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June 29, 2008

Comments

Steve

I know a lot of evangelical Christians like to claim they're not "religious", which is a similar phenomenon.

Erin Snyder

I’d argue Atheism was always more of a cultural and sociological designation, rather than a theological one. I haven’t met a huge number of people who self-identify with the term “Atheist”, but most I have known believed that religion was detrimental to society and/or its formation was the result of a historical process.

I’ve met very few people who’ve held that there is simply no God, and they knew this by virtue of revelation.

In short, they associated with the term because they didn’t believe in religion: I suspect most are skeptical of a God, but if pushed will admit they simply don’t know. A few, as the survey suggests, may even be somewhat devout, which while ironic, isn’t actually contradictory.

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins gives a statistical argument against God in “The God Delusion” which could be used as the foundation for a rejection of a God. It’s a great argument, actually, although (of course) it’s far from conclusive. Still, it took me a solid five minutes to find a hole in the reasoning.

There’s also a political aspect. Atheism is subversive these days, so some people may wear it like a lapel pin… whether it describes them or not.

On the other hand, the poll may simply indicate that a sizable number of people simply have no idea what the term means at all.

DB Ellis

I’ve met very few people who’ve held that there is simply no God, and they knew this by virtue of revelation.

Very few atheists claim to KNOW, in any absolute sense, that there's no God.

I'm an atheist and don't believe in God.

I don't know there's no Christian God. I don't know there's no Zeus or Thor or Osiris or Ganesh.

I can't disprove any of these things. But I still dont believe in them (and, I think, with good reason, even if those reasons don't constitute disproof).

One does not, after all, have to be convinced that the existence of fairies can be disproved to be able to say that one does not believe in fairies.

What this poll indicates is what so many polls tell us. That there are a lot of poorly informed people out there.

And, probably, that there are also a lot of people who just like to answer illogically to polls to mess with the pollsters heads.

Erin Snyder

DB Ellis: I'm a little confused. See, I understand everything in your response, except your decision to quote me at the start. Unless, that is, you misread the sentence you quoted. Granted, my original comment was poorly worded (I'd apologize, but... that's the internet for you). You seem to be reading my comment as an attack on Atheism, which it isn't. Actually, it was kind of a defense.

A common attack on Atheism is that proponents believe (in the theological sense) there is no God, which is a belief that can't be substantiated without revelation. This seems to be what you were responding against. But that's not what I wrote. I was saying that position DIDN'T describe most Atheists I know, nor do I think it describes many Atheists who have ever lived.

Most atheists are, to varying degrees, skeptical of religion and the concept of a God. They have examined the arguments for the existence of a God and are unconvinced. I gather this describes DB Ellis, as well as several people I greatly respect (including my Grandfather). Now, this alone isn't generally a basis for Atheism. If you believe, simply, there's no reason to believe in a God, you would logically describe yourself as Agnostic or skeptical. Atheism is a rejection of God and/or religion. Off hand, I can think of three reasons Atheists I've known have chosen the term (other than rebelling for rebellion's sake):

1. They believe religion is detrimental to society
2. They believe religion is detrimental to the believer
3. They think the chances of God existing are lower than the alternative

Most Atheists I've met have agreed with either number one or two. The third is a difficult position to argue: the only time I've seen the third argument handled well was, as I mentioned before, in The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (again, an excellent book).

If you believe that religion or the belief in God is in some way damaging (either to society or yourself), you're basically choosing Atheism as a cultural designation (which leads us back to Gabe's post and Belief.net). My original point is simply that, historically, that's why most Atheists have embraced Atheism - this doesn't really represent a change in Atheist attitude in my opinion. Marxism, for instance, doesn't attack religion on theological grounds: it rejects it on a social and political basis. There's also an interesting tendency to label groups "Atheists" if they disagree with a particular religion (I've read that Romans referred to early Christians as Atheists, because they refused to worship Rome's gods).

If someone is an Atheist because they reject religion, it's perfectly reasonable they might still believe in some sort of higher power.
It's a stretch, but no more than a Marxist who secretly believes there's something "more." This may explain the statistics in part, though honestly I'm more inclined to agree that most were probably just confused or drunk.

Oh Dear God, did I just write all that? My sincere apologies to Gabe for posting anything this long on his blog (of course, if I were truly sorry, I wouldn’t press “Post”).

DB Ellis

"Unless, that is, you misread the sentence you quoted."

Perhaps I did. My apologies.

" If you believe, simply, there's no reason to believe in a God, you would logically describe yourself as Agnostic or skeptical. Atheism is a rejection of God and/or religion."

Atheism is not, as the term is generally used by those who self-identify as atheists, a rejection of God. It is a disbelief in God. Rejection is a bad word to use here since it can be misinterpreted to mean a rebellion against a God you believe in rather than a disbelief in God.

In fact, speaking for myself, I very much don't "reject" God. I wish there was a loving God. If there were, we'd probably live in a much better world than the one we find ourselves in.

"1. They believe religion is detrimental to society
2. They believe religion is detrimental to the believer
3. They think the chances of God existing are lower than the alternative

Most Atheists I've met have agreed with either number one or two."

Most atheists do agree with 1 and 2---and consider it largely irrelevent to why they call themselves atheist. They call themselves atheists because they agree with 3. At least thats been my experience.

"The third is a difficult position to argue"

I don't find it a difficult position to argue for at all. Not with regard to Zeus and Thor. Not with regard to the Christian God.

In fact, I would say we have better reason to disbelieve in the God of Christianity (and most western versions of theism) than we do for disbelief in Zeus.

That is, all the reasons for disbelief in Zeus (or werewolves, or fairies, or witches, or any other claim falling under the general heading of "supernatural") also apply to the christian God....plus one more not applicable to the rest. The problem of why a perfectly good omnipotent being both allows horrendous suffering and even orders the world in such a way that suffering of this sort is inevitable.

This fact alone is sufficient, I think, to make the existence of an omnipotent loving God implausible in the extreme.


Of course, there are far more abstract and, shall we say, vaporous concepts of God. Some so vague it's hard to pin down believers even on what they mean by the word "God". Perhaps some of the ones who called themselves atheist mean disbelief in a PERSONAL God but do believe in some vague sort of impersonal higher power.

"My original point is simply that, historically, that's why most Atheists have embraced Atheism."

In my experience with quite a large number of atheists I haven't found this to be the case.

Erin Snyder

"Atheism is not, as the term is generally used by those who self-identify as atheists, a rejection of God. It is a disbelief in
God."

You actually have a point here. I hadn’t meant to imply that Atheists were rejecting an existing God, but merely the idea of a God. But clearly that’s not how it reads: you have my apologies.

"I don't find it a difficult position to argue for at all. Not with regard to Zeus and Thor. Not with regard to the Christian God."

How about all of the above? I don't think of Atheism as merely a disbelief in a single "form" of God, but a disbelief in ANY form of God – Christian, Muslim, Mythological, vague spirituality, etc. If the term is used differently (i.e.: to designate an opposition to a SPECIFIC version of God), then it’s a cultural designation, anyway.

“Of course, there are far more abstract and, shall we say, vaporous concepts of God. Some so vague it's hard to pin down believers even on what they mean by the word "God".”

I agree 100%. The term “God” is often left vague and undefined by Theists. But that’s exactly why a theological version of Atheism is so hard to construct. How does one argue against the existence of an undefined? It’s basically impossible to argue against ANY possible interpretation or definition of God.

Which is why I think Atheism has always been a cultural designation first and foremost. Atheists seldom (if ever) try to argue against every possible definition of God: they are generally confronting a particular religion (or groups of religions), which they disbelieve or reject. This usually seems motivated by one of the reasons I mentioned earlier.

Of course, the exact same thing can be said about “vague” Theists – in many situations, the primary difference between an Atheist and someone believing in an undefined “higher power” is semantics (whether to call the unknown God or not). And this usually boils down to a disagreement on whether religion is a positive or negative force. In short, a cultural disagreement.

DB Ellis

Personally, I agree that the term "atheist" is most reasonably reserved for nonbelief in any variety of diety or "higher power", whether personal or impersonal.

And from my interaction with other atheists thats what the vast majority mean by it. So I still consider it to be a disbelief rather than the way you seem to prefer to characterize it---as a cultural disagreement.

Though most of us atheists do also disagree about cultural issues as well---it just isn't what we think of as being the basis for our calling ourselves atheists.

And I should probably qualify my agreement to your points 1 and 2:

"1. They believe religion is detrimental to society"

"2. They believe religion is detrimental to the believer"

Most of us atheists would say this varies widely from religion to religion and among the subgroups of the various religions.

For example, I find fundamentalist Islam perhaps the most harmful form of religion at the present time.

On the other hand, the vague deism and pantheism of some people seems mostly harmless to me. Not rationally justified beliefs in my opinion. But not terribly harmful in any overt way.

And also, of course, there are varieties of religion filling every gradation between these two extremes.

Ah well, so much fuss over semantics. Its probably not worth the time we spend debating it.

After all, I no more draw my sense of personal identity from my designation as an atheist than I do my designation as a nonmuslim or nonrepublican.

I'm much more interested in identifying myself according to the things that describe what I DO believe in and live by than the things I dont:

Humanist, rationalist, lover of the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I would even probably attend a unitarian universalist church if there was one in my area. Which brings up an interesting point---though religion is ALMOST always supernaturalistic in some form, there are a rare few variety of what seem to be legitimately called religion that are amenable to a naturalistic worldview (UU being the most obvious example I know of).

rich

this is the stupidest poll ever. its like saying 27% of bald men have a full head of hair.

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