I’ve said language is descriptive and people are free to identify how they like a number of times, but when discussing definitions I speak of the normative or most logical.
This can be met with some hostility, with people often telling me I am the one being illogical or that I don’t understand what normative means, with some rejecting how normative is used in philosophy with a preference to a colloquial use. Some go so far as to say I don’t know what atheism is or that I am a theist troll trying to shift the burden of proof, when I believe gods do not exist and accept the burden for my belief.
We’ve also got a few articles discussing how atheism is polysemous, the most in depth probably being Dave’s ‘Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism‘.
As such, I keep trying to find different ways to explain things and address common objections or misunderstandings. I am going to address normative, rationality, logic and the like through a series of short arguments.
Before we start I will say that, as with many things, the word normative is polysemous but it generally speaks of ‘oughts’, even if we move out of how it is used in philosophy into the more colloquial use but it is less directly stated, often speaking of ‘establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard or norm, especially of behaviour’. If we are playing football, we ought to learn the rules and not purposefully handball. If we want to understand books written in German, we ought to learn German. If we want to be healthy we ought to eat well and exercise. You get the picture.
Rationality and Logic
- Most people want to be rational.
(in fact, many of us atheists claim we are more rational than theists.)
- Rationality includes, but is not limited to, using the rules of logic and holding consistent and coherent beliefs
Conclusion: Where applicable, we ought to use logic.
Belief and Propositions
- Propositions are TRUE/FALSE statements.
- A belief can be described as an attitude towards a proposition.
- There is a type of logic called ‘Propositional Logic’.
Conclusion: In line with the previous conclusion, to be rational, we ought to apply propositional logic to propositions.
- Beliefs and rationality are part of epistemology which is a branch of philosophy.
- Normative in philosophy discusses what we ought to do.
(for more info check ‘So what is this ‘Normative’ thing all about anyway?‘)
Failure to Answer a Proposition
- Using propositional logic, you are supposed to provide your attitude towards whether you think it is true and to whether you think it is false.
- Saying you lack belief in the proposition (lack belief the proposition is true) is not fully answering the proposition.
Conclusion: [Only] Lacking belief in a proposition being true is not a rational response to give because it does not fully answer the proposition, it only gives a read of a psychological state.
- Using propositional logic there are 3 epistemic answers to a proposition.
- Believing it is true.
- Believing it is false.
- Not believing it to be either true or false (suspense of judgement).
- Suspense of judgement is also referred to as the psychological state of being agnostic (or weak agnosticism).
- Being agnostic doesn’t always refer to God, although is most commonly used this way.
- Being agnostic towards a proposition is a rational answer.
- Many who say they ‘only lack belief’ in a proposition being true, when pushed, will say they don’t believe it being false.
Conclusion: Many who claim to ‘only lack belief’ are actually suspending judgement. This is the same as the agnostic position.
- All positions in regards to a proposition require some form of justification to be rational, at the very least, to one’s self. (https://iep.utm.edu/epi-just/)
- Simply stating you feel someone hasn’t sufficiently met their burden isn’t enough justification to hold a rational position.
- Many who claim to ‘only lack belief’ feel they don’t have to support their position.
Conclusion: Many who ‘only lack belief’ do not hold a rational position.
The Proposition: God Exists
- Using propositional logic to answer the proposition ‘God Exists’ we know that one that suspends judgement and lacks belief both was is called agnostic.
- This leaves us with two other epistemic answers to the proposition.
One that believes it true, one that believes it false.
- The proposition of theism is that God exists, with a theist believing this proposition is true.
- The prefix of a- is used as not.
- The not, using propositional logic, is used as a negation of a proposition.
- The negation of a proposition like ‘God Exists’ is ‘God Does Not Exist’
- The negation of theism is atheism.
Conclusion: The most rational use of atheism is the proposition god does not exist. Therefore the normative use of atheism is God does not exist.
Other Answers to a Proposition
- There are other positions in regards to a proposition.
- These positions do not give a direct answer to the proposition.
- These positions speak of attitudes about the proposition like you find it meaningless, or you don’t care, or you’ve never actually heard of the proposition.
Conclusion: These positions do not negate a proposition being true. Therefore if they are not negation they do not fit the a- prefix.If the proposition is theism (God exists) these do not fit the a-theist label.
Communication and Broad Definitions
- The purpose of communication is to convey ideas.
- Concise definitions allow us to accurately infer someones position.
For example, I know an igtheist believes the concept of gods is ill-defined and finds the proposition meaningless, or an agnostic lacks belief in god existing and god not existing.
- Broad/sloppy definitions make it harder to convey specific ideas
For example, if we refer to anyone not a theist as an atheist, we can’t accurately infer what they do and don’t believe about the proposition.
Conclusion: Concise definitions make for more effective communication, minimising the need for followup questions.
These are some simple arguments that should help explain why these are the normative definitions of atheist and agnostic. Again, I am not saying you have to use these definitions, you can identify how you like, I am just explaining why these are the normative definitions.
For some scholary articles on normativity check:
P.S. I figured I would try a new feature ‘post content as twitter thread’ – apologies to twitter folks if this was a ‘bad move’.
P.P.S when I say these are the normative definitions, another way to describe it is the most commonly used in analytic philosophy of religion and epistemology – they are not the only definitions, but are both logical and commonly used.