Atheism and rationality


Recently, I have been asked several times why I feel it is rational to be atheist, or even why I believe that that is the unique rational position to take on the question of religion. Mostly, this is due to this essay I wrote recently.

It would take some time to give a reasonably thorough dismissal of religion based on my own perspective; perhaps I’ll attempt that at some point in the future and see if I what I end up with is more amenable to being an essay here or a multi-volume treatise. However, that’s not what I want to talk about here.

Instead, what I’d like to discuss is why I feel that being an atheist makes more sense than being an agnostic. Actually, that’s not quite right. I’d like to discuss why I feel that declaring myself an atheist makes more sense than declaring myself an agnostic.

First, we need definitions. An atheist is someone who believes that there is no god, or who otherwise does not believe that there is a god. (Those two aren’t quite the same; someone who has never considered the question will fit into the second group but not the first.) An agnostic is someone who is not certain, one way or the other, about whether there is a god.

Technically, I’m an agnostic. It’s a bit hard not to be, on some level; how can we ever be certain about anything? I’m not even certain about the veracity of theorems that are relevant to my everyday life: what if there is a deep and subtle flaw that no one has ever noticed?

So, when I’m asked if I’m an agnostic, I say that I am, perhaps with an appropriate caveat. But I would never voluntarily identify as such; I only identify as an atheist. By strict adherence to the definitions, I am both an agnostic and an atheist: I’m not sure whether or not there’s a god, but I don’t think there is.

The point is that I want to avoid making content-free statements. (Oh, whom am I kidding? I love making vacuous statements! But at least I like to avoid making non-vacuous content-free statements.) If any reasonably honest person is agnostic in this sense, by admitting to the smallest shred of uncertainty as to whether there is a god, what point is there in identifying as such? It’s a bit like identifying with the property of containing at least one water molecule: technically true, but completely unhelpful for any meaningful discussion, as it fails to distinguish between any people, or even almost any visible object around us.

There exists  no evidence that there is a god. Anywhere. If I were to identify with being agnostic, I would feel bound to identify with my uncertainty for all sorts of other things for which no evidence exists. Relatively innocuous examples would include the tooth fairy, magic invisible unicorns, and a manuscript proving the Riemann Hypothesis taped to the back of my head. A rather less innocuous example would be that I would be forced to doubt my belief in lots of theorems whose statements and proofs are relevant to my everyday life. I would also doubt that my house will still be there when I try to find it tonight. It becomes tough to live a functional life while holding on to these obscure ideas as being serious possibilities.

So, I don’t. I’m nearly as confident in my assertion that there’s no god as I am in my assertion that certain quintic equations cannot be solved in radicals. The latter might be false, even though thousands of people have read the proof; there might be a subtle error that invalidates it, and no one has been careful enough to notice yet. But I doubt it. It would be tough to be a serious mathematician who suspects such things.

There are two facets that separate religion from these other things. The first is popularity. Many people are timid in declaring themselves atheists because there are so many theists out there. But truth isn’t a popularity contest; the veracity of a statement is not determined by democracy. If most people were to decide, suddenly, that humans have three arms, we wouldn’t start growing more arms. Nothing would change, except that more people would be wrong.

The other, which is likely more important, is a matter of offense. Many people, even nonreligious ones, seem to think that religion should be free from any sort of criticism, no matter how mild. See, for instance, the reactions against the following advertisement on buses and ones like it:

Atheist bus ad

(Really!? People get offended by this!?!?!) As a result, a lot of people feel the need to tread very carefully around the issue of religion. I guess it’s a bit affrontive to declare oneself an atheist to a religious person. But, as I touched on in this essay, nothing changes without some people making noise. Still, many people are afraid to do so, or do not wish to for some other reason.

Not I. I don’t think that there should be special rules regarding what we can say, or even believe, regarding religion compared to other beliefs people might have.

So, I think we have to choose. Either we can say we’re agnostic and then agree that we don’t really know anything at all, or we can say we’re atheists. The latter is certainly more appealing to me.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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5 Responses to Atheism and rationality

  1. Email Form says:

    hey man I like it. I’m going to write more posts and put your ideas to the test. After all, we always have something new to learn and being humble, I came here to learn. Bookmarked.

    – Andre

  2. Sheri says:

    Hi Simon. I sent Jerry the link to your book review and he returned the favor by sending me this one. Jerry is an avowed atheist, so of course, he liked this one! I have a question and a comment: 1) What is your definition of a G0d in which you don’t believe? 2) Religion is not synonymous with belief in G0d. It’s possible to be against organized religion of any sort, but still believe that something greater than ourselves is at work in the universe, which some people would term “G0d”.

    • Simon says:

      1) I’ll let you pick your definition with reasonable bounds, and I still don’t believe in such a god. But I still need to say what I mean by reasonable bounds. Presumably, anything worthy of being called a “god” should be some supernatural power responsible for enacting a major influence in the universe. Ideally, such a god would also be worthy of praise. (If not, is such a thing really worthy of the name “god”?) What I won’t accept as a reasonable definition is taking something that clearly already exists (nature, or something like that) and calling it god. Some people try this, but we already have a separate word for such a thing, so calling it god is just inefficient; I think people only do this either to pander to the religious, or else because they suspect that believing in god (in any form) must be better than not believing in god. In the former case, the people who actually believe in god and wish for everyone else to do so as well don’t deserve the pandering, and in the latter case, I can see no reason why making an arbitrary definition that solves no additional problems can possibly be helpful for us.

      2) It is true that that is possible. I am not one of those people who dislikes organized religion but who believes in some higher power.

  3. Great post, Simon.

    Have you seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” The main couple have a fictional son (a fiction within the fiction of the play). They keep adding to that story, maintaining continuity with the story so far. They choose to live in that half-fantasy world knowing at some level that the son is fictional even while putting words into the son’s mouth.

    Just so, “god” is a character in many stories, although the continuity doesn’t extend across schisms. At some level, people must know they’re writing words for a fictional character when they say, e.g. that god said to invade Iraq (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/bush-god-told-me-to-invade-iraq-509925.html).

    So god exists in the same place as the easter bunny and the Little Mermaid. Thus the “non-overlapping magesteria” idea makes sense — science has little to say about fictional worlds. (Evolutionary biology does shed light on morality. See _The Extended Phenotype_ and more recent studies.)

    On the matter of offense: It can be dangerous to question a believer’s delusions. (Believers even grant a free ride to incompatible beliefs.) And that’s where believers can feel hurt by gay marriage, just as a previous generation felt hurt by interracial marriage.

    Say more about your novel pronouns. A variation on gender-neutral pronouns? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun#Modern_English

    • Simon says:

      The pronoun set I use is due to Michael Spivak. They’re third-person singular gender-neutral pronouns; there are many such sets proposed, but I find these ones the most consistent and easy to remember, so I’ve adopted them. To form one of them, consider the third-person plural version; this word begins with a “th.” Remove the “th” to form the singular version. In one case, “themselves” –> “emselves,” the latter word seems wrong (since it’s still plural), so we change it to “emself.” They also take singular verbs, as do the masculine and feminine versions.

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