The Beliefs of Atheists

In my last two posts I first made an attempt to define Atheism then an attempt to define Theism.  Granting that those terms have many and varied possible (and overlapping) definitions, I feel that what I’ve come up with will serve my purposes of being sufficiently precise while still being pretty close to how we normally use the terms most of the time. And this is the most we can hope for of any sort of definition of (non-mathematical) words. Let me repeat the definitions here:

Tentative Definition of Atheistic Rationalist (aka An Ideal Atheist): An atheistic rationalist is someone that seeks out the right kinds of explanations, namely ones that have survived the strongest criticisms and are highly (preferably computationally) specific and hard to vary, yet is always open to new ideas no matter what the source.

However, they do not accept any beliefs on mere leaps of faith and would rather not have their judgment (possibly) clouded by such faith-based beliefs. They’d rather see things as the naturalistically really are. Truth comes first for them. So they eschew all leaps of faith on the grounds that they may cloud our ability to find truth.

Theism: Theism is faith in a supernatural Something-like-God that makes sure there are appropriate (negative and positive) consequences for our actions (i.e. justice) served in the long run.

My feeling is that this is, at a minimum, a useful way of defining the words “Atheist” or “Theist.” (If, perhaps,  a bit idealized in the case of ‘Atheist’.)

In fact, I think there are some fairly common beliefs of Atheists that fit our definition pretty well and that the majority of Atheists would not object to. Here are a few that I feel are ‘defining’ of Atheistic-beliefs that seem consistent with the idea of accepting the ramifications of our best existing scientific theories whether they are likeable truths or not.

The Core Beliefs of Atheism

  1. The second law of thermodynamics (i.e. “Entropy of an isolated system increases.”) means that in the end all life will be extinguished to the point where there is no trace of it. Though this is not a desirable outcome, this is the real truth of what our fate will be. Therefore, this reality is not consistent with belief in a loving (and loveable) “God.” (i.e. Something-Like-God)
  2. Belief in “God” is a comforting but rationally unjustified belief (a point I agreed with in this post if you see “rationally unjustified” as the same as “believed through a leap of faith”. Your own semantic analysis may vary.) because it does not naturally follow from our best scientific explanations and (as per #1 above). We should learn to “maturely” accept this.
  3. We do not need to invoke “God” as an explanation for the complexity of life on Earth. The theory of natural selection shows how it is possible for complex life to evolve without the need to invoke “God” as an explanation.

Those first three are, in my opinion, the crux of atheistic beliefs. And, I might add, I accept all of the above as correct rational thinking if you are not going to allow yourself any sort of leap of faith.

This next list is further common beliefs of atheism that, in my view, are not justifiable by our best current explanations. But they are common enough that I feel they should be explored as well because they often also define the beliefs of atheism.

The Secondary Beliefs of Atheism

  1. Just as we do not need to invoke “God” as an explanation for the complexity of life, so we will probably not need to invoke “God” to explain how life got started.
  2. Just as we do not need to invoke “God” as an explanation for the complexity of life, so we will probably not need to invoke “God” to explain why the universe exists in its ordered form. We probably just need to invoke the Strong Anthropic Principle.
  3. And we certainly do not need to invoke “God” to explain morality. Atheists are as moral or, as we’ll see in the next point, more moral than Theists anyhow.
  4. Evil is caused by belief in falsehoods. Therefore Atheists are more moral then Theists and Theists might even be the root of all evil due to their false beliefs. Belief in “God” has caused more suffering and more wars than anything else in the world.
  5. The world is full of injustice precisely because we live in a mechanistic reality that does not care about us. This proves there is no “God.” (Feel free to consider the counter argument to this one as described in this post.)

Obviously, as I argued above, there is no true precise definition for ‘Atheist.” So it should not surprise us that not all Atheists accept what I am calling the “Defining Beliefs of Atheism.” In particularly, I think quite a number of Atheists (particularly Non-Literal Theist) would place a challenge or at least limits on #4 above. [1]

This second list of ‘secondary beliefs of atheism’ has, unlike the first list, much that can be rationally challenged about it. In particularly, a great deal of it is scarily false epistemology based on so-called ‘inductive reasoning.’ That is why I broke it out as a separate list. It is not the purpose of the current post to challenge these beliefs, however. Our current purpose is just to explore and understand Atheism.

I think the first point on the first list – the belief that the second law of thermodynamics implies that there is no “God” – is probably the most under rated challenge to Theism. There is truly no doubt that the second law — as we best currently understand it anyhow — does seem to imply exactly what is claimed in point #1: that eventually all trace of life will be wiped out in the end.

And my feeling is that point #1 is truly a (more narrow) view of the defining point of faith for all Theists – that no matter how much it might seem right now, Theists choose to have faith that life will not be wiped out by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Or, in other words, our definition of Theism above can be easily reworded into a related claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics will not imply wiping out of all that is good in the universe.

In other words, Theists believe that life (in an afterlife) will continue to exist and will do so either forever (as most Christians believe) or until we choose to be properly annihilated in some sort of nirvana on far more generous terms then atheism implies (as some Buddhists believe.)

In fact, I have as sort of intuition that the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics may be the practical dividing point between Theism and Atheism. (Though I will attempt to challenge that intuition in a future post to see if it can be criticized, I think it works for now at a point for deeper reflection on the meaning of “Theism” and “Atheism.”)

Conclusions

We now have a working way to look at both Theism and Atheism and how they relate to each other.

Theism chooses to have faith in Something-like-God (i.e. “God”) that fulfills our inner desires to see reality as a just place, once all is said and done.

Atheism believes that Something-like-God and a just reality is not implied by our current best scientific explanations and therefore sees itself as maturely dispensing with such unjustified faith and instead accepts as the truth that we live in no such reality.

Notes

[1] A full consideration of Non-Literal Theistic beliefs is outside the bounds of this post. Needless to say that most of them do accept that religion would be ‘better’ if we could believe in a non-literal God — like they do. (i.e. this is a specific truth claim.) But they also accept that this is not possible for some people that just aren’t “maturely” ready for such a belief. So I am going to argue that #4 is still, to some degree, a “defining belief” of most atheists, even non-literal theists. But this point can be accepted in varied degrees.

18 thoughts on “The Beliefs of Atheists

  1. That was enlightening Bruce, and I had not considered that about the implication of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Are there any atheistic scientists who have theorized about any organizational forces that might counter-balance the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics? After all, something must have created all the potential kinetic energy in the universe in the first place. And couldn’t whatever created it, create it again?

  2. What you call the ’2nd Law of Thermodynamics’ could equally be called death. From a purely rational perspective, death appears to be the end. The leap of faith is that it isn’t.

  3. I think your definitions are fine as long as the “rationalist” part is kept squarely in mind. Where I disagree with this atheist you have built is in the assumption that “explaining” or “understanding” are some of the most pressing obligations that we as humans have. If, however, we are justified in having beliefs which serve purposes other than explanation or understanding then this particular atheism isn’t looking quite so defensible.

  4. You write, ‘The second law of thermodynamics (i.e. “Entropy of an isolated system increases.”) means that in the end all life will be extinguished to the point where there is no trace of it. Though this is not a desirable outcome, this is the real truth of what our fate will be. Therefore, this reality is not consistent with belief in a loving (and loveable) “God.” (i.e. Something-Like-God)’

    Why is this incompatible with belief in a loving God?

  5. Wow, you’ve done an impressive job of describing atheists in a way that atheists themselves would recognize. Of course, atheists don’t all believe the same things as each other, so, please allow me to add my own versions of some of your claims.

    we will probably not need to invoke “God” to explain why the universe exists in its ordered form. We probably just need to invoke the Strong Anthropic Principle.

    I would say, rather, that invoking a “God” hypothesis for this question is not helpful because it does not simplify the problem nor does it produce better predictions than alternate theories. Same for points #1 and #3, and #3 of the earlier batch.

    Atheists are as moral or, as we’ll see in the next point, more moral than Theists anyhow.

    Athiests are not necessarily as/more moral as Theists. The evidence on this point is inconclusive at present.

    Evil is caused by belief in falsehoods. Therefore Atheists are more moral then Theists and Theists might even be the root of all evil due to their false beliefs. Belief in “God” has caused more suffering and more wars than anything else in the world.

    Belief in falsehoods can be a contributing factor, but I certainly don’t think it’s the cause, far from it. IMHO, evil is the primarily the result of ignorance and selfishness.

    Similarly, with respect to war (and other suffering), religion can be a contributing factor. But to claim that it is “the” cause is to oversimplify the dynamics of war and human nature to the point of missing the boat.

    The world is full of injustice precisely because we live in a mechanistic reality that does not care about us. This proves there is no “God.”

    Yes to the first sentence. But that is not a “proof” that there is no God. It merely means that the “no God” hypothesis is more consistent with our experience of the universe than the “God” hypothesis is.

  6. Nate,

    I will do a future post on a possible alternative interpretation of 2nd law from someone that self-labels as an atheist. I am trying to be thorough. I, on the other hand, would not consider him an atheists per se as per my own thoughts on this subject make clear.

    Jeff G said “If, however, we are justified in having beliefs which serve purposes other than explanation or understanding then this particular atheism isn’t looking quite so defensible.”

    Stay tuned. I have my “morality” posts that will soon make a similar point (and thus cross over to my “atheism” posts to some degree. You are a rare person in that you are even able to articulate this point.

    Agellius,

    I think you are misunderstanding. This is a hypothetical atheists talking. You have to ‘put yourself in their mind’ for a moment. The idea here is that all life is going to die and stay dead and there will someday be no life at all in any form (even God) and that all trace of it will be gone entirely. Given that scenario, I could trivially show that the fact that there is no life implies no God. (For here God is a type of life.) But emotionally, it goes deeper than that, of course, because this is a rather cruel thing to do to create life and then wipe it all out in horrific ways (at the end of time) and then not even give it a better afterlife. It is hard for me to see how that view could also be consistent with a loving God.

    But then really all this is saying is “if there is no loving God, then there is no loving God.” So it’s not really all that powerful an argument by itself.

    Chanson,

    Great points!

    Keep in mind that I was just offering up ‘common beliefs.’ I think your nuanced differences suggest you’re ‘more rational’ then the hypothetical atheist (i.e. real people I’ve talked to, though not all together in one person like this) that made the statements you take objection to.

  7. Bruce:

    You write, “I think you are misunderstanding. This is a hypothetical atheists talking. You have to ‘put yourself in their mind’ for a moment. The idea here is that all life is going to die and stay dead and there will someday be no life at all in any form (even God) and that all trace of it will be gone entirely. Given that scenario, I could trivially show that the fact that there is no life implies no God. (For here God is a type of life.) But emotionally, it goes deeper than that, of course, because this is a rather cruel thing to do to create life and then wipe it all out in horrific ways (at the end of time) and then not even give it a better afterlife. It is hard for me to see how that view could also be consistent with a loving God.”

    It’s hard for me to understand this entire scenario. It seems to imply a few things which strike me as odd:

    1. That an atheist believes that the the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to God also (since you say that all life will be gone entirely, even God, as a result of the Second Law).

    2. That the atheist’s conception of God *created* a universe in which himself as well as all other life is eventually going to be wiped out by the Second Law (a suicidal God?).

    3. That his conception of God created a universe in which there is no “better afterlife”.

    Where would an atheist get the idea of a God like this?

    I think that most atheists would start with the Christian idea of God and argue against that. And the predominant Christian idea of God is one in which he creates a universe which is separate from himself, and therefore he is immune to the effects of the Second Law; one in which all life will eventually be wiped out, but that will *not* include himself; and one in which there will be an afterlife in which those who are worthy go to a far better place.

    I don’t doubt that I’m misunderstanding you again. But I assure you that even if I am in debate mode, I still read and re-read your comment in an effort to make sure I wasn’t mis-reading it. That’s not to say I haven’t misread it, but if I did it’s not for lack of care and effort.

    To show a good faith effort at understanding you, I will make a guess at what you might be trying to say, which I might be failing to understand. Maybe you are saying that an atheist who fits your definition of an “atheistic rationalist” would assume that any God that might exist has to be part of the material universe — since nothing exists which is not — and is therefore subject to the Second Law.

    If this is what you’re saying, my response would be, that such an atheist is arguing against a God the existence of which the vast majority of Christians who have ever existed have never posited. He is welcome to define God for himself and argue against his own conception of God, if he wants to. But I don’t think most atheists argue against that kind of a God, because very few people argue *for* that kind of a God.

    If I’m just totally missing you due to being unable to “grasp the forest”, feel free to just say so and leave it at that. I have no desire to bait you into debating something you yourself are not interested in discussing.

  8. Agellius,

    I appreciate that you actually made an attempt to understand me this time. I can tell by how you worded things and didn’t try to debate me.

    To be honest, you’re making this *way* too difficult.

    Let’s back up and make it simple:

    An atheist (of this variety) does not believe in God.

    One reason why is because the second law, when extrapolated, means that all life will die out. So (goes their argument) life has no significance and will not last forever in a heaven. Indeed, there can be no heaven because the second law assures us that eternal life is physically impossible.

    This post will give you some context for what I am talking about. You should read it to get a first hand example of this point of view from a real atheist:

    http://www.millennialstar.org/imagining-the-end-of-the-world/

    The issue you are bumping into is that you’re trying to see their point of view through the lens of *your* beliefs instead of the lens of *their* beliefs. This is leading you to mix beliefs in mutually exclusive ways.

    My guess is that you want to shout out: but the way I, as a Catholic, believe, God is outside the physical universe so nothing in your (i.e. the atheists) argument matters! God is not subject to the second law!

    And, I think that is why, you said “Why is this incompatible with belief in a loving God?” because you are thinking of their point of view, but still assuming there is such a thing as a spiritual realm not subject to the 2nd law. Therefore when life gets wiped out, it will (in your belief system) still exist in the spiritual realm. So how is that unloving?

    But such a statement misses the whole point. These atheists *don’t accept Catholic doctrine about God* so they would see a universe that creates life only to wipe it out completely as the opposite of what a loving God would do. Because to them the *wipe out* is real and permenant.

    And — and this is the key point — YOU DO NOT BELIEVE GOD IS GOING TO WIPE OUT LIFE.

    This is the point you keep missing and is causing you to misunderstand. You have no issue with a universe with the 2nd law of thermodynamics precisely because you don’t accept that it has any sway over the spiritual realm. (Where as these atheists don’t accept the existence of the spiritual realm you believe in and give it no consideration.)

    There is no sense in which a universe that creates life only to wipe it out could be consistent with a loving God. And you are an example of this because you *do not* believe God is going to wipe out life, as these atheists do.

  9. Bruce:

    You write, “I appreciate that you actually made an attempt to understand me this time. I can tell by how you worded things and didn’t try to debate me.”

    Your constant presumption of the ability to read my mind, intentions and capabilities is becoming irksome. Can we not simply discuss the issues without introducing these personal matters?

    You write, “The issue you are bumping into is that you’re trying to see their point of view through the lens of *your* beliefs instead of the lens of *their* beliefs. This is leading you to mix beliefs in mutually exclusive ways.”

    I’ll try this again: You have an atheist arguing that the universe as we know it is “incompatible with a loving God” (your words: “Therefore, this reality is not consistent with belief in a loving (and loveable) ‘God.’”. So the atheist is disproving God based on the fact that if a loving God exists, then a life-destroying universe would not exist.

    The unspoken premise is that if God exists then he must be a loving God. But a loving God can’t exist based on what we know of the universe, therefore God doesn’t exist, period. Thus, “loving” is posited as an essential property of God, such that if his lovingness doesn’t exist, then he doesn’t exist.

    But where is he getting the idea of a loving God? Is it not from traditional Christian belief? If so, then why is he ignoring another essential property of God according to traditional Christian belief: that he is immaterial?

    If he’s going to ignore God’s immateriality because he doesn’t believe in an immaterial God, then why doesn’t he also ignore his lovingness since he doesn’t believe in a loving God? Why argue on the basis of the one while ignoring the other? He should argue against both or ignore both. Instead you have him simply assuming that the immaterial God doesn’t exist, while feeling the need to argue against the existence of the loving God.

    This strikes me as a very inconsistent atheist.

  10. My experience is that atheists do, usually, have a specific god they don’t believe in.

    As a theist whose beliefs run closer to Shintoism / animism, I personally don’t feel theism necessarily has to have anything to do with a desire for, or belief in, ultimate justice. I feel that gods and spirits are what they are, and are as varied as everything in the material world that they’re tied to. If I have a belief that “things will work out in the end,” it’s separate from my belief in gods.

    “Omnipotent” and “loving” gods, especially a single being who embodies those qualities, are usually assumed by both theists and atheists when arguing about theism, which is probably why the second law of thermodynamics entered the conversation. I personally see it as irrelevant to my beliefs — but then, I don’t feel that they have to explain the whole universe by themselves.

  11. Agellius says: “This strikes me as a very inconsistent atheist.”

    Agellius, this is a sincere question. Did you read (and do you remember) my post at the beginning of my “what is morality”? posts where I pointed out the inconsistency of the ‘problem of evil’ argument using C.S. Lewis? You just duplicated it here.

    The issue here is that I am not arguing with you. You just misunderstood the point of this post. This post is a sincere attempt to ‘summarize how an atheist would look at things’ and nothing more.

    So it attempts to take their premises about the world and summarize them. The premises include:

    1. Life is going to die out in horrible ways
    2. This is inconsistent with a loving God.

    Given those premises, you then asked “Why is this incompatible with belief in a loving God?”

    So I was trying to answer the literal question you asked from within the view point of those premises.

    What you are really asking is “isn’t this a contradiction since it requires us to first assume there is such a thing as love?” (See my post today on Error Theory. It’s not about love, but about morality. Same idea.)

  12. I just went through all this effort to try to come to a meeting of the minds, Agellius. And I was fully well behaved on this thread. Are you really going to leave this without a “oh, yes, we agree on this or that point (or now agree)?”

    Maybe not. But this is what I keep wanting us to be able to do. Actually come to agreement on somethings, build common ground, etc, and not have to make every agreement look like a debate where the only valid end is “well, I made my point!” or whatever, which is not really an end at all, just a giving up.

    We’re agreeing! Let’s celebrate!

  13. [You're screwing me up a little because you keep modifying your comments after I have already drafted a response to the version that I received by email.]

    Bruce:

    I think in everything we do in life, we need to weigh the costs versus the benefits of what we choose to put our time and effort into. I reached the point in this thread where I felt I had done what I set out to do. I think I made my point such that it is understandable to anyone who wants to understand it.

    You still have a problem with my position, apparently, although your last comment seems to miss my point. Yet I don’t feel that your missing my point is due to any defect in the way I expressed it. If I thought that re-expressing it would make it easier for you to understand, I might do that. But I think it’s clear as it is, so I don’t think further efforts at getting it across are necessary or worthwhile.

    Frankly I don’t understand what problem you still have with what I said. But since in both our recent threads, things have started to feel rather unpleasant, again it didn’t seem worthwhile to put further effort into trying to figure out what your problem is with what I’ve been saying, in light of the frustration and hostility that’s likely to result.

    In short, I thought we had reached a good stopping point.

  14. That being said, I’m not necessarily opposed to answering specific questions you may have, if you think that may help in some way.

  15. Thanks for the offer to answer specific questions. Let me give it a try:

    It seems to me that you are insisting that there is nothing inconsistent with the universe as we know it (i.e. “this reality”) and belief in a loving God. Right? And, if so, I agree.

    But do you see that the statement was specifically from the point of view of an atheist that (right or wrong) perceives reality differently from a Theist? (i.e. perceives reality as wiping us all out in horrible ways.)

    I guess I just don’t want to be ‘held accountable’ so to speak for a statement that was never intended to do anything but reflect on a point of view that I don’t even hold. I was only doing it as an attempt to try to see if I understood an opposing point of view and could restate it properly. (i.e. see comment #5. Chanson is an atheist. I was trying to ‘explain’ her point of view in a way she would accept. Not that I know if she accepts that particular point of not.)

  16. By the way, I’m going on vacation, so I won’t be able to respond for a while. (I cut the part about email. Nevermind. I probably won’t have it.)

  17. It seems I have nothing to do but repeat what I’ve already said, which was why I didn’t think there was any point in continuing.

    You write, “It seems to me that you are insisting that there is nothing inconsistent with this reality and belief in a loving God. Right? And, if so, I agree.”

    Yes, I do insist on that, but that wasn’t my point.

    You write, “But do you see that the statement was specifically from the point of view of an atheist that (right or wrong) perceives reality differently from a Theist? (i.e. perceives reality as wiping us all out in horrible ways.)”

    I see that that’s what you intended.

    You write, “I guess I just don’t want to be ‘held accountable’ for a statement that was never intended to do anything but reflect on a point of view that I don’t even hold. This is what I feel like you are doing to me.”

    Then you misunderstand me.

    You write, “I was only doing it as an attempt to try to see if I understood an opposing point of view and could restate it properly. (i.e. see comment #5. Chanson is an atheist. I was trying to ‘explain’ her point of view in a way she would accept. Not that I know if she accepts that particular point of not.)”

    The way I interpreted what you were doing, was stating the “common” and “core beliefs” of atheists. Thus you said, “I think there are some fairly common beliefs of Atheists that fit our definition pretty well and that the majority of Atheists would not object to”; and then proceeded to list them under the heading, “The Core Beliefs of Atheism”. (And at the end of the list, you say the list constitutes “the crux of atheistic beliefs”.)

    My disagreement is that the first item in your list is not a common, core argument of atheists against God’s existence. What I mean, more specifically, is that I don’t think most atheists (note that I’m speaking from the atheists’ point of view, not yours) start with the assumption that if a God exists he is loving, while not also starting with the assumption that if a God exists he is immaterial. I think they start with the whole package: All-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, eternal, infinite and immaterial. I think this is, by far, the most common conception of God in Western culture, and therefore the one that your common, average atheist is most likely to have in mind when arguing against God’s existence.

    An atheist may seek to disprove God’s existence by shooting down any one of these attributes, and different arguments tend to shoot down different ones. Thus, the “problem of evil” argument says that either God is not all-powerful, or he is not all-good (or all-loving). Since the underlying assumption is that he must be both, a conflict between two of his essential attributes is asserted (given the existence of evil, he can’t be both all-good and all-powerful), and this is said to disprove the fact that he exists at all. In other words, if *any* of his essential attributes can be disproven, then his whole existence is disproven.

    Yet you present an atheist who seeks to disprove God’s existence based on his lack of lovingness, using an argument that has as its premise that he is not immaterial. Basically, you’re presenting an atheist who argues against God’s existence based on the assumption that God (as traditionally and most commonly defined) doesn’t exist! Again if you can disprove any of God’s attributes, then you have disproved his existence. But this fictional atheist is starting his argument for God’s nonexistence with the assumption that the attribute of God’s immateriality has already been disproved (by science, or whatever). That being the case, God’s existence has already been disproved, and therefore he is using an assumption of the nonexistence of one of God’s essential attributes (which already disproves his existence) to disprove the existence of another of God’s essential attributes. Sort of like proving he is not eternal based on the assumption that he is not infinite (or vice versa).

    I simply do not believe that this is a common, core approach among atheists. If you had presented it as one *possible* argument that *some* atheist *might* make, I might not have found it worth quarreling over (though it still would have struck me as a strange argument for an atheist to make).

    In the spirit of trying to understand each other, I will say that given what I understand of your ideas about God and spirits, that they are in some way subject to the “laws of physics” (as you personally define such laws), it would make sense for an atheist who was taking this understanding of God for granted, to make this argument. But I think that understanding of God is a distinctly minority point of view, and not a “common, core” view even among atheists.

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