascal’s Wager and it’s a silly argument. There are thousands of gods, past and present, how do you know you’ve got the right one given that the chances of each one exists is the same? Belief cannot be forced and my mind can’t accept the god hypothesis. If god exists and is all knowing, he’d see through fake belief and myself and the fake believer would be equally screwed. If I was created by a loving god and I was given a mind to think, why would I be punished for using that mind? Your argument assumes that god will even care if I believe in him or be impressed by it. Why would he? Your argument also assumes that you lose nothing, but the way I see it you lose time and money. I could go on, but the idea should become clear to you by now.

Without God you’re without morals and empty. You must live a disgusting life!

Absolutely not. Many atheists hold naturalistic explanations for morals and don’t believe that god has anything to do with morality. We live our lives morally because it makes us feel good, not because we fear punishment or actively seek reward. Atheists have the same biological tools that theists have to judge morality. In fact, if anything, atheists don’t seem too interested in crime.

 In the USA around 8-16% of the population identifies as atheist depending on which studies you believe, yet a disproportionately tiny 0.2% of the prison population are atheists, whereas Christians make up a whopping 80%. Japan, one of the countries with the largest proportion of disbelievers, was lauded for the lack of looting and crime after the tsunami in 2011, while in 2008 floods in the USA (a majority Christian nation) caused large scale looting.

There are also many secular charities, some of which can be found here:

In short, there is no good dead that a believer could do that I could not, but I can think of a few bad deeds that would require faith.

Isn’t the Bible evidence for the Christian God?

This is a little like asking whether Moby Dick is evidence for Captain Ahab. You can’t prove the contents of a book by referring to that book, just as you can’t prove that the story a friend tells you is true by quoting the conversation. Furthermore, the Bible is filled with contradictions, errors, stories copied from older texts, immoral laws, historical inaccuracies and metaphors. None of this helps its validity along I’m afraid. Quoting words from the Bible is not evidence I’m afraid. Imagine if I could accuse you of murder in court and when asked for testimony I open a piece of paper and I read, “on this paper is written the undisputable truth, Bob murdered Susan”. Wouldn’t be a very damning or convincing case, would it?

But what about all the prophecies that came true?

If I write something vague and I leave it lying around for a few hundred years, probability is that some event will take place that could be made to fit my “prophecy”. For example, if I wrote down that “the Great King in the North will march South and fall upon the Lance of the Easterling” and at some point a leader in Europe marches to war and is stopped by somebody of Eastern descent, somebody might misconstrue that as prophecy.

Also consider that I could actively go out and try to fulfill a prophecy and then merely inform everybody around me of that prophecy after the fact. This would make it seem like the prophecy had come true, when in fact I had manipulated the situation to my advantage.

All that said, however, there is not a single example of a prophecy where the meaning and time was specific and understood beforehand, and it was generally accepted to have been fulfilled afterwards. It’s all just guessing, hearsay and vagueness playing together in a puddle of time.

Hey wait, where are you going?

I’m going to do something more productive with my time. If you have more questions ask them in the comments where everyone can answer them. May the FSM guide and keep you. RAmen.

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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