Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Atheist Enough

It's a fun phrase, and I want to explore what it means. It's easy to be "atheist", isn't it? You just reject the notion of any supernatural deity. Problem solved. And I'm happy that more and more people are becoming this variety of atheist.

I suspect the desire to make atheism mean a bit more is probably related to the desire of having a religion in the first place, but unlike other theist traits it's not simple to get rid of. I'd argue it's part of human nature to group things and then desire to be with certain groups. So when I say "You aren't atheist enough!", I mean you're not atheist-enough for my standards of atheism, which are high enough to only fit a certain proportion of atheists. I've added more detail to the label "atheist", because that's one thing I don't mind being associated as. It's not enough to just say "Yeah, I don't believe in the Christian God or any god/gods you care to name."

So what's this extra meaning? Well, to be atheist enough, you first have to reject all notions of supernatural or non-explainable. My own journey to atheism serves as an example, but it happens to many others as well. I started off rejecting Mormonism, my faith, not outright but as something to be identified with. I picked up Taoist beliefs, and sort of believed in some mystical Way that permeates all. I called myself an Agnostic Taoist Mormon. (And I learned of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and changed that to be Spagnostic instead of Agnostic. I never believed in Him, but it's still a great religion. :)

Clearly Agnosticism isn't Atheist Enough. Indeed, agnostic means "without knowledge", and the idea of being atheist is that you know there is no god. How do you know this? That's another topic which I might do to defend the views of atheism, should I ever feel like it, but a general statement is this: you can only "know" something when you have enough favorable evidence for that something.

Being atheist enough, you need to have knowledge, but you also need to acknowledge your uncertainty. I know there is no god, but I could verily be convinced even now that a god exists. How would you convince me? Well, it'd take a considerable amount of evidence, but a very clear violating of the laws of physics, that holds for a time, and then resumes like normal with nothing bad apparently happening, would make me really consider the notion of some powerful entity around our parts. As for the Christian God, well, perhaps if a God claimed to be the Christian One but poorly misunderstood... The Christian God as postulated by Christians has too much evidence weighed against it. So to be atheist enough, you must realize that yes, you don't know everything, therefore a deity could in theory exist, but there's currently no evidence for one that the idea is even worth considering. Limit yourself to a mere creator, and you get hypotheses like we're living in a Simulation, which does have considerably more evidence going for it than the overly-detailed Christian God.

A motif here is evidence. To be atheist enough, you need to "worship" evidence, first. Second, you need to learn the tools to help you evaluate evidence. This includes the math of Bayesian Probability Theory. Worshiping evidence alone isn't good enough. Evidence is the key idea behind being atheist enough, but too often proclaimed atheists renounce their faith, then continue to disregard evidence for things. They may even become existentialists, and disregard the evidence for caring about life. (After all, they say, why care about life when you're just going to die anyway and there's no afterlife?) They may reject their religion, but still hold on to many misguided beliefs their system imposed on them, such as shunning homosexuality. You need to correct your mistaken beliefs, too, not just renounce a very general one.

To be atheist enough, you need to show a willingness to pursue truth, and let the truth destroy what it is able to destroy. In short, you need to at least be on the path of rationality to be atheist enough.

Addendum: It's very, very important that if you criticize a religion specifically, you better know a lot about that religion. Atheists often fail here. And if you criticize religion in general, you better know how religion in general works.

Posted on 2009-12-25 by Jach

Tags: atheism, rationality


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Amaroq December 29, 2009 05:37:33 AM I think you're attributing properties to atheism that it doesn't have. As far as I know, you're either atheist or you're not. You either believe in the supernatural/religious or you don't. I understand you like to disperse with binary and make everything into shades of gray whenever you can, but this is going a bit too far.

Being a skeptic doesn't make you a higher level atheist. It just makes you a skeptical atheist.

I actually find it amusing that you say you're open to the possibility of God existing in the same post in which you declare yourself more atheist than everyone else. =P

I've thought of a funner, more fitting label than skeptical atheist. Secular Agnostic!
Jach December 29, 2009 06:58:52 PM Agnostic means without knowledge, I'm not without knowledge. Only atheists who are agnostic about probability put p = 0 for a deity. Well, such people are also agnostic about a number of other desirable things to be knowledgeable about. A belief is only worth having if you could, in principle, be persuaded to believe otherwise, and assigning p = 0 makes that impossible. I don't deny that p is very small that it's not worthy of recognition as a hypothesis unless a HUGE amount of evidence comes along later.

You're right that I'm going beyond the traditional meaning of atheism, but I like calling people not atheist enough, and this is what I mean by it. Atheists generally like to see themselves as truth-seekers, and I call them on it.
Jach December 30, 2009 09:21:59 AM I find it interesting Richard Dawkins also classifies theist/agnostic/atheist on a scale of probability. (I agree with it.) From The God Delusion (pg. 50-51):

Contrary to Huxley, I shall suggest that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. Even if hard to test in practice, it belongs in the same TAP or temporary agnosticism box as the controversies over the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions. God's existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice. If he existed and chose to reveal it, God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his favour. And even if God's existence is never proved or disproved with certainty one way or the other, available evidence and reasoning may yield an estimate of probability far from 50 per cent.

Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way.

1: Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'

2: Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'

3: Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'

4: Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'

5: Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I don't know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'

6: Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'

7: Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (Jung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang). Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.
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