Atheism explained

My local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, published my letter to the editor explaining – and hopeful demystifying – the word “atheism.” It stayed at the top of the paper’s most popular items list for about five days. Clearly there was interest.

The word still creates significant confusion, fear, and backlash among believers of certain religious claims, particularly here in the Bible Belt. There also remains, despite the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, a stigma associated with the word. This stigma was evident to me in a couple of letters written in response to a local secular activist. I reference those letters below. Given that stigma and confusion, I decided to have a go at clearing things up and hopefully removing some of the baggage that travels with the notion of not believing someone’s claims about their god or gods being real.

First some context for the upcoming analogy. If you have a statistics background, then you are familiar with the concept of the null hypothesis. Here’s a quick refresher for those who might’ve avoided statistics like the plague. No to worry, I’ll try to make it painless. When comparing two data sets, the null hypothesis represents the idea that there is no real, on in “statistics speak,” significant, difference between the two. The alternate hypothesis represents the idea that there is a statistically significant difference between them. Simple enough right?

Atheism is just a word that applies a label to the null hypothesis with regard to all claims about gods. It is basically the real world as it is, with no supernatural beings, oversight, or intervention. It is the status quo otherwise known as reality. The alternate hypothesis then would be that a god or some gods do exist  In statistics, until there is evidence that suggests any of those alternate hypotheses are true, we do not reject the null hypothesis. The way things are, remains the way things are.

The fact we have a special label for not believing in a specific type of thing, in itself is odd. There are literally countless creations of human imaginations that no one reasonably believes are real, yet there are no words to label those skeptics. You might even be an a-leprechaunist, a-goblinist, a-vampirist, and a-Bigfootist yourself!

When I took to the op-eds with this letter, I was hoping that my explanation might create some doxastic openness among the paper’s predominantly religious readership base. In other words, I was hoping some of them might, after thinking about the analogy, stop and think about why they believe what they do. I remain particularly hopeful I piqued the curiosity of local faith leaders. I’d love to have honest, respectful conversations about what they believe to be true and why. I will keep you all posted on that front. Until then, my letter is below.


Based on the two letters, “Why do atheists always bring God into the equation?” (Dec. 5) and “Atheism does not offer the answers to violence” (Dec. 5) , written in response to Ed Buckner’s letter “Price’s column shows disregard for logic,” apparently there is some serious (and perhaps self-serving) misunderstanding as to what “atheism” means. Here is an analogy that should help clear things up.

Think of a swimming pool. Not just any swimming pool, but an Olympic-sized swimming pool with clearly defined swim lanes. In each lane is a swimmer representing a religion. In lane one, we have Christianity which claims there’s one God named Yahweh, and that God has a son named Jesus who is also the Messiah. In lane two, we have Judaism which claims the same God as Christianity, only there’s no Messiah … he hasn’t shown up yet. In lane three we have Islam, which claims the same God as Christianity and Judaism but instead calls him Allah and says the only way to salvation is by practicing faith according to Muhammad. In lane four there is Hinduism, which has its own set of very different gods, including but not limited to Ganesh, Brahma, and Vishnu. In lane five we have Sikhism which claims the god Waheguru is the one true god. In lanes six, seven, and eight we have Wiccan, Mormonism, and Scientology, each with their own god beliefs and revelations.

What I’m about to explain next is very important. Notice there’s not a swim lane for atheism. Atheism just means not believing anyone in any of those swim lanes, no matter how loudly they may splash and claim that they alone have it right. In fact, imagine another large, Olympic-sized swimming pool sitting adjacent to the big pool full of different god beliefs. This pool doesn’t have any lanes in it at all. It’s just calm, open water. Comparing the two, it is the pool without swim lanes, which, represents atheism. It’s not scary. It’s not evil. It’s just a word that describes the status of everyone, before they were told in what lane in the divided pool they were expected to swim. Hope that helps.
R.L. Bays

author of “There Are No Such Things as Ghosts: A Brief Guide to Critical Thinking

It’s almost 2018, what’s your style?

I’ve been debating with people who hold irrational beliefs for my entire adult life.  Long before Facebook created easily accessible young earth creationist groups, Christian apologist groups, agnostic atheist groups, or you-name-it whateverist groups to join. Long before YouTube gave us brilliant examples of intellectuals and polemicists – people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris – to study and emulate. Long before Twitter. Long before Reddit. Long before I had any idea that there were even others out there like me who were arguing against irrational ideas, as near as I could tell, there was just me in an office or at a restaurant table or in a living room, arguing.

Growing up where I did here in north Georgia, I more often than not found myself the sole representative of a particular position (imagine that), surrounded by a growing chorus of opponents in various states of distress and emotion. I loved it then and I love it today. Arguing from a position of fact tends to bolster one’s confidence even when it’s one against many. And as much as my exasperated opponents I’m sure felt as if I was simply arguing for argument’s sake, I was and am, always searching for and defending the truth. I only mention all of this to give myself an excuse, albeit a weak one. That is, old habits die hard. After that many years and that many confrontations, my style is my style.

Before I get too hard on myself for the confrontational style of debate that I’ve developed over the years, I should mention that no one really knows how well a particular technique works if one’s goal is to decouple the individual from the irrational or absurd beliefs they hold. And curing people of bad ideas is of course my goal.  I loosely characterize my style as 85% countering with facts, 10% making jokes to inject levity, and 5% ruthlessly ridiculing my opponent whenever his or her jerk quotient hits that magic number (everyone has their own magic number).

Alas, there’s another technique that I’ve grown to love that I’m working hard to incorporate into my style.

I’ve written about it on the Street Epistemology blog and that post is also available on my blog to read so I won’t repeat the rationale I describe in those posts here. Suffice it say, I’ve seen it work for me as well as others. I’ll put a link to more information about Street Epistemology at the bottom of this post and I highly recommend watching my friend Anthony Magnabosco’s videos where he literally records conversations between himself and others while using these Socratic techniques. In a nutshell, Street Epistemology is the idea of using the Socratic Method to get to the reasonswhy a person believes what they do. In other words, rather than attack the beliefs of the individual and rather than counter his fictional claims with your facts, your goal is to encourage your interlocutor to examine the methods he is relying upon to arrive at what he believes to be true, and ultimately for him to question the reliability of his own methods. This technique is less confrontational (or at least should be) and it’s less likely to result in the backfire effect because it’s not a frontal assault on a cherished belief.

All that said, being people who value data, while we have some wonderful anecdotal evidence, we still don’t know how well a given style works at dislodging poorly reasoned  ideas. As I admitted, I still fall back on the style I honed over the years.

However, I like to look at it through the lens of history. For centuries dogmatic beliefs were protected from the light of truth, literally by the threat (and act) of death and torture. The fact that dogmatic beliefs needed such extreme protections should give everyone something to contemplate if they are intellectually honest, but that’s a post for another day.

Now, as we prepare to enter the year 2018, we need to recognize the opportunities we have. We live in an amazing time where we can openly criticize any beliefs or ideas; so remain silent? Who are we not to criticize those beliefs which inspire bad behaviors? Who are we not to relentlessly defend reason and evidence and enlightenment values? And while you may not change the person’s mind with whom you’re engaged, there are others who are listening to what you’re saying. You may never hear from them, but they will be watching, reading, and quietly evaluating your positions. Your confident defense of the truth may inspire them to speak out the next time they are a witness to injustice.

So keep at it. Get your own style, stick to the truth, and have a wonderful 2018.

We have work to do.


For more information on Street Epistemology, the resources page on the Street Epistemology website has an impressive list: