What Is Atheism?
James C. Rocks
When debating creationists and those of a theistic bent I am often accused of being a man of faith, which is odd because I'm an atheist. The argument (raised by theists) is that to believe there is no god requires as much (if not more) faith than it requires believing there is one. Sometimes the argument appears to be based around the claim that I (the atheist) must believe in something and (in my case) it is claimed that I positively disbelieve in a god or gods and that must be a position of faith. If the theist view is correct and atheism was, indeed, a faith then atheists must also be hypocrites for attacking the views of other religions when theirs is a position of faith as well ... fortunately, they are not. The purpose of this article is to define the various terms involved in the issue i.e. theist, agnostic, atheist, fideist and to defend the position of atheism as a non-faith-based stance. In order to discuss atheism and the various alternative stances, it is necessary to define exactly what these stances are. I have used a number of reference resources to support this.
From the table, it can be seen that atheism fulfils none of the normally accepted necessities to be considered a religion.
- Theism: Generally as a "belief in the existence of a god or gods" (1678) but more specifically as a "belief in the creation of the universe by one god".
- Polytheism: Defined fairly universally as a "belief in or worship of more than one god" (1613).
- Fideism: A "reliance on faith rather than reason in pursuit of religious truth" (1885).
- Pantheism: The doctrine that identifies the universe with a god but Miriam-Webster Online goes on to further define it as "the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently" and also equates it with religious tolerance (1732).
- Agnosticism: The doctrine "that the existence of deity can neither be proved nor disproved" and in broad terms, an agnostic is considered to be "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the non-existence of God or a god". A logical consequence of "not knowing" whether there is or is not a god is that the agnostic has rejected all current claims of deity on the basis, presumably, of insufficient evidence or inconsistency & illogic in the claims being made by theists. It is also true to say that whilst it is possible to not know whether there is a god or not it is not possible to know whether you do or do not believe in current claims to deity.
- Atheism: Defined, most critically as far as this article is concerned, as a "belief that there is no god" (Collins), "a doctrine that denies the existence of deity" (Encarta) and "a disbelief in the existence of deity" (Miriam-Webster, 1546) however, as I will attempt to demonstrate, this is not a fully accurate definition of atheism.
DiscussionOne of the key points to understand about atheism is that it is not defined as believing there is no god, it is defined as "not believing there is a god" ... the first position is (as it says) a belief, the second simply a lack of belief. An atheist is a person who does not believe that any gods exist (Carrier, 1996) and can be further defined as one who does not accept current theistic claims. Most monotheistic religions will claim that their god is all-seeing, all-knowing & all-powerful and yet, when asked if we have free will answer yes, but if that god is all-seeing and all-knowing etc. then it must be able to see the future and therefore we cannot have free will because whatever will happen is preordained and so we have a contradiction. Monotheistic gods & their scriptures tend to be brimming with such contradictory characteristics and because of this a relatively rational atheist who lacks belief may safely say that he does not accept the existence of (does not believe in current claims for) a given god without forcing his or her worldview to become a belief, the rejection is made on purely rational grounds. If one were to say to someone who claimed to be able to fly and following repeated (rejected as one might expect) demands for a demonstration that he did not believe that he was able to fly then that statement would be the product of reason and not of faith. It is the same when an intelligent and rational atheist does the same with regard to claims in support of a god or gods. If this kind of theist argument were taken to its logical conclusion then all possible argument on all topics is inherently untenable. If the only counter to someone arguing that there is life on Saturn is someone else shouting that there can be no life on Saturn then what does one call a person who would state that there is no evidence either for or against life on Saturn but that the proposition is an interesting one? An atheist (using the Saturn analogy) is someone who has stated that there is no evidence for life on Saturn and that therefore it is up to the believer in Saturnine biology to provide some, otherwise the debate cannot begin. It is interesting that a number of extra-terrestrial life theorists often use creationist-style arguments to support their views, particularly credulity. After carrying out some meaningless calculation to work out how many planets are likely to exist and suggesting that that makes the likelihood of life on some of them overwhelming, anyone questioning their assumptions is immediately branded arrogant for thinking that we are in some way 'special'. Ultimately a calculation of probability alone is insufficient evidence to make such a claim & observable evidence is required. Of course, this reasoning can also apply to interfaith issues. A Christian does not believe in Allah or Yahweh, a Muslim does not believe in Jehovah or Yahweh and a Jew does not believe in Allah or Jehovah any more than any modern thinking man might accept the literal existence of Zeus or Odin. Of course, the more reasonable believer of any of these religions might consider all of these claimed gods to be one and the same. So, is atheism a faith or not? Religion tends to be characterised by a number of features or necessities, which are summarised in the following table:
The Characteristics Of Religion
|Belief in a Non-Demonstrable Deity or Deities||Yes||No|
|The Necessity of Prayer/Worship/Ceremony||Yes||No|
|Places of Worship||Yes||No|
|Holy Books & Scriptures||Yes||No|
|Religious Authorities (Priests, Rabbi etc.)||Yes||No|
|Supernatural Beliefs (e.g. Angels, Demons)||Yes||No|
|Acceptance Of The Miraculous||Yes||No|
|Belief in an Afterlife (e.g. Heaven or Hell)||Yes||No|
|Holy Wars (Crusades, Jihad's etc.)||Yes||No|
|Post Life Reward & Punishment (Heaven/Hell)||Yes||No|
|Lifestyle restrictions (dress, diet, marriage etc.)||Yes||No|
|Belief Without Evidence (faith as a virtue)||Yes||No|
|Belief In Spite Of The Evidence (anti-science)||Yes||No|
|Supernatural Origins (of life, the universe)||Yes||No|
|Fundamentalism (extremists, murder, dark ages)||Yes||No|
|The Need to Convert (doorstep preachers etc.)||Yes||No|
|Eternal Soul (life/forgiveness after death)||Yes||No|
|View Others as Sinful, Unclean or Heretical||Yes||No|
|(Usual Sole) Claim to being God's Chosen||Yes||No|
|Comfort Factor (that others go to better place)||Yes||No|
ConclusionFrom the above, it is easy to see that atheism is not a religious position and is, in fact, a denial of the claims made by religions. Even "agnosticism" is covered by the term "atheist" because as an "agnostic" one is not accepting the dogmatic statement that a god or gods exist. Indeed many commonly use the term "agnostic" as equating to "weak atheist" and, as a consequence, infer that the commonly used term "atheist" equates to "strong atheist". Atheism is not a religion, it is, quite simply, a denial of the claimed existence of deity and that those who refer to atheism as a religion (as creationists and literalists often do) are either unaware of exactly what an atheist is or too blinded by their own religious & bigoted views to define it objectively or correctly.
- "The Religion of Atheism" Adrian Barnett
- "The Language Centre" Miriam-Webster Online
- "Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus" Collins
- "Encarta Online Concise" MSN
- "What is Atheism Really All About?" Richard Carrier, 1996