Several of the reactions to my most recent post that “No one is born atheist” contain some variant of the argument:

Since atheism is defined as the lack of belief in a god or gods, and babies are born without any supernatural beliefs or opinions whatsoever, children are clearly atheist until they engage in this ‘animistic behavior’ – 180andback

and

Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a deity, nothing more. – Zaki

Sure, if you literally break the word down into a-theism then you can interpret it to mean the lack of a belief in a God but I don’t think this is a useful way to talk about atheism.

If I made the claim that “I don’t think dinosaurs exist” then your natural first reaction might be “Well, what about all those fossils?”.

If I went on about how Satan buried those fossils as a test of my faith, you could safely label me a-dinosaur as I’ve made an active assertion about how the world could be without dinosaurs.

On the other hand, if I simply choose to ignore your question about the existence of fossils, it would be more accurate to label me as a dinosaur denier. Someone who doesn’t want to confront the issue of dinosaur existence.

Furthermore, if I had simply never even heard of dinosaurs before and had no reason to suppose their existence, then it might be accurate to label me as a dinosaur agnostic.

In each of these three cases, I don’t hold a belief that dinosaurs exist but these three lack of beliefs are of a very different nature and calling them all a-dinosaurism confuses the issue.

It is not enough to claim that gods do not exist to become atheist, you must also provide a explanation that explains the evidence for the existence of gods. Any justifiable atheism must be at least about to adequately answer the following phenomena:

  • Every single day, hundreds of faith healers across the globe cause countless miracles of healing
  • I had a dream about my Aunt Marge dying and when I woke up, I got a phone call that she got into a horrific car accident
  • Every time I go to the 5th floor of my office,  I feel incredibly sad and lost. I later found out that someone had committed suicide on that floor. I had no idea it happened but I still felt the presence of his ghost.
  • My friend had a terminal cancer and the doctors told her that it was incurable but when she prayed to God, it miraculously went into remission. The doctors all said they had never seen anything like it.
  • When I rub my lucky coin 3 times in a clockwise fashion, I win much more at roulette
  • I can feel God guide me in my life and feel his presence in my soul. It’s impossible for such a feeling to be faked

What’s amazing about atheism is that it can adequately answer these seemingly amazing phenomena in a purely naturalistic manner. However, the answers to these questions are neither simple nor obvious. Any answer requires a great deal of sophisticated understanding of both philosophical and empirical matters and it’s the ability to answer these questions that separates genuine atheism from a simple denial of gods.

Such a confusion does atheists and atheism no favors. Because this distinction is not made clear, most of the Christians I talk to believe that atheists are God deniers. Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism. The idea that atheists are actually capable of answering the preceeding questions is so astounding that it’s never even considered.

Atheists need to become much more clear about what atheism is and isn’t if they want atheism to be given the respect it deserves as an intellectual position. Atheism is not simply a denial of gods. Instead, it’s an active assertion that the universe can be explained better in the absence of gods.

Responses

  1. Zaki says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 9:30 am (#)

    I think on several occasions, you could replace ‘atheist’ with the term ‘critical thinker’ and it would make more sense.

    It’s not someone’s ‘atheism’ that causes them to reject a given belief claim, but rather their ability to think critically and examine evidence. Atheism is not a belief, set of beliefs, state of mind, way of thinking, etc etc etc. It is a rejection of a specific belief claim that a god exists, based either on the person’s ability to think critically, or it could even be based on the person’s outright ignorance.

    Do you realize that some people are actually atheists because they are just too ignorant and/or lazy to even deal with the issue of theism? By definition, they are atheists because they do not believe in god, but these people are by no stretch of the imagination free thinkers or intellectuals in any sense of the word. I would think associating yourself with these types of people does you no more good than the people you are trying to distance yourself from with your other post.

    I just think that if we must label these people you’re talking about, it would better serve you to call them free thinkers, rather than atheists. Atheists come in all ranges of intellect and philosophical interest, but we can at least say with more certainty that free thinkers are the ones that actively challenge our animist intuitions.

    Your whole point of saying no one is born an atheist is because you think it does the word ‘atheist’ a disservice since you say it is our atheism that serves to challenge our natural animist instincts. I’m suggesting that it’s not our ‘atheism’ that does this but rather our ability to think critically, which only LEADS to our atheism, but it has nothing to do with our atheism to begin with.

    Atheism is not what makes someone think a certain way, but rather the result of an intellectual inquiry (or, as I said, in some cases outright ignorance).

    Not everyone is born a free thinker, and I think this is more to your point. I just think you’re incorrectly equating free thinker with atheist, when they are not necessarily synonyms. As I have pointed out, one can certainly be an atheist, but not a critical thinker at the same time. I think based solely on definition, we are in fact all born without the belief in god…the same way we were born without the belief in santa claus…..but we’re not all born with the ability to think critically.

    Again, this is why I tend to stay away from labels because they cause this kind of confusion were everyone starts attributing their own meaning to each label. Atheism is nothing more and nothing less than non-belief in a diety.

    I personally don’t think it does the word atheism a disservice to suggest that everyone is born one. I happen to think you’re ascribing your own definition to the word, which is why you’re drawing the conclusions you are, but based purely on its definition of lack of belief in god, we are in fact all born without that belief in god.

  2. Zaki says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 1:30 am (#)

    I think on several occasions, you could replace ‘atheist’ with the term ‘critical thinker’ and it would make more sense.

    It’s not someone’s ‘atheism’ that causes them to reject a given belief claim, but rather their ability to think critically and examine evidence. Atheism is not a belief, set of beliefs, state of mind, way of thinking, etc etc etc. It is a rejection of a specific belief claim that a god exists, based either on the person’s ability to think critically, or it could even be based on the person’s outright ignorance.

    Do you realize that some people are actually atheists because they are just too ignorant and/or lazy to even deal with the issue of theism? By definition, they are atheists because they do not believe in god, but these people are by no stretch of the imagination free thinkers or intellectuals in any sense of the word. I would think associating yourself with these types of people does you no more good than the people you are trying to distance yourself from with your other post.

    I just think that if we must label these people you’re talking about, it would better serve you to call them free thinkers, rather than atheists. Atheists come in all ranges of intellect and philosophical interest, but we can at least say with more certainty that free thinkers are the ones that actively challenge our animist intuitions.

    Your whole point of saying no one is born an atheist is because you think it does the word ‘atheist’ a disservice since you say it is our atheism that serves to challenge our natural animist instincts. I’m suggesting that it’s not our ‘atheism’ that does this but rather our ability to think critically, which only LEADS to our atheism, but it has nothing to do with our atheism to begin with.

    Atheism is not what makes someone think a certain way, but rather the result of an intellectual inquiry (or, as I said, in some cases outright ignorance).

    Not everyone is born a free thinker, and I think this is more to your point. I just think you’re incorrectly equating free thinker with atheist, when they are not necessarily synonyms. As I have pointed out, one can certainly be an atheist, but not a critical thinker at the same time. I think based solely on definition, we are in fact all born without the belief in god…the same way we were born without the belief in santa claus…..but we’re not all born with the ability to think critically.

    Again, this is why I tend to stay away from labels because they cause this kind of confusion were everyone starts attributing their own meaning to each label. Atheism is nothing more and nothing less than non-belief in a diety.

    I personally don’t think it does the word atheism a disservice to suggest that everyone is born one. I happen to think you’re ascribing your own definition to the word, which is why you’re drawing the conclusions you are, but based purely on its definition of lack of belief in god, we are in fact all born without that belief in god.

  3. Hang says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 10:36 am (#)

    Zaki: You’re right that labels are the source of much confusion which is why we need to take care when using them.

    “Do you realize that some people are actually atheists because they are just too ignorant and/or lazy to even deal with the issue of theism?”

    I prefer to call these people apathists.

    My distinction between the multiple forms that non-belief can take was designed to highlight why the statement “Everyone is born an atheist” is such a poor argument from a logical perspective. It deliberately conflates two different forms of non-belief which should be kept quite distinct.

  4. Hang says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 2:36 am (#)

    Zaki: You’re right that labels are the source of much confusion which is why we need to take care when using them.

    “Do you realize that some people are actually atheists because they are just too ignorant and/or lazy to even deal with the issue of theism?”

    I prefer to call these people apathists.

    My distinction between the multiple forms that non-belief can take was designed to highlight why the statement “Everyone is born an atheist” is such a poor argument from a logical perspective. It deliberately conflates two different forms of non-belief which should be kept quite distinct.

  5. Zaki says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 11:05 am (#)

    I see exactly what you’re saying. I see your conflict as one between the varying degrees of ‘atheist’. Within that group of people that don’t believe in god, you have those that (as you call) are apatheists, some that are anti-theists, some that are agnostic atheists, and so on. I see where people would have an issue with the term atheist, which is why I have actually started recently to substitute it with the more plain-speak term ‘non-believer’. And when you use it in that sense, I would hope you could agree that everyone is born a non-believer in not only a god, but also a non-believer in anything else, since you either have to conjure up a belief on your own or be introduced to it, and a newborn child can do neither.

  6. Zaki says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 3:05 am (#)

    I see exactly what you’re saying. I see your conflict as one between the varying degrees of ‘atheist’. Within that group of people that don’t believe in god, you have those that (as you call) are apatheists, some that are anti-theists, some that are agnostic atheists, and so on. I see where people would have an issue with the term atheist, which is why I have actually started recently to substitute it with the more plain-speak term ‘non-believer’. And when you use it in that sense, I would hope you could agree that everyone is born a non-believer in not only a god, but also a non-believer in anything else, since you either have to conjure up a belief on your own or be introduced to it, and a newborn child can do neither.

  7. raytheist says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 3:06 pm (#)

    Thank you! I’ve been dealing with this confusion (people not understand what atheism is and isn’t) on my blog for a while. Your closing statement is probably one of the best summary statements I’ve found. Thank you!

  8. raytheist says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 7:06 am (#)

    Thank you! I’ve been dealing with this confusion (people not understand what atheism is and isn’t) on my blog for a while. Your closing statement is probably one of the best summary statements I’ve found. Thank you!

  9. MY LIFE » Blog Archive » What Atheism Is says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 7:23 am (#)

    […] over at Figuring Shit Out (what a cool blog title, huh?)  writes an interest post on What Atheism […]

  10. Dave2 says:

    December 22nd, 2008 at 6:15 am (#)

    I think the following is just false: “It is not enough to claim that gods do not exist to become atheist, you must also provide a explanation that explains the evidence for the existence of gods.”

    Imagine an unthinking person brainwashed by atheist parents into being a doctrinaire atheist, and who is unable to provide an explanation for any of the things you mention. Evidently your view is that this person is not an atheist. But obviously they are.

    In short, you seem to be confusing (i) what it actually takes to count as an ‘atheist’, with (ii) your ideal image of what an atheist should be like.

  11. Dave2 says:

    December 21st, 2008 at 10:15 pm (#)

    I think the following is just false: “It is not enough to claim that gods do not exist to become atheist, you must also provide a explanation that explains the evidence for the existence of gods.”

    Imagine an unthinking person brainwashed by atheist parents into being a doctrinaire atheist, and who is unable to provide an explanation for any of the things you mention. Evidently your view is that this person is not an atheist. But obviously they are.

    In short, you seem to be confusing (i) what it actually takes to count as an ‘atheist’, with (ii) your ideal image of what an atheist should be like.

  12. Zaki says:

    December 22nd, 2008 at 7:59 pm (#)

    Dave2,

    “In short, you seem to be confusing (i) what it actually takes to count as an ‘atheist’, with (ii) your ideal image of what an atheist should be like.”

    I wholeheartedly agree and think that’s exactly what’s going on.

  13. Zaki says:

    December 22nd, 2008 at 11:59 am (#)

    Dave2,

    “In short, you seem to be confusing (i) what it actually takes to count as an ‘atheist’, with (ii) your ideal image of what an atheist should be like.”

    I wholeheartedly agree and think that’s exactly what’s going on.

  14. 180andback says:

    January 3rd, 2009 at 4:48 am (#)

    Hi.

    I was born an atheist. Then I heard about all the claims for the existence of God. I studied religion, science, and philosophy.

    I am still an atheist.

    Thank you.

  15. 180andback says:

    January 2nd, 2009 at 8:48 pm (#)

    Hi.

    I was born an atheist. Then I heard about all the claims for the existence of God. I studied religion, science, and philosophy.

    I am still an atheist.

    Thank you.

  16. Anon says:

    May 9th, 2009 at 1:56 am (#)

    “Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism.”

    Respond to the fact that you just claimed that all atheists are inherently immoral. On what grounds could you possibly make this claim?

    Please clarify the claim that atheists label themselves atheists to protect themselves from the ‘morally threatening’ possibility of a god existing.

  17. Anon says:

    May 8th, 2009 at 5:56 pm (#)

    “Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism.”

    Respond to the fact that you just claimed that all atheists are inherently immoral. On what grounds could you possibly make this claim?

    Please clarify the claim that atheists label themselves atheists to protect themselves from the ‘morally threatening’ possibility of a god existing.

  18. Hang says:

    May 9th, 2009 at 2:25 am (#)

    Read the preceding and following sentences and it makes sense:

    Because this distinction is not made clear, most of the Christians I talk to believe that atheists are God deniers. Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism. The idea that atheists are actually capable of answering the preceeding questions is so astounding that it’s never even considered.

  19. Hang says:

    May 8th, 2009 at 6:25 pm (#)

    Read the preceding and following sentences and it makes sense:

    Because this distinction is not made clear, most of the Christians I talk to believe that atheists are God deniers. Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism. The idea that atheists are actually capable of answering the preceeding questions is so astounding that it’s never even considered.

  20. star_stuff says:

    December 27th, 2009 at 2:50 pm (#)

    I think the point here is that, as the argument says, people aren't born with religious beliefs until they are exposed to them and often indoctrinated. What you are debating about, by focusing on the definition of atheism, is semantics and deflates the entire point of the born atheist argument.

    Consider, instead, that in the absence religious doctrine the person then has the capacity to make an intelligent decision about not believing in God. Thus, by being born in a state of tabula rasa, the individual can later become atheist naturally. The 'born atheist' argument is metaphorical for the newborn in that it empowers atheism when children are raised without indoctrination.

  21. Xianhang Zhang says:

    December 27th, 2009 at 6:38 pm (#)

    This is where I disagree with you on a factual basis. People born with an absense of religious doctrine don't become atheists, they become animists. They invent weather gods & tree spirits rather than nothing.

  22. Sokratesz says:

    January 16th, 2010 at 7:50 pm (#)

    ''If I went on about how Satan buried those fossils as a test of my faith, you could safely label me a-dinosaur as I’ve made an active assertion about how the world could be without dinosaurs.''

  23. Sokratesz says:

    January 16th, 2010 at 7:50 pm (#)

    `''If I went on about how Satan buried those fossils as a test of my faith, you could safely label me a-dinosaur as I’ve made an active assertion about how the world could be without dinosaurs.''

    Obvious troll is obvious.

  24. Hang says:

    January 17th, 2010 at 3:19 am (#)

    You realize I'm atheist right?

  25. Sokratesz says:

    January 17th, 2010 at 9:34 am (#)

    I dunno, I found some bits of it interesting but it wasn't clear where you were going with the story.

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