My personal Atheism (or Me! Me! Me! Look at me! It’s all about me!)

February 19, 2007

Recently I was engaged in a discussion about the influence of various religions on government, during which Atheists were identified as one group amongst the many of religious interest groups exerting pressure to change government policy in support of their personal beliefs. I was surprised by this, as I have always seen Atheism as an absence of religion, rather than believing religion to be false. Unfortunately, people who identify as Atheists are not a homogeneous group, with many espousing beliefs very different from my own, and so I would like to clarify just what I mean when I say that I am an Atheist.

Firstly, I don’t want to get into a pedantic argument about the semantics of the term. What I mean when I say that I am an Atheist is likely something very different from what someone else who identifies as an Atheist might mean. There is no holy book or ultimate authority that defines what makes one an Atheist – it is largely a self adopted term, and as such is open to a certain amount of interpretation. I could probably identify as an agnostic or non-theist, but I think that the connotations of the label “Atheist” best reflect the strength of my conviction on the matter.

To address the most common misconception, while I cannot speak for anyone else who might identify as an Atheist, I personally do not believe that there is no god. I would consider belief in such an unfalsifiable premise to be profoundly hypocritical, implying that I have the same blind unquestioning belief that I distrust in religion. Rather, I would say that I am not satisfied that there is any scientifically verifiable evidence to support the existence of a god, and thus I consider it perfectly reasonable to live my life as though said god does not exist. Because this view is based on evidence, if I were to be presented with scientifically valid proof of the existence of a god, then I would have to change my view of the universe accordingly.

Ah, but surely if you acknowledge that there is no way of proving the non-existence of a god, it is intellectually dishonest to claim to be an Atheist? Surely the only tenable position to take is one of Agnosticism?

Well, does a Christian consider themselves to be agnostic about the existence of fairies? Or Zeus? Because by such logic they should. Despite what it may mean to others, to me Agnosticism is in danger of being perceived as being a middle ground where we advocate similar probabilities to existence and non-existence – and I am not at all comfortable with this perception. I think that the existence of the great Christian sky fairy is an extraordinary claim that goes against much of what we have come to know about the universe (so far), and as such, the burden of proof lies on the one making the claim, not the one who questions it.

(Yes, I do realise that it all depends on how you define an Agnostic – or for that matter an Atheist – and that is why I am going into so much contextual detail. It is also worth bearing in mind that not all definitions of the various flavours of non-theism are actually advocated by non-theists. The Straw Man logical fallacy is applied all to often.)

So, I think that my view of Atheism is not at all like a religion because there is no fundamental text or dogma which is believed without question – rather it is based on what we have so far learned about the universe we live in, leaving me vulnerable to new or contradictory evidence. This is how the scientific method should work (in practice agenda often to clouds this ideal) and how religious thinking most often does not.
I believe the neutral state of a representative government is secular, and by this I refer to an absence of religiosity and dogma of all kinds – including any kind of dogmatic Atheism. I do not begrudge people the comfort of their personal beliefs, and to be fair, we know so little about the universe that it always remains a possibility that some particular flavour of religious belief may one day be proved true – but while we lack evidence to support any such claim, surely the only equitable solution is to base laws and government on the foundation of what we know, rather than what we believe?

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