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Atheism, Christianity, philosophy

No True Atheist

From the perspective of an oppressed and suppressed American atheist, I admit that I have a strong negative reaction to pretty much any apologetic attempt to explain away atheism within a theistic worldview.  There are several prevalent versions of this meme.  The most obnoxious and insulting is the claim that there is no such thing as an atheist.  Atheists know that there is a god, and they are willfully rebellious against his existence, preferring to live in the instant gratification of sin and debauchery.

Like most of the extreme theist claims, this one fails on many levels.  To begin with, it’s unfalsifiable.  No matter how hard an atheist protests that he really, truly doesn’t believe in God, a theist can disbelieve him.  We can’t open an atheist brain and find an empty box where god would be if there was real belief.   As long as it suits a theist to claim it, they can claim it, and there’s nothing an atheist can do to to prove otherwise.

We can also demonstrate the absurdity of the claim by assuming it’s true.  If there is one true God, what can we say about history?  Why have their been tens of thousands of gods, and more importantly, why do they disagree with each other so vehemently?  If all humans are innately aware of the One True God™, then we should expect some consistency of perception.

Many theists will claim that sin explains the discrepancies.  When someone is being true to their innate knowledge of God, they find the True God.  When they are willfully rebellious against the inner knowledge, they become blinded and unable to see the real nature of God.

But this is a catch-22.  Presumably, knowledge of God includes knowledge of what it wants.  After all, as far as humans are concerned, God’s identity is synonymous with what it wants us to do or not do.  In other words, if we are to willfully sin, we need to know what constitutes a sin.  That being the case, we ought to see a distinct and empirically falsifiable difference between True Believers™ and heretics.  In fact, we ought to see two distinct phenomena:

  • Among children and adolescents, we should see a marked difference between religions as cognitive ability develops and children become mentally able to choose to rebel against the One True God’s One True Imprint Upon the Heart of True Believers.™  All religious belief save one should lead to some sort of significant decrease in morality.
  • Among adults, we ought to see a marked difference even within the cultures with the One True Religion.  The believers ought to display significantly different moral behaviors.

We know that reality is not this way.  For the most part, humans in all cultures have essentially the same moral instincts.  Denominational religious belief and adherence is not consistent with any broad measures of human happiness, fulfillment, morality, or any other significant measure of life quality.

When presented with this information, theists can retreat to to the unfathomable human mind.  Even within the One True Religion, they will say, there are believers and non-believers.  The sin of the nonbelievers is significant enough to make any data too noisy to be meaningful.

We should be able to dismiss this claim outright, since it’s just moving the goalposts.  It’s the No True Scotsman, which is a well established logical fallacy.  But it’s worth looking at a little more closely.  Remember that God’s identity is synonymous with what it wants humans to do.  Morality, in every religion, is somehow tied to actions.  Even when it is a function of internal existence, morality manifests in the external world.  “Those who know the good, do the good.”  So said Socrates, and so say virtually all religious texts.

Modern Christianity has tried to weasel out of this trap by tying eternal salvation to a state of unfalsifiable belief.  They would have us believe that there is no discernible difference between a True Believer and a heretic, since all that really matters to God is the state of belief.  Does a person believe in Jesus as the One True Savior of the World?  If so, then eternal salvation awaits.  If not, the pit of fire.

Unfortunately, this rationalization doesn’t hold up.  If there was one Christian denomination which said absolutely nothing about morality, then it would be one thing.  But “Christian Church” is virtually always synonymous with a list of dos and don’ts.  Many Christians are trying to have things both ways.  Morality isn’t about actions, but it is.  It’s all about belief, but you can’t have belief without action.

Then there’s the problem of moral inconsistency on the part of God.  Supposing that it’s true — that God doesn’t care what humans do, so long as they believe the story of the risen savior — what does that say about God’s moral character?  Instinctively, we know that this makes God an immoral (or at least amoral) being.  If we remove god from the equation and present the same scenario to people of all cultures, we’ll come up with a consistent judgment.  Punishing someone for not believing a fantastic story is morally wrong.

The pretzel continues to twist.  Non-believers the world over understand the basic moral premise:  It is unreasonable and unfair to punish or reward people for nothing more than an internal state of belief.  How we act towards our neighbors is what makes us moral or immoral.  For example, does belief that theft is wrong excuse the thief from his actions?  Should we let any criminal go free, so long as they believe their actions are bad?

But in order to believe in this particular Christian meme, we must do away with our instinctive morality.  We must do what feels unnatural to us, and literally throw morality out the window, while still somehow functioning within the real world.  In short, it’s an impossible task.

The Liberal Bias

There is a more liberal version of the same meme.  Rather than trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, this meme equates human innate morality with the word of god upon human hearts.  There is a place for science to examine our conscience, for in doing so, we are really illuminating the True Nature of God more clearly.  One need only be true to his “Godly inner-self” and he will be honoring God, even if his culture doesn’t believe it’s worshiping the same God as other cultures.

On the surface, such a belief seems pretty benign.  And to be fair, I imagine there are theists who truly believe it, and who would never disagree with scientists when push came to shove.  In fact, if that line of thinking is paired with a kind of “theist naturalism,” it leads to an essentially impotent deism.  God is scrutable only insofar as the human mind is scrutable.  When scientific discoveries contradict sacred texts, the sacred texts must be wrong (or wrongly interpreted.)

We can argue about whether or not there are enough of these theists in the world to make a difference.  Personally, I don’t think so, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.  (Hint:  Stop sitting idly by while your judgmental brethren are assholes towards us atheists!) But I don’t want to be accused of painting all theists with a single broad stroke, so there it is.

The Underlying Meaning

Color me hypersensitive, but I’m just not happy with any version of the meme.  Obviously, I take umbrage at being labeled a deviant malcontent bent on destroying society.  But I also feel slighted when someone tells me that even though I’m too naive or spiritually insensitive to recognize God upon my heart, he’s there anyway.

Why bother telling me that?  If there’s no difference between you and me, then what does your highly evolved sense of spirituality gain for you?  What do I gain from knowing that you have a better grasp on ultimate reality than I do?  For that matter, what do you gain from it?

Like it or not, this is still a way of degrading atheism.  And believe it or not, it suffers from exactly the same problems as the dogmatic version.  There are only two choices — either there’s absolutely no difference whatsoever between atheists and theists, or there is a difference.  If there is no difference at all, then there is nothing at all to be gained by believing in spirituality or God or anything else supernatural.  If there’s a difference, then these well-meaning liberal theists are still asserting that they’re better than me.

In a way, I actually feel more compassion for the dogmatic theists on this one.  As wrong-headed as their thinking is, at least they know what they believe.  They believe that abortion, hoomosexuality, alcohol, drugs, premarital sex, and a host of other things are wrong.  They believe that I really want to do those things, and reject god so that I can do them.

The liberals?  What exactly do they believe about me?  If you press them on any one subject, they’ll probably back down.  Being an atheist doesn’t mean that I’m less moral.  For that matter, it doesn’t mean that I do or don’t do anything in particular.  But… it’s better if I believe in God.  I mean… it doesn’t matter, because it’s a personal choice, and no self-respecting liberal theists would impose their beliefs on me.


And see, that’s where I have the problem.  The dot dot dot at the end of every conversation.  Sure, it’s fine that I’m an atheist.  I have every right to be.  Science is wonderful.  But…

The unspoken end to that sentence is that I would somehow be better off if I was a theist.  There’s still bias.

In the interest of objectivity, I can obviously turn this around.  When I chat with liberal theists, I’m generally vaguely aware of the feeling that they’d be better off if they just ditched the whole theist thing and admitted that they’re atheists.  I don’t know if it’s possible for humans to avoid this kind of subtle us-them dichotomy.  In reality, I could probably spend a year with the most liberal theists and never have any controversy.  I seriously doubt that the most liberal theists spend a lot of time thinking about how atheists would be better off as theists.  It’s really not that big of a deal.

But the bias is still there, and unfortunately, we’re both in the minority, at least in America.  We both feel like we’re under-represented and under-appreciated.  Liberal theists feel like atheists get the wrong impression of them because of all the conservative wackos.  We atheists feel like all theists are judging us as somehow… less… something.

I wonder if there’s space for a truce.  Is there a way that both the liberal theist and the atheist can agree to act morally towards each other even if there’s a subtle feeling of bias?  Speaking in terms of political power, I’d much rather have the liberals on my side.  Many (perhaps most) of them agree with me on most of my hotbutton issues.  They want separation of church and state.  They want legal abortion and an end to discrimination against gays.  We agree that science is important, and that dogma should never trump science.

If there’s an over-arching point to all of this, I think it is this:  We as thoughtful, scientifically aware atheists have the ability to recognize the philosophically unbridgeable gap between theism and atheism — and still act in the most politically and culturally expedient way, even when it means choosing the lesser of two evils and putting up with some deist woo in exchange for a more unified cultural front against theist wackos who would do us real harm.

On a practical level, I’d really like to know how many truly benign theists there are.  It might be that it’s less than 1% of all theists.  The whole discussion may be moot.  Or maybe there’s a significant silent minority still in hiding.  Maybe they’re more afraid of coming out than us atheists.  After all, they’re heretics within their own religion.  Inter-faith accusations of heresy are typically fierce.  It is worse in the eyes of many Christians to be “luke warm” than to be an atheist.

We know the “No True Atheist” argument is a fallacy.  But what about “No True Liberal”?   I honestly don’t know, but I’d like to learn.



28 thoughts on “No True Atheist

  1. And where is all this debauchery?

    Posted by khan | June 16, 2010, 4:16 pm
  2. LOL… seriously. My life is pretty damn boring, all things considered. When I signed up for my atheist decoder ring, I was told I would be snorting coke off of Asian hookers’ asses every night of the week. And here I am just living my life and being kind to puppies. What a rip-off!

    Posted by hambydammit | June 16, 2010, 4:37 pm
  3. I was told that I could use Force Lightning when I became an atheist. I do generate bad static shocks when I wear wool, but that’s about it.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 16, 2010, 5:30 pm
  4. My brother, a physicist, is also an atheist. Whenever, this comes up, my father responds, “There are no atheists in foxholes, John.” Which naturally ends the conversation. Hard to prove or disprove, coming from an ex-Marine.

    I do think that a large part of the population is more or less agnostic. They find it easier to not deal, than to take a firm stand. It’s a kind of intellectual and moral laziness, but soooooo much easier, as you well know. I’m guilty of that.

    BTW, Hamby, you have really been writing up a storm lately! Don’t know how you find the time for all this intellectualizing and writing, but I’m envious.

    Posted by Susan Walsh | June 16, 2010, 7:09 pm
  5. Hamby,

    I hate to break the news to you but perhaps 99.9% of theists dont ever more than say once or twice a year give atheism even a passing thought. (Let alone think about their own theist beliefs unless its christmas or easter). Their way too busy focusing on family, finances, and other pressing needs. In fact I would dare say that YOU focus on theists and their beliefs more than they do themselves..

    You and I are just the 0.1% of radical atheists and zelous theists who graze the internet blogs waging holy jihad on each other who think otherwise.

    Perhaps we should take their example and just drink a cold one and talk about sports instead…

    Posted by PG | June 16, 2010, 7:16 pm
  6. “There are no atheists in foxholes”

    While I don’t think that is 100% true, I do agree that in general most foxhole dwelling terrorists are highly religious.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 16, 2010, 7:20 pm
  7. Susan, I have gone back and forth for several years about what I think the majority believes. As soon as I start thinking most people are closet agnostics, I spend some time outside of my own social circle, and that usually leads me back to thinking that everybody except my friends are theists.

    Seriously, I think about 25 to 40% of Americans are “true believers.” That is, they genuinely believe they experience God and his works the same way that you and I might experience a cream cheese and lox bagel. Their life decisions revolve to some degree around what they believe God wants them to do — on a daily basis.

    The other 40-65% is a bit tougher. As you well know, it’s pretty common for humans to form cognitive “compartments” where beliefs can reside without critical thought. We all have things which, if asked, we believe, even though we’ve never gone through the cognitive processes to arrive at justifiable, active belief. There’s certainly a social element to it, as well. If everyone is cheering on the “clothed” emperor, nobody wants to be the one to risk the guillotine for pointing at his nakedness.

    Which is kind of my point. Unfortunately for us atheists, the emperors new clothes force us into sackcloth. Since nobody cares to buck the system, or give god’s existence any real thought, the loud minority’s view becomes the social norm — atheists are bad people. The intellectually lazy or cowardly implicitly give their support to the minority since if pressed, they’ll say they’re Christians. Since they don’t oppose the stigmatization of atheism, it is assumed that they support it. And speaking of psychology, we also know quite well that repetition and reinforcement are far more important than veracity when it comes to cultural beliefs.

    And yeah, it’s been nice to be able to do some serious writing the last few weeks. In a nutshell, it’s too goddamned hot to do much else besides sit like a slug on my front porch. Thus, lots of writing.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 16, 2010, 7:40 pm
  8. Lol, athol. I know your tongue was firmly in your cheek, but the whole “atheists in foxholes” thing has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. Luckily, there’s some preliminary research that promises to give us scientific refutation of the notion in the near future.

    I particularly like the comparison of two pilots recently — one an atheist who, when his plane started going down, used all of his mental faculties to land the plane, saving all of the passengers. The other was the guy who got suspended (and I believe charged criminally) for stopping to pray when the plane malfunctioned.

    My suspicion is that most of the “true theists” in foxholes have a shorter life expectancy than the “true atheists.” Praying, after all, is the best way to do nothing and feel pompous about it.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 16, 2010, 7:45 pm
  9. I agree with just about everything you say. And as a small-town amerikan, I also am an oppressed and disrespected and devalued atheist individual. And I can further say that the very worst sinners I have ever known have been self-described christians.

    Posted by braon | June 16, 2010, 7:51 pm
  10. Actually I have a story about war and believing in God that my grandmother used to tell.

    Back in WWI my grandfather was given a brand new New Testament Bible by the Gideons. Now my great grandfather wasn’t very religious, but according to my grandmother he decided to keep it and wore always in his left front shirt pocket… directly over his heart.

    Now according to my grandmother, my great grandfather was shot three times as he went over the top of the trenches in the Galpoli campaign. All three shots hit him within the first two seconds of going over the top.

    The first shot cut a long groove and then finally wedged itself into the wooden butt of his rifle. The second shot hit his metal water canteen on his left hip; it went through one side of it but stopped against the other side – we still have that as a family heirloom still with the Turkish bullet inside the canteen. And my grandmother said if if he had worn that Gideons Bible strapped to the left side of his head, the third bullet might not have killed him.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 16, 2010, 8:27 pm
  11. Touche, Athol!

    Hamby, clearly humans strongly favor the past of least resistance – and when it comes to religion, that usually means not engaging the topic. Interestingly, I’ve known a lot of nonbelievers of a variety of faiths who have sent their children for religious education for the “moral grounding” and to understand the family’s religious history/tradition. I’ve also heard many people say, “What difference does it make? I’ll either know when I’m dead, or I won’t know that I don’t know.” There’s a certain logic to that – it begs the question, “What is the advantage of not believing?”

    Posted by Susan Walsh | June 16, 2010, 8:28 pm
  12. Susan, you’re so good at giving me topics! I’ll be happy to answer that question as well as I can. Keep an eye out.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 16, 2010, 8:38 pm
  13. One of my pet peeves is people who can think they can read minds and determine whether or not somebody is sincere in their belief or disbelief.

    Such as the Christians who think Obama is an atheist or Muslim because they don’t like his policies and can’t imagine a “true Christian” embracing his position. Or the atheists that say Obama is an atheist because they like his policies and can’t imagine a “true Christian” embracing his position.

    I think people project their own values on what it means to be a Christian or an atheist.

    When I was little, I used to think Destiny’s Child wasn’t Christian due to the way they dressed and danced, but it turns out that Beyonce is a Jesus freak.

    I also recently found out that Amy Lee the lead singer of Evanesence is also Christian despite me think she was atheist due to the gothic theme of their music.

    I don’t think we can determine beliefs by actions, or at least only in very specific narrowed down cases.

    Posted by cptpineapple | June 16, 2010, 8:38 pm
  14. That’s a question perhaps best posed to Catholic altar boys Susan.

    Ok ok… so that was harsh…

    The assumption is that there is some sort of benefit to belief that we might be missing out on. The burden of proof of that is up to the salesmen of religion not to the customer.

    Religion just seems like malware that endlessly pops up and tells you it’s here to protect you from malware. It’s amazing how much better everything runs without it in your system.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 16, 2010, 8:45 pm
  15. Susan, you’re so good at giving me topics! I’ll be happy to answer that question as well as I can. Keep an eye out.

    Just a heads up I have a feeling as to what your answer will be and I have another feeling that I won’t like it.

    Posted by cptpineapple | June 16, 2010, 8:47 pm
  16. —I don’t think we can determine beliefs by actions, or at least only in very specific narrowed down cases.—

    How can we judge others, if not by their behavior?
    —I hate to break the news to you but perhaps 99.9% of theists dont ever more than say once or twice a year give atheism even a passing thought. —

    Except when they’re trying to legislate my crotch?

    Posted by khan | June 16, 2010, 8:51 pm
  17. Athol, I don’t think it’s a question of missing out on some benefit that comes with believing. For me, it’s more a question of identifying the advantages of non-belief, if that makes sense. Many of us float contentedly in a sort of agnosticism, not practicing any religion, sleeping in on Sundays and reading the Times. What should propel us to activism, or at least to assuming an identity that requires study, commitment and vigorous defense? Why sign on to be part of an oppressed and suppressed minority, as Hamby says? That doesn’t sound like much fun at all!

    Posted by Susan Walsh | June 16, 2010, 9:13 pm
  18. It doesn’t seem that oppressive compared to being a church member to be honest.

    Debating Christians isn’t hard anyway. I just ask them how Kiwi’s got to New Zealand after Noah had two of them on the Ark and they always have nothing. Then I ask whether he had African or Indian Elephants on the Ark. By the time I’m asking about the 200 different types of snakes they are usually just giving up on me.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 16, 2010, 10:01 pm
  19. It’s kind of weird, really. Hanging with atheists is generally much less… um… restrictive and fake… than hanging with theists — this coming from a guy who pretended at theism for several years. So from one point of view, yeah, it’s better to be an atheist in terms of social stress.

    However, there’s that big elephant in the room. Me and my atheist friends have to hang by ourselves, and we’re not welcome in a lot of social circles, even if we would be, otherwise. We can’t run for office. We can’t really talk about it at work.

    Christians can wear their crosses, and it’s fine. It’s good. They’re advocating for the good guys. If I wear an atheist symbol, I’m being an unruly antagonist. Even if my behavior is exactly the same as the Christian wearing a cross.

    So yeah… come to the dark side. We have cookies.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 17, 2010, 12:45 am
  20. I’ll make that truce with you. I’m agnostic. If there’s a “God”, it doesn’t matter until science can prove it. I personally like to think there’s something above us in the cosmic food chain that could just as easily be “God” in that sense. It really doesn’t matter to me what you (or anyone else).

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 18, 2010, 12:52 pm
  21. Your page is so fun to read, and very educational. I read it at work, and plan to read it in the bathroom, too. Thanks.

    Posted by Jon Wilson | June 18, 2010, 2:00 pm
  22. Alex, you’re an atheist. You don’t have to identify as one if you don’t want to, but atheism is an on-off switch. You either believe that there is a god or you don’t. Is there any god you do believe in? If you can’t point to one and say, “I believe in that,” then you are an atheist.

    I also think it would be neat if there was some sort of highly intelligent alien race that had evolved to the point of having “god-like” powers. I have no idea if there is such a race — we have no idea how common earth-like planets are, and beyond that, we honestly have no idea where the environmental borders for life lie. That is, we don’t know what kinds of planets can support some kind of life. (We do have a pretty damn good idea that any life that can evolve has to be carbon-based. It’s the only element flexible enough for the purpose.)

    But this is not agnosticism about God. I get that you’re trying to be the devil’s advocate. You’re trying to give theism the best shot it can get. It’s hard to look at 2/3 of the human population and say, “You guys are wrong about this god thing.” Doesn’t make you very popular at office functions.

    I guess you could be talking about god in a more theist sense. That is, you might be invoking the possibility of the existence of a supernatural, non-natural god-like being. If that is the case, then you’re not agnostic or atheist. Just confused.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 20, 2010, 2:07 pm
  23. I believe that most religions are based on some alien visitor. Any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. If something is so far above us on the food chain that it may as well be a god, what’s the difference? So, yeah I’m am atheist, or a deist, depending on your accepted definition of god. I figure its pretty likely we were engineered by something.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 20, 2010, 4:16 pm
  24. In terms of other alien intelligent races out there…

    …just seems like an awful waste of space if there isn’t.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | June 20, 2010, 5:22 pm
  25. Well, Alex… that’s an interesting and totally unsubstantiated hypothesis. I’m not in the business of advocating the belief in things for which there’s no evidence, so I can’t go along with you, but philosophically, we’re on the same page. If life on earth was engineered by highly advanced aliens, then that could certainly explain our historical tendency towards worship of deities. The thing is, there are much better explanations that already exist in science, and they rely solely on our evolutionary past. No designer necessary.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 21, 2010, 1:30 pm
  26. Heh… leaving the insinuation of purpose aside, I think it’s pretty likely that somewhere in the universe, there’s life. When the astronomers start crunching numbers, even if earth-like planets are extremely rare, there are still billions of them in the universe. Recent experiments with RNA have shown that it’s actually not that extraordinary for amino acids to self-assemble. Alien life seems like a good bet.

    Having said that, the odds of humans ever meeting them seems like a worse bet than taking the Cubs as a thousand to one favorites to win the World Series.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 21, 2010, 1:34 pm
  27. Perhaps designer is too strong a word, better would be custodian. Humans didn’t design modern dogs, but we certainly contributed as their custodians to their current evolutionary state. I would really like to thank you for the interesting points of view. I greatly enjoy the blog, yours as well Athol.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 21, 2010, 1:42 pm
  28. Thank you very much, Alex. And for what it’s worth, I kind of wish I could believe life on earth was an alien “custodial experiment.” If it was proven (say… by the aliens showing up and giving us proof that they’d been here for billions of years) it would be the most amazing and shocking scientific discovery in history. And it would be cool.

    Posted by hambydammit | June 21, 2010, 3:00 pm

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