Monday, October 26, 2009

What does it mean to be an atheist?


The realm of the supernatural is a crowded place.

If someone asked you to look at the picture above and describe what you see, how would you answer? Well, you might point out the beauty of the trees, the dazzling sunlight, and the rich, soft grass. But if you were given a pencil and asked to add something metaphysical, how would you respond?


If you are a Christian, you will probably reply that in a metaphysical sense this picture is incomplete, as it does not include the presence of God, which is, it is claimed, all around us. If you had imagination, you would probably find a way to draw this in. But you are told not to worry about drawing God for now; just focus on supernatural creatures.

You might hesitate at this point, as you have probably never seen a demon or an angel before, so you base your sketches on Frank Peretti's books. After a few minutes you stand back and admire your drawings of demons and angels raging battle amongst the trees above.

Now imagine if representatives from all religions and faiths – present and past – were given a turn to draw their own supernatural creatures onto the same picture. Together with your demons and angels, a Muslim will add a djinn, a Hindu an Asuras, and a Chinese a shen. Soon the picture above will be completely covered with sketches of hundreds of creatures for which we have little evidence. As you probably expect, we will no longer be able to discern the trees, the sunlight or the grass, as these will be covered by layers of metaphysical confusion, jumbled colours of chaos and clutter.

Yes, the supernatural realm is a very crowded place.

Many people ask me what it means to be an atheist. To give you some idea, imagine the crowded picture, and then imagine a person taking an eraser and slowly removing all the sketches of sprites, goblins, spirit guides, elves and finally the demons and angels. The eraser returns the picture back to what it originally was – a simple vista of trees.

Take a look at this simple vista, but now for what it is, without thought of any hidden supernatural gods, creatures or forces. The beauty of the trees, the dazzling sunlight, and the rich, soft grass – that is what it means to be an atheist.

24 comments:

Sabio Lantz said...

Nicely put.
For me, I enjoy fiction and playfulness. I still allow the ghosts and gods and spirits to occupy that real. They can be fun when they aren't imagined as real.

CyberKitten said...

Atheism - the ability to see nothing where nothing exists [grin]

Laughing Boy said...

Actually, that's what it means to be a materialist.

Sabio Lantz said...

Atheism =
A (not)
+
theism (seeing something where nothing exists)


Materialism =
Seeing nothing where something exists

Laughing Boy said...

What's the word for a person who makes up his own definitions for words?

Sabio Lantz said...

Humans = animals who make up their own definitions of words

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Actually, that's what it means to be a materialist.

Wouldn't that be a Naturalist - as opposed to a Supernaturalist?

Laughing Boy said...

Humans = animals who make up their own definitions of words

Touché, Sabio! Of course I meant made up to differ from the common usage in an attempt to make a point.

Wouldn't that be a Naturalist - as opposed to a Supernaturalist?

Maybe, CK. Let's see...

Naturalism: the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.

Materialism: the view of the world that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.

Atheism: 1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God. 2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

It seems to me that, unless we get real picky, either naturalism or materialism are appropriate terms for the view expressed in Kevin's post. Atheism is less appropriate since it is limited to disbelief in gods or supreme beings and not your run-of-the-mill supernatural creatures like sprites and goblins and such.

While Kevin has his eraser out he should probably remove the other immaterial elements in the scene, like the 'beauty' of the trees, the 'dazzlingness' of the sunlight and the 'richness' of the grass for instance. For if reality is limited to that can be sketched, unless he can sketch beauty, dazzle and richness independently, then all we really have is trees, sun, and grass. Adjectives are for supernaturalists.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Laughing Boy
Lots of posts out there about all the wonderful emotions of naturalists. You misuse and/or misunderstand the word "materialist" which is not helpful to the conversation. May I suggest you stick to "naturalist" if you are really trying to understand. Words come with connotations on top of their meanings because they are human created and used -- playing with these connotations will not lead us to understanding. If that is what you are seeking and not here to wave your flag.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: While Kevin has his eraser out he should probably remove the other immaterial elements in the scene, like the 'beauty' of the trees, the 'dazzlingness' of the sunlight and the 'richness' of the grass for instance.

Are you saying that naturalists/materialists or even atheists cannot see beauty? We can certainly appreciate a rainbow even knowing how it is (naturally) created. We can even feel emotions too - like love.

Being materialists or naturalists or even atheists doesn't stop us being human beings.

Laughing Boy said...

Sabio: May I suggest you stick to "naturalist" if you are really trying to understand.

Very well, then. Kevin's post is about what it means to be a naturalist.

CK: Are you saying that naturalists/materialists or even atheists cannot see beauty?

Not at all. What I'm saying is that you can't draw it. In this post Kevin is giving us a variation of his often-repeated contention that what is not available to investigation by one or more of the five senses is not real. Angels, for example, are purported to be spiritual beings, without physical bodies (if that needs said). Yet Kevin would ask us to draw their physical form. If this is not possible, then Kevin suggests that we should dismiss angels as unreal. So I am asking him to draw beauty. If he can't, then he should, by the same criteria, dismiss beauty as unreal. This would, AFAIK, make Kevin a materialist as well as a naturalist and atheist...unless Sabio protests my understanding or connoting.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: Not at all. What I'm saying is that you can't draw it.

So.. We *can* see it - just not draw it?

So all artists (who draw beauty) *must* be supernaturalists?

OK, I'm not a particularly good artist but if pressed (with a bit of practice) I'm sure I could knock out a fair representation of something beautiful....

Ali P said...

"So I am asking him to draw beauty. If he can't, then he should, by the same criteria, dismiss beauty as unreal"

Beauty is something made up by humans... much like Angels I guess.

Laughing Boy said...

CK: I don't think you're getting my point, though maybe through no fault of your own. Sure, we can observe things that we call beautiful, and some people might be to draw beautiful things, but what is 'beauty' that it can be communicated through physical objects yet not be a physical object itself. Beauty is immaterial yet we can 'see' it. Beauty itself has no form so it can't be drawn or even described yet it's existence is generally acknowledged.

CyberKitten said...

LB - I think that you're missing the point.

Beauty is not an immaterial 'thing'. It is an idea, a point of view and is largely culturally determined. Ideas of beauty differ from place to place and from time to time. Beauty is not an independent object that exists 'out there'. Beauty resides in our heads and is projected onto objects by us. If we did not exist to perceive things as beautiful then beauty would cease to exist.

Because beauty is a culturally determined concept the fact that I do not believe in any supernatural beings or processes does not in any way prevent me from seeing things as beautiful or understanding that other people can see things as beautiful. Beauty *can* be drawn and can be described - indeed isn't aesthetics about that very subject? It is just that beauty does not have any independent existence from those perceiving something as beautiful.

Beauty is simply in the mind of the beholder - nothing more. There is no mystercism here or any mystery.

Laughing Boy said...

Without a hearer the falling tree makes no sound?

I agree that beauty is not a thing. But I and many others would argue that beauty is not fundamentally subjective. Does Kevin think so when in his concluding paragraph he says in "this simple vista" we see "beautiful trees"? Isn't he appealing, perhaps unwittingly, to something more like an objective standard than he has a right to?

I had a comment ready to post before I read CK's. Here it is:

While I am interested in whether atheism, naturalism, and materialism are, for all practical purposes, coextensive terms, I am more curious about what, for Kevin (if he can represent the 'typical' atheist) makes up reality. Is reality just another word for the natural world? What test determines whether something is real or imaginary? What remains in Kevin's scene once all the imagined and abstracted elements we so 'naturally' add, are removed? When we strictly apply Kevin's reality test, will we find that we have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water. In other words, now that the atheist has gotten rid of God, will he apply that same measure to everything else, and if so, what remains to comprise his world? For instance, can he look at Kevin's scene and say, "This is beautiful," or would it be more precise for him to say, "Subjectively, this appeals to me."?

Laughing Boy said...

For instance, can he look at Kevin's scene and say, "This is beautiful," or would it be more precise for him to say, "Subjectively, this appeals to me."?

Here, "This is beautiful" is meant to infer objectivity although it's a little vague in that regard.

Laughing Boy said...

Sorry for the deletion. Typo.

From KP's original post:

As you probably expect, we will no longer be able to discern the trees, the sunlight or the grass, as these will be covered by layers of metaphysical confusion, jumbled colours of chaos and clutter.

Maybe, if we "translate" non-physical entities into the physical world; but, of course, that's a problem created by your construct, not one that inheres in the supernatural.

With all due respect, I think the metaphysical confusion is on your end.

Anonymous said...

This was another amazing post.

This is also how I feel. I don't need all the stories and lore to see the beauty in life. And I also don't need a devil or demon to blame any bad happenings on. I feel like my eyes are open the the real world.

Kevin Parry said...

LB wrote
either naturalism or materialism are appropriate terms for the view expressed.

Good point! I agree with you: I think it is more correct that I described the position of the naturalist. But I wonder if there are there any naturalists who are not atheists. That’s an interesting question to ponder . . .

LB wrote
Kevin is giving us a variation of his often-repeated contention that what is not available to investigation by one or more of the five senses is not real

My position is more subtle that that. I’m not saying that those things which we can’t detect via the five senses (with a little help from the scientific method) are false in an absolute sense. Rather, they are simply unevidenced. This difference is subtle, and it takes into account the fact that I’m not omniscient. It is possible that demons, angels, god and the supernatural exist, but I have not yet come across convincing evidence to warrant that I live a life in acknowledgment of these things, in either thought (in terms of belief), word and action.

LB wrote
like the 'beauty' of the trees, the 'dazzlingness' of the sunlight and the 'richness' of the grass for instance.

I share the same view as Cyberkitten: beauty is a subjective element that is created within, and dependent on, our own complex minds, and is a result of culture and upbringing. The scope of my post covers the claim (made by supernaturalists) that there are undetectable sentient, free-willed agents who actually exist independently of human minds.

LB wrote
What test determines whether something is real or imaginary?

In terms of the entire universe: nothing! It is possible that everything is imaginary, and I’m simply a brain in a vat. Your objection is entirely valid on this point, and my test breaks down here, as there is no way to know if I exist in something Real (capital R) or something Imaginary (capital I). Speculation about the tree falling in the forest is interesting, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because there is absolutely no way to know, with any amount of certainty, whether I live in a solipsistic universe or not.

But what I do know is that I am experiencing something, and that is what matters. This ‘world’ has to be lived in. I have to make pragmatic decisions everyday about what is real (small r) and imaginary (small i). Even if this entire world is imaginary, there seems to be a distinction between the natural world (small r) and the fantasies of the human mind (small i). Many of us adopt this assumption most of the time when making decisions regarding the claims of car salesmen, politicians, clairvoyants, and mentally disturbed individuals. What do we use to draw a distinction between small i and small r? My post simply highlights the position that it is okay to only believe in those claim for which there is sufficient evidence (again, acquired through the five senses with a little help from the scientific method and critical thinking).

I’m interested to find out from you what you think are the disadvantages of using the five senses and the scientific method to evaluating claims? Can you describe another method that we can use?

Laughing Boy said...

For evaluating empirically verifiable claims I tend to rely on my five senses, my capacity for logic (such as it is), reliable authoritative opinions, and intuition. I don't think there are disadvantages per se with trusting one's sense perception and "the scientific method"; the problem comes when one limits reality to what these can affirm.

I might post a response to the question of the supernatural at my blog since it could be lengthy. I'll put a link here if/when I do.

Finally, I hear what you (and CK) say about beauty, that it's subjective and created within the observer. But if that's the case, then when you say that, sans spiritual beings, we can still see "the beauty of the trees" you are being sloppy with your language since it's your stated position that beauty is not an attribute of trees but merely your emotional reaction to certain tree-composed scenes. Likewise, Anonymous can "see the beauty in life" but the same incongruity applies if beauty is only in the observer. It seems that, when in philosophizing mode, you take the subjectivist position but when in normal mode you talk like an objectivist. As the old saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Kevin Parry said...

LB wrote
the problem comes when one limits reality to what these can affirm

I’m concerned about adopting beliefs that we can affirm, so I don’t see this as a problem. I guess my question would be: if you adopt beliefs that you can’t affirm, then what basis do you have in believing that they are ‘true’, in any sense of the word?

I might post a response to the question of the supernatural at my blog since it could be lengthy

I really look forward to it. And you are welcome to post a link here.

you are being sloppy with your language

I am fully guilty of this, I know. Language can be complex, and sometimes it is habitual to use expressions and ways of saying things that we have learnt within the context of our culture. But thanks for pointing this out in the context of this post – I think it has clarified things for many readers.

A.Vogel said...

If atheist wants to quote any Bible writers on the subject of defenition for faith they must also quote that same author on the existance of God.

All defenitions of faith in the Bible are given with the knowledge that there is a God.
It stands to reason that atheists will have difficulty grasping any words spoken from those who know God.
This of course include most scientists.

Anonymous said...

you should all go read the Meno