Elements of Atheism

So what is this atheism that upsets so many people, East and West? It is really just the refusal to believe in God because of the absence of sufficient reasons. It is a non-belief, not something believed to be the case. Thus there can be atheists with a great variety of different outlooks on innumerable topics. They are all united on just one pretty minimalist proposition—”I do not believe in God.” 
Very little follows from this as far as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics or other disciplines are concerned. Atheists do all, however, reject belief in God and related supernatural entities and events. 
Another crucial and controversial matter about atheism is whether rejecting belief in God implies anything at all about the world other than that it is completely natural, accessible to study by means deployed in the sciences and ordinary understanding. For example, does atheism imply materialism? Does it imply physicalism?  Does it preclude mental entities such as minds, concepts, thoughts, etc.? Strictly, it does not. Nature could well contain a great variety of stuff; so as far as natural phenomena are concerned, atheism is open to whatever is discovered to exist, by rational means.
Furthermore, atheism implies neither that ethics is nor that it is not part of human life. That, too, must be left to be determined by means of science and other naturalist approaches by which human beings study the world.  Some atheists are reductive materialists and altogether deny ethics because of the latter’s presupposition of choice, of something on the order of free will. “Ought” implies “can,” so that if human beings have various ethical or moral, even political, responsibilities or obligations, it must be the case that they are free either to fulfill or neglect them of their own initiative.  This is precluded if nature is fully deterministic, as reductive materialism takes it to be. An emergent view of nature, however, whereby different types and kinds of beings can exist, not all reducible to just one sort, could make room of choices and, thus, for ethics and other normative realms.
This is also the case where mentality is concerned. Some hold that atheism implies that no minds, distinct from brains, can exist, but that, too, is wrong.  Take, for example, the best selling Russian-born late author, Ayn Rand. She was an atheist but not someone who denied the existence of consciousness—the mind. Whether minds exist is something we could well discover about nature. The matter is not something established a priori. If evidence shows the existence of different types and kinds of beings—for example, biological, chemical, mathematical, musical or whatever there might be in the world, including minds, feelings, thoughts, abstractions, and so forth—that would be that. Atheism does not require rejection of any of these realms or realities—that must remain a matter of what the various sciences discover and identify.

A few years ago one very prominent atheist suggested that atheists might gather into a group, maybe called “Brights.” A problem with this was that simply too many varieties of atheists are to be found, many of whom would be quite uncomfortable in the company of others who hold drastically different philosophical, ethical, and political positions.
It appears, then, that atheism is best not overloaded with beliefs apart from the simple one of the non-belief in God’s existence.  The rest is best left to what is discovered to exists, to be true and right and good.

About Tibor R. Machan

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and is a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute (San Francisco, CA) and the Hoover Institution (Stanford University, CA). He is public policy adviser to Freedom Communications, Inc.'s newspapers.


Elements of Atheism — 2 Comments

  1. ** Atheism is not a religion . . . **

    >> The word ‘theism’ is an abstraction about an abstraction ‘religion.’

    ‘Theism’ is an abstract noun which collectively refers to every religion (another abstract noun) which espouses the existence of at least one god, usually one having a personality, which interacts meaningfully with human beings.

    The set of theistic religions would include: Xianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, ancient Greco-Roman polytheisms. It would not include: Theravada Buddhism or Chinese ancestor worship. These are non-theistic religions.

    Theist and atheist alike can agree about which religions are theistic. Religions are reasonably well-defined “objects” which can be discriminated and counted. Such agreements, shared by supposedly antithetical camps, are for me “the salt which never loses its savour.”

    Atheism is essentially a viewpoint which denies that any theistic god whatsoever exists. For the so-called Big-3 Near Eastern monotheisms, the atheist claims that of God, Yaweh, and Allah, not one of them exists. These fictional figures have no greater status than Zeus, Sherlock Holmes, or Batman.

    Let’s be clear. Theism is not a religion. Atheism is not a religion either.

    >> A religion is a praxis.

    One defining characteristic of ‘religion’ is that it form a recognizable social unit sharing common practices, identifiable from within and without. (Despite its theistic stance, the Boy Scouts is not a religion. It is a voluntary association.)

    Atheism embodies no common praxis — it has no affirmations, no rituals, it has no common symbols, no outward means of identification. Atheism is not a voluntary association. Of course, there are voluntary associations which espouse atheism.

    Having an opinion that gods do not exist can not mean that one has an opinion “about” gods. There is nothing, according to the atheist, about which to have an opinion.

    One of the great clarifications within Logic is to distinguish an existence claim from a claim that some existing thing has a property. (“Existence is not a predicate.”)

    >> Speaking clearly about non-existent, but well-known fictional characters.

    I can have opinions about a fictitious character named ‘Hamlet’ as presented by Shakespeare in his play, ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet.’ I can also have opinions about a mythological being named ‘God’ as presented in the synoptic gospels of ‘The New Testament.’

    All I can know about these characters is what I read in pages directly devoted to them. I can no more find the synoptic “God” by doing astronomical research than I can disinter “Hamlet’s bones” in a chapel at Elsinore.

    No interpretation about Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” makes someone called ‘Hamlet’ more likely to exist. No interpretation of the synoptics of the “New Testament” makes some being called ‘God’ more likely to exist. Theology is fan fiction.

    copyright asserted 2007

  2. A theist may not embrace a particular religion but does believe in God. So a theist is claiming that God exists, for which one requires evidence, sound argument, etc. Atheism, in contrast, is a lack of belief, nothing more, in God or (supernatural) gods or deities. Theism has the onus of proof, while atheism does not.

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