Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Atheism

A friend of mine asked me why I joined a certain group comprised of atheists, agnostics and non religious people. There was a quote on that group about how atheists should not be defined as anything, that there should be no word to reflect their belief. So my friend asked me for an answer, and I said that I disagreed because atheists have a positive belief rather than a passive or neutral one. Agnostics can claim this, but not atheists.

From Wikipedia:

Atheism is the disbelief in the existence of any deities.It is contrasted with theism, the belief in a God or gods. Atheism is commonly defined as the positive belief that deities do not exist, or as the deliberate rejection of theism. However, others—including most atheistic philosophers and groups—define atheism as the simple absence of belief in deities (cf. nontheism), thereby designating many agnostics, and people who have never heard of gods, such as newborn children, as atheists as well.

I'm using the common definition as positive belief that deities do not exist, deliberate rejection. This is not like saying I don't know, or I don't have a point of view regarding the matter, it says I know for sure that deities do not exist. The modern view which encompasses more numbers is to say those who are not against us are with us, this refers to agnostics who do not know and others who claim they’ll never know. And so, newborn children are atheists by that rationale, while in fact they're agnostic.

Since my contention is that newborns are agnostic, that also extends to treating those children who are born with religious backgrounds as agnostic as well, it is only when they decide to answer the question of whether God exists or not that they may be one or the other.

As for the quote:

"Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, "atheist" is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non astrologer" or a "non-alchemist". We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs."

Let me tell you my opinion about the statement, there's one factual flaw that makes this statement fail, the word 'unjustified'. The truth is it's very justified, if not from an evidential point of view such as miracles and a variety of other experiences that point to the presence of God, then alone by the social necessity of the presence of a god. According to most philosophers who don't believe in God, man needs God and man needs to create God (if he doesn't exist), so that in itself justifies it. So in light of a generally accepted claim, there is a need to say your stance or whether you have none. It’s like saying I don’t believe in galaxies and expecting this to be the norm.

Also, there are people who say Elvis is dead and people who say Elvis is alive, and people who just don’t know. Now here's the problem. Imagine I say a Michael exists. Now I know this Michael, and I've seen his emails, but others haven't. If they say that they don't know if Michael exists then they have no opinion on the matter, which is fine, but if they say for certain that he doesn't, then there’s a problem cause I've experienced him. Why preach to the world that Michael doesn't exist and that it's absurd that someone with the name Michael should exist? I mean I understand if he doesn't exist to them because they haven't experienced him or sought him out, but why should that be the normal if I can see traces of his existence?

The quote goes on to say:

"An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to "never doubt the existence of God" should be obliged to present evidence for his existence-and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day."

So basically, what he's trying to say is that HE demands evidence, rather than people asking him for evidence.. now the trouble with that statement is that he will never accept evidence that's personal to someone else, so his demand that others provide it is totally bonkers for lack of a better word. People don't demand that atheists prove that God doesn't exist, they only present them with evidence that is usually refuted.

In the end, doubt is a part of faith, not the opposite, because it takes overcoming doubt to have faith really.

I hope that explains my view of atheists, who are at the other end of the spectrum that contains religious believers, and the real neutral ground is agnostic, once you incorporate agnostics into atheists, it becomes mixed up and ambiguous.


Anonymous said...

I'm using the common definition as positive belief that deities do not exist, deliberate rejection.

That's only "common" among theists who don't know any better. The definition you cite from Wikipedia is attested in most unabridged, comprehensive dictionaries and has been used by atheists since the mid-18th century. The broad definition of atheism not only best reflects the etymology of the word itself, but it also best describes the diversity of atheists.

And so, newborn children are atheists by that rationale, while in fact they're agnostic.

The idea that agnosticism is some sort of "middle ground" between atheism and theism is a popular myth, but it's still a myth. Even if we were to assume the narrow definition of atheism you are using, it's still a definition based on "belief," not knowledge. Belief and knowledge may be related, but the are ultimately separate issues.

Wael Eskandar said...

Dear anonymous,

I understand what you mean by those clarifications, and you do have a point, but I was using the words atheism and agnosticism liberally with the meanings that are more generally understood by most people. Plus of course lots of atheists use this definition, not just theist who don't know better.

It's true that agnosticism has to do with knowledge, rather than belief but that would make many religious people agnostic. Also if atheism is literal it would make some religions atheist, since they don't believe in a diety.

But we can argue about this all day, it's just definitions and names that are continuously evolving. But to make things clear and understandable, by today's terms, replace atheist with 'strong atheist' and agnostic with 'weak athiest', specially that these terms are relatively modern, adopted by modern atheists. People's understanding of these terms is confused and it wasn't always the case that atheism was defined this way.

Also the definition of agnostic was not always as your links have pointed out,it differs from person to person practically rather than philosophically.

Finally to make this clear, even if you think my usage of the terms is flawed, the first is someone who doesn't believe in a diety, and the latter is someone who holds no faith, whatever the naming may be.

Thank you for the clarifications, those links were useful.