Wednesday, 28 December 2011

'Humanists trust to a scientific and rational approach to finding out about the universe' - Lords Reform Bill debate

During the Lords Reform Bill, Lord Threthgowan asked (at 19:18:55) Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, BHA 'What do humanists stand for?' Watch the debate below:-

In summary Andrew Copson replied (at 19:19:15-19:19:40) saying that 'a good definition of a humanist was someone who had a view of life that was not religious, that located values and meaning in the here and now, who trusted to a scientific and rational approach to finding out about the universe, and to a human centered, present world centered approach to deciding what was the right thing to do and what meaning there could be in life'.

Read the transcript of the minutes featuring the Archbishop of Canterbury, Andrew Copson (BHA) & Elizabeth Hunter (Theos). Note: neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The exchange in full:-

Q457 Lord Trefgarne: 
Can you give me a clue where you are coming from in all this? I have to confess that I am not as clear as I should be about what exactly humanists stand for.

Andrew Copson: 
I am the humanist. The British Humanist Association is an organisation that has particular aims. A good definition of a humanist would be someone who had a view of life that was not religious, who located values and meaning in the here and now, who trusted to a scientific and rational approach to finding out about the universe and who had a human-centred, present-world-centred approach in deciding what was right to do and what meaning there could be in life. The British Humanist Association is an organisation that promotes education about and public awareness of that view of things. It provides certain community services— for example, non-religious funerals and other services that non-religious people in the community find it difficult to access where those things have traditionally been provided by, for example, religious groups. A third area of work that we engage in is advocacy and public policy issues, particularly in questions of discrimination either in public life or in the treatment of individuals on the basis of religion or belief. Our interest in this particular question is in having a constitution in this country where there is no in-built privilege in favour of or disadvantage against anyone on grounds of their religion or belief.

BHA reports as does about the Monday 28 November 2011 JOINT COMMITTEE ON THE DRAFT HOUSE OF LORDS REFORM BILL at which the Archbishop of Canterbury and Andrew Copson from BHA gave evidence.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

BHA Strategy now includes 'science' & 'scientific evidence' in line with H4S recommendations.

Between December 2010 to February 2011, Humanists4Science (H4S) committee members (David Flint (Chair), Josh Kutchinsky, David McKnight, Dr Tom Rees, Andy Pepperdine (Treasurer), Chris Street)  had extensive online discussions about the lack of any reference to 'science' and 'scientific method' in the BHA Strategy (October 2010)

On February 1st 2011 Chris Street was appointed H4S Chair by the H4S Committee.

On 18th February 2011, Chris Street wrote a letter to Andrew Copson (Chief Executive, British Humanist Association), on behalf of a majority of the H4S committee. The letter said that 'Humanists4Science find it extraordinary that 'science' finds no place in BHA Strategy 2010'. 

H4S recommended  that BHA:-
  • 1) include 'science' in BHA Vision.
  • 2) include in BHA Aim “humanists understand that reason and scientific method provide the best ways to understand the universe“ 
  • 3) include in BHA Aim 'public understanding of science' and 'scientific method' 

The 18th February letter said:- 

Dear Andrew, 

Further to our telecom this morning, as Chair of BHA Affiliate group Humanists4Science, I am writing to seek improvements in the BHA Strategy 2010. 

BHA supports science & scientific thinking by campaigning about science, organising public lectures on science and consulting with the scientific community. For instance, BHA organises the annual Darwin Day lecture, campaigns to make Darwin Day a public holiday and responds to guidance about homeopathic products. 

As a full member of International Humanist Ethical Union, BHA presumably endorses IHEU strategy (1 - IHEU Strategy & Aims to promote the IHEU Amsterdam Declaration 2002 on Humanism, the official defining statement of World Humanism. In this declaration, science / scientific method are cited six times (NB philosophy doesn't get a mention) (2). See Note A: - 

In the Amsterdam Declaration 2002 science/scientific method is mentioned six times, "Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world's great thinkers and creative artists and gave rise to science itself". A "fundamental of modern Humanism" is that "Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively." … "Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends." The Amsterdam Declaration concludes that "By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. 

Whilst we understand that many special interest groups ask to get a mention, Humanists4Science find it extraordinary that science finds no place in BHA Strategy 2010. 

'Humanists4Science have 3 recommendations to give the BHA a renewed sense of purpose and vigour in explaining the important role of science in humanist thought:-

Recommendation 1 - Include science in BHA Vision 
Humanists can lead more fulfilling lives by an appreciation of scientific findings about the natural world. In making important decisions, knowledge about the scientific method can give Humanists a powerful tool to understand what evidence is likely to be most reliable. 

Humanists4Science recommend that BHA include the word 'science' in: "What do we want? (The "Vision") - We want a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values and respect for human rights. We want non-religious people to be confident in living ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason, science and humanity.

Recommendation 2 - Include science in an 'Our Aim' 
Humanists4Science recommend BHA Strategy includes an 'Our Aim' which mentions science. 

We suggest BHA choose one of three aims (or a combination of these aims): 

Our Aim (option 1) "To help humanists understand that reason and scientific method provide the best ways to understand the universe" (See Note 3 - Humanists4Science February 2011 discussions
Our Aim (option 2) "To help humanists understand that scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe" (Based on Note 4 - BHA Mori Poll 2007

Our Aim (option 3) "To help humanists understand that the scientific method, though imperfect, is still the most reliable way of understanding the world." (Based on Note 5Humanist Manifesto 1980

Recommendation 3 - Promote science & scientific method 

Humanists4Science recommend a paragraph be included after any of the above 'Our Aims': "We will support initiatives to promote the public understanding of science and the scientific method by organising scientific lectures, campaigning about scientific issues and consulting with the scientific community." 

I attach a presentation incorporating these ideas (BHAStrategy2010-Humanists4Science-Final-comments.ppt

Thanks for considering Humanists4Science ideas about Humanism and Science. 

We look forward to our ideas being incorporated into BHA Strategy at the earliest opportunity. 

Chris Street, 
Chair Humanists4Science

On 9th November 2011 Andrew Copson wrote to Chris Street & others saying that the BHA Strategy (November 2011) had been reviewed.

Dear All,

You are receiving this email because you gave feedback on the BHA strategy adopted by the Board of Trustees at the end of 2010. The strategy that was then adopted is intended to remain constant over at least a five year period but the Board decided to review it after one year in light of its novelty. They have now done so.

The various comments received were considered by the Board, which made some changes to the strategy in light of them. I am attaching the final strategy document adopted by the Board. I am sorry if your particular change was not made, but am sure you will understand the large number of often competing responses which were received made that impossible and agree that the final document is an excellent strategy for the BHA.

Best wishes, Andrew

The BHA Strategy (November 2011) ppt file, for the first time, now includes an Aim about 'science' & 'scientific evidence' viz.:-
'humanists strive to be rational, looking to science in attempting to understand the universe'

'We will give philosophical and practical support to significant initiatives to meet global challenges, showing how these initiatives rest on our principles of accepting scientific evidence'


This is in line with H4S Recommendation 2, Option 1 (18th February 2011 letter) for BHA Aim:-

'To help humanists understand that reason and scientific method provide the best ways to understand the universe'

However... H4S Recommendation 1 to include 'science' in the BHA Vision was not included in the BHA Strategy (November 2011) viz: 

'Humanists can lead more fulfilling lives by an appreciation of scientific findings about the natural world. In making important decisions, knowledge about the scientific method can give Humanists a powerful tool to understand what evidence is likely to be most reliable. Humanists4Science recommend that BHA include the word 'science' in: 
"What do we want? (The "Vision") 

We want a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values and respect for human rights. We want non-religious people to be confident in living ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason, science and humanity.

Moreover ... H4S Recommendation 3 to include references to 'public understanding of science' and 'scientific method', in BHA Aims, was not included in the BHA Strategy (November 2011) viz:

"We will support initiatives to promote the public understanding of science and the scientific method by organising scientific lectures, campaigning about scientific issues and consulting with the scientific community." 

Maybe these issues will be discussed again in 2015 when the BHA Strategy is reviewed.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

What is metaphysical naturalism & methodological naturalism?

Dan Dennett talks about naturalism and methodological naturalism in debating John Haught. What's the distinction between these terms? And what is metaphysical naturalism

Dan Dennett on Scientism


my quick and rough synopsis...

Dr John F. Haught (from start)
Religious fundamentalism is literalistic. Scientism is a type of fundamentalism & literalism. Both religious fundamentalism & scientism are saying that their is a 'certainty' or certitude. Scientism says takes nothing on faith - yet it takes faith to embrace scientism. Scientific Naturalism is the view that nature is all that there is. You bound your sense of reality with a type of certitude says Haught.

Dan Dennett (from 4min 55s)
Scientism: I don't know anybody who is guilty of it. Scientism is a strawman used by people who object to science 'poking its nose into places it shouldn't be.' Reductionism / Scientism. Scientists are naturalists -  methodological naturalists which is just built into the scientific method. That isn't to say there couldn't be supernatural things but the burden of proof is on the person who wants to invoke them - thats methodological naturalism. We are not going to let any scientist say 'well my experiment depends on a supernatural element and if you don't believe in it then you won't get the experiment. We don't permit that - thats completely out of bounds - thats naturalism. Comparing a fundamental religionist with scientism - I don't recognise that person who is supposed to be into scientism!

Friday, 11 November 2011

The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion

video source - play until 8:59PM Thu, 17 Nov 2011
First Broadcast September 2010: historian Dr Thomas Dixon explores the troubled relationship between religion and science. From the creationists of America to the physicists of the Large Hadron Collider, he traces the expansion of scientific knowledge and asks whether there is still room for god in the modern world.

Sources of Knowledge: The Scientific Method v Revelation
@ 5:00 Galileo saw moons circling Jupiter - the earth rotates the sun - Heliocentricity of Nicolaus Copernicus Johannes Kepler is right. Heliocentrism is opposed to geocentrism (Earth at centre). Church thought that bible supported geocentrism - convicted Galileo of heresy. 
@ 5:34 Who owns knowledge. What makes one source of knowledge more reliable than another? The scientific method uses observations and logic to produce hypotheses and predictions which are tested over and over again comparing it the evidence then refining hypothesis.
@ 7: 29 Repeatability, accuracy, rigour and relevance is at the heart of the scientific method - not foolproof but in last 400 years has uncovered fundamentals of our world.
@ 8:30 The religious claim to get knowledge through revelation - direct communication from God.

Creationism v Evolution
@ 15: 40 Creationism was taught in American schools and Evolution teaching was banned from 1925 (Scopes trial) until 1987 when the highest court in America ruled that creationism was unconstitutional violating separation of church and state - Creationism was banned from the science curriculum.
@ 16:02 for scientists ancient religious texts are not sources of knowledge about the natural world and to treat them as if they are is absurd. There is no room for biblical creationism in modern science.
@ Creationist & Biochemist Michael Behe claimed that the bacterial flagellum was irreducibly complex, could not have evolved and must have designed in its complete form, by an intelligent designer. This idea was refuted by Kenneth Miller - found examples of simpler flagellum which worked.
@ 20:00 in 2006 Dover court trial ruled that teaching Intelligent Design was unconstitutional, unscientific, was a religious theory; banned from biology classes in public schools
@25: 20. The proposition that an intelligent designer could have created life was not scientific.

God of the Gaps
@26:12 Placing god in the gaps of scientific theory is not a good strategy because the history of science shows that these gaps have a tendency to be filled.
@28:00 Colin Blakemore (Distinguished Supporter of British Humanist Association) visited Lourdes and concluded that the placebo effect could explain 'miracles'. God of the Gaps - healing people has been explained by the science of the mind.

The Sensed Presence - why our brains are god receptors
@35:00 Using the controversial 'god helmet' Michael Persinger suggests that the 'sensed presence' (ie feeling the presence of something bigger than oneself) could be stimulated by activating the right hemisphere temporal lobe. However the helmet could not give a religious experience to Richard Dawkins!
@39:00 in meditation blood flow (red) in the parietal lobes reduces - our sense of time and place is reduced with a loss of sense of self. People who meditate and pray have same brain chemistry effects.

During meditation... 
blood flowing to parietal lobes is reduced
How did our Universe start?
@44:00 god is being pushed into smaller and smaller crevices.
@49:00 the Higgs Particle if found at LHC may explain the 75% of the universe is Dark Energy
@51:00 gravity strength is just right. Paul Davies (Goldilocks Enigma) says the universe is a 'put up job'. Some have seen the sheer improbability of our existence as evidence of a higher being but Stephen Hawking disagrees. Their may be an infinite number of (multiple) universes or multiverses. But if multiverses cannot be tested for, is science and religion so different after all? Why does anything exist at all? Why do humans finds ourselves on this Earth? And whats it all for?

Will the idea of God ever go away?
@56:00 Thomas Dixon asks: When scientists have a total understanding of our universe (scientism) will the idea of gods go away? TD says probably not because science can not give something that religions offer - meaning and purpose to our lives. Religion has extreme tenacity (a digression: Richard Dawkins interviewed by Jeremy Paxman about The God Delusion). Whether or not God exists it seems we find it very easy to believe in him, because the brain has evolved to believe in the god hypothesis.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

'Science is independent of humanism' Julian Baggini

Science is independent of humanism, atheism and religion says Julian Baggini (Distinguished BHA Supporter) in The Guardian.  He says some atheists believe that not only is science 'on their side', but it is their saviour too. This is scientism - the idea that if science cannot speak, we must remain silent. By contrast, some say that, as science leaves many questions open, in such cases, man is entitled to base his judgements on non-scientific grounds.

Science can threaten secular humanist ideas. For example, humans have been viewed as autonomous, free, rational individuals. However science has shown that human beings are far less autonomous, rational and free than some secular humanists might suppose, says Baggini.

Atheists are naturalists (the universe contains only natural entities and forces). H4S take a naturalistic view, believing that science is a fundamental part of humanism and that science provides the best way to understand the universe.

Can science be applied to problems of human welfare (2002 Amsterdam Declaration), asks Baggini? In Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape (subtitled "How science can determine human values") Harris talks of science as though it is the source of all the knowledge and wisdom we need to live by. But, says Baggini, science can never tell us what we should value, because when it tells us how things are, we are always left with the question, what ought we to do about it? This is David Humes' famous is-ought argument. So can or should science be directed to humane and ethical ends, as some H4S suggest?

Baggini says science can tell us that X produces more happiness than Y, but it cannot tell us that we ought to do whatever produces the greatest happiness (Jeremy Bentham & John Stuart Mills' Utilitarianism).


Humanists4Science (H4S) Mission is "To promote, within the humanist community, the application of the scientific method to issues of concern to broader society"

H4S Vision is "A world in which important decisions are made by applying the scientific method to evidence rather than according to superstition."

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Pinker's Angels

Steven Pinker is in town. The Harvard Professor of Psychology has a new book to push and in the last three days alone he's spoken at the LSE, the RSA and the Royal Institution.

And that's good because Steven's new book - The Better Angels of our Nature - is important.

In his RI lecture he presented a vast amount of data showing that human violence has declined over thousands of years. Looking at deaths relative to population he traced falling rates of death in war and by private murder. The showed the second half of the 20th century to be a peaceful period - and the first decade of the 21st century to be even more so. These findings will surprise many and shock some - even humanists sometimes forget how bad the past was - but the evidence, from history and archaeology, is overwhelming.

Steven traces the decline in violence before, say, 1700, to the establishment of states, trade and the rule of law. For the last three centuries he also pointed to literacy, printing, the Enlightenment and the 'decline or domestication of religion' as causes. His data suggests at least one further factor - the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare between major states has made those states avoid such warfare - at least with each other.

This is a profoundly optimistic view. It's not optimistic despite the facts but because of them. It holds that things have got better fairly consistently over a long period and that they can continue to get better.

It also a humanist view - ascribing the improvements to the spread of reason, the rule of law and an expanding circle of compassion. And it shows, as H4S believes, that scientific method is applicable to history, politics and even morality.
Steven Pinker. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Sunday, 23 October 2011

British Humanist Association Objects now include Science

 Humanists4Science has actively campaigned, especially since February 2011, for some reference to 'science' be included in the BHA Mission, Vision, Strategy & Aims Statements.

I am pleased to report that the British Humanist Association new charitable Objects reported on October 13 2011 includes the following reference to 'science':- 

4.1.2 The advancement of education and in particular the study of and dissemination of knowledge about humanism and about the arts and science as they relate to humanism.

Prior to the new Objects, the BHA made absolutely no mention of science in its 'Vision, Mission or Aims Statements' even though BHA actions and events (eg Darwin Day) clearly acknowledge the importance of science. Is this an example of strategic mismatch? If so, this is a step in the right direction.

Chris Street, Chair, Humanists4Science

Humanism, education, equality and mutual understanding: BHA celebrates its new charitable Objects 

Date: October 13, 2011

Following a long campaign to have the advancement of non-religious beliefs for the public benefit accepted as a charitable Object, the BHA is delighted finally to have achieved this goal and to announce its new charitable objects. The new Objects sit above the BHA’s Aims and although they are – by necessity – written in the sort of legalistic language which is not always the most inspirational, they represent an excellent consolidation of the BHA’s work. The revised Objects are:

4.1.1. The advancement of Humanism, namely a non-religious ethical lifestance the essential elements of which are a commitment to human wellbeing and a reliance on reason, experience and a naturalistic view of the world;

4.1.2. The advancement of education and in particular the study of and the dissemination of knowledge about humanism and about the arts and science as they relate to humanism;

4.1.3. The promotion of equality and non-discrimination and the protection of human rights as defined in international instruments to which the United Kingdom is party, in each case in particular as relates to religion and belief;

4.1.4. The promotion of understanding between people holding religious and non-religious beliefs so as to advance harmonious cooperation in society.

read more about 'The background to the BHA campaign'.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Religious Moral Compass

The Religious Moral Compass and it’s tendency to point in the direction the believer is already facing

Believers‘estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs.
Nicholas Epley et al have an interesting piece of research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Oct 2009 whereby they claim that people are more likely to base their beliefs about what God’s attitudes are towards moral issues by modelling them in an egocentric way on what they already believe rather than on external sources as contrasted with the way in which people base their beliefs on what other people believe.
When we make inferences about what other people believe they are guided by two main sources – knowledge of our own beliefs which we project onto others and knowledge of others belief through their behaviour (verbal or non-verbal), or stereotypes of the groups that they belong to, or what other people tell us about other people’s beliefs. In the case of religious beliefs people do rely on religious texts, and what perceived experts on such texts inform them about what God believes. However such texts also allow room for various interpretations which subjects are able to select from. So there is clearly a two way process at work.
It may be thought that subjects will select whatever interpretation seems most plausible to them and so their beliefs are being guided by the religious texts and how they are best interpreted – in this way it would be thought that God’s presumed beliefs as inferred from the religious texts were being used as a guide for one’s own beliefs. Alternatively it could be that one’s own beliefs are being used as a guide for the sort of beliefs that God would have and people are filtering out different interpretations of what God is presumed to believe depending on what they already believe.  
In order to try and tease apart the influence of peoples own beliefs on what they thought God's attitudes were towards moral questions and extrernal sources that informed them about what God's attitudes were towards such questions Epley et al asked subjects to rate their own attitudes to a range of issues such as Abortion, Affirmative Action, Death Penalty, Iraq War, Legalisation of Marijuana, and Same Sex Marriage and then to ask them what they thought two prominent American’s attitudes were towards the same issues (George Bush and Bill Gate) and the Average American. This gave them some level of correlation between their own beliefs, God’s presumed beliefs, and other people’s beliefs.  
However, in another study they also manipulated subject’s attitudes about certain moral issues by giving them strong arguments supporting it and weak arguments against it, and again in another study they asked participants to deliver a speech in favour or opposed to the death penalty. Subjects in these two conditions had their attitudes manipulated by these procedures e.g. subjects who had to give a speech that was inconsistent with their prior attitude had their attitudes made more moderate. What was interesting about these studies is that they found that subjects beliefs about God’s beliefs followed in line with their newly manipulated attitudes whilst their beliefs about what other people believed were not affected as much.
Finally Epley et al used fMRI scanning whilst reporting their own attitudes, God’s presumed attitude, and what they thought the average American’s attitude were towards moral issues. They found that thinking about one’s own mental states and thinking about Gods presumed mental states activated the regions associated with egocentric thinking and projection of one’s own mental states onto others much more than thinking about what the average American’s views were on such issues.
They concluded that inferences about God’s beliefs tend to be egocentrically biased and the processes used to generate beliefs about God’s beliefs are relatively similar to the process that we use to generate one’s own beliefs. Whilst believers may acquire the beliefs of the theology of those around them they are also more likely to seek out religious beliefs that most resemble their own. Whilst religion is often taken to be the moral compass that is the ultimate moral authority that guides followers moral beliefs and behaviour this research lends weight to the idea that the religious compass does not point north whichever direction the person is facing but has a tendency to point in whatever direction they are already facing.  

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Definitions of Atheism and Self-Deception.

Atheism:  Definitions and Arguments

 What is atheism?

 Atheism is, as the name suggests, the denial or rejection of theism. For present purposes I will take theism to be the belief that the God of sophisticated monotheistic religions exists. The God of monotheism is an entity that plays a role in explaining certain features of the observable world e.g., the existence of the physical universe, why the universe is ordered rather than chaotic, why humans exist.[1]

The standard formulation of atheism comes in two varieties depending on whether it stresses the affirmation of the non-existence of God or the denial or rejection of the existence of God.

The entry on atheism in the Rutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the stress on the affirmation of the non-existence of God.

Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief. 
However, sometimes atheism is characterized in terms of the proposition that is rejected. For instance, the American Rutledge Encyclopedia entry on atheism defines atheism in terms of the rejection of belief in God, or someone who thinks that the proposition “God exists” expresses a false state of affairs. 

Someone may reject the claim that God exists on grounds that it is incoherent, and contains logical contradictions, e.g., they may reject the claim that God is three persons in one, because it is part of our concept of a person that no person can be identical with any other person, and so it is incoherent to claim that God is identical to three person (or person like entities). Similarly they may reject the claim that God is perfect when coupled with the claim that God needs to be worshipped since a need suggests a lack of something whilst perfection suggests that the entity is lacking in nothing.  Hence someone may reject the claim that God exists when talking about the typical characterization of the God of monotheism. In rejecting this claim they are claiming that the proposition expressed by “God exists” is false or cannot be true.[2]

Atheists may also reject the claim that God exists indirectly, by embracing the attitude of naturalism[3] that is reflected in the current scientific world view - the view that events in the natural world have natural explanations, and that supernatural explanations have no room to play in explaining the physical universe. Science has not always adopted the attitude of naturalism. In the past supernatural causes were accepted as playing a role in the observable world e.g. the motion of the planets and there is no essential feature of science that makes it adopt the attitude of naturalism. It has adopted this attitude because of the past success of natural causes and the failure of supernatural causes in explaining features of the observable world.

Since the God of monotheism is an entity that plays a role in explaining certain features of the observable world e.g., the existence of the physical universe, why the universe is ordered rather than chaotic, why humans exist, (as well as the more outrageous claims such as atheists are responsible for global warming) then someone who adopted the attitude that such events were explained by natural rather than supernatural causes would be indirectly rejecting the existence of the God of monotheism. However even though someone who adopted the attitude of naturalism would believe that all natural events have a natural explanation they may not draw the conclusion that God does not exist if they do not see the connections between such beliefs.

The person who believes that the events in the observable world will have a natural explanation rather than a supernatural explanation but fails to draw the conclusion that the God of monotheistic religions does not exist is like someone who believes that all men are animals, and all animals are mortal, but does not draw the conclusion that all men are mortal.

With the above qualifications in mind, we get something very close to the starting definition:

Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God, or any view which entails the non-existence of God or gods. It proposes positive belief, rather than mere suspension of disbelief.

Agnosticism – Lack of knowledge.

Atheism is distinct from agnosticism although the two overlap. Agnosticism is the view that denotes lack of knowledge on the existence of God (or more widely on any topic), in contrast with Gnosticism, which denotes knowledge of God. It is often coupled with the distinct view that, since God’s existence cannot be proved or disproved, the rational position to take on this topic is simply non-belief, or the suspension of judgment. Agnosticism has traditionally been used to mark a midway point between atheism and theism, which gives the following table.

1 Gnostic Theist:     Believes that God exists and claims to know that God exists.

2 Agnostic Theism: Believes that God exists but does not know that God exists.

3 Agnostic Simpliciter: Neither believes nor disbelieves.   Does not know God exists or does not.

4 Agnostic Atheist:  Believes that God does not exist but does not know God does not exist.

5 Gnostic Atheist:  Believes that God does not exist and claims to know that God does not exist.

 Atheism as Non-Belief.

However, there is a widespread popular use of 'atheism' that exists amongst many (if not most) atheists that defines atheism as simply the lack of belief in God.  This view is so widespread that it may now be the dominant view in popular culture. As a contributor for The Guardian, Peter Thompson writes that atheism,

…as atheists are keen to point out, says nothing about the atheist's beliefs. It is simply the absence of a belief in something and does not constitute a belief in its own right.

This view has its own intellectual history going back to the 1800’s. It is shared by some philosophers who have written on atheism, such as Michael Martin. On this view, the difference between atheism and agnosticism is not in terms of lack of belief, since both views share that characteristic. Instead it has been proposed by J.C.C.Smart that if someone estimates the various probabilities of theism being true, on the evidence available to him, then one can rank theism and atheism depending on how likely they think it is that God exists or does not exist.

On this view, we have the following categories, where more than lack of belief is required in order to be an atheist, the person must also think that, on the balance of probabilities, it is unlikely that God exists.

1 Gnostic Theist:  Believes that God exists, is certain that God exists (probability of 1).

2 Agnostic Theism: Believes that God exists, thinks it highly likely, but is not certain.

3 Agnostic Simpliciter:  Neither believes nor disbelieves, and takes it as equally likely that God exists or does not. 

4 Agnostic Atheist:    Is skeptical that God exists, thinks it highly unlikely that God exists, but is not certain.

5 Gnostic Atheist                  Is skeptical that God exists, is certain that God does not exist – probability of 0.

Notably in the above definitions of atheism the requirement of believing that God does not exist is absent. From the above we can see that atheism includes both definitions.

 1: The belief that God doe not exist (or what entails this).

 2: The lack of belief in God.

The first claim has been called “positive atheism” or “strong atheism”, and the second has been called “negative atheism” or “weak atheism”. The first of the above claims is the stronger of the two, since it entails the latter. That is to say, if you believe that there are no gods, you should also lack a belief in any god; otherwise you will have contradictory beliefs. The second does not entail having any belief about the non-existence of gods.

 This second view is probably best not construed as a claim that cats, dogs, and infants are atheists, or that those completely ignorant of religion are atheists even though these creatures lack the belief in God. This is because such creatures are not making any judgment about the probability of whether God exists or not and this latter feature is required for distinguishing atheism from agnosticism simpliciter (the view that God’s existence and non-existence is equally likely).

What the two views have in common and what marks them out as distinct from agnosticism simpliciter is that both share the view that the God of monotheism is perceived as being an improbable thing to exist.  The core dispute between the two views is over whether the perceived improbability of such a God existing entails that the person should believe that such an entity does not exist or whether the perceived improbability of such a God existing entails that one should simply doubt that such a God existed and suspend belief on the matter.

Given that the central dispute between atheists over the definition of atheism involves whether a person should believe God does not exist or suspend belief on the matter it will be worth sketching out an outline of what beliefs are. In so doing we may belay some confusion.

What are Beliefs?
Since the definitions of atheism involve the term ‘belief’, it will be useful to clarify some central notions that surround the concept of belief. The term "belief" is used in philosophy to refer to the attitude we have whenever we take something to be the case. In this sense, the term is used very widely and covers what we may call ‘G. E. Moore beliefs’. These are the things that we take for granted and feel pretty certain about during our everyday interaction with the world, such as “I have hands”, “this is a table,” and so forth. The term is also used to cover the more speculative aspects, such as “God exists”, “Intelligent life on other planets exists”, and so forth.

Attitude and Content
It is important to distinguish the psychological attitude of belief from the content of what is believed. The psychological attitude of belief is an autobiographical statement; it tells you about some particular person’s psychological state. It is typically reported by someone saying “I believe that God exists”.  In contrast, the content of belief is what the person takes to be true; it is about an actual or possible state of affairs in the world, e.g., “God exists”. To illustrate this distinction, consider a world in which no God exists, and a person who asserts the following:

             I believe that God exists.

If we are focusing on the content of what the person believes, then we would be focusing on the proposition that God exists. Since, for the sake argument, we are in a world without God, the claim is false. If this were a world in which God existed, the proposition would be true. However, if we are considering the statement as an autobiographical remark about what the person believes then, so long as the person is speaking clearly, the claim is true, since that statement reflects what they believe. Confusion can arise when people use the above form of expression as ellipsis for the proposition “God exists”, only expressed with some degree of doubt, rather than as an autobiographical remark.

 It is important to get clear on the distinction between belief as attitude and belief as content, because some atheists can mistakenly think that, if they reject the claim (belief as content) that God exists, they have said nothing about whether they believe that God does not exist. They have, since to reject the claim God exists is to represent the world as if God did not exist. Consider someone who rejects the claim that his son is alive. Someone who rejects this claim is representing his son as being dead, since there is no intermittent state of being between being alive and dead. This is why the phrase,  

                                     I don’t believe that God exists

Is not a good indicator of whether the person rejects the claims of the theist or not. Strictly speaking, this tells us nothing about whether the person rejects what the person, who asserts that God exists, claims to be true.  The one lacks a belief that the other one has.  The problem is further confounded by such phrases as “I don’t believe” being elliptical for “I think that is false”.

Consider the scenario whereby someone believes that Elvis is not dead and they ask you whether you believe that Elvis is still alive. You may reply that

                                    I don’t believe Elvis is still alive

If we take this literally it indicates that you lack the belief that Elvis is still alive but does not indicate that you think Elvis is dead or that the person who thinks Elvis is still alive has a false belief. However, I think that many people treat the above expression as an ellipsis for the thought that Elvis is dead in the same way that many people ay treat the expression “I don’t believe that God exists” as ellipsis for “I believe that God does not exist.”

It is important to note that if you construe the claim “I believe that God exists” as an autobiographical remark, then it is impossible to reject this claim (think that it is false), without thinking that the person is mistaken about what they believe. You cannot reject someone else’s autobiographical remark by citing an autobiographical remark of your own, just as you cannot reject my claim that I ate marmalade on toast this morning by citing your skipping breakfast. Similarly to reject the claim that God exists is not to lack a belief on the matter (which tells us nothing about whether you believe God exists or not) but to think that God does not exist. 

However, there is another sense of reject, which is to reject an invitation to share the belief that someone else has, without making any kind of judgment about whether the belief is true or false. Consider being asked whether a defendant in court is guilty of a certain crime. We may be invited to consider that the defendent is guilty by the prosecution but reject this invitation. We may also reject the invitation to view the defendent as not guilty. In this sense of reject, we simply reject what we are being invited to believe. However, in such cases we naturally refuse to believe the defendent is guilty or not guilty when there is insufficient evidence either way so the defendent has an equal chance of being either. This is not the case with atheism - the atheist does not think that God is as equally likely to exist as not exist even on the atheism as a lack of belief model. 

The use of "I don't believe that" is often unclear.
These two senses of reject are often confused.

The Arguments for Atheism

As mentioned, agnostics have tended to distance themselves from atheists on the grounds that agnostics treat religious claims as being plausible claims that could equally be true or false, like betting on a coin that could land heads or tails, whereas many atheists tend to denigrate agnostics and, in so doing, reveal their belief that the existence of God is highly unlikely rather then equiprobable.  There clearly is a difference between someone who regards the existence of God as plausible but is undecided on the matter (and who does not see themselves as being an atheist), and someone who regards the existence of God as utterly implausible and thinks that people should not believe this.

The Tea Pot Analogy
If atheists focus only on perceptible evidence as reasons for belief or disbelief, then they may be led into an uncomfortable position whereby there are no reasons to believe God exists, or to believe that God does not exist. If there is no reason to believe or disbelieve then atheism will look indistinguishable from agnosticism. On the other hand if atheism is to be distinct from agnosticism some reason is required for claiming that the existence of God is improbable (more likely to not exist than exist).

An oft used analogy to reject such impartiality, with regards to belief in God, is the tea pot analogy - the idea that belief in God is analogous to the hypothesis that there is a tea pot that is in orbit between Earth and Mars. If the hypothesis is careful to state that tea pot is so small as to avoid detection by even our most powerful telescopes then the hypothesis would not be able to be falsified. However even though the assertion could not be disproved this should not lead us to suspend judgment on the matter. Instead we should doubt whether there is such a tea pot in orbit.

That is to say, given two hypothesis:

A: There is a tea pot in orbit around the Sun.

B: There is no tea pot in orbit around the Sun.

The latter (B) is vastly more probable than the former and, as such, we should doubt whether A is true.   However in doubting whether A is true we need not affirm that B is true. We may doubt both but not to the same degree which is just to say that we think one hypothesis is more likely than the other.
Further, since there is no more evidence for there being a tea pot in orbit around the Sun, than there is for there being a God, we should similarly doubt the hypothesis that God exists. We may also go on and accept the hypothesis that there is no such God if we are strong atheists.

There are important disanalogies between the tea pot and God – namely that the tea pot is open to potential verification and does not play a role in explaining anything of significance in the universe. The God of theism, by contrast, is posited as an explanation of the physical universe and why it has the form it has, including containing humans. Since the God of theism is posited as an explanation for certain features of the natural world these features are said to constitute evidence for the existence of the God of theism. In contrast there is no evidence for the existence of the tea pot since the tea pot does not explain any features of the natural world.

However, despite these differences the basic principle remains the same: given two hypothesis, we should reject the most implausible and accept the most plausible one. That is to say between the competing hypothesis:

A: The features of the natural world x,y,z are best explained by a supernatural God.

B: The features of the natural world x,y,z are best explained by natural properties.

We should doubt A far more than we should doubt B because B is far more probable than A. That is to say we should all be atheists in the weak sense of the term. Of course if we go on to think that B is true then we will be entitled to think that A is false with the same degree of certainty (unless we are in some degree of doubt about the entailment relation) that we think B is true since the truth of B entails the falsity of A.  That is to say we will be strong atheists.

From the above we can see that the strength of atheism increases as does the extent of scientific explanations of the universe. 

How Not to Argue for atheism as Non-Belief

Many atheists claim to simply lack a belief in God rather than actively disbelieve in the existence of God. This is a legitimate position to take when considering a hypothesis that we regard as possible to be true but unlikely to be true. However those most vocal in arguing that atheism is a position of non-belief also simultaneously claim that the existence of God is an outlandish thing to believe in, as outlandish as belief in fairies or other mythical creatures.

Here is the write Paula Kirby describing such a view:

Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible.  Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented.

Paula Kirby defends the ‘atheism is not a belief argument’ on the grounds that:

A: If she cannot be certain that there are no gods, then she should not deny, disbelieve, that any such gods exist.

Whilst elsewhere, like many atheists, she thinks that: 

B: It is as absurd to believe that any gods exist as it is to believe in unicorns.


1: These two claim, the suspension of belief, and the belief that something is outlandish or ridiculous to believe in do not sit comfortably together. As Julian Baggini observes, if we take some claim to be outlandish and incredible, we naturally disbelieve such a thing (think that such a claim is false), rather than suspend belief:

Who seriously claims we should say 'I neither believe nor disbelieve that the Pope is a robot', or 'As to whether or not eating this piece of chocolate will turn me into an elephant I am completely agnostic'. In the absence of any good reasons to believe these outlandish claims, we rightly disbelieve them, we don't just suspend judgement.  (Baggini very short introduction to atheism p.35)

There are good reasons for thinking that the suspension of belief is not something that can be brought under the will or conscious control, but instead belief formation is largely an automatic process, i.e., try believing that there is an elephant in the room, or that other people do not exist, or that there are invisible people living in your coat pocket. We may entertain these ideas, but we do not affirm them as true, and such ideas do not guide our lives. If so then belief formation is not something we choose; it is a largely automatic process that depends on what we take to be the case. If something is highly likely, we believe it to be true and, if it is extremely unlikely, as in the example of the Pope being a robot, we believe it to be false.

There is no reason to think that the author, Paula Kirby, or anyone else is capable of suspending judgment on things that they are not absolutely certain of, e.g., that people read The Hibernia Times or Washington Post then we have reason to believe that people can be mistaken about the principles that guide how they acquire their beliefs. This means that they have the belief that their beliefs are guided by a principle (described in A) when their beliefs are not in fact guided by any such principle.

2: Many atheists represent religious belief as analogous to belief in fictional entities, for which there is no evidence of their existence. However, the attitude that most people have towards fictional entities is, as the name suggests, one of disbelief or belief in their non-existence. There is evidence to suggest that the attitudes we have to things is influenced by association such that, if we associate religion with fictional entities, we will think that religion consists of fictional entities, i.e., entities that do not exist. So, far from suspending belief on the matter, such atheists are likely to believe such entities do not exist.

This raises the question:

How can atheists, or anyone else for that matter, be deceived or mistaken, so that they deny having the (negative) beliefs that they actually have?

Motivated Misconceptions
When we search for information about the world or ourselves, our preferences for what we want the world or ourselves to be like influence where our attention is focused. People tend to be more critical about what they do not want to believe, and more accepting of information that fits what they want to believe. Given that there are a host of advantages to portraying oneself as lacking in belief, it is not surprising that many atheists like to represent themselves as holding this position, even when there is good evidence available that this position does not capture what they believe. 

  1: Avoidance of common characteristics
Atheism has grown in popularity in recent years and, as it has done so, it has taken on something of a group identity that sets itself as opposed to theism. Whilst it is true to say that atheism is opposed to theism in the strict logical sense – theism is the belief that God exists, whereas atheism denies this or asserts its opposite - modern atheism seems to have opposed itself to a host of traits that are associated with religious belief, but which do not form any essential part of an atheistic world view. 

Theists typically believe in an objective morality that isbound up with God, believe in souls, and that revelation is a way of knowing about the world. Such a view is common to the Abrahamic religions. In contrast, atheists are often accused of lacking a belief in objective morality, only believing in physical things, and that science is the only way to know about the world. These things do not logically follow from atheism, and there seems little reason why atheists should have these other beliefs, although it appears that, among the folk, many do endorse the opposite set of traits from theists. It may be that, in wanting to distance themselves from theists, atheists are more likely to endorse the opposite set of traits that theists endorse.

Two attributes that are commonly associated with religion are "belief" and "faith". If atheists want to distance themselves from theists, they may be motivated to avoid admitting that their position is associated with belief, or any element of faith. One way of maintaining a distinct identity from theists is to deny that they have any of the same characteristics, including denying that they have a belief on the question of God’s existence.

 2 Avoidance of the burden of proof
There are conversational norms whereby a person who asserts some claim, whether it be that God exists, or whether it is the opposite claim that God does not exist, has accepted the burden of proof to explain and justify their position. If atheists can pretend that they lack a belief or lack a position on the topic, then they can avoid the burden of proof. Since atheism is a popular movement, many atheists are likely to be unfamiliar and unskilled in justifying their position. Hence, once would expect them to be motivated to avoid adopting the burden of proof. The problem with pretending to have no position on this topic is that our behavior often reveals what we really think, more than our explicit denial of having any beliefs on the topic.

 3: Fear of being seen as dogmatic.
Atheists may not want to assert that God or gods do not exist, or report to others their belief that there are no gods, because they fear that they will be seen as dogmatic or mistaken. After all, if you assert that there is no monster under the bed and there turns out to be one after all, you will have been mistaken. However, there is no reason why someone who believes that monsters do not exist, given the lack of evidence to date, should be seen as dogmatic if they are willing to change their mind at a later date, when the evidence changes. Not wanting to assert that you believe there are no gods is compatible with believing that there are no gods.


There is a legitimate distinction between atheism as the belief that God does not exist and the lack of belief in God. 

In order for this distinction to capture what atheists actually believe underpins their lack of belief in God it needs to make it clear that atheism is accompanied by the belief that the existence of God less likely than its existence rather than equiprobable in order to distinguish this from the more neutral agnostic (or agnostic simpliciter) position.
 Some atheists who perhaps ironically most vigorously defend the atheism as non-belief position may see theism as being so implausible that they actively disbelief rather than suspend judgment. That is to say they have the beliefs that they deny having. Further they may also have mistaken beliefs about the way that they acquire and reject beliefs.

There seems little reason for atheists to suspend belief on matters they see as vastly implausible, as contrasted with rejecting such claims as false or mistaken. However, one can reject such claims in a non-dogmatic way. To adopt a non-dogmatic position, all one needs to do is believe that God does not exist, coupled with the willingness to change your mind should the evidence change, or with the acceptance that your belief could be mistaken.

[1] What is Theism?
 Since atheists reject or suspend judgment on the claims of theists, it will be useful to quickly outline theistic positions with regards to God. Theism is the view that a personal God that transcends the natural world exists, or exists apart from the natural world.  God of the monotheistic religions is commonly characterized as a type of immaterial being, who is the creator of the physical universe and everything in it, along with a host of other attributes: powerful, good, loving, just etc. This is distinct from pantheism, which is sometimes taken as an attitude of awe or reverence for nature (and so indistinguishable from) atheism and, at other times, taken to be the attributing of mind-like properties to nature as a whole, e.g., a consciousness of the biosphere which is a view that I shall not discuss here.

Philosophers who defend theism often claim that the attributes of God are used in a metaphorical, analogical, symbolic or non-literal sense. In contrast, non-philosophers tend to view these attributes of God in literal terms, often being described as believing in an anthropomorphic God. There are also differences in terms of how creation is understood, for instance, creation can be understood in a temporal sense in which God is supposed to have made the universe, before which it did not exist, and a non-temporal sense in which the universe is supposedly dependent on God sustaining it, and molding its form, so that it is suitable for intelligent life. These two views are often combined, but the latter view is sufficient to avoid the claim that theism is false if matter existed for eternity.  However, central to the God of monotheism is the belief that a supernatural deity exists and explains (in the sense of is causally responsible for) some features of the world, e.g., the existence (or continued existence) of the physical universe, the fine tuning of the cosmological constants, and human existence. 

[2] The proposition “God exists is false” has the same truth conditions as the proposition “God does not exist”. Whether these two propositions express the same thought depends on how thoughts are to be carved up i.e., whether they are carved up objectively in terms of the state of affairs they denote or whether they are carved up subjectively in terms of the attitude that the speaker has towards them. Depending on which view one takes, one will say that these express the same thought in different ways, or that these express different thoughts about the same state of affairs.

[3] What is natural is defined in terms of whatever properties pull their weight in the empirical (natural) sciences. They are the properties that belong to the natural sciences and belong there because of their role in explaining features of the observable universe but they need not themselves be observable.  


Atheism and Etymology
It is sometimes argued by atheists that the etymology of atheism is from the Greek meaning “without God”. Since the theist believes that God exists, the atheist is someone who is without the belief that God exists. This argument has two problems. 

The first is that it commits the fallacy of etymology, which is a genetic fallacy that describes someone who claims, erroneously, that the historical meaning of a word or phrase tells us what its actual present-day meaning is or ought to be. This is a linguistic misconception that confuses the origins of the term’s meaning with its current meaning. For instance, if all we knew about the term was its etymology, we would be very confused as to what someone who ordered Tagliatelle was ordering (little cut ones). 

The second is that, we are meant to take the origin of a term as a guide to its current meaning, and so conclude that atheism means the lack of belief. However we cannot take the term as a guide to its current meaning without knowing how the current term is used and whether such usage is accurate. As I have argued above, those most vocal in arguing that atheism is non-belief actually have the beliefs they deny having so this actually undermines the argument that atheism is the position of non-belief. Nevertheless a case can be made for atheism as the position of non-belief so long as it is coupled by the claim that the existence of God is less likely than Gods existence and does not stray over into making the existence of God into something manifestly implausible.

The You Cannot prove a Negative Argument  

There is a popular view that a person cannot prove a negative, by which is meant that you cannot prove that something does not exist. You can only prove what exists. This claim does not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. For instance, consider someone telling you that you cannot prove that an elephant is not on your head. Clearly they have lost their marbles. The reason you can prove a negative, i.e., prove something does not exist, is because the existence of things leaves a trace in the world, e.g., the reason that an elephant has not stepped in my butter is because the butter is still intact. If an elephant had stepped in my butter, or snuck into my living room, the world would be altered in a certain way.  

However, the non-existence of God may be thought of as more difficult to prove and it is, for here there is plenty of evidence of non-existence, but not the same kind of certainty regarding elephants walking in your butter. The claims are analogous only in that the existence of elephants, like the existence of God, is expected to leave certain imprints on the world. If God created the world so that humans could come into existence, then we would expect that we would be here pretty much straightaway (after all, an omnipotent being cannot fail to bring about what it intends). However, unbeknown to people who were wondering what the origins of the universe and humans were two thousand years ago, the universe is actually very old, and human life is comparatively recent. So the evidence suggests that the universe was not made by an omnipotent being who intended us to come about. And it gets worse; we now know that the sun's energy is expanding, so that life on earth will eventually be destroyed and this looks like a natural process that all inhabitable planets go through. So, far from the universe appearing made fit for intelligent life, it looks incredibly hostile to any prolonged existence. This is the footprint in the butter that gives us reason to say that the universe was not designed by any omnipotent God for the purpose of intelligent life. It is not a proof but it is a good reason for rejecting belief in God.

Assumptions and Beliefs 

There are differences between what we believe and what we assume to be true. For present purposes, this distinction is typically invoked to describe how those testing a hypothesis assume that the hypothesis is true, but are not committed to believing that the hypothesis is true, as evidenced by their continual testing of the hypothesis. Those who invoke the distinction between what we assume to be true and what we believe to be true, also claim that, when we cease testing, as we have done regarding homeopathies potency, or regarding fairies and unicorns, we indicate our belief that such things are non-existent.