Monday, July 20, 2009

What atheism is not

I was recently having a discussion with someone in the comments on this excellent blog post, and it got me to thinking about common misconceptions about atheism. I just thought I had come to a consensus with the guy I was arguing with that while I didn't really have anything to say if you chose to apply the label "God" to the unknown origin of the universe, as soon as this "God" actually does anything then it becomes a falsifiable proposition (or if not falsifiable, at least a proposition to which one can attach a probability) and we can apply science to it... to which he suddenly and unexpectedly responded, "Ah hah! See, you just admitted that your atheism is just another unprovable belief, like any other religion. Don't try to say it is backed up by science!" I was initially baffled, but an hour or so later, I think I figured out the mental processes that led him to this conclusion.

I had intended to blog about it that evening, but completely forgot -- until I was reading this interview with Terry Eagleton at The New Humanist, and realized that Eagleton is making the exact same mental error. I am beginning to think this misconception I am about to introduce, while it sounds absurd when you state it plainly, is actually quite common.

The misconception could be stated like this: "Atheism" is the belief that anything which is referred to by the label "God" does not exist.

It seems that no matter how often we caveat that we are referring to the words "God" and "religion" in the sense that most people understand them, someone always replies with a redefinition of the terms -- whether it be the deist or pantheist God, a religion that deals only in allegory and metaphor, or what have you -- that dodges the objections of the "New Atheists".

This has been dealt with so many times -- in fact, the Sean Carroll post on which I was commenting talks about this problem -- that the only way I can explain the prevalence of this fallacy is if people have subconciously fucked up the definition of atheism in their head.

Thou shalt have no other cheesy snack products before me.
As a thought experiment, I would like to propose a new language, which is exactly like American English, except that the word "God" and the word "Cheetos" have been transposed. It appears to me that Eagleton and his ilk sincerely believe that if an atheist were to travel to a country that spoke this hypothetical language, he or she would stubbornly deny the existence of highly-processed cheese-flavored corn snacks, while casually munching Jesus out of a bag. (Finally, a practical use for the doctrine of transubstantiation!)

In a word: No.

Look, if you want to adopt some touchy-feely philosophy where God is a metaphor for the "human spirit" or something, that's fine. And if you want to call it religion, that's also fine. That's not what we're talking about, at least not until you start putting stock in ancient sectarian texts or engaging in magical thinking. Most of the "New Atheist" writers are quite explicit about exactly what they mean when they talk about God and religion. To substitute something other than what they describe and say that this defeats the argument is either semantic trickery, a misunderstanding of what the author is stating, or else sloppy thinking on the level that would cause someone to worship a bag of Cheetos.


  1. I think of those people as the "believe in belief" types. They think it's so important to have some belief in a god, but don't actually buy the crap that religion is selling, that they make up some ridiculously nebulous thing and call it "God" just so they can believe in it.

  2. Apologies for not being a sophisticated (i.e. well-read, well-versed) philosopher, but IMO as soon as this God thing interacts in a physical way with this universe, he/she/it becomes a testable proposition. Parting seas, lighting the shrubbery on fire, turning people into pillars of salt, tongues of flame, etc., etc. If God so much as moves a blade of grass, he's gone from theological construct to observable phenomenon and is subject to the same scrutiny and physical laws as anything else. Any notions of perfection, divinity, omnipotence, and omniscience are observable, not sourced from any ancient text.

    People seeing visions, hearing voices, etc., - not so much. Personal experience is still very much an elusive target for the naturalist/materialist. And there's a huge difference between "what I saw" and "what actually happened." One can discount the incident without discounting the experience.

    The strawman redefinition of atheism is typical of those who have no firm ground from which to argue.

  3. @Bob: Interesting thoughts on how the experiential aspects of religion are, in a way, beyond science. I think I largely agree with this. I've made a similar point in comments on other blogs, saying something along the lines of, "Science is not a particularly useful epistemology when it comes to knowing that I love my wife." (The reply I often get is that science knows all about the biological origins of love, which is true, but I am talking about my individual experience, not about explaining the phenomenon)

    Of course, IMO, religion is an even more useless epistemology for that purpose...

  4. Thank you, James, for getting it exactly right. Furthermore, I think it's worth noting that most atheists recognize that we cannot actually say that "God does not exist" - it is at best nigh impossible to prove such a proposition. Instead, we are simply unconvinced of the existence of God based on the available evidence.

    I for one have always tried to be polite about my atheism, so it always irks me when someone tries to label us as trying to disprove God, or hostile to the idea or any such thing. That's just not the case.