What do you understand by atheism?
That’s not as easy a question as you might think. Atheism, on the face of it, seems straightforward: it’s not theism. It’s a belief that there is no God or gods. But it’s slightly more complicated than that because, for most self-identifying atheists, it’s not just that they don’t believe in a God or gods, but that they don’t believe in any kind of supernatural realm. So I think an atheist is, 95% of the time, a naturalist. Atheists believe that whatever may be in the universe, the only kind of stuff is the stuff of physics, and the only fundamental forces are those of physics.
So atheism isn’t defined against religion so much as for a particular kind of physics-based explanation of the universe?
That’s right. It’s a big myth about atheism that it’s parasitic on what it denies. People say ‘Look, it’s even in the name itself: ‘a-theism’’. But that’s just historical accident. It just so happens that western civilisation has, for many centuries, been predominantly religious, and so the alternative worldview ended up being defined in contrast to that. I always say, if people say that atheism is parasitic on religion, ‘What would happen if no one believed in God any more? Would that mean there were no atheists?’ Of course not. It would mean that everyone would be an atheist and perhaps, in that situation, there wouldn’t be a special name for it, because there would be no need.
You might still want to distinguish it from agnosticism. Some agnostics make the bold claim that atheists, if they’re rational at all, must be agnostics really, because there isn’t sufficient proof to warrant being an atheist.
That’s extremely misleading because that argument works on the assumption that to be an atheist implies an absolute certainty, that there is no possible doubt you could be wrong. People rightly say that’s unjustified because you can’t know for sure there’s no God with our limited experience, and so on. That’s rather asymmetric for a start. There are plenty of people who have a belief in theism who would deny that they’re absolute about it, and they maintain some doubt. Bertrand Russell said something along the lines that, in a technical sense, he was an agnostic, because he couldn’t know for sure that God didn’t exist — but that to label him agnostic would be profoundly misleading because the hypothesis of God is one he doesn’t take to be a real possibility, and plays no influence in his life.
“Atheism is not something that defines your every moment of existence. I don’t wake up in the morning reminding myself that I don’t believe in God.”
I think an agnostic is someone who is really just unsure, someone who can’t make up his or her mind whether they believe God exists or not. An atheist is someone who has a pretty settled view that there is no God, but within that, there’s a spectrum of people who are absolutely convinced, and those who simply think that the balance of evidence is strong enough that they don’t want to sit on the fence, but beyond that, they’re not going to claim any absolute certainty.
You’ve written a book about atheism, you’ve spoken about atheism, you’re involved with the British Humanist Association. Do you read widely in the literature of atheism?
To be honest, I don’t, and in some ways I’m always quite surprised that a lot of atheists do. If you’re pretty convinced of this position, then why would you want to read every new book that comes along telling you you’re right? It does seem to be a strange kind of desire for reinforcement. Like a lot of people, my biography of belief is a bit complicated. As a child, I was religious by default, and then religious by conviction, and then I came to atheism. But after a while, when you’ve thought through the issues, and you’ve decided that’s where you stand, you don’t close your mind. You want to go on and think about other things... (continues)