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Something I've seen quite a bit on Mumsnet is confusing me slightly

(390 Posts)

...I often read statements along the lines of, 'I'm an atheist because I there is no God,' and, 'I don't want my child to be taught about your fairy stories [religious teachings],' which is all fair enough but what's confusing me is, aren't these just people's opinions? One person can't provide definitive proof of the absence of a deity, anymore than another can provide definitive proof of the existence of a deity, surely? Or am I missing something?

This is a genuine query - I'm interested to know. I'm not trying to stir up arguments, although I'm happy to be argued with and told that I'm wrong.

As a person with a faith, I'd say it's all a matter of faith - either you believe it, or you don't. If I was without faith, I guess I'd say it's a matter of opinion. In any case, I don't get the absolute confidence people have that there is no God. I think there is, but I couldn't prove it and wouldn't think to tell another peson that I'm right on that topic and they're wrong. Where does all the certainty come from?

PerryCombover Tue 27-Nov-12 00:43:18

Dunno but as neither bunch can prove it it seems reasonable to keep it away from state funded education

InSPsFanjoNoOneHearsYouScream Tue 27-Nov-12 00:45:08

I don't believe but that doesnt mean I keep my son away from it. When he's older he can decide weather he wishes to be religious or not.

luisgarcia Tue 27-Nov-12 00:46:07

What other things do you believe exist that you can't demonstrate the existence of?

Problem with pitting faith against atheism and then saying "isn't it all a matter of beliefs?" misses the point that the onus is on the ones who believe something does exist. Therefore without that evidence the ones who don't believe it exists are technically the ones with science and certainty on their sides. And when it come to teaching it in schools it's fairly understandable that people would rather children were taught scientifically proven facts rather than faith/wishful thinking.

ps. please don't take offence, I actually have faith myself. I'm just trying to be pragmatic about it.

Himalaya Tue 27-Nov-12 00:55:10

GMto5 - have you heard of the idea of the cosmic teapot or the invisable pink unicorn?

The idea of god is a bit like this to many atheists, just one of an infinate number of things, which are undisprovable, but for which there is not one shred of evidence.

ChippingInLovesAutumn Tue 27-Nov-12 00:57:34

What Luis and Murder said.

If I said to you 'I have a fairy that lives at the bottom of my garden, she comes and chats to me when I'm gardening' - don't you think the onus would be on me to prove that's true, not on you to prove it isn't?

RedMolly Tue 27-Nov-12 09:40:33

I think most atheists would say that they are 99% sure that there is no god, but stop short of being categorical about it because, as you say, it can't be proven. Problem is how do you prove a negative, an absence of something? The lack of evidence for an interventionist supernatural being is good enough for most atheists. If you choose to believe in something for which there is no evidence then that is a matter for the individual and they are free to believe what they want to. Faith should not be taught as fact in state schools.

CaptainBarnaclesDaddyman Tue 27-Nov-12 09:54:01

I'm an empiricist. I like to have proof of something before I can believe in it. This means that I don't believe in God. However, if someone was to produce definitive proof of God's existence, I would believe.

I don't hold with the faith idea because it's just a safety net for religion. The idea that someone can say "there's no scientific evidence of God" and can be answered "God doesn't need to prove he exists because he wants you to have faith that he does" just doesn't hold water. If I made the same argument with a blue spotted monkey people would laugh.

crescentmoon Tue 27-Nov-12 10:12:20

i guess i feel something of what atheists feel about the myth of father christmas. my children speak far more about him at this time of year than Jesus. why is this myth so propagated and pervasive in schools? why is there such a (almost?) unanimous taking part in this huge deception of children?

iv figured, my own opinion, that father christmas is acceptable because he is the god of consumerism for children. this whole 'dear santa can you bring me....' is a clever way to introduce children to the preoccupation with material goods and status - good children get presents bad children dont get presents. they then grow up into adults and internalise rich people are good poor people are bad.

i told dc ages ago that father xmas isnt real but they find it hard when they see images everywhere on tv, in the shops, at school etc. i tell them, probably as atheists teach their children, to keep it to themselves.

Jux Tue 27-Nov-12 10:16:04

I believe in your blue spotted monkey, Captain.

CaptainBarnaclesDaddyman Tue 27-Nov-12 10:20:27

Without any evidence Jux?!? I fear you may have missed my point... grin

Jux Tue 27-Nov-12 10:23:01

I've been primed Captain. Brought up Catholic, you see.

Thank you, everyone. This is realy interesting. RedMolly, I wish more people did say that - so many times on mn I read statements from people who are absolutey sure that there is no God. I should make it clear that I have no problem with that, or with them saying that. I am just puzzled as to where their absolute certainty comes from.

Luis, that is a really good question! Apart from dark matter, and I daresay someone probably can prove that (I'm not a physicist - can you tell? wink), no, I don't think there is anything else I believe in for which I have no evidence. Very thought provoking! The 'evidence' for God, such as it is, is all circumstantial and I can totally understand people looking at it and saying, 'No thanks!' I guess what I don't understand is the aggressive tone some of them use to state that there is no God and anyone who believes otherwise is clearly nuts. I am also aware that some Christians present their faith in this manner too! I give them a wide berth, myself! By 'aggressive tone' I do not mean any of you or your replies. I've really enjoyed reading them. Keep 'em coming, folks.

digerd Tue 27-Nov-12 12:00:52

My SIL lost her mum when mum was in her 60s. Her dad lived on his own for a further 25 years, missing his wife all the time, < he told me as years later I lost my DH>. He coped amazingly well, even in his 80s when he developed Emphysema and treated himself with oxygen tanks and other things. He never moaned or became a grumpy old man. After he died aged 90, I told my SIL how I admired him and she said that it was his RC religion that kept him strong. Thumbs up for Faith in his case.

Himalaya Tue 27-Nov-12 12:38:18

GMto5 - I think most atheists don't say 'anyone who believes is clearly nuts' (although some do).

But what they do say is 'there is not good reason to believe in god' etc...

This can sound 'aggressive' because people usually, in order to be polite, treat religious beliefs with kid gloves, not drawing attention gaps in the logic etc..

DianaTrent Tue 27-Nov-12 14:58:23

I always like it put this way.

In the history of mankind, every time man has encountered any phenomenon he does not understand, he had invented a god to account for it. Over just our recorded history, we as a species have believed and come to discount and disbelieve in thousands of gods. You don't consider it plausible to believe in Odin, or Osiris, or Loki, do you? Would you always find it easy to understand and empathise with someone who devoutly did?

We atheists are not so very different to believers. Nobody believes in all the gods that people throughout history have dedicated their lives to and had mystical experiences in the worship of.

We just disbelieve in one more god than you do. wink

HolofernesesHead Tue 27-Nov-12 17:25:48

I think that one sticking-point for me on these threads is this:

Yes, I understand that atheism = a theo ism, i.e. no god, therefore it is not a statement of belief, it is a statement of the absence of belief.

So...I am not many things (IYSWIM). I am not a scientific materialist. So it's accurate to say that I'm an amaterialist. Well, truer to say that I'm an antimaterialist, but that's by the by.

But...this is not an arbitrary state of affairs; I am amaterialist because I am something else (Christian, in my case). So, saying that you are not one thing (e.g. theist) is all well and good, but that statement only becomes interesting or intelligible if it's counter-balanced by the positive statement of what you are, and it's this part of the equation that doesn't get acknowledged very well, or very often on MN. CaptainBarnacles self-identifies as an empiricist - that makes more sense than just 'I am an atheist.'

So anyway....the atheism is a statement of lack of belief in God, yes, but to it is only meaningful if it is put in the context of what it is that one believe in (in CaptainBarnacles' case, empiricism). And the 'whatever it is you do believe in' may well turn out to be just as much a statement of faith as any religious belief system you care to name. You may be able to defend your belief system (e.g. empiricism) very well, but it is a belief system nonetheless.

So I don't think anyone can avoid belief - we'd not be able to live without belief in something, of some kind. The question, therefore, is not 'do you believe?' but 'What / who do you believe in?'

This is why I think that the teapot / fairies argument is a bit of a non-starter, tbh. It's not that we are standing in some neutral external space, looking in at a
phenomenon in which we don't participate (belief), and judging it from without. The person who believes in God, and the person who believes in empiricism, are equally believers. So it doesn't make sense to say, a priori, that the onus is on either one of them to prove anything. Surely the task is to work out which version of reality narrated by (e.g.) empiricism and (e.g.) Christianity is the truer?

It is complex though, because to even make that type of judgement involves examining our criteria, our evidence (how do we select it? Why do we select some evidence and discard other potential evidence?) and our method. And being open to the possibility that maybe God is real, and therefore if so, and if the Christian tradition is true, God come to us in the person of Jesus and we can only really know the truth of God's existence if we find it in Jesus. So yes, we have (in this hypothetical scenario) two competing narrations of belief, but they aren't equal in that they aren't answering the same question, and their own internal logic is completely different.

It's been a while since I opined on MN about the nature of belief! grin

colditz Tue 27-Nov-12 17:35:34

The certainty comes from the lack of proof. I am as sure that there is no God as I am sure there is no Invisible Pink Unicorn. Neither can be proven, and they are unprovable to the same extent. Therefore I am sure they don't exist.

I understand that it is difficult for believers to imagine this gap, where they have belief, not being filled with a different sort of belief. But then, I find it difficult to imagine how someone who isn't a child can accept the explanations that religion gives you.

HolofernesesHead Tue 27-Nov-12 17:50:34

Colditz, do you follow my argument?

Spero Tue 27-Nov-12 17:55:41

There may well be a god or gods. But as I find 95% of his followers unpleasant, I don't have any truck with him/her/it. My daughter will do her own thing when she is older.

I agree it is odd to say 'there definitely is no god' - makes more sense to say 'so far I have found no evidence to convince me'.

But I don't much care either way. If he does exist, I think he probably hates us. I am certainly unimpressed by what he allows to be done in his name.

colditz Tue 27-Nov-12 18:00:42

Not entire HH, but I'm sure that's my own failing, not yours. (Not sarcastic)

colditz Tue 27-Nov-12 18:06:49

I suppose the point I've been badly trying to make, is that I don't have to believe in evolution, because there is proof of its effect. I don't have to believe in oxygen, because there is proof of its effect. Even if I say that I believe these things don't exist, or never did exist, it doesn't change reality.

But when we start talking about deities, we find that faith is a requirement. Faith that, although there is no proof positive, and frequently proof negative, and almost always proof that another factor was involved (placebo effect, weather, human pattern seeking behaviour), all these things are WRONG and there is a deity in control of the event.

I don't need to have faith in oxygen. If I deny a flame oxygen, it dies. If a deny a believer their deity of choice, and prove that it was eg medication and prayer that cured a child, the child still lives, and the believer still believes, because they have faith to tell them that I am wrong.

colditz Tue 27-Nov-12 18:07:55

Should say medication and NOT prayer

technodad Tue 27-Nov-12 18:10:00

Hi GeorgianMumto5,

Faith, as you rightly say, is a matter of opinion.

I personally feel that I have had faith pushed upon me throughout my life, and many religious people I know (including close family members), would not think twice about saying "bless you", or "would you like me to pray for you" and would not consider that I find this annoying and offensive. I expect I find these sayings probably about as offensive as a religious person might find a reply of "there is no god, grow up".

It basically comes down to common respect, and I would never say "there is no god, grow up" to someone and would expect someone I didn't know well to not make religious comments back to me. In my view, this courtesy extends to everyone within society, so I don't want a priest saying "god bless you" as I leave a funeral, because I don't want to be bloody well blessed thank you very much (especially if god just killed my mate that I have just buried - if god exists, he can get fucked!).

Fundamentally, when our society struggles with teaching basic reading, writing and arithmetic, I find it staggering that our schooling system prioritises teaching "opinion" as "fact". We need to keep faith as a personal thing, and let our schools teach things that are proven. This means that children should be taught about religion, but not that god made the world. This way they can choose their own path, or follow the route desired by the parents (whilst learning about faiths and religious tolerance).

In summary, you will likely find that the comments you mention in your first post, are the result of anger and frustration that religion has unfair privileges within society, coupled with the fact that there are many double standards in terms of what is deemed offensive (rather than because the certainty that an atheist has about the non-existance of god). I must put up with my child being brain washed at school, but if I told the priest that god didn't exist and to stop bothering me, then I would be really frowned upon.

When religion (or the lack of it) is truly a private thing, then no one will have any opportunity to inadvertently offend, or the need to intentionally offend to make a political statement.

Simple really!

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