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Atheism not antitheism. April 18, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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Before I tackle the New Zealand religion issue I thought I would unload my thoughts on atheism.

I am an atheist and I am very comfortable with that position. Some people will see that word and recoil – as if it meant something unsavoury or distasteful – and this is the result of many many years of religious teaching that this is so. For obvious reasons religion sees atheism as a direct threat to their numbers and yet in my view, ironically, atheists are not doing nearly enough to challenge religion. In New Zealand in particular, atheism stems more from apathy rather than any real interest in the topic.

But what exactly is atheism? It may disturb some readers to realise that absolutely every single person on the planet is an atheist. Most Christians for example would never label themselves as atheists because they have been brought up to see an “atheist vs other religion vs us” view of the world. Atheists will life unfulfilled lives and eventually rot in hell for not believing, while other religions are simply idolatrous. The arrogance inherent in this is staggering but I will talk to this issue later.

Christians are atheists as are Muslims and Jews and any other religious sect you can think of. In fact a fundamental part of their doctrine requires atheism towards every other possible deity other than their own. No Christian believes in Zeus for example. Every Muslim is atheist towards Amon-Ra. Richard Dawkins magic quote leaps to mind… “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Atheism is not a belief, it is the absence of belief in some kind of supernatural deity.

It does not imply any lack of spirituality, and it does not mean atheists eat babies and burn down churches. Most atheists are in fact quite fond of babies and see many churches as wonderful examples of architecture. Even the bible has some merit in the eyes of atheists – there are some wonderful stories and interesting historical lessons in it.

The word atheism is made of two parts – “a” loosely meaning “not” and “theist” loosely meaning “a believer in a god”. So an atheist is simply not a believer in a god. This point is absolutely critical. Atheism is not antitheism (“anti” meaning against – so against believers in god). I personally do not dislike people who believe in a god – that would be an irrational prejudice and as I intend to discuss at some stage, most religious people do not consciously realise their belief may not be true thanks to the nature of religious organisations.

I do however have some pretty fundamental issues with the teachings of religion and the manner in which they are taught.

With that in mind, my next post will talk about my views on religion in New Zealand .



1. Ken - July 13, 2007

Ian, I like your comment: So an atheist is simply not a believer in a god.
That’s the way it is for me too – a simple statement about one small aspect of a person’s beliefs.
It concerns me though that even with that one word people try to read a lot more into it (and usually a sinister meaning). And even other non-theists will sometimes do this (I watched a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson last night where he gave this impression). I guess this comes from a long history of attempts to discredit atheism.

2. Cameron - August 2, 2008

Why is it that most atheists don’t believe in the super-natural, when believing in the super-natural doesn’t neccessarily mean you have to believe in God?

3. Ian - August 2, 2008

Because most atheists arrive at their position through critical thinking and knowledge – which just happen to be the two things that make pretty much all supernatural claims seem remarkably unlikely.

4. Cameron - August 3, 2008

That’s one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever heard because “critical thinking” and “knowledge” are non-physical and can only exist if there are contradictions. Yet, nothing within bare matter itself can tell us there shouldn’t be contradictions!

5. Ian - August 3, 2008

I don’t follow that comment (at all) – would you care to expand?

6. Peter Grant - August 4, 2008

Great post. Like that way you point out that theists are atheists where all other gods except their own are concerned. I just wrote a sci-fi short story about atheism and would really appreciate your comments: http://scifiwriter.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/faith/

7. Cameron - August 5, 2008

Definitely. Logic is a trancendent a priori. Take a “contradiction” for example. It is not material. Yet they must exist in order to distinguish between things, hence ‘think’. The problem comes in ‘accounting’ for contradictions. They are a trancendent a priori. They are not found to grow naturally.

8. Ian - August 5, 2008

Thanks Peter, I’ll check it out.

Cameron: It really depends on your definition of “naturally”. I think they are found to grow naturally and we are it. The way I see it, some lowland apes became a bit more intelligent, developed abstract language, and ended up with a way of describing things. This led to mathematics and logic as an abstract method of describing observations and predicting new ones.

I see this whole thing as a perfectly natural process. It may have never occurred before in the history of the universe but it is still natural.

9. Cameron - August 5, 2008

Alright. Yet, if abstractions can grow naturally then if we burn all those trees we should no longer have intelligence and logic.

10. Ian - August 5, 2008

I am not sure what you refer to with “trees”?

At a guess I presume you are saying if there were no people, there’d be no intelligence and logic? I’d agree that there would be no human manifestation of intelligence and logic, but nothing is stopping another species (here or elsewhere) arriving at the same ideas. They are emergent phenomena of thinking beings – you don’t need anything more to explain them I don’t think.

11. revromansky - September 24, 2008

Respectfully, your brand of atheism is a word game. Atheists constantly ask we Christians to prove God. Again, your little “g” in “god” meaning all disrespect.

Expound on the proofs of atheism, if you have even one. You can’t, although there are many proofs for intelligent design (which theory even Dawkins agrees with).

We are not as smart as God is dumb.



12. Ian - September 24, 2008

Not prove, provide evidence of what it is you claim is true and are trying to convince others is true. And not just evidence which “could” mean god exists but evidence that provides a high degree of certainty god exists. After all you are expecting people to take your belief seriously no?

To demonstrate why it doesn’t make sense to “expound the proofs of atheism” I would like you to try and expound the proofs of a-santa-ism (the absence of belief that santa really exists). I am confident I can provide an equally valid “proof” of atheism as you can provide a “proof” of a-santa-ism.

Chances are you can come up with lots of reasons why santa doesn’t exist such as proof of its derivation from older myths, examinations of the north pole, the impossibility of delivering presents everywhere, and evidence that you can fake presents appearing (by parents placing them there).

Funnily enough it seems you can trace the derivation of the bible, god is not directly observable anywhere, somehow god has to exist outside time and space which seems impossible, and you can fake religions (scientology)…

As for Dawkins agreeing with intelligent design… which Dawkins exactly? Good luck pinning that on Richard Dawkins, author of the Selfish Gene.

13. hang2gether - September 30, 2008

I agree but as atheists aren’t we inherently antitheist? I have a healthy respect for honesty and truth and I can’t possibly condone or remain neutral to a party who perpetuates mythology and masquerades religion as science. It is an affront to the progress of our society. Good post!

14. vicki - October 2, 2008

hello, i am currently doing my A level in re and have been given this coursework question..

Only a Belief In emobodied existence after death is philosophically justifiable..

i was wondering does anyone know any books or websites that
i would find of help in answering this question.. or even any help from you?

if you do please email me on

it would be much appreciated x

15. Pierre - October 8, 2008

A challenging post. Personally when it comes to metaphysics, all that transcends this reality if ever such a transcendence exists, I prefer to wear the guise of an Agnostic. Agnosticism being a realization of perpetual change and the inability to acquire certainty in any given manner. Everything is interpretation, and the human in order to cope with his environment came up with all different tools, abstraction and sublimation of thought would be none other than another step in evolution, and as seen so far on a global impact it’s not a promising one.
Atheism concerned with belief, or the lack of it, this adds up to me being an Agnostic Atheist, one who still finds joy possible in this in this existence.

16. ccdguy - October 16, 2008

Wow. This is a great discussion. Pierre, I consider myself an Atheist leaning Agnostic. I don’t have a belief in a supernatural being, but I recognize just how subjective everything I experience really is. None of the religious explanations for God ever really add up, for me. I liked what you said about what humans do in order to cope. Seems to be the case. I hope you’ll all check out the debates going on at http://www.createcognitivedissonance.wordpress.com – we’ve had some excellent debates there, recently, about dogma, faith, reality, etc. Check it out!


17. Cameron - October 20, 2008

Ian, you said I’d agree that there would be no human manifestation of intelligence and logic, but nothing is stopping another species (here or elsewhere) arriving at the same ideas. They are emergent phenomena of thinking beings – you don’t need anything more to explain them I don’t think.

Have you proven this forensically? You can’t. This is because you need a bases by which abstract universal meanings can derive from?

And further, since these can’t be proven with forensic evidence, yet must be accepted to even have this discussion, it should be believed that propositions can be accepted without forensic proof. Especially the proposition that there is a personal supernatural realm.

18. Ian - October 21, 2008

I don’t need to prove it – I only need to not assume humans are anything special and it’s taken care of. No basis is needed.

Your second paragraph sounds dangerously close to solipsism 😉

19. Cameron - November 11, 2008

Solipsism? In what way? I’m not sure what you mean and I don’t want to guess.

You’re also changing the subject. So do you accept the possibility of a supernatural realm? I’ve already laid out why it’s irrational to deny it and logical to accept it.

20. Cameron - November 11, 2008

Further, you are logically proving that humans are special every time you reply to me, by using what only humans use – the immaterial law of non-contradiction to think rationally. Yet, you “say” and “believe” we are no better than anything else. Again, this is why an atheist acts like a theist, but says otherwise.

21. Ian - November 11, 2008

I do not accept the possibility of a supernatural “realm” because so far as I can tell we have precisely zero evidence that such a thing exists, and no need of its existence to explain what we observe. IMO “supernatural” is shorthand for “I can’t explain and don’t want science to either”.

Humans are “special” in the sense that they can do things which other animals can’t but I see no reason to assume humans are special in some sort of magical way.

22. Cameron - November 19, 2008

“no need of its existence to explain what we observe.

Again, you assume that “believing is seeing” while all along your belief can’t be seen, and is proof of the super natural.

Supernatural does not mean “what we can’t explain” but what is beyond all mere physical matter. Intelligence is not made up of matter, thus is supernatural activity. Further, it can’t be ACCOUNTED for by mere matter.

23. hang2gether - November 21, 2008


“Thought,” “belief,” and the resulting “contradictions” which you state are non-physical and are “transcendent a priori[s]” can’t be “seen” as such because they are concepts. This does not mean that they do not exist and this does not mean that thought and emotion are supernatural. While we cannot capture a thought and strap it to a table for an autopsy, we understand that the process of thinking occurs in the brain. We can examine brain activity. That is the difference between our very natural thought process and something “supernatural” like ghosts. A trace. A trail. Something physical and constant which relates to the “untouchable” event.

24. Cameron - December 4, 2008

hang2gether, you said “This does not mean that they do not exist and this does not mean that thought and emotion are supernatural.”

Yes, I fully agree with you that this does not mean they do not exist. But so what. That was never my claim to begin with. They simply can’t be ACCOUNTED for apart from the supernatural. This leads into the second part of your sentence. “Thoughts and emotions are not supernatural.” Well… that depends on how you define the “natural” realm. If it is purely physical, then you must account for how the physical can bring about non-physical realities.

Lastly, you said “We can examine brain activity.”

One of the laws required for our brains to think rationally is the law of non-contradiction. I’m sure we both agree that the law of non-contradiction can’t be physically observed, and we would both agree that we must use and do use the law of non-contradiction in order to think rationally. Great. Again, so what. My argument is that we are assuming non-physical realities, thus are assuming something beyond the natural. I have every reason to say we are assuming something beyond the super-natural here simply for this reason: the law of non-contradiction is not derived from observing uniformity in nature, such as a natural law would. If you change the uniformity of nature then you change the law and no one would throw a fit. BUT… you change the law of non-contradiction and guess what? No one can think rationally. This is a law implied upon the mind, not based one how we think, but how we OUGHT to think. Thus, is proof that it is a law beyond the natural, not merely derived from it.

Remember, one does not have to be a naturalist of a materialism to believe in the supernatural. Secular philosophers did centuries ago, such as Plato and his “forms”. We now live in a ridiculous age of empiricism whereby atheists for some reason act as though any credence to the supernatural implies “religion”.

25. Cameron - December 5, 2008

I meant to say, “Remember, one does not have to be a naturalist or a materialist to believe in the supernatural.”

26. Cameron - December 5, 2008

Actually, now that I think about it, I meant to say, “An atheist does not have to be a naturalist or a materialist. If I were an atheist, I would believe in the supernatural. It would make me more consistent. Those who reject it are more primitive in their thinking then Plato.”

27. Nicholas - December 7, 2008

They certainly can be accounted for. Our thoughts and these non-physical realities we are considering may simply be concepts, but they are not supernatural. They ARE our brain activity. They are the electrical signals. Simply because we have not dissected every last detail and nuance of brain activity does not mean that they are supernatural.

Additionally, you claim that the law of non-contradiction is beyond the natural, not merely derived from it. You attempt to prove this by claiming that if we change the law we cannot think rationally, but if we change reality then we simply change the law. You’re not proving anything here. You’re arguing that if we nonsensically and unilaterally accept a law that does not mesh with reality that we will not be able to think rationally. You’re right. So what? That doesn’t prove that the law is beyond the natural. In fact, it proves that it IS derived from the natural world. The law of non-contradiction developed from our experiences with the world. As we began to recognize “truths” we came to understand the law. And yes, if you change the uniformity of nature the law no longer applies. This means that the law relies upon reality but reality does not rely upon the law.

28. Cameron - December 8, 2008

Nicholas, “Our thoughts and these non-physical realities we are considering may simply be concepts, but they are not supernatural. They ARE our brain activity.”

Really? So if you destroy all the brains in the world then there would be no more law of non-contradiction? The law of non-contradiction cannot exist in neuron firings and synapses. Again, the law ‘prescribes’ how we ‘ought’ to think, therefore, REQUIRES our minds to function a certain way to even think. And requirements themselves are NOT physical. Where does your requirement for how we are to think in order to think rationally, come from?

“So what? That doesn’t prove that the law is beyond the natural.”

So what standard in nature tells you how something MUST function, such as the law of non-contradiction?

In fact, it proves that it IS derived from the natural world. The law of non-contradiction developed from our experiences with the world. As we began to recognize “truths” we came to understand the law.

You’re question begging here. In order for you to recognize truths, you have to do so through the lens of the law of non-contradiction. So again, what in nature is telling you that you MUST think according to the law of non-contradiction in order to think rationally?

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