Saturday, March 6, 2010

Are You Certain You’re an Atheist?

By Joseph Kellard

When conversation about God comes up in good (or even bad) company, I, of course, tell people that I’m an atheist. Because religionists mistakenly believe that God created the universe and is the absolute moral authority, they tend to lump atheists together, recognizing no fundamental distinction between them. To them, atheism is a philosophy, a comprehensive way of viewing life and the word, if, that is, they think on that level at all. They’re blind to what atheism fundamentally is, a minor aspect of one branch of philosophy: metaphysics.

To take the conversation to the epistemological level, I make sure to tell people that an atheist is not merely someone who denies the existence of God, but is certain that he does not exist — that his believers have never presented any rational evidence for his existence.

Uttering that word, certain (or certainty), tends to jolt people, both religionists and atheists alike. Some of the faithful have told me that I can’t be certain of this. Who am I to be so brazen as to say that God certainly doesn’t exist? No non-believer can hold so absolute a position, when all absolutes derive from the word of God.

On the other side of the philosophical aisle are the subjectivist “atheists.” If there is something they don’t believe in at all, it’s not necessarily God, but rather absolutes and certainty. However, anything less than certainty on their part, in my philosophical view, is agnosticism, an epistemological position that leaves the door open for God’s possible existence. Not surprisingly, and with even a little probing, you’ll find that many self-professed atheists are just agnostics at heart — because with that organ they just feel that possibility. Anything’s possible, right?

So while I certainly don’t fundamentally define myself as an atheist – there’s much, much more to life and philosophy than God – when I do mention that I am a non-believer, I try to bring up this issue of certainty, which distinguishes my position. This gives religionists the sense that others can and do uphold absolutes — outside of God’s commandments. And the atheists wannabes sense that maybe they’re just mere skeptics, doubters of all things a truly confident person can claim to know for certain, including that God absolutely does not exist.

* I made a minor spelling correction to the original post.


Joel said...

I have always looked at the subject as moot.

Is there a term or philosophical position for those who don't believe in:

The tooth Fairy
Santa Clause

If asked if I believe in god. I usually respond with something like. I don't really consider the whole subject, why would I? If I am probed deeper I might explain the position of proof, evidence and logic. But I don't bother.

To me it's a silly conversation.

Joseph Kellard said...


Thank you for your comment.

Someone who does not believe in aliens can be called a a-alienist. How’s that?

The philosophical position on this issue is a metaphysical one -- whether or not the person who claims that an alien exists has evidence for this. If there is none, then that’s the extent of issue.

As to God, the deeper philosophical issue something that I mentioned in my post: Those who believe in God also necessarily believe that he created the universe, as well as the moral laws that we are commanded to follow. If there's no God, then there can be no morality, according to the faithful.

If there are not aliens, the alienist goes his merry way and lives his life, and maybe even lives by God's commandments. But if God does not exists, the religionists whole moral world crumbles.

Daniel said...

I think the concept of "god" is arbitrary and, as such, concepts like "certainty" do not apply.

That said, I have a question for you: how would you define a child who does not believe in a god?

Joseph Kellard said...


But aren't you certain that arbitrary claims are false?

As to your question, I think it depends on the age of the child. Once the child is old enough to understand what people claim to mean by God, he is free to believe or not believe in it. And I would call that child who doubts the existence of God an agnostic. At that point he is certain, I would call him an atheist.

I was 7 when I was told the Jesus walked across a body of water. I doubted that was true, and thus the seeds to my atheism were sown. I used to call myself an atheist during my teens and early twenties, but I realized I wasn’t an atheist until I read Ayn Rand and understood further the distinction between the two.


Daniel said...

Quick answer: I don't think arbitrary claims have even achieved the distinction of being able to be called false. (I'd write more, but am heading out!)

American Egoist said...

For years (before I announced I was an atheist) I called myself agnostic. Upon grasping a better understanding of pragmatism (as a system of anti-concept non-principles), and seeing the damage it causes to ones own internal thought processes, I jumped off the fence. This took years, even though I have scoffed at 'faith' since childhood.

Joseph Kellard said...

Daniel: You wrote: "I don't think arbitrary claims have even achieved the distinction of being able to be called false."

But how did you come to determine this position with the issue of God? You still, at some point, had to consider the idea of God and determine whether or not you believed he existed or not, right?
And where and how did you come up with your ideas on the arbitrary?

I'm not saying I disagree with them, but it would be interested to know the evolution of your intellectual development, that is, when you first came across the idea of God and what you initially though of him. I'd have to safely bet that you were a child when you first heard of God and hadn't even formed the concept of the arbitrary yet.

In order to determine if an idea, such as gremlins, are arbitrary, you still have to consider the evidence that is presented for such claims by those who claim them, and from their determine whether or not they are arbitrary.

Joseph Kellard said...

AE: Thank you for your reply. Yes, it took me awhile to fully grasp the issue of agnosticism and atheism, even after I head learned the fundamental distinctions from Ayn Rand. Before that, even though I regarded myself as an atheist, I actually was agnostic, because I still believed it was possible God could exist. I still had a tough time saying anything negative about God, because the terrifying thought that I may go to hell for doing so was still ingrained in my God-fearing mind.

Steve D said...

Hmm. It seems you could identify at least three types of atheists. Soft atheists who argue that since the onus of proof is on the person making a positive statement and that you can't prove God exists, the default must be that God does not exist. They might allow for some uncertainty. Hard atheists who believe that God is a logical impossibility and therefore cannot exist and the type of atheist you are who would argue that it is an arbitrary claim and it is therefore not even wrong. You could also argue like myself that even the question is invalid although that is basically just a stronger way of stating the arbitrary claim.

Is an arbitrary claim is one for which there is no evidence or one which cannot be falsified? If the first then in history there have been a number of 'arbitrary‘, claims made which have turned out to be true. The ancient Greek belief in the atom (a fundamental basic particle) is one and the heliocentric theory of the solar system is another. In the second case it quickly became the accepted theory even though actual empirical evidence did not exist (lack of movement of the stars, movement of the planets did not match expectations etc). Despite this the heliocentric theory became accepted due to its simplicity and elegance compared to the geocentric theory. It simply made logical sense. So there is a bit more involved here than just the evidence.

Proponents of aliens argue the mathematical likelihood of intelligent life arising on other planets. There is no evidence but depending on the mechanism by which life originated on earth this argument could have a certain logic.

Perhaps their ‘arbitrary’ claim may turn out to be correct as well.

American Egoist said...

JK, You see, thats interesting. "Gods Vengence" was for years, not something I feared, though I can understand why an agnostic or believer would fear it. To me, there was always something very "fishy" about the concept of hell. I was a big "after-life" proponent though, in a semi-Buddhist sense. I have always thought, how terrible it would be for us to live only once. (background audio- creaky door opens to irresponsibile lack of long term planning)But, now, To Live "This once, in this world" is to really be alert & aware of ones surroundings. Everything I do (intro/extro) seems to be much more "intentional" now.

Joseph Kellard said...

Steve: My short answer to you is that sometimes people hit the lottery--which doesn't make them "right" or "correct," just lucky. If the ancients had reason to believe that the earth revolved around the sun, if there was some, if only miniscule, empirical evidence for it, from which they developed a theory or even a mere hypothesis, then these were not arbitrary positions. Any formerly arbitrary theory that later turned out to be "correct" is, in reality, the equivalent to hitting the lottery.

AE: I agree with you, it is not terrible that this is the one and only life we have. That man is mortal, that he only has one life, is part of the essence of his very being and life.

Steve D said...

Thanks for the answer. You are right that there has to be a reason (read evidence) for any hypothesis. However, the evidence can often be terribly indirect. One of the major problems in modern science is the interpretation of evidence because of complexity, bias etc. (e.g. AGW hypothesis). This also means that more than just the direct empirical evidence is considered. theories must also make sense with regards to other accepted theories (which presumably are supported by other evidence).

In the case of the atom I think the Greeks had a somewhat 'fixed' lottery. There were logically only two possible answers; either matter could be divided indefinitely or an elementary particle must exist. The first answer offended their sensibilities so the second was chosen.

No one really knows why Aristochus came up with the heliocentric theory since his writings were not passed down. He measured the size of the sun, moon and Earth and may have thought it unreasonable that the much larger sun revolved around the smaller Earth. He may have thought his theory better explained the motion of the planets. In either case it seems it wasn't just luck but a process of logic, looking at the world and coming to what would have seemed a reasonable conclusion.

At least in the heliocentric case the theory was very falsifiable.

In the case of God as generally conceived if you believe that he is a logical impossibility then that might put him into the 'wrong' category rather than the 'arbitrary' category. In contrast pink unicorns around some unknown planet would be considered 'arbitrary' as would a lesser and not self contradictory God.

Lorenzo Albano F. said...

I try to hold little to no blind faith, at least when I am talking seriously. So...

To me the problem is not well defined. Because religionists insist on not telling us what God must be.

Or tell us that God is less than amenable to description. So...

If God is then the set of all the things in the universe we do not know or do not understand, which are not amenable to description right now and are "mysterious"... That surely exists. But has no white beard and no white robe, and on examination it dissipates. It's called our ignorance.

And in principle it is only so because of our limitations: Humanity has examined Nature seriously for a ver limited amount of time and the amount of matter to examine is huge.

My conceit as a scientist is that if something can be sensed, it can be rationalized and explained. That I can draw from past human experience, even if it cannot be demonstrated.

So in principle, if there is a "God" my faith tells me that it is fast shrinking.

Joseph Kellard said...

Lorenzo: Thank you for your comment. ~JK