DC to the rescue! (and atheism is NOT a religion)

A poster at DC who has recently started contributing, Michael Wassil (under the moniker amwassil), asked for some help with an argument he was having on another forum. He requested we somehow copy and paste the thread over to here so regular contributors could get involved in the discussion. This is not what we usually do, admittedly. I like the idea that we can be of assistance to those who need it. In this case, it is the Christians commentators on that thread.

Rather than copy and paste the whole thread, I will set out some of the main points they make in order to discuss them. However, there are so many points, and so many egregious errors, as to make this a difficult task. I will set out the first 5 and see where we go. Hopefully, some of them might drop by and we can have a good ole debate.
1) It’s cute seeing Atheism dress itself up in religion’s clothes. Good luck, there. Keep trying that for awhile and see how well it works. (post’s author)
[which is built on by ...]
2) Atheism doesn’t have to dress itself up in religion’s clothes. It is a religion (well, a set of religions. Similar to, but more fractured than Christianity or Islam). (Jeff Gauch)

3) Thing is, they almost all DON’T understand what they pretend to understand. And the few–we’re talking one in millions–who mostly understand what is currently understood resort to things like believing in life being seeded on Earth by space-faring aliens so they don’t have believe in a god. Because space-faring aliens seeding life on Earth is very nearly almost certainly impossible, but at least it’s not God. Honestly, I have never in my life met an atheist with an intellectual problem with God. NEVER. Every one’s had emotional problems with the idea of God. In fact, I can’t count the number of “atheists” who say, “I won’t believe in a god who…” Um, yeah. There are many, many flatly insurmountable problems for materialists when it comes to what we know about the world. They have no answers for these problems, but it’s not God because they believe it’s not God. And that’s that. They have a faith that’s based on their own desires for how they wan the world to be, apparently oblivious to the fact that atheism has a history as far back as records go. They aren’t new or special. They’re not specially enlightened. They didn’t become atheists because they suddenly grasped thermodynamics. (Heck, my thermodynamics textbook flatly calls the theories of the genesis of life through natural means scientifically impossible–because it is.) They became atheists because they didn’t want to believe in God, or even more commonly and shallowly, they wanted to be liked by people who didn’t want to believe in God. (On the reverse, there are those who make a pretence at religoius conviction because they want to be liked by people who believe in God.). If the ancient fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’ the modern atheist says, “God is what I want him to be, and I’ll call him science, and he will do whatever I want because I can speak for him.”(mimiR)

4) The pretense that belief in a secular ideology is not as dependent on raw faith as a belief in a religious ideology is simply that – a pretense. There are absolutely no functional sociological differences. If it thoroughly floats your boat to be able to say your source of morality derives from a source, individual, cumulative, or committee, that did not channel a divine source as opposed to someone who claims their source did, then good for you. Thrill yourself. You are still utterly dependent on an external source defining your morality based on a completely unprovable first cause. Your assertion that such is not identical to a religious belief is as amusing as a child whose face is covered in crumbs denying he ate the cookies. (Sam) and At the very least, you seem to have a very poor philosophical grounding in these topics, given that you don’t even understand the assumptions underlying your own materialistic philosophy. To actually believe that you have no axioms making up your philosophical system would lead to a failure grade in any basic philosophy course. (PC Geek)

5) Logical fallacy. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. (Patrick Richardson)

So there are 5 to be getting on with. As I have said, there are many more. What amused me was the tone of some of the theists there who attempted to take the intellectual and emotional high-ground, whilst at the same time making angry-sounding, emotionally charged condescension themselves. Read the thread and see what you think.

Points 1 and 2 can be thrown together. This is the very tiring accusation that atheism is a religion. Yawn. Now, I may be quite controversial here in declaring atheism as something that many here will disagree. And this heralds the first point. Deciding what atheism IS is a difficult task upon which philosophers themselves cannot fully agree. As PC Geek opines on the thread:
*yawn* Just more angry atheist whining and philosophical equivocation…atheism is the belief that God does not exist and not merely a belief that there is no evidence to suggest it – that would be agnosticism.

I define atheism as this: A positive belief in a negative proposition that “God does not exist”.

Which is different to many who declare it is “a lack of belief in a God” or a “non-belief”.

Let me explain my position in referring to Ernest Nagel (reprinted in Critiques of God, edited by Peter A. Angeles, Prometheus Books, 1997):
“I shall understand by "atheism" a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism... atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief... Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist – for he is not denying any theistic claims. Similarly in the case of an adult who, if he has withdrawn from the faith of his father without reflection or because of frank indifference to any theological issue, is also not an atheist – for such an adult is not challenging theism and not professing any views on the subject."

This is often defined as strong or positive atheism - the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist. In coming on to sites and forums like this, most commentators are making that explicit affirmation.

However, many philosophers disagree, holding to a weak or negative definition of atheism. Goerge Smith in his 1979 Atheism: The Case Against God, p.14, stated:
The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist.

I disagree with this as mentioned above, but the point is clear – there is disagreement on the definition of atheism – it is not universal. If one would refuse to hold a belief on the proposition 'God exists', one would be adopting a position of a Pyrrhonian Skeptic. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) states,
To deny something is merely to assent to its negation. Since the Pyrrhonians took assent, i.e., the pro-attitude required for knowledge, to involve a kind of certainty that the matter had been finally and fully resolved, they did not assent to what they took to be non-evident propositions.... The Pyrrhonians would not assent to non-evident propositions.

This is the extreme agnostic position, if you will, whereby the Pyrrhonians would refuse to make a declaration either way on a truth proposition. Uber-skepticism, no less.

Michael Martin, for example, would classify the agnostic as an atheist in point of fact that negative atheism is actually agnosticism (The Cambridge Companion to Atheism Glossary – negative atheism: absence of belief in any god or gods. More narrowly conceived, it is the absence of belief in the theistic God.) He sets out the following passage (p.1):
If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand “atheism” in this way. Yet this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek “a” means “without” or “not,” and “theos” means “god.”1 From this standpoint, an atheist is someone without a belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes that God does not exist.2 Still, there is a popular dictionary meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist is not simply one who holds no belief in the existence of a God or gods but is one who believes that there is no God or gods. This dictionary use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call it positive atheism and let us call the type of atheism derived from the original Greek roots negative atheism.

Some eliminativists even declare that the terms should not exist (such as Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation). Many atheists dislike the positive atheism definition of atheism because as a “belief” (in a proposition) it gets hijacked by theists and turned into a belief system and then a religion. THIS SHOULD NOT BE DONE. A belief in the proposition that BMWs are better than Fords is not a belief system and not a religion. Just because the proposition is about God does not make it so.

Which finally brings me on to the point in hand. Whether you adhere to strong or weak atheism is irrelevant. Neither are belief systems, and neither give any indication as to any other philosophy involved in a worldview. Atheists disagree WILDLY over morality, from moral nihilism through relativism to subjectivism, virtue ethics, deontology and consequentialism, and so on: the disagreements are huge. To claim atheism is a religion is insane. Atheists believe totally different things about everything in the world, since they are not bound to believe anything by the proposition that God does not exist, accept propositions that might depend on that premise.

So these commentators do not define atheism, and they do not define religion. Dictionary.com (based on the Random House Dictionary) states this:
re•li•gion  [ri-lij-uhn]
noun
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purposeof the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2 specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

I really don’t think that I need to go much more into this. Atheism, AT MOST a single belief in a negative proposition, and at least, a lack of belief, cannot be defined as a religion based on any of the above definitions. Simply defining a religion in terms of a movement of people is silly. Fans of Coldplay, Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists, vegans, Libertarians, virtue ethicists, determinists, hockey players and so on are not adhering to a religion in being a sort of movement of people! Trying to push atheists into a solid movement is like herding cats, as they say, since their beliefs are so divergent!

So that should put to be points 1 and 2. On to 3.
Thing is, they almost all DON’T understand what they pretend to understand…. Honestly, I have never in my life met an atheist with an intellectual problem with God…. There are many, many flatly insurmountable problems for materialists when it comes to what we know about the world. They have no answers for these problems, but it’s not God because they believe it’s not God. And that’s that. They have a faith that’s based on their own desires for how they wan the world to be, apparently oblivious to the fact that atheism has a history as far back as records go. They aren’t new or special. They’re not specially enlightened. They didn’t become atheists because they suddenly grasped thermodynamics. (Heck, my thermodynamics textbook flatly calls the theories of the genesis of life through natural means scientifically impossible–because it is.) They became atheists because they didn’t want to believe in God, or even more commonly and shallowly, they wanted to be liked by people who didn’t want to believe in God. (On the reverse, there are those who make a pretence at religoius conviction because they want to be liked by people who believe in God.). If the ancient fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’ the modern atheist says, “God is what I want him to be, and I’ll call him science, and he will do whatever I want because I can speak for him.”

My first reaction to this is… what a load of utter shit. But let’s give it a little more thought though it ill deserves it. Basically, this is one big hasty and undeserved generalisation. We already know that atheists, in a poll, have been found to be more knowledge about the bible than theists. We know that atheism correlates to a higher education, and believers correlating to leaving school early (ask me for references if you need), as well as most scientists seemingly rejecting the notion of God. What seems to underlie this diatribe is the idea that we NEED answers here and now to unknowns. That is the beauty of science and knowledge.

As Aron Ra states in his video “Faith is not a virtue”:
“I was told that faith is trust… I was told I would not step onto an airplane unless I had faith that it would land safely. That doesn’t make sense because I know the plane exists… I know something about the safety ratings for commuting on an aircraft and I know that I can check my sources to find out they should be fairly reliable. But how could I be expected to trust things which can’t be verified and which are told to me by people which, frankly, can’t be trusted? I can’t trust the teacher, the preacher, or even the President, which when I was a boy was Richard Nixon. And maybe that was why I never recognised any authority as being unquestionable and that includes the people who wrote all the world’s religious tomes while claiming divine inspiration from a host of gods who cannot all exist at the same time.

Each of my science books said, “This is why we think this; this is how we figured it out; and this is what we still don’t know.” That I can trust. And it inspires me to contribute. Conversely, religious books claim to already know everything we’ll ever need to know, even thought they never explained everything; and you’re forbidden to question them. Instead, you should believe them without suspicion and simply because they said so (even when they have already been proven wrong). This is why the word ‘confidence man’ describes a criminal swindler. Such people should not be trusted. When is it ever wise to believe someone without question?”
The whole notion of scientific enquiry depends upon the unknown, of there being unknowns in order to enquire! There are some problems for which we have no answers. We just don’t feel it necessary to plug the hole with any old supernatural explanation. Patience, my Dear Watson, and we might just refine our enquiries to find the answer. To give up and defer to God is pretty intellectually pathetic.

As for becoming atheists because we just ‘didn’t want to believe’ for various insanely vacuous reasons is just plain wrong. A false accusation. The millions of atheists became so for millions of reasons. Some people react to the problem of evil, others to the logical impossibility of free will and thus a judgemental God, others to the advancement of natural sciences and explanations, forcing God into an ever smaller corner, others for the various logical and philosophical arguments. It’s rather immature, I posit, to lambast atheists as deferring to atheism out of emotive and weak need, and inferring that, secretly, we’re all still theists. Yeah, really, I’m an atheist because I just want to be liked by similar people. Yeah, that was the pioneering thoughts of the heretical minority that stood to burn, both in hell and on earth, for their beliefs! Yeah, that was what drove Annie Besant, Hobbes, Marlowe, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer etc etc. What rubbish!

As for atheists making science our God, this poster truly has no idea what he is talking about. Epistemologically speaking, we can at least prove the reliability of the scientific method for finding knowledge. We cannot do that to the religious epistemology. It is untestable, by God’s own admission. It is not falsifiable, by Popperian definition. So why should we trust it? We trust science. That is all. It is not our God, you silly person!

Most people desire to be liked but it does not mean that, in the case of atheists, we simply disbelieve to make friends – that we are all liars to ourselves. That’s just a multi-million victim ad hominem.

Point 4.

The pretense that belief in a secular ideology is not as dependent on raw faith as a belief in a religious ideology is simply that – a pretense. (Sam)
And
At the very least, you seem to have a very poor philosophical grounding in these topics, given that you don’t even understand the assumptions underlying your own materialistic philosophy. To actually believe that you have no axioms making up your philosophical system would lead to a failure grade in any basic philosophy course. (PC Geek)

Both worldviews depend on faith to a degree, as follows. What can we know indubitably? That I exist, through the Cartesian cogito ergo sum. I know, without doubt, that I, as a thinking entity (whatever that may be), exist. Outside of that, there is always some doubt. So if you talk of knowledge as being without doubt, we have to take a ‘leap of faith’ to get to our next epistemological level. For example, we could be a brain in a vat or on the Matrix. So I have a tiny amount of faith (since the probability for this is tiny) to allow me to jump from “I exist” to a sort of Correpsondence Theory of truth – that what I sense is a representation, in some way, of reality. This, then, is an axiom.

So what? Theists and atheists alike have this as an axiom. And there are similar sorts of axioms people can derive, as well as mathematical and logical axioms.

I have talked about the roll of faith in belief before. I see a justified belief as a jar filled with both rationally based evidence and faith. The theory of Gravity is hugely rationally evidenced, and there is only a tiny amount of faith to get over the brain in a vat or other tiny doubts we may have. The notion that I can walk with my eyes closed across a busy 3-lane motorway without being injured is based on very little evidence and a lot of faith. And so on. The belief that God does not exist does indeed require some faith to overcome doubts we may have (Dawkins said he was only 6 out of 7, thus needing ‘faith’ to get that last one, but interpreting evidence as being responsible for 6/7ths of the jar). My point here, is, so what? There is difficulty defining faith, sure. But the point is, theists utilise faith by the bucketload. Atheists, on the other hand, utilise faith sparingly. We are never 100% sure of anything but the cogito, so any knowledge claim demands a little. But this, again, depends on your definition of knowledge. Personally, I don’t mind being told I have some faith to believe God does not exist (though I am technically an agnostic-atheist) because I know damned well I use a shed load less faith than the theist.

Simply applying the OTF is enough to show that Christianity is probably false. Throwing in all other arguments (the Problem of Evil, metaphysical naturalism, incoherency of God’s personhood, biblical incoherency and evidence of its fallibility historically and theologically, so on and so forth) means that, to the atheist, the evidence is insurmountable. The assumptions and faith required, on the other hand, for theism beggar belief. Literally.
The pretense that belief in a secular ideology is not as dependent on raw faith as a belief in a religious ideology is simply that – a pretense. There are absolutely no functional sociological differences.

This is simply insane. First of all, what are functional sociological differences? Because they way I see it, functional sociological differences are massive between theists and atheists. Here are the social differences I can think of:

1) we do not spend hours of every week needlessly praying to a god
2) we do not waste hours a week involved in ritualistic cannibalism and religious rites
3) we do not ascribe the events of the world to an imaginary personal creator
4) we do not derive our moral laws from a 2000 year old book
5) we do not derive our prejudices (homophobia, sexism etc) from a 2000 year old book
6) we did not justify slavery, countenanced by a god, in using a 2000 year old book
7) we do not stifle education as a result of the preconceived notions of science derived from our religious beliefs, doctrinal or otherwise
8) we do not cut off the ends of our penises because our god told us to
9) we do not refuse blood transfusions due to some doctrinal belief

so on an so forth ad nauseam. Again, just a silly, thoughtless piece of opinion. Moving on.

If it thoroughly floats your boat to be able to say your source of morality derives from a source, individual, cumulative, or committee, that did not channel a divine source as opposed to someone who claims their source did, then good for you. Thrill yourself. You are still utterly dependent on an external source defining your morality based on a completely unprovable first cause. Your assertion that such is not identical to a religious belief is as amusing as a child whose face is covered in crumbs denying he ate the cookies. (Sam)

Not really sure this person is making himself clear. Could be that he needs to do some more reading into the philosophy of morality. Our morality did not come from a divine source, and neither did God’s. Aside from the good ole Euthryphro Dilemma, I have posted on the idea that God is a consequentialist – that morality is derived from the consequences of his actions, rather than the intrinsic value of either himself or his actions. Altogether a na├»ve opinion, again. To then claim our idea of a first cause is unprovable is funny for two reasons. First of all, hypocrisy. Second of all, atheists believe all sorts of different things with regards to first causes, or lack thereof. The eternal universe of Loop Quantum Gravity or the brute fact of a Universe from Nothing, or an infinite number of multiverses. Each with their evidences, all falsifiable and therefore open to testing. And God? Untestable. Unfalsifiable. Ad hoc.

Last but not least, point 5:
Logical fallacy. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

Oh dear, dear, dear. This is endemic within Christian thought. This maxim that does so much unwarranted damage to good theses in the eyes of less critical Christian thinkers. Firstly, it is not a logical fallacy. It can be, but by definition is not necessarily. In the form of an argument from ignorance, it can be, such that one would not say “I can’t explain the universe; therefore God did it.”

However, if absence of evidence is not evidence of absence in some circumstances, no one would ever be prosecuted (quote from here):
in American criminal law there is a presumption of innocence, which means that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and if the prosecution fails to provide evidence of guilt then the jury must conclude that the defendant is not guilty.

Similarly, the burden of proof is usually on a person making a new or improbable claim, and the presumption may be that such a claim is false. For instance, suppose that someone claims that the president was taken by flying saucer to another planet, but when challenged can supply no evidence of this unusual trip. It would not be an Appeal to Ignorance for you to reason that, since there is no evidence that the president visited another planet, therefore he probably didn't do so.

But from a historical point of view, let me refer you to Gilbert Garraghan (A Guide to Historical Method, 1946, p. 149):
To be valid, the argument from silence must fulfill two conditions: the writer[s] whose silence is invoked would certainly have known about it; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.

Interestingly, this view is expounded and promoted by Carrier (Proving History, 2012), Shafer (Guide to Historical Method, p.77), Gottschalk (Understanding History, p.45-6), Neville Morley (Writing Ancient History, p.67-7). In Proving History (p. 41-5), Carrier gives a fine example of a sound use of the absence of evidence as being evidence of absence with regards to the sun going out for three hours over the whole world at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The universal silence from global astronomers, from any other source outside of the Gospels, from it not possibly being an eclipse (chronology, duration etc), so on and so forth (4 pages of explanation) is a valid use of this method. It is valid to conclude that this absence of evidence, given the prior probability of this happening (it has never happened in such a way in the history of recorded observations) means that the historian is right to conclude that the Gospel sources are erroneous.

What can we conclude? Such Christian condescension (for it is evident in spades on the thread) is surely misplaced.

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