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Mailbag: Is Atheism a Philosophy or Belief System?

By December 30, 2012

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From: John
Subject: Atheism is not a philosophy?
You got to be kidding me??? Atheism is indeed a philosophy and a belief system.

No, it's the truth. Atheism is no more a belief system or a philosophy than theism is. Both can be part of belief systems, some religious and some not, some good and some not.

If atheism were a philosophy, then John should be able to explain exactly what philosophy it is that is held in common by all atheists who are: Raelians, Objectivists, Buddhists, Religious Humanists, communists, libertarians, socialists, Secular Humanists, conservatives, monarchists, Jews, liberals, etc. I don't think John can -- just as his email didn't actually offer any counter-arguments to the explanations I have provided on the site. No one else that I've ever posed this challenge to has ever managed to provide an answer, either.

Let's be clear here: John asserts that atheism is a philosophy and a belief system, but offers no arguments to support this claim nor does he offer any rebuttals to the arguments against it. John's position is thus not based on reason and evidence, which means that it cannot be called reasonable. It appears to be little more than an article of faith.

John's first attempt to "prove" that atheism is a philosophy or belief system based on the idea that any belief is a belief system:

 

Atheists believe there is no personal God. This is a belief and a philosophy. Theists believe in a personal God. This is also a belief and a philosophy. Both atheism and theism rely on faith. Is this so difficult to comprehend?

Atheism is the absence of belief in gods. Some go on to deny the existence of some or all gods, but some don't. An absence of belief in gods cannot be a belief, a belief system, or a philosophy.

Even if we narrow the definition of atheism to just the denial of gods, though, it's clear that John is wrong. A single belief cannot be a belief system or a philosophy. A belief system or philosophy must, by definition, bet a large set of interconnected and interdependent beliefs.

Theism, by the way, is belief in at least one god of any sort. The ancient Greeks were one type of theist while Muslims today are another type. The term "theism" is used in a more restricted sense in modern philosophy just for the sake of consistent arguments, but concept itself is much broader.

The definitions of basic terms here are completely contrary to what John is saying. Single, isolated beliefs cannot possibly be philosophies. Even the broadest definition of "philosophy" is that of a system -- as in a belief system. A single belief cannot be a belief system. A system, in this context, is an ordered and structured assemblage of elements creating a new, coherent whole. Single, isolated beliefs can obviously be part of a system, but they can't be a system all by themselves. Logically and conceptually, it isn't possible.

What's more, I don't even think that John sincerely thinks otherwise. Why? Because if he did, then he'd conclude that every single belief of his is a philosophy. Does he believe that the sun will rise tomorrow? That's one philosophy. Does he believe he'll eat tomorrow? That's two philosophies. Does he believe that he is working at a computer? That's three philosophies.

We could go on for days, cataloging John's philosophies. We'd even find that his philosophies change from day to day as he gains and loses beliefs. Does John sincerely think that he and every other person has millions upon millions of philosophies, each constituting a single belief that they happen to hold and each as ephemeral as those beliefs? No, I don't think so.

Even when narrowly defined, atheism is not a belief system. It is not a system of principles and doctrines. It is not an assemblage of parts, ideas, doctrines, etc. Denial of gods is no more a belief system or a philosophy than denial of leprechauns or Big Foot. It might be wrong. It might be unreasonable. It cannot, however, be a belief system all by itself.

Why don't religious believers like John focus on an actual atheistic belief system, like Objectivism or some form of humanism?

John never admitted that a single belief cannot be a belief system, nor did he ever dispute it. Instead, he dropped the entirely line of argument and started something new: an attempt to argue that atheism involves several interconnected beliefs -- thus implicitly acknowledging that his original claim as wrong, but not saying so directly.

 

Here is an example of an atheistic belief system that all atheists affirm (I exclude Buddhism which is more pantheistic than atheistic):

1. There is no personal God or gods.
2. There are no moral absolutes.
3. There is no worship outside the self.
4. There is no ultimate salvation beyond this life.
5. There is no consciousness after death.

I can go on and on, but 5 tenets of non-belief placed in the affirmative formulate an adequate atheistic philosophy.

John here has made the claim that every atheist believes these five things. Later, he makes his position even more explicit by saying that they are "upheld universally by all atheists." It's curious, though, that he calls it an atheistic belief system that all atheists affirm -- is there more than one?

The burden is his to demonstrate he is correct; unfortunately, he repeatedly insists that it's up to me to prove him wrong. He even goes so far as to say that it's "more plausible and fair" to request that others provide evidence that he is wrong than that he provide evidence that he is correct. Not only is this not fair, it's the exact opposite of what should occur.

Not only is the obligation John's to provide supporting evidence and arguments, but he should have had them ready before being asked. His position should have originally been based on evidence and arguments which he should have been able to provide relatively quickly and easily when asked. He shouldn't have to be asked twice. He shouldn't have to be pressed. He certainly shouldn't try to distract attention from this by pretending that others should be proving him wrong.

That all of this happened is more than enough reason to conclude that his position is unreasonable, untenable, and unworthy of serious consideration. His position here is no different from that of someone who claims that fairies exist and then demands that others prove him wrong.

I suppose John is sincere in his belief, but sincerity is no substitution for the work and effort necessary to establish a position as reasonable, credible, and serious. John has done none of this -- he just made up a list off the cuff while sitting at his computer, expected others to take it seriously, and thinks that he is vindicated unless proven to be in error.

 

You are the one that made the comment that all atheists hold no belief system nor are they a philosophy.

I didn't say that all atheists hold no belief system; I said that atheism is not a belief system. I proved this by demonstrating how it is logically impossible for either the broad definition of atheism or the narrow definition of atheism to be a "system." Neither an absence of a particular belief nor a single belief in isolation can, logically, be a system. It's worth noting that at no point did John dispute this; indeed, he ignored it entirely.

John then offered that my rejection of his assertions could be "defended" by naming a single atheist who denied any one of the five tenets he made up. I pointed out that more than one atheist who has been in the site's forum has belief in ghosts. Since a ghost is a being the exists after a person's physical death, such people necessarily believe in consciousness after death. Buddhists, too, believe that consciousness continues after death.

When faced with Buddhists who don't accept one of the tenets he made, John simply denies that there are any atheist Buddhists in the first place. Apparently, it then became my job to do John's homework for him by tracking down an atheist who believes in ghosts. I chose to indulge him this one time by providing him with a link to a discussion in the forum with an atheist who believes in ghosts and an afterlife. John didn't seem to like this, though:

 

I reviewed the postings on your site about believing in a conscious afterlife as an atheist. However, having gone through all the posts there is no indication that this belief has been thought out at all.

This couldn't possibly be more irrelevant. Most people don't spend a lot of time carefully thinking through most beliefs. John didn't ask for any examples of anyone taking a lot of time to study the subject and believing in ghosts, so he cannot apply any ad hoc standards now. I'm not surprised, though, to find him grasping at straws in order to find some reason to pretend that this isn't really a person who doesn't accept a tenet which he claimed, without evidence, is "universally upheld by all atheists."

John seemed to recognize that he was in a bad spot, though, because he insisted that even if I can prove to him that a soul can exist consciously after death from an atheistic worldview, I "still have four of the tenets to show that all atheists deny them by providing at least one proof for each." If you remember, though, he earlier said that I only needed to find one atheist who denied a single one of his made-up tenets. Upon doing so, he tried both denying that I had and insisting that I had to disprove his other four evidence-free claims.

Then again, since he wouldn't provide evidence to support his claim, it's only to be expected that he would ignore evidence that counts against it. Evidence wasn't his reason to adopt his position in the first place and it won't be a reason to change it later. It's a faith-based position, not a reason-based position. That's why it's so important to promote critical thinking, skepticism, and the basics of logic.

If people had more experience with these subjects, they might be less likely to get themselves into intellectual holes like the one John created for himself. If people can learn to reason their way into a position, it will be easier to reason them out when they are mistaken; so long as they fall into their positions because of faith and prejudice, though, reason will have little impact.

More selections from the Agnosticism / Atheism Mailbag...

Comments
July 8, 2007 at 9:35 am
(1) Tom says:

I can go on and on, but 5 tenets of non-belief placed in the affirmative formulate an adequate atheistic philosophy.

You see, this is the kind of declaration that springs up when children start playing with ideas.

July 8, 2007 at 11:28 am
(2) JD Kolassa says:

Austin Cline FTW!

July 8, 2007 at 1:08 pm
(3) DeeGee says:

Austin, does this mean the Mailbag is back for good?

July 8, 2007 at 8:31 pm
(4) Ron says:

We all need to believe in something, and I believe i’m going to have a beer. Is that a philosophy or belief system?

July 8, 2007 at 9:30 pm
(5) Tom says:

Ron, beer is, above all else, a way of life. Cheers.

July 9, 2007 at 3:38 am
(6) Patrick Quigley says:

Austin, I really admire your patience. You are confronted time and again with the same ridiculous claims, and yet you are always willing to spend your time explaining your position to new visitors. I doubt that John will take any of your points to heart, but I’m sure that you have had an influence on many people who have followed such exchanges.

July 9, 2007 at 12:21 pm
(7) tracieh says:

I don’t see how atheism can be either a philosophy or a belief system since it dictates nothing. If I don’t accept someone’s belief in god, it’s no different than not accepting someone’s belief in alien abduction. If that can be called a philosophy or a belief system, then I guess atheism could as well–but definitionally, I’d have to make exceptions for calling that a system of belief of a philosophy.

It’s no more a philosophy than the philosophy my phone is has stopped ringing or my coffee isn’t hot any longer.

I don’t understand what the writer means, I guess.

July 9, 2007 at 12:28 pm
(8) tracieh says:

In Buddhism there is no obligation to believe in god or in literal reincarnation; however, it is totally acceptable for them to believe in reincarnation and not believe in god. How they reason this out is up to them.

Likewise, I have met a self-identified atheist who told me he believes in souls. I asked more questions, and it seemed he just had “feelings” about it. So be it.

Here then are two examples of atheists who believe in souls. As to John’s assertion that it hasn’t been thought out…I guess my reply is “so what?” It still doesn’t stop people from not believing in god and believing in souls. It can be done. It is done. If it’s not rational…what’s your point? Some atheists can and do believe in souls.

July 9, 2007 at 3:23 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

DeeGee: I hope so. I’m going to try, at least.

July 10, 2007 at 4:30 pm
(10) Tom T says:

Atheism is a belief system?!?!?!

I’m sorry but people who continue to try to perpetuate this lie deserve all the derrision and flaming they get.

Atheism is a belief system in the same way that bald is a hair colour.

Theism is not a belief system either, merely a statement of the existance of one.

I’m sick of people trying to missdirect and avoid the subject and issue by deliberately mis-stating, missinterpreting and missunderstanding the basic meaning of the word.

And to be honest, I have only the smallest fraction more patience for people who claim that atheism can’t exist ‘because you HAVE to believe in something’. This is born purely out of fear and as a statement is not even worth the photons escaping your computer monitor at this moment.

July 18, 2007 at 2:13 pm
(11) John Hanks says:

I would add that all atheist ideas are provisional. Atheists are not usually ideologues.

July 18, 2007 at 6:35 pm
(12) Craig Duckett says:

Had I never been told about God (whether Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, or Thor) I would have no natural reason to believe or disbelieve in him. Any belief or disbelief I harbor, therefore, is not dependent upon my experience in the ‘real world’ but upon language, on words, on artificial linguistic and social constructs.

It never once crossed my mind to believe or disbelieve in the Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster until I was told about the Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster. Is my not believing in either of them a product of philosophey or belief system. Absolutely not? Neither of these have any direct bearing on my experience in the ‘real world’ and do so only if I first empower language and words to possess inherent ‘meaning’ and thereby able to ‘define’ these into existence.

The gods, or God, are similarly ‘defined’ into existence, because the only place you can point to them are at words inside of books. If I remove the words, if I remove the books, what do I have remaining? Reality. Reality is what you have in the absence of language. Is God found in reality when the words are taken away? Absolutely not. ‘God’ (like ‘Heaven’, like ‘Hell’, like ‘Angels’ and ‘Devils’ and ‘Spirits’ and ‘Life-After-Death’, etc) is a word whose character, attributes, and desires are simply ‘defined’ into linguistic existence.

So, for me, it isn’t a matter of belief or disbelief, philosophy or otherwise, but what I can ultimately experience and know what’s real outside the venue of language. Without words, religion–all religion–could not exist. Religion, therefore, is not a belief in God, but a belief in the specific words that have been artificially chosen to define the properties and character of “God.” Without pointing back to these words, how else can the attributes of “God” be determined?

March 14, 2010 at 11:39 am
(13) Ian says:

This is flawed reasoning.

The author asks “..what philosophy it is that is held in common by all atheists” then lists many stripes of atheists.

And this is supposed to prove atheism is not a philosophy.

If this were true, then religion is not a philosophy either because there are many stripes of religionists, and they do not hold a common philosophy in common, not even the existence of a god.

March 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm
(14) Austin Cline says:

And this is supposed to prove atheism is not a philosophy.

Citing numerous philosophies, ideologies, religions, and belief systems held by various atheists proves that there is no single philosophy held in common by all atheists. The absence of a single philosophy held in common by all atheists proves that “atheism” is not by itself a “philosophy.”

The only way “atheism” could be a “philosophy” is if all atheists held the philosophy “atheism.” Since there is no philosophy held by all atheists, there can’t be a “philosophy” called “atheism.”

If this were true, then religion is not a philosophy either

That’s right. “Religion,” the general category, is not a single “philosophy.”

So where’s the “flawed reasoning”? That claim only makes sense if you can demonstrate that there is some sort of single philosophy that held by all of “religion.”

because there are many stripes of religionists, and they do not hold a common philosophy in common, not even the existence of a god.

That’s all correct. Not only is the general category “religion” not a single “philosophy,” but it is also true that not all religionists hold one single “philosophy” in common.

Once again, where is this alleged “flawed reasoning” you claimed?

December 30, 2012 at 11:42 am
(15) Cousin Ricky says:

“John seemed to recognize that he was in a bad spot, though, because he insisted that even if I can prove to him that a soul can exist consciously after death from an atheistic worldview, …”

John is invoking the god of the gaps, although an unusual application, as he is asking us to explain the existence of something that doesn’t exist. “How can souls exist without a god?” It fits the pattern.

January 2, 2013 at 5:03 pm
(16) Dean J. Smith says:

I’ll knock off 2. and 3.

2. Objectivists believe in absolute morals.
3. Raellians worship advanced aliens.

January 11, 2013 at 2:52 pm
(17) JTL says:

I’ve ALWAYS been an atheist. Even as a child, when grown-ups attempted to indoctrinate me into their belief system, I still did not go for it and become a believer. I do not get up on Sunday morning and go to atheist church. There is no such thing. Only indoctrinated fundamentalists that will not listen to reason believe that everything must follow their warped rule book and that being an atheist is a belief system. Being an atheist means there IS NO belief system. What part of this is so hard to understand?

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