Atheism Is More Than A Lack Of God, It Is the Pursuit of the Knowable by Removing Faith

© David Teachout 

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After leaving Christianity, I spent several years connecting with other religious communities. One such was the Unitarian Universalists. Known for their inclusion, I was in the midst of a conversation with a long-standing member who was adamant about not being against anything, only promoting the assertion that all religions seek to address essentially similar ideas. I won’t belabor whether that statement is accurate, as the central issue was more concerned with being opposed to being against anything. When I brought up that being for free inquiry and free expression and the individual right to determine one’s own moral system, logically infers being against the opposite, i.e. moral dogmatism, authoritarian dictates and rigid hierarchical systems, I was looked at with a look that can only be described as dumbfounded.

 

Innumerable articles have been written about what may euphemistically be referred to as the ‘soul of atheism.’ There are the bewildering rantings against the so-called “New Atheists,” often based on a poor or deliberately mistaken understanding of what is stated and an emphasis on the mantra that such “New Atheists” are angry all the time. It would seem that after so long remaining silent, the mere act of finally speaking out must be construed as being angry. Frankly this says far more about the inherent felt superiority of the religious majority. When those in power want a minority to stay quiet, caricaturing their actions is an effective way to remove them from discussion rather than deal with their criticism.

 

Regardless of the false generalizations, even within atheist communities there are those who wring their hands over their public perception, indicating a degree of care about how their actions effect others that has largely been historically absent from the religious communities most interested in villifying them. This concern brings light to the half-truth that atheism is merely an absence of belief in a god, not worth using as an identifier. I say half-truth because while the absence is certainly a legitimate definition, it is the fact that so many use the term as a social identifier which shows the term as meaning more than a mere definitional structure. That there exists a call for “coming out” as atheist or secularist merely offers further support.

 

People like labels and the identities that provide individual inclusion in groups. They serve as social communicative short-hand, providing a means of holding various values and their role in life without having to necessarily articulate each and every one. Doing this saves a great deal of time in dialogue, even as it does a profound disservice to fully understanding another person. Removing labels is patently absurd, our brains won’t let us get away with not having social boundaries. What is of enormous importance is having a public discussion as to just what a label means and then being willing to discuss how such works when confronted with an individual using it. Not doing so is the road to bigotry, whereas engaging in such a way is the path to diminishing the effects of bias.

 

Atheism stands in direct contrary distinction from theism. The latter is hardly helpful in itself since the number of gods in existence is about as numerous as the number of believers, certainly when it comes to how each theistic notion interacts in their lives. For the sake of clarity, theism can largely be broken into declarations of a supernatural or non-supernatural type. This isn’t to say there aren’t cross-overs and naturalistic apologists for religious claims love utilizing natural events as supportive of the supernatural, particularly when any such event is even tentatively not open to their personal understanding. Indeed, it is this latter point that goes to the heart of the supernatural distinction, whether or not experience is, not necessarily immediate, open to understanding through human rationality and inquiry. Once the supernatural enters any discussion, the assumption is immediately that of a lack in such ability, hence the solipsistic need to use the term “faith” to support supernatural claims.

 

I use solipsism here because faith in this way is completely unneeded if there is no supernatural and is automatically used once one posits the existence of such. The two concepts exist in a snake-eating-its-tail circularity that would be beautifully coherent if it wasn’t so demonstrably false. Faith enters where reason fails to support, it allows for false claims of apprehension for the inherently undefinable. This is why supernatural traditions use faith unequivocally to support completely different and contradictory notions between them. Whatever may be said for the underlying psychological needs being supported by religious ideologies, declaring Shiva to be the same as Allah or either to be the same as Jesus and the Christian Trinity, is to jettison any legitimate claim for the usage of logic. The definitions offered for any and others beside are quite different, though the means for substantiating them is the same: through the usage of the a-rationality of faith.

 

There we come to the crux of what atheism stands for. Religious notions of god that are utterly natural are of little concern because at some level, though this level may be rather deeply buried under mounds of queer notions concerning metaphysics, the ideas being proposed are publicly knowable and open to discovery through no particularly special paths of knowledge. Such is not the case with the supernatural gods. No amount of studious inquiry, no degree of rational discussion, will lead to an understanding of a supernatural claim. This is why religious traditions use faith and, not without severe social consequence, why the notion of being a “select” or “chosen” few is prevalent in their ideologies. The ideas being promoted are not open to public discourse, not without first assuming the validity of the very notions to be discussed. That such groups often label intellectuals and academics as “elitist” is certainly one of the great ironies of our time.

 

As an atheist, I don’t merely stand for the absence of a god, I support the presence of all those things which make a supernatural god incoherent and dangerous. This means living in and supporting the exploration of a world that is accessible through human rationality, embodied in experience and lived in as a species through social connections. The nature of who I am through metaphysical inquiry determines the epistemic or knowledge paths of my potential inquiry, resulting in a broad system of ethical appraisal. This means an unabashed, quantifiably rational and publicly discussable, belief in the materiality of all existence, scientific rational inquiry for the pursuit of increased understanding and an ethics based on the integral nature of our material and social existence.

 

There are of course numerous nuances to these positive statements and all of them are open to constant appraisal and organic consideration through no special revelation. The mere fact of being human is all it takes to walk the path of rational inquiry. I am not separate, as an atheist, from anyone else, not when it comes to the baseline ability to broaden my understanding of life and my place within it. I leave separation and its ego-laden loneliness to the supernatural theist. Generative dialogue is the realm of the atheist, where we come in our collective desire to seek out the frontiers of the human experience and push back the boundaries of our current understanding. Atheism is more than a lack in god, it is the removal of faith and the vocal passionate support of an existence that is able and worth being explored by all.

See more from David Teachout Here

 

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8 Replies to “Atheism Is More Than A Lack Of God, It Is the Pursuit of the Knowable by Removing Faith”

  1. I get so fed up with secular atheists writing, quite wrongly, that atherism = not religious. The implication is that God = religion or belief, which it does not. I’m really happy for people to believe whatever they want, secular atheists included, if it works for you and makes you a better member of the human race, great but please get the terms right. Atheism just means without god. As a Buddhist, I have no need for the concept of god (or gods) or any external agency (demons & devils included!) either but I do have a faith that many would characterize as religious. Most Buddhists are religious atheists as opposed to secular atheists. And before we get into the point about eastern concepts of the ultimate reality (the ground of being) being equivalent to a god concept, this only demonstrates such a profound lack of understanding and a continued attachment to western concepts & worldveiw, a failiure to free the mind and thus liberate life. Whatever faith or belief you have (and secular atheisism is a belief, since it’s impossible to prove there is no god or to disprove others faiths) , enjoy it, make it work for you and those around you. I don’t believe in a god, it’s an irrelevance within my framework and to my life but I don’need others to hold the same framework as I do to feel safe and validated in my beliefs. Their beliefs are a matter for them and if and when their beliefs don’t work for them any longer, they’ll change them of their own accord. But please, when we’re talking about out frameworks & beliefs, let’s get the terms right, it’s basic English & etymology, it makes it easier for everyone to appreciate the points we are making and savour our respective points of view. What a fantastic species we are with such a richness and diversity, let’s support anything that helps us play nicely together in our diversity , clear labelling will certainly help. Enjoy your day and have a great life! :). Thanks.

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    1. I’m not sure what your comment is seeking to address in what I wrote IainD. I’ll attempt getting to some clarity. Whatever some may say, I did not make the assertion that belief in god = religion. Further, I did in fact note that the basic definition often touted for atheism is “lack of belief in a god.” I don’t disagree with that definition, I simply find it unhelpful. The lack of help there is due to “god” having no inherent definition in itself. As you rightly point out, some religious traditions do not have a use for the term god or even if they do, the ideas within the term are quite a bit different than the western notions based on Aristotle and Plato. Indeed, “god” as a term is what I refer to as a “holding concept,” it is a conceptual box filled in with whatever set of ideas conceived of by the individual within their own cultural background. With this in mind, the simple definition of atheism as being “lack of belief in a god” could be reworded as “lack of a belief in an empty conceptual box.” See where the problem is? What the attempt in the article is concerned with is breaking down what “god” is often used as generally and then seeing how being a-theistic works. We hardly know what we are against if what we are against is an empty shell.

      As clearly stated in the article, god or religion can generally be broken down into two camps of conceptual assertions: those of a wholly natural kind and those of a supernatural kind. Some have crossover. You rightly bring up Buddhism as a religion lacking a particular god concept but, to varying degrees in sects of Buddhism, there are concepts that are supernatural in nature. I appreciate Stephen Batchelor’s attempts at distilling Buddhism down without reference to those ideas and find what is left to be well worth study and inclusion in a worldview. Anyway, totally another article for that. Coming back to the two camps, I see no reason for atheism to be opposed to wholly natural ideas and in so far as a religious ideology stays within natural reality and doesn’t go down the path of supernaturalism (which requires the pretending of knowledge through faith), then by all means a person can be a religious atheist. I’ve met plenty and have no problem referring to myself that way.

      I think some of the confusion is based on an assumption that “god” means something inherently. Whether someone declares they “have a belief in god” or like you, declares “I don’t have a belief in a god,” I’m going to ask the same question: which god and of what properties does that god hold? I completely agree with you that definitions are important, particularly when dialoguing with others. I’m simply wanting to get clarity on what is meant before positing a position of atheism that declares having a lack of it.

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  2. Excellent article, thank you!!! The best explanation of my own position that I have ever read! Couldn’t have said it better myself. No, really, I couldn’t have…

    I’ll be sharing this with friends and family

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  3. Thank you Rick, I’m glad it was received so well. There will be a follow-up entry next week addressing what I see as the central issue brought up by atheists who hate the position I put forth here. If you share this one with friends and family some similar issues will likely come up, so the next one may very well help with that as well. As always, if there are any questions that come up that you want addressed, please feel free to write a message here on AA or find me on my own website. In both cases the response will be posted on both. Thanks again.

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  4. The article says or assumes, that the Pursuit of the Knowable without faith is truly possible. But to pursue something that is not yet known (which is what this article is insinuating), is in itself a faith journey. We should quit pretending that faith is not the journey of many atheists as well – if we are to hold to intellectual integrity, then we are saying Pursuit of the Knowable is possible without religion.

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    1. Unfortunately Matthew you’re equivocating on the term “faith” and not clarifying. Oddly, or perhaps ironically, you’re using the standard argument put forward by supernatural believers that “atheists use faith as well.” They like to use faith in two different ways and hope nobody calls them on it, if in fact they’re even aware they’re doing it.

      In any case, here’s the clarification.

      1) Faith: I don’t know x, but I could know x with sufficient ability and study because the material/natural world is inherently understandable or amenable to rational inquiry. If faced with a situation where x is required, then I have faith that someone else understands x for the situation to have occurred.

      Example: I do not understand structural integrity and engineering, but I have faith that driving over a bridge it will not suddenly collapse or turn into a dragon and fly away with me. Given ability and time I could learn engineering, and for the bridge to exist, someone else must know enough about it to have contributed to building it.

      2) Faith: I can’t know x, nor could I ever know x despite dedicating time and energy to the study of it because x is inherently outside of the natural universe. I (pretend to) know x is true because I have faith that x exists precisely because I can’t nor ever could understand it.

      Example: All claims of the supernatural, of which their existence both requires the epistemic source of faith and is used to support the usage of that very faith.

      There you have it. The first is otherwise known as standard human ignorance, the latter is what is being used by claimants of the supernatural, of which not all religions claim. This is why I separated out religions that have them from those who don’t.

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  5. David as an Agnostic I thoroughly enjoyed your article, and it helped me to understand the emotions of those atheist who appear to be angry and on edge 24/7. Again a great article and keep up the good work.

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    1. Thank you Charles. I understand the anger of most atheists and there’s often a stage of anger to go through particularly in those who were deeply indoctrinated. I know I went through it after leaving and there are still times when it rears up a bit. I’ll be writing a continuation of this one on Tuesday, responding to the standard criticism that “atheism only means no belief in god, nothing else” that I’ve received and frankly used to hold to. In any case, thanks for your comment.

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