A Response to “Atheism is a Faith”

A few months ago a Christian friend posted a note on Facebook, and I replied. He however, has not chosen to respond properly, opting to dismiss everything I wrote as “It is sad when one can’t see the forest for the trees”, which quickly degenerated any possible discourse into nothing substantial. Reproduced here are the exact original post and my response. Since I also respect the said person’s privacy, I have chosen to not reproduce his full name.

Original post – Atheism is a Faith & Agnosticism willful ignorance:

An agnostic will rightly say of God that ‘we cannot know’ if he exists. I agree, and I can’t prove that he does exist – so in a sense I am agnostic – but I differ in that I believe he does. The fence-sitting agnostic however has to actively and wilfully ignore the topic of God altogether, and I cannot say that they are right or wrong for doing so – only that should they continue, they might find out too late. An Atheist, on the other hand, ‘cannot know’ that God does not exist because they cannot prove it.

As much as I have a faith that God is real, the atheist has a faith that he is not real. Atheism, therefore, is not a lack of belief in God, but a proactive decision to believe he does not exist – which by virtue awards it no lesser or greater merit than any other faith.

The idea that Atheism & Science go hand in hand and that consequently Atheism is somehow more intelligent & less ignorant is misleading and deceptive. Scientific discovery can for the atheist lend support to his/her beliefs, and for the Christian lend support to his/her beliefs.

Of-course I want others to have what I have, or else why would I have it myself? But regardless of your stance please give careful thought to what Science is, and what it is not. It is a limited and finite tool by which we can discover many things, but not all things.

My response * reformatted as the original paragraphing was for Facebook comments :

Hi _____,

Since I’m sick and bored, I’ll take the bait and leave some comments (and it appears unlike the last time around, you are interested in discussion).

There are many problems with this note – indeed it is too numerous that one wonders where to start.

The Privative ‘a’

Perhaps a good place to start is the concept of the privative ‘a’. English as a language, for a lack of better words, evolved from previous forms of language, like Latin and Ancient Greek. The privative ‘a’ is an artifact from Ancient Greek (oh fascinating language that)

The privative ‘a’ is used to express negation of terms. For example, ‘anesthaesia’ is the negation of sensation – i.e. without sensation. ‘Atypical’, which describes your note and posting frequency on Facebook, is the negation of something typical – i.e. not typical.

  • Therefore, the negation of the word ‘gnostic’ – which means ‘referring to knowledge’ is ‘not referring to knowledge’ – i.e. ‘Agnostic’ means ‘not referring to knowledge/knowing’, aka ‘I don’t know’
  • ‘Atheist’ is another one such word. It is the negation of the root word, ‘theist’, which describes a person who practices theism. Therefore the word ‘atheist’ simply describes ‘not a theist’.
  • ‘Atheism’ is the negation of the word ‘theism’, which means a belief in the existence of god or gods. ‘Atheism’ simply means ‘not theism’, meaning, ‘not a belief in the existence of god or gods’.

Good, with the English lesson out of the way, let’s move on to the next issue.

Logical Fallacy – the Straw Man

The next issue is a logical fallacy known as the straw man. Essentially, it is giving your own definition of a target, and then procede to break down that definition.

Here is an example: Christians are death cultists. They celebrate the death of Jesus Christ, and often wear the symbol of the method of execution used to execute Jesus. Here are reasons why that is wrong: a).. blablabla.

If anyone were to say that, you’d be all up in arms claiming discrimination. Let’s break it down why you would do so. Amongst the things you’d say is that I am misrepresenting Christians.

Ahh, but see, that’s what strawmen are all about – creating a fallacious misrepresentation, and proceed to deconstruct them. And that is exactly what you did. Perhaps it’s intentional, perhaps it’s a genuine mistake. All I am doing is to call attention to the method used. And now, a point to point rebuttal of your claims.

On ‘Agnostic’ and Atheists

‘Agnostic’ is not a noun. It is an adjective. It is used to describe something. There is no such thing as ‘an agnostic’, only ‘an agnostic person’. This distinction has to be clear, as I am going to make a fairly important point: agnosticism is not on the same scale as theism/atheism.

Agnosticism is not a mid-point between theism and atheism – the word itself lends support to this idea (even though your version of agnosticism is verily commonly misused by the common man). There can be agnostic theist – people very much like yourself – who don’t know if there is a god or gods, but believe that there are god or gods. There can be agnostic atheists – people who, like me, don’t know if there are god or gods, but also don’t believe that there are god or gods. There can be gnostic theists – who both know and believe that there are god or gods. There can even be gnostic atheists, who know that there are no gods and does not believe in god or gods.

So, we have here, an agnostic theist (you), and an agnostic atheist (me). Note that both of us are agnostic (congratulations for not being too arrogant and claiming knowledge about a world-creating god). In terms of agnosticism, I’m even agnostic if Python or C++ is a better language to write programs in, and as a result, algorithms I write are mostly language-agnostic, and hence can be implemented in both Python or C++ (or Java, but if you ever go near that shit, I’ll kick you – Java sucks)

On “Atheism is a faith”

The next point is, if we ignore the strawman argument about what atheists and agnostic people are, saying that atheists require faith is like saying turning the telly off is a valid channel. Or bald is a hair colour (by the way, opinion needed: I was thinking of shaving bald, good idea?). Or not playing Magic the Gathering is totally a hobby.

I heard you don’t play Magic the Gathering. That must be a fascinating hobby! Tell me more about it!

Oh you like the ‘off’ channel on your telly? Tell me what are your favourite programs on that channel!

Yes, it does sound rather silly, and that’s how it does sound when making a claim that ‘atheism… [is] a proactive decision to believe he does not exist’. No, silly, atheism simply means ‘not theism’ (who knew 6th Grade English would be so important eh).

On Theism/Atheism and Science

I hear you man, that atheists are not necessarily more intelligent than religious people. But I disagree that atheism and science don’t go hand in hand.

Let’s go back to a time long ago. To the years where AD were only 3 digits long. The man was Ptolemy, who described the geocentric universe. This is what he said:

“I know that I am mortal and the creature of a day; but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the Earth, but, side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods”

– Claudius Ptolemy

Then we go to Newton – deeply religious man, who discovered gravity. He peppers references to the Christian god in his book Principia Mathematica (holy frakking good book that everyone must read).

However, if you do read Principia Mathematica, you would soon realize that Newton only referenced the Christian god when it had to do with problems he didn’t quite understand (and indeed some weren’t solved till 1950). Anything that Newton understood (like F=ma, or simple gravitational problem like the Two Bodies Problem), Newton did not invoke the Christian god at all. Perhaps one of the more interesting quote from Principia Mathematica is this, upon being unable to stabilize the solar system mathematically with his Two Bodies Problem solution:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.

– Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

Then we come to Pierre Simone de Laplace (Engineers know and hate this guy for his awesome Laplacian transforms and Laplacian math). He discovered the Perturbation Theory, which basically solved Newton’s problem of stabilizing the solar system * by approximation .

When Napoleon summoned Laplace and asked “what role did God play in the instruction and regulation of the heavens”, Laplace famously replied “I have no need for that hypothesis”.

Now, perturbation theory was simply an extension of Newton’s theory of gravity and calculus. A mind like Newton, who invented calculus practically on a dare, couldn’t find the answer. Perturbation theory wasn’t as groundbreaking a theory as gravity or calculus. But the inventor of both couldn’t solve it, and had to wait 200 years before anyone next tackled the problem. Newton did write extensively on this problem. But it was after he gave up and attributed the harmony of celestial mechanics to the guidance of a god, he simply didn’t try any more. He basically stopped trying after invoking God.

Science Drives out the God of the Gaps

Which brings me to my point. Science and the advancement of science shrinks the god of the gaps in time. When Ptolemy couldn’t explain the movements of the planets, he attributed it to Zeus. Newton came along, invented the theory of gravity to explain the movement of planets, but when he found he couldn’t mathematically stabilize the solar system, he attributed it to Jehovah. Then came along Laplace, who solved the problem without invoking any supernatural being.

Had Newton been alive when Laplace solved the problem, Newton would not have invoked the Christian god any further – he’d understand that it was gravity that did all that.

Gaps in knowledge used to be attributed to god or gods. With science, those gaps are closing, eliminating the need for god or gods as explanation. In this sense, science does drive people towards atheism, as their old beliefs get shattered.

Of course, being humans, and you being a psychologist, you know human psychology is often very fragile, and will often concoct up reasons for defending an irrational beliefs (cognitive dissonance is the feeling I believe – Aronson 1968 was a bloody fascinating read – and cognitive bias is the usual effect of said dissonance I believe too).

Scientific discoveries that lend support to Christian beliefs are usually cognitive biases, as the brain rejects discoveries that are not congruent with their beliefs.

Likewise, scientific discoveries that lend support to atheistic causes (note, not beliefs), are also products of cognitive biases. Likewise, people who do support the atheistic cause do and will reject discoveries that are not congruent with their causes.

That said, due to the nature of science being the Closer of Gaps, it is very unlikely you will find the latter situation, and I would like to invite you to provide examples of some, as I can’t seem to rack my flu-addled brain for any.

Anyhow, cherrio and good nite.

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