The Atheist Bible
Chapter on Atheism
IntroductionThis chapter introduces the concepts of atheism, agnosticism, theism, and Humanism. It consists of the following sections:
- The Supernatural: Introduces atheism, agnosticism, and theism.
- The Definition of Atheism: Defines atheism.
- Atheism in Practice: Discusses how atheists see gods.
- Humanism: Explains Humanism, which is atheism with an ethical dimension.
- Questions for atheists: Discusses common objections to the concept of atheism.
What is atheism, agnosticism, theism and all that?Atheism, agnosticism, and theism are all points of view concerning God, gods, or the supernatural. There are three major stances:
- A person believes in the supernatural
- This point of view is commonly called theism. In most Western countries, theism means belief in the Christian God. However, theism, in its general form, can also mean belief in multiple gods or deistic beings in general Oxford dictionary/Theism.
- A person rejects belief in the supernatural
- This stance is commonly known as atheism.
- A person takes no specific stance towards the belief in the supernatural
- This point of view is commonly referred to as agnosticism. In its strict definition, agnosticism just says that the existence of the supernatural cannot be known.
What about other definitions of these terms?The notions of “atheism”, “theism”, and “agnosticism” are by no means agreed on universally. Definitions for atheism, agnosticism and theism vary from source to source. The Pew Research Group, for example, finds that 22% of all American self-declared atheists believe in God Pew Research Group: Report on the religious landscape. Thus, these people use the word “atheist” in a different way than this book.
When this book uses the word “atheist”, it refers to someone who rejects belief in the supernatural. This choice of words, however, is to some degree arbitrary. We just need a word for the phenomenon of disbelief, and “atheism” seems a natural choice for it because it is understood by most people. This does not mean, however, that this definition would be the only one, let alone the only “true” one. In particular, it does not mean that those who call themselves atheist would have to give up their belief in God. They shall believe whatever they wish, and call themselves whatever they wish, they are just not the people that this book talks about.
This book will later argue that words are just arbitrary names, and that what counts is the concept itself, and not the word that we use for it. In this spirit, this book talks about the phenomenon of disbelief in gods, no matter how you call it.
Currently we are a minority, and as long as we are a minority we need a name.
What is the supernatural?The supernatural is anything outside the laws of nature. We will later give a more precise definition of the term. For now, we just enumerate things that are considered supernatural. The supernatural includes gods, spirits, angels, and so-called higher powers. It also includes the God of the Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith , who is unequivocally considered outside the laws of nature. It also includes other gods, as well as the concepts of the afterlife, a cycle of rebirth, and the idea of a divine destiny. We will discuss and define these concepts later in the Chapter on Religion.
Man-made objects, such as cars and toothbrushes, are not considered supernatural. Feelings, emotions, thoughts, and other abstract things are not considered supernatural either. They are not tangible, but still natural.
What is a god?A god or deity is a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes Oxford dictionary/god. This definition includes the God of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Spiritualism, , but also other gods of other religions, such as a moon god or the Hindu god Vishnu [ibid]. Variants of Buddhism have gods known as the Four Heavenly Kings (pictured) Four Heavenly Kings. The Wicca faith believes in a male god and a female god; the Bambuti believe in the forest god; and variants Hinduism believe in an entire pantheon of gods. Deism believes in a single god that does not interact with the world. We give a formal definition of gods later, and discuss different gods in today’s religions in the Chapter on Religion.
What is the abrahamic god?The abrahamic god is a particular god, who is revered as the God of Islam, Judaism, the Bahai Faith, Spiritualism, and Christianity. He is considered the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being Oxford dictionary/god. Common attributes ascribed to God include omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omni-benevolence (perfect goodness), divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence God.
The name “abrahamic god” stems from the fact that Islam, Judaism, the Bahai Faith, Spiritualism, and Christianity all trace their roots to the prophet Abraham. To distinguish the abrahamic god from the other gods, this book writes the abrahamic god with a capital letter: God. Seen this way, “God” is a proper name for the abrahamic god. We discuss this god in detail in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.
What is theism?Theism is the belief that there is some supernatural being. In the Western world, theism commonly means belief in God. God is the supreme being in the abrahamic religions, which are Christianity, Islam, the Bahai Faith, Spiritualism, and Judaism. Yet, theism can also mean belief in multiple gods, as in some variants of Hinduism. It can also mean belief in some unspecified higher powers, as in Spirituality.
Buddhism (and related spiritual practices) have no god in the Western sense in most of their variants. Yet, also Buddhism believes in supernatural concepts such as Samsara (the cycle of birth and death), Karma (the force that drives Samsara), and Nirvana. Therefore, Buddhism is a belief in the supernatural, and we will group it together with theism for the purpose of this book. The same goes for modern sense-seeking philosophies, if they posit a supernatural cause or quality of natural phenomena. For example, one of these philosophies sees “God” as a name for the first cause of the universe. This view point posit a supernatural beginning of the world, and is thus considered theistic for the purposes of this book.
We discuss the most common types of supernatural entities later, in the Chapter on Religion.
What is religion?A religion is the service and worship of God or the supernatural Merriam-Webster Dictionary/Religion. Religions usually come with an entire belief system, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values Religion. We will define the concept of a religion formally later, in the Chapter on Religion. We will also give an extensive overview of today’s religions and their history in the Chapter on the World Religions. Depending on how we count, there are about 9 major religions with more than 10m adherents: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism/Taoism/Chinese folk religion, Judaism, Christianity, Spiritualism, Sikhism, Islam, and Shintoism.
By definition, every religious person is a theist. However, not every theist necessarily follows the cultural and moral values of a religion. Some theists explicitly reject the framework of religion. They believe in a supernatural power, but resent organized religion, the Pope, holy books, or dogma. Examples for such belief systems are Deism, Spirituality, and metaphysical philosophies.
What is agnosticism?Agnosticism is the stance that you do not take any particular position towards belief in the supernatural. The supernatural could exist, it could not exist, or it could be non-sensical — you just have no particular opinion on it.
By this definition, everybody who does not actively believe or disbelieve in supernatural beings is an agnostic: Babies (because they cannot actively believe), people who do not care (because they do not bother), and all those people who never heard of gods (and thus had no chance to believe). For the purpose of this book, agnosticism will also include all people who simply say “none” when asked for their religious beliefs, but who are not atheists.
A claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance needs only be confessed.
What is epistemic agnosticism?In common discourse, the word “agnosticism” means that a person has no particular stance towards the belief in the supernatural. However, agnosticism can also have a different meaning. It can be the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly theological claims regarding metaphysics, afterlife or the existence of God, god(s), or deities — is unknown or (possibly) inherently unknowable AgnosticismOxford Dictionary/Agnosticism. We will call this stance “epistemic agnosticism”. Epistemic agnosticism is a theory about knowledge. It is not actually concerned with the existence of supernatural beings. Epistemic agnosticism says that we cannot know, but it does not say whether we have to believe or not. These two things are different. In fact, you can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.
To see how that works, let’s consider as an example a vegetarian version of Schroedinger’s cat, a fridge: When you open the fridge door, the light is switched on. Now assume that the light switch is broken, so that it may possibly not switch off properly when you close the fridge door. But when you open it, it is always on. With this fridge, you can never tell whether the light is actually on or off when the door is closed. You take an agnostic attitude: You believe (rightly) that you cannot know the state of the fridge light when the door is closed. Nevertheless, you may believe that the light is off. For example, if you have faith in the fridge mechanics, you will believe that the light is off. Thus, you may believe that something is unprovable and you may believe it nevertheless. You can also believe that the fridge light is broken. Even though you are convinced that you cannot know, you can believe.
Similarly, one may believe in God in an agnostic way: One acknowledges that it is impossible to prove God’s existence, but one believes nevertheless in him. Analogously, one may be an agnostic atheist. One can also be an agnostic agnostic, meaning that one does not know whether God exists, and one thinks that nobody can ever now.
I think God makes more effort for us agnostics. Well, I guess he has to.
Definition of Atheism
What is atheism?Atheism is the rejection of belief in the supernatural. This means that atheists do not believe that God exists, that any other gods exist, that there is life after death, or that we are reborn.
There are a number of other definitions of atheism. One of them says that atheism rejects belief “in gods” instead of “in the supernatural”. This definition is as valid as any other definition. However, it would also include some Buddhists, because some Buddhists also do not believe in gods. Thus, these Buddhists would be atheists under such a definition. This is indeed a common view point. However, this book does not use the word “atheist” in this sense. When this book talks about “atheists”, it means people who reject everything supernatural. Thus, Buddhists are not atheists in the sense of this book, because they believe in a kind of supernatural world order, including rebirth and Karma.
Another definition says that atheists “lack belief in the supernatural” — instead of rejecting it. This is a more general definition of atheism, which would also include all those who have not made up their mind about God. For example, babies would also be atheists, because they “lack belief in the supernatural”. However, babies do not actively reject belief in gods. In order to distinguish babies (and other people who have not come to a definite conclusion) from the people who actively reject the belief in God, this book calls the former “agnostics” and the latter “atheists”. Again, the words are just devices that we use to talk about these people.
Another possible definition says that “Atheists believe that gods do not exist”. However, not all atheists share this point of view. To see why, consider as an example the sentence “Cinderella sleeps greenly”. This sentence does not make any sense. Thus, we can reject it. But would you want to say that “Cinderella does not sleep greenly”? No, because that would make as little sense as the original sentence. Many atheists hold that supernatural statements fall in the same category: They make so little sense that it cannot be decided whether they are true or not. Atheists just reject such statements as they are. Such statements are not part of what atheists consider true.
This means in particular that atheists do not believe that God created this world, that there would be life after death, or that there would be some overall justice in this world other than the one administered by humans. Furthermore, atheists live without the belief in angels, good or evil spirits, and the devil.
I am an atheist. You claim that a god exists and I don’t believe you. It’s really that simple.
Atheists for practical purposesAtheism is the rejection of belief in the supernatural. Some people have more nuanced positions towards the supernatural. They hold, e.g., one of the following tenets:
- The question of whether there is a god or not is irrelevant for my everyday life.
- The question of whether there is a god is ill-defined.
- The existence of a god cannot be formally denied, because there could be an alternate universe with different laws of physics where a god exists.
- There is the possibility that some force created the universe, and that this force appears divine to us.
Adherents of these tenets may hesitate to call themselves atheists. At the same time, the existence of a god is only a very abstract possibility for them. They will not arrange their life in any way to cater to this possibility. In particular, these people typically reject belief in gods as personified characters, in supernatural intervention in this world, in a supernatural quality of this world, and in interaction with the supernatural. This makes these people atheists for all practical purposes.
The Dawkins ScaleWe have seen that some people consider the hypothesis of God ill-defined or irrelevant for their life. Now let us look at the other people: Those (atheists and theists alike) who are ready to accord the hypothesis of God some plausibility. For these people, Richard Dawkins developed the “spectrum of theistic probability” in his book “The God Delusion”. The spectrum goes as follows:
- Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
- De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100%. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
- Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50% but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
- Completely impartial. Exactly 50%. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
- Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50% but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical.”
- De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
- Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”
When this scale speaks of “God”, let us think of the supernatural in general, not just the abrahamic god. Then Darwin’s point is: Once you accept that the hypothesis of the supernatural is a valid hypothesis, you can assign it some “probability”, or “degree of belief”.
Now here is the point: Nobody “knows” that the supernatural exists (Point 1 on the scale). Proofs for the supernatural are usually wrong, as we will discuss in the Chapter on Proofs. Likewise, nobody “knows” that the supernatural does not exist (Point 7 on the scale). So strictly speaking, there cannot be a “atheist”, and there cannot be a “theist”. We should all be agnostics. However, if we always stay mute just because we do not have proof, we can never make any statement at all. As Jack Smart has argued, such neutrality would amount to an unreasonable philosophical skepticism that would not allow us to make any claims to knowledge about the world at all. Take democracy as an example: Nobody “knows” with 100% certainty that democracy is the best political system. So, technically speaking, there cannot be a “democrat”. The notion would be meaningless. And still, we’re not agnostics with respect to democracy. We prefer democracy to tyranny. We are, in this sense, “democrats” — even if we are aware that our preference for democracy is mainly a belief for which we have no formal proof.
And in the very same way, we can be theists, even if we have no proof for the supernatural. We can just believe that the supernatural exists. And vice versa, we can be atheists if we believe that the supernatural does not exist. Assigning a low probability to the supernatural makes us atheist in this sense.
What is positive atheism?Positive atheism is the belief that the supernatural does not exist Negative and Positive Atheism. On the Dawkins Scale, we find positive atheists on Level 6 and on Level 7. These are the people who are willing to consider the hypothesis that the supernatural exists, and who consciously consider this hypothesis implausible. These people do not have proof — but nobody has proof. They just consider it unlikely that the supernatural exists. In other words: They believe that the supernatural does not exist.
This means that positive atheists believe that the abrahamic god does not exist; that there are no gods at all; that demons, ghosts, angels, and spirits do not exist; that the universe was not created by God; that there is no Heaven and no Hell; that moral values are not given by God; that prayer has no effect other than psychological; and that all other supernatural claims (such as horoscopes) are nonsense.
This book describes a positive atheist’s point of view. For most practical purposes, however, there is little difference between positive atheism and the more general variant of it.
Atheism in Practice
The BambutiTo understand the atheist point of view, consider the religion of the Bambuti Pygmies. The Bambuti are an ethnic group in Africa. In their belief, there is a god called Khonvoum (pictured on the right). He wields a bow made from two snakes that together appear to humans as a rainbow. After sunset every day, Khonvoum gathers fragments of the stars and throws them into the sun to revitalize it for the next day. He occasionally contacts mortals through Gor (a thunder god who is also an elephant) or a chameleon. Khonvoum created mankind from clay. Black people were made from black clay, white people came from white clay, and the Pygmies themselves came from red clay. Bambuti mythology
You probably think that these things are not really true. Khonvoum does not really clog stars together and throw them at the sun. You reject such a belief. This makes you an atheist with respect to Khonvoum. You may even think, more specifically, that Khonvoum does not exist. This makes you a positive atheist with respect to Khonvoum.
Where is Khonvoum?But if Khonvoum does not exist, what is he? Where did he come from?
Well, put simply, Khonvoum is a myth. Most likely, some shaman came up with the story of Khonvoum. He used it to explain to people why the sun rises every day, and why there are rainbows. Maybe he used the story also to remind people that we are all ultimately part of nature (“made from clay”). Quite possibly, the shaman also counted himself among the people whom Khonvoum contacts occasionally.
Since then, the Bambuti keep telling this story of Khonvoum to each other. The story is part of the oral tradition of the Bambuti.
But Khonvoum does not exist in the real world. He is just a character in the story that the shaman made up.
How can we be sure?How can we be sure that Khonvoum is just made up? Can we prove that he is made up? Well, we cannot. Khonvoum could indeed be hiding in some forest in Africa in this very moment. But there are a number of reasons that indicate that Khonvoum is indeed made up:
- Magical events
- The story goes that Khonvoum makes snakes appear like a rainbow. This is obviously nonsense. A rainbow is a reflection of the light in water particles, and not in any way related to snakes.
- The story of Khonvoum is known exclusively among the Bambuti. No other civilization has heard of Khonvoum — even though every other civilization enjoys rainbows and the rising of the sun.
- No other evidence
- Apart from the story, there is no other evidence for Khonvoum. Nobody has ever seen him, he has left no traces, and has spoken to no-one in some verifiable manner. Of course, the Bambuti will cite the rainbow as evidence. Doesn’t the rainbow prove that Khonvoum put it there? Well, no. It could have been any other force that put the rainbow there — and we even happen to know these forces.
All of this makes it clear that Khonvoum does not exist. He is just a character in a story that the Bambuti keep telling each other.
Religions as fictionWe have seen that the Bambuti believe that Khonvoum, the god of hunt, gathers the stars to revitalize the sun. We have also come to the belief that Khonvoum does not really exist. He is part of a story that some shaman came up with, in order to explain to people how the sun rises. Since then, Bambutis have been telling each other this story over the generations.
From an atheist point of view, it is the same with the other religions: A religion is just a story that someone made up. This may be the story how a god gave fire to people (as in the Bambuti myth), or the story how a god created the world (as in the abrahamic religions), or the story how the Earth sprang from a lotus flower (as in some variants of Hinduism). In the end, it’s all just stories that someone made up once upon a time, and that people keep telling each other.
These stories are not necessarily born out of a bad intention. They may not even be consciously “made up” at all. They may, e.g., stem from honest early attempts to explain nature, or from hear-say, as we will discuss later. But they are, in an atheist view, not factual descriptions of reality.
So, from an atheist point of view, when you listen to a preacher in the church, mosque, or temple, you are listening to a set of stories that people came up with some thousand years ago.
How can we be sure?As in the case of Khonvoum, we cannot prove that God does not exist. We can just use the same arguments we have used before:
- Magical events
- The abrahamic god made a person walk on water. People cannot walk on the water. The other major religions all have their own respective magical stories.
- Gods are always local to their culture. The Chinese gods are known only to the Chinese — because they live on in stories that the Chinese tell each other. The abrahamic god was first known only in the Middle East — until the Romans spread the story in Europe, and later the missionaries spread it in Africa and the Americas. But where the story is not spread, the god is not known.
- No other evidence
- Apart from scripture, there is no evidence for gods. Nobody has ever seen them, they have left no scientifically proven traces, and they have never spoken to anyone in some verifiable manner.
Hence, atheists conclude, the Bible is just a story. God is a fictional character in that story. He does not really exist. It is exciting to read these stories, but once you close the book, God is gone. The same is true for all other gods, spirits, and supernatural concepts. They appear in stories, fairy tales, and myths, but not in the real world. They are just products of human imagination.
I believe in all gods equally.
What do you mean, it’s all stories?We have just advanced the idea that religions are basically just stories that people tell each other. The gods and the other supernatural entities are then just characters in these stories. This raises a number of questions:
- Why would people create such stories?
- People have come up with religious stories for several reasons: to explain the phenomena of nature; to find or give hope in the super-natural; to explain and justify the events of life; to establish social stability and identity; or to govern a people. We discuss these reasons in detail in the Chapter on the Founding of Religion.
- Why would people believe such stories?
- By far the most common reason why people believe in these stories is that they have been brought up with this belief, and it never occurred to them to question it. Other people believe because their religion gives them a community and peace of mind. Again others are pressured into the belief by society. We discuss these reasons in detail in the Chapter on Following Religion. We also discuss the positive effects of religion on a society in the Chapter on the Benefits of Religion.
- How could a fiction survive for so long?
- Over the millennia, religions have developed techniques to keep their adherents loyal, and to secure their own survival. These include the encouragement to make many children; the threat of hell and the promise of heaven; the punishment of apostasy; and the ability to adapt to current societal trends. We discuss these factors in detail in the Chapter on Memes.
- Aren’t there proofs for the existence of God?
- People have developed a number of proofs for the existence of their respective gods or supernatural concepts. This book will argue in the Chapter on Proofs that none of them holds water. We discuss the abrahamic God in particular in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God. We discuss proofs for Christianity in the Chapter on Christianity. We discuss proofs for the truth of Islam in the Chapter on Islam.
In this view of the world, gods are just fictional characters. They are the product of our imagination. They exist only in our heads.
The idea that gods are fictitious characters is actually widely accepted — as long as we talk about the gods of other civilizations. Think about Zeus, the Greek god. Today, most people assume that Zeus does not really exist. He is nothing more than a fictional character in a myth. In the same vein, few people in the Western world believe that Brahma and Vishnu (the Hindu gods) exist. They are just mythical creatures. Vice versa, few Buddhists believe that Jesus is really the son of God. Jesus is the son of God much like Harry Potter flies on a broom — it’s all just stories. Atheists apply this logic not just to Hindu gods and Western gods, but to all gods. We discuss this idea in detail in the Chapter on Gods.
Cogito, ergo est.
I believe, and therefore He exists.
(And that is also the only way in which He exists.)
Is there a proof against the existence of God?Theists cannot prove that God exists. Atheists cannot prove that he doesn’t exist. Thus, don’t atheists look as week as theists?
Surprisingly, very few theories can be proven. Take the theory of gravity: Things fall down if not obstructed. How would you prove this theory? A number of things falling down validate that theory — but do not prove it. There could be one thing one day that does not fall down. There is no way to actually prove that things always fall down. It can only be proven wrong: If one day, a thing does not fall down, the theory is false. Until that day, the theory is useful, because it helps us get along with the physical world.
And it is the same with positive atheism. It cannot be proven right. But it makes predictions. It predicts that prayer will have no influence. It predicts that no god will ever show up and manifest himself in a scientifically verifiable way. It predicts that miracles do not happen. It tells us that there is no supernatural power to help us take care of this world. It cannot be proven that this will always be the case. But we could immediately see if it is not. Until that day, the theory is useful, because it helps us get along with the physical world. In this sense, positive atheism is like the theory of gravity: it cannot be proven right, but it can be proven wrong. While it has not been proven wrong, it is useful.
Theism, in contrast, has no such benefits. It cannot be proven wrong. This is because it does not make any predictions. If it ever made a prediction, it could be proven wrong. But it does not make predictions. By assuming god, a believer cannot make a single prediction about the real world that an atheist could not make. This means that theism does not help in any way in understanding the physical world. Worse, it allows everybody to come up with their own, contradictory, theological theories. Since none of them can ever be proven wrong, they all co-exist. This makes them meaningless in atheist eyes. They can even be dangerous, as we discuss in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion.
Prove to me that Harry Potter doesn’t exist,
and I’ll use your method to prove that your god does not exist.
Why not believe anyway?There is no proof for gods as there is no proof against them. Then the question arises why atheists don’t just believe in God anyway.
The answer is first ideational: If there is no reason to believe a supernatural statement, then atheists prefer not to believe in it. This holds in particular because these statements do not provide any insight on the observable world. For example, if Chris knows that brushing your teeth eliminates caries, and Douglas doesn’t, then Chris can have healthier teeth than Douglas. Now, if Chris knows that God exists, and Douglas doesn’t know that, then there is nothing that Chris gains from this. Chris will not be any smarter about how to eradicate diseases, understand human behavior, or predict nature. There is not a single thing that Chris can predict about the real world that Douglas cannot predict. In this sense, supernatural statements are decoupled from reality. Technically speaking, they are unfalsifiable.
Since supernatural statements are decoupled from reality, everybody can have a different opinion on supernatural statements. Some people believe there is one god, others believe that there are several gods, and again others believe in spirits. Nobody has provable evidence for their gods, and the beliefs are all contradictory — which makes them meaningless in atheist eyes. We discuss the disadvantages of believing unfalsifiable statements in general later.
Things become more intricate when the supernatural is combined with a religion. A religion may require the believer to restrict his diet, limit his choice of partners to followers of the same religion, or teach the religion to his children. Before an atheist would engage in any of these, they would require evidence. Most atheists find it repelling that people willingly restrict their lives without evidence. Furthermore, all major religions have value systems that predate our modern Humanist values. They give less rights to women, prohibit interfaith marriage, shun freedom of religion, discriminate against gays, or encourage child marriage.
If a religion starts exercising power on the society, things become even more intricate. Religions have demanded exemptions from laws; fostered intolerance between the denominations; lead to the persecution of adherents of other religions or atheists; and lent their force to half of the world’s most deadly conflicts. This works through a combination of societal, psychological, and financial factors that many atheists find scary and objectionable.
It is absurd to believe in something just because it cannot be proven wrong. By the same argument, we should also all believe in the tooth fairy.
The History of AtheismThroughout the written history of mankind, people have been religious in general. We discuss the birth of religions in the Chapter on the Founding of Religion, and the history of religion in the Chapter on the World Religions. Atheism has always been an exception to the rule.
Wikipedia mentions as first atheistic life stances a number of Indian philosophies that originated in 200 BCE, in opposition to theistic Hinduism Atheism in Hinduism. These philosophies rejected, or at least did not incorporate, the hypothesis of God. However, they also upheld the validity of the Vedas. I could not find out whether these philosophies rejected not just God, but also the spirits, re-incarnation, and unfalsifiable hypotheses about life in general. Thus, I am not sure in how far these philosophies were atheistic in the comprehensive sense that we use in this book.
The following centuries saw a number of individual atheist philosophers Atheism: Several ancient Greek philosophers tried to explain the world in a purely materialistic way (Democritus, Critias, and Prodicus, among others). They held that religious stories were invented by men in order to frighten people — much like we will later argue in the Chapter on Gods and the Chapter on Memes. These thoughts are clearly atheist. At the same time, they appear to have been opinions of individual philosophers rather than widely shared opinions — much like other Greek philosophers believed in Dualism or Metempsychosis. Interestingly, the early Christians were also labeled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in pagan gods [ibid].
The Golden Age of the Islamic world, likewise, saw a number of atheists in Arab and Persian lands: Muhammad al Warraq (fl. 9th century), Ibn al-Rawandi (827–911), Al-Razi (854–925), and Al-Ma’arri (973–1058) Atheism. Al-Ma’arri wrote and taught that religion itself was a “fable invented by the ancients” and that humans were “of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains” [ibid]. These atheists did not leave a long-lasting impression, though. Today, there are few outspoken atheists in Muslim lands.
In Europe, the Middle Ages saw several philosophers and groups who questioned the classical Christian doctrine. However, these people were so busy rejecting dogmata, that they did not arrive at fully rejecting God. Already the rejection of dogmata was prohibited and could result in prosecution, much more so the rejection of God. Things changed with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when Martin Luther openly questioned the authority of the Catholic Church. With the inviolability of the Church broken, people started questioning also the nature of God. Some people arrived at Deism (the idea that there is a god that does not interfere with the world) or Pantheism (the idea that God is in everything), but not at atheism. The first known explicit atheist was the German critic of religion Matthias Knutzen in his three writings of 1674 Atheism, followed by a number of other European philosophers with atheistic tendencies such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Denis Diderot. However, atheism never reached a larger audience — most likely because people were unable to imagine how the complexity of nature and life could exist without a creator [Steven Pinker: Enlightenment now]. Only when Charles Darwin discovered the principle of evolution in the 19th century, the necessity for a creator was put in question.
The main catalyst for this thinking was the Renaissance, and more specifically the Age of Enlightenment that followed Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state [ibid]. These philosophies valued reason, rationalism, and empirical evidence, and thus they started to critically question belief in God without empirical evidence. The French Revolution dethroned the Catholic Church, and permanently reduced its influence in state affairs. In the latter half of the 19th century, atheism rose to prominence under the influence of rationalistic and freethinking philosophers Atheism. Many prominent German philosophers of this era denied the existence of deities and were critical of religion, including Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, Max Stirner, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche [ibid]. Around that time, people also knew about the other world religions, and religious texts from other traditions had been translated to European languages Religious studies. Comparative studies of different religions might have pushed people to a descriptive view of religion as an artefact of human thinking Deism / Discovery of Diversity. These times also saw the beginning of more wide-spread Humanist thought — first in the frame of Deism, and then without Humanism.
The 20th century saw the rise of state atheism: the imposition of atheism by the state, in particular in communist regimes. We discuss state atheism further down in this chapter. In some ways, this had the effect of making the Western world more religious, as an opposition to the communist atheist world. After the fall of communism, the Eastern-European countries (including Russia) reverted largely to being religious. The US remained as religious as it was during the Cold War. Western Europe, in contrast, is slowly becoming less religious, and a bit more atheist. The rest of the world has low rates of atheism, in particular in the developing countries. We discuss the demographics of atheism in the Chapter on Atheists.
What types of atheism are there?Atheism itself is just the rejection of the belief in the supernatural. This basic attitude can be combined with other attitudes, which yields a spectrum from the implicit to the militant. There is no definite grouping of these attitudes, but some prominent ones are:
- Silent Atheism
- Some people are atheist, but do not specifically engage in discussing their attitude. They just behave like everybody else, and mind their own business.
- State Atheism
- State atheism is the official promotion of atheism by a government, sometimes combined with active suppression of religious freedom and practice.
- New Atheism
- New atheism is the attitude that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.
- Humanism combines atheism with moral values. It is based on the Human Rights, promotes democracy, supports freedom of religion, and holds that science is the way to learn about the natural world. Humanism is the world view that this book promotes.
What is New Atheism?New atheism is the view that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises New Atheism. The term is commonly associated with individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens [ibid].
This view can be considered a more militant version of atheism, which actively goes beyond individual belief, and aims to convince people of atheism, and oppose religion. Thus, it is a proselytizing life stance.
Many atheists will sympathize with the viewpoints of new atheism. However, most likely, the majority of atheists is not as activist as the “New Atheists”. This book incorporates the main arguments of New Atheism in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion.
The opposite of New Atheism is what Stephen Pinker calls “Faitheism”. A faitheist is an atheist who is “soft” on religious belief, and tolerant of even the worst intellectual and moral excesses of religion — an “atheist accommodationist”. A faitheist may say, “I’m not religious, but we shouldn't criticize the Muslim oppression of women because it's a sincere religious belief.”. Urban Dictionary / Faitheism. This is not the position of this book. Much like the large Humanist organizations, this book takes an assertive position against religious ideology whenever it clashes with Human Rights.
Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.
The grave will provide plenty of time for silence.
What is State Atheism?State atheism is the official promotion of atheism by a government, sometimes combined with active suppression of religious freedom and practice State Atheism. It has its roots in the attempt of the French Revolution to abolish religion and establish an atheist state. This attempt failed. Mexico also violently suppressed religion between 1917 and 1940, with thousands of people killed Cristero War. The largest wave of state atheism happened in the communist countries from the Second World War to the end of the Cold War — often to cement the power of the respective regimes. This includes Albania, China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea. These policies have led to the suppression of religion, arrests, exilations, and uncounted numbers of executions. After the Cold War, state atheism continues to suppress religious minorities in some countries. In China, religion is viewed with suspicion by the state The Economist: Religion in China, 2014-11-01, and the Muslim minority of Uighurs is systematically deported and detained The Economist: China has turned Xinjiang into a police state like no other, 2018-05-31.
State Atheism is directly opposed to the concept of freedom of religion. Hence, State Atheism is incompatible with Humanism, and thus incompatible with the values that this book promotes. State atheism is sometimes seen as a proof that atheism is evil.
All I share with communist dictators is the number of gods we believe in.
Would you like to be held responsible for the deeds of all people
who believe in the same number of gods as you?
How do atheism and communism relate?Most self-declared communist regimes were atheist. This invites the question how atheism and communism are related.
The founders of modern communism were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Communism. They developed a philosophy that was later called “Dialectic Materialism”. Its main points are:
- Matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and mental phenomena are merely the result of it (“Materialism”).
- The history of society is best understood as a struggle between opposing forces (“Dialectics”) — most notably between the class of workers and the class of capitalists.
In this philosophy, atheism is a by-product of materialism: everything is ultimately physical matter, and thus there is no place for the supernatural. This assertion, however, is but one component of communism. In his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, Marx states
Communism begins with atheism, but atheism is initially far from being communism. [...]Thus, atheism is an ingredient for Marx’ ideology, but nothing more. Atheists agree, observing that communism may imply atheism, but atheism does not imply communism. The strong association of atheism with communism stems most likely from the attempt to differentiate the Western World from the Communist World during the Cold War: The US was deliberately cast into a religious country (“In God we trust” was added to the bank notes), and the Communist countries were explicitly demonised as atheist — thereby reinforcing the ideological difference by a religious difference.
Atheism [...] no longer has any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God [...]
But socialism as such no longer needs such mediation [...]
What is Humanism?Humanism is a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason Merriam-Webster Dictionary/Humanism. Humanism has its roots in the Renaissance, and was not necessarily atheist. However, in the sequel, the word “humanism” came to mean “secular humanism”, and thus implied atheism. We follow this terminology in this book, and see Humanism as the ideology that espouses reason, ethics, and justice, while specifically rejecting supernatural and religious ideas as a basis of morality and decision-making Humanism. Thus, Humanism is basically atheism combined with the moral and philosophical values of the Enlightenment. It is the moral alternative to theism.
More precisely, Humanism is a life stance that emphasizes
- The search for truth
- Humanism recognizes that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision. It is committed to the use of the rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence in developing knowledge and testing claims to truth. We discuss one implementation of this in the Chapter on Truth.
- Liberal ethic values
- Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. We discuss one implementation of this in the Chapter on Morality.
- Democracy and Human Rights
- Humanism affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism holds that the best political system to this end is democracy, because it allows a people to decide its own fate. While all political systems are imperfect, democracy is the only one that acknowledges that it can be improved. Hence, Humanism is democratic in spirit, and condemns any totalitarian regime, be it religious or secular. In particular, Humanism holds that states should follow the Human Rights.
- Freedom of Religion
- Humanism remains committed to the freedom of religious beliefs, and holds that individuals and voluntary associations should be free to accept or not to accept any religious belief they wish — as long as that belief does not interfere with the state, and does not curtail the freedom of others. We discuss religion in detail in the Chapter on Religion, and Humanist stance on religion in the Conclusion.
- The use of science
- Humanism believes that the scientific method, though imperfect, is the most reliable way of understanding the world. We discuss a scientific view of the world, life, and the universe in the Chapter on the Universe.
- The rejection of truth by faith
- Humanism holds that faith alone cannot establish truth. Therefore, Humanism is atheistic. We discuss atheism in the present chapter.
While every Humanist is (in this definition) an atheist, not every atheist is a Humanist. However, I have never met an atheist who disagreed with the principles of Humanism. Hence, my guess is that many atheists in the Western world identify with the principles of Humanism — possibly without knowing it.
Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishments when you’re dead.
What is Rationalism?Rationalism is the practice or principle of basing opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response Oxford Dictionary/Rationalism. The main insights of rationalism are
- to not believe something that is wrong
- to not believe something that cannot be falsified
- to believe what has been shown by evidence
- and to be open and ready to change one’s beliefs in light of new evidence
Rationalism is part of Humanism, and thus of the life stance advocated in this book. This is because rational thinking has proven to be one of the safest ways to arrive at true conclusions. We discuss rational thinking in the Chapter on Truth.
What is Science?Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment Oxford Dictionary/Science. The basic method of science is to come up with rules that explain certain phenomena, and to test if these rules also predict future phenomena and do not produce contradictions with past or future phenomena Scientific Method. The sciences are the formal sciences (mathematics, logic, statistics, computer science), the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, Earth sciences), life sciences/biology, social and behavioral sciences, and applied sciences (engineering, healthcare) Science. Science is directly opposed to superstition.
Humanism, and thus the life stance advocated in this book, considers science to be the best method to learn about the physical world. This is because science has shown to predict natural phenomena much better than any competing method. We discuss a scientific view of the world in the Chapter on the Universe.
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
What is superstition?A superstition is a belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behaviour in some magical or mystical way Wiktionary / Superstition. Common superstitions include the belief that certain things or events (such as the number 13) bring bad luck, or that certain rituals avoid bad luck (such as looking into the mirror if you have forgotten something in the house). The common trait of all superstitions is that they do not predict bad or good events any better than chance.
Don’t want a silver dollar,
Rabbit’s foot on a string.
The happiness in your warm caress
No rabbit's foot can bring.
What is liberal ethics?Liberalism is a worldview founded on the ideas of liberty and equality Liberalism. Thus, liberal ethics is a system of moral rules that gives everybody equal rights, and that gives everybody the maximal possible freedom. The freedom of a person ends only where the freedom of another person begins. Such a system basically says that everything is permitted unless it harms someone else. Thus, such a system typically allows for the right to speak one’s opinion, for homosexuality, for pre-marital sex, and for the right to follow, abandon, or change religion.
Humanism, and thus the life stance advertised in this book, advocates such a liberal ethics. We discuss a liberal moral framework in the Chapter on Morality.
What is Secularism?Definitions of the word “secularism” vary from atheism and naturalism to Humanism and irreligiousness. The word can also mean the separation of religion and politics. We will use the word in this sense in this book. This type of secularism is also called laïcité. It wants the state to take no opinion in religious matters, and religion to take no influence in political matters. This means that religion should be kept out of politics, national identity, law making, and public education. It regards religion as a private matter, which can be practiced by individuals and organizations, but which should not interfere with the government. Secularism is the stance advocated by Humanism — and thus by this book. Humanism holds that religion should take no influence on the state, and that it has to respect the secular law just like all other organizations.
Secularism does not imply atheism. People who believe in God, and who practice their religion, can still find that religion should be kept out of politics. Secularism also does not imply prohibition of religion. On the contrary, secularism explicitly separates religion and state, meaning that the state cannot prohibit religion. Secularism is one way to implement freedom of religion.
There is no tradition of scientists picketing Sunday Schools and stopping children from hearing the stories of the Bible. So why is there a push for Christians in the US to stop people in school from hearing the stories of science?
What is freedom of religion?Freedom of religion means that everybody has the right to practice their religious world view, as long as this does not harm other people. In the common understanding of the term, it also includes the freedom to not practice any religion at all, or to change one’s religion. Freedom of religion also means that people are free to hold any view on the supernatural, be it in the frame of a religion or not. Naturally, freedom of religion also means that atheists can be atheists and agnostics can be agnostics. Atheism itself does not take a stance on freedom of religion. Humanism, however, does. Humanism holds that every person or association may hold supernatural beliefs as they please. This is a consequence of the liberal ethics that Humanism proposes. However, this freedom finds its limits when the religion imposes harm on non-consenting people, interferes with the secular law, or promotes unequal rights.
Freedom of religion is a difficult concept. If a person is 100% convinced of their religious attitude (or non-religious attitude), then it seems only logical that this person will want the rest of humanity to follow the same attitude. Following this line of reasoning, some atheistic governments violently enforced atheism. Vice versa, many religious countries do not grant freedom of religion. Furthermore, there is dispute about how far freedom of religion should go when secular rights and religious duties clash. Humanism is clear on this question: Everybody shall be able to live according to their religion, but in the case of a conflict, the secular law has to prevail.
It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Humanism and HumansThe word “Humanism” is related to the word “human”, because humanism cares exclusively about human wellbeing. In Humanist philosophy, the ultimate goal is to make humans happy, healthy, safe, and just. In recent decades, the notion has been broadened to include also the other species. This is sometimes made explicit by using the term “Evolutionary Humanism” Giordano Bruno Stiftung: Evolutionary Humanism. This type of Humanism (which cares not just about humans, but also about the well-being of animals) is the position advertised in the present book. For simplicity, we will talk of humans in what follows, keeping in mind that we accord equal protection to the other species as well.
The Humanist position is that nothing can be more important than the well-being of humans. This sounds as if Humanism were hopelessly individualist — caring more about individual people than about higher values. And this is indeed the case. In particular, the following concepts cannot have importance in Humanism (Stephen Pinker: Enlightenment Now):
- Nationalist societies see the nation as the highest good, and are willing to sacrifice their people for the good of the nation. Humanism opposes such thinking. In Humanist philosophy, nations are human constructs that exist to serve humans — not vice versa. Therefore, Humanism is international in its spirit, and refuses to lift the concept of “a nation” to the importance it accords to humans.
- Racism is the position that certain ethnicities would be superior to others. Nazism has further developed this idea into the concept of “racial purity”, which holds that a race has to be “kept clean” by prohibiting intermarriage — and even by destroying other races. Such ideas are contrary to Humanism. For a Humanist, all people are equally worthy of care, and no race is better than the other. In particular, a race itself cannot be an entity worthy of protection.
- Community Laws
- Some communities are governed by their own laws. Examples can be family clans, ethnic or religious minorities, or youth gangs, which have rules that dictate which behavior is acceptable and which behavior is not. Violating these rules is seen as something comparable to treason, and is socially sanctioned. Such “laws” are contrary to Humanist spirit, if they limit the freedom of the individual against their will. Humanism accords the same rights to everyone, no matter which community they belong to. In particular, the community itself or its principles cannot be an entity worthy of protection more than the individual human.
- Natural Law
- A “natural law” is a moral principle that is held to exist independently of the positive law of a given political order, society or nation-state — most often considered to be given by a god Natural Law. Such “laws given by nature” have been used to condemn homosexuality, gender equality, or painkillers during childbirth. For the proponents of such ideas, the“natural laws” are something that humans have to follow deontologically. They have a higher value than human well-being. With this, such thinking is opposed to Humanism, which values human wellbeing above all else. Besides, Humanism is atheist, and thus considers that the “natural laws” do not at all come from nature, but were made by men and then declared to come from nature. In Humanism, it is humans who have to make their own rules.
- The Supernatural
- Religions value the supernatural more than human life — both supernatural beings and supernatural rules. This contradicts Humanist philosophy, which posits that we should care for humans, and not for the supernatural concepts that they came up with. Humanism defends the freedom of religion, but only in so far as the religion does not cause harm to people.
Suffering is suffering, no matter who endures it.
Scholarship is scholarship, no matter who procures it.
Humanism and ChristianityHumanism believes in the individual rights of each person. This belief was quite possibly taken over from Christianity, which postulated that God created all humans with equal dignity. However, Humanism does not need this creation story for its belief in equal rights. Humanism gives people equal rights, no matter how humanity came into existence.
Humanism has departed in other ways from Christianity: Humanism has advocated equal rights for men and women, freedom of religion, freedom of thinking, the rights over one’s own body, and a scientific understanding of human evolution long before Christianity did. Furthermore, Humanism also incorporates the elements of science, democracy, and freedom of speech, which have no counterpart in Christianity.
Humanism and the EnlightenmentHumanism traces its history back to the Age of Enlightenment: the intellectual and philosophical movement in Europe during the 18th century, which centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state Age of Enlightenment. Since that time, humanity has gone through several painful periods: The industrialization brought distress to millions of workers — in particular to the underage ones. Colonialism has subdued entire continents, and reduced them to sources of workers, slaves, and natural resources. Two world wars have devastated the world, and have killed humans on an unprecedented scale. The rise of communism on one side of the iron curtain, and merciless capitalism on the other side has devalued humans as individuals. These backslides nourish the idea that the rise of science and reason has brought humanity more bad than good. This “Second Culture”, as Stephen Pinker calls it, considers material and scientific progress, as well as reason, an impediment to human well-being. It holds that things get worse as we drift away from the original sources of meaningfulness, which include religion, the community, a spiritual approach to life, and a mystical appreciation of nature.
And yet, this viewpoint is not correct. The Enlightenment and its ideas have started a global improvement on nearly all axes of human well-being (Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now, p. 1- 452):
- Trains, airplanes, steam ships, running water, air conditioning, dishwashers, electrical light, photography, recorded music, central heating, computers, the Internet — basically all appliances that we use today did not exist 300 years ago. It is a fair guess that even the critics of science and technology would not want to live without them. Hans Rosling has argued that the washing machine alone has freed mankind (and women in particular) from thousands of hours of work per life time — and it still does, and in more and more parts of the world Hans Rosling: The Magic Washing Machine. This technology also becomes safer: Over the course of the 20th century, Americans became 96% less likely to be killed in a car accident , 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, and 95% less likely to be killed on the job.
- Even adherents of the Second Culture admit that in terms of health, humanity has made impressive advances: Average life expectancy has doubled from 30 years in the year 1760 to 70 years in the year 2000 — globally. In 1750, one in 3 children would not make it to their 5th birthday in Sweden, one of the richest counties in the world. Today, child mortality is down to 10% in the poorest countries on Earth. That is still to high, but corresponds to billions of lifes saved. Furthermore, we can now contain illnesses and epidemics. Smallpox alone disfigured and killed hundreds of millions of people. It has been eradicated and no longer exists today.
- Contrary to a public opinion, material equality has improved drastically over the past 200 years. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty (i.e., with less than 2 USD per day) has fallen from 90% before the Enlightenment to 10% now (see figure). This holds even though the world population has increased sevenfold over this time. The percentage also keeps declining. It is still too high, to be sure, but global inequality is actually decreasing Gini. Let us not forget that the working conditions that we deplore today for Bangladeshi child workers were the norm across the entire world before the Enlightenment. In Europe, people would sell themselves as slaves to get through the winter. That has become unthinkable in the rich countries. Rich countries now spend 10%-30% of GDP on social welfare — up from 1% or 0% in 1900.
- All this progress has taken a hard hit on the environment. People have now understood this. 195 countries signed a pact to reduce the effects of climate change Paris Agreement. Chlorofluorocarbon is being phased out globally Chlorofluorocarbon, and the ozone layer is coming back Ozone. Deplorably, we have only just begun to address the damage that we have created, and some major polluters are not playing the game. On the other hand, nearly all of humanity is united in the goal to do something good — something that did not exist prior to 1900.
- The two world wars were the deadliest wars in human history. Since then, the number of battle deaths has been decreasing. Even the deplorable conflict in Syria at the time of this writing kills nowhere as many million people as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the wars in India, in China, in Sudan, in Uganda, in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, and in Mozambique did — in the 20th century alone. The number of people killed in war each year today is an 18th of what it was in the 1950’s. It may be astonishing, but in terms of number of deaths, humanity has entered the “Long Peace” after the Second World War Long Peace. Quantifying the misery in cold numbers is by no means callous to the suffering of victims — on the contrary, it ensures that each victim’s suffering is honored equally (Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now, p. 160). While there are still wars, and there will always be, there has been a fundamental change in 1945: War is now illegal UN Charter. Not so long before that, war was idealized as a romantic duty for the fatherland. There was nothing bad in attacking some country in order to enlarge one’s own country. Religious texts have no shortage of examples. The idea that humanity should aim for peace (without domination by one power) is a new one. It was born in the Enlightenment Perpetual Peace.
- The Enlightenment has brought us the moral milestones that are the foundation of our Western culture today:The abolition of slavery, the equality of all people before the law, the rule of law, the banning of torture, tolerance towards other creeds, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the arts, freedom in the choice of a partner, and freedom in general, as long as the freedom of others is not engaged. While we consider these rights normal today (and while we are still a long way from achieving them globally), the very existence of these ideas is thanks to the Enlightenment. More than that, the insight that we have to develop these moral concepts ourselves in the first place (rather than obtaining them from some god or king) is a child of the Enlightenment.
- Before the Enlightenment, barely 20% of the population could read — even in the richest countries. Now, literacy is at 80% globally, and on the rise. Before the Enlightenment, we had only anecdotic knowledge about the genesis of the universe, the functioning of a cell, the diversity of the animal kingdom, the chemical elements, or the laws of physics. Today, the physical laws that govern our everyday life are completely known. The genesis of the universe and life has been traced back all the way to the Big Bang. And for all our current irrationality, few influential people today believe in werewolves, unicorns, witches, alchemy, astrology, bloodletting, miasmas, animal sacrifices, the divine right of the kings, or supernatural omens in rainbows and and eclipses. And yet, these beliefs were ubiquitous in pre-Enlightenment times.
- Happiness is difficult to measure Happiness. However, by and large, the different studies show that happiness correlates with health, GDP per capita, more freedom, higher life expectancy, low violence, and the rule of law (Wikipedia / Well-being, Happiness economics) — that is, contrary to a popular opinion, by and large the factors that we have already discussed.
Humanism says that if we want to push this positive development further, we should not condemn science and progress, and wallow in a mystic appreciation of nature — let alone seek earthly betterment in more religiousness. Rather, we should appreciate the ideas of the Enlightenment: reason, science, freedom, education, and, by extension, the Human Rights. We should value these principles, teach them, and develop them. Only when we avow ourselves to the principles that have brought us so many good things we can continue to produce more good things for more people.
If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be – what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into – you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.
How did you become an atheist?All of the above discussions about gods, atheism, Humanism, and religion are pretty abstract. So let me tell you my own experience with atheism. What follows is a purely subjective account of my thoughts.
GodI grew up in a Christian environment. I went to a Christian school. I went to mass and had courses on Christianity. I learnt about Jesus, Bible, and God. I was also an altar boy. And yet, the idea of a god and the biblical miracles always looked implausible to me. As a child already I did not believe that Jesus walked on the water. People do not walk on the water. So I discarded all these stories, and the existence of God with them. However, during my first years as an atheist, I was still considering the possibility that a god existed. Since I lived in a Christian culture, I was considering of course only the abrahamic god. In all discussions about God, I was arguing against God, but did not know what God would be if he didn’t exist.
It was only later that I understood what God is if he doesn’t exist. He is a fictional character. Just like Harry Potter or Cinderella, he is a product of our imagination. He does not float around out there in some dark inexistence (as I imagined before). Rather, he is a character in a story. Anybody can make up such a story. I later did that by myself. It is actually easy to create gods. Once I got that, I could finally answer the question of why I did not believe in God: Because he is a character in a story. Nobody believes in Cinderella either. If you close the book, she’s gone. Likewise, if you close the Bible, God is gone. I explain this way of thinking in the Chapter on Gods.
TruthThat still left me with the question of where to draw the line between truth and falsehood. I was very sure that the story of divine creation would be nonsense, but I could not prove it. Many other philosophical questions came up in discussions with friends: Isn’t there maybe a conscious being behind everything? Isn’t God the one-ness of this universe? If there is no god, then how do you explain the human soul? I was pretty sure that all of these arguments were nonsense. But I did not know how to show it. It did not help that I studied Philosophy of Mind, which is concerned with equally abstract conundrums. I argued with Occam’s Razor, saying that an explanation that is simpler is better. However, the razor is nothing more than a subjective preference. It was only much later that I discovered the magic sword that separates the truth from the nonsense: Falsifiability. If something cannot be proven wrong, then it is not falsifiable. This means that it does not have any consequence on this world. This means that the hypothesis is nonsense. The theory that God exists, in particular, is unfalsifiable. Falsifiability reliably cut away all the philosophical blabla, and left only the real world. It worked so well that I am still wondering why it is not taught at school. And it worked so well that it also cut away things that I previously held dear. In these cases, I had to understand that what I considered the truth was in fact nothing more than a subjective conviction. I elaborate on this theory of truth in the Chapter on Truth.
Once I knew how to draw the boundary between reality and imagination, I felt much better. What followed was a deeper understanding of evidence: Evidence for a hypothesis is a validated theory that predicts it. A theory is false if it produces conclusions that contradict reality. Any theory that does not produce conclusions is unfalsifiable, and any theory that produces wrong conclusions is false. This insight changed my view on life. While, before, I was willing to grant things like superstition, homeopathy, prayer, and lucky charms some raison-d’être, I came to understand that these things have no effect other that psychological. If you pray, touch wood, or take a homeopathic medicine, it does not work. This is a pretty radical thought in a world that routinely does these things. So I was hesitant at first. But then I came to see that I can defend my view without any fear. Prayer really does not work. And walking under a ladder really does not bring bad luck. I found out that I can completely rely on this insight. All this talk about potential consequences of prayer (“Yes, but *maybe* it helps!”) is just wrong. It does not have any effect. It’s just nonsense. Before, there was always this aura of untouchability around religious issues: But maybe there is a God? But maybe prayer helps? But maybe you go to hell? I learned to become more bold on these issues: no, God is imaginary. Prayer does have no effect on this world. And no, there is no evidence for this hell. Once you try it out, you come to see that it is completely safe.
ScienceNow if all of this is cut away, we still want to know how this world came into existence. This made me explore the scientific perspective of things. I was amazed to find how much science already knows about life and the universe. It is fascinating to see how small our planet is in the context of the universe, how life can be explained by chemical reactions, that humans existed in different species that even merged, and how a snowflake can be so beautiful by purely natural processes. I can only warmly recommend the summary of all this in the Chapter on the Universe. I am sad to see how the majority of humanity follows ancient rites and myths, while science does the real job of explaining the physical world, developing inventions, and healing illnesses. It deserves far more credit than we usually give it.
MoralityThis leaves the question of morality. How do we know what is good and what is wrong? Again, it is fascinating to dive into history: Did you know that the Mesopotamians had written laws 2000 years before Christ? Some of these laws were written literally in stone, and exist until today. You can actually see them. They regulate theft, slavery, compensation for lost profit, inheritance, divorce, paternity and the presumption of innocence — all 1000 years before Moses supposedly received his 10 commandments. Once I saw how many different laws people developed throughout history, I came to understand that morality is not something absolute. It is not a property of a behavior that we can discover like the weight of an electron. Rather, morality is an attempt by humans to regulate their life. Humans make rules to make sure they can live their lives unharmed. A behavior becomes “morally bad” just because we decided to punish it. A law is the law because there is a government who puts you in prison if you don’t follow it. That’s all there is to a law. I elaborate more on this insight in the Chapter on Morality.
Now this is of course horrible! It means that we can make any law! There is no objective criterion to say, e.g., that slavery is wrong. This is just a convention between humans (and a rather recent one, by the way). This is very disturbing. Can we just make any law we want? It took me some time to understand that, yes, indeed, we can make any law we want. This heaps an enormous responsibility on us. Some people shy away from this responsibility by retreating to some rules that they are told are divine. But once you accept that, indeed, humans make the rules, there is a huge task to solve here: What are the “good” rules? With a Western background, I quickly arrived at the conclusion that, for me, the good rules are those that give equal maximal liberty to everybody. This simple constraint already is far superior to religious rules, which usually don’t give the same rights to women, slaves, or adherents of other religions. Based on this, I developed a liberal moral framework (Thoughts on Ethics), which I also briefly discuss in this book. One of the consequences of this is that human law evolves: Behaviors that were once shunned (such as homosexuality) can become acceptable. Vice versa, behaviors that were once permitted (such as keeping slaves) can become immoral. Only religious values are often frozen in time.
HumanismAll of this leads to a system of liberal values, belief in science, and rejection of myths. I was happy when I found that there is actually a word for exactly this combination: It’s called Humanism. There is a sizable proportion of people who share my values — even though they probably don’t know it’s called Humanism.
All of this still left me with the question of the questions: What is the sense of life in such a world?. The main interpretation of the question is probably “What is the intention that someone pursues with my life?”. In an atheist world, there is no god who pursues an intention with my life. So the role is vacant. So I decided to volunteer myself for the job. I am the one who pursues an intention with my life. And this intention is the sense of my life. I elaborate on this in the Chapter on the Sense of Life.
Thank God I’m an atheist!
Questions for atheists
Is atheism a belief?Atheism is the rejection of a belief. Positive atheism, in contrast, is the belief that the supernatural does not exist. Hence, it is a belief.
Is atheism a religion?A religion is the service and worship of God or the supernatural [Merriam-Webster Dictionary/Religion]. With this definition, atheism is not a religion, because atheism actually rejects the belief in something supernatural.
So atheism is a religion? No, I’m afraid not, no more than being completely healthy is just another kind of disease.
Isn’t any belief a religion?Our definition of religion is debatable. We could say that “religion” is simply another word for “belief”. Since positive atheism is a belief, positive atheism would be a religion.
“Believing something” means to accept something as true Oxford Dictionary/Believe. Believing something does not necessarily have to do with religion in the usual sense of the word. For example, you and I take it for true that the moon orbits around the earth. So, if we take every belief as a religion, then believing that the moon orbits around the Earth is a religion. If you believe that you will get up tomorrow at 8 o’clock, then this is also a religion. And atheism becomes a religion, too.
However, we rarely talk of our “religion” that the moon orbits around the Earth. In order to differentiate between arbitrary beliefs and beliefs in supernatural beings, this book calls the former a “sets of beliefs” and the latter “religions”. This is a purely pragmatic decision, which conforms to the way in which the words are commonly used.
Religion is a belief concerning the supernatural. Then, atheism is a religion.Religion is sometimes defined as a belief concerning the supernatural. Since positive atheism is the belief that the supernatural does not exist, positive atheism is a religion in this sense.
This is, however, just a play with the definition of words. We are talking here about the belief that the supernatural exists, together with associated rites — no matter how you call this phenomenon. This book calls it “religion”, but if you think that “religion” is the wrong word (because it includes atheism), you can use any other word. It suffices to download this book, and replace all references to “religion” by a more precise word, such as “theistic religion”. This book is about a concept, and not about how you call it.
You are free to use the word “car” to mean “t-shirt”. Then you can prove that I am wearing a car. It is just not the way the word is usually used.
Even atheists believe in something.The argument goes that everybody believes in something. Some people believe in love, others in power or in music. Even atheists believe in something. The question is whether this renders atheism inconsistent.
- Even atheists believe in something!
- Yes, but not in the supernatural.
Everyone believes somethingWe cannot know everything for sure. Therefore, we usually take some facts for granted, i.e. we believe them. Hence even atheists believe something. Hence, we can ask, are they really atheists?
Like all people, atheists may believe facts that they cannot verify. However, this is not a contradiction to atheism, because atheism excludes only the belief in supernatural beings. See above for a treatise on the difference between a belief and a religion.
Besides, atheists hold their belief about the supernatural because it appears most plausible to them. If ever their belief is proven wrong, they would change their belief. This distinguishes them from theists: First, a theist’s belief in God cannot be proven wrong. Second, some theists continue to believe certain things even if they have been proven wrong — as we will discuss in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods.
Can atheism exist without religion?Literally, “A-theism” is the contrary of “theism”, the belief in gods. Therefore, the question arises whether “atheism” can exist without “theism”.
The answer is: Yes, it can. The concept of atheism is meaningful even if there were no theists. Consider again the god Khonvoum: If people who worship this god are called Khonvoumists, then you are probably a non-Khonvoumist. In fact, you have been a non-Khonvoumist through all your life, without even knowing it. People all over the world were non-Khonvoumists before belief in Khonvoum came into existence. And all people will be non-Khonvoumists if Khonvoumism eventually dies out.
Similarly, atheists are atheists no matter whether some people believe in gods or not.
In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.
Not everything can be proven!Atheists are critical of the belief in God, because the existence of God cannot be proven. This leads to the idea that atheists only believe what can be proven.
This is not true. Atheism by itself is just the rejection of belief in the supernatural — it does not say anything about beliefs in other things. One can be an atheist and believe that the Earth is flat, for example. Even if an atheist demands a proof for God before he believes in him, he is free to believe all kinds of other things without a proof. This is much like people believe in God without a proof, but are free to demand proofs for other things. For example, most people (atheists or theists) believe that democracy is the best form of government. Still, we do not have a proof for that, and so far no one has asked for one. However, most people (atheists or theists) will not believe that they have won the lottery until they have seen a proof. For some things, we want proofs, for others, we don’t — there is nothing wrong about it.
Things are different if the belief comes with duties. Consider again the Bambuti’s belief in Khonvoum, the god of the forests. To believe in Khonvoum, you have to raise your left hand in prayer every morning and speak the holy words “Khonvoum, kolao esa nokui”. You have to attend regular group dances to appease Khonvoum. You have to renounce sweets, because Khonvoum is weary of any food source that is not his own. You would educate your children in devotion to Khonvoum, and you would not allow them to marry anybody else than a follower of Khonvoum. Before agreeing to this, you would probably demand proof of Khonvoum. For the very same reason, atheists demand proof before adhering to Yahweh.
The same goes if the belief starts exercising an influence on society. Suppose for example that the Bambuti became the dominant group of people in your country. Then they would start imposing their belief in Khonvoum. They would go from door to door to convince you that you should pray to Khonvoum in order to secure good hunting. They would gain seats in parliament and make a law that prohibits eating sweets. They would introduce the doctrine of how Khonvoum created the Earth into schools and textbooks. They would print “In Khonvoum we trust” on your bank notes. If this really happened, then you would beg to differ. You would want to see proof for these Khonvoum stories. This is why atheists demand proof for these Yahweh stories.
Tell people that there is an invisible being who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you.
Tell them that the paint is wet and they have to touch it to be sure.
Atheism cannot produce anything positiveAtheism is the rejection of a belief. Thus, it is assumed that it cannot bring forward anything constructive. Furthermore, atheism is not an organized world view, so that no contributions to our culture carry its explicit signature.
We first note that, if a belief is harmful, then the absence of that belief is actually something positive. Consider for example the belief that female genital mutilation purifies the woman spiritually. If we remove this belief, the world actually becomes better. If we remove religious reasons for conflict, people have one less reason to go to war. Still today, religion lends its force to around half of the world’s most deadly conflicts. If people had no religion, they would in many cases not even know whom to choose as their foe. Thus, the absence of a belief is not necessarily bad.
The same is true for the ills that religion brings us still today: The ancient values that some religions defend today would be history if people did not believe. Again, the absence of a belief can be something positive.
Apart from this, atheism can even bring along constructive contributions. This is because if God is not used as an answer to the questions of life, then a lot of work is needed to come up with such answers. Thus, some atheist people feel a particular necessity to address the scientific and philosophical mysteries of life. This includes moral thinkers and activists, philosophers, and scientists.
Humanism, the particular brand of atheism that this book advocates, goes beyond disbelief in gods. It adds a moral dimension, a world view, and a political attitude (the support of democracy). It can thus be considered a comprehensive life stance in its own right.
Freeing someone from error does not mean depriving him of something. It means giving him something. It means giving him the insight that he was in error — which is in itself a piece of the truth.
Who created the universe?Most religions provide a supernatural explanation of how the universe came into existence. Atheism can have no such explanation. Thus, a frequent question is how the world was created in an atheist world view.
The short answer is: Atheists do not know how the universe came into existence. Each year, science tells us a little more about the birth of the universe, but plenty of things are still unknown. We discuss this topic in detail in the Chapter on the Universe.
If we do not know how the universe came into existence, that does not necessarily mean that it was created by God. Just because we do not know the answer, it does not mean that the supernatural answer would be the right one. Atheists hold that it is better to admit that “We do not know” rather than to believe in some explanation without scientific evidence. In particular, the universe may not have come into existence at all. It may have always existed. Until we have more evidence in these matters, we should just not believe anything. This is not just common sense, but an imperative: Only when we admit that we do not know, we will be able to know one day.
If we abandon the requirement for scientific evidence, then everybody can come up with their own belief. This is indeed what happens: There is a plethora of supernatural creation narratives. Everyone believes theirs is the right one, while everyone has as little evidence as everyone else. This makes such explanations meaningless in atheist eyes. We discuss this way of thinking in detail in the Chapter on the God of Gaps.
Now atheists do not know the origin of the universe. Believers do not know the origin of God. Does this not put atheists and believers on equal terms? It actually does not: We know for sure that the world exists, and thus it makes sense to search for its origin. The same cannot be said of God. Thus, atheists are one step ahead of the believer, because they know at least that their object of study exists.
I don’t know where the universe came from. But I can tell you it was not created in 7 days.
Doesn’t State Atheism show how bad Atheism is?State atheism is the forced introduction of atheism in a country. State atheism has led to the persecution, torture, and death of millions of people. Therefore, atheism is (understandably) associated to the atrocities of these regimes. This association seems to show that atheism is immoral.
State atheism was mainly pursued by regimes that called themselves communist. We have discussed the relationship between communism and atheism in, showing that while communists are atheists, atheists are not necessarily communist. To see this, consider an example: The leaders of the Soviet regime enforced the use of Russian in the Soviet Union. It is wrong (according to most moral frameworks) to force people to speak Russian. Still, that does not mean that there would be anything wrong with Russian. Similarly, it is wrong to force people to become atheists. Still, that does not make atheism wrong.
The association of atheism with communism was a deliberate political move in the US to cast the political struggle with the Soviet Union as a struggle of religion versus atheism. But atheism is just the absence of belief in God. It does not come with any moral imperatives or laws. In fact, atheism is often criticized precisely for not having any laws or rules. There is no book of the “Rules of Atheism”. Thus, by its very definition, atheism cannot have any rule that asks people to kill other people. Nothing in the concept of atheism entails that we should force other people to be atheists. On the contrary, Humanism explicitly advocates freedom of religion. Humanism says that we should give everybody the right to believe or disbelieve as they please. Compare that to some religious interpretations, which force their adherents to convert and/or kill people who do not believe.
Atrocities are committed by atheists, but never in the name of atheism.
This distinguishes atheism from religions.
Why are Atheists not rather Agnostics?Atheism is the denial of the supernatural, while Agnosticism leaves the option that the supernatural exists. Then we may ask whether it is not safer to opt for agnosticism.
Then let’s opt for agnosticism. In this view, we do not believe in that the supernatural exists, and we do not believe that it doesn’t. So God could exist. Then we have to apply the same logic also to the other gods. Khonvoum, the god of hunt of the Bambutis could also exist. He could have created the world together with Tore, the god of the forest. We do not exclude this option any more. Unicorns, likewise, could exist. It is true that they have not been seen, but their absence has not been proven either. So we have to admit that they could exist. The same goes for Cinderella. Of course, the mainstream opinion is that Cinderella is a fictional character. However, atheists say the same of God. Hence, if we want to be correct, we have to at least admit the possibility that Cinderella exists in the real world. After all, she has not been proven to not exist.
Now, do you believe that such agnostics exist? My guess is rather no. Most agnostics claim to be agnostic about the Christian god, but they will have a pretty strong opinion on the existence of Tore, Khonvoum, Odin, Cinderella, and unicorns. This makes the agnostic position inconsistent in atheist eyes. AtheistCartoons/page 7
Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?