I’m looking for some new and interesting documentaries. I want to watch ones on religion, conversion (and deconversion), sexuality and gender, abortion, and educational reform. Does anybody have any good documentaries to recommend?
On Tuesday, during my weekly interfaith supper, I was discussing the book Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler. About two weeks ago I was lent that book during the interfaith tea time that we host. He was a Catholic and I was discussing why I’m an atheist with him. I’m not really sure why, but he decided to loan me the book (we had just met and he lives on the other side of the country). In the end we did a book exchange: I gave him Faitheist to read. But I’ll get more into this in another post when I talk about why I didn’t like Jennifer’s reasons for becoming a Catholic.
Anyway, we were discussing the book in the interfaith supper and I mentioned how I found her reasoning to be problematic. As a result of my disagreement with how the author came to her conclusion, a pastor friend of mine asked me if I always think about things so rationally. To me, that is a silly question. Of course I think about things rationally. How else could I know anything? But that’s not how the mostly Christian group saw things. To them, Jennifer Fulwiler’s conversion story makes perfect sense. To them, the question wasn’t why she used that rational to come to Catholicism, it was why do I think her rational matters?
I think this is one of the biggest reasons why atheists and theists so often talk past one another. We see rationality differently. I know that theists don’t expect the same level of rationality that I do, and I know that they don’t understand why, or even how I can, expect so much rationality. But I can’t understand how theists can be happy with not having that level of rationality used. How can someone be happy to just take something on faith?
I think it’s important to realise the different value given to rationality when discussing faith, belief, and conversion with someone who disagrees with you on those subjects. Especially where conversion is concerned.
Anti-theism is another non-theism that gets confused with atheism. People often assume either that all atheists are anti-theists or that anti-theists are atheists and all atheists share the same opinions as the anti-theists do. Both beliefs are problematic.
Where atheism is the belief that gods don’t exist, a belief held by anti-theists, anti-theism is the active opposition to theism. In fact, while many theists believe that atheism can be defined as against god, this is actually the definition of anti-theism. Both anti- and a- are negation prefixes that come from ancient Greek. However, a- simply means not. The ancient Greeks did not use a- to mean against. If they wanted to signify being against something, they used anti-, or, more commonly, the words epi or pros, both of which literally translate to “against.” As such, it is not accurate to say that atheism means “against God.” But that’s enough of a Greek lesson for today.
Anti-theism is a term that refers to the belief that theism and religion are very likely to be false, but that they are also unreasonably restrictive, dangerous to people both inside out outside of the religion, and primitive. Anti-theists aren’t so much against God as they are against the things done in the name of religion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “anti-theist” as “One opposed to belief in the existence of a god.” This is to say that they don’t simply not believe in gods, they are actually against the very belief in gods. Many anti-theists regard theism as both dangerous or destructive to both people and society as a whole. In fact, many of the best known atheists identify as anti-theists. Christopher Hitchens, one such anti-theist wrote “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an anti-theist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.” I do agree that religion has been used to cause a lot of harm, however, unlike Hitchens, I don’t believe there’s any point in trying to get rid of it. For one, the people who wish to cause harm ill just find another excuse to cause it. For another, most religious people don’t cause any problems. In fact, it is the institutions built up in the name of religion that causes the problems. If I were going to suggest that we get rid of anything, it would be the institutions that I would suggest getting rid of.
Anti-theism can be seen in various arguments and opinions that are highly critical of religion. A common criticism of religion is that theism is dangerous to society and limits human progress. Some argue that religion must be eliminated in order for humanity to achieve its full potential. Anti-theists often take an outspoken approach in the name of fighting against religion. They will campaign against religion in various ways and even write books on the subject. Anti-theists tend to reject the supposed benefits of holding religious and theistic beliefs, as do most atheists. They do not accept the claim that religion is the cause of morality or that theists are more likely to commit charitable deeds. While many theists find comfort and hope in their beliefs, the anti-theists that reject theism’s suggested positive benefits argue that they could find enough pleasures and can do good with a secular worldview.
Anti-theism is also called militant atheism by some people. Militant atheism is generally just atheist activism, or atheists who are outspoken about discrimination suffered by atheists. However, a large number of people conflate atheist activism with anti-theism. This is understandable, because a large number of anti-theists are atheist activists, and anti-theists are more likely to refer to themselves as militant atheists than other atheists are. However, the term militant atheism is often used by anti-theists and so-called strong, ie. atheists who assert as fact that they believe gods don’t exist (gnostic atheists), atheists alike. Many modern atheist writers who express what is viewed as strong atheistic or anti-religious stances are accused of being militant because they directly criticize religion. However, these writers are rarely threatening, or even hostile, towards religion. An exellent example being Chris Stedman. They are merely trying get people to question their presuppositions and eliminate problems that actively hurt people. Religion’s encroachment into governments and politics are well within the rights of atheists and theists alike to debate, criticize, and discuss. Saying anything against religion does not make one an anti-theist, nor does it make one militant or angry. And those who are not religious have just as much right to criticize religion as the religious do. After all, we are all affected by government policy.
While anti-theist indicates being against theism to an atheist, many theists have there own explanations of what an anti-theist is. The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1953), defined anti-theism as “an active struggle against everything that reminds us of God.” I don’t think that this is an accurate explanation, because it assumes belief in God. In order to struggle against everything that reminds you of God, you must associate things with God. This may be something that some anti-theists do when they are coming into their atheism, but it isn’t something that all anti-theists do. For one thing, not all anti-theists were raised to have any concept of God. For another, not everybody feels the need to pull away from everything that they once associated with religion, or God. Some people are perfectly willing to keep those things around, they just think that religion is harmful. In fact, there are other terms that better define this opposition to God. Dystheism means “belief in a deity that is not benevolent.” With dystheism, you can believe in a god that you are against due to the god’s lack of benevolence. There is also misotheism, which means “hatred of God.” People who are misotheists believe that God exists and hate him.
It is necessary to be careful when assuming that somebody is an anti-theist. Very few atheists are anti-theists (although it isn’t uncommon for atheists to go though an anti-theist phase). And neither atheists nor anti-theists hate god. As I’ve said in earlier posts, these words have meanings for a reason, and that meaning gets destroyed when we use them however we wish. At the same time, people give themselves labels for a reason. Applying labels to people that they have not applied to themself is both rude and likely to lead you to misunderstand them.
The comment section has been very quiet recently, so I thought it was time for something that would liven it back up.
Is faith rational? Why or why not?
While all of the non-theisms get confused by believers, none are as regularly confused as agnosticism is. Many people believe that agnosticism is just a lighter form of atheism, and others believe that all atheists should actually call themselves agnostics. These misconceptions hurt atheists.
So what is agnosticism? The term ‘agnosticism’ was initially coined by Thomas Huxley while he was at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He was upset with the way atheists conducted themselves and believed the to be as irrational as theists. He defined agnosticism as those who believed that the question of whether gods existed was unsolved and insolvable. However, the word agnostic is much older than Huxley’s first use of it. Agnostic is a Greek word that comes from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge. Agnostic can be literally translated as meaning “not knowledge.” Some translate it as “without knowledge,” which is cleaner for the purposes of English. Somebody who is agnostic about religion is without knowledge about religion.
Today, the term agnostic is often used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against the existence of gods is inconclusive. People who call themselves agnostic are undecided about whether or not gods exist. Many people believe that agnosticism is a midway point between atheism and theism, but this is not the case. Theists believe that gods exist, but atheists believe that there are no gods. Theists also only hold beliefs about specific gods, or types of gods. Atheists believe that no gods exist. As such, while atheism and theism are opposites, they are not perfect opposites. They also don’t really contain an in-between. You are either an atheist or you are a theist. You either believe that gods exist or you don’t. Agnosticism is not in between these two because agnosticism doesn’t deal with belief. Agnosticism deals with knowledge. An agnostic is not strictly interested in gods either. They are more concerned with the idea that you cannot know something without suitable evidence.
The opposite of an agnostic would be a gnostic. People who are gnostic (Not to be confused with the Gnostics) are people who believe they can know facts about things. Today, that generally applies to gods. A gnostic is someone who knows whether or not gods exist. If someone says “I know there is a God,” they are a gnostic. If someone says “I know there are no gods,” they are also a gnostic. If they were to say “I believe that God exists, but I don’t know for sure,” they are an agnostic. And if they say “I don’t know if gods exist, but I don’t believe they do,”they too are an agnostic. The first and third person are theists, the second and fourth are atheists. Agnosticism is yet another layer piled on top of both theists and atheists. In fact, agnosticism has been said to be the reason why one is theist or atheist. I don’t entirely accept that, but, since agnosticism comes from a place of knowledge, I understand why someone would accept that idea. This gives four kinds of belief-holding (sentient) entities in the world:
There are thought to be different kinds of agnosticism. Some call the belief that we cannot know whether gods exist “strict agnosticism.” They call the belief that we merely do not know yet “empirical agnosticism.” I don’t quite see the point in these two qualifications. As far as I’m concerned, we either know if gods exist or we don’t. I would say that we can’t know whether we can know whether gods exist, because, if we could, then we would know whether or not gods exist. So the argument about whether we can know is futile and brings about unnecessary arguments. But some care more about our ability to know whether gods exist than I do, and who am I to destroy their fun?
It’s also important to understand why people call themselves what they call themselves. I’m an agnostic atheist because I don’t believe that gods exist, but I also don’t know for sure. I call myself an atheist when asked for multiple reasons. First, it would be silly to assume that the person asking me what I believe is interested in knowing whether or not I know gods exist. Answering “I’m an agnostic” when somebody asks me “what do you believe?” is basically answering the question “What god, if any, do you believe in?” with “I don’t know whether gods exist.” It’s answering a question that wasn’t asked. But saying “I’m an atheist” does answer the question. Another reason why I don’t say I’m an agnostic is because it gives people the wrong idea. If I say “I’m an agnostic,” the person I’m talking to may assume that I’m a theist who simply doesn’t know what god I believe in, or they may believe that I’m looking for the right god to believe in. And the third reason that I don’t tell people that I’m an agnostic is because of the stigma associated with being an atheist. By saying “I’m an agnostic,” I’m avoiding the title of atheist, a title that I know is mine, and allowing atheists to continue to be stigmatized. By wearing the title “atheist” people learn what an atheist truly looks like, and they realize that atheists aren’t crazy people who are out to destroy religion. Those are my reasons for not telling people that I’m an agnostic. Other people have their own reasons for either using agnostic as their title or avoiding it. As such, remember that words are slippery, and language isn’t exact. Be careful of assuming what someone else’s beliefs or positions are simply based on whether they call themself an atheist or an agnostic. Don’t assume that a person uses agnosticism to mean what is called “weak atheism,” or that they use atheism to mean “strong atheism.”
Atheism 101 number 3 will be broken up into 3 parts. In this part I will discuss the majority of non-theist positions. I will discuss what they are and how they relate to atheism. In the next post I will discuss agnosticism, and I will discuss anti-theism in the third part. I will be giving them their own posts due to the assumptions that a) all atheists are actually agnostics, and b) that all atheists hate religion and are therefore anti-theists. I will be braking this post up into the different non-theisms I will be discussing.
I will begin with the general term “non-theism.” There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding this term. In reality, it holds the same meaning as “atheism,” but it has a Latin root rather than a Greek one. However, they tend to be used differently. A non-theist is simply someone who is not a theist. Atheists are non-theists, as is anyone who falls into any of the categories that I will be discussing in the next few days. But some people simply identify as non-theists. So what are non-theists?
Historically, non-theists have been those who feel a genuine connection to something they consider to be God, but they reject any traditional understandings of what God is. Bishop John Shelby Spong has been considered by some to be a non-theist because he quite clearly rejected the popular theistic understandings of “a personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities, which has shaped every religious idea of the Western world.” At the same time, he was a theist in the sense that he believed in a god and he considered that god to be the Christian God. As such, some would consider a non-theist to be someone who does not accept a theistic understanding of gods. I personally wouldn’t consider such a person to be a non-theist. This is for the same reason that I wouldn’t consider a god-believing person to be an atheist: it waters down the term into meaninglessness. A non-theist is by definition not a theist, and a theist is by definition is a person who believes in at least one god. As such, if a person believes in at least one god, even in a deistic sense, they cannot be a non-theist. In my mind, it is the lack of belief in a god that defines someone as a non-theist. This is the same as the definition of an atheist. But, again, different people use the word differently, and it is important to be aware of these differences in word use so that we do not talk past one another by mistake.
The next term I will discuss is Skepticism. Skepticism is another term that is not so well understood. This is because there are multiple kinds of skepticism. The term “skeptic” came from ancient Greece and referred to a group of philosophers who believed that it was impossible to know anything. This is still the term used to refer to philosophical skeptics. However, very few people would consider themselves to be philosophical skeptics. Skeptics within the atheist movement are different. Religious skepticism tends to refer to doubt towards a religious beliefs or claims. Anyone, theist or non-theist, can hold this kind of skepticism. However, atheistic skeptics take this religious skepticism even farther. They do not just question certain religious claims, they question all religious claims. They demand that the scientific and historical methods of showing evidence be used to test a claim before they are willing to consider the claim to be true. Michael Shermer is one of the biggest names in atheistic skepticism. As is James Randi.
While atheistic skepticism is not the same as atheism or agnosticism, the followers of this movement tend to identify as either atheists or agnostics. It is a common misconception that skeptics are people who simply disbelieve things for the sake of disbelieving them, or who disbelieve everything beyond reason. I don’t think that this is entirely a misconception, as it is common to find people who call themselves skeptics and are unwilling to believe things even when disbelief is more irrational than belief. There is a fine art to skepticism that a lot of people don’t understand. For example, when there is a 2% chance that a person is lying about having been raped and a 98% chance that they are telling the truth, believing that they are lying is irrational. However, a lot of skeptics will refuse to believe that a person has been raped until there is more evidence than can be expected to be found on any crime scene. But this is not what it means to be a skeptic and it is not the case with all skeptics. Skepticism merely means demanding that there be evidence for a claim before being willing to accept it. It means only believing what you know to be probabilistically true. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s finding a supported conclusion based on evidence, not the justification to a preconceived conclusion.
I consider myself to be a skeptic. I view skepticism as a very important part of the search for truth. However, I am not a fan of the current skeptics movement. As it stands right now, the skeptics movement is where most of the problems in atheism can be found. Too many believe themselves to be skeptical an ignore their own irrationalities. Too many are willing to excuse the abuses within the movement. As a result, I don’t spend much time at skeptics events or in skeptics communities.
The next term I will discuss is Secularism. Secularism is the idea that government institutions and people mandated to represent their country be separate from religious institutions and religious leaders. Unlike non-theism and skepticism, this is not generally viewed as a group to belong to or a title to give oneself. Rather it is a position that one holds or a condition of the state. Secularism manifests itself in the assertion that people have the right to be free from religious rule and in the declaration to be neutral on matters of belief. People who support secularism also tend to hold the view that public activities and decisions should not be influenced by religious beliefs.
There are many reasons why people support secularism. Historically, governments weren’t secular. A country would have one religion that was put above all others (and one denomination within that religion). If you were a part of that religion, then you were treated fairly well. But if you were a member of another religion, or no religion, you were at risk. You could be unfairly taxed, your property could be taken away, and you could even be attacked or imprisoned. Secularism means that no religion is put above any other. It means that nobody gets special treatment for being a member of one religion, and nobody risks being discriminated against (at least not by the government) for being a member of another religion, or no religion.
Secularism isn’t a group, but Secular Humanism is. Secular humanism is considered a philosophy or a moral system. It is non-theistic. Secular humanism is thought to be something that touches every aspect of life. It deals with a number of social justice and moral issues including those related to values, meaning, and identity. Secular humanism is thought to address those issues that atheism doesn’t deal with.
Secular humanism is a philosophy that deals with ethics within the material, or natural, world. It holds that the natural world is all there is, and that we can only gain knowledge by studying nature using the scientific method. Secular humanism is a philosophy that accepts naturalism, or holds to the belief that the supernatural does not exist. Secular humanism is also a Consequentialist philosophy. It accepts consequentialism as true. This is to say that the consequences of a persons actions are seen as more important than the intentions. It is also believed that the good action is the one that brings about the best consequences. Different types of consequentialists see this as meaning different things. Some believe that the actions that bring about the most pleasure for the person who acts is the best action. This is called Hedonism. Others believe that the act that brings about the best consequences for the most people is best. That is called Utilitaianism. There are numerous types of Hedonism and Utilitarianism, and they all take consequentialism to mean slightly different things. Consequentialism goes against command ethics, which takes right and wrong to be derived from a divine authority.
To many, secular humanism is where morality meets atheism. While atheism is merely the belief that there are no gods, secular humanism tells us how to determine if something is moral and how to make decisions based on that morality. It is not necessary to be a secular humanist to be a moral atheist, but it is the secular humanists who are most concerned with morality from an atheistic perspective.
I consider myself to be a secular humanist. I like their value system and their focus on ethics. Unfortunately, there is no secular humanist community in my area. However, I am trying to get more active within the secular humanist community.
The next term I’ll discuss is “Freethought.” Freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that believes that all positions regarding truth should be formed around logic, reason, and empiricism, and not on authority, tradition, or dogma. Those who practice freethought are called “freethinkers.” Freethinkers hold knowledge and reason as the standard by which truth can be discovered. Freethinkers strive to build their beliefs on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logic. Freethinkers believe that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of gods, and any other supernatural phenomenon. Freethinkers don’t have to be atheists, or even non-theists. Theists can and have been freethinkers. However, most freethinkers are atheists, and theists tend to find that freethought goes against what they believe.
I am a freethinker. This is the category, other than atheist, that I feel most comfortable with and that I attribute to myself the most often. As the leader of a freethinker group, it is also the category that I’m the most familiar with.
The last term I will discuss is “Ignosticism,” also known as “igtheism.” Ignosticism is the belief that all theological positions assume too much about the gods and faith, spirituality, heaven, hell, afterlife, damnation, salvation, sin, and even the soul. Ignostics believe that all religious terms and concepts must be defined before they can be discussed. Without a coherent definition, an ignostic takes the position that the possible existence of the concepts being presented is meaningless. It has been suggested that ignosticism as a variation of agnosticism or atheism, but some people disagree with this. As I don’t know much about ignosticism myself, I’m not willing to comment on whether it is or isn’t a variation of atheism or agnosticism.
I’ve heard this question a million times. People want to know how we as atheists can believe in anything, since we don’t believe in God. The answer to this question is not a simple one, since all any two atheists have in common is their disbelief in gods, but there are a few common answers. Some of which include “I believe in the goodness of people” or “I believe in people,” “I believe in the beauty of nature,” “I believe we all have different answers to that question,” and “I believe in doing what is right.” But there are any number of answers to this question, because God isn’t the only thing people believe it. We all hold many beliefs. As such, the question “what do you believe?” is a bad question. Atheists have beliefs. We have dreams and desires to. They just don’t involve gods.
However, this is a touchy question for atheists. Most people are willing to give some variation of the answers listed above, but there are two other common answers that are less positive. One answer is that the person doesn’t believe in wasting time worrying about what other people believe. This answer isn’t negative in the sense that it is mean or rude. Rather, it is an answer based on what the person doesn’t believe, not on what they do believe. Instead of worrying about belief, the people who answer in this way they prefer to worry about their own lives and how best to live them. These people generally think that there is nothing logical or worthwhile about theological or religious debates. The other answer is to say that atheists don’t believe anything. Obviously, I disagree with this. However, a lot of atheists think that “belief” is synonymous with “faith.” And “faith” to an atheist generally means “believing without evidence.” Most Atheists prefer to be as logical as possible, so anything that doesn’t suggest evidence is generally mistrusted.
So, as an atheist, what do I believe? I believe that people are neither good or bad. People are people. We all make good decisions and bad decisions. Some people make more good decisions than bad decisions, others make more bad decisions than good decisions, but most of us make around the same number of good and bad decisions. And most of our decisions are simply neutral. I believe that it is important to actively seek out new knowledge. The more true things we know, and the less false things, the better off we are. I believe that it is important to travel. I want to see the world. I believe it is important to help people, but we must be aware of how our actions affect the people we set out to help. Expecting everyone else to be able to achieve what I achieve is ridiculous, because we aren’t all born in a position of equal opportunity. But sometimes, by trying to help others, we actually do more harm than good. I’m a feminist, so I believe that men and women (and everyone else) should be equal. I’m a Socialist, so I believe that it is the governments job to help its people lead comfortable, safe lives. And, of course, I believe there are no gods. In fact, I believe there is nothing supernatural whatsoever. I believe in many other things too, but I think I’ll stop here for now.
My point is, atheists hold many beliefs as is anyone else, we just also happen to not believe in gods.