Atheists and Atheism

As if the misconceptions about atheists and atheism weren't already pervasive, the Straits Times published a forum letter today muddying the already cloudy waters.

As per my modus operandi, I shall go through this letter point by point. Let's begin.

Despite what he suggests, there is no conclusive definition of atheism.

Some, like neuroscientist Sam Harris, would agree with him. Others, however, define atheism as a belief, as philosopher Michael Martin has done in his book The Cambridge Companion To Atheism.

Oh? An atheist philosopher who doesn't notice the different subclasses of atheism and tars all atheists as strong atheists?

Well, according to the University of Cambridge's site, Investigating Atheism, which cites Dr Michael Martin's book referenced in the forum letter, it says:

Michael Martin, a leading atheist philosopher, defines atheism entirely in terms of belief. For him, negative atheism is simply the lack of theistic belief, positive atheism is the asserted disbelief in God, and agnosticism is the lack of either belief or disbelief in God. This suggests that negative atheism, the minimal position that all atheists share, divides neatly into agnosticism and positive atheism.

So, no. Atheism is acknowledged to be, at minimum, referring to the "lack of theistic belief". And the assertion of the claim contrary to theism is known as strong atheism or positive atheism.

Seems like we're off to a bad start.

Despite the lack of a conclusive definition, the more commonly accepted definition is the one used by Pastor Lawrence Khong ("'I told the minister to send me to jail'"; Sept 7), namely, that atheism is a belief system.

Even disregarding the confusion between atheism and strong atheism, a single belief is NOT a belief system. This is just wrong. Period.

There are cogent reasons why atheism should be treated as such.

Treat atheism as a belief system even though it isn't? This should be interesting. Go on.

First, as a society, we need to be open about what we believe in and why we believe it, rather than hide behind labels.

Firstly, "atheism" and "atheist" are accurate labels to describe someone who doesn't hold theistic beliefs. It is open and honest to state so.

Secondly, hide what? Oh, he's about to tell us.

It is not enough to describe. A person who describes himself as an atheist should be expected to give a rational defence of his belief. An absence of belief is still a belief.

Just as we expect religious believers to substantiate their claims, we should expect the same standards of proof from atheists.

Ah. Wrong.

The burden of proof is always on the claimant. In this case, the claim is theism - that there is some god(s). Failing to prove/demonstrate the claim means that any one is justified in simply rejecting the claim.

When you make an outrageous claim, I don't ever need to prove my case in order to disbelieve yours.

This applies to strong atheists who assert that god(s) do not exist, of course. However, weak atheists, who make no such claim, have no such burden.

This leads to the second point - atheism as a belief system allows for discourse with other belief systems and permits a meaningful exchange in world views, something especially important in a pluralistic society like Singapore.

This can be done already.

However, one should note that atheism is NOT the worldview of atheists. Atheism is a single position on a single claim. Indeed, for humanists and skeptics, atheism is merely a conclusion, not their dogma.

If we are to mature as a society, then no assertions ought to be immune from scrutiny in the public sphere. Everyone should be mutually obligated to explain their belief systems from which they challenge other belief systems.

And the unforunate error carries over throughout the letter.

Again. Only strong atheism makes a positive assertion. Weak atheists (ie, most atheists) make no such assertion.

Ultimately, the definition of atheism is contextual and dependent on how the person is using that term.

Yes. But not in the way you explained so far. Most people simply aren't familiar with the terms, as you were.

Lawrence Khong, whom you attempted defence for, most definitely had no clue what atheism is let alone the nuances of the term.

Mr Tobin's letter should not be construed as defining what atheism really means, especially when even atheists themselves cannot agree on a single definition of atheism.

Actually, Mr Tobin was providing THE single definition of atheism that covers ALL atheists. Afterall, if you don't reject theism, you would be a shitty atheist.

There. Ugh.