Tag Archives: reason

Atheist Movement Philosophy

Bad Atheism: Part One

I am calling this ongoing series “Bad Atheism” because it is simple, provocative, and because I am too lazy to think of different titles for every post I am going to make on what I see as wrong with modern atheist thinking. “Part X” is just so much simpler. Additionally, in case anyone was wondering, I have no clue about how long this series will be going, or all the different things I will write about. I just wanted a nice catch-all for any potential topic I may get inspired to write about.

I really dislike the common “lack of belief” definition of atheism. You hear it all the time, and it usually goes something like this, “atheism is not a belief, it is a lack of belief in God or gods.” There are a few different things I find annoying about this definition, and here I will attempt to list them.

First though, a preliminary note: the definitions of words are not set in stone. There is no great dictionary-in-the-sky that makes some words only have a certain definition or definitions. So, herein I am not trying to argue for the “correct” definition of atheism, and likewise, I do not take any “but this is THE definition of atheism” argument seriously. Even if someone points out the whole, “atheism is a-theism, the a- means without, therefore, it is simply without theism” breakdown of the word itself, I do not find that convincing, as we go against what a word, when broken down, literally means all the time. For instance, when sportscasters speak of a team “decimating” another team, they are speaking of them really beating the other team, not literally killing 1/10th of the players on the other team. Long story short, arguments about definitions of words should be about what definitions will be more useful and/or meaningful than other ones, not just saying there is A definition that we have to follow.

With that out of the way, I want to briefly sketch out what I find annoying about the “lack of belief” definition of atheism. Among the reasons that I can think of at the top of my head, here are some which I will deal with in order:

  • The definition is psychologically untenable for the most part for adult humans
  • The definition makes the atheist “position” no different from a cat’s or a rock’s
  • We do not normally define ourselves by mere lack of a belief in something
  • I suspect that there is a dishonest motive behind the definition, to dodge atheism’s “burden of proof”

The “lack of belief” definition is psychologically untenable because it really doesn’t match how human minds work. After we have heard a claim X, we cannot then just lack a belief about that claim X. Sure, we can lack a belief that claim X is true, but we still possess some belief about X. That belief does not necessarily have to be “I believe that X is not true”, but at the very least it is, “I believe that claim X has insufficient evidence to justify me believing that it is true”. We may not explicitly hold those beliefs, but surely, we do not just have a vacuum in our minds about subjects we have heard before, especially when it is a claim as ubiquitous as God claims.

The “lack of belief” definition makes the atheist “position” no different from a cat’s or rock’s because they too lack positive belief in a God. Now, should we actually label them as atheists? That would seem silly, wouldn’t it? That is because there is more going on then simply lacking belief in God claims. For humans, they can be labeled atheists, as opposed to rocks, because humans have minds to process God claims. But if that is the case, if the fact that we have minds matter, then the way our minds really work in regards to claims we have heard also matters, so lack of belief doesn’t really work any more.

We do not normally define ourselves by our mere lack of belief in a claim. We do not go about calling ourselves “aunicornists” or “a-9/11conspiracytheory-ists” or stuff like that. So obviously, mere not believing in a claim doesn’t make a label we normally use. Rather, if we do use the word atheist to signify not believing in God claims it is because our culture somewhat imposes that belief on us, so we set up the word “atheist” in opposition to that. If there were a culture pushing belief in the tooth fairy all the time, we may need a word to define our not believing in that claim. That is because it is the cultural situation and our opposition to it that matters, not the mere lack of belief in something.

I suspect that there is a dishonest motive behind the definition, to dodge atheism’s “burden of proof.” It seems to me that in defining atheism as simply “lacking belief” in God claims, that people are trying to set up atheism as a non-position, and as such, requiring no justification. To them, it is all on the theist, the only person making a claim to them, to meet a burden of proof. Well that seems convenient, doesn’t it? It seems too good to be true because it is. As I pointed out in the first point, we do not just lack a position about a claim we have heard, especially one like God-claims. Additionally, most atheists or other scientifically minded people will not accept just lacking belief in something as reasonable.

For instance, would we accept a climate change denier’s mere lack of being convinced by the science? Of course not! We would say that they SHOULD be convinced by the scientific evidence, if they were being reasonable about it. They cannot just throw up their hands and say something like their position is just lacking belief that climate change is real, and that is all they have to do, that the burden of proof is all on the scientists, and they have failed to meet it. If that approach were at all reasonable, anyone could deny anything and just say someone has failed to meet their burden. The fact is that the climate scientists have met their burden, and as such, any person who denies that is actually being unreasonable. They cannot just hide behind “lack of belief” climate denial anymore, because that so-called “lack of belief” is unreasonable. If they want their claim that the climate scientists have failed to meet their burden of proof to be taken seriously, they have to give reasons why the climate scientists have failed to meet their burden. That is because that is a positive claim that someone is making, that the other side has failed to meet their burden, and as such, it begs justification.

So at best what we have is a weak claim like, “theists have failed to meet their burden of proof in regards to God” but then notice that it is now on the atheist to give reasons why that claim is true. They cannot just assert it and expect people to take their claim “on faith”. Speaking of faith, maybe that will be my next topic, if I feel up to it.

What do you think? Think I am on to something, or that I am dead wrong?

Also, this is a relevant post by William Lane Craig on the topic: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/definition-of-atheism

Opinion Religion

Why not live and let live?

Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here.

This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve spent two days on this, actually. For most of my life, I’ve been natural inclined to be non-confrontational, and I think my friends and family would characterize me as a gentle person. It is not easy for me to say these things, but I feel like the time has come for me to take a stand.

I had lunch with a friend the other day and the subject of religion came up—I know, big surprise. My friend’s girlfriend had posed to him a question about the purpose of atheism activism:

“Why not live and let live?”

Aside from being intellectually wrong, what’s so bad about believing in a god? What’s the harm? Is it just academic?

Some background: His girlfriend is “not religious, but open-minded,” and teaches their 3 kids to be accepting of all different religions. He is an atheist and passionate about critical thinking and skepticism. He is concerned because he overheard one of their children praying before going to bed.

He asked me, “What can I tell her?”

Here’s my response:

Because they’re not letting us live and let live. Because, for no rational reason, gay people can’t get married in my state. Because they’re teaching the Genesis creation myth as fact in science classes. Because they’re teaching “abstinence-only” sex ed, which is demonstrably ineffective. Because, despite Roe v. Wade recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, we’re STILL fighting for abortion and birth-control access. Because priests are molesting children and nobody is getting in trouble for it. It’s been said before, but if an 80-member religious cult in Texas allowed some of their leaders to molest children, there would be a huge outcry. It would be front-page news. People would be up in arms! But when it’s the Catholic Church, we barely even notice. It’s gotten to the point where we’re not even surprised anymore—it’s barely even news anymore—when another molestation is uncovered. Like the saying goes, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers.” Or worse, “One rape is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.”

I brought up Greta Christina’s wonderful book, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless,” and told him to read it, and to ask his girlfriend to read it. Nothing would make me happier than to live and let live. I dream of a world where humanity spends its time solving “real” problems, doing medical research, exploring space, fixing the climate, making art and music, studying philosophy. I would love for there to be no need for atheism activism. But I can’t do that, because I have a conscience.

He agreed with me on these points, but wanted to know about the problem with liberal churches. What’s the harm of religion so long as it supports gay marriage, comprehensive sex-ed, etc?

First off, it’s important to distinguish between believing in a deity, and believing in God. If we’re talking about a deistic creator, a god who allegedly sparked the Big Bang and hasn’t interfered since, I don’t really see any harm in this, other than that it’s unscientific and vastly improbable. I’d call this harmlessly irrational, on par with crossing your fingers for good luck. It’s magical thinking, which I think should be avoided, but it doesn’t really hurt anything.


But once we start talking about Yahweh, the Abrahamic god, the god of the Bible, we get into some sticky stuff.  I’m not the first to say so but the reason moderate religion is bad, even dangerous, is that it opens the door for religious bigotry and worse. If a religious moderate believes the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God, who is he to fault a religious extremist for actually doing what it says to do?

If you use faith as your justification for moral decision-making, you cannot reasonably point at someone more committed than you doing the exact same thing and make the charge that they’re wrong. A religious moderate cannot call a religious extremist crazy without being hypocritical.

There is this idea among moderates that religious tolerance is an ideal condition. The whole “COEXIST” campaign is a prime example. There is this idea that all religions are somehow valid, despite contradicting one another. That no matter how much we disagree with someone, if it falls under the umbrella of religious tolerance, we should make every effort to find a way not to be offended.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to mutilate a little girl’s genitals.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to hinder the promotion of condom use in AIDS-ridden regions, because they believe wasting semen is a “sin.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to lie to children and tell them that they will see their dead relatives again, or give them nightmares about a made-up “Hell.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the absurd and unsubstantiated proposition that humans are somehow born bad or evil, that we need to be “saved.”

It is offensive to me that, in the year 2013, people still think intercessory prayer works. Every time I hear about some poor sick child who has died because her parents decided to pray instead of take her to a hospital, I am horribly offended. When religious moderates tell me—although they also believe in intercessory prayer—that they, too, are offended by this, I am appalled at the hypocrisy. We should know better by now than to believe in childish things like prayer.

I am so sick of this crap. There is a time and a place for being accommodating of differences of opinion. If you think tea is the best hot drink, and I think it’s coffee, fine. No one is harmed by this. Insofar as your beliefs don’t negatively affect others, I do not care if we agree or not. But, I contend, your right to believe whatever you want ends where my rights begin. Religious moderation is literally dangerous because it opens the gate wide for religious extremism. A moderate cannot point to a religious extremist and say, “You are wrong. You are dangerous. You must not be allowed to continue.” However, I can. To stand up to religious extremism, we must come from a place of rational thought, of freedom to criticize, of ethics that do not depend on revelation or arguments from authority.

I make no apology for asserting that secular humanism is the most reasonable, most ethical, and best way for us to live. It is more rational than superstitious faith. It is more productive and humane than any religion. It is the ethical choice. To quote Sam Harris, “There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

We must become more reasonable if we want to survive. Our planet is in trouble. There is no divine guarantee that the Earth will always be able to support us nor that we will always be here. There is no life after this. What matters is how we are remembered, and the contributions to society we make while we’re alive. I assert that there is nothing more important or more urgent than this: Atheists, I call upon you to stand up to absurdity. If you see something, say something. Start the conversation.

I know that it is difficult to make waves. I know that it can be intimidating, especially when you’re outnumbered. But the facts are on our side, and the stakes are high. We must not be afraid to call bullshit where we see it. We must not allow religions to dictate what is and is not moral. We must speak up in the face of wrongdoing. We must make ourselves known. It can be as simple as correcting someone for using the word “fag,” or mentioning that you are an atheist if the subject of religion comes up.

Ending the danger and oppression of religion will not be easy, but if we work toward it, we can make it happen.

News Opinion

The problem faced by Conspiracy Theory

As there are different types of philosophies so too are there different types of Conspiracy Theory. These range from simple one off events such as the assassination of JFK and 911 to historically entrenched conspiracy theories that encompass esoteric ideals with real world implications. The latter tend to be associated with secret societies or Meta intergalactic conspiracy theories involving alien control.

Today the biggest problem facing Conspiracies Theory is its lack of articulation and analysis of systematic processes. However, simply dismissing conspiracy theories as being illogical, wildly imaginative or staggeringly absurd will no longer work as an analytical benchmark. In terms of pure logic and reasoning some conspiracy theories are more plausible than others. For instance take the assassination of JFK. It is plausible that a network of men other than Lee Harvey Oswald had him assassinated. This is more plausible than the premise that the world’s political and financial systems were deigned to be as they are in order to serve the purpose of a smoke screen designed by a secret society in the ancient world that envisioned world domination – whatever that is.

Apart from the art of linguistics, Conspiracy Theory fails to address the phenomena it seeks to explicate in a concise or sophisticated manner. As a further hindrance to the cause, the semantics encompassing Conspiracy Theory have reached bursting point – a concept ablaze with theoretical amalgamation producing ideological saturation. As a consequence both the descriptive and conceptual terms of Conspiracy Theory have become meaningless. Take the conspiracy theory of JFK as a single point conspiracy. By this I mean a preplanned arrangement between two or more individuals at a single point in time. These individuals would have conspired collectively to corrupt the political process when disposing of Kennedy.

It is precisely here where the misdiagnosis of conspiracy theories emerge, they must therefore reframe their theoretical ideas of the process they seek to analyze. Single point conspiracy theories can be equally analyzed as single point corruption, both occurring at designated points in time within social, economic and political systems. Immediately this sense of analyses and the semantic use of single points of corruption bring credence to the attempted argument. Political Scientists and Sociologists study corruption, particularly at discrete points in time regarding illegal operations and processes in a system. However not too many study Conspiracy Theory as a serious framework for consideration or as a viable ontological alternative. Predominantly when studied in a serious format, it is the the work of psychologists attempting to discredit conspiracy theories by merely labeling them under the banner of erratic belief systems.

In order to provide analytical and insightful robustness to a theory, conspiracy theorists must first stipulate what phenomena they are trying to explain and what type of conspiracy they are advocating. If proponents of conspiracy theories want to build a persuasive argument they must first elucidate what they mean by a type of conspiracy in a particular context. To explain something like JFK they must illustrate how single point conspiracy theories are equivocal to single points of corruption – one off events in political systems and not the byproduct of an overarching conspiracy with a superior teleological goal enacted by the New World Order. This is because pre planned Meta conspiracy theories of secret world rule in which every observable phenomenon is linked to a larger Meta Conspiracy Theory is rendered inept by Social Chaos Theory because no room is allocated for randomness and error.

By positioning the argument in the Social Science domain of single point conspiracy or corruption lends itself to readily defensible claims. Systematic corruption and single point conspiracies are rife in the world and this is why rules and regulations are formulated to prevent the abuse of power. What cannot be logically argued is the convergence and transition from the micro to the macro that results in Meta Conspiracy Theory. For example that corruption in small parts of a social system is somehow related to a pre planned conspiracy on a larger scale such as the global financial crisis, 911 and the Iraq war. For this reason when seeking to explicate a corrupt occurrence; the conceptual and contextual use of Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory is of the most importance when analyzing social and political phenomena.


Tony Sobrado is a Social Scientist and Research Analyst based in London. He writes for www.atthegrapevine.com and is a member of Project Reason and JREF.  He is currently working on Who rules the world? An analysis of Conspiracy Theory which addresses the phenomena of Conspiracy Theory from the perspective of the social sciences. He holds a BSc in Political Science from The London School of Economics and a Masters degree in Social and Political Theory.

You can find him on twitter @TonySobrado.