Reason Freely

The Sometimes-Uncomfortable Relationship between Freethought and Atheism

Posted in essay by reasonfreely on February 25, 2010

Atheism is a hot potato for free thought.  Most freethinkers are atheists or agnostics, but sometimes atheists are not freethinkers, and their message comes across harsh and dogmatic.  (Though atheist defensive vitriol may be understandable.)

I don’t claim to be the Pope of free thought or anything, but I think I can formulate a freethinker position on atheism.  I want to address the freethinker reasoning that leads to atheism first, then the practice of freethinker atheism second.  On reasoning atheism, I will discuss why atheism is just one of several philosophical positions that one can arrive at by reasoning freely, but it is the clearest for me.  On practicing atheism, I will address avoiding speaking from authority, stressing the meaning of atheism, and encouraging reasoning freely without crassly “selling” atheism.

Reasoned Unbelief

Freethought rejects claims made without clear logic, or in defiance of evidence.  The claims of most religions typically come from authority.  They make great claims involving unnatural infinites — infinite suffering, infinite power, total knowledge, infinite reward, live forever, etc.  The evidence for these claims does not exist or is shaky at best.  For instance, the claim of resurrection in Christianity is based on two thousand year old copies of copies of copies of propaganda from the leaders of a Jewish cult.  The only guy they claim was resurrected disappeared soon after, and since then, nobody else has been resurrected.  Consequently, claims of resurrection and infinite life are unsupported. It is natural that a freethinker would not believe these claims.  But that doesn’t mean a freethinker needs to be an atheist.

Freethinkers don’t like dogma, and saying freethinkers have to be atheists sounds a lot like dogma.  There are other beliefs that don’t defy evidence and don’t come from authority.  People often feel like there is “something beyond them”.  Some of us see that as family, America, or the progress of humanity.  Others interpret that feeling as destiny, luck, or fate.  And still others believe in a divine being.  But a person who is reasoning freely would not (notice I say “would” not “must”) believe that their divine being was responsible for worldly miracles.  This indicates a deist approach, or perhaps a belief in a God that has nothing to do with the human religions.  Some logical philosophical arguments that are consistent with free reason lead, albeit circuitously (e.g. Immanuel Kant), to this conclusion, while many do not.  So atheism, agnosticism, Kantian theism, and deism are all consistent with free reason.

To say that people are not allowed to have a certain opinion would be to force your authority on them.  Most world religions require an act of faith in a prophet’s words or the words of exalted witnesses to the supernatural — which is to say, an argument from authority.   Believe this because I said so.  This is the key to salvation in even liberal Christianity, for instance, and thus is not consistent with freethinker values.  On the other hand, New Atheism seems to be taking a hard line against theism.  I’ll have more to say on this after I digest more Dawkins, but Hitchens, for instance, seems to say that you should not believe in God.  Though I am tempted by the simplicity of his message, I am bound to disagree:  You should not believe in God without making that decision based entirely on evidence or logic and uncoerced by authority (promises of salvation with no proof, for instance), tradition (family tradition, for one), or appeal to emotion (fear of death).

Atheists Reasoning Freely

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” – Clifford’s Creedo

OK.  But...  That’s pretty harsh.  I advocate a softer style.  A sort of jujitsu of reason.

Freethinkers believe reasoning freely is a more powerful persuasive tool than proselytization.  People are always more convinced of something when they come to the conclusion themselves.  This goes for convincing people not to believe something as well.  Instead of telling people why god is not Great, perhaps we should be gently encouraging our friends and family to re-examine where their belief in the supernatural came from, and what criteria they use to decide what to believe.  After all, the principle behind free thought is agreeable to most theists.  They just give special exceptions here and there.  But telling them they can’t believe in the Christian God, for instance, is wrong.  It is just as wrong as religious indoctrination.

I love philosophical discussions, though.  And philosophical discussions often turn to religious discussions.  The tactic I take is to ask theists what they believe, avoiding labels.  That is, if someone says they are a Catholic, I ask them if they believe in the earthly intercession of the miracles of saints, the transubstantiation of the eucharist, the existence of hell, and the resurrection.  Among educated Catholics, I get a lot of, “well, sort of” followed by some deep discussion.  They feel comfortable talking about it because I have not said “you’re wrong” but instead “what do you believe?”  It is usually good to learn more about your friends and family, especially concerning beliefs with such strong emotional meaning for them.  By asking them to explain what they believe, they have to explain it, and doing so, they must give reasons, which naturally involve reasoning.  This often reveals the places where their belief is based on faith rather than evidence.    I stay non-judgmental; though I don’t shy away from asking my friend to clarify which beliefs are faith-based and which are evidence-based.

The next question I ask is “where does your faith come from?”  Catholicism, for instance, is complicated enough that you can’t come up with it spontaneously.  You learn it in special classes they teach to children (authority) and from your family (tradition).  Sometimes people have the most interesting stories of their indoctrination, and it tends to improve your relationship with them if you listen to the history of such an important belief in their life.  Explaining where their faith came from invokes causal reasoning.

The people I respect most have already thought about the origins of their faith, and they usually point to things like family and emotion (usually stressful events) as the causes for their faith.  They have engaged in critical reflection and understand it is possible that they believe because of these irrational influences, and admit that doubt is an accepted part of their religious experience.  They also differentiate carefully between the supernatural beliefs they hold based on faith and the ethical beliefs they hold for humanistic reasons.  But I digress.

Eventually, as much as I try to focus on them, the discussion will turn to my own beliefs.  It turns out, most theists I’ve met don’t understand atheism.  For one, they characterize it as a belief.  Atheism is the opposite of a belief:  It is the lack of belief.  I have a favorite rhetorical trick to help people understand atheism: Accuse your accuser of atheism himself:  “Do you believe in Thor?  Osiris?  Vishnu? Cthulhu?  Paladine?” The natural answer is no.  Two of them are ancient, dead religions; one is a Hindu God who most Westerners don’t believe in; and the other two are fictional.  The last one is a fictional god from fantasy novels and D&D!  Not believing in Paladine is the same as not believing in Osiris, Vishnu or Jehovah.  As Dawkins said to Colbert, “We’re both atheists.  I’m just one god more atheist than you.”  The reason this may be necessary is that faith, to the faithful, implies ignoring doubt — e.g. believing in something without looking for (or caring about) evidence of their belief.  Accusing atheists of having just as much faith as any religious zealot or saying that atheism is a religion allows them to pretend that the argument moot:  Evidence is irrelevant if both sides are willing to take their position on faith.

So trying to “convert” people to atheism is difficult, can cast doubt on the freedom your own reasoning, often involves arguing from authority, and can cause tension in your relationship.  I much prefer to bring people around to free thought (which is a much easier sell), and, if they still believe, then that’s OK.  If their belief is contrary to free reason, I usually understand how their belief was influenced, and that can tell me a lot about a person.   Because family is such a strong influence on the theists I know, the influence of family tradition on their reason is usually a positive mark on their character.

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  1. […] him to discuss his thoughts on that. His reply is a bit more scathing than I would prefer (see my previous post about that). But he does make it funny, and he isn’t entirely […]

  2. Andy said, on March 1, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Your long post lacked a reply button, so I hope this ends up the right place… okay, I accept burden of proof as a way to differentiate between a “belief” and another type of statement. That makes more sense to me than using claim/response, and the burden of proof actually could fall on the respondent in the claim/response model. For example if I write in a textbook that man evolved from older animals, and you protest that he did not, you have the burden of proof despite responding to accepted wisdom.

    I also learned a new word today, though weak atheism seems very close to agnosticism. Possibly the difference is in leaning toward God not existing versus really not knowing (or caring?). I increasingly find myself in the “don’t care” group, figuring that my life wouldn’t change much given proof or disproof of God’s existence.

  3. Andy said, on February 26, 2010 at 12:03 am

    “Atheism is the opposite of a belief: It is the lack of belief.”

    Doesn’t the lack of belief in a deity imply a belief that none exists? What is the difference between the statements, “I do not believe a god exists,” and “I believe that no god exists?”

    • reasonfreely said, on February 26, 2010 at 12:21 am

      The difference is that atheism is not a claim; it is the response to a claim.

      • Steve said, on February 26, 2010 at 11:22 am

        Right. If religion was never invented, or was completely wiped out with no surviving knowledge that it had existed, by definition everyone would be an atheist. But then the term wouldn’t exist, because there wouldn’t be such a thing as a theist in that scenario.

      • Andy said, on February 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm

        I don’t see how that context is relevant. Either there is a god or there isn’t. If you assert the truth of either proposition (or any proposition for that matter), you are by definition claiming you believe that proposition to be true. We do have a name for people who won’t assert either position: agnostics. Atheism, though, clearly asserts, “There is no god.”

        • Reason Freely said, on February 28, 2010 at 11:45 am

          I grant that, in math, 0x=y is exactly the same as x=0y

          Most atheists are agnostic. That is 0.000000000000000000000…001x = y

          I believe Steve and I fall into the category of “weak atheism” if you want a wikipedia on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weak_atheism

          Or from a more scientific perspective, all evidence that is available demonstrates that the claims of theism are false, but there is always a chance that something supernatural could exist, and I would not turn away valid and reliable evidence of it. But I will not claim that that evidence “could exist” or, on the other hand, that we are not capable of finding it. I make no claim about theistic evidence except that I have never seen any.

          If I tell you that I have an invisible pink unicorn in my garage, you don’t have to be an Anti-Invisible-Pink-Unicorn-In-Garage-Ist to tell me I’m full of shit, unicorns are a child’s myth, unicorns can’t be both invisible and pink, and I don’t have a garage in the first place. That’s disbelief, a negative claim (“your claim is false”) rather than positive (“my claim is true”). You are also more likely to tell me “your claim is bad and makes no sense” rather than false (more on this later).

          Yes, you can technically reverse them (“It is true that your claim is false”) but positive and negative claims are different. The mathematical inversion of a truth claim aside, there is a rational and ethical difference: The burden of proof of a claim is on the claimant, otherwise we would accept all authority claims, from anyone, automatically, as a default position. And that would be very bad.

          The burden of proof is on the claimant, especially when the claim is so great in scope; and the burden of proof for my unicorn example would be even more heavily on me if I tried to exert authority not just over your knowledge, but over your beliefs and behavior as well. Like if I told you you would be tortured for a million years if you didn’t believe me about the unicorn, and you have to act in the way I say the unicorn said you should act (yes, He also talks).

          Even if the burden of proof was equally shared, freethinker ethics would command you to examine such a strong claim, and you would find no evidence for it. You would ask me “how can something be invisible and pink at the same time?” and hear my convoluted apologia about the ineffable nature of unicorns. You would ask me “where is your garage?” and hear me explain it away with bullshit as a figurative garage. And so forth. Every claim held up by bad logic, not evidence. This is what has happened with religion. Once we learned WHY the sun rises and sets, WHY the storms come and WHY plagues kill us, religion started backpedaling on all kinds of disprovable claims.

          There is no way to prove something does not exist when the claim is not disprovable (e.g. “ineffable”; “figurative garage”). A claim that is not disprovable is usually bad logic, and therefore not even a valid claim to begin with.

          It’s like saying x/0 = y

          Am I supposed to respond by claiming that x/0 = 0y ?

        • Adam said, on March 1, 2010 at 10:40 am

          I get a little lost on terminology sometimes, particularly in conversations like these because the overlap between labels is often fuzzy.

          The quick definition of “weak atheism” immediately makes me think it sounds like the same thing as being agnostic. So, I went to the agnostic wikipedia definition, and let’s see if I’ve got this straight:

          An agnostic has the belief that knowing whether God exists is unknowable, while a “weak atheist” says that there is no God, but can’t actually prove that there isn’t? This is based on the fact that a weak atheist wouldn’t tell you that “There is a God” is a false statement?

          I’ll be honest, that’s pretty confusing to me. What do you call someone who isn’t sure if there is a God, but doesn’t think you could prove his/her existence? What about someone who isn’t sure if there is a God, but also doesn’t know if you could prove his/her existence or not?

          Of course, it takes too long in passing conversation to ask for a full run down of how a person thinks, and it’s much easier to simply say “I’m a weak atheist.” Sounds like something that would get you beat up on the playground, though!

        • reasonfreely said, on March 1, 2010 at 11:39 am

          The whole shebang is complicated by the negative stigma associated with the word “atheist.” Agnosticism is a subcategory of atheism but it sounds better in our post-positivist world.

          Some other labels ranging from deism to strong atheism that I’ve heard:
          Freethinker
          Nonbeliever
          Non-religious / Not Religious
          Materialist / Naturalist (distinct from what those naked people mean)
          Positivist / Rationalist / Scientist (when given as a religion, “scientist” usually means “materialist”)
          None
          Humanist / Secular Humanist / Secular
          Heathen / Blasphemer (and other words the church uses)
          Deist / Jefferson Deist / Philosophical Theist
          Anti-theist (the angry atheist, I suppose)
          Apathy-ist
          Bright (Richard Dawkins’ term, I believe, knowingly referencing the illuminati)
          Doubter
          FSMist (Flying Spaghetti Monster FTW)


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