I believe in one less god than monotheists…

As published in the New Statesman Faith Column.

I've been asked to contribute a series of Blogs for "The Faith Column", but I'm not a man of faith. I'm an atheist. Let's start with the basics. What does "Atheism" mean? It's a word derived from the Greek word "theos", meaning "God", and the prefix "a-", meaning "without". An atheist is someone without a belief in god. It is as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a belief system that tells me how to behave or what to eat. It is a simple statement of my lack of belief in God. I could be a fascist, a communist, a monetarist, a narcissist. All of these other belief systems and characteristics are supplementary to, or supplemented by my atheism. My atheism doesn't make me special: I'm one of about 15 million other people in this country who do not describe themselves as religious. I'm not writing this blog to "evangelise" either: I've argued through many a night with religious friends, but never seen any wisdom in trying to "convert" them. I know all too well that what we don't choose to believe what we believe – we just do. I've been invited to contribute to this column, and I see this as a good opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions. Typically, one might frame a debate about god by first defining what god is and isn't, then seeking to disprove the existence of god. I'm not going to define what I think "god" is. Nor am I going to give it a capital "G", since my lack of belief extends to all gods. What I'll apologise for in advance, though, is my frequent references in this series of blogsposts to Christianity. This is simply a product of my cultural environment and the religion I left as a young man, but I think my points apply to all religions equally. I'm guessing that the majority of readers lack a belief in Zeus or Thor or Huitzilopochtli. We don't think twice about not believing in them and it would be absurd and time-consuming to work through all of the many thousands of deities that have been revered throughout history and refute their existence in turn. So there's not much point in proving that Zeus or the Tooth Fairy don't exist. Similarly, there is no onus on atheists to prove that the Christian God, Allah, Vishnu etc. do not exist. The burden of proof is on the people claiming that these things exist. Some atheists take this a step further and say that they know there is no god. Since the burden of proof is on the believer, I don't see a need to positively affirm that there is no god, just as I don't need to prove that there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. Monotheists reject all other gods but their own. I just happen to believe in one less god than they do. Outside their own scriptures, there's nothing conclusive that points towards the existence of god. The Argument from Design, philosophically tenuous anyway, has been successfully neutered on a philosophical level by a succession of philosophers and holed conclusively on a biological level by Darwinism. The Cosmological Argument ("First Cause", or "Something must have created the Universe" argument) misses the obvious question as to why the First Cause should not require a cause. We can't explain everything yet, but god is increasingly forced into the gaps of what we don't know. We should continue to look into those gaps and rudely evict god from them. What if thinkers and scientists throughout history had chosen to be theologians rather than discovering electricity, x-Rays, antibiotics, nuclear power, vaccinations, semiconductors and DNA to name a few advances we take for granted? I fully accept that all of my beliefs might change. I might have a change of heart one day and look back on these years as an atheist with regret. I'm happy to make judgments about reality based on my observation, experience and reflection. I do hope that I continue to live my life with my beliefs and assumptions about the world as a work-in-progess. I'd hate to think that one day I might end up convinced and arrogant in my beliefs. This is why I have so much respect for the scientific method; theories are tested against observation and reworked to explain the world. It never claims to have all the answers or the complete truth, it just tries to do the best it can with what it knows already. I think that's respectable and realistic. So by way of introduction, that's all there is to it. I don't believe in any gods but that doesn't define me. I don't believe in any gods because the evidence isn't there and I don't need to prove a negative. However, I've got an open mind and I'm willing to use observation rather than revelation to explain the world around me.

One Response

  1. Christopher Campbell
    Christopher Campbell / 12-1-2007 / ·

    Dear Mr. Hanway,

    I was fortunate enough to read your contribution to the New Statements “Faith Column” on 10 April 2007. It is the article entitled, “I believe in one less god than monotheists.” While I agree with you on some points, I have two points of contention. The first is the suggestion that atheism is “a simple statement of [one’s] lack of belief in God.” The second is atheists “just happen to believe in one less god.” I believe both of these statements to be oversimplified, and not accurately reflect the complexity of the issues surrounding the questions which they are attempting to answer. Let’s take them in order.

    I agree one can make a simple etymological case for atheism to be defined as “without belief in God.” This raises the question of what it means to be without belief. In searching for an understanding, I notice many atheists link being without belief with being without a burden of proof. “Ah ha!” I thought. So, this means to be without belief means to make no truth claims. This means the atheists cannot claim, “God exists” or “God does not exist.” [I can expand on this if necessary.] So, this means the atheist is actually without a position. They do not claim anything with regards to God’s exist.

    With an understanding of what it meant to be an atheist, I now turned my attention to the practical application of this definition. I again hit a wall. How could an atheist possibly take no position on the matter of God? They are constantly arguing against the idea. Do they truly have no position? Is it even possible to be completely without a position as atheism demands? I conclude it is possible. It is possible for the person who remains ignorant of the concept of God. They are what some like to call implicit atheists. Though, I feel this is an unnecessary and unfair designation intended only to bolster atheism. So, what about those who are familiar with the concept of God? Well, to date I have been able to find no evidence to support that an individual can remain entirely neutral on the concept of God. I have never had anyone supply evidence. Hence, I reasonably conclude it is not possible. When one comes to knowledge of the concept of God, one naturally chooses to accept or reject the notion even if only in minute degrees. Even those who claim to refrain from judgment still have biases which tell us about their dispositions. Hence, as we can see, atheism as a mere lack of belief isn’t practically applicable. And because of this, it really has no true meaning and does nothing to advance our conversations about God.

    I would also appeal to the common usage of atheism amongst the general population. The general population appears to use atheism in a manner inconsistent with the way many atheists on the Internet define it. There are objections to this because the general population tends to be religious and hence are biased, but I find this argument lacking.

    Additionally, I would contend atheism is not merely a lack of belief because more often than not a consistent set of other accepted beliefs seem to follow. These include the acceptance of naturalism, forms of secular ethics and/or politics, and so on. Now, obviously, it can be objected these do not necessarily follow a lack of belief in God. And I would agree. Yet, they are common enough that I belief it warrants some inclusion within the definition of atheism. Let me provide an alternate example to support my case.

    There are many Christian fundamentalists who reject the Roman Catholic Church. They claim the Catholic Church isn’t truly Christian. Yet, both you and I would deem both groups to be part of Christianity. Though one group rejects the other, both are included under the term even to the dislike the fundamentalists. Likewise, I believe a definition of atheism should be. And with this, it’s my belief the issues surrounding atheism are much more complex than the simple etymology provided allows for. Hence, we need a better definition which incorporates these issues. Moving onto my second point of contention.

    To declare the atheists “just believes in one less god than the monotheist,” is to oversimplify the issue. Such a statement neglects to take into consideration why the monotheist rejects belief in other possible gods, and it trivializes the differences between the various theistic stances. First, the monotheists typical reject belief in all other possible deities because the define of god which they have accepted necessarily negates belief in all other deities. Take the Judeo-Christian God for example. The Scriptures teach God is the only God, and any other claimed deity is a false god. So, it’s clear the Christian would reject belief in other possible deities for different reasons than the atheist. Secondly, there are fundamental differences between the various theistic stances (i.e., deism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, etc.). Each brand of theism makes different claims about the nature of its own gods or goddesses. Thus, if we view gods as a checklist to be marked off, to mark off gods 3-5 on our least may not necessarily mean anything for gods 7-10. Hence, the statement oversimplifies the issue.

    This brings me back to my original point. I believe both statements oversimplify the issues. And to extend this further, I believe they create unnecessary confusion within the discussions surrounding the issues. Hence, I would recommend redefining atheism to something useful and abandoning the “one less god” statements.

    Thanks for your time.

    ~ Christopher

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