Sunday, 1 January 2012

As A Former Atheist. Don't Give Me That Crap

No, don't worry, I haven't suddenly taken leave of my senses, abandoned logic, reason and rational thinking and 'found God'.

Several time a week you'll see some fundamentalist Christian or Muslim come on to Twitter and claim to have been "an Atheist just like you", or to be "a former Atheist who's found the peace of Jesus/Allah... blah!... blah!... blah!".

And of course, blogs making that claim are ten a penny.

I say they are either lying or have not bothered to understand what Atheism is.

I say that for this reason:

Atheism is NOT just not going to church/mosque or not praying or not reading the local holy book.

Atheism is NOT behaving badly, getting drunk, messing with drugs, having premarital or extra-marital sex, masturbating, robbing a liquor store or swearing at your mother.

None of those things make you an Atheist. Some of those things make you an immoral person but that's not the same things as being an Atheist.

To be an Atheist you have accepted that there is no credible evidence for ANY god, not just one particular, locally popular, god. To be an Atheist you have accepted that there can be no belief without evidence and that when the evidence changes, the honest thing to do is to change your mind. To be an Atheist is to accept that your beliefs are subordinate to the evidence of the physical world, that without evidence there is no such thing as valid belief.

Now, as a real Atheist, there is no way back to 'faith' from that position. Faith is belief without evidence. With evidence, the correct term is 'knowledge' not faith.

Suppose an Atheist DID find some evidence for a phenomenon which can ONLY be explained with a supernatural explanation. What would that say other than that there is maybe a supernature of some sort? It would NOT; COULD NOT be taken as evidence of any one particular god, or even of ANY god.

If it were to be truly supernatural there is no way it could be investigated beyond that, so there is no way to arrive at any one particular supernatural explanation. If it COULD be so investigated it would not be supernatural; merely some imperfectly understood natural phenomenon.

Yet we see time after time that these self-proclaimed "former Atheists" not only can never tell you what evidence convinced them, but they almost invariably claim to have found the locally popular god, almost always the god they were told about as children, if not the actual cult version they were brought up with.

The day I see a former Muslim from Riyadh who became an Atheist then "discovered Jesus as his personal saviour", or a New York former Jewish Atheist who suddenly realised the teachings of Guru Nanak were the true way to salvation, is the day I MIGHT just be tempted to take the claim seriously.

Taken with the rest of their seemingly inevitable sophistry, rehearsed evasions and over-use of tactics over substance in their 'debates', we can usually be fairly sure that the claim of former Atheism is just another ploy intended to deceive.

Always check the bios and web-pages of people who make this claim. You will usually find the give-away 'donate' tab or button which will tell you all you need to know about their motives.

A population of poorly educated, credulous, superstitious people is a lucrative market place for snake-oil salesmen and a fertile breeding ground for parasites.

So, whenever you see, 'As a former Atheist...', say, "don't give me that crap!"

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  1. "Faith is belief without evidence"

    While you make several good points in your post, this statement, I believe is patently wrong.

    Agnostics are the ones who could call themselves the most scientifically minded. Agnostics are the ones who only go as far as the evidence will take them. Christians and atheists, on the other hand, use inductive reasoning to take them part way, and then bring about a deductive conclusion based upon that evidence in combination with their pre-set world-view.

    In that sense Christian faith can be described as “Choosing to believe the conclusion that the Bible and God Himself through the person of Jesus the Christ has presented regarding the evidence that we have before us.”

    The fact is, faith requires evidence. Both atheists and Christians have before them the same amount of evidence, and both atheists and Christians believe what they believe by faith.

    “By faith we (Christians) understand (choose to believe the Bible’s claim) that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Hebrews 11:3

    “By an even greater amount of faith (everything came from nothing by nothing) atheists understand (choose to believe the implication of atheism) that the universe came into being by natural means even though nothing natural / material existed UNTIL the universe came into being.”

    Many atheists who blog find any of the Atheist Origin of the Universe Mythologies a preferable hypothesis to supernatural design. But it’s an odd sort of preference for atheists, be they scientists or just regular people. Given that the universes these Mythologies propose are purely speculative, undetected, and undetectable in principle, they certainly don't support atheist claims of only believing that which is supported by evidence. The idea that the anthropic principle would be decisively explained away by appealing to the existence of infinite invisible universes, for example, that we shall never have an opportunity to observe, and whose existence can therefore never be established, is not exactly persuasive argumentation.

    Yet those who claim to believe nothing without evidence do live by this faith regardless of their claims.

    Bertrand Russell boasted: “The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal. The way in which science arrives at its beliefs is quite different from that of medieval theology. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.”

    Yes, we can see that when Dawkins declares that there are “billions and billions of planets with life upon them.” And then he says, “I am sceptical of strongly held beliefs held in the absence of evidence.”

    I post this with the confidence that merely saying something you don't agree with is not your definition of "Preaching" and that you'll have the courage to post this potential discussion.

    1. Anonymous,

      I think your point of view about agnostics vs atheists being the "scientific" minded ones is a common misguided view. When you are presented with a supernatural claim, you shouldn't jump from 0 to "I can't tell which is the right answer". Your default response should be "Show me some evidence." Once presented with some evidence, then the strength of that evidence should move you from your starting position. If it's very strong evidence, maybe it moves you all the way to believer. Perhaps it's weak evidence, but requires further proof. If so, then maybe that evidence is enough to move you to the agnostic.

      You most likely believe the agnostic position to be the default because you inherently (potentially since you can remember) have believed, so to you the existence of God isn't a question. The claim that God exists is so obviously true to you that it's natural and normal to start thinking about it from the "Maybe" position. However, you wouldn't normally start from the agnostic position if I claimed that I'm actually a half-centaur wizard who can fly and turn iron into gold with sheer force of will. If I presented you with that claim, you wouldn't think "Well, maybe he is! I don't have any proof one way or the other..." Before even starting to consider or believe my wild claim you'd want some evidence FIRST. It's the same for believe in Yahweh or Zeus or Odin. You begin in the non-belief state and will need evidence to move either to the belief or the agnostic state.

    2. faith   [feyth]
      confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
      belief that is not based on proof:

    3. Actually no. Atheism and theism isn't on a gradual scale and it doesn't take faith to be an atheist.

      Agnosticism is not the middle ground between the two. You've confused the definitions.

      Atheism and theism concerns a belief in gods. However, atheism is lacking that belief, not believing that there are no gods (think of lacking a belief is actual baldness and attempting to believe there are no gods would be like shaving your head to be bald). It's a huge difference and a common misconception.

      Agnosticism goes hand in hand with gnosticism. These two words speak only on knowledge. Agnosticism is the state of lacking knowledge and gnosticism is having knowledge.

      The most REASONABLE stance when it comes to faith is the agnostic atheist. Why this is the most intellectually honest position is because it's literally saying, "There has been no proof to justify a positive (gnostic) claim about a god, therefore it is intellectually dishonest to assume there is a god."

      The other three declarations of the matter of having knowledge of the existence of god are all intellectually dishonest in different degrees. There is the gnostic atheist (one who would say, "I do not believe in any gods at all and I can prove it with knowledge), the agnostic theist (one who would say, "I don't have any knowledge of the nature of god nor do I have any evidence to support the idea of a god, but I'll believe anyway) and then the gnostic theist (one who says, "I believe there is a god and I can prove it with the evidence that I have!")

      If you look at the last three claims, you can see where the problem lies.

      The gnostic atheist as a general rule can not prove conclusively that there are no gods in any empirical sense. That means having a belief that there are no gods. However, this doesn't mean that this approach is intellectually reprehensible. In practice, the gnostic atheist can take any defined parameters of what constitutes as a god and can actively test those parameters and prove that that god doesn't exist empirically. They shift the burden of proof upon themselves to a degree, but you can see how trying to prove these things every day could be exhausting but still intellectually dishonest as the final conclusion is simply that they have no final evidence to prove no gods exists at all. When a non-believer uses these tactics to prove a certain god does not exist or is unreasonable to assume it does is generally called "anti-theism".

    4. The agnostic theist doesn't take much to explain. These are people who generally admit that they have no evidence to prove any god whatsoever exists, but still has faith that one kind of god AT LEAST exists in some way though they have no way of defining it. The problem with this stance is that they're simply assuming a positive with having no way to prove it. They simply have a belief just because.

      The gnostic theist would be the last one and this one is generally seen as the least reasonable. It claims it knows that a god exists and claims that it can prove it with their knowledge and can actually define and know what that god is. These are the believers that are most easily debunked though typically the most fervent in their beliefs anyway.

      So the most intellectually honest position is that of agnostic atheism. I states that it can't have any knowledge of the super natural because there's no way of obtaining it and it admits that it's unreasonable to assume a god anyway because there's no sufficient evidence to assume otherwise.

      So in short... as a general rule, atheism and theism or Christianity if you want to leave it at that, but I'd rather make sure all states of mind are accounted for, let's just stick with theism; are NOT on equal footing and the burden of proof always falls squarely on the shoulders of those making the positive claims. If one claims there is a god (not having knowledge or having knowledge), the burden of proof falls on them. If one claims conclusively that no gods whatsoever exists, then the burden of proof again falls on such a bold claim. However, there is no burden of proof for one to prove their actual LACK of belief. To ask an agnostic atheist to prove their lack of believe is the same as asking them to prove that their baldness is a hair color.

    5. Let me try this like a courtroom story: You are a jury to decide if Mary killed John. The prosecutor gets up and says "I want the defense to prove that Mary did not kill John. Because if they cannot you must logically conclude no other option than Mary did kill John." The defense gets up and says "WTF?" and sits back down. Now you are deciding with fellow jurors about Mary fate. One juror says "well, I cannot say for certain Mary did not kill John therefore I must conclude it is possible she did and say she is guilty." The next juror says "That's stupid, there is no evidence she did!" The previous juror yells, “BUT, the defense did not put any other scenario out there! How can we make certain our verdict is correct with a lack of evidence if it is possible that she did kill him? How would you feel if you let a murderer go free? If she was guilty then she cannot hurt anyone else! Isn’t that a better choice than letting a possible killer go free?”

      The next juror says "I know what can solve this dilemma! Science! We always start with the null hypothesis, which would be that Mary did not kill John, and that the prosecutor must put forth evidence that Mary did kill him. We as jurors do not decide if Mary killed John or not, but we can make a verdict on whether based at this time she is guilty or not guilty. If in the future we receive more evidence to her guilt then we can revise our assessment. But at this time we all must agree that there is no evidence of her guilt, therefore she must be not guilty.”

      You see, not believing in something is different than not believing it is possible. If an atheist says God isn’t real, then based on the current evidence he would be correct. Likewise, you cannot state that an unknown (like the beginning of life or the university) is evidence for God. Only that it is evidence that something happened there. Anything is possible until more information is gathered. It could be God started life with a cosmic fart or an alien dropped a ham sandwich here, both equal hypotheses with unknowns.

      I believe alien life exists out in the universe. I have no direct evidence for that; except for the fact that there is life here, therefore it is possible life exists somewhere else. I have no evidence God exists, and there is no evidence God exists, therefore I judge God does not exist. Provide some evidence of him then I will review and possibly revisit my opinion. Faith means a belief coming from ignorance about something; willful ignorance means complete stupidity.

  2. Anonymous.

    You'll need to explain that to me. How does accepting that there is no evidence for a god, and therefore no evidential reason to believe in one, mean Atheists have used deductive reasoning, please?

    Or would it be valid to believe in any idea, no matter how absurd, that anyone can dream up?

  3. Nice post Rosa.

    Should your anonymous reader bother to come back to read comments about her sermon, she might be interested in a recent post about an atheistic view of creation at the Something Surprising blog. This idea that you need faith to be an atheist is pure apologetic propaganda.

    My related post "I was an atheist . . . just like you" also got some revealing comments.

  4. Rosa,

    Would you believe that there are people who actually *did* fit your criteria for what a "real atheist" is that aren't atheists anymore?

    (Btw, "With evidence, the correct term is 'knowledge' not faith." Since you're attempting a distinction between "knowledge" and "belief/faith," are you not aware that "knowledge" is simply defined as "Justified True Belief"?)


    1. Keyword - justified.

    2. Certainly people can always be misled -- or develop new mental illnesses -- or mislead *themselves*. Regression from knowledge to ignorance or belief in nonsense is certainly possible and probably happens quite frequently, with dementia for instance.

      I've known people who started believing in demons because they started hallucinating. It's very sad when this happens.

  5. Matt.

    No. That should be quite plain from what I wrote.

    Perhaps you could have a go at refuting it instead of just trying to create the impression you could do so it you wished.

  6. Rosa,

    Before anyone is a believer, he is a non-believer. No one is born a believer. I know you may refuse to believe it, and you may even think your narrow brand of atheism is undefeatable, but I personally know of people who at one time fit that criteria. And they no longer do. Do you really have more insight into my own experience than I? Surely not even you are that arrogant.


  7. I think the point Rosa makes is largely that people who identify themselves as atheists today, do so for evidential reasons.

    Many people who claim they used to be atheists before they converted, did not identify themselves as atheists in the pre-belief stage. They were what I prefer to say, simply non-religious. But they were still primed for belief as a result of immersion and exposure to religious culture (hence the almost ubiquitous conversion to local gods).

    For this reason, said persons are not, and have never been 'atheists' in the sense that Rosa or I claim to be. That makes the repetitive claim they used to be like us, fallacious.

  8. I was raised in a family utterly devoid of religion, by a father that actively and openly mocked organized religion (especially the Catholic church of his parents) and a mother who was more of a quiet pantheist/animist/nature-spiritual type.

    When I first went out into the world as a youngster and found out that many of my friends and people in general in the world literally actually believed in God, instead of just in the ceremonial fun sort of way that we celebrated "Christmas" with Santa, I was legitimately shocked. I couldn't believe that people took it seriously.

    Then as a young adult I went through some tough times with drugs and lots of negative influences in my life that were bringing me down to a pretty low sort of life. I had been an Atheist, completely and utterly certain that Occam's Razor made Agnosticism (for all intents and purposes, Atheism) the only rational conclusion, but I did a lot of searching around and eventually drifted into Sikhism. So many things appealed to me and it was the system that I needed at that time to give me discipline and comfort. I grew out of it, but for a while I was completely serious. I still hold by a lot of the principles, and I've learned that resisting the lesser temptations in life helps you more easily resist the potentially life-destroying ones, but I rationally know that the concept of God is silly and can't be reached from the evidence we have in our existence.

    Just wanted to say that some people out there might be halfway through that process that I went through and still confused, using "religion" as a tool to help define themselves?

    1. You derived a way of life and sense of morality from a particular religion, but you weren't really religious from what I gathered as you still didn't believe in any God.

      You'll find religion to be an unnecessary detour for these things though. There's plenty of other books you can derive good morals from. Pick up the nearest book in the room and think about the morals in it.

      You discovered yourself through experimentation, something more teenagers/college people do. Religion is just one of the uncountable ways to do so.

      Bottom line is, while some things might have some good ideas or morals in them, if the overall system is flawed then it is to be rejected. There's plenty of political systems with good ideas in them but are ultimately flawed. That is how I view religion. And that is why I won't miss it if it's gone. The ideas will still be around, the bad parts will be gone. Seems like a win win.

      Tolerating intolerance is cowardice. The majority of religions have this preface of tolerance, but when you get past the outer shell and use your head, you'll find a pit filled with intolerance.

    2. It's interesting you say that because frankly, there ARE religions out there that still lack any belief in a divine or supernatural. Certain sects of Buddhism do not believe in any supernatural constructs, yet observe the orthopraxy of the faith. In short, they observe the rituals as they believe the rituals themselves are beneficial in an empirical way instead of the orthodoxy of Buddhism that seem to claim a supernatural construct.

      You may have found a religion that works for you and obviously that seems to happen to just about everyone who's been through your knocks. However, your personal experiences hold no veracity for the truth value of your religion. The fact that you STILL understand why believing in gods is irrational and that you still lack belief IN gods means you're still an atheist, even if you're practicing a religion today. Now. If you want to say that somehow the transformation you went through with your religion was somehow supernatural, then the burden of proof is on you. You'd have to prove it was supernatural. Many non-believers would simply say that what you experienced with your religion was psychological, not supernatural.

    3. I believe you've got something there. Ritual. Everybody has them. I have my getting-up ritual, for example, which includes stretching once or twice in front of the mirror, cleaning the cat-litter tray, making the coffee and various other stuff... it's "ritual" because it's exactly the same routine every day. Saves me having to think.

      Same applies to religious ritual. It's a way of giving the body something to do while the brain goes into a particular state which has been shown to be generally beneficial. Buddhism is different in that there's no goddy justification for those rituals. Hinduism is also somewhat different in that your choice of god is rich and arbitrary. Language like Jungian archetypes can be bandied around, and discussion can be embarked upon which attempts to explain the "meaning" behind certain gods.

      Where it all got derailed was the monotheistic / Abrahamic tradition where the god became completely disconnected from the person. The story of how this happened can be found in Exodus. See, it was like this: stoned off his gourd like usual, Moses saw a burning bush (was probably an orange-tree and he mistook the blossoms for flames, or something). Who are you, God? he asked, and the reply came back: "I am that I am."

      How much better evidence can you need for the justification behind the most seriously bangin existentialist viewpoint. Who is God? I AM.

  9. Your faith in the human race is astounding. Consider for a moment that people believe in nonsense. They do! They do it all the time. Are you honestly asserting that it is even unlikely that some people will decide for a bit to "follow the evidence," and then, for whatever reason (or lack thereof) decide instead to ignore the evidence?

    Alternatively, one could, instead of deciding to ignore evidence, choose to ignore reason. Isn't Descartes's Meditation, when read in full, precisely an example of this feat? At a certain point he gets worried that the Church is going to chop his head off, so he fudges some stuff and arrives at the conclusion that God must exist. Voila, he was an atheist just like you, but then something happened and he wasn't anymore.

    The "Light of Reason" is just like the "Light" of which religious people speak in one important respect: human beings can close their eyes, cover their ears, and go "lalalalala" at any point, and for virtually any collection of reasons (or lack thereof.)

  10. Sounds like the "I used to be Pagan" preachers I used to encounter back in my in-between days when I marginally identified as Pagan. Maybe they used to be something different, but what they described never bore any similarity to any practise or belief structure of any Pagan person I knew, and I knew quite a few.

    Before you ask, my short time dabbling with animism/nature spirituality was an important part of my journey to atheism, at least until I turned the logic lights onto it as well. That's when I did my best objective bible studies!

  11. A few days ago the Denver Post had a prominent article about hundreds of real relics that were briefly touring Denver. The lead spokesman and interpret for the group behind this was described with no irony or questioning as a "former atheist". Maybe I should have written in. I knew I wouldn't get published in the op ed. Never seen an atheist given any sort of positive media attention that remember at least. Except for a recent weekend MSNBC show. You could have blown me over with a feather. Didn't watch for a few minutes. Unlike conservatives (of all stripes) I'm not so insecure I need to live in an echo chamber. I think that goes a ways to describing the success of people from organized religion, megachurces and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.


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