No longer to call myself “an atheist”; with some Grayling snippets

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve decided to no longer call myself an atheist, but a naturalist. A. C. Grayling convinced me to do this without much trouble in his little book “Against All Gods

As it happens, no atheist should call himself or herself one. The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is ‘naturalist’, denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature’s laws. This properly implies that there is nothing supernatural in the universe – no fairies or goblins, angels, demons, gods or goddesses. Such might as well call themselves ‘a-fairyists’ or ‘a-goblin­ists’ as ‘atheists’; it would be every bit as meaningful or meaningless to do so. (Most people, though, forget that belief in fairies was widespread until the begin­ning of the twentieth century; the Church fought a long hard battle against this competitor superstition, and won, largely because – you guessed it – of the infant and primary church schools founded in the second half of the nineteenth century.)

By the same token, therefore, people with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists . . . . (p.28 )

Simple. So I’ve decided not to discriminate against those who believe in garden gnomes or leprechauns and revert to the catch-all “naturalist”. And those who confuse this with naturist might have more to think about than others.

The “Tu-Quoque/You too!” fallacy: Atheism is not a faith

The point of Grayling essay is to rebut the common fallacious claim that “atheism is itself a faith position”.

I’ve responded to this charge numerous times myself on various forums, and I suspect many of those who don’t want to think otherwise will simply ignore the obvious rebuttals to this charge:

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a ‘faith’ in ‘the non-existence of X’ (where X is ‘fairies’ or ‘goblins’ or ‘gods’); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgement of both on the principles and theories which premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. ‘Faith’ – specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief – is a far different thing. (p.34)

Faith, on the other hand, is belief in the absence of, even contrary to, the evidence. Grayling does not say it, but I can see no place for faith to intrude into scholarship that plies itself to understanding the literature and historical origins of any religion.

The sad part is that some fundamentalist Christian “scholars” pretend to agree with this statement, but their escape hatch is to insist that it is “dishonest hyper-scepticism” to go beyond a superficial face-value acceptance of selected (not all) texts. They fail miserably to see that true scholarship means submitting even their favourite texts to verification. They really demand that we have faith in the surface reading of their canonical texts and only submit noncanonical texts to scholarly scrutiny.

Religious faith is surely something that belongs to the privacy of one’s home or circle of fellow-believers. There is nothing publicly noble about anyone believing in a proposition contrary to the evidence. Even many Christians accept this when they twinge with some embarrassment over their fellow-travellers who allow their loved ones to die “in faith” in preference to seeking medical care; and most Moslems feel ashamed at their fellow-faithful who blow themselves up with innocents “in faith”.

I’d rather they felt no embarrassment or shame, but only constructive anger. Embarrassment and shame are emotions that admit that they belong to the same general mind-set, the same broad club, to begin with.

Forget asking who should win: cancel the game instead

But the argument is not about “which faith is true” and “which faith is false”. It is about the irrationality of faith to begin with:

Even some on my own side of the argument here make the mistake of thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false. Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational. To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes, is exactly the same kind of serious irrationality. The best one could think is that if there is a deity (itself an overwhelmingly irra­tional proposition for a million other reasons), it is not benevolent. That’s a chilling thought; and as it happens, a quick look around the world and history would encourage the reply ‘the latter’ if someone asked, ‘if there is a deity, does the evidence suggest that it is benevolent or malevolent. (p.37)

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “No longer to call myself “an atheist”; with some Grayling snippets”

  1. You may not call yourself an atheist, but if you don’t believe in gods then you are one anyway.

    If your are not a theist, then you are an atheist. If you want to not believe in other things too, then fine, but you might need to invent a word for it.

  2. I am an atheist yes. I’m also an aghostist, aspiritist, atoothfairyist, agoblinist, aleprechaunist, aunicornist. azombieist, awerewolfist, ateacuporbitingsaturnist.

    No need for a new word. Just reverting to the more meaningful and comprehensive naturalist.

  3. If I may offer up another example, to the commenter Simon (above – who apparently read the post but didn’t get it):

    Let’s suppose that I was born and raised in Uruguay. Lets further suppose that you were born and raised in Nebraska.

    If, in th daily goings onwe had interactions and you continually referred to me as a non-American, I would at some point (early on) correct you, saying: “actually, sir . . . I am Urugayan.”

    What you are doing here is, in essence, to respond: “You can call yourself an Uruguayan if you want, but you’re still a non-American, whether you like it or not.”

    Though you’d not be “incorrect” in saying that I am a non-American, calling me that says absolutely nothing about what I actually AM. All the phrase says is that I am an outsider to YOUR group. Nothing more.

    People like Simon don’t see their tendency for tunnel vision when it comes to the “faiths” they’ve adopted as compasses. This is the religious equivalent of blind robotic jingoism.

    If you could figuratively take your “theist” shoes off and slip on your “abright” moccassins (an “abright” you ARE, whether you like it or not 🙂
    . . . you’d see.

    “Naturalist” is not a new word, incidentally.
    Neither is “supernaturalism”.

    . . . or . . . do you, Simon, deny being a supernaturalist?



  4. How about the labels Naturals and Supers?

    A Super would have to call me a Natural, which sounds cool. And I don’t mind naming others Super if the make-believe character association fits.

    (I think Dennett has already suggested something like this; besides, a quick google has just shown me I’m way behind on this one — many others have long since blogged the same point. Still catching up here. . .)

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