Atheism is not a belief

One of the ways in which religious believers try to get back at atheists is to argue that “Atheism is as much a matter of faith as religion is”. This is disingenuous.

For the atheist, no belief, let alone “faith”, is involved. What the atheist says is this: “In order to entertain a claim, especially a claim as irrational as the existence of a supernatural being, I require to see reasonable evidence of its existence. I see no evidence for the existence of the supernatural and I therefore decline to accept your claim that such a thing exists.” There is no “belief”, let alone “faith”, in that.

This bears repeating for the sake of clarity: I do not “believe” or “have faith” that God does not exist; I simply decline to accept a claim that such an entity exists.

When a claim is made, especially one that runs counter to everything we know and understand about the world, the burden of proof rests with the claimant, not with the person to whom the claim is put. More bluntly still (because religious believers are apt to be very obtuse on this point): I do not have to prove that God does not exist; you have to prove he does.

Blake's God

If the believer responds that the atheist is expressing belief, namely belief that all existents necessarily furnish evidence of their existence, we might ask him whether he believes in dragons or Santa Claus. The answer is almost certain to be no. On what grounds does the religious believer deny the existence of dragons? If absence of evidence allows the existence of God why does it not also allow the existence of dragons, fairies at the bottom of the garden, the Cheshire Cat, Santa Claus and all other entities dreamed up by poets, novelists, science fiction writers and so on?

Bertrand Russell, despite always writing and speaking as though he were an atheist, thought he should label himself an agnostic on the grounds that it is impossible to prove that God either exists or does not exist. Much as I respect Russell, I consider him wrong on this point. The reason is simple:

We are not obliged to accept the possible existence of every crack-brained invention until we can prove it false. If we were, we would be bogged down in the endless task of disproving the existence of unicorns, the tooth fairy, mermaids and every other product of the creative or febrile imagination. This is clearly as ridiculous as it is impossible.

Religious believers in fact support this view by rejecting as false every creed except their own. When have we seen a Pope accepting Hinduism as true because he could not prove it false?

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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13 Responses to Atheism is not a belief

  1. Pingback: unblessed silence « stereoroid.com

  2. Excellent. Beautifully stated. I grow weary of Christian friends who patiently repeat to me their mantra that it’s all “a matter of faith,” and therefore there is no need for them to prove anything to me. Why is their faith in this ultimately important matter so unquestionable and unshakeable, and yet my faith in science and evolution so (in their eyes) misplaced? I have my faith, too; it just doesn’t happen to involve God.

  3. SilverTiger says:

    I think it’s because all of us use the best means at our disposal for whatever job we are trying to do. Rationalists can use logic and science to validate their claims. Religious believers would use these too, if they could (and in fact try to do so – see “Creation Science”). Unfortunately for them, logic and science don’t help support religious belief at all and so believers are of necessity thrown back on “faith”. It isn’t a very good validator but it’s all they have. This is like being in a shipwreck when all places in the lifeboards are full and you are left swimming in the sea with only a toilet seat to keep you afloat.

    Cheers,
    Tiger

  4. tomeemayeepa says:

    Excellent post. Here’s a quotation I like from “Buddhism in a Nutshell”:
    ‘In Buddhism there is not, as in most other religions, an Almighty God to be obeyed and feared. The Buddha does not believe in a cosmic potentate, omniscient and omnipresent. A Buddhist is, therefore, not subservient to any higher supernatural power which controls his destinies and which arbitrarily rewards and punishes. Since Buddhists do not believe in revelations of a divine being Buddhism does not claim the monopoly of truth and does not condemn any other religion.’
    Take God out of religion and things begin to make sense.

  5. SilverTiger says:

    tomeemayeepa Says:Excellent post.

    Thank you.

    Here’s a quotation I like from “Buddhism in a Nutshell”: ‘In Buddhism there is not, as in most other religions, an Almighty God to be obeyed and feared. The Buddha does not believe in a cosmic potentate, omniscient and omnipresent.’

    As far as it goes (and I am not sure it tells the whole story about Buddhism), we can approve of the sentiments expressed.

    However, I think we should always remember that Buddhism is a religion in the full sense, including a supernatural baggage, and not “philosophy with monks”. We should therefore treat it with the same scepticism that we apply to other religions.

  6. tomeemayeepa says:

    I think like a lot of ‘isms’ it’s collected a fair amount of nonsense along the way. The difference is, though, that it isn’t central as it is in other religions. Another quote (this time from a respected Thai Buddhist):
    ‘The Buddha refused to have any dealing with those things which don’t lead to the extinction of Dukkha (suffering). Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth… Such questions are not aimed at the extinction of Dhukka. That being so, they are not Buddhist teaching and they are not connected with it. Also the one who asks about such matters has no choice but to indiscriminately believe or disbelieve the answer he is given, because the one who answers is not going to be able to produce any proofs.’ I think many Buddhists would say that the same applies to all the other ‘supernatural baggage’ attached to it. (Not that I’m one, I hasten to add).

  7. SilverTiger says:

    One of the problems (and virtues) of Buddhism is that it does not have a centralized authority empowered to say what “official” doctrine is. Thus there are many schools with different (and sometimes incompatible) views about what Buddhist beliefs actually are.

    With due respect, I believe that rebirth is a central plank of Buddhist beliefs: becoming enlightened and achieving Nirvana, and thus escaping the wheel of rebirth, is what it is all about, as far as I can see.

    Personally, I think any organization that refuses to answer questions that its own doctrine raises is at least disingenuous. The Western philosophical tradition, stemming from the Greeks, requires that anything and everything be open to enquiry. This, it seems to me, is right and proper. Other traditions, notably in the Middle East and in Asia obviously do not hold the same opinion. To me, they therefore appear repressive. The same is true of Western institutions like the Catholic Church, of course.

  8. tomeemayeepa says:

    I think your first paragrpah is right. But rebirth in the physical sense is not a central plank of Buddhism. Many Buddhist writers have maintained that Buddha was referring to the moment-to-moment changes in consciousness, not the transition from one life to another. The Wikipedia article actually puts this quite well “Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state: a thought, a memory, a feeling, a perception. A mind-state arises, exists and, being impermanent, ceases following which the next mind-state arises. Thus the consciousness of a sentient being can be seen as a continuous series of birth and death of these mind-states. In this context rebirth is simply the persistence of this process. Clearly this explanation of rebirth is wholly divorced from rebirth which may follow bodily death and it is possible for a Buddhist to believe in either, both or neither definition.’
    There are many things in Buddhism that I don’t go along with and even more that I don’t understand but you can reject the supernatural stuff and still be a Buddhist. In fact, Buddha encourages us to do just that.

  9. SilverTiger says:

    The Buddhist canon is so vast and variegated that you can make it say more or less whatever you want it to say so I will not argue about a religion I don’t belong to (though I was once a member of a Zen group and underwent “training” for some months). (If only I had been able to stay awake on the mat I might have become a great Zen Buddhist though I seriously doubt it.)

    Buddhism and Zen have been popularized in the West by people like Alan Watts and Dr. D Suzuki. This has led to its “domestication” and its being taken up by some Christians, famously by the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton who died of accidental electrocution in Bangkok while touring Asia.

    We should be prepared to learn useful things from any system of belief: equally, we should not hesitate to reject what we find to be false in them. I would not embrace Buddhism any more than I would embrace Merton’s Catholicism but I recognize that others have their own view and that it is not up to me to try to dissuade them.

  10. GodKillzYou says:

    I don’t think we’re addressing the real issue here. Does God go poop?

  11. SilverTiger says:

    Your issues are your issues and my issues are my issues. If you have something to add to the discussion, then by all means add it.

  12. Dogbert says:

    Hi SilverTiger,

    The way that I like to express the same thing is by comparing atheism to other rational decision and highlighting the fact that in the grand scheme of things, they are no different.

    For example, a man or woman wants to buy a house in Spain. He looks around on the internet, and he finds a house that sounds nice, but there are no pictures. He sends and email asking for pictures, and is told that he cannot see the pictures unless he decides to buy the house. He decides not to buy the house.

    Another example, a man walks into a fruit and vegetable store, planning to make Vichyssoise. He looks for leeks but the store doesn’t have any. The attendant suggests he make it with a different kind of onion, but he doesn’t think it will taste good, so he decides to cook something else.

    Then you have our example, that a man is presented with the possibility that there is a god. He analyzes the situation and, seeing that there no proof that god exists, decides that there is not enough information to confirm that god exists.

    It is this logic that shows us that if atheism is a “belief” in the traditional sense of the word, then not buying the house is also a “belief.” Same with the Vichyssoise. Evaluating information and deciding that there is not sufficient proof of something is a process we do every day, and it is really no different if we are checking in our kitchen to make a shopping list or talking about whether or not there is a god. If I am a “believer” of atheism, then I am also a “believer” that I need to buy dishsoap and toilet paper.

    The argument that it is the duty of the faithful to prove the existence of god is an irrelevant argument whose only place in the conversation is to provide an illogical, tangential escape in the form of, “then it is your duty to prove that god does not exist.” If you do not make this argument, most of the time the faithful will miss this opportunity for an illogical detour, as is the case with most faithful who, by their habit of ceasing questioning and distrusting reason, are slow to discover the proper line of questioning in an argument that is outside of their value system.

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