We’re gonna ride it ’til we just can’t ride it no more… What is #atheism?

Blog posts that start with ‘What is Atheism?’ are usually awful to read.  They are usually clownishly angry: ‘It just means a lack of belief in God!  That’s it!  Nothing more!  Whaaaarglegarble!’

Never believe anybody who is insists on claiming something is ‘just’ something innocuous.  Scientology is ‘just’ a group of people getting together to understand their emotions. The Catholic Church ‘just’ moved the priests to other jurisdictions without telling anybody.  All you have to do to stop irregular maritime arrivals is ‘just’ get the navy to turn their boats around.

I had an interesting discussion with a guy on Twitter, @CdrHBiscuitIII, who is usually a top bloke, but pulled the usual tropes about how atheism isn’t ideological, nor does it entail commitments to particular epistemic principles.  So let’s run through what atheism is in order to show why it’s a commitment to something stronger than ‘Just a lack of belief in God.’

Usual disclaimers: I’m an atheist but I don’t think people are being (necessarily) irrational or illogical when they believe in God.  Similarly, I don’t think people are necessarily being rational or logical when they don’t believe in God.

The Rules

In order to show why atheism is a richer body of thought, I need to set down a few rules.  We can discuss whether the rules are good ones but they seem to hold.  They’re not laws of logic or a priori whatever whatever.  They’re just me facilitating a sensible conversation.

1. People aren’t robots.  If somebody makes a claim, it isn’t a result of some mental ’10 PRINT “I LACK A BELIEF IN GOD” | 20 GOTO 10′.  They are saying it because they mean something by it.  They think their statement is justified.

2. If a statement only makes sense by reference to some another statement, then we should believe that the person is affirming both statements.  This is what I mean by ‘implication’ or ‘to imply’.  We could discuss whether this is really true.

Disproving the Rule: Atheism as ‘just’ a lack of belief

Let’s start with the claim and provide the counterexample.

There are a number of very loud atheists who claim that atheism is just a lack of belief.  Penn Jillette, for example, claims:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

There might be a charge that I’m being unfair by choosing this example, but I really struggled to find an example of somebody affirming that ‘Atheism is just a lack of belief in God’ principle without immediately providing a justification for that lack of belief.  If anybody can provide an example of where somebody says: ‘Atheism is just a lack of belief’ and sticks rock hard to that spot, feel welcome to link to it in the comments.

People only lack a belief with regard to statements that they have not heard.  Until you hear a statement, you can’t assign to it some sort of truth value.

But atheists have heard the statement ‘There is a God’.  The moment they hear that statement, they begin a process of assigning it a truth value.

And this is where we get the problem of atheism being ‘just’ a lack of belief.  If somebody has heard the statement ‘There is a God’ but they ‘just’ lack a belief, then they think that they are justified in some way in resisting the truth of the claim.  In fact, there is no way of resisting claims about the truth of statements unless you have built up a system for deciding when statements are true (or, perhaps, when you are justified in believing statements).

In the above example, Jillette claims that not believing a statement is easy due to a rule ‘You can’t prove a negative’.  Forget that the rule is demonstrably incorrect and get down to the level of theory: why is this a rule?  Why should you believe it?

Why should you believe it in favour of other equally intuitively correct statements, such as ‘You should only believe tautologies (P V ~P) until one side of the disjunct proves more likely to be true than the other?’   Thus atheists would be people who asserted that either God exists or He does not.

And thus we’ve cracked open the problem: atheism is more than just the lack of belief.  It’s a richer system of justification.

The Actual Definition: ‘Atheism is the belief that a lack of belief in God is justifiable.’

By stating the definition correctly, we can have meaningful discussions with theists and other atheists alike.  Is it really true that a lack of belief in God is justifiable (yes, yes it is)?

Better yet, it allows for diversity within atheism.  Just as Christians are believers for a wide variety of reasons, atheists can think that their lack of belief is justified for a wide variety of reasons.  The role of outspoken atheists is to give language to why people might consider their lack of belief justifiable.

What is interesting about this definition is that it requires us to move away from naked assertions about what is or is not ‘default rational’ and into a discussion about how we, as very flawed human beings with limited faculties, are able to justify our beliefs (or lack of beliefs).

It’s in this space that we find more than enough room for feminist theory, gender theory, and other important philosophies which are regularly marginalised within the broader pop-atheist community.

Are mainstream pop-atheist beliefs justifiable?


More than that, we know that most of the outspoken atheists are simply incorrect.

Not to pick on the guy, but @CdrHBiscuitIII gave me the usual mantra in the one spot, so I’ll use his comment as an example of the mainstream position.

The most problematic idea is ‘evidence’.  What counts?  What we find in mainstream atheist thought is that only a very specific kind of evidence counts: evidence which is empirically verifiable.  This acceptance of only statements which can be verified empirically is called ‘positivism‘.

The most devastating thing about this position is that it is incoherent.  If only statements which can be verified empirically are permissible, then the statement ‘Only statements which can be empirically verified should be believed’ should be itself empirically verifiable.  It’s not.

So there’s this article of faith at the centre of mainstream atheism: we are positivists even though it’s not a coherent position.  Further, the mainstream atheist position is to ‘normalise’ these intuitions about empiricism being the best system.  We are back to Marx’ definition of ideology: ‘They don’t know it, but they do it.’  The (probably unconscious) point of all the atheist literature and blog posts is to make you feel that intuitions about positivism and empiricism are obviously true and don’t require examination.  Back to Twitter:

Of course, empiricism is not the best system for establishing the truth.  Although I have a lean towards rationalism, it’s hard to find any serious scholars who set up shop entirely in one camp or the other.  Outside of the academy, we have people asserting that empiricism obviously makes sense.  They don’t know it, but they do it.

The Secular Project: What does ‘secular’ mean anyway?

Most atheists, it turns out, aren’t really interested in the big meaty issue of metaphysics and ontology.  They’re really interested in a social project: working out how to tell religious people to keep to themselves and out of the public space.  This social project is called ‘secularism’ and it’s dumb.

The assertion is that this is easy: in order to create a secular society, all arguments which rely on religion are argumenta non grata.  Thus, you take out your big red texta and cross out all the arguments which are religious.

But how do you distinguish between religious and non religious arguments?  When I ask this question, I’m always told that it’s ‘obvious’ and you need only know what words mean in order to distinguish between the two.

What about negligence law?  Is that secular?  Really?

Here’s Lord Atkin in Donoghue v Stevenson:

At present I content myself with pointing out that in English law there must be and is some general conception of relations, giving rise to a duty of care, of which the particular cases found in the books are but instances. The liability for negligence whether you style it such or treat it as in other systems as a species of “culpa,” is no doubt based upon a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay. But acts or omissions which any moral code would censure cannot in a practical world be treated so as to give a right to every person injured by them to demand relief. In this way rules of law arise which limit the range of complainants and the extent of their remedy. The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbour?” receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who then in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.

The two parts to note: ‘based upon a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay’; ‘Who is my neighbour?

So is negligence law secular or religious?  It arises due to a general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing and found expression through religious argument (or, perhaps, the religious argument found expression in legal terms — the distinction doesn’t matter in this blog post).

There are two common responses.  The first is strange: the moral and religious sentiments were actually proto-legal sentiments in disguise.  Under this view, the sentiments which gave rise to negligence law were just hanging around in religious books and draped with religious language.  They are not themselves religious sentiments.  Similarly, the passages in the Old Testament which deal with property disputes are not religious but legal.

It’s strange because it seems like an argument by convenience.  The bits of religion that we want are not actually religious; the bits that we don’t want are religious.  The bits which developed our understanding of how to settle property disputes are not religious; the bits that developed our understanding of the role of a woman in society are religious.

The second response is to invoke magic: at some point in the development of negligence law, we transitioned from the religious sphere into the secular sphere.  Although we think transmogrification is stupid and mockworthy, we think it’s completely reasonable to believe that religious things magically turn into secular things.  This second approach is the ‘whitewashing’ approach.  When we think that our intuitions are default rational and value-neutral, we just remove all the inconvenient bits in order to make it so.  We see it a lot in discussions about multiculturalism: my current culture is value-neutral and you are trying to push your values when you refuse to assimilate.

This is a real problem in old school atheist circles.  This is what Nietzsche meant when he said: ‘God is dead: but considering the state the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown’.  The process of working out what’s religious and what is secular is difficult.  It’s probably impossible.


Atheism is sublime and beautiful.  It’s engaging with thousands of years of our best thinkers.  The intellectual development of theology has often been in response to those of us who were skeptical and who could articulate that skepticism.  It is a great disappointment that mainstream atheism (pop-atheism) has turned its back on that heritage in order to become the crass, barbarian rubbish that we get today.  Instead of the sublime and beautiful, we get people asserting their unchecked privilege as if they were laws of physics.

It’s thoroughly depressing.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

6 thoughts on “We’re gonna ride it ’til we just can’t ride it no more… What is #atheism?”

  1. Mark,

    How the fuck do you find time to write thousands of words on this blog a week? I haven’t had time to poo out a short piece on the Latin Mass (coming this weekend) yet, but you’ve written two books.


    An admirer

  2. Lord Atkin has a terribly OT view of the religious capital of the Anglo-Saxon logosphere: I always thought the Christian Gospel states that one must love ones enemy.

    Ergo, his view is not the basis for a society that actually “culturally” Christian. But I digress…

    (I do know what you mean, by the way, and sympathise somewhat: however I wonder, do the laws of the Senate and the Peoples of Rome have notions of negligence, even in their city ordinances about fire, and the tending and responsibilities thereof?

    Pantheist laws have a slightly different cast to them, I recall.)

    Doesn’t necessarily invalidate the rest of the opinion, by the way but even so.

  3. Most atheists, it turns out, aren’t really interested in the big meaty issue of metaphysics and ontology.

    I’m one of those rare atheists that actually is interested in the meaty issues and not really very interested in the social project. The problem I am finding as a layperson to philosophy is that the amount of literature on the subject is incredibly daunting. Any thoughts on a good place to start, especially with regards to the gods/no gods question?

  4. Looks like I may have caught you on holiday from your blog. I’m still interested in your thoughts by the way. Thanks!

    1. It’s a really good question and not one that I’ve ever been able to answer well. I think it relies a lot upon where a person starts. People aren’t atheists/theists for similar reasons. I was one of the adolescent pop-atheists until I studied theology; then I understood the theological arguments a lot better and it informed my atheism (even to the point that I wrote a defence of attribute compatibility for my honours thesis).

      I wrote a review of Nagasawa’s book here, which might be helpful: https://onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/youre-my-pride-and-joy-et/

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