I have finished reading Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. While I do not agree with everything Baggini says in his book, I can recommend it as a valuable resource which has helped to clarify several ideas I have been wondering about for years. I will try to share these ideas over the next several days in a series of short posts.
Atheism is the absence of belief
First, as I mentioned in the last post, is the debate within the atheist community over the proper definition of atheism. Baggini’s book has reinforced my belief that atheism is properly defined as the absence of theistic belief. He seems to be arguing that, as a matter of fact, most atheists derive their atheism from a naturalistic worldview, and he identifies these supporting beliefs with atheism proper. But this analysis ignores those (perhaps many fewer) atheists who base their atheism on other grounds, irrational as those grounds may be. The only common ground between all these atheists is their simple lack of belief in a god, just as the only common ground between all the members of the heterogenous set labeled “theists” is their belief in some sort of deity. No one pretends that accepting the name of theist commits one to the doctrine of karma or the Trinity. Why should accepting the name of atheist commit one to philosophical naturalism?
I see this debate as a sterile wrangling over what name non-believers should choose to describe themselves. There is a confusing array of different names — atheist, agnostic, Bright, freethinker, humanist, secularist, skeptic — that some want to collapse into the generic term “atheist.” But not only would this do violence to the sometimes subtle distinctions between the positions described by those names, it would put us in the position of defining ourselves in terms of a worldview to which we are opposed.
Tomorrow (hopefully): the Brights.
Point of Inquiry
The latest Point of Inquiry podcast features an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Just as Ann Druyan did in her recent interview, Dr. Tyson defends the use of the word “spiritual” by non-theists; he also talks about science education, the popularization of science, and the effect of his research on his attitude toward religion.