December 19, 2007

Misunderstanding Atheism

I strongly believe that one of the most important things we atheists must do is to educate others about what atheism is and what it is not. In this post, I'll show you yet another example of how atheism is misunderstood in the mainstream media and provide my response.

This particular example comes from an article written by Jake TenPas for the Corvallis Gazette-Times (OR). Here is an excerpt from the article (update: link no longer active):

I’m not an atheist. I don’t believe that “there is no God.” I personally think there are just too many mysteries in the universe, and I personally enjoy leaving them unexplained. Asking for proof of the divine is a bit like asking for proof that a slice of American Dream pizza tastes good. If you need proof, then all your receptors aren’t functioning at optimum levels.
See the problem? Atheism in no way insists that there are no gods. Atheism is a response to theism. The theist claims that some sort of god or gods exist; the atheist does not accept this claim as accurate. Theism is the belief that a god or gods exist. Atheism is the absence of, or lack of, agreement with this belief. To say that an atheist does not believe in gods is an accurate statement, however, to insist that an atheist believes that there are no gods is erroneous. Atheism does not entail the conviction that there are no gods. Moreover, atheism says nothing whatsoever about the presence or absence of various unknown or unexplained phenomena. And finally, while lack of "proof" is a justification some atheists will offer for their unwillingness to accept theism, it is certainly not the only one. Other atheists would argue that they cannot accept the theistic belief claim because the concept of god is logically incoherent or undefined.

Another excerpt:

Again, I’m not an atheist. To me, atheism, like fundamentalist religions, rules out too many possibilities, assumes it knows more about the world than I believe any human mind to be capable of knowing.
Once again, this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of atheism. Atheism does not rule out any possibilities other than the theistic belief claim (i.e., a god or gods exist), and even then, no absolute certainty need be present. If the theist says, "I believe X to be the case," the atheist is merely saying, "I do not believe X to be the case." This is not synonymous with insisting, "I am 100% convinced that X is false." Atheism makes no assumptions about the world. In fact, it makes exactly one less assumption than theism!

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