I was invited on Cheshire’s live stream ‘A Goblin Reads’ with Dave as she had seen my discussion with Aron about his belief that ‘Rocks are atheist!’ who then wrote a post called ‘What is Atheism?‘
In planning for this, I started reading Aron’s article where he argues why his definition of atheism is the ‘correct’ one and how SEP got things ‘wrong’ and his definition is the ‘original’.
Whilst his article has had a lot of effort put into it and is somewhat well written in places, it is full of bias, contradiction, and a lack of understanding around things like beliefs and the burden of proof.
Before I knew it, I had written an article in response. Out of respect for Chesh, I have waited to post this until we finished our mini-series.
Aron has claimed that:
- Atheism is ONLY a lack of belief in gods.
- This lack of belief definition is the ‘original’ definition.
- Because it is the ‘original’ definition, it is the ‘correct’ definition.
- His definition is ‘helpful, meaningful and logical’ whilst ‘mine’ is ‘exclusively harmful’
- Any resource, e.g. SEP, IEP, Philosophers, laypeople, that disagree with him are ‘wrong’.
- That lack of belief actually means being completely absent of belief.
- That this applies to things that don’t even have mental states, e.g. rocks and cabbages.
- That his article would settle the matter once and for all.
The videos from Chesh can be found in this playlist:
Our video on prescriptivism might also be of interest:
The article I read (and am responding to) is on League of Reason, however, he also posted a similar version on Patheos which is the one used on Chesh’s stream. There are a few differences between the articles, and I cannot guarantee nothing has changed since I accessed the one on the LoR a few weeks ago, however the bulk of the content on the live stream and this article is the same.
- League of Reason: https://leagueofreason.org.uk/index.php?threads/what-is-atheism.16590/
- Patheos: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/reasonadvocates/2020/08/15/if-you-dont-believe-in-any-god-youre-atheist/
This conversation began on Twitter, and I moved it here because it is not possible to discuss anything of depth on Twitter.https://leagueofreason.org.uk/index.php?threads/what-is-atheism.16590/
Agreed, nothing of importance can be discussed there, the messages are too short and people are too willing to fight instead of listen and understand. They seem to just assert they are right, I remember this because this is what you did.
I live in Texas, where some people actually think they were born Republican, and that they owe loyalty to the party of their birth. How anyone could have that impression is bewildering to me. Obviously we are not born with political opinions. We may believe whatever our parents say, but only as long as we don’t know any better and still think we can trust them. Some of us eventually decide that our folks don’t really know what they’re talking about, but we had to develop our own perspectives to learn that. We weren’t born with that—or any—understanding.
Indeed. As infants we lack the cognitive abilities to even think about this sort of thing. We do not hold political positions or beliefs. As we start to develop these, we tend to take on those of our parents and guardians.
Similarly, I was raised by a Mormon family, baptized into their church at eight years-old, but I never considered myself a Mormon. Because even as a child, I knew that Mormonism was a collection of beliefs, and I didn’t know what all of them were. How could I know whether I believed everything that was required to be a Mormon? I knew there were other religions too, but I knew next to nothing about them. So until I studied every other belief-system, then how could I know whether one of them might make more sense to me? How could I claim a belief when I don’t even know what that belief is? Nor what the options are either? I’m actually a bit alarmed that I seem to be the only kid who ever thought about it this way, to realize that we are not simply born into the religion of our parents, nor into their political party either.
I wonder what age this actually was. This seems like an irrelevant segue from what atheism is.
My mother should know we aren’t born with a religious belief. She wasn’t born a Mormon. Her parents belonged to a different denomination when she was a girl. She grew up and adopted Mormonism and then converted my grandparents, somehow. But she never converted me. She didn’t know she had to. I guess she thought that once I was baptized, that was it, that I was made a Mormon at that moment, as if I would be one from then on. There was no accounting for how reason might effect my position.
Sounds like your mother didn’t indoctrinate you and allowed you to find your own path. Good on her.
I hate that I have to explain this yet again. Hopefully this one last time will be all I ever need say about it from now on.
The list of atheist organizations includes the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Foundation Beyond Belief and Secular Student Alliance, among many others. Not all of them have “atheist” in their name because if you use that word, then you have to explain what you mean by that, and you’ll have to argue with those people who insist that it doesn’t or can’t really mean what we all mean when we identify as such.
What a number of American organisations say on the matter is sort of irrelevant. Also, you seem to forget, you’re the one arguing for a prescriptive use of atheism that goes past the colloquial lacktheism and into total absence-of-beliefism.
If you Google ‘atheism’, you will see that the most common definition is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” This is the common usage. Notice that Google also defines “disbelief” as “inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real”, not necessarily belief that it is false. The issue here is that some philosophers insist that ‘disbelief’ cannot simply mean that one is unconvinced that the claim is true; they argue that it must also be a conviction that the claim is not true. Similarly, some philosophers say that atheism cannot merely be the absence of belief that gods exist, but that it can only be the presence of belief that no gods exist.
Yes, if you spend little to no time looking into this, and just take the google definition, it does describe it that way. Also, refusal to accept something is true or real is the same as accepting something as false or fake.
If you use an Oxford or Cambridge dictionary they still use “Belief God(s) do not exist” and if you spend some time digging into the philosophy and propositional logic, you will understand this is the normative definition too.
Dictionaries are descriptive, they tend to have, at the very least, the most common usages of a given word. Within certain circles in America, outside of philosophy, the lack of belief definition is quite common. This spilled into the internet. So internet dictionaries will have this as the most common definition too. People also conflate disbelief with a lack of belief, and this becomes a synonym, as I explain in my article Sin-Onyms.
Also, you need to understand that when you are discussing beliefs, you are describing mental states. This includes a lack of belief. If we say X lacks belief in Y we are describing the mental state of X in relation to Y. X needs awareness of Y to hold that mental state.
What you seem to forget as well is, when you lack a belief, it is a second order belief. You believe you lack belief in Y.
When you are speaking of an absence of belief, this can only be held in 2 ways.
- Complete unawareness of Y, in which case you’re not actually holding any form of belief in relation to Y. This is impossible for any atheist to claim, because they have heard of Y, in this case the proposition or P = “God Exists”
- An inability to hold mental states, whether this is due to being an infant, severe brain damage, or an inanimate object is irrelevant.
Either way, neither of these are actually states in regards to the proposition “God Exists”
“Atheism is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.”
Which means that atheism is NOT a belief that any deity exists.
The contrast is between believers and unbelievers,
NOT between believers believing that the claim is true vs believers believing that the claim is false.
Ah yes, let’s get our philosophy from Wikipedia shall we? Shall we get our science from AiG whilst we are at it?
Of course, you note here it is acknowledging multiple definitions too, right? ‘The position that there are no deities’ is what the atheist would believe too. We’ve already agreed there are multiple definitions for atheism. The articles you’re posting are agreeing. The discussion was between a sloppy vague definition that conflates not just anyone but anything that is non-theist to atheist and one that uses propositional logic to provide clear epistemic answers to the proposition ‘God Exists’ and allows for clear ontological positions from which we can easily infer what people believe about the proposition or the God character. What you have proposed is to elaborate on is why yours is the ‘correct’ and ‘original’ definition.
I’m told that there are reasons why some philosophers insist on this unnecessarily restrictive and counterproductive definition, which only serves to diminish atheists individually and collectively, but thus far the only explanation these antagonists have given for why they insist on imposing this prescriptive restriction is that I’m stupid and dishonest, as if everyone who shares my opinion is dishonest too. Yet there are an awful lot of people who honestly share my opinion and for good reason. Each of the organizations who identify as atheist agree with me on this.
Hang on, you’re being prescriptive and demanding everyone uses your definition of atheism but say that those who are saying, ‘we shouldn’t be prescriptive and we prefer the normative definition because it provides an epistemological answer to the proposition god exists, but you can use it for yourself however you like,’ is diminishing individuality? You want people to conform to your definition, yet you’re making the claim that people who disagree are diminishing individuality.
Do you not realise what you’re saying? You’re essentially accusing people of what you are outright doing.
How is using clear and precise language counter-productive? The link you give above is one worth reading too, it shows that [theresidentskeptic] (which might be you?) doesn’t understand much about the terminology, saying things like agnosticism only deals with knowledge, and conflates ‘Oxford Dictionary’ with the ‘OED’ or ‘Oxford English Dictionary’.
For example, the National 501(c)(3) organization of American Atheists says:
“Atheism is one thing: A lack of belief in gods.
Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not [necessarily] a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.”
Oh wow, a site that you are (or perhaps were) a director of agrees with you. It too is being prescriptive with its definition. Cool!
Similarly, Atheist Alliance International agrees:
”Theism is the belief in a god or gods. The prefix ‘a’ means; ‘without’ or ‘lack of’. Therefore, atheism means ‘without a belief in a god or gods’ or the ‘lack of a belief in a god or gods’. We often hear theists say, “If you don’t believe in God, you must believe God does not exist!” but this is simply wrong. Lacking a belief in a god does not entail believing that no gods exist. A person could reasonably say she doesn’t know if any gods exist, and there are none that she currently believes in. …It is not necessary for an atheist to claim that no gods exist, nevertheless, some do. People often call this position hard atheism. Hard atheism is atheism with the additional conviction that there are no gods anywhere either inside, or outside, of the universe.”
Etymology does not define a word. The original Greek “Atheos” is debated as to whether its direct translation was “Not Gods” or “Without Gods” but its USE was anyone that didn’t believe in the Greek/Roman pantheon. Even early Christians were described as Atheos. However, the terminology has moved on from then, and I think you’re very close if not on the nose of an etymological fallacy.
Also, what’s with the jump from the lack of belief in gods definition to total conviction no gods exist anywhere?
Atheist Republic also agrees:
“Atheism is a very broad term, even though it is basically interpreted as the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. The term is contrasted with theism, which suggests that there exists at least one deity. The word atheism dates back to the 5th Century BCE Greek word atheos, which means “without gods.” Over the years, the application of the word has been narrowed down significantly, thanks to the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry and an increase in the criticism of religion. Today, there are very few people who understand the concept completely and that is why atheism is often misunderstood and even vilified to a large extent. Different people perceive atheism differently, and hence, it is difficult to determine the total number of atheists in the world.”
I have already explained the Atheos point, so I will discuss something different here. Currently, all you are doing is looking for confirmation towards your bias to justify your prescriptivism. You’re ignoring the fact they also note people define atheism differently.
It should not matter what these sites you cite as references use as a definition either. They are community-based sites that are also trying to ‘increase their numbers’ like yourself and are therefore motivated by a broader definition of atheist. This, in turn, means they use a definition open for category error that doesn’t allow us to accurately infer someone’s specific ontological position. You’re not discussing the logic and the various ontological positions, you’re simply and repetitiously stating your position and operating on confirmation bias.
Also, rejection of belief in the existence of deities is the same as disbelief in the existence of deities which in turn, as discussed, is the belief deities do not exist.
Note that this last citation says that the original definition of atheism was simply “godless”, being in some sense “without god(s)” or “without theism”, and that some time later, some philosophers imposed a newer narrower redefinition, which each of the organizations above uniformly reject. All of these and many other activist groups promoting skeptical atheism, science education, secular policies and humanist values identify as unbelievers as contrasted with believers. Yet some antagonistic philosophers seek to prohibit atheist groups from identifying by the one criteria that matters to us, by insisting instead that we cannot NOT believe. Instead we must believe in NOT, that we must adopt a positive belief that no gods exist, no matter how senseless that sounds.
You’re appealing to etymology without understanding the use. Or perhaps you do understand the use but the etymology of the term provides you with the confirmation bias you are seeking.
And no one is saying you MUST adopt the normative definitions. YOU are the one saying everyone MUST adopt your ‘lack of belief’ definition, and accept that ‘rocks are atheist’.
There is so much projection going on. Antagonistic philosophers? Yes, I’m sure all the philosophers throughout history who have spent time studying epistemology, philosophy of religion, and worked on refining the definition of atheism did it all to wind you up. Perhaps you’re frustrated because people don’t just take you at your word?
They cite the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as one of few sources to share their definition, even though it also says that “it is important to recognize that the term “atheism” is polysemous—i.e., it has more than one related meaning—even within philosophy.” Thus “weak atheism” (as a lack of belief) “is certainly a legitimate definition in the sense that it reports how a significant number of people use the term. Again, there is more than one “correct” definition of “atheism”.”
Yes indeed, we all understand atheism is polysemous. All definitions are valid. However, the one that uses propositional logic to provide an epistemological answer to the proposition ‘God Exists’ is the more logical, rational use of the term, and is considered the normative use within philosophy.
Again, you’re the one being prescriptive with your definition. We are just explaining why we don’t hold ourselves to your definition.
That said, I have to point out two things the S.E.P. got wrong. One is where it supposes that: “If, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists.” However, the original and still persistent consistent common standard definition cited by every one of the self-identifying atheist organizations is that Theism is the psychological condition of believing that one or more gods exist. Thus atheism is the absence of the psychological condition of believing that any gods exist.
Your lack of understanding of propositional content does not make it wrong.
Theism is the concept. It is commonly described as ‘the belief god exists’ but this is not an active belief. This is just describing what people (the -IST, aka theists) believe. Therefore we use the propositional content (p) from theism ‘God Exists’ and we describe the theist as one that believes this to be true, or Bp.
Theism is not a psychological condition. The Theist holds a mental state, in regards to the propositional content of theism.
The ‘a’ prefix can mean not as well as without. In 1972 Anthony Flew tried to redefine atheism to a definition similar to the one you use today, however it was generally laughed out through peer review.
The ‘a’ is, and has been, understood as NOT as in NEGATION. Thus, if the propositional content (p) of Theism is ‘God Exists’, the propositional content (¬p) of Atheism is ‘God Does Not Exist’. An atheist believes this and lacks belief in the p of Theism. B¬p ^ ¬Bp
There is of course one who suspends judgement in both propositions, lacking belief both ways. This is the psychological state of being agnostic.
The other error is where the SEP says that the philosophical redefinition “has the added virtue of making atheism a direct answer to one of the most important metaphysical questions in philosophy of religion, namely, “Is there a God?” There are only two possible direct answers to this question: “yes”, which is theism, and “no”, which is atheism.” This is wrong. A detriment is not a virtue. The metaphysical question was never “is there a god?” That question was always “Do you BELIEVE in a god?”
Always? Really? Back to the original atheos, that’s not how it was used, that’s not how it has been defined through philosophy throughout the years. It has not ALWAYS been that. Your assertion is unfounded.
The question of “does God exist” is a topic of idle philosophical pontification of no real consequence. Whether God exists or not is irrelevant. It changes nothing either way. All that matters is whether we believe there’s a god.
Why? For someone who spends so much time trying to make people not believe in a God, you think it doesn’t matter if one actually exists or not? Do you not realise the implications of whether the existence of deities could be demonstrated or not. In either case, it would alter the understanding of the nature of the universe for everyone.
Throughout history, we have been warned that we bet our alleged souls, as well as our livelihoods, and sometimes even our very lives on that one question: Do you believe in God? Christians and Muslims both insist that after we die, we will be judged, not over whether we were good or bad, but only over whether or not we believed. And if we didn’t believe, we’re guilty of a thought crime. It was never about morality. The Abrahamic god itself isn’t moral. Nor is it a righteous judge.
It doesn’t matter how evil you are. All sins may be forgiven—if you but believe. But if you don’t believe, then it doesn’t matter how good you are, because the only sin that cannot be forgiven is the sin of disbelief. Believers are offered an impossible promise of a posthumous reward while unbelievers face the threat of a fate worse than death. We’re commanded to believe whatever we’re told without question, reservation or reason, since neither evidence nor logic supports any of this. You can only believe it on faith. Thus gullibility is the sole criteria for redemption. And if that still doesn’t scare you into compliance, the Bible and the Qur’an both say that believers will be blessed and unbelievers will be cursed in this life as well as that other life that doesn’t really come after this one. History has also shown that theocracies deal with heresy and apostasy as capital crimes punishable by death. So you had better believe or pretend to believe and fake it convincingly, not because God will punish you, but because his self-appointed minions will.
This is a very narrow view of religion, you’re focused on just the Abrahamic deity and using a quite vague blanket set of beliefs to describe them. This also has NOTHING to do with the definition of atheism.
So whether we’re standing at the pearly gates or before a theocratic magistrate, the question before us was never “is there a god”, the question literally imposed upon us throughout history and theology is and always was “do you believe in God?” A “yes” answer = Theist. Whoever or whatever collective cannot answer yes to that question is atheist. They do not have the psychological condition of believing that gods exist.
Really? What do you base this flight of fancy on?
Even the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:
“The term “atheist” describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists. Worldwide there may be as many as a billion atheists, although social stigma, political pressure, and intolerance make accurate polling difficult.”
And if you spend even the smallest amount of time reading that article and get to the first section ‘What is Atheism?’ instead of looking just for confirmation bias you find this: https://iep.utm.edu/atheism/#H1
1. What is Atheism?
Atheism is the view that there is no God.https://iep.utm.edu/atheism/#H1
‘The view that there is no god’. If your outlook is that there is no god, that means you believe there is no god. Yet where is the honesty? Why only tell people the bit that backs you up?
It goes on to describe:
It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God. Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.” So negative atheism would includes someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle. Agnosticism is traditionally characterized as neither believing that God exists nor believing that God does not exist.https://iep.utm.edu/atheism/#H1
So we can see again that pre-flew the widely accepted definition of atheism was affirming (believing) the non-existence of God. Flew tried to widen this category, yet it notes Agnosticism is traditionally characterised as neither believing that god exists nor god does not exist.
Again, you’re just looking for confirmation bias. This is not particularly intellectually honest. In fact, it seems you’re almost gish-galloping through this, providing all the information that agrees with you at the start hoping folks trust you enough to take you at your word instead of looking into this for themselves.
That’s why this is important from the perspective of a secular activist. We have no strength as a demographic because we can’t even tell how many of us are there? Because people have been so mislead that most atheists don’t even know they are atheist. I was unknowingly atheist for fifteen years before I finally learned what that word really meant. I was mislead by those who pretend that atheism is limited only to those who possess a belief in no-godism, and that anyone who disagrees with that is dishonest.
After how many times you have shown you are being dishonest (or if charitable, mistaken) through your article, I find it odd that you start calling others out for dishonesty. Your main goal is to ‘increase numbers’, but instead of focusing on non-theists, you’re trying to force your definition of atheist on everyone else, and inadvertently pushing folks away through your prescriptivism and weak logic.
Religionists point to various studies showing how gullible, impressionable and irrational people can be, and they argue that this means that humans are born believers. Of course studies of history show the opposite too, “casting doubt on the idea that religious belief is a “default setting” for humans”.
One person’s weak logic and irrational belief doesn’t give you the right to also use weak logic and have irrational beliefs like ‘rocks are atheist’. This is effectively a ‘Tu Quoque’
I’ve even heard the argument that we are born believing everything anyone ever believed, and that as our brains develop, we go through long lists of innate beliefs and systematically eliminate whichever ones we no longer keep, until we whittle our way down to whatever we still believe as adults. Obviously that can’t be true. We can’t be convinced of a claim if we’ve never even heard it. The mind of a newborn infant is not yet capable of believing anything beyond what it perceives through its own senses, and even that has to be learned. So it is NOT the case that we must either believe “for” or believe “against”. Instead we either have a belief or we don’t. Neither could we choose not to take a position, because the lack of belief is the default position, and the only way to withhold judgement is not to believe. There are no other options.
‘There are no other options’
As humans our beliefs come in a number of states.
- We are absent of belief – we have never heard the proposition, never considered it, and have no attitude towards it in any way.
- We believe it is true – Bp – we have considered the proposition and been convinced by the arguments and/or evidence.
- We believe it is false – B¬p – also known as disbelief – we have considered the proposition and found enough to warrant us to think that it is not true.
- We suspend judgment – ¬Bp ^ ¬B¬p – also known as being agnostic – we have considered the proposition and not found enough to warrant us to think it is either true or false, and we suspend judgement until such a time we are convinced one way or another.
There are other states as well, for example;
- We can believe the proposition is ill-defined and incoherent so don’t even consider it. This could be seen as a form of suspending judgement too, but instead of answering the proposition with ‘I am not sure’ you are saying ‘the proposition is meaningless’ – when this is applied to the god proposition, the person is ignostic or an igtheist.
- You might not care about the proposition. This is another form of suspense of judgement in a way, but you just don’t care if it is true or false so don’t spend time thinking about it. In regards to the god proposition, the person is an Apatheist. Apatheist can also describe an attitude in a way. It probably shouldn’t be used as a modifier, but if you don’t care if god exists or not, but have considered the proposition and believe god does not exist you could say you’re an apatheistic atheist.
We can tentatively accept what appears to be factually supported and call that belief, but that isn’t the same thing as religious belief, which is more akin to make-believe. Faith means believing things that are not evidently true, which often requires an act of will. Those beliefs have to be heard, understood and adopted, or made-up from our own imaginations. We are not born with beliefs. No child was ever born Mormon or Hindu or Zoroastrian, nor with any other form of theism. We were all born atheist, and we would likely remain so until someone lies to us.
A belief is just something you accept as true, or a positive attitude towards a proposition. Your statement that it is akin to make-believe is reductive and patronising. Beliefs have a variety of states, rational, irrational, and arational. I know many fellow atheists that hold a rational belief gods do not exist, and many that are irrational about it too. Same of those that are the lack of belief variety of atheist.
In fact, many contemporary atheists hide behind the ‘lack of belief’ definition because they think it releases them from the burden of proof. This is a gross misunderstanding of the burden of proof, aka epistemic justification.
When you claim something is true, or that you know something, you are making a firm statement about reality which carries quite a heavy BoP, especially for largely claims.
When you believe, or lack belief, there is still a claim, but it is an internal one. You are claiming ‘my mental state is this’.
As such, you have a burden of rationality. You have to justify why your mental state is as such, to ensure you have a rational position. So what is rationality? It is, at least in part, reasoning using the rules of logic and probability theory whilst holding consistent and coherent beliefs. As described above, a ‘lack of belief’ is still a mental state. You believe that you lack belief. Thus, you still have to justify why you lack belief. In fact, you have to justify why you think the proposition is neither true nor false if you simply ‘lack belief’.
Your comment on ‘faith means believing things that are not evidently true’ – again, that’s false. Faith is just another word for trust. I have faith that when I cross a bridge it will not collapse on me. Again, faith is polysemous, so it *could* mean what you say, but it doesn’t always.
I would have identified as atheist as a young boy, had I not been lied to so often by everyone I knew and the media too. I was Christian for a while, because I was told that God was a conclusively proven scientific fact, when that is really just baseless speculation assumed and asserted without warrant.
I had heard of atheists, but they were always cast as the least reasonable sort of person imaginable, closed-minded, cynical, evil, reality-denying nihilists. Now I realize that was all propaganda. Religious apologists had to misrepresent the unbelievers to keep people from recognizing free thought as preferable and superior. So I was told that “atheists believe in nothing” when (if they were honest) they should have said that atheists don’t believe anything only on faith. I was told that atheists are dower selfish and sinful devil-worshiping liars who were angry and depressed, perverted and hooked on drugs, all because they didn’t know Jesus. However I didn’t believe that because I knew too many Christians who fit almost all of those same descriptions at once.
Again, how is this relevant to the definition of atheism? Also, many contemporary atheists do seem quite closed-minded denialists. It’s a shame, but they seem to spend a lot of time discussing concepts like morality, beliefs, knowledge etc without spending much time looking into matters. It’s kind of like a YEC discussing evolution.
However there is one lie about atheists that is so pervasive, that I was duped by it, and that was about what atheism is, what I’m talking about now. The fact that I was so mislead drives me to counter and correct that misdirection at every opportunity. It was the lie that one is either agnostic, because we can’t actually prove that gods do or don’t exist, or that we’re atheist, excluding even the possibility of gods or anything else beyond what we can see or touch, just to be unreasonable. Even Carl Sagan was duped by the same lie that I was. Because he famously said that “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”
Sounds like Carl was using the epistemic principle of agnosticism (rather than the modern use as a psychological state) in that ‘we should not claim to believe or know that which we have no scientific evidence for’ and perhaps thought that meant an atheist had to ‘know’ there are no gods rather than just believe it. But why should we replace one misunderstanding with another?
Yes, that definition was deliberately designed to make atheism seem very stupid! A mutual friend, James Randi says that Sagan eventually understood what atheism really is, and that it applied to him.
It seems that “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Huxley must have heard some irritating arguments from his contemporaries, claiming perhaps that having just discovered all this evidence of evolution disproved the Bible and consequently disproved God. Now, I would say that I know that the Bible god doesn’t exist, and that I know that to the same degree and for the same reasons that I know leprechauns don’t exist. I’ve even met Christians who claim to know that leprechauns don’t exist simply because (1) there is no evidence of them, and (2) everything we’re told about them is impossible. So my dismissal of the Christian god is justified even by the standards of believers. But I understand why Huxley would have been annoyed at the notion that having natural explanations necessarily disproves even higher concepts of God than the one we find in the Bible.
There are far more reasons to believe the biblical god does not exist, at least as described in the Bible/by many contemporary theists.
Also, if you believe something is ‘impossible’ you believe it does not exist, regardless of what you might say you believe.
Still, instead of correcting their reasoning, Huxley decided to distance himself from these other atheists by making up a new word, “agnostic”, explaining that “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe”. Note that this does not allow an agnostic to deny that lacking belief in a god means they are actually atheist.
Right, that was Huxley’s epistemic principal, it was the fence sitting position until one had scientific evidence to indicate one way or another. This has moved on over the years to describe the psychological state of withholding judgement in regards to the proposition.
Huxley’s new word had no practical value, not for its intended purpose anyway, because he did not change the pre-existing definition of atheism. I’ll make up a new word myself to illustrate this. “Nosossary” means exactly the same thing that “unnecessary” already did, (something that isn’t needed) but my word also means that it doesn’t need to be eliminated either. We know that unnecessary already meant that too, but it’s not explicitly spelled out in the definition. So knowledge of my new word might prompt some philosophers to treat “unnecessary” as though it meant “something that must be eliminated”. They may even insist that it can only mean that and not what it originally did. That’s what “agnostic” does, tries to redefine atheism through association with a new word that only leads to a misuse of the old word.
You mean how agnostic atheism means the same thing agnostic already did? Also, no practical value? Again, you’re asserting your opinion as fact, and not backing it up with even a logical thought process, let alone evidence.
It [agnostic] doesn’t try and redefine anything. It was understood back then atheism was the belief gods do not exist, and some claimed to know gods do not exist, although there were, of course, other definitions. There were also the ‘Gnostics’ – a branch of Christians who claimed to have special knowledge about God’s existence.
To prove that, remember that Huxley invented his word, “agnostic” in 1869. So I looked up “atheism” in Websters 1828 Dictionary:
The disbelief of the existence of a God, or Supreme intelligent Being.
Yes, Disbelief, this is thinking it is false, which to reiterate equates to the belief God(s) do not exist.
Once again, Webster was not a philosopher, so he did not apply philosophical definitions. Because this is a dictionary, we know exactly what he meant by the word “disbelief“:
“Refusal of credit or faith; denial of belief.”
Which is still saying you believe gods do not exist. If you deny a belief, that is the same as saying the belief is false.
Not denial of the claim, but denial of belief in the claim, That’s important. It also proves again that I’m right. Especially when we also look up “disbelieve“.
You’re more concerned with the battle and being right that you can’t even see how you’re making mistakes. Remember, dictionaries are descriptive, so words and definitions get added and changed based on common use. If people start using disbelieve to mean ‘cheese sandwich’ this will become a definition in the dictionary over time. There are still normative uses of words though.
Not to believe;
to hold not to be true or not to exist;
to refuse to credit.
To hold not to be true. Truth is binary. If you are only holding something to not be true, then logic dictates you are holding it to be false. Otherwise you would not be indicating a truth position and would be suspending judgement, or unsure if it was true or false.
So the common definition of ‘atheism’ 40 years before Huxley’s attempted redefinition was already the same one that we’re still using a century-and-a-half later than that too. Although there have been a few philosophers like Ernest Nagel, Paul Edwards and Kai Nielsen in the 20th century following Huxley’s lead, vying for the rejection of God definition, while George H. Smith, Michael Martin, and Antony Flew argued for the continued inclusion of negative, weak and implicit atheism along with positive, strong, or explicit atheism.
Heaven forbid folks clear up sloppy language with better and more logical definitions that provide epistemological answers to propositions that we can easily infer what folks do and don’t believe rather than vague watery definitions open for category error.
Not only are you committing an etymological fallacy, but you are arguing for irrationality.
Some antagonists have argued that the “lack of belief” definition that I and all the atheist orgs are using is the redefinition, and that the “denial of God” is the original, but they’ve got that turned around. One of my critics produced a Wikispeedia article from McGill School of Computer Science, which he insists proves me wrong. It differs from Wikipedia’s own article on the history of atheism in that it gives the wrong primary definition.
As I said, the original definition applied specifically to the Greek/Roman pantheon. So neither the lack belief definition nor the belief gods do not exist was exactly the ‘original definition’.
“Atheism (derived from the Ancient Greek ἄθεος atheos meaning “without gods; godless; secular; refuting or repudiating the existence of gods, especially officially sanctioned gods”) is the absence of the belief that deities exist.”
Again with the Wikipedia. Whilst it is a great easy to read resource, I really wouldn’t be getting your philosophy from there. It is definitely a good start, but things go much deeper than Wikipedia often allows for. I’ve already explained the use of atheos, so let’s move on.
Wikispeedia says: “Atheism is the disbelief in the existence of God and other deities. It is commonly defined as the positive denial of theism (ie. the assertion that deities do not exist), or the deliberate rejection of theism (i.e., the refusal to believe in the existence of deities). However, others—including most atheistic philosophers and groups—define atheism as the simple absence of belief in deities (cf. nontheism), thereby designating many agnostics, and people who have never heard of gods, such as the unchurched or newborn children, as atheists as well. In recent years, some atheists have adopted the terms strong and weak atheism to clarify whether they consider their stance one of positive belief no gods exist, or of negative unbelief. Many self-described atheists share common skeptical concerns regarding empirical evidence for spiritual or supernatural claims. They cite a lack of evidence for the existence of deities.”
Aron, are you sure you want to say, ‘most atheistic philosophers’? – that is a big claim. In fact, it seems to be a false claim. I contest that anyone taking a philosophy degree try and assert atheism is only a lack of belief in gods and you will find they get laughed at and ridiculed. There are, of course, some that do argue for various definitions. There is no denying that atheism is polysemous and that all definitions are valid. What we can say is, some are more logical than others.
I had said earlier that the first use of the first use of the Greek ἄθεος was a pejorative against Christians, because Christians didn’t have centuries of theology like the Jews or the Hellenists did. Instead, Christians worshiped some guy, a mortal man whom the Romans had just recently killed. And the Christians used atheos pejoratively against the pagans too. However, the word is much older than I thought. Otherwise my critic’s own source agrees with me completely. It says the word originally meant “godless”, just as I said, but that “the word acquired an additional meaning in the 5th Century BCE, severing relations with the gods; that is, “denying the gods, ungodly”.
Denying the gods… as in.. believing they don’t exist. Also, this wasn’t the ‘first use’ of the term, but it might be one of the first uses on an entire group rather than an individual.
Now moving from atheos to atheism:
“In antiquity, [the Greek ἄθεος “without god(s)] had multiple uses as a pejorative term applied to those thought to reject the gods worshiped by the larger society, those who were forsaken by the gods, or those who had no commitment to belief in the gods. The term denoted a social category created by orthodox religionists into which those who did not share their religious beliefs were placed. The actual term atheism emerged first in the 16th century. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope.”
No longer the pejorative that “atheos” had become, what did the new word, atheism mean to the people who willingly adopted that label?
In his book, The First Atheist: Matthias Knutzen’s Writings and Legacy, translator Kirk Watson said:
“Knutzen became the first atheist known by name: i.e., the first person in modern times to write or proclaim themselves, publicly and without a pseudonym, an atheist. And when this positive atheism appeared, it carried the seeds of a whole civilization: along with the denial of God, much of the modern secular worldview (along with a foreshadowing of radical left political ideology), seems to have sprung fully-formed from Knutzen’s brain: in the same sentence as atheism he taught anarchism, sexual freedom, reliance on reason, secular education, and a humanistic society.”
So this asserts the first use of ‘atheist’ was a denial of god, as in, believing god does not exist rather than simple lack of belief? Perhaps this is unclear. You could deny a god you believed in, I guess.
The funny thing is that I read all of Knutzen’s works, as translated by Watson, but I noticed something very different, maybe because I’m one of those “radical leftist”, free-love Humanist science education nerds that Watson seems to be so worried about. In all Knutzen’s writings, he mentions the word ‘atheist’ only once [in German]. Regarding the question of whether he is an atheist and not a Christian. Knutzen replies “That is true; I believe in no God, nor do I accept your Bible, except to refute you:” Knutzen then adds “I also say that all priests and authority must be driven from the world, since people can live well without these things.” So Knutzen acquiesced that he is an atheist, in that he does not believe in any god or in the Bible either, but he prefers to identify as a Conscientarian. He goes on to describe himself as the author of a new religion which is not merely atheist in its lack of belief, but that his new religion “also” denies god, as well as the Bible and the Qur’an and all their associated clergy, believing instead in reason, or knowledge, which he summarizes as “conscience”.
“I say, we see the Bible as a neat fable, which offers enjoyment only to irrational beasts, that is, Christians, who bring their reason into captivity, and are intentionally irrational. In addition, we deny God, we utterly despise magistrates, rejecting the temples and all priests. For we Conscientarians are satisfied with the knowledge, not of one only, but require that of the many (Luke 24:39): See, etc., (εἷς enim ἀνὴρ οὐ πάνθ᾽ ὁρᾷ) and accept CONSCIENCE in conjunction with it. This is, our Conscience, was given to all by Nature, our good mother. This, for us, can serve in place of a Bible (Romans 2:14, 15), in place of the Magistrate, according to Gregory Nazianzus (vol. II, Orat. XV, in plagam grandinis pag. m. 447), it is the true tribunal, and replaces the priest, for it performs the duties of a learned Doctor, teaching us to harm none, to live honorably, and to give everyone their due. If we live wickedly, it will take the place of a thousand torments, and even of Hell: if we do what is right, it will be our Heaven during this one life we have. This same conscience is born with us, and it perishes with us at death. Those are our innate principles: whoever rejects them, rejects himself. I hope to be able to address this question at greater length another time. However, when it comes to the Christian articles of faith, my co-religionists and I always have these words ready:
LET THE CHRISTIANS BELIEVE IT,
THESE ANOINTED MEN AND WOMEN,
Matthias Knutzen; A Friendly Wish From A Friend To A Friend (1674)
As you can see, if atheism did not include a rejection of belief in the proposition of God, but was instead limited to a rejection of the proposition only, then it doesn’t make for a very good argument, and significantly weakens the atheist position.
You do realise, a rejection of the proposition means you believe the proposition to be false? The proposition is ‘God Exists’, so if this is false it means…. Yup, you guessed it ‘God Does Not Exist’
His quote ‘I believe in no God’ is a little unclear. If someone says they don’t believe something is true, then logically speaking you would think they believe it false. However, people can be unclear. They might not be providing a whole answer. They may lack belief both ways and just be unclear with the language.
However, from the transcript Intrigued Feline notes: ’Dazu erklären wir, daß es Gott nicht gibt, verachten zutiefst die Obrigkeit und lehnen auch die Kirchen mitsamt allen Priestern ab’ Meaning: ‘In addition, we declare that God does not exists… we deeply despise the authorities and also reject the churches and all priests.’ So, the first atheist believed gods do not exist. Right here you’ve been shown to be quote mining, essentially cherry-picking the part that could agree with you and ignoring the part that did not.
The “religion” Knutzen describes is not anything we would recognize as a religion today. Every religion universally accepted as such by both adherents and critics is a doctrine of ritual traditions, ceremonies, mythology, and the associated dogma of faith-based belief systems that all posit the idea that a supernatural essence of “self ” (be it a soul or consciousness, or memories, etc.) somehow transcends the death of the physical body to continue on in some other form. Knutzen doesn’t believe in any of that, but he does hold a belief. Rather than identify with mere atheism, lacking belief in any god, he promotes “Conscientianism”, which he says is also a positive belief that there is no god, what we call “strong” or “gnostic” atheism today. Although, I won’t use that term anymore. Instead, from here on, I may compare agnostic atheists to Conscientarian atheists instead.
More contradiction. If ‘gnostic’ means ‘knowledge’ then how does ‘belief god does not exist’ = ‘know god does not exist’? – IT DOESN’T.
In fact, BELIEF GOD DOES NOT EXIST doesn’t necessarily mean your belief is STRONG either. That is not how psychological certainty works. All it means is you think it is most likely the most probable thing. One could be 10% certain or 90% certain god does not exist, that is still a belief god does not exist.
Next came Philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), who is today commonly considered to have been atheist, though he did not use that label himself; probably because it was still pejorative and Knutzen did nothing to change that. Here the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy admits that their impractically exclusionary definition is too narrow to work in Hume’s case.
“Given the more open-ended and inclusive nature of Hume’s outlook and aims, the label of “atheism” perhaps suggests a more narrow and doctrinaire position than Hume is comfortable with or concerned to champion. Granted that the label of “atheism” is in these respects potentially misleading, and that “scepticism” and “agnosticism” fail to properly identify and highlight Hume’s wholly hostile and critical attitude towards religious dogma and doctrine (in its orthodox forms), what alternative label is available to us? The most accurate and informative label for describing Hume’s views on this subject is perhaps irreligion.”
How about you get back to the original and common definition of atheism, which literally means “irreligious”?
You seem to keep changing the ‘original’ definition throughout your article. Do you realise you are doing that?
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also explains why the narrow definition, being limited to “strong, hard, or explicit” atheism, of “having a belief that no god exists” is unworkable in the case of Hume.
“Given the comprehensive critique that Hume levels against religion, it is clear that he is not a theist in any traditional sense. However, acknowledging this point does little to settle Hume’s considered views on religion. There remain three positions open to Hume: atheist naturalism, skeptical agnosticism, or some form of deism. The first position has Hume denying any form of supernaturalism, and is much more popular outside of Hume scholarship than within. The reason for this is that it runs contrary to Hume’s attitude regarding speculative metaphysics. It has him making a firm metaphysical commitment by allowing an inference from our having no good reason for thinking that there are supernatural entities, to a positive commitment that in fact there are none. However, Hume would not commit the Epistemic Fallacy and thereby allow the inference from “x is all we can know of subject y” to “x constitutes the real, mind-independent essence of y.” Indeed, in Part XII of the first Enquiry, Hume explicitly denies the inference from what we can know from our ideas to what is the case in reality.
These considerations against a full-fledged atheist position motivate the skeptical view. While atheism saddles Hume with too strong a metaphysical commitment, the skeptical view also holds that he does not affirm the existence of any supernatural entities. This view has Hume doubting the existence of supernatural entities, but still allowing their possibility. It has the advantage of committing Hume to the sparse ontology of the naturalist without actually committing him to potentially dogmatic metaphysical positions. Hence, Hume can be an atheist for all intents and purposes without actually violating his own epistemic principles.”
That’s another problem with the restrictive philosophical definition of atheism. Rather that allow us to simply doubt the belief, we’re saddled with making positively dogmatic metaphysical commitments, based only on a lack of information, which would be potentially fallacious. Rather than say, “I believe this baseless speculation I just made up”, it would be better to say that “I DON’T believe the baseless speculation YOU just made up”.
There is a reason for various ontological positions. There are many types of non-theist. The article highlights this well, and describes him as agnostic.
I would suggest reading this section of the SEP article: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-religion/#WasHumAth
What you also have to understand with a lot of the early philosophers around non-belief and the like, is that outright rejection of gods was considered heresy. Many people were persecuted for such, and because of this many remained unclear of their position. They might not identify as atheist, even if they showed their scepticism for religion and religious beliefs.
Although Matthias Knutzen is recognized as the first atheist, at least the first one who didn’t deny the label, he didn’t exactly wear it proudly. The first person to defend atheism as the preferred label of choice was Paul Henri Thiry (Baron d’Holbach) (1723-1789). Throughout his work on The System of Nature (1770), Baron d’Holbach used the word ‘atheist’ over and over again. Wherein he provided an in-depth description and defense of atheism in the broader sense of those who lack belief, whom he praised, and explicitly NOT those who reject the God proposal, whom he called “fools”.
Interesting, so whilst Knutzen, ‘the first atheist’, used the term to mean one that believes gods do not exist, circa 50 years later, according to you someone decided to defend its use as the lack of belief. Perhaps they were ‘fools’ for saying ‘god does not exist’ purely because it would get them killed, and he was trying to reduce the potential harm of the label?
In fact, to quote the ‘System of Nature’ – ‘Doctor Cudworth, in his Intellectual System, reckons four species of atheists among the ancients.’ – we remember in this time we did not have the word ‘innocent’ or ‘agnostic’. The language was yet to be refined, but even then we can see there are different positions one might hold.
“This granted, we shall be competent to fix the sense that ought to be attached to the name of atheist; which, notwithstanding, the theologians lavish on all those who deviate in any thing from their opinions. If, by atheist, be designated a man who denieth the existence of a power inherent in matter, without which we cannot conceive nature, and if it be to this power that the name of God is given, then there do not exist any atheists, and the word under which they are denominated would only announce fools. But if by atheists be understood men without enthusiasm; who are guided by experience; who follow the evidence of their senses; who see nothing in nature but what they actually find to have existence, or that which they are capacitated to know; who neither do, nor can perceive any thing but matter essentially active, moveable, diversely combined, in the full enjoyment of various properties, capable of producing all the beings who display themselves to our visual faculties, if by atheists be understood natural philosophers, who are convinced that without recurring to chimerical causes, they can explain every thing, simply by the laws of motion; by the relation subsisting between beings; by their affinities; by their analogies; by their aptitude to attraction; by their repulsive powers; by their proportions; by their combinations; by their decomposition: if by atheists be meant these persons who do not understand what Pneumatology is, who do not perceive the necessity of spiritualizing, or of rendering incomprehensible, those corporeal, sensible, natural causes, which they see act uniformly; who do not find it requisite to separate the motive-power from the universe; who do not see, that to ascribe this power to an immaterial substance, to that whose essence is from thenceforth totally inconceivable, is a means of becoming more familiar with it: if by atheists are to be pourtrayed those men who ingenuously admit that their mind can neither receive nor reconcile the union of the negative attributes and the theological abstractions, with the human and moral qualities which are given to the Divinity; or those men who pretend that from such an incompatible alliance, there could only result an imaginary being; seeing that a pure spirit is destitute of the organs necessary to exercise the qualities, to give play to the faculties of human nature: if by atheists are described those men who reject systems, whose odious and discrepant qualities are solely calculated to disturb the human species—to plunge it into very prejudicial follies: if, I repeat it, thinkers of this description are those who are called atheists, it is not possible to doubt their existence; and their number would be considerable, if the light of sound natural philosophy was more generally diffused; if the torch of reason burnt more distinctly; or if it was not obscured by the theological bushel: from thence, however, they would be considered neither as irrational; nor as furious beings, but as men devoid of prejudice, of whose opinions, or if they prefer it, whose ignorance, would be much more useful to the human race, than those ideal sciences, those vain hypotheses, which for so many ages have been the actual causes of all man’s tribulation.
Baron d’Holbach is known as the “father of atheism”. He defined what atheism, and what it means to self-identify as an atheist. In his book, Good Sense (1772) Baron d’Holbach again explains that his atheism is not necessarily a rejection of the god proposition, but rather a lack of belief as the inevitable result of a lack of evidence or arguments providing any reason to believe.
In that massive run-on sentence it doesn’t seem to state anything about people who believes gods do not exist being fools. In fact, if you think gods are imaginary, that is saying they are not real, you believe they don’t exist. The text does not say what you say it is saying.
So, in your interpretation, 50 years on from ‘the first atheist’ described it as what was essentially ‘the belief gods do not exist’ the ‘father of atheism’ altered the definition to include the lack of belief definition.
Within ‘The Good Sense’ it also says:
‘An Atheist is fully as conscientious as a religious man, and has better motives for doing good’https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7319/7319-h/7319-h.htm
Does this this describe rocks, or even babies?
There are a few other quotes to consider here:
The consolations of Theology and paradise are imaginaryGood Sense
We have an example of this in Theology, a system revered in all countries by a great number of men; an object regarded by them as most important, and indispensable to happiness. An examination of the principles upon which this pretended system is founded, forces us to acknowledge, that these principles are only suppositions, imagined by ignorance, propagated by enthusiasm or knavery, adopted by timid credulity, preserved by custom which never reasons, and revered solely because not understood.Good Sense
In all parts of our globe, fanatics have cut each other’s throats, publicly burnt each other, committed without a scruple and even as a duty, the greatest crimes, and shed torrents of blood. For what? To strengthen, support, or propagate the impertinent conjectures of some enthusiasts, or to give validity to the cheats of impostors, in the name of a being, who exists only in their imagination, and who has made himself known only by the ravages, disputes, and follies, he has causedGood Sense
If you are saying something is imaginary, you are saying it is not real, as in no objective reality, which means it does not exist (at least outside the mind).
So, to recap at this point:
- Atheos had a specific use that spoke of one that rejected the Greek/Roman pantheon.
- This was then used by Christians to those that believed in other gods (e.g. the Pagans had their own gods, so it follows they would believe the Christian god would not exist) and then,
- The first atheist believed gods do not exist…
- And then you state it was redefined to the lack of belief definition some 50 years later, but it seems he was claiming gods are imaginary, as in not real. If something is not real, it does not exist.
Got it. So your ‘original definition’ of ‘lack of belief in gods’ is not the original definition of either atheos or atheist then?
This is what your article has described so far….
“You say, that presumption alone makes Atheists. Inform them then what your God is; teach them his essence; speak of him intelligibly; say something about him, which is reasonable, and not contradictory or impossible. If you are unable to satisfy them, if hitherto none of you have been able to demonstrate the existence of a God in a clear and convincing manner; if by your own confession, his essence is completely veiled from you, as from the rest of mortals, forgive those, who cannot admit what they can neither understand nor make consistent with itself; do not tax with presumption and vanity those who are sincere enough to confess their ignorance; do not accuse of folly those who find themselves incapable of believing contradictions; and for once, blush at exciting the hatred and fury of sovereigns and people against men, who think not like you concerning a being, of whom you have no idea. Is any thing more rash and extravagant, than to reason concerning an object, known to be inconceivable?”
In the same book, the Baron goes even explains that, “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God. Are they then criminal on account of their ignorance? At what age must they begin to believe in God? It is, you say, at the age of reason. But at what time should this age commence?”
I have argued this same thing myself!
You have indeed, but you know, language evolves. We learn more. We realise beliefs, even lack of beliefs, describe mental states. We realise that its not the most logical thing to push a label on one that is innocent of the proposition.
Also, this is more of analogy about how we shouldn’t punish those that do not believe. Terms like ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Innocent’ were not around then.
Antagonists insist that atheism cannot exist except as a response to theism. But because the psychological condition of belief in God must be acquired and added to the prior position of being without that psychological condition of belief, then, just as asexual reproduction preceded sex, atheism, the absence of theism, necessarily pre-dates the invention of god-beliefs. Before anyone believed in gods, no one did. Everyone was atheist.
By this seemingly awfully vague definition of atheism, you could argue that. I would suggest that they were innocent of the proposition. That atheism, even lacktheism, is a considered position. The default state for humans is innocence/ignorance. Who are these antagonists that insist on this singular definition though?
I’ve queried a number of people who accept this much, and then accept that children born into atheist societies would of course always have been atheist. It’s not like they would have to wait until they hear, understand and reject the claims of theism first because they already don’t believe in that. They’re atheist to start with, and they’re likely to stay that way. If they’re atheist from birth, then there is no minimum level of cognition required to NOT have a god belief. Babies, kittens and rocks already don’t have any psychological condition of believing in gods. You only need cognition in order to HAVE a belief.
And now you’re getting ridiculous. The conflation of EVERYTHING that is non-theist to atheist is simply moronic. Rocks do not have mental states, there is no point in describing them in forms of mental states.
In fact, it is commonly held (usually by atheists, though there are some supporting studies) that atheists are generally more intelligent, rational, moral etc.
If we include all rocks, tress, leaves, babies, kittens etc as atheist, what does that reduce the average intelligence of the atheist to? How rational is a rock? How moral is a kitten?
You need cognition in order to consider propositions and lack belief.
There is a difference between:
- Not having a mental state, and therefore not having the ability to have a belief
- Being too young to have developed the ability to have these mental states and considering propositions
- Considering a proposition and lacking belief in it being true (or false)
- Considering a proposition and believing it is either true or false
You also seem to keep mention others, without actually citing any sources. ‘I spoke to people that agreed with me’ is hardly the best defence of poor logic.
The best I’ve ever yet seen was when someone shared a link to an article on How Not to Define ‘Atheism’ by Dr. Bill Vallicella, “The Maverick Philosopher”, an actual philosophical scholar who explained that “atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God or a god exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists.”
So his argument is that atheism can’t be what it is because then it would be the default position that it always has been. Get that? That’s the REASON he gives! That a lack of belief as the default position would lead to a logical conclusion that he doesn’t want to admit. That’s not evidence, nor a reasoned argument either. That’s just an admission of bias!
The irony there is, you are using your bias to interpret his article in that way. ‘He admits that if we turn lack of belief to absence of belief and define atheism that way, it includes cabbages… HAHA so I am RIGHT! ROCKS ARE ATHEISTS’ – great reasoning there. That’s not what he is saying. He is pointing out it is an illogical position to hold.
From there, his argument moves on to projection, flipping the tables to turn atheism into the proposition rather than theism. This is the fallacy of shifting the burden of proof, demanding that the unbeliever disprove the negative rather than expect the believer to show the truth of his claim.
This shows a continued misunderstanding of the burden of proof. Here’s a link: https://iep.utm.edu/epi-just/ but let me explain (again, and as I did on twitter but you ignored there too… wilful ignorance?).
There is a difference between making a truth/knowledge claim, and a belief/lack of belief.
If you say ‘I know God Exists’ you are making a strong claim about reality and your burden is to prove this true.
If you are stating you believe, disbelieve, or lack belief, you are describing a psychological state. You are not making a truth claim about external reality, but you are making a claim about what your mental state is.
Therefore you have to justify why you hold this position for it to be a rational one. You do not have to prove it true, just show that you have used the rules of logic and probability theory, have coherent and consistent beliefs, and no strong evidence against your position.
Worse, this means that when we atheists say “I don’t believe you”, somehow THAT becomes a proposition, AND we’re told that we have to provide a burden of proof to justify why we don’t believe you.
Yes, as explained above.
Why are we letting a Christian philosopher from a Catholic school redefine what atheism is?
A Christian philosopher? Who? The first one you referenced was SEP, and Draper is an atheist philosopher. Stephen Law and Graham Oppy are also atheist philosophers that use the ‘Belief gods do not exist’ definition. Whilst not an actual philosopher, I’m an Atheist. Dave, currently doing his dissertation for his masters in philosophy, is an Atheist. We use the normative definition. We also understand language is descriptive and there is utility to the colloquial definition. We accept it is defined differently and that people can use whatever definition they want, but we request you are not prescriptive with your definition or make absurd statements like ‘rocks are atheist’ because you are making us all look foolish.
Unfortunately, there is a ‘guilt by association’ going on here. People see you as a bit of a figurehead, and either will judge atheists to be irrational because of your article, statements, and behaviour, or they will be your unquestioning followers either agreeing blindly or making excuses like you’re joking.
I’ve heard many impressively bad arguments from antagonists in defense of their philosophy, and not even one good one. I should have kept a running list. One I remember was that it’s not enough that you don’t believe; you also have to believe that you don’t believe! Why do they keep adding unnecessary criteria? Why do they insist on turning unbelievers into believers? I think that the reason is to keep the total number of atheists down to as few as possible.
Your lack of understanding of how beliefs work is not an argument against them. If you say you lack belief in x, you believe that you lack belief in x… it’s a 2nd order belief… that is just how it works. It is not ‘unnecessary criteria’ – you sound like a creationist arguing that evolution is only a ‘change in kind’. Your projection of ‘bad arguments’ is again, amusing.
How do you know whether some body or collective is theist or atheist? The test is simple.
Do they believe in any gods?
Yes = theist. No = atheist.
Yes, you keep asserting that. Yet those that understand the rules of logic realise there are various ontological positions in regards to the proposition ‘god exists’ and many of them are different types of non-theist.
You are free to label yourself how you want, but you ought not be prescriptive telling other non-theists they are atheist when that is not how they identify.
Everyone who answers yes is theistic, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Hindus, they’re all theists and their numbers swell collectively. But look at every subdivision that can NOT answer yes to that question. Those are the atheists. The explicit hard atheist and the implicit soft atheist both answer the question of god belief the same way. Neither one believes. So are they all collectively recognized as unbelievers as they should be? No. instead the antagonists have created many artificially-contrived sub-categories to keep the non-believers divided and confused.
If you don’t believe in any gods because you don’t have a brain or it hasn’t yet developed enough to entertain such farcical beliefs, then you’re not atheist, you a non-cognitivist. Because (for whatever illogical reason) you can’t be “without belief” until you’re ready and able to believe.
If you’re capable of belief, but you don’t believe in miraculous deities because you were lucky enough to live in a secular society where such silliness as gods and magic were never even mentioned, then you’re not atheist, you’re only an “innocent”. Because you can’t be “without theism” until you’ve had theism thrust upon you.
If you’ve heard the pitch for theism, but object to the question because the terms ‘god’ and ‘supernatural’, ‘immaterial’ and ‘miraculous’ all lack any sensible definition, then you’re not an atheist, you’re an igtheist. Because you can’t be an atheist until you know what the god is that you don’t believe in, even when the people who do believe in that god don’t know themselves what it is.
If you’ve heard and understood the arguments for divinity, but you just don’t care whether gods exist or not, you’re not atheist, you’re an apatheist. Because you can’t be atheist until you show enough interest to take a position, even when you’re starting from the default position already.
If you’ve heard and understood the pitch for God, and you’re still not convinced, but you allow that some gods maybe could exist, by some definition perhaps, and you’re sure you would change your mind if given good reason to, you’re still not an atheist then either; You’re only agnostic, which means almost the same thing as “soft atheism” already did, but you’re supposed to figure that out.
If you’ve heard and understood and considered the arguments for theism, yet you still have no belief, you’re still not atheist. You’re only a non-theist, which means exactly the same thing as “atheist” always did, but you’re not supposed to notice that either.
Finally, if you’ve heard and understood and considered the arguments for theism, yet not only do you still have no belief that it’s true, you actually have a belief that it’s false, well then you can’t really be an atheist then either, because there’s no way to know for sure that there’s no god, not without disproving an unfalsifiable negative.
Your description above was somewhat correct of the various ontological positions, but not completely. Ontology and the things we lack… although that switch from belief to knowledge at the end for atheist is a bait and switch.
However, your tone is really telling. Are you sure you’re not the antagonist?
However, the fact remains that none of the groups believes in any god. So they’re all atheist. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy clarifies:
“It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God. Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.” So negative atheism would include someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle.”
Even there, ‘negative atheism’ is referring to a SOMEONE, so still does not include cats and rocks.
The whole and sole division of theism from atheism is to distinguish the godless from the godly, believers from unbelievers. Every theist in the world is playing a game of make-believe, and the only ones who aren’t pretending are atheists. That is the utility and the value of using the proper definition rather than the unworkable unreasonable and ungainly debilitating definition of forcing unbelievers to believe in the rejection of the proposition instead of simply not assuming Belief
Ok, so here you are making a claim. ‘Every theist in the world is playing a game of make-believe’ – so you now have a BoP to demonstrate how this is true.
‘The only ones who aren’t pretending are atheists’ – I’ve seen some atheist cosplayers. Are you saying they are real superheroes? – Yes, this is a Reductio Ad Absurdum, but you’re making big claims about something you can’t definitely say is true. I believe gods do not exist, but I would not assert someone is playing make-believe as a blanket statement of all theists. And many theists would assert atheists are doing the same. Both seem like arguments from incredulity.
Aron has put a lot of effort and thought into his article. There are some good parts to it. The problem is, he has attacked the problem the way fundamentalist theists do. He has a conclusion in mind, and has found everything that supposedly supports that conclusion, and then asserts everyone must accept that conclusion.
- Dave has already explained why prescriptivism is wrong in: Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra
- I have explained the definitional problems with lacking belief: Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
- I have explained various ontologies: Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- I have explained the burden of proof on belief: Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof? – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms: Vol 7
- Dave expanded on this: More on Beliefs and Justifications
- And I have explained how folks use synonyms to get from one definition to another: Sin-onyms; The sinful use of synonyms – CMT Volume 8
To summarise ‘Sin-onyms’, if you consider dark blue, and just make it a tiny bit lighter, it is nearly the same colour… you do that again and again till you get and almost greeny colour and then start getting darker in to greens, you can see that each colour is virtually the same as the last, but at the either end of this spectrum you have quite different colours.
Aron, I do applaud your efforts trying to keep creationism out of schools, and the work you do with science, but your article doesn’t so much demonstrate the ‘correct definition of atheism’. What it does do is show your bias and your general lack of understanding on beliefs and epistemic justification.
I think if you are going to weigh in on philosophical topics, then perhaps you should spend some time studying philosophy.
Summary of Claims
At the start of the article, I mentioned 8 claims you made on twitter which are recapped below, as well with a few more that you made in your article.
- Atheism is ONLY a lack of belief in gods.
- This lack of belief definition is the ‘original’ definition.
- Because it is the ‘original’ definition, it is the ‘correct’ definition.
- His definition is ‘helpful, meaningful and logical’ whilst ‘mine’ is ‘exclusively harmful’
- Any resource, e.g. SEP, IEP, Philosophers, laypeople, that disagree with him are ‘wrong’
- That lack of belief actually means being completely absent of belief
- That this applies to things that don’t even have mental states, e.g. rocks and cabbages.
- That his article would settle the matter once and for all.
- That everyone else is being prescriptive.
- That any philosopher that disagrees with you is ‘antagonistic’.
- You claim all theists are playing make-believe.
- Make erroneous statements about the burden of proof.
- Ultimately show you started with a conclusion, ignoring anything that contradicted it, and focused on the things you agreed with it.
Atheism is ONLY a lack of belief in gods.
Even all the resources you pulled in showed that it is defined differently, so it is not ONLY a lack of belief in gods, but that it is ONE of the definitions.
This lack of belief definition is the ‘original’ definition.
As detailed above, Atheos was used originally for anyone that didn’t believe in the gods of the state (mainly the Greek/Roman pantheon) and you even noted the first person to use Atheist did so with the ‘belief gods do not exist’ definition, and it wasn’t till 50 years later that someone suggested this was stupid and should just be a lack of belief.
So, thank you for basically doing the work proving yourself wrong there.
Because it is the ‘original’ definition, it is the ‘correct’ definition.
This is both an etymological fallacy and an erroneous statement, as we have shown that it was not the original definition of either atheos or atheist.
His definition is ‘helpful, meaningful and logical’ whilst ‘mine’ is ‘exclusively harmful’
The first thing to note here is, he hasn’t used logic at all in his entire article. He has made no demonstration as to why his definition is logical and why the normative philosophical demonstration is not. ‘Why should we use the rules of logic?‘ explains the basics of propositional logic. So, when it comes to ‘logical’ he hasn’t actually reasoned using the rules of logic, so I am not sure how he can say that.
Helpful? Again, I am not sure what he means here. Helpful to him? Perhaps. He wants numbers for political reasons. Helpful to others? Not really. His definition only tells people that they don’t believe in a god. It doesn’t really help us to infer anything else.
Meaningful? Definitely not. It conflates not only all human non-theists with atheist, but anything that is not a theist is an atheist. There are so many different positions on this topic as I have described through this article and others.
Any resource, e.g. SEP, IEP, philosophers, laypeople, that disagree with him are ‘wrong’
This is one of the weirdest arguments from authority ever. Perhaps argument from ego is better? It’s also a bit of a genetic fallacy and shows a strong amount of confirmation bias.
Again, language is descriptive. There are no ‘wrong’ definitions, even if there are some that are contextually correct, or those that are more logical than others.
That lack of belief actually means being completely absent of belief.
This comes back to the Sin-Onymns post I mentioned. The short of it is, they are describing different things, but even then assume mental states.
That this applies to things that don’t even have mental states, e.g. rocks and cabbages.
Which is ridiculous, as we when discussing beliefs we are describing a mental state in regards to a proposition. Your definition would also include a Christian in a coma with minimal brain activity being an atheist.
That his article would settle the matter once and for all.
Well, it has definitely shown everyone there is more than one definition of atheism. Although it hasn’t settled the matter for your personal goals of stating it is the only and correct definition and everyone else is wrong.
That everyone else is being prescriptive.
This is one of the more hilarious bits of projection. You want to force your definition on everyone else, making them accept without question, yet others that say ‘It’s not the only definition, use it for you if you want but don’t use it for me,’ are the one’s being prescriptive?
That any philosopher that disagrees with you is ‘antagonistic’.
Yup, all the philosophers throughout the years who have spent their time refining the definitions of words to more precise and logical definitions did so just do be antagonistic to you.
You claim all theists are playing make-believe.
I would love to see your proof that all forms of theist all over the word are playing make-believe.
Make erroneous statements about the burden of proof.
You seem to not understand the burden of proof, and assert that someone stating that atheism is ‘the belief gods do not exist’ is somehow shifting the burden of proof.
This shows a lack of understanding about the burden of proof. This is likely due to your use of lack of belief to mean absent of belief, but no one who has heard the proposition, “God Exists”, can actually be absent of belief. There are a variety of ontological positions in regards to the nature of this, but once a human with cognition has heard it, they will form a belief position. That might be the suspense of judgement position, e.g. lacking belief in gods existence whilst also lacking belief that god does not exist, but they are not completely absent of belief.
As such, if they want to claim to be rational, they have a form of burden of proof to fulfil. This isn’t a case of proving their position true, it is just to make their position rational. Here’s some simple links on the topic:
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof?
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- Fresh AiR – S01:E06 – Reason and Rationality
Ultimately show you started with a conclusion, ignoring anything that contradicted it, and focused on the things you agreed with it.
I feel like you dug yourself a hole, and instead of being open to new information, admitting you were wrong etc. you made a post that you somehow thought backed up your position when it did not.
Your post, as discussed throughout, showed that there was more than one definition, that people in general accept there is more than one definition, used links to your own sites, ignored anything that contradicted you, tried reducing atheism to something completely irrelevant that applied not only to anyone that is non-theist, but anything.
There are even examples of you only providing parts of articles that agree with you and leaving out the rest, or applying your bias to what is stated. I’d like to believe that you didn’t intentionally do this, that you were being honest but your bias just got in the way. It is hard though.
At the end of the day, I think everyone can see the definition of atheism and atheist have been debated over the centuries, there are a number of different definitions, and that yours was not the ‘original’, nor is it any more ‘correct’ than others.
What’s more, in doing the videos with Chesh where, as far as I am concerned, we were not rude or anything, you decided to block us… because someone sent you a link to the videos. It sounds like, echo chambers are of import to you.
This is a shame, as we have supported a lot of the work you have done in the past, and continue to support you in your efforts to make America’s school system properly secular and your work as a science communicator. No hard feelings though, just a shame you felt that way.
I still support a lot of the work you’re doing too, and will never bad mouth your science communication. For the most part, you seem to be a great guy and an inspiration to many. It’s a shame that so many have seen you behave the way you have, there are many folks talking about how they have now lost respect for you etc. Just remember, it is never too late to hold your hands up and say that you’re wrong, just like you did with the monkeys (Infraorder as simiiformes) thing.
For the most part, I think you rock dude. Whilst the pun was totally intended, I also mean it. Philosophy and logic are not your strong suit, and there is no shame in that. There are many things I am not good at either, I just find the logic stuff easy as a programmer. There are parts of philosophy I spend ages trying to get my head around, and I am grateful for folks like Stephen Law and TrolleyDave who can convert things to much more modern and easy to understand language.