Atheist Dogmatics (1): Atheism is not a belief but the *absence* of belief

Sorry to begin with this part of really tricky dogmatics. It will be a dance around minute decisions, but, promised!, of tremendous consequence (as any encounter with dogmatics – yes, I know). A tour with Godless Mom™ can, perhaps, facilitate things. You need the dogma when you get into trouble with those who claim to understand your position while they are actually trying to subvert this position with their uncanny definitions. They can be you enemies or false friends. It is false friends in the case of Ijeoma Oluo and that British paper called the Guardian, this “rag” of the “regressive left”, that has produced little Ijeoma out of nowhere as their representative of atheism – the last thing Ijeoma can claim to represent. It needs a bit of dogmatic clarity to set things right again and it is regrettably not the first reprimand which Godless Mom™ has to send into this direction:

I’ve written about a piece in the Guardian before and it seems the rag is not doing much to better its reporting, because they just published this bit of tripe by Ijeoma Oluo, recently as well.

Nothing says Pulitzer-contending journalism like building your entire magazine on a straw man’s back.

This is yet another regressive left piece from a professional crybaby who claims to be an atheist, but clearly hasn’t the slightest clue what an atheist is to begin with.

How do I know Ijeoma has no idea what an atheist is? It’s simple.

She says,

my atheism is a leap of faith

Wrong, sunshine. Atheism is a lack of faith. It’s a lack of belief in a God. If you want to assert there is no God, please understand that addresses gnosticism, not theism. Atheism is a leap of faith just as much as not believing in the alien reptilian Bilderbergers is a leap of faith. Something which is defined as a lack of something, cannot then become a something. “My tires are flat” cannot be said as “My tires are full of not-air.”

Look at all these Muslim terrorists who blow up themselves, guided by their beliefs. That is what happens if you believe in a God – a delusion others have created in order to steer you. Godless Mom™ again:

I don’t think these men and women who commit insane acts in the name of their faith are foolish. I think they are deadly, misled and didn’t have a whole lot of choice given the fact that most religious people are indoctrinated as children.

I think about how much better the world would be if all people, the globe over, had access to education that valued critical thought and the scientific process.

Why would Ijeoma speak of something as ridiculous as her “leap of faith”? Because they want to discredit atheist websites and their justified fight against religion as a war of believers against believers – who, of course, feel offended.

Wrong again. Atheist websites have a duty to criticise religion. That’s a rational task. And, of course, religious people feel offended – just as they do not have any rational answers. But harm? Religious actions are causing incredible harm and atheists target these actions – again Godless Mom™:

But atheism as a faith is quickly catching up in its embrace of divisive and oppressive attitudes. We have websites dedicated to insulting Islam and Christianity.

These websites are dedicated to criticising religion. People get insulted as a by-product of that, but just like any political ideology should be ready to face criticism, so should any prescriptive religious doctrine. It should be scrutinized heavily if it requires you to behave in any specific way. Why? Because actions have the potential to truly hurt people, and unless we carefully examine the reasons for why we take such actions, we are susceptible to taking action without thought. That’s when things like Charlie Hebdo happens. Is it really enough to slaughter a man because he drew a cartoon of your prophet, with the very clear intent of making people think? That’s when things like female genital mutilation happens. Is it really insulting deeply held beliefs to say, “Hey, please, if I could just keep my clitoris in tact that would be fucking awesome.”?

Ijeoma is complaining about “dogmatic” atheism without the slightest clue. Religions are dogmatic. Get rid of your religions and the dogmas disappear as well. A Richard Dawkins fan cult? Perhaps in Ijeoma fantasies. There is no atheist Pope, what has Dawkins ever demanded from us?

Ijeoma, you may be living dogmatic life clinging to every last tweet from Richard Dawkins, but that is not even remotely close to how every atheist lives. There is no dogma in atheism, because atheism is not prescriptive. If you want to argue that, by all means, go ahead, but know you will have to cite where and when atheist leaders have called upon the entire atheist population of the world to act and behave and live our lives in some specific way. I can’t think of one instance in which that has happened, can you, Ijeoma?

Aristotelian essentials

How could the absence of a belief be a new belief? That is like saying that 1–1=1. Or more popular:

Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a haircut.

The wording is contested and the web has several debates on the good reasons why it is. This is from reddit the advice to consider the “haircut” metaphor an attack on the original “hair colour” metaphor that had been first used by Don Hirschberg:

Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair colour.

Hair color = no choice
Haircut = choosing nothing
To an atheist, the first is more apt, but to a theist, they would consider the latter more accurate of Atheism.

“The Thinking Atheist” has the more concise argument why you should insist on “hair colour” and reject the “haircut” in this formula:

…you fucked it up. Bald can be a haircut. It should be “If atheism a religion, then bald is a haircut hair color.”

Anyone (with hair on his head) can end up bald with a haircut, bald actually is a haircut but never ever a “hair colour”.

Godless Mom™ was reasonable with her avoidance of the contested metaphor. We have to know why we insist on the correct view: “Something which is defined as a lack of something, cannot then become a something. ‘My tires are flat’ cannot be said as ‘My tires are full of not-air.’” – That has all the advantages of hitting the Aristotelian scholastic nerve of the debate of essences that is at stake here.

Memes have evolved around the dogma. You can have the hair colour meme plain text on different colour backgrounds to suit your website, you can have the text with different bald heads, and you can get memes with different alternative metaphorical solutions and different propagandists of atheism.

The “absence of belief”? That’s why stones, shoes, and umbrellas are the coolest of all atheists

The same goes for my two year old son who would be startled if I asked him whether he is an atheist. Is he a believer? He would be just as startled. Atheists will say (once they realise that he has not got a clue about God) that he is their man. We begin as atheists, so their claim. They can have him as their conference speaker. He will show them his donkey, a toy figure with weird powers – he uses the little donkey to peek into things that are out of his reach. (I think he is living in a strangely animated world no atheist is ready to enter…)


Atheism is not exactly the “absence” of the belief in God. It is rather the very presence of this belief in a state of rejection and denial, and that again is nothing spectacular, nothing contradictory. We do not believe (perhaps with the exception of my son) in Easter bunnies, Santa Claus, Zeus or Zombies, and yet we are able to entertain any of these beliefs in one way or another at least for short moments or in obscure acts of propaganda and understanding (like when we read children’s books of Easter bunnies). A Zombie movie is a roller coaster ride because we pretty well know that this is just fiction and screenplay, whilst we are actually ready to suspend this disbelief for the pleasure of the suspense. The experience is similar to a roller coaster ride because that again is based on knowledge (that it is all safe) and experiences of terror which we can safely risk in seconds of suspended disbelief.

The different agendas of belief and disbelief make all the difference

To believe and to not believe are not exclusive options. They are rather complementary options since you can only reject a believe on better knowledge if you know it and if you accept the weird possibility and if only for the pleasure of proving able to reject it.

Our knowledge of Star Trek universe is extensive and part of the knowledge spread by Wikipedia although we all know that Spock is actually not the star ship’s science officer but a deceased actor. Our statements of belief and disbelief allow us manoeuvres in spheres of knowledge that would otherwise create internal paradoxes (for how can Spock be both a science officer and not real?) Our agenda of disbelief can be an agenda of temporary fun, or part of a wider cultural setting with a nice pedagogical lessen. You encourage your child to love Easter bunnies just as you already know that he or she will eventually realise that you have been that Easter bunny all along.

The belief in God and atheism, its rival, are special as they are established stabilised and institutional options of a confession, a self-definition, a personal and collective pledge to hold the view even if it is to be held without evidence and against all likelihood.

Would we speak of atheism if atheism was as regular as the belief that Easter bunnies are folklore made up for children? The question is hypothetical. We live in societies among groups with rivalling beliefs and these create the option to reject their beliefs.

But what’s the charm of a dogma in this confrontation?

atheism-hair-colour6The charm of any dogma is its power to run a debate into static warfare. The dogma states what the opponent just does not want to accept as the ultimate position. It digs the trench you need on the stabilised front line.

The atheist strikes first: The “theist” is just a believer; belief is irrational – knowledge is rational. The atheist has made a point.

The theist strikes back: “You are a believer yourself. I believe that God exists – you believe he does not exist. That is belief against belief, irrationality against irrationality.” – The atheist’s attack is deflected.

It is this the moment for which the atheist has dug the trench: “Atheism is not about believing that there is no God. It is the rejection of the believe in God. If you have a belief and if you get rid of it you come out with no belief. To be without a belief is rational.” – logical.

The theist should be shrewd in this situation. Okay, the atheist has rejected his faith – that makes: no faith left. But why has he rejected this faith? Because he does not believe that there is such a thing like God – so he is guided by his belief.

If the theist presses on this point the atheist will employ the charm of the dogma. Has he not stated that he has dismissed the belief in God? How can that have created an new belief? Can’t the theist hear? Is he a moron? Too stupid to understand logic?

The stalemate looks stupid if you are not in it – it is otherwise the great chance to gather followers who do understand and who will agree. The atheist wins among his followers: he lives without irrational beliefs. The religious opponent wins among his: it is apparent the atheist has a belief and does not want to discuss it.

The conflict can be widened into a (pseudo-)philosophical debate

The entire debate is usually used for the coolest philosophical generalisation: This could and this should be the general demarcation between atheists and believers. Atheists are rational, they adhere to science and in this case to knowledge – you either know or you don’t know. Theists are ready to spread beliefs and that is their irrationality. The problem of the philosophical generalisation is: it works wonderfully in a debate with people of no further philosophical background. Meet a theist who is prepared for this debate and he will make you look foolish. This is an (anonymised) screenshot from the Atheist Republic’s Facebook group on this experience:

22 August at 11:10

Something that’s been bugging me for a while now; A phobia of the word ‘belief’. It seems to be an issue for a lot of atheists, and we really need to get over it. A lot of times it’s a stumbling block in debate, where people try to claim they don’t have ‘beliefs’. Sometimes it’s ‘believers’ who intentionally provoke atheists into making that claim, and sometimes it’s atheists who take the initiative to say it.

Guys, please don’t do that. It makes us look stupid.

Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on beliefs. Any assertion of truth implies the asserting person believes something. It’s not a fault. Belief doesn’t automatically contain the descriptors ‘without evidence’ or ‘contrary to fact’. I believe 2 + 2 = 4. I also have good reason to do so.

If someone in a debate seems to be trying to get you to say you believe something, don’t resist it. You DO believe SOMETHING. It’s a rhetorical trap. Walk into it and walk right back out, because it isn’t a very good trap. They’ll likely say ‘What makes your beliefs better than mine?’ or something to that effect. You *should* be able to answer that question.

Even aside from debate, realize it’s perfectly reasonable to believe things that cannot be empirically verified. Ethics for instance. Every ethic is a value stance. By definition, a value stance cannot be proven. For example, I adhere to the ethic “People are morally valuable”. I can’t prove it. I still hold it to be true. It’s a belief, and that’s OK.

The passage is intriguing with its call for a philosophical debate. The step into this debate is not too well prepared. “Any assertion of truth implies the asserting person believes something.” Yes, one might be able to substantiate that claim, but not with two examples from mathematics and ethics that follow: “I believe 2 + 2 = 4. I also have good reason to do so.” – Well, that might not really be a belief. We have defined mathematics up to this point. Our definition of entities and their numbering turns this equation into a tautology, so Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous proposal in his Tractatus (1922).

“…it’s perfectly reasonable to believe things that cannot be empirically verified.” Well, again, yes and no. “Every ethic is a value stance. By definition, a value stance cannot be proven. For example, I adhere to the ethic ‘People are morally valuable’. I can’t prove it. I still hold it to be true. It’s a belief, and that’s OK.” The problem is here that the ethical position, the “stance”, will not be a belief. You decide to defend this position for whatever reason.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to believe things that cannot be empirically verified” – that’s actually a tough statement. Can these things (like the belief in life in other galaxies) not be verified with our own tools and data, or do we need a clearer debate of verifications which we will accept in the absence of a 100% empirical personal verification? I am a historian. I can, of course, not empirically verify that the documentation of the Nazi Holocaust is not a massive hoax forged by the Allied forces as “critical” right-wing conspiracist “historians” will proclaim. I know why this is the most unlikely explanation of the files which I have seen and I know why these “historians” would love their plot to become the true story. But I will not be able to fly back in time with all the Holocaust deniers for a brief visit of the Auschwitz camp.

Our entire “knowledge” is based on beliefs and this is in a way the central difference between Bertrand Russell’s far more dogmatic stance and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s provocative analysis of how we actually do things reasonably. The correct answer on what I know about Greenland is: “I know, Greenland is a landmass in the North, covered with ice”. If I said “I believe Greenland is…” that would kill me in any school examination of my “knowledge”. I have seen maps and satellite photos (usually photo-shopped in order to get rid of the clouds) and documentaries that substantiated my “knowledge” about Greenland. Ask me what I believe and I will say that I believe I am not the victim of massive Greenland hoax. Wittgenstein summarized this nicely in his last considerations On Certainty in the early 1950s

144. The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.

So: atheism – is it now a belief or not?

Bertrand Russell on beliefsThe answer is straight and alreday included in the word: Atheism is the rejection of the belief in God(s). It is clear that such a rejection is only reasonable if you believe there are no such things like Gods to believe in. Atheism is not a belief, it rests on a belief.

One could say that this is a stupid catch, so simple to understand that it should not be possible to use the argument in any debate. Fact is: It is a cool catch as it brings the debate into an insoluble problem of dogmatic positions behind which the parties can gather in the win/win situation of their confrontation. Those who invest in a debate have only one thing to fear: its end. The stalemate with a constant repetition of the same arguments can be pretty entertaining and leave full room for characters to play their roles.

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About Olaf Simons

*1961, Neumünster Germany, Historian, studying the eighteenth-century Illuminati at the Gotha Research Centre.

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