What atheism is not

I do my best to try and see all sides of an argument, and as such try to regularly read the blogs of religious folks. Even if I don’t believe in a viewpoint, it should still be respected for having importance to someone else. And it’s for this very reason that I would like to clear up a few misconceptions about atheism.

1. I recently read an assertion that “atheists must maintain that it is impossible for God to exist.” First of all, it’s not really scientifically correct to ever assert that something is impossible. We talk about probability in science, but absolutes almost never. But more to the point, this idea is a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is. Atheists in general don’t assert that it’s impossible for God to exist; we assert that there is currently no evidence or proof to support that existence of a god. There is a huge difference.

2. Contrary to popular belief, it does not require faith to be an atheist. This is one of the more popular tropes in the religious camp, and it’s predicated again on absolutes. I don’t fault religious people for using this argument, because they live in a world of absolutes: God definitely exists, or rather it’s impossible for him not to exist. Of course they extend this same logic to the atheist. But again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism. The faith argument is only true if you’re a) dealing with an absolute, and b) if you’re dealing with something for which there is no evidence. In the case of atheism, we deal with what is probable, not what is impossible, and the evidence that we can see and test.

I’ve described it like this in the past: suppose I have a penny and I flip it twice. The first time I get a heads, and then when I flip it the second time I get another. I then assert that the third flip will result in a tails. Does this assertion require some degree of faith? After all, I can’t see the future, I don’t know what the next result will be. Despite this, I would argue that my assertion doesn’t need any faith, and the reason why is probability. The chances of getting a third heads on the next flip is 1/2×1/2×1/2 or 12.5%. The probability of getting a tails is still 50%. Therefore there is nothing at all unreasonable about asserting that the next flip will be a tails. There is no evidence that makes the existence of God more probable than his nonexistence, or put another way, it is not unreasonable to disbelieve something for which there is no evidence.

3. Atheism is not a philosophy. Atheism is simply a disbelief in a deity in light of a distinct lack of testable evidence. There’s no statement about morality wrapped up in there. I believe that there is a scientific basis for morality and ethics, and that all morals and ethics can be derived from logic instead of the divine, but atheism does not inform that assertion. Atheism is not for arriving at a set of morals or ethics.

4. I am not an atheist out of spite. Even though I was raised Catholic, I didn’t become an atheist because I felt betrayed or mistreated somehow. Saying that people become atheists because they hate God is like saying that people are religious because they hate science–it just isn’t true. I also didn’t become an atheist because I’m on a mission to prove that God doesn’t exist or anything like that. You can’t force someone to believe in something (or conversely to not believe in something)–you can only give them information and let them digest it at their own pace in their own way. Some people will look at evidence and reevaluate their values quickly, others slowly, and still some not at all. This isn’t the fault of science, atheism, or religion, but human biology and psychology.

Similarly, I don’t hope that religious people are wrong about everything. I don’t believe their narrative, but that’s not an emotional disbelief. My atheism is based in the objective, and as such my feelings toward the whole subject of God are entirely neutral. In my heart of hearts I don’t secretly wish that the religious are wrong and that someday I can hold it over their heads. I’m not driven by a need to be right, a need to exert control over others, or a need to generate some sort of feelings. My atheism is a byproduct of science, and the use of science is for understanding the world around us.

Remember probability. As a scientist, I have to acknowledge that I can’t disprove that a god exists. Saying that there is no evidence to support the existence of a god isn’t a definitive statement; it’s a statement rooted in the present. It says nothing about the future. It’s entirely possible that at some point in the future we will be able to directly observe God. Or that science will indirectly prove He exists. We can talk about how probable that is, but that’s an entirely different post. Atheists don’t think it’s very probable, but that doesn’t inherently make it impossible. As a scientist, if next week or year or century the evidence strongly indicated the existence of God, or God made himself directly known to us, that would be the new paradigm. But until that happens, as an atheist, I only have the evidence that we have observed so far, which in my evaluation points to God being an improbability.

I hope that clears a few things up.


12 thoughts on “What atheism is not

    1. Dear atheist author of the article, please also as you are being scientific, present your concept of God and also your concept of evidence — that is the scientific method, first and foremost, get your concepts correctly and expound on them.

      I don’t read any concept of God and any concept of what is evidence in your article.

      1. Evidence is something that can be observed, measured, and tested in a reliable and repeatable way.

        As for the concept of God, you can plug in however any religion conceptualizes god and that will suffice.

  1. Well said Ryan. I remember posting some Richard Dawkins quote one time, that was not really inflammatory but rather clever and a religious facebook friend of mine said…it sounds like Richard must be really angry at God in relation to something in his past (I don’t think he knew who Dawkins was). Now Dawkins might be a little over-zealous at times, but I don’t get the sense that he is angry at God. I always try telling people that you can’t be angry at God if you don’t think he exists. One can reach the conclusion, through the analysis of evidence that God is unlikely or improbable, and certainly that a personal God is extremely unlikely.

    1. [quote]ryan59479
      March 22, 2016 at 6:35 am

      Evidence is something that can be observed, measured, and tested in a reliable and repeatable way.

      As for the concept of God, you can plug in however any religion conceptualizes god and that will suffice.

      That is what I am concerned about, namely, that instead of telling me what is your concept of God, you seek to escape thinking on the concept of God and telling me, instead you resort to asking me to “plug in however any religion conceptualizes god and that will suffice” [to you?].

      What I have been seeing since I started trying to talk with atheists, not to convert them except to get to know how they think at all, and this is what I have discovered, atheists don’t think.

      Now, if you ask me what is my concept of God, here it is:

      God in concept is the creator and operator of the universe and of everything with a beginning.

      The sad thing with atheists is that they conflate God with religion, and when anyone so much as bring in concepts of God that are not at all scornful of God, but just the concept of God in concept as for example, with my concept of God, namely, in concept God is the creator and operator of the universe and of everything with a beginning, that is a trigger even just that statement for atheists to get all rattled up as to stop thinking altogether,

      So, God and design are two words which are taboos to atheists, atheists stop thinking and start hating when these two words and other words of the same genre are mentioned.

      That is very wrong with atheists! They are into self-censorship, and they don’t even know it.

      1. What’s ironic is that I’m sure most atheists would make the claim that it is those who follow religion who do not think: your beliefs are spoon-fed to you. Many religions even openly discourage critically thinking about the religion. To question anything is tantamount to blasphemy.

        On this blog, I talk a lot about how God can exist independent of religion, and how a concept of god can even coexist with the theories or evolution and the big bang. I’ve even talked about the point that science could indeed one day prove that god exists. I don’t see anything in this particular post that is scornful, bitter, or censored.

        But this claim that atheists don’t think is downright disingenuous. There is no evidence that there was a creator or architect of the universe. There is no evidence that there is an omniscient being beyond time and space controlling everything. There is no evidence of some master force or energy that imbues life and creation into things with any kind of purpose. To arrive at such a conclusion requires, contrary to your belief, a lot of research, reflecting, and thinking.

        Indeed, it seems to many of us that “god did it” is the ultimate cop-out when it comes to thinking.

        It seems quite apparent that you’ve had some dealings with some rather nasty atheists in the past which either color your view of them or reinforces your preexisting biases. But you shouldn’t let a handful of experiences taint your view of an entire group of people. To do so makes you no better than what you accuse us of being.

      2. By your definition of God, you are correct, there is no way to disprove it. Atheists know this. However, it is important that you note that you cannot prove it either. Such a God requires no worship, needs no explaining, hands out no eternal damnation, and has no real requirements or dogma as I can tell from that definition. So I am happy to let their be such a God and hopes he/she/it has a nice day. If I ever get to chat with such a being I’ll tell him I thought his universe was an amazing creation, and then maybe he’ll have time to answer my questions.

  2. Good points all.

    I feel however, every day that goes by without evidence for the existence of deities, the less the liklihood of that evidence showing up. I won’t, can’t rule it out entirely…but it looks less and less possible with passing day.

    In the meantime science and discovery marches on. Evidence of the material continues to mount. Evidence for evolution continues to mount. Evidence for an old earth, and climate change continue to mount. Evidence for every conceivable factoid that we can put an instrument to, continues to mount. I have yet to hear of any groundbreaking evidence for the existence of god(s) since we started putting things under a microscope.

    At some point the probability becomes a statistical wash. How small the probability, can one still reasonably cling to? Why hasn’t a magic detector been built yet? I have seen galaxies to mag 14 from my front yard, where is this heaven place supposed to be anyway? Where exactly are those pillars that hold up the sky? What about the fact that the earth is not the center of the universe? What about the fact that there were never less than a few thousand individuals from which were descended? What about pi being a tad more than 3? What about the earth not being flat? What about there being no geologist worth his weight in salt that would claim evidence exists for a global flood? What about the Egyptians and other major cultures throughout history, who never seemed to notice that this flud supposedly happened?

    When you look at the fact that there is no evidence for god(s) plus the blatant misconceptions in their own magic books, it all starts to look a wee bit fishy…

  3. I have to disagree with point number two. It requires faith to believe anything. So what is faith? Faith is believing in something unseen. Atheists can’t see God, and they don’t see evidence for the existence of God; therefore they believe he doesn’t exist based on their interpretation of the evidence. How can one be an atheist without faith?

    Here are some definitions of faith, and atheism cannot be excluded based on most of these definitions: Faith 1) confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability. 2) belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact. 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims. 4) belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.: to be of the same faith with someone concerning honesty. 5) a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.

    One who doesn’t know if God exists, or isn’t certain whether or not God exists, or doesn’t think it’s probable that God exists, isn’t an atheist. An agnostic, yes, but not an atheist.
    What does the word assertion even mean? Isn’t an assertion a form of belief? It may come across as objective, but I don’t think it is. An assertion is 1: a positive statement or declaration, often without support or reason: a mere assertion; an unwarranted assertion.

    Point number 3 indicates that atheism is a DISBELIEF in a deity, therefore it’s incorrect to claim that there’s no faith involved.

    If we go by the definition of words and the plain meaning, then I can only conclude that atheism does require faith.

    There’s also plenty of evidence for the existence of God, and I’ve cited many examples. The real issue is whether or not you accept any of the evidence presented. To say that there’s a distinct lack of testable evidence isn’t true. I think the evidence for the existence of God is just as real as any forensics case. You don’t need to observe the actual murder in order to convict someone without a reasonable doubt that they’re the killer. And in the same way we can present evidence for the existence of God, and we can conclude- much like the Christian apologist Josh McDowell- that the evidence points to the existence of God, and that Jesus Christ did rise from the dead.

    I also think there are some atheists who hate God, but I’m glad you’re not one of them. Richard Dawkins- based on his statements and reactions- does come across as if he hates God.

    I think you’re a lot more open minded and objective than most atheists, but I don’t think you’re a true atheist. I’d consider you more of an agnostic… what do you think?

    1. That’s funny, I definitely used to label myself as an agnostic in high school. Perhaps I’m some sort of hybrid? lol. That’s part of the problems with labels. Even calling someone “Christian” can have a variety of meanings, so I suppose it’s no different with atheism or agnosticism. The only reason I changed my self-label from agnostic to atheist is because even though I admit it’s impossible to really know which side is correct, I don’t “believe” that a God exists, which is more in line with atheism.

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