Archive for the ‘Bertrand Russell’ Category

Reasonable Atheism

February 9, 2007

Until now, most atheists have been caught in a dilemma. The dilemma revolves around how to assert one’s atheism without falling into the trap of relying on “belief”. For example, atheists are told that their failure to provide evidence that god doesn’t exist means that they are just as irrational as they claim the religious to be. The conversation often runs something like this:

“I believe in in god.”

“You’re not rational, there’s no hard evidence for god’s existence.”

“So you are an atheist?”

“That’s right, I don’t believe in god.”

“Do you have hard evidence that god doesn’t exist?”

“Ummmmmm”

“Ahhhh HA! You’re just the same as me!”

The dilemma comes about, at least in part, because of the misunderstanding of the words describing belief and nonbelief. This article is a suggestion on how to deal with this dilemma, so let’s start by clarifying some terms.

Most people believe the word agnostic means that someone isn’t sure about whether there’s a god or not. This is not strictly true. The word agnostic describes someone who thinks that the question of god’s existence is beyond the realm of things that humanity can know. Admittedly, an agnostic is saying that we don’t know but they are also saying that we can never know whether god exists.

The reason this clarification is important is because it gives the atheist label a little more leeway which we’ll see used below.

Atheism is a fairly controversial word. Some claim the term derives from the greek word “atheos” (roughly meaning godless or without god). Others liken it to amoral and asexual where atheism would mean the absence of theism. Regardless of the origins of the word, there are two main flavors to atheism; Strong and Weak atheism.

Strong atheism involves denying the existence of god. A Strong atheist claims that there is no god. The problem with this position is that it’s too easy to lampoon. There can’t be proof that god doesn’t exist, because a negative can’t be proven. Bertrand Russell‘s Celestial Teapot deals with this far more elegantly than I ever could. The problem with claiming to be a Strong atheist is that the position can be easily equated to belief in god without proof; Strong atheism appears to be just as irrational as religious belief. A Strong atheist appears to be saying that “I believe there is no god but I don’t have evidence for this belief.” Most atheists are proud of their commitment to requiring evidence for things they believe. The Strong atheist position runs counter to that commitment.

That brings us to Weak atheism; a position that many atheists “fall back on” because Strong atheism is dogmatic and ignores evidentiary requirements. Weak atheists claim that while they don’t believe in god, they aren’t required to believe god doesn’t exist. A Weak atheist lacks a belief in god. Weak Atheists aren’t asserting anything about the existence of god, they’re not “taking sides”. They simply don’t have a positive belief in god.

Having discussed the Weak & Strong flavors of atheism, we can now deal with my major complaint about them; They just don’t seem to actually exist. Strong atheists might exist but Weak atheists almost certainly don’t. It’s not a reasonable human position to be asked the question of god’s existence, consider it for enough time to label yourself an atheist and then simply lack belief in the premise you were asked to consider. Weak atheists adopt the label simply because they want to be considered reasonable and not dogmatic. It’s a point of pride to a lot of atheists that evidence matters to them. They believe god does not exist because they’ve considered the evidence for the god hypothesis and found it sadly and obviously lacking. Being a Strong atheist would require them to assert things without evidence of their own and it goes against their commitment to intellectual honesty. Weak & Strong atheism are caricatures of what atheists really believe and they’re the only widely used labels I’ve seen to describe atheism.

Until now. 🙂

My dear atheists, there has to be a third option, “Reasonable” Atheism. Reasonable Atheists believe that there is no god and they’re not irrational about it. They are basing their beliefs on the available evidence (and the lack thereof) and as with all reasonable beliefs, they’ll reevaluate in light of new evidence. In my opinion, Reaonable Atheism is the most common position held by atheists. I think it’s a position you’ll come to recognize frequently now that you have a label for it. I feel it more accurately describes the position of real atheists in the real world.

I deny god’s existence. I do so based on the complete lack of real evidence and the shoddy construction of claimed evidence. If, however, real evidence were to be provided at some time in the future, I’d certainly considered it and reevaluate my position. I am a reasonable atheist.

Why arguing about religion matters

December 2, 2006

Recently, I got myself invovled in an argument about religion with a guy named Lou.

Lou was objecting to a claim made by George Carlin. Carlin was stating categorically that there is no god. Lou was up in arms because Carlin cannot possibly know, nor can he prove, that there is no god.

Now, as many atheists know, the legendary thinker Bertrand Russell dealt with this argument 50 odd years ago. His response was the Celestial Teapot. Summarized, it says that we have no way to disprove the existence of a small china teapot orbiting the sun. The fact that we cannot disprove the teapot thesis does not make the teapot thesis true. It doesn’t even make it likely to be true. Russell’s point was that this accurately describes one of the cornerstones of the “religious debate”. The religious often claim that our inability to prove that god doesn’t exist somehow increases the likelihood that god does exist. According to Russell (and anyone prepared to think about it a little) this is complete hogwash.

Russell’s teapot is the original idea that spawned things like the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They’re simply better packaged for modern marketing than the original. However, they embody the same basic idea.

Lou simply refuses to believe that the FSM analogy has any relevance whatsoever to his belief. He’s claimed that it’s completely different because the FSM never walked the Earth and it’s a fact that Jesus did. It’s completely different because Christianity has billions of adherents and the Church of the FSM doesn’t have as many.

The most frustrating part about it is that Lou simply refuses to consider the opposing view point. He’s like an ostrich, burying his head to hide from the scary ideas bearing down on him. Poor Lou can’t see the purpose of these other “religions”. He doesn’t understand that he faces the same situation with the FSM as Carlin does with god. Lou claims the FSM doesn’t exist but can’t prove it.

I’ve been arguing with Lou about this for days. Many have wondered why I bother. The reason I bother is simple. It doesn’t even have anything to do with religion on the level it appears to.

I argue because religion inhibits one’s ability to think about things critically and critical thinking matters. That’s the only reason. The best example I can think of is astronomy. At various points throughout the history of humanity, astronomers have made claims that contradict the church’s accepted dogma. Astronomers have been tortured and killed for claiming such outrageous things as the Earth orbits the sun. Things that today people take for granted were, at one point, thoughts punishable by death.

That bears some serious consideration. What if everyone throughout history believed without doubt the things that religion said they should believe. It’s a pretty horrifying world to imagine.

So, ultimately, if people want to believe ridiculous fairy stories, I pity them. I understand it, certainly, but it’s not to be admired. That fact in isolation doesn’t bring my condemnation. What brings my condemnation is that religion promotes blind acceptance of claims without evidence. Specifically, that’s what faith means. Faith is incompatible with critical thinking.

Humanity has increasing access to powerful forces. In my view, this means we need more critical thought and less blind commitment to belief systems that promote ignorance. That’s why arguing with Lou matters. It doesn’t matter whether Lou learns anything or not. It matters that both sides of the discussion are laid out clearly so that people are exposed to critical thought. It matters that kids raised in a religious setting have easy access to informed discourse on the subject.

That doesn’t matter to Lou. It matters to me.