Natalie Angier’s talk on raising children to be atheists.

UTI’s Brent points us to a transcript of an excellent lecture she delivered to The New York Society for Ethical Culture on raising your kids as atheists that she gave back in December.

And so, to me, atheism means what it says – without god or gods, living your life without recourse to a large chiaroscuro of a supreme being to credit or to explain or to excuse. Now I’ll be the proud mother and say that my daughter understands this. A couple of days ago, in preparation for this talk, I was interviewing her, asking her a few questions about how she viewed her heathen heritage. First I asked her if she believed in god. She crinkled up her nose at me like I had mentioned something distasteful, like spinach and liver, or kissing a boy, and said, No! I asked her if she was sorry she’d been raised as an atheist, and she said no, she liked it. I asked why. First, she said, you don’t have to waste Sundays going to pray. Also I’d rather do things myself than have somebody else do them for me. If somebody gets sick, I wouldn’t just pray to god he or she gets better, I would try to buy some medicine for them, to help them get better.

Oh, I liked that answer. I couldn’t help it. This sounded to me like, what do you call it, a value system. She also said that she likes to see things for herself before believing in them. If a friend told me, guess what, I’ve got a flying dog, I’d say, can I see it. Katherine said she has friends who claim they’ve seen god. One of her close friends told her she’s seen bright lights in the middle of the night that she knows were signs from Jesus. So Katherine asked her if she could do a sleepover, to check out the light for herself. Oh, you’d never see it, her friend replied. Only people who believe in god can see it.

As Richard Dawkins has said, “With religion, there’s always an escape clause.”

It’s a good read. Go check it out.

122 thoughts on “Natalie Angier’s talk on raising children to be atheists.

  1. That was beautiful, Les, thank you.  I especially liked her closing paragraph:

    I don’t know the answer to fear of death, surprise surprise. But I find it interesting that religious people, who talk ceaselessly of finding in their religion a larger sense of purpose, a meaning greater than themselves, at the same time are the ones who insist their personal, copyrighted souls, presumably with their 70-odd years of memory intact, will survive in perpetuity. Maybe that’s the real ethic of atheism. By confronting the inevitability of your personal expiration date, you know there is a meaning much grander than yourself. The river of life will go on, as it has for nearly 4 billion years on our planet, and who knows for how long and how abundantly on others. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, and we, as matter, will always matter, and the universe will forever be our home.

  2. Excellent is the correct word for it.  I find myself leaning more in this direction every day.  I was extremely troubled when attending a funeral recently to be called upon to come forward and be saved. So much so that I didn’t stay for the memorial service of my Grand-neice.  When I am here to pay my respects to someone I don’t want to be reminded that if I want to see them again I have to accept religion into my life. I respect your right to believe your way so I feel you should do the same.

  3. Very interesting. She makes some good observations.

    A couple of thoughts…

    1. She brings an obvious and completely understandable bias to the table, so to speak. She’s upfront about it, too. Which is to her credit. Richard Dawkins is less intellectually honest about his. I’ve read some of his pseudoscience rants against Intelligent Design and they very much strike me as classic examples of the pot calling the kettle black. His approach to evolutionary science is the flipside of the same exact coin that ID is on. Yet, he seems quite blind to his own biases.

    2. It seems to me that Atheism is inherently self-defeating. The intellectually honest approach, IMHO, would be agnosticism.

    The Agnostic doesn’t know if there is a god, admits it and is apparently perfectly okay with that state. The Atheist denies the existance of the supernatural. Yet, it would require the Atheist to be omniscient (a fundamental attribute of “god”) in order to be able to dismiss the possibility that there is a god or gods with any degree of reliability. In short, the Atheist takes a leap of faith equal to that taken by Theists… albeit in the opposite direction.

  4. Seems to me that the point of atheism is to deny the existance of the supernatural until such time that the supernatural PROVES itself to exist.  Thus the difference between your agnostic and my atheist is that the agnostic acknowledges the possibility of the supernatural without proof, while the atheist is reallly just waiting for the the proof to show up.  Sort of the tree falls in the forest when no one is around, theists claim it makes a sound, agnostics claim it COULD make a sound, atheists say they didnt hear anything.

  5. The Atheist still is adhering to a faith-based belief system. The Agnostic either isn’t sure or simply doesn’t care whether god exists or not. That takes no faith at all.

    Basically, the Agnostic hops off of the faith-based belief system merry-go-round, leaving the Atheists and Theists to continue their ride. And of those riding, only the Theists need nothing more than faith. The Atheist needs faith and to assume one of the qualities of “god” in order to deny that “god” exists.

    Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not making a value judgment about whether the Atheist’s beliefs are better, worse or the same as anyone else. I’m stictly speaking to the logic underpinning each belief system.

  6. Kevin opines…

    Richard Dawkins is less intellectually honest about his. I’ve read some of his pseudoscience rants against Intelligent Design and they very much strike me as classic examples of the pot calling the kettle black. His approach to evolutionary science is the flipside of the same exact coin that ID is on. Yet, he seems quite blind to his own biases.

    Perhaps you can elaborate? I can’t recall anything Dawkins has said that would strike me as being pseudoscience. Biased perhaps, but far from being the flipside of the same coin as ID.

    2. It seems to me that Atheism is inherently self-defeating. The intellectually honest approach, IMHO, would be agnosticism.

    Agnosticism is just a weak form of atheism which is often considered the “wishy-washy” stance to take. There’s nothing inherently self-defeating about atheism.

    The Agnostic doesn’t know if there is a god, admits it and is apparently perfectly okay with that state. The Atheist denies the existance of the supernatural.

    Herein lies the problem with your statement. It is incorrect to say that the atheist denies the existence of the supernatural. All that being an atheist means is that you lack belief in God(s). It is the absence of belief.

    It says nothing about your acceptance or rejection of concepts such as the “supernatural” or “paranormal” or your reasons for not holding a belief in God(s). There are atheists who do believe in other phenomena that would be considered supernatural such as psychic ability.

    Yet, it would require the Atheist to be omniscient (a fundamental attribute of “god”) in order to be able to dismiss the possibility that there is a god or gods with any degree of reliability. In short, the Atheist takes a leap of faith equal to that taken by Theists… albeit in the opposite direction.

    We’ve been over this (faulty) argument many times before here at SEB, but I’ll repeat it once again. 

    Not believing the idea of God(s) to be true with any reliability doesn’t require being omniscient any more than not believing in the ideas of tooth fairies or the bogeyman does. Faith is belief without supporting evidence or proof. Atheism is the absence of belief. Trying to claim that atheism is a leap of faith is nonsensical and little more than an attempt to make the (lack of) reasoning by Theists seem… reasonable.

    The Atheist still is adhering to a faith-based belief system.

    A completely false statement to make. By definition there is no faith involved in being an atheist.

    The Agnostic either isn’t sure or simply doesn’t care whether god exists or not. That takes no faith at all.

    And neither does atheism. Atheists just decide there’s no point in being wishy-washy about it.

    Basically, the Agnostic hops off of the faith-based belief system merry-go-round, leaving the Atheists and Theists to continue their ride. And of those riding, only the Theists need nothing more than faith. The Atheist needs faith and to assume one of the qualities of “god

  7. Damnit you make a good arguement.  Not being an atheist, I do not know if they believe it requires faith or not.

  8. Tell me, Kevin, do you believe that Zeus exists?  Odin?  Kali?  Do you spend any time wondering whether one of them is going to spank your butt in the afterlife for not worshiping them?

    Being “agnostic” about everything from the existence of little green men to the divinity of Mr. Smee to my past life as Napoleon isn’t any different from just plain not believing in it.  I think atheism offends believers and they’d rather just convince everyone that they’re not “sure” and can never be sure—which leaves the door open a crack for your favorite deity.

    If you’re agnostic about everything in the world, you probably spend a lot of time avoiding decisions of any kind.

  9. Seems like we have another one. Or two.

    Kevin:

    I’ve read some of (Dawkin’s) pseudoscience rants against Intelligent Design

    I rant against the ID pseudoscience myself.

    It seems to me that Atheism is inherently self-defeating.

    Care to elaborate what’s self-defeating about not affirming god’s existence until proven to one’s own satisfaction? Please note that not affirming is semantically different from denying.

    The Agnostic doesn’t know if there is a god, admits it and is apparently perfectly okay with that state. The Atheist denies the existance of the supernatural.

    Agnostics range from a simple “I don’t know” to “it’s principally unknowable”. Most atheists don’t deny the supernatural, they do not accept it until proven.

    I’m not making a value judgment about whether the Atheist’s beliefs are better

    Good, but you should first ascertain what an atheist’s beliefs actually are.

    Spatula:

    Thus the difference between your agnostic and my atheist is that the agnostic acknowledges the possibility of the supernatural without proof

    Agnostics do no such thing. A statement about knowledge implies a statement about truth, which implies absolute or probabilistic proof, depending on the individual epistemology.

    By the way, is it just me or do others tune out too when a poster starts with “The atheist…”?

  10. I haven’t had a chance to read her lecture yet, but I read her book “Woman” on women’s biology.  I don’t agree with everything she said, but she made some very important points about the male bias in biological research…it’s a good read if you’re interested.

    On agnostics:  Washing your hands of it all and saying you simply don’t know what to believe leaves you without an operable paradigm.  This may not be true for all agnostics, but it’s what bothers me about agnosticism.  It’s like an anthropologist saying that culture doesn’t exist because it’s idiosynchratic, and then not taking the extra step of saying that even though it’s idiosynchratic, it’s still valuable to study.
    The agnostic has nothing to go on and can have no real stance on things like ID in the schools and abortion.  If you don’t know what to beleive, then isn’t it important to be open to every possibility?
    Personally, I don’t know for certain that every part of my understanding is true.  But there is no way to know for sure, so I am going to stick with what seems logical and obvious to me.  I take on atheism not because I have completely denied the existence of god, but because it seems to me to be the best option at this time.

  11. Perhaps I am confused? An agnostic does not allow for the possibility of god?  Guess I better go back and read my dictionary..

  12. Gee… maybe I shoulda looked before kicking over that hornet’s nest? Nah… that would be totally out of character for me. LOL

    Okay, where were we? Oh yeah…

    An Atheist, by definition, is one who believes (ie. to accept as true, genuine, or real) that there is no deity. In other words, an Atheist believe that there in fact is no diety. Yet, that position can’t possibly be quantified without possessing omniscience. It is a statement of faith, pure and simple.

    Interestingly enough, the adjective form of “agnostic” is defined, in part, as “undogmatic.”

    As for Dawkins… I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of his positions beyond the following. I used to debate Creation v. Evolution and even though it’s been several years since I quite, I find that I still am burnt out on the subject. Suffice to say that I entered a Creationist and exited an IDer. I was convinced (relatively quickly too) that Creationism isn’t science. But, on the Theory of Evolution I’m agnostic.

    Dawkin’s rant/rebuttal to Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” contained an attempted explanation on how the eye could have evolved via strictly naturalistic mechanisms. But, what it boiled down to was “poof, time did it.” In fact that’s what the most advanced current TOE explanation of eye evolution boils down to.

    Many of the more sarcastic proponents of Evolutionary Theory that I debated with were fond of summing up the Creationist theory as “poof, god did it.” Which, frankly, is what it boils down to. But, so too does Dawkins explanation of eye evolution, albeit with the substitution of “time” for “god.” Thus, my quip about it being pseudoscience.

    BTW, I like your blog here, Les. I’ve had you blogrolled over at my other project (http://theindependentvoter.com/indiecastle.html) for a while now. I can’t say that I read you regularly. But, I do stop by from time to time and I invariably enjoy reading what you post here.

  13. Kevin and spatula:

    You are both atheists… You do not believe that Zeus is truly the king of the gods.  You do not believe in Jupiter, Odin, Brahama, Shiva, etc…  You are both atheists to N-1 religions, where N represents the total number of religions that have ever existed.  I too am an atheist, I’m just an atheist to N religions.  Just one more than you…  I don’t believe Jesus was the son of God anymore than I believe Heracles was the half-god son of Zeus.

  14. spatula: An agnostic does not allow for the possibility of god?

    Agnostics fall into a spectrum ranging from “I don’t know that god exists” to “it is principally unknowable whether or not god exists”. Regardless, there is nothing that prevents an agnostic from holding an unjustified belief in god.

    Kevin: Gee… maybe I shoulda looked before kicking over that hornet’s nest? Nah… that would be totally out of character for me. LOL

    So much for first impressions, eh.

    An Atheist, by definition, is one who believes (ie. to accept as true, genuine, or real) that there is no deity.

    The minimum qualification an atheist has to meet is to not affirm that god exists, which is semantically different from denying that god exists. If you are here for a serious discussion, stop beating this straw man.

    Suffice to say that I entered a Creationist and exited an IDer.

    Okay, that was (involuntarily?) funny.

  15. Getting back to the original article, I think I agree with her.  It just seems wrong to teach children that there is a god, because they are young and naive and will believe anything, and once the damage is done it is not likely to be undone.  Hell I probably would be an atheist if I hadnt been raised a christian, but my beliefs were so ingrained into me as a child that I cannot let go of them now.

  16. my beliefs were so ingrained into me as a child that I cannot let go of them now.

    Spatula, it is refreshing to hear you say that.  Few will be so honest – they’d rather twist themselves into philosophical pretzels than just be straight about it. Thank you.

  17. Kevin begins again…

    An Atheist, by definition, is one who believes (ie. to accept as true, genuine, or real) that there is no deity. In other words, an Atheist believe that there in fact is no diety.

    That only defines some atheists, not all. Allow me to quote from the alt.atheism FAQ:

      “What is atheism?”

      Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

      Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the “weak atheist” position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as “strong atheism”.

      Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of ‘god’: Whether they are ‘atheists’ or not is a matter of debate. Since you’re unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it’s not a very important debate…

      It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. “Weak atheism” is simple scepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. “Strong atheism” is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are “strong atheists”. There is a qualitative difference in the “strong” and “weak” positions; it’s not just a matter of degree.

      Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

      “But isn’t disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he doesn’t exist?”

      Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not.

    Yet, that position can’t possibly be quantified without possessing omniscience. It is a statement of faith, pure and simple.

    Absolute knowledge is not necessary to not believe in God(s) any more than absolute knowledge is needed to not believe in the existence of Invisible Pink Unicorns. I’ll say it again: Absence of faith is not synonymous with having faith. You may as well say that not having bubble gum is the same as having bubble gum and you’d make about as much sense.

    As for Dawkins… I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of his positions beyond the following. I used to debate Creation v. Evolution and even though it’s been several years since I quite, I find that I still am burnt out on the subject. Suffice to say that I entered a Creationist and exited an IDer. I was convinced (relatively quickly too) that Creationism isn’t science. But, on the Theory of Evolution I’m agnostic.

    Then you should study the theory a bit more and perhaps you’ll find you can make a decision on it’s accuracy.

    Dawkin’s rant/rebuttal to Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box

  18. grrrrrr

    I always find it disturbing when a fundy turns up with my name. People keep saying “Kevin said this or that” and I want to scream “I did not!”

    sigh.

  19. Fundy? Moi? LOL nothin’ like an Ad Hominem to make a guy feel welcome.

    BTW, if you’re interested in furthering your education you might dig into the difference between “fundamentalists” and “evangelicals.” While there is some slight overlap between the two, evangelicals are the real target of virtually every accusation of “fundy” that I’ve ever seen. Particularly if science is involved.

    Not that it’s anyone’s business. But, I was raised evangelical. In fact it was on the heterodox fringe of the evangelical camp. Most genuine “fundies” would probably be genuinely offended at your lumping me in with them.

    That said… I can relate to Spatula’s comment about how he was raised. I operated on my parent’s belief system until my late 20’s when I found that I needed to figure out what *I* believe. Which I did. And it bears a passing resemblence to my parent’s belief system. I haven’t been to church in years. But, therein lays a difference between my belief system and my parent’s.

    GeekMom, two points…

    First, the hornet’s nest quip was a lame attempt at self-deprecating humor which apparently fell flat. Ya win some and ya lose some. C’est la vie. I was just trying to introduce some joviality to take the edge off of any combativeness that might arise from my challenged y’all’s belief system. Which is to say that I meant well.

    Secondly, the definition I posted for “atheism” was verbatim what Merriam Webster says it means. If you see it as a strawman, take it up with the experts.

    And, correct me if I’m wrong here… but, isn’t not affirming that god exists a bare minimum threshold for an Agnostic? The minute that a self-proclaimed agnostic affirms the existance of god, they cease to be agnostic. N’est pas? Suspecting that god might maybe exist, or wondering if god might maybe exist are fundamentally different positions than affirming that god does in fact exist. Which is how we distinguish between agnostics and theists.

    With all due respect to those on the various sides who have studied the meanings of these words far longer and in far greater depth than I… It seems to me that either 1.) some of you here who are claiming to be atheists are in reality agnostics… or 2.) the English language is far less stable and unified than outfits like Merriam Webster would have us believe and/or their definitions need to be updated or are otherwise incomplete.

    Les, with all due respect… that alt.atheism FAQ is illogical. They say that some “atheists” only disbelieve in certain gods while maintaining belief in other gods. That’s psychobabble nonsense. If I believe in any god, regardless of which or whose, I am by definition a theist, not an atheist.

    If by, “Absolute knowledge is not necessary to not believe in God(s),” you mean to draw a distinction between denying the very existance of X, and denying the divinity/supernaturalness of X… then I think we’ve found some common ground. I hadn’t ever considered drawing that distinction before. But, I can see how the same phrase could have two different meanings. If I were to claim to be god and you denied my claim without denying that I exist, you would be meeting a definition of “atheist” which certainly wouldn’t require omniscience.

    Hmmm…. whether that’s what you meant or not, it’s given me something to ponder.

  20. No, I’m wrong about that last bit. If I claimed to be god and you denied my claim to divinity without denying my existance, you still would have no way of knowing that I wasn’t merely masking my divinity in your presence. Thus, you would still have to be omniscient to be able to dismiss my claim to divinity with full certainty. That or a crude experiment with a .44. So there I go again answering my own challenge.

    So then if the .44 didn’t work and you still denied my claim to divinity, then you’d be implying your own omniscience. Right?

    Damn… it’s late. This’ll all make more sense in the morning I’m sure.

  21. Kevin,

    There’s a difference between “Fundamentalist” and “fundamentalist” as well.  One is a noun referring to a specific denomination.  It’s true that often Fundamentalists are less fundamentalist than Evangelicals (though oddly enough Fundamentalism is categorized as a subclass of Evangelism).  However, fundamentalist is an adjective describing a religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

    My point is often when we say “fundamentalist” we’re using the adjective not the noun.

    Also, since we’re talking about what various terms mean “illogical” doesn’t mean what you’re using it to mean.  That usage was coined by Star Trek.  “Illogical” literally refers to the form of a set of sentences, more specifically to sets of sentences that are incoherent.  I don’t think that you mean that the site is incoherent, just poorly argued, the proper term to describe that is “unsound”.

    In regards to your last post.  One wouldn’t have to assert one’s omniscience to deny your claim of divinity.  One would only have to claim that one is correct in a single case, which doesn’t require omniscience.  Indeed, I think I can justifiably claim that China has over 1 billion people living within its borders even though I never checked.  This claim doesn’t require me to claim that I am omniscient.

  22. It seems to me that these are political arguments, and not really logical, scientific, or philosophical. In the ‘70’s, Proctor and Bergman of the Firesign Theater reminded us “everything you know is wrong.” I would look at that statement very seriously against the backdrop of the history of science.

    Sure, maybe the theories are converging on a one to one model of the manifold of experience, but I’m not holding my breath. Also, I know of no serious physicist who believes in a personal god. Whatever they may think about ID, etc.

    I think serious scientists are very clear about what science does and does not tell us. It tells us little to nothing about how to live, IMO. For that, there’s politics, an intellectual universe of discourse of its own, no more or less valuable than logic, science, philosophy, etc., though it easily co-opts and smuggles from these disciplines to its own ends.

    When I make a declaration of my beliefs, it is for political ends, and I use all sorts of human capacities to strive for efficacy. Including my emotional affiliative “beliefs.” Otherwise, I spend my time thinking, not knowing. To know is to foreclose. But, making good guesses, with your eyes open, pays off. In life, as in poker.

  23. Kevin: LOL nothin’ like an Ad Hominem to make a guy feel welcome.

    Nothing like starting out by pontificating about “The atheist…” to ensure a warm welcome.

    BTW, if you’re interested in furthering your education you might dig into the difference between “fundamentalists

  24. Completely ignoring the discussion above, one comment on the story itself:

    First, she said, you don’t have to waste Sundays going to pray. Also I’d rather do things myself than have somebody else do them for me. If somebody gets sick, I wouldn’t just pray to god he or she gets better, I would try to buy some medicine for them, to help them get better.

    I don’t consider church services on Sunday to be a waste (though I once did).  I get a lot out of them.

    And while there are Christians who would disagree, this Christian thinks one of the points of praying for someone to get better is to also remind you that you *should* go out and buy them some medicine (or offer other material aid).

    And as to Momma’s statement:

    I was extremely troubled when attending a funeral recently to be called upon to come forward and be saved. So much so that I didn’t stay for the memorial service of my Grand-neice.  When I am here to pay my respects to someone I don’t want to be reminded that if I want to see them again I have to accept religion into my life.

    That was completely inappropriate, IMO, of the minister.  It doesn’t surprise me (and I can even force myself to see the perspective), but I’d be offended even if I were there and considered myself “saved” (as I was at a wedding I went to that included the same sort of side show).

  25. ***Dave writes:

    I don’t consider church services on Sunday to be a waste (though I once did).  I get a lot out of them.

    As do many others and this is something I readily admit is a definite positive of religion. It does indeed help to foster a sense of community and belonging that many people may not have otherwise. I may think there are other similar means of accomplishing the same goal, but I have no real issues with folks who prefer religious services as the means to that end. It’s certainly no more silly a means than your average Moose Lodge.
    wink

    And while there are Christians who would disagree, this Christian thinks one of the points of praying for someone to get better is to also remind you that you *should* go out and buy them some medicine (or offer other material aid).

    Methods of menomics come in all forms so, again, if it works for you then I have no problems with that. There are certainly worse reasons to pray.

    That was completely inappropriate, IMO, of the minister.  It doesn’t surprise me (and I can even force myself to see the perspective), but I’d be offended even if I were there and considered myself “saved

  26. Excellent is the correct word for it.  I find myself leaning more in this direction every day.  I was extremely troubled when attending a funeral recently to be called upon to come forward and be saved. So much so that I didn’t stay for the memorial service of my Grand-neice.  When I am here to pay my respects to someone I don’t want to be reminded that if I want to see them again I have to accept religion into my life. I respect your right to believe your way so I feel you should do the same.

    I agree, Momma.  In fact, a similar experience at the memorial service for one of my childhood friends was one of the straws that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, in my own leap from the fence of saying I was agnostic and seeing that I am in fact an atheist.  Claiming agnosticism in my case, when I took a long hard look at it (that “dark night of the soul” I think SS mentioned in another thread), was really my wussing out: just a way to avoid the inevitable, “How can you possibly NOT believe in God?” questions from my believing loved ones.

    My friend’s dad, who is and has always been a Catholic, was mightily pissed off that his daughter’s memorial service (at Calvary Chapel) was more about the unsaved among her loved ones being in grave peril than it was about HER life.  Her own 20 year old daughter left the church in tears because she wasn’t allowed to eulogize her mother.  Yet the minister spent the better part of an hour using her mom’s death as an opportunity to proselytize to a chapel full of people who were there to pay their respects to the woman, whether they shared her faith or not.  I admit that after 3 1/2 years, I’m STILL pissed off about that.

    To get back to the article, I was surprised at the admission that any parent who wants to raise their child as an atheist or secularist would do best to:

    Move to a big city in just about any state, or move to a medium-sized city in a blue state, move to Takoma Park, or move to Canada if you can stay awake. Move to a university town.

    It’s nice to see that my own obsessive ruminations over the question, “If I leave Southern California, where can I go to live in peace and avoid being harassed for my tolerant, godless, liberal opinions (which I’m notoriously inept at keeping to myself)?” aren’t necessarily paranoid or abnormal.  Since my family has been subjected to discrimination by religious folks even here in Hollywood, the bastion of tolerance, liberalism and godlessness; I can’t help but wonder how much worse it would be anywhere else… and it’s scary.  Would I have to worry that instead of just being called a Devil Worshipper, my daughter would be physically assaulted by her classmates?

    Atheists, here and in other forums in which I participate, have been told that in many instances we come off as “militant and in-your-face” – but for every one of us who’s willing to brave the inevitable browbeating and attacks from the religious, there are probably 10 other infidels who just shut the fuck up and pretend to go along with the believers because they fear for their own and their children’s safety.  Someone has to have the balls to stand up and speak out against the discrimination that’s become somehow acceptable as the US slides ever closer to declaring itself a Christian nation.

    I truly wish that rather than having to assemble ourselves around big cities in blue states, atheists everywhere would insist upon their right to live unmolested wherever they wish.  Unfortunately, it’s simply too dangerous in some places for the godless to assert their First Amendment rights.  That this condition exists in America in the 21st century absolutely breaks my heart.

  27. Kevin: Okay, so by the same token an atheist can disbelieve in god’s existence without certain knowledge? In other words, atheism is a faith-based belief system. Belief without tangible proof being defined as an article of faith, of course.

    Les, do you agree with that statement? The rest of you?

    I would not agree with that.  I am an a-theist in that, based on my understanding of the universe, I do not believe there is a god. I lack the “god-belief” that a theist has. 

    That is different from saying “there is no god” which, while it may be shorthand for my position, is not an inclusive description of it.

    Atheism contains a range of degrees of certitude from “I do not know” to “I know there is no god” as theists like to say they know there is one.

    Agnosticism is a related but separate thing: a range of assessment about the knowability of god’s existence (which is different from saying he does or does not exist.)  An agnostic may say; “I don’t know but it is knowable in principle” or he may say “it is now knowable even in principle.”

    All of which is a waste of valuable screen pixels.  Some people look at the universe and say; “God did it” and others look differently at the same universe and say, “A god simply isn’t required to explain this.”

    Experts… whatever you think of dualling expertise, Websters is NOT an expert on everything anymore than Consumer Reports knows everything about cars, toasters, etc.  The dictionary is a good starting point but who knows more about atheism… an atheist or a committee of grammarians? If you want to know what atheism is about, ask an atheist!

    If you want to know if there’s a god or not, that is a different discussion.

  28. Kevin: You need to read what elwedriddsche wrote. “Agnosticism” and “gnosticism” are statements or descriptions about a human’s knowledge concerning the existence of a god or gods. “Atheism” and “theism” are statements about a human’s belief in a god or gods. They are not statements about the truth or falsity of claims a god or god’s existence or non-existence.

    If you get confused, please consult this handy chart:

    http://www.brentrasmussen.com/archives/2004/12/the_final_word.html

  29. Kevin asks…

    Okay, so by the same token an atheist can disbelieve in god’s existence without certain knowledge? In other words, atheism is a faith-based belief system. Belief without tangible proof being defined as an article of faith, of course.

    Les, do you agree with that statement? The rest of you?

    It appears to me you’re not reading my replies as otherwise you would already know I would not agree. I realize I tend to be long-winded, but that’s because I’m trying to be clear. I’ll try the short and sweet approach.

    Faith is belief without supporting evidence. Atheism is the absence of faith. The suggestion that one can have faith in one’s absence of faith is absurd and illogical.

    I’d also question if you understand the meaning of the word “tangible.” How would you have tangible proof of anythings non-existence? If it doesn’t exist then there’s nothing tangible to prove it doesn’t exist because it doesn’t exist. If we had tangible proof then it’s existence, or at least former existence, isn’t a question.

  30. I suppose the distinction between challenging the messenger and challenging the message is lost on you? I’ll try to keep that in mind when reading the rest of your comment.

    You’re the messenger and the author of the message. You started the conversation with an opening that I for one consider rude and I feel well justified to point this out to you. So?

    Surely you can see the fatally flawed premise in that argument.

    It was not an argument, it was a statement of fact.

    Okay, so by the same token an atheist can disbelieve in god’s existence without certain knowledge? In other words, atheism is a faith-based belief system. Belief without tangible proof being defined as an article of faith, of course.

    You keep arguing against your dictionary-induced straw man. As a reminder, you asked us to educate ourselves about the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, yet you yourself make no reciprocal effort.

    To repeat (as nauseam), at a minimum atheists are without belief that god (definition to be supplied by the theist) exists. It’s not an act of faith to lack belief in something for which no factual support is in evidence.

    Regarding the Christian god, its attributes as assigned by Christians lead to logical and moral contradictions. Therefore, omniscience is not called for to prove a negative.

  31. Brent, that’s a handy chart.

    I’m using a (poorly maintained) glossary that links first occurances of entries and synonyms back to the “house definition”. It removes ambiguity…

  32. With all due respect, I lend no small amount of credence to dictionary definitions because the dictionary doesn’t have an axe to grind. Merriam Webster isn’t arguing for or against any belief system. They merely define the words and leave the beliefs to others. Whereas atheists do have an axe to grind (likewise, I as a theist have an axe to grind).

    I realize that I can’t conclude that therefore the dictionary wins by default. But, it does seem to me that y’all are drawing somewhat arbitrary distinctions that are in line with your own professed belief systems. Whereas I haven’t turned to my belief system to define anything. I turned to what I view as an objective 3rd party – an internationally recognized dictionary.

    Les, I know that “tangible” can be parsed six ways to Sunday. One man’s tangible evidence is another man’s vivid imagination.

    I’ve read your replies. I just don’t find the argument that atheism is faithless to be convincing at all, much less rational.

    Perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree. What seems rational to me apparently strikes you as absurd. By the same token, what apparently seems rational to you strikes me as absurd. C’est la vie.

  33. Okay, so by the same token an atheist can disbelieve in god’s existence without certain knowledge? In other words, atheism is a faith-based belief system. Belief without tangible proof being defined as an article of faith, of course.

    Most people grow beyond the “is not” or “is too” kind of arguement once they’ve passed grade school. You seem to have just added verbosity to it.

    Is there a point in continuing discussion with you if you can’t even grasp the basic meaning of the term you’re throwing about?

    Let me repeat Les’ statement in case you missed it the last 17 times…

    Atheism is the absence of faith.

    Period.

  34. I just don’t find the argument that atheism is faithless to be convincing at all, much less rational.

    Perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree. What seems rational to me apparently strikes you as absurd. By the same token, what apparently seems rational to you strikes me as absurd. C’est la vie.

    You have two choices.

    Either you persist in arguing against atheism as defined by a dictionary, in which case you would be better served by seeking out other forums with like-minded members.

    Or you can educate yourself on what the position of atheists actually is, although it doesn’t appear that you are willing to make the effort.

    Your call.

  35. With all due respect, I lend no small amount of credence to dictionary definitions because the dictionary doesn’t have an axe to grind. Merriam Webster isn’t arguing for or against any belief system.

    A term like atheist is far to complex in it’s meaning to be summed up in a dictionary. Likewise terms like christian, muslim, democrat, republican and so on. If you want to know the real meaning of any of those terms, you ask the people who define themselves by them. A dictionary will give you only a basic aproximation.

  36. I just don’t find the argument that atheism is faithless to be convincing at all, much less rational.

    That appears to because you’re simple minded and don’t have the ability to understand relatively basic concepts.

  37. KPG, my definition of Christian is very simple – anybody calling himself or herself one qualifies. I have a nagging suspicion, though, that this definition would not satisfy quite a few self-professed Christians.

  38. KPG, my definition of Christian is very simple – anybody calling himself or herself one qualifies.

    I agree with that part, but what does the word mean? For that, I believe you’d have to ask the person with the label.

  39. Okay, so by the same token an atheist can disbelieve in god’s existence without certain knowledge? In other words, atheism is a faith-based belief system. Belief without tangible proof being defined as an article of faith, of course.

    This is insanity. There is no way to DISPROVE the existence of something, and this is even more the case when the something in question is not expected to conform to any discernable rules. That doesn’t mean, however, that assuming the existence of something on the basis of lack of disproof is just as logical as assuming the inexistence of something on the basis of lack of proof. Belief without tangible proof IS an article of faith, but you are creating a tautology in which disbelief without tangible proof ALSO becomes an article of faith, and therefore EVERYTHING is an equally valid article of faith.

  40. You have two choices.

    Either you persist in arguing against atheism as defined by a dictionary, in which case you would be better served by seeking out other forums with like-minded members.

    How much can one learn from dittoheads?

    Or you can educate yourself on what the position of atheists actually is, although it doesn’t appear that you are willing to make the effort.

    I certainly do accept each of your positions as it relates to how each of you defines your own beliefs vis-a-vis god or the absence thereof.

    It’s the definitions of “atheism” and “agnosticism” that I don’t buy. I mean no offense by that. I’m being perfectly upfront. How you guys are defining the words just don’t make sense to me.

    And I’ll grant that a huge part of that is because of the dictionary definitions. There is such an immense gulf between what the language experts say the words mean and what you adherents of those belief systems say the words mean that I’m unable to reconcile the two. It’s as if you were trying to tell me that the four-legged animal which meows when I forget to buy more catfood is in fact an alligator and that the dictionary definitions of “cat” and “alligator” are open to interpretation.

    Truth be told, I didn’t realize that so many of you were professed atheists when I first posted a comment. Had I known, I probably would not have commented.

  41. Yes, Kevin, we atheists may meow, but when we see fresh theist meat we’re alligators.
    I’ve followed this discussion, and it seems to be an excercise in futility, largely because you cannot accept that it’s possible to simply not believe in something without having “faith” or absolute knowledge that it doesn’t exist.  But it’s easy.  I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, and my disbelief is not a matter of faith.  It’s simply that I don’t believe in things for which I see no evidence, and especially things which can be explained by wishful thinking (such as the Tooth Fairy and God).  And absolute knowledge is not to be had, but can I assign the probability of the Tooth Fairy’s, and God’s, existence a number so close to zero that even God (and the Tooth Fairy, to be sure) wouldn’t know the difference.  Makes no difference to my belief- academic causistry.

    It also seems to me a bit arrogant to insist on accepting a dictionary definition of “atheist” over what thoughtful atheists say their position is.

  42. Truth be told, I didn’t realize that so many of you were professed atheists when I first posted a comment. Had I known, I probably would not have commented.

    How charming. Well, goodbye.

  43. Kevin responded to the suggestion he seek more like-minded company,

    How much can one learn from dittoheads?…

    But then went on to say,

    Truth be told, I didn’t realize that so many of you were professed atheists when I first posted a comment. Had I known, I probably would not have commented.

    Kevin, I just don’t understand you.  First you want to learn something, but then you don’t. Maybe the problem is here in the middle:

    There is such an immense gulf between what the language experts say the words mean and what you adherents of those belief systems say the words mean that I’m unable to reconcile the two.

    It’s not necessary to reconcile them. “Language experts” follow language around and try to codify what they can.  With hundreds of thousands of words to “define” the best they can do is approximate.  Usually it’s a committee that reviews each word.  The result is a helpful general tool but for more specific knowledge in any field, you have to go to the source.

    Suppose I showed up at the People’s Cafe in nearby Farmer City, IL and started telling the farmers gathered there that they didn’t really understand farming, because of something I read in some book. 

    It might make a difference if the book in question were a book about farming by someone with credibility in the field (pun intended) rather than a general book about lots of things, like a dictionary.  But they’d be pretty amused (if I was lucky) if the first words out of my mouth were, “The farmer still is adhering to a…”

    To date I have seen no evidence that there is a god.  Do you have any?  Anything at all that we can see, touch, taste, hear, smell, record on instruments, or calculate from experimental data.  Even one phenomenon that can in principle only be explained by a universal mind.  Anything at all?  That would be a much more interesting discussion.

  44. Your analogy doesn’t work, decrepitoldfool. If I showed a bunch of farmers a dictionary definition of “farming” they’d more than likely agree with it completely. Then perhaps some of them would point out varients on the form. But, I don’t think they’d disagree.

    Now, likely there’d be one or two who would exhibit some confusion over the difference between “farming” and “ranching” (and yes, there is some overlap between the two), but that would soon be sorted out by the group themselves and I’ve no doubt that it wouldn’t contradict the dictionary definitions.

    You guys, on the other hand, are turning the dictionary definitions on their heads. And then, in some cases, citing yourselves as the authorities… even though that’s a classic logical fallacy.

    I was raised by a farmer/rancher. So, perhaps a different example might have worked better. Not likely given the way you used this example, though.

  45. You guys, on the other hand, are turning the dictionary definitions on their heads.

    While I believe that it’s futile to continue with you, consider this:

    Historically, theists assign the group label ‘atheist’ to anybody that doesn’t share their (or at least another) god-belief, regardless of the position of the person that doesn’t have a god-belief. Given that atheists have always been in the minority, it is rather unsurprising that the dictionary definition is almost maliciously inaccurate.

    The reason why we tend to get annoyed with theists arguing from the dictionary is that we are first assigned a one-size-fits-all label and then told which position we are supposed to hold.

    So we turn the dictionary definitions on their heads? Damn right and about time, too.

  46. There is no contradiction with the dictionary, just simplification. You seem unable to comprehend it, that’s all.

    Let’s look at your definition.

    An Atheist, by definition, is one who believes (ie. to accept as true, genuine, or real) that there is no deity. In other words, an Atheist believe that there in fact is no diety.

    Nothing wrong with that at all. We have no faith or belief in the existence of a diety, therefore “a lack of faith” not a faith in non existence. You’re getting caught up in ridiculous semantics that are all in your head.

    I maintain that the definition is simplistic and needs expanding, whiich Les did marvelously, but as it stands, it is accurate.

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