In arguments with theists and in the books of theologians the theists often proclaim we atheists don’t udnerstand God. Well, it’s a fair comment since theists don’t understand god either – they are inconsistent about it, and often provide really poor explanations of what they mean by ‘god’.
The funny thing is that while making such a claim about why they are not understood, they also go on to tell us what atheism is. They are very often dead wrong.
This is a short and simple explanation, for theists.
Kinds of Atheist
It is worth remembering that the only meaning to ‘atheism’ that makes sense is what is often termed the pejoratively ‘Dictionary Atheism’.
The trouble is that ‘atheism’ really is simply ‘a-theism’, the rejection of assertions of theists for lack of supporting evidence, or reason, for their theism.
Unfortunately ‘atheism’ doesn’t give us the slightest clue about what else one thinks. Here are some some systems and modes of living that are atheistic:
– Humanist – (capital H). Of course the religious can be ‘humanistic’ (small h), but Humanism is a system of principles that relies on evidence and reason and sees nothing that convinces us there are any gods. That’s the reason Humanism is atheistic. If it ever turns out there is a god remotely like the gods we are told about by most religions then Humanists will probably oppose such a god’s oppressive and cruel nature.
– Secularism – This is often mistaken for atheism, but it isn’t. It simply means conforming to the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions. Religious people can be secularists. The benefit of secularism when embraced by the state is that it avoids the state favouring any particualr religions. The USA was supposed to be a secular state, but the religious have managed to get god on the bank notes, and prayers where they are not supposed to be. Of course conservative Chrisitans in the USA don’t like secularism, so they conflate it with atheism, and imply that a secular state is an atheist state … like Communism (next). It’s a means of bad mouthing atheism by lying about it – so much for the moral principles of the religious.
– Marxist Communist – Since this system included a perspective on religion that wasn’t particularly favourable it is atheistic in nature. Further, it’s the go-to example of the horrors of Communism, but thos same horrors are then attributed to atheism. But there is nothing in actual a-theism, the rejection of theism, that requires any additional belief. Of course you could be a Communist and religious, if you take the socialist political ideology and marry it with a belief in god. Many Christian Democrats and Socialists seem to manage this quite well – up to a point. Nevertheless, the lie that atheism = Communism is a common one among the religious.
– New Atheism – This was a term attributed to a few atheists that became more outspoken about the atrocities that had occurred in the name of religion, which rose to greater prominance on 11th September 2001. Not that Islam hadn’t been throwing up examples of extremism and terrorism prior to that. With the rise of the internet religious nuts across the USA were also getting more air time, volunteering their views of being exposed for them. New Atheism was first a reactionary term from the religious that didn’t like the ‘stridency’ or Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris. Many movements that that are given pejoritive labels go on to embrace them, such use of the term ‘queer’ byt the gay community. Even when New Atheists like Dawkins explained they weren’t particulary fond of the label, they were just atheists that spoke out against the religions, they pretty much had to accept it.
– Atheist+ – This an other variations came about when some atheists decided atheism needed to be more than just, well, atheism. Why? We already have Humanism. The real reason this happened was that a few spats occurred among atheists, with those that didn’t like the ‘stridency’ or Hitchens and Harris. When Dawkins upset them with his ‘Dear Muslima’ letter he became another target. Most were in or around the Free Though Blogs crowd, particular Myers. He went on to gather around him some of the nastiest atheists I’ve come across.
– Sceptics – These are often atheists, but apply the scepticism they have for religion to other cults and myths. James Randi has been a prominent figure, and Center for Inquiry a leading organisation in the early 2000s.
So, all you need to know is that atheism is the rejection of the claims of theists, which inevitably means they reject the claims of organised religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Particular atheists might focus one one or more religions, depending on their intersts and experience.
You’ll often hear, “You criticise X religion, why not Y?” Mostly when Western atheists are criticisng Islam: “You criticise Islam, why not Christianity?” Well, we do. But globally, Islam has attracted lots of cricism for the number of Islamic terrorists it manages to inspire, the dreadful way it treats women, not just in Islamic states but in the West, and for the inherent antisemitism that has infected it since Mohammed’s time. So, yeah, some of us criticise Christianity, but do focus a lot on Islam, with plenty of justification. We also support ex-Muslims, many of whom become atheists, though not all do.
Measures of Atheism
There are measures of atheistic claims that range from bad to good.
1 – “I know there is no god. I can just tell. I have a sense for it. I KNOW!” – Such claims to certain knowledge based on no evidence or reason are really inadequate, and such people are best ignored, unless you want to help them overcome their certainty. The same applies for the religious that claim ‘sensus divinitatis’ – i.e. Alvin Plantinga.
2 – “I see no evidence of God, so I know there can’t be one. I have faith that there isn’t one.” – Faith is a really poor reason for believing anything, and that applies to atheists too. Of course, they do base that faith on there being no evidence for god, while believers use faith in spite of there being no evidence of a god; so at least they are not that bad.
3 – “I can prove there is no god.” – I doubt it. It’s hard to say whether this is better or worse than faith based atheism. Probably worse in an intelligent person because you know they don’t have a good grasp on reality; slightly less an indictment of a poorly educated person duped into thinking you can prove such things – at least there’s hope they might learn.
4 – “There is no evidence or reason for god – and that’s the only way we know there isn’t one. On that basis I claim there really isn’t one.” – This isn’t that bad. It’s quite pragmatic. It’s only flaw is a technical one: in matters of philosophy and metaphysics you shouldn’t really make solid claims based on the lack of evidence or reason so far. You might be prepared to bet your shirt on there being no god. See next.
5 – “There is no evidence or reason for god – and that’s why it’s reasonable to act ‘as if’ there isn’t a god. It’s reasonable to NOT pretend that religious claims there is one should give credence to the supposed moralistic demands of this unevidence god. … [and so on].” – This is the only strictly logical position to take, though it’s still pragmatically reasonable to take the previous position.
Arguing With Atheists
For the theist making statements like this:
These atheist fundies act exactly like traditional religious fundies in every way, and yet they deny their religion
they really need to come to terms with the fact that they are likely to be arguing with atheists in 4 or 5.
Atheism really isn’t like a religion – unless you stumble upon the rare 1, 2 or 3, but then if there’s a discussion going on rather than a shouting match you’re probably not interacting with one of those.
Some more points a theist my want to consider when engaging with some atheists: My Atheism.