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Atheism for Beginners

Posted by That Other Mike on 01/12/2007

A short primer for people who want to know more.

So what is Atheism
Atheism is where you don’t believe in gods. It’s that simple, more or less.

More or less?
Yeah. It comes in three yummy flavours: Positive, Negative and Noncognitivism.

And they are?
Positive Atheism is where a declaration is made that a particular god does not exist. Negative Atheism is the absence of belief. Noncognitivism is where you refuse to answer when asked “Does God exist?” because it is not a meaningful question in the first place.

Are they exclusive?
Not for Positive and Negative. Someone can, like me, be a Positive Atheist in regards to specific gods but a Negative Atheist overall. Noncognitivism excludes the others because it is a question related to the semantics of the overall question – a Noncognitivist holds that the concept of “God” does not actually mean anything until someone defines “God”, so the question is meaningless. It’s like asking “What colour is five?”

How do Positive and Negative work together? Don’t they cancel each other out?
Let’s say that God X has the properties Y and Z. If Y and Z are contradictory or cancel each other out in some way, we can say that God X does not exist. Then we can say that while we don’t know the claimed properties of all the gods that people claim exist, we also don’t have any compelling evidence to decide in their favour.

What about morality? Isn’t Atheism immoral?
No. Atheism is amoral – it has no moral positioning of its own. It is not a philosophy. The only common ground between one Atheist and the next is rejection of the belief in gods.

Yup. You can have left-wing Atheists, right-wing Atheists, skinny and fat Atheists, vegetarian or carnivorous Atheists, Atheists who are pro-choice or pro-life, those who favour the death penalty and those who don’t.

But isn’t Atheism Communist?
Nope. A number of Christian sects have been Communist. Karl Marx was an Atheist and deplored organised religion as a means of controlling the masses, but he was predated by a number of different ideas. He just had his ideas of what Communism meant, and they have become famous and widespread, but they’re not the only game in town.

What about undesirable consequences?
What undesirable consequences? Because there’s only one common quality to all Atheists and no dogma, you can’t say that it automatically leads to anything. An Atheist society might be just and righteous, or it might be cruel and vindictive, but that would be the fault of the social philosophy underpinning it rather than the Atheism itself.

To sum up, the only thing that you can say about Atheism is that it means disbelief. We have no philosophy; there are no politics or other beliefs required to be an Atheist.


18 Responses to “Atheism for Beginners”

  1. “An Atheist society might be just and righteous, or it might be cruel and vindictive, but that would be the fault of the social philosophy underpinning it rather than the Atheism itself.”
    On the surface I agree with you here but what would be the basis for the social philosophy? Isn’t a society’s belief about the supernatural central to its social philosophy?

  2. Mike said

    Not necessarily. While that has previously been the case in the bulk of societies, I don’t think belief in the supernatural is a necessary condition for social philosophies; if we look at the post-Enlightenment West, for example, we see an overwhelmingly rationally-founded system. How well it works in practice is another matter, but you can say that for any system.

  3. I actually find the proposition that “society’s belief about the supernatural [is] central to its social philosophy” extremely alien to my personal experience of “society” (in the UK.) Plus it seems to me to be a stealth version of the old “you must believe in something” statement, which is getting a little old now.

  4. Mike said

    Exactly. To use official philosopherese, theism is a sufficient cause for social morality but not a necessary one.

  5. Note that I did not say belief in the supernatural but belief about the supernatural.

  6. The foundation of one’s worldview is one’s belief about the supernatural. This holds true for Atheists, Agnostics, Diests, Christians, Muslims, and so on. So yes, if a society is just or unjust it can be attributed to the social philosophy but, the social philosophy can be attributed to the belief on the supernatural.

  7. Mike said

    And again, I say that it is a sufficient condition but not a necessary one.

  8. Mike said

    Furthermore, I would add that my Atheism, while a facet of my views, is not definitive or foundational to anything else I believe. That’s sort of the point; it entails nothing else.

  9. If it not too personal, what then, is foundational to what you believe?

  10. Are you saying, Joseph, that having a positional belief about the supernatural, either for or against, as I think you are, is the foundation on which all social philosphy is built? Because that seems a fairly absurd and empirically wrong proposition to me. I personally cannot build on a lack of belief in the supernatural. I need something more supportive, like science.

  11. I think you are starting to see what I’m getting at. The lack of anything (such as belief in the supernatural) is not a very stable platform to base anything on. I don’t see how science is much help here either as it deals with the descriptive “what is” and not the normative “what shoould be.”

  12. *should

  13. Mike said

    But it doesn’t follow that the absence of supernatural belief leaves a void; we can instead argue that natural empathy, reason and utility can be our best guides. In fact, I would argue that the idea of religious foundations for normative behaviours are or were simply an attempt to find a reason for these very things before we knew what we now know.

  14. Selena Parsley said

    “If it not too personal, what then, is foundational to what you believe?”

    I was wondering this as well….

  15. Mike said

    Sorry, I got distracted. Empathy, utility and reason are what I find to be the beginning points, if we’re applying labels.

  16. Selena Parsley said

    What is your definition of reason?

  17. Mike said

    *confused* There’s only one meaningful definition, isn’t there? The ability to think conceptually and in the abstract, with logic as a subset related to the application of that.

  18. hkyson said

    Science and Religion

    Science is different from religion. It does not pretend that it knows everything. There are even now deep questions about the origins of the universe that we don’t have answers to now though it is possible we may be able to answer some of them in the future.

    But the inability of science to provide answers to these questions does not prove that religious faith, tradition, or an ancient holy text has the ability to answer them. Science cannot prove that God does not exist, but this in no way establishes that God exists. There are millions of things whose lack of existence cannot be established.

    The philosopher Bertrand Russel had an analogy. Imagine that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun. It is impossible to prove that the teapot does not exist because it is too small to be detected by our telescopes. Nobody but a crazy person would say “Well, I’m prepared to believe in the teapot because I cannot establish that it doesn’t exist.” This means that maybe we have to be technically agnostics, but really we are all atheists about teapots with orbits around the sun.

    But now let us suppose that everybody in our society including our teachers and the sages of our tribes all had faith in a teapot that orbits the sun. Let us also suppose that stories of the teapot have come down to us for many generations as one of the traditions of our own society and there are ancient holy texts about the teapot. In this case people would say that a person who did not believe in the teapot is eccentric or mad.

    There are infinite numbers of things like celestial teapots whose lack of existence we are unable to establish. There are fairies, for example, and there are unicorns and goblins. We cannot prove that any of these creatures of the imagination do not exist in reality. But we don’t believe they exist, just as we don’t believe that the gods of the Scandinavians, for example, have any true existence.

    We are all atheists about almost all of the gods created by societies in the past. Some of us, however, take the ultimate step of believing that the god of the Jews and the Christians, like the gods of the Greeks and the Egyptians, also does not exist.

    Now here’s a version of this text in Interlingua. (For more information about Interlingua, use a search enging to search on the title “Interlingua in interlingua” or go to

    Le scientia es differente del religion. Illo non pretende que illo sape toto. Il ha etiam nunc questiones profunde sur le origines del universe al quales nos nunc non ha responsas ben que il es possible que nos potera responder a alicunes de illos in le futuro.

    Ma le incapacitate del scientia de provider responsas a iste questiones non proba que le fide religiose, le tradition, o un texto sancte e ancian pote responder a illos. Le scientia non pote probar que Deo non existe, ma isto non establi de ulle maniera que Deo existe. Il ha milliones de cosas cuje existentia non pote esser establite.

    Le philosopho Bertrand Russell habeva un analogia. Imagina que il ha un theiera in orbita circum le sol. Il es impossibile probar que le theiera non existe proque illo es troppo parve pro esser detegite per nostre telescopios. Nemo excepte un folle dicerea, “Multo ben, io es preparate a creder in le theiera proque io non pote establir que illo non existe.” Isto significa que forsan nos debe esser technicamente agnosticos, ma vermente nos es omnes atheistas sur theieras con orbitas circum le sol.

    Ma que nos nunc suppone que omnes in nostre societate includente nostre professores e le sagios de nostre tribos habeva fide in un theiera que orbita le sol. Que nos anque suppone que historias del theiera ha venite usque nos trans multe generationes como un del traditiones de nostre proprie societate e que il ha textos sancte ancian sur le theiera. In iste caso le gente dicerea que un persona qui non credeva in le theiera es eccentric o folle.

    Il ha numeros infinite de cosas como theieras celestial cuje manco de existentia nos non pote establir. Il ha fees, pro exemplo, e il ha unicornios e gnomos. Nos non pote probar que iste creaturas del imagination non existe in le realitate. Ma nos non crede que illos existe exactamente como nos non crede que le deos del Scandinavos, pro exemplo, ha ulle existential ver.

    Nos es omnes atheistas sur quasi omne le deos create per societates in le passato. Alicunes de nos tamen prende le ultime passo de creder que le deo del judaeos e del christianos, como le deos del grecos e le egyptianos, anque non existe.

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