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Unbroken's avatar

Can someone explain Atheism to me?

Asked by Unbroken (10257 points ) October 18th, 2012

The definition of atheism is defined as being the opposite of being a theist. Literally without god. The very definition gives credence to their being a god. Also cited is the argument of lack of empirical evidence, however by asking for empirical evidence to be supplied to support the existence of god, aren’t they subject to the same criteria of having to empirically prove god doesn’t exist? What I am getting from this and I can admit it’s an oversimplification is that they choose to believe that god doesn’t exist, which makes them as much a faith oriented creature as a theist.

This isn’t meant as an attack on atheism. I am spiritual but not religious or constrained by any deity. I feel there is not enough evidence in either direction. I am genuinely curious as to the apparent flaw in logic. So if I am mistaken on my premise I would like to know why.

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44 Answers

Qingu's avatar

Do you believe in unicorns?

If someone says “I don’t believe in unicorns because there’s no evidence that they exist,” would you tell this person that they are wrong unless they prove that unicorns don’t exist?

Lack of belief in gods works the exact same way.

Some people, however, confuse the matter by definining the word “God” so hazily that it can mean anything—the universe, existence, whatever. Atheists do tend to believe that the universe exists; they just don’t believe that the gods as described by human religions, such as Zeus, Thor, Marduk, Yahweh, and Allah, are real.

Qingu's avatar

Here’s another way to think about this subject.

Let’s say that I walked up to you and told you that, unless you give me $200 right now, a space alien will one day in the near future incinerate you with a laser beam.

Would you give me $200? Why or why not?

I think you’d blow me off, or maybe call the police and try to have me committed—because, of course, there’s no evidence whatsoever that a space alien is going to shoot you with a laser. Without evidence, you wouldn’t even consider changing the way you act. You may claim to be “on the fence” about the existence of this space alien, but I doubt you’d actually act as if you were.

Likewise, religions say that unless you pray to this or that god, you will be tortured forever in the afterlife. Now, you may claim that you’re “on the fence” about the existence of these gods, but you sure don’t act like you are. You act as though you don’t believe they exist. Because if you did believe they might actually exist, you’d change your actions accordingly.

ninjacolin's avatar

I think the confusion comes in trying to understand/use the term “belief”

Maybe it makes more sense if we use another term: “conviction.”

An atheist is someone who is simply not convinced that any god of popular (or unpopular) religion exists. Such as Zeus, Thor, Marduc, Yahweh, and/or allah, as per our resident atheistic priest @Qingu.

ninjacolin's avatar

@rosehips said: “they choose to believe that god doesn’t exist”

Conviction isn’t really a choice, by the way.

RocketSquid's avatar

The flaw in logic is thinking that both arguments, “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” are both claims. In truth, “God exists” is a claim, whereas “God doesn’t exist” is a refutation. In any logical argument the burden of proof is on the claiment, not the refuter. This is due to the fact in order for a claim to be true, it must have irrefutable evidence to back it up.
If we were to turn this around and say that the burden of truth is on the refuter, not the claimant, than we’d have to accept any answer, no matter how inane or surreal it may be (The apple is red because the banana already claimed yellow, for example). This is why the burden of proof is on the claimant; it narrows down the answers until only the true answer remains.

This is the very core of atheism: the requirement for empirical evidence. There has not been a claim by any religion that could not be refuted by science, or would need otherworldy intervention, or could provide any real evidence. This alone removes the atheist as a “faith based creature”, because a proper atheist would need some form of evidence before accepting any claim.

zenvelo's avatar

@ninjacolin Your simplification implies that something could convince an atheist. I would argue that nothing can convince an atheist of the existence of God.

To say you haven’t been convinced one way or another is to define agnosticism,

tom_g's avatar

if (beliefInOneOrMoreGods)
{
x = theism;
}
else
{
x = atheism;
}

tom_g's avatar

@zenvelo: “To say you haven’t been convinced one way or another is to define agnosticism,”

Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. If someone “hasn’t been convinced one way or another”, then the answer to: “Do you believe in one or more gods?” is _“No”. Therefore, technically, this person is an atheist.

This might help.

filmfann's avatar

Atheism is the belief (and I use that word with a smile) that there is no God, nor SuperBeing.
Once you are dead, you are dead. You cease existence.

tom_g's avatar

@filmfann: “Atheism is the belief (and I use that word with a smile) that there is no God, nor SuperBeing.”

Not really. Atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. It’s not accepting any of the god claims. Period.

I swear, we go through this question every few months here.

zenvelo's avatar

This is what I use as a definition:

Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.

@tom_g agnosticism is uncommitted, atheism is committed. They are mutually exclusive, because an agnostic says “I don’t know” while an atheist says “I know”.

i think it is intellectually dishonest to cast an atheist as the antithesis of a theist. An atheist belief stands on its own.

tom_g's avatar

I can’t go through this again. Language is only useful when it describes the world. I really suggest that people new to these concepts (belief, certainty, positive claims, etc) check out this link. It’s very helpful.

Unbroken's avatar

@tom_g thank you I found your link to most helpful. I was confused by the logic“strong atheist” remarks. I do apologize for the repetition. When I use my phone it does not allow me check if the question has been asked.
@RocketSquid I liked your answer though I don’t agree with it. It was thought provoking.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I think there is just a much of a flaw in atheism as there is in theism.

I’m pretty certain there is no god as I’ve never been shown any type of proof to support that but to say outright THERE IS NO GOD takes faith.

tom_g's avatar

Ok, I said I was done here, but my head’s going to explode.

@uberbatman: “I think there is just a much of a flaw in atheism as there is in theism.”

Don’t back that assertion by using the “I’ve never even bothered to figure out what ‘atheism’ means straw man”. Don’t do it…please….

@uberbatman: “I’m pretty certain there is no god as I’ve never been shown any type of proof to support that but to say outright THERE IS NO GOD takes faith.”

You are an agnostic atheist, like me, most atheists here on fluther, and most atheists who have publicly “come out”. Stop shifting the burden of proof and this stuff will be much easier to understand.

If someone claims that a god exists, and then goes on to describe this god and attempts to provide evidence to support his/her claim, faith doesn’t come into the picture if I have not been convinced of this claim. I am just not convinced. I do not accept your god claim, therefore I am an atheist. This doesn’t mean that I have excluded all god claims. It doesn’t mean that I will not one day accept some other god claim. It simply means that the burden of proof has not been met, and until such time that the burden has met, I will not accept it. I will be without belief. I am an atheist.

We have not problem with this reasoning in nearly all other aspects of our lives. For some reason, people seem to trip up on this because of the subject matter. Nobody is running around claiming that believing in invisible pink unicorns and not believing in invisible unicorns is equally flawed. We’re not claiming that both positions require faith, etc. But throw god into the mix, and we forget everything we learned in freshman Critical Reasoning 101.

EDIT: Note – there are possibly people who claim that they have evidence that no gods exist. Now, this is a positive claim, and the burden of proof is on them to back it up. But nobody I have ever met or read has held this position. Nobody. It’s got to be the xian straw man.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Sigh, why do I feel compelled to keep answering this question.

Atheism, is the disbelief in the existence of a god or gods, or, it can also be the belief that there is no god.

You can still believe in ghosts, you can still believe in life after death, and you can believe or think anything you like.

As for atheism taking faith, that is not so. The police do not have faith that I did not kill someone today, they simply have no reason to believe I did. You do not need faith to disbelieve things.

As for choice, there is none. It has to do with the information and evidence you have or don’t have. No on choses to disbelieve the sky is blue, and no one choses to believe it is.

Finally, as for the idea that the mere existence of the word atheism, some how gives credence to there being a god, is a madness that makes no sense. It just does not work that way. Saying you are a skeptic does not automatically give credence to there being ghosts and spirits.

Qingu's avatar

@uberbatman, I don’t believe you.

You can claim you’re on the fence about the existence of the god Zeus. You can claim “it takes faith to say he doesn’t exist.” But you clearly don’t believe Zeus exists. You don’t build hecatombs to Zeus to please him. You likely never even speak or think about Zeus. You don’t even act as if Zeus might exist on an off chance, and you’re just playing it safe.

So whatever you want to call your attitude about Zeus, the fact is that your actions are those of a Zeus-atheist, and beliefs reflect actions.

I suspect you are the same way about every other god put on the table by the world’s religions.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Qingu its not so much about any god or gods explained by humans but more the fact that I don’t think I’m at liberty to say without a doubt there is no higher power or entity out there.

@tom_g I agree, but above all else I’d consider myself a secular humanist

ninjacolin's avatar

@zenvelo said: ”@ninjacolin Your simplification implies that something could convince an atheist. I would argue that nothing can convince an atheist of the existence of God.”

All humans are susceptible to the weight of “good” evidence. Of course something could convince an atheist that God exists but then he would no longer be an atheist. There have been lots and lots of cases of people who professed to be atheists who have converted away to the various religions of the world. It does happen.

Conviction is a very personal and subjective thing. If I don’t happen to have access to the same sort of overwhelming evidence in the way that you feel you have, then I’m stuck believing that there isn’t a God whether I like it or not just as some others are stuck believing that there is a God. Atheism is a conclusion one is forced to hold based on his/her subjective exposure (or lack thereof) to relevant evidence, just as theism or deism or pantheism might be for someone else.

tom_g's avatar

@uberbatman: ”@tom_g I agree, but above all else I’d consider myself a secular humanist”

Sure. So am I. I’m also a suburban male, in his forties, software engineer, skeptic, socialist, environmentalist, parent, feminist, etc.

Why butcher a word that serves a purpose? If I’m a social scientist and I am looking at belief, you are not a believer in a god or gods. Should I make up a whole new word to describe you just because some people don’t understand what it means due to intentional Christian straw man arguments?

El_Cadejo's avatar

@tom_g because atheism to me is taking a definite stance of saying I dont believe in god, where as to me its more of I dont really care and it wont influence my life . I guess you could call me an agnostic atheist or just a full atheist if you wish, I just dont think it really applies to me.

I am also a very spiritual person and have experienced a lot that makes me wonder if maybe there is something else out there, I just dont think any humans have gotten it right yet. Like I said above, I just think it takes way too much faith to say there is nothing else out there.

tom_g's avatar

@uberbatman: “because atheism to me is taking a definite stance of saying I dont believe in god,”

But we all can’t have our own definitions of words. It makes communication very difficult.

Qingu's avatar

@uberbatman I think it’s obvious that there are “higher powers” out there. We are tiny specks of dust in the vastness of space. There are probably aliens in other galaxies more advanced than us. It wouldn’t surprise me if stars or nebulas are “intelligent” in some way we cannot comprehend. There are universal forces we can’t understand.

I just don’t see what any of this stuff has to do with gods, as described by human religions.

wundayatta's avatar

Sometimes I think people try way too hard about atheism. I suppose it’s because it has not been a socially acceptable thing for a long time, and so people feel like they have to jump through all kinds of hoops to justify their understandings.

But this question just seems totally fraught. I’m feeling like oh here we go again. Someone is trying too hard, and in the process, missing the point.

Sometimes it’s really simple. You don’t need fancy arguments. You don’t need to be a logician. You just go with what you got and what you got is that there is no compelling evidence to support the idea of God. Indeed, there isn’t any evidence at all. And that’s probably because there is no commonly accepted, well-explained definition of God, in the first place.

If there isn’t a good theory, then there aren’t going to be any good hypotheses derived from that theory and it is going to be impossible to find any evidence.

Silliness about if you can conceive of something must mean you believe in it is nonsense. I can conceive of thousands of things that I don’t think exist, nor do I think could ever exist. I’m good at that. I like to mess around with ideas.

I don’t believe most of what my mind tells me. I have good reason. I’m diagnosed as crazy. I’ve got a diploma to prove it. Ok. Not really. I like to think I have a diploma, but that’s one of those things that doesn’t exist and is never going to exist, unless I fake it up for myself and then even if I could say the diploma existed, it wouldn’t be any more real that God.

But like I said, that’s all a lot of hooey. I don’t really bother myself with the hue and cry about God any more. It’s so old, all the print has faded and the paper is turning to dust.

I’m gonna go make an omelet now.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Qingu Like I said, I think human religions have got it totally flawed but would that make you an atheist if you didnt believe in and human religion gods but thought there may be other higher powers or enities(gods) out there (that maybe even had a hand in creating what we have today.) ? I dont really think so…

Qingu's avatar

@uberbatman, thought experiment. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is a giant storm. It has existed for at least 300 years (which is when us earthlings first saw it) and probably much longer. It is three times as large as Earth. It interacts with the deeper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere, which are made of liquid metallic hydrogen, which likely exhibit (1) strange quantum mechanical properties and (2) conduct electricity.

It is conceivable that the Great Red Sport, as a system, can process information. Storms on Earth are “alive” in the sense that they have metabolisms, life spans, they react to their environments. If the GRS can encode something like “memories” in its liquid metallic hydrogen layer, it could form what we would call intelligence—could have, long ago, evolved intelligence. With three times Earth’s volume in computing capacity, such a being’s intelligence could be rather astonishing, especially if the liquid metallic hydrogen can perform quantum computing operations.

So my point is that it is possible that the Great Red Spot is, right now, this very moment, watching us humans on Earth with a superhuman intelligence and recording our behavior. Maybe it’s even communicating in some way with us, in a way that we cannot understand, anymore than an ant can understand the humans that operate its ant farm. Maybe the GRS has had an active interest in human history and morality—just like the gods described in religions. Maybe the GRS even influences the gravitational field of Jupiter in some way to fling meteors and comets at Earth, controlling our history.

I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, in any case. But I also wouldn’t say I believe the GRS is a god. In fact I would say that I don’t believe the GRS is a god, since there’s no evidence for anything I’ve just described beyond “well it’s possible.”

Would you say the same thing, or are you on the fence?

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Qingu In that example I agree, but who’s to say there isnt some entity that started the big bang or caused the first inklings of life to appear here on earth or elsewhere. Would that not be a god? I know there is no evidence to support this as well other than “well its possible” but still I dont think thats a reason to say there is absolutely nothing out there. On the fence I think of as in the middle, 50/50, im more 85/15

Unbroken's avatar

I knew this had the potential to be a loaded debate. I questioned whether or not to go here or not. I tried to carefully word the question even to my ears it sounded awkward. However I did it this way so as not to pin point specific people or quotes that originally struck me as statements of what I now come to realize is Gnostic atheism. I have no idea why someone would align themselves thusly and really its not my business to. This is merely an affirmation that there are loonies politically incorrect, I know in every pot. Thanks everyone for their contribution. @Qingu you have my admiration. You have infinite patience. But I am guessing as long as you keep going uberbatman will as well. @uberbatman are you by chance playing devil’s advocate

Unbroken's avatar

pun intended

Sunny2's avatar

@rosehips Your argument that both deists and non- deists have only faith to defend their views is what made me reluctantly agree that I have to say I’m an agnostic. Atheist seems much more what I am, but I can’t prove it either way. Now I’m a wishy-washy agnostic leaning very very hard toward atheist.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@rosehips a little bit, but I must admit I love to debate things with @Qingu, he’s a truly brilliant jelly

Unbroken's avatar

@Sunny2 Uh oh. Never been billed a converter. Not sure I am up for it. Seriously though I have always tried to seek balance on most subjects. I am aware there is a stigma attached to the moderate stance. But I fail to see why. As the pendulum swings the more unbalanced it gets. Not that the pendulum should stop it just should know where it belongs. I think moderates are mistaken as passionless. But au contraire I have met many passionate moderates. Stepping off soap box
@uberbatman So I take it, I will have to pick on Quingo i mean pick Quingo’s brain in the
future.

ninjacolin's avatar

@rosehips, check this out: @wundayatta said: “what you got is that there is no compelling evidence to support the idea of God. Indeed, there isn’t any evidence at all.”

see that right there? That’s what makes @wundayatta atheist. The fact that he happens to believe there to be “NO compelling evidence” to support the idea of a God (singular). That is in fact the only thing that separates atheists from theists. Theists happen to believe that there “IS compelling evidence” to support the idea of a God.

It’s the beliefs and/or convictions and/or interpretations of/about the evidence that makes all the difference.

Qingu's avatar

@Sunny2, as others have said, the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” are not mutually exclusive.

I just think it’s pointless to say you are agnostic. Because all knowledge is conditional and probabalistic; that doesn’t mean we can’t have beliefs and act on them, which is to me what “atheism” involves.

For example, according to quantum mechanics, there is a very small possibility that I will fall through my chair when I sit down. The subatomic particles in my body and in the chair are fundamentally probabilitistic in nature. The chance of them tunneling past each other is, as we can calculate it, infinitesmal, but it’s still there.

So in this sense, I am “agnostic” about whether or not my ass will fall straight through my chair cushion. Maybe it will next time! We can’t know for sure.

But in a more practical sense, I’m an “atheist” about this possibility. It is so utterly remote that I do not change my behavior in any way to account for it. I never, for example, check my seat cushion for solidity before I sit down. I act as though I am 100% certain that my chair and my butt will remain solid, despite the fact that on an ontological level I, as an agnostic, recognize that there is something like a 0.0000000000000000000000000000000…00001% chance of it not happening.

Seek's avatar

I am an atheist.

I do not think there is a god or gods in existence, because I have no convincing reason to believe there is one, much like I do not believe Bertrand Russell’s allegorical teapot is orbiting the Sun between the Earth and Venus.

If convincing, testable evidence were presented, of course I would immediately change my position. Am I holding my breath in anticipation that such evidence is forthcoming? No.

ucme's avatar

If someone wants to believe in one more god than me, then i’m it.

Sunny2's avatar

While I can’t prove there is no god, my actions and thinking are based on that (non) fact. And lest we get into that discussion about whether I am therefore free to do evil deeds because of my lack of belief, moral behavior does not require the feeling that someone is looking over my shoulder. Consideration for other people in my sphere and my belief in basic kindness does.

Unbroken's avatar

Agreed. @Sunny2

This reminded me of my brief history on Satanism. I say history though it was only a topic touched on in Academia, it has essentially been regulated to a footnote in history. It was created by the Roman Catholic Church because they noticed a in membership and devoutness.—This was a some point after paganism was by and large subjugated. One of the means they used was to overtake the pagan holidays and festivities and replace them with their own.— A method of motivating the members was to create a war in which they were literally battling evil. There were very few actual Satanists and most of those that identified themselves as such were doing so as an act of rebellion or hate toward the Church.

Of course this was short lived though the rumors, myths and stigma remain. So what has the church stirred up today? Well usually it’s each other. There are always schisms and individual doctrines that are made up. In the this current day and age the dogmatic christains are focused on sharia. Although Atheism is a close second.

As pointed out earlier, most of us don’t believe in unicorns or fairies or other creatures of lore. We may think they are cute or enjoy stories that involve them but there is no word to describe our disbelief in unicorns. That is because it is irrelevant. When we order a burger without the cheese most of us will call it a hamburger.

When we splintered from Great Britain we were revolutionaries. When the federates won the civil war it against the confederates who were opposing the federates. I think most of us can agree that when a politician makes the argument that instead of voting for him you should vote against his opponent, which just so happens to be for him, it is not a very sound argument, not an argument at all but an opinion. When you self identify not only something with negative connotations, not only are you saying there is an absence in your life, but that you agree there is absence. So is this a public relations issue. Maybe to a degree. I also take issue with lumping myself in with people who positively state that there is no god, or that there is no afterlife.

Qingu's avatar

@rosehips, I think the question of optics, how atheists self-identify (“atheist” vs. “secular humanist” or whatever) and how they are perceived by society, should be separated from the actual question of whether or not there are gods.

Whether or not you choose to “lump yourself” with people who say positively there are no gods or afterlife, the fact of the matter is that there is no daylight between your behavior and my behavior when it comes to these subjects. You presumably don’t act as though there was even a remote chance that you’ll suffer in any given afterlife for offending any given god, and neither do I, an atheist. The only difference is semantic, whereas there’s a huge gulf between the way we both behave and the way religious people behave.

Unbroken's avatar

@Qingu So what your saying is that there being * only 2 end results possible in the afterlife.* That orientation, identification or lack there of are insignificant? What I am saying as since I am w present in my life the distinction does matter because I can not truthfully or logically defend. According to dogma and theologians not all self identified believers are going to the heaven they believe in but I am not jumping on those horses either.

Qingu's avatar

Actually there are countless versions of afterlives in various religions and they all say different things about how one ends up in the good or bad afterlife.

And most people who say they are agnostic actually act as though they are atheists—they do not hedge their bets on the possible existence of any of these afterlifes. They act as though all the afterlives put on the table by the world’s religions are, or might as well be, made-up.

Blondesjon's avatar

We are all just monkeys from the goo.

Unbroken's avatar

@Qingu I don’t disagree with what you said. I was encompassing many religions and ignoring ones that didn’t filter through the lens of the religion I was indoctrinated in. That I guess is my problem. I was taught, even though I rejected the idea that the unicorn does exist. Truth be told it does exist. In folklore and imagination in great tales and silly ones, probably in some genetic mutations too. But I don’t think that the filter is my problem alone.
That is why I view the semantics of the labels atheism, agnosticism etc as inherently flawed. In juxtaposition to theology. The terms wouldn’t exist without religion. This has the effect of leveling the battlefield; the force the opposing force. Which was constructed just fight off the other. A war that can never be conclusively won. If you want to say it’s not a war there is separation of church and state, the education of children, has there been an openly atheist president? In the past there was persecution of nonbelievers and so on.

CWOTUS's avatar

What’s a better word for “apinkunicornist”?

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