What Atheists Believe and what Agnostics donít believe
1. introduction

This is a modified version of a talk given to the Atheist Society in Melbourne in April 1999, and is an elaboration of a chapter on the same topic from my book Bonds of Belief. The article gives definitions of "belief" and "Atheist", discusses four distinct rationales for atheism and their associated beliefs, comments briefly on other aspects of atheism, reviews the four atheistic rationales from an agnostic point of view, presents three kinds of agnosticism, and considers different sources that people might go to in search of truth. This article was published in the Australian Rationalist No.67.
 
 

2. definitions

A belief or to believe consists of

This definition assumes that everyone understands what it means that something is true. At the risk of digging myself into an ever-deepening hole, I will suggest that it implies that there is some reality, material or otherwise, that the idea or statement can be compared with. If the idea or statement agrees with the reality, then it is true.

Trust is required to accept that this particular thing and not something at variance with it is true.

An Atheist is a person who believes that there is

In this context, spiritual refers to some entity that might exist separate from and independent of the material world, but that might be capable of affecting the material world, gods are intelligent beings within the spiritual entity, and God is a spiritual entity with great, even, perhaps, unlimited, powers.
 
 

3. four atheistic rationales, and other matters

It is sometimes said that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything. Such a claim has not, as far as I know, ever been proven. Indeed, many people have become Atheists after having found what they believe to be a proof - at least to their satisfaction - of the non-existence of God. Four such rationales will now be given.

1 No Super-anthropomorphic God

There can be no omniscient omnipotent all-good all-loving God, and hence there is no God.

rationale I see evil - cruelty, suffering, slaughter and torture of innocents.

An all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good and all-loving God would prevent this.

Therefore there can be no all-powerful all-knowing all-loving God.

Therefore there is no God.
 
 

beliefs [behind each rationale is a set of beliefs, some implicit rather than expressly held] The "infinite" anthropomorphic definition is necessary for the concept of God.

I understand the difference between good and evil (as distinct from, say, annoyances, adversity and suffering as depicted in the Book of Job).

I recognise evil in the world.

The logic of this rationale is sound and reliable.

2 Lack of Evidence

There is no evidence for the existence of any sort of god or spirit

rationale Nothing I have experienced, or that other people tell me about, actually reveals the existence of spirit.

The inexplicable aspects of the observed world (natural effects, complexity, inner feelings, visions, etc.) are:

beliefs The only things that exist or that we can presume to exist are those we can detect and demonstrate to ourselves and, preferably, to other people.

No one has unequivocally demonstrated the existence of spirit.

Scientific explanations of the observed world are the only ones that are reliable.

When explanations contradict each other at least all but one of them must be wrong.

The logic of this rationale is sound and reliable.

3 Philosophically Unsound

It is philosophically unsound to believe in God or spirit

rationale A complete philosophy of the world and of existence and of ethics can be constructed without the postulate of God or spirit.

Philosophies based on God or dualism contain assumptions or are unnecessarily complicated.

Religious stories about creation are particularly unsound, and have been disproved by science.
 
 

beliefs My philosophy (or picture of the world) is sound. Such an atheistic philosophy is the only type that is sound.

A sound philosophy is true: an unsound one must be untrue.

Science reveals the truth.
 
 

4 Irrelevance

There is no need to even consider the idea of God or spirit.

rationale I donít need (and have never needed) to consider the idea of God or spirit in any part of my life.

Ideas of god or spirit have been developed out of ignorance of nature; and from human needs and feelings, including the need to control society.

Beliefs My feelings about my needs and perceptions are true and sufficient views of existence.

Feelings about unseen presences are delusions.

"Man created God in his own image".
 
 

Paradoxes

Sometimes paradoxes are proposed as arguments for atheism. An example is:

An omnipotent God could devise a puzzle so difficult that he couldnít solve it.

But if he couldnít solve it he wouldnít be omnipotent.

Such paradoxes say nothing about God or reality, but may draw attention to the implications of such concepts as omnipotence.
 
 

Morality, Meaning and Purpose

Atheists naturally reject the authority of the religions on matters of morality. But they are not without their own beliefs about right and wrong, and they may agree with many of the moral teachings of a particular religion, especially the predominant religion in their society. Also, they may note that many religious people reject some of the official teachings of their own religion and add a few moral beliefs of their own. But there is no specifically atheistic position on what constitutes right and wrong. Humanists may disagree, and might lay claim to certain modern moral positions, such as equality of the sexes and abhorrence of slavery, that were introduced against the opposition of religions.

For those Atheists who consider they need it, a sense of meaning, identity or community can be derived from secular sources, according to the personality and social situation of the individual Atheist.
 
 
 
 

4. Agnosticsí view of Atheistsí arguments

Agnostics are not Atheists. They have doubts about the beliefs of Atheists. And Atheists donít accept the views of Agnostics, being inclined to regard them as splitting hairs.

An agnostic approach to the beliefs behind my four Atheist rationales is as follows.

1 No super anthropomorphic God

Beliefs The full definition is necessary for the concept of God.

I understand the difference between good and evil.

I recognise evil in the world.

My logic is sound and reliable.

Agnostics ask why an all-powerful God must have the characteristics of goodness and love as we understand them. In other words, why base a rejection of God on the assumption that a transcendent, or even cosmic being has human characteristics?

They ask also whether our criteria of good and evil are of cosmic or transcendent significance, and also, whether a God has to comply with our concept of logic.

Alternatively, they might accept that, if there were indeed an everlasting, all powerful, loving God, and life after death for human beings, we should accept horrific things during our short term of material life in order to achieve eternal bliss, just as we now sometimes willingly endure short term pain for later gain.

2 No evidence

Beliefs The only things that (we can presume to) exist are those we can detect and demonstrate.

No one has unequivocally demonstrated the existence of spirit.

Scientific explanations are the only ones that are reliable.

When religions contradict each other they must be wrong.

My logic is sound and reliable.
 
 

Agnostics may or may not think that there are things that can exist beyond human experience, or human ability to demonstrate.

Agnostics may doubt whether there is a way of telling whether spirit has been demonstrated.

Agnostics, and scientists generally, donít regard science as ultimate truth but as the best available explanations of things as we see them, and they acknowledge that new discoveries continually overturn current scientific theories.

Agnostics reject or doubt most of the claims of the religions, but this does not mean that they must necessarily also reject the possibility of there being some spiritual entity.

Agnostics dispute the logic of this intuitive atheistic position - inability to find something doesnít necessarily mean that it doesnít exist.

3 Philosophically Unsound

Beliefs My philosophy (that doesnít include God or spirit) is sound.

The atheistic philosophy is the only one that is sound.

A sound philosophy is true.

Agnostics have reservations about the soundness of any philosophy, because it must include assumptions and speculation. They might accept that a particular atheistic philosophy is self-consistent.

Agnostics do not accept that a philosophy must necessarily be true merely because it is self-consistent.

Agnostics would not discount the possibility of more than one self-consistent system of philosophy.

Occamís razor might suggest that a monistic philosophy is superior to a dualistic, but Occamís razor is only a useful principle rather than an infallible criterion.

Some Agnostics and philosophers might regard the atheistic (materialist) philosophy to refer to only part of a total existence that also accommodates spirit.

Agnostics note that there is no widely accepted or "mainstream" system of metaphysics, epistemology or ontology.

Agnostics regard science as nothing more than the set of explanations that seem to comply most closely with observations of natural phenomena. They note the continual discarding of explanations that had been thought to have been unequivocally confirmed by evidence.

4 Irrelevance of religion

Beliefs My feelings and perceptions (that God is irrelevant to my needs) are sufficient views of existence.

Other peoplesí feelings about these things are delusions or unreliable.

We now know that "man created God in his own image".
 
 

Agnostics may themselves feel no need for anything spiritual, but note that some other people seem to have strong perceptions of the constant need or presence of God or spirit.

Agnostics see no evidence that their own perceptions on matters in general are always more reliable than those of some other people who they respect, including religious people.

Agnostics think that whether "man created God in his own image" or not is irrelevant to the existence of any spiritual entity.
 
 

In none of these cases do Agnostics say to the Atheists, "You are wrong". What they do say is "You have not convinced me that you are right".
 
 

5 doubters, Believers and the source of truth

Kinds of Agnostics

While Agnostics donít believe in Atheism, they donít believe in any other religion either. Most people class Atheists and Agnostics together as "unbelievers". Some Agnostics would put Atheists in the class of believers, and regard themselves as the only unbelievers.

But there different kinds of Agnostics:

Believers

On other matters (and some aspects of religion) Agnostics are, of necessity, also believers. From my point of view there are three types of belief about the existence of spirit. There is the belief that spirit indeed exists, which might be referred to as theism, the belief that spirit does not exist, that is, atheism, and the feeling that it is not possible to know whether spirit exists, that is, agnosticism. I see these three as being the apexes of a triangle. The Theists look across and see little difference between the Atheists and the Agnostics because neither will affirm the existence of spirit. The Atheists look across and see little difference between the Theists and the Agnostics because neither will deny the existence of spirit. And the Agnostics see little difference between the Theists and the Atheists because both believe that they know whether there is such a thing as spirit.

We all have to take most things on trust - often with a bit of misgiving. In every aspect of safety and survival it is necessary to believe that the actions we take are correct, trusting in experience, observation or whatever seems acceptable. But some people are reluctant to rely on trust in matters of religion. So really, we are all mainly believers.

Believers of all kinds - religious, atheistic and agnostic - have criteria for identifying "truth", or identifying what to put their trust in, such as:

Whatever our persuasion, we all have to trust in some or all of these criteria. That is, we believe in them. We donít all put the same weight on the value of these criteria, therefore we come to different beliefs, including about religion.

And so, generally, Atheists and Agnostics donít convince each other, nor do believers of other religions - at least, not about religion.

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Talk to Atheist society (april 1999)
what atheists believe; what agnostics donít believe-
1 preamble

presumption in telling Atheists what they believe

source of title - Bonds of Belief, six pages in 350

chapter describing various kinds of religious beliefs

attempted to give equal credibility to each and will do so here

outline of what will discuss

2 definitions

definitions of belief and believe

mental act or condition that some idea or statement is true

range of commitment:- firmly believe; inclined to believe; know

trust in something

definition of Atheist. - Holds that there is: no God and/or

no gods and/or

nothing spiritual

Avoided saying "believe" - perhaps Atheists would say that they KNOW
 
 

3 kinds Of atheists

1 There is no omnipotent omniscient all-good all-loving God
(and hence there is no God)

rationale I see evil - cruelty, suffering, slaughter and torture of innocents

an all-knowing, all seeing, all-powerful and all-loving God would prevent this

therefore there is no all-powerful all-knowing all-loving God

therefore there is no God
 
 

beliefs [behind each rationale is a set of beliefs, some implicit rather than expressly held] the "infinite" definition is necessary for the concept of God.

I understand the difference between good and evil (as distinct from annoyances and even adversity - Book of Job).

I recognise evil in the world.

the logic of this is sound and reliable.

2 There is no evidence for any sort of god or spirit

rationale ("negative expression of atheism")

nothing I have experienced, or that other people tell me about, actually reveals the existence of spirit;

the inexplicable aspects of the observed world (natural effects, complexity, inner feelings, visions, etc.):

beliefs the only things that (we can presume to) exist are those we can detect and demonstrate to ourselves and, preferably, to other people;

no one has unequivocally demonstrated the existence of spirit;

scientific explanations of the observed world are the only ones that are reliable;

when religions contradict each other at least all but one of them must be wrong;

my logic is sound and reliable.
 
 

3 It is philosophically unsound to believe in God or spirit

rationale ("positive expression of atheism")

a complete philosophy of the world and of existence and of ethics does not require the postulate of God or spirit;

philosophies based on God or dualism are unsound or unnecessarily complicated;

beliefs my philosophy (or picture of the world) is sound; such an atheistic philosophy is the only type that is sound;

a sound philosophy is true: an unsound one is untrue.
 
 

4 No need to even consider the idea of God or spirit rationale I donít need (and have never needed) to consider the idea of God or spirit in any part of my life;

ideas of god or spirit have been developed out of ignorance of nature or of the basis of human needs and feelings, or of the need to control society.

beliefs my feelings about my needs and perceptions are true and universal views of existence;

feelings about unseen presences are delusions;

"man created God in his own image".
 
 

logical paradoxes sometimes used as an argument for atheism

An omnipotent God could devise a puzzle so difficult that he couldnít solve it. But if he couldnít solve it he wouldnít be omniscient.

Morality, etc

Atheists naturally reject the authority of the religions on matters of morality. But they are not without their own beliefs about right and wrong, and they may agree with many of the moral teachings of a particular religion (particularly the predominant religion in their society). Also, they may note that many religious people reject some of the official teachings of their own religions and add a few moral beliefs of their own. But there is no specifically atheistic position on what constitutes right and wrong. (Humanists may disagree).

For those Atheists who consider they need it, a sense of meaning, identity or community can be derived from secular sources, according to the personality and social situation of the individual Atheist.
 
 

4 Agnosticsí view of Atheistsí arguments

Agnostics are not Atheists. They have doubts about the beliefs of Atheists. And Atheists donít accept the views of Agnostics.

Will look at the agnostic approach to my four rationales of Atheists.

1 Super anthropomorphic God

the full definition is necessary for the concept of God

I understand the difference between good and evil

I recognise evil in the world

my logic is sound and reliable

Agnostics ask whether an all-powerful God must have the characteristics of goodness and love as we understand them - why base a rejection of God on the assumption that a cosmic being has human characteristics.

They ask also whether our criteria of good and evil are of cosmic significance, and also, whether a God has to comply with our concept of logic.
 
 

2 No evidence

the only things that (we can presume to) exist are those we can detect and demonstrate Agnostics may or may not think that there are things that can exist beyond human experience. no one has unequivocally demonstrated the existence of spirit Agnostics may doubt whether there is a way of telling whether spirit has been demonstrated. scientific explanations are the only ones that are reliable

when religions contradict each other they must be wrong

Agnostics, and scientists generally, donít regard science as ultimate truth but as the best available explanations of things as we see them, and they acknowledge that new discoveries continually overturn current scientific theories. my logic is sound and reliable Agnostics dispute the logic of such an intuitive argument - after all, inability to find something doesnít necessarily mean that it doesnít exist.

3 Philosophical argument

my philosophy (that doesnít include God or spirit) is sound

the atheistic philosophy is the only one that is sound

a sound philosophy is true

Agnostics would have reservations about the soundness of any philosophy, because it must include assumptions and speculation, but they might accept that a particular atheistic philosophy is self-consistent.

Agnostics do not accept that a philosophy must necessarily be true merely because it is self-consistent.

Agnostics would not discount the possibility of more than one self-consistent system of philosophy.

Occamís razor might suggest that a monistic philosophy is superior to a dualistic, but Occamís razor is only a useful principle rather than an infallible criterion.

And Agnostics (and philosophers) might regard the atheistic (materialist) philosophy to be only part of a total existence that also accommodates spirit.

4 Irrelevance of religion

my feelings and findings that God is irrelevant to my needs and perceptions are universal views of existence.

other peoplesí feelings about these things are delusions or unreliable.

we now know that "man created God in his own image".

Agnostics may themselves feel no need for anything spiritual, but note that some other people seem to have strong perceptions of the constant need or presence of God or spirit.

Agnostics see no evidence that their own perceptions on other matters are consistently more reliable than those of some other people who they respect, including religious people.

Agnostics think that whether "man created God in his own image" or not is irrelevant to the existence of any spiritual entity.

In none of these cases do Agnostics say to the Atheists, "You are wrong". What they do say is "You have not convinced me that you are right".
 
 
 
 

5 doubters, Believers and the source of truth

Kinds of Agnostics

While Agnostics donít believe in Atheism, they donít believe in any other religions either.

Most people class Agnostics with Atheists, as "unbelievers". Some Agnostics would put Atheists in the class of believers, and regard themselves as the only unbelievers.

But there different kinds of Agnostics:

it is impossible to know anything for certain, with the possible exception that we exist and have sensory and/or mental experience; it may or may not be possible to know about the existence or nature of such things as God or spirit, but no evidence either way is apparent at the moment; On most other matters than religion, Agnostics are, of necessity, also believers.

We all have to take most things on trust - sometimes with a bit of misgiving - but some people are reluctant to rely on trust in matters of religion.
 
 

Believers

So really, we are all mainly believers.

Believers of all kinds - religious, atheistic and agnostic - have criteria for identifying "truth" (or identifying what to put their trust in), such as:

Whatever our persuasion, we all have to trust in some or all of these criteria. That is, we believe in them.

We donít all put the same weight on the value of these criteria, so we come to different beliefs, including about religion.

And so Atheists and Agnostics wonít generally convince each other, nor will believers of other religions.

And, at the end of this talk, I wonder whether I have convinced you of anything.
 
 

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