Essay:Rational and irrational atheists

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The article Atheists say the darnedest things (along with its random list of "darnedest things" said by atheists and various comments on the talk page) has inspired me to write about atheist beliefs. Or at least my beliefs about atheist beliefs. (Since writing this essay the article which inspired it has been edited in such a way that it no longer irritates me - but I'll leave this up for posterity.)

Before launching into any discussion it seems prudent to note that there is absolutely no reason to suppose that someone holding atheistic beliefs should be immune to the natural human tendency to say cringe-making things.

But, even apart from their condition as human beings, there are no special reasons for us to necessarily expect infallibility, logic or even common sense from those who self-identify as atheists.

Why not? Let's work through it.

What do atheists believe?[edit]

The truth is that I don't know what atheists believe - and neither do you. How could we? The only thing we know is what beliefs they lack - what they don't believe in. They lack belief in the existence of God. And that's all I, or you, could know about them based only on the one piece of information that they are atheists.

Having said that, let's look at what impact - if any - this lack of belief will have in various areas.

Political and economic beliefs[edit]

An atheist could be fascist, racist or a believer in democracy. An atheist could believe in Keynesian economic theory or the Austrian school. I could go on and on and on - but you get the drift.

It is perhaps less likely that an atheist would hold socially conservative views, as the holders of such views tend to be associated with religious ideologies - but there is certainly nothing inevitable about it.


Being an atheist is no defense against believing in woo of any stripe you care to mention. There is no obvious reason why being an atheist would prevent a person from believing in homoeopathy for example. Not believing in one weird thing doesn't mean that you are unable to believe in another. A person who rejects ear candling might accept magnetic field therapy for example.

The supernatural[edit]

As long as they don't pray to them or assume they have god-like attributes there is no reason that being an atheist would preclude somebody from believing in ghosts, fairies, unicorns or a whole host of other wacky magical things.

While many would argue that an atheist would be less likely to believe in such things, it is by no means precluded by the definition which only speaks about non-belief in God.


The lack of a belief in a fundamental part of what most religions are about tends to make many atheists critical of religion. But again, this is not inevitable. Indeed, some atheists might point to what they feel are positive aspects of religion. For instance they might suggest that it helps social cohesion or that it gives people hope in times of difficulty. Alternatively they might be convinced by NOMA and feel that religion should just be left alone. (I must admit that I an not personally convinced by these arguments, but there is no reason why others should not be.)

Nevertheless, this is probably the only field that I can think of at the moment where an atheist might make a comment along the lines of: "Because I am an atheist I believe X about this subject". But given that atheism per se makes no explicit statement about religion, such atheists are free to make as much or as little sense as they like.

Before leaving this point it should be noted that atheists may not even be in the majority in making critical comments about religions. Many religious people are often bitterly critical of religions too. They may point out the stupidity of of a particular religion, call various religious beliefs "magic" or point out that some religious leaders are violent and sexually corrupt.

That being said, they are usually talking about other people's religions when they say these things, but the reactions of some religious groups to things like apostasy would be considered rather extreme to even the most ardent atheist.

Rational and irrational reasons for being a atheist[edit]

It seems to me that the most rational reason for being an atheist is the simple fact that there is no convincing evidence in favour of the existence of a deity - or deities or whatever. But there are people who are atheists for other reasons which I would suggest are less valid. These include:

Simply being born into an atheist family and accepting the position without further consideration, having a strong interior feeling that God does not exist, having the information imparted in a dream by the fair folk, having had a bad experience with religion, believing that the problem of evil proves Gods don't exist and so on.

Other terms[edit]

When people talk about "atheists" it seems to me that they are frequently confusing them with other groups.

Rationalists and skeptics[edit]

Rationalists and skeptics generally follow the idea:

  • I'll believe it if you can show me the evidence.

Obliviously they will still fail the "humanity test" and be subject to the associated human failings. Nevertheless this group makes a positive statement about what they will believe given the right circumstances and, while we are going to be guilty of generalizing, we can be a lot more confident about our generalizing.

There is a good chance that such individuals are atheists or at least highly skeptical agnostics. Their political views may vary but they have a tendency to be left of center. They reject pseudoscience and the supernatural and frequently their only interest in religion will be in criticizing it.

Proposed expansions[edit]

The narrow definition of atheism as a negative belief has sometimes led to attempts to produce more broader or more positive descriptions. For instance the brights movement denies everything supernatural. Others - such as the philosopher A. C. Grayling - have the suggested the term naturalist as a positive description for a person who only believes in naturalistic explanations.

As an aside, it seems to me that these suggestions for broader terms tend to come from European atheists looking for a more all-encompassing framework for their views and tend to be rejected by atheists in the US who (I suspect) see themselves as a beleaguered minority who need to defend the term. But I have no real data to back this up and present it only as an opinion.

"Fundamentalist" atheists[edit]

Given the fact that atheism is defined by a single lack of belief it is difficult to see what a fundamentalist atheist could be fundamentalist about. In intellectual terms not believing in Gods is about as profound as not believing in homeopathy (I accept that in some parts of the world it may be socially very profound) and consequently talking about a "fundamentalist atheist" seems to me to make about as much sense as calling an outspoken critic of homeopathy a "fundamentalist a homeopathist".

Obliviously there certainly are some atheists who are considerably more outspoken than others, but calling them "fundamentalists" seems to me to be simply an ad hominem or snarl word which attempts to dismiss them as fanatics and so avoid engaging with the points they raise.

In conclusion[edit]

There is no way to know what an atheist believes beyond the denial of God, and we usually don't even know if an individual has a rational reason for that denial. Consequently the possibility of an atheist making a weird or surprising statement is no higher or lower than such a statement being made by a member of the general population.

Expressing surprise at this state of affairs indicates either a possible lack of understanding of what atheism is or, alternatively, it may indicate a conflation of the terms "atheist" and "rationalist" - as irrational statements made by people who claim to be rationalists would certainly be worthy of mention.

Finally we need to remember the existence of the balance fallacy and note that if one group of individuals are utter lunatics and another group disagrees with them that doesn't mean that reality lies somewhere in between.