“What is Atheism?” – Response to Matt Slick of CARM

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A response to an article written by Matt Slick of CARM intended to be an introduction to atheism for Christians.
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This is the introductory part of a series of articles I intend to write in response to some articles written by Matt Slick of CARM.

Today, I am just responding to one article, intended as a sort of introduction to atheism (and atheists) for the average Christian. There are several points of contention to make.

The Critique

“What is Atheism?”

The word atheism comes from the negative a which means ‘no,’ and theos which means ‘god.’ Hence, atheism in the most basic terms means ‘no god.’ Basically, atheism is the lack of belief in a god and/or the belief that there is no god. By contrast, theism is the belief that there is a God and that He is knowable and that He is involved in the world. Most atheists do not consider themselves anti-theists but simply non-theists.

I don’t disagree with any of this, although there are some minor changes to wording I would make had I written it.

I’ve encountered many atheists who claim that atheism is not a belief system while others say it is. Since there is no official atheist organization, nailing down which description of atheism to use can be difficult.

Atheism is definitively not a belief system. Considering it as such is analogous to considering “not playing sports” a sport. It’s a lack of a particular type of belief. It is, however, possible to be an atheist who believes there are no gods, which would be a Gnostic Atheist. More on that further through the article.

Nevertheless, the following are some definitions offered by atheists. Whichever definition you accept, atheism denies God.

“An atheist is someone who believes and/or knows there is no god.”
“An atheist lacks belief in a god.”
“An atheist exercises no faith in the concept of god at all.”
“An atheist is someone who is free from religious oppression and bigotry.”
“An atheist is someone who is a free-thinker–free from religion and its ideas.”

Saying “atheism denies God” isn’t wholly wrong, but somewhat misleading. You’ve also made the mistake of assuming atheists only disbelieve one god, (in this case, your favourite one), whereas atheists disbelieve any and all gods.

There are two main categories of atheists: strong and weak with variations in between.

I should make it clear at this point that this is not definitive, simply how this article’s writer prefers to think of atheism. He is about to conflate strength of belief with strength of activism, i.e. that only those who believe there are no gods are active in promoting atheistic ideas.

A better way to think of it is a multi-dimensional scale, with degree of gnosticism on one axis, and degree of activism on the other. Atheists can be placed anywhere among those axes, but there’s likely a weak correlation between the strengths of each position.

Strong atheists actively believe and state that no God exists. They expressly denounce the Christian God along with any other god.

Denouncement as in moral denouncement? If that’s what is meant here, then I think it’s just another conflation, and not relevant to the matter of belief.

Strong atheists are usually more aggressive in their conversations with theists and try to shoot holes in theistic beliefs. They like to use logic and anti-biblical evidences to denounce God’s existence. They are active, often aggressive, and openly believe that there is no God.

Because no theist has ever been aggressive.

Agnostic Atheists, as I call them, are those who deny God’s existence based on an examination of evidence.

As you call them? It sounds like you’re claiming the name as your own idea.

Agnostic Atheists are those who do not believe in god. Almost always this is due to a lack of evidence. Again, conflation.

Agnosticism means ‘not knowing’ or ‘no knowledge.’ I call them agnostic because they state they have looked at the evidence and have concluded there is no God, but they say they are open to further evidence for God’s existence.

This is not entirely correct. There is no evidence of any god to look at. Agnostic atheists are those who realise this, but also realise that there is also no disproof of any gods, and so formally await evidence. However, almost all atheists will informally (that is, in daily life, when not debating, for practical purposes), express that there is no god, and live as if that’s the case.

Weak atheists simply exercise no faith in God. The weak atheist might be better explained as a person who lacks belief in God the way a person might lack belief that there is a green lizard in a rocking chair on the moon; it isn’t an issue. He doesn’t believe it or not believe it.

This is actually what an agnostic atheist is.

Finally, there is a group of atheists that I call militant atheists. They are, fortunately, few in number. They are usually highly insulting and profoundly terse in their comments to theists and particularly Christians. I’ve encountered a few of them; and they are vile, rude, and highly condescending. Their language is full of insults, profanity, and blasphemies. Basically, no meaningful conversation can be held with them.

You’re just describing assholes. There are assholes of every other group and label, including theists. I encounter far fewer atheist assholes than theist assholes, though. (innuendo maybe slightly intended)

“Two Main Types of Arguments from Atheists”

Atheist positions seem to fall into two main categories. The first is the lack-of-evidence category where the atheist asserts that the supporting evidence isn’t good enough for him to affirm God’s existence.

All atheists are of this position.

The second is the category where the athiest believes that the idea of God’s existence is illogical and contrary to the evidence at hand.

This covers not only agnostic and gnostic atheists, but is pretty close to the definition of ignostic atheists, too. Ignostic atheists assert that the idea of god is too vague and/or meaningless to be evidenced, and so dismiss it just as a poorly written scientific hypothesis is dismissed. I am personally both agnostic and ignostic, without being gnostic.

To simplify, one position says there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that God exists, and the other position says the evidence is contrary to God’s existence.

All things considered, this isn’t a bad summary of the types of arguments atheists present. The only example of the first category is “belief without sufficient evidence is irrational”, which can be worded in different ways. One example of the latter is that “The Biblical creation account is inconsistent with proven science”. Such arguments are aimed at specific mythologies, and usually, all the theist has to do is exercise their creative power (otherwise known as “bullshitting”) to weave the story around these criticisms, as one could do with almost any story.

For those atheists who simply lack belief and exercise no energy in the discussion, neither category applies because they are not involved in the debate.

Radical notion from Matt Slick: Those who are not involved in debates do not put forward debate positions!

It seems to me that you’re referring to those who are technically atheists but just don’t care about the god discussion. These are usually referred to simply as “agnostics”, but that is somewhat misleading. I would propose the term Apathetic Atheists for these people, or perhaps Apatheists.

But, some of those who claim to lack belief in God are often involved in discussions where they are arguing against God’s existence.

One can argue that a concept is ridiculous without believing it is absolutely impossible.

A typical argument posed by an atheist to show why God does not exist is as follows: God is supposed to be all good and all-powerful. Evil and suffering exist in the world. If God is all good, He would not want evil and suffering to exist. If He is all-powerful, then He is able to remove all evil and suffering. Since evil and suffering exist, God is either not all good (which means He is not perfect and not God) or He is not all-powerful (and limited in abilities and scope). Since either case shows God is not all good and powerful, then He does not exist.

This is generally referred to as the problem of evil, and attempts by theists to resolve it are called Theodicy. I rarely see it used as an argument that god doesn’t exist, but it of course could be used to support that notion.

Of course, the problem is that the criticism is a false dichotomy. In other words, there are more than two possibilities, namely, God might have a reason for allowing evil and suffering, man’s freedom might require the allowance of evil and suffering, etc.

This is a good example of what I mentioned earlier; all the theist has to do is weave their story around the criticism to make it plausible.

This refutation doesn’t in any sense account for natural disasters, miscarriages, the significant geographical distribution of suffering, and the significant age distribution of suffering. Why does God hate African children so much?

A naturalistic explanation, on the other hand, accounts for all these things perfectly, as much as I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’ around such a gruesome subject.

“Some Basic Tenets of Atheism”

Already we have a problem here. What are the rules of the sport “no sport”? How many wheels does the car “no car” have?

Presuppositions are important to us all. We look at the world through them.

projector

Speak for yourself.

Presuppositions are not necessary, and they are far from desirable. Everything you may think is a presupposition about the nature of reality is actually based on evidence, although sometimes that evidence is difficult to identify. In the case of simple, mundane matters (like interpersonal interactions), minor, subjective evidence like a look, a stance, a vocal tone, etc., are sufficient for belief (for example, the belief that your spouse loves you).

The atheist has a set of presuppositions, too.

“The Atheist” does not exist. We’re all very different, and as you correctly identify, not governed by any organisation.

As I said, there is no definitive atheist organization that defines the absolutes of atheism, but there are basic principles that atheists as a whole tend to adopt.I’ve tried to list some of them below. Please note, however, that not all atheists accept all of these tenets. The only absolute common one to which they hold is that they do not believe in a God or gods.

You make clear that these are not actually considered tenets, but keep calling them tenets anyway.

1. There is no God or devil.

This is a gnostic position, but as I stated earlier, for informal (practical) purposes, many atheists are effectively gnostic. I would make this statement in discussion with friends, for brevity, but would not state this formally (in a serious debate, for example)

2. There is no supernatural realm.

This is a great example of why I think the Ignostic approach is apt. This is so vague, it’s impossible to evidence. It’s a placebo, taking on in the mind of the target whatever the target wants.

What you’re talking about here (and in further questions) is materialism, the position that material things are all that exist. (also very similar to a naturalist or physicalist). All materialists are atheists, but not all atheists are materialists; indeed some atheists have strong beliefs in non-religious supernatural entities.

3. Miracles cannot occur.

Literal miracles are violations of the laws of physics. Barring a force which can cause that, they are impossible. Lack of belief in any such force (including a god) does require a lack of belief in miracles themselves.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t use the word “miracle” in the figurative, metaphorical sense; although I do tend to avoid overusing traditionally religious language.

4. There is no such thing as sin as a violation of God’s will.

A god would have to exist before having a will. Sin is just another word for immorality, but it assumes that the morality of an ancient anthology of desert fairy-tales is objective.

5. Generally, the universe is materialistic and measurable.

This is again a materialist position, but I would say most atheists are materialists.

Unsure why you chose to word the other “tenets” as absolutes, but this one as a hedged assertion.

6. Man is material.

Prove a soul exists, until then, this is the only rational position to take on that. (you could also prove that some other aspect of mankind is immaterial, of course)

7. Generally, evolution is considered a scientific fact.

Now we’re moving on to science, which is again not necessarily synchronous with atheism; but it’s also true that almost all atheists accept the majority of what science has proven.

Evolution is only not considered scientific fact by those who don’t want it to be, with the small exception of those who are genuinely uneducated in it.

8. Ethics and morals are relative.

Moral philosophy is not atheism, but again, most atheists would hold that morality is subjective (though a subjective moral system can still have absolutes).

For the Christian, atheism clashes with many aspects of our faith.

Damned straight.

Some atheists openly attack Christianity–citing apparent contradictions in the Bible, perceived philosophical difficulties related to God and what they consider as logical evidences against God’s existence. But the atheists’ criticisms are not without very good answers as you will see in the coming papers.

And many theists do the same, only far less effectively.

Your “very good answers” are next on the chopping block, Matt!

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