Is Atheism a Worldview?

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 30, 2009 in General Atheism

Quick note: I gave a brief interview at Fallen and Flawed.

Clearly, atheism is not a religion, but there has been much talk in the comments about whether or not atheism is a “worldview.”

So, let’s check the definitions of “atheism” and of “worldview” and see if one might be a species of the other.

atheism1
disbelief in the existence of a god or gods

worldview
1. a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world2
2. a collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group3

I do not see how atheism can be a worldview.

I have compared atheism to a-unicornism: disbelief in the existence of unicorns. How is a-unicornism a “worldview”? It’s not. Atheism and a-unicornism are each a single belief about one thing. Neither of these positions tell you anything else about the person who holds them: their morals values, their political views, their driving purpose, their explanations for life or the universe, their beliefs about magic or ghosts or elves, their rationality or their intelligence.

But, Bobmo wrote:

In other words, if there is no God, then x must be true (e.g. matter is eternal, or a multiverse exists; there is no absolute morality, etc.)  The same cannot be said for A-unicornism, since the non-existence of unicorns carries no serious implications.

I deny that atheism has such implications. None of Bobmo’s examples follow from the non-existence of gods. They may be true, but they are not entailed by atheism. As toweltowel replied: “Supposing that theism implies p, and that atheism is the denial of theism, it obviously does not follow that atheism implies [not-p].”

Neither an atheist nor an a-unicornist must believe in eternal matter, a multiverse, or moral relativism. And in fact, I’d bet millions of them don’t.

Adiel Corchado has another try:

The difference between atheism and [a-unicornism] is that unicorns provide no answers to why the world exists, why we exist, whether morality is objective or subjective, what happens after you die, etc.  If unicorns don’t exist… that changes nothing. If unicorns do exist that changes nothing. God’s existence or non-existence on the other hand changes everything.

I have never seen a definition of “worldview” that uses Adiel’s criteria for something being a worldview. Both bare atheism and bare theism have no answers to why the world exists, why the world exists, whether morality is objective or subjective, or what happens after you die. For you to start answering those questions you have to adopt a worldview, like a particular brand of worldview naturalism or Christianity or extropianism.

Yes, even “theism” – in the bare sense that is the opposite of atheism – is not a worldview. Like atheism, theism is a single belief about one thing: the existence of a god or gods.

What else is entailed by belief in a god or gods? Absolute morality? The origins of life or the universe? The afterlife? The purpose of life? None of these things are entailed by theism, not even the origins of the universe. Not all gods are thought to be eternal, or creative. And not all theistic religions think that the gods can explain the origins of the universe, for example many varieties of Buddhism.

Atheism is the mere opposite of theism, and neither of these entail a long list of beliefs like a worldview does.

Some helpful links:

  1. Concise Oxford English Dictionary. []
  2. Compact Oxford English Dictionary. []
  3. American Heritage Dictionary. []

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel April 30, 2009 at 7:36 am

I agree, atheism is not a worldview. But I would argue that in general, atheists will hold a worldview. Proving that atheism is not a worldview does not really mean anything.

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Demian Farnworth April 30, 2009 at 7:51 am

Luke, naturally, if you define atheism or theism narrow enough–if you define anything narrow enough–it’s going to refer to only one belief. But how many people actually do that? 

I think I understand where you’re going, but how’s it useful? 

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Samuel Skinner April 30, 2009 at 8:17 am

“But I would argue that in general, atheists will hold a worldview.”

I don’t think it is possible not to have a worldview. He is just showing it isn’t atheism.

“it’s going to refer to only one belief.”

Uh, theism DOES refer to only one belief. However, while “pure” atheists are common, pure theists are rare- most add on a particular religion and attending worldview to their theism.

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 8:26 am

Yes, pretty much everyone has a worldview. It just isn’t atheism. Or theism. Those are not worldviews, by the common definitions of “theism”, “atheism”, and “worldview.”

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Alden April 30, 2009 at 9:05 am

The problem is that “worldview” is a fairly generic term, and is defined in different ways. If we take it at face value, that your worldview is your set of foundational assumptions about the world that provides the framework for how you interpret your life, then it would appear that a worldview is actually a composite of both known and often unknown factors.  Atheism or Theism certainly impacts our worldview, but it is not the whole of it. For example, a Theist in the US is almost certainly also going to be a modernist (even if they think they are post-modern), whereas a Christian from the East probably won’t be; in this way, Eastern Christians and Eastern Muslims could share more of a worldview then Eastern Christians and their Western counterparts do.

We in the west think we are rationalists because we are inherently rational creatures. However, this is not really true; what we often assume as “normal” is perhaps our worldview showing.  Many of these “rationalist” assumptions are simply Cartesian presumptions that we have grown up with.

So, no one thing, in my opinion, encompasses a worldview.

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Matt M April 30, 2009 at 9:29 am

I wonder if, when it comes to discussing religion, atheists wouldn’t be better off being more specific about our actual views – defining ourselves positively (as naturalists, humanists, etc.) rather than negatively.

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 10:21 am

Matt M,

I think the negative position against the existence of gods can be important, like a negative stance against the existence of psychic powers or astrological forces, or against the validity of pseudoscience. But yes, it can also be important to take a positive stance on some issues – but then, atheists cannot agree on those things. We can all agree only on the non-existence of gods.

As an example, I take a negative position against humanism, while many other atheists take a positive position behind it. :)

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Lorkas April 30, 2009 at 10:32 am

lukeprog: As an example, I take a negative position against humanism, while many other atheists take a positive position behind it.

What do you mean when you say humanism (many people seem to have different ideas about what humanism is, and I want to understand what you are saying that you reject)?

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Reginald Selkirk April 30, 2009 at 10:45 am

“Worldview”? It sounds so much more profound when you use the German: “Weltanshauung.”

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Matt M April 30, 2009 at 11:05 am

“I think the negative position against the existence of gods can be important, like a negative stance against the existence of psychic powers or astrological forces, or against the validity of pseudoscience.”

But surely the negative stance has to be based on something – you can’t just reject things like religion and pseudoscience for no reason. (Well… you can… obviously).  When you insist on certain standards (rational, empirical, etc.) being met you’re expressing a particular worldview. You might as well be up front about it.

“We can all agree only on the non-existence of gods.”

Oh, I’m willing to bet we could find atheists capable of disagreeing on that as well. :-)

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 11:10 am

Lorkas: What do you mean when you say humanism

The thing that all varieties of humanism agree on – it’s in the name and everything – is speciesism, and that’s what I reject. Depending on the variety of humanism, I may reject other things as well.

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 11:12 am

Matt M: But surely the negative stance has to be based on something – you can’t just reject things like religion and pseudoscience for no reason.

Oh, certainly! I reject religion and pseudoscience because I think reason and evidence are the best tests of truth, and religion and pseudoscience faith these tests. Reason and evidence are certainly things I advocate, but this is not true of all (most?) atheists.

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Matt M April 30, 2009 at 11:22 am

lukeprog: Reason and evidence are certainly things I advocate, but this is not true of all (most?) atheists.

Leaving aside the extreme edges… I’d agree.

However, theists are just as capable of advocating them (although we may disagree on what they show) as atheists rejecting them. So I still think “atheist” is an imperfect label for such an outlook.

If I describe myself as a (methodological) naturalist, or whatever,  then other people know exactly what my worldview is. They’re then, if they want to convince me of something, able to either provide arguments based upon it or challenge its validity.

I think it also puts me on a more equal footing – I’m not just rejecting their worldview, I’m offering one of my own as an alternative.

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 11:35 am

Matt M: However, theists are just as capable of advocating [reason and evidence] as atheists rejecting them. So I still think “atheist” is an imperfect label for such an outlook.

Yup, exactly.

Matt M: I think it also puts me on a more equal footing – I’m not just rejecting their worldview, I’m offering one of my own as an alternative.

Yup!

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a name for my worldview. But I suppose most people feel that way.

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Matt M April 30, 2009 at 11:45 am

lukeprog: Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a name for my worldview. But I suppose most people feel that way.

If your worldview can be completely summed up in a few words then something’s probably wrong somewhere. :-)

Perhaps it’s just a matter of personal taste, but I just feel that describing myself in purely negative terms means I’m going into a discussion at a disadvantage. I’d rather try to put a more positive spin on things – even if no label can ever be 100% accurate.

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Lorkas April 30, 2009 at 6:00 pm

lukeprog: The thing that all varieties of humanism agree on – it’s in the name and everything – is speciesism, and that’s what I reject. Depending on the variety of humanism, I may reject other things as well.

Does that mean that you don’t think that we should treat other humans differently than we treat other species, or just that you reject the idea that humans are intrinsically “better” (whatever that means) than other species?

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Lorkas,

Homo sapiens does not have more intrinsic value than other species. All species have the same intrinsic value: none. Currently, the most plausible theory of morality I have found (desire utilitarianism) would say that moral value is derived from the only reasons for action that exist: desires. Many forms of life have desires, and many do not. Desire also come in degrees of strength. But even if desire utilitarianism was disproven, it would remain true that humans do not have more intrinsic value than members of other species.

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Lorkas April 30, 2009 at 6:21 pm

lukeprog: All species have the same intrinsic value: none.

I agree. Just to be clear, though–desire utilitarianism suggests that we should treat other humans differently than we treat nonhuman animals (depending, I guess, on their capacity to form desires)?

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 6:52 pm

The implications of desire utilitarianism for how we treat humans and animals are very complex, and mostly still unknown. Much research is required.

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dgsinclair April 30, 2009 at 8:54 pm

I agree that atheism is not a world view, but it can certainly be part of one.

For instance, I think that Darwinism can be a world view, and perhaps a fuller one if you add in atheism.  All you have to do is answer the basic world view questions, which vary depending on who you ask, but they include such meaning-framing and ‘ultimate’ questions as:

Where did life / man come from?
What is man’s nature?
Is there a God?  What is God’s nature?
What is good, meaningful, and true?
How do I know?
What happens after I die?
What’s wrong with the world?
Why suffering and pain?
How do we fix it?

Or, as per Nine Questions Everyone Must Face :

WHERE DID I COME FROM?
WHY AM I HERE?
WHERE AM I GOING?
HOW DO I COME TO TERMS WITH DEATH?
HOW DO I MAKE SENSE OF SUFFERING?
HOW CAN I POSSIBLY BELIEVE IN JUSTICE?
WHAT CAN I KNOW?
WHAT SHOULD I BELIEVE?
This Cybernetic Model (?) view is interesting, even has a diagram at bottom. See also Why Worldview Matters.

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dgsinclair April 30, 2009 at 8:57 pm

And here’s more answers from, uh, Fat Tony

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lukeprog April 30, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Ha! That Fat Tony link is hilarious.

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TX CHL Instructor May 1, 2009 at 3:02 am

Atheism is certainly a part of my worldview, but not the only part. I often run into other atheists who are flabbergasted at the fact that I’m not a Liberal (just another part of my worldview), and mildly surprised to learn that I’m not interested in converting anybody.

Atheism is not in itself a religion, but it can be a part of a view on religion, as illustrated by the North Texas Church of Freethought, of which I have been a member for over a decade. (I was the Music Director for a while) In our meetings, we typically discuss one or more of the “nine questions” mentioned by dgsinclair in his post above. (or Fat Tony’s Five Questions :)

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Lorkas May 1, 2009 at 5:03 am

What kind of worldview is “darwinism”?

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Chuck May 1, 2009 at 6:56 am

lukeprog: The implications of desire utilitarianism for how we treat humans and animals are very complex, and mostly still unknown. Much research is required.

Luke,

I noticed when asked theses sorts of questions you are very reluctant to take a best “guess”. Why is that?

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Lorkas May 1, 2009 at 10:36 am

Chuck: I noticed when asked theses sorts of questions you are very reluctant to take a best “guess”. Why is that?

Sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer.

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Lorkas May 1, 2009 at 10:37 am

lukeprog: The implications of desire utilitarianism for how we treat humans and animals are very complex, and mostly still unknown. Much research is required.

I’m curious how you research desire utilitarianism. What kind of experiment could falsify or vindicate an ethical theory like this?

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Lorkas May 1, 2009 at 10:45 am

Lorkas: What kind of worldview is “darwinism”?

More to the point: How is “darwinism” different from “naturalism”? (or is it?)

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Jeff H May 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm

I think it is sometimes difficult to tease out what these labels include simply because a) so many of them are overlapping to a degree, and b) they often can include connotations that wouldn’t be true in the strict definition of the word.

When people say that atheism is a “worldview”, they generally aren’t referring to the strict definition of not believing in a God. Atheists may not all agree on everything else, but there are common characteristics that can be said for many of them. Off the top of my head, atheists may be seen as typically naturalists, more liberal, or more educated. (I’m not wanting to debate the truth of these claims…I’m merely pointing out that they are possible perceptions of atheists.) Thus the connotation of the word “atheism” entails more than just a simple disbelief in God. It might not be true of all atheists, but think about the term “Christian” for a second – do all Christians agree on everything? Of course not. It’s a loose term used to describe characteristics that are commonly shared amongst those that use the label. Most are trinitarian, most believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, etc.

So I agree and disagree that atheism is a worldview. In the strict sense of the term, no, it’s not. But atheism can be used as an umbrella term encompassing many more things. I would rather say that naturalism is a worldview, but to most people, atheism = naturalism. Just like to most people, Christianity = trinitarianism. In this sense, atheism would be seen as a worldview, because it provides a way of…viewing…the world.

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lukeprog May 1, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Chuck: I noticed when asked theses sorts of questions you are very reluctant to take a best “guess”. Why is that?

There are some things about which I could guess. Other things I cannot even guess. The truth about morality towards animals is one. The future politics of Malaysia is another…

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lukeprog May 1, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Lorkas: I’m curious how you research desire utilitarianism. What kind of experiment could falsify or vindicate an ethical theory like this?

Falsifying or vindicating the theory itself is a different matter from falsifying or vindicating its implications. The first is done by seeing if the theory (1) makes true claims about things that exist, and (2) fits generally with how we use moral language. The second is done by testing and researching which desires ACTUALLY tend to fulfill more and greater desires than they thwart. For example, does a desire for capital punishment tend to thwart or fulfill desires? Does a desire for scientific knowledge tend to thwart of fulfill desires? These are empirical questions that can be answered by research, plain and simple.

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Chuck May 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm

If Desire Utilitarianism isn’t in the literature, who will do this research? I just don’t see it getting done in our lifetimes.

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lukeprog May 1, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Chuck,

I suspect not.

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Chuck May 1, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Pfft. Well, if we can’t derive useful results, what good is it to us?

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Richard May 2, 2009 at 1:16 am

lukeprog:
There are some things about which I could guess. Other things I cannot even guess. The truth about morality towards animals is one. The future politics of Malaysia is another…

Yet you presumably have a moral stance on the treatment of animals. Don’t you think it’s wrong to torture puppies? If so, where does this belief come from?

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lukeprog May 2, 2009 at 3:05 am

Richard: Don’t you think it’s wrong to torture puppies? If so, where does this belief come from?

The morality of torture is much easier to work out than our moral responsibility toward animals. Torture is wrong because it its creator, the desire to torture, is fundamentally desire-thwarting. The desire to torture is a malleable desire, and we can “turn it down” to 0, which means that nobody has their desires badly thwarted by being tortured, and nobody has desires to torture that are thwarted. But notice that “torture” has “desire thwarting to the extreme” built into the definition of the word, so it would be very surprising if torture was moral under desire utilitarianism.

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nevenera May 3, 2009 at 7:34 am

Does it matter?   Atheists hold worldviews, but the word simply means that they don’t believe in God/Gods.   So I agree with you about that.  It can be argued that two people with the same religion can have very different world views.  So can you argue that Religions are worldviews?  To be honest I don’t see how the definition fits religions either.

Both religion and not having one can help shape world views, but I don’t think either of them can classify as world views.  And don’t for get agnostics ;)

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Cubik's Rube May 7, 2009 at 4:51 am

I may be partially repeating someone else’s point, but I wrote about <a href=”http://cubiksrube.wordpress.com/2008/08/17/atheism-is-a-belief-system/”>atheism</a> a while ago, and I call it a belief system (though ‘worldview’ might actually be more appropriate, now I think of it). Although it simply means a lack of one particular belief, it’s not something that seems to exist in isolation. It does have implications about what else is going on in my head – they may not be able to say much about my morality, but it implies that I’m unconvinced by every argument in favour of God’s existence that I’m yet to hear. I’ve read the Bible (well, skimmed it), and heard Christians proselytising, and thought through the various philosophical arguments, and where I’ve ended up is not believing in any god - but there’s a lot of context there, which seems like it needs to be included in what it means when I say I’m an atheist.

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mirabilis June 21, 2010 at 4:20 am

No one is neutral free. Everyone does hold a view of what life and the universe is. Athiests don’t just not believe in anything.. they believe in something.. just not God… It may be scientific theories and beliefs about how societies should be.. these are all worldviews that the athiest adopts. Athiesm is a worldview based on the fact thats its a perspective of how to see life.

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Piet December 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Dear Mr,mrs,

To promote skepticism/critical thinking I wrote some questions for the Christian believer. Are you able to put the link to these questions at your blog.

Thank you very much,

Piet – Rotterdam – Netherlands.

The original questions

http://www.freethinker.nl/forum/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=8382
The translation
http://www.freethinker.nl/forum/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=10033

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