When You Throw Wool at a Horse, It’s Still a Horse

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Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr / Creative Commons


The intellectually vapid exercise of throwing wool at a horse to call it a sheep – or the belief that disbelief is still belief


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By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

In a “flip-the-script” mentality, believers of all sorts have increasingly adopted the notion that atheism is itself a religion.  They entirely avoid the definition of atheism and offer up the notion that unbelief is belief, simultaneously avoiding even basic definitions of basic words.  Belief and unbelief never intersect.  They are diametrically opposite mentalités.  The desire to blur the line between the two and creates a gray area where believers can more easily operate.  Many of faith either prefer a comfort zone in which at least the potential for belief exists, or they skew the separation as a strategic ploy.  This gray area is an artificial construct.  There is only belief and unbelief, just as there is only knowing and not knowing.  Atheism and theism reference belief, while gnosticism and agnosticism reference knowledge.  In truth, we are all agnostic because knowledge in such matters is illusory.[1]  But knowledge is not required for belief.  A person may not know something yet still believe while another may think he knows and believe, or in both cases (though in the latter believing one has knowledge to the affirmative would make this likely nonsensical) the same person may not believe.

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Penn Jillette at TAM 2012 / Wikimedia Commons

The American religious population is comprised primarily of a Christian theist population (roughly 71 percent), a smaller population of other those belonging to other religions such as Islam and Hinduism (roughly 5 percent) and a small but growing secular population (roughly 24 percent),[2] though the arguments and concepts presented may be easily cross-applied between most theistic and supernatural/metaphysical belief systems both in the United States and abroad.  Many theists see atheism as a belief in and of itself because they cannot grasp the coexistence of unbelief and the search for meaning.  Theists are generally very uncomfortable with using three words in reference to cosmology that atheists use frequently, and these words are perhaps the sum of their ultimate division:  I don’t know.  There are two diametrically opposite claims, one of which is true – there is a god, or there is no god.  Theists claim the first and anti-theists (not atheists) the second.  Atheists reject both claims.  If you say, “There is a god,” and atheist will say, “I don’t believe you, prove it.”  If you say, “There is no god,” an atheist will say, “I don’t believe you, prove it.”  Atheism is quite literally the lack of belief – we believe neither claim.  It’s as simple as that.  Penn Jillette defines an atheist best with, “You don’t have to be brave or a saint, a martyr, or even very smart to be an atheist.  All you have to be able to say is ‘I don’t know.’”[3]  Though he strictly limited this comment to agnosticism, which really encompasses us all, atheists simply require a sufficient amount of evidence from those making either claim to justify belief in the claim.

First we turn to belief, and establishing definitions at the outset is vital to understanding.  Capturing a cross-section of the terms provided in other references, belief is “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof,” while disbelief is “the state or quality of not believing; incredulity or skepticism, especially in matters of doctrine or religious faith.”[4]  Knowledge references an awareness of facts, of known information.  Knowledge is not a prerequisite for belief, which resides only in the mind of the believer and holds the importance he gives it.  Knowledge is, however, necessary for a belief to be true and justified.  That which qualifies as a true and justified basis is different for unbelievers and believers.  Disbelief is generally based upon a rejection of extraordinary and empirically unprovable claims while belief typically accepts such claims as an integral part of their theism.  Many theists, unable to present the type of evidence required by unbelievers to accept their claims, must level the playing field in some way.  They must blur the line between knowledge and belief in the realm of epistemology and assert that disbelief actually is belief.

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Dr. Richard Carrier Screenshot on The Atheist Experience with Russell Glasser / A Carrier book, Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed

Since scientific discoveries have led to the shattering of any ground on which a theist had to stand in terms of reason and rational thought, the new strategy is an attempt to show such standards as lesser than logic and philosophy.  Christian thus harken to the tactics of Paul, the early Christian evangelist who set aside empirical proof in favor of the epistemic assumption of “faith over evidence.”[5]  It is within this realm that an unbeliever must be drawn if any progress is to be made in legitimizing his rejection of belief as a belief itself.  Keeping in mind the universal application of the term “agnostic,” analysis now narrows to a clear line in the sand between theists (believers) and atheists (unbelievers).  Atheism is not the denial that a god(s) exists but instead the rejection of believing in such existence until satisfactory evidence is presented to provide a true and justified reason for the belief.  Atheism is in fact the default position, the “null hypothesis”.  Infants are atheists until indoctrinated by family and surrounding culture.  Theists criticize this as not rising to a worldview but simply being a statement of unbelief,[6] creating their own hint for the taking.

The groundwork being laid, it is necessary to discover how theists attempt to define atheism as a belief while elevating philosophies of epistemology and reasoning not only to equal ground as rational scientific discovery but in fact superior.  While set aside in the medieval era given the church’s heavy hand and lack of need, this strategy was actually employed by early Christians who would immediately dismiss any contrary evidence to holy texts.[7]  Approaching the humanism of the late Middle Ages and the Age of Reason during the Enlightenment, the necessity arose to return once again to the tactics of the early church.  Any evidence presented by science and reason were held to the Christian epistemic construction of Biblical inerrancy and set aside if the match was wanting, echoing in the popular “God works in mysterious ways” refrain.  This was the model of early Christianity that would surely work as well as it had in its infancy and rise to dominance.[8]  After the Protestant Reformation, Christians reorganized into different sects and secularism continued its separate forward march to modern times.  Philosophy and logic alone would no longer suffice and had to be supplemented with something that would give the atheist a justified reason to believe.  Hence not the birth (it existed for a very long time) but certainly the explosion of apologetics in the twentieth century.[9]

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Christian King James Holy Bible and Islamic Holy Qu’ran / Wikimedia Commons

Questions require answers if a mind is to be swayed.  Arguments against the validity of theism are actually often based directly upon holy texts such as the Bible and Qu’ran, and apologists emerged to directly confront those perceptions and provide legitimate explanations.  Apologetics, plainly defined, “…is the quest to justify a particular belief or practice to others, and more particularly to outsiders [sic].”[10]  The first job of an apologist, if he seeks to be effective, is to engage the atheist in a new understanding of religion and a redefinition of belief.  To accomplish this, religion has been reshaped into having four elements (modalities) – existential, intellectual, institutional, and ethical.[11]  An atheist who bases his worldview on reason and science, say theists, can be said to have faith because he trusts the science, belief in the theories established by the scientific community writ large, acceptance of professional organizations and understanding of how scientists conduct themselves and their experiments.  Suddenly science is a religion and the atheist a believer!  Once the atheist is persuaded to commit to this understanding and accept it as reasonable,[12] the apologist has accomplished his goal and created a discourse in which epistemological methods may be used to provide acceptable proof.  While there are certainly theists who use this strategy dishonestly as a tactic to gain the upper hand, most very likely truly believe it.  How then does an atheist who is educated in apologetics respond to these propositions and correct theistic redefinitions?

The response must address each of the four modalities Drees defines, beginning with existentialism.  The theist here does not necessarily redefine but actually misapplies the word “faith,” used in this apologetic paradigm as simply “trust” (fiducia).[13]  The notion of having such “faith” in science and reason may be ceded while providing a clear distinction between the trust of the theist and that of the atheist.  An atheist does indeed place trust in those methodologies while understanding the possibility of being wrong and knowing that new discoveries bring change and new understanding.  A theist, however, places trust in unchanging propositions and very often in the reliability of holy texts.  It is the difference between physical, tangible demonstration and metaphysical, intangible ontology.  The atheist, in fact, has such trust not because he believes but because he accepts that those hypotheses which have been demonstrated and observed are the best explanations for a given topic at the current time.  The theist, however, must engage not in acceptance of anything demonstrated but belief in the supernatural and ultimately the transcendence of a god above physical reality based only on ancient holy texts.[14]

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Bust of Aristotle / Creative Commons

Belief versus acceptance – this is the difference between the two, that which places the trust of an atheist in a realm far removed from the trust of a theist.  The atheist trusts and accepts a demonstrated truth, and the theist trusts and believes in a claim reached by stretched inductive reasoning masquerading as truth.  Theists live in the land of undemonstrated probabilities.  It was no wonder that Aristotle served as the medieval scholastic foundation given his adherence to the enthymeme, a rhetorical device used to reach such probabilities which he calls “the most authoritative of the proofs.”[15]  Aristotle, often credited with inventing the scientific method, ironically introduced into it types of proof that are entirely unscientific.  The existentialist notion of belief offered by apologists no more applies to atheists than the scientific repeated experimentation and observation of a truth claim applies to the Aristotelian enthymeme as a rhetorical allegorical theistic device.  But, the apologist may say, an atheist resting his worldview on a foundation of science and reason adheres to a doctrine as well and is therefore still a believer.

Here we come to the intellectual challenge in which the apologist attempts to liken the atheist’s worldview to that of the theist by placing them on equivalent “doctrinal” ground.  The attempt is to show that such worldviews adhere to established truths as “…the construction of a rational system of doctrine.”[16]  Thus, the primary purpose of the intellectual apologist modality is to define “religion” in a way that includes all worldviews.  There is then nothing that does not in some sense qualify as religious thinking even if not organized.  A heuristic methodology must be used to accomplish this in which how a person views the universe and its origins as well as the person’s moral values are combined.  A theology is then defined as the combination of cosmology and axiology,[17] and suddenly everyone is a theist!  There are scientists, such as physicist Alan Lightman, who themselves hold that a “Central Doctrine” exists in science as to the operation of the universe.  It states “…that a complete and final set of laws does exist, and that those laws are inviolable.”[18]  Just as a theist adheres to the infallibility (or at the very least authority) of an unchanging holy text and system of belief, theists claim that an atheist who holds to science and reason is here bound to a non-religious doctrine as well.  As with the existential modality, the theist escapes a burden of proof by claiming a god to exist outside of space and time and not subject to the physical laws that exist within it.[19]  The atheist is purported to be doctrinally founded in science and held to the laws of the “Central Doctrine,” while the theist admits a doctrinal foundation and is not subject to the same.

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Chroma Anastasis and Hubble Space Telescope / Creative Commons

This is the creativity of apologetics.  Just as belief is redefined and misapplied, so too is doctrine in the attempt to draw the atheist onto the same quicksand.  It is a tactic to avoid applying the standard to oneself that one applies to others.[20]  The difference between the theist and the atheist is that the theist regards his doctrine (such as the Christian’s belief of the resurrection of Jesus) as certainly true while the atheist regards that which is demonstrated by science and reason as probably true.  A doctrine is by definition a set of teachings held as known and unchanging truths within an organization.  If there is one “Central Law” in science, it is that there is no such thing as absolute certainty and that everything is subject to change or reinterpretation with new knowledge and discoveries.  The theist can never reject the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus.  Theists, unlike atheists who based their worldviews on demonstrably scientific knowledge that accepts nothing as certain, cannot even allow themselves to accept that the resurrection may not in fact be true.  The primary difference between the two is ultimately that the vast majority of atheists do not place this singular subject as a central aspect of their lives while most theists do.  Atheism is part of but does not entirely comprise a person’s worldview and is accompanied by no rituals or doctrinal tenets.[21]  It springs from a worldview view, such as skepticism.  The intellectual apologetic then goes the way of the existential, but within this resides the next two modalities – they claim that atheists who rely on science and reason submit to institutional recognition and operate within accepted standards of behavior, just as believers.

It is true that many scientific organizations and educational institutions exist, as well as numerous organizations for the interests of unbelievers.  Yet neither consists of any doctrine which may not be challenged.  A theist’s belief system and attachment to institutions and rituals is internalized in a much deeper sense of identity.[22]  This is not true of the atheist who, while certainly enjoying the social functionality of certain organizations and accepting the best current evidence science and reason can provide, does not depend upon them for purpose and identity.  Participation in such institutions is not absolutely required nor is adherence to their principles.  There is no high priest of science with buildings and altars dedicated to worship or rituals and catechisms to accept and learn.  These final two modalities are by far the weakest of the four and have the appearance of “last gasps.”  Ultimately, the primary apologist methodologies seek to not only bring equality to the discussion between theism and atheism in terms of legitimate standing but to actually elevate the former above the latter via an escapist strategy.  The effort is to assign a religious umbrella to all worldviews and values[23] while being held to different standards of demonstration.  A discussion of faith and belief versus acceptance is intellectual, and for many frustrating, but the debate is much more personal when meaning is attached to the outcome.

Joseph Campbell’s address of Eastern thought aside, he accurately assesses the West as a population desperately in search of some sense of meaning in their lives.[24]  It is horribly insulting for one person to tell another that what they have chosen to believe and do with their lives is vapid of meaning, to tell them that their worldview is unimportant and somehow lacking.  Theists particularly cannot conceive of meaning without religion.  It is so overwhelmingly defining for every aspect of their lives that they cannot comprehend the possibility that others lead productive, meaningful lives without it.  Yet atheists normally live in societies that are largely comprised of one religion (Christianity in America) and are surrounded by an antithetical epistemology, a paradigm within which they must exist and attempt to effect change in minds and perceptions.[25]  That change does not require theists to abandon their faith but simply to acknowledge that other worldviews exist that are equally worthy of attention.  Two worldviews at such extreme odds will never coincide philosophically but can certainly coexist practically.  An atheist finding joy and meaning in life absent a deity is equally antithetical to theists – particularly monotheists who place a heavy emphasis on the quality of suffering.[26]  Accepting meaning within a moral framework, atheists face a high level of distrust.  It is exceedingly rare for an atheist to be elected to political office in this country precisely because of this distrust.  In fact, polls and studies show that atheists are the least-trusted people around the globe![27]  Why is this?  Because theists do not believe, on the whole, that a moral foundation can truly exist for a person unless some belief system including a god is incorporated in the person’s life.  After all, the thinking goes, without a supernatural overseer, what is to keep a person from committing any number of bad acts (e.g. mrder, lying, and stealing)?  Theists will often contradict themselves to keep this line as blurry as possible.

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Dr. William Lane Craig

Dr. William Lane Craig, a well-known modern apologist, will readily admit that a moral life is certainly possible without belief in a god, but in the next breath he will say that a god is necessary for a moral foundation.[28]  What of the numerous unbelieving philanthropists who donate time and money to charitable causes?  What of doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, and those in every other profession who devote themselves to their work but are unbelievers?  Is the meaning they have created and built in their lives somehow less valuable than the meaning in the lives of believers?  What of theists who commit heinous criminal acts?  Does a clergyman who takes advantage of a young child retain more meaning than all unbelievers, regardless of their own life’s work?  According to the 2013 report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Christians comprise 74% and atheists only 0.07% (less than one percent, with other theists filling the gap) of the federal prison population.[29]  The numbers alone lay a moral argument aside.  But morality and meaning are different discussions.  Meaning is ultimately an individual construct, not of necessity bound to any other system of belief.  Meaning depends on conscious persons to conceive of it and define it.  There is “…the absence of any meaning beyond what we ourselves have to offer, with absurdity as a starting point.”[30]

In truth, we are all on collective absurdist ground – it is humanly impossible at this time to find meaning in and for the universe (absurd here not meaning “ridiculous” or “illogical”).[31]  The atheist is perceived by many theists as depending too heavily on science and reason in denial of other metaphysical and supernatural elements and takes chance on being wrong, yet they take an equal chance as everyone is an atheist to someone else given the number of religions around the globe.  It is the pot calling the kettle black as “…it’s hard to conclude that the atheist is any more absurd than the theist.”[32]  Theist and atheist paradigms are obviously quite different, and attempts by theists to construct a context within which atheists are actually theists in their own way fall flatly with flawed reasoning.

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Jupiter (Zeus) of Smyrna / Creative Commons

Primitive humans certainly created various mythologies to understand a world they could not otherwise understand.  A person in Archaic Greece would see Zeus throw lightning bolts to the ground, while today we understand exactly how lightning forms and the elements to which is attracted.  In fact, evolution itself is suspected by cognitive scientists to have played a role in this ancient thinking literally being passed to descendants – the suspicion that a belief in the supernatural is hard-wired in the infamous “God gene.”[33]  The ages of belief systems and the holy texts attached to them are no indicator of truth.  Not once, in the thousands of years of various belief, has anything metaphysical or supernatural ever been demonstrated.  The words themselves are seemingly nonsense – metaphysical and supernatural – as though there is some justifiable reason to accept them as valid.  They are born of the need to know that which otherwise cannot yet be known, and this is the realm of the theist.  As atheists, many have found meaning in multiple areas of life.  Atheism is a stance on one and only one issue and is not a belief in and of itself, and it is certainly not a religion.  Man’s search for meaning has ultimately included both belief and unbelief, a search in which some are comfortable and some are not with those three important words – I don’t know.

REFERENCES

[1] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1979), 32.  I describe knowledge as illusory in this sense, agreeing with him when he writes, “Christianity and agnosticism thus have a common base: each holds the nature of God to be fundamentally unknowable. In this respect, Christianity is subject to the preceding critique of the unknowable and shares the irrationalism of agnosticism.

[2] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, Religions and Public Life (May 12, 2015).

[3] Penn Jillette, God, No! Signs You May Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 14.

[4] Patrick Hanks, ed., Collins English Dictionary – Compete and Unabridged, New Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).

[5] Richard C. Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (New York: Lulu Publishing, 2009), 391.

[6] Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 70.

[7] Carrier, 394.

[8] Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Carol Stream, IL: BarnaBooks, 2002), 12.  Viola and Barna express the belief held by many that “…the first-century church was the church in its purest form…”

[9] Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Faith Has its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 9.

[10] Willem B. Drees, Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates (London: Routledge, 2010), 11.

[11] Drees, 65.

[12] Boa, 6.

[13] Drees, 65.

[14] Boa, 41.  “…the Christian faith deals with issues that transcend the physical world that is the field of scientific inquiry.”

[15] David C. Mirhady, ed., Influences on Peripatetic Rhetoric, Essays in Honor of William W. Fortenbaugh (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 55.

[16] Boa, 341.

[17] Drees, 77: “…I suggest the following ‘formula’ for understanding the nature of ‘theologies’, religious or non-religious visions of life: a theology = a cosmology and an axiology.”

[18] Alan Lightman, “Does God Exist? The Case for Reconciling the Scientific with the Divine – and against the Anti-Religion of Richard Dawkins,” Salon (October 2, 2011), http://www.salon.com/2011/10/02/how_science_and_faith_coexist/.

[19] Lightman: “…this Being acts with purpose and will, sometimes violating existing physical laws (i.e., performing miracles), and has additional qualities such as intelligence, compassion and omniscience.”

[20] Daniel Dennett, “When Atheists Fib to Protect God: A Certain Breed of Nonbelievers are Anxious to Avoid Pointing out the Real Flaws of Religion,” Salon (October 9, 2011), http://www.salon.com/2011/10/09/when_atheists_fib_to_protect_god/:  “…the reason many theological questions continue to evade the bright light of rational inquiry is that they have been ingeniously crafted by theologians to do just that.”

[21] Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, 50 Great Myths about Atheism (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 11.

[22] David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 68-69.

[23] Drees, 152: “Reaching out to the valuation side makes a worldview religious; reaching out to the understanding of reality makes values religious.”

[24] Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By (London: Viking Books, 1972), 71: “A number of schools of Occidental psychotherapy hold that what we all most need and are seeking is a meaning for our lives.”

[25] Michel Onfray, In Defense of Atheism: The Case against Christianity, Judaism, an Islam (Ontario: Viking Canada, 2007), 43-44: “While waiting for an outspokenly atheistic era, we must plan for and be content with a Judeo-Christian epistemology pregnant with significance.”

[26] Onfray, 59-60.

[27] Will M. Gervais, et.al. “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101:6 (December 2011), 1190.

[28] Paul Kurtz, “Ethics without God: Theism versus Secular Humanism,” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate of Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King, eds. (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009), 189.

[29] Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Frequency of Religious Affiliation of Inmates,” April 2013.

[30] Onfray, 13.

[31] Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric by Johannes De Silentio, Alastair Hannay, trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), 17.

[32] David Niose, “Our Humanity, Naturally: A Club for Humanists,” Psychology Today (February 16, 2014),

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201402/atheism-meaning-and-the-absurdity-it-all.

[33] Vittachi, Nury, “Scientists Discover that Atheists Might not Exist, and That’s Not a Joke,” Science 2.0 (July 6, 2014), http://www.science20.com/writer_on_the_edge/blog/scientists_discover_that_atheists_might_not_exist_and_thats_not_a_joke-139982.

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