January 5, 2007

Year of the Atheist? I Hope So

English: Parallel dialogue (2008)
Parallel dialogue (2008) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While browsing Reddit for interesting blog posts related to atheism, I found one that merits a response. The blog is 'Ruthiness (Update: blog no longer active), and the post in question presents many questions of atheists which are commonly asked by believers. Like many posts by Christian authors, Ruth's post also reflects some important misconceptions about the meaning of atheism. I started to write a comment on the blog but soon realized that the length was becoming excessive and that I should take this opportunity to practice what I've been "preaching" about cross-blog collaboration. What follows is my response to Ruth's post, "2007: To Be the Year of the Atheist?" (Update: link no longer active).

Ruth, I certainly hope you are correct about 2007 being the year of the atheist. After thousands of years of being a hated minority, it would be nice to have at least one year of our own. Unfortunately, there are still some rather large obstacles in our way which prevent many of us from even being able to be open about who we are.

I'd like to take a stab at answering some of the questions you raised and clarify a misconception or two. Before I do so, I want to applaud you for asking questions and clearly committing yourself to struggle with some challenging issues.
"But why do people find it necessary to try to remove the faith of others?"
Briefly, many atheists hope to help others get beyond the confines of faith because faith is inherently irrational and destructive. In fact, these are the two primary prongs of my objection to religious belief (i.e., that it is both irrational and harmful). Faith is defined as maintaining belief in something for which there is no evidence. To belief in something for which there is no evidence is clearly irrational. Next, religious belief is maladaptive in the sense that it poses a danger to all of us. I would argue that this is the primary reason any nonbeliever cares about helping believers overcome the problem of faith.
Do these same people [atheists] relish telling children there is no Santa Claus? Do they look forward to divulging that the Tooth Fairy is a myth?"
I will clarify the meaning of atheism in a moment, and you will see that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and any other supernatural entities except for gods are irrelevant here. Personally, the amount of energy I expend toward eradicating belief in these things is proportional to the amount of harm this belief causes. Thus, I have no interest in matters of Santa or the Tooth Fairy and considerable interest in religion.
"What is the difference, really, between an atheist and a skeptic?"
Skepticism refers to a philosophical doctrine about the need to base conclusions on evidence. The attitude of skepticism (i.e., that one should remain uncertain pending evidence) is one of the components of the scientific method, without which the benefits of modern science and technology would not be possible. The skeptic suspends judgment until evidence accumulates and then bases conclusions on the available evidence.

Atheism is much simpler. From the root (a - theos), atheism is simply the absence of theistic belief. It is the default position from which everyone begins before they have heard of religion. Theists go a step further and assert that a god or gods exist. An atheist does not accept this assertion (i.e., that a god or gods exist). It is incorrect to say that an atheist "denies or disbelieves" because many of us are agnostic atheists. Rather, the atheist simply does not accept the theistic claim. Thus, non-believer is a more accurate characterization than disbeliever.

Skepticism and atheism are clearly separable and far from synonymous. Most atheists are skeptics, however many are not. I have encountered atheists who believe in a number of supernatural entities besides gods. Many skeptics are atheists; many more are not.
"But isn't faith believing without total proof?"
Actually, faith is often framed as believing without any evidence. With evidence, faith becomes irrelevant, and theologians have long recognized this. This is what leads many to actively oppose reason. If I can empirically verify that my car is in my garage right now, I need no faith in my car being in my garage. However, if such verification is impossible - indeed, if I have no evidence whatsoever - then faith would be required. As evidence accumulates that I have no car or no garage, continued faith turns to delusion.

As much as I like Dawkins' new book, it is not the first thing I would recommend to a Christian wanting to learn about atheism. There are several outstanding atheist blogs which you can visit to learn more about atheism without having to pay anything. Once you are a bit more familiar with atheism, The God Delusion or The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason would be good. The vast majority of us are ex-Christians and can probably relate to where you are more than you realize.

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