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Could Atheists please clarify what they mean? November 4, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: , ,

In response to a question posted by Mark Silversides at  http://blog.marksilversides.com/2012/10/15/could-atheists-please-clarify-what-they-mean/

For me, clarifying what I mean about atheism really has to start with clarifying definitions.  People throw around words like “god” and “supernatural” all the time, but mean so many things by them that any discussion often turns into a bewildering mess of shifting goalposts.

So – first, a “being”.  For this I will use the definition:

Something that has the ability to think, is self-aware, and has the ability to interact deliberately with something other than itself.

A computer thinks, but is not self-aware, so computers are not beings (yet).  An oyster can interact with its environment, but I’m pretty sure does not think, so not oysters.  A rock might theoretically be self-aware and able to think, but if all it’s capable of doing is sitting there being a rock, I’m not going to call it a being.  Under “beings” I’d definitely put humans, the other great apes, dolphins, and any other animal that passes the mirror test.  This is not an either-or category; there are lots of living things that somewhat fit this description.  Cats, for instance.

“Supernatural”: our natural world is composed of a four-dimensional space-time continuum, containing matter, energy, physical forces, and the consistent ways those things behave, which we describe with natural laws.  For something to be “supernatural”, it would need to, in whole or in part, consist of something other than that.

Now a “god” is trickier.  Thinking about all the hundreds of gods that I’m familiar with that humans have at one time or another believed in, I’ll go with this definition:

A “god” is a supernatural being who

  • Has the ability to interact in some way with our physical universe
  • Is interested in the affairs of humans on this planet
  • Is capable of communicating in some way with humans
  • Does actually communicate with humans
  • Has opinions about the things humans should or should not do
  • Is able to affect our universe in ways that are not consistent with observed physical laws

If a proposed being is missing any of the above qualities, I don’t think we are really talking about a “god”. (I’m open to modifying this definition, as long as the final definition still encompasses most or all of the “gods” that humans have believed in over the ages.)

So when I say “There is probably no god” I mean that I have seen insufficient evidence for me to believe in the existence of any being meeting the above definition.

Sure there might exist an ultra-powerful being with no interest in or interaction with humans at all.  I might describe such a being as a “god” if I ever met one, but that sort of a god is not relevant to most of the god-beliefs held by humans. When someone is trying to persuade me of the existence of their “god” they usually don’t mean a vague deistic being with no relevance to our lives.  (I also don’t see the point in holding a “belief” in such a deistic god, if there is no evidence for one existing, and no actual benefit to holding that belief.  If someone finds a belief in such a being comforting, I rarely challenge them on it, since it’s not the believers in a deistic god that are trying to make their religious beliefs into public policy.)

I’m not clear on what you mean by god being “personal”.  Do you mean having a self-aware intelligence?  Or behaving like a “person” with desires and emotions?  Or do you mean a being that is interested in interacting directly with humans, as in the oft-quoted “close personal relationship with jesus”?  Or in the sense of being private to an individual, as in “That’s personal”.  So this is a point that could use some further clarification on your part.

As to the fascination with neuroscience, that’s an easy one to explain for me (and it has nothing to do with “the ghost in the machine” or anything like that).  I have come to the conclusion that all gods are human creations.  But there has never been a culture found without supernatural beliefs.  Every primitive tribe we have researched has had some kind of religion.  So there must be something about the way the human brain functions that leads us toward superstition, leads us to creating gods, leads us to organizing those beliefs into a religion.  So my question is “what is it about human minds that makes religion inevitable?”  (And the secondary question of “…and can anything be done about it?”)

I’ve done a lot of reading on this subject, and found writings by Michael Shermer and Valerie Tarico to have been especially helpful in working out the answers to this for myself.  That led me to a fascination with all types of cognitive biases, and why we might have them, and how they affect our lives.  Our brains don’t work half as well as we think they do, but the more we understand this, the more we can catch our own shortcuts and mistakes and become better critical thinkers.




1. Lorena - November 4, 2012

Well said! I am atheist when it comes to Bible god. That’s a sure thing. That there could be some invisible reality I can’t deny it, but I can’t care either.


2. chicagoja - November 4, 2012

Like your post. I find the whole debate about the existence or non-existence of God rather interesting, but from my perspective the questions aren’t necessarily framed properly and the definition of god is not all-encompassing. For example, from your list of bulleted items which define god (see above), I would chose only the last bullet. Yes, that puts us in some other category – as you put it an ultra-powerful being with no interest in interacting with humans. However, again I think that the perspective is not all-encompassing. I might label this category as an ultra-powerful being that has created a world where he does not need to interact, one where the very point of creating such a universe was the exercise of man’s free will. That doesn’t all together preclude, however, some indirect contact with humans and that would further lead us to defining those entities/conditions and so on. We might even find that what some people define as contact from God, is actually contact of another sort. But I like the way that you rationalize your way through the maze and avoid most of the land mines.


myatheistlife - November 4, 2012

Is god as you describe it worthy of praise and worship? Is it in fact worthy of being called a god? If all other descriptions of a god are not applicable except this nebulous ‘there is something out there’ claim, is that any kind of god at all? How is that any different than no god at all? Why need a god?


chicagoja - November 4, 2012

As Voltaire said, “If God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him”. That usually leads people to define their god in a very personal way. Conditions, conditions, conditions. Everybody has conditions. After all, just why does God have to be worthy of praise and worship? Why does God have to meet our human ideas of what God should be like. What if God simply is? As to why we need a god at all, I would say that some people could live their lives just fine without a god. However, in a perfect world people are usually better off knowing the truth, whatever it is. Our knowledge (or belief) of who we are can affect our attitude towards life and ultimately the joy that we derive from living.


myatheistlife - November 4, 2012

@chicagoja – I want to know if a god is worthy of worship for a simple reason. If a god exists and is not worthy of worship there are but two things I feel that I can do – Kill it or call it friend. I don’t think enough people give thought for that. What if god turns out to be rather despicable? Or perhaps some scientist who let an experiment go awry? The proof of the existence of a god is only the beginning of the story. After that I decide which of my two options are most appropriate… or beneficial depending on the facts. I don’t assume that proof of a god will mean that this god would be a beneficent being.


chicagoja - November 5, 2012

I appreciate your scholarship and your inquisitive mind, but unfortunately some things are unknowable. That’s why the term faith was invented. Even science has reached a place where new discoveries are mere theories – formulas on a chalkboard so to speak. Unless man suddenly evolves, we will be forever looking into the unknown and pondering what eternity is like.


myatheistlife - November 5, 2012

Then it remains that such a vision of a god is no different than no god at all. Makes little difference to me at all. No god or a god that looks like no god at all… same same.


3. Matthew Chiglinsky - November 4, 2012

I call myself an atheist because I don’t worship anything. I don’t worship people (real or imaginary), and I don’t worship gods (real or imaginary). I choose right and wrong based on the potential consequences of my actions and the type of world in which I would like to live. Jesus had one thing right: the Golden Rule, which is pure logic and has nothing to do with the supernatural.


4. Graham - November 5, 2012

If the golden rule was logical everyone would abide by it. You can choose wrong and become wealthy as a consequence and see that as o.k , the type of world that you are happy to live in. God is worthy of worship not least because he represents a moral absolute through the person of Jesus, something over and above our human nature and our own individual interpretation of what good is. A scientific explanation of God is unlikely as the transforming power and the experience of God are found in the mind and emotion. The explanation need not come from the cognitive imperative of being human ( as a means of comfort ) or solely through brain chemistry. Perhaps we are made for God, Perhaps we are made for spiritual experience with him. Maybe we are to evolve into spiritual beings. Perhaps faith and belief are required to gain that experience. Perhaps sin separates us from that experience and contrition is required to activate grace to retrieve it.. Maybe prayer and the word are stimulants for the holy spirit. Perhaps the holy spirit is to humans what radio waves are to a Radio. ( the brain no more than a spiritual receptor ) An unseen power like gravity where we observe the effect but not the thing itself. Is this a truth that changes us for the better, motivates us to good, brings us to communion with our creator. Why should there be a thinking emotional being at the end of all this seemingly random complex evolutionary biology. If we do not consider the possibility, make a wholehearted leap of faith. embrace improbability as opposed to critical thinking. I don’t think we get the benefit of a relationship with God nor the rather distinct experience when we call on his name. Nothing ventured nothing gained.


ubi dubium - November 12, 2012

Maybe…perhaps…perhaps…maybe. Take a “Leap of Faith”.

In every other part of our lives, taking a leap of faith is a “Really Bad Idea”.

Maybe the brakes work on this old car I just bought, so I’ll take a leap of faith and drive it down this steep hill.

Perhaps the hot guy I met online is exactly what he seems to be, so I’ll take a leap of faith and meet him in a dark alley.

Maybe this miracle cure the guy on TV is selling will cure my medical problems, so I’ll take a leap of faith and skip going to the doctor.

Why should a “leap of faith” suddenly be a good idea? Why should adding “religion” make it somehow OK? I think the “leap of faith” should be completely avoided.


Graham - November 18, 2012

Well i don,t think jesus is going to kill you in that kind of way a mere shift in thinking wont put your life in mortal peril, the analogies are funny enough though. Surely the brakes will work and the car is worth more than you payed for it. At the end of the dark alley is a wonderful restaurant, he buys you a perfect meal and you find the love of your life. Your T.V cure is medically recommended and costs less than your doctor. Check out the Car Guy Cure. Why not investigate a little closer.


ubi dubium - November 19, 2012

And if you actually believe all those things, then I have some real estate in South Florida to sell you!

“Investigate a little closer” is exactly the point. Or a lot closer. And a for lot of us, when we investigated religion, we found that there was nothing there but smoke and mirrors, and a lot of wishful thinking. Together with a group of people who expected us to devote great heaps of our time, energy, and especially money to their pie-in-the-sky fantasies. If I just believed everything that somebody told me was true, without checking it out thoroughly, I’d be a sick, broke, gullible sheep. No thanks.


5. homoeconomicusnet - November 8, 2012

You might want to check out Peter Singer on personhood and the animal world. Sounds like you would enjoy/appreciate if you have not already.



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