Your lack of faith

By Emily Lakehomer
Should atheists be held to the same standards as religious folk?

Over the summer I had to do something I’d never done before: come out to my mother. When I say “come out,” I don’t mean the common definition; the two of us squared with that one a long time ago. No, this time around I was coming out as an atheist.

“Oh, you don’t mean that,” was her response. “It’s just a phase.” As a 20-year-old, liberal-minded young woman, I find it hard to believe that the “pfft, there is no God” beliefs I’ve held since my formative years are “just a phase.” But like they say, ignorance is bliss, especially for parents.

Right now, the annual conference of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking place in downtown Portland. Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor here at Portland State, was one of the featured speakers earlier this month.

Boghossian’s lecture, titled “Walking the Talk,” was mainly about how atheists should be role models for the behavior they want to see in other believers. Atheists should critically examine their beliefs, just like they expect Christians to do.

In saying that both atheists and Christians should examine their values and beliefs, Boghossian wants atheists to be more explicit about what exactly they believe. Specifically: What evidence would they need to start believing in God or some other form of higher being?

Atheists should remain open-minded if evidence should surface of the existence of a god. According to Boghossian, individuals going around with “nothing can convince me otherwise” attitudes are just as close-minded as they believe their Christian counterparts
to be.

While Boghossian makes a good point, making rules for atheists seems counterproductive to what it really means to be an atheist.

Atheism is derived from a rejection of the existence of any deity. There’s practical atheism, wherein individuals live without believing in a god and explain natural phenomena without divine reasoning. Then there’s theoretical atheism, which consistently makes arguments against the existence of a god.

Atheists don’t believe in God. If you’re in-between beliefs, or more of a skeptic, agnosticism is where it’s at. Since atheists don’t believe in a god-figure, should they be subject to the same rules and stigmas as followers of other religions?

Most of us probably have the token “atheist” friend that consistently posts anti-religious, pro-atheist/evolution statements on Facebook and constantly argues with others about their differing beliefs. Honestly, that kind of behavior is just as annoying as militant Christian or insert-random-religion-here behavior.

Making any kind of generalization about any one religion is counterproductive to open-mindedness. Christians (or any religious practitioners) should respect the views of others and, inversely, atheists should respect the views of those folks who practice a religion.

Despite all of this, when it truly comes down to it, religious (or lack-thereof) beliefs are personal.

It’s really not up to one individual to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do. If I want to believe that God doesn’t exist, that’s my prerogative. Yes, as a college-educated individual, I should definitely have some logic to back up my rejection of the existence of a god, and I do. But those reasons are going to remain private.

Proving your devotion to atheism won’t really do anything to spread the word of logic, but it might piss a lot of people off, just like Christians who constantly shove their beliefs down our throats.

Any walk of life, any system of belief is generally centered on the experience of the individual. Since atheism rejects belief and appeals to logic, it only makes sense that it should be considered extremely personal. I say that because much of our society is built loosely upon fundamental Christian beliefs. To reject faith is, in a sense, rejecting society, or at least facets of society.

The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the most famous proponents of contemporary atheism, once said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Like the quote says, if something can’t be proved, we don’t need to believe in it.

Faith is personal; lack of faith is also personal. Rather than focusing on governing the personal beliefs of others, we should all just worry about ourselves. Like Nicki Minaj says, “You do you, I’ll do me.”


  1. First, I think you are missing the point of Boghossian’s “Walk the Talk” and simultaneously conflating it with antitheism or “theoretical atheism” as you call it. The “Walk the Talk” idea is not to instill rules within atheism so much as having rational and *logically clear* reasoning for one’s stance. That’s not a “rule”, it’s just intellectual honesty. This doesn’t necessarily involve others, atheist or not. You are assuming that someone who clearly defines what they believe (or don’t) and how they come to that conclusion is trying to push it onto others. That is really a non-sequitur.

    Second, as for the idea that atheists should keep it to themselves…it isn’t feasible and is in fact foolish. One does not need to jump onto threads on Facebook and harangue the religious, but in case you haven’t noticed the religious do a pretty good job of inserting their god and beliefs on how others should live their lives. This is evident in female health care, LGBTQ rights, education, science, and the military. To sit down and not evaluate and criticize beliefs that are imposed on the rest is to stick your head in the sand.

    “Rather than focusing on governing the personal beliefs of others, we should all just worry about ourselves.” If only religion felt this way.

  2. Is Dr. Boghossian making rules for atheists, or making rules for applied critical thinking that can be used by all people, religious and non-religious?

    I am failing to see any type of doctrinal guidelines be expressed here solely for atheists. Instead, I am seeing a philosophy professor who specializes in critical thinking, telling others how one best uses critical thinking. Specifically, that having an open-mind and recognizing that you can be wrong is important for the practice of critical thinking. Also, that it must be done constantly and consistently by looking at evidence, not just once and then you let that belief stay the same without regard to new evidence.

    Though the talk is within the context of atheism, and directed towards atheists, it still is a fundamentally philosophical talk about applied critical thinking.

  3. Beautiful! Thank you for your balanced approach.

    I would like to add that the lines between atheism, theism, agnosticism, science, religion, and philosophy (and pyschology for that matter) aren’t always as cut and dry as many think. Perhaps these are more fringe but there are so-called Christian Atheists (the philosopher Slavoj Zizek comes to mind in the sense he often positively engages with Christian theology), there’s a whole “Death of God” theological movement, many scientists profess religious beliefs (U of O’s retired Amit Goswami, for example), and even the Dali Lhama has, perhaps in earnest, tried to engage deeply with science (and recently declared religion outdated).

    We live in an age where scientists can fuse genes from two females with one male (courtesy of OHSU; could be used to back up arguments for polygamy). DNA can be cloned and we are in the early phases of being able to record thoughts (see experiments about placing computer chips in rat brains to help boost memory; combined these could one day perhaps allow for actual resurrection of humans). Maybe I’m sounding crazy but I sometimes interpret ancient religious beliefs as being symbolic proto-types of things humans will one day achieve with science.

    Further, I fully agree that belief (or lack thereof) is entirely personal as to its ultimate contents. Diversity of belief within any given group is actually far more prolific than I think is popularly conceived. However, I would caution anyone against neglecting the community aspects of spirituality (and, of course, even atheists can be spiritual). It’s hard to grow as a human by sitting alone. Certainly, groups of all types (not just religious) can get ugly and exclusive, dogmatic and one-dimensional, but whether one is joining a group or asserting their independence from one, growth is happening because of interpersonal (dis)engagement.

  4. Religious belief influences social policy that we are all expected to follow. Atheists who attempt to persuade others toward atheism are doing so in hopes of minimizing that influence. Some believe that the social affect of forming beliefs based on faith is largely negative. Some of us also find utilitarian ethical arguments compelling and this combination creates an ethical imperative to attempt to persuade people not to form beliefs based on faith.

  5. First off, the conference was clearly labelled as regarding freedom FROM religion. That a talk was given about how we skeptics might achieve this should not really surprise anyone. But what seems to trip you up is one specific assertion among Dr. Boghossian claims; he insists that any time one takes a stance on something so resolute as to render themselves impervious to evidence contrary to their position, then they become as fundamentalist as any religious absolutist who similarly refuses to consider the possibility of being incorrect. Martin Luther himself famously hated the notion of using reason for anything above earthly, human affairs – do a quick search online for his quotes on reason and find yourself assailed with rather graphic depictions of how he felt an anthropomorphic Reason creature ought to be treated.

    I believe it’s an error to refer to atheism, skepticism and so forth as “beliefs” simply because we of such ilk are rather opposed to that sort of thing. Off is not a channel on your television. Belief, as mentioned by the late Robert Anton Wilson, represents “the death of intelligence,” ostensibly because once a thing is believed there’s no more reason to consider it again, let alone challenge it. This is abjectly the opposite of how we do things. As for your understanding of agnostics, i’d say those claiming that title are actually atheists, for they too have not received sufficient evidence to believe in deities, but are as of yet too cowardly to come all the way out of the closet and call bullshit on superstitious nonsense.

    If belief, or the abstinence from belief, were truly personal, there would be no quarrel between the two. Clearly religion can’t shut up about how correct it is and can’t leave people alone about how they see the issue. Religion can’t keep it’s tendrils out of secular government or legislation. Religion brags about it’s unassailable morality and trustworthiness, regardless of the number of witches burned or children raped.

    We atheists would have no reason to push back if we hadn’t experienced endless instances of being pushed. Atheism is a broad term that includes everyone from the doubtful to the militantly anti-theist, and many of us feel we are long overdue the voice with which to retort against the ridiculous claims made by faithful sheep the world over. To reject faith is actually to assert authentic morality – one far truer and more honest than any imposed by fear of afterlife reprisals – and thereby to actually embrace society as the most important of all human institutions. Or, as the kids say, YOLO.

  6. Emily- Boghossian was speaking to people who are truth seekers. If you want to follow the truth, and be willing to go wherever it leads, you have to practice critical thinking. This includes considering all alternative viewpoints and the evidence for them. He is simply saying to analyze your own opinion with the same rigor that you analyze other opinions. That seems to be rudimentary.

    I think the issue is that you aren’t interested in truth. If you don’t care, then of course, don’t subject your own views to critical examination. But if you want to examine the strength of your own convictions, you better understand where the weakness lies in your thought processes, and what it would take to disprove your own theories.

    Scientists do this all the time, in trying to disprove their own hypothesis through testing. Testing doesn’t confirm, as much as it disproves. For example, one solid test is all that is needed to disqualify a hypothesis, regardless of how many tests that seem to prove it. So really all he’s doing is advocating a scientific mindset to philosophy. If a scientist never considered “How could I be wrong” and “how could my theory be disproven,” they would be a very poor scientist. Same goes for philosophy.

  7. Yes, Emily, it would be nice if we all could worry about our own personal beliefs and not impose them on others.

    But, that is exactly the point of the new, more assertive Atheism.

    We can no longer blithely allow our culture to be infused with an unscientific, irrational world view.

    It is imperative at this time to speak out against the creeping insertion of religion into our lives.

    Most Americans acknowledge this when they are confronted with what they see as the outrageousness of Islam.

    However, these same people totally ignore the dangers of their own Christian faith.

    Emily, you, as a young woman, should be outraged and frightened by the ways that the extreme religious right has infiltrated our government.

    The rights of women are being diminished in our country as we speak because blind faith in an unproven God nurtures a patriarchal system that promotes the submissiveness of women.

    It has not been that long since women have had the right to vote and to own property; but, recently, some American political leaders have been attempting to restrict a woman’s right to even make choices about her own body.

    Religious interests are now prompting undesired, invasive testing on women as well as forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term including cases of rape, incest, and danger to the women’s lives.

    Even contraception is interdicted.

    It is not that hard to see how such practices unrestrained could lead to the complete subservience of women as it did in some places in the Middle East.

    Religious arguments are also used to force people in vegetative states to continue living when their wishes are contrary.

    Additionally, homosexuals, lesbians and transgenders are at risk when religious faith is our way to know the world.

    Incredibly, we are still fighting religious wars in our time.

    And, because of faulty religious dogma, science is being ignored to our peril on issues such as global warming and renewable resources.

    Warrantless beliefs, such as that of an omniscient intelligence controlling our lives, are irrational and, more often than not, delusional.

    Faith is not a reliable process to determine truth. It is pretending.

    Religious faith is a political and, often nefarious, means of controlling the masses; it is a far cry from the noble platitudes that its proponents espouse.

    Such faith has become an agent for undermining the welfare of the individual and the community at large.

    We must insist that our epistemology be based on accurate information and reliable processes so that our beliefs are commensurate with reality and not floating in la la land.

    We must also take action to stop the detrimental behavior of believers.

    We must support the First Amendment of our Constitution by honoring the separation of Church and State.

    We must not vote for delusional government representatives who reject scientific, evidence-based thinking in their decision making.

    We must not allow believers to subject us to a false moral superiority based on their faith which is not founded in reality.

    This means that make-believe knowledge claims cannot and should not be used to downgrade or abase any members of our human community.

    Yes, Emily, so far there is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God.

    And it is important to state this loudly and clearly for the precise reason that religious faith, the believer’s way of knowing the world, is faulty and, therefore, detrimental to the welfare of all of us.

  8. Emily, if you really believed that religious beliefs or the lack of them is private, then you would not have “come out” to your mother or later to the world by writing an article in Vanguard. Most beliefs are not kept private; they are communicated to others in many ways. Any person who tells others “God exists” or “God probably exists” is making a truth claim to the world and is obligated to back up the claim with good evidence, reasons, and arguments. Skeptics have a duty to challenge those who claim “God exists.”

    Emily, you said “Making any kind of generalization about any one religion is counterproductive to open-mindedness.” I must strongly disagree with you on that point. Here is a generalization about Christianity which is productive to open-mindedness: “Christianity should be more open-minded — open to change in dogma based on new evidence.”

    Emily, you also said: “It’s really not up to one individual to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do.” It absolutely is up to us to tell others what to do in the sense of recommending, but in some cases even in the sense of commanding. When the grad student saw Sandusky in the middle of molesting a child, the grad student should have commanded Sandusky what to do. There are many more examples. But atheists and skeptics should recommend to theists that they give up their superstitious beliefs and should give the rationale for that change.

    I really don’t have a problem with Christians who try to shove their beliefs down my throat (excepting the mixing of church and state). Let them try. They are going to get a vigorous response. In the open marketplace of ideas, people trying to persuade others to change their minds is commonplace and a good thing.


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