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Austin Cline

Atheists on Souls and Heaven

By January 19, 2006

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Atheists don't believe in any gods, but can a person be an atheist and still believe in a soul or a heaven of some sort? I've encountered a number of people who don't believe in any gods, but nevertheless believe in things that qualify as ghosts, spirits, afterlife, reincarnation, etc. Sometimes this is part of an organized belief system, like Buddhism, while other times a person simply believes in ghosts because of personal experiences.

Some argue that since atheism means nothing more than “disbelief in the existence of gods,” then an atheist can logically believe anything else at all — including souls and some sort of heave — even if the belief is irrational. There’s nothing about “atheism” which requires that all of one’s beliefs be materialistic, naturalistic, or rational. Others, however, argue that atheism means not believing in anything supernatural; since souls and heaven are necessarily supernatural and belief in them is irrational, then anyone who believes in such a thing can’t possibly be an atheist.

What do you think? Does atheism somehow exclude irrational beliefs, including belief in anything supernatural? Are atheists necessarily rational people in whatever they believe?

 

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Comments
January 25, 2008 at 12:09 am
(1) Adam says:

I think you are right that the technical definition of atheism is “not believing in any gods,” and that that doesn’t address souls or heaven. But in terms of contemporary connotation, atheism has come to mean naturalism and rationalism, which excludes souls and heaven. I am an atheist and would not equate myself with someone who believes in souls or heaven (or hell for that matter).

January 25, 2008 at 6:31 am
(2) Austin Cline says:

But in terms of contemporary connotation, atheism has come to mean naturalism and rationalism, which excludes souls and heaven.

It would be more accurate to say that atheism has become associated with naturalism and rationalism — especially in the West. There are plenty of atheists in the world who aren’t naturalists or rationalists.

February 1, 2008 at 4:01 pm
(3) Brooke says:

if an atheist isn’t a naturalist, what would he be?

February 1, 2008 at 4:55 pm
(4) Don Latimer says:

I think a more useful definition of atheist is “there is no supernatural.”

February 1, 2008 at 5:50 pm
(5) Austin Cline says:

I think a more useful definition of atheist is “there is no supernatural.”

That’s the definition of a naturalist. If you use the above definition for atheist, you’ll need to come up with a new word for people who don’t believe in gods, but might believe in other things like souls — and there just doesn’t seem to be any good reason for getting involved with that. A-theism is about (dis)belief in gods alone. It’ correlates highly with (dis)belief in other supernatural ideas, but that’s only because belief in other supernatural ideas correlates highly with belief in gods. Where the two are separated, so are atheism and naturalism.

February 2, 2008 at 12:56 pm
(6) Joan says:

As atheists, we ask theists to show credible proof of their claims. Would we not logically also ask for proof of other supernatural claims? Isn’t the logic for believing in ghosts similar to the logic for believing in gods?

February 2, 2008 at 4:38 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

As atheists, we ask theists to show credible proof of their claims.

A person whose atheism is based on reason and logic would.

Would we not logically also ask for proof of other supernatural claims?

A person who tries to base their beliefs on reason and logic would.

Isn’t the logic for believing in ghosts similar to the logic for believing in gods?

Both have similar levels of evidence and credibility. Being an atheist, however, is not synonymous with not having any irrational beliefs.

February 3, 2008 at 11:51 am
(8) theo says:

what kind of atheist who isn’t a rationalist? irrational atheist? :D

February 3, 2008 at 2:19 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

what kind of atheist who isn’t a rationalist? irrational atheist?

Yes, an atheist who doesn’t believe that only the natural world exists.

May 19, 2010 at 7:36 pm
(10) albooker says:

Ghosts are an entirely religious construction. Without ghosts, you cannot have religion.
How can you have ghosts without a definite belief in the afterlife?
How can anyone with an understanding or love of nature and reality even contemplate the existence of ghosts, fairies, goblins etc?

November 5, 2010 at 10:06 pm
(11) rick says:

If ghosts,souls and or heaven can be proven scientificly then the world is no longer flat!

March 22, 2011 at 5:40 pm
(12) Allan Pool says:

Let’s hope heaven is not for real. We’re simply not made to exist in an environment without contrast. There has to be bad things happening to make the experience of good things possible. This video illustrates the point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLEwr49YTDs Knowing life will come to a permanent end at some point is exactly what gives life the potential to be something wonderful.

October 19, 2012 at 3:18 pm
(13) Paul So says:

I know this comment is pretty late but I think that an atheist can be a supernaturalist but an atheistic supernaturalist would be a more limited supernaturalist in respects to what kind of supernatural entities can exist whereas the theistic supernaturalist can be more inclusive. In other words, supernaturalism is a vague category of belief in which every supernatural beings are a part of including God(s), but an atheist who accepts supernaturalism would have a more restricted version of supernaturalism that excludes deities. However a theistic supernaturalist would necessarily have to include God(s). So an atheist can be a supernaturalist as well as a naturalist since both supernaturalism and naturalism are compatible with the denial (or lack of belief) of the existence of God. However a theist does not have that kind of option because a theist cannot be a naturalist. since naturalism is incompatible with theism; naturalism assert that only natural kinds exist, but theism denies this by asserting that God exists. Theism is compatible with supernaturalism but it would vary among people who this goes because not every theist would accept existence of psychic powers, witches, ghosts, and even demons. Some theists who are belong to the more liberal and modern strand of theology would most likely just be content with accepting that God (and probably the would) exists, but deny everything else (I actually met some of them).

April 24, 2013 at 12:55 am
(14) Josephocracy says:

so,,, whether there is a Heaven is, actually, a more interesting debate than boring gods argument.
It’s like arguing vegetarian or meat eater,,, blah, blah,,,
BUT who will say NO food!!!???

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