Default position

Recently—since I've started getting all outspoken and all—I've had people ask me the difference between atheism and a religion. I was silenced (briefly) by the question—not because I thought it was a silly one, not at all. I was silenced (briefly) because although it is clear to me that there is an enormous difference, I didn't have a good answer all ready. I've been thinking about it over the last couple of weeks, when... guess what? I found that someone has expressed it beautifully for me. So here you are then; a marvellous quote from Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, atheist is a term that should not ever exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence—and, indeed, for his BENEVOLENCE, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.

And, for good measure, here's a nice succinct quote from a fellow called Don Hirschberg (I have to confess I hadn't heard of him before today, but I like his analogy): "Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color."

What does this all mean? Well, it means that we should think of atheism as a default position—like disbelief in astrology or alchemy—that we ought to hold until we are presented with sufficient evidence to switch.


Zootenany Hoodlum said...

I don't think the evidence will ever be presented externally. If one does "switch" it will be a quiet and internal revelation.

Often I think that faith or spirituality (I shy away from "faith" believing it brings to mind the right-wing fundamentalist christians of whom we all so object) is simply a decision. I don't like this idea, but I will be open to it. I still don't like this idea, in fact I am acutely uncomfortable with it, but I no longer have such a strong reaction to it. I don't like this idea but it doesn't bother me. I don't like this idea but I guess I dunno.. and so on down the road.

Spirituality is intensely personal. Ardent athiests and ardent "religious-types" are probably compared because of their ardour - feeling so strongly about how other people should feel. You will go to Hell if you don't think like I think. You are stupid if you don't think like I think. How can you possibly think like that arggghhh? In this way one imagines two different camps facing off across a field, in this way you get a group name. Not everyone else believes in god but not everyone else defines themselves by that disbelief. As you define yourself so shall you be defined, I suppose.

Darren said...

It seems to me you are making some epistemological presumptions here.... harkening back to our discussion of what constitutes *justification* in 'justified true belief'.

You are ruling out "personal experience" as justification, prefering instead objective evidence. I'm with you but I can't help feeling we are hand waving a bit.... and any smart theist would be all over you on this point.

Mark Hanington said...

I think it interesting that theists and athiests both define themselves in terms of god. They may walk in opposite directions but they're clearly on the same road.

Darren said...

I would disagree, Mark. If the concept of "God" were not so prevalent in our culture, non-believers would not need to call themselves 'atheists' or anything else. There is no word for people who don't believe in astrology (as Sam Harris points out).

Technically speaking, since I believe the concept of "God" as it is commonly understood to be a non-sensical mishmash, I do not define myself in terms of God at all... because I have never heard a satisfactory definition of "God" for me to define myself as not believing in! ;)

Zoot, I used to spend a lot of time and effort arguing with theists. I don't anymore, unless their beliefs are compelling them to infringe on public policy in ways that I find objectionable. I don't feel any need to lecture people on how to think anymore ;)

fiona-h said...

darren said what I was going to say - thanks!

Mark Hanington said...

Darren, that's pretty much my point. The fact that there is a word for it defines a position vis a vis god. I don't mean to suggest atheists are on some sort of spiritual journey, only that the fact the word exists presents something of a conundrum.

Darren said...

Mark, I think the only conundrum is the ubiquity of religion in the first place.