About atheism (14)

What is atheism?


Pronunciation: /ˈeɪθɪɪz(ə)m/

[mass noun]

  1. disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. [Oxford English Dictionary]

In the broadest sense, atheism is the absence or rejection of belief in the existence of deities and is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief in the existence of at least one deity. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.

The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god(s)", and was applied pejoratively to those thought to reject the deities worshipped by the larger society.

Types of atheism

Many disagree how best to define and classify atheism, contesting what supernatural entities it applies to, whether it is an assertion in its own right or merely the absence of one, and whether it requires a conscious, explicit rejection. Atheism has been regarded as both compatible with and contrasted with agnosticism. Thus, a variety of categories have been used to distinguish the different forms of atheism.

Implicit vs. explicit

Definitions of atheism also vary in the degree of consideration a person must put to the idea of gods to be considered an atheist. Atheism has sometimes been defined to include the simple absence of belief that any deities exist. This broad definition would include newborns and other people who have not been exposed to theistic ideas. As far back as 1772, Baron d'Holbach said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God."Similarly, George H. Smith (1979) suggested that: "The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist."Smith coined the term implicit atheism to refer to "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it" and explicit atheism to refer to the more common definition of conscious disbelief. Ernest Nagel contradicts Smith's definition of atheism as merely "absence of theism", acknowledging only explicit atheism as true "atheism".

Positive/strong vs. negative/weak

Philosophers such as Antony Flewand Michael Martinhave contrasted positive (strong/hard) atheism with negative (weak/soft) atheism. Positive atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist. Negative atheism includes all other forms of non-theism. According to this categorization, anyone who is not a theist is either a negative or a positive atheist. The terms weak and strong are relatively recent, while the terms negative and positive atheism are of older origin, having been used (in slightly different ways) in the philosophical literatureand in Catholic apologetics.Under this demarcation of atheism, most agnostics qualify as negative atheists.

A "strong" atheist is one who asserts that "there is no god." Strong atheism is the form of atheism that most theists reference in debates, since most don't know the distinction between strong and weak atheism. However, strong atheists are rarer than most people think.

For the above reason, strong atheism is sometimes criticized for "requiring faith." This criticism often rests on the assumption that faith is a fault, which, if spoken by an arguer whose stance rests on faith, is self-defeating in a direct sense. Other times this idea is argued by theists to 'bring them down to our level'. Most often it is argued as a 'your stance is no better than mine' argument. Often, this is successful in derailing the conversation, as many atheists are uncomfortable with admitting that any element of their thoughts contain faith. Users of this wiki are advised to consider that, in the literal epistemic sense, all knowledge eventually requires some basic assumptions, and that assumption is functionally identical to faith. The difference relies not in avoiding faith/assumption, but in grounding one's knowledge in firmer and more well-reasoned thought.

Strong atheism is also called 'positivist' atheism. In this usage the term 'positivist' comes from the root 'to posit' meaning 'to take a position'. Thus a positivist atheist is one who has taken the position that there are no gods.

While Martin, for example, asserts that agnosticism entails negative atheism,most agnostics see their view as distinct from atheism, which they may consider no more justified than theism or requiring an equal conviction.The assertion of unattainability of knowledge for or against the existence of gods is sometimes seen as indication that atheism requires a leap of faith.Common atheist responses to this argument include that unproven religious propositions deserve as much disbelief as all other unproven propositions, and that the unprovability of a god's existence does not imply equal probability of either possibility.Scottish philosopher J. J. C. Smart even argues that "sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical skepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever, except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic."  Consequently, some atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins prefer distinguishing theist, agnostic and atheist positions along a spectrum of theistic probability—the likelihood that each assigns to the statement "God exists".

A "weak" atheist is one who doesn't claim to know that there is no god, but instead simply lacks belief in a god. This form of atheism is the most common, and is sometimes called "agnostic atheism". Every newborn baby is (unknowingly) a weak atheist, and remains so until the concept of god is introduced to him or her.

Weak atheists often argue that theirs is the only rational position, as both theism and strong atheism make positivist claims. Weak atheism is also called non-positivist atheism.

What’s the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

It has to do with the difference between what you believe and what you think you know. For any particular god that you can imagine, a "theist" is one who has a belief in that god. In contrast, an "atheist" is one who does not have a belief in the god. A "gnostic" is one who knows about the existence of god and an "agnostic" is one who thinks that god is unknowable.

Notice that the terms "atheist" and "agnostic", by these definitions, are not mutually exclusive. You could be an agnostic atheist, meaning you don't think that the existence of gods is knowable, but you don't believe in one without further proof. Many people assume that atheists believe that gods can be proved not to exist, but this isn't strictly true and there is no proper word to describe this. You could call such a person an "untheist", perhaps. Or, you could just call such a person a "gnostic atheist", one who doesn't believe in a god and thinks that his non-belief can be proved. Note that there is a difference between an absence of belief in a god and a belief in the absence of god.
So there are four possible ways one could be.
1. Agnostic-Theist: believes god exists, but the existence of a god is unknowable
2. Gnostic-Theist: believes in a god for which he claims knowledge
3. Agnostic-Atheist: does not believe god exists, but it can't be proved
4. Gnostic-Atheist: believes it can be proved that god does not exist
Case 3 is sometimes referred to as "weak atheism" and case 4 is sometimes referred to as "strong atheism". Only strong atheism positively asserts that there are no gods.

Finally, it should be pointed out that when a person is asked about their beliefs and replies that they are agnostic, they are avoiding the question and answering a different one. Someone who can't positively say he/she believes in a god is an atheist.

Agnostic, Gnostic, Atheism, Theism

Do you hate God?

For the same reason we don't hate Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Darth Vader, no. Remember, atheists do not believe God exists. Hating a nonexistent being is rather a waste of time.

Those who hate God are misotheists - not atheists.

Don’t atheists live basically empty, meaningless lives?

Nope. We don't think that the world is an empty, meaningless place, even though we don't think a god designed it. We think the world is a fascinating, wonderful, interesting place, and we enjoy living in it. Suppose you are walking in a beautiful garden with a friend, and your friend says, "I heard there are fairies living in this garden!" You tell your friend that you don't see any fairies, and you don't see any particular reason to believe that these fairies are there. You are just enjoying the garden. But your friend insists: "How can you enjoy this place if you don't believe in fairies?"

Unless you're a little kid, you would probably feel that your friend missed the point. Here you are, enjoying a nice day and great scenery, and your friend is trying to convince you to stop enjoying the garden the way it really is. He is telling you that you have to make something up, which isn't real as far as you can see, or else you don't have as much of an appreciation of the garden as he does.

In fact it is probably the other way around. It's a fine thing to have an imagination, but it seems like your friend is cheapening the experience, because he can't just enjoy something beautiful for its own sake.

The world has a lot of things to enjoy in it. Food, music, a well-told story, romance, sex, physical activity, the outdoors, the feeling of solving a difficult puzzle... just to name a few. These are things that most people enjoy on a day-to-day basis. And we don't appreciate the world around us any less for not thinking that those things come from God.

Also, it's not like there are no mysterious unknowns or "greater forces" right here in the physical universe. Most likely we will never know everything there is to know about this vast universe or our past. Who really understands quantum mechanics? Are there parallel universes out there? Are they accessible to us? Is time travel possible? Can we find a better way to generate our own energy before our sun burns out billions of years from now? These are all very big mysteries. One of life's great pleasures is applying your mind to solving hard questions like these. Learning is fun. Knowledge is fun. So it seems likely that we will never run out of things to enjoy in that sense.

You may have plenty of good reasons for believing in God, but if you think it's bad to be an atheist because atheists lead a cold, barren, loveless, uninteresting life, you are really kidding yourself.

What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?

Mostly, we didn't. This is a common misconception among Christians... they assume that everyone believes in God, and that people who pretend not to believe must have had a traumatic experience that made them hate God (see below). Commonly it is assumed that an atheist must have, say, prayed to God and not been answered, or had a loved one die, and then renounced God in anger.

In reality, few people come to their atheism that way; and those who do usually don't stay atheist for very long. In the majority of cases, you'll find that atheists have thought very hard about their belief in God, and found that it just doesn't hang together logically. A great many atheists were raised in a religious household and decided, after much inner struggle, that they just couldn't continue to take their faith seriously. A few were brought up in atheist households and taught to think about the world and question conventional wisdom.

Ironically, many evangelists use their own stories of traumatic events as a way of convincing people to find religion. Often you will hear stories of how a person had "hit rock bottom", was perpetually drunk and unemployed and had no hope for the future, and that's when they found the Lord. While they dismiss us by saying that we must have become atheists for dramatic emotional reasons, they use the same techniques to recruit new parishioners.

What do you think happens to you when you die?

Just in case there are any misconceptions about this, most serious atheists don't believe in reincarnation or spirits any more than we believe in hell. What defines "you" is what you think and feel, and how you interact with the universe. When this stops happening, you're not you anymore. So you simply stop existing.

If this idea scares you, think about all the millions of years that passed before you were born. Do you remember it? Was that scary? Interestingly enough, the fate that Christians find so inconceivable -- complete nonexistence -- is regarded by Buddhists as the best possible outcome for your life ("Nirvana").

Some people take this a step further and argue this way: "The first law of thermodynamics says that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Since life is a form of energy, it must go somewhere." We don't see life as a self-contained form of energy. It's more of a process that matter and energy goes through.

Some people find this idea disturbing. They really want to be around forever. We all would. But realizing that you won't be around forever makes this life seem more valuable in a way. Since you only get one shot, it's important to do the best you can to be happy and make others happy before you're done.

Aren’t you afraid you’ll go to hell?

Not really. Since we don't believe that hell exists, we're not expecting to go there. What if we're wrong, is this a big gamble? That's essentially a simple formulation of Pascal's Wager. See that question below.

How can anyone possibly be moral without believing in God?

Pretty much the same way that anyone else can be moral: by considering their actions, weighing the consequences, and deciding whether they are doing more harm than good to themselves and other people.

Despite what evangelists tell you, the threat of hell is not what stops most people from, say, going on a mass-murdering spree. Even if there was no hell, there are still bad consequences for bad behavior. Our society has laws that threaten criminals with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. And even if those laws didn't exist, there would still be the threat of punishment from other sources. For instance, if you commit a murder, the victim's family and friends might come looking for revenge. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. The justice system just makes the whole process a little more orderly, which is a good thing.

However, it seems like the threat of punishment and the promise of rewards is not really the only thing that keeps people from being bad. With or without religion, people don't like to be hurt, and they usually recognize that other people getting hurt is a similarly undesirable thing. Jesus didn't invent the principle of treating others the way you would like to be treated; it was around for centuries before. When people are in danger of being mistreated, they seek out protection through cooperation and relationships. Society is simply a much larger extension of those relationships.

With rare exceptions, people (atheists included) don't really have the urge or desire to run out and kill or steal or otherwise harm other people. And honestly, when people say "If it weren't for God holding me back, there would be nothing to stop me from being a criminal", we worry about them. If your grasp of right and wrong is so shaky that you can't stop yourself from doing bad things, and you need someone threatening you with eternal punishment to keep you in line, then we wonder how safe you really are to be near

Since you cannot prove God’s non-existence, doesn’t it take faith to be an atheist?

This assumption is rooted in the elementary logical fallacy that two opposite things -- belief and disbelief -- are actually the same thing. A basic tenet of logic is that anyone making a positive claim bears the burden of proof for that claim. For example, in a court of law the lawyers for the prosecution bear the burden of proof, because they are making the positive claim that the defendant has committed a crime.

To take a skeptical position regarding an extraordinary claim for which one has not been provided with compelling evidence is not an act of faith; it is simple common sense. Here is an analogous situation: supposedly, as a Christian, you do not believe in the Roman or Aztec gods. Is it just as much an "act of faith" on your part not to believe in those gods as it was for the Romans and Aztecs to believe in them? If a man walks up to you and says he has an invisible magic elf sitting on his head, do you automatically believe his claim? If not, is it an "act of faith" on your part not to? Or are you simply responding to the claim with common sense and skepticism because the man has failed to provide you with adequate evidence for his elf? Not believing in something when you have no reason to believe in that thing is not an act of faith, it is just the smart thing to do.

Finally, one can turn to the Bible's definition of faith -- the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" -- to see that this is a definition that excludes disbelief. So if you still don't agree with us that atheism is not a faith, then check your Bibles.

Isn’t atheism just another religion?

The website Dictionary.com gives the following definition of "religion."

1.a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
1.b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

2.The life or condition of a person in a religious order.

3.A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

4.A cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Clearly, definitions 1-3 do not apply to atheists since we reject the notions of supernatural powers and spiritual leaders. Definition 4 could possibly apply to atheists, but then, it could also apply to a bowling league or a Britney Spears fan club. The claim that atheism is a religion is generally made by Christians who have been religious all their lives and thus cannot conceive of anyone not having some kind of religion as an integral part of their lives.
It's instructive to point out that theism is not a religion either. Theism simply has to do with believing in a god, which one can very easily do without engaging in any sort of religious activity—to wit, the practice of worshipping that god. A person who believes a deity or higher power exists, but never in his life sees fit to go to a church or pray or partake in any kind of practice designed to worship or revere that deity, would be theistic, but not religious.
Atheism, which is about not believing in god(s), and theism, which is about believing in god(s), are philosophical or theological points of view, but they are not religions.

Isn’t America a Christian nation?

The myth of a "Christian" United States goes something like this:

Christians seeking religious freedom founded our nation as a place where they could properly obey god's law. The Puritans and others founded biblical law settlements that established a Christian colonial culture. Christian leaders and ideals thus generated the American Revolution, our Constitutional democracy of personal freedom, and everything else that made our nation great. Bad things now happen because we have fallen away from our founders' Christian values. America now needs religion in government and laws promoting religion so we can restore our lost Golden Age of Christian Faith.

Like most religious traditions, the evidence fails to support this Golden Age myth.

Puritan heritage is nothing anyone should be proud of or wish to restore. The Puritans came to the colonies to establish a religious tyranny. As a state church, Puritans oppressed other religions like they had been oppressed in England. They wanted religious freedom only in the sense that they wanted the freedom to practice their Puritanism and to punish or banish all other religious beliefs. Only Puritan Congregationalist churches were allowed. Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Catholics and others were banished, often with a death sentence if they returned. Puritans punished even minor "impious" behavior, and they killed 25+ people as witches. America's colonial Christians were an undemocratic minority that opposed freedom of conscience and denied political rights based on religious beliefs.

The actions of the Constitution's authors at the 1787 Convention best reveal their thoughts and intent regarding religion. They avoided attempts to insert worship into their deliberations, keeping religious activities separate from the process of creating our government. If no religion at the Constitutional Convention was good enough for our founders, it should be good enough for all public officials in the execution of their duties.

Our founders created a secular government based on freethinking political philosophies. Our founders' Constitution is a stunning rejection of government under god. Only the Constitution establishes our government, not any other document with pious words, such as the Declaration of Independence, Mayflower Act etc. The Constitution ignores god, except for the date, "in the year of our Lord." "We the People," not god, is the authority for our government. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for national office. The Constitution's first amendment prohibits Congress from passing any laws even "respecting an establishment of religion." During many Constitution ratification sessions in the states, Christians tried to add references to God and Jesus into the Preamble and to remove the "no religious test for office" provision. Their failure demonstrates that even though the Constitution was a heated public issue, it was ratified as written. Our founders and the public knowingly chose a godless Constitution.

Conservative Christians argue that the First Amendment language, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," means our founders only meant to prohibit one denomination from becoming the official national religion. The evidence refutes this narrowest of interpretations, aside from the fact that the Constitution must give government such a power, and there is no power to do anything religious in the Constitution. In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1/01/1802), Thomas Jefferson cited "a wall of separation between Church and State" as his reason for denying their request for a national day of fasting. Jefferson's metaphor came from London schoolmaster James Burgh, one of England's leading enlightenment political writers. Burgh's Crito (1767) had the phrase, "build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil." Along with numerous other documents, Jefferson's message clarifies the intention of the amendment.

The Constitution and amendments only mention religion three times, and only as prohibitions against government doing things religious. One cannot pervert express prohibitions against government doing religious things into powers for government to do religious things. Many public officials have a long history of violating their oath of office by mixing religion into government or by supporting religious groups. A tradition of violating the Constitution does not, however, change the Constitution. This traditional disrespect for the Constitution by religious believers should end.

We have an invaluable ally in our uphill struggle to preserve the truth. We have the words and actions of our founders, which directly contradict the myth of a "Christian" United States.

(This answer (c) Howard Thompson, from DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF A "CHRISTIAN" UNITED STATES)

What’s your stand on evolution?

We support evolution because it is a generally accepted scientific theory that explains the diversity of life on this planet. The reason it is so well accepted in the scientific community is because it is supported by a wide variety of evidence, including fossils, taxonomy, genetics and experimental biology results.

There are some Creationists who think that the evidence supporting evolution should be removed from science classes, or else their own myths about genesis should be taught side by side with them. We do not object to Judeo-Christian stories about origins being taught in the classroom. What we do object to is the stories being taught as if they were science. They aren't. Science is a process of making observations, testing evidence, and above all, finding and correcting mistakes. This is almost the exact opposite of what religions do. Religions rely on unalterable texts handed down from ancient teachers, which are not to be questioned regardless of what evidence comes up.
Evolution isn't "atheist science", however. Most scientists who accept evolution are not atheists. As biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "Evolution doesn't make you an atheist, but it does make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." This is because it takes most of the force out of the Argument from Design for God.

Evolution is a large, complicated academic subject. We highly recommend reading the talk.origins archive to learn more about this fascinating subject. It contains an overview of evolution, and extensive articles discussing most common creationist objections. Whenever somebody calls about evolution, if we do not know the answer right away, we will almost always look up the information at the talk origins site and have the answer the following week. Creationists would be wise to keep this in mind, and look up their own arguments on the site to be aware of the responses ahead of time.

You know what they say—there are no atheists in foxholes!

Au contraire, mon frère... The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH) can be found here and here, respectively. Christians, despite what some of them think, do not have a monopoly on patriotism, nor does the experience of bullets and missiles whizzing directly over one's head inspire in everyone the conviction that they're being protected by a benevolent magic invisible being. In fact, we celebrated our own foxhole atheists in April of 2011 and 2012.

What is Pascal’s Wager?

It's a well-known logical argument why you should believe in God, even if there's a strong chance that it might not be true. Simply put, the argument is that you should believe in God just because there's a chance that you might go to heaven and avoid hell.

Blaise Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician in the 17th century, first formally put the argument forth. He is considered the founder of probability and he made other significant contributions. There's also a programming language named after him.

Pascal's wager, in a nutshell, is this: No one knows for certain whether God exists. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. It's a gamble whether you believe in him or not. So let's treat it like a gamble, says Pascal, and look at the odds.

He described the payoff of this gamble like so. If you choose to believe in God, and you happen to be right, then the reward is infinity: eternal bliss in heaven. However, if you are wrong, then you lose nothing at all. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, and you're right, you GAIN nothing (in either of the previous two cases, you just die and that's the end). But if you are wrong, your payoff is negative infinity: eternal suffering in hell.

Now here's the main thrust of the wager. Since the chance of God existing is unknown, but the payoff/punishment scheme is infinitely in favor of believing in God, just on the small chance that he might exist, you'd better believe. It's the only wager that makes sense.

Okay, that's Pascal's wager, now here are our reasons for not agreeing with it.

Reason 1: In the case where God does not exist, there really is a clear advantage to not believing. In other words, the payoff is not zero. For one thing, if you go through life believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more to being a believer than just saying "Okay, I believe now" and getting on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church, and contribute a lot of money as well. There's a reason why some towns have very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate cathedrals are possible: they're funded by folks who donate 1/10th of their income throughout their lives to tithing. This is surely quite a waste if the object of worship isn't real. That's to say nothing of the persecution of other groups that's been instigated in the name of God throughout the ages.

Reason 2: Even if you buy into Pascal's wager and decide you should believe, that doesn't give any basis for choosing which religion to believe in. Fundamentalists often use the wager to prove that you should be a Fundamentalist, but of course, Pascal was Catholic and was using it to prove you should be a Catholic! This just highlights the whole problem of which religion is the right one. Since many Fundamentalists believe that Catholics are going to go to hell, Pascal's not much better off than an unbeliever. We don't know if the Jews are correct, or perhaps the Muslims, or if reincarnation is right... or worse, if there's a perverse God who only lets atheists into heaven! It's not impossible. For all we know, maybe God exists but he doesn't care at all whether people believe in him.

Reason 3: If you can accept Pascal's wager as a realistic reason to believe, that leads you to a point where you have no choice but to believe just about everything on the same grounds. Maybe if you don't own a complete library of Seinfeld episodes, you'll go to hell! Why not? You don't know. Maybe you have to send $10 a week to the Atheist Community of Austin for life. Hey, what's a measly ten bucks if it will save you from eternal hellfire? Or maybe God really likes nude mud wrestling and he will punish those who do not partake of His gift.

Does all this sound utterly silly to you? Good! That's probably because you know that you should only believe things that have some sort of clear evidence favoring them. You don't believe just any old preposterous claim about UFO's, pyramid shaped get-rich-quick schemes, or magic pixies just because somebody tells you they're true and because there's a chance you might be wrong. You have a brain—use it!

About the Atheist Community of Tulsa (3)

I’ve seen your name before listed as Tulsa Atheist and Tulsa Atheists. What’s with the name changes?

The group was originally named Tulsa Atheist as it was founded on April 22, 2006.

In November of 2010, however, the name was pluralized to recognize the plurality of our group and Atheist Community of Tulsa was appended to emphasize the community aspect of our group.

In March of 2011,Tulsa Atheists was formally dropped thus Atheist Community of Tulsa became the officially recognized name of the group.

I do not prefer the term atheist, may I still join the community?

Sure. Our community is open to all friendly atheists or atheist-friendly individuals who identify themselves as non-theists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, etc.

When’s the next get together?

A calendar of all our public events can be found on our Events page.