Continuing our miniseries of Bad Atheist Arguments on our quest for self-improvement I bring you a number of contradictory claims and statements I have seen many of my fellow atheists making, and indeed have possibly made myself in the past.
- Words are Defined by Usage and Context
Faith, Atheism, Belief ONLY mean…
- Morality Is Subjective
Except I am going to hold you to a standard above your opinion
- Evidence will change my opinion
Except I reject any evidence not backed by an argumentum ad populum
- We will always be human, apes, fish etc
Except science and math are not philosophy
- Science doesn’t deal in absolutes
Except for when it does
- A Note from the Author
Words are defined by usage & Context
Words are indeed defined by how they are used, and can have contextually correct definitions. There can also be definitions that follow the rules of logic closer than others, and colloquial definitions or slang that might not even have made it into any form of dictionary.
We atheists are always reminding creationists that ‘theory’ has a contextually correct definition in science, or that ‘evolution’ is not a ‘change in kind’.
At the same time, we then say things like ‘faith only means belief without evidence’ when that isn’t the only definition. So let’s examine a few of these shall we?
Faith means belief without evidence
This has a number of slightly different usages like ‘faith = trust minus evidence’ and the similar. In fact, I do think for some that might be true, but the average theist will define it more like ‘trust in things unseen’. Unseen doesn’t mean without evidence, as I have mentioned before, just because something is weak and unconvincing doesn’t mean it is ‘not evidence’.
Atheism isn’t a worldview, it is only a lack of belief in gods…
Atheism is a polysemous term, with a number of different definitions. Some of these definitions are more logical than others, and I have addressed these in articles like Bad Atheist Arguments Volume 2, Why Should we use the rules of logic, and I don’t believe. However, that is not the focus here.
The problem is not only that many atheists on the web will argue that the ‘lack belief‘ definition is the ‘only’ or the ‘correct’ definition, and thereby being prescriptive about its use, but they will also add things like the text in the meme.
Whilst an atheist might believe those things, it is erroneous, because atheism is just a position on the existence of gods. The picture would suit a humanist more than an atheist. Yes, atheists might be humanists, or incredibly liberal. Perhaps more inclined to have a socialist attitude where we should look after each other rather than just ourselves. They might. They might not. Saying that an atheist believes all those things is prescribing the atheist position into a belief system or ideology.
This is why I ask questions like “Has atheism become an Ideology?” although many fellow atheists spend too much time arguing past the point rather than taking the time to understand it.
I’ve also met some very conservative and libertarian atheists. If we are to be as prescriptive with atheist’s beliefs as the image would lead us to believe, then those atheists are not actually atheists. So what are they?
Belief Means accepting something without evidence and is irrational
I’ve covered beliefs more completely in ‘Bad Atheist Arguments Vol: 2‘. A belief is just something accepted as true, and isn’t necessarily irrational. To save me repeating myself, I’ll suggest you ought to read some of the material I link to below if you still think this.
- SEP: Belief
- Bad Atheist Arguments Vol: 2 – Beliefs and Logic
- Podcast: Belief, Truth, Knowledge
- Podcast: Reason and Rationality
Summary of context and usage.
We can see that we atheists are not immune to a definition fallacy. We want others to accept the definitions we use for things, accept that meanings change over time, but reject definitions too. ‘You have to accept my definition but I don’t have to accept yours’. This is also known as SPECIAL PLEADING.
Morals are defined by the individual / Morality is subjective
It is very common to hear an atheist say that morals are defined by the individual, or that morality is subjective… and then proceed to make a statement like ‘the morality of the bible is immoral’ or that ‘This culture is immoral for throwing people off buildings’ or that ‘rapists are immoral to rape’.
I agree with those statements, but what they are doing is holding the Bible, the culture, the rapist to a standard above their opinion. That is what is meant by objective.
Objective does not mean absolute, correct, from god or whatever else you think it might. It just means above personal opinion and/or based on facts. (For example, the facts about the harm rape causes would demonstrate how the act is immoral)
Morality is way more complicated than ‘Subjective or Objective’, and descriptive arguments can be made for subjective, relative and objective aspects of morality. When you speak about it normatively it is objective, especially in regards to systems of morality…
Even if you’re steadfast in the belief that all values are subjective (they are not, some things add value regardless if they are valued), that doesn’t make all of morality subjective.
In fact the biggest problem seems to be the understanding of what it would mean if morality was subjective.
It would mean that the agent doing the act decides on if the act is moral.
Person A: Decides it is moral to rape
Person B: Decides it is immoral to rape
If morality is subjective, it is moral for person A to rape and immoral for person B to rape. Person A cannot tell person B otherwise. Person B cannot tell person A otherwise. (By that I mean, they can communicate the idea but it comes down to the opinion of the agent doing the act)
We discuss morality at great lengths on this site and in our podcasts, and if you are interested in understanding a bit more, then I suggest checking some of these posts and podcasts out.
- Podcast Series: Ethics and Morality
- Podcast: Morality
- Morality: Defining our Terms
- Subjective Morality
- Normative Morality
Summary of Subjective Morality
To say morality is subjective it to say that no one’s judgment matters about your actions other then your own, and others all operate the same. This means if Trump, Mohammed, Rapists, Murderers all feel they are acting morally, then they are.
If you are saying something along the lines of ‘that’s not what I and other moral subjectivists think’ then I would suggest that none of them has actually taken the time to understand what moral subjectivism actually is, and you’re committing an argumentum ad populum. I would also suggest they don’t have much understanding of a normative approach to morality.
Evidence will change my opinion (beliefs)
I have heard this from so many atheists, yet when I have presented them with evidence they have refused to accept it.
The most common one is around the definition of a belief, or faith. I have provided both philosophical papers and dictionary definitions but still, they do not accept it. Often they tout things like ‘I don’t believe things, I know them’. This, in turn, shows how little epistemology they know. I know enough to know how much I don’t know, and how wrong the average atheist is when they say this or things like they don’t have beliefs.
We will always be human, like we will always be apes, and always be monkeys, however, science and maths are not philosophy.
When we look through the various families through evolution all humans, but specifically us, homo sapiens, we are also great apes, you go up a few levels to infraorder we are simiforms aka monkeys, go up further we find other types of primates, and can trace the families back to where we were fish or before. Techncially we are all these things, but our current species is homo sapiens.
So we are ‘from monkeys’ we are ‘from fish’ etc – just not necessarily the ones you see in the world today. Most atheists accept this, although I have a seen some argue that “we don’t come from monkeys, we share a common ancestor with monkeys” seemingly not realising that that common ascestor with todays monkeys was actually a monkey.
However that is not the point. The point I am bringing up here is that Science and Mathamatics are essentially extensions of Philosophy.
Maths was born of philosophy too and poses some problems of a philosophical nature still today. Some math they had to invent additional dimensions just to get it to work. Pythagoras was a philosopher, and even had a cult following. Sure, it is more of a science in the modern way of thinking, but that doesn’t mean it was not born of philosophy, right?
Science deals the practical matters, the HOW, the gaining of knowledge, the investigations.. but even still the scientific method is fueled by philosophical principles, falsification came from a philosopher, Popper, essentially based around fallibilism.
Yet for some reason so many sceptics/new atheists claim philosophy is dead an no longer needed because we have science. Well, their scientism is noted, however, the argument can essentially be reduced to “If science and math came from philosophy, why is there still philosophy.”
Well, philosophy has come on a long way too, some of the stuff still stands from millennia ago, just as I imagine falsification will stand in millennia to come, but things come along too.
In philosophy you might spend time “learning stuff some dead guy said years ago” this is true. In science you might learn about Darwin too, yet our knowledge of evolution has moved past Darwin, has it not?
Science doesn’t deal in absolutes
0k. What? Is that an absolute? Indeed, 0 degrees kelvin is regarded as absolute 0. What about facts. Facts are things that are true. True is absolute is it not?
Of course, falsification is a bit different, it is ‘until this has been proved false we will consider it true‘. However, once false – is that not an absolute too?
Science, for the most part, does not deal in absolutes exactly. It is a method of investigation that gives us the best model at the time, however, consider evolution. Evolution is a fact (that’s an absolute). The THEORY of evolution is our best explanation of how it happens. That is not an absolute, because it will be tweaked as we learn new things.
Personal Note from the Author
I’ve been impressed with the number of atheists who have read these articles, taken some of the information on board, put objections forward in a rational way to discuss the content. I expected far more hate mail.
Admittedly there have been some who steadfast in their opinions that there seemed to be no real reasoning, just denialism.
Either way, I thank everyone for their feedback and hope they are enjoying this article series.
Special thanks to @IntruigedFeline again for pointing out my grammatical errors, this dyslexic needs all the help he can get!