Is Atheism the same as Critical or Rational Thinking? Should atheists organise around atheism or around the ideas of rational thinking? It's a debate that crops up regularly in atheist circles. My view is that atheism and rational thinking are closely related but distinct things. Atheists should not therefore simply organise under a banner of "rational thinking" or "critical thinking".
Atheism at it's most basic is simply defined as an absence of belief in a god - any god of any kind. There can never be absolute proof or disproof of the existence of god. The non belief of Atheists is, in it's deepest roots, always a conclusion that rests on probabilities. Atheists see no evidence for the existence of a god and are unafraid to conclude that there is no probability worth speaking of that there is a God. Absence of evidence though is not conclusive evidence of absence. It does not prove that God is absent - it merely makes it highly unlikely that there is a God.
For most people who choose Atheism ( and few Atheists were brought up as Atheists) the lack of absolute proof either way is not a problem. Atheists by and large in my experience generally understand that the realm of absolute proof doesn't apply to the real world. The idea that humans may not posses the absolute truth is not one that many religious believers, and particularly fundamentalist literalists, are comfortable with. Their faith rests on believing that they have been handed down absolute truths - that our ancestors had dealings with gods and that we have been handed down holy works which contain absolute truths.
So atheism and rational or critical thinking are very closely related but even so I think it would be misleading to wholly equate the two. It is entirely possible for an Atheist to be less than rational on other issues.
The essential elements of critical or rational thinking is a willingness to examine arguments rationally and, importantly, a willingness to change your views if the evidence points in another direction.
This is the essential contrast between rational thinking and most fundamentalist type religious thinking. For believers faith is the key - not evidence. Religious faith without faith becomes merely the following of ceremonies and rules. The religious believer must have faith if they are to believe and faith is not the same as evidence.
Just like an atheist may be rational in their atheism but not rational on other subjects then also a god believer may be irrational in that respect but perfectly rational in the way they think about other issues.
A prime example of this is the way that most of the mainstream churches have accommodated to science over the last few hundred years. As the evidence about the real nature of the earth, the universe and man's place in it has stacked up so most non-fundmantalist believers have accepted this evidence.
If atheists try to grab for themselves the "rational thinking" label then we deny the rationality of the many millions of people around the world who are rational enough to understand basic scientific evidence and theories but who happen also to be less than rational in their god believing.
For me Atheism is the rational conclusion that I come to when I consider the evidence for and against the existence of a god - any god. I am also anti - religious because again I think that on balance religion is a more destructive force in the world than a constructive one. Not all religions or religious views however are equally damnable. I know that I share many political and ethical views with moderate believers of different faiths. There are also atheists whose political and ethical views I may not share.
Essentially Atheism is a subset of rational or critical thinking. It is rational or critical thinking as applied narrowly to one question - the existence or non existence of a god - any god.