How Not to Argue for Atheism

January 20, 2011

Looking over a new book about atheism reminds me how easy it is to get atheism wrong from the start.

Kerry Walters recently published Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed , and ironically, it will leave atheists perplexed.

This book has many merits, but explaining where atheism is coming from is not one of them. Walters commits a very common error, made by both believers and nonbelievers, about where to start with atheism. The error is supposing that atheism must be more than just living without God and religion.

Lots of people live without God and religion, but what else must over a billion nonbelievers all have in common, that believers don’t? Social psychologists and cultural anthropologists can describe what all human beings share, but a book about that is not a book on atheism. Again, what do only nonbelievers all have in common? Hard to say, exactly. Hardly a promising start for any book focusing on atheism. There are innumerable reasons to say "No" to religion and innumerable ways to live without religion.

Writers on atheism dimly realize this. Still, so many intrepid authors like Walters go in search of one big idea, some huge worldview, that all atheists must have in common. And once they think that they have found it, then there's something big enough to write a book about. At this point, writers diverge. Three options lay before them, as they ponder this One Big Thing all atheists must have in common.

TYPE ONE: The One Big Thing may be the way that atheists aren't persuaded that God exists. So a book about atheism could just be a list of all the key arguments for God, and how they fail to be logical. Call this approach "atheology", in contrast to theology's attempts to prove God. My own book The God Debates falls into this category.

TYPE TWO: The One Big Thing may be the way that atheists all agree on another worldview besides religion. So a book about atheism could be an explanation of this rival worldview, and the obvious kind of worldview is that of "science" or the philosophy of "naturalism" or simply "scientific naturalism", etc. This new book by Walters falls in this category, because he says that atheism is based on naturalism.

TYPE THREE: The One Big Thing may be the way that atheists avoid the emotional, moral, and social evils that come with religion. So a book about atheism could be an exploration of how affirmative and ethical the atheist life can be. I'm enjoying Dan Barker's new book The Good Atheist , which belongs in this category.

If you are an atheist, and you feel compelled to write about atheism, by all means include discussions about failed arguments for God (Type One) and successful lives without God (Type Three). But be careful with Type Two accounts of atheism, because it is so easy to get started the wrong way with atheism.

Don't get me wrong -- atheists should prefer science's knowledge and philosophy's wisdom to religion's revelations, of course. And naturalism is the right worldview to hold rather than supernaturalism. The huge problem with starting with naturalism is that Atheism Does Not Start With Naturalism.

Nope, no Naturalism at the core of Atheism. There are three big reasons why:

First, if you select any random nonbeliever from anywhere on earth, that atheist could tell you about living without religion, but this person probably couldn't tell you what naturalism is. You would be lucky to have plucked off the earth an atheist who could accurately tell you where the solar system came from, or how life evolves.

Second, when it comes to having a good reason for not believing in God, Naturalism is not needed. Science helps, but more than just science is needed to defeat religion , and just common sense and ordinary rationality is sufficient for rejecting God-belief .

Third, once you assume that the worldview of Naturalism is the starting premise for all atheism, then the burden of proof has been shifted off of religion back onto atheism, where it doesn't belong. In a way, all atheists are simple naturalists, since they at least agree that nature exists while they are doubting God. But saying that atheism presumes the worldview of Naturalism, as Walters does, now puts atheism in a very difficult and vulnerable starting position. Atheism now has to defend its presumption of Naturalism, which means (1) taking a prejudiced (dare one say, "faithful") stand against all of religion's evidence from the start, and (2) defending science's ability to explain everything, eventually. Point (1) permits friends of religion to claim that atheism is based on a kind of faith too, and lets religion avoid having to actually prove that God exists. Point (2) permits friends of religion to cheer every scientific difficulty as a victory for God belief. Pick up any book defending God these days. You can read all about how atheists can't prove their case and how science can't explain everything -- so God is just fine, everyone!

Putting Naturalism at the starting point of atheism gets atheism wrong and obstructs any sound defense of atheism. All atheists should accept the worldview of Naturalism in the end, because rationality yields science, and science's knowledge yields Naturalism. But nothing so sophisticated as an entire scientific/philosophical worldview is needed to get atheism off to a great start. Ordinary nature and common sense comes first.

Want a simple, fool-proof way to start explaining atheism? Here is a suggestion:

1. It is common sense to accept that the natural world around us exists.

2. There is no rational justification to think that anything beyond nature exists.

Conclusion: Doubting God is the rational stance, so ignore religion and go live a naturally happy life!



#1 asanta on Thursday January 20, 2011 at 8:23pm

Nearly everyone comes to atheism in a different way, some more rationally than others (I don’t believe in god,because he let my mother die, is NOT a rational way to atheism), and everyone has a different world view, based on personal background and experiences.

#2 Confused Humanist on Friday January 21, 2011 at 1:06pm

I think the problem here is that we non-believers (whatever that means) have really painted ourselves into a semantical corner. The atheists, Humanists, Secular Humanists, Brights, Ethical Unions, and others, all seem to be struggling with defining who and what they are. In atheism alone, there is implicit vs, explicit atheism, weak vs, strong atheism, positive vs. negative atheism, and practical vs theoretical atheism. This lack of coherence, or at least consistency, as you point out in the review, sends out conflicting messages to religionists, not to mention the atheist community itself.

I guess my point is that definitions (or “meanings,” if you want to go metaphysical,) are important. They provide the foundation for any constructive conversation – or debate – or argument – or belief. For example, the idea of naturalism as a way to explain atheism works only if God is assumed (defined) to be an external reality. However, if God is understood as a transcendent force or a spiritual influence, and thereby beyond or independent of “nature,” then a different syllogism is needed.

So, if Kerry Walters’ “Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed” (which I probably won’t read anyway,) doesn’t deconstruct the really big words with really big concepts like religion, god, atheism, humanism, morality, spirituality, transcendence, naturalism, et al, then I would agree with you that the reader would indeed end up more perplexed, if not totally frustrated as well.

#3 jerrys on Friday January 21, 2011 at 2:15pm

I agree with this simple basic approach to atheism.  But there is a catch. The conclusion doesn’t follow from point 2.  The reason is that almost nobody (except maybe philosophers   believes in an a god that is “beyond nature”. .  By which I mean a god that is entirely outside space and time.  If they pray to a god then at least they believe that their god can somehow sense those prayers. And I take it that a god that can sense prayer is not entirely supernatural. And if they believe that Jesus lived and was god then clearly they believe in a god that isn’t entirely supernatural.

So to this argument must be added the statement that natural laws can explain everything that happens in the world, which I take to be a kind of materialism.

#4 drstrangelove on Saturday January 22, 2011 at 1:41am

I’ve read this article and several of the other referenced articles and they are very persuasive and insightful.

I feel like we often, however, give up too easily on using appeals to basic science as evidence that many things are implausible.

It is my experience that there are a great many people who cannot be won over by even basic arguments that appeal to a very low level of rational reasoning.  I include not only the religious believers in this category but also believers in all manner of preposterous things including new age ideas like “life energy fields”, various conspiracy theories, the healing power of magnets, even political dogmas.

I’m not sure that much, if anything can be done to convince many of these people.  I find that often they cannot even follow a simple chain of logic, sad to say.

But I do think that there are those who have accept that science is a powerful and true discipline but that have just not applied these concepts to any of these other areas (new age, magnets, religion).  I think that they can be shown that various claims are so antithetical to even the most basic, completely accepted principles of science that these claims are not possible.  These people can be pushed over the edge by being encouraged to consider that a great many things that are being claimed are ruled out by the basic laws of science.

Or, at least that’s my theory and hope, I haven’t actually met anyone like this but I’m looking for him or her all the time. 

#5 Simon (Guest) on Sunday January 23, 2011 at 12:05am

Premise 1 is unnecessary.

Even if you reject the notion that the world around us exists one would still want evidence for a god or gods in order to believe in them.

The assumptions for 2 seem to me that rationality is valid (i.e. natural logic exists and is valid), and that god(s) is/are beyond nature (which may be a stance of theologians but isn’t I suspect the stance of most believers).

Thus the two can be simplified to “show me the evidence”, which I think is a good explanation for of the thinking atheist.

One can be an atheist simply because one hasn’t been introduce to the concept of god or gods. The so called “god shaped hole” is a myth, and some other cultures had plenty of “woo” without a god or gods.

#6 jerrys on Monday January 24, 2011 at 12:49pm

@ Simon(#5)

Some form of premise 1 is necessary because without it you can’t have any rational discussion of the world.  In other words if the natural world didn’t exist then there would be no way to have a rational discussion about the evidence you want.

#7 Jerry Buchanan (Guest) on Tuesday January 25, 2011 at 7:02pm

One argument that I get quite frequently is that atheists “know” there is no god. My atheism is a belief. There are some who believe in god. there are others who believe in allah. There are some who believe in the flying spaghetti monster. I believe there is no superior entity that controls the universe.If these others are permitted to use the B-word, then I am, too. There is a possibility that such a force exists. There is even a stronger possibility that it doesn’t. The same is true for an afterlife.

My belief dictates that I treat others fairly, a common “rule” in many philosophies. That extends to going out of my way to help others with the talents that I have, for fun and for free. There’s no book or guru that dictates that to me. To me it is mere common sense. We naturally take care of our children, our pets, and our aging parents (not in any particular order of importance). For the same reason, we must take care of the unfortunate people who have basic needs that are not being met for various reasons. Some call that god’s work. I call it people’s work.

#8 Joe (Guest) on Thursday January 27, 2011 at 12:39pm

Why not just start at the most basic: god ideas or logically unverifiable.  By definition and design they can’t be disproven.  In science, if you can’t disprove your idea then it gets tossed.  Without the ability to be falsified, an idea cannot be tested.

Undetectable adorable purple aliens control human governments.  I know this because they whisper it to my mind.  Can I disprove this.  No.  I can’t because by definition the aliens are undetectable.  Since I can’t disprove it, does this mean that I should argue that it might be true.  Absolutely not.  It is a product of pure imagination.  Thus, this idea is definitely not true.  Substitute the word aliens for the word god(s) and you have the same argument and the same conclusion.

There is no god.

#9 Joe (Guest) on Thursday January 27, 2011 at 12:40pm

The last phrase in the first sentence should have been, “god ideas are logically unverifiable.”

#10 Jordan (Guest) on Sunday February 06, 2011 at 8:49am

Joe: Actually, I think you’re conflating verifiability and falsifiability. I agree that belief in God is both, but what makes it unscientific (in Karl Popper’s sense) is that according to most theists’ rarefied conception of God, there’s no possible way of testing the hypothesis that God exists which might come out false.

#11 jerrys on Sunday February 06, 2011 at 11:06pm

@#8 (Joe) and #10 (Jordan)

Where “god” concepts are subject to empirical investigation surely depends on the details of the concept.  It’s logically possible to invent such gods, but they aren’t the what most people believe in.  In particular whether Jesus lived and performed miracles is an empirical question.

#12 EvolutionSWAT (Guest) on Friday February 18, 2011 at 7:48pm

Very thoughtful essay. Thanks for the reminder.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.