The Unbeliever’s Dilemma

A new atheist ad campaign hits the New York City subways this week. A group called the Coalition of Reason is sponsoring posters declaring that "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?" The campaign aims to give non-believing New Yorkers assurance that they're not alone. This seems unnecessary in New York; the anonymous donor might have spent his or her money better in some Bible Belt city, someplace where nonbelievers really do feel marginalized. But it did get me thinking.

The "million" figure comes from the famous 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which found 15 percent of respondents claimed to have no religious affiliation. In terms of New York's population, that points to roughly a million people. While the numbers may lack precision, there are certainly millions of Americans who don't believe in God. President Obama's acknowledgment of nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address was a small but significant gesture towards recognition of this population.

But awareness campaigns can go only so far. Nonbelievers in a country dominated by religious people will always labor under the near-impossibility of being able to prove a negative.

The term "atheist" and the question "Do you believe in God?" pose an oppositional conundrum similar to what occurs when I ask, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In asking the question that way, I'm stipulating that you have beaten your wife at some time in the past, regardless of whether you have since stopped. Similarly, if I say "I am an atheist" or "I don't believe in God," the very phrasing puts me in opposition to something I don't recognize as existing – theos, a god, a supernatural being.

Hence the term "atheist" defines me according to a belief system I don't accept; it places me in a world in which there may be an entity people refer to as "God," and in which I am something like a scientist who doesn't accept a certain theory because he believes the evidence is inadequate or has a rival theory. But that picture does not accurately describe a naturalistic worldview. In my conception, a naturalistic worldview by definition does not stand in opposition to some competing worldview. It isn't one of a number of possible theories posited to explain some phenomenon; rather it has defined a supernatural worldview out of existence. "Naturalistic" means "with reference to what is." In nature, in the world, in the universe, there are things that are. Of course, there is much that is unobservable to us, and perhaps some things that we will never observe. Still, these things are. Anything else is speculative or imaginary.

Saying "I don't believe in God" is somewhat better than using the term "atheist," because it at least refutes the superstition implied in the term "belief." But it suggests that the alternative, "believing in God," is somehow of equal logical weight. The oppositional conundrum still applies. The term "belief" itself is weighted. In its religious sense, "belief" means trusting in the existence of supernatural beings and events that one has not personally observed (and which, since they are supernatural, are also, to a naturalist, nonexistent, hence unobservable). To a pure naturalist, this kind of "belief" is an almost meaningless concept. Opposing it is like arguing with the wind.

Miracles are a prime example. These are fictional phenomena that, by definition, defy natural law, or else real phenomena that witnesses could not explain because the necessary scientific knowledge is or was not yet available. "Believing in" miracles means accepting a supernatural origin for (currently or formerly) unexplained phenomena. This was understandable in pre-scientific cultures. It is far less understandable today. Angels are another example – fictional characters firmly "believed in" by some of the same adults who are just as sure Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are made up. As with miracles, there is no logical explanation for such beliefs. Logic isn't relevant – people believe these things on faith. Thoughtful theologians often have no problem admitting as much.

Ideally, there should be (philosophically speaking) no conflict between science and religion. They operate on different mental planes. Unfortunately our terminology too often doesn't let us – believers and nonbelievers – see that. Instead we see things in terms of opposition and conflict. We "atheists" and naturalistic thinkers continue to struggle to find accurate and acceptable terms with which to describe ourselves, using a language whose very terms deny the reality we perceive.

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