Being religious is much more than just a belief in god(s). Many people who claim to be atheist actually believe some very odd things. Here is your guide to distinguishing the mix. Are you a non-believer for all these, or just some?
Level 1 – Divinity
Do you believe in god(s)? Forget the Dawkins scale1, it’s a simple question, if you can’t answer it “no” then you’re not an atheist, and you don’t need to go any further on this list. If you think there might be god(s), or haven’t made up your mind, then you can call yourself something other than an atheist. Gods are not necessarily all powerful, but they are supernatural beings with independent or self-determined causation and determinism – meaning that they can make their own decisions, and are not required to act in any certain way, nor can they be controlled by humans. Humans can appeal to them, worship them, ignore them, placate them, or trade with them giving gifts or offerings in exchange for material or spiritual benefits. They can be all powerful, or even just mildly more potent than humans in certain things. Also, not all of them are immortal.
Level 2 – Spirituality
Do you believe in angels, human spirits, souls, ghosts, poltergeists, jinn, nature spirits, demons, possession, astral projections, etc.? Basically, this level covers everything that exists in what is usually called the supernatural, which is simply anything not proven to exist. Frankly, if you can’t put it in a zoo, but you still believe it exists, then you don’t make it to this level. It never fails to surprise me how many atheists I meet who believe in ghosts, souls, and other oddities. It’s like Arthur Conan Doyle writing about the clear thinking Sherlock Holmes, while at the same time being immersed in spiritualism and a belief in fairies. These things are no different than gods, except that people usually ascribe a natural causation for them. I heard someone once claiming that they were spawned by the Earth’s natural background radiation level, or even cosmic rays. A claim to being part of our normal world, and evolving within it, but being ephemeral or unknowable, somehow makes it better? How many times have I heard that souls and ghosts are a natural result of our human consciousness created by our brains? Look, if it stores information, it has to be a form of physical construct, unless all our physics is rubbish, so it could be found – but it hasn’t been, and won’t be until the Standard Model has been overthrown2.
Level 3 - Superstition
Superstition covers all manner of unconscious but still supernatural actions and reactions, like lucky charms (such as Buddha charms, rabbit feet, or Japanese Omamori), unlucky numbers (like 13 in the Christian West, or 4 in cultures influenced by China), unlucky activities (walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror in the West), lucky activities (like crawling through a temple pillar hole, kissing the Blarney stone, or crawling under a temple floor), unlucky occurrences (like having a black cat cross your path), unlucky colors (wearing funeral white in the East, or the wrong color on certain days in Thailand – which is why so many people drive silver, white or black cars to avoid being in a wrong color car on the wrong day), etc. All these things could be tested and statistically proven to be no more or no worse than any other occurrence. They are considered to be unconscious agents of supernatural impact, delivering “luck” or “misfortune” according to their nature. Sometimes, the impact can be mitigated, misdirected, or amplified, depending on the action of the affected party.
Some people would put things like homeopathy, astrology, acupuncture, traditional medicines, osteopathy, chiropractors, fortune telling, and tarot reading all into this category as well. (Faith healing and exorcism are in Level 1 or 2, as that relies on the intervention of a third party supernatural being to affect the cure.) Now, all the foregoing have some placebo level of success, and there are a few cases where the treatment is indeed marginally beneficial towards the ailment. But for all their broad claims, they are unsubstantiated for the most part and any confidence in their efficacy is no different than the blind faith in a charm, talisman, or fortune teller.
Level 4 - Quantum-something
Quantum mechanics is somewhat mind bending in its implications, as they are so far afield from our conscious understanding of our world3. But quantum mechanics is fundamentally a part of physics derived from a series of core mathematical formulas4. It’s not metaphysics, nor is it in any way philosophical. There are a number of ways in which certain experimental results can be “explained” or interpreted in language other than the language of mathematics, but the “true” explanation is always the mathematical one.
Most people who ascribe extra-natural events to this source usually do so on a totally different basis than how physics is actually practiced. Yes, there are theoreticians who ponder the existence of multiple universes, or realities which “collapse” into the current reality once a triggering “observation” has occurred, but these do not manifest themselves on any level that a human being unaided by technology could ever encounter. Over the years, I’ve seen virtually everything ascribed to some utterly unsupported “quantum” effect, like pyramid power, enhanced cognitive skills, influences on future events, personal auras, enhancing “luck” of some form or another (although it’s usually couched in the language of probabilities), and so forth. Some of them sound like a fantasy world created by Roger Zelazny, known as the Amber Chronicles, where certain beings can collapse different states of potentiality into “reality”.
Often, these complex concepts from physics are mixed with notions of consciousness. The only thing worse than mischaracterizing one field of science is to combine it with another mischaracterized area, in say biology or psychiatry (which some people might partially put into Level Three with good reason, since there is still no physical test for almost all psychiatric conditions diagnosed by physicians). Deepak Chopra’s works, which frankly I’ve found unreadable, but which are wildly popular, fall squarely into this category of pretentious quasi-science quackery.
There are some interesting books out there by reputable physicists which do raise some of these issues5, but none of them is in the form of a self-help book. There are no formulas for how to collapse a meaningful waveform (that was what Schrodinger’s famous cat6 was all about) in real life. And the toxic mix of physics and metaphysics is about as useful as contemplating the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin. When someone comes up with a mathematical formula which you can use to change your circumstances, get a good night’s sleep, or change your mental attitude, then it’s real science – but not before.
Level 5 - The Force
This is the most frustrating one to encounter. It’s the belief in “something” or in Spinoza’s “nature” god. Perhaps it’s gained popularity from the “Star Wars” series, and people just like the idea of all life being connected, in a sort of “feel-good-about-nature” and “have-wild-sex-with-the-blue-sexy-natives” “Avatar” (the movie) sense. (Just on a personal note, I really hate movies where lower tech societies defeat high tech ones7 – maybe it makes people feel good at some level, but then so does Santa Claus.)
In any event, it’s still a belief in something utterly unsubstantiated, no matter how “at one” you feel with life and the universe when you’re feeding the squirrels in the park. No, it’s not an anthropomorphic or personified “god”, and yes it’s sort of like the Hindu concept of Brahman, or Nirvana in some Buddhist doctrines, but that is not exactly an endorsement. Having compassion for all other life is indeed laudable, but you don’t need to go the extra step to justify this conviction by imbibing some cosmic intoxicant. And no, there is no “quantum consciousness” (see Level 4 above).
Level 6 – None of the Above
You’re totally free of any supernatural or unquantifiable beliefs about causation in your personal universe. Your morality is consistent with your own personal philosophy, and you don’t carry good luck charms, except for sentimental value. Congratulations.
So, where do you stand on the Atheist scale? No gods, but ghosts? No soul but good old Mother Nature? Being an atheist is just one step on the road to adopting a questioning attitude towards life. For a great many of the questions that humans crave answers for, there are no objective answers. Sometimes you have to be brave enough to walk in the darkness, knowing that you don’t know what’s there, as opposed to walking in with your imaginary friend or lucky talisman.
1 Richard Dawkins’ Belief Scale Scoring Rubric
- Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
- De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
- Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
- Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
- Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
- De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
- Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.
2 See http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/dont-ask-dont-tell-soul
3 Cf. Roland Omnes’ “Quantum Philosophy” (2002).
5 One of my favorite is Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” (2014).
6 See “In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality” by John Gribbon if you’re interested.
7 Unless it’s about the British defeat at Isandlwana in 1879. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/zulu_01.shtml