Evolving Thoughts

What is atheism?

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:

atheism_good_enough.gif

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…

Comments

  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    August 1, 2008

    What religion am I? None. How many past lives have I had? None. What tradition of astrology do I believe in? None. I don’t sing, dance, or play a musical instrument, so what kind of performer am I? None.

    I don’t see any conundrum for me. I don’t participate in any of those recreations.

  2. #2 Sigmund
    August 1, 2008

    I was a little confused by your “American definition”. Do you mean the definition that most (meaning religious) Americans give to the word? Its certainly nothing close to anything I’ve heard from an American atheist themselves but I’ve frequently heard it from religious types (for instance when describing Hitler or some church figure who has been found guilty of some terrible crime they are frequently described as atheists – because Christians wouldn’t do anything nasty like that!).
    I suppose it all boils down to a question of semantics. Most self described atheists I know could, I suppose, also be described as agnostics. They don’t claim to be 100% sure there is no God but ‘believe’ or accept the evidence clearly points in that direction.
    I get your point regarding trying to describe something positive but perhaps we need a new word entirely as nothing at the moment seems to fit. I describe myself as an atheist (or more often as a secular humanist) yet I don’t doubt that Stalin or Mao could also be accurately described as atheist although there’s very little commonality in our outlook on the world – compared to atheists like PZ Myers or Larry Moran whose publicized metaphysical views are probably similar to my own and probably a lot of other atheists.

  3. #3 Jud
    August 1, 2008

    John, it strikes me that in your vocation you wish to be rather precise about definitions/taxonomy in this area, while the scientists who like being very precise in their own areas of expertise (e.g., Larry Moran, PZ) would prefer things a bit looser and more easygoing here. Perhaps (I speculate) they’d like to identify “atheism” as closely as possible with “those in favor of knowing through evidence and reason.”

  4. #4 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    August 1, 2008

    Well, good. Now as an atheist I have an even better reason to reject the term “Bright.” I’ll go with atheism as being a positive belief. In the end I don’t have to worry about you trying to drag me to church or a temple, and that’s all that matters to me.

  5. #5 HP
    August 1, 2008

    Every time this discussion comes up, you keep talking about philosophy. But everybody else in the room is talking about politics.

  6. #6 John Farrell
    August 1, 2008

    PZ has a pretty liberal definition of atheist. I guess I’m one now!

    Drinks all around!

  7. #7 yttrai
    August 1, 2008

    Well, for good or bad, discussion is rampant because of what Myers started. (I don’t claim it’s all rational either.)

    Pretty much every person on that poster came up last night as my SO and i tried to find common ground between my firm agnosticism and his deism or theism, depending on who’s doing the defining.

    Even time spent debating the finer points like nomenclature is worthwhile, IMHO, because every time someone makes a valid, rational point and someone else reads it, education, communication, and greater understanding have occurred. I know i’m a naive filthy hippie, but in my book that’s of great value.

    Excellent post. I’ll be saving it for later re-reading and digestion.

  8. #8 Richard Eis
    August 1, 2008

    I’m non-religious. So much less hassle. Or not-superstitious if i’m feeling bitchy.

  9. #9 John Morales
    August 1, 2008

    Dare I bring up the obvious point that the poster represents an appeal to authority, which is not particularly rational but may nonetheless influence the general populace?

    I guess I do.

  10. #10 Dunc
    August 1, 2008

    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).

    My approach is that if the existence or non-existence of any given deity (or indeed anything else) makes no empirical difference, then the only parsimonious position is to assume that it doesn’t exist. Otherwise, you could propose infinite numbers of deities (or sub-atomic particles, or whatever) which cancel each other out, and there would be no possible way of determining the truth-value of the claim. You’re essentially arguing for the abandonment of parsimony here.

    But then, in my taxonomy, agnosticism is simply a form of atheism that dare not speak its name… ;)

  11. #11 John S. Wilkins
    August 1, 2008

    Every time this discussion comes up, you keep talking about philosophy. But everybody else in the room is talking about politics.

    How’s that working out for you?

  12. #12 sdg
    August 1, 2008

    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.

    I don’t really agree with this thinking. When we describe history, aren’t the definitions of the words we use in the description the current definitions? And when they’re not, don’t we have to state that explicitly in order to avoid confusion? Also can’t we use words/ideas that didn’t exist at a particular time to describe something or someone from that time?

    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.

    does this mean that, by your taxonomy, agnosticism is not a category? do you see any problems with that? why must the privative conception be a lack of belief in only the mainstream gods?

  13. #13 raiko
    August 1, 2008

    I seriously dislike discussions about word meanings, especially when someone starts talking about when which word had what specific meaning in which context. This is a stupid macro and in some definition of the word “atheism” or interpretation of these people’s views, the term atheist applies. What the graphic most definitely means, however, ia that these people didn’t believe the crazy nonsense that we understand as theism today. And I think that’s the whole point the person who made this joke was trying to bring across. It’s great to see that other scientists waste their time discussing macros. Now, everyone, please go back to work.

  14. #14 John S. Wilkins
    August 1, 2008

    When we describe history, aren’t the definitions of the words we use in the description the current definitions? And when they’re not, don’t we have to state that explicitly in order to avoid confusion? Also can’t we use words/ideas that didn’t exist at a particular time to describe something or someone from that time?

    When we use modern terms to describe the past without understanding how ideas have changed, we rewrite history in our own image. It’s called Whiggism by historians. Atheists of the classical era are not very much like modern atheists at all, and you have to know that if you are going to avoid attributing to them ideas we now hold that they didn’t.

    I once helped teach history of astronomy. The worst students were the astronomy students and their close kin, because they simply couldn’t understand how intelligent people might once have meant something other than what modern astronomy teaches, so they assumed the people of the past were idiots. But understanding the ideas and contrasts of the day avoids that. Not everyone has always been, for example, a modern American…

  15. #15 outeast
    August 1, 2008

    Dittoish Dunc.

  16. #16 Charlie B.
    August 1, 2008

    John, although I’m living in Oz now, I spent the first 23 years of my life in the UK, and back there atheism very much meant “not believing in a god or gods”, rather than “believing there is no God”. I guess it’s the old “weak vs strong” atheist thing all over again, but it’s an important distinction – not believing in the supernatural, even thinking the balance of evidence makes the supernatural unlikely is still different to saying “I believe there is no God”, even if it results in the same outcome (not going to church, except possibly for weddings, funerals or to appreciate the architecture).

    Agnosticism and atheism are not exclusive in my lexicon, nor are they part of a continuum – agnosticism is a statement of knowability, atheism is a statement of belief. If you are a non-believer, you’re atheist in my book.

    Half the problem here is the whole “countries divided by a common language” thing. American, Australian and English have much in common, but enough to make them confusingly different too – try asking a yank if you can “bum a fag” off them and see the look on their face…

  17. #17 sdg
    August 1, 2008

    I’m non-religious. So much less hassle.

    Posted by: Richard Eis | August 1, 2008 8:58 AM

    that’s what i used to think too. but it turns out that the definition of religion may not be so clear either. now, this may not change the situation for you, but there might be some people who have a “system of beliefs held to with ardor” but do not believe in any gods.
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion

    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.

    something i forgot to ask in my previous post, why does this make them unreasonable? isn’t not believing in something because there is no reason to do so a way of being reasonable?

  18. #18 Jason Failes
    August 1, 2008

    Maybe I have an odd angle on this, being the product of at least three generations of godlessness, but I’ve come to atheism as a positive claim.

    The more I learned about the world growing up (and I wanted to learn everything) the more I stumbled upon a persistent pattern in nature.

    Everything from stellar evolution to biological evolution proceeds from relatively simple units to a state of complexity over time, the complex things being made out of the simple things added together (heavier elements are made up of fused lighter elements, multicellular organisms are made up of single cells, single cells in turn are made up of several previously independent single-celled organisms, and so on).

    So, quite naturally, I came to the conclusion that we live in a bottom-up universe, a “crane” universe rather than a “skyhook” universe, as Dawkins would put it.

    It wasn’t until after university that I first encountered people who genuinely believed in “skyhooks”, and not only believed, insisted.

    At first, I read the apologetics, but in addition to there being nothing in nature to point to their idea of a top-down universe, God only seemed to make the logical problems of origins worse, skipping out on explaining how the universe came to be by positing a preexisting complex powerful all-pervading conscious being.

    It just doesn’t make sense, in any form, really.

  19. #19 james
    August 1, 2008

    Neither Lincoln Franklin nor Jefferson were atheists.
    Lincoln believed in indulgences like the catholic.
    Jefferson and Franklin were Christian deists, they worshipped God and believed in Christianity, went to church, but believed Jesus was God’s messenger, not a deity.
    Einstein was not an atheist. He believed God existed but didnt like organized religion. He specifically disliked atheists using his name for their causes.

  20. #20 Bee
    August 1, 2008

    John S. W., IMO, you’ve written a good post here, most of which I agree with and some of which I need to think about.

    I describe myself as agnostic, because as I (and apparently, you) understand the word, that best fits my position. I’m always surprised to find quite a few people who define themselves as atheist consider agnosticism to be a weak, or wishy-washy, philosophy, when in fact it defines nicely what I believe and don’t believe.

  21. #21 John S. Wilkins
    August 1, 2008

    Jason, Dennett used the metaphor of skyhooks and cranes, not Dawkins.

  22. #22 jimmiejazz
    August 1, 2008

    More and more talk to further add to the confusion and questions. It’s really rather simple. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in any of the thousands of gods men have created. A theist believes in one or more gods. An atheist lacks that belief.

    One more point. An agnostic isn’t in some respectable middle ground. The agnostic admits lack of belief. That person is an atheist since belief is lacking.

  23. #23 ancientTechie
    August 1, 2008

    Perhaps, we need a new term for individuals who harbor no belief in supernatural entities or forces, due to the fact that no credible evidence for such things exists or appears likely to be discovered. Neither “atheist” nor “agnostic” suffices to describe the category and “non-supernaturalist” is just awkward. Any suggestions?

  24. #24 Sam C
    August 1, 2008

    Oh dear, are we seeing the birth of No Real Atheist bickering?

    Either [atheists] 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.

    No, that’s not correct unless you’re the Pope John I of the Atheist Church who can issue diktats that are binding on your flock.

    Atheists can say “I call myself an atheist, you can call yourself what you like”. And “well, I don’t care whether you think I’m an atheist or not”.

    Why the obsession with labels? Why try to define something called “atheism” rigorously when no such -ism (of the socialism, capitalism, antidisestablishmentarianism variety) exists? To be an atheist simply requires not believing in god(s), the fine detail is not important.

  25. #25 Jason Failes
    August 1, 2008

    John @ 21: “Jason, Dennett used the metaphor of skyhooks and cranes, not Dawkins.”

    Thanks, now I have a new author to read up on. Sweet Friday.

  26. #26 imr90
    August 1, 2008

    re: ancientTechie
    alternatives to “atheist” that might not provoke such antipathy:

    “philosophical naturalist” or “scientific pantheist”

  27. #27 brtkrbzhnv
    August 1, 2008

    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.

    Well, you’re quite plainly wrong. The definition of an atheist as ‘a person who does not believe in the existence of any deities’ neither excludes “agnostics” (weak atheists) nor depends upon what religions or beliefs are currently popular.

  28. #28 ancientTechie
    August 1, 2008

    imr90,

    “Philosophical naturalist” is a fine suggestion. Thank you!

  29. #29 Stephanie Z
    August 1, 2008

    I’m with Dunc too. I generally call myself a practical atheist; i.e., for all meanings of “deity” that reach beyond conceptual exercise, I haven’t seen any. More than that, everything I know of the world leaves such a deity very little room to operate.

    Sure, I could be wrong, but I certainly haven’t seen a better hypothesis. Until I do, I’m working with mine. And I’m not going to worry much about the label, because no matter what I call myself, I’m going to run into plenty of people who have an interest in using that to define me more narrowly than I define myself.

  30. #30 Steve
    August 1, 2008

    Raiko, quite being retarded. John is doing exactly what needs to be done in order to understand how and why these beliefs have come to be what they are today, which is actually quite important to many people. Yes, the poster may have been a joke, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a source of discussion to further knowledge and understanding.

  31. #31 sdg
    August 1, 2008

    Why the obsession with labels? Why try to define something called “atheism” rigorously when no such -ism (of the socialism, capitalism, antidisestablishmentarianism variety) exists? To be an atheist simply requires not believing in god(s), the fine detail is not important.

    Posted by: Sam C | August 1, 2008 10:20 AM

    the fine detail is not important to you, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t prevent others from thinking it’s important (unless you’re the Pope John I of the Church of What is Important). Some of us like to think about and discuss the details of what words mean. If we want to have a meaningful conversation about something, it helps to understand what someone means when they use certain words. In some conversations the details may be less important but in others they could change things significantly.

  32. #32 llewelly
    August 1, 2008

    You’ve made the case that agnosticism is not merely a lack of belief, but instead a positive denial of any possibility that the question can be answered.

  33. #33 Matt Heath
    August 1, 2008

    Doesn’t “agnostic” (at least sometimes) refer to a positive belief in the (either current of absolute) impossibility of gnosis?

    Certainly the quote of Huxley’s (who coined “agnosticism”) I’ve seen where he explains the term is along the lines of “Christians and materialists and so on claim they have reliable knowledge of what’s REALLY go on. I’m quite sure I don’t. I don’t believe any of them do either”

  34. #34 PZ Myers
    August 1, 2008

    Just to be clear — I thought that poster was very weird, in that most of the people on it wouldn’t have identified themselves as atheists at all. I tried to drop a hint in the first comment, and later pointed out that Darwin most definitely was not an atheist, but it doesn’t seem to have sunk in.

    And people wonder why argument on the internet is a blunt instrument, rather than a subtle exercise in irony…

  35. #35 DonE.
    August 1, 2008

    @ Charlie B. : I think you have it just right, and it’s important to explain atheism and agnosticism in epistemic terms. I think that defining atheism and agnosticism by the epistemic claims they make is a good way of seeing where they significantly overlap. If agnosticism is a statement of knowability, and atheism a statement of belief, then (at least for this philosophy student) the distinction is clear.

    I think it’s probably better, however, to refer to both groups in the political arena by a common label. Non-believer, despite going a little against what atheists actually assert, seems to fall enough in the middle to provide a good description for people who couldn’t tell epistemology from metaphysics.

  36. #36 John Pieret
    August 1, 2008

    I am an atheist. I don’t believe in any of the thousands of gods men have created. A theist believes in one or more gods. An atheist lacks that belief.

    One more point. An agnostic isn’t in some respectable middle ground. The agnostic admits lack of belief. That person is an atheist since belief is lacking.

    Okay. As an agnostic, I don’t believe or disbelieve in gods that, as John puts it, “make no empirical difference.” Thus, I hold that a god, such as the Christian god described by Ken Miller, who is interventionalist but in ways not empirically detectible, is a live possibility, even though I do not actively belive in him. Do you? If not, there is a difference in our positions that warrants a difference in terminology.

  37. #37 Jason
    August 1, 2008

    There seems to generally be two ways of looking at the matter – either there are tiny slivers of black and white on opposite ends of the spectrum (absolutist theists & atheists AKA the I KNOW people) with the vast majority of people who are willing to admit they may be wrong (the I BELIEVE people) falling in the grey middle of agnosticism, or there is a more gradiated scale – such as Dawkins’ 7-point scale – where there are varying degrees of each. I favor a gradiated approach.

    The definition given by the author seems to favor the black & white angle, which I think just confuses things. I happen to think it is illogical to assert that anything doesn’t exist, since you can’t prove a negative (although I admit that in the case of things like monsters under the bed, making such a statement does have practical purposes). In that case, the definition in this article insists that in order to be an atheist you must be willing to make a logical error.

    To say that atheists must assert that there is no god means a lot of people who don’t believe in god can’t claim the title. On the flip side, there would also be a lot of devout, church-going Christians who could not be considered theists unless they assert that God exists (as opposed to just believing he does). You’re left with a massive muddle of agnostics, where the good sense to not to assert that which you cannot prove is the only thing they have in common.

  38. #38 Aureola Nominee, FCD
    August 1, 2008

    Aren’t we discussing two orthogonal questions, here?

    Atheism concerns belief in one or more gods. Don’t you believe one or more gods exist? Then you’re an atheist.

    Agnosticism concerns knowledge of one or more gods. Do you claim not to know whether one or more gods exist? Then you’re an agnostic.

    So, you can have:

    non-agnostic atheists (“I KNOW FOR A FACT that no gods exist!”), i.e. strong atheists;

    agnostic atheists (“I don’t know whether any gods exist, but since there’s no evidence for them, I don’t think so”), i.e. weak atheists;

    agnostic theists (“God/s is/are unknowable, but I BELIEVE!”);

    non-agnostic theists (“I KNOW FOR A FACT that god/s exist/s!).

    Every time I see people talking naively of atheism/agnosticism/theism as if it were a monodimensional continuum, it reminds me of the similarly naive “right/left” description of political positions.

  39. #39 drb
    August 1, 2008

    I’m not so sure. By making atheism a positive claim, you are inviting the immediate and inevitable rejoinder, “Prove it”. Better the burden of flailing to prove the unprovable remain with the god-botherers.

  40. #40 Scholar
    August 1, 2008

    I doubt that god exists. I doubt that Peter Pan lives forever. There is a very small possibility that Santa Clause can fly. I consider myself an Atheist, for the sole reason that I have seen more evidence of Santa than Satan.

  41. #41 KeithB
    August 1, 2008

    To be fair, PZ pointed out that these folks were not strictly atheists in the second comment.

    Why he did not point it out in the post itself is a puzzlement.

    (Maybe they can say: “These folks did not believe Jesus Christ was God” and throw George Washington in there, too.

  42. #42 Brian Utterback
    August 1, 2008

    Well, James, I think those are pretty definitive claims about something that is not nearly so cut and dried. I have seen evidence that confirms and evidence that contradicts every one of those claims about every one of those men. The point of the poster is that every one of them has at one time or another left evidence of believing at one time or another something that fits some definition of the word “atheist”. Just what the word means is the whole topic of this discussion.

  43. #43 Matthew L
    August 1, 2008

    The focus of atheism is on metaphysics, while agnosticism is grounded more in epistemology. Some forms of agnosticism are compatible with atheism or theism, which complicates matters.

    The arguments seem to be based more in what is seen as more important, the epistemology of supernatural belief, or of the actual content of belief.

  44. #44 Will
    August 1, 2008

    Atheism – the idea that no god or gods actually exist – must be met with scientific scrutiny. Just as it is most likely impossible to prove the existence of god or the truthiness of any religion, it is equally impossible to disprove their existence and truth. To make a claim either way is to summon the demons of impossibility and pave the way for endless debhate amongst and between theists and atheists.

    Agnostics are merely spectators of the philosophical argumentation between the two, convinced that neither side can be proven nor disproven.

    If someone is to make a claim that religion is wrong and no gods exist, that would, in fact, be a positive claim (a claim which bears the burden of proof). Atheists, having to prove their claim, are now “in the same boat” as theists and, since they are making a claim based on their unprovable ideals rather than on reality, are setting up a system of belief on disbelief.

  45. #45 darek
    August 1, 2008

    The question is not what is atheism, the question is what deity or supernatural force are we talking about? To that question I may closely consider how I choose to describe myself; The god of the Bible? I am an atheist. Do I think that its at least possible that some kind of a deity or supernatural force may exist? Of course I think its POSSIBLE – one could easily imagine it… but as was mentioned earlier, we ground ourselves on evidence, not what we can imagine or argue semantically.

    In my experience in conversation of the topic at hand, I find that polemic is the agnostic’s greatest ally. And in no way do I say that in means to somehow smear you, John, I respect you and enjoy your blog.

    I also still remain unconvinced of atheism as a positive claim… atheism would not be a word if the term theism didn’t exist.

  46. #46 Davis
    August 1, 2008

    Well I think it is that atheism, properly understood, is a positive belief: that no gods exist.

    While I myself tend to lean toward the “weak atheism” definition, I’m willing to accept this version as a description of my beliefs.

    However, one of the problems I run across when discussing atheism here in the US is repeated insistence that atheism means absolute certainty that there are no gods (not just belief). I’m wondering how prevalent this assumed definition is; in my experience, it tends to make any sort of reasonable discussion of the matter impossible.

  47. #47 tguy
    August 1, 2008

    Sorry but wasn’t there a British comedy sketch about this, somewhere?

    FIRST BISHOP: Excommunicate the agnostics!

    SECOND BISHOP: But they don’t believe in god!

    FIRST BISHOP: Well, they aren’t sure enough!

  48. #48 ildi
    August 1, 2008

    I just read Damian’s post over at Pharyngula on evidentialism, so now I’m going to try to be one (an evidentialist). It seems to be more all-encompassing than freethinker, which I used to prefer to atheist.

    I agree with you that atheist is a reaction-type term; if there were no religions, there would be no atheists.

    (I’m all about making sure everyone agrees on the definition of a term up front; I’ve wasted so much time in discussions finding out that our definitions were different, so we were talking in circles.)

  49. #49 dubiquiabs
    August 1, 2008

    Tant de bruit pour une omelette!

  50. #50 James Goetz
    August 1, 2008

    John, I agree that strong atheism is er um positive.

  51. #51 G Felis
    August 1, 2008

    *sigh*

    Philosophers. Being one, I know their wicked ways well.

    There is no conundrum here for atheists, there is a conundrum you have manufactured by treating everyday linguistic meaning – practical semantics, or “pragmatics” as linguists use the term – as if it were technical philosophical jargon. Everyday linguistic meaning is not set-theoretic, it is contextual. “Atheism” can and does denote a lack of belief in deities (rather than a positive belief in the lack of deities) in the general context of human beliefs and institutions and so on, where most people do believe in the existence of a deity or deities of some sort, and where people generally have some awareness of what other people believe (hence the contextuality). Given the modern level of awareness of religious diversity beyond just the various Christian sects most prominent in the immediate community of a typical Western hemisphere resident (or Northern European, or Australian), the “religion du jour” that modern atheists reject can plausibly be said to include damned near every religion in the world, past and present. If I have some general awareness about a huge number of religions in which the adherents believe in the objective existence of a deity or deities, and I think they are all wrong to do so because there are no good reasons to believe that any of those deities actually exist (at least partially because there are so many good reasons to think that people invent them), then I am an atheist in the “weak” or “negative” belief-lacking sense. Some sort of general positive claim about the specific non-existence of all actually worshiped or conceivable gods is certainly too strict a standard for the meaning of “atheism” as it is actually used. You say that atheists need to separate the positive claim from mere lack of belief, and in certain kinds of discussions I suppose we do: But to limit use of the word “atheism” to the stronger, narrower claim would completely defy common usage and impede mutual understanding – which is the presumed goal of communication, after all.

    You, for example, are an “atheist” in the ordinary acceptance of the term – and not in some narrow American definition, but in perfectly sensible, generally mutually comprehensible (except to some philosophers, apparently), widely-used language – because you don’t believe in any of the gods anyone else believes in. You are also an agnostic insofar as you allow for the possible existence of “suitable deities that make no empirical difference,” but almost no one actually believes in any such deities – not even the overwhelming majority of the perpetually baiting-and-switching theologians who invent them. That’s a pretty important fact for you to ignore so blithely. In the context of modern human existence – the very same sort of context which you acknowledge in your discussion of the historical meaning of “atheism” – not believing in the existence of any of the gods other people believe exist is a perfectly good, useful, functional, and MEANINGFUL definition for “atheism.” To insist that the term “atheism” should always be limited to the positive assertion that no conceivable gods exist is to ignore the very sort of context you are so attentive to in discussing historical “atheism.”

    So-called weak atheism (or negative atheism) is and should remain the default definition (read this post and comments for further arguments on the default definition) for the position adopted by most of those who call themselves atheists: In the real world of human beliefs, institutions, and societies where a bunch of people have a wide variety of beliefs which other people reject as the palpable nonsense they so clearly are, that’s what “atheism” means. Strong/positive atheism is a narrower position and should not be the assumed position of people who label themselves atheists.

    I’d also like to make a related point about the irrelevance for technical set-theoretic sorts of definition in general discussion about people and their beliefs. You scoff at the notion that living your life as if there is no God is even relevant to any conception of the meaning of atheism: “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)…” In response, I feel compelled to point out that no one is trying to change the laws of the country I live in based on their beliefs about the Higgs boson. Your own country didn’t suspend basic free speech rights to protect organizers and participants an enormous rally promoting particle physics from criticism. I could cite a few thousand more examples, but the gist should be clear enough: Theism has a helluvalot to do with how people live their lives, even atheists – because we live in a society with other people. I think this is what HP (comment 5 above) was getting at, and why I think you missed something important when you snarkily dismissed him. When you’re talking about religion you’re necessarily also talking about politics, and you do no service to the search for truths by ignoring it.

  52. #52 Julie Stahlhut
    August 1, 2008

    The only problem I have with the term “atheist” is this relatively minor one, which may be on some level the product of circular reasoning, but here goes:

    I personally don’t believe that there’s evidence for the literal existence of gods, spirits, ghosts, witches, goblins, fairies, demons, devils, or any other such supernatural beings. Also, if such things do actually exist, I see no reason to presume that they would care to have any contact with us.

    Many people (including myself) can conceive of these things as ideas, and many people (not including myself) can experience them as emotion akin to love, fear, anger, or some combination of the above. So, I consider “God” to be both a human idea and, under some circumstances, a human emotion. I have no doubt that people who describe personal religious experiences have truly experienced something. I just think it’s more likely to be a quirk of the way the human brain works than an actual interference by supernatural entities into the natural world. (If the latter is true, we’d have to come to the conclusion that God loves to pick fights and then run away.)

    I still think “atheist” is a perfectly reasonable term by which to describe me, and I take no offense at “agnostic” either.

  53. #53 jeff
    August 1, 2008

    For the most part, I agree with John. But the meanings of some words are relative, and can also change over time, as John pointed out. For example, I am certainly an atheist with respect to the Abrahamic God, but I’m not an atheist in an absolute sense – that would depend on the definition of word “God”, and there are some complex definitions that may not correspond well to simplistic analogies like “unicorns” or the “tooth fairy”. A common hallmark of the ignorant is making sweeping truth claims about things they know little or nothing about (and I’ve done that myself more than a few times). So in an absolute sense, agnosticism is much more tenable position.

    I came to the conclusion that we live in a bottom-up universe

    Careful here. There some deep aspects to quantum physics that call into question the whole idea of bottom-up vs top-down realities (and by top-down, I don’t necessarily mean a God, or consciousness, etc).

  54. #54 RM
    August 1, 2008

    The problem is not with atheism having a nebulous definition. It’s not even with atheism having two separate definitions. The problem is that both sides are all to quick to resort to the fallacy of equivocation.

    The faithful are all to quick to jump on statements of doubt of particular gods, and shout someone down for having no spirituality. To them a statement that you don’t believe in their God means that you don’t believe in any god/spiritual system at all.

    On the other side, you have people like the Pharyngulites, who are quick to claim anyone who expresses any doubt in the existence of God as an atheist, and then turn around and intimate that they would be a card-carrying member of the anti-religion crusade.

    It annoys me to no end when I encounter that sort of thinking the other way around. All too often I’ve seen an assertion that a person believes in a spiritual force more powerful than themselves met with the equivalent of a “well, that’s [the Judeo-Christian] God. [Thank you for accepting Jesus Christ as you personal Lord and Savior.]” (Where the part in brackets isn’t said, but very clearly implied.) C.S. Lewis does this in Mere Christianity. He argues through several chapters about [nebulous] pervasive and universal spiritual guiding forces, and then starts the the next chapter with the equivalent of a “And that’s why the God of Abraham sent Jesus to die for our sins.”

    Moral of the story: Don’t equivocate.

    Don’t assume that because someone’s beliefs (or lack there of) share a similarity to your own personal beliefs (or well known personality X) their beliefs are therefore identical to yours (or that of X).

  55. #55 Dave
    August 1, 2008

    Yes that the passion of atheism could be misstaken as agression is being discussed on another blog http://thelastorion.blogspot.com/2008/08/good-blog-post-what-is-atheism.html

  56. #56 Wes
    August 1, 2008

    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 Hemmingway, 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”.

    I’m not sure all of those are accurate.

    Darwin started out as an orthodox Christian, later became something of a Deist, and later still professed to be agnostic.

    Jefferson and Franklin had a lot in common with deists, but (as Ed is fond of arguing) some of their comments lean closer to what he calls “theistic rationalism”. Although I’ve never been clear about what exactly distinguishes deism from theistic rationalism, so “deist”, used broadly, is probably an accurate description.

    Lincoln’s beliefs changed a lot during his life. At times he could have been called a theist, at other times a deist. At times he said he flirted with atheism and found god very difficult to believe. In his youth he wrote an anti-clerical treatise very similar to Paine’s Age of Reason, which he apparently admired greatly.

    I don’t know what to say about Twain. His beliefs are opaque to me. I’ve never read anything by him which I thought pinned down his religious beliefs. Sometimes he sounded like an outright atheist. Other times, like an at least partially believing Christian. Other times, like something in between. But, then, there’s a ton of Twain I haven’t read.

    Einstein might be better described as a Spinozan pantheist, since he explicitly denied the notion of a personal god, calling it childish superstition. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he claimed that by “god” he meant the unity and order of the universe and nature. That’s closer to pantheism than theism.

  57. #57 tresmal
    August 2, 2008

    Doctrinal disputes should be left to people who have doctrines to dispute.

    Seriously this thread is getting almost as bad as the one at Pharyngula on the same poster(which is a fail by the way.) (The poster that is.)

    Words have historical meanings, precise technical meanings, popular meanings and personal meanings. Atheism and agnosticism have always been used sloppily and interchangeably and their definitions have always been contentious. There is no sharp cutoff between disbelief and nonbelief and to the credulous majority no difference.

    In the end it’s all godlessness and that’s all that matters.

  58. #58 Jim Harrison
    August 2, 2008

    In a set theoretic way, one can define a species, atheists, composed of individuals who don’t believe in god. That’s not very useful, however, just as it’s not very useful to define biological species in an abstract way instead of thinking of species as actual collections of individuals related in specifiable ways. Bats and birds are both animals with wings and Marxist-Leninists and modern positivists are both persons who don’t believe in god, but they aren’t closely related by virtue of sharing this disbelief, which, anyhow, hardly amounts to the same thing in the two instances. Similarly, I certainly don’t believe in god; but I share almost none of the other opinions that usually belong to the natural history of either Marxists or village atheists.

    The various flavors of belief and unbelief are best considered historically. After all, the hypothesis that the universe is run by something like a human intelligence with human purposes is so bizarre that it would hardly make the cut as a sensible option were it not for the historical fact of the ubiquity of religious traditions.

  59. #59 Brian English
    August 2, 2008

    I don’t believe in gods. It’s an epistemological thingy, not metaphysical. No evidence for the existence so far presented has been of a nature that to doubt it would be more amazing. The probability is so low that it’s not worth believing. Thank Hume! Gods may exist, but there’s no reason to think any god of any importance does at this moment in time. I believe that makes me an atheist. What would you call me John? (Apart from being an ignoramus that is!)

  60. #60 Susan Silberstein
    August 2, 2008

    I assert there are no gods. I do not insist there are no gods because there is no point in arguing about it: I have no desire to persuade anyone that I am right or convert a believer to non-belief. There are those who chose to be card carrying atheists and congregate in groups, sort of like a non-church church, but as #58 suggests, there are better reasons to choose your friends.

    I don’t care if someone worships Jesus, the FSM, or believes that Queen Maeve created the universe Last Thursday; it is the profound political consequences of millions of believers that concerns me.

  61. #61 Oblivious
    August 2, 2008

    You have confused post-christianity and atheism. Post-christianity (for a northern American example) is a positive goal of change to a different sort of society. This is something many atheists want and strive towards in their various ways. Atheism is just a lack of belief, it is not positive. Many atheists add something to their lack of belief, eg militant atheism would try and evangelize their position as they believe that their position is correct or the opposing position is detrimental or whatever. This is additional to their atheism, but does not stop them from being an atheist.

  62. #62 C.W
    August 2, 2008

    But that’s my taxonomy…

    Yup. And IMHO Dawkins, despite his shortcomings as a philosopher, actually has a useful one (strong theism=1, strong atheism=7, etc). As a bonus, it doesn’t flirt with this “what you claim to believe is irrelevant, because in my dictionary you actually believe something else” silliness.

  63. #63 Richard Carter, FCD
    August 2, 2008

    In his unabridged autobiography, Darwin said that he could be described as a theist at the time that he wrote Origin of Species, but that his theistic convictions became gradually weaker. He concluded: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

    I personally don’t find Huxley’s word ‘agnostic’ very useful: if we are strictly honest, we must all be agnostics because we cannot know anything for certain. The real question is how surprised would we be if we suddenly discovered that there definitely was some sort of intelligent creator. In my case (and, I suspect Darwin’s) I would be utterly gobsmacked (or should that be godsmacked?): all the absence of evidence points the other way. Which is why I described myself as an atheist.

  64. #64 Thony C.
    August 2, 2008

    I’m an agnostic on work days and an atheist on sundays and public holidays.

  65. #65 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 2, 2008

    Well, I believed this blog still existed even though I was suddenly unable to access it or a lot of other ScienceBlogs or Blogspot blogs, apparently because a Sitemeter software update is now causing IE to crash when it tries to log on to the sites.

    I assume others are having the same problem?

  66. #66 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 2, 2008

    As for Wilkins’s case I can only say, well said, that man!

    I think the so-called New Atheists revel in their notoriety. Their audience understand them to be asserting the positive claim that no God exist and appear to be content to allow that perception to continue unchallenged. Yet, when they are pinned down on the question, they will admit that the existence of God cannot be disproved but that such a being is so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

    In other words, as Dawkins and other have admitted, they are technically agnostic. They don’t like to use the word because it does not carry the connotation of firm denial which is the image they like to project. It is more about politics than philosophy or theology and it is based on equivocating about the meaning of the word ‘atheism’.

  67. #67 Coel
    August 2, 2008

    John Wilkins writes:

    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).

    But under that definition there are no atheists! It would be entirely a strawman position adopted by no actual persons.

    So why not make “atheism” a useful word, by taking it to mean something akin to what self-labelled atheists mean by it? And that is simply an absence of any beliefs in any gods. Write down on a bit of paper the names (or a description will do) of all the gods you actually believe more-likely-than-not to exist. If, once you’re done, the paper is still blank, then you’re an atheist.

    Under that definition many agnostics are also atheists (and all sensible atheists are also agnostics!).

  68. #68 John Pieret
    August 2, 2008

    Ian:

    Oh, good. It isn’t just me then.

    Richard Carter:

    if we are strictly honest, we must all be agnostics because we cannot know anything for certain.

    But that’s John’s point. Agnosticism is not dependent on the certainty of knowledge, it is about the nature of knowledge. We can “know” empiric facts about the world even if we can never be “certain” of them. At its root, agnosticism says that we cannot “know” that which is not amenable to empiric confirmation / disconfirmation (and that there are, in fact, live concepts of god(s) that are not empirically testable).

  69. #69 Coel
    August 2, 2008

    Ian H Spedding writes:

    Their audience understand them to be asserting the positive claim that no God exist and appear to be content to allow that perception to continue unchallenged.

    Really? In The God Delusion Dawkins carefully explained that most atheists are technically agnostic. How is that allowing the popular misconception of atheism “to continue unchallenged”?

    Yet, when they are pinned down on the question, they will admit that the existence of God cannot be disproved …

    Not only “when pinned down” but entirely upfront in works such as The God Delusion!

    It is more about politics than philosophy or theology and it is based on equivocating about the meaning of the word ‘atheism’.

    The “equivocation” does not come from atheists; it is simply unfortunate that the popular construal of the word is a strawman position that most atheists don’t actually hold.

  70. #70 Chris' Wills
    August 2, 2008

    One more point. An agnostic isn’t in some respectable middle ground. The agnostic admits lack of belief. That person is an atheist since belief is lacking.
    Posted by: jimmiejazz

    As a self styled agnostic; though I suspect of a slightly different form from the good Dr Wilkins, I would suggest that an agnostic does believe.
    I believe that the question isn’t answerable.

    “philosophical naturalist” or “scientific pantheist”
    Posted by: imr90

    Philosophical-materialist perhaps.
    I don’t know of any reason why one couldn’t be a naturalist and also believe in something (say the super-natural) which the natural is subsumed within or is beyond somehow. As far as I understand him, Aquinas believed in the validity of philosophical naturalism and the use of empiricism to understand its laws.

  71. #71 Pete M.
    August 2, 2008

    Talking about gods that make no empirical difference is the worst kind of armchair metaphysics. I’m far from a full-on pragmatist, but I think that this is a form of language going on holiday: we have the ability in natural languages to construct phrases that are meaningless. Let’s restrict ourselves to the domain of gods that make some sort of difference in our lives, even if this is just to guarantee an afterlife, which view is almost always associated with some form of dualism, and can be critiqued on those grounds (one exception is Leibnitz’s form of monism, which is just wacky).
    I do not believe that there exists any god (or “spiritual force,” or whatever) that interacts causally with the universe, and this is part and parcel with my endorsement of philosophical materialism. This is what I intend, I think, when I say that I am an atheist. I have no belief about “gods” who have nothing to do with this universe, but not because I’m agnostic, rather because this concept is essentially meaningless.

  72. #72 Tulse
    August 2, 2008

    when they are pinned down on the question, they will admit that the existence of God cannot be disproved but that such a being is so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

    …which means they are as atheist about God and gods as they are about fairies, pixies, and elves. Does that make them agnostic about those later entities?

    My belief that there is a God is roughly at the same level as my belief that the moon is made of green cheese. Does that make me an agnostic?

    The suggestion that belief in the supernatural demands some special epistemic status is silly. Everyone has firm beliefs that various things don’t exist, and we all understand what that means in everyday speech. “Atheism” simply means a lack of belief in gods equivalent to the lack of belief that we have in those other things.

  73. #73 Siamang
    August 2, 2008

    I have a belief in every god that ever actually existed.

    I suspect that actual figure hovers somewhere around zero. But all existent gods must know that I believe in them with all the absolute certainty I can muster for beings which reveal themselves as scantily as they do.

  74. #74 John Pieret
    August 2, 2008

    The suggestion that belief in the supernatural demands some special epistemic status is silly. Everyone has firm beliefs that various things don’t exist …

    Yes … belief. But belief and knowledge are not the same things. You may not find the distinction important but other people do.

  75. #75 James Goetz
    August 2, 2008

    “But under that definition there are no atheists! It would be entirely a strawman position adopted by no actual persons.

    So why not make “atheism” a useful word, by taking it to mean something akin to what self-labelled atheists mean by it? And that is simply an absence of any beliefs in any gods. Write down on a bit of paper the names (or a description will do) of all the gods you actually believe more-likely-than-not to exist. If, once you’re done, the paper is still blank, then you’re an atheist.

    Under that definition many agnostics are also atheists (and all sensible atheists are also agnostics!).”

    Coel, that’s John’s point. John argues that there are no strong atheist.

  76. #76 Michael
    August 2, 2008

    John,

    How is this hard? An atheist is anyone who is not a theist (believer in any god). You are not a theist it seems. Therefore you are an atheist.

    You may be an agnostic atheist if that makes you happy.

    Why do people insist on changing definitions of words? The prefix ‘a’ has a meaning. ‘Theist’ has a meaning. Therefore ‘atheist’ is simple to understand.

  77. #77 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 2, 2008

    Coel wrote:

    Really? In The God Delusion Dawkins carefully explained that most atheists are technically agnostic. How is that allowing the popular misconception of atheism “to continue unchallenged”?

    What is the difference between being technically agnostic and actually agnostic? If you really believe that evidence for or against the existence of any particular god is either unavailable or at best inconclusive then the only defensible position is agnosticism. To pretend otherwise, to adopt a label that implies a greater degree of certainty than can be justified, is misleading.

    I believe that the reasons for such determined advocacy of the atheist position are political rather than philosophical. In the United States, the word ‘atheist’ has a far more pejorative connotation than it appears to do elsewhere. Calling someone an atheist, it seems, can be almost as much of an insult as if they’d been called a pedophile. For the New Atheists to take such an uncompromising public stand against such bigotry is a good and courageous to do. But it is not about science or philosophy, it is about politics and religion.

  78. #78 Ian H Spedding FCD
    August 2, 2008

    Tulse wrote:

    when they are pinned down on the question, they will admit that the existence of God cannot be disproved but that such a being is so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

    …which means they are as atheist about God and gods as they are about fairies, pixies, and elves. Does that make them agnostic about those later entities?

    Yes, it does. As far as we know, no claim for the existence of fairies, pixies or elves has ever been substantiated. There is no reason to believe in them and that’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. But neither can we say with absolute certainty that they don’t. Simply dismissing the claim by saying ‘Of course, no one really believes in fairies!’ is a rhetorical device rather than a logical argument.

    My belief that there is a God is roughly at the same level as my belief that the moon is made of green cheese. Does that make me an agnostic?

    Have you been to the Moon? Have you studied the composition of the samples brought back? I haven’t but I agree with you that the chance that it is made of green cheese is vanishingly small. But there are good reasons for that. First, a far as I know, the green cheese hypothesis has never been seriously advanced as an explanation of the Moon’s structure, not even by Wallace and Grommet. Second, even if it had, the proposition that a large natural satellite could be composed entirely of coagulated milk curd is unlikely to the point of absurdity given its mass and the fact that it was formed long before the appearance of milk-producing animals. And third, of course, the samples brought back from the Moon show no signs of life, let alone cheese.

    Relativity and quantum theory make predictions about the nature of the Universe which are highly counter-intuitive but have been born out by testing. They should be sufficient to make us cautious about dismissing claims because ‘common sense’ tells us they are obviously absurd. It does not mean we are limited to a position of strict neutrality, we can still weigh the evidence and calculate probabilities. But, as Huxley wrote: “It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts.”

  79. #79 Coel
    August 2, 2008

    Ian Spedding writes:

    What is the difference between being technically agnostic and actually agnostic?

    None really. The only difference is whether you tend to use the label about yourself.

    If you really believe that evidence for or against the existence of any particular god is either unavailable or at best inconclusive then the only defensible position is agnosticism.

    Sure! That is why nearly all atheists state that they are also technically agnostics!

    “Atheism” means “not a theist”; the number of gods one actually believes in is zero. That’s all!

    It does not mean “has made an exhaustive study of all 12,874 gods that mankind has postulated, assessed the evidence for every one, and is now dogmatically and arrogantly asserting that every single one is absolutely disproved and impossible”. That is a theist-strawman-atheist (and unfortunately a joe-public-strawman-atheist), but no-one ever (that I’ve encountered anyhow!) asserts that.

    To pretend otherwise, to adopt a label that implies a greater degree of certainty than can be justified, is misleading.

    No-one is trying to pretend anything. They’re trying to educate people into what actual beliefs of actual self-labelled atheists actually are.

    Please accept that they do not agree with the theist-strawman definition of “atheist” and don’t see why they should accept those connotations.

    But it is not about science or philosophy, it is about politics and religion.

    Sure, of course. Have they pretended otherwise? Books by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens are indeed primarily political, though they do draw on science and philosophy also.

  80. #80 Coel
    August 2, 2008

    Ian Spedding writes:

    But, as Huxley wrote: “It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts.”

    Yes indeed. And nearly all atheists agree. Which is why nearly all atheists accept that they are also agnostics in that sense.

    The reason they also label themselves “atheists” is because the number of gods they actually believe in is zero. That is what atheism means, “without theism”, someone who is not a theist. Someone, who when asked to list all the gods they actually believe in, ends up with a blank bit of paper.

    And I really don’t see why people make such a heck of a fuss about that rather simple concept and meaning. Least, I know why theists do it, they want to set up a strawman as easier to assail, because that definition is just far too sensible for them to accept!

  81. #81 Siamang
    August 2, 2008

    Meanwhile a few billion theists don’t worry one whit about making an absolutist statement on the other side.

    The distance between agnostic and atheist is the length of a pole measured out by religionists… all the better to beat us over the head with.

    Time after time after time in discussions with religionists, I’ll concede a point in order to reach across the divide in the discussion. More often than not, that concession is taken as the new extreme, and the Overton window slides away once again toward fantasyland.

    Screw em. I’m an atheist. And that word means “I don’t bow down to your imaginary friend.”

    Have this discussion about philosophical points to serve a love of philosophy. Just be aware that the other side makes no such effort.

    I think I’m only aware of one or two religionists who admit to not being 100% all-fired dipped-in-platinum sure that there’s a God. But we’re the ones with a closed mind, don’cha know?

  82. #82 jimmiejazz
    August 2, 2008

    That fellow Michael at #76 gets it. If you are not a believer in any gods then you are an atheist. It is as simple as that.

  83. #83 dubiquiabs
    August 2, 2008

    Parturiunt montes, nascetur taxonomismus.

  84. #84 Tulse
    August 2, 2008

    As far as we know, no claim for the existence of fairies, pixies or elves has ever been substantiated. There is no reason to believe in them and that’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. But neither can we say with absolute certainty that they don’t.

    Demanding absolute certainty is absurd. We don’t do so in other endeavours, especially in science, where the notion of certain knowledge was tossed out quite a while ago. You may argue that this means atheism as you’ve defined it is impossible, but that to me is just playing semantic games. If one believes that the probability of a claim being true is near zero, that should be sufficient to say they don’t believe the claim. Absolute certainty doesn’t exist anywhere outside of formally-defined systems.

    So yeah, while I’m an atheist, I don’t believe that there is nothing that could change my mind about that. We could discover that the long non-coding sections of our DNA spell out “I made you. Signed, God”. We could find galaxies arranged in the heavens that form a clear and indisputable picture of bearded old man. We could see the Red Sea parted, or the sun dance in the sky. What I mean by “atheist” is that I think the probability of those events are only infinitesimally above zero. I think most atheists would feel similarly.

  85. #85 Peter McKellar
    August 2, 2008

    Ian Spedding states:

    “Relativity and quantum theory make predictions about the nature of the Universe which are highly counter-intuitive but have been born out by testing. They should be sufficient to make us cautious about dismissing claims because ‘common sense’ tells us they are obviously absurd.”

    Don’t try and slip that one by without comment. Since when has ANY religion made some prediction that can’t equally be explained by mumbo-jumbo or just plain chance? Where is its testability, measurability or repeatability?

    If you must insist that one of these millions of mans’ manifestations you label “god” fits with your particular hate and social exclusion profile, the lack of any tangible evidence surely makes your personal god meaningless (both to you and me). Why bother wasting your time, effort and imagination when there is so much more exciting to do (like enlightening people such as yourself).

    Do you find it frustrating that I don’t really care what pigeonhole you want to slot me into?

    Your “highly counter-intuitive” claims have NOT “been born out by testing.” Not in the last 2,000 years anyway.

    By your own logic we can dismiss your claims:
    “because ‘common sense’ tells us they are obviously absurd.”

  86. #86 John S. Wilkins
    August 3, 2008

    A couple of clarifications. Yes, I think agnosticism makes a positive claim about knowledge (that gods or their lacunae are unknowable). It is not a claim about belief, but about the indeterminacy of the truth of beliefs. As I have said before, an agnostic (about YHWH) can be an atheist (about Thor), so this is not a point about all beliefs about gods, only those that are empirically insensitive. I most certainly do not believe in Billy Graham’s god, and with respect to that belief I am an atheist. I just am not an atheist about all gods.

    Parenthetically note that all knowledge is belief, but not all belief is a knowledge claim.

    I have rejected Dawkins’ scale before – this is not about likelihoods of beliefs being true, nor about the confidence one places in beliefs. This is about whether one thinks a belief about a god can be resolved one way or the other. Agnostics say that it cannot. Atheists say that, to some degree of certainty or the full degree, it can be. That is not a scale sort of thing, and as an agnostic I resent being told I’m a fence sitter when I am most certainly making a positive claim here (I don’t know and cannot, and nor can you, whoever you are).

    As to Brian’s question in #59 what this makes him: “Gods may exist, but there’s no reason to think any god of any importance does at this moment in time. I believe that makes me an atheist.” This makes you an atheist. You take “no reason to think” as “reason not to think”. It’s a positive claim if I am reading between your lines correctly.

    And yes I knew Darwin ended up an agnostic by his own account (after the horrible death of Annie). At the time he wrote the Origin, he was still a deist, and did not regard himself as an agnostic as such until after Huxley coined the term and category. However, he did say in a letter to Asa Gray that a “modified monkey’s brain” is incompetent to answer the question of God’s existence. There is something deep there.

  87. #87 Peter McKellar
    August 3, 2008

    Let’s not forget that Jesus was not a Christian. I guess on this basis he doesn’t really endorse Christianity at all?

    At best you could call him a pre-Christian Baptist?

  88. #88 Tulse
    August 3, 2008

    This is about whether one thinks a belief about a god can be resolved one way or the other. Agnostics say that it cannot. Atheists say that, to some degree of certainty or the full degree, it can be.

    I think this is overstating things. As I’ve suggested above, I think most people who call themselves atheists would be quite comfortable with saying that their degree of certainty about the existence of a god is approximately the same as most people’s certainty regarding the existence of fairies and unicorns. We generally would not say that most people are “agnostic” about the existence of elves, so I don’t see why we should change the criteria when we are speaking of other supernatural entities such as gods.

    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).

    One reason is parsimony. By your criteria, you would have to be agnostic about any random belief that had no observable impact, which seems at best bizarre. You would be agnostic about invisible pixies, about alternate universes you could never contact, about intelligent shades of blue that could never communicate with you. There would literally be an infinity of entities that you would be agnostic about, and by your criteria your uncertainty would be about things which literally never affected the material world. And not just entities, since you would have to be agnostic as to whether the world was created last Tuesday as it currently exists, whether the entire world is just a computer simulation, and indeed, whether solipsism is in fact true. In all these cases the potentially believed state is empirically indistinguishable from what we commonly believe, yet it would seem absurd in the extreme to say one is agnostic as to whether the universe popped into existence a few days ago with all your memories of it intact.

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your position, but it certainly seems to me that there are excellent reasons to reject deities, or any other beliefs, that have no empirical impact.

    (And this, of course, completely disregards the fact that very few people actually believe in a completely non-interventionist god, or that such as god, even if it did exist, would hardly be worth worshipping.)

  89. #89 Brian English
    August 3, 2008

    This makes you an atheist. You take “no reason to think” as “reason not to think”. It’s a positive claim if I am reading between your lines correctly.
    Most of the time it’s no reason to think there is any god. If it’s a particular god that has contradictory attributes or properties, then I think there is reason not to think that something illogical exists…..

  90. #90 John S. Wilkins
    August 3, 2008

    So, reasons to be atheist about belief in a particular god G:

    1. It involves illogical claims, such as G is both A and not A (but this is defeasible by the Ineffability move)

    2. It involves contrary to fact claims, such as G means fact F is false (like the earth is fixed in the heavens).

    3. It involves unlikelihoods (which of course require either some set of prior beliefs against which to judge the belief’s likelihood, themselves open to regressive query, or some sample set to establish frequencies, which are difficult with gods).

    4. It is unparsimonious to claim a god exists.

    The latter is, I think, the most convincing reason, actually. But parsimony is not an easy concept, and like likelihoods requires a background to establish whether it is more parsimonious or not. For some theists it is less parsimonious to believe in God (not that I agree with them, but there’s no general logical point or absolute criterion here).

    Note that all these reasons are in fact relative to the god G. For a god H (or set of gods H, or particular conception of H as the universe, etc.) one may not find that inferences from G project.

  91. #91 Tulse
    August 3, 2008

    parsimony is not an easy concept, and like likelihoods requires a background to establish whether it is more parsimonious or not.

    That’s simply not true if you are talking about “suitable deities that make no empirical difference“. If they do not affect the physical world, if they literally have no observable effects, then how would it not be more parsimonious to not believe in them?

  92. #92 John Morales
    August 3, 2008

    Such nuance over how to denote one’s godlessness.

  93. #93 Adrian Morgan
    August 3, 2008

    I’m tending right now (tentatively) towards the view that if we need a new word, that word should denote the positive claim that there is no causal connection between divinity and religion. In other words, the claim that no religion or spirituality originates from any kind of experience of the divine, while leaving open the possibility that religion and divinity may just happen to co-exist. (Perhaps a rough analogy might be the claim that no UFO sighting has ever been causally connected to extra-terrestrials, while not rejecting the notion that the latter may exist somewhere.)

    BTW, I’ve never really liked the comparison between non-belief in gods and non-belief in unicorns, because unicorns are on the whole far more narrowly-defined than gods, so the surprise at meeting a unicorn would derive largely from the sheer coincidence of the unicorn meeting all the criteria allocated to it by human imagination. I think non-belief in gods would be better compared to non-belief in another correspondingly broad claim.

  94. #94 Marc
    August 3, 2008

    I’m way way late to this party, but that never stopped me before.

    It seems to me that atheism is an ontological claim and agnosticism is an epistemological one. I’m not sure if that difference matters, but it seems to matter, to me — the atheist is making an apples claim, the agnostic an orange claim. The atheist says the theist is wrong; the agnostic is mute about the rightness or wrongness of the theists’ beliefs.

    Seems relevant to me.

    And right now I’m ready Sam Harris and am more than ever affirmed in my atheism.

    But then, maybe I’m just goin’ to hell…

  95. #95 Qquiscula
    August 3, 2008

    Wow. This seems really wrong to me. I don’t know of ANY atheist that thinks the way you posit they think in your blog post. That’s just plain ridiculous. Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?
    I also very much disagree with atheism being a positive belief. I’m sure some people have already tackled that in the comments above though…

  96. #96 Julian
    August 3, 2008

    Where did this absurdity that atheism doesn’t mean “the lack of belief in gods” in the U.S. come from? But I guess you enlightened citizens of Australia would know the reality of progressive thought in the U.S. better than the people who actually live here.

    Atheism wasn’t possible before the 18th century? What about the Cynics and the Stoics? What about Cicero? What about the pre-socratic philosophies that denied the necessity of gods? What about Plato who, in the Republic, admits that the gods are fictions created by humans? Do you think that if a conservative such as him would write such a thing that the idea wasn’t in circulation at the time? What about all the heretics killed by the church for disbelief or the denial of god’s divinity? And these exceptions I’ve presented here are only examples from Western thought. Skepticism and the denial of divinity that it brings have been around for as long as humanity has.

    Perhaps you should spend more time talking to history majors and less time reading philosophers if you’re going to make claims about what people believed before you were alive.

  97. #97 John S. Wilkins
    August 3, 2008

    Stoics at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In accord with this ontology, the Stoics, like the Epicureans, make God material. But while the Epicureans think the gods are too busy being blessed and happy to be bothered with the governance of the universe (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus 123-4), the Stoic God is immanent throughout the whole of creation and directs its development down to the smallest detail.”

    The Cynics don’t appear to have a position stated, but I’d be very surprised if they lacked any deity at all. Have you evidence they did? Several Cynics appeal to god.

    Plato does believe in a creator god and a supreme god – the gods that are fictions are those of popular Greek religion.

    A good book on this is David Sedley’s Creationism and its critics in antiquity which I will review here later.

    Perhaps you should spend more time with the original texts rather than parroting first year truisms at philosophers.

  98. #98 Martin
    August 3, 2008

    This is why I can’t stand a lot of philosophy.

    To call atheism a “positive belief” is as ridiculous as creating a label for not believing in the Easter Bunny – “abunnyism”, and stating that that, too, is a “positive belief”.

  99. #99 Osame Kinouchi
    August 3, 2008

    Let me change a bit the subject, from a point of view of a physicist. You have not discussed about what kind of God or gods you are talking.
    It seems that a central issue is the role of chance in the Universe history and our personal lives. “Religious” people (even non personal God believers like some New Age and Buddhist) believe that some chance events (fine tuning in physical constants favorable to emergence of complex systems, and for the lay person, coincidences in personal life like cancer regression, finding a love partner or escaping from an accident) are manifestations of a god or (non personal) spiritual force.
    It is interesting that the concept of Chance has a lot of common with the concept of a non personal, non benevolent but powerfull “god”, that is, an onipresent force that has strong influence on human live (most of our lives are fruit of chance events) and the Universe, be it emergence of life, darwinian evolution through chance mutations and selection, emergence of humans etc. Remember that most of non-monotheist religions do not describe their god as benevolent to humans, so the “evil problem” is not a problem for these religions. It is not even clear in the Bible if YWVH is benevolent to Israel.
    So, I conjecture that, historically, the concept of God or (fortune) gods emerged from the question of how to think, react emotionally to, manipulate and (reverentially) recognize that Chance is a so powerfull force in human affairs, like earthquakes, tempests, droughts, vulcanos, famines, pests, wars etc. (by the way, all these events follow Pareto power laws instead of Gaussian laws. Perhaps if all physical and human events where Gaussian (normal) the concept of God could not emerge.
    It is also interesting that (quantum) random events, if really nondeterministic, are outside physical causation, they are like small miracles occurring everywhere and everytime (some kind of imanence but also transcendence here?). It is also interesting that the laws of probability are mathematical superlaws, valid in any universe, in contrast to physical laws that depend on the specific universe of the Multiverse that you live. So, chance not only create universes but also is the same on all universes, so that it is Supernatural (that is, mathematical and in this sense superphysical).
    These parallels are interesting, so I propose to change a bit the philosophical taxonomy:
    Atheists: those that believe that Chance is indifferent and mainly detrimental to human lives.
    Pantheists: those that believe that Chance has a strong positive role in the emergence of order in the universe life and human life, although the “dark side” (entropy increase) of Chance is also present.
    Theists: those that believe in some kind of intentionality associated to chance, but not necessarily some kind of mind.
    Personal Theists: those that believe that chance is a manifestation of some kind of universal Mind or Conscience.
    Religious people: those that believe that this Mind has some characters described by specific religious tradictions, like love or compassion.
    Of course, all are positive believers (about the positive features of chance).
    And all are agnostic, because all recognize that true certaint is impossible. Remember, faith = confidence or hope, not absolute knowledgement.
    So, the question is if empirical evidence refutes some of these positions.
    It seems that I am a Pantheist, although I also doubt that humans have “essential” minds (it seems that mind is a emergent neuronal process, without essential substance). So, the question is: do your neurons believe that You exists or they are atheists? How could individual neurons gain empirical evidence that You exist?

  100. #100 Brian English
    August 3, 2008

    So, reasons to be atheist about belief in a particular god G:

    1. It involves illogical claims, such as G is both A and not A (but this is defeasible by the Ineffability move)

    This was about what I believe. If someone says god x is both A and not A then I would believe that god x is logically impossible and thus non-existent. If a devotee of god x says that these words are used as a basic description of x but have a meaning that we can’t understand with our non x minds then that’s the devotees problem. If something is ineffable, why are they claiming knowledge? It’s also a nice case of moving the goal posts. They need to find a better description, not me. Anyway, it will only be god x’s theologians who maintain the Fness is ineffable. The average devotee will believe that god x is literally F and not F. :)

    In the end, I probably won’t be convinced.

  101. #101 John Lynch
    August 4, 2008

    @96

    What about the Cynics and the Stoics? What about Cicero? What about the pre-socratic philosophies that denied the necessity of gods? What about Plato who, in the Republic, admits that the gods are fictions created by humans? Do you think that if a conservative such as him would write such a thing that the idea wasn’t in circulation at the time?

    Please tell me you’ve actually read some of these texts and somehow (miraculously) managed to get what was written in them 180 degrees wrong. Otherwise you haven’t read them and just are acting like an ass.

    Talking to *history* majors about *philosophy* texts? Please. Next thing you’ll want us talking to theologians about biology.

  102. #102 Coel
    August 4, 2008

    John Wilkins writes:

    So, reasons to be atheist about belief in a particular god G:

    You forgot number zero, which is sufficient in itself:

    0) Never having encountered adequate evidence for the existence of god G, and thus lacking belief in G.

  103. #103 Osame Kinouchi
    August 4, 2008

    Sorry, the above description is more akin to panentheism, not pantheism, see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panentheism

    Perhaps atheists have a nonpersonal god, a superphysical onipresent power that affects universe evolution, biological evolution and human affairs, and this goddess is a non personal Fortuna
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortuna
    In this sense, atheists and panentheists are not so distant.

    By the way, it is not obvious that there is no superhuman inteligences (limited gods). Collective inteligence, vastly superior than humans in calculating power is by now well accepted by sociologists: one example is the Free Market, a collective inteligence and information processing system (a non personal mind) with huge computational power. Perhaps any religious community, due to the strong interactions between its members, permits the emergence of collective inteligences inside the community (say, the Holy Spirity). Of course, all these are limited gods. So, perhaps I am a (computational) pagan…

  104. #104 James Goetz
    August 4, 2008

    “The atheist says the theist is wrong; the agnostic is mute about the rightness or wrongness of the theists’ beliefs.”

    Not quite, Marc. An agnostic says that that theists cannot know what they believe while many theists believe that they know what they believe.

  105. #105 John S. Wilkins
    August 4, 2008

    The agnostic knows that theists know what they believe. But the agnostic also knows they only believe what they think they know.

  106. #106 Martin
    August 4, 2008

    I’m just curious…

    If aliens from a planet that has never invented religion were to to come to Earth, would you describe their de factor atheism as a “positive belief”?

    Being British, I didn’t even know what atheism was until I was in my teens, and wasn’t sure how to fill in the “Religious Belief” section on the form.

    To describe my atheism as a positive belief is like saying we all have a “Positive belief” against tooth fairies. Yes, in some arty-farty and typically-irrelevent “philosophical way” you might be able to argue that it’s true that all adults have positive belief systems regarding the tooth-fairy, but at that point your description of a “positive belief” becomes so vague and all-encompassing that it becomes meaningless.

    I do agree though that there is a branch of atheism that is becoming all too defined by religion.

  107. #107 Tybo
    August 6, 2008

    Not that my philosophy background is incredibly strong or anything, but isn’t the tried-and-failed attempt to put language in set-theory type dichotomies a little Pre-Wittgensteinian? Or was that not a generally accepted conclusion, that language is inherently a matter of “family relations” and such? Granted, it’s practical to draw lines somewhere, but hard lines don’t work that well in common-use language, as far as I was aware.

    As far as personal inclinations, if there must be some clear definition, though, I think G Felis perhaps did best. But, of course, there’s always “Well, as what is God defined?” (And please don’t fall into Scholastic arguments from this, as they never stated any sort of nature to this thing that they attached the word “God” to, barring of course later Rationalist attempts which sprang from a few of the arguments.) With a definition resembling Western Theism, then atheism is generally easy to maintain. Have a definition which encompasses the idea, say, of the Tao, and you lose atheists. Then make the definition such that God is/equals Nature (Spinozist) and your pool of atheists becomes very small. At that point, though, if you apply pragmatism to that one, then there is no real boundary anyway, as naturalism and Spinozan Pantheism are indistinct except for a difference of terms.

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