I was trawling through the comments to the lovely Laci’s recent Youtube posting on atheism not being a religion, and some of the counterpoints being raised where, um, dumb. Youtube’s limit of 500 character comment responses probably contributes to that a bit. Anyway, this kicked off a thought train in my head about my own rationale for atheism not being a religion.
The main point here is to define what atheism is. Atheism is “not believing that a god exists”, as opposed to “believing a god exists.” Importantly, this is not the same as “believing a god does not exist”. A slightly stronger way to spin this is to say that atheism is a belief that a deity is not required to explain the universe.
This is an important distinction, even though it is a subtle one. We can not prove that a deity does not exist, and thus any definitive statement that “God does not exist” is either a faith-based position, or a short hand for saying “there is no evidence that God exists, and thus the logical default position should be that God does not exist”. Atheism does not allow for a faith-based position.
Although we can not disprove the existence of a deity, we can attempt to prove that a deity exists. Given the lack of a bearded head in the sky, a common fallback is to say that the universe must have a creator, and that creator we label “God”. After all, if the universe had to have a creator, then the creator at least used to exist, and presumably still does. The statement “the universe requires a creator to exist” is a testable statement.
Over the last few hundred years, scientific progress has demonstrated that numerous aspects of the universe once thought to be definitive proof of the necessity of a creator may in fact have natural explanations. This progress has been based on concrete credible evidence. For example, James Hutton brought the concept of “deep time” to Western thought in the 18th century, thus shattering completely the evidence for a literal Biblical creation (as usual, the Western world was a bit late realising this; Islamic and Chinese geologists & philosophers realised that back in the 11th century). Charles Darwin famously demonstrated that, once life had started, time and a random mechanism of change (later identified to be DNA mutation, amongst other things) would produce the drastic diversity of life shown both on the planet and in the fossil record. Although science has yet to prove conclusively how life got started, this are of study (also known as abiogensis has determined not just one but several plausible mechanisms for the origin of life on Earth (or some other planet, should panspermia prove to be correct). We have cosmological models that explain how the universe developed from as little as a few nanoseconds after the Big Bang. We even have credible scientific models – some of which are testable and being tested – that could account for the Big Bang itself. In other words, science has almost demonstrated conclusive that the statement “the universe requires a creator” to be false.
By contrast to this well-established body of evidence and theory demonstrating the lack of need for a Universe creator, much of the attempts to produce a counter argument rely on logical fallacies. My personal favourite is “the universe must have a creator, because something so complex and complete could not have come about by chance”. The immediate counter argument, of course, is how did the creator come into being?
(I’m not even going to try to explain arguments based on so-called “Biblical authority”. The most credible and rational explanation for the Bible is that it is a book, written over hundreds of years by a number of different authors, edited for all sorts of reasons (mostly political) and mixes myth, fact, ignorance and propaganda in the one document. Nor is it even consistent, even in the New Testament. Even the most fundamentalist Christians read the Bible selectively, anyway. Yes, that’s right – they all pick and choose. There is also nothing that gives the Bible more credence than, say, the Koran or the Hindu Scriptures.)
The short summary of all this is that the belief that a deity is not required to explain the universe is a defensible one based on evidence rather than simple assertion. As such, it is not a faith-based position, and that is why atheism is not a religious position.