A note about The Deviated Norm

This here is a low traffic blog on topics close to my heart. As such, comments and engagement on old posts are always welcome and will be responded to. Except! for comments on old posts telling me to lighten up, not take things so seriously, or let things go, 'cause that shit's just plain ironic. Those comments will get a suggestion to visit Derailing for Dummies.

Monday, April 27, 2009

My Atheism

A small quibble when it comes to the definition of atheist: "a theory or belief that God does not exist" (OED). When I say I am an atheist I do not mean that I believe there are no gods.
I mean that I do not believe that there are gods.

See the slight difference?
I am an atheist in the same way I am an a-unicorn-ist. Both of them are purported to exist, but I view all claims about this with skepticism. I don't need to actively believe in their non-existence, because there is no evidence that I have to dismiss.

This is in contrast to people who believe that global warming/climate change doesn't exist. See, there is quite a bit of evidence that says that it does. As such, refusal to acknowledge this probability requires a degree of faith.

And therein lies the rub. In our society, it is considered completely normal to believe in all sorts of wacky things, provided a plurality of people also do, and the wacky things you believe were in fact codified X years ago as a religion (X varies, according to some people Mormonism is a dangerous cult, as is Scientology. Some others view Mormonism as a valid religion, while Scientology doesn't get the pass, since it's too young, etc.). But say you believe in unicorns and people tend to assume you are either: very young, being sarcastic, or rather unintelligent/naive. Yet, of the two, unicorns are clearly more benign. In most cultures that used to believe in them, they were considered signs of good fortune, and were generally considered non-violent. Compare this to the history of gods, who almost to an individual are considered jealous and violent. Run into a god in most mythologies, and your life will be quite possibly turned upside down in an unpleasant way.

As a person, I see no reason to believe that there are external, supernatural things that exist and control any aspect of the world around me. I do not believe in gods, in spirits, in ghosts, or in souls. I also don't believe that there is an afterlife or a unifying (supernatural) force in the world. As a person, I see no reason to believe in all of that (since there is no evidence to do so), and so I call myself an atheist.

The beauty of life (to me) is that I was born and have this short time to experience it. Hopefully I enjoy the majority of the time, and it is also my hope that I will be able to make those around me enjoy a majority of their time as well. At the end, whatever I did matters to those who remember. This life isn't a test, and it isn't a gift, it just is. And that makes me happy.


  1. You're working under the assumption that there is no faith involved in the lack of belief in a god/the belief in the lack of a god, but there is faith involved in everything. Faith is even involved in the scientific method; hypotheses/theories are defined as statements that can be disproven, because it is impossible to prove anything for sure. Scientifically, we believe that a theory is true when there are enough instances where we have failed to disprove the theory. However, this is still just a belief.

    The truth is, you believe that there is no god because of your personal experience and the evidence that has been presented to you. A theist believes that there is a god because of their personal experience and the evidence that has been presented to them. Neither one of you can know the truth about the existence of a god, even if you both feel completely certain.

    How can you be so sure that you're right if you're not open to the possibility that you're wrong? In order to strengthen the belief that you're right, don't you have to be open to the ideas of other theories and evaluate them given all of the evidence and your past experience? I don't think you can think scientifically about it until you admit the fact that you might be wrong. Of course, thinking scientifically and logically about things is of utmost importance to me; I guess I can see how it could be less important to other people.

    - SE

  2. SE, you're simply full of crap.

    What makes you think atheists are closed to the possibility of being wrong about the existence of god(s)? If and when god appears, god will demonstrate his (its? their?) existence. The same standard applies to unicorns, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster. Until and unless there's some real evidence for the existence of these things -- that is, evidence that does not depend on the subjective experience of any particular observer, but that exists in the way that the sun, moon, trees, or lions exist, such that everyone can assess the same evidence in the same way -- it's just a tale.

    At its best, the evidence for god collected by humankind to date is a scattered and highly internally-contradictory collection of first-person reports. In a few cases in life, that's all the evidence we have, so we reluctantly go with it -- what happened at a remote time and place, say, between the "Spartan 300" and the forces of Persia. But we generally don't base our lives on such shaky evidence, and for good reason.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Most accounts of god make him out to be A Pretty Big Deal. And yet the evidence for his existence is crap, if it counts as evidence, properly understood, at all.

    To say that this stance, the one I've outlined here, is just another species of "faith," to be lumped in with the sort of faith that enables people to believe in the kinds of claims made in the leading holy texts (Jesus rose from the dead, Mohammed ascended to heaven on a golden chariot driven by white horses, Moses and Joseph Smith received etched plates directly from god, this or that scrap of land was set aside for this or that group of humans, whatever), is an abuse of language.

    You're taking Humean skepticism to a point where Hume himself wouldn't even take it.

    I am an atheist. I am not 100% certain that god does not exist. I am an a-unicornist; I am not 100% certain that unicorns do not exist. I do not lie awake at night wondering if I'll be proven wrong about this the next morning, any more than I lie awake, a la Hume, wondering if the sun will rise as it always done in the past. My lack of 100% certainty does not keep me from separating out the more likely from the less likely, the valid inferences from the shaky from the poor.

    Which is to say: common sense in matters of epistemology works pretty well for the large percentage of us who are not philosophy professors, and it works especially well when we apply it across the board.

  3. SE, I'm not a huge fan of the Atheist Ethicist (I'm generally a "ask a couple questions, then shoot, then maybe ask some more" type of fellow myself, while he's probably a "ask so many questions that the person dies before you have a chance to shoot hir" type), but I would like to refer you to: http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/04/undemonstrable-faith.html
    specifically, that blog generally. If you want to argue the logical issues of atheism with someone, go with him, it's pretty much his life's work.
    Myself, I'll say that yeah: I don't know if there are invisible unicorns running around, but I agree with Dale in that I don't lie awake wondering. Oh I'll admit a passing fancy as a kid to the idea that maybe elves were real and I could meet some someday (maybe I was secretly an elf child stolen away as a mere babe!!), and I'm sure many a person whose read Harry Potter or other fantasy books similarly has at one point wished it were all true. But at some point (in an kid's/adult's life), one has to let go of hoping that it'll be true. I gave up hoping for elves, and don't see how the existence of gods is any different. Believers clearly do not see the commonality. But it isn't my job to prove to them that it exists.

  4. To consider, for all above:

    1. SE is not *entirely* full of crap. The idea of looking for "proof" is only one way of evaluating truth, and even the scientific method is just a highly standardized method of finding a particular kind of truth. (See "Fetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction," by Rosalind Pollack Petchesky in the journal "Feminist Studies" for an example of why even science isn't as objective as you thought it was.)

    2. There is at least one significant difference between mythological/scriptural gods and fairy tales/Harry Potter: for whatever reason, gods have succeeded in giving millions of people spiritual fulfillment and a sense of the "meaning of life" for thousands of years. Even if you consider "gods" to be merely symbolic figures created by humans for this purpose, you have to admit that they are pretty powerful for that purpose. While fairy tales and works of art may contribute to making one's life feel more meaningful, they generally are not as powerful or as popularly appealing as gods are. In fact, I would suggest that the fact that many (if not most) gods are violent, jealous, and otherwise fallible--that is, like humans--is part of what makes them so deeply meaningful.

    (A footnote: "jealous" when applied to Biblical God usually doesn't mean the envious, suspicious, covetous or excessively-protective sense of the word. It means "demanding faithfulness and exclusive worship," which is more related to the fact that the Biblical religions are monotheistic than anything else.)

    3. As someone who does not believe in God, exactly, but who does believe in a unifying force in the universe, I'm curious about what you, as (an) atheist(s), think about spirituality. Do you have it? What do you think about its role in human psychology and culture?


  5. Oh! I've been meaning to ask you:

    Where did you get your list of privileges/oppressions? I'm curious about what list you're drawing from.


  6. Yeah, not much more to say here, except that lack of evidence type A is nonetheless evidence generally construed. The idea goes - and I blame Plantinga for this even if it's not really his fault - that Christians magically have access to more evidence that atheists and agnostics could never have access to because our sensus divinatus is broken (or some such nonsense). But the question is, so what?

    Christianity in particular makes lots and lots of very specific, almost technically detailed claims about humans as biological, mental, and spiritual beings: how, then, is there literally no satisfactory Christian account of the differing spiritual experiences that people have (including none at all)?

  7. But the question is, so what?Since this is an important part of what I meant to say and forgot to, I'll just comment: my point in saying that scientific evidence is just one kind of evidence was to suggest that we all in one way or another choose to ascribe to at least one way of determining truth. Most of us ascribe to several.

    I'll still concede that some of those methods are, in my opinion, more valid bases on which to determine, for example, public policy—mainly the ones that at least contain a rigorous definition of proof, that is, science.


  8. The list I drew from was entirely self-constructed. I want people who come to the blog to know that I don't think of myself as a victim, though I am a member of many classes that are victimized by our culture. Likewise, I want those who are privileged (in ways I'm not), to have the potential to be reminded that those aspects of their identity are privileged (since privilege is reproduced partially through ignorance).

    Coincidentally, is there some status that you think is important in the world which you believe I have missed? (The list is a constant work in progress).

  9. Dale,

    Personally, I don’t think that atheists are anywhere near being wrong about the existence of a god, but I also realize that I only have limited view of the world, as we all do. I personally think it’s MUCH more likely that god does not exist, but if I had a deeply religious experience tomorrow (and couldn’t find a better way to explain it) I might change my views. My view is a direct result of my unique set of personal experiences and knowledge. How can I say that my personal experiences and knowledge are more valid someone else’s? If we all know that we’re right, it’s impossible to determine who is actually right.

    I would tend to agree that “the evidence for god…is scattered…”, but we all have different criteria for evaluating evidence; in other words, there is no such thing as “evidence that does not depend on the subjective experience of any particular observer”. We all evaluate evidence with our own specific experiences and past knowledge in mind; it’s impossible to escape that. Theists do this and come to different conclusions than I would, but I can’t really say that my viewpoint is more valid than theirs, because we both came to our conclusions through the same general process.

    - SE

  10. E,

    Oh, sorry, maybe I should explain. In my original comment I was not trying to suggest that you’re wrong, or that you personally should have doubt; my issue was with your distinction about the word “believe”. You were implying that the word “believe” should be used only when there is faith involved; I was merely trying to point out that your point of view also involves faith. You could argue that the word “believe” should be used for the less likely option, but why do you get to be the person who evaluates what is more or less likely? I guess you personally can choose to define words however you want to, but that’s not all that useful unless other people use those words in the same way. I think your use of the word “believe” invalidates the viewpoints of those who disagree with you, implying that your viewpoint is somehow more valid. I don’t think that’s fair.

    - SE

  11. Does it take faith to not believe in unicorns?
    Does it take faith to not believe in elves?
    Does it take faith to not believe in mermaids?
    Does it take faith to not believe in ghosts?
    Does it take faith to not believe in fairies?
    Does it take faith to not believe in bigfoot?
    Does it take faith to not believe in Rocs?
    Does it take faith to not believe in cyclopses?
    Does it take faith to not believe in harpies?
    Does it take faith to not believe in Santa Claus?
    Does it take faith to not believe in leprechauns?
    Does it take faith to not believe in genies?
    Does it take faith to not believe in the Kraken?
    Does it take faith to not believe in a tiny teapot circling the sun which is too small to be seen by any telescope?
    Does it take faith to not believe in centaurs?
    Does it take faith to not believe in gryphins?
    Does it take faith to not believe in basilisks?
    Does it take faith to not believe in cupid?

    Because if you say that it takes faith to not believe in gods, you are saying it takes faith to not believe in any of those other listed supernatural entities. They all share the exact same amount of EVIDENCE as to their existence. They have all been believed in (at different times). If you say that my lack of belief in god is truly a faith in the non-existence of god, then I say that you must equally declare your faith as in regards to all other supernatural entities before I will take that argument seriously.

  12. E,

    I didn't have anything in mind to add; actually I asked because I was hoping you'd have a link to a big long list for me to explore!


  13. Yes, that's the point. It DOES take faith to not believe in all of those things. The only reason you can get away with using language that assumes that they don't exist is because most of the people in the society where you live also believe that they don't exist. You can't really make the same assumption about the existence of a god.


  14. SE: "It DOES take faith to not believe in all of those things. The only reason you can get away with using language that assumes that they don't exist is because most of the people in the society where you live also believe that they don't exist. You can't really make the same assumption about the existence of a god."

    SE, I get your point that soclal convention drives the use of language, so under social convention, in most places and situations in this society, "I don't believe in unicorns" comes across more easily than "I don't believe in god."

    But social convention does *not* drive the actual quality of the truth claim; it does not drive the validity of the epistemology; it does not drive the strength of the inference based on the logic and the evidence. In the case of unicorns and gods, the social convention attached to the claims is different, but the *quality* of the truth claims is *equal.*

    Social convention can be wrong, and it often is.

  15. You're evaluating the quality of a truth claim using logical evaluation of the evidence available to you; I would tend to do the same. But this does not mean that that is the most valid method for evaluating the quality of a truth claim. There could be other methods of evaluation that reach different conclusions (for example, gut feelings); why do you get to say that your method is most valid? (I'm actually hoping you give me a good reason why logical thought and scientific exploration are more valid than other methods, because that's what I WANT to believe, but I don't feel like I have any logical reason to believe that at this point).

    - SE

  16. "My view is a direct result of my unique set of personal experiences and knowledge. How can I say that my personal experiences and knowledge are more valid someone else’s?"

    No no no - that's not what's happening here. For one thing, you have not experienced in any real sense the vast majority of scientific inquiry. You, I assume, have not actually done the relevant experiments or calculations that demonstrate heliocentricity, universal gravitation, the dual wave/particle nature of light, and so on. If you're really serious about this whole personal experience thing, then, you'll have to concede that science and logic are in fact far weaker than religion. Indeed, if personal experience is what really matters, you'll have to admit that the sun probably does revolve around the earth!

    The trouble here, I think, comes from this notion that certain epistemologies are equivalent. BF, for example, is worried "that scientific evidence is just one kind of evidence was to suggest that we all in one way or another choose to ascribe to at least one way of determining truth." (Not that this comes at all as a surprise to me - I only specifically addressed this point when I said that there's evidence-of-types and then evidence-in-general.) But I don't think anybody has really made a case for this, let alone a good one.

    The question, really, is what measures what we're calling validity: how can you tell if a belief-forming system is valid? It seems like a few people here are leaning towards total skepticism on this, but at the same time that seems totally over the top. If SE and BF can put some content in this notion of validity, there's a chance we can proceed; if not, this isn't a legitimate objection so much as it's just a collection of suspicious-seeming words.

  17. Toward LarryNiven's question of how to judge between belief-forming systems and connected with SE's claim that "You're evaluating the quality of a truth claim using logical evaluation of the evidence available to you; I would tend to do the same ..." ---

    I wonder if we're overthinking this just a bit. (I excuse LarryNiven from that since he does philosophy.)

    My point is, this is NOT about "the evidence available to me." When I draw conclusions about gods and unicorns (or leopards and clouds), I am not relying on subjective evidence, or not mostly on subjective evidence. I am relying on the fact that everybody shares the same observations, and that if pressed, the observations can be structured in a very rigorous, repeatable fashion. And out of this, some claims will pan out, e.g., "the Grand Canyon exists" while others will not. I have never seen the Grand Canyon with my own eyes but I am quite confident it actually exists because so many people have seen it, photographed it, filmed it, walked through it, discussed it, written things about it, etc. I could, if my skepticism got the most of me, fly to Arizona and see for myself. So could anyone or any group of people -- in principle, anyone could fly to AZ and make the same observation.

    There is no equivalent move when it comes to god. There is no flight to take, no telescope or microscope to peer through, no photograph to evaluate, no soil sample to analyze.

    If the existence of the Grand Canyon was based on equally strong evidence and only such evidence, e.g., that people feel it exists in their guts, that people have been inspired by it, that people have felt its awesomeness in their very lives, then I would be skeptical, and rightly so.

    And more: even if I had some sort of gut reaction to it that I thought resembled theirs, I would still need to be skeptical.

    A feeling in the gut is a "way of knowing," I suppose, but not a reliable one. It tends to collapse under closer, more rigorous scrutiny.

    That doesn't make it worthless, by the way. It just demotes it as a way of getting to reliable truths. It's somewhere on the lower end of the rankings.

  18. Dale,

    So if I'm getting this correctly, you're saying that the scientific method* is a better method for evaluating truths because, in principal, anybody could test those truths and find them to be true. Is this also what you mean by "reliable truth"? I think, for the most part, what you said makes sense to me, but I'm still digesting it.

    - SE

    * by scientific method, I mean "observations...structured in a very rigorous, repeatable fashion".

  19. That's about right, SE. There might be many "valid" ways of finding and assessing truths, but not all are equal in credibility/reliability.

  20. This was referenced on Larry's blog, so I came across for a 'Captain Cook' (Aussie slang) and I think the original post is a good one.

    In regards to the thread, the difference between scientific knowledge and subsequent theories, and religious beliefs is epistemoligically massive. Scientific knowledge requires a certain universality whereby anyone doing the same observations and experiments should get the same answers - in other words, it has an objectivity, a third person ontology, to borrow a term (out of context) from John Searle.

    On the other hand, religious experience, and this includes God, is purely and utterly subjective, a first person ontology only. There is no evidence of God outside the human mind. To quote Ludwig Feuerbach: 'God is the outward projection of man's inner nature.' So God is unique to the person who 'believes', which means everyone's view of God is different, despite what all the books say. Science, is the complete opposite.

    Regards, Paul.

  21. Caleb Bagdanov29 April, 2009 02:03

    This is a response to the original post.

    In your post you argue against the existence of "God" or any other spiritual/supernatural activity. Your argument contains an analogy comparing God and unicorns saying - that the same amount of evidence exists for believing in unicorns as for believing in God, none. You use this analogy to argue that people believing in unicorns should be as socially accepted as believing in God. The only difference you point out between the two is that its normal to believe in "wacky things" if they "the wacky things you believe were in fact codified X years ago as a religion" when in fact their are many relevant dissimilarities between a belief in God and a belief in unicorns.

    one being the reasons why people believe in God. People don't simply believe in God because it is a socially accepted tradition, but have many differing reasons for their belief(some rational, many others irrational). Many believe in God because they perceive it to best explain certain traits which human exhibit. For example extreme altruism, which exceeds the explanation of the evolutionary benefits of altruism.

    Now you can refute every reason that believers may have for believing in God, but I think completely ignoring them and creating an analogy which misrepresents those who believe does not make for effective argumentation.

  22. Correct me if I'm misinterpreting you SE, but you seem to be saying that just because we can never know something with absolute certainty, it must mean that we have "faith" in it, and so therefore distinguishing between things that are highly probable (calling them "truths") and things that are not probable (calling them "beliefs") is unfair to the improbable ones.

    That sounds to me like saying that all colors are just hues and shades of red, so therefore saying that the text on my website is blue is being unfair to all the other reds out there. But I say, at some point it stops being red and starts being blue! While, sure, we could spend the rest of everyone's lives trying to determine the exact blue-red/red-blue changeover (with everyone getting equal input), I'm gonna go ahead and say that even if it does mean I'm overlooking the inherent redness in all colors, I'd rather be a horrible deviant and shout Blue from the rooftops.

    Same as I do with belief in gods.

    And to Caleb, I make no claims for the reasons that people believe in gods. I was pointing out instead how that belief is normalized. Which is to say: how even though it's an improbable belief, the fact that it is "a socially accepted tradition" makes it magically seem probable (to the majority faithful), even though it isn't. Perhaps I'll repeat it again: a belief in gods is not a belief founded on evidence, and as such, is improbably based.

    I'm not even going to try to get into why randomly pulled examples of things that seemingly boggle the mind (for instance "extreme altruism") do not make, and never have made the case for religion.

  23. E,

    My point was that, while you and I might evaluate the evidence and come to the conclusion that the existence of god is not probable, others might come to the conclusion that the existence of god is highly probable. Why do you get to say that your conclusion is true, while the other conclusion is false; we're all humans, right? We all only have a limited view of the world. Why does a scientific approach bear more weight than any other approach?

    The answer proposed by Dale and Paul P. Mealing, which I think I agree with, is the fact that science produces truths that are, in principle, testable by anyone. Given the opportunity to test these truths, we should all come to the same conclusion. I think science also bears more weight because it works; it is actually possible to make valid predictions about the world using science (this idea comes from Atheist Ethicist's blog entry, thanks for referring me). For the most part, I agree with this.

    However, in science, we have this assumption that simpler theories are better. So we generally say that Newton's second law (F=ma) is true, and we don't really attempt to say why (or maybe we have an explanation of it at this point, but take this as an example). However, what if we said that F=ma, because god says so? We have no scientific way to distinguish between these theories other than the fact that F=ma on its own is simpler. But how do we know that that is necessarily true? Imagine that we took the entirety of physics and added "because god says so" to the end of everything. The system would still have all of the same benefits that physics has, other than the fact that it wouldn't be the simplest explanation. So why do we assume that the simplest explanation is true, while others are not?

    - SE

  24. I'm not knocking atheism itself, but let's not overlook that it seems kind of plausible that mankind is inherently religious, as Jung believed - worldwide, atheists disappear in an ocean of religious people. And this is not just because they're carrying on traditions. Which would mean that having faith is in fact the default, and so atheism is a belief that gods do not exist.

  25. The problem with adding something like "...because god says so" is that it creates more questions than it answers. First and most obviously, why would god say so? But more subtly, which god, how does this "says so" thing work, and (most importantly) why would we think that such a thing as this god exists in the first place? We can all see why such a thing as force would exist, cause we live with it daily.

  26. Seriously anon? You're going to say "you believe because I say you do"? (Which is totally what saying "having faith is in fact the default, and so atheism is a belief that gods do not exist") The first sentence in my post is about how those are not the same, and the rest of it is about how just because everyone else believes something, doesn't make it any more plausible. And yet your critique of my post is that it's the default, and that therefore I fail to acknowledge that when I do not bow, scrape, and genuflect in respect to the domininant paradigm.

    Also, as to: "everyone believes, it must be more that social pressure" A) just because something is hugely present does not mean that it came from gods. It is hugely more probable that there is an evolutionary basis for it (the fact that people want to ascribe meaning probably goes to the instinct that tells us to pay attention to patterns because that will help in escaping the dangerous animals rustling in the underbrush. I believe in the case of religion this evolutionary advantage is taken too far.)
    B)Even if we were inherently religious, so what? People are also inherently unable to fly, but I'm still glad that someone invented the airplane and helicopter, and hang glider, and all the other wonderful things that let us do what we couldn't do on our own.
    C) it's not like children of religious folks are taken away from them and raised in secluded atheist communities and then spontaneously develop a belief in gods anyway. A person's faith is HIGHLY correlated with what their parents' faith(s) was/were. So who's not to say that it isn't just tradition carrying on? Until you can find a study showing that people raised entirely away from the influence of faiths suddenly start believing at some later date (we'll say after the age of 18 just to be fair), I see no reason to not believe that faith is reproduced almost entirely through tradition and social pressure.

  27. Hi SE,

    Can I just say that adding 'God says so' to any scientific theory is the biggest red herring I've ever come across. The reason being, that all the scientific knowledge we have gained to date is completely independent of any scripture, specifically biblical scripture, so adding 'God says so' adds nothing to its veracity or its believability.

    To answer your question, why do we accept a simple formula as true? E=mc2 is an even better example; the relationship between mathematics and the natural world is a philosophical discussion that will take you well beyond the parameters of this post.

    To DeviantE, all institutionalised religion has a cultural history. But I think there have been 'mystics', for want of a better word, in all societies, which means I think there will always be people who have religious experiences, therefore religious beliefs. Religion is not just about cultural norms, although many people see it that way. For some people religion is something deeply personal and yes, meaningful, and that's how I see it.

    Regards, Paul.

  28. It's true that "god says so" doesn't add anything to the theory's "veracity or its believability", but it doesn't detract anything either. The reason we choose the theory that doesn't involve "god says so" is because it's simpler. So why do we automatically choose the simpler theory (this applies to any theory, not just the "god says so" example)?

    - SE

  29. SE, You're talking about Occam's Razor, otherwise known as The Principle of Parsimony. Wikipedia has a pretty good write-up of it -- what it is, arguments for and against, further reading, etc:

    Wikipedia on Occam's Razor.

    I don't want to kill anyone's buzz here -- it can be valuable and interesting to try to work these things out in our own words -- but this is a pretty clear-cut case where the explanation has already been done.


  30. Ok! Thanks, Dale!

    - SE


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