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Friday, July 20, 2001


Someone again referred to Atheism as a "group", in the negative and arbitrary sense, in an email to me the other day. She viewed herself as not being a part of any group, and certainly not an Atheist, which to me seems a conceptual fallacy over the meaning of "group". (This reminds me of people who claim they have no philosophy. They do, and it's called pragmatism, and part of being a pragmatist is denying you have a philosophy.) So, I decided to construct an analogy to illustrate the reversal going on here, and it went something like this:

Imagine if most of the world believed there were a great wall which would prevent anyone from ever traveling further than some certain point. But then here and there some child who was not properly trained about the wall would just wander across, not seeing any reason why she couldn't, and on the other side she'd find beauty and space and land and raw materials to build things with and all sorts of other good things. And these children would grow up freely traveling back and forth, past where the supposed wall is, while the people who still believed in the wall looked at them strangely, and called them the awallists -- those who do not believe in the wall -- and considered them a clique, a cult, a religion, a "group" because they all shared this common "belief" that there is no wall. But in truth, the awallists all found their way quite on their own, simply because they were *not* indoctrinated with the belief of the wall, and so what defines them is not what they have in common, but what they *don't* have in common; whereas it is the wallists, even though they are the vast majority, who are a true group in the sense of being held together by an indoctrination, a preconception invented by man and apart from reality.

Of course I realize that there are definitions of "group" which fit atheists just fine -- e.g., "the group of those who do not believe in god" is a perfectly meaningful designation. But if that is, than so, certainly, is "the group of those who do" and "the group of those who don't know whether they do or not".

The emotional impetus for people to call atheists a group while thinking they themselves can be excluded from any group, I think stems from sheer numbers: because most people are not atheists, then not being an atheist is the "default" thing and thus not a form of participation in anything. Unfortunately, this idea (which already is obviously shaky) is improperly transposed onto the other definition of group, with the implication that atheism, being a group, comes with a set of arbitrary beliefs which you must adopt in order to be a member. But, of course, this is the fallacy, since atheism does not require any specific beliefs, rather it merely precludes some, and hence, in this sense of "group", to become an atheist is to leave a group, to step outside the very large but still finite group of people who believe in god.

The agnostics, of course, will contest all of this, but for all intents and purposes, agnostics are believers here. Consider the wall: the agnostic would say they don't know whether the wall exists or not. But if you asked them to join you to the other side, they would decline, because only Atheists do that, and they are not Atheists. And of course, if they do one day join you to the other side and still call themselves agnostics, well then I guess they're just dishonest with themselves and there's not much to be done about that. (The other side of the wall, in the theological analogy, would equate to understanding the aspects of science, psychology, and philosophy which are in conflict with the notion of god -- many of which do indeed lead to many useful and productive possibilities outside the reach of those who refuse to go there.)

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com