What Atheism Means

Cthomedian Ricky Gervais is fond of expressing his atheism in sound-bite size tweets. Not long ago, he summed up his views this way:

“Atheism isn’t ‘I claim no god exists.’ Atheism is ‘I don’t accept your claim that god exists.’ No claim. Just no acceptance. You’re welcome.”

Trying to dress up the respectability of atheism in a few short sentences is no easy task. With basic critical thinking skills, it’s not too difficult to see the flaw in his thinking, but then again, we’re living in a culture that hasn’t been promoting critical thinking for quite some time.

The place to begin is with definitions of the words being used. The key word here appears to be “claim.” He rests his position on the assertion that he isn’t making a claim – he isn’t saying anything. He’s just refusing to accept what someone else is claiming. Now, that should cause the reader to be skeptical.  The verb “claim” is not difficult to define: in the sense used here, Merriam-Webster defines it as “to say that something is true when some people say it is not true,” and “to assert in the face of possible contradiction.”  So, just on its face, Gervais’ first comment is nonsensical. Of course “atheism” is a claim, the claim that there is no deity. The same online dictionary actually defines it that way – as “a disbelief in the existence of deity” or more broadly, “the doctrine that there is no deity.” Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question, atheism is a positive denial that such a being exists.

Contrary to Gervais’ assertion, to hold to a position of atheism is exactly to make the claim that no god exists – that you have moved beyond being unsure, or perhaps not caring, to a position of confidence that the being known as God is not there, that he does not exist. Moreover, not accepting a claim is itself a claim – not accepting means in essence that you believe the contrary is either true or, at the very least, more probable than not. To not accept is no different than refusing to accept, and refusing is without question an act. If I call in sick to work but my supervisor sees me later the same day at the beach, he won’t say he’s not sure that I’m “not sick,” he just hasn’t “accepted” that I am. Intuitively realizing that these are flip sides of the same coin, he will do both – reject my claim while holding, naturally, to the contrary claim. What Gervais may be trying to get at is that it is possible to not care one way or another about a claim, to be utterly indifferent. But of course that wouldn’t describe him, as he seems to go out of his way to convince others that their belief in the existence of God is a mistake.

I am a theist because evidence and reason support the conclusion that there must be a God. That same evidence supports the rejection of the contrary claim – the “a”-theist view that there is no God. There are many reasons to conclude that there must be a God, reasons that a sound-bite denial does not even remotely begin to address. This universe sprang into existence at a particular point in the past – this needs explaining, just like everything else that ever came into being requires an adequate preceding cause.  Also in need of explanation, and an adequate cause, are the many things we find in the universe – the fine-tuning that makes life here possible; the development of life from inert, lifeless matter; the emergence of intelligence, which we can use to identify mathematical equations that describe the universe; the existence of timeless truths that our minds, making use of their inherent intelligence and reason, perceive; the recognition of moral rules that, though we may disagree on the particulars, we all feel pressing down upon us. This of course is just a starting point; other more nuanced arguments also exist, such as the ontological argument that concludes God’s existence from the use of reason.

Gervais’ approach may be clever and may satisfy many who have no interest in doing the hard work of learning, considering, assessing and eventually acceding to the weight of the evidence that God is there. And why is any of that important? Because none of us has a permanent home on Earth and, like it or not, our next destination is one we would be wise to think about in advance.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Based on what Gervais says and does, it’s not so much that he is an atheist, but an anti-theist. Really, that’s what is more accurate when those claiming atheism try to convince others to their side or dissuade others from being theists.

    • LM says:

      There’s a definite ‘anti’ aspect to nearly all atheists I’ve ever met, to the extent of it being a clearly visible chip on the shoulder. Back when I was agnostic, we used to make fun of them for being more rabid than the fundies THEY made fun of.

      The idea that they spent all their time trying to disprove the existence of a being they claimed didn’t exist–then called CHRISTIANS crazy–gave us quite a bit of amusement as well.

      It doesn’t matter how many one liners or sound bites they come up with to excuse the obvious. If even agnostics are making fun of them, their problems are so obvious as to be self-evident to all–excepting themselves perhaps.

      They remind me of the story of the followers of a teacher, who were called Sophists. No matter how blatantly wrong their reasoning was, these folks were able to twist the flimsiest pretexts into what they trumpeted as ‘truth’ or ‘proof’ to the world. As a result of their so obviously transparent machinations of truth and fact the name ‘sophist’ became a synonym for a liar.

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