If Theism is belief in the existence of a god or gods. What Is Atheism? No one asks this question enough, yet people have some very strong preconceived ideas and notions about what an Atheist is and is not. Most people's opinions about atheism tend to evolve from theistic influences which often distort matters by adding derogatory adjectives, like: "wicked" and "sinful." But, is this so? It is incorrect to define atheism as a belief system. Atheism is not a belief that gods don't exist; it is a lack of belief in them. Atheism is the view that there are no gods and supernatural beings. People become atheists for many different reasons. Being an atheist isn't a choice or act of will - like theism, it's a consequence of what one knows and how one reasons. Atheists are not all angry, they aren't in denial about gods, and they aren't atheists to avoid taking responsibility for their acts. It is not necessary to believe in Heaven and Hell to live a moral and ethical life, is it?
Christians (and other religions) take a firm stance regarding the evil wickedness of Atheism. One of the Psalms, written by David a thousand years before Jesus, mentions atheism: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" On the issue of why God doesn't simply reveal Himself to end all speculation, Christians say that it is not God's desire to just convince people that He exists, it is His desire for people to believe in Him by faith and accept by faith His gift of salvation. Evidential proof is irrelevant and unnecessary. They remind Atheists that the Bible says that we are blessed when we believe and trust in God by faith. The example of Thomas's doubt as to Jesus resurrection from the tomb is given as evidence of the necessity for faith: "Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'" Christians say that Atheists cannot prove that God does not, for example, live in the centre of the Sun, or beneath the clouds of Jupiter, or in some distant galaxy. Since those places are beyond our capacity to observe, it cannot be proven that God does not exist. They reject the idea that belief in God is illogical. They believe that God's existence can be clearly seen, keenly sensed, and proven to be philosophically and scientifically necessary. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands."
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Atheists don't have a common belief system, they have no sacred scriptures, temples or priests. This means they often disagree on many issues and ideas. Atheists come from all cultures and backgrounds. They say that human beings can devise suitable moral codes to live by without the aid of Gods or scriptures. Atheists don't use God to explain the existence of the universe. They find insufficient evidence to support any religion and they think religion is nonsensical. Many atheists are also secularist, and are hostile to any special treatment given to organised religion. It is possible to be both atheist and religious. Virtually all Buddhists manage it, as do some adherents of other religions, such as Hinduism and certain branches of Judaism and Christianity. In practical terms atheists often follow the same moral code as religious people, but they arrive at the decision of what is good or bad without any help from the idea of God. Atheists find their own answers to the question of what it means to be human.
Atheism versus Agnosticism: Atheism and Agnosticism are not the same. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge. It is the belief that the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities cannot be known with certainty. It was a term coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not. Atheists are ordinary people who have families, raise children, go to work, and do all the same things that others do, except for one difference: they are godless people but that does not make them immoral, wicked or evil. Yet religious bigotry often views them with much disdain, treating them discriminatorily. Some atheists hide what they really think from others around them to protect themselves.
Deductive Arguments: Arguments for the non-existence of God can be deductive or inductive. Deductive arguments allege that there are logical or conceptual problems with the idea of a god or gods. For centuries, atheistic and agnostic philosophers have held that it is impossible for God to coexist with evil, claiming that God and evil are logically incompatible. Deductive arguments are a type of argument, which are watertight. Here's an example of a deductive argument, "(1) Every dog is an animal. (2) Fido is a dog. (3) Therefore, by deductive reasoning we can prove that Fido is an animal." It's irrefutable logic. The deductive argument for the case of God versus evil is fascinating. Here are the three postulations, "(1) God is omnipotent (nothing exists outside of God's sphere of influence); (2) God is wholly good; and (3) yet evil exists." There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false, yet believers are expected to dispose of all their deductive powers of logic and reason, having to go with blind faith that this is true. Atheists will take this deductive argument about God and evil forward, like this, "(1) God is the author of everything. (2) Evil is something. (3) Therefore, God is the author of evil." And here is one more deductive argument, "(1) God made everything perfect. (2) Imperfection cannot come from perfection. (3) Perfectly created beings cannot be the origin of evil. (4) Therefore, God must be the origin of evil."
Inductive Arguments: An inductive argument is an argument that is intended by the arguer merely to establish or increase the probability of its conclusion. In an inductive argument, the premises are intended only to be so strong that, if they were true, then it would be unlikely that the conclusion is false. Here's an example, "(Fact number 1) Two independent witnesses claimed John committed the murder. (2) John's fingerprints are the only ones on the murder weapon. (3) John confessed to the crime. (4) So, John committed the murder." Briefly stated, the main arguments against the existence of God and other supernatural beings are, "(1) God's non-existence is analogous to the non-existence of Santa Claus. (2) The existence of widespread human and non-human suffering is incompatible with an all-powerful, all knowing, all good being. (3) Discoveries about the origins and nature of the universe, and about the evolution of life on Earth make the God hypothesis an unlikely explanation. (4) Widespread non-belief and the lack of compelling evidence show that a God who seeks belief in humans does not exist. (5) Broad considerations from science that support the view that all and only physical entities and causes exist." For the most part, atheists have presumed that the most reasonable conclusions are the ones that have the best evidential support. And they have argued that the evidence in favour of God's existence is too weak. Why doesn't God simply reveal Himself to people, proving that He exists? Surely if God would just appear, the thinking goes, everyone would believe in Him!
Recent statistics show an increasing number of people claiming to be atheists, up to 10 percent of people worldwide. So why are more and more people abandoning their religions and becoming atheists?
The History: Most histories of atheism choose the Greek and Roman philosophers Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius as the first atheist writers. While these writers certainly changed the idea of God, they didn't entirely deny that gods could exist. There have been many thinkers in history who have lacked a belief in God. Some ancient Greek philosophers, such as Epicurus, sought natural explanations for natural phenomena. Epicurus was also to first to question the compatibility of God with suffering. Forms of philosophical naturalism that would replace all supernatural explanations with natural ones also extend into ancient history. During the Enlightenment, David Hume and Immanuel Kant give influential critiques of the traditional arguments for the existence of God in the 18th century. After Darwin made the case for evolution and some modern advancements in science, a fully articulated philosophical worldview that denies the existence of God gains traction. In the 19th and 20th centuries, influential critiques on God, belief in God, and Christianity by Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Camus set the stage for modern atheism.
Not all atheists are hostile to religion, but many do think that religion is bad. Here are some of their reasons: Religion gets people to believe something untrue. Religion makes people base the way they run their lives on a falsehood. Religion stops people thinking in a rational and objective way. Religion forces people to rely on outside authority, rather than becoming self-reliant. Religion imposes irrational rules of good and bad behaviour. Religion divides people, and is a cause of conflict and war. The hierarchical structure of most religions is anti-democratic, and thus offends basic human rights. Religion doesn't give equal treatment to women and gay people, and thus offends basic human rights here too. Religion obstructs scientific research. Religion wastes time and money. Most atheists willingly concede there are some good things about religion, such as: Religious art and music. Religious charities and good works. Much religious wisdom and scripture. And provide human fellowship and togetherness.
Let me introduce you to some of the famous atheists:
Ray Billington is an author, former Methodist minister and self-described non-theist who thinks religion has been appropriated by the world's religions. He suggested that religion is better off without God. He tells us of his deconversion, "I was actually (and this is ironic) preparing a sermon for the following Sunday, and reading Julian Huxley's Essays of a Humanist. As I read, I came to the realisation that I not only agreed with his ideas, but felt the same drive within me. I walked up and down my study saying over and over again, 'I am an atheist.' It was an experience of great joy which has motivated me ever since."
The late Harold John Blackham, was a leading and widely respected British humanist for most of his life. As a young man, he worked in farming and as a teacher. He found his niche as a leader in the Ethical Union and steadfastly moved away from the trappings of religion. Blackham was a key organiser of the World Union of Freethinkers' conference in London in 1938. The Ethical Union maintained that ethics was independent of theology, and this ethical dimension was central to Blackham's life. Blackham enjoyed many years' retirement in the Wye valley, reading, writing and growing vegetables. He lived the exemplary humanist life: that of thought and action welded together.
Professor Richard Dawkins is the outspoken British evolutionary biologist, ethologist and writer. He is often referred to as "the most famous atheist in the world." In his scientific work, Dawkins is mostly known for his gene-centred reformulation of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. He argues that it is not groups or organisms that adapt and evolve, but individual genes. Dawkins argued that, at gene level, adaptation does not serve any altruistic purpose; each living organism's body is just a survival machine for its genes. He developed the concept of a meme, the cultural and behavioural counterpart of a gene. Whilst the selfish gene theory is one of the most significant concepts of his scientific work, Dawkins is also very well-known for his openly anti-religious views and his anti-creationist stance. Dawkins believes that the theory of evolution and natural selection can explain the universe much better than the idea of an intelligent design carried out by a God.
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The Case for Atheism: In my research for this show, I found a BBC Religion document from their archives that nicely argues that the existence of God is a choice not a reality we can actually experience. What neuroscientists have shown is that we are free to make choices about how we interpret events. It is our interpretations of events, and not the events themselves, that determine what we do. I call these Perceptual Schemas. Neuroscience research revealed that the construction of our brains means that we do not see reality directly but only the images or interpretations that our brains create. Since no two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way. Every species lives in a world appropriate to the size of the species. Humans create a human-sized world; elephants, an elephant-sized world; and ants, an ant-sized world. It's hardwired into the circuitry of these differently sized brains. In the universe we live in, everything is connected to everything else, but our brains create patterns and divisions that are not actually there. Some people create interpretations that are close to the truth, others create interpretations that are based solely on their fantasies, and any relationship to the truth is accidental. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes. Whether our interpretations are close to the truth or not, they are still mere guesses about what is going on. We all operate as scientists do, creating hypotheses and then testing them. When you are waiting to cross a busy road, you create a theory about the speed of the traffic. If your theory is a close approximation of what is actually happening, you will cross the road safely; if it isn't, you won't. We might not be able to control most of the events in our life but we are always free to choose how we interpret those events. Choosing an interpretation is the exercise of our free will. The ability to interpret events and thereby create meaning, and to choose between alternative meanings, arise out of the way our bodies and brains function. However, the range of meanings we can choose from is limited by how much we have learned in our life. This is why being a child is so difficult and this explains why organisations that want to have power over us, like the State, the Church, and Big Business, try to control what we know. The less we know, the less choice we have. If God made us, then this is how He made us. One of the consequences of this is that there are as many forms of Christianity as there are people who call themselves Christian. The same can be said of every religion. A great many people interpret what they have been taught by their religious leaders in ways that cause them and others considerable pain and suffering. Some people interpret ideas such as the Christian belief that we are born in sin and therefore must seek salvation to mean that they are intrinsically bad and must live their life striving to meet the highest standards of goodness, but always being in fear of failing and being punished. This kind of interpretation leads to misery, despair, and depression. Many people believe that, because they hold certain ideas, they are morally superior to those who do not hold these ideas. In believing this they commit the deadliest of the deadly sins, namely pride, but they do this willingly because they believe that their moral superiority entitles them to patronise, proselytise, and, under certain conditions, maim and kill those they despise. From each interpretation come our decisions about how to act. However, our freedom of choice has the consequence that we cannot avoid the two necessary conditions of choice. Choices exist only in a state of uncertainty, and we are responsible for our choices. When people fear uncertainty and dislike taking responsibility for what they do, they create for themselves the illusion of certainty and irresponsibility by choosing to be a child who is obedient to a god or to a political leader. In doing this they refuse to accept their very nature, that is, what it is to be a human being. The existence of God is a choice not a reality that we can actually experience.
Some atheists are also Humanists. Robert Ashby said that Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity, recognising that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone. While atheism is merely the absence of belief, humanism is a positive attitude to the world, centred on human experience, thought, and hopes. Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities.
Some atheists are also Rationalists. Rationalism is an approach to life based on reason and evidence. Rationalism encourages ethical and philosophical ideas that can be tested by experience and rejects authority that cannot be proved by experience. Because rationalism encourages people to think for themselves, rationalists have many different and diverse ideas and continue, in a tradition from the nineteenth century, known as freethought. Rationalism encourages people to think for themselves, to look at the evidence before them and to come to their own conclusions.
Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement into which some atheists may comfortably fit. The movement proclaims the importance of individual freedom of belief, and it includes members from a wide spectrum of beliefs. The movement does not have an official definition of God, but allows members to "develop individual concepts of God that are meaningful to them." Spirituality is seen as a dimension of ordinary life, in the same way as human life has physical, mental and emotional dimensions. Most Unitarian Universalists believe that this is the only life we get. Unitarian Universalists believe there is wisdom in most, if not all, of the world's religions. They feel each is valuable for what it can tell us about humanity and the world, and how people can find religious meaning and direction.
Postmodernism, on the other hand, does away with many of the things that religious people regard as essential. For postmodernists, every society is in a state of constant change; there are no absolute values, only relative ones; nor are there any absolute truths. This promotes the value of individual religious impulses, but weakens the strength of 'religions' which claim to deal with truths that are presented from 'outside', and given as objective realities. In a postmodern world, there are no universal religious or ethical laws, everything is shaped by the cultural context of a particular time, place and community. Their inevitable conclusion is that religion is an entirely human-made phenomenon. Religion in this theory is created, altered, renewed in various formal interactions between human beings. Group actions designed to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, are often initiatives for social change, or charity work, or fighting for individual human rights. These dramas remove religion from the exclusive narratives of scriptures, or the lifestyle rules of various faith communities, and bring religion into everyday life. Postmodernists enable people from different faiths, or none, to work together in religious acts when they engage. They neither worry about who God is, nor whether He exists.
Secularism is another philosophy that opposes privileges afforded to religions or to the religious. To put it another way, it opposes the advantage religion gets at the disadvantage experienced by many others. Secularists are particularly concerned about education. They think that religious schools are divisive, and damage the prospects of a harmonious and diverse society. Secularists are not against the right of individuals to have a religious faith. What they oppose is special treatment for religious beliefs and organisations. They think that the protection already given by law, including human rights legislation, should be sufficient to protect believers from assault or discrimination. Some secularists go further; they want religion to be regarded as a private matter for the home and place of worship, and that the state should be blind to religion. They also seek to separate those bits of our present-day culture that originated in religion from the religions that inspired them. No religion should be taught as fact and no religion described as superior to any other. Amongst many other beliefs, Secularists support the protection of individual believers, but not the protection of their beliefs. Secularists do believe that the law should not permit incitement to religious hatred.
Atheism may appear dull and without social colour but Atheists and Humanists offer their own rituals for major life stage events, like being born, getting married and so on. They give these celebrations meaning and significance without any religious content. A Humanist funeral remembers the life of the person who has died, and reflects on their contribution to the world and to others. It also provides an opportunity for family and friends to share their sadness and creates a bond of support for those who were closest to the dead person. A non-religious wedding marks the commitment of two people to share their lives together. Humanist wedding rituals often emphasise the equality of the partners and reflects the idea that the marriage depends solely on the efforts and relationship of the couple.
Thankfully, it is you the listener to this show that has to make your own choice. Is Atheism as seductive as statisticians say it is? If you had absolute proof that God did not exist, would it be possible for you to cultivate your own brand of Spirituality within you? Could you, without the guidance supernatural beings, live a moral and ethical life? We'll have to explore this in a future show.