Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Letters to the faithful: Please don't tell me what I believe

It's sometimes great having theists ask me about atheism.  I appreciate that it can be tough for a believer to get their head around how an atheist sees the world.  I don't mind spending a bit of time on that.  But nothing is going to cause friction faster than a theist telling me what I must believe (sadly often in form of strawman fallacy).  There's a lot of misconceptions about what atheism is.  It really isn't hard.

All atheism means is the lack of belief in gods. If you claim there is a god, then atheism is summed up as the lack of belief in that claim.  It is really really simple.  It's about the issue of belief in gods.  Atheism is not the claim that gods don't exist.  That is a different issue relating to knowledge.  Many atheists are also agnostics.  Richard Dawkins for instance.

Atheism does not mean I believe the universe created itself out of nothing. The origins of the universe relate to the scientific discipline of cosmology.  All atheism means is I'm unconvinced by any non-evidenced story involving a talking snake. I don't need to have an alternative model in mind to reject a theistic explanation.  It is the lack of evidence that gives me reason to reject a divine cause, not the existence of alternatives.  Neither atheists (nor indeed cosmologists) can be defined as having a belief in big-bang cosmology.

Atheism is not a political ideology.  Atheism does not lead to Marxism or other forms of totalitarian governments.  Totalitarianism is the product of various socio-economic and political factors.  It manifested itself in Christian dictatorships and in Marxist ones.  Stalin did not kill in the name of atheism, but to rid the state of what he perceived were its enemies.  Atheism is a response to a claim, it is not an ideology.

Atheism doesn't mean I make up my morals. Atheism makes no claims about morality in exactly the same way it makes no claims about how to repair motorcycles.  This lies outside the scope of atheism.  Atheism is a response to a claim.  It is not an ideology or a world view or a system of ethics or a method to repair motorcycles. Clearly I don't get my morals from a guidebook from antiquity. But there is around four centuries of secular moral philosophy that provide a rational alternative.  Personally, contractarianism appeals to me the most.  None of these moral philosophies actually say you get to make the rules as you go.

Atheism does not mean I believe we evolved from rocks. Atheism makes no claims about the origin of life, nor its diversity.  These are questions that biologists address.  The nice thing is that many of their answers are actually backed by evidence.  Atheism is not the same as evolutionary biology.  It's scope is limited to rejecting the theist claim of divine causes. 

In short, any time, anyone tries to assert that atheism is more than a response to a claim, then they are misrepresenting atheism.  Often the motive for doing so is malicious.  Sadly many attempt to stigmatise atheism I believe, to hinder believers understanding the perspective.