Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lawrence Khong's Flawed Understanding

There has recently been a flurry over the real meaning of "atheism" and what makes a person an atheist.  It all began from a Supper Club interview during which Lawrence Khong, a pastor in a local independent church, after making his firm anti-homosexuality stand clear said this:

An atheist is very religious. He has a belief system. He believes there is no God.

Paul Tobin, the founding president of the Humanist Society (Singapore) explained in his letter to the Straits Times that:

Atheism is not a belief system; it merely describes the absence of belief in god(s).

That sparked off a debate on what "atheism" really means.  That is so reminiscent of what I myself have experienced about what it means to be a "Christian".   One writer to the Straits Times who is presumably a theist and most probably a Christian had the cheek to go on his moral high horse and wrote "atheists themselves cannot agree on a single definition of atheism."  But we Christians can't agree on what a "Christian" means.  The schisms we see that fragment the church into a few thousand denominations (I'm being conservative in my estimate) are evidence of our inability to decide for ourselves what "Christianity" means.  To this day, after 2000 years, we are nowhere near coming to a consensus on the simple definition of what makes a person a "Christian".

I say this is reminiscent of what I have experienced because although I'm a devout Christian and I have served the church since my early childhood and will continue to serve the church all my life (which means I'm not just your average pew warmer), I have been accused by fundamentalists of being a non-Christian and many of them don't even serve the church in any capacity.  But let's turn our attention back to atheism.

Most theists who have this need to insist that atheism is a belief system will quote dictionaries that give a definition that suits their purpose.  I will explain later why we theists have this agenda to turn atheism into a belief system.   From what I've seen online most theists will slyly use the Macmillan dictionary which defines an "atheist" as:

the belief or theory that God does not exist.

Any grammarian will tell you that when you need the correct definition of an English word, you don't look up Macmillan Dictionary or any other dictionaries, some of which will of course have outrageous definitions.  You turn to the definitive Oxford English Dictionary which defines an atheist as:

A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of God or gods.

That appears like a good enough definition and it's two-pronged.  First, a person who denies the existence of God or gods is an atheist.  This is a reference of course to those who are certain 100% in their minds that God or gods don't exist.  They are the extreme atheists, if you like.

The second group consists of those who disbelieve the existence of God or gods.  "Disbelieve" is different from "deny" in that to disbelieve something is not to have a belief in something.  The same Oxford English Dictionary defines "disbelieve" as "have no belief or faith in".  Notice that the sentence is to be read disjunctively.  A person who denies the existence of God is an atheist and similarly, a person who disbelieves (ie has no belief in) the existence of God is an atheist.

Paul Tobin is of course correct in his definition.  An atheist can believe or disbelieve a variety of things but the lowest common denominator of what makes a person an atheist as Paul has correctly pointed out is an absence of belief in God.  Of course that does not stop an atheist from insisting that God absolutely cannot exist.  Such a person is as much an atheist as a person who merely has no belief in God or gods even if he will not stake his all that God absolutely doesn't exist.

I hope that much is clear.

But why the hoo-ha over such an inconsequential thing as semantics?  Why should the definition of an English word be so important to a pastor and to so many of my fellow Christians?  We Christians don't care a jot for the dictionary definition of a "Christian" but each denomination comes up with its own definitive articles of faith of what makes a "true" Christian.  If we don't care for dictionary definitions, why are we so insistent that an atheist must believe or disbelieve in what the dictionary says is the definition of an atheist?  There is a sinister reason which I will come to later.

Supposing I'm willing to concede that an atheist is one who believes wholeheartedly and is 100% clear in his mind that there is no God.  So what?  If you go by that definition, Richard Dawkins wouldn't be an atheist.  He has himself said that on a scale of 1 to 10 of non-belief in a supernatural divine being, he would be about 8.  So if we Christians want to have proprietary interest over the word "atheist", another word should be coined to denote those who have no belief in God as opposed to those who are absolutely sure that God does not exist.  Let's call them "brights", a word I believe some atheists (such as Richard Dawkins) wanted to apply to themselves at one time.  So a bright is a person who has no belief in God and an atheist is a person who insists 100% that God does not exist.  So what?  I hope my fellow believers can see what a red herring the definition of "atheist" is. If we insist on a strict definition of "atheist" that excludes even Dawkins, what have we achieved? Nothing but obscurantism and confusion which we Christians are famous for.

All this argument over semantics tells me something is not quite right with my fellow believers. If we are honest with ourselves, we have a hidden agenda that we don't want to reveal to the world. It's the same agenda that that flawed debater William Lane Craig has.  I initially wrote "dishonest debater" but I hesitate to call him that because I think he may very well believe in his own errors which would make him more a fool than a liar.  I have elsewhere written about Craig and if you are interested you may click below:

          Why the Defence of God Infuriates Me  and
          White Lies and Holy Lies

As Paul correctly says in his letter, atheism is not a belief any more than not skiing is a sport.  I've heard a worse analogy - calling atheism a religion is like calling abstention a sex position.  But quite apart from semantics, to declare an absence of belief to be a belief is absolute ludicrous and I'll explain why.

Christians don't believe in the existence of a divine Krishna.  If a non-belief in Krishna is a belief, a Christian would have two beliefs: his Christian belief and the belief that there is no Krishna.  If you think of all the religions that we have today and in the past, each deity of which the Christian has no belief in, that would make him a believer in a few thousand beliefs.  On top of that he has no belief (or so I hope) in fairies, pixies, leprechauns, the pink unicorn, the purple unicorn, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Celestial Teacup, Santa Claus, the flying reindeer, etc.  If each non-belief is a belief, that would make any one of us a believer in an infinite number of beliefs.

For there to be a meaningful dialogue or debate, we must not clutter the issues with nonsense.  To claim that non-belief is a belief is one such nonsense designed to confuse everyone.

Most atheists I have met and spoken to including Richard Dawkins (whom I've met at a writers' conference in Wales) do not say that they have a belief that God does not exist just as they don't say that they have a belief that fairies don't exist.  Most atheists will agree with this formula about God's existence: the likelihood for God to exist is no greater than the likelihood for fairies and pixies to exist.  That is all.

Why then do some people, principally my fellow believers try so hard to turn atheism into a belief system? I did not know the answer to this question until I saw on youtube a debate in which William Lane Craig participated and everything became clear to me.

Any theist who has engaged in a debate with atheists will know that we theists are stumped from the very commencement of the debate.  We believe in God but we are unable to adduce the smallest shred of evidence for God's existence.  The Loch Ness monster or the abominable snowman has more claim to existence than Almighty God if we look purely at the evidence.  This glaring absence of evidence is something a theist cannot just ignore unless he wants to be laughed and jeered out of the debate forum.

What Craig has striven to do in many of the debates I have seen is to shift the burden of proof onto the atheist.  In other words, fine, I can't adduce any evidence for God's existence but can you adduce evidence to show that God does not exist?  If you can't, my inability to show evidence for God's existence should not be held against me because similarly, you can't show evidence that God does not exist.

But philosophers and thinkers have long known that this is a stupid argument.  You can't prove a negative.  Bertrand Russell came up with his Celestial teapot to establish the philosophic burden of proof.  If someone tells you that there is a teapot that orbits the sun, surely the burden of proof must be on him to show that that is a fact.  To expect someone to show proof that there is no teapot orbiting the sun is unfair, ridiculous and downright wrong.

Basic intelligence tells us this must be so.  If I say I speak to an invisible rabbit, it's for me to show the invisible rabbit exists.  To expect my opponents to prove that my invisible rabbit does not exist is just dumb.

Because we are faced with an impossible obstacle even at the start of any debate with an atheist in that we can't show any evidence for God, we do what I have always decried as dishonest and unjust but which many theists have no qualms resorting to - deception.  We begin by forcing atheists to admit that they BELIEVE God does not exist.  So, atheism is a belief system and a religion.  So if they believe in the non-existence of God, they should prove it.

But we theists must know that what the atheist asks of us is precisely what we ourselves would exact from a madman who tells us that fairies exist.  We will surely reply that fairies don't exist in reality. We will then ask the madman to show evidence for the fairy's existence.  If the madman asks us in response to show evidence that fairies don't exist, we will dismiss his request as unfair and crackpot.  It's the same here between the atheist and us.  Are we theists so obtuse that we can't even see this?

Naturally, people of other religions won't bring this up because they too haven't any evidence for their gods.  Atheists are the only ones who will point this out to us.

The next time you hear someone insisting that atheism is a religion or a belief system, you must remember the theist's deceptive agenda.  There is a reason why we want atheism to be looked upon as a religion.  It's to hide the obvious shortcomings of theism - the very central subject of theism God himself is not backed by the flimsiest evidence.

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