How do believers still not get what atheism is?

Some schmo of whom I’ve never heard, Be Scofield, has an article about 5 Myths Atheists Believe About Religion. He actually just lists points of disagreement, semantics, and his own inaccurate characterizations. Greta Christina takes him apart rather systematically on all that, but I want to focus on one thing he said in his assertion that atheists believe atheism is synonymous with being anti-religious:

This false belief stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism and religion are. Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion. It is simply the assertion that god does not exist, nothing more and nothing less. Religion is a broad category that encompasses traditions which include supernatural belief and those that do not.

He starts out okay: atheism is not related to opinions about religion. Unfortunately, he veers off the road in his very next sentence when he purports that atheism bears a relation to positive claims. It doesn’t. For the nth time, atheism is descriptive. I’m so tired of people saying otherwise that at this point I have to conclude that people like Scofield are either extremely ignorant, extremely stupid, or extremely dishonest.

Just consider this simple thought experiment: If I ask you to finish this sentence, can you? “I am an atheist, therefore I believe…” What would you say? You can tell me what I don’t believe, sure. You can say I don’t believe there are any gods and you would be correct. But if you switch the sentence around and say I believe there are no gods, you have profoundly changed the sentence. Here’s why.

I don’t believe there are any gods” tells you about an absence of belief I have. One can play semantics and claim this is itself a belief, but such a claim would be trivial. All I have told you is that I do not hold a certain belief. That does not mean I think the belief is itself false – though I may for reasons unrelated to atheism.

“I believe there are no gods” implies certainty and is a positive claim. But very few atheists ever make such a claim, and when they do, they aren’t doing so out of atheism. After all, is there evidence against gods? Perhaps we can trace the origins of particular gods back to mistaken and sometimes dishonest scribes, and that will give us strong suspicion, but that is only good circumstantial evidence. It isn’t proof. And if we’re talking about more nebulous, general concepts of gods, then we’re simply stuck trying to prove a negative. It isn’t going to happen and this is why atheists tend to not make these sort of positive claims.

That said, it may well be the case that atheists make claims in practical language. “There is no god” is a common statement made with such practicality. While it is ultimately backed with skepticism and a demand for evidence, that doesn’t make for such a good slogan. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be very pragmatic to begin every discussion about gods with an explanation such as this one. Atheists such as Dawkins, Coyne, Hitchens, the blogging community, myself and others recognize this and turn to simplified rhetoric in order to get broader – and certainly more important – points across. But that does not excuse Scofield for inaccurately defining atheism when his entire premise rested on that definition itself.

4 Responses

  1. I am an atheist, therefore I believe that none of the evidence presented for gods so far is compelling enough to make me believe they exist.

  2. I disagree, Atheism does have indirectly an opinion about religion. It is seen as disparaging against all religions. Since all religions have a belief in God, and Atheist believes there is no proof of a God, we are anathema to believers who have based beliefs on years of dogmatic teaching about a god who we say has no evidence he exists at all.

    You can’t say to as Astrologist you have no belief at all that the moon and stars guide our fate as they fervently believe without indirectly attacking astrology.

  3. Believers are always entertaining, especially in “missionary mode.” I can’t tell you how many have tried to describe to me what I believe and how I think.

    Apparently, following Jesus doesn’t grant you the mind-reading powers they expect.

  4. I disagree, Atheism does have indirectly an opinion about religion. It is seen as disparaging against all religions.

    What atheism is and how it is seen are two different things. What you’ve described is the religious reaction to non-belief. That reaction is premised in normative claims – it’s part of most theism to say that anyone who does not believe in god X is not a good person. But that is not part of atheism.

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