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.