Fundamentals: Apatheism

Let’s get this out of the way before we start: beliefs are a poor predictor of behavior. You can try to compare cherrypicked lists of wrongs committed by adherents of this religion or that philosophy all you like; actual scientific study of the question shows that our beliefs are predictors of the arguments we use to justify our behavior, not the behavior itself.

So that out of the way, it follows that there are really only two arguments for believing in anything: because it’s true, or because it’s not known to be false and will make your life better if you believe it.

So we can toss some religious beliefs out immediately because we know they’re not true. The world is quite a bit older than 6,000 years, and humans showed up way later than day six. Prayer and magic can alter the emotional state of the people performing them or who know they’re being performed, but have no nontrivial material effects.

But then we get into things like afterlives and spiritual realms and incorporeal universe-filling ethereal entities, none of which can be showed to be false. And around here is when your typical Internet atheist will bring up Russel’s teapot, which I’m going to assume you’re all familiar with.

So, here’s the point where I piss off my fellow atheists: Russel’s teapot is bullshit.

Here’s why: the teapot is a material object that exists within the material universe. What we could call the Teapot Proposition is a proposition about the existence, properties, and behaviors of objects within the material universe. It is a positive, scientific claim, and therefore rightly subject to the rules of the scientific endeavor. To be more precise, it is a statement with material consequences; that is, there are measurable differences between a universe where it’s true and one where it’s not. Quite difficult differences to measure, true, but nonetheless a universe with Russel’s teapot is not the same universe as one without Russel’s teapot. It is a claim at least theoretically subject to rigorous scientific testing.

Most religious claims aren’t.

Certainly some are. “The entire universe went from nothing to essentially its modern state over a six-day period 6,000 years ago” is a claim with material consequences, and thus one that we know is false. The claim that it’s possible to curse a person is one with material consequences, and thus we know it’s false unless the person both believes in curses and believes they’ve been cursed, at which point it behaves consistently with the placebo effect.

But the belief that after a person dies, their consciousness continues in some form outside the material universe? That’s definitionally not a statement with material consequences, thanks to “outside the material universe.” It is thus not subject to the rules of science, because–and this is important–such a statement cannot be false. Why because a false statement is one that fails to accurately describe the universe, and the statement in question isn’t talking about the universe. It’s neither true nor false, which means it can never be known to be false, which means the only reason to believe or not believe it is whether it makes your life better.

Your life. Personally, as an individual.

Typically, and tellingly, at this point some Internet atheist complains that this means any claim has to be accepted as long as it’s non-falsifiable. Which isn’t actually true, if you read closely, but also kind of makes my point about Internet atheists: that the real motivation for a lot of them is not a desire for knowledge or to avoid falsehood, but to win arguments and feel superior to religious people.

But also: yes. Accept all religious claims as being useful beliefs for the people who hold them, and don’t worry about it as long as they’re not being assholes. This is the philosophical position of apatheism, which I define as “I don’t care if there are gods, and I don’t care what you believe about it.” I’m interested in it, certainly, because I am interested in the beliefs and behaviors of human beings, but I’ve got zero interest in doing anything about it.

2 thoughts on “Fundamentals: Apatheism

  1. Uh, well… speaking as someone who tends toward apatheism most of the time themselves, the thing is, often those beliefs aren’t useful for them. And they can be outright hurtful to other people. So yeah, I do care what other people believe about it, if only because I’m worried how they might hurt themselves and other people.

    The agnostic theist who believes in something just because it makes them feel better and acknowledges that, is not the one who I spend time worrying about.

    When you genuinely believe your god decreed all gay people are going to Hell, and tell your gay daughter so, even if you do nothing else that’s going to cause huge psychological damage and suffering. If you don’t, but you pick and choose what you feel like believing out of a book you hold to be supposedly all true, you’re learning really bad habits and to justify any action you feel like.

    When you believe the earth started 6000 years ago and other science is bogus, you may not want to pay taxes to fund scientific research and you might campaign to have Creatonism taught in schools. You state that beliefs have little bearing on behavior, but this has been shown to happen again and again. When someone is a Neo-Nazi or a Misogynist, their belief system of Nazism or Misogyny makes them more likely to hurt people. Religious beliefs that actively call for harm or suppression of others, such as ‘You shall have no god but me’ and ‘Stone the heathens’, have no reason to be exempt from this. I admit happily that Atheists who hold the belief that religious people are better off dead have committed violence. The point is that a title alone often says little about what someone believes (I agree with you there), but specific beliefs do matter, and one thing (system of beliefs not backed up by evidence) is not like the other (lack of belief).

    The point of Russel’s teapot, as I had it explained to me, was that you can’t expect someone to believe in that teapot; it’s a defense against people claiming you can just ‘choose’ to believe in something or that you should believe in the teapot. The point is not that it would be impossible to try and find out about the teapot, but that it’s nonsensical to expect people to believe you about the teapot and get angry with them when they don’t.

    Also, I find your argument and definition about ‘true and false’… interesting, to say the least. It’s possible to have multiple types of true and false. This becomes apparent with the well known Liar Paradox: ‘This statement is a lie / false’. It’s only paradoxical depending on how you evaluate true and false. The simplest way to deal with it is to introduce a third possibility, NULL or ‘nonsensical’. However, if you are running, say, a computer program with binary results and a different evaluating logic on what makes a statement true or false than a human’s logic, this will not hold true. The results might be rather amusing, depending on the logic, or the program might crash.

    The point is that you seem to have gone the third route: NULL or nonsensical. Meaning that, no, it’s not true. Is Wackamoodle’s Beard Green? The answer is null, because in that form of logic it is not false, but it isn’t true, either, because there IS no Wackamoodle.

    When I define ‘universe’ as ‘all things that exist’, which is how most atheists I’ve talked to define it, the problem becomes quite apparent. If a statement isn’t talking about the universe, it’s talking about something imaginary, and therefore it’s nonsensical. Yes, it’s ‘true’ Harry Potter has a wand, in respect to the Harry Potter non-material universe, but when talking in respect to the real world, it’s NULL because Harry Potter does not exist.

    You have the white male privilege not to care when religious fuckery goes on or when someone gets angry because you don’t believe in their teapot when all you’ve done is mention that you’re an atheist. But please don’t lecture the rest of us who may not have that same privilege or pat yourself on the back for not caring.

    I hope I haven’t made you angry. Peace out.


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