View Full Version : Atheism: The Basics

Sunday, February 15th, 2004, 08:55 PM

Strong Atheism (also called Explicit Atheism, Positive Atheism) is the belief that gods do not exist. What does this mean? It is a belief about reality. More precisely, the belief that no gods exist in reality (a concept without existence).

Such a position is held by a small minority of atheists (and does not represent weak-atheism, which is disbelief in gods, or agnostic atheism, which is arbitrary disbelief), and is mostly considered to be arrogant and unproven. But perhaps this criticism is correct : how can such a radical position be argued ?

First of all, we must define what a god is. What definition shall we take ? Let us define

god = 1. a being 2. creator of the universe 3. possessor of omnis. This might be said to be a restrictive definition, but it is the one commonly used. As such I take it to be correct. Since it is a purely Western view (although I disagree with other instances), it might be understood to be a "narrow" version of atheism (1). Clearly this topic is beyond the scope of this text, but it can be demonstrated to be otherwise.

The concept of god is therefore a floating abstraction, whose definition is taken from stolen concepts. Those stolen concepts are : Existence, Consciousness, Identity, Life, and others. This is derived from the following 5 contradictions, and 4 minor contradictions, which constitute the rest of this text. Two contradictions are presented as formal arguments (2).

Since this is not a full-blown discourse, on the footnotes I refer to two books : "Atheism : The Case Against God" by George Smith, which is a good introduction to the subject, and "Atheism : A Philosophical Justification" by Michael Martin, which is an extensive philosophical book on negative and positive atheism. More detailed explanations of key concepts can be found on the pages or chapters listed.

Contradiction #1

There is no life or consciousness outside of body.

Consciousness is the quality of being aware of something. This awareness comes through sensation, thought, emotion and voilition.

Life is the quality that distinguishes a vital and fuctioning body from a dead body. This distinction is shown by an organismic state characterized by a capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.

Those two properties are in direct contradiction with an infinite (and therefore supernatural and immaterial) being.

One could refute this by saying that I cannot know whenever these definitions will always hold, and as such cannot know whenever immateriality really can be alive and conscious or not, thus that I am begging the question.

The answer to this is twofold. First, this objection does not take into account that words have precise meanings, derived from our own perception of entities. These meanings are present and actual. No one speaks using potential meaning of words, in a hypothetical future or that have been used in the past. Such an objection also posits that the objector is himself omniscient. In effect, what he is saying is that he, in his omniscience, knows that the possibility exists that one day these words will be redefined in such a way.

Secondly, it is telling that this objection posits that such concepts as life and consciousness could be applied to something which nature not only cannot be defined, but will never be defined (see minor contradiction #1). Properties which are applied to unmeaningful objects, or in an illogical way, are not meaningful (3).

Contradiction #2

There are no infinite beings.

This can be formulated as follows:

1. Existants have an identity.

2. The identity of an infinite being is infinite, unlimited.

3. An identity, to exist, must be defined.

4. Anything that is defined, is limited.

5. From 3 and 4, we deduce that an identity must be limited.

6. From 2 and 5, we deduce that an infinite being cannot have an identity.

7. From 1 and 6, we deduce that there cannot be any infinite being.

A rebuttal could be made on intuitive grounds. A mathematical set can be used. For example, consider a set S of all rational numbers between 0 and 1. The identity of S is, as we have seen, defined. But it is unlimited in number. Therefore premise 4 is false.

The answer to this objection is also twofold. First, S is in fact limited (it has boundaries). But then, let us imagine the set T of all rational numbers. The set T does not have boundaries. But what about its identity then ? This is in fact the second part of the answer. The set T is indeed infinite in number and unbounded, but not unlimited, for it is limited by non-rational numbers. And we find that its identity is defined (set of all rational numbers).

Hence to the question, can something defined be unlimited ? we must answer "no", because being unlimited implies that the object has no limitations, hence nothing to distinguish it from other objects, and to define it. The only way to disprove this would be to show a being who has an unlimited and defined essence, which is impossible unless you posit the existence of a god. Thus premise 4 stands to scrutiny.

Contradiction #3

Divine creation is impossible.

The most concrete of the 5 contradictions, it can be shown as follows :

1. Divine creation entails a god taking an empty state of the universe, and causing all matter to exist, thus making another state of the universe where there is matter.

2. Without matter, there is no causality.

2b. The absence of causality is equal to the absence of time (by definition).

3. From 1 and 2, we can deduce that an empty state of the universe would entail absence of causality.

4. From 1 and 3, we can deduce that divine creation is impossible.

A rebuttal could be made againt proposition 1, by arguing that it might be possible that the god would have created the universe without any prior empty state. But then this would alter the use of the word "creation" which implies an earlier state. Otherwise the god would have been created with the universe, thus not making him the creator.

Another rebuttal that might be put forward would be that, at least in the christian tradition, a god is supposedly "outside of time", whatever such a thing means. Even if such a concept is basically meaningless (because of premise 2b), let's analyze if it untangles the contradiction. If we understand being "outside of time" as being able to act at any point in time as one desires, we could say that a god could act at the beginning of time, implying that there was no empty state. But here lies the problem : even if a god is supernatural, if it is to act in the material "realm", it must act according to its laws. Thus time would still enter into play.

It would be no use to a supernatural being to be outside of time, if there is no time at all. What would it then be outside of ? This also brings another problem : if a god is outside of time, then it is also outside of change.
Confirming this deduction, we have good scientific reasons to believe that the universe has always existed, and that a god is not necessary for the process.

Contradiction #4

A god cannot be omniscient or omnipotent.

This argument has been well expanded elsewhere (4), so I will merely resume it here.

A god is omniscient and omnipotent, but is also immaterial. This conflicts because it then cannot have many kinds of physical and moral knowledge. Indeed an omniscient god should have physical knowledge but being immaterial, it cannot. A god should have moral knowledge, but being omnipotent, it cannot.

A rebuttal could be made along the lines that a god is omniscient within its own limits, i.e. that it can only have knowledge that it can possibly have.

But this is unacceptable, in the sense that then any being who know everything that it can know can be called omniscient in that sense. Such a meaning reduces omniscience to a triviality : indeed even humans, or lesser beings, could theoretically be omniscient in this case.

Here there is an enlightening example that can be made. Imagine a being called McNose. McNose can only logically know how to scratch its nose and can only have knowledge relative to nose itching and scratching. If McNose has all the knowledge relative to these actions and sensations, he could then be called omniscient, despite the fact that its total knowledge is indeed quite small compared to a normal human being.

Another flaw in this reasoning is that this does not set aside the major problem with a god's omniscience : that it cannot logically know some things that humans can logically know. Even if it is omniscient in the sense described, the paradox would still stand.

Contradiction #5

Abstract objects, by definition, have no causal properties.

There are two types of concepts : material objects and abstract objects (5).

From the Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy :

material objects - "an object that causally interacts or inter-relates with other independently existing things."

abstract object - "an object that is not a material object"

An abstract object is an object that does not causally interact with other indepedently existing things.

A god, to exist, must be either a material object or an abstract object. But a god is clearly not material because it is supernatural. It therefore has to be abstract. If it is abstract, it has no causal properties. Hence it could not cause anything, let alone the entire universe. Thus divine causation, creation and omnipotence is impossible.

The concept of gods also implies other contradictions. Note that these following arguments are not proof of strong atheism but other contradictions that makes the concept of a god irrelevant or paradoxal (and could possibly be reconfigured as to make a proof). If they are correct, then we are justified to ignore the concept of god as irrelevant.

Minor Contradiction #1

god essence cannot be positively defined.

Indeed the nature of a god, its essence, has never been defined. This is shown by the use of positive and negative theology. It also seems that a god could never be thus defined, since it is by definition unobservable in a direct or indirect manner. Thus the concept of god is basically meaningless, as we do not know anything about its nature (6).

Minor Contradiction #2

gods cannot be proven in any rational way.

This inductive argument is built on the proposition that all theist arguments have been refuted so far. Since a rational proof of the existence of gods cannot be built, we can deduce that probably no such proof will ever be proposed. Indeed we have reasons to think that the best arguments for the existence of gods ever proposed were those from the past, and not present time. In the words of Michael Martin:
"I think the arguments that are hardest to meet, are the traditional arguments, and I am talking in particular about the argument from first cause - cosmological argument - and the argument from design, I think the oldies are still the goodies." (7)We then have reason to believe that gods will never be proven in any rational way. Thus our analysis in favour of strong-atheism should remain valid.

Minor Contradiction #3

Occam's Razor: gods are neither a valid or needed explanation for anything

The Occam's Razor is a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily, which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex, or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of unknown quantities.

Here we are presented with two competing theories, theism and atheism, which are mutually exclusive. Even if we exclude the argumentation presented in this text, we must still reject the concept of god because 1. It is more complex then natural processes (unknowable) and 2. It does not explain anything more then atheism can. Thus the existence of gods can be considered irrelevant.

Minor Contradiction #4

Science presupposes the uniformity of nature.

This argument involves the concept of miracles. If we are to pretend that gods intervene in our universe today, we have to rely on miracles. But miracles deny the uniformity of nature. Thus the concept of god has to be chosen at the detriment of science (8). Indeed, it has been conclusively shown that faith is the antithesis of science (9).

Many inductive arguments can also be made against the existence of gods, but since induction does not lead to certainty but probability, they are not relevant to strong-atheism. More arguments could also be made on the basis of the omnis taken together, but here is only analyzed omniscience, omnipotence and the infinity that results from the posession of omnis (10).

All comments are welcome, feel free to email me at mdipres@videotron.ca
Points of dissention or omitted arguments are also welcome.

(1) For more information on narrow and broad atheism, see Atheism : A Philosophical Justification (Michael Martin), p 464-465.

(2) All definitions taken from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

(3) Identity, the last axiom not covered, could be used in a variant of contradiction #2 (but for clarification we used the Thomist notion of essence). Thus we find that the concept of god denies all three axioms of thought.

(4) For a detailed explanation of this argument, see A:APJ p287-297.

(5) Some philosophers argue for a third realm of "souls" in which they include gods. Unfortunately this can only be achieved by circular reasoning, since we know of no other objects belonging to this category and cannot prove that any object could theoretically belong to said category.

(6) For details on this whole argument, please consult Atheism : The Case Against God (George Smith), p51-60.

(7) "An interview with Prof. Martin", http://atheism.org.il/inter.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fatheism. org.il%2Finter.html)

(8) The TANG (Transcendental Argument for the Non-existence of God) presents such an argument. It it applied to Christianity but can be taken also in a general theistic concept (divine intervention). See the TANG on paragraph 4, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/martin-frame/tang.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.infi dels.org%2Flibrary%2Fmodern%2Fmichael_ma rtin%2Fmartin-frame%2Ftang.html)

(9) See A:TGAG, chapter 4-7, for a complete refutation of faith as epistemiological device.

(10) See A:APJ, chapter 12,13,14.

Mac Seafraidh
Sunday, February 15th, 2004, 09:07 PM
I am an Atheist, but I do believe nature created people. A God has created nothing.

Sunday, February 15th, 2004, 09:13 PM
George Smith: How to Defend Atheism (1976)

[This speech was delivered before the Society of Separationists in 1976. It was transcribed from an audiocassette which had the title, "Atheism: The Case Against God." However, in order to avoid confusion (since Smith has published a book under that same title), I have retitled this speech as "How to Defend Atheism." -- jjl]

I'm especially pleased to be speaking before the Society of Separationists meeting because, as you may know, there are very few explicitly pro-atheist organizations left in the world, let alone in the United States. And of those that remain, S.O.S. is undoubtedly the largest and most active. And since I'm addressing an atheist organization, I shall be speaking to you for the most part as fellow atheists. I won't be attempting to convert anyone and I won't insult your intelligence by attacking Christianity or the Bible and so forth. Instead, I will be concerned with discussing basically what atheism is, why it's important, and how best to defend it successfully. And just in case there are a few religionists in the audience, I invite you to stay around and experience for an afternoon what it feels like to be part of an intellectual elite.

Now before discussing atheism directly, I want to make some preliminary comments that are quite important, because unless you understand my general philosophical approach, I don't think you'll understand my approach to atheism. If there's one major intellectual problem facing America today, I would say it's the credulity crisis. Or, to put it more bluntly, I would say that we're plagued with a blight of gullibility in America. It never ceases to amaze me how people are willing to accept the most absurd, moronic beliefs not only without supporting evidence, but often times in the face of conflicting evidence. It is sometimes said that religion is on the decline in America, but even if this is true we are not witnessing a corresponding decline of irrationalism. Irrationalism, by which I mean ignorant disregard or disrespect for reason, is still going strong. It changes its form from time to time, but nevertheless it's still with us. So, while we may say, that some traditional Western religions seem to be on the decline and have been for some time, irrationalism continues to rear its ugly head, whether it's in the form of occultism, Eastern mysticism, or in the form of Uri Geller, demonic possession movies, and even some psychological fad groups such as Este, which are closer to religious cults than to any legitimate psychology.

Now, what accounts for this resurgence of irrationalism in America? Well, there are undoubtedly many factors involved, but certainly one of the most significant is the inability or unwillingness on the part of many, many people to reason well. Most people do not know how to think critically beyond a very rudimentary level. America, for all of its stress on technology and science, continues to produce an abundant crop of intellectual vegetables who neither care about what is true nor even if they did, how to go about ascertaining what is true. So make no mistake about it: you are born with the capacity to reason, but you are not born with the skill to scare? To reason. Proper reasoning must be learned and practiced. Even with the proper guidance, it can take years for to ingrain proper reasoning habits, to the point where they become second-nature.

We are supposed to be an educated nature, but when is the last time you heard of a course on critical thinking being given at the grade-school level, for example? Did you ever wonder why, when children were being force-fed every subject from geography to social studies and other useless topics, that they are not given the opportunity to learn to think correctly? Well, this isn't too surprising if you think about it, because you cannot teach critical thinking without inevitably stepping on someone's toes. Can you imagine the reaction of many parents, if Johnny came home with the homework assignment to investigate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Of course, this wouldn't go over too well.

The basic point I wanted to make about atheism in regard to this is: atheism is important only when viewed in this larger context which I will call the "habit of reasonableness." Atheism is significant only if and when it results from this habit of reasonableness. The American child who grows up to be a Baptist simply because his parents were Baptist and he never thought critically about those beliefs is not necessarily any more irrational than the Soviet child who grows up to be an atheist simply because his parents were atheist and because the state tells him to be an atheist. The fact that the Soviet child in this particular case may have the correct position is irrelevant. So it's no so much what one believes, or the content, as it is why one believes as one does. So the issue of reasonableness pertains to the concern for truth, concern for the correct methodology of reasoning. And just because a person espouses atheism is no guarantee -- believe me -- that person is necessarily reasonable.

This is basically why I never crusade for atheism per se outside of a wider framework. Atheism is significant, to be sure. But it's significance derives entirely from the fact that it represents the application of reason to a particular field, specifically the area of religious belief. Atheism, unless it is ingrained within this greater philosophical defense of reason, is practically useless. When, however, it is the consequence of the habit of reasonableness, then atheism stands in opposition to the wave of supernaturalism and mysticism we are currently experiencing. In other words, irrationalism in any form it may occur.

Now what this means is that atheism will not get very far simply by attacking religious belief. Rather, we have to defend reason, first and foremost, and then criticize religion within that framework. If you understand that most people adopt religion for psychological rather than intellectual reasons, you will understand why I think direct, frontal assaults on religion rarely, rarely persuade anyone to atheism. If, as atheists have been pointing out for many years, religion is an emotional and psychological crutch, then you don't get a person to stand on his own two feet simply by kicking out the crutch, if for no other reason that the person will hold onto it for dear life. Rather, you must first convince the person that the crutch is unnecessary and even harmful. And then, you can convince him that he's able to get along much better off without the crutch. So you don't have to kick it out, at this point, he will simply throw it away himself.

So to demonstrate that there is no need for a religious crutch, we must first be concerned with demonstrating the crucial and significant role of reason in a person's life, philosophically, psychologically, practically, and every other way. Above all, there is one message we must communicate: one has nothing to fear and everything to gain, from the honest pursuit of truth. The desire for knowledge, for facts unvarnished by emotional prejudices and so forth, will always function for a man's long-range benefit. It can never be against your interest to know what the truth is.

This means that the atheist, to effectively communicate his message, must display reasonableness in all aspects and areas of his life. You cannot crusade for free and critical thinking in religion, and then display slavish conformity in other areas of your intellectual life, such as your political beliefs. Any defense of atheism from a person who compartmentalizes his beliefs in this fashion is only subjecting some of them to scrutiny and will reek of insincerity, and justly so. This atheist will rightly be accused of hypocrisy. He's willing to go only so far in critical examination of beliefs.

The reason I'm mentioning this is, besides my atheism which some people consider to be quite radical, I also hold political beliefs which by many standards are quite radical. I'm what's known as a libertarian. And I must admit that I am quite amazed when I am confronted by fellow atheists who seem despondent by my political beliefs, not because they disagree with them -- which is certainly their right -- but simply because I am politically a radical. And my point is here: if you're afraid of the term "radicalism" -- if the idea of being an intellectual radical frightens you -- then you're in the wrong business by being an atheist. Certainly atheism, in most people's eyes, is the most radical position you can hold.

So this is the first major point I wish to emphasize: that if you're going to have a significant impact on the religious community, I think it's necessary to put atheism within the broader perspective of reason. Let me elaborate on a little bit by what I mean by the "habit of reasonableness." There's a lot that could be said about this, but for obvious time limitations I'll simply give you an outline.

First of all, let me distinguish reasoning from thinking. Thinking I consider to be any type of mental, cognitive process. If you're daydreaming, remembering, any activity like this, you're said to be thinking. Reasoning, however, is a much more specific term. Reason pertains to a goal-directed mental process which attempts to acquire knowledge. Whenever you set your mind in action, with the intent of arriving at truth, distinguishing truth from falsehood, you are said to be engaged in a process of reasoning.

The interesting thing about reasoning is that it is really a kind of decision-making process. Reasoning is concerned with, "Should I accept X as true?", "Should I accept Y as true?", "Should I accept X as probable, possible, or pertinent?", and so on and so on. In other words, we have to make decisions in our intellectual life just as we have to make them in our everyday life. So what reasoning is concerned with -- the philosophical approach -- what we should be concerned with is establishing the proper criteria or standards of reasoning. To put it another way, you don't have a choice as to whether you're going to make intellectual decisions. You have to by your very nature. You have to accept some things as being true. You simply don't have any choice. You would die if you didn't.

The only choice you have here is, first of all, whether or not you're going to make your standards of knowledge explicit, whether you're going to be aware of what they are, as contrasted with simply accepting them as some sort of osmosis from a culture or whatever people tell you. And secondly, whether your standards of knowledge will be appropriate standards. And by that I mean, will they actually get you what you want, in this case, truth. Now, I'm going to suggest that of all the goods and virtues that man has, knowledge is the most important. Knowledge is a fundamental value for man because it stands at the root of all of his other values. We must know facts; we must know something about the world before we can determine anything about what is of value to you in the world. Thus, knowledge is indispensable to our very survival. And it's only through our reason, through our power of conceptual thought, that we can apply our knowledge.

Because we have arrived at certain standards of knowledge, like the laws of logic, the laws of evidence, and so forth; because they enable us to distinguish between true and false beliefs; and because their goal, knowledge, is the fundamental good of man, I'm going to suggest that what I call the "habit of reasonableness," by which I mean the ability to have ingrained in one self these standards of knowledge, to employ them habitually, to employ them almost as if they were second-nature, as if they were a character trait. I'm going to say that this habit of reasonableness is a primary virtue in human beings. Reasonableness I consider to be the primary intellectual virtue possible to man. And this leads to an interesting conclusion regarding atheism. If, as I have suggested, knowledge is a fundamental value for man, and if the habit of reasonableness is a primary virtue, and if atheism is a consequence of reasonableness, then it turns out that atheism is actually a consequence of being virtuous. Atheism is a consequence of a particular intellectual virtue. I'm saying this to counteract the prevalent, nonsense notion that atheists are immoral. Not only is this false, but quite the reverse is true. Atheism should proceed and often does proceed from reasonableness which actually signifies a virtue, a very important virtue. So you can take some pride in being an atheist if, in fact, it results from reasonableness.

The reasonable person, when examining religious claims, will be concerned only with the truth-value of those claims. One often hears that religion makes people feel better, happy, etc., but these are all side-issues. I'm not going to go into arguments against what I call "intellectual humanism," namely believing something just because it makes you feel good. I'm going to suggest that if you are concerned with reasonableness, then your foremost concern in any discipline, certainly religion, should be with the truth of religious claims. When the atheist is confronted with the claim that God exists, he's concerned first and foremost with the question, "Is that claim rationally justifiable?" As corollaries of that, he will be concerned with, "What is God?" How do we define that term? Is the definition intelligible? It's not. And secondly, even if we can make some sense out of the concept of God, is there any evidence or supporting arguments in support of the existence of a god? Again, there are not. The atheist, proceeding from the habit of reasonableness, will ultimately reject the claims of religion and the claims of theism as false. And therefore he will reject the belief in God as being unreasonable.

Going back to a point I made earlier, you often also hear it said that this is irrelevant to most religious people. Religious people don't believe for intellectual reasons. If you talk on an intellectual level to religious people it won't hit home with them, because it's not personal enough for them. To this I can only say, yes, it's unfortunately true that many religious people are not concerned with the issue of truth and falsehood. My point here is that that's their problem, not mine. And it's not your problem. And if they persist in their irrationalism, then they can and they often do convince themselves of almost anything. Let me remind you that standards of knowledge are our only means of selective discrimination in our beliefs. The standards of meaning, evidence, argument, and so forth are the sift (??) by which we discriminate those beliefs that are worthy of acceptance from those that are not. If you abandon these standards, if you consider them unimportant, then you will be at the mercy of any belief that happens to come your way. You will have no standards by which to distinguish this a is a good belief or whether it's not. Very likely, you will be at the mercy of one intellectual fad after another. This is quite common nowadays. You see people going from one cult of Easter mysticism to a cult of psychology and back and forth in quasi-religious cults. This is the logical consequence when reason is abandoned. There is no longer a grounding-point or a means of discriminating between beliefs. A person who is irrational by choice is at the mercy of his feelings at a particular time. I think it will come as no surprise to anyone if I point out to you that most Christians, if they were raised in a Moslem culture, would be Moslems, not Christians. Most Moslems, if they were raised in a Christian culture, would be Christians, not Moslems. And because atheism, at least in American culture, represents an unorthodox position, this accounts for why by and large atheists are independent thinkers. To become an atheist in this culture you have to have at least enough independence to question the prevailing wisdom concerning religion, because you are inundated with this in school, by your parents, by your culture, and certainly by the mass media.

Now there a few side issues I want to point out before I get into an actual definition of atheism because I think these are quite important. These are more practical issues than philosophical ones. I'm sure that if you have tried to argue atheism, you have encountered certain practical problems in communicating your beliefs.

The first thing I want to point out is rather depressing to some people. Since reasonableness is a habit to be learned, not everyone is capable of conducting a good argument. For that matter, not everyone is capable of arguing in an intelligible sense at all. Argument is also a skill that has to be learned and practiced. What this means is that, for the most part, you are probably wasting your time if you argue with many religionists, for the simple reason that many of these religionists are incapable of arguing well. It's almost like you have to educate some Christians before you can persuade them to atheism. You have to first convince them that they should be concerned with what's true and what's not. They should be able to distinguish between rational and irrational argument. And so on and so on. And then two months later, you might be able to say to this person that if they carry this out, it will lead them to atheism. But unless you have a lot of personal interest in this person, unless they are personally significant to you, you will probably not want to waste a lot of your time educating or re-educating this person to the principles of reason. What do you do? Some people just give up on the person. Some people, you have to. Some people you might refer to books. This is where books play a crucial role in education, that if a person sits down with a book he is able to gleam a lot of information that you are not able to communicate in a short period of time.

This leads me to a second area of practical advice: take religionists at their word. If they say they are not interested in reason or truth, then cease the conversation possibly, making the remark, that it is impossible to communicate with someone who, by his own admission, is not concerned with rationality. In other words, if you understand the importance of reasonableness and what it signifies, you will understand that you must back up your conviction in practice. You must make it clear to your adversary that you are not willing to waste your time and energy with him if he is not even willing to concede the fundamental principles of reason. It's like you are talking in two different languages with no means of translation. All you are doing in situations like this is giving yourself a headache. I think it's important to make religionists totally aware of the consequences of their irrationalism. It will irritate religionists to no end if you simply refuse to speak to them after a certain point because they undoubtedly wish to convert you. But if you make it clear that you are unwilling to discuss the issue until he is willing to concede the basic fundamental principles of reasoning, then I think you will impress upon him in a very practical sense how important you take reason to be. What happens when you don't do this is that you suffer from his irrationalism. You end up with a headache or frustration because he refuses to be rational.

With these preliminary comments, let me proceed into the meat of the subject matter which is, of course, atheism. There's a lot that can be said about this. I've written an entire book about this subject and there are a number of other books available. So I don't want to repeat a lot of material that you can get simply by reading books on this subject. I do want to sketch in briefly what atheism is. I then want to move over to some issues which I had not covered that thoroughly in some of my writing.

First of all, before we can understand atheism, we have to understand what theism means because obviously a-theism is a derivative of the term theism. Well, theism is simply the belief in a god or in any number of gods. If, to the question, "do you believe in the existence of a god or gods?", you answer "yes," you are philosophically a theist. But the raises the additional problem, what is a god? Much ink has been spilled over this question, but for our purposes this afternoon by "god" I mean any kind of supernatural or transcendent being. Any kind of being, in other words, who in some way transcends or is exempt from the natural laws of the universe, whether it's a creator god, the god of Deism, the god of pantheism, etc. Whatever it might be, if this being has the ability to, in some way, circumvent the laws of nature, then this being would properly be designated as supernatural -- in other words above natural law -- and would then qualify as a god. This would mean, for all practical purposes, that if you believe in the existence of ghosts or magical elves -- if these creatures had supernatural powers -- then they would be gods.

If theism is the belief in some kind of supernatural being, what is atheism? Again, there is a lot of controversy over this. I've given one entire talk over what the definition of atheism should be; here I will simply state the conclusion. Atheism, properly considered, is simply the absence or lack of theistic belief. In other words, to the question, "Do you believe in God?", you answer, "No," for whatever reason, you are an atheist. You will often hear it said that an atheist actually denies the existence of a god or gods. This is true; many atheists do but not all. This kind of overt denial of the existence of a god or gods is a sub-category of a broader kind of approach which should in a general sense be known as atheism. This gets quite complex to go into all of the reasons why some atheists would not wish to deny that any gods exist. Just take my word for it that historically and philosophically it's very justifiable to say that the best, most generic definition for the term atheism is simply the absence or lack of belief in a god.

There's one overriding principle that is operative here if you understand this definition of atheism. It is what is known as the burden of proof or the onus of proof. What this principle states is that the onus of proof is on the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If I say to you, X is true, I am intellectually responsible for providing some kind of reasons for accepting it. If I do not provide you any reasons or I provide reasons that are invalid, you are legitimately justified in rejecting my claim to knowledge as unfounded and hence irrational. This is probably the single most important principle in regard to the defense of atheism. The theist asserts an affirmative proposition; he asserts that a god or gods exist. The burden of proof falls entirely upon the theist to prove or demonstrate the reasonableness of that claim. It is not up to me or to you as an atheist to demonstrate that a god does not exist. It is up to us to say to the religionist, "You have made an assertion. It is your responsibility to demonstrate the truth of that assertion. If your claims hold up, then you are rational. If your claims do not hold up and you continue to believe as you do, then you are irrational." That is the most central, fundamental point in regard to atheism. You do not have the burden of proof as atheists; the religionist does. You are not asserting the truth or existence of anything; you are challenging the theists' claim to truth. Your only responsibility in this regard is to examine critically the views of religionists, subject them to rational scrutiny, and either accept them or reject them on that basis. That is your sole responsibility. You have done your job after that.

I should mention briefly the problem that sometimes comes up. Isn't it true that some atheists do deny the existence of a god? Yes, it's true. I would, for example, not only say I don't believe in the Christian god, but that such a being does not exist. Again, this would get us into some philosophical points that I can't go into here, but basically the reason for this is that if you examine a concept and it turns out that it is inherently self-contradictory, in the same way that a "square circle" is self-contradictory, then I may reasonably say that such a being cannot possibly exist. And this is indeed the case with the Christian god. It is internally muddled and self-contradictory. I think it's interesting that if you come across a Christian who says to you, "Well you can't say that God doesn't exist!", you might ask the Christian an interesting question: "Do you believe in the god of Zoroastrianism? Do you believe in Allah? Do you believe in Zeus?" There are literally hundreds of gods that the Christian himself does not believe in. The Christian himself would say that these gods do not exist. Well how does the Christian know that? If he is so hot to trot to say that we cannot know that a god does not exist, then how can he say that Zeus does not exist? Well, of course, the Christian is liable to say in response, "Well that's ridiculous! Everyone knows that Zeus doesn't exist. It's a mythical idea." He'll go on at some length and give some very good arguments which, if applied to his own beliefs, would demolish them entirely. Monotheists, the people who believe in one god, are very close to being atheists. They are only one step removed from atheism. They're just a hairline away from being an atheist. All I have to do is get rid of that one last god and he's made it over the line. This is a rather novel way of looking at monotheism but I think it's justified. All you have to do is ask the Christian to apply his own standards by which he rejects the hundreds of gods that have been offered throughout mankind's history, and apply them to his own beliefs, and they will demolish that belief as well.

I want also to mention briefly a term which is very important in the history of atheism. This is the term "freethought." I won't spend a lot of time on this, either, but it does bear mentioning because "freethought" is a term that has been used quite widely historically. What is the significance of "free" in "freethought"? In a sense, all of your beliefs are free. Nobody can force you to believe something you don't wish to believe. Well the significance of "free" in "freethought" is morally free. The freethinkers historically were reacting to the doctrine that you are morally obligated to accept a certain set of beliefs -- a dogma -- as true, that you are in some sense immoral, for example, if you do not accept the tenets of Christianity. Along came the freethinkers and they said, "No! One ought to be morally free to investigate beliefs to the best of one's ability, without being morally obligated to accept any one set of beliefs n particular." This is the primary significance of freethought. It relates back to the point that I made earlier of the importance of the habit of reasonableness. One who is concerned with being reasonable will, of necessity, be a freethinker.

I want to get to get a little bit into the murky waters of the concept of God and just make a basic point as to why proofs for the existence of God invariably. In my book and in books written by other authors, such as Antony Flew, Chapman Cohen, Wallace Matson, and others, you will find quite detailed refutations of arguments for the existence of a god. The argument from a first cause, the various cosmological arguments, the argument from design, and so forth. I obviously cannot cover those here. But I do want to make reference to the basic problem involved in such "proofs." The basic problem is this: the concept of God -- the concept of the Christian god in particular -- once you strip away all of the verbiage that surrounds it, the concept of God always turns out to be some kind of unknowable being. Now notice I didn't say, "unknown," I said, "unknowable." This is the basic and central belief of theism. The belief in some kind of unknowable creature. By "unknowable," I mean a creature which by it's very nature can never known by man. We don't just mean some thing we don't presently have knowledge of. There are lots of things we don't have knowledge of. We're talking about something in principle that cannot be known. There seems to be an obvious problem with attempting to prove, much less even talk about, a being which by the theists' own admission is unknowable. How can you talk about, conceptualize, or demonstrate, the existence of such a thing? It is, in principle, impossible. This, basically, is why all of the alleged proofs must ultimately fail. There is one passage from the famous eighteenth century materialist and atheist Baron D'Holbach that is quite good in this regard. After noting that theology has "for its object only incomprehensible things," D'Holbach argues that "it is a continual insult to human reason." He continues as follows:
No religious system can be founded otherwise than upon the nature of God and of man and upon the relations they bear to each other. But in order to judge of the reality of these relations, we must have some idea of the divine nature. But everybody tells us that the essence of God is incomprehensible to man. At the same time, they do not hesitate to assign attributes to this incomprehensible god and assure us that man cannot dispense with the knowledge of this god, so impossible to conceive of. The most important thing for man is that which is the most impossible for him to comprehend. If God is incomprehensible to man, it would seem rational never to think of him at all. But religion concludes that man is criminal if he ceases for a moment to revere Him.D'Holbach concludes, quite well I may add, that "religion is the art of occupying limited minds with that which it is impossible to conceive or to comprehend." You simply cannot intelligibly discuss, much less prove, the existence of an unknowable creature. It's philosophical nonsense. The concept itself is meaningless.

Of the many "proofs" that have been offered, probably the most popular on a layman level is what is known as the argument from religious experience.

I have not talked about this or written about this previously, so I want to spend a few minutes on this because this is the argument you'll most frequently encounter. And it confuses some people, with justification because it's a confusing argument. By the argument from religious experience, I mean some variation on a theme such as, "I know God exists because I've had some sort of personal experience", to put it in fundamentalist terms, "Jesus has come into my heart," and so on. To put it in Eastern mysticism terms, "I've had some sort of experience with the Oneness of the universe." Whatever the terms might be, this is the basic idea: attempting to prove some philosophical point with reference to personal experience of some kind. This is the argument most commonly resorted by religionists or mystics.

The first problem with this argument is that it is not really an argument. An argument presumably has some sort of premises, follows a chain of reasoning, and has a conclusion. This "argument" is simply a bald assertion. It's not an argument at all. I might just as well say that there exists invisible fairies in this room because I've had personal experience with them. Or there's an invisible green elf sitting on my shoulder because I've had personal experience of it. In other words, once you resort to this balderdash you can "prove" or argue anything. This is the complete abandonment of any kind of rational criteria. To attempt to make a philosophical point about the existence of something simply by referring to some kind of internal experience, a feeling.

There have been a number of attempts to defend this kind of argument. One of them that you'll commonly hear is that this feeling is unique. The religionists or the mystic cannot communicate his experience to you because it's so unique it cannot be communicated. To this I would answer that every experience is unique. Every experience you have is unique. There is no one experience you have that is totally like any other experience you have. The point is you have a mind, you have the ability to conceptualize, and this is what conceptualization all about. Concepts enable us to ferret out the differences among our experiences and focus on the most common elements and communicate among ourselves. This is what concept-formation consists of; this is how we reason. The religionist's claim that he cannot communicate his experience because it is unique, if carried out consistently, would mean that we could not communicate at all because all of our experiences are unique. I think it would be more accurate to say that the religionist's experience is simply unintelligible. He doesn't understand what it is or why it occurred, so he makes up a reason that suits his purpose.

There's another kind of response that is sometimes made. This is the parallel that you'll often hear to the mystic, the person who claims to have had some sort of personal contact with a deity. It is in relation to ordinary man as a sighted man is in relation to a blinded man. I'm sure many of you must have heard this at one time or another. Not only do laymen use this argument, but sophisticated philosophers and theologians who should know better also resort to it. We're sometimes given the illustration that if a sighted person went among a race of blind persons and he tried to convince them of what the world was like, they would say he's irrational and deny that such things exist. Of course, the mystic wants to put himself in that same category. "I have a special intuitive faculty" or "I have a special hotline with God" and this enables him to have a special knowledge that mere mortals are not capable of having.

There are many, many problems with this so-called "argument;" I'll point out just a couple. First, it's true that there is a difference between sighted persons and blind persons, but this difference is attributed to some kind of difference in physical capacity. We can explain why -- physically - a sighted person is able to have sense perceptions whereas a blind person is not. There is nothing mysterious about it, whereas this is not at all the case with the mystic. The mystic is claiming some kind of intuitive or special physical capacity -- a new sense? If he is, let him provide us with some information about it so we can test it out. Second, the sighted person does not claim access to an inaccessible, supernatural realm. The sighted person is dealing with the same world as the blind person. He simply has an added sense ability that the blind person does not. I do not have to contradict the present knowledge of a blind person to explain what I see. He can test out independently, in his own way, the claims that I make. If I say to the blind person, "There is a wall immediately in front of you," he doesn't have to take my word for it. He can reach out and he can touch it, feel it, sense it, using the sense modalities that are open to him. This is another crucial point to keep in mind in regard to this argument. It's not that the blind person and the sighted person are dealing in two separate worlds; the blind person does have a means of checking out our verifying the claims of the sighted person. Unfortunately, again, we do not have this opportunity when it comes to the claim of the mystic. What types of verifiable procedures or tests can we bring to bear on the mystic's claim that he experiences some ineffable, supernatural realm. There is no way whatsoever because he not only claims to have a special sense, power, or ability, but that he claims to sense or know something that lies in another realm altogether. This is totally arbitrary, indefensible, and insupportable. There are a number of other things we could point out here as well, such as the fact that the blind man does not use different standards of knowledge than the sighted man does. They simply have different means of gathering evidence, whereas the mystic would require us to abandon many of the current standards of knowledge that we presently use. I'm sure you can imagine many other objections that might be made to this particular line.

Sometimes you hear it said that the mystic has undergone a lot of special training. He's gone through meditation or whatever it takes, and through this special training he has acquired this special ability to in some way perceive a supernatural being. That doesn't really mean anything except that you can go through years and still come up with a ridiculous conclusion, just as you can come up with that ridiculous conclusion in thirty seconds or a minute. And in fact I think you may understand that if you devote years of study to a discipline, after a while there arises a certain vested interest in the truth of that discipline. If I say I'm going to go out to the Himalayas and try to get in touch with the oneness of the universe, I go out there and I'm told I have to meditate for five years and go through certain practices in order to attain this, I think emotionally it would be very difficult after my five years are up to come back and say, "Well, it was a waste of time." There is involved here a certain emotional vested interest in hoping what you devoted all this time to has some merit to it. You run into this problem not only with mystics, but also professors of theology. Can you imagine going through a seminary, going through years of theological training, having your livelihood depend on it, only to say one day, "Well, I guess this is all just a waste of time. It's nonsense." It's very difficult to do that kind of thing and it takes an extraordinarily independent mind to be able to go against the grain of so much vested interest.

One last point I want to make about the religious experience argument. This is more practical, something you can use. One of the major problems with the claim to have religious experience is that there is no possibility of falsifying such a claim. In other words, if we are to believe the mystic, he wants us to undergo a kind of experiment. He wants us to subject ourselves to some kind of procedure and then we will see that his beliefs are correct. The way you will encounter this most often is when a fundamentalist comes up to you and says, "Look, if you will only get on your knees and pray to Jesus Christ to come into your hear, then you will see that what I'm saying is true. I can't communicate this to you unless you go through these procedures." Certainly you've all ran into that from time to time. Let's suppose this fundamentalist is of a philosophical bent and he wants to defend this argument here. He might say,
You claim to be reasonable. You claim to be open-minded. All I'm asking you to do is undergo an experiment. All you have to do is get down on your knees, look up at the sky, hold your hands, and ask Jesus to come into your heart. Now if you're really open-minded, wouldn't you be willing to do at least this little bit to check out my claim? Isn't that what open-mindedness consists of? I want to point out here an interesting thing that never comes up when the fundamentalist argues this way. The fundamentalist wants to set up an "experiment," as he would put it, but he doesn't want to take the risk that is inherent in any experiment. In other words, if there's a possibility of an experiment succeeding, then it must also be possible that it will fail. If there's a possibility of success, there must be a possibility of failure. There must be a risk involved in the experiment. The fundamentalist has a hypothesis: "Jesus is your personal savior or should be" or "God exists" or whatever. He wants to test this hypothesis so he tells you to accept Jesus. Here's what you say to the fundamentalist:
You have a hypothesis. You've set up an experiment. I am wagering the truth of my claims on this experiment, but you have to put up similar stakes. You have to wager the truth of your claims on the experiment. So if I get down on my knees and do what you say is necessary, if what happens is what you say will happen, then I will be convinced. If, however, I get down on my knees and it doesn't happen, that will falsify your hypothesis and you must give up your belief in God. This is very, very important to understand what I'm saying here. If that "experiment" is to be a legitimate experiment, there has to be risk on both sides. But the trick comes when you find the religionist is not willing to do that. Is he willing to take the corresponding risk of giving up his belief if you are not saved after you get down on your knees? Is he willing to do that? I would say that in 99.9% of the cases, "no." What would he say? "Maybe you weren't sincere" so he'll blame it on you. Or "maybe God didn't feel like saving you at the time" so he'll blame it on God. But never will he blame it on himself. Never will he blame it on his own ideas. The next time you're in this situation, instead of just dismissing it as absurd -- which it is -- you might ask this question of the Christian: "If you really want to the scientific spirit about this , I'll test this out. I'll do this. But if it fails, you have to give up your beliefs and become an atheist." That seems fair, but of course he won't do that. As a final reminder, I will suggest that if he says he will do it, get it in writing, or get it in front of a group of witnesses, because Christians are not known for their intellectual integrity on matters such as this. You may recall the passage by Paul that "I become all things to all men in order to save" which is a call to intellectual hypocrisy in the name of spreading Christianity.

You often hear many objections to atheism. There are so many I cannot cover all of them. One of the ones that I want to comment on is the claim that "If atheism is correct, then we're faced with a cold, indifferent universe, there's no purpose to our universe, we're insignificant specs on a whirling planet in a vast galaxy." Well, that's quite true. The universe doesn't give a damn about you. It doesn't give a damn about me. The point is you're supposed to give a damn about yourself because if you don't, no one will. Certainly the universe won't. And in that sense I suppose you are insignificant as far as the universe is concerned. If you died tomorrow, the universe is going to hold a funeral for you or stop in its tracks. The universe will continue on its merry way. It's not really correct to say you're insignificant because the idea of significance and insignificance makes no sense when you consider an inanimate cosmos. Significance is a term that only applies to some sort of conscious evaluation. But nonetheless, in a sense, you are not that significant as far as the totality of the universe is concerned. So far as the problem, "What purpose is there in man's life?", there is no purpose in man's life. There is a purpose hopefully in your own life but it is up to you to set it. Again, if you don't, no one will for you.

I think this is why religion is so devastating, not only philosophically but also from a psychological point of view. You sometimes hear it said, "What would we do without religion? What would we do without Christianity?" I don't understand what we do with religion or what we do with Christianity. I don't understand what religion is supposed to solve. What if I believe in Jesus? That's not going to make my life successful. Either I'm going to fail or succeed; I'm going to try or not; and simply believing in some sort of mythical deity will not change that. It's still up to me. It's still a personal matter. I don't understand what this great psychological, moral benefit that religion is supposed to be that religion has offered throughout the ages. Undoubtedly, it gives some people a sense of comfort. If comfort is foremost in your life, even at the expense of truth, then perhaps you will believe in God. But as I pointed out at the beginning, I think the foremost concern should be truth. Truth may be somewhat painful on some limited occasions, but in the long run I think it's clear that it will always work to your long-range interest. This is one benevolent, good effect of atheism. Atheism clears the air, as it were. It clears away the psychological, moral, and philosophical debris. It allows people to set out on their own to pursue rational goals, rational values, and so forth.

As one final argument or satire on an argument, you may have heard of Pascal's wager at some point. Blaise Pascal was the famous French mathematician, philosopher, and theologian. He came up with this argument which consequently became quite famous, which went something as follows. Reason can't prove or disprove the existence of God. Weigh the odds. If the atheist is correct, we're going to die, nothing will happen, and nothing is lost. But if the Christian is correct, the nonbelievers are going to believe in Hell for eternity. So it seems like the practical odds would lie with Christianity. We would wager on Christianity because the practical odds are so important. If you wager on Christianity and there is no god, you don't lose anything.

The first obvious problem with this is it completely shoves aside the whole issue of intellectual integrity, as if you can just do a complete turn-about in your beliefs willy-nilly without suffering any psychological damage, which simply isn't possible. It would require such a gross miscarriage of intellectual integrity to do this kind of thing that it's inconceivable that someone with Pascal's kind of mind would even offer it.

But I want to offer you a kind of counter-wager, called the "Smith's wager." Here are the premises of my wager:

1. The existence of a god, if we are to believe in it, can only be established through reason.
2. Applying the canons of correct reasoning to theistic belief, we must reach the conclusion that theism is unfounded and must be rejected by rational people.

Now comes the question, "But what if reason is wrong in this case?", which it sometimes is. We are fallible human beings. What if it turns out that there is a Christian god and He's up there and He's going to punish for eternity for disbelieving in Him. Here's where my wager comes in. Let's suppose you're an atheist. What are the possibilities? The first possibility is there is no god, you're right. In that case, you'll die, that'll be it, you've lost nothing, and you've lived a happy life with the correct position. Secondly, a god may exist but he may not be concerned with human affairs. He may be the god of traditional Deism. He may have started the universe going and left it to its traditional devices, in which case you will simply die, that is all there is to it, again, and you've lost nothing.

Let's suppose that God exists and He is concerned with human affairs -- He's a personal god -- but that He is a just god. He's concerned with justice. If you have a just god, he could not possibly punish an honest error of belief where there is no moral turpitude or no wrongdoing involved. If this god is a creator god and He gave us reason as the basic means of understanding our world, then He would take pride in the conscientious and scrupulous use of reason the part of His creatures, even if they committed errors from time to time, in the same way a benevolent father would take pride in the accomplishments of his son, even if the son committed errors from time to time. Therefore, if there exists a just god, we have absolutely nothing to fear from such a god. Such a god could not conceivably punish us for an honest error of belief.

Now we came to the last possibility. Suppose there exists an unjust god, specifically the god of Christianity, who doesn't give a damn about justice and who will burn us in Hell, regardless of whether we made honest mistakes or not. Such a god is necessarily unjust, for there is no more heinous injustice we could conceive of, than to punish a person for an honest error of belief, when he has tried to the best of his ability to ascertain the truth. The Christian thinks he's in a better position in case this kind of god exists. I wish to point out that he's not in any better position than we are because if you have an unjust god. The earmark of injustice is unprincipled behavior, behavior that's not predictable. If there's an unjust god and He really gets all this glee out of burning sinners and disbelievers, then what could give him more glee than to tell Christians they would be saved, only to turn around and burn them anyway, for the Hell of it, just because he enjoys it? If you've got an unjust god, what worst injustice could there be than that? It's not that far-fetched. If a god is willing to punish you simply for an honest error of belief, you can't believe He's going to keep his word when He tells you He won't punish you if you don't believe in Him because He's got to have a sadistic streak to begin with. Certainly He would get quite a bit of glee out of this behavior. Even if there exists this unjust god, then admittedly we live in a nightmarish universe, but we're in no worse position than the Christian is.

Again, if you're going to make the wager, you might as well wager on what your reason tells you, that atheism is correct, and go that route because you won't be able to do anything about an unjust god anyway, even if you accept Christianity. My wager says that you should in all cases wager on reason and accept the logical consequence, which in this case is atheism. If there's no god, you're correct; if there's an indifferent god, you won't suffer; if there's a just god, you have nothing to fear from the honest use of your reason; and if there's an unjust god, you have much to fear but so does the Christian.

We come back full-circle to our original point, that atheism must always be considered within the wider context of the respect for reason and the respect for truth. I think that, as atheists, when you try to communicate the atheistic message this is the central point you should hammer home again and again.

[George H. Smith is the author of the book Atheism: The Case Against God (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amaz on.com%2Fexec%2Fobidos%2FASIN%2F08797512 4X%2FinternetinfidelsA%2F) (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1980) and Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amaz on.com%2Fexec%2Fobidos%2FASIN%2F08797557 76%2FinternetinfidelsA%2F) (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1991). He has also been a frequent contributor to Reason and Libertarian Review.]

Friday, February 20th, 2004, 12:32 AM
An Introduction to Atheism

by mathew <meta@pobox.com>

This article attempts to provide a general introduction to atheism. Whilst I have tried to be as neutral as possible regarding contentious issues, you should always remember that this document represents only one viewpoint. I would encourage you to read widely and draw your own conclusions; some relevant books are listed in a companion document.

To provide a sense of cohesion and progression, I have presented this article as an imaginary conversation between an atheist and a theist. All the questions asked by the imaginary theist are questions which have been cropped up repeatedly on alt.atheism since that newsgroup was created. Some other frequently asked questions are answered in a companion document.

Please note that this article is arguably slanted towards answering questions posed from a Christian viewpoint. This is because the FAQ files reflect questions which have actually been asked, and it is predominantly Christians who proselytize on alt.atheism.

So when I talk of religion, I am talking primarily about religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which involve some sort of superhuman divine being. Much of the discussion will apply to other religions, but some of it may not.

"What is atheism?"

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the "weak atheist" position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as "strong atheism".

Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of 'god': Whether they are 'atheists' or not is a matter of debate. Since you're unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it's not a very important debate...

It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. "Weak atheism" is simple scepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. "Strong atheism" is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are "strong atheists". There is a qualitative difference in the "strong" and "weak" positions; it's not just a matter of degree.

Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

"But isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he doesn't exist?"

Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not. Which brings us to agnosticism.

"What is agnosticism then?"

The term 'agnosticism' was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an agnostic as someone who disclaimed both ("strong") atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not and cannot know for sure whether God exists.

Since that time, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those that do not believe that the question is intrinsically unknowable, but instead believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.

To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on the original definition be qualified as "strict agnosticism" and usage based on the second definition be qualified as "empirical agnosticism".

Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming that you can work out someone's philosophical point of view simply from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here as "weak atheism", and use the word "atheism" only when referring to "strong atheism".

Beware also that because the word "atheist" has so many shades of meaning, it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all you can say for sure is that atheists don't believe in God. For example, it certainly isn't the case that all atheists believe that science is the best way to find out about the universe.

"What about the term 'freethinker'? What does that mean?"

A freethinker is one who thinks freely -- one who is prepared to consider any possibility, and who determines which ideas are right or wrong by bringing reason to bear, according to a consistent set of rules such as the scientific method.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation have a "non-tract" on what it means to be a freethinker, at http://www.ffrf.org/nontracts/freethinker.html (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ffrf .org%2Fnontracts%2Ffreethinker.html)

"So what is the philosophical justification or basis for atheism?"

There are many philosophical justifications for atheism. To find out why a particular person chooses to be an atheist, it's best to ask her.

Many atheists feel that the idea of God as presented by the major religions is essentially self-contradictory, and that it is logically impossible that such a God could exist. Others are atheists through scepticism, because they see no evidence that God exists.

There are a number of books which lay out a philosophical justification for atheism, such as Martin's "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification" and Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God". A few such books are in the document listing "Atheist Media".

Of course, some people are atheists without having any particular logical argument to back up their atheism. For some, it is simply the most comfortable, common sense position to take.

"But isn't it impossible to prove the non-existence of something?"

There are many counter-examples to such a statement. For example, it is quite simple to prove that there does not exist a prime number larger than all other prime numbers. Of course, this deals with well-defined objects obeying well-defined rules. Whether Gods or universes are similarly well-defined is a matter for debate.

However, assuming for the moment that the existence of a God is not provably impossible, there are still subtle reasons for assuming the non-existence of God. If we assume that something does not exist, it is always possible to show that this assumption is invalid by finding a single counter-example.

If on the other hand we assume that something does exist, and if the thing in question is not provably impossible, showing that the assumption is invalid may require an exhaustive search of all possible places where such a thing might be found, to show that it isn't there. Such an exhaustive search is often impractical or impossible. There is no such problem with largest primes, because we can prove that they don't exist.

Therefore it is generally accepted that we must assume things do not exist unless we have evidence that they do. Even theists follow this rule most of the time; they don't believe in unicorns, even though they can't conclusively prove that no unicorns exist anywhere.

To assume that God exists is to make an assumption which probably cannot be tested. We cannot make an exhaustive search of everywhere God might be to prove that he doesn't exist anywhere. So the sceptical atheist assumes by default that God does not exist, since that is an assumption we can test.

Those who profess strong atheism usually do not claim that no sort of God exists; instead, they generally restrict their claims so as to cover varieties of God described by followers of various religions. So whilst it may be impossible to prove conclusively that no God exists, it may be possible to prove that (say) a God as described by a particular religious book does not exist. It may even be possible to prove that no God described by any present-day religion exists.

In practice, believing that no God described by any religion exists is very close to believing that no God exists. However, it is sufficiently different that counter-arguments based on the impossibility of disproving every kind of God are not really applicable.

"But what if God is essentially non-detectable?"

If God interacts with our universe in any way, the effects of his interaction must have some physical manifestation. Hence his interaction with our universe must be in principle detectable.

If God is essentially non-detectable, it must therefore be the case that he does not interact with our universe in any way. Many atheists would argue that if God does not interact with our universe at all, it is of no importance whether he exists or not.

If the Bible is to be believed, God was easily detectable by the Israelites. Surely he should still be detectable today? Why has the situation changed?

Note that I am not demanding that God interact in a scientifically verifiable, physical way. I might potentially receive some revelation, some direct experience of God. An experience like that would be incommunicable, and not subject to scientific verification -- but it would nevertheless be as compelling as any evidence can be.

But whether by direct revelation or by observation, it must surely be possible to perceive some effect caused by God's presence; otherwise, how can I distinguish him from all the other things that don't exist?

"God is unique. He is the supreme being, the creator of the universe. He must by definition exist."

Things do not exist merely because they have been defined to do so. We know a lot about the definition of Santa Claus -- what he looks like, what he does, where he lives, what his reindeer are called, and so on. But that still doesn't mean that Santa exists.

"Then what if I managed to logically prove that God exists?"

Firstly, before you begin your proof, you must come up with a clear and precise definition of exactly what you mean by "God". A logical proof requires a clear definition of that which you are trying to prove.

"But everyone knows what is meant by 'God'!"

Different religions have very different ideas of what 'God' is like; they even disagree about basic issues such as how many gods there are, whether they're male or female, and so on. An atheist's idea of what people mean by the word 'God' may be very different from your own views.

"OK, so if I define what I mean by 'God', and then logically prove he exists, will that be enough for you?"

Even after centuries of effort, nobody has come up with a watertight logical proof of the existence of God. In spite of this, however, people often feel that they can logically prove that God exists.

Unfortunately, reality is not decided by logic. Even if you could rigorously prove that God exists, it wouldn't actually get you very far. It could be that your logical rules do not always preserve truth -- that your system of logic is flawed. It could be that your premises are wrong. It could even be that reality is not logically consistent. In the end, the only way to find out what is really going on is to observe it. Logic can merely give you an idea where or how to look; and most logical arguments about God don't even perform that task.

Logic is a useful tool for analyzing data and inferring what is going on; but if logic and reality disagree, reality wins.

"Then it seems to me that nothing will ever convince you that God exists."

A clear definition of 'God', plus some objective and compelling supporting evidence, would be enough to convince many atheists.

The evidence must be objective, though; anecdotal evidence of other people's religious experiences isn't good enough. And strong, compelling evidence is required, because the existence of God is an extraordinary claim -- and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

"OK, you may think there's a philosophical justification for atheism, but isn't it still a religious belief?"

One of the most common pastimes in philosophical discussion is "the redefinition game". The cynical view of this game is as follows:

Person A begins by making a contentious statement. When person B points out that it can't be true, person A gradually re-defines the words he used in the statement until he arrives at something person B is prepared to accept. He then records the statement, along with the fact that person B has agreed to it, and continues. Eventually A uses the statement as an "agreed fact", but uses his original definitions of all the words in it rather than the obscure redefinitions originally needed to get B to agree to it. Rather than be seen to be apparently inconsistent, B will tend to play along.

The point of this digression is that the answer to the question "Isn't atheism a religious belief?" depends crucially upon what is meant by "religious". "Religion" is generally characterized by belief in a superhuman controlling power -- especially in some sort of God -- and by faith and worship.

(It's worth pointing out in passing that some varieties of Buddhism are not "religion" according to such a definition.)

Atheism is certainly not a belief in any sort of superhuman power, nor is it categorized by worship in any meaningful sense. Widening the definition of "religious" to encompass atheism tends to result in many other aspects of human behavior suddenly becoming classed as "religious" as well -- such as science, politics, and watching TV.

"OK, maybe it's not a religion in the strict sense of the word. But surely belief in atheism (or science) is still just an act of faith, like religion is?"

Firstly, it's not entirely clear that sceptical atheism is something one actually believes in.

Secondly, it is necessary to adopt a number of core beliefs or assumptions to make some sort of sense out of the sensory data we experience. Most atheists try to adopt as few core beliefs as possible; and even those are subject to questioning if experience throws them into doubt.

Science has a number of core assumptions. For example, it is generally assumed that the laws of physics are the same for all observers (or at least, all observers in inertial frames). These are the sort of core assumptions atheists make. If such basic ideas are called "acts of faith", then almost everything we know must be said to be based on acts of faith, and the term loses its meaning.

Faith is more often used to refer to complete, certain belief in something. According to such a definition, atheism and science are certainly not acts of faith. Of course, individual atheists or scientists can be as dogmatic as religious followers when claiming that something is "certain". This is not a general tendency, however; there are many atheists who would be reluctant to state with certainty that the universe exists.

Faith is also used to refer to belief without supporting evidence or proof. Sceptical atheism certainly doesn't fit that definition, as sceptical atheism has no beliefs. Strong atheism is closer, but still doesn't really match, as even the most dogmatic atheist will tend to refer to experimental data (or the lack of it) when asserting that God does not exist.

"If atheism is not religious, surely it's anti-religious?"

It is an unfortunate human tendency to label everyone as either "for" or "against", "friend" or "enemy". The truth is not so clear-cut.

Atheism is the position that runs logically counter to theism; in that sense, it can be said to be "anti-religion". However, when religious believers speak of atheists being "anti-religious" they usually mean that the atheists have some sort of antipathy or hatred towards theists.

This categorization of atheists as hostile towards religion is quite unfair. Atheist attitudes towards theists in fact cover a broad spectrum.

Most atheists take a "live and let live" attitude. Unless questioned, they will not usually mention their atheism, except perhaps to close friends. Of course, this may be in part because atheism is not "socially acceptable" in many countries.

A few atheists are quite anti-religious, and may even try to "convert" others when possible. Historically, such anti-religious atheists have made little impact on society outside the Eastern Bloc countries.

(To digress slightly: the Soviet Union was originally dedicated to separation of church and state, just like the USA. Soviet citizens were legally free to worship as they wished. The institution of "state atheism" came about when Stalin took control of the Soviet Union and tried to destroy the churches in order to gain complete power over the population.)

Some atheists are quite vocal about their beliefs, but only where they see religion encroaching on matters which are not its business -- for example, the government of the USA. Such individuals are usually concerned that church and state should remain separate.

"But if you don't allow religion to have a say in the running of the state, surely that's the same as state atheism?"

The principle of the separation of church and state is that the state shall not legislate concerning matters of religious belief. In particular, it means not only that the state cannot promote one religion at the expense of another, but also that it cannot promote any belief which is religious in nature.

Religions can still have a say in discussion of purely secular matters. For example, religious believers have historically been responsible for encouraging many political reforms. Even today, many organizations campaigning for an increase in spending on foreign aid are founded as religious campaigns. So long as they campaign concerning secular matters, and so long as they do not discriminate on religious grounds, most atheists are quite happy to see them have their say.

"What about prayer in schools? If there's no God, why do you care if people pray?"

Because people who do pray are voters and lawmakers, and tend to do things that those who don't pray can't just ignore. Also, Christian prayer in schools is intimidating to non-Christians, even if they are told that they need not join in. It is particularly bad if the prayer is led by a teacher, or otherwise officially endorsed.

The diversity of religious and non-religious belief means that it is impossible to formulate a meaningful prayer that will be acceptable to all those present at any public event.

This is one reason why the public school system in the USA is not permitted to endorse particular religious beliefs through official prayer time in schools. Children are, of course, quite free to pray as they wish in their free time; there is no question of trying to prevent prayer from happening in schools.

"You mentioned Christians who campaign for increased foreign aid. What about atheists? Why aren't there any atheist charities or hospitals? Don't atheists object to the religious charities?"

There are many charities without religious purpose that atheists can contribute to. Some atheists contribute to religious charities as well, for the sake of the practical good they do. Some atheists even do voluntary work for charities founded on a theistic basis.

Most atheists seem to feel that atheism isn't worth shouting about in connection with charity. To them, atheism is just a simple, obvious everyday matter, and so is charity. Many feel that it's somewhat cheap, not to say self-righteous, to use simple charity as an excuse to plug a particular set of religious beliefs.

To "weak" atheists, building a hospital to say "I do not believe in God" is a rather strange idea; it's rather like holding a party to say "Today is not my birthday". Why the fuss? Atheism is rarely evangelistic.

"You said atheism isn't anti-religious. But is it perhaps a backlash against one's upbringing, a way of rebelling?"

Perhaps it is, for some. But many people have parents who do not attempt to force any religious (or atheist) ideas upon them, and many of those people choose to call themselves atheists.

It's also doubtless the case that some religious people chose religion as a backlash against an atheist upbringing, as a way of being different. On the other hand, many people choose religion as a way of conforming to the expectations of others.

On the whole, we can't conclude much about whether atheism or religion are backlash or conformism; although in general, people have a tendency to go along with a group rather than act or think independently.

"How do atheists differ from religious people?"

They don't believe in God. That's all there is to it.

Atheists may listen to heavy metal -- backwards, even -- or they may prefer a Verdi Requiem, even if they know the words. They may wear Hawaiian shirts, they may dress all in black, they may even wear orange robes. (Many Buddhists lack a belief in any sort of God.) Some atheists even carry a copy of the Bible around -- for arguing against, of course!

Whoever you are, the chances are you have met several atheists without realizing it. Atheists are usually unexceptional in behavior and appearance.

"Unexceptional? But aren't atheists less moral than religious people?"

That depends. If you define morality as obedience to God, then of course atheists are less moral as they don't obey any God. But usually when one talks of morality, one talks of what is acceptable ("right") and unacceptable ("wrong") behavior within society.

Humans are social animals, and to be maximally successful they must co-operate with each other. This is a good enough reason to discourage most atheists from "anti-social" or "immoral" behavior, purely for the purposes of self-preservation.

Many atheists behave in a "moral" or "compassionate" way simply because they feel a natural tendency to empathize with other humans. So why do they care what happens to others? They don't know, they simply are that way.

Naturally, there are some people who behave "immorally" and try to use atheism to justify their actions. However, there are equally many people who behave "immorally" and then try to use religious beliefs to justify their actions. For example:

"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners... But for that very reason, I was shown mercy so that in me... Jesus Christ might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever."

The above quote is from a statement made to the court on February 17th 1992 by Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious cannibal serial killer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It seems that for every atheist mass-murderer, there is a religious mass-murderer. But what of more trivial morality?

A survey conducted by the Roper Organization found that behavior deteriorated after "born again" experiences. While only 4% of respondents said they had driven intoxicated before being "born again," 12% had done so after conversion. Similarly, 5% had used illegal drugs before conversion, 9% after. Two percent admitted to engaging in illicit sex before salvation; 5% after.

["Freethought Today", September 1991, p. 12.]

So it seems that at best, religion does not have a monopoly on moral behavior.

Of course, a great many people are converted to (and from) Christianity during adolescence and their early twenties. This is also the time at which people begin to drink and become sexually active. It could be that the above figures merely indicate that Christianity has no effect on moral behavior, or insufficient effect to result in an overall fall in immoral behavior.

"Is there such a thing as atheist morality?"

If you mean "Is there such a thing as morality for atheists?", then the answer is yes, as explained above. Many atheists have ideas about morality which are at least as strong as those held by religious people.

If you mean "Does atheism have a characteristic moral code?", then the answer is no. Atheism by itself does not imply anything much about how a person will behave. Most atheists follow many of the same "moral rules" as theists, but for different reasons. Atheists view morality as something created by humans, according to the way humans feel the world 'ought' to work, rather than seeing it as a set of rules decreed by a supernatural being.

"Then aren't atheists just theists who are denying God?"

A study by the Freedom From Religion Foundation found that over 90% of the atheists who responded became atheists because religion did not work for them. They had found that religious beliefs were fundamentally incompatible with what they observed around them.

Atheists are not unbelievers through ignorance or denial; they are unbelievers through choice. The vast majority of them have spent time studying one or more religions, sometimes in very great depth. They have made a careful and considered decision to reject religious beliefs.

This decision may, of course, be an inevitable consequence of that individual's personality. For a naturally sceptical person, the choice of atheism is often the only one that makes sense, and hence the only choice that person can honestly make.

The word "deny" can be used to mean "fail to accept the truth of". In that sense only, atheists deny the existence of God. They are not "in denial", wilfully ignoring evidence; nor do they necessarily positively assert the non-existence of God.

"But surely discussing God in this way is a tacit admission that he exists?"

Not at all. People talk about Santa Claus every Christmas; that doesn't mean he climbs down the chimney and leaves us all presents. Players of fantasy games discuss all kinds of strange creatures, from orcs and goblins to titans and minotaurs. They don't exist either.

"But don't atheists want to believe in God?"

Atheists live their lives as though there is nobody watching over them. Many of them have no desire to be watched over, no matter how good-natured the "Big Brother" figure might be.

Some atheists would like to be able to believe in God -- but so what? Should one believe things merely because one wants them to be true? The risks of such an approach should be obvious. Atheists often decide that wanting to believe something is not enough; there must be evidence for the belief.

"But of course atheists see no evidence for the existence of God -- they are unwilling in their souls to see!"

Many, if not most atheists were previously religious. As has been explained above, the vast majority have seriously considered the possibility that God exists. Many atheists have spent time in prayer trying to reach God.

Of course, it is true that some atheists lack an open mind; but assuming that all atheists are biased and insincere is offensive and closed-minded. Comments such as "Of course God is there, you just aren't looking properly" are likely to be viewed as patronizing.

Certainly, if you wish to engage in philosophical debate with atheists it is vital that you give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are being sincere if they say that they have searched for God. If you are not willing to believe that they are basically telling the truth, debate is futile.

"Isn't the whole of life completely pointless to an atheist?"

Many atheists live a purposeful life. They decide what they think gives meaning to life, and they pursue those goals. They try to make their lives count, not by wishing for eternal life, but by having an influence on other people who will live on. For example, an atheist may dedicate his life to political reform, in the hope of leaving his mark on history.

It is a natural human tendency to look for "meaning" or "purpose" in random events. However, it is by no means obvious that "life" is the sort of thing that has a "meaning".

To put it another way, not everything which looks like a question is actually a sensible thing to ask. Some atheists believe that asking "What is the meaning of life?" is as silly as asking "What is the meaning of a cup of coffee?". They believe that life has no purpose or meaning, it just is.

Also, if some sort of mystical external force is required to give one's existence a "meaning", surely that makes any hypothetical god's existence meaningless?

"So how do atheists find comfort in time of danger?"

There are many ways of obtaining comfort:

o Your family and friends
o Pets
o Food and drink
o Music, television, literature, arts and entertainment
o Sports or exercise
o Meditation
o Psychotherapy
o Drugs
o Work

That may sound like rather an empty and vulnerable way to face danger, but so what? Should individuals believe in things because they are comforting, or should they face reality no matter how harsh it might be?

In the end, it's a decision for the individual concerned. Most atheists are unable to believe something they would not otherwise believe merely because it makes them feel comfortable. They put truth before comfort, and consider that if searching for truth sometimes makes them feel unhappy, that's just hard luck. Often truth hurts.

"Don't atheists worry that they might suddenly be shown to be wrong?"

The short answer is "No, do you?"

Many atheists have been atheists for years. They have encountered many arguments and much supposed evidence for the existence of God, but they have found all of it to be invalid or inconclusive.

Thousands of years of religious belief haven't resulted in any good proof of the existence of God. Atheists therefore tend to feel that they are unlikely to be proved wrong in the immediate future, and they stop worrying about it.

"So why should theists question their beliefs? Don't the same arguments apply?"

No, because the beliefs being questioned are not similar. Weak atheism is the sceptical "default position" to take; it asserts nothing. Strong atheism is a negative belief. Theism is a very strong positive belief.

Atheists sometimes also argue that theists should question their beliefs because of the very real harm they can cause -- not just to the believers, but to everyone else.

"What sort of harm?"

Religion represents a huge financial and work burden on mankind. It's not just a matter of religious believers wasting their money on church buildings; think of all the time and effort spent building churches, praying, and so on. Imagine how that effort could be better spent.

Many theists believe in miracle healing. There have been plenty of instances of ill people being "healed" by a priest, ceasing to take the medicines prescribed to them by doctors, and dying as a result. Some theists have died because they have refused blood transfusions on religious grounds.

It is arguable that the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control -- and condoms in particular -- is increasing the problem of overpopulation in many third-world countries and contributing to the spread of AIDS world-wide.

Religious believers have been known to murder their children rather than allow their children to become atheists or marry someone of a different religion. Religious leaders have been known to justify murder on the grounds of blasphemy.

There have been many religious wars. Even if we accept the argument that religion was not the true cause of those wars, it was still used as an effective justification for them.

"Those weren't real believers. They just claimed to be believers as some sort of excuse."

This is rather like the No True Scotsman fallacy.

What makes a real believer? There are so many One True Religions it's hard to tell. Look at Christianity: there are many competing groups, all convinced that they are the only true Christians. Sometimes they even fight and kill each other. How is an atheist supposed to decide who's a real Christian and who isn't, when even the major Christian churches like the Catholic Church and the Church of England can't decide amongst themselves?

In the end, most atheists take a pragmatic view, and decide that anyone who calls himself a Christian, and uses Christian belief or dogma to justify his actions, should be considered a Christian. Maybe some of those Christians are just perverting Christian teaching for their own ends -- but surely if the Bible can be so readily used to support un-Christian acts it can't be much of a moral code? If the Bible is the word of God, why couldn't he have made it less easy to misinterpret? And how do you know that your beliefs aren't a perversion of what your God intended?

If there is no single unambiguous interpretation of the Bible, then why should an atheist take one interpretation over another just on your say-so? Sorry, but if someone claims that he believes in Jesus and that he murdered others because Jesus and the Bible told him to do so, we must call him a Christian.

"Obviously those extreme sorts of beliefs should be questioned. But since nobody has ever proved that God does not exist, it must be very unlikely that more basic religious beliefs, shared by all faiths, are nonsense."

The commonality of many basic religious beliefs is hardly surprising, if you take the view that religion is a product of society. From that viewpoint, religions have borrowed ideas which contribute to a stable society -- such as respect for authority figures, a prohibition against murder, and so on.

In addition, many common religious themes have been passed on to later religions. For example, it has been suggested that the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament actually have their roots in Hamurabi's code.

The claim that because something hasn't been proved false, it's less likely to be nonsense, does not hold. As was pointed out earlier in this dialogue, positive assertions concerning the existence of entities are inherently much harder to disprove than negative ones. Nobody has ever proved that unicorns don't exist, and there are many stories about them, but that doesn't make it unlikely that they are myths.

It is therefore much more valid to hold a negative assertion by default than it is to hold a positive assertion by default. Of course, "weak" atheists may argue that asserting nothing is better still.

"Well, if atheism's so great, why are there so many theists?"

Unfortunately, the popularity of a belief has little to do with how "correct" it is, or whether it "works"; consider how many people believe in astrology, graphology, and other pseudo-sciences.

Many atheists feel that it is simply a human weakness to want to believe in gods. Certainly in many primitive human societies, religion allows the people to deal with phenomena that they do not adequately understand.

Of course, there's more to religion than that. In the industrialized world, we find people believing in religious explanations of phenomena even when there are perfectly adequate natural explanations. Religion may have started as a means of attempting to explain the world, but nowadays it serves other purposes as well. For instance, for many people religion fulfils a social function, providing a sense of community and belonging.

"But so many cultures have developed religions. Surely that must say something?"

Not really. Most religions are only superficially similar; for example, it's worth remembering that religions such as Buddhism and Taoism lack any sort of concept of God in the Christian sense. In short, there is no consensus amongst religions as to what God actually is. Hence one of the problems you must face if you wish to discuss God with an atheist, is that of defining exactly what you mean by the word.

Also, most religions are quick to denounce competing religions, so it's rather odd to use one religion to try and justify another.

"What about all the famous scientists and philosophers who have concluded that God exists?"

Firstly, note that surveys typically find that around 40% of scientists believe in god; so believers are in the minority. (The most recent survey was by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, was carried out in 1996, and was reported in the journal "Nature".)

For every scientist or philosopher who believes in a god, there is one who does not. Besides, as has already been pointed out, the truth of a belief is not determined by how many people believe it. Also, it is important to realize that atheists do not view famous scientists or philosophers in the same way that theists view their religious leaders.

A famous scientist is only human; she may be an expert in some fields, but when she talks about other matters her words carry no special weight. Many respected scientists have made themselves look foolish by speaking on subjects which lie outside their fields of expertise.

Also, note that even famous scientists' views are treated with scepticism by the scientific community. Acknowledged experts in a particular field must still provide evidence for their theories; science relies on reproducible, independently confirmed results. New theories which are incompatible with a large body of existing scientific knowledge will be subject to especially close scrutiny; but if the work is sound and the experimental data reproducible, the new theories will displace the old.

For instance, both special relativity and quantum mechanics were highly controversial, and required that a lot of existing scientific theory be thrown out. Yet both were relatively quickly accepted after extensive experiments proved their correctness. Pseudo-scientific theories such as creationism are rejected not because they are controversial, but because they simply do not stand up to basic scientific scrutiny. (See the FAQs for talk.origins for further information; http://www.talkorigins.org/ (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.talk origins.org%2F)

The Constructing a Logical Argument document has more to say about scientific verification and proof by authority.

"So are you really saying that widespread belief in religion indicates nothing?"

Not entirely. It certainly indicates that the religion in question has properties which have helped it so spread so far.

The theory of memetics talks of "memes" -- sets of ideas which can propagate themselves between human minds, by analogy with genes. Some atheists view religions as sets of particularly successful parasitic memes, which spread by encouraging their hosts to convert others. Some memes avoid destruction by discouraging believers from questioning doctrine, or by using peer pressure to keep one-time believers from admitting that they were mistaken. Some religious memes even encourage their hosts to destroy hosts controlled by other memes.

Of course, in the memetic view there is no particular virtue associated with successful propagation of a meme. Religion is not a good thing because of the number of people who believe it, any more than a disease is a good thing because of the number of people who have caught it.

The memetic approach has little to say about the truth of the information in the memes, however.

"Even if religion is not entirely true, at least it puts across important messages. What are the fundamental messages of atheism?"

There are many important ideas atheists promote. The following are just a few of them; don't be surprised to see ideas which are also present in some religions.

There is more to moral behavior than mindlessly following rules.

o Be especially sceptical of positive claims.
o If you want your life to have some sort of meaning, it's up to you to find it.
o Search for what is true, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
o Make the most of your life, as it's probably the only one you'll have.
o It's no good relying on some external power to change you; you must change yourself.
o Just because something's popular doesn't mean it's good.
o If you must assume something, assume something easy to test.
o Don't believe things just because you want them to be true.

and finally (and most importantly):

o All beliefs should be open to question.

Thanks for taking the time to read this document.

Monday, April 19th, 2004, 05:50 PM
I will just say this. Let's say that the only true religion is christianism.Where do budists goes? Where protestants go to when they die? A budist doesn't sin... but still, he doesn't believe in god. What about ancient northmen. They went to Valhalla or Hell? Well, they went to the sea to be burned with arrows of fire...that's the answer. And we'll be cremated or go to under the ground. And if we accomplish something, it's because of action/reaction. No "thank God". Remember: the worlds is like a flat board with creatures like leviathans in its extremes, and past that, we will fall in a eternal abyss. Well, sad, but true...

Monday, September 18th, 2006, 04:23 PM
Why should that be sad? That is the Ritam (Hinduism), that is the Tao. Had our dose of fun and sorrow (now we cannot walk, cannot eat, cannot hear, cannot see, cannot ...), time to leave the field for others.

Old Fritz
Friday, November 24th, 2006, 02:55 AM
Mankind created "God" in his own image, not the other way around. This seems fairly obvious to me. The idea that a god or gods created us all and just sit back and watch how we all interact, like lab mice in a cage, punishing and rewarding us accordingly, is far too similar to the way we treat beings we consider lesser than us to be a coincidence.

My point is that the way we naturally behave toward things also happens to be the way God (or the gods, if one is partial to that) behave. In the Bible, Koran, Talmud, Greek or Norse "Mythology" (I don't care for the term "Mythology" because it suggests these beliefs are somehow more ludicrous than Christianity or other "acceptable" faiths), the gods/God all share one aspect in common: they're emotional. They convey anger, sadness, pity, love etc. Well, what do you know? So do we!

In lieu of any hard evidence supporting the "truth" of religious faith, the only reasonable conclusion one can make is that mankind invented the concept of religion, God, the gods. The pieces fit with that explanation, at least.

Nature, as an all-encompassing catch phrase for everything around us in this universe that was not man-made, is also a term which I prefer to use, rather than "God" and all it's implications of a "being".

Friday, November 24th, 2006, 01:26 PM
I am an Atheist, but I do believe nature created people. A God has created nothing.

How do you believe that "nature created people"?

I ask, not because I am a theist myself, but I wonder how your atheism can have Nature as the Creator [in other words, some may argue that you are merely renaming God as 'Nature'.

Friday, November 24th, 2006, 01:41 PM

Those are not arguments against God but only against religions. We are humans so it's natural for us to anthropomorphize other beings or things. We also anthropomorphize animals but does that mean that they do not exist? God is the idea of an infinite being and we as limited beings will always be wrong if we try to understand it. You simply cannot prove or disprove an idea.

Old Fritz
Friday, November 24th, 2006, 03:17 PM
Those are not arguments against God but only against religions. We are humans so it's natural for us to anthropomorphize other beings or things. We also anthropomorphize animals but does that mean that they do not exist?We can see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste animals and verify their existance through photographs and an abundance of physical evidence they leave behind. That's just a tad bit different than anthropomorphizing God, don't you think? Besides, more highly developed animals do have emotions on some level.
God is the idea of an infinite being and we as limited beings will always be wrong if we try to understand it.An idea is something concocted in one's mind. Thus, if God is an idea, therefore, mankind created it.
You simply cannot prove or disprove an idea.Tell that to Isaac Newton.

The difference between Newton's idea of the Theory of Gravity, and the idea of an omnipotent being is that Newton's theory has been tested and proven. With God, a tremendous and presumptuous claim has been made, with not a shred of reasonable evidence to support it. I don't offer my thoughts on this as "proof", nor do I need to. The burden of proof always lies with those making the claim, in this case those who claim there is a God/gods.

Let's pretend for a moment, for postulation's sake. Imagine that you conceived of a creature that was bright red, 7-feet tall, with scales, the wings of a bat, tentacles like an octopus, that could speak fluent French. Being the creator of the idea of this creature, you were the only person on the entire planet who knew for sure that this creature was mythical. Nobody on this planet could prove that it didn't exist, but why should they have to?

I honestly don't have anything against religions as long as they don't spread ideas I consider harmful to our culture or society. If people feel that they need them to cope with life, or prepare for the hereafter, more power to 'em. I don't.

Friday, November 24th, 2006, 04:41 PM
We can see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste animals and verify their existance through photographs and an abundance of physical evidence they leave behind. That's just a tad bit different than anthropomorphizing God, don't you think? Besides, more highly developed animals do have emotions on some level.
I just pointed it with my argument that there's no connection between the fact that something is anthropomorphised and its existence.

An idea is something concocted in one's mind. Thus, if God is an idea, therefore, mankind created it.
So you try to descredite your own following argument. From that logic we should praise Newton for the creation of gravity.

The difference between Newton's idea of the Theory of Gravity, and the idea of an omnipotent being is that Newton's theory has been tested and proven. With God, a tremendous and presumptuous claim has been made, with not a shred of reasonable evidence to support it. I don't offer my thoughts on this as "proof", nor do I need to. The burden of proof always lies with those making the claim, in this case those who claim there is a God/gods.
So Newton's theory was wrong before somebody could seriously prove them? Well, the theory of gravitation as a force is most likely wrong though.

Let's pretend for a moment, for postulation's sake. Imagine that you conceived of a creature that was bright red, 7-feet tall, with scales, the wings of a bat, tentacles like an octopus, that could speak fluent French. Being the creator of the idea of this creature, you were the only person on the entire planet who knew for sure that this creature was mythical. Nobody on this planet could prove that it didn't exist, but why should they have to?
Why shouldn't the hypthetical creator look like that? We can never prove or disprove the existence of God(s). The universe is a closed system and works on its own laws. Science helps us understanding these laws but the idea of God as a creator is outside the system. There is no logical need why our laws should apply outside there aswell.

I honestly don't have anything against religions as long as they don't spread ideas I consider harmful to our culture or society. If people feel that they need them to cope with life, or prepare for the hereafter, more power to 'em. I don't.
Well, atheism is also a religion - just a negative one. I consider it as dangerous and harmful to culture and people since the possible non existence of a higher being and moral giver would eventually mean that there are no morals at all. Ethics? Why bother with that. In my opinion atheism advocates hedomaterialism.

Old Fritz
Friday, November 24th, 2006, 06:22 PM
I just pointed it with my argument that there's no connection between the fact that something is anthropomorphised and its existence.Connection? Perhaps not. But speaking of anthropomorphizing animals (whose existence can be verified) as an analogy to anthropomorphizing God (whose existence cannot) is non sequitur.

So you try to descredite your own following argument. From that logic we should praise Newton for the creation of gravity.I said Newton created the idea of the Theory of Gravity, not gravity itself.

So Newton's theory was wrong before somebody could seriously prove them?No, but we musn't just assume something is true when it can't be verified. His Theory of Gravity has long been verified, thus it can be considered true.

Why shouldn't the hypthetical creator look like that? We can never prove or disprove the existence of God(s). The universe is a closed system and works on its own laws. Science helps us understanding these laws but the idea of God as a creator is outside the system. There is no logical need why our laws should apply outside there aswell.I think you misunderstood my hypothetical here. At any rate, the burden of proof lies with those making the original assertion, in religion as in all things.

Well, atheism is also a religion - just a negative one.In one sense of the word perhaps, but Agnosticism, science, art, athletics, and any other thought, idea, or activity can also be considered a religion. There are two distinct definitions of religion in any dictionary you might read. When I say religion here, I mean religion n. 1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator or governor of the universe. b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief.

In that respect, Atheism is not a religion, obviously.
I consider it as dangerous and harmful to culture and people since the possible non existence of a higher being and moral giver would eventually mean that there are no morals at all. Ethics? Why bother with that. In my opinion atheism advocates hedomaterialism.Well, you're entitled to your opinion. For me, though, the fact that immoral behavior and a lack of ethics has been as rampant among religious folk (even the clergy) as among anyone else is reason enough for me to know that religion, or a belief in God, does not a decent person make. Osama bin Laden is a very religious man. Ostensibly, so are all those Catholic priests involved in those molestation scandals. For that matter, so was Attila the Hun.

Incidentally, I'm no hedonist or materialist. My morals are rooted in common sense, not religion. And I also know that I live my life in a more ethical and dignified way than many regular church-goers I know.

Friday, December 8th, 2006, 06:23 AM
A higher form of intelligence might exist, but whatever it is, like us, it is just an eventuality, a ripple in the universe and subject to the same laws of decay as us... nothing to worship in that avenue.

As for “Nature creating us” that would imply that a consciousness or intelligence (not the same thing) of a higher order exists within the Natural world, certainly out of our reach, and therefore we would accept that there is a certain “something” the guided such creation; a view in no way different to any Theist credo anyone might bother to come up with.

Personally, I am convinced we’re nothing but an accident, and it a damn shame conscious life of any kind had to show up, here or elsewhere.

Ragnar Lodbrok
Thursday, October 21st, 2010, 12:22 AM
Mankind created "God" in his own image, not the other way around. This seems fairly obvious to me. The idea that a god or gods created us all and just sit back and watch how we all interact, like lab mice in a cage, punishing and rewarding us accordingly, is far too similar to the way we treat beings we consider lesser than us to be a coincidence.

My point is that the way we naturally behave toward things also happens to be the way God (or the gods, if one is partial to that) behave. In the Bible, Koran, Talmud, Greek or Norse "Mythology" (I don't care for the term "Mythology" because it suggests these beliefs are somehow more ludicrous than Christianity or other "acceptable" faiths), the gods/God all share one aspect in common: they're emotional. They convey anger, sadness, pity, love etc. Well, what do you know? So do we!

In lieu of any hard evidence supporting the "truth" of religious faith, the only reasonable conclusion one can make is that mankind invented the concept of religion, God, the gods. The pieces fit with that explanation, at least.

Nature, as an all-encompassing catch phrase for everything around us in this universe that was not man-made, is also a term which I prefer to use, rather than "God" and all it's implications of a "being".

"Man made gods in his own image"...there is so much truth in this statement and proof in archeology and history of it, that it was nature and the big bang that spurred our creation has been at the core of my view of the world long in my adolescents.

Despite Atheism's alleged anti-traditionalist vibes...could one actually be a non-theist and still be a culturalist and traditionalist? I think so...

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010, 01:03 AM
What I find humourous about Atheists, is that in order for their beliefs to come into existence, they first have to posit the existence of a God before they can negate its existence. Ergo, there must be a God.

Now that's Logic or Illogic as the case may be... ;)