Monday, August 2, 2010

Atheism vs. atheism

So, what is the difference between 'a' and 'A'?  My musically inclined friends would say that you play the 'a' chord one octave higher than the 'A' chord.  But seriously, let's get a formal definition of atheist out of the way early.
Main Entry: athe·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈā-thē-ˌi-zəm\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French athéisme, from athée atheist, from Greek atheos godless, from a- + theos god
Date: 1546
1 archaic : ungodliness, wickedness
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
So let's just deal with the archaic meaning quickly.  I think this describe nihilism for the most part.  'Nough said. I think the definition in '2a' fits the bill pretty well with what most of us think.  Notice that there is no reference to science or even general superstition for that matter.  It is quite possible to be an atheist and believe in horoscopes, ghosts, vampires, etc., since none of those things involve a deity.  The only qualifier is the disbelief in a deity.  Now, the definition could be a bit stronger and say deities, but I guess the assumption is that if you don't believe in one, you aren't likely to believe in others.  I think this assumption is wrong.  I'm also curious about the lack of an 'a' in front of deity.  I think a better definition would be 'a disbelief in the existence of any deity.'  I'll have Merriam-Webster get right on that!

So, if that is what a little-'a' atheist is, what is a big-'A' atheist?  I think the description as provided by Crommunist is pretty good and is summarized from a talk given by PZ Myers in Vancouver a few days ago. 
We’re not Atheists by accident, or because we haven’t yet heard how awesome YahwAlladdha is, but because we reject superstition and appeals to invisible authority as a basis for building a functioning society. We believe that evidence, reason, and an abiding respect for humanity is a much higher standard to which human beings should be held than the fear of a paternal sky-genie.
PZ later also explained that some atheists are "nihilists, believing that because there is no God, life is therefore meaningless."  I would venture to say that it is safe to assume that most people that fall into the big-'A' Atheist description tend to consider themselves as humanists, and being atheist, secular humanists.  I believe it is this humanist philosophy that drives Atheistic morality.

A misconception of Atheists (I'm pretty much done with the little-'a' atheist at this point) is that since they tend to be motivated by science, that science itself drives their morals.  I think it is important to note that science is by no means a substitute for any moral authority.  Science is pretty much amoral, nothing but a cold hard process and methodology to discover the truth.  While there are some Atheists out there that have proposed that science may one day be able to explain morals and ethics sooner rather than later.  Sam Harris gave a talk at TED about this.  I think Michael Specter, in his TED talk on Science Denialism said it best about science being nothing more than a process.  Outside of that process, there are serious discussions that need to be had about what science discovers and those are areas of law, ethics, morality, and even intellectual property.  I do not think it is accurate to believe that science alone can drive the morality of anyone, Atheist or theist.  Atheists replace religion's morality with the humanist philosophy.  While the Bible itself does have some very good morals in its pages, I think it fails miserably in many others, and therefore, falls well short as a basis for a moral code of conduct.


  1. I agree that atheists don’t get their morals from science—obtaining the knowledge of right and wrong is not something that the scientific process can accomplish—so, there must be sources of knowledge other than science. You suggest it comes from philosophical reasoning. Obviously I would say that atheists and non-atheists alike get their knowledge of right and wrong from their Creator. It certainly isn’t a product of evolution. If that knowledge provided some kind of evolutionary advantage the world would not be full of wars and rapes and STDs and unwanted pregnancies and just the general hatred and selfishness we’re all so familiar with. You say that the Bible has some good morals in it but fails miserably in others. Although I’m pretty sure strict adherence to the set of morals presented in the Bible would pretty much eliminate the above problems, a Christian (or non-Christian) focus on morality totally misses the point of the Bible-it’s not about morality.

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  2. Continued from previous comment

    (From facebook post) I don’t know what it says about Christianity that it seems to “perform” so poorly other than that there are people that twist their professed allegiance to science to their own misguided and sometimes atrocious ends, just as there are those who twist their professed Christianity to their own misguided and sometimes atrocious ends. Maybe it’s a comment on the inadequacy of a moral perspective in general—regardless of where they come from, none of us can live up to them. A tremendous amount of harm has been accomplished under the guise of morality associated with both science and Christianity. Though some people don’t really believe the beliefs or principles they profess, or abandon them temporarily for various reasons, those are people, not the beliefs. You would not suggest that individual misuse of the principles of science or atheism invalidates it to the point you can’t believe in it any more than I would abandon Christianity because someone said, “I can’t believe in something where its members would ‘do that.’”

    At the same time, I’m pretty sure that the majority of mainstream Christianity, and yes, even the Christian Right, understands that what’s going on at the church in Gainesville, and in so many of the other stories you post about, is simply wrong and condemns it with the same vehemence you do, but you seem to want to paint all of us with the same brush.

    But even that misses the point of Christianity. Although there is a place for moralism in Christianity, that’s mainly for Christians to help hold other Christians accountable (go ahead, take all the shots you want at that one), not to try to make us look holier than anyone else or oppress them. The point of God’s law is not that it’s something that Christians are supposed to try to enforce and lord over other people—“Christians” that take a moralistic perspective themselves don’t understand this. God’s law is supposed to be a mirror that shows us that we can’t ever hope to be good enough or perfect enough to live up it so that we have to recognize the need for a Savior. It’s to show us that we can’t do anything by ourselves—we can’t be good enough—to save ourselves, so we need the salvation plan God provided for us. A lot of people don’t like to be told that they can’t be good enough but that’s what the Bible pretty clearly says. The good works that Christians are “supposed” to do are not to obtain God’s favor but are a response to his mercy. People also don’t like the idea that this makes any sin just as bad as any other-but if I thought my sins were not as bad as someone else’s, I could think I’m better than they are and that I could do something, however little, to save myself. Also, if God didn’t say "no sin is unforgivable," how could I ever be sure my sins were forgiven. Sorry about my sometimes sarcastic responses—not very Christian. For whatever it’s worth, somewhere in all of this is a sincere desire for you to know the same love and forgiveness that I believe in.


    Note to Karl: I agree-not the consensus you're looking for. :)