What an atheist believes

March 6, 2010 § 9 Comments

As humanity matures and grows, the universe we strive to understand has grown with us. Historically, as the human brain has evolved, our understanding of the universe has expanded, filling in the smaller gaps along the way with pieces of truth and knowledge. Where once our universes may have only extended as far as the eye can see, we now know that our universe is immensely vast, and stretches away into space AND time beyond our comprehension. You may have read about this previously in my blog.

Big universe

Image from the Hubble Telescope

Science helps us to explain our physicalities, by using empirical observations of the world and universe around us. Over thousands of years, humankind has used physical observations, trial and error, repeated experimentation and rational deduction to help us understand our place in the universe. It is human nature to ask questions, and human nature to seek truth.

For all we know, humans are the only creature in existence to have a level of intelligence and self-awareness that allows us to ask questions about the nature of our existence. We are the only creatures living that have an innate need to understand our world and our universe further. We ask questions about our origins, and our destinies. We ask why we exist at all. You can’t be an intelligent human and not ask yourself these questions at least once in your lifetime.

Religion used to attempt to answer questions of our existence. It also once offered guidance for those who otherwise were without it. And religion was a great tool to unify people, to create a common bond between people where they could share in their beliefs about life. Religion was also a way to fill gaps in our understanding, a way to educate and pass information from one generation to the next. Religion uses stories as metaphors to illustrate situations, then by means of an outcome, illustrates how it is recommended that humans act in different situations. Unfortunately for religion, when a metaphor is taken literally, it causes problems in belief and understanding of our universe.

That and the fact that religion is peppered with inaccuracies, and the whims of the people who wrote the texts. Can a person believe one paragraph of a religious text and ignore the next? Can a belief system which is based upon what it claims to be “the word of god” be believed at all if parts of the very same text are no longer relevant? What parts are correct? How literally should it be taken?Who is to say? You can’t say a religious text is “the word of god” then say that parts of it aren’t to be taken literally and other parts are to be ignored. That defies logic.

And when it comes down to it, a story is just a story. Without proof, anything can be claimed to be truth, but until proof is offered up, it remains a story. And the problem with religious stories is that they are so fanciful and bizarre, and take huge leaps in the face of logic, that it all becomes farcical. One may as well believe that Harry Potter is real than believe that Jesus walked on water, or Allah spoke exclusively through Mohammed. Just look at Scientology, and the stories spun by the latter-day prophet L. Ron Hubbard, and tell me that the sci-fi that is based upon isn’t fanciful.

The best tool we have to make sense of the universe is logic. Wikipedia defines logic as “…examin[ing]  general forms which arguments may take, which forms are valid, and which are fallacies,” whereas Richard Whately defined it as ‘”…the Science, as well as the Art, of reasoning”. We all use logic daily, and when something isn’t logical we tend to ignore it, or reevaluate it. Why is it that we treat religion so differently?

I’m not saying that science can explain everything. It can’t. Yet.

But it does a much better job than religion.

So what DOES an atheist believe?

I asked this on Twitter yesterday, and the best response I got was this:

“An atheist believes in anything that can be proven, accepts as likely anything which has considerable evidence for it.” @LaceySnr

Indeed, this is a good summary of what could be widely accepted as a definition, especially given the 140 character limit of Twitter. However it IS different for every atheist. The only one defining characteristic that all atheists have is a belief that there is no God, no divine creator, no omnipotent benefactor. All else is up to the individual. I know atheists who believe in ghosts, atheists who believe in the power of Reiki, atheists who believe in UFOs. I know atheists who believe in telekinesis, ESP and government conspiracies. There are atheists who read their horoscope daily. Me? I don’t go for any of that. Using logic as my guide, reason as my co-pilot and rational thought as my platform, I make my evaluations of my existence. Proof and evidence are my best friends.

If I was asked “What is one thing you believe that is without proof?” it would be this: I believe that all things will eventually be known, assuming we don’t destroy ourselves. And I’m not saying in our lifetimes, but I’d like to think that we as a species will be around long enough to make sense of our universe. Fanciful, I know, but I am a humanist, and would like to think that we are capable of doing that.

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§ 9 Responses to What an atheist believes

  • Bruce says:

    Sorry to be the contrarian (no not really). 😀

    “An atheist believes in anything that can be proven, accepts as likely anything which has considerable evidence for it.”

    This applies to matters of fact (i.e. declarative statements), but what about value statements (i.e. prescriptive statements)?

    While you can find evidence to suggest the consequences of driving a car into a crowd (i.e. death, injury and suffering), you can’t find evidence of this being wrong (and depending on if your ethical criteria are a priori or a posteriori, you may not be able to formulate a proof either – rather just a heuristic). Evidence can help you decide what given action is wrong if you’re a consequentialist, but the criteria you use to determine what consequences are wrong aren’t determined by evidence – yet a consequentialist would believe in them.

    As for “I believe that all things will eventually be known, assuming we don’t destroy ourselves.” I gather that you don’t mean this so literally – i.e. the quantum state of all matter in the universe. Rather you mean we’ll have laws to explain everything – am I right?

    Karl Popper famously wrote a mathematical proof (although it’s pretty straight forward that mathematicians knew the idea beforehand) that shows that it is impossible for any computational system within the Universe to be able to process all information in the Universe. The trick is that the act of computation generates new information and the computational system, being a part of the Universe its computing, has to compute that as well – generating more information, and having to compute that as well – generating more information, and so on and so forth.

    And this doesn’t even take into account the second law of thermodynamics which makes it a lot worse, nor does my description ably describe the geometric curve of processing power required as the quantity of data increases.

  • The soundtrack in my head is “What a fool believes” by the Dooby Brothers. No, I’m not saying atheists are fools, it’s just a cute line. All human beings are fools, if it comes down to it.

    Regarding “atheists believe what can be proven”. I’d be careful about that. Can she prove her mother loves her? I would argue that scientifically she can’t, and if she hasn’t applied the scientific method then she definitely doesn’t know her mother loves her. Yet i’d also argue it’s reasonable for her to “believe” her mother loves her. That damn epistemology stuff is annoying.

    • LaceySnr says:

      Ha ha, I love that song!

      Of course my statement doesn’t work for every case, and it does’t say you can’t believe in you rmother loving you – but what it does cover is that if something can be proven then an atheist (or at least a good atheist scientist) will believe it. There’s probably quite a few people in the world who probably believe the Earth is the centre of the solar system even though we have evidence to show that it isn’t.

      My statement doesn’t cover moral issues either, but to be honest my view on that is similar to one of the bible’s teachings – if you wouldn’t want someting to happen to you, try not to let it happen to others. It’s pretty much common sense, or at least it should be. It’s hard to make a sweeping statement and not get picked apart but unfortunately 135 characters is a pretty tough limit (I had to allow 15 for “@martinprobble “!

  • Shine says:

    “Without proof, anything can be claimed to be truth, but until proof is offered up, it remains a story.”

    Very well said! This is the problem that always arises in religious debates: a text with no external corroborating sources can never be relied upon. Secondary confirmation is crucial.

    I do have to quibble with you on one point, however. I do not necessarily think that atheists believe anything, not even a believing that there is no God. I would say instead that all atheists are of course united by a lack of belief, but that any further conclusions or statements made about the nonexistence of supernatural phenomena are based upon reasoning and logic. For example, I can conclude that there is no omnipotent force in the universe because such a concept is illogical and nonsensical; I do not need to believe that it does not exist, because I can conclude it through reason. (Of course, this could possibly diverge into the epistemological debate about whether the senses or the intellect are the ultimate source of knowledge.)

  • godlizard says:

    My answer to that question would have been too long to tweet.

    I usually try to avoid the word “believe” when it is attached to a question regarding atheism. Atheists share a lack of belief in gods, but beyond that, the diversity of things individual atheists believe in (their ethical positions, their politics, their favorite sporting teams, their operating system of choice, etc) is far too great to answer for atheists as a group.

    That question is usually asked by theists who are trying to make the case that atheism is a religion, and by creationists who are trying to claim that intelligent design is as valid as science — because the logical answer “we believe in the scientific method, that the earth is six billion years old and life evolved slowly over that time” feeds into the creationists’ arguments that their beliefs should have the same status as scientific or logical “beliefs”.

    Since the word is generally closely associated with religion, it’s dangerous (from a debating standpoint, anyway) to associate it with non-theistic concepts.

    • Yes I know, I was actually using this exact point when writing the title of the blog. It is a reaction to those who ask “What does and atheist believe?” I would usually try and avoid it too, but I was here trying to show that the word believe is not exclusively owned by the religious. It is part of the English language, and I use it routinely when talking of things, like when someone asks “how much is a muffin?” and I say “I believe it’s $2.50”. doesn’t mean there’s a god, or that my belief about the price of muffins makes that a religion.

    • godlizard says:

      True, true. I’m not overly paranoid of the word when I’m talking about muffins. Mmmm, muffins. But my fundie alarms go off when it’s used anywhere near atheism, science, and religion, and especially when it’s used near all those things at once.

      I’d like to free the word from its theistic connotations, but not when there’s a danger that it’ll be used to clobber me over they head by someone trying to claim that schoolchildren should be taught fake science alongside the real stuff.

  • Nick says:

    I don’t believe in God, but I don’t “believe” God doesn’t exist.

    If I was to take the word “believe” in a dangerous sense as others have suggested, I would rather say “I cannot logically conclude, given all evidence and considerable reason, that God can exist and that if he does exist, there is currently no way of humans knowing why or how he exists, what he is and what he wants us to do.”

    But more importantly, the reason why I cannot use the word believe is because I simply don’t *require* beliefs. My life supports itself through my own actions (such as the band I play in, the job I work at, the friends I have) and I do not require a faith in something, whether its science or religion, to carry me through life.

    The reason why I am into science and astronomy is because they fascinate me as a curious human being wanting to understand more about how the universe works. And the reason why I accept them as correct is because they are logical and are backed up by mountains of proof.

  • GreenSlugg says:

    Genesis 22:17 (New American Standard Bible)

    17indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.

    When this was written, people did not know that you could compare the grains of sand on the beach with the stars in the universe. The philosophers of that day said that there were only a few thousand stars in the universe. It was not until the time of Gailileo that this would change.

    Just because current scientific theories contradict the Bible, does not mean that they will last. Historically, the Bible has trumped pagan ideas (spontaneous generation, and much about the spread of disease).

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