Atheism and Naturalism: Atheists Should Focus on Naturalism and Science

Atheism is Distinguished from Theism by its Naturalism and Naturalistic Approach

Many atheists object to the labels "atheist" and "atheism" for who they are and what they believe. They don't object because such labels inaccurate — they don't dispute that they don't believe in any gods. They object to the labels because they don't regard disbelief in gods as important enough to warrant its own label or any special attention. It is argued that it would be better if they were described based on what they do believe: specifically their naturalistic approach to life.

This is not an unreasonable perspective to adopt. Not believing in elves or ghosts doesn't get a special label or extra attention, so why should not believing in gods? Most atheists don't believe in elves or ghosts any more than they believe in gods, but they aren't called a-elvists or a-ghostists. If disbelief in gods, elves, ghosts, and similar things all proceed from the same underlying approach to life and nature, then perhaps it makes more sense to use that as the basis for a label which encompasses so much more than merely disbelief in one alleged type of being.

On the other hand, it's also true that people who believe in beings like ghosts and elves don't have a special label, nor do we find such believers going around trying to promote these beliefs and telling people that they will be punished or cannot be moral for not believing in elves or ghosts. Since there is a special term for believing in gods and since belief in gods is treated by believers with such political, moral, and social significance, it's not fair to say that it is no more deserving of attention and a label than belief in elves or ghosts.

There may be no difference from an atheist's perspective, and in theory perhaps they should all be treated the same, but the social and political differences that exist cannot be denied.

Nevertheless, it is legitimate for atheists to say that a label which focuses on what they do believe and how they do approach the world has more relevance than a label that merely references a single thing they don't believe.

This is why some atheists prefer to use the label "naturalist" because they regard the universe as an entirely natural place, governed by natural laws, and without any room for supernatural elements such as gods, ghosts, angels, demons, spirits, etc.

It's no coincidence that such a naturalistic perspective looks so much like science: modern atheism has developed alongside modern science, and the scientific method has come to provide so many benefits to our world. Skeptical, naturalistic atheists adopt a scientific approach to not only religious and theistic claims, but all paranormal and supernatural claims. The reason is simple: this approach has proven to be the most effective in separating truth from falsehood when it comes to empirical claims about the world around us.

Not all atheists are consistent, thoroughgoing naturalists, but a significant number of those in the West are and it would be legitimate if they preferred to describe themselves as naturalists rather than atheists. They might be able to avoid the problem with religious theists claiming that atheism is a religion, ideology, or belief system, making it easier for them to promote a naturalistic philosophy and belief system above the supernaturalist belief systems of most major religions.

Naturalism for the atheists discussed here is a belief system (though not a religion) and can be contrasted with supernaturalistic religions. Indeed, atheists might even make the distinction between themselves and others more clear by using the term "supernaturalist" to describe people whose beliefs — whether religious or not — include supernatural beings, forces, events, or realms.

This may be reasonable because it would make it clear that those who believe in supernatural things believe in something above and beyond what everyone — including the believer — accepts in the natural world. Supernaturalists are making a claim for something extra, be it gods, ghosts, angels, demons, or whatever. It's not up to the naturalists to prove that there are natural forces at work producing natural, testable, and repeatable events.

It's up to the supernaturalists to provide clear and convincing evidence that there are supernatural beings or forces producing supernatural events.

People's supernatural beliefs can be very important to them, but that importance isn't a reason not to have to justify, support, or explain them. Supernatural beliefs, if true, have significant implications for the world and the people in it; yet the mere possibility of significant implications is not by itself sufficient reason to take those beliefs seriously or treat them as respectable. First, supernaturalists must demonstrate that there is something to their beliefs and that there are good reasons to think that the beliefs are at least plausibly true. Otherwise, those beliefs are like the emperor parading around in his birthday suit.