Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

While perusing some links on Facebook, I came across this article in the Tennessean by Pastor Kevin Shrum:In it, he claims that atheists have shirked their duty to answer the Big Questions:

Every belief system must ask and answer some basic questions if that belief system is to be considered legitimate or sufficient. I would argue that the answers the Christian worldview offers are sufficient and consistent:

He then proceeds to explain what those Big Questions are. The problem is that his questions are not that great. They are made through a prism of Christianity, emphasizing things a Christian considers meaningful. Most of them are essentially a restatement of “Is this thing that Christianity deems important, really important?” The purpose of the question is to set up the question of Christianity’s truth as something cosmically important.

Now, if Christianity is true, and our lives are in a battle for where we spend an afterlife, one could argue that it is important. But the same could be said for any number of possible claims. Is reincarnation true? Can we affect the world as spirits from the afterlife? Is Nirvana achievable? Are these questions that don’t occur to Shrum, or if they do, are they dismissed as unimportant because they are not answerable by Christianity?

But on to the questions:

Is there a god? This is the spiritual or eternal question. Put another way, why won’t the God question go away? Is God the whimsical creation of a weak-minded people? Or is God’s existence the implicit recognition of what is? If there is a god, what is God like? Is God the god of the deists, detached and aloof? Is God the god of the atheists, unreal and created? Or is God personal and near, made known to us through the person of Jesus Christ and Scripture? What is my explanation for ultimate reality?

Shrum shapes his phrase as if belief in god is nibbling at our heels, always kicked away and always coming back, rather than the more accurate description, that god belief has been around for millenia and it is still an unanswered question, even as many peoples claimed to have had the answers. And if the real God is the one he favors, a “personal and near” one, how is it that he is so far from the vast majority of his creations?

• Who am I? This is the question of self-identity. Where did I come from? Am I an accident? Or, do I have purpose, a consciousness and a sense of a moral order? Where does my self-awareness come from? Why do I feel an urge to create, to pursue, to excel, to achieve?

“Who am I ” is an important question, one of self-identity, of what consciousness is, of how we tick. The attached question of ‘purpose’, by which the author means only externally applied purpose, is not that important. For one it assumes that humanity has a designed purpose, an external overarching meaning and since that is what Christianity teaches, it is well primed to answer that question. It is conceivable that no such purpose exists though, and your desire for it doesn’t make it more likely.
I should also note the grouping of “purpose, a consciousness and a sense of a moral order”. Those things are not the same, really, except that in the Christian mind they all derive from God, so its ok to lump them in a group, so you can invoke the proper monosyllabic response from your readers.

And why do I hold in my head and heart, as C.S. Lewis argued, a yearning for something beyond myself, something eternal?

I hear this a lot by Christians, and I don’t think its true, or at least not true for those who haven’t have that belief internalized.
The way desires work is you yearn for something until sated. When I am hungry, I feel like I can eat a battalion of horses, but I get full far beyond  that point. Similarly I think people don’t want to die. They don’t feel sated on life, and feel like they could go on living forever if given the chance. Indeed, I feel the same. Yet that doesn’t mean that I might not feel sated after 200, 300 or 100.000 years. I think that confusing the desire for more life for a nod at an eternal something is as wrongheaded as confusing my hunger for a mountain of hamburgers as evidence for the existence of an infinite amount of food.

-Who are you to me? This is the question of relationship. Christians do not argue that atheists do not love or care. They do so in great degree. The question is why do they love, care, have a sense of justice, feel moral outrage, and have a sense of right and wrong?

That question is important if we remove the last two words. “Who are you?” requires that we recognize that there are entities in the world beyond our ego. Realizing that we live in a community of being that have similar wants, needs, pains and desires to us is the basis for society, morality, justice and civilization. Christianity tries to co-opt this human interaction by filtering it all through a god and claiming that this god validates morality, society and justice while in reality it uses morality, society and justice to validate god.

What about work? This is the question of vocation. Is there some meaning to our vocation? And where does this meaning come from? Why do humans exhibit such remarkable capacities for creativity? Why do we work to create, preserve, conserve and sustain when evolutionary atheism argues that ultimately only the most fit survive?

Is this really a great question? And what is meant by work? The author veers off into creativity, using it as a crutch to validate the supposed creativity of God, but for most people work is something they do to survive. I agree that it would be great if we could expend our energies only on things we find creative and pleasant, but that is hardly a great question. It is just another round hole a square-peg god doesn’t fit it.
The jibe at evolution corroborates an earlier comment that the author doesn’t understand what evolution proposes. Creating, conserving, preserving and sustaining each other, far from being counter to evolution, can convey an evolutionary advantage. This is such an elementary misunderstanding of the science, it is as if  Shrum had denied gravity because ‘airplanes can fly’, yet I see it all over the place by apologists.

What happens when a person dies? This is the question of eternity. The atheist must answer: 1) They do not know, 2) It doesn’t matter or 3) There’s nothing after death, and this life is all there is.

This is the “question of eternity”, while the first one above was “the eternal question” Again, pointless inflating and a hidden allusion to the Christian position that an eternal life follows.

What we know is that the body rots. What we know is that before we had a body, we had no experiences. Why is it assumed that we would have any after we no longer have a body? I could say that I don’t know if there is a Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist or Hellenic-style afterlife, but that is a function of this afterlife being defined as to be outside our observation limits. Saying “I don’t know” is the intellectually honest answer, accompanied with “but I have no reason to assume any of them are the case”
The only reason this question persists is that we humans enjoy life, and we want more of it, for ourselves and for our loved ones. But desires do not trump reality.

The author proceeds to restate his claim that atheism fails to answer the Big Questions, and that it is somehow trying to avoid dealing with their consequences and evade accountability and ends with a quote by Nietzsche claiming that the only proper and honest approach to atheism is despair.

I don’t think so. I think Shrum hasn’t realized that atheists no longer view the world under the prism of Christianity, they don’t miss the lack of the protective divine hand and do not think of the world within the narrow confines of Christian ontology. While it might massages his ego to think that the only honest atheist is the one that despairs the loss of a god, and even possibly wishes that a god existed, we are not beholden to those misconceptions, we have transcended the momentary panic one has when they have a lot less than what they thought they had when we realize that all that was lost was an illusion.

What he means is that atheists no longer which I would say is a good thing, but which also mean that his analysis falls far short of touching what modern atheists are about, and alludes to the old condescending trope that the only honest atheist is one who wishes Christianity was true.


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It is a common point on online discussions about atheism to focus on  the meaning  of the word itself. Atheism, as used by many atheists and the definition that I use when I say I’m an atheist is ‘lacking a belief in the existence of a god or gods’, but this is not a sufficient explanation for some people. I will try to address why I choose the atheist label for myself.

To begin with, many people want to push forward the idea that atheism is the absolute belief that no gods exist. The definition does in fact exist, but it describes a belief that most sophisticated atheists do not hold. It is also notably a subset of the above definition, as you cannot logically have a belief in the non-existence of gods without lacking the belief that one exists, although the opposite is true.

This is a frustrating point in many discussions, since the proponent of the second definition accuses atheists of not knowing what our position is, and subsequently demanding that we defend the second claim which, they contend, reflects our “true position”

This of course is asinine. Once I have clarified what I mean when I use the term ‘atheism’, my explicit position on the subject is what I will maintain. Even if I were to agree that the term solely applied to the second definition, the rational course of action would be to choose a different label to apply to my position,  not change my position to reflect  the label. Consider how silly this sounds if we try this rationale elsewhere:

– “Hey, I’m a Teabagger.”

-“What’s that?”

-“It means I’m a member of the Tea Party.”

-“No, it doesn’t. This dictionary describes teabagging as a deviant sex practice”

-“Really? *reads definition* Oh well. I better get to it then, where’s the nearest sex shop?”

It’s absurd. Dictionaries reflect usage, they don’t impose it.  New coinages and new meanings for old words occur every day, so to deny the definition I proclaim because it isn’t in your reference book of choice is just lazy thinking at best.

this absurdity is rarely mentioned because of the most obvious fault of the position, that my definition of atheism is in fact the one used by most atheists to describe themselves amongst ourselves.  This isn’t a new idea, it’s  been around of years. This is what we mean, and this is the position I should defend. For a theist to argue with me on the matter of definition is just disingenuous.

A number of the people who promote the ‘belief no gods exist’ definition claim that the ‘lacking a belief in god’ is so vague that babies, animals or even inanimate matter could be classified as ‘atheist’.  They claim that these categories can’t be atheist, since they couldn’t accept theism even in principle.

I don’t see that as a problem.  Atheism is a negation of theism (which is ‘belief in at least one god’), and the same ‘problem’ can be posited on many words that describe a negative.

A teetotaler is someone who abstains completely from alcoholic beverages. By that definition you can describe a baby as a teetotaler, but that doesn’t mean its capable of going to a bar and asking for a drink. Illiteracy is the absence of the ability to read, which by definition makes both newborns and butterflies illiterate, but doesn’t imply that butterflies can learn. Death is the absence of life, yet we can describe barren rocks as being dead, and even metal objects such as doornails (of the ‘dead as a doornail’ variety) . That you can call rocks ‘atheist’ is not wrong, it just isn’t useful, just like it isn’t useful to call a butterfly illiterate, or a baby a teetotaler.

I will however make a concession here to theists, and that is, when I am talking about atheism being the default position, and when I’m talking about atheism being a rational position, I’m not talking about the exact same thing. They are both lack of belief in gods, but in the former case it is implicit, due to lack of knowledge of any gods, while in the latter it is explicit, that is, the person has been informed of god claims and has rejected them.

Further confusion comes with the misunderstanding of what we mean by ‘god’. The word god means very different things to different people. There are several thousand recorded gods in the various religions and mythologies throughout human history. I can’t say I have more than cursory knowledge of more than a hundred. Then, there are god concepts offered by theologians that have never had an existence outside some theoretical argument, or held the belief of anyone, not even their author. There are god concepts that by definition are unprovable, undisprovable, or both. Even if we discount all of these, there are still infinite possibilities of concepts of gods, some that will be postulated in the future, and some that may never be actualized in theological thought, but could be viable candidates.

Any honest researcher will admit that you cannot make the claim that absolutely no gods exist until you examine every single claim, which is impossible.  That is not what atheism claims. I don’t need to disprove any god concept to disbelieve it,  and I don’t need to disprove every god concept to be justified in doing so.

There is another way to look at the question “why an atheist?” and that comes from my side of the fence. It’s basically the question of whether ‘atheist’ is the best term for what our position is. I’ll post my thoughts on that on my next article.

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