If Religion Means So Much, How Could Atheism Mean Nothing?

December 10, 2010

Most of you have heard the secular moralist argument that atheism is meaningless. It goes something like this:

"By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes ‘God definitely doesn’t exist’ or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough. … It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way."

If you don’t recognize those words, they are mine, from a post on this blog back in March (remember the ensuing storm? Fun times!). I've had a good deal of time to reflect on my position the past nine months. In doing so, I have recognized at least one problem. I think it's worth addressing it. 

I argued that atheism is meaningless because it is merely the absence or rejection of theism and God. Yet I also believe that religious belief is generally both false and harmful; and that it plays an incredibly influential role in people’s lives, shaping all domains of social and political life. How could the absense or rejection of that not matter? How can I square these views? 

With the benefit of hindsight, allow me to try to clear this up. My position is not that atheism is without any meaning, but that atheism is not entirely meaningful . Atheism really is only the absence of belief in theism or God -- a negative answer to a very specific question, as John Shook calls it. I think we should focus on broader constructs. However, I undersold atheism in two ways. First, absence or rejection of religious faith, and the act of firmly making the case for that stance, is very important in and of itself considering the hyper-religiousity of America. Sometimes merely stating that you are an atheist in public can go a long way (believe me, I know). Second, while atheism does not provide a comprehensive secular moral framework with which to look at the world, atheism is an important first step toward that positive worldview --- that is, so long as one actually keeps moving forward. 

I hope this helps. Your thoughts?

Comments:

#1 Strubie on Friday December 10, 2010 at 11:57am

Moving forward is the key.  When family members or friends refer to me as an atheist, I always point out that while that is true, it is not nearly as important as the fact that I’m a secular humanist.  My atheism is, in fact, no more important now than my lack of belief in Bigfoot or UFOs, but it was an important step in my becoming a secular humanist.

#2 J. (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 12:46pm

Religion is meaningless because as far as we know the notion of god has no referent in the world of actual things or is at least seriously ontologically flawed. Atheism is meaningful because it refers to something that is well founded in our sensory experience. Atheism as a belief as such does not provide a secular moral framework but atheism as a social movement (Secular Humanism, Naturalism, Skepticism and the like) does aspire to adhere to two moral principles: to eschew hypocrisy and to not engage in double-think on the subject of god and the supernatural which undermines so much of organized religion. Would that religion adopt these sound atheist moral principles it would likely improve it’s standing with god, did that god exits and were that god in some sense moral in the ways of good men and women. But don’t hold your breath.

#3 tudza on Friday December 10, 2010 at 3:26pm

So the problem is that saying you are an atheist doesn’t tell others anything about what you *do* believe in?  Saying I believe in the Christian god tells you more?  How many god fearing folk have you met that believe killing people is justified?  There is a whole range of belief under that main belief.

#4 Bryan Elliott (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 4:20pm

Atheism has a meaning: An atheist is right about at least one thing.

#5 Randy (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 6:30pm

Consider the following sets: A={2,4}, T1={1,2,2i}, T2={2,3i}.  Suppose real numbers represent physical evidence and logical results from that, and imaginary numbers represent untestable beliefs.  Is any one of these sets more meaningful than the others?  The (strong) atheist set A is not meaningless, or even less meaningful.  It just doesn’t include the imaginary items in the two theist sets, but might include some other world knowledge.

A position that belief is harmful is not a necessary result of atheism.  It’s an antitheist position.  It’s probably fair to say almost all antitheists are atheist, but many atheists are not antitheist.

I do like the idea of atheism as a first step on the way to something useful.  I don’t think there’s agreement on the second step.  In my area, the only atheist organization is secular humanist, and discourages antitheism, so they aren’t a good fit for me.  It would be nice if atheists had a choice of organizations, even in towns, to handle their needs such as marriages and funerals, charitable work, social activities, publicity, and ensuring that everywhere that multiple local religious figures are involved, a diversity of local atheists are also involved.

#6 Tor (Guest) on Friday December 10, 2010 at 8:57pm

I’m new to your column.  What exactly does ‘believe’ mean?  You should be able to define what it is you’re making statements about.

#7 Pau Cortès Font de Rubinat (Guest) on Saturday December 11, 2010 at 4:44am

Atheism is not meaningless. Absence of beliefs on supersticious facts is a positive trait for the inquiring mind, a prerequisite for “moving forward”.
Pau

#8 Egbert (Guest) on Monday December 13, 2010 at 2:06am

Words have meaning, if they’ve been defined. A work of fiction or a piece of art is meaningful. Atheism has meaning because it’s descriptive about what a person is not, however it does not say anything more about a person’s position.

I try and defend the term ‘naturalist’ instead. However, the term ‘naturalist’ is a difficult position to explain, and few atheists have adopted the term thus far.

#9 Michael De Dora on Monday December 13, 2010 at 12:29pm

@Randy, you wrote:

“I do like the idea of atheism as a first step on the way to something useful.  I don’t think there’s agreement on the second step.  In my area, the only atheist organization is secular humanist, and discourages antitheism, so they aren’t a good fit for me.  It would be nice if atheists had a choice of organizations, even in towns, to handle their needs such as marriages and funerals, charitable work, social activities, publicity, and ensuring that everywhere that multiple local religious figures are involved, a diversity of local atheists are also involved.”

While I don’t see the need for directed anti-theism, you raise a very good point. Secular humanist groups do tend to share some traits that are certainly not related to secular humanism (an older crowd, Democrat supporters, often shy from atheism and religious critique). I wonder if a mere “secular ethics” label would be better, as it would open the floor to more views on that next step.

Yet this could also just be a issue of where you live. May I ask where that is? With atheism spreading, it could just be a matter of time before your town is populated with a wider diversity of groups. Or, have you considered starting your own group?

#10 Michael De Dora on Monday December 13, 2010 at 12:45pm

@Tor, you wrote:

“I’m new to your column.  What exactly does ‘believe’ mean?”

Thanks for the question. There are many different ways to think about belief. Generally, a “belief” is considered an accepted proposition (some call them “propositional attitudes”). Thus, to “believe” in X means that you think there is good enough evidence and reason to support the claim that X is true/exists.

Does that help? I could go into greater detail if needed. I had to tackle your exact question in my master’s thesis.

#11 Karlton Kemerait (Guest) on Tuesday December 14, 2010 at 3:20pm

I disagree,

Atheism is not an empty concept, a simple lack of belief, it has another tangible and active meaning as well.

Atheism is a positive statement about the absence of evidence, not a vacuous statement like a non stamp collector.

When I say I am an atheist, it is closer to a scientific proposition than a statement of ideology. I am saying that I cannot exercise faith at this point in time because the evidence in front of me is insufficient to command my belief.

It does not imply that I am rigid or staunch in my disbelief, it implies quite the opposite, that given sufficient evidence I am obligated to adjust my position. It is because I’m an atheist that I am open to change. I base my beliefs, not on a fixed ideology but on available data. Change the evidence and you can change my mind.

#12 Sean Dube (Guest) on Tuesday December 14, 2010 at 8:57pm

We may not have belief in a super natural being but that does not cast us in the lake of meaningless.  We at some point came to the conclusion that a deity is not rational as the evidence for the contrary is too overwhelming.  This would leave most of us as believers in evolution.  Our meaning is then drawn from the same desire of every other social creature on earth: to live and prosper as a species.  This is unfortunately painting with a broad brush as every atheist does not wish the same prosperity for all mankind, but there are those of us that wish to see the human race achieve what it is capable of.  This desire sprouts from the seeds of education that inspire atheism through knowing and rational, critical thinking.  Furthermore the ability for us to reach this potential also lies in these same seeds.

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