Monday, 28 January 2013

Responding to Ricky Gervais: Is Atheism a belief system?

This is a re-post of an article first published on the Reason Blog here.

This is a quote from Ricky Gervais’ article ‘Does God exist?’ which can be found on the online Wall St Journal here:

“Atheism isn’t a belief system. I have a belief system but it’s not “based on” atheism, it’s just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby.”

Not going skiing is also a hobby of mine, along with not singing, not acting and not reading romance novels. In fact, I have vastly more ‘don’t do’ hobbies, than ‘do do’ hobbies, understandably. So yes, Ricky of course is right to say it’s absurd to call not-doing something a ‘hobby’.

But does that really compare to believing, or not-believing, in something? With hobbies you have a choice whether or not you engage in them. But everyone has a belief system; no-one can choose not to have one, whether that be ‘God doesn’t exist’, ‘I don’t know if God exists’, ‘I don’t think it important to know if God exists’, ‘I believe God exists’, or ‘I believe the Gods exist’. Therefore it is a category mistake to compare hobbies with belief systems, because they are not actions that are alike, nor could they be described as having similar properties or effects.

It is a strange assertion that atheism is not a belief system. Does Ricky not believe that God doesn't exist? If he does, then it is a belief system, surely? I understand that this question was raised in a famous debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, which can be found here. However, I also understand that ‘belief system’ is commonly associated with faith, as dictionaries will tell you (although, they will also state it is ‘faith based on a series of beliefs but not formalized into a religion; also, a fixed coherent set of beliefs prevalent in a community or society **, and a little anthropological or sociological online research would reveal many such devoted Atheist communities). Even so, perhaps it is better to describe Atheism as a ‘worldview,’ and as such it is ‘a collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group’***

Christianity is a more detailed worldview than atheism for sure, i.e. it is more prescriptive, and therefore Christians will tend to have more in common with one another regarding moral, social and artistic choices than perhaps atheists will have. However, this does not detract from the fact that as a worldview, Atheism will have an effect on the choices of those who subscribe to it.

So, can you really have a worldview that doesn’t effect your decisions, moral, social or artistic? I hope you forgive me some sweeping generalisations, but I would say that one’s beliefs regarding euthanasia, abortion, sexual ethics and many other issues are often* intricately connected to one’s worldview. Not believing in the existence or God radically changes the moral dynamics of one’s choice to be, for example, for-euthanasia, or against-euthanasia (although, of course, a believer and not believer could both come to be pro-euthanasia, but my point here is that the moral complexities for the two are different because of what they believe).

Therefore I have to disagree with Ricky on this; it seems unsupportable to claim that one’s worldview does not effect one’s decisions. It always will.


*Of course this is not always the case, but I’d wager for the vast majority it is.
** here
*** Online dictionary here


  1. Ruth, I totally agree with you. If we let the use of the "nones" label and message take hold, we are accepting that atheism requires no intellectual justification. But it is a positive belief and does require rational support. (More here: Thanks for the clear response to Ricky Gervais!

  2. great post - I have a friend who prefers to be called "non-religious" because he thinks this implies that he has no belief system etc. but doesn't see that even a non-religious worldview is a worldview (with subsequent decision making impact).

  3. Not a bad response to Ricky's comment. Atheism is indeed a worldview, and as such, is made up of beliefs about the world and the universe etc as you say. And we do indeed live according to our worldviews.

    My only comment on your post is that in your closing paragraph you say:
    "Therefore I have to disagree with Ricky on this; it seems unsupportable to claim that one’s worldview does not effect one’s decisions. It always will."

    Whilst I agree with your closing point, in your opening quote nowhere does Ricky make this direct claim, ie: that worldviews DON'T impact our decisions.
    In a round about way, he is actually affirming your point.

    He says he makes "none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions."

    Which means he makes all his decisions based on a worldview that there is no God. Which is in accordance with his belief, and your point that a worldview does impact and affect one's decisions. Whether that is one that allows for God or not.

  4. Ruth thank you for this article and your readiness to respond to this matter.

    I am curious as to why someone would label themselves in terms of what they don't believe. I don't believe in reincarnation, but I don't call myself an 'anti-reincarnationist'. I would like to ask atheist friends what they actually do believe in. I anticipate they might call themselves 'naturalist' or 'humanist', but with less enthusiasm than 'atheist'. I think modern philosophy has caused problems for the more positive 'isms' and there seems to be more energy in opposing and ridiculing something than defending a belief.

    That's something I realise I struggle with. I should be promoting the love of Christ when I, so often, just knock atheists.

    God bless you all.

  5. Thanks for your comments and encouragements.

    The idea that atheism is an absence of belief is a little odd to me (such as the idea of being ‘anti-religious’ or ‘anti-reincarnation’ as you’ve highlighted above). Atheism is a belief about God just as much as Christianity is. The fact that I don’t believe in reincarnation is a part of my worldview just as much as is my belief that God exists.

    Basically, lets say that ‘negative’ belief is what I believe doesn’t exist/is not true, and ‘positive’ belief is what I believe does exist/is true.

    I’ve always understood worldviews to contain both positive and negative beliefs, which, I’d wager, is always the case with worldviews. And so, I find the Atheism-is-not-a-worldview argument, or even Atheism-is-not-a-belief system (although to a lesser degree, as I’ve stated in my article) odd.

  6. Saying atheism isn't a belief system is like holding your breath; you're not breathing, its uncomfortable, and eventually you become an oxygen thief.


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