Atheist Schools of Thought

June 4, 2010 § 8 Comments

Writing this blog has been a huge learning experience for me. I’ve had a large amount of comments, on some threads particularly, which have ranged from enlightened thought through to downright insanity, but each has helped me formulate just where I stand in relation to religion, humanity and the universe. One thing has become clear to me when discussing issues with atheists and theist alike. While I was already aware that there are many distinct sects and belief systems within Christianity and Islam as there are in all religions, there are also divisions in approach and understanding among atheists as well.

Shadow of the Moon on Earth

Shadow of the Moon on Earth

This shouldn’t strike me as odd really, each person brings to the table what it is that they have learned, lied experiences, their studies and musings, and none of us have had the same journey to bring us here where we are now. It would go against the law of averages if we were all to agree entirely about topics of philosophy, and to tell you the truth it would probably be pretty boring.

While a lot of atheists agree about topics like religion and the patriarchical power system, the destructive power of religious fervour, the sciences and the importance of secular learning, I was surprised to find that one of the biggest points of contention among atheists is semantic in nature.

We often like to group ourselves under banners of positive atheism like “No God? No problem” or “Don’t pray in our schools and I won’t think in your church”, which are nice little phrases that look good on billboards. When we cut past the book titles and the sense of “moral outrage” that these slogans seem to inspire in believers of god, past the apparent militant stance of the “New Atheism”, one question remains, and is often left unanswered; “Is there a God?”

It seems like a contradiction that people who fight fervently against god worship etc would be the ones to argue over this point. But when it comes down to it this is the very essence of the whole debate. And even atheists can’t all agree on the answer. There are two main schools of thought in the debate; I’ll call them the “light accommodationists” and the “absentists”.

Let’s start with the “absentists”. This is the deduction that no matter what, all thing considered, that there is no God, no higher power, no omniscient omnipotent omnipresent being. Nothing was “created” by anyone or anything. The universe is here, we are here and that is the end of the question, that the laws of physics and chemistry do not allow for the existence of a god.

The other school of thought which includes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris among them, are the “light accommodationists”. This group says that however unlikely it is that there is a God that created matter and the universe, there is still no way of knowing whether or not this God exists. The chances of there being a God is often cited as a number like 0.000000000000001%, which is a very low likelihood indeed. But given the numbers we use in cosmology and particle physics, this percentage chance is probably larger than it need be. What this standpoint is saying is that no matter what we learn about the universe, we will always have more to learn, and to be completely honest and using the scientific method, the simple ruling-out of the existence of god is foolish, for the possibility still remains. This is not to say that this school of thought is agreeing with a theistic ideals at all, but is simply saying that we actually do not know the answer. This is why I call them “light accommodationists” as the accommodation of the possibility of a god is very small indeed.

While I like to place myself in the former category due to my hard-headedness, me being a rational thinker I cannot entirely discount the latter. When listening to the words of Sam Harris I am convinced he is right in his thinking. So I therefore fall somewhere in between the two camps; I don’t allow for the existence of a god in my everyday life and learnings and will never assert that there is a god unless absolute proof is given to me. Call me in the spectrum of theistic possibility a strong 6.9.

While this difference is a matter for semantics, the distinction is actually quite important. The implications that there is a possibility of a god however slim it may be, is the only true rational outcome from this question or we are implying that we know everything, which we don’t. This is problematic because theists will always pick at this standpoint as a weakness in the atheist armour, something that if they pick at long enough will begin to bleed, and they will be proven right. But just because something is not 100% uncertain does not mean to say that we can count it as true.

On a side note, also problematic is where atheists will debate this to the point of insults, which while it is only natural to get emotional on issues we feel passionately about, is actually counterproductive. Like I say in my “Mission Statement“, “If the writing has nowhere to go but into the realm of ridicule, then it has already run its course and should be abandoned there.” I still feel this is true.

What are your opinions of this?


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§ 8 Responses to Atheist Schools of Thought

  • LaceySnr says:

    Good one mate, reckon in the same camp as you. I subscribe to the former but I know really that the latter is the correct stance. When it comes down to it, each to their own. If people want to believe in a god or gods and it makes them happy so be it. Just don’t bore me with it, don’t pay money for it, and certainly don’t use it as an excuse to be crappy to other people.

  • Andrea says:

    I believe I am also a 6.9 on the ‘spectrum of theistic possibility’. Being a 7 and ‘knowing’ there is no god just seems as ridiculous as being a 1 and knowing there is.
    Although, I live my life as if there is no god, and believe that when I die, I will simply cease to exist.

  • The angle I take for a god or gods is the same one I take for everything. I start at the null hypothesis. No-thing, no-one, and no-where is believed to exist until there is enough positive evidence for its or their existence.

    Depending on what the person is claiming to exist, different levels of evidence are required.

    A train station called “Central” in Perth, for example. So many cities have a train station called “Central”, so it would barely take any evidence at all for me to believe it exists. For the record, I chose Perth because unlike Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane I don’t actually know if they do have a Central Station or not.

    There being a potplant in the oval office would be another claim that would barely take any evidence to convince me. Millions of offices have potplants in them, it’s a very common thing.

    That potplant being a sentient being from the planet omicron percei-eye 8 who is an advanced scout bent on installing bobble-heads in the Large Hadron Collider on the other hand … well, that’s a VERY large claim as for starters there’s no known sentient plants, no known planet called omicron percei-eye 8, no known mode of transport capable of inter-starsystem travel etc etc. Each of these previously unproven claims requires their own large amounts of evidence.

    So why not just have faith? Well, what purpose does it serve me to believe in any and every claim that’s made? It would make life a living hell due to the number of contradictory claims. It is easier and makes much more sense to just not believe in anything, anyone, or anywhere until such a point in time as enough positive evidence is provided to adequately support this claim. In the case of a god or gods, jesus etc, I have yet been provided with enough positive evidence that isn’t begging the question, special pleading, or something similar.

  • Katheist says:

    For me it is 100% no god. Evolution alone suggests that nothing came along and created us. But, the fact that the concept of god is not something that presented itself to us from outside of us, but rather our own brains creating it, confirms my 100% stance.

    I have heard audio books of Dawkins, and he really doesn’t even believe there is fraction of a chance, in one audio I listened to. He was pinned down to it reluctantly to appease those who want to apply the scientific methodology. I do not believe Dawkins honestly believes there is a chance of a god.

    One things that really signifies my stance is the Pirahã tribe of Brazil. They are a tribe who never had a creation story. They do not know of the concept of god. So, if they didn’t have a thought of one, how can we say it is normal for mankind to not rule out a god. They don’t even know what a god is.

    I disagree with the conclusion below and will explain why:

    “…using the scientific method, the simple ruling-out of the existence of god is foolish, for the possibility still remains. This is not to say that this school of thought is agreeing with a theistic ideals at all, but is simply saying that we actually do not know the answer.”

    For the reasons above, I assume you can see why I think ruling out god would not be foolish. Furthermore, I do believe they are agreeing with theistic ideals. These people would be agnostic and agnostics say they don’t know and do not rule out the possibility of a god. To theists, this agrees with them to a certain extent. And, if they can get an inch, they try to take a mile.

    So, I really feel that atheists fall into 2 groups, plain atheists and agnostics. Those calling themselves agnostic atheists, I think that is an oxymoron.

  • Miguel says:

    Nice post Martin.

    I don’t know if I classify as a light accomodationist. . . but my view is clear. There is NO god. It does not exist. It was “Created by man” to answer that which we cannot answer. For me, the idea of an “intelligent being” that created us in his image and created everything, is ludicrous. One can argue about the “god particle”. Fine, that would signify the catalyst that started it all, but that hardly is anything omnipotent. It’s just a chemical reaction and the name “god” is arbitrary. You can call it the “kazaam particle” if you like.

    Regarding the religious idea of god? Zip, Zero, Nada. Does not exist, never has, never will.

  • ZachsMind says:

    I like the concept of “light accomodationists” versus “absentists” mostly because it sounds like it’s making fun of the whole “hard atheist” versus “soft atheist” or the growing number of additional descriptors to try and pigeon hole everyone into different camps.

    The irrefutable fact is this: no evidence proves the viability of any theological godhead description insisted upon by members of Mankind. It doesn’t matter if millions ‘believe.’ They can’t prove it. So long as it cannot be proven, it’s fictitious like leprechans and gold at the end of rainbows. It’s an amusing story, but not something entire nations should be using to set policy, and certainly not something to justify war, abdicate violence, defend pedophilia, and so forth.

    I’ve heard Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, allow for the possible chance of a god-like being. They acknowledge it’s remote and are quick to add that it probably will not simulate the Christian, Muslim, or Jewish god. If it does, that’s entirely coincidental. We must, theoretically, allow for this or otherwise we’re not being open-minded. A skeptic can’t rule out a possibility, because that’s the very thing which raises skepticism in the first place.

    However, I don’t agree that this possible chance exists. I DO allow for the remote possibility that a god-like entity may be out there. I DO allow for the remote chance that a Creator existed before the Big Bang. I DO allow for the even more remote chance that said Creator has a life span so long it still exists today and will perhaps still exist long after humanity has ceased to exist.

    IF this god-LIKE entity appeared in the future, we would have to invent a new word for it. Because it’s not gonna be anything like the Judeo, Christian, or Islamic god. It will differ as much if not moreso than the myth of dragons differs from the evidence of dinosaurs in the fossil record. We would have to invent an entirely new science to study and examine the evidence of this new god-LIKE entity. Otherwise we’d just invent a new religion and we got enough of those already.

    Just as astrology gave way to astronomy as mankind learned more about what stars really are and what they mean, and just as numerology & mathematics can’t be lumped into the same bowl and stirred around, so too would we be unable to use the past theological nonsense to help us understand some new evidence we might find that an omniscient entity exists. We’d be better off starting from scratch, rather than presupposing our own prejudices upon this new being.

    After all, to borrow from Captain Kirk, “what does God need with a star ship?!”

  • Harris Tweed says:

    Dawkins says that he is a 6.9 so you’re in good company.

    As for ridicule, I rather like this quote:

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them … ”

    Thomas Jefferson.

  • I’m at 6.0. I’m also 100% sure that the ‘god/gods’ would not be as the theist imagines.

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