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What do all atheists have in common?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 24, 2009

One of the many fights we must engage on, as skeptics, atheist, freethinkers or whatever you like to call yourself, is the fight for our public image. The public perception of what it means to be an atheist diverges from what many atheists think of themselves. It is very appealing to use a straw man argument, and I am probably guilty of doing the same at times. Whenever we try to reach conclusions about a specific person based on how they classify themselves we run the risk of using this fallacy, regardless if we are talking about atheists or christians. The best way to proceed is to ask that person what is it that they actually think on any given issue, instead of trying to pigeonhole them in a position that they do not maintain, solely based on the label they identify by.

There are few things that are shared by all individuals of a given group, none more so than atheists. Generally when people hear the word atheist they think of a person who knows there is no God, or who believes God does not exist, or who rejects God, or whatever. Nevertheless the fact of the matter is that, in my opinion, the only thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in any Gods. That’s it. That is our whole “doctrine”. From that point on, we’re on our own and we proceed to take that basic statement “I do not believe in any Gods” and build upon it, based on our personal experiences. Atheism has no central doctrine; we don’t have a book that tells us what we should be doing or thinking; we don’t have a book to interpret, or misinterpret depending how you look at it. All we have is this simple straight forward statement  “An atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of any Gods“. Period! That’s all there is to it.

Some of us do indeed come to the conclusion that they know there is no God. Those of us are wrong and are putting themselves in a position that cannot be defended logically. Some of us come to the conclusion that they believe there is no God. They are no less wrong than the first group. Some of us are dogmatic and just as close-minded in their atheism as the religious people they want to criticize. But that is their personal choice, their views, their opinions. As there is no central doctrine for atheism, one fringe section’s views cannot be construed to apply to the whole group. And we must also be careful not to do the same to the religious. Not all Christians are the same, not all of them believe the same things. The point is that at the end of the day we are all individuals and have thoughts and opinions that are our own, so whenever we are talking about an individual we must be careful to address that individual’s views, not what we think his views should be based on his labeling.

Some of us stick with the simple statement mentioned above. I have seen all the evidence and heard all the arguments advanced for the God Hypothesis, and I am not convinced. I think that God as posited by the major, monotheistic religions, can exist, but I think the probability of such a God existing is very low. Based on this low probability I can maintain that “I do not believe in any Gods“. If and when better arguments and evidence are presented, the probability will start to increase and at some point I will have to review my position. I think that this is the only logical position one may take. It is rational and not hypocritical.

Some like to call this stance Agnostic Atheism. Whatever suits them, I’ve given up trying to fight based on semantics. I will not let others call me an agnostic atheist though, that’s an entirely different matter. They can call themselves what they want, but I also maintain the right to call myself what I want, and I call myself simply an atheist (in matters of religion) and a skeptic in general, and I consider my atheism to be a subset of my skepticism. I can’t see how I can be a skeptic and not be an atheist as defined here, but I can see how one cannot be both a skeptic and an atheist if atheist to that someone means something else.

At the end of the day labels don’t matter, what matters is what you think, but we live in a society where labels are thrown around as a magical one word summary of a person’s views and opinions, and unfortunately we must keep fighting the labels war, while at the same time being careful not to commit the same crimes against others that we are trying to protect ourselves from.

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  1. […] fyimusic.ca placed an interesting blog post on What do all atheists have in common?Here’s a brief overview…also maintain the right to call myself what I want, and I call myself simply an atheist (in matters of religion) and a skeptic in general, and… […]

  2. […] Traditional Real Satanism put an intriguing blog post on What do all atheists have in common?Here’s a quick excerpt…we must keep fighting the labels war, while at the same time being careful not to commit the same crimes against others that we are trying to… […]

  3. Jim Lippard said, on October 21, 2009 at 6:32 PM

    While I agree that all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods, I disagree with your assertion that only weak/negative atheism and not strong/positive atheism can be defended. The former is what many people refer to as agnosticism, and more people self-identify as agnostics rather than atheists in the U.S. (2.6% vs. 1.3% of the population). The latter is what most people refer to as atheism, and is what “atheism” means to the average English speaker.

    Positive atheism doesn’t require a claim of *knowledge* that there is no God, only a claim of disbelief rather than the mere nonbelief of agnosticism or weak atheism. Positive atheism is justifiable on the basis of reasons in the form of logical and evidential argument. If you think that all of those arguments fail in some way, or that they are equally counterbalanced by logical and evidential arguments for the possibility or likelihood of gods, or that there is no way to measure the weight of such reasons to conclude one way or the other, then you are an agnostic or weak atheist.

    You claim that anyone who claims knowledge of the nonexistence of God is putting forth a position that cannot be defended logically. Can you defend that claim? It seems to me that I can perfectly well defend the claim to know of particular conceptions of God that they don’t exist, namely all of those conceptions that are internally incoherent (logically inconsistent) or which logically entail contradictions with known facts. I think that includes not only the Greek gods, but the God of the Abrahamic religions as most adherents of those religions conceive him.

    • Skepdude said, on October 21, 2009 at 10:13 PM

      Jim, you are right that people make those distinctions of weak vs. strong atheism. I do not find that sort of labeling adds anything to the discussion. Atheism is lack of belief in Gods period. Using the labels weak/strong creates the impression that there ought to be degrees of atheism which is a notion I do not endorse. I think that if you are going to label a group of people you do so based on the most common characteristics and as I said above all atheists have one thing in common, without an exception, and that is a lack of a belief. So that should suffice to explain the label.

      As I said I try not to fight over what I consider meaningless words. Positive, negative, strong, weak, agnostic atheism are a distraction in my book.

      Yes, it is true that I claim that anyone who claims knowledge of nonexistence of God cannot defend that logically. One cannot prove nonexistence and we can get into details, but to summarize one can only claim lack of evidence for existence. As the well known expression goes “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” That about wraps up what I mean by that. Give me a definition of any God and I can easily add stuff to explain why he exists but cannot be detected. Even the basic, rational, point that a description of God defies logic, can be easily sidestepped by saying that God created the laws of logic and as such he is above them. That is why I say any claim to knowledge of nonexistence of God cannot be defended logically.

  4. Jim Lippard said, on October 21, 2009 at 11:39 PM

    Whether you use the labels or not, the positions exist and are conceptually distinct as are the arguments for the positions. That doesn’t entail degrees of atheism, though I would say that there are definitely degrees of *confidence* in atheism–such as the spectrum of positions that Dawkins lays out in _The God Delusion_.

    Absence of proof is not proof of absence, but absence of evidence can be evidence of absence. I disagree about nonexistent proofs and arguments–they exist, and can’t be dismissed a priori. I’ve written more on that subject at http://www.discord.org/~lippard/debiak.html

    Your point about adding auxiliary hypotheses to avoid falsification is true of *any* claim and any theory, including scientific theories–it’s not possible to test propositions in isolation. It doesn’t follow that therefore we cannot have any knowledge or evidence from science.

    The “God created and is above laws of logic” claim is sometimes made, but that doesn’t make it a good argument any more than the fact that you can always ask “Why?” about any claim that someone makes.

    It seems to me that your reasons applied to reject arguments for God’s nonexistence, if consistently applied, would be reasons to reject arguments for anything at all, since the same kinds of moves are possible with respect to any claim.


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