First, I should define the term “atheism”: I am using it to mean “lack of belief in a god, deity, supernatural spirit, etc.” This is not a statement of knowledge; it is a statement of belief.
Strictly speaking I am an agnostic in that I do not claim to have certainty in my belief; I remain open to evidence. For example, there may be some concept of deity that have never heard of…or perhaps some sentient beings in some other part of the universe have it all figured out and I am just unaware of it.
But, I do not label myself an “agnostic” in public because others tend to take that as a sign that I haven’t made up my mind about, say, the Abrahamic deity, or perhaps one of the several thousand Hindu deities. Trust me, I have. Oh sure, perhaps Joseph Smith really had those golden plates, or maybe Jesus really did die and rose from the dead. But I see those things as having what Richard Dawkins calls “fairies in the garden” probability that I just use the approximation that they are false. I take the probability of the existence of such deities as seriously as you might take the probability of the existence of, say, magic goats. (yes, some really do take this seriously….)
Anyhow, if you find the idea of a magic goat ridiculous, that is what I think about YOUR stories of supernatural miracles.
Yes, I know…there are “sophisticated theologies” out there; I am sometimes told that all I have done is to reject the simple minded deity of my childhood. And yes, there might be some “grand” deity that is out there that can’t be detected by humans. It does something like this (a discussion between Francis Collins and Richard Dawkins)
DAWKINS: To me, the right approach is to say we are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God–it’s that that seems to me to close off the discussion.
TIME: Could the answer be God?
DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.
COLLINS: That’s God.
DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small–at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that’s the case.
And the physicist Mano Singham puts it very well:
As another example, here is the statement made by a commenter to my post arguing that religious atheists are getting even more atheistic who said, “I would suggest that you might want to bone up a bit on theology a bit before you pontificate on this particular subject… Your knowledge on religion appears to be quite limited, and you might want to learn a little more about it before you pontificate on it.”
Or again, “[A]ny number of philosophically illiterate folks can pretend to deal with the existence of God and not refer to Aquinas or Descartes or Kierkegaarde or any other notable genius who has spent the time and effort necessary to think about such a difficult and weighty and fundamentally complex topic… Any arguments about moral atheism are just amateurish attempts at what Kant and Spinoza and Berkeley were doing when they wanted to hold on to all the trappings of Christianity but do away with Christianity, and I’ll lay odds that anyone in the modern day who’s making similar arguments is going to be roughly a jillion times less intelligent than any of those three.”
That’s putting me in my place, isn’t it?
What is being asserted is that sophisticated theologians and philosophers, people who are much smarter than me, have studied these issues in great depth and have already explained everything and we need to go to them to find answers. God is so subtle that it is only through immersion in the works of these theologians and philosophers that we can obtain an understanding of him. Those of us who are not professional theologians and philosophers should shut up about our demands for dumb old evidence and not draw any conclusions on the question of god’s existence until we have devoted years to carefully studying the works of these theologians and philosophers.
This idea that god is so hard to grasp will no doubt come as news to the billions of religious believers who think they know god pretty well and have a good relationship with him without such study.
But we atheists are not talking about understanding the nature of god. We are not talking about the meaning of god. We are talking about whether god exists or not. This should surely be the prior question and is one that depends on evidence for an answer.
What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.
(emphasis mine; last paragraph is also Singham’s writing).
So, yes, I am not that well versed in philosophy. And yes, I am sure you can posit the existence of word-salad deities. But I have no interest in those. Sure, the deity of a deist (see “deism“) could well be undetectable. But so what? I have no interest in investing thought and intellectual energy in that area. The only deities that I am interested in are those who affect the day to day events of the universe. If your deity cannot even do that (or won’t), then I don’t care.
What about “belief in belief”? Some think that atheism is arrogant. It might be…people become atheists for many reasons.
Some see evil as a problem (e. g. the deity didn’t prevent the Holocaust or other genocides). Some see believers acting badly or irrationally. Others see how utterly ridiculous the religious texts are (e. g. the Bible is full of howlers: talking snakes, talking donkeys, miracles, etc.).
None of that really applies to me. Who is to say that a deity couldn’t be, well, evil?
No, my current state is the result of evidence that I’ve seen. And, ok, there is a certain philosophical appeal as well.
Think about how huge the universe is: galaxies are enormous and there are billions of those. And all of this was done by some deity for the benefit of Homo sapiens? That just makes no sense to me whatsoever.
And I admit that there is an emotional appeal. To me, it is the height of arrogance to think that there is some deity that will rearrange natural law for MY benefit if only I beg enough.
But sure, my finding atheism appealing both philosophically and emotionally doesn’t mean that it is true; I admit that. So, *in theory*, I remain open to changing my mind …though not about the religions and deities that I’ve already heard of.
But what about religious practices? Yes, I do believe that some religious practices have value. Fellowship can be life affirming. Yoga can both strengthen and relax both the body and mind. Prayer and meditation can calm the mind and emotions, and possibly make you of more service to others. And yes, sometimes, church (or temple, or mosque) is a place where someone challenges you to live a better life.
And yes, religious texts and myths can provide a poetic framework with which to discuss things (e. g. “writing on the wall”, “judge not”, “cast the first stone”, “do onto others”, etc.)
I just see these practices as being beneficial for secular, naturalistic reasons, not supernatural ones.