Atheism and religion: it’s all in the axioms

I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods or supernatural beings or occurrences. As far as I can tell, we live in a wholly natural world. But while my atheism is important and informs many of my perspectives, I don’t see it as an essential part of my basic worldview. It’s merely a conclusion drawn from something far, far more meaningful: scepticism and inquiry. I say this because I’m going to talk about an idea I have about the difference between axioms and conclusions and how this can be applied to religiousness and atheism. Bear with me on this one- it’s not as complicated as it seems.

Here’s a handy definition of ‘axiom’ that I googled. While obviously any particular definition will be incomplete, these will serve us perfectly well and fit in with how I want to use the word today. An axiom is:

A self-evident or universally recognized truth

and here’s another one:

A proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident.

Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, does operate with certain axioms. There are things which we take for granted and whose truth appears self-evident. There are other things which we do not take for granted, and whose truth or falsehood we deduce in other ways- from things like logic or evidence. The axioms that I use in my day-to-day life, however, are not necessarily the same as those which you use. Or, to put it differently, there are things which I take for granted that you do not. And, by the way, vice-versa.

Something I hear far too often in atheist circles is the idea that as atheists we are somehow more rational, logical and intelligent than our religious counterparts. I don’t believe this to be the case. And here’s why:

The God Thing: Axiom or question?

I wasn’t always an atheist, but I am now. Have been for several years and expect to continue this way. In between my religious childhood and atheist adulthood were several years of questioning. This isn’t unusual. Something I remember from my early years, however, is how the existence of God wasn’t something I came by rationally. It was something that I took for granted. God existed just as much as my family and everything else in the world around me. Whether God existed or not wasn’t a question– of course S/He did. One of the things that changed for me as I grew into adulthood was that several things happened which made me start questioning my religious background. It happened slowly, over several years. First I questioned Catholicism, then christianity, and finally the existence of any god at all. It wasn’t a simple process, and I think that one of the things that made it so complicated was how it involved more than new answers to questions. Things which had previously been axiomatic to me became topics I questioned and subjected to logical inquiry and the search for evidence. It wasn’t new answers to questions at all. It was a whole different way of thinking about the entire damn topic.

I’m lucky to have a fairly diverse bunch of friends and acquaintances, although I will admit that they lean towards the secular. However, they also include a good few people who follow various religious traditions and share beliefs in god. I am no more intelligent and no more rational than my friends who believe in gods. They’re generally the same kind of pro-science somewhat geeky social activist types as the rest of the people I tend to hang out with. The only difference, it seems to me, is in whether we frame the existence of god as an axiom or a question. Everything else flows from there.

Contradicting reality

When I look at the religious people around me, I don’t see people who deny reality. This is, of course, not representative of everyone with a religious belief. There are people whose beliefs blatantly contradict observable facts and evidence, and that is a problem because that kind of thing can be seriously harmful to us all. I have a massive problem with people who would choose the words of their sacred text over the evidence of their eyes.

The biggest difference that I see isn’t between believers and nonbelievers. It’s between people who choose their scripture over observable reality (“the planet’s climate couldn’t be changing because the bible says that God will never again do that kind of thing” or “I’m going to deny my child life-saving medical treatment and pray for them instead while they suffer and die”) and those who believe one alongside the other. Honestly, I’m more interested in whether you acknowledge that the universe is billions of years old than whether you think that there is a deity planning the whole thing on a level that humans can’t fathom. The latter is something that doesn’t affect me in the slightest- it’s an addendum you have to the things we know about the universe. We live in pretty much the same place, give or take an axiom or two, and we try to not have too much cognitive dissonance with them. The former is terrifying, because it shows a blatant disregard for reality, and someone who is willing to do that in one sphere is likely to be willing to do so in another. We have far, far too much evidence from history as well as the present of people whose prioritising of their scriptures over the world and people around them led them to do terrible things.

I’m an atheist. Far more importantly than that, I am a sceptic and a humanist. It would be lovely to be able to put atheists in one category (“intelligent, rational, exceptionally good looking and charming”) and everyone else in another that was far less flattering. But in my own experience- and yes, I am speaking from anecdote in this entire post- focusing on whether the existence of god is one of a person’s axioms is a red herring. Things aren’t that simple. And I, for one, am not about to let a desire for simplicity overlook reality- a reality where a person’s respect for observable reality is far, far more important than whether they see something beyond that.

How about yourselves? This is something that I’m very much in the process of working out my own views on, and as always I’d love to find out what you think. I know that my readers have many different ir/religious perspectives. If you’re religious, do you think I’m right about my idea that belief in god(s) is more of an axiom than something logically deduced? I’m also really interested in the ways that people reconcile where reality seems to contradict the scripture(s) that you follow- I’d love if anyone would like to talk about their experiences with that?

Oh, and this is only tangentially related, but I found it kinda amusing.

Atheism and religion: it’s all in the axioms
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Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.

I’m an atheist. I try to be a skeptic- I’m hesitant to identify as A Skeptic, because I think that skepticism is something that we do, not something we are. I believe in things that we have evidence for, like apples and kittens and spaceships and love. While accepting that I live in and am a brain optimised for staying alive and making more brains over logic, I try to not believe things without evidence. I don’t believe in gods or homeopathy or decent books by Stephanie Meyer. Because my beliefs are based on evidence, they are always conditional and subject to change. Which is why I now accept that Lovely Housemate can, in fact, cook pasta without burning it, and I am coming around to the conclusion that there are advantages to not sleeping in until lunchtime every day, and that there is such a thing as too much chilli.

My skepticism is one informed by the real world. My skepticism is based on valuing truth and empathy together. It is based on an empathy informed by truth, an honesty about the world, and a belief that we are at our most honest when we are also compassionate. And an understanding that honesty requires that we accept who and what we are. Sometimes, that means that we accept being brains that do things that aren’t logical. We are brains that are optimised to see agency in the world around us. We can personify and empathise with just about anything. It’s part of how we empathise with and love others. We create images of those we love in our minds. Those we love, in a way, live within us.

I read this yesterday.

Libby’s impending mortality has reminded me that even that belief is one in which I can—and probably have—become just a little too certain. Sometimes, I think—I hope?—there is a value to a belief, even an irrational one, whose main purpose is to comfort. Sometimes even a rigorist may admit a moment of cognitive dissonance if doing so salves a wound that makes life, at that moment, too painful.

If at this moment I allow myself to believe, more or less unquestioned, that Libby has something in her that’s immortal, it doesn’t mean that I will stop accepting as valid the conclusions of modern science…

My critical discipline is good. I will not disparage it. But I will also try to learn that I can distinguish between the consequences of particular irrational claims, and to affirm that there are some that I am morally allowed to hold.

Go read the rest. It’s blisteringly honest and sweet and compassionate, acknowledging the irrationality of believing that those we love go on and yet accepting that sometimes it’s what we can’t help but do.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that we have this one, short, wonderful life and that there isn’t really any way to tell what happens after. Except that our brains stop working. And that it looks like our brains are where our consciousness and our selves live.

There are times, though, when I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t believe that those I love who have died are truly gone. I hear their voices in my mind, remember what it was like to talk to them, hug them and hold them close. I can feel their closeness, love and compassion deep within me, as if they were next to me. In those moments, the belief and understanding that they no longer exist just isn’t there. It’s not that I don’t want to believe it. It’s that the parts of my mind that came into being through my relationships with them are still there. Those mirror neurons haven’t stopped firing. My mind wants, with everything it has, to feel that they’re still there. Somehow. Somewhere.

I don’t believe my mind. But sometimes I do let it be. While accepting logically that there is no known way by which anyone can survive beyond their death, I let my mind feel that the people I love still exist. Not because I think it’s true. But because this thing that I know not to be true is comforting. Because of this. Emphasis mine:

When I call the vet in to euthanize Libby, I will do so because I want to spare her a degree of pain that will make her life more of a torture than a joy. Perhaps her tacit lesson in that moment is that it is also acceptable for us humans, psychologically and spiritually, to extend a small amount of that same mercy to ourselves.

I feel that it is essential that we are as compassionate as we are honest. That compassion, if it is to be truly genuine, needs to be extended to our selves as well as to others. When I let a part of my brain feel (not believe) that my departed loved ones still somehow exist, I’m not denying reality. I still know that they are not. I know that my memories of their voices and presences are just that- precious memories that I hope I will carry with me all my life. But allowing a little conscious cognitive dissonance into my mind is a comfort. It’s a way to let my mind bring those memories to life. A way to let the relationships continue past the lives of one of their members. A way to let the people I love continue to influence my life beyond theirs. A way to get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Death, atheism and middle of the night belief: being kind to ourselves.