What's an Atheist? Catch-All

Knowing what we do about the universe, the non-existence of extra-terrestrial life is a mathematical impossibility. It is also rather improbable that such life exists in an advanced enough state, and close enough to us, and is sufficiently intelligent and technologically capable of visiting Earth at the same time we exist in the state where we could recognize them as such. Even so, there is nothing apparently supernatural about alien beings. Skepticism about encounters with them is justifiable, but does not fall within the purview of atheism.

The existence of a large, ape-like creature with oversized feet close enough to populated areas to be observed clumsily traipsing through North American forests while leaving little to no proof of its existence otherwise is highly unlikely. Considering the prevalence of hunting alone, one would have been accidentally shot by now. Regardless, an ape-like creature is not even remotely supernatural and, like aliens visiting earth, should be approached with skepticism. Disbelief in such does not qualify as atheism.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I would say that at our current state of technology, interstellar space travel counts as magic.

LarryC wrote:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I would say that at our current state of technology, interstellar space travel counts as magic.

I don't know what you're trying to say with that, but okay.

Well, here's the thing. Apparently, just believing in a world where supernatural stuff exists (magic) is enough to be classed as a theist. Given that interstellar space travel is essentially magic right now, if you believe that aliens have already visited earth, would that class you as a theist, too? Trying to find the minimum possible criteria for someone to be lumped in with the, er, theists.

You're accepting that Arthur C. Clarke quote as some kind of absolute truth to reach the conclusion that interstellar travel is magic. That's not the case. Not understanding how something can work does not make it magical. Interstellar travel is also probably the worst example to convince a layperson, as well. Travel is not a magical concept, even if it is fast enough to travel between stars.

That Arthur C. Clarke quote relies on a culture that is unable to scientifically reason explanations. In the case of interstellar travel, it also assumes these aliens would have to present such technology as magic. There is no reason to assume they would.

LarryC wrote:

Well, here's the thing. Apparently, just believing in a world where supernatural stuff exists (magic) is enough to be classed as a theist. Given that interstellar space travel is essentially magic right now, if you believe that aliens have already visited earth, would that class you as a theist, too? Trying to find the minimum possible criteria for someone to be lumped in with the, er, theists.

Believing in magic does not classify you as a theist. Believing in a god classifies you as a theist. If you believe you have a soul but there are no gods, then you are not a theist. If you believe in the transfer of magical crystal energy to heal your leg but there are no gods, then you are not a theist. If you believe in aliens but there are no gods, then you are not a theist. If you believe in any of those things and there are gods, then you are a theist.

It's actually quite simple, if you believe there is/are god/gods then you are a theist. If not, then you are not a theist.

LarryC wrote:

Well, here's the thing. Apparently, just believing in a world where supernatural stuff exists (magic) is enough to be classed as a theist. Given that interstellar space travel is essentially magic right now, if you believe that aliens have already visited earth, would that class you as a theist, too? Trying to find the minimum possible criteria for someone to be lumped in with the, er, theists.

Interstellar space travel isn't magical, though. It doesn't defy our understanding of the basic physical laws of the universe. It does, however, exceed our practical knowledge.

On the other hand, Storm Fox, the minor deity who accepts gifts of tasty bunnies as an offering to possibly be considered for a more farming-friendly monsoon this year, does defy our understanding of the basic physical laws of the universe and is, by its very nature, unable to be proven or disproven. Because if the monsoon this year still ruins your crops, well, Storm Fox is a fickle minor deity, is he not? This is known.

LarryC, you are hung up a little too strongly on this supernatural qualifier for atheism. I'm not sure why it's such a point of concern for you; this is getting into the kind of technicalities that I find just as silly when churches split over an argument over whether the Tribulation is pre-millenial or post-millenial (yes, seriously, I've seen this happen) because apparently it's such a key matter that determines whether you're a real Christian or not.

Basically, if someone self-identifies as an atheist and claims no belief in gods (major or minor; again, polytheism and monotheism are forms of theism, not atheism; feel free to read up on them :)), then hey, sure, they're an atheist.

But more importantly, I think atheists in general are not too concerned over whether someone is a Real Atheist or not. It's not a religion; we don't have any requirements to "join".

KrazyTacO[FO]:

So it's the anthropomorphism of unexplained phenomenon that gets you lumped in with the theists, then?

NSMike:

Well, right now, it might as well be. I'm just using the quote to say it better, I'm not assuming its veracity apriori, just because someone famous said it. We don't know that it's possible to reach any star from any other star. We presume, but we don't know. It may be impossible.

Farscry:

Actually it does actually go beyond what we know of the physical universe. Theoretical physicists think that it's possible, but there's a very good reason why they have a "theoretical" in front of their names and it's not just because they use theories, which most scientists do. In many ways, what they think about space travel is speculative.

NSMike and Farscry:

I'm trying to reconcile the idea that a person could be considered an atheist or a theist (by American atheists) purely on the basis of his culture or worldview, even though he doesn't worship anything or anyone either, nor believe in supreme beings.

LarryC wrote:

KrazyTacO[FO]:

So it's the anthropomorphism of unexplained phenomenon that gets you lumped in with the theists, then?

Not really, if there is a magical rock that cures cancer if you touch it and you consider it to be a god, then you are a theist. If there is a magical rock that cures cancer if you touch it and you consider it to not be a god, then you are not a theist. Requiring the giving of human characteristics to an unknown does not make it a god (although, I would say that 99.99% of gods people believe in are just self reflective belief constructs). If you believe in a god/gods (no matter what that thing is), you are a theist. If you do not believe in a god/gods, you are an atheist.

Theist- If you believe there is a god (no matter what it is)
Atheist- Not believe there is a god

I can't help you then, Larry. I don't believe in a god or gods. I therefore consider myself atheist. I don't believe in wind/water/nature spirits or Gaia or anything like that. I never have believed in such things. If I were to believe that such things (i.e. not gods) exist, there is no real exacting definition for a god or otherwise that could be considered an accepted standard, and thus someone could consider me a theist, but I don't know whether that is the case. I would say it is a belief in something supernatural and wholly not evident, and therefore irrational. It would depend on the degree to which someone would subscribe to the belief. If it is as simple as someone saying, "Oh the wind spirit is feisty today!" on a windy day, it would probably not qualify as theism (and depending on what the person actually thinks, could even just be a creative way of saying "It's windy today," and nothing more). If there were a shrine to a wind spirit somewhere that someone visited, and prayed to this wind spirit, it would be much closer to theism on the spectrum.

LarryC wrote:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I would say that at our current state of technology, interstellar space travel counts as magic.

But given the current state of our knowledge and theory about physics and such we know that it's possible. Therefore we wouldn't view it as magic. Instead we'd view it as simply a product of a more technically advanced civilization (and something we'll discover in time).

Now, if the aliens visited Earth say 1,000 years ago when we had no idea there was a thing called science let alone a branch of it called physics we'd likely view the alien's technology as magic.

LarryC wrote:

Actually it does actually go beyond what we know of the physical universe. Theoretical physicists think that it's possible, but there's a very good reason why they have a "theoretical" in front of their names and it's not just because they use theories, which most scientists do. In many ways, what they think about space travel is speculative.

Considering NASA's been testing ion engines for years now and the Japanese have tested solar sails I think you might want to back off the idea that space travel is speculative. It's in it's infancy to be sure, but it's not like we have no clue of how to proceed. The biggest hurdle is the money to build and experiment with these unproven technologies to figure out which one will work best.

OG_Slinger:

There's also the not-so-small matter of finding out if humans can survive trips of that length in deep space and whatever else may exist in deep space we don't know about. The engine to propel is there. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's possible. We speculate that it is, but it's just speculation until someone actually makes the trip and reports back.

Why the strong desire to obfuscate this issue? I can't see what purpose it serves unless you're trying to build a repertoire of "Aha! but you believe in ___ and thus you are actually a theist!!!" (where ____ != an explicit deity) to 'gotcha' people.

Just trying to get a feel for what people mean. I thought I knew what an atheist was, but it turns out it's not the same thing some atheists here mean when they say the term. It's not obfuscation, but clarification. Here NSMike is saying that you're a theist if you "pray to a wind spirit," but then I have to wonder what he means by "praying." To me, praying is an act of worship, so I don't pray to things I don't worship (which includes saints and other Catholic personages). By my view, a person who's using various means to commune with a wind spirit is just talking - in very specific ways designed to get his point across; but it's not actually worship, so it's not actually praying.

And again, this has real application to people and practices I see on a daily basis.

My apologies. I was simplifying for the sake of brevity.

I did not speak in absolutes, Larry. I said it's closer to theism on the spectrum. It would require more examination and some perspective from the person participating.

Perhaps it shouldn't matter, though. I didn't want to say that it's theism, but I don't want to invent some fictional spectrum, either.

I don't know.

tag

LarryC wrote:

OG_Slinger:

There's also the not-so-small matter of finding out if humans can survive trips of that length in deep space and whatever else may exist in deep space we don't know about. The engine to propel is there. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's possible. We speculate that it is, but it's just speculation until someone actually makes the trip and reports back.

Uh... what?

Matter travels across interstellar space. If you've read something that calls that simple statement into question, then please do tell.

I think when Larry is talking about interstellar travel, he means a system which will carry human beings from one star to another with the technology that can get us there alive, not necessarily just see that matter travels through that space.

LarryC wrote:

There's also the not-so-small matter of finding out if humans can survive trips of that length in deep space and whatever else may exist in deep space we don't know about. The engine to propel is there. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's possible. We speculate that it is, but it's just speculation until someone actually makes the trip and reports back.

There have been astronauts that have lived in space for years courtesy of our experience with Skylab, Mir, and the International Space Station. Hell, some have even clocked well over a year in space at a stretch without dying or suffering horrible side effects. In other words, we know we can live out there.

The rest is simply an engineering problem. We need to have environmental systems that are as close to 100% efficient as possible. We're working on that already setting up mini-habitats that turn waste products into food and scrubs CO2 from the atmosphere with plants or bacteria.

We need to know the psychological effects of living with the same group of people in a small space. There are several studies doing this as we speak in preparation for a trip to Mars.

We already have a very good idea of what's in interstellar space and within a few years we'll be able to confirm that when Voyager 1 and 2 finally break through our Solar System's heliosheath. And cruising through interstellar space would likely be less dangerous than cruising through our Solar System because the spacecraft would have to already be shielded against comic rays, dust, etc. and there's simply less of those things in deep space.

It's not to say that it wouldn't be difficult, but it certainly isn't "theoretical" as you've portrayed it.

Thanks OG, that's a much better way of communicating what I've been trying to say.

LarryC: Atheism and agnosticism involve BELIEF in supernatural deities and/or creatures. WORSHIP, which is different from BELIEF, is not needed for this discussion.

Edit: For instance, an atheist is free to worship any or all deities they choose. There is the obvious question as to why one would worship gods that they do not believe in, but that does not change the fact that they are an atheist for not believing any gods exist.

As far as magic and technology go, I'd say that Eisensteinian Mechanics in a Newtonian world would be indistinguishable from magic. So, when the inevitable post-relativistic model comes along, it will appear as magic to those of us who think in the current paradigm.

Larry, you can limit your question space by rejecting any consideration of a definition of theism that does not involve or contain the concept of a "god". Theism is not just a belief in a supernatural being, it's belief in a supernatural being with a power over the world that the believer lives in. Any concept that does *not* involve a "god" is by definition something other than theism, and so would not be negated by atheism. Atheism has nothing to tell us about bigfoot, aliens, UFOs, witchcraft, ancestor worship or the idea that everything has a spirit or soul. None of those things *requires* the concept of a god in order to be considered.

Robear wrote:

Likewise, our view of "good and evil" would be very different if we were herd animals, or dedicated predators. Think about it. What would our morality look like if we descended from lions (or better yet, solitary hunters like Cheetahs)? For darn sure, it would not be "share and share alike".
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Cheezepavilion wrote:

Would it be more like, say, the person with the biggest weapons that protects the group doesn't have to do any other work and takes what he wants from those who do the work of gathering resources and if he takes over a new territory he kills the offspring of the former ruler?

See, that's the thing: we *did* have a morality that looks like we descended from lions: it was called "monarchy." They even tended to use lions as their emblems!

I realize you're just responding to ideas of natural law such as "The Golden Rule" or "Categorical Imperative" but remember that's not the whole of natural law: it's hard to find an evolutionary root for an idea like "all men are created equal" considering we evolved from animals with such hierarchical social structures.

No, I think you're misreading the argument here. Each society that we know of has had the concept of the Golden Rule, which says "Treat others as you expect to be treated". In some societies, this was only applied to an in-group, but it still existed. Monarchy is not a system of morality; it's a system of governing which can *coexist* with a moral code that could be completely contradictory. Defining a social ideal does not necessarily change the society, but it *does* reveal something about the thinking of the people in that society. Monarchy *did* coexist for thousands of years with the Golden Rule. So has dictatorship, Republicanism, and every other type of government, as well as judicial torture, religious oppression and other evils. And yet human society is based irrevocably on *cooperation*, despite aberrations that occur.

Michael Shermer goes into detail on these ideas in some of his books on the evolution of morality in humans.

And if you did, then what about the opposite idea, that not all men are created equal and an aristocracy is moral? The stronger the argument for one human idea on morality being tied to our evolutionary history, chances are the stronger the argument that the opposite idea is not--bit of a Catch-22.

The Golden Rule does not mean that all men are equal. It speaks instead to the wisdom of not taking actions that will inspire someone to screw you back. This can be applied to social unequals just as well as equals. Evolution does not seem to have created a reproductive advantage to the idea that all men are equal; one could argue that a hierarchical society is advantaged. But even in that, the idea that creating unnecessary social friction is dangerous is one that permeates all human societies. Even hereditary monarchs can be killed by assassins in the street.

Take a look at Shermer's book "The Science of Good and Evil" if you are interested in the relationship of evolution to morality.

Robear, I realize you were responding to a post that offered the Golden Rule as an example of Natural Law when I jumped in, but not all examples of Natural Law are the Golden Rule. You're getting hung up arguing against one example when I am not talking about that example.

But you responded to my argument attempting to show that it was contradicted by monarchy. I am confused... Should I not have followed that up?

Robear wrote:

But you responded to my argument attempting to show that it was contradicted by monarchy. I am confused... Should I not have followed that up? :-)

Sorry--I was not trying to show that the Golden Rule was contradicted by monarchy. I was attempting to show that your argument is contradicted by monarchy.

You asked: "What would our morality look like if we descended from lions (or better yet, solitary hunters like Cheetahs)?"

Wouldn't it look a lot like a morality that considers monarchy to be a good thing?

Robear wrote:

Larry, you can limit your question space by rejecting any consideration of a definition of theism that does not involve or contain the concept of a "god". Theism is not just a belief in a supernatural being, it's belief in a supernatural being with a power over the world that the believer lives in. Any concept that does *not* involve a "god" is by definition something other than theism, and so would not be negated by atheism. Atheism has nothing to tell us about bigfoot, aliens, UFOs, witchcraft, ancestor worship or the idea that everything has a spirit or soul. None of those things *requires* the concept of a god in order to be considered.

See, that's what I was thinking, but then other people are telling me it's not that way, at least not the way Americans see it.

A Wind Spirit that behaves more or less exactly the way we see wind behaves isn't "exercising power over the world" so much as it's just being wind. It does exercise power over the world, of course, since wind does tend to do that. But so does a human, and a human in a supernatural world is also a spirit, and powerful human spirits (in other words, humans) are obviously more powerful than minor wind spirits. I think the dichotomy exists in calling the Wind Spirit "supernatural" as if the person involved himself differentiated natural from supernatural, as the Observer does. In such an animistic worldview, there is no natural and there is no supernatural. Everything simply moves according to the Universal Spirit Theory of How Everything Works.

Comparatively, someone who believes in Alien Abductions is closer to believing in a god, since he's literally believing in the existence of a supernatural being with supreme magical powers from another world who levels structures and abducts people according to a mysterious agenda. And it's an exceptional idea, not part of the "natural" world.

Anyway, thanks for the clarification. I had thought that Buddhists, animists, and Confucianists of certain persuasions would be atheistic. Glad to know I wasn't totally off my rocker.

LarryC wrote:

A Wind Spirit that behaves more or less exactly the way we see wind behaves isn't "exercising power over the world" so much as it's just being wind. It does exercise power over the world, of course, since wind does tend to do that. But so does a human, and a human in a supernatural world is also a spirit, and powerful human spirits (in other words, humans) are obviously more powerful than minor wind spirits. I think the dichotomy exists in calling the Wind Spirit "supernatural" as if the person involved himself differentiated natural from supernatural, as the Observer does. In such an animistic worldview, there is no natural and there is no supernatural. Everything simply moves according to the Universal Spirit Theory of How Everything Works.

The distinction I was trying to make earlier is that, if you believe the wind spirit will behave outside of the observed laws of nature (i.e. things like Newton's laws of motion or the laws governing thermodynamics) by virtue of a spirit controlling the wind, then that's not so much a spiritualism thing so much as you're attributing that wind spirit with the status of a minor deity (Japanese Kami spirits being a perfect example of this). Hence, polytheism, not atheism.

If, however, you are anthropomorphizing the wind by considering it a spirit, not so much as attributing a spirit as being in control of the wind, then yes, that could jive with atheism. It's a subtle, but important, distinction.