FAQ: Are you an atheist?
Atheism gets a lot of bad press (much of it in my opinion unjustified). I imagine my hypothetical questioner saying “I know you’re no longer a Christadelphian, and maybe you’re not even Christian, but surely you’re not an atheist?”
Well, the short answer is “Yes”.
The long answer is more interesting, though, so do stick round for it.
I imagine my hypothetical questioner next asking “How can you possibly be certain there is no God? Surely you should actually be agnostic?” The simplest response is to look at the OED definition of atheist (my emphasis):
atheist: A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.
So what’s the difference between “disbelief” and mere “lack of belief”? Well, probably not a lot, but disbelief sounds like it is a more active rejection of the existence of any gods. I think most atheists (including me) would fall into the “lacks belief” category. Put simply, I don’t believe in the existence of any particular god. That doesn’t necessarily require rejection of the possibility that a god exists, just that I don’t accept or believe in any of them.
In practice, though, I think the two stances are much closer together. Richard Dawkins presents a seven point scale which I think is helpful here, showing a spectrum from believer to unbeliever:
- Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
- De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
- Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
- Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
- Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
- De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
- Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.
On this scale, Dawkins puts himself as (6), but leaning towards (7). I would probably put myself in the same place. I think this scale raises an important point: in everyday life, the existence of God is not just an abstract proposition to be accepted or rejected. It is expected to have an influence on the way we live our lives. If I don’t believe God exists and it doesn’t affect my life, why does it matter whether I can completely rule out the existence of a god or not?
I could say similar about UFOs: I can’t completely rule out the existence of UFOs. But I don’t spend my life in fear of evil alien overlords controlling our governments behind the scenes. In fact, I mostly don’t think about them at all, and I’m quite able to lead a life on the assumption that as humans we, not aliens, are in control of our destiny.
On this scale, I suspect many believers would sit at (2): they are not absolutely certain that God exists, and have the occasional doubt. But we would certainly call them believers. In fact, they would probably be insulted if I insisted on calling them agnostic because they weren’t 100% certain. Well, it’s the same for me: I live life without the existence of a god, and in my opinion “atheist” is the best label for that (“unbeliever” works too). This is just one of many conclusions made about the world I live in. If I waited for 100% certainty on every one of these conclusions before making any decision, I would never get anything done. I have to be able to accept the conclusions I consider most probable and work with them.
But why might I lean towards (7)? [100% certainty]
Because when I get presented with specific details about a particular god I should believe, those details don’t seem to me to stack up. Though I can’t use induction to say that I must necessarily reject the next god because I rejected the previous 10, it does suggest it’s more likely that I will reject that god.
The real problem with (7) is the lack of an agreed definition of what a “god” is. It’s much easier to have confidence in the existence of a specific God than to disprove the existence of all possible gods. I refuse to disprove the existence of a poorly defined concept, because the next response could be “Surprise! I’ve changed the definition, so you’re wrong.” In particular, what I label as “natural forces” could easily be taken as “Oh, but that’s my God”.
But these difficulties vanish when a believer asks me to accept a particular god or group of gods from the many that have been believed through time. This gives me details to analyse. For example, if this god has a holy book, I’ll be able to ask questions about whether that holy book is really correct. And if this god is claimed to intervene in our world, I’ll be able to form some judgements about whether those interventions happened or whether they were chance. In my view, this also raises the bar for believers: not only do they have to demonstrate that it is reasonable to believe in their particular god, but they also have to demonstrate that it is more reasonable to believe in their particular god than the remaining gods they have chosen to reject.
Holy books aside, intervention is a key characteristic of many of the gods popular through history. These gods are said to have directly intervened in the affairs of the world, and promise to continue to intervene in favour of believers. It sounds good. No wonder believers rely on these promises and get surprised people like me don’t just accept it. But the reality is that most evidence for it is presented at the individual level, and that makes it difficult to distinguish between coincidence and intervention. We know improbable things happen every day.
However, when dealing at the global level, the interventions of a god like this should be observable. For example, plenty of people claim miraculous healings from their particular god. But to the best of my knowledge there is no statistical difference in the healing rate of believers in that god, believers in other gods, and unbelievers. I’ve heard plenty of rationalisations for why it might not be observable, but to me they just don’t sound credible. And if you want me to believe in the truth of those interventions based on your subjective personal experiences, expect to find me skeptical.
But maybe you want me to accept the possibility of a god who doesn’t directly intervene in the world today. Let’s go through a few cases:
If your god is a “first cause” who kicked off the universe and died in the process or has never been seen since, I don’t care. Many have tried to convince me I should care, but I just don’t. Such a god is nothing but an abstract proposition which I can’t directly observe and which won’t affect my life. I cannot see any possible purpose in either affirming or denying its existence.
If your god is said to have intervened consistently and powerfully at some past time I can’t observe, but no longer does so, expect me to be skeptical. Yes, it is possible for this to be true, and maybe such a god has a good reason for acting that way. But we know myths grow in the telling, and this sounds consistent with it being a myth. To not be a myth, we have to believe this god intervened powerfully in the past where we can’t see it, then completely disengaged from the world (except of course for the actions required to ensure the testimony from past times was accurately preserved - because without that reliable testimony it’s nothing but unsubstantiated assertion).
If your god is like (2), but is going to judge me in future for taking its apparent non-existence at face value, well, I’m sorry, but that threat is not sufficient to make me believe in that god’s existence.
(fact: on the train this evening I saw a shirt with “Fear God who can send you to Hell” on one pocket. It also had “Love Jesus” on one sleeve, and several other messages scattered around that I didn’t catch. On the back it had another message about the importance of fearing God. I considered asking the wearer why they wore it, but it was late and I couldn’t be bothered. Also, striking up such a conversation would breach accepted train etiquette).
My approach to the existence of god is obviously inspired by my Christadelphian experience. I suspect it doesn’t work for all belief systems and all gods. But it did give me the confidence to reject the claims of the particular god I grew up with and knew about, and it does give me the confidence to live my life without the expectation of meeting a god with the power to influence my life.
And I think that qualifies me for the label “atheist”.