The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Arrogance of Atheism

Lately I’ve been amusing myself by spending time with the social site reddit.  One of the prominent sub-reddits, is atheism, and it’s managed to remind me why I find radical atheists almost as offensive as fundamentalists.  (Almost, since they don’t tell other people how to live, they just sneer at other people for their beliefs).  So let me respond to fire with fire, atheism is, ultimately, intellectually disreputable.

You cannot know with certainty that there is no god, in the sense of a creator of the universe, for example.  It is impossible.  You can assert that it is unnecessary, but that is not the same thing as impossible.  Certainly you can say “there’s no reason to believe God created the universe in 7 days, 4,000 odd years ago”, but who cares?  If Biblical literacy is your target, it’s just about shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it?

The fact is that we don’t know.  Arguably, we can’t know.  We can say “God as described literally in the bible cannot exist”, but we cannot say “God does not exist”.

Which is why, at the end of the day, I stick with agnosticism.  I don’t know if there’s a god, or an afterlife, or a soul.  (I have opinions, but I am aware they are opinions, not facts).  As such I know that I don’t know, and I don’t presume to tell people that I do know.  I don’t dismiss out of hand, say, children born speaking languages they have no exposure to, or near-death experiences, or mystical experiences.  At the same time, I know there may be a simple materialistic explanation for them.

Likewise I remember always that there’s no reason for anything to exist, that the biggest absurdity of existence is existence.  Humbled by this fact, I feel no need to spout off and say “I KNOW”.

I don’t know.

And neither do you.


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Understanding Through Empathy


  1. rumor

    I think you’re falling into the trap of defining a group by a generalization, which is the same thing most religious individuals complain about (and generally rightfully so). Criticisms levelled at a carefully described belief are valid, but criticisms levelled at a group with the assumption that they all carry the same belief or ideas are not, and you know this. You’ve done both here. You’ve defined the atheistic belief you disagree with (and I don’t question your reasoning, as it’s correct) but you also criticise “atheists”, apparently in general, for holding that belief.

    I think you know better than this.

  2. Rumor,

    It is interesting that in this post, the atheist is presumed to be a god-awful literalist, incapable of allowing for some unknown numinosity, whereas complaints about the manifold foibles of religion are, we’re told, properly levied only at fringe Bible fundies.

    Thus, atheists (without any qualifying words, excepting one reference a “radical” sort — whatever radical not-collecting-stamps might consist of) can be called, in the title, “arrogant,” and in the body, “intellectually disreputable.”

    From his arguments here, it seems unlikely that Ian would write a post called the “Arrogance of religious people” that would adjudge them “intellectually disreputable.”

  3. rumor

    Vastleft, I don’t think Ian is too fond of radical religious people, and he said as much in this post, but I won’t presume to speak for him. I’m not sure why you’re addressing your comments to me and not him, though.

  4. You know, a person can hold strong beliefs and still admit the possibility of being wrong. Such a person may or may not be an atheist. All this seems obvious. Fallibility is a universal human trait. I don’t see how it weakens either belief or nonbelief.

    As far as religious faith goes, I can only defer to Carl Sagan: “Faith is belief without evidence, and why would you want to believe something if there’s no evidence for it?”

    I read a lot of people who call themselves atheists, and I can’t remember any of them claiming certainty of anything.

  5. Ian Welsh

    I knew this one would piss people off 🙂

    “If you’re not certain there isn’t a God”, then you’re an agnostic, not an atheist.

    I take on faith many things, including the existence of entire countries I’ve never visited, the existence of subatomic particles I’ve never seen, and various mathematical relationships I’ve never proved.

    There are people who claim to have experienced the existence of God. In fact, there are more such people than can explain subatomic physics. Now, I haven’t experienced the existence of God, but how do I know they haven’t? In advanced mysticism (such as Yoga and various forms of Buddhism as well as Western monastic traditions) there are those who say “if you do x you will experience God/infinity/the Tao”. I haven’t spent the necessary years doing those things, any more than I’ve spent the years necessary to learn the math necessary to understand subatomic physics.

    I take subatomic physics on faith, while knowing that they’ve probably got parts of it wrong. Should I also assume that mystics and Saints are all insane? It takes only one of them to be right, after all.

    Taking things on faith isn’t necessarily foolish. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

  6. Rumor,

    I addressed my comment to you because you’d raised the matter of the generalization in the original post re: atheists, which inspired the comment.

    I don’t suggest at all that Ian is a fan of religion, merely that it seems (once again) to be easier and safer to make blanket statements about those typical, arrogant, fundie-like atheists we keep hearing about than about religious people in general.

  7. frankly0

    It’s simple mistake to say that to be an atheist one must claim to be certain that God does not exist. It suffices that one believe that God does not exist.

    An agnostic is generally understood as someone who simply has no settled belief one way or the other on the question.

    And I have to say that I’m very little impressed by your “case” for theism: that others claim to have direct experience of God. Since, among other things, what they claim to know in virtue of these experiences comes out across individuals as mutually contradictory (directly experiencing Hindis believe in many gods, directly experiencing Christians in one), it’s a little hard to take invocations of direct experience seriously. Beyond the contradictions, of course, it’s easy enough to explain those experience on other, naturalistic and psychological, grounds.

  8. bob mcmanus

    “You cannot know with certainty that there is no god framistan, in the sense of a creator of the universe, for example. It is impossible. You can assert that it is unnecessary, but that is not the same thing as impossible.”

    But what’s a framistan? A framistan is transcendant, yet immanent, and unknowable and undefinable within the limits of human cognition. That is exactly why you can’t say that the framistan doesn’t exist.

    Hume rolled over this drivel hundreds of years ago.

  9. bob mcmanus

    2nd point:within the religious viewpoint, you can’t escape the question.
    Since it is a matter of faith not knowledge, not of awaiting a new improved cyber framistan detector, since it is a decision to believe or not to believe, agnosticism is not a respectable intellectual, moral, spiritual option. God demands you believe in HER, without adequate proof. To refuse to decide, or chide God for not providing proof, absolutely misses the point. See Kierkeggaard, Sickness Unto Death, end.

  10. Ed

    I think the case for scepticism is very strong, but the case for atheism fails for the reason Ian says, you simply can’t prove that God or some equivalent doesn’t exist.

    You can’t prove any of Euclid’s axioms, that is why they are axioms. They are widely believed and proven useful in constructing geometry. So the atheist case is ultimate that religion isn’t useful, its very destructive, so that is why you see atheists go on and on about all the horrible things priests have done. This is why they come across sounding like fundamentalists, you simply can’t reduce something as complex as religion to “good” or “bad”.

    There are actually quite a large number of things on society that are taken entirely on faith.

  11. bob mcmanus

    Hey, this isn’t hard, so I don’t have to respect agnostic’s unbelief.

    Just say it. “I believe in God.”

    Now billions of people will try to show their personal ideas of the implications and obligations of that statement, but they will obviously cut you tons of slack as long as you don’t try to join their clubs. It really doesn’t even matter how sincere you are, everybody has doubts.

    Or you can say:”I don’t understand the question.” That makes you an atheist, because the only real question is whether you will make statement number one.

    But saying, “I understand the question, but am waiting for more evidence” is just ridiculous. Evidence has nothing to do with it.

  12. deniseb

    You could spend the rest of your life discussing what it means to “know” something and you still wouldn’t be finished. The vast majority of us, however, never discuss it at all, because very few of us are inclined towards interminable philosophical debate. My attitude towards philosophy is: there are no answers, so get used to it.

    We all claim to know things all the time without being prepared to get into the subject of how we know what we know – good thing, too, as far as I’m concerned, because I am generally not in the mood to drop the subject under discussion and go off into the philosophical ether for hours or days.

    My idea of discussing the existence or non-existence of god/gods/goddesses is simply to discuss the question itself – what is this entity, what are its characteristics, what are the reasons to believe it exists, etc., in the same way that I would discuss anything else. But it never happens that way; instead, as an atheist I am challenged to answer epistemological questions and to defend my use of the word atheism as it is commonly used. Why is this?

  13. bob mcmanus

    It just pisses ne off, because agnostics are actually trying to gain some moral or intellectual high ground by confusing scientific and religious frameworks and insulting both. You are really not allowed to footnote your physics or economics papers:”But the elves could done it.”

    Umm, about those elves.
    I can’t prove the elves didn’t do it, and neither can you.
    Can you show me some elves?
    That doesn’t mean elves don’t exist.
    Do you yourself believe in the elves?
    Not sure yet. Humbly, I am waiting for proof. How about you?

    I can make fun of agnostic’s unbelief because it isn’t even a belief.

  14. bob mcmanus

    C’mon, Ian, say it. Write it.

    “I believe in God”

    It doesn’t have to be sincere, it doesn’t even have to contain any meaning. So why won’t you say it? What are you scared of? What are you rebelling against? Is is a personal loss, a violation of your intellectual integrity to utter what might be nonsense? It doesn’t seem a big deal to me. “God is the creator of the universe” and then we go do our cosmological physics or whatver. The statement needn’t get in the way.

    You don’t want to be associate with Dobson or Ratzinger? Say it in Islam. “There is no God but God.”

    Walter Kauffman discussed the sociology of theism. “I believe in God” is certainly different from “I believe in framistan.” Since they are no costs to saying it, those who won’t profess a mild theism are simply rebelling.

  15. Voodoo Chile

    Agnosticism is a cop out word. No one ever asks you if you “know” there is a god. They ask you if you “believe” there is a god. It is you who is intellectually dishonest by substituting the verb “believe” for “know” in order to slime atheists.

    The latin root of Agnostic is one who does not know.
    The latin root of Atheist is one who does not believe.

    In the future, please answer the question that you were asked.


    An arrogant atheist who doesn’t know if there is a god.

  16. Voodoo Chile

    Correction/clarification/admission – I suppose I meant “greek root” and not “latin root.”

  17. BobH

    I used to call myself an agnostic, now I’m an atheist.

    The older I got the idea of a god became less and less likely. Science is doing a pretty damn good job of understanding how the universe works without needing a “creator” to fill in the blanks.

    Atheists are coming out of the closet now because we are tired of leaders who take us to war guided by apocalyptic religious prophecies. We’re concerned by the erosion of the separation of church and state. We abhor the religious right’s bigotry against gays and their attempts to force “creation science” into the classroom. Organized religion is not a force for good in this world.

  18. Kat

    I have never met or read, any atheist who claims beyond a doubt, that there is no god.
    Atheism is not about declaring that there is no god.
    Atheism is a lack of belief in god or active disbelief in god.
    Atheists, just as Christians and Agnostics, do not know with any amount of certainty, whether there is a god or not.
    Atheists are simply saying that we do not believe that there is a god.
    That is not stating that there isn’t a god, it is simply saying that we do not believe in any god(s).
    That is a huge difference.

  19. Jim

    Ian, you call them “arrogant atheist,” and I call them “armchair atheist.”

    Here’s why. Humans are not abstract beings existing outside the world. Consciousness is not the consciousness of an abstract human; it is the self-feeling of humans in the world of humans, living in active social relations with other humans and forming a distinctive society. The concept of God or gods did not fall from the sky but, rather, evolved alongside of human activity and social relations. The need for gods arose out of real human social needs: fears, the unknown, hostile weather, unpredictable agriculture, disease, pain, death. The belief in gods is a real component of our current social relations.

    This struggle against the errors and distortions of human society can never be an abstract struggle against God or religion because such a struggle is not a real one—it is ideal truth fighting ideal God. Both idealistic concepts, there-is-God and there-is-not-god, when abstracted from action–from the human society from which they arose–are unreal. There is no absolute truth to set against fantastic lies. It’s impossible to prove the not-existence of anything, be it a god or a tooth fairy.

    In most areas of human endeavor we come to a conclusion based on the best information available and then we accept that as truth until it is proven otherwise by research. But, it is hard for many to simply come to the conclusion that there is no god. Why? Because the struggle against religious ideas cannot be conducted as a struggle of ideas, the struggle of no-god versus yes-god; it has to be conducted as a concrete struggle against the real social relations that gave rise to the need for a concept of god. Poverty is real; human misery is real; homeless is still real. Our human society—some humans—still will need a god till these real human social needs are met. So, the struggle to eliminate god must be the same struggle to improve the human material condition. God cannot be overcome in idealistic battles. Religious beliefs (Gods) are part of the form in which humans become conscious of other issues.

  20. Tina

    Ian – I knew this one would piss people off

    lmao I was wondering 🙂 The only thing as bad as the fervently religious is the religously athiestic 😀 run

  21. Way to go on the “sneer.” As for me, I shifted from being an agnostic to being an atheist after nothing smote the Bush regime for its embrace of evil. And as for religious believers, I don’t care what they believe, as long as they practice in privacy, don’t try to make me subsidize for their world views, and keep the public square open for public use. Everyone has their own special delusion, as Catullus says somewhere. I have my own share.

  22. rumor

    I always feel a little weird coming back to comment on a post the day after, like I’ve missed the bus. Anyway!

    I wonder if you consider the meaning of “atheism” a settled thing, Ian? I prefer to interpret it more literally as “lack of theism”, but am quite aware that it’s considered by many people, atheists and not, more or less as “belief that gods do not exist”.

    I appreciate your point that, essentially, we can never truly know anything with complete certainty, but I don’t find this a realistically compelling argument for or against either theism or atheism. If I may be permitted to channel that odious Donald Rumsfeld for a moment, we know what we know and we know what we don’t know, for the most part. And we know how we know what we know, and by this I mean we have scientific principles.

    Simply put, there’s no credible body of evidence for the existence of gods, just as there’s no credible body of evidence for, say, Santa Claus. Both could be real, may one day be observable in a verifiable way, but that can be said of anything at all, not simply religious figures. What I can say I know, in a completely intellectually valid way, is what is scientifically verifiable. I can also say I *know* that things for which there is no credible body of evidence and which would violate what *is* verifiable (say, the laws of physics) do not exist. It’s always implied, at least to *me*, that what I know can change. What I know changes every damn day, after all.

    Perhaps the distinction here is between comprehension and belief, between knowledge and faith? That’s always the devil in the details when discussing religious faith, isn’t it? Faith just is. But trouble arises when anyone attempts to justify faith based on human knowledge. Trying to do so, particularly by arguing that faith is valid or, in the converse, lack of faith is invalid, because we can never truly know anything with complete certainty, is the intellectually disreputable argument.

    Not being able to have completely certain knowledge about the world does not preclude validly ruling certain things out, at least when predicated on the understanding that our knowledge of the world is actually incomplete. We can only trukly know what we can observe, verify and explain, and it’s sensible to discount ideas that would violate what we have verified, even to say that they don’t exist. Because until they do exist, they don’t.

    It would be enough that I lack faith in divinity to use the word “atheist” to describe myself. But I can go further and say that I know gods do not exist. The only caveat is that I may one day not be an atheist, if it so happens that gods turn out to exist. But until they do, they don’t.

    The problem you’re getting at, if I may be so presumptuous, is not theism or atheism. It’s faith, and particularly blind faith, of any kind. As for my part, my mind is open and I am atheist. I don’t have a dogma, I just use the word in its descriptive sense.

    Obviously, your post wasn’t directed at me but at those who have atheism as a *faith*. That’s fine, I just suggest that when you took your shots you chose words that aim much wider than you intended.

    And, what the hell, I like debating these sorts of things and I find your opinion very important.

  23. Patricia LaRaia

    I think atheists are much more humble than people who believe in God. Atheists believe in the universe as it is revealed by science. They search for the truth on nature and don’t settle for the nonsense explanation that is all done by a white bearded man. As Carl Sagan put it (paraphrasing) …”who is more humble? the religious man that believes that God looks after him and creation? or the humble scientist who after many failures and research connects with the truth?
    Religious people are very self centered. Atheists understand they are just a miracle life form in an infinite universe. As far as I am concern…I stand with atheists.

  24. Patricia writes “Religious people are very self centered.” Well, that’s exactly the sort of generalization that somebody proceeding from the science wouldn’t make, eh?

    Again for my part, this isn’t an issue I’m greatly exercised about, except in cases where (say) the Christianists take over the Air Force Academy and get control of our nuclear weapons. If the religious leave me alone, I leave them alone.

    And again, I’m proceeding from the basis of science here — the universe is very large and we are very small. It’s the problem of evil (theodicy) that sticks in my craw. I’m more comfortable with the idea that both good and evil have survival value, and hence arose in nature, than I am with the idea that a supposely just God permits evil for inscutable higher purposes (to no doubt drastically summarize vast tomes of apologetics).

  25. I mis-wrote: I meant to write “I’m not proceeding from the basis of science here.” Sorry.

  26. KZK

    Ian, You’ve got it wrong. As far as your argument goes, you are arguing Godel’s theorem. Consider it this way, if everything we experience were a computer simulation (ala the matrix) and ‘god’ or ‘gods’ existed outside of that simulation, Godel’s theorem still applies to those ‘god’ or ‘gods’. In the same way that we can’t prove what exists outside of our system, those ‘god’ or ‘gods’ can’t prove what exists outside of their system, which could be yet another simulation in another matrix, ad infinitum. Therefor those ‘god’ or ‘gods’ can’t know if they are indeed ‘gods’, and any higher ‘god’ or ‘gods’ likewise can not know if they are ‘god’ or ‘gods’. There could be an infinite number of layers of this matrix.

    You don’t understand. Being an Atheist means that you don’t believe anything without evidence. There is no evidence of deities or higher matrix levels, nor can their be, so it is useless to speculate about things that have been proven to be unprovable. Even if they did exist, it is impossible to prove they exist, so again pointless. It’s all basically useless philosophical intellectual masturbation.

  27. Erasmus

    Most of the ‘radical atheists’ I know (the aggressive, chip-on-the-shoulder ones) are defining themselves in emotional opposition to oppressive religious conditioning (family, parent, childhood, etc.) The ones from fundamentalist/ pentacostal backgrounds are usually really ANGRY. The ones from liberal backgrounds (quaker, UU, agnostic, UC) don’t usually have this bitter agenda. I find that if you add an ‘0’, you can get most atheists to say “I believe in ‘good’, instead of ‘god’ “, and then we can have an empathy/sympathy/human rights discussion of merit. But the libertarian sneering ones won’t play – afraid of empathy . Subway wisdom: “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought”. Poincarre, 1854-1912, Science and Hypothesis,

  28. Erasmus quotes:

    “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought”.

    It’s not clear to me why atheists have to fall into either category (or, for that matter, the religious). Then again, I haven’t encountered any of the “aggressive, chip-on-the-shoulder ones” of whom Erasmus writes so empathetically.

  29. gtash

    My wife likes to talk about the existential dilemma. For her, “knowing” anything other than one’s own existence is strictly impossible. From there, she asserts all “knowing” of anything outside of oneself is really a matter of belief (which is also an internal invention) , and that some beliefs obtain certain support when they can be observed or reported to you as similarly experienced by others. Then she interjects confusion which language itself introduces when conveying “common” observations, and the whole argument turns in on itself to where you just wish it would end.

    She is not a believer in “a” God. She is , however, strongly spiritual. And she is capable of empathy. I think of her as agnostic.

  30. And if you go far enough, even knowing the existence of a self becomes tentative. On a strictly logical basis I tend to agree with your wife, but it’s one of those philosophies which is very hard to live (however, if someone wants to try, certain branches of Buddhism are very close.)

  31. gtash

    Funny you should mention Buddha. She is Japanese.

  32. Erasmus

    These are all philosophical discussions of an intellectual search for meaning, andI feel I could sit down and talk to each of you. Not so with the rigid believers and unbelievers, who are unable to discuss ambiguities or conflicting views because it might rattle their canons (sic) or imperil their social network.

    I was talking to an anthropologist and a Middle East scholar at Columbia last week about ‘rule-based religions’, esp. the ritual cleansing & diet-based ones. Some scholar (no name, alas!) has finally started to analyse Zoroastrian influence on Jewish practices and the origins of monotheism ( & the influence of tribal migration/ silk route in dispersal of these ‘rule’ based social groups. It’s all social anthropology – philosophers and dreamers are few and unique in each tribal subset. The rules for dress, food, bathing, worship and the role of women are simply tribal identity markers (e.g. Jewish law against mixing flax and wool is an agricultural/herding intermarriage interdiction. A muslim told me that hijab is a device to save your sisters for your 2nd cousins. etc.) Pondering the existence of ‘god’ is a harmless diversion for middle class philosophes. Like me.

  33. thump

    Both atheists and believers make the error that God is something which can be grasped with the human mind. Atheists think their logical arguments constitute proof, and believers think that the mental image they believe in is true. God or enlightenment is beyond the human mind, and, as Ian has heard, can be experienced directly without faith.

  34. Zen Bonobo

    A theist affirms an executive being. Within that there is broad interpretation on how that being relates to creation.

    An atheist dismisses notions of “a” being with any executive duties.

    My personal view is that all there is has always been in a state of all possibilities. That state of all that is possible is intelligent, self organizing, and mutually intentional. It is, for need of a better term, god-like.

    Is that arrogant or elegant?

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