I’d like to now give some thought to the what Atheism and Theism really are and how they relate to each other.
Many of you might wonder why we’d need to give thought to this subject. Isn’t a Theist someone that believes in God and an Atheist someone that doesn’t? Case closed, right?
A question to consider: Is a Buddhist a Theist or an Atheist? And defend your choice.
The problem is that, despite our intuitions to the contrary, Theism and Atheism aren’t always such clear cut concepts. And, I’m going to argue there is even (in some cases) overlap between the two words such that we might legitimately, say, think of Buddhists as either Theists or Atheists, depending on what nuance or connotation of the two words we have in mind at a given moment.
The Original Meaning of Atheism?
Back when I was researching Karen Armstrong for my posts on her, I remember her claiming that the word “atheist” has changed meanings over time. According to Armstrong (though I don’t have a refence handy) orginally an “atheist” was someone that often believed in some Ultimate or God but rejected the prevailing view of God for their culture. As I expressed in my posts on Armstrong, I can’t take her with more than a grain of salt. Though clearly well educated, she uses her education in ways that often seem deceptive to me. (See here, here, here, and here.) So I’m not prepared to accept or reject her claim here, though she did give some examples of people that labeled themselves as “atheists” but still believed in something that sounded a lot like God. So it is interesting to consider the (realistic) possiblity that perhaps the word “atheist” did not originally mean someone that rejected all beliefs in God.
Now consider this survey (or the news story on it here and here) that found that 21% of atheists believe in God, and 10% pray (even more meditate). 12% of atheists believe in heaven and 10% even believe in hell.
Some might claim these people obviously don’t know what the word ‘atheist’ means. Or that the term has come to represent merely an objection to organized religion. But is that really the case? I don’t think the answer is so clear cut.
Pantheists and Deists
What about Pantheists and Deists? Are they Theists or Atheists? Is a Pantheists really an Theists? Or are they really an atheists that feels spiritual feelings towards the universe? Or does it differ from Pantheists to Pantheist?
And how, exactly, does a Deist differ from an Atheist? If “God” wound up the universe and then let it go — leaving us all to our fate due to, say, indifference or impotence, and with no afterlife to speak of – how does this “God” differ from, say, the Big Bang?
And if the Deist G0d did not leave us to our fate out of indifference (perhaps creating even an afterlife for us), then how is it really all that different then how many look at the traditional Christian God who once interceded does not today? Again, the answers to these questions aren’t so clear to me.
The Secret and Buddhism
What about believers in “The Secret”?
The concept behind “The Secret” (aka the Law of Attraction) is that physical reality is ultimately mental, so what you think about is what “the universe” supplies to you. This can be a real boon if you think about how you’re going to be successful and a real drag if you spend all your time worrying that something bad is going to happen to you.
So here is the question. Is someone that believes in “The Secret,” but not in God, an atheist or a theist?
Do we consider them to be “Theists” because “The Universe” hears and answers their prayers? Or do we consider them “Atheists” because they don’t believe in God and (from their worldview) just believe that the “laws of physics” happen to bring you what you think about?
Going back to the example of Buddhists now, I have also sometimes seen the claim that Buddhists, because they don’t believe in a God, are really atheists.  But honestly, is this what we really generally mean by “atheist”? This is an example I wish to come back to later and consider in more detail, but my intuition is that most people would generally consider Buddhists to be a type of Theist, not a type of Atheist. And this seems about right to me.
Recently I’ve seen a rise of the theological liberal that insist that they are ‘non-literal theists’ rather than ‘atheists.’ And, frankly, I do sort of see their point. To call a non-literal theists an ‘atheist’ is to automatically associate them with certain entrenched political viewpoints that they may not hold to. (Perhaps militancy against religion.) Yet, still, wouldn’t we want to say that a non-literal theist is technically a type of atheist? And if we did insist that they are not atheists, might that be a significant departure from how we usually think of the word?
And what about what we might call ‘Supernatural Atheist’? I am thinking here of self-proclaimed atheists – they literally believe in no God – that believe in ESP or even in the existence of ghosts or an afterlife? Is an atheists that believes in an afterlife (like the 12% that believe in heaven!) really what we mean by the word “atheist” in the first place? Or are they really a type of Theist, like Buddhists are? And if not, then aren’t Buddhists really atheists after all?
Atheists as Hard Headed Rationalists?
Thinking through these ‘marginal cases’ (is one-fifth marginal?) helped me refine my own internal “stereotype” of what I normally think of when I think of the word “atheist.”
I think that when we normally say “atheist” today, what we usually (but not always) have in mind is not a Buddhist, nor a “Supernatural Atheist,” but someone that doesn’t subscribe to any supernatural views. What we normally have in mind (at least in western societies) is a naturalistic, materialistic, so-called “hard headed rationalist.”
But What is a Hard Headed Rationalist?
But other than conjuring up a stereotype, I am not sure I could easily define the term “hard headed rationalist” either.
Perhaps we have in mind a materialist that believes in nothing but what is known to exist through science. She doesn’t believe in any sort of afterlife nor in mysterious beings, ghosts, forces, or authorities that we’re subject to. Perhaps the essence of what we (usually) mean by “hard headed rationalist” is someone that believes in the natural world and nothing else?
Of course this poses a bit of a problem, as we’re constantly discovering new aspects of the natural world. For example, would one be a “hard headed rationalist” if they believed space was filled with Ether (i.e. the substance that was supposed to have filled space so that light had a medium to move through)?
If someone believed in Ether today, we’d laugh at them and we’d certain deny them the label “hard headed rationalist.” But back in the 19th century, when Ether was a required part of our scientific theories because we didn’t know about the laws of electrodynamics yet, if you were a “hard headed rationalist” you would have scoffed at the idea that a wave like light could move around without a medium. It’s would have sounded as absurd as having water waves without water.
Quantum Mechanics is for Nutcases
But consider a reverse example. If you believed in something like quantum mechanics (read here if you want a full explanation)back in the 19th century, people would be right to think you were a nutcase.
i.e. “Oh really? You think these little photon thingies can actually interact with counterfactuals due to the existence of waves of what!? Probability waves? Have you seen your alienist lately?
But the same could be said (depending on what time period we pick) of belief in gravity, atoms, quarks, gluons, or just about everything we accept as ‘scientifically real’ today.
And What if Ghosts Are Real?
Now consider this another way. Suppose there really are such things as ghosts, but we just haven’t discovered them yet. Now suppose someone just saw a pot fly across the room and claimed it was a poltergeist. His brother, the hard headed rationalist, starts to look for a ‘scientific’ or ‘naturalistic’ explanation. But if ghosts later turn out to be real under some future theory of science and we later find out that the pot flew because of a ghost, the the correct ‘naturalistic’ or ‘scientific’ explanation always was that a ghost did it.
So merely saying a “hard headed rationalist” is someone that believes “only in the natural world” is actually a fairly vague sort of definition that isn’t very helpful by itself. Though, again, it does seem to conjure up a certain image nevertheless.
Epistemology and the Hard Headed Rationalist
I have written at length on the subject of epistemology, which is the theory of how we gain knowledge. Now is the time to apply this to the concept of a “hard headed rationalist.” (You may want to read up on this summary of what we know about how we gain knowledge.)
My suspicion is that most people that consider themselves “hard headed rationalists” believe something like this:
The Baconian View of Hard Headed Rationalism: A hard headed rationalist is someone that doesn’t believe in myths but only in things proven by science.
The problem is that there is no such thing as “things proven by science.” That was the old Francis Bacon view of how science works though inductive reasoning. It is a false view. Karl Popper showed that science does not ‘prove’ anything.
What science actually does is take two theories — which are explanations of something — and compare the two and determine which of the two fits reality better. There a many ways to make such a determination, but the crown prize of critical inquiry will always be an experiment based on actual observations that is setup to judge between exactly where the two theories make differing predictions. The theory that made the correct prediction wins and the other loses.
By moving from better to better theory (or explanation) we can know that each theory has greater verisimilitude (i.e. closeness to reality) then the last. But it is impossible to actually prove an explanation to be correct. So there is no such thing as ‘scientific fact’ or ‘proven science’ in the sense that many “hard headed rationalists” have in mind.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that this Baconian view of rationalism is what gets us closest to what we mean when we say “Hard Headed Rationalists.” We mean “someone that believes only things proven by science.” But such a person would – by definition – be rationally inept when it comes to epistemology. So, again, I find myself questioning the concept of the “hard headed rationalist.”
I’m Popperian: What I Mean By “Rationalist”
Now let’s talk about what a true “Rationalist” is like. Using Karl Popper’s more correct epistemology (as opposed to Bacon’s false epistemology) I think a better understanding of a “rationalist” (maybe not so much the ‘hard headed’ variety) is something like this:
The Popperian View of Rationalism: A 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 or insight no matter what the source.
This view of “rationalist” works better even if it may not be what we originally had in mind when we thought of a “hard headed rationalist.” For one thing it helps deal with some of the above problems previously mentioned, such as 19th century belief in Ether or 20th century belief in Quantum Mechanics. Since a true “rationalist” believes “the… explanations… that have survived the strongest criticism…” the beliefs of a rationalist is always contextually specific to a given time.
And since there is currently no theory of science that demands the existence of ghosts, so we would never think of belief in ghosts as “rational” until some latest theory of science requires belief in ghosts.
Rationalism and Myth
But this means that we must accept that at any given moment that a “rationalist” might be proven entirely wrong on some point that, a moment before, seemed like pure myth. This has happened many times before. One famous example of this was the existence of meteors. At one time “rationalists” thought the idea of rocks falling out of the sky was nothing more than a frenzied mind. Later, it was what any rationalist believed.
This is why a true “rationalist” must always be ‘open’ to any source of new insight. Popper showed that ‘myth’ is the beginning of truth, not the opposite of it.
The Placebo Effect
An even better example of a myth turned science is what we now call “the mind-body connection.” At one time the idea that one can “think themself well” was something no one but an over-zealous Theist (like, say, Christian Scientist) would believe.
But today, the mind-body connection is an accepted part of science. To be sure, once the mind-body connection was documented we quickly cloaked it in scientific clothes and threw out the old religious ways of looking at it. We call it things like “the placebo effect.” Nevertheless, the mind-body connection is a great example of how rationalist can turn out to be completely wrong on some point and the believer in myths can turn out to be much closer to the truth.
That is why a true “rationalist” will not have disdain for myths and traditions even if they must sometimes disprove them.
Theism and Rationalism
This brings me to a point that I’m afraid I’m going to have to part ways with many a Theists over. Belief in God is not based in rationality. It’s an act of faith.
I am not suggesting that belief in God is in any way irrational, however. And I do buy into John Polkinghorne’s argument that the value-ladden nature of reality fits comfortably (and perhaps even fits better) if we assume the existence of some sort of “God.”
But belief in God is not currently a requirement of our current best theories and explanations.
Proving God Through Science
I have never been one to buy into the idea that science can’t prove the existence of God. Of course it could. If God decided to initiate the Second Coming today and we could interview Jesus on the 10 pm News, that would constitute a requirement that our best scientific theories must now accommodate the existence of God.
But that is not our current situation in mortality. We Theists all do accept the importance of faith in this life. And this is good, because we do walk by faith (2 Cor 5:7) in this life. When we choose to believe in God, we do not part with our rationality, but we do exceed it through a leap of faith. We are consciously choosing to believe in more than is required by our current best theories.
If you look over the suggested Popperian definition of a Rationalist, a Theist can be a rationalist if they can accept the faith-based nature of their beliefs. However, many Theists probably do not qualify as Rationalists if they don’t even realize the faith-based nature of their beliefs.
Atheism and Rationalism
But then, given that definition of Rationalism, probably most Atheists do not qualify as Rationalists either, for the precise reason they think of themselves as Baconian-style “hard headed rationalists.” (And, as we’ll see in future posts, there are other issues outside the scope of this post to consider.)
But I don’t think there is anything inherent in atheism that bars one from being a rationalist either. Indeed, being a ‘rationalist’ is really about use of correct epistemology , so rationalism is open to atheists, theists, agnostics, and even fideists alike.
Does Atheism Imply “No Leaps of Faith”?
This brings up a possibility for how one might look at an ‘ideal atheistic rationalist.’ Is, perhaps, an ideal atheistic rationalist someone that accepts our best scientific explanations as having the best verisimilitude (i.e. match with reality) but does not – unlike their theistic counterpart – believe in anything on faith?
For example, a Theistic Rationalist might believe in spirits for religious reasons, but not believe in more conventional ‘ghosts’ because they are not required any current scientific theory. They fully accept that their belief in spirits is faith-based. They also accept that this belief is not required by any current scientific theory. They are fully aware they are making a leap of faith on that point for religious reasons. (Though perhaps they have some ‘reasons’ for why they think spirits are real, like perhaps personal experiences.)
Might we then not view an Atheistic Rationalist as merely someone that did not make such a leap of faith? And might we then see an Atheistic Rationalist as someone that makes no such leaps of faith at all? So might we not define “Rational Atheism” as something like this?
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.
Might this be a pretty good working definition of a Rational Atheist? Does it at least maybe get us close to the Atheistic ideal?
At a minimum, I think this is typically how Rational Atheists see themselves (even if, being human, they don’t always reach their ideals).
A Spectrum of Atheism?
I know Practicing-but-Not-Believing Mormons love to talk about ‘spectrums’ and often even invent spectrums that don’t exist in real life. But might there not be a ‘spectrum’ of atheists? Maybe ‘ideal atheists’ are like we’re now defining them (above) and they are 100% atheist.
And maybe ‘praying atheists’ are somewhere between atheist and theist, as are Buddhists. Or maybe non-literal theists are 90% atheists and 10% theists? And maybe Pantheists or Deists are 50/50?
I think these are question worth some pondering in some future posts. But for now, discuss.
 Actually, some forms of Buddhism do accept the existence of “gods” but these are more the pagan concept of “god” and have more in common with something like a wind god then the Christian concept of God. They are not what we might call “creators” or even in any way “personifications of morality” like the Christian God is. So in some way using the word “god” in this sense is misleading to westerners.
 use of correct epistemology… The real truth is that no one uses the correct epistemology all the time. In fact, we’re probably lucky or blessed if we can on occasion think correctly. Luckily Popperian epistemology shows how we don’t have to individually be Popperians to have epistemology work in our favor. We merely have to have an open society where criticism can’t be squelched by violence. So there is probably a sense in which none of us are Rationalists. But there I no need to be cynical about this. A person who sincerely strives to be open and has that as a goal probably can make great strides in this regard (through, say, use of double blind studies) and in my opinion, such a person deserves the title ‘rationalist’ precisely because they know they aren’t always rational.