Formspring – “Just what do atheists believe in?”

I jumped on the bandwagon and set myself up an account where people can ask me questions anonymously. It’s in the left sidebar, as well. I’ll be syndicating some interesting ones here as well as on my Twitter / Facebook accounts.

The first serious question I got was a pretty broad one, so it got a bit of a big answer. I’ll put it below the fold.

Just what do atheists believe in?

That’s a bit of a difficult question, in that it slightly misunderstands what “atheism” is, exactly. You can ask what I personally believe in, but generally “atheism” isn’t a belief system so much as a lack of belief in any specific deity or deities.

Interestingly, for instance, Buddhism is a belief system that is atheistic in nature — it holds that one can achieve “oneness” with the universe (called “nirvana”), and believes Buddha is the first man to have achieved this state. It does not however hold that Buddha is any sort of deity.

It’s also possible to be an atheist “by default”. Say you were never brought up in a specific faith — you’d never “believe” in any deities specifically, and would understand the world in a naturalistic manner, without having ever given any thought to the concept of deities. In fact, the idea of a magical, all-powerful personal entity might be so foreign as to be inconceivable to you. In these cases, you can rightly be called an atheist, though it’s not from any outright indoctrination into any belief system, nor is it the result of having explored any of them, naturalism included. These people may come to polytheism or monotheism on their own, inventing their own pantheon of deities, though they might also stumble across the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, testing and re-testing on their own. In either case, without someone impressing these beliefs upon them at an early age, their beliefs are developed in a vacuum and could result in basically anything humans might possibly imagine.

In my specific case, I have a strong belief in the scientific method. I have come to hold this belief in the face of evidence that every time the scientific method is applied correctly, it helps to sharpen our understanding of the universe. Through countless examples of it doing so, I have come to “have faith” in this method (in the non-religious sense — e.g. I trust that the method works), and therefore I also trust that, when the scientists applying it are doing so properly, the results they get are a far better and more accurate picture of the objective truth of this universe’s nature than any wild guess that humans have come up with in the past.

I hope this answers your question. If not, feel free to narrow the focus of the question a bit and I’ll be happy to make another attempt at answering.

This is kind of fun! And if people ask me tough questions, I might not have such a hard time coming up with things to write about. Writer’s block is easier to overcome when someone’s asking you the questions first.

Formspring – “Just what do atheists believe in?”

8 thoughts on “Formspring – “Just what do atheists believe in?”

  1. 1

    I don’t really buy that Buddhism, except in the most vague, general way, is atheistic in nature. Certainly it is *NON-THEISTIC* in that it embraces no god(s) and I suppose if you stretch atheism to it’s most general usage, it may be applicable, but I prefer to restrict the term to those people who have come to their rejection of god(s) rationally, something Buddhists simply have not done. For those who neither know nor care if god(s) are real, there are other terms and while I am loathe to compound the theist/atheist/agnostic paradigm farther than it is, it is more accurate to say that Buddhists are non-theistic, perhaps even ignostic, in their leaning. They certainly have no more rationally evaluated their belief system than most theists have, thus are not welcome additions to the atheist camp any more than I’d say Raelian followers would be.

    At least that’s my take on it.

  2. 2

    Theism is the belief in a god or gods. Atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. You’re born atheist, indoctrinated into a belief, and your level of certainty is how gnostic you are. If you’re 100% certain there’s a god or there’s no god, then you’re gnostic. A “rejection of god” would be gnostic atheism, and even Dawkins is wise enough to leave the door open a tiny crack on the matter and is therefore not a gnostic atheist. Nor am I.

    Just because you reject specific suggested gods (e.g. Yahweh) doesn’t mean there can’t be a deity that started things off and hasn’t interfered since — though I would need evidence of such before I started believing in such a creature, and I suspect that such a creature would be both unable to hear, and wholly uninterested in, worship.

    And yes, I prefer people that come by atheism rationally rather than irrationally (see this post, but to suggest that this is an “atheist camp” is a little wrong, too. It’s more a camp of rationalists, skeptics, etc., whose religious identification is atheism.

  3. 3

    All theists are atheistic toward all other gods that they don’t believe in, they’re still theistic toward the one they do. Atheists simply believe in one less god than any theist does. Atheism is as huge a general category as theism is, there is a wide variety of potential beliefs that can be deemed atheist,
    I just think that embracing the ones that are not also rational, skeptical and intellectual is, in general, problematic for what we might term the “atheist movement”. People like Bill Maher are certainly atheists, but rational? Skeptical? I don’t think so. He’s certainly someone I’d never put on a pedestal as an atheist to look up to or be proud of.

  4. 4

    Neither of us like Bill Maher for the excellent reason that he denies the science of vaccination when scientists are extraordinarily sure that they’re perfectly safe and that vaccinating has far fewer harmful side-effects than not vaccinating. So you’re right that, for that reason, he doesn’t make a good role model for skepticism, because he’s not skeptical of vaccinations — he’s cynical about them.

    But that doesn’t make him any less of an atheist. And his atheism doesn’t make him any more attractive a person to include in our “rational skeptical atheism” movement. However, I’m not sure if you’re arguing for a “purity movement” of only rationalists, or if you’re arguing for inclusion of everyone that is categorically atheist whether achieved rationally or not. At first I thought you were arguing for everyone that is atheist to be included under the umbrella of the “atheist movement”, but now I’m not so sure. Which are you arguing?

  5. 6

    I’ve noticed Formspring is kinda iffy… it’ll say “invalid request” half a dozen times then suddenly work. I’m guessing they have load balancer problems, and the proxy between one server and the next is flaky. (Total guess, but I’ve seen something similar at my old job.)

    Keep asking. Maybe put a question mark at the end. “It hurts when I pee?”

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