What Do Nontheists Believe in? February 9, 2012

What Do Nontheists Believe in?

Dave Niose, author of the forthcoming book Nonbeliever Nation, weighs in on the things godless people do believe in (or at least tend to believe in):

  • Everything since the Big Bang can be explained naturally
  • We can only speculate about what “caused” the Big Bang
  • Ethics do not require a God
  • Religion is man-made
  • The God of the Bible is especially implausible
  • The idea of prophecy is even less plausible than a God
  • Only humans can solve human challenges

Dave goes into more detail in his Psychology Today article.

Are there any items on that list you would disagree with?

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  • alphabetsoup

    Only humans can solve human problems. This is probably true, but I can think of hypotheticals. I assume this is saying there are no gods or supernatural forces that will take care of our problems, in which case I only have a problem with the wording of this.

    The one I definitely disagree with is the idea of prophecy being even less plausible than a god. Prophecy could happen and still have natural explanations, but a god is very unlikely to. A god makes NO sense according to what we know; future predictions could easily fit into what science tells us about time and the possibility that everything was pre-determined, etc.

  • Mr T the Zen Generator

    ‘The idea of prophecy” – is that a very circumspect way of saying “Islam”? Okay, Niose probably doesn’t want to have his home firebombed and himself decapitated, but really to me the list is incomplete without outright mentioning that the God or Gods of the three Abrahamic religions are equally unlikely. Plus any other supernatural, more or less powerful beings that are supposedly breathing down everybody’s neck.

  • I would disagree with the second and the last point – with the caveat that my disagreement might be due to misunderstanding as I haven’t read the book.

    Perhaps Niose has an especially broad understanding of “speculation” but barring that I think we can do more. There are exciting prospects in the work – though admittedly still theoretical – for a scientific cosmological account of what brought about the Big Bang. However, even barring any new scientific advances we can still do more than merely speculate; there is plenty of sound philosophical reasoning to be made.

    As to only humans being able to solve human challenges that’s just a plain empirical falsehood. Lots of animals have shown themselves quite capable in many “human” endeavours. We aren’t as special as we think. But maybe that wasn’t the point Niose was making. If he was picking at the fact that angels and deities can’t solve human problems, I withdraw my complaint.

  • skm9

    I disagree with the last 3 – I don’t think the biblical god is less plausible than Thor or Tlaloc or any other, I think prophecy (predictive power) is much more plausible than gods, and while I agree that currently humans are best able to solve “human challenges”, I could certainly see how that might not always be the case.

  • IrishWhiskey

    Everything since the Big Bang can be explained naturally
    I’d rather say that “everything natural has a natural explanation” and that we haven’t discovered anything outside nature. But I generally agree.
    We can only speculate about what “caused” the Big Bang
    For now, sure. There are lots of unanswered questions, I don’t contend that they are forever unanswerable.
    The idea of prophecy is even less plausible than a God
    No way. Predicting the future is common and easy. Predicting it with sufficient specificity and reliability as to suggest actual advance knowledge would be amazing, but not impossible. It’d by definition have to be more plausible than a god though, because a god should be able to engage in prophecy plus many additional and more unlikely qualities. What he seems to actually mean in the article, is that the reliability of those claiming divine revelation is implausible.
    Only humans can solve human challenges
    I wish. My damn hamster keeps beating me at Scrabble. At first I though he was making up agranulocytoses, but it turns out he watches a lot of House.

  • Chris Slaby

    Uh, I think scientists, both in the present day and in the future, can do more than “speculate” about what “’caused'” the Big Bang. I’m not sure why you put “cause” in quotes. The Big Bang happened (as far as we know right now). There is an explanation for how/why it happened. Therefore, as far as I understand the word cause, the Big Bang has a cause (i.e., a reason or explanation for it happening). 

    In terms of speculating, while science might not be so sure right now (personally I’m not too up to date on knowledge of the Big Bang, though hearing from people like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, I was under the impression that we, or at least a very select group of scientists, had at least somewhat of an understand of the Big Bang and how it got started), that does not mean we won’t or can’t know more in the future. Again, though, the use of the word speculate sounds wrong to me. Speculation hints at uncertainty, or even simple guessing. Science is at the very least well-informed guessing. And of course our current guesses might be wrong, but I think scientists are usually pretty good about being clear on what they have strong evidence for (things like evolution, gravity, germ theory), what they have some evidence for, but are exploring more deeply (I thought the Big Bang fit into this sort of a category), and what they have minimal evidence for (at this point, something is a hypothesis, maybe even a hunch, and still needs to be verified. I guess at this stage it could be called speculation, but again, for me that has a sort of uninformed connotation; even tentative scientific claims are made because scientists have reasons to support them. 

  •  Maybe it’s just me but I would be disinclined to consider an accurate inference to a future state of the universe from deterministic laws a proper “prophecy.” The concept of a prophecy seems to me to imply something more than an infallible weather-forecast, say. If it implies divine revelation, then a prophecy is less likely than God for no other reason than that the probability of A&B is always less than or equal to the probability of A alone.

  • Shanti

    Apparently nonbelievers believe in disagreeing. Therefore, I believe that a Sunday morning coffee with nonbelievers will be a hell of a lot more interesting than a Sunday morning in church with nodding, half-awake believers!

  • alphabetsoup

    No, as far as I know (and I love astronomy and cosmology), scientists know a great deal about what happened at the Big Bang and what probably happened after and how that lead to everything that we know to be right now. But they don’t know what made the ‘singularity’ ‘bang’. — They don’t even know what that ‘singularity’ is. Something happened to make the ‘singularity’ expand rapidly (faster than the speed of light at first), but what that cause is is unknown.

    Whether we can actually figure it out or not, well, I have no idea. Maybe we can get evidence for it, maybe not. The article is just saying that we can’t say for sure, and so theists can’t say, ‘Yes, it was a god.’ I agree that that point is debatable.

  • alphabetsoup


  • alphabetsoup

    Seems like semantics to me. If prophecy does indeed require divine intervention, then I would agree with you.

    Because I’m far too lazy to get a real dictionary at the moment, Dictionary.com’s first definition says it’s just about predicting the future. It does also have the definition you are proposing. So, I agree with my first point, but, as I said above, if you include divine intervention, then I agree with you too.

  • mysciencecanbeatupyourgod

    “Prophesy” is a component of nearly every religion. The idea of a supreme being that could create a universe is far-fetched enough, but then when someone claims that they spoke to him personally and that he doesn’t want us to be gay or eat bacon, that’s one more level of crazy.

    I took the “God of the Bible” to mean Abrahamic God.

  • Anonymous

    For the purposes of my comment, I am assuming you mean prophecy of god.  I do think prophecy is less plausible than an the idea of god.  Many of the religious folks that I know believe in god, but reject prophecy.  Then again, perhaps they are just cafeteria believers.  For me, I rejected the concept of god before I even thought about the plausibility of prophecy.

  • John Brockman

    I’ve seen animals solve problems designed by humans, so I disagree that only humans can solve human problems.
    Pedantry for the win!

  • Greisha

    I disagree with the main concept that  non-theists need to believe in anything.

  • Flora

    We can’t, by definition, discover anything outside of nature. If we did discover some hitherto unknown force, it would be natural, not supernatural.

  • Edmond

    Some of us don’t believe in capitalizing the word “god” (or “he” or “him” or “lord”), because we don’t believe in hijacking the rules of the English language in order to pay undue deference to mythological beings.  Besides, it isn’t a proper noun.  It’s not his name, it’s his job title.

  • myatheistlife

    I see some inconsistencies:

    Everything since the Big Bang can be explained naturally – trueWe can only speculate about what “caused” the Big Bang – true at this timeEthics do not require a God – has always been trueReligion is man-made – infers that there is no godThe God of the Bible is especially implausible – redundant statement given the previous statementThe idea of prophecy is even less plausible than a God – since such is only contained in a book that is already inferred as false, this too is redundantOnly humans can solve human challenges – given that our only other choice is for cows to do it, this is redundant.

    Consistency requires cross reference to previous thought. Consistent atheist thought means not even considering the theist alternatives as necessarily needing counterpoint. There is no god. Your book is irrelevant and useless and all it contains is not germane to the conversation since  your book is not proof of the aforementioned god. Your personal experiences are not useful and your ideas of a god come from a book which is not proof. The entire idea of gods or a god is hubris. You have no proof or solid evidence. STFU

  • Dan

    From what I understand, the idea of the singularity has been out of fashion in physics for a couple decades. I know Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, who developed the idea, now both reject it. You might want to read some stuff on the possibility of the multiverse.

  • Tom

    I disagree with the whole idea of this list.  I’m in a bad mood, so what follows might not be kind.

    1) So everything that exists in the natural world can be explained with nature?  You don’t say!

    2) We currently can and do speculate on what caused the big bang but to suggest that that’s all we can do is foolish.  It’s more likely than not that we will eventually know the reality of the big bang and therefore you can say that we can know what caused it, we just don’t know it yet.

    3) There is no god.  There are ethics.  Another Captain Obvious gets his or her wings.

    4) There is no god.  There is religion.  Another Captain Obvious gets her or his wings.

    5) There is no god.  No impossibility is any more plausible than any other impossibility.  Possibility is binary – it’s either possible, or it isn’t.

    6) This is stupid.

    7) Define your terms.  Also, you’re wrong.

    I know that I’m being hypocritical when I say this (I did have a blog, after all) but sometimes I get so tired of people whose only contribution to the conversation is the self-involved droning of their own voice.

  • alphabetsoup

    ‘Singularity’ is just the term used to describe what happened before the Big Bang, the thing that ‘exploded’. No scientist that I know of has ever proposed that it’s anything specific, but that it’s simply a word to use for something we don’t understand (like ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’) so that we can talk about it. If there are multiple universes, these universes would start with a ‘singularity’.

    I have done research on the multiverse. As far as I know, the term is usually used specifically to refer to parallel universes, and not many different universes in one space, and came about because the hypothesis formerly known as ‘String Theory’, now currently dubbed ‘M-Theory’ said that membranes (called ‘branes’) sit parallel to each other. These branes undulate, and every time they ‘clash’ together there is a Big Bang.

    But M-Theory is not a theory, it is a hypothesis. There isn’t any real evidence for it, nor is there for a multiverse, whether in the parallel universe sense or not. I think it’s plausible to have multiple universes, considering there are so many planets, solar systems, galaxies, etc. But ‘singularity’ is what is the accepted term when talking about the Big Bang, so it’s the word I used.

  • alphabetsoup

    Excuse me, I’m far too tired to be talking about this. I mean the term ‘multiverse’ comes from the parts of M-Theory and quantum mechanics, and the double-slit experiment, and all that. But the Big Bang theory and the not-a-singularity comes from the branes of M-Theory.

  • Dan

    Sorry, but the singularity is different than the Big Bang. The Big Bang can’t be traced back to a singularity. Hawking and Penrose both now reject the idea, even though they were the ones to develop it, because the idea came from them erroneously applying relativity on the quantum scale, leading to incorrect conclusions.

    You might also want to read Brain Greene’s book on multiverses. I never said it was firmly established, but there are multiple lines of evidence that point to some type of multiverse being possible, maybe even likely.

  • alphabetsoup

    Sorry, I really don’t see what you’re saying. Of course the Big Bang isn’t a singularity, but simply that the term ‘singularity’ is used to say whatever happened before the Big Bang.

    I mean, the singularity may have been a proposed name based on what Hawking and Penrose miscalculated, but that doesn’t mean we need to chuck it out. If it meant something more specific before, it just has a re-assigned meaning (like Pluto isn’t a planet anymore because ‘planet’ has a specific definition that Pluto doesn’t fit). I haven’t heard anything official about this somehow no longer being an acceptable term (official in the scientific community as a whole, not just because Hawking and Penrose don’t like it any more).

    Sure, I didn’t say the multiverse was impossible or improbable. I have heard many good arguments to convince me it is likely, and I wonder about it daily. I definitely don’t dismiss the idea, I was just saying it isn’t a theory because the evidence isn’t there (I mean, the sort of really defining and testable evidence that would make it a theory). Or not yet anyway.

  • alphabetsoup

    Also, is the book you mentioned called ‘The Hidden Reality’?

  • Eivind Kjorstad

    This list is pointless. I tend to believe in anything where I’m convinced that it’s more likely than the alternative, as such you could just as well put on the list that I believe in the existence of Australia, despite not having observed it myself.

    Several of these are crappily defined too. Rain can solve the “human challenge” of thirst. Sunlight can solve the “human challenge” of freezing. Potatoes can solve the human challenge of hunger. Perhaps you meant that only an intelligent entity can solve challenges that require intelligent thought ? But if so, that’s a tautology. (and there’s no particular reason to believe that humans are the only intelligent beings either)

  • Dan

    The singularity is not a general term used to describe whatever happened before the big bang. The singularity is a term that when used to describe the big bang (extremely simplified) means that there was an infinitely small point of infinite large gravity at the very, very start of the Big Bang. It is based on misapplying relativity to the quantum level. The singularity idea is often quoted by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig to cast doubt on the multiverse, pretending that Hawking still holds to this idea. I’ve heard the physicist Victor Stinger say numerous times that this is outdated science.

    If you want to use the term singularity as a general term describing “whatever” was before the big bang that is your prerogative, but that is completely different than how physicists use the term, where it is referring to something very specific. So if you try to redefine the term you might run into some confusion.

    Yes, the Greene book is The Hidden Reality.

  • alphabetsoup


  • Anonymous

    I would disagree with the notion that “The idea of prophecy is even less plausible than a God”. The possibility at least exists that we live in a determinist Universe (I’m agnostic on the matter myself). If we do, it’s at least possible that, given enough knowledge the intervening factors, extremely accurate predictions could be made about the future.

    Mind you, I don’t think that it’s very likely, but at least it wouldn’t violate all laws of physics and can theoretically be explained within a naturalistic Universe. This puts it well ahead any god in the plausibility race.

  •  Yes, I agree. It is indeed a matter of semantics. Hence my qualification of “maybe it’s just me.” That’s just the connotations I get from the word and the dictionaries be damned! 😛


    No impossibility is any more plausible than any other impossibility.
     Possibility is binary – it’s either possible, or it isn’t.

    That’s just plain false on nearly all accounts of possibility I can think of, save, perhaps, on certain versions of actualism. And even actualism can accommodate shades of epistemic plasubility.

  • Greg

    I certainly don’t agree that prophecy is less likely than the existence of a god. Most gods I get presented by are impossible by definition (with the assumption that logic holds). At least prophecy is possible – you just need a deterministic universe. Or even a mainly deterministic one if the prophecies are not 100% accurate all of the time. (As in – it is extremely likely but not certain)

  • Well, actually there is God, which is the Christian god. His name is God, his title is also god. It’s confusing, yes. Do you capitalize Athena, Anubis, Thor, and Quezalcoatl?

  • The Captain

    One of my pet peeves is the word “unnatural”.

  • Wendy

    I’ve been using the word “implausible” lately to explain my atheism.  It’s such a neutral word, it catches theists off guard!

  • Rodreid

    Actually, your Christian god’s name has been stated to be Jaweh or Jehovah.
    Thor is the proper name of the Norse god of thunder so it is capitalized.

  • Patrick Sharp

    I disagree with the whole list.  I don’t “believe” any of those things, I think them.   The term is ill defined at best and I avoid it like the plague.  ‘I believe in pixies’ is not semantically the same as ‘I believe in democracy’.  One means “I think something is true with no evidence” while the other mean “I think something is important”.

  •  I think your thinking is sound.

  •  I, too, am feeling mean.  Make Niose go back and define ‘human.’

  • (My Christian god?)

    Yahweh or Jehovah is the name of the Jewish god. God is the Christian god – although a lot of Christians will try to take over the Jewish names as well. You ask 100 Christians who they worship, and 100 of them would say “God.”

  • Vizbones

    What do I believe?

    I believe I’ll have another drink…

  • Kathy Strawn

     Actually I think if you asked 100 Christian who they worship a majority would say “Jesus Christ”…

  • Yea, probably…

    But I can imagine none of them would say “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” except within a group of a large number of other Jewish terms.

  • Brian Macker

    To believe something is to think it is true. I can think about those things without thinking them true.

  • Brian Macker

    … And some of us know that no one ever should use capitalization of the word god when the phrase “a god” is used. Not even theists capitalize in that case.

  • Edmond

    Since it is confusing, as you admit, the better approach is not to capitalize the word, to avoid the confusion.  I do capitalize Athena, Anubis, Thor and Quetzalcoatl, because those are proper names.  But they are all gods, too, and “god” is a common noun.  It’s not capitalized for them, so I don’t see why any other gods should get the privilege.

    In any case, the argument that this god’s name is “God” doesn’t address the capitalization of “he”, “him”, “lord”, etc etc.  We don’t capitalize any of those words for Thor and pals.  There’s no reason for non-Christians to honor that practice.  Pronouns and common nouns get lower-case letters from me, “god” included.

  • Brian Macker

    Please explain. I didn ‘t think his statement was responsive to what he was criticizing because plausible and possible are two different things. I interpreted his statement as injecting the new assumption that all gods are impossible. The sentence you quoted I believe is true even if his entire chain of reasoning isn’t valid. Something is either possible or impossible. If possible there can be shades of plausibility or probability. However if you are claiming something is impossible it is not possible, and if possible it is not impossible.

  • Brian Macker

    Name something that is both possible and impossible.

  • Brian Macker

    “Only humans can solve human challenges”

    What about seeing eye dogs and helper monkeys?

  • Brian Macker

    Well at least us pendants will accept help from those purported helpful E.T.s if they ever show up. People who actually believe in that statement will refuse to accept the wisdom of the book “To Serve Man”. Obviously the statement is false if you know about guide dogs.

  • Brian Macker

    It’s only a pet peeve for me when people try to use it as an indication for whether something is good for you or not. Like thinking that herbal medicine is good because it is natural and forgetting that many plant poisons are natural. Or assuming human activities are bad merely because on one definition of the word natural it distinguishes man made from occurring by the forces of nature.

  • Brian Macker

    Are hypothetical mathematical proofs something we discover “in nature”. What about the latest acne move? Is that something we discover “in nature”. Is Christianity natural? Is beastiality natural. Not by certain definitions of the word natural. We have to use the intended definition of the speaker. I agree that under certain definitions of natural, all these things are natural. Under others no.

    Obviously someone who is being critical of religion that says there is no such thing as the supernatural is intending to use a definition of natural were that claim excludes the existence of any god. He’s not using a definition that would classify a demon popping into existence as natural occurrence just because it happened ( as you are).

  • Brian Macker

    LOL”acne” was supposed to be “dance”. Thank you IPad for helping me with that typo. It is so much better than missing the D in “ance”.

  • Brian Macker

    I’ve heard Jehovah quite a bit from Christians. Ever hear of a Jehovah’s witness? … Or is it Jehovah witness?

  • Brian Macker

    I stand corrected by google.

  • ReginaldJooald

    Yeah, but we can use different meanings and separate them contextually. Because that’s what we do, that’s how language works. “Belief” in this sense is obviously “considers to be true” (regardless of whether or not you consider it to be true because of evidence or not), and that seems to be the most common definition anyways. 

    We already have a word for “considers to be true without requiring evidence”, and that’s “faith”. That’s even the word that religious folks use.

  • ReginaldJooald

    “natural” as in “the natural world vs. the supernatural world”, not as in “artificial vs. natural”. Artificial vs. natural is a extremely sketchy line to try to draw, anyways. I’ve never liked it.

  • Anonymous

    The list sounds fine to me. Except for the item that says “only humans can solve human problems.” I’ll side with the other commenters on that one.

    There also seems to be a bit of disagreement about prophecy vs. prediction. Prediction is quite possible (albeit, not 100% failproof, depending on the facts available.) Prophecy is a load of hooey. It’s nothing more than a clever prediction or lucky guess cloaked in the language of the ‘supernatural’.

  • Can we add “be a decent human being” to the list?

  • Nordog

    Sounds like a tautology.

  • Anonymous

    While we’re on the subject, I offered to ask around for a philosopher on another blog. She’s doing a study on people’s perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of a number of arguments for& against the existence of god. Off the top of my head, Anselm’s ontological argument is in there, Pascal’s Wheel of Forever, Paley, Hume’s Argument From Poor Design, and others.

    I found that my smattering of first&second year courses in religious philosophy were adequate to assess most of the arguments. She prefers to hear from philosophers at the grad level and above, but she’ll take non philosopher respondents as well; atheists, agnostics and theists alike.

    The main difficulty that she’s discovered with approaching on-line philosophers is that the overwhelming majority of them are male. I decided to try gathering some respondents here, because Hemant has a refreshing number of female commenters on this blog. I am also pleased that so many people from so many levels of education can discuss views with real-world relevance, without any of the pedantry and social one-upping that happen in other debates about religion or the lack thereof.

    The questionnaire is here:


    Thank you 🙂

  • Kimpatsu

    I disagree with the statement that we can only speculate about the causes of the Big Bang. We get closer to understanding the nature of singularities every day. The solution will be exquisitely mathematical, but for now dwell on the fact that the cause is NATURAL.

  • Brian Macker

    So if we find something from the supernatural world, like God then he’d be have to be like any other force in the universe? I’m pretty sure he’d be considered “outside nature”.

  •  Why should I? I never claimed something can be both possible and impossible.

  • Yes, possibility and impossibility are mutually exclusive. I wasn’t disputing that.

  • Hitch

    Well I certainly disagree with the first two. But I actually kind of disagree with all. For example religions are very likely man-made. The evidence for that is overwhelming. Similarly the big-bang theory is well supported. But that doesn’t mean that other competing theories are not allowable or possible. Or that one can “only” think in the context of the big-bang theory. This is just an attempt to sneak in dogmatism again, mischaracterizing positions that are held for reasons quite different and with attitudes quite different than “belief” or rigidity.

    Some of these are also merely linguistic or definitional. Such as the one about ethics. If I am doing something that helps you we can label that ethical. Clearly doesn’t require anything except me helping. So at beast we can have semantic, definition or word games over this.

  • Prophecy is less plausible than God makes little sense. The Hopi prophecies are interesting, for example. They are more of a mass psychology with prophetic elements. (Of course, REAL atheists will probably roll their eyes at any such mention and disregard this post without actually considering it – that’s called ‘science’ these days, unfortunately).

    The Hopi say that if all humans forsake the way of peace, then there will be terrible war. It’s a virtual tautology, but in this deluded and myopic age, it IS prophecy.

    There are more specific elements, which are interesting. When spiderwebs across the land (electric wires?), rivers of stone, horses on wheels, and a ‘dwelling place will fall from the heavens’ (skylab fell in 198?). Maybe it’s bunk, but a real, open-minded scientist will look into it, rather than knee-jerk reaction. Unfortunately, most scientific atheists are pretty closed-minded these days.

    Check out the blog/book Buddha is an Atheist – misterkel.wordpress.com for more discussion on similar ideas.

  •  I believe that, while perfect knowledge may be impossible, really, very probable, pretty good knowledge is available to everyone.

    There’s no excuse for substituting belief when knowledge is there for the taking.

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