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Thursday, August 24, 2006

On Faith: Why I'm atheist

Of all the things I say in any given day, of all the syllables, curses, and completely made up words I use on a regular basis, the combination that consistently draws the most interesting reactions is "I'm atheist." For those who know me it usually comes as no shock. For those that don't, on the odd chance that it comes up in conversation, I've gotten all sorts of responses.

A lot of people are curious because they've "never met an atheist before." If it comes up in class, there's always a few heads turning. Some people are offended for some reason, and on one occasion I had a gentleman become violently angry with me because my lack of belief in his religion amounted to "calling [his] beliefs nothing more than fairy tales." I'm willing to wager that these same people don't look at followers of Buddhism, the world's fifth largest religion, the same way. That's even though, with the exception of some sects that believe Buddha to be a deity, Buddhists don't believe in immortal gods. But hoping that these reactions are the result of confusion, and not a pure, unadulterated hatred for atheists, I'll explain what being atheist actually means.

Atheism in its simplest form is not even a belief. It's the lack of a belief. I'm atheist because I lack a belief in any gods. It's not that I disbelieve - atheism simply says, "there is no evidence for a god, so I have no belief in one." There are, of course, atheists who take a step further and say that there absolutely is no god. Some refer specifically to the Judeo-Christian or Islamic god, some say it in general. (We're all atheists in regard to some god; I'm sure none of you pray to Zeus.) It's hard to lump atheists together because, like the term theists, we really have no common characteristics other than that lack of a belief.

So we can move naturally on to the next question, why don't I believe in a god? There are many reasons not to believe - philosophical arguments, personal experience, skeptically reading various holy books - and I've examined many, but it all boils down to one single point. To me, faith is unacceptable thinking. Every single sensible theist will admit to you that part of their belief is taken on faith. Part of being a theist is believing something without logical and verifiable proof. I say, if you don't have a reason to believe something, you shouldn't believe it. To reference an example from writer Sam Harris, if I tell you I think the Holocaust is a myth, you're going to ask for my reasons. If I tell you I am bulletproof, you'll ask for a demonstration. Yet anything to do with religion is somehow exempt from the test of reason.

The rest

The reactions I've been getting from everyone I know here at school were pretty positive about this column, a few good emails as well. My parents were NOT happy. I haven't heard from my grandmother either, who I know reads the online edition and usually emails me whenever she sees something she likes.

There goes my Christmas presents.


Blogger Simon said...


For me it's the "Leap of Faith" (otherwise theist claim atheists use faith).

For me it requires a small Leap of Faith to think the sun will reappear tomorrow, same for evolution, but a huge leap to accept the god-creation story of the Bible.

You're right about the definition of atheist. The problem is when you tell a Christian "I'm an atheist" all they hear is "I'm coming to eat your children".

8/24/2006 06:18:00 AM  
Blogger Christspeak Rx said...

I find most (American) people who claim to be athiest fall into 2 categories. The first group are most always intellectual, consider themselves among the avant garde, but often angry at life's circumstances (the lack of satisfactory explanation of suffering for example)and/or are naturally antagonistic towards authority and reliigion, Christianity in particular..

The second group are not intellectual, but intellectually apathetic or lazy,(but by no means stupid). They don't seem to be interested in any evidence to the contrary and tend to mock and write off any believer.

Though I don't understand the gentleman's anger, he's right about one thing. If you are an an athiest, there is no question that you must think all religions are a huge mistake. As CS Lewis wrote, it is impossible to be an anthiest and think otherwise.

A Christian, on the other hand, finds grains of truth in all religions. An athiest looks at all religions as myths- made up by man to explain things he cannot- or is unable to understand.

Here is proof that there is a God: There is a right and wrong. (This comes from Lewis). Every culture in human existense adheres to the moral law. Where does it come from?

Everything on earth must obey the law of gravity. Moral law applies only to humans and can be disobeyed. I suggest you read about this philosophy before you argue against it.

And Simon- your experience leaves little doubt the sun will come up tomorrow. But nothing you experience in daily life leads you to believe in evolution. Your faith in evolution rests in your logic and your trust that many learned scientists and philosophers know what they are talking about.

8/24/2006 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger Roch101 said...

It may seem like a fine distinction, and in your case, it may be. But the definition of ahteist is "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods."

What you describe, "there is no evidence for a god, so I have no belief in one," describes an agnostic.

8/24/2006 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Luke McIntyre said...

Simon: It requires no faith to think that the sun will come up tomorrow, because it has come up every day of my life. I have no belief about it, every day I wake up and the sun is there. It's a fact I react to, the same as almost every time I turn on a light switch a light comes on. There's no opportunity for belief. It happens or it doesn't, it's testable, hence no faith.

Christspeak: Your response proves many more of my points than any rebuttle I could offer. Thank you for that.

Roch101: Incorrect. The difference between atheism and agnosticism is that agnosticism applies to knowledge, while atheism applies to belief. Agnostics don't think that it is possible to know if there are gods or not. Atheists lack a belief in them.

We could debate the meanings of the words and their historical context, but what's the point? It's semantics. Agnostic was simply coined by a philosopher in 1869 and today's usage is completely different from its original meaning, atheism has changed similarly over the years. The atheism you're referring to is technically Strong Atheism, while what I'm referring to is the more inclusive Weak Atheism.

8/24/2006 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Christspeak Rx said...

Perhaps I am giving you to much credit. Your response was dissapointing and disrespectful. You said you are a skeptic. Since all cultures seem to share a common moral law, where it comes from should matter a great deal to you.

This law is as true as an addition table. There is no faith required in the observation.

8/24/2006 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger PotatoStew said...

Chip, regarding your observation: Assuming for a moment that it's true (which I'm not entirely sure that it is - we'd have to really look to see if there are exceptions), there are other potential explanations for the appearance of a moral law..

One would be genetics. There are genetic influences on behavior. If those behaviors that were against Lewis' "moral law" decreased an individual or a society's chances for survival, then those behaviors would largely be selected out of the population. They would still occur in individuals, but possibly not gain enough of a foothold in the general population to be reflected in a society's laws.

Can you see how something like this could possibly account for the phenomenon you describe?

8/24/2006 06:21:00 PM  
Blogger Roch101 said...

"Roch101: Incorrect. Blah, blah, blah...."

You can assign your own defintions if you want, but words have meaning separate from what you may think they mean.

8/24/2006 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger PotatoStew said...


Actually, I think Luke is right. An atheist simply lacks belief in God. As your definition said, "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods" - the definition of "disbelieve" is to be unable to believe, which is what Luke is describing.

However, an agnostic just thinks that we can't know for certain whether God exists. In fact, an agnostic might even believe in God, he just won't be certain about it. Or a person might not have a belief in any gods, but claim that there's no way to ever be sure, making him both an atheist and an agnostic.

It's funny, but every single time I see someone mention a definition of the word "atheist", this exact same discussion seems to ensue.

8/24/2006 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger Luke McIntyre said...

christspeak: If you'd like to talk about dissapointing, I'l direct you to the exact reason I decided your post wasn't worth replying to.

Here is proof that there is a God: There is a right and wrong.

Here's my rebuttal: There is no right or wrong. How hard was that? Saying something is true doesn't make it so. Present something worth replying to and you won't find yourself lacking a response.

Since you insist on pulling the content of your comments out of CS Lewis' ass (which is where he got most of his writing, coincidentally), I'll rebut you.

You claim that all cultures share a common moral law without proving it to be so, offering any proof to the matter, or even one example. What common moral law are we discussing? The one where a majority of Americans eat cheeseburgers every day and a majority of Indians praise cows? The one where Western countries believe honor killing to be wrong, but some Islamic countries barely bat an eye at slitting your daughter's because she was raped? If, as you claim, "there is a right and wrong" that everyone agrees on, please tell me what it is. Then I will point you to several hundred cultures, religions, and governments that disagree with you, and you'll then admit that you were wrong.

If by a Christian finding grains of truth in all religions (even Satanism, I'd imagine) you mean "I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes to the father but through me," then yes. The grains are everywhere.

Though I don't understand the gentleman's anger, he's right about one thing. If you are an an athiest, there is no question that you must think all religions are a huge mistake.

I'll just assume you didn't read the article at all, or at least missed the part where I pointed out you could be part of a religion and still be atheist. I guess you also missed where I specifically pointed out that I don't disagree with every part of every religion, just the parts about a higher power. I always find it amazing that reading an article is not a prerequisite to replying to it. All religion is a mistake, any other words you'd like to put in my mouth?

Your faith in evolution rests in your logic and your trust that many learned scientists and philosophers know what they are talking about.

I have no faith in science because I don't have to. Are you familiar with the concepts of the scientific method and peer review? I've participated in science experiments. I've seen it work. I've seen scientists claim to have dicovered something, only to have that claim proven true or false through massive peer review. There's no opportunity for faith in that situation, and hence no need for it.

Roch: We're going to argue semantics. Yay.

Okay, let's break it down using the dictionary that you first referenced (Dictionary.com), starting with agnostic.

1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.
2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

A person who says we cannot know if God exists, or a person who denies that we can have ultimate knowledge. So, as I pointed out earlier, agnosticm applies to knowledge rather than belief. As potatostew pointed out, an agnostic can still be of any belief, but just hold that we can't know for sure (that's where the faith comes in, I'd suspect). In fact, I'll say that every single sensible person on Earth SHOULD be agnostic, because it is in fact impossible to obtain metaphysical knowledge.

To summarize, you're wrong about the definition of agnostic.

Moving on to atheist. It's listed as

a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

And, as potatostew also already pointed out, the definition of disbelieve is...

–verb (used with object)
1. to have no belief in; refuse or reject belief in: to disbelieve reports of UFO sightings.
–verb (used without object)
2. to refuse or reject belief; have no belief.

So, an atheist is a person who has no belief in a god.

To summarize, everything you have said here is completely wrong. Thanks for your time though.

8/24/2006 11:42:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Actually, Luke, Roch101 is not incorrect.

You once referred me to the Oxford English Dictionary (for the word 'whining'), but you do not mention it here. Could it be that you checked it, did not like the way it described the words 'atheist' and 'agnostic,' and turned to other dictionaries, Wikipedia and opinion/philosophy websites to back your point? Perhaps not. Probably not. But I daresay you don't care very much for the way the OED defines these terms.

As far as this 'disbelieve' stuff...you and potatostew seem to be using somewhat faulty sources to define the word. There is a difference between 'disbelief' and 'unbelief.'

The terms "weak atheism" and "strong atheism" are not quite free of philosophical speculation, and should probably not (at this point) be used as definitive evidence.

It appears that you look for sources that define things the way you want them to be defined.

'Agnostic' may not be exactly the right word to describe you and your beliefs, but it sure seems to come closer than 'atheist.'

To save you the time and trouble of replying:
I'm wrong.
I'm an idiot.
So wrong.
Such an idiot.

No offense, man, but you're becoming rather predictable.

8/26/2006 05:34:00 AM  
Blogger Luke McIntyre said...

Tim: Actually, if you did indeed read my reply to Roch you'd notice that I used Dictionary.com because it's what he used to start the conversation. Use ten different dictionaries and you'll get ten different definitions, which is why arguing semantics is idiotic in the first place. I shouldn't have gotten pulled into it, and this entire exchange is nothing more than masturbation without any sort of payoff. Define atheist and agnostic as you will. I clearly defined my terms as I was using them, so I'm done.

8/26/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Marnie said...

Wow... I am going to completely ignore the arguments going on.

I just wanted to comment and say thank you for writing the article regarding atheism, which I read in the paper today. I am also an atheist, yet most of the time I keep my beliefs/thoughts to myself for fear of people thinking I'm evil and such. I am glad to know someone else understands the fact that atheist and amoral are not synonymous. Thank you for putting yourself out there on the chopping block!

8/29/2006 05:24:00 PM  

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