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Am I An Atheist?

February 24, 2010

I don’t believe in god.

Does that make me an atheist? I don’t believe in fairies, but no one would call me an afairyist. Why is theism given the privileged position of a name for people who do not adhere to it’s central theme: the existence of god(s)?

In his series of short essays “Against All Gods”, A. C. Grayling argues that “We need to meet one another as human individuals, person to person, in an Public domain hospitable to us all, independenty of the Babel of divisive labels people choose to impose on others or adopt for themselves”. He includes amongst these labels the word atheist. Whilst I realise that for some people it is easy to define themselves and others by a belive, or lack thereof, in god, I think this is a cop out. It avoids the important question; if there isn’t a god, what is there?

What do I believe? The world is governed by natural laws, free from the influences of a god or collection of gods. The same goes for the human body; there is no “soul” or “spirit” as a separate entity. There are a number of theories about what our consciousness is and how it evolved (and this is something I’m planning on learning a lot more about once I get to that section of my pile of unread books), but for know my “favourite” is that it is an emergent property of the simpler processes going on in the brain, processes that are for the most part understood. It is these emergent properties that create the complexities of the mind that are slowly becoming understood.

This leaves me in an interesting position when it comes to morality. How do I explain the need to be good to others, to act in a moral way? Again, there are different theories that attempt to explain the existence of morality in a naturalistic world. These propose that morality (and religion for that matter) evolved as an adaptation, or as a by-product of other adaptations, morality being a mechanism by which humans enhance the survival of the species, not just the individual. Again, this is an interesting problem and is something I want to learn and think more about.

Morality for me boils down to the need to treat other humans well. I take responsibility for my own actions; they are dictated by me, not by a god. I am not motivated by the thought of eternal reward in heaven or eternal damnation in hell. I base my morality on wanting myself and other people to act ethically, to be happy and fulfilled.

So, am I an atheist? No. I guess the best label would be naturalistic humanist. More important than this label is the realisation that there are still a lot of questions to be answered (and asked).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Carl permalink
    March 11, 2010 12:47 AM

    I don’t think the existence of a universe governed by natural laws excludes the possibility of a supernatural God which is external to it. If one defines the universe as ‘all that is’ then it does. But claiming that this is all that exists is a bold claim! If you really mean the universe we know to exist, the visible universe, then it doesn’t.

    Consider a watch. It has a creator and yet operates in a set manner without the intervention of its creator once set in motion. Couldn’t the universe, which also operates in a set manner, also have a creator? And, as with a watch, couldn’t the creator choose to interfere with his/her/its creation? Such interventions could be outright disruptions to natural laws or more subtle biasing of the probability of random events.

    Even if you exclude intervention then you are left with the possibility of a deistic God but the watch analogy also shows the possibility of supernatural intervention in an otherwise naturally governed universe, i.e. a theistic God. I would argue that naturalism allows room for deistic and theistic Gods and so cannot be used as a synonym for atheism.

  2. March 11, 2010 9:13 AM

    To start with, I think that naturalism rules out a theistic god by definition. It is the philosophical position that the universe is governed by natural laws, not that it is governed by natural laws except in some special cases.

    Now, in my opinion naturalism doesn’t rule out a deistic god a priori; neither does the scientific method. I’m sure we can both name people who hold both religious and naturalistic views. That’s why I never claimed that naturalism was a synonym for atheism. Of course, I think that the logical conclusion that one reaches from a naturalistic (or scientific) viewpoint is that there is no god. Neither accepts the existence of god because there is no evidence of it. To believe in god in this context is a matter of faith.

    If we remove the possibility of a theistic god, the role that god could have to play is as the creator of the universe. When it comes to questions of the creation of the universe I can see three options:

    1. The universe has a cause and we can identify it;
    2. The universe has a cause that is as yet unknown;
    3. The universe has no cause.

    Unfortunately each of these options has problems. In the first two, what caused the cause? Do we have to have an infinite chain of causation, or do we allow an exception to the rule that everything must have a cause? If there is an exception, why isn’t that exception the universe itself? Point 3 seems pretty unsatisfactory; did the universe just pop into existence and the big bang just happen?

    I don’t think there’s a satisfactory answer here, but whatever the cause (or not), I don’t see an argument for a place for god in creation that isn’t flawed.

    And so to the watch. I could ask who created the creator, but I’m sure you’re expecting that by now… Pretty sure Hume pointed out the problems with this argument a few hundred years ago.

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