We Need To Rethink Our Definition Of Atheism

It was never about God's existence but rather His usefulness to ours

March 25, 2021

Atheism shouldn’t be defined as the belief that gods do not exist or the lack of belief in gods. Firstly, because there is more to atheism than a dead static position against god’s existence. Secondly, because theists use these definitions to wrongfully brand atheists with a generalised flat identity. To them, all atheists are the same, but they couldn’t be more wrong.

Whether you choose to define a belief as a psychological state of accepting something to be true, or based on its propositional content aspect, Atheism is not a belief in the non-existence of gods. There is a deeply personal and continuous side of atheism which goes beyond feeble beliefs of gods and demons. This personal side is the most important aspect of understanding a person’s irreligiousness.

The nature, rise and disintegration of religion

All religions are ethical statements. That is, they make claims about what should guide our behaviour.

This means God, whether real or not, is merely a function in a much bigger ethical program. His purpose is to give people a higher standard to aspire to. To reinforce religious ethics - as either the assumed source of morality, or as the overseer.

KRS-One suggested that God is the greatest human creation. Simply because he gave people an infinite goal to try and live up to. To never get tired of ourselves. If that’s the case, then we can’t help but ask, why did God have to be human-like?

We learn behaviour usually from coping what other people around us are doing. As kids, we learnt basic skills, like speech and walking by coping our parents because we aspired to be like them. We believed they could save us from anything. Unsurprisingly, we took the same model and applied it to religion. That’s why gods mostly had to be parental figures; mothers and fathers.

So, God had to be human-like so that we could easily translate his story into our lives. That is, to translate our behavioural aspirations via the most commonly used model of learning.

In Christianity for example, people aspire to be Christ-like, proving how critical it was for Jesus to be as human as possible. Not just in form, but in emotion, experiences and behaviour.

He got betrayed, tempted, and even became violent at some point. Besides what he went through, he still sacrificed himself for sinners and didn’t let his character be corrupted. This story is acted out in Christianity in the same way a child at some point says, when I grow up, I want to be like my father or mother.

However, this model didn’t work out so well for one key reason; The god concept is infinite and abstract while our behaviour is limited and purely physical. In that sense, as new challenges emerged, religion failed to contain the ever-expanding need for definitive human action. Therefore, a new model for ethics and behaviour had to be created. One based on the physical and actionable domains of knowledge.

As Aldus Huxley put it in Brave New World, “God manifests himself as an absence…he isn’t compatible with machinery, medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilisation chose machinery and medicine and happiness.”

This marked the birth of atheism, not as the rejection of Gods, but as the rejection of religious ethics. - as the personal pursuit of meaning and happiness through the falsification of all religious claims about what should be implemented in our daily behaviour.

Towards a better definition

Atheism is a progressive personal attempt to push for the improvement of adopted models of ethical behaviour. It uses “what is” to determine “what should be.” Unlike religion, it takes great interest in the properties of space and matter to explain reality.

Therefore, being an atheist is adopting a scholastic attitude to the development of usable human ethics by questioning truth claims about human nature. It extends to domains like the origins of life and domains currently beyond human knowledge. i.e., consciousness, and life after death

Coincidentally, this involves subjecting all existing claims to consistent and impartial experimental tests which can only be passed in the physical, in experience, in reason and in logic. Above all, they must be repeatable.

Should anyone claim that there is a god, an atheist does not reject this claim. It is of no interest to him. However, should that person say, we should act according to the will of God, the atheist might respond, “Show me where and how.” In other words, demonstrate how you got to this conclusion. If that person fails to demonstrate the mechanics of their knowledge then the atheist responds, “Your claim has no practical value therefore I have no reason to accept it.” It was never about God's existence but rather his usefulness to ours.

In practice, modern atheism is synonymous with the Secularist argument. Which is, we should not consider any religion or the will of metaphysical beings when developing social laws or standard templates for acceptable conduct.

Limits of the definition

Under this definition everyone to some degree is an atheist. We all have an element of disbelief and completely reject most gods anyways. Atheists use the same argument Christians use in refutation of Zeus, Nyami-nyami and other gods. Their argument is “I have no reason to believe in your god.” The only difference is that “atheists go one god further than the rest” as Simon Blackburn rightfully said.

Therefore, the only person who is not an atheist under this definition is one who believes in all gods equally at any given time. Or one whose God-hypothesis has never changed since being socialized into the myth of God. And if we are being honest, that would be none of us.

As we mature, we become more atheistic without even noticing it. We inevitably falsify and remove the ‘absurd’ and inapplicable characteristics from the story of god.

We change God from the being scary and all powerful, to someone we expect to understand and forgive our sins after some negotiation in prayer. Then, into someone we do not care about when we ‘got to what we got to do.’ In the end, God becomes nothing but an object of our poetic selves on extremely good or bad days.

Why the fuss about God anyways?

Whoever controls the story about the standards which should be followed controls the behaviour that comes.

In morality, the standard we should have been pursuing as a species was practical empathetic ethics. But, when governments hijacked ethics through the institution of religion, they told us that the standard was to believe in their story. (governments defined simply as structured authority). On top of that, they described the new standard in a way which no one could challenge. Ultimately, they sent people on a wild-goose chase and gave them a cushy idea to settle on.

To illustrate this point better, let’s look at education.

All along it was just as absurd to challenge the education system as it was to challenge God, but today we know better. The standard we should have been pursuing was learning, the practical application of knowledge but governments hijacked the learning process through the education system. They made people think the real standard was going to school.[1]

As a result, people stopped asking 'how do we learn' and concluded that school was where to do it. They were taken on a wild goose chase from O Level to Advanced, NC, Diploma, Degree etc. and got comfy in it. They settled and stopped looking for something better.

The same thing which happened with education happened with God, politics and so forth. To correct that mistake, people should be obsessing over human action and its quality – ethics, not the ideological structures set by government.

Why else was Galileo was killed by the church other than the fact that his discoveries threatened their model of controlling behaviour? - their ethics!!

It's a sign that we must think in action and end-goals of institutions not ideas or abstract statements. A society can exist without ideas, but it cannot exist without action[2]. The fuss then, should be about ethics not God.

Therefore, atheists in this regard made the mistake of giving in to a skewed definition made by a people who focused on the wrong thing. They are not people who don't believe in God, they are people who reject religious ethics. They undertake the responsibility of modifying each ethical model presented to them.

Last note

Our world is a practical world of acting out ideas. Therefore, action is the only definitive property of human behaviour and institutions. The action-based goal of religion is guiding ethical behaviour therefore it is an ethical institution.

This means atheists are people who reject religious ethics. Mostly because religious ethics are inapplicable to their life and partly because the god-hypothesis fails the standard tests for all hypotheses. What matters in the end therefore, is how people act out an idea. Which ultimately comes full circle with the secular argument that belief in god is unnecessary in shaping social behaviour.

Thank you for taking your time to read this.

What am proposing which goes beyond atheism is that we should define people at the very least by their actions – by the set of ethical codes they use. Isn’t that reason enough to revisit our understanding of atheism towards a more applicable definition?

[1]Just in case you ask, why would they even do this? It is much more profitable for governments to have individual personalities in one space – makes it easier to control and shape them

[2] Bold claim? Made from observations in the animal kingdom. They have functional and structured societies despite their low faculty for higher abstraction. Everything depends on how the animal acts relative to the group. [Konard Lorenz - Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour Vol.1]