I’m sure readers here can think of dozens of examples of this frightening phenomenon right off the top of their heads, but the case in point I have in mind today comes from a short video I recently saw on YouTube. The video is titled Is atheism a belief? and I found the link to it on this entry of the same name posted by Steve Hays over on Triablogue.
Now by posting a link to the video, I can only suppose that Hays approves of its content, for he offers no criticisms or disclaimers in linking to it. And although it’s not surprising to find Christian apologetics blogs spreading propaganda, I’d like to think that Hays would have at least some regard for consistency given his own expressed understanding of what atheism is when he wrote "technically, atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn't believe rather than what he does believe" (see the comments section of this blog). (I went back and forth about this with one apologist late last year – see here for some of the juicier tidbits from that exchange as well as for a link to the full discussion.)
If it is the case that “atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn’t believe rather than what he does believe,” then why would the question of whether or not atheism as such is a belief continue to persist? And, if Hays realizes that “atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn’t believe rather than what he does believe,” why would he post, apparently with approval, a link to a video which insists on the contrary? Maybe Bannister makes some points in his video which might dissuade a thinker from holding that atheism as such is not a belief.
To find out, let’s examine what Bannister says (this is my own transcript of Bannister’s video):
Is atheism a belief? I’m often told by my atheist friends, ‘No, atheism is just a lack of a belief’. Or as the late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens once famously said, he said ‘Our belief is not a belief’. With all due respect to our atheist friends who want to assert they don’t believe anything and therefore don’t have to defend it, I think that idea is wholly mistaken. Let’s explore why by unpacking the idea that atheism is just the absence, just a lack of a belief in God. Well if atheism is just a lack of belief in God, that leads to all kind of strange conclusions. I can think of a lot of things that lack a belief in God. Uh, rocks, rubber chickens, Richard Dawkins’ left foot, Australia, the color blue… All of those things lack a belief in God. Does that make them atheists? I think it would be a very strange person who would want to say that Richard Dawkins’ left foot is an atheist. So clearly to be an atheist means more than just a lack of belief in God.
But the problems get even more profound. You see, the absence of anything can’t cause something. If I take a hammer and drop it on my foot, it will cause pain. But if I take a non-existent hammer and drop a non-existent hammer on my foot, it won’t cause anything because it doesn’t exist. But atheism seems to cause all kinds of things. It causes skeptical people to write angry tweets at me on social media; atheism caused Richard Dawkins to write a book on atheism and make millions of pounds and his bank manager very happy… And so the list goes on. So for a non-belief atheism looks quite busy.
Furthermore, people don’t normally gather in communities or groups or self-identify around a non-belief. For example, I lack a belief in the Tooth Fairy. But I have never introduced myself at a party by saying ‘Hi, I’m Andy Bannister, I’m an a-Tooth-Fairian.’ But I’ve met many people who say to me, ‘Hi, my name is whatever, I’m an atheist.’ I know many people on social media who write ‘atheist’ or ‘skeptic’ or ‘freethinker’ in their social media profiles, the more enthusiastic put this flying spaghetti monster or some sort of secular icon there. But they self-identify around the label of atheism, which tells me it means far more than just the absence of a belief in God.
Atheists are increasingly forming themselves into groups and communities. They’re starting groups on university campuses, they’re meeting together in societies, they’re having conferences, they are even starting churches! This raises an interesting question, doesn’t it? Has atheism not just become a belief system, but is it actually a religion for some people? Now maybe you’re watching this thinking ‘Atheism a religion? Are you insane?’ Well it depends on how you define a religion. A religion doesn’t necessarily mean a belief in God. Most Buddhists don’t believe in God. The academic description that’s used in… by many anthropologists for what’s a religion, is a system of thoughts that attempts to answer ultimate questions: 1. Where did the universe come from? 2. Is there a purpose to life? 3. Why are we here? 4. What’s gone wrong with the world? 5. How are human beings supposed to live? And I suggest my atheist friends have answers, or believe they do, to those questions.
And then lastly I think that one of the signs that something is a real active belief is other things accumulate alongside it. So for example I’m a Christian, and because I’m a Christian I believe certain things about justice, I believe certain things about truth, certain things about philosophy that follow from my belief that follow from my Christian faith. And likewise many of my atheist friends believe certain things about science; they believe that we’re just atoms and particles, that there’s no purpose built into the universe, that we’re just the result of time plus chance plus natural selection. Most of my atheist friends are materialists, to give that worldview its proper name. And the very fact that atheism attracts these other beliefs tells me again it is a belief – it really is a positive belief, not just the absence thereof.
Now I say this not to belittle you if you’re an atheist watching this, but to challenge you to realize you do have beliefs. There’s no such thing as a human being without faith. All of us believe something.
If you’re messing around with the claim that atheism really isn’t a belief system, I suggest it’s really because you haven’t dared to put it to the test and see if it stands up. Why don’t you stop playing the infantile, step into the adult world, and examine properly what you believe, what others believe, and see whether what you believe stands up?
I did notice how towards the end of his video Bannister says on the one hand that he’s not saying what he has stated “to belittle” atheist viewers, and then, on the other, exhorts his atheist viewers to “stop playing the infantile” [sic] and “step into the adult world.” Is this “adult world” that Bannister has in mind a realm where people believe that things which we can only imagine are real, that wishing makes it so, that everything that happens is all the result of some supernatural force of will acting upon the world? Is this “adult world” a world where people believe ancient storybooks filled with myths and legends, insist that supernatural beings have been waging a spiritual battle for millennia, and encourage their children to accept religious fantasies as truth?
Which raises another question, which curiously Bannister does not anticipate and address: If atheism is in fact a positive belief, what specifically is that belief? Why go to the trouble of posting a video rant on Youtube complaining about people who conceive of atheism as a lack of belief in gods, and yet not correct this by identifying what specific positive belief atheism actually entails?
And yet, Bannister himself is not entirely consistent on this, for elsewhere (see his article Four Key Principles for Apologetics), he advises his readers to “rediscover the power of questions,” and as an example of such he offers the following (italics original!):
…if a friend self-describes as an atheist, respond, “‘Atheist’ tells me what you don’t believe. But what do you believe?”
Bannister also seems to confuse the premise that atheism is a statement of what a person does not believe with the supposition that people who identify themselves as atheists are saying that they have no beliefs at all. Perhaps there are self-identifying atheists out there who claim to have no beliefs whatsoever (the category ‘atheists’ being a hugely mixed bag!), but I’ve never understood atheism to mean this. After all, I identify myself to be an atheist (for I do not believe there are any gods), and yet I do have beliefs! For example, I believe that I would feel safer when my wife drives if she wouldn’t tailgate so chronically (yes, I’ve urged her many times to ‘mind the gap’). Also, I believe that if I mistake Flonase for mayonnaise, my chicken sandwich is not going to taste very good. I also believe that the world would probably be a better place if parents stopped beating their children and spouses. But again, that’s just me. It should be clear, however, that while I identify myself as an atheist, I surely do have some strong beliefs!
Moreover, Bannister exhibits some profound confusion on the concept of atheism, specifically on the need for a concept which distinguishes people who do not believe in gods from the vast majority of people on the planet who do. Of course one would not normally say that the rocks he finds in his back yard are atheists. But we would need to use some concept to distinguish people who don’t accept theistic claims from those who do. In this regard, I see no substantive difference between the concept ‘atheist’ and the concept ‘non-theist’. I’m an atheist; I’m a non-theist. These concepts exist because belief in gods is so common throughout society. Indeed, if Bannister found that virtually everyone around him believed in “the Tooth Fairy” and he did not, he might in fact find it useful to distinguish himself from the common folk in the manner that he suggests. Similarly, we have the concept ‘gifted’ to distinguish exceptionally talented people from those who for whatever reason or another at not so talented. As with the concept ‘gifted’, it goes without saying that proper application of the concept ‘atheist’ is confined to human beings. So while Bannister’s point is cute, it’s nothing more than this, and probably less.
Also, atheism doesn’t “cause” people to assemble into groups, post nasty tweets, or participate in speaking events. It does not follow from the fact that some people who identify themselves as atheists do in fact engage in activities promoting atheism, that atheism is therefore a positively informed belief as such. If atheism causes such effects, why aren’t all atheists doing these types of things? Clearly atheists are humans just like Christians and adherents of other religions, and as such are subject to a wide range of motivations. At the end of the day, people do what they choose to do, within certain constraints, and the primary cause behind engaging in such activities is each individual’s volition, i.e., their choices. Some people clearly think it’s important to find others who like themselves go against some norms of the broader community and share their ideas, and therefore choose to act accordingly.
And yes, atheists are not exempt from the need for a positively informed philosophy; no one is. But ‘atheism’ is not a philosophy. As Hays’ statement above and Bannister’s own sample question both indicate, ‘atheist’ only tells us what the self-identifying atheist does not believe; it leaves entirely open to what said individual actually holds to be true (I’ll get to Bannister’s “ultimate questions” below). And yes, I can certainly sympathize with the desire to find people to share one’s views with, and maybe even attempt to persuade others who don’t share those views. Maybe Bannister would prefer that atheists simply remain isolated from each other.
But the point here is that no one should be surprised to find that atheists do in fact have views about things. It does not follow from this that atheism itself is a belief, as Bannister seems to infer, nor does it follow from the fact that atheism signifies the absence of god-belief that atheists therefore have no views at all. Atheists have views about the universe, about man’s nature, about right and wrong, about social structures, etc., and these views should be examined and weighed for their rational worthiness, just as any other views should be.
Does any of this justify the assertion that atheism is a religion? Obviously it does not. Does being an atheist mean that an individual is necessarily free of religious proclivities, such as irrational devotion to poorly informed or simply bad ideas? Again, no. Atheists are as fallible and subject to anti-philosophical vulnerabilities as religious individuals are, and quite frequently we may find that atheists have inherited tendencies that incline them to habits reminiscent of religious devotion, especially if they were raised in a religious setting in their formative years.
Now let’s consider what Bannister calls “ultimate questions”:
1. Where did the universe come from?
So when one asks “where did the universe come from?” the question strikes me as rather incoherent. Existence exists. Either we begin with existence (in which case we would not need an “explanation” for the fact that existence exists), or we begin with non-existence (in which case no explanation for the fact that existence exists could be logically plausible). Since we know that existence exists, why not start with that?
I certainly do not hold – or “believe” – that the universe is a product of conscious activity; I don’t believe or accept as a legitimate possibility the notion that some magic consciousness wished the universe into being. Why would I accept such a notion? Yes, I can imagine such things, but I know that I’d be imagining this, and I’m honest enough to admit as much. Philosophically, the notion that the universe was created by an act of consciousness violates facts that I have already validated, such as the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so, that imaginary things are not real things, that all evidence points to the fact that existence exists independent of conscious activity, that consciousness is a faculty of perceiving and identifying the objects it comes in contact with (cf. objectivity), not a faculty of creating its own objects ex nihilo and reshaping them at will (cf. subjectivism). And to answer Bannister even further, I’m certainly willing to put these fundamentals to “the test.” If he wants to argue against them, let him demonstrate objects coming into being as a result of conscious activity. If he cannot demonstrate such a phenomenon, and if he acknowledges the fact that wishing doesn’t make it so, that believing something doesn’t make it true, that imagination does not conjure things into existence ex nihilo (all conscious actions, mind you), then what genuine objection could he possibly have against my answer to this first of his questions?
2. Is there a purpose to life?
Then Bannister asks:
3. Why are we here?
However, I suspect that his question is complex, indeed fallaciously so, in that it smuggles the premise that we are here to serve a purpose of some being which we can only imagine. In this sense, this question assumes a particular answer to his previous question, one that is implicitly theistic in nature.
Assuming Bannister really means, why live at all? I think it would be extraordinarily arrogant for me to arbitrate this question on behalf of others beyond the general response that each individual should discover his own source of happiness in life.
The next question is:
4. What’s gone wrong with the world?
If like human beings themselves, human societies evolved from more primitive models to what we have now, then we would expect to see a trend from beginnings in wilderness to more or less civilized improvements. Rand aptly described civilization as “the progress towards a society of privacy… the process of setting man free from men” (“The Soul of an Individualist,” For the New Intellectual, p 84). Various discoveries were necessary for this progress to get underway, such as the discovery of reason, of property rights, of negotiation, of voluntary assembly, the abolishment of coercion and the use of force, etc. None of these virtues are a given; they need to be chosen and require sustained investment. But clearly not all human beings are on board with these ideals, and it would be foolish to expect that everyone would automatically adopt them into their daily practice.
Constantly ebbing against them are, in my view, two persisting malicious habits, namely: the pursuit of the unearned, and intellectual default. When an individual pursues resources that he is unwilling to earn through his own effort and negotiation with others, he will avail himself to the use of force, coercion, fraud, etc., to get his way. This is often condemned as “selfishness,” when in fact I have come to see it as a form of self-negation: such an individual is not using his own skills to earn the values he seeks, but rather going through life as a secondhander, looting his way from one score to the next. Such a ‘lifestyle’ can only have adverse psychological effects, and the presence of these internal conflicts will not allow an individual to enjoy a happy, fulfilling life. Happiness and guilt are incompatible.
Lastly we have:
5. How are human beings supposed to live?
In following up, Bannister states:
And I suggest my atheist friends have answers, or believe they do, to those questions.
Perhaps we should ask: What does Bannister’s worldview teach on these points that I have raised in response to his questions?
I suspect what fuels apologists to quibble over such matters so strenuously is suggested in Bannister’s own statements on the matter: he resents the idea that atheists do not have to defend their atheism. Like many apologists, Bannister may feel personally offended by the fact that he must share this world with people who don’t believe in the supernatural beings he enshrines in his imagination, so much so that he wants to put them on the defensive for daring not to cower under such beliefs (for in fact, the bible says in Proverbs 1:7 that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”). And herein lies the germs which blossom in an insatiable drive to malign atheism and atheists in quite disparaging terms without justification. And the usual low-hanging characterizations which wend their way through rants like Bannister’s serve to reinforce prejudices which enable believers to rationalize their own evasions and choices not to approach the topics in play in a more honest manner. For in fact, if one were to ask Bannister if wishing makes it so, can he, in a manner that is wholly consistent with the Christian worldview, answer no?
One last point, which naturally follows from the previous: I’ve often marveled, probably more so in a negative way, how some individuals can use this amazing invention called the internet to broadcast their views and yet simultaneously shut off the ability of their readers and viewers from posting their reactions to that broadcast content. I’m talking about disabling comments on things like blogs and youtube videos. Now, I understand that comment sections can be abused. My blog fell victim to this some years ago when one individual in particular overstayed his welcome and abused his privileges in the comments sections of several of my blog entries (one comments section reaching over 900 entries!), thus prompting a very reluctant decision on my part to temporarily suspend comment privileges for all my readers. But this was an anomaly, and it certainly does not represent standard practice here at my blog.
But neither Bannister’s video nor his blog has comments enabled, so his audience cannot directly interact with him and his content. That is the choice he has made.
Of course, Bannister and other theists are welcome to come join the conversation here if they would like to. Perhaps I’m entirely wrong here. If any readers think so, the comments section is available for feedback and input.
by Dawson Bethrick