Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Atheism Defined

This is being cross-posted from my OkCupid journal as an explanation regarding my "religious" persuasion as listed on my profile for that site, but this blog entry should stand pretty well on its own for non-cupid users.

I was recently editing my profile, trying to clarify what it means when I declare myself an "atheist (and very serious about it)" where OkCupid solicits our religious belief. I realized that this clarification was getting to be rather lengthy. My profile is already rather long, so I figured it would make more sense to give a brief clarification in my profile and link to a more lengthy journal entry (the one you're reading now) for those interested.

The first thing I want to explain about atheism is that it is not a religion. As I recently heard someone put it; "Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby." I can excuse OkCupid for listing atheism and agnosticism under the "religions" details category because there is really no other category that is appropriate, unless they were to perhaps rename it "Religion/Philosophy/Personal World View" or something similarly unwieldy, or give atheism and agnosticism their own categories. I could select "N/A" as my religion, as that would be most appropriate, but it doesn't convey as much information to the casual profile browser. I'll come back to why I describe myself as "very serious about it [atheism]" later.

So then, to get down to it, what is atheism? As I just suggested, it's a world view.. To find out what atheism actually means, indulge me as I break the word down into its constituent components. Here is the word: atheism. The a part is means without. So atheism means "without theism." Theism (from theos) means "a belief in God or gods." Thus, to be atheist is to be "without belief in God or gods."

Note that being without belief in something is different from not believing that thing is possible. I do not believe that space aliens have visited Earth in the past. I do believe it is possible that they have done so. By default, we all tend to "not believe" anything unless we are convinced otherwise (we are presented with compelling evidence or arguments), or unless it seems probable/intuitively true. Atheists believe there is no compelling evidence for God and do not think his existence is probable. Atheists can, however, believe that it is possible that God exists.

Atheists are more or less divided up into two camps. There are what some people call agnostic atheists or weak atheists, who do not believe that God (or gods) exist -- but think it is possible that they do exist, and do not claim absolute knowledge that they do not exist. Then there are what some call gnostic atheists, or strong atheists who do not believe that God exists and, moreover, believe they know that God doesn't exist, or that his existence is not improbable, but impossible. Most atheists (including myself) fall into the former camp, agnostic/weak atheism.

Some might ask, "Isn't weak atheism the same as agnosticism?" Not quite. Atheism and agnosticism are actually the answers (or approaches) to two subtly different questions. Atheism or theism concerns the question of belief in God. Agnosticism or gnosticism address the question of whether or not God is known or knowable.

If someone were to ask me the question, "Do you believe God exists?" I would say, "No, I am atheist."

If someone were to ask me the question, "Can we know that God exists?" I would say, "No, I am agnostic."

Now, why is this debate on semantics and philosophic particulars important? There is a common misunderstanding of what it means to be atheist that leads believers and even non-believers (who usually call themselves "agnostics") that atheists hold a position that is fundamentally untenable or hypocritical. What these critics say is, "Atheists claim theists are irrational for believing in something without proof, but atheists claim to know that God doesn't exist -- also without proof!" This might make an excellent argument against atheism, except as I've described above, it intreprets the meaning of the word atheism incorrectly.

Most of the people who label themselves "agnostics," are in fact, atheists as well. Agnosticism is a common attribute of atheists, just as gnosticism is a common attribute of theists. There are some who cross the two philosophic outlooks/beliefs and are "gnostic atheists" or "agnostic theists," but they are both pretty uncommon.

Unfortunately, because of what I've just described, it means that atheists who honestly and accurately identify themselves as such sometimes suffer a certain stigma from others' lack of understanding -- a lack of understanding often perpetuated even by fellow atheists! Atheists (and the atheist community, such as it exists) tries to deal with this in various ways.

Sometimes we just call ourselves "agnostics" (even if we have to use it in a context where it is a less precise and relevant term) to save ourselves the hassle of explaining it all, particularly in situations where we wish to avoid the unfair judgment that may go along with identifying oneself as an atheist. The word agnostic is perceived in a softer, more forgiving light, so some atheists use it out of conciliation. Personally, I am uncompromising in my belief that my atheism is nothing to be ashamed of, so I tend to self-identify most often as an atheist. Another accurate and somewhat less contraversial term than atheist that sees some use is "non-theist."

Some atheists have taken to calling themselves something altogether different: brights. The word bright is one that some atheists are attempting to commandeer in the same way the homosexual community has appropriated the word gay to refer to themselves. All atheists are brights (according to those who have coined the term) just as all homosexuals are gay. Some atheists don't like the term (just as some homosexuals don't like the word gay) and feel that this approach to atheist advocacy is misguided. To an extent this may be true (as I indicated earlier, I prefer to just call myself an atheist), but I will happily and readily identify myself as a bright and also as a Bright (note the capital "b") -- someone who has joined the Brights "Internet constituency" to encourage free thought and acceptance/promotion of a naturalistic world view ... and since I'm so busy applying labels to myself right now, I am also a secular humanist.

Why does my profile indicate I am "very serious" about atheism? I think that all religion is irrational. Religions, at least theistic ones, are based on faith*, which is belief without evidence. Religion often tends to be actively hostile towards logic, rationality and science -- this is because logic, rationality and science have a tendency to erode faith, particularly when applied directly to religious claims.

Religion cannot credibly promise solutions to the problems humanity faces, and is likely to face going into the future. Reason and science just might. The world must suffer the ignorance of its influential elite and its masses. An educated populace is our best hope for the future. You can't have that in a world where reason and critical thought are held in contempt by prevailing religious ideologies.

Because I think religion is unnecessary and sometimes hostile to progress that could be made in the humanitarian endeavor, I suppose you can say I am an evangelical atheist. I've never met an evangelical person who isn't serious about their belief, so that's why my profile says I'm very serious about my atheism.

* A word on faith. Some people might tell me that I have faith in science, or faith in my family, which is no different from having faith in God. This is an example of equivocation. It is a logical fallacy. Faith, when used in the context of religious belief means "belief in absence of evidence" -- this I will maintain until someone provides me with direct proof that their religion represents some objective truth. If I were to speak of my faith in science, or faith in my family, it would mean something very different and might instead be characterized as trust, or even better, confidence. I have confidence in science and my family based on good reasons, strong evidence and past experience. This definition does not and can not apply to a person's belief in religious theism.