Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Disbelief is not a belief!

I just saw a YouTube posting about Sam Harris taking on a believer.  But the post is not so interesting to me as the comments to follow, in which both sides offer some pretty sorry dialog on the topic.  It starts off with a comment:

Like, I'm not even a believer. I'm just comfortable saying I don't know. But even this to many atheists is morally Wrong so there have been times where I've mentioned this off hand and been accused by atheists of being soft on religion or something of that sort. They can't keep their beliefs to themselves anymore than religious people can - they have to shove it down the throats of all the rest of us.

and he goes on to say:

A lot of the atheists I've met NEED to believe in atheism in the same way that some Christians NEED to believe in Christ. Its part of their psychological anatomy. Anything that diverts from atheism represents sin (or I guess "backwardness", "obscuratsm" [sic], etc.) to them. When one feels the need to prostelyze [sic] about their beliefs at EVERY available opportunity that person is DEPENDENT on their beliefs. 

 I see this sort of nonsense all the time in Internet forums.  First of all, I have to say that it's not possible for atheism to be a belief system.  Atheism is disbelief in a deity!  Disbelief - the absence of belief - cannot logically be a belief!  If this person is, as he says, not a believer, then he's an atheist whether he realizes it or not!  The argument here seems to be a common one against atheists who choose to be open and "aggressive" about their atheism.  Just what is "aggressive" atheism?

Consider the accusation in this comment that atheists are shoving their atheism down everyone's throat.  I think what's happening is the following.  If an atheist calls the logic of religious beliefs into question, this is perceived as shoving their atheism down everyone's throat.  If atheists pursue litigation against government sponsorship of religion on the basis of the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state, this is seen as shoving atheism down everyone's throat.  If atheists respond in any way to the open advocacy of religious beliefs that appears in every possible medium all the time, then they're shoving atheism down everyone's throat.  Believers can pour out their beliefs repeatedly in every possible way but atheists can't respond in any way, it seems.

I'm probably wasting my time with this blog, but I hope at least a few readers might grasp the utter absurdity and hypocrisy of such claims about "aggressive" atheism.

Just how is questioning the logic of something forcing anything on anyone?  Yes, of course, if someone questions someone else's religious beliefs, it's common for that to be perceived as a personal attack.  Religious believers often are so deeply attached to their belief system that any logical criticism is interpreted as a personal attack on them.  Almost always, the atheist has no such intent.  The atheist  isn't even attempting to convert the believer to a belief system (which atheism logically cannot be!), but rather is attempting to get the believer to see and acknowledge the illogic of their beliefs.  It's usually the case that the believer brought the subject up in the first place and the atheist is simply responding to this.

In such discourse, believers usually resort to comments like the one in the Sam Harris video - to the effect that they're not making a scientific, logical, or evidence-based statement, but simply accepting their religious beliefs on faith.  As an atheist, I have no problem with anyone believing whatever they want on faith or evidence or whatever but, as Sam Harris suggests in the video, some belief systems are considered generally to be completely illogical and worthy only of derisive laughter, such as his example of believing that Elvis is still alive.   For the most part, atheists see most religious beliefs as in that category.  You may be offended by that contention, but using logic to question religion is not shoving anything down your throat - unless you choose to reject logic as the basis for any argument whatsoever.  If you categorically reject logic and evidence, then of course there's no point to further discourse.  Your beliefs are logically unassailable because you reject logic!  If you accept logic in, for example, scientific arguments, isn't it being consistent to apply logic to religion, as well?

People who support such things as teaching creationism in public education or putting religious icons on government property are the ones doing the shoving!  They are the ones forcing their beliefs on everyone else.  They cry "persecution" when atheists lead campaigns to oppose state sanctioning of any particular religion.  They rewrite history to create the absurd notion that the basis for our US legal system is based on religious tradition, when it is quite clear that the very opposite is true.  The religious right-wing projects their own aggressive behavior regarding their theocratic agenda onto atheists whenever those atheists speak up and oppose the destruction of the wall of separation between church and state here in the USA.  The intrusion of religion into government is fast becoming one of the serious threats to Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom in the USA.  But many believers feel that any protest against this gathering storm is "aggressive" atheism.  Apparently, they're offended by any contrary viewpoint.

The commenter I mentioned at the top of this blog is typical of some atheists, who seem to think that atheists should keep their opinions to themselves and never question anyone's beliefs.  Of course, they're entitled to their opinion.  Perhaps they feel threatened by possible reprisals against anyone who isn't a believer wearing their belief on their sleeve.  This isn't just a paranoid fantasy, of course - it's a fear backed up by reality!  Atheists are discriminated against around the world and even in the USA - that's an undeniable fact.  So for some timid atheists, the correct reaction is to shut up and quit trying to say or do anything about it.  Most atheists aren't at all focused on shoving our disbelief down anyone's throat.  You can believe anything you want, but don't force us to do so!  For the time being, we have the Constitutionally-guaranteed right and we're free to exercise that right!


Anonymous said...

The idea is to keep us in the closet. That's what "believers" want us to do. They can't deal with the logic and reason of Atheism. our lack of belief is far too dangerous to religion. Too bad for them. I don't think I'm going to run away and hide any time soon. And, I'm certainly not going to shut up either. In fact, I'm going to get louder.

Chuck Doswell said...

Postscript - it's nonsense to say that atheists believe in atheism, since atheism is the negation of belief. Atheists don't believe in a deity. So what do atheists believe in?

In my experience, what atheists believe varies all over the map. Some (but by no means all) atheists believe that god (by whatever name) absolutely does not exist (a strong form of atheism). I observe that bsolute proof in science is not possible. Some atheist are pretty sure that god doesn't exist, perhaps even to roughly the same extent that they believe in the law of gravity (an intermediate form of atheism). Some atheists simply say they just don't know whether or not god exists (a weak form of atheism) - which implies an absence of absolute belief, or disbelief.

Most atheists believe in the value of logic, evidence, and rational thinking. They are freethinkers, unconstrained by religious dogma. This "belief" is pragmatic and based on their experience, not an act of faith! It simply cannot be equated with the belief of theists.

Justin Reid said...

Chuck, I agree with many things you say, however I must personally digress on your strong stance as an Atheist. Although I see your points clearly as faith can be at many times irrational, I sometimes feel that the common Atheist perception that people of faith are irrational is offensive. As a believer and atmospheric science student, my faith does not make me any less of a scientist or clouds my critical thought processes when I am doing research or in a classroom environment. Although I do not believe your entry contained the sometimes ad hominem generalizations I see in some other Atheists' affirmations; I feel that some of the narrative is missing when I view my own personal experience.

So as a scientist, why do I believe? I won't get into a lengthy epistemology argument, but in short I believe because it is what motivates me not only in my professional sphere, but in my personal and creative one. I still have my faith that I was brought up with but it has been bolstered by many challenges I have experienced both in adolescence and in college via the recession and other issues. This may be only a defense mechanism but it's something that many consider a frailty that I turn to for inspiration and for meaning. I just cannot accept that it's a "blind watchmaker's" formula to do a certain set of things or that our sentience is just a residual adaptation that separates us from apes and other members of the animal kingdom.

I cannot claim to understand how atheists think about our existence as individuals or in terms of metaphysics, but there are many ideas in these commentaries that I just cannot agree with. Though everyone is entitled to what they believe, refuse to believe, or what they use to identify their place in the universe with. I just hope that posts such as this one stimulate productive conversation, vs. just calling one side total bunk.

Have a happy holidays,
Justin Reid

Chuck Doswell said...


Faith is belief without evidence. I see that as irrational. If your religious belief had a truly rational basis then, there would be no need for "faith".

I also see it as inconsistent with science, so you apparently can compartmentalize your thinking - using logic and evidence in science and then discarding them in matters of your religion. That's your choice of course, but I see it as inconsistent and puzzling to me. Being a scientist is to be a skeptic and demand evidence in support of hypotheses - it is the antithesis of faith.

I have no wish to engage in ad hominem attacks, but nevertheless, I see religions as irrational and actually dangerous - see:

If you find your faith to be helpful, I have no problem with that. But to equate it with rational thinking is indeed bunk.

Jonathan Finch said...

For those who found Chuck's blog entry on atheism to be as refreshing as I did, you might find my blog site about religion to be interesting as well. See the accompanying URL...

Jonathan Finch said...

For those who found Chuck's blog entry on atheism to be as refreshing as I did, you might find my blog site about religion to be interesting as well. I included the URL in the previous post if you click on my name but it's not obvious so here goes again.

Chuck Doswell said...

I should add, having gotten a bit off-track in the blog:

Believers want to see atheism as a religion based on having "faith" in reason, logic and evidence, but "faith" is defined as belief without evidence, so it's an oxymoron to have "faith" in reason, logic, and evidence. Rather, I have "confidence" and "trust" in such things because of my experience that reason, logic and evidence-based thinking actually works, unlike most religious beliefs. Asserting (incorrectly) that atheism is a religion is a way of putting atheists down at the level of faith-based believers. There are no atheist ministers, no atheist churches, no atheist liturgies, no atheist congregations - we are freethinkers, not adherents to some core of beliefs. All we share is: disbelief in a deity.

Chuck Doswell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck Doswell said...

I just heard some nice analogies:

If atheism is a religion then abstinence is a sex position
If atheism is a religion then bald is a hair color
If atheism is a religion then health is a disease
If atheism is a religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby
If atheism is a religion then “off” is a TV channel
If atheism is a religion then unemployment is a job
If atheism is a religion then “nowhere” is a place
If atheism is a religion then “silent” is a volume

and so I made up a few of my own:

If atheism is a religion then a vacuum is an atmosphere
If atheism is a religion then a drought is rainfall
If atheism is a religion then clear sky is a cloud
If atheism is a religion then the nonliving are alive
If atheism is a religion then peace is war
If atheism is a religion then a lack of evidence is proof
If atheism is a religion then lies are truth
If atheism is a religion then indifference is love/hate
If atheism is a religion then superstition is science