Atheism and religion: it’s all in the axioms


I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods or supernatural beings or occurrences. As far as I can tell, we live in a wholly natural world. But while my atheism is important and informs many of my perspectives, I don’t see it as an essential part of my basic worldview. It’s merely a conclusion drawn from something far, far more meaningful: scepticism and inquiry. I say this because I’m going to talk about an idea I have about the difference between axioms and conclusions and how this can be applied to religiousness and atheism. Bear with me on this one- it’s not as complicated as it seems.

Here’s a handy definition of ‘axiom’ that I googled. While obviously any particular definition will be incomplete, these will serve us perfectly well and fit in with how I want to use the word today. An axiom is:

A self-evident or universally recognized truth

and here’s another one:

A proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident.

Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, does operate with certain axioms. There are things which we take for granted and whose truth appears self-evident. There are other things which we do not take for granted, and whose truth or falsehood we deduce in other ways- from things like logic or evidence. The axioms that I use in my day-to-day life, however, are not necessarily the same as those which you use. Or, to put it differently, there are things which I take for granted that you do not. And, by the way, vice-versa.

Something I hear far too often in atheist circles is the idea that as atheists we are somehow more rational, logical and intelligent than our religious counterparts. I don’t believe this to be the case. And here’s why:

The God Thing: Axiom or question?

I wasn’t always an atheist, but I am now. Have been for several years and expect to continue this way. In between my religious childhood and atheist adulthood were several years of questioning. This isn’t unusual. Something I remember from my early years, however, is how the existence of God wasn’t something I came by rationally. It was something that I took for granted. God existed just as much as my family and everything else in the world around me. Whether God existed or not wasn’t a question– of course S/He did. One of the things that changed for me as I grew into adulthood was that several things happened which made me start questioning my religious background. It happened slowly, over several years. First I questioned Catholicism, then christianity, and finally the existence of any god at all. It wasn’t a simple process, and I think that one of the things that made it so complicated was how it involved more than new answers to questions. Things which had previously been axiomatic to me became topics I questioned and subjected to logical inquiry and the search for evidence. It wasn’t new answers to questions at all. It was a whole different way of thinking about the entire damn topic.

I’m lucky to have a fairly diverse bunch of friends and acquaintances, although I will admit that they lean towards the secular. However, they also include a good few people who follow various religious traditions and share beliefs in god. I am no more intelligent and no more rational than my friends who believe in gods. They’re generally the same kind of pro-science somewhat geeky social activist types as the rest of the people I tend to hang out with. The only difference, it seems to me, is in whether we frame the existence of god as an axiom or a question. Everything else flows from there.

Contradicting reality

When I look at the religious people around me, I don’t see people who deny reality. This is, of course, not representative of everyone with a religious belief. There are people whose beliefs blatantly contradict observable facts and evidence, and that is a problem because that kind of thing can be seriously harmful to us all. I have a massive problem with people who would choose the words of their sacred text over the evidence of their eyes.

The biggest difference that I see isn’t between believers and nonbelievers. It’s between people who choose their scripture over observable reality (“the planet’s climate couldn’t be changing because the bible says that God will never again do that kind of thing” or “I’m going to deny my child life-saving medical treatment and pray for them instead while they suffer and die”) and those who believe one alongside the other. Honestly, I’m more interested in whether you acknowledge that the universe is billions of years old than whether you think that there is a deity planning the whole thing on a level that humans can’t fathom. The latter is something that doesn’t affect me in the slightest- it’s an addendum you have to the things we know about the universe. We live in pretty much the same place, give or take an axiom or two, and we try to not have too much cognitive dissonance with them. The former is terrifying, because it shows a blatant disregard for reality, and someone who is willing to do that in one sphere is likely to be willing to do so in another. We have far, far too much evidence from history as well as the present of people whose prioritising of their scriptures over the world and people around them led them to do terrible things.

I’m an atheist. Far more importantly than that, I am a sceptic and a humanist. It would be lovely to be able to put atheists in one category (“intelligent, rational, exceptionally good looking and charming”) and everyone else in another that was far less flattering. But in my own experience- and yes, I am speaking from anecdote in this entire post- focusing on whether the existence of god is one of a person’s axioms is a red herring. Things aren’t that simple. And I, for one, am not about to let a desire for simplicity overlook reality- a reality where a person’s respect for observable reality is far, far more important than whether they see something beyond that.

How about yourselves? This is something that I’m very much in the process of working out my own views on, and as always I’d love to find out what you think. I know that my readers have many different ir/religious perspectives. If you’re religious, do you think I’m right about my idea that belief in god(s) is more of an axiom than something logically deduced? I’m also really interested in the ways that people reconcile where reality seems to contradict the scripture(s) that you follow- I’d love if anyone would like to talk about their experiences with that?

Oh, and this is only tangentially related, but I found it kinda amusing.

41 thoughts on “Atheism and religion: it’s all in the axioms

  1. Great piece and not preachy! (and love the video!!) I must say both within Religions and Atheism it is the extremes that get all the attentions, Most people are in the middle, they either believe in something or they don’t and they dont go shouting it from the rooftops!

    These axioms as you point out is perfectly right. It is the only difference. We all go through those questioning times, I was an atheist for awhile, but it didnt last because it didnt fit in with my accepted axiom.

    But anyways, again fair play for writing this!

    • I’m glad it struck a chord with you. When I talk about these things I’m conscious that I’m speaking from my own experience, and that that experience is one of coming into my atheism being a part of my own growing-up. So my experiences of being a theist are childhood experiences, and my own atheism showed up parallel to my maturing and coming into my own.

      Something I really don’t want to step on is the idea that that necessarily means that religious belief itself is childish, or that atheism is the only adult perspective. But I know that t would be easy to unwittingly do so when I’m extrapolating from myself. Glad to hear I didn’t go too far wrong here 🙂

  2. Very well said. Those of us who have faith, whatever faith that may be, can also be sceptics, or believe in one spiritual/supernatural thing and not another, or acknowledge scientific facts about the world and the universe. And we can question our faith. I do, all the time. I think if you don’t question your currently-held beliefs, regardless of what they may be, you can never be sure they’re the right beliefs for you. If someone only believes in God because they haven’t considered other possibilities, what they have isn’t faith; it’s doctrine.

  3. The main issues I have with the “atheist movement”:
    1. Focuses too much on the religious aspect of many issues and world events and neglect the socio-economic aspects. A lot of time and energy is spent pointing to the irrational behaviour of many religious people. Not as much at the dogmatic and irrational policies that help cultivate hatred and anger that can fuel that behaviour. And that irrationally-acting people have serious rational grievances against.
    2. Failure to focus on superstitions and myths that are widely supported by western elites and do far more harm than keeping a belief in god for comfort or not eating pork like: the invisible hand of the market, creating democracy by wars of aggression, myths surrounding differences between men and women, just to name a few.
    Oh btw I’m an atheist.

    • Exactly! I also have serious issues with how ‘criticising religion’ can be used as a really transparent smokescreen for outright racism. And the sheer essentialism of it all.

  4. Well you took that hammer and gave that nail a fair old whack on the head there. Better get the poor thing some Panadol. *rummages in drawer*

    The axiom point is a perfect way of describing it. While I consider myself fairly sane (most of the time), I don’t think ‘logical’ is the right frame of reference for religion or faith – there is no proof or quantifiable empirical evidence for the existance of God or anything else beyond this life. It’s all based on personal experience, contemplation, etc. When I was a kid, I believed in Genesis and all of the 7 days, Adam and Eve stuff. As I grew older and began learning about the world around me and discovering science and the natural world, I realised that this was impossible. I obviously thought about it logically and stopped accepting Genesis as a literal truth. I didn’t lose my faith as a result, it just matured. Questioning and scepticism play an essential role in healthy faith, and are sadly under utilised.

    “Something I hear far too often in atheist circles is the idea that as atheists we are somehow more rational, logical and intelligent than our religious counterparts.” Unfortunately, that is something I run into a lot. It’s usually offset by the shock on their faces when they realise that I am one of their ‘religious counterparts’ (seriously, I need some better bling. Bigger cross, or maybe a brightly coloured Jesus jumper?). Given the crap that *my* so called fellow religious types dole out to people, I tend to let it slid most of the time. However, sensible, rational and intelligent people like your good self do a lot to make up for it. So yeah, thanks. Now can I have some special tea?

  5. This hits the nail on the head for me, too. I’ve often said, even back in my religious days, that wherever I am in my journey (atheist now) is more of a working theory than a belief. Subject to and desirous of further input.

    As far as contradictions, for a couple of years I reconciled scripture with reality by studying it as literature instead of history. Literature with a ton of layers, added at different times, for different purposes. Near the height of this period of my life, I wrote a term paper entitled “Literary Themes and Forms in the Book of Amos”. Yeah, It was about as fascinating as it sounds, which will be different levels to different people. Does it help that the subtitle was ‘Mad Cow Disease’? 😉

    If you remember the historical period, the social context, and the literary style (which tells you what the purpose was) in which each scripture was written, and then study them as you would study any other mythology, it’s not that hard to ‘reconcile’ them with fact. Mostly because there’s no need to, any more than there’s a need to reconcile the story of Sinann with the fact of the river Shannon. I guess at that point I was one of those who believed it alongside reality.

    Ultimately, though, that one necessary axiom just slowly became less and less axiomatic, and wouldn’t stand up to questioning.

  6. This struck a chord with me as well, despite the fact that I started as an atheist as a kid and moved to Paganism during high school. I found that many of the core beliefs in Wicca are compatible with science, and all the holy days are based in the observable world (solar positions and agriculture).

    I feel like Pagans and atheists would be perfect allies if only some atheists could stop saying “all religion is ___” and erasing us (that and the fluffy bunny Pagans that just make the rest of us facepalm). I value both the observable, testable and rational as well as the spiritual, imaginary and subjective, and I think most atheists are the same. Archetypes, myths, art and history can be interesting even if you don’t believe in the gods 😛

    • That’s really interesting- I’d love to find out more about that journey/process if it’s something you’re happy to share?

      And yep, I love myths and stories. I think they tell us so much about who we are and what makes us human. Not believing that they are factually correct doesn’t mean I can’t see so much value in story and narrative. 🙂

      • Oh, I’d certainly be willing to share. Feel free to ask me anything you’d like.

        As a kid I was literate at a fairly young age and my father taught me to value science, especially astronomy and physics. When both of his parents died he told me it might be a good idea to look at other beliefs to see how others deal with death and perhaps I might be interested in one of them. He’s a freemason, so he comes from a background of science and spirituality fitting together, and I was old enough to be able to explore the other half. I researched the basics of most religions and came away with Wicca mixed in with Luciferianism because it fit my pre-existing morals and values, like free expression, individualism, and environmental responsibility. I love that Paganism encourages finding one’s own path.

        I also find that while myths aren’t ever factually true, they often are excellent ways of teaching specific messages or understanding the world around us in a deeper way. I love the story of the sun god getting stronger throughout the year before dying in October and spending the winter in the underworld. Excellent metaphor, and also gives a template of life and time as cyclical instead of linear.

  7. Thanks very much for the pingback, I appreciate it. I enjoyed your article, well written. I agree with most of it. I think it’s important that atheists stay away from dismissing our religious counterparts as intellectually inferior, for a couple of important reasons: 1) it’s generally untrue and more importantly 2) it sabotages any possibility of intelligent reasonable discussion.

    • Agreed on both! I think it’s so hypocritical when people who claim to pride themselves on skepticism nevertheless have no problem sweeping over people they disagree with with giant brushstrokes. It’s intellectually dishonest at best. If we don’t pay attention to nuance we miss all the good stuff.

  8. This sounds an awful lot like the way the Discovery Institute justifies their opposition to evolution. “Same evidence, we just start from a different set of assumptions. You start believing in a physical world and we start with the assumption that god did everything and therefore he must have a hand in directing everything that happens”. In theory then what you should end up with, if god truly is just an axiom and you don’t deny reality, then either god is impotent and does nothing or god is indistinguishable from physical processes. In practice though, I think you’ll be hard pressed too find to many religious people who would agree with either of those statements. In my mind it has nothing to do with intelligence either, but is a result of a pervasive idea in our cultures that are impressed upon many people from childhood. I’m not nearly as eloquent as you are Aoife, and I don’t think I’ve quite managed to get my thoughts down as they are in my own head, but hopefully you’re able to get the gist.

    • I get where you’re coming from here, and it’s a distinction I mightn’t have been as clear as I wanted to be about making in the article. I see a massive difference between people who believe in (a) god(s) and also accept scientific facts and evidence and whose who use their belief in god(s) as an excuse to deny science. Places like the Discovery Institute are firmly in the second camp.
      As for the business of god being either impotent or indistinguishable from physical processes…. *shrug*. I guess that religious people might argue that it is god who makes physical processes work the way they do. It’s not something that particularly bothers me either way. Not because I think people are correct, but because I’ve bigger fish to fry and as long a a person accepts physical reality I couldn’t care less if they think there’s a beardy puppeteer behind it all.

      I’m.. probably not as eloquent as usual this morning, though. Suffering from a weensy lack of caffeine at the mo.

      • Hello. I am a believer in both God and science. I do admit that some of my less informed fellow believers are convinced that science and God are incompatible. There are some very intelligent people who believe otherwise. Dr. Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, started a foundation called Biologos to attempt to reconcile God with science in the eyes of both evangelical Christians and naturalists. The website is biologos.org. Let me know what you think.

  9. Sorry, rereading my comment, that first sentence may come across as accusatory or confrontational. My apologies, it was just a similarity that sprung to mind while reading your article.

  10. A few observations, from my perspective (all rights reserved to be wrong…): 🙂
    Born Irish people seem to be a bit biased, as most everybody is brought up as a catholic, and starts questioning later. Which kinda leads to either staying catholic, or becoming an atheist. I don’t know a lot of examples of say, a catholic becoming a believer of Islam, because it seems like a better idea. Maybe if we could bring up our kids without doctrines, showing them lots of beliefs, and letting them choose at coming of age?
    I also think we should separate belief and church, where church is the system of power, with doctrines -partially- based on a belief. I personally consider most churches (based on experience (Ireland, 2012) and history books) to be harmful, possibly even evil. Maybe not the intentions, but their actions.

  11. I am finding myself in an interesting place right now, where belief in god is transitioning from an axiom to a question. I have examined my beliefs frequently throughout my life, and the tendency of atheists I have spoken with to dismiss me as irrational and illogical when I have spent hours thinking about why I belief, the basis for it, etc, gets frustrating. The fact that belief has been an axiom of my life does not believe I have examined that axiom. It just means that until recently I have never run into anything sufficiently convincing to dislodge that axiom.

    • I’m sorry that you’ve been dismissed like that by atheists so much. It’s an unpleasant undercurrent within atheism and one that, as I’m sure you can tell, I disagree with utterly. I can see where they come from- there are massive religious movements based on utter contempt for rationality, logic and evidence. And a lot of atheists either come from those backgrounds, or have had far too many run-ins with people who have those perspectives. Some people just throw up their hands and dismiss the entire damn lot of them.

      Which is understandable from a human and emotional perspective, especially if you’re in/from a culture where religious indoctination is rife. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do, either from an ethical or an intellectually honest point of view. Or, of course, for the rather important work of working with other people towards common goals. That one’s important, too 🙂

      Also, good luck in questioning and examining your beliefs! That’s always an exciting journey. And I’m glad that belief is becoming a question for you rather than an axiom- I think it’s almost always a good thing when we push beyond what we take for granted. As you inspired me to do yourself only a couple of hours ago on the other post, in fact! I hope that wherever you end up, the process is full of questions that you never would have expected.

      Oh, and if you do end up veering towards the atheist/agnostic/etc side of things- or even if you’d just like to see some perspectives- feel free to drop me a line and I’d be happy to rec you some excellent writers 🙂

  12. Pingback: Axiom « Logic, Reasoning, Argumentation

  13. Fail.
    [edited by the Tea Cosy to remove advertising. If you’re going to plug your (favourite?) book, you should really read the post you’re plugging it on first]
    Where is your God now?

    • I mention being an atheist three times during the post, I link to another post I wrote about the process of becoming one, and you ask me where my god is? Uh, non-existent I’m pretty sure. But if you’d read a thing I said you’d know that. So I’ve removed the Amazon link from your comment.

      • No. The philosophical implications of fractals demolish all the barriers associated with belief in God.

      • I have no connection with the author of the book. None whatsover.

      • “I link to another post I wrote about the process of becoming one, and you ask me where my god is”
        Humor, my dear.

        First – God is a title, thus it deviates from established syntax to render the said term as “god”. Even the said entity is non-existent the term God still should be written as “God”.

        Fractals demolish all the barriers with belief in God. They establish omnipotence (fractals are infinite), omniscience (infinity establish as all knowing), etc…

        • I’m curious as to where in my post I said that I’d like to get into a debate on the existence of gods. Pretty sure that wasn’t what this was about.

          However, numbers are infinite. You can find infinity just by starting at 1 and working your way up. Or down. Or in between 1 and 1.0000001. Infinities are everywhere. And regarding the ‘all-knowing’, I just asked a Mandelbrot set what I should have for breakfast. Fecker couldn’t even recommend a nice omelette. A thing being infinite, by the way, doesn’t mean it’s all-knowing. Although I have to admit that π was far more forthcoming on the topic of breakfast.

          However, if you’d like a serious takedown of your assertion, try here.

          Regarding capitalisation, if I’m speaking of a specific individual (“the God of the bible”), I’ll capitalise. However, when I say “any gods” I’m referring to a set, not an individual. The same way that I am both Aoife (capitalised) and a person (not capitalised).

  14. Really like this post.
    I’m kind of unusual in Ireland, I was taught to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible that is more typical of an american. I’ve also discovered it’s pretty rare for people brought up in such fundamentalist backgrounds to end up in a moderate position and I fit that stereotype, conversations about God can often reveal a lot of pent up anger in me.

    While this is not OK, I imagine that a lot of particularly vocal atheists have had similar experiences. Similar to how often religious people expect atheists to be preachy and intolerant of their faith, I expect religious people to be preachy and intolerant of similarly massive parts to my life.

    It’s quite a relief when I meet someone who is religious but isn’t in any way intolerant, however I think this comes down to their priorities e.g. physical welfare of humans vs other Principals that will lead to worldview changing questions. If in their set of priorities other principals come before people, then their answer to an important question could be a very scary thing.

    It’s by focusing on things like this I’m conditioning myself to ignore religion and develop better strategies to evaluate world views.

    Hope this has some value.

  15. Pingback: Atheism and me: a brief history. | Consider the Tea Cosy

  16. Pingback: Atheism and me: a brief history.

  17. A couple of conflicting axioms:

    In order to understand reality, you have to begin from nothing.
    
    In order to understand reality, it is not necessary start from nothing.
    

    One will lead you to enlightenment, the other, murder and death.

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