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Atheists, Manchester United, and dividing lines

October 21, 2011

What is an atheist?

There are of course many definitions.  The ones I commonly use are a) someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, and b) someone who believes there is no God or gods.

I am an atheist under a), which is known as weak atheism or agnostic atheism.  To some extent I am also an atheist under b), strong atheism, in that I think it is hugely unlikely that any God or gods exist.  I hold the opinion that there is no God/gods/whatever, but I don’t claim to prove it.

Definition a) is obviously much broader than b), and includes everyone who would call themselves an agnostic, as well as various other categories such as those too young to have an opinion.

I call myself an atheist because I don’t believe in gods, and because I think the whole idea of gods is silly and somewhat embarassing.

Manchester United

I don’t support Man U, or any other football team.  My whole relationship with football can be summed up as trying to avoid anywhere where a game is on, or where it is being shown in a pub.  I don’t care which team wins.

However, as you imply, I don’t describe myself as a non-ManU-supporter.

Neither do you.  But the parallel to atheism breaks down almost immediately.  Football is notoriously violent – but the deaths attributable to religion are many times higher.

Some of the worst football fights (Rangers vs Celtic) are in fact attributable to religion as well.

Imagine a world in which:

  • countries invaded each other over football
  • Roman Abranovich and Malcolm Glazer had guaranteed seats in the House of Lords
  • people cut bits off their children in the names of various clubs
  • people flew planes into buildings to get their team promoted
  • taxpayer’s funds were used to set up separate schools for the children of supporters of separate teams, in which the curriculum included denying some parts of science, and insisting that girls could only prepare the half-time sandwiches and never play sport themselves

I think in such a world you’d care about football a lot more than you do now.

The implied question in your parallel is about why I bother to call myself an atheist – why not just ignore religion like I ignore football?

I bother to call myself an atheist to make it clear that none of these things are done in my name.  I call myself an atheist because these things are wrong and we should stand against them.

Not having a religion

One of the things religious people commonly seem to have difficulty understanding about atheism is that we genuinely don’t worship anything.

For most atheists, nature isn’t a higher power, it’s just there.  We’re part of the natural world, not higher or lower than it.  I think the natural world is very cool and interesting, and parts of it are beautiful.  Other parts of it are ugly and involve pain and terror.  It’s a subject for study and interest, not an object of worship and veneration.

Of course lots of people are interested in ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, but personally I’m quite happy to accept that I have an imperfect brain, and we have imperfect knowledge of the world, and there are some things I’ll probably never know.

That sort of certainty was left behind with my religious beliefs.  I found the lack of structure scary at the time I lost my faith, but of course it was a false structure.

We all have to go around dealing with the unknowable every day.  There is no certainty, whether for a believer or for an atheist.  The difference is that the believer holds to an imagined certainty rather than face life without it.


I view my former Christian beliefs as analogous to scaffolding for a building.  There were times in my life when I needed support, and times when my former faith provided it.  The scaffolding of faith shaped the direction of my growth to some extent.

However, once a building can stand on its own, the scaffolding isn’t useful any more.  In fact, it gets in the way.  It restricts and blocks and cramps the space.

Nowadays I stand on my own and don’t need the support of faith.

Cats and string

You posit two rival explanations for the existence of religious belief – 1) that there is actually something ‘out there’, and our species’ religious leanings reflect this reality, and 2) that it is an effect or outcropping of evolution.

I don’t see why 1) would be convincing.

By analogy, cats are fascinated by string, and chase it whenever given the chance.  There are two rival explanations for this – 1) that string is actually edible, we just don’t know it yet, and 2) that they chase it because they have evolved to chase things which wriggle.

In both cases, I choose option 2.  The behaviours of a species don’t imply that those behaviours are the key to knowledge of a greater reality, whether edible string or the existence of God.

Evolution of religion

Your question about whether or not there has been time for an inclination towards religion to evolve in human history assumes that all such evolution must have occurred after we ‘became human’.

In fact, traits could have evolved a long time before that, and this particular phenotypic behaviour only become evident more recently.

And finally, religious belief persists for exactly this reason, because it’s the way our brains work.  We naturally infer emotions and wishes in objects which clearly don’t have them (the car keys are hiding, my computer doesn’t like me), and we naturally defer to authority.


And finally, a question for you:  How would you feel about religion, if you were a woman?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2011 5:02 am

    My goodness, why do you have such a desire to find the correct label for yourself? There is no need to go around calling yourself things like a “weak atheist” or trying to fit into some particular group. I hate to be cliche but just be yourself.

  2. October 22, 2011 8:39 am

    1. I have an analytical mind, so it’s fun
    2. It provides an accurate answer to Dad’s question
    3. How on earth does describing myself stop me being myself?
    4. Taxonomy helps clear communication.

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