Monday, November 2, 2009

Atheism vs. Theism does not equal Science vs. Religion

Atheists have begun a new ad campaign to inform other atheists that there are many atheists in the country---and that their numbers are growing! Rational humanism, naturalism, the brights, United Coalition of Reason, are just a few examples of the groups these atheists have developed.

The stated or understated message of these groups is this: a naturalist, or rational world view is what makes sense, and as more and more people come to their senses, belief in God will end. In a lot of ways, I think this movement is a good thing. Religious beliefs that cause harm to other individuals, like homophobia, should be ferociously attacked and I’m glad people are taking them head on.

But the fight against religious beliefs that lead to intolerance, violence, and pain is not the same fight as a debate over God’s existence. If atheists honestly want to engage in a debate, they must argue against theism, not religion in general. Religion is an organization of people that share a belief in a specific brand of theism, just as “the brights” are an organization of people that share a belief in a specific brand of atheism. To criticize the actions of “the brights” is not a valid argument against belief in atheism generally, and the same goes in reverse.

Atheists who claim it is “rational” to be atheists have lost track of themselves. I can understand this confusion. For, as science has progressed, it has disproven many of the most sacred teachings of various religions. The sense of 'disprove' here means that the teachings have been shown to NOT be rational fact. This has served to be a red herring for those involved in the atheism vs. theism debate, as it leads to such “rational conclusions” as “the theory of evolution is a rational fact, thus there is no God.”

Atheists are engaging in a belief, not a rational conclusion. They are choosing to believe that the reality that we experience and come to understand through the scientific method, or ‘empirical reality’ as Kant called it, is the ONLY truth or reality. For atheists, there is no knowledge, truth, or reality beyond what humans can know through reason.

Theism, then, is the belief that there is knowledge beyond what humans can possibly know. We can call this knowledge, or reality, or truth, God. It is not, however, necessarily the claim that we know, in the same way we ‘know’ scientific fact, something about this knowledge. Many theists do think they ‘know’ something about God in the same way that they ‘know’ the sky is blue. But in my mind, this God is by definition something that we cannot know. Yet, once one engages in the belief of this God’s existence, there are some things that can be shown to follow logically. And this is the stuff of religion. The important point is that there is nothing inherent in theism that is counter to science.

We can imagine that eventually a vast majority of people in the world will accept that the facts derived through the scientific method are the most objective, and thus truthful way that humans can understand the world. But this will not end the debate of theism vs. atheism. The question is not whether the scientific method can create an objective viewpoint through which universal human truths can be derived. Rather, it is whether these truths are truly ‘reality’, or the ultimate truths about the world.

This debate is one that rests on faith. There is no logical path that will lead you one way or the other. This is the essential fact that I believe atheists need to do a better job of understanding and promoting. Perhaps through this, the debate can begin to transcend its current stalemate and investigate the fascinating questions about truth and reality that are constantly present in our lives.


  1. Exactly the reason why many scientists are able to engage in the belief themselves! There is no actual contradiction, only so much emotional static. Well said.

  2. Hello. You brought this post up to me so I figured I should comment.

    As an atheist, I cannot say that I've used the argument that since evolution is true, god does not exist. Even I know that is a logical fallacy to use one to leverage the other. What I would say is that if god does exist, he does not interfere at all - not on the micro nor macro level. Simply: if there is a god, he put the rules in place and created matter, then made it go boom and walked away. As it stands, every single instance in history where we thought god was at work has been found, with the advent of new knowledge and technology, to be... not god but just science. Everything we know about evolution, from embryology to speciation, has no room for god to operate in any fashion.

    Now, what I can say is that if I get you to acknowledge that god does not interfere, then I can probably next get you to admit that god does not exist. This is not a logical progression, but an emotional one. As you stated, it is possible to adhere to science while still believing. An ex girlfriend of mine is a scientist, works on NASA projects, says she prays because it comforts her, not because she thinks god will help her. She'd be atheist, I think, if it weren't for the mental teddy bear.

    So, if I can nail down the non-existence of god, then I have no need to go after religion, because it is irrelevant once you no longer believe. That's where the logical path shows up. From that point, there is no need to hate gays or what have you.

    I hope I've helped clarify the atheist argument so that it is not as silly.