Atheism and Theism: both statements about nature?

In the previous thread, Jet Black made the following comment in response to one of my comments:

Atheism is a statement about gods, not a statement about nature. You just seem to be making them synonyms. This is precisely the same trick that creationists and religious people often try to play; implicitly claim that a bunch of things are synonymous, reject one, and then by induction, you reject them all.
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I disagree. Here’s why:

Here is part of my response:

So I think to adopt the word atheism without also acknowledging that that label involves the rejection of an entire paradigm of naming and understanding, an entire meaning generation function used by others, is a sort of a cop out.
If you are going to reject an entire paradigm, then you are just playing coy not to acknowledge adoption of a different paradigm. F=ma.

Theism is a model entirely supported on some notion of God. Take out God and you take out the foundation of the paradigm. You are left without the ability to name almost anything. To say that atheism is a rejection of God is not like rejecting a superfluous element of a model, it is rejecting the reality of the whole thing. Terra firma itself, love, duty, faith, causes, effects, affects, death, life, meaning, what actions produce what responses. All of it. The central element which determines some part of nearly all behavior.

To say that atheism is not a statement about nature seems either superficial or disingenuous somehow. It is exactly like someone not believing in physics. Exactly. And that is where materialism, I think, runs into the potential of religion and is in fact the current religion which has supplanted the older ones for the masses who simply accept the best information available as truth and go about their lives without looking again. To consider anything unassailable truth ignores that naming conventions almost entirely define truth.

For example, it can be true that God causes floods. However, it can’t be true if you also accept thermal exchange equations as truth. One or the other. Both are equally valid truths but one is vastly superior at predicting the weather so that’s what we tend to default to.
But really, neither should be assumed to be the final word because a new naming convention, a new paradigm, will almost certainly make the current physics seem rudimentary and childlike eventually. But for now they work better than throwing virgins into volcanoes or praying to Jesus to regulate flooding.
Under our current naming convention, we can dissect the entire universe into fields. Without the invention of the telescope, that would be not just absurd, but less useful than following religious conventions which at least helped us remember when to plant the corn.

I think that atheism is indeed a statement about nature. Thoughts?

28 thoughts on “Atheism and Theism: both statements about nature?

  1. Aarrrggghh. I’m saying that atheism doesn’t just make a statement about God and leave the rest alone. God is foundational to a theistic worldview. It’s exactly the same as rejecting math to a person holding a modern worldview and saying, It’s a statement about math, not about nature.

    IOW, It very much is a statement about nature. I’m up in the middle of the night thinking about atheism. I guess I shouldn’t have hoped to be coherent. 🙁

  2. I think you need to decide a definition of what atheism is before going any further. In my view, atheism would tend to be synonymous with a realistic view of the universe. If it is not shared reality, there is the possibility ii is just imagination.

  3. Alan Fox:
    I think you need to decide a definition of what atheism is before going any further. In my view, atheism would tend to be synonymous with a realistic view of the universe. If it is not shared reality, there is the possibility ii is just imagination.

    Atheism, whatever it is, is a part of entirely different model of the universe than the model that includes God. The Deists of the Enlightenment confused things a bit by first calling Nature ‘God’. But they had already discarded anything that a medieval person considered to be God. There were only forces. You can’t just ‘not believe in God’ without holding an entirely incommensurable view of almost the entirety of human experience and most important here, of nature as someone who believes in God. They are built on different foundational assumptions. No?.

  4. You can’t just ‘not believe in God’ without holding an entirely incommensurable view of almost the entirety of human experience…

    That’s unanswerable. I only know what I think and I was never, as far as I can recall in my childhood when I started to question the realities I was presented with, other than ‘just not believing’ in the various imaginative and less imaginative stories I was told. I can’t comprehend religious belief. I can’t share the experience. Don’t some believers just believe? I have never witnessed any constructive dialogue between believers and non-believers about belief. It seems you have the gene or you don’t.

    Added in edit:

    That’s why I find the idea that anyone could reason themselves in to a religious belief from atheism, well, unbelievable. If they can, they were no true atheist to start with. 🙂

  5. I think that atheism is indeed a statement about nature. Thoughts?

    I think that atheism is not a statement about anything. It is not even a statement.

    Sure, many atheists make statements that relate to their atheism. But many more don’t. Making statements is not a necessary part of atheism.

  6. Alan Fox: That’s unanswerable. I only know what I think and I was never, as far as I can recall in my childhood when I started to question the realities I was presented with, other than ‘just not believing’ in the various imaginative and less imaginative stories I was told. I can’t comprehend religious belief. I can’t share the experience. Don’t some believers just believe? I have never witnessed any constructive dialogue between believers and non-believers about belief. It seems you have the gene or you don’t.

    Added in edit:

    That’s why I find the idea that anyone could reason themselves in to a religious belief from atheism, well, unbelievable. If they can, they were no true atheist to start with.

    Hmm. Ok. So a theist defines matter, energy, transactions between them, as well as all kinds of personal transactions with others and the physical world in relationship to God. God actually defines many of those things. Without God, there is no common unit of measure. Atheism, being a statement about God, is in fact a statement about nature. An atheist may develop any number of alternative systems for naming, defining and interacting with their world than a theist, but in declaring themselves an atheist, they are making the unavoidable statement that they define nature in a fundamentally different way.
    No?

  7. Atheism, being a statement about God, is in fact a statement about nature.

    We haven’t defined what an atheist is, yet. An atheist would be someone who suspects all gods and similar concepts are human constructs. Is “nature” synonymous with “reality”?

  8. BWE: Ok. So a theist defines matter, energy, transactions between them, as well as all kinds of personal transactions with others and the physical world in relationship to God. God actually defines many of those things. Without God, there is no common unit of measure. Atheism, being a statement about God, is in fact a statement about nature.

    A religion may define matter, energy, etc. It is the specific religion that may make a statement about nature, rather than theism. A deist is a kind of theist, but is probably not saying anything different about nature than agnostics and atheists.

    A former theist who becomes an atheist is rejecting his/her prior religion and could be said to be making a statement about nature. Somebody who is an atheist by virtue of never having adopted any religion is not thereby making any statement about nature.

  9. Only that it’s a statement of disbelief, no different from a disbelief in the physical existence of Santa Claus.

    Saying that one does not believe in Space alien abductions, ESP, ghosts and the like is merely a statement that the evidence is lacking or unconvincing.

    If people have built fantasy worldviews around imaginary entities, that is their business.

    Terms like love, duty, faith are abstractions of real behaviors and experiences. They are not things. Creating a name for a class of behavior or experience does not make the name anything other than a conversational placeholder. Placeholders are functional, but they are not the things they represent.

    This is all part of the generalized tendency of creationist to engage in equivocation. To switch meanings in mid discourse.

    When a person declares himself an atheist, he is generally rejecting a class of historical statements and being distorted, misinterpreted, or fabricated. I suspect that most atheists who have grown up in societies where belief is common, are simply bewildered that people would accept stories without satisfactory evidence.

    Or more generally, that there are people who do not value the concept of requiring evidence.

  10. Petrushka:
    Only that it’s a statement of disbelief, no different from a disbelief in the physical existence of Santa Claus.

    Saying that one does not believe in Space alien abductions, ESP, ghosts and the like is merely a statement that the evidence is lacking or unconvincing.

    If people have built fantasy worldviews around imaginary entities, that is their business.

    Terms like love, duty, faith are abstractions of real behaviors and experiences. They are not things. Creating a name for a class of behavior or experience does not make the name anything other than a conversational placeholder. Placeholders are functional, but they are not the things they represent.

    This is all part of the generalized tendency of creationist to engage in equivocation. To switch meanings in mid discourse.

    When a person declares himself an atheist, he is generally rejecting a class of historical statements and beingdistorted, misinterpreted, or fabricated. I suspect that most atheists who have grown up in societies where belief is common, are simply bewildered that people would accept stories without satisfactory evidence.

    Or more generally, that there are people who do not value the concept of requiring evidence.

    This is the most ignorant, self-important, and condescending post I’ve read all day. That’s a tough combination. Dogmatic. Perfectly religious even. So, in fact in your case, atheism involves a hugely inflated ego AND a statement about nature. Check.

  11. This is the most ignorant, self-important, and condescending post I’ve read all day.

    Deep analysis! 🙂

  12. I suspect that most atheists who have grown up in societies where belief is common, are simply bewildered that people would accept stories without satisfactory evidence.

    That’s certainly my personal experience.

  13. BWE: “This is the most ignorant, self-important, and condescending post I’ve read all day. That’s a tough combination. Dogmatic. Perfectly religious even. So, in fact in your case, atheism involves a hugely inflated ego AND a statement about nature. Check.”

    Where do you find anything of a personal or offensive nature in Petrushka’s comment?

    As far as atheism being a statement about nature, I think it would be fairer to say that it is a term that describes an individual, who rejects any explanation for the world/universe we occupy, that somehow requires a theology or god to justify it.

  14. Obviously you are ignorant, self-important and condescending.

    Since there are only 2000 or so conflicting religions, a person who looks at this and makes the Bayesian conclusion that they are all supported by equivalent amounts of evidence and equally valid, is ignorant.

    OK.

    The simple fact is that successful religions in general reject the need for evidence and focus on faith. There’s a reason for this.

    The focus on the naming of things sounds oddly like a throwback to shamanism and witchcraft. In the “Wind in the Door” the evil one destroys people and things by Xing or un-naming them. A rather common theme in fantasy.

    I enjoy reading fantasy, but I never figured out why someone would conflate it with reality, except as social commentary.

  15. I don’t reject explanations that require a deity. I have no opinion on the existence of a deity. I am simply unaware of any attributes that could reliably be assigned to a deity.

    Another way of saying this is that the evidence supported attributes of the deity is a null set.

    That does not mean I hate God or deny the existence of God. It just means that the intersection of all the conflicting attributes of deities is empty.

  16. I think that people who engage in science look for things that can be recorded, measured and analyzed in terms of consistent behavior. In other words, science looks for patterns and regularities.

    This has been true for centuries and true during the entire time when theists were the cost common participants in science.

    There have been episodes in the history of science when a particular scientist attributed a phenomenon to supernatural intervention. Most famously, Newton attributed the force stabilizing the solar system to intervention.

    I’m unaware of any such speculation that has been fruitful. In general, speculations about intervention get replaced by knowledge of regularity.

    So I don’t see how a theistic universe can contribute to science. The history of such alternate universes is that they contribute nothing to science as an enterprise.

    Perhaps that is why, after centuries of this trend, science simply ignores the possibility of intervention. The black swan and white crow may turn up, but it’s not the way to bet.

  17. BWE,

    I could buy into the proposition that Theism is an all-encompassing worldview which, being all-encompassing, covers nature as much as it covers everything else. So okay, Theism is a statement about nature. But atheism..? Atheism is basically saying “The Theist worldview is wrong”. Would you call that a competing worldview? I sure wouldn’t!

  18. As I see it, religions offer various explanations – for want of a better word – of how and why the world is the way it is. They usually – although not always – require commitment to belief in a god or gods, participation in various rituals and ceremonies and adherence to specified codes of behavior.

    Atheism in its weaker form is simply a lack of belief in these faiths and their gods. The stronger form is a categorical denial that gods exist. On this view, atheism is not an explanation in itself but simply the rejection or denial of the explanations offered by the various faiths.

    It can be argued that, by dismissing all religious explanations, almost all that remains for the atheist by way of explaining the world is something like naturalism or materialism. So you could say that atheism strongly implies naturalistic or materialistic views but does not necessarily entail them.

  19. It’s important to note that atheism has variations and degrees. I could be described as an atheist because I believe no formal religion describes reality, no theology that conforms to fact. All the major revealed religions seem to be hodgepodges of stories stolen from each other and embellished over time. The God of Abraham lacks self-consistency and appears to be psychopathic.

    But I have no opinion as to what the facts are, no personal theory of the origin or nature of existence. There’s a compelling question at the heart of religion, and I see no value in denying that.

    I just see no value in belief, one way or the other. When you don’t know, the honest position is to say you don’t know.

  20. So why has all the ink been spilled over the “difference” between atheism and agnosticism.

    Do atheists know something that agnostics don’t? Do they just prefer certainty?

  21. Petrushka: Do atheists know something that agnostics don’t? Do they just prefer certainty?

    Agnostics, or at least some of them, concern themselves with such questions as whether the concept of God is a coherent one.

  22. Petrushka:
    So why has all the ink been spilled over the “difference” between atheism and agnosticism.

    Do atheists know something that agnostics don’t? Do they just prefer certainty?

    This is why I thought a definition of atheism would be useful. Could be everyone or nobody is an atheist. I don’t think PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins claim to be certain that gods don’t exist. If you insist an atheist is certain there are no gods then maybe it will be hard to find anyone self-describing as such an atheist.

  23. …claim to be certain that gods don’t exist….

    I can accept that. I am as certain as I can be about anything that all the religions I know about are fundamentally wrong. With the possible exception of Buddhism, which doesn’t seem to have a deity.

    Mostly I am certain that the historical claims simply don’t make sense. As a juror weighing evidence, the stories don’t hold up.

    As philosophy, they explain nothing and add nothing to our knowledge, other than an interesting list of unanswerable questions. They simply conjure up an entity that conveniently has the property of answering those questions.

  24. Seems to me that the onus is on theists to say what they mean by God, not on atheists to say what god or gods they don’t believe in.

    In that sense I’m with JB.

    Although also with BWE, in that I have a thing that I call God (sometimes, anyway) that probably most atheists would regard as perfectly valid, if eccentric.

  25. Theism is a model entirely supported on some notion of God. Take out God and you take out the foundation of the paradigm. You are left without the ability to name almost anything. To say that atheism is a rejection of God is not like rejecting a superfluous element of a model, it is rejecting the reality of the whole thing. Terra firma itself, love, duty, faith, causes, effects, affects, death, life, meaning, what actions produce what responses. All of it. The central element which determines some part of nearly all behavior.

    I disagree. It seems to me that a rejection of God is exactly a rejection of a superfluous element.

    Some theists (in some religious traditions) may try to think of God as being foundational to all their thinking, in the way you’ve described, but I doubt that any of them succeed.

    You could perhaps argue that theism or atheism ought to make a difference in how people think about nature; but no matter how well supported, that relationship itself would be just another opinion, not worthy of the force of definition. The categories of “theist” and “atheist” are just as meaningful when applied to people who disagree with that relationship as they are when applied to people who agree with it.

    In the end, I have to side with JB here.

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