Every so often we start a discussion somewhere about who is and who isn’t an atheist. PZ Mackers has the poster shown below up on his blog:
I want to look at the term and associated meanings of “atheist” and cognate terms, because the way I taxonomise the world, only two of those guys are possibly atheists. Sagan and Hemingway, maybe. I don’t know much about them; but Jefferson, Franklin, Darwin were all deists; Lincoln a theist (though not an orthodox Christian), and also Clemens (unless that’s Tom Selleck), and Einstein a “Spinozan theist”.
Atheism has a number of conflicting definitions on the web, many from American contexts. There is a “definition” of atheist that I call the American definition: anyone who doesn’t accept orthodox Christianity, Judaism, or Islam is an atheist. Of course this makes Mormons and Hindus atheists, which is just silly.
The problem goes back to the Greeks as well. When Socrates was condemned, one of the charges was atheism, which in the Greek context meant “not accepting the gods as believed by Greeks”. Epicurus was also called an atheist for holding that the gods are real, but that they have no interest in human affairs. In the so-called Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – one is an atheist if one denies the god of that particular religion, and Epicurus and Epicureans were the atheists par excellence (even though they still continued to believe in their distant deities). To call somebody an Epicurean was to assert their atheism, and what is more, that they thought everything depended only on chance (which is a gross mischaracterisation of the Epicurean “swerve“, a chance event that got things going once). Critics of Darwin called his ideas “Epicureanism”.
As I have argued before, atheism wasn’t even possible as a general philosophical claim until the eighteenth century: that is, the claim that there are no gods of any kind anywhere. But widespread atheism began in the nineteenth century, so claiming Franklin or Jefferson as atheists makes as much sense as claiming Newton as a creationist – the terms simply didn’t mean then what they do today, if they meant anything at all.
Let’s look at the term itself. Much is often made of the prefix a-. Many people say something like this: “a-theism” means ‘without gods’ so anyone who lives their life as if there are no gods is an atheist (and this includes agnostics and deists”. But apart from the non sequitur about living one’s life in a particular way (I think there may be a Higgs boson. I don’t think that changes the way I live my life), as if an interventionist god is the defining trait of a deity (again, the American definition in play), there’s a misreading of the prefix. It is what is called the privative a or the alpha privative or worse, a privativum. We’re in technical territory here, so a word about privation.
In Aristotle’s works, he wrote the about privation as the denial of some positive thing (see the Categories here, section 10) and he rejected the idea that privation is a subject for investigation in the Metaphysics (Book IV). What this means in this case is basically this: if you have a class of things, find some positive aspect in that class (say, gods or god-believers) the remainder, or complement as it is called in set theory, is not itself a positive class. So if “belief” is the class, “theism” is a part of that class, “deism” is a part of that class, “Spinozan theism” is a part of that class, and so on. “Atheism” is the rest of that class, with no “positive” property to bind all members together. But Let us suppose there is a positive belief claim being made: that no gods exist anywhere. So now “atheism” is a part of the set “belief”. Agnosticism, being the lack of belief of any kind, is now the privative set.
But if a-theism is the privation of theisms rather than the positive denial of gods, then it, too, has no class, so to speak. So what you count as the positive claims in the set “belief”, as well as the scope of the set “belief” itself, determines what you are going to call “a-theism”. The American definition has it that “theism” only applies to a restricted and historically contingent (in that country no less) set of religions, so that things that do not fall into that set of “permissible religions” is atheism. The new atheists want to claim anyone who fails to fall into a slightly larger set of historical religions is an atheist. Agnostics like me want to claim that atheism is a positive claim, and that the complement of the set once all religions and positive metaphysical claims about gods are excised, and that includes deism, Spinozan theism, pantheism, panentheism, polytheism and animism, what is left is nothing. Agnosticism is not part of the set “belief”, but outside it. Some atheists think that atheism too is outside the set “belief”.
Let’s be clear about one thing – “belief” here doesn’t mean “faith” or “lack of reason”. Reasonable beliefs, like the existence of the real world, are beliefs nonetheless. All knowledge is belief. “Belief” here just means something one wants to claim is true, or warranted, or the best one can think, and so on.
So the outcome of all this? Well I think it is that atheism, properly understood, is a positive belief: that no gods exist. That means that although I think there is no reason to believe in gods, I am not an atheist because I don’t think there’s any reason not to (for suitable deities that make no empirical difference). If atheists want to use a privative conception, however, so as to include all those who do not make a positive declaration of the reality of some deities, this means that “atheism” is not a category as such, but is defined now and forever by what it does not believe, gods. In that case, atheism becomes whatever is not currently considered a mainstream belief, which as I understand it sort of undercuts what most atheists of my acquaintance want to do with their beliefs. They tend to think of it as a positive thing, of being reasonable.
So I think there’s a bit of a conundrum here for atheists. Either they have to make a positive claim and exclude agnostics and soi disant deists, or they have to accept they are defined by the religion du jour. I think they need to separate the positive claims from the mere lack of a belief in deities. Atheism is, in my view (and that of lexicographers and philosophy of religion) a positive belief. It asserts that gods do not exist. Anything else simply isn’t atheism. But that’s my taxonomy…