by Jay Johansen | Feb 18, 2015
There's a talking point that atheists are using these days that goes like this: "Atheism is not a belief. It's un-belief." I've been in quite a few conversations where an atheist will then add a quip like, "If atheism is a belief, then bald is a hair color", or "... then not collecting stamps is a hobby."
Of course if someone regularly goes on Internet forums explaining why he doesn't collect stamps, and if he joins an organization dedicated to not collecting stamps, if he attempts to convince others not to collect stamps, and if he writes books about why collecting stamps is a foolish thing to do, I think we could fairly say that he has made not collecting stamps his hobby.
What distinction are you making? There are certain statements that atheists make which they claim to be true. First of these is, "There is no god". So if the atheist does not want to say, "I believe that there is no god", how would he prefer we phrase it? "I claim that there is no god"? "I am convinced ..."? "I conclude ..."? "I assert ..."? If atheists have some synonym for "believe" that they prefer, fine, I'm happy to use it when discussing their beliefs ... or "assertions" or whatever they want to call them.
I've asked atheists how they would prefer we describe their assertions on several occasions and they have never given me a straight answer. I tried to have this conversation with an atheist just a couple of days ago and I made a statement similar to the paragraph above. Instead of answering the question and saying what term he would prefer, he replied by insisting that atheists don't say that there is no god, that that was my statement and not his. I pointed out that rejection of the idea of god is pretty much the definition of "atheism", and if he does not agree with that statement, then how does he define atheism? He never replied. (Some atheists insist that they do not claim that there is no god, but rather that the existence of god is unproven or unprovable. Maybe that's what he had in mind. I don't get the point of that either. We already have a word in the English language that means "someone who believes that the existence of god is unproven or unprovable". That word is "agnostic". If we redefine "atheist" to be a synonym for "agnostic", then what do we call someone who says that he is quite certain that there is no god?) In other conversations I've tried to have, the atheist has gone back to saying that atheism is not belief but un-belief. And around and around, never answering the question.
In any case, so what? Let's say we conceded, 100%, that atheism is not a "belief" but an "un-belief". How does this advance the atheist position? I don't see any point.
I'm struggling to see this from the atheist perspective. Like, suppose you asked me, "Do you believe that Senator Smith's proposed bill will reduce unemployment?" I might say, "No, I believe it will not help at all." I can't imagine insisting that this position I am taking is not a "belief". Sure, I might phrase it as, "I think that ..." or "I am convinced that ..." or any of a dozen other possible wordings. But they all mean pretty much the same as "I believe that ..."
I suppose if someone has no position at all on a subject, you might say that he has no belief, just un-belief. Like if you asked me whether I believe that such-and-such a restaurant in Vancouver is a good place to eat, I would say I have no idea, I have never been to Vancouver, and I have no immediate plans to go to Vancouver. I don't "believe that it's a good restaurant", neither do I "believe that it's a bad restaurant". I don't know. Maybe if you tried to pressure me into saying one way or the other, I might insist that I don't "believe" one way or the other, all I have on the subject is non-belief. But that doesn't explain the atheist position in context. The atheists that I have talked to are all quite insistent that there is no god, or that the existence of god is unproven and so it is wrong to claim that there is a god. They are not people trying to stay out of the argument, meekly saying, "Hey, I have no opinion on this question. Leave me out of this." They have a very definite opinion. That is, a belief.
I suppose an atheist might say, "I don't BELIEVE this is true, I KNOW this is true." But that's just being argumentative. Of course both sides in any debate "know" that their side is right. Demanding that the other side refer to your position using words that imply that you are right and they are wrong is just being obnoxious. It does not lead to productive debate.
If there's an atheist reading this, I would love to hear your response. Can you give me a direct answer to the question, "If you do not say that you 'believe' certain statements or ideas to be true, how would you describe it?" If right now you're yelling at the screen that I have totally misunderstood and misrepresented your position, okay, fine. Please explain it.
© 2015 by Jay Johansen
Repins Ninja Watson Sep 24, 2015
It doesnt matter if you call it a belief or not. Its just like any other belief, an opinion. A christian cant prove god exists any more than a muslim can prove allah exist, same goes for an athiest. Why do we need to catorgize it in the first place, once we do that it devides us.
Guest Oct 16, 2015
What religion has in common with atheism is that both imply a opinion about a higher power and/or how humanity relates to it, if at all. What atheism and religion do not have in common is that atheists, for example, do not attend places of worship or say prayers or appeal to higher authority in their daily lives and in general their "religious beliefs" are not as important for them as for people who are truly religious.
So although this is a matter of definition, due to the above points I think it is a lot more useful to consider atheism a non-belief rather than a belief. Furthermore, I suspect that the reason that you take up this rather inane (sorry) semantic discussion is due to a hidden agenda; maybe you desire to declare triumphantly to an atheist: "look, you yourself are what you hate because you are a believer too!".
As for your question in your last paragraph, I think that the reason you may not be getting any clear responses is that it appears to be ill-posed or at least poorly formulated. Or maybe the reason is that when it comes to religion, people like to discuss things that actually matter instead of getting entangled into a discussion about semantics (like I just did here).
Anyway thanks for the post.
Jay Johansen Oct 17, 2015
I agree that it sounds like an inane argument. That's the whole point of this article, and that's why I don't understand atheists making this argument, and making a big deal of it. What does it prove? I would very much like to keep the conversation to "things that actually matter". But then atheists bring up this curious argument that, in my humble opinion, sidetracks the serious discussion.
If you reply, "So why are you talking about it if it's so pointless?", my point is that it SEEMS like atheists are trying to confuse the question or distract from the real issues by making a pointless, irrelevant argument. But I'm trying to phrase this as an honest question and not an attack. Pointing out that something presented as a persuasive point is in fact irrelevant is not itself irrelevant!
On your first paragraph, I question if it's true that atheists view their religious (non-)beliefs as less important to them than religious people take THEIR beliefs. I've talked to plenty of atheists who are quite adamant and vocal about their ideas. There have been many cases of atheists going to court to stop prayer at sporting events or to force people to remove crosses and other religious symbols from schools and government buildings. I'm hard-pressed to think of a case where a group of Christians went to court to prevent someone from mentioning atheism at a sporting event or in a school. For someone to hire lawyers and put together a lawsuit, they must think the issue is pretty important. And please don't explain to me why you think they're right. That isn't the question. The question is whether they think the issue is important.
TeaDrinker Oct 24, 2015
Guest: "you are a believer too!" The only way in which I'd bring that up is to say, The same rules that apply to us should apply to you. If it's illegal for a public school to say "homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says so", then it should be equally illegal for a public school to say "homosexuality is a perfectly valid alternative lifestyle and what the Bible says about it is irrelevant and out-dated". If we cannot have a cross respectfully displayed at a war memorial -- dailycaller.com/2014/09/02/zealous-atheists-demand-removal-of-cross-from-war-veterans-memorial/ and many other examples -- then the government should not sponsor "art" that displays a cross disrespectfully -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ.
Guest Oct 27, 2015
Although I am the first to admit the convenience in lumping your opponents together into some uniform collective organization, the fact of the matter is that atheists are a very diverse, large group of people. Therefore it makes little sense to claim "atheists bring up this curious argument" when it's unlikely that the average atheist or a non-religious person is unlikely to start a discussion about something as inane as this (why would they?) or care much about it at all. But if we are going to accept anecdotes as evidence, for my part I can say that I have never seen an atheist feel the need to categorize their non-beliefs unless prompted to do so by the likes of yourself. Therefore, this whole point is really starting to smell like a straw man argument.
As for your third paragraph, your comparison here is bizarre. Clearly atheists are not going to court for Christianity being "mentioned" at sporting events or in schools. Let's do the analogy correct this time and suppose sporting events had an "atheist prayer" or a "moment of unbelief" (whatever that means). Also, instead of Christian symbols being placed in secular government buildings, we would now have atheist symbolism placed prominently (if that seems far-fetched to you, just imagine Muslim symbolism instead). I think it's safe to say that there would be a massive Christian outcry on such as scale that the current Christian persecution complex would look like absolutely nothing.
Homosexuality is a perfectly valid alternative lifestyle and it is perfectly fine to say so anywhere irrespective of whether there exists some people who disagree on basis of their religion. Just like the government considers psychiatry to be a helpful medical specialty even though there exist some religions that disagree (i.e. Scientology). And just like shops are allowed to operate on Saturdays before sunset even though some religions forbid it. And so on and so on. This is because the USA is a secular state, so schools run by the government do not shy away from facts because their contended by some religious groups. What secularism does mean though is that government schools are not allowed to indoctrinate religious beliefs to their students. I really don't think this is confusing.