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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Atheism - what is it?

Maria Maltseva has a provocative discussion of theism, atheism, and similar concepts on her blog-like thing and her Facebook site. This led me to the following ruminations.

I don't think an atheist is someone who thinks we can know for certain that there is no god. For me, it just means that you don't believe any such being exists. I don't believe that unicorns exist, but it's not something I know for certain. I am open to the idea that a unicorn will be found some day, perhaps on a distant Earth-like planet.

While I'm not a big fan of certainty about anything, I'm very confident that the providential, loving, yet all-powerful and all-knowing, deity described by traditional Abrahamic theologians does not exist. I'm also very confident that it's worth being outspoken about the likely non-existence of this being and about the suspect credentials of the monotheistic religious traditions.

That's enough for me to call myself an atheist. It's possible, for all I know, that there are very powerful intelligences somewhere in the universe with abilities beyond anything we'll ever be able achieve using techno-science. It's possible, for all I know, that there's a deist creator/designer, or something similar. I see no good reason to believe in the existence of any such beings, but I don't think that claims about them are totally meaningless or that their existence can be ruled out to any terribly high degree of confidence. We just don't know. But that's not terribly relevant, morally and politically. The issue I consider relevant is whether the actual monotheistic religions that we see around us trying to influence public policy and tell us how to live our lives have any claims to authority, and on that I am confident - no, they don't.

Their god does not exist, and their belief structures are built on a lie.


Glendon Mellow said...

Well said!

I've been thinking about this a bit too. The terms atheist and agnostic are shifting in colloquial meaning, I think.

Agnostic seems to often be taken as "on the fence" or someone who doesn't think about it.

The term Atheist seems to be carrying som (welcome, in my opinion) baggage that includes a scientific worldview, and an attempt to be humanist in approach.

It just feels like a bit of a shift lately.

Anonymous said...

"I'm also very confident that it's worth being outspoken about the likely non-existence of this being and about the suspect credentials of the monotheistic religious traditions."

Thats true .After all a lot of the time we are effected by religions whether we choose it or not .

With this shift that glendon speaks about , some are suggesting atheism is a religion.The religions have written scriptures within their belief books .Atheists dont .

I think the religious are just trying to counter attack by using this suggestion .And confusing the passion with being a religious teaching in motion .There is the same passion within religion ,but its combined also with religious teachings that these faithful religious folk all follow .

Then the religious try to come back with suggestions that the likes of Dawkins and stalin etc are the atheist deciples .

Trouble is many atheist dont even know a lot about them .
Unlike the religious who know their allah or god ,jesus and deciples etc along with all the special comandments and religious teachings from their bibles and books that they all must follow.

Another striking difference ive noticed is on most atheist/agnostic blogs , comment is open .Many if not most religious blogs only allow postings of comments they wish to hear .

Anonymous said...

If your definition of atheism leaves room for the possibility of a divine being or something similar to exist how would you distinguish between that and agnosticism?

My own understanding was that atheists proclaimed that god(s) don't exist while agnostics proclaim there is no way of knowing one way or the other.

Russell Blackford said...

It's a good question, baralier. Like most good questions, it doesn't admit of a simple answer - there are several issues here and I can't do justice to the nuances of any of them.

First, if you want to say I'm agnostic it's only in the technical sense that I can't rule out certain empirical or metaphysical possibilities. Despite that, I have no actual belief in anything that could be called a divine being. Indeed, I think that the widespread belief in such beings can be given reasonably good debunking explanations. In my view, such beliefs persist for historical and psychological reasons despite the lack of evidence.

Still, I can't rule out (to a very high level of probability) something that is described in a sufficiently vague way. On some descriptions, the claim might amount to no more than one about panpsychism or metaphysical idealism, or something. I don't believe in any such doctrine - I'm a pretty hardcore philosophical naturalist - but I can't be certain about such elusive issues.

But second, nor do I think those issues matter in the here and now. What matters is the truth or otherwise of the actual religious systems that we face in the contemporary world: Islam (in its various guises), Roman Catholicism, various forms of Protestantism, etc., etc. These have given pretty detailed descriptions of God - detailed enough that I think we can rule out to a high degree of probability the existence of any being of that kind.

If you still want to say this is an agnostic position, fine. But it will be in a very technical sense.

And notice, third, that self-styled "agnostics" are often people who want to sit on the fence about the existence of the god described by orthodox monotheists in the Abrahamic tradition. Indeed, they are often unwilling to give offence by denying the existence of the Christian, etc., deity, or the truth of revealed religion. I don't sit on the fence about that - I'm confident that no such being exists and am happy to say so.

All the evidence points to the non-existence of this being and to the conclusion that the religions in which this being is described are human constructs; none of them are supernaturally revealed. Or so I argue.

As a final point, don't confuse belief and certainty. We hold many of our beliefs on the basis that we have a high degree of subjective confidence in them and would, in an intuitive way, assign them a high degree of probability. We claim to have knowledge if those beliefs are justified by relevant evidence or something similar. That is not the same as certainty. Certainty about anything at all complex is pretty rare, or should be.

Reza's Techno-Science said...

I've been thinking that first there no earth-like planet and being atheist isn't good choice for men because atheists annoying God, the one and only all mighty.