I often ask people, ‘What things are defined just by what they lack?’ – interestingly there are very few answers to this, but feel free to shoot some over and I’ll add them to the article.
The reason I ask this is largely because of commonly heard, ‘atheism is only a lack of belief in gods, therefore, anything that lacks belief is an atheist’ aka conflating all forms of non-theist with atheist.
This analysis may differ in various languages, and even different colloquial uses of these terms, however, I can only speak of the uses within the English language I am aware of or have been informed of elsewhere.
Just to be clear for those who might be reading my articles for the first time, I am an atheist. I hold the belief god(s) do not exist. I claim no knowledge or epistemic certainty. I am more psychologically certain some gods do not exist than others, but the net result is I believe they don’t exist.
What is Ontology?
Ontology refers to the nature of being. Does it exist? How does it exist? What are true statements about its existence? etc.
If I were to speak of the ontology of a tree, I would be speaking of its tree-e-ness. That is to say, its shape, its leaves, the bark, the things that make it a tree.
Part of my ontology is I hold the belief gods do not exist and am therefore an atheist.
Equally, an ontological position is one that describes an attitude to the nature of something’s being. Therefore believing at least one god does or does not exist is an ontological position. Being uncertain either way is an epistemic position on an ontological position.
So now we understand ontology as, at least in its most basic terms, what makes the thing, the thing it is, we can proceed with the question, ‘What things are defined purely through that which they lack?’.
The first suggestion was ‘bald’, so let’s look at this shall we.
Indeed, a bald person lacks hair. But so does a skinhead.
Skinheads are not defined as bald, apart from the joke ‘optional baldy’ so what is the difference?
Baldness isn’t actually simply a lack of hair. It is often caused by having really thin and fragile hair that breaks off, which can be a result of hormonal changes or ageing. There are other things that result in baldness, but there’s always something that makes us bald (e.g. male pattern baldness or alopecia). The point is, they have the inability to grow a full head of hair rather than it be simply a lack of hair.
On the other hand, a skinhead has chosen to remove their hair by choice. They have a want for a smooth head/short hair. There is also the nastier side of the ‘skinheads’ from the 60s who were a white supremacist movement, they removed their hair and had bigoted beliefs.
However, ‘skinhead’ is commonly used as just a term for shaving one’s hair off, or incredibly short.
Of course, you do sometimes get someone who has started to go bald adopting a skinhead style hair cut but that’s kind of irrelevant, there is still a difference between the two, and there is more to this than simply ‘lacking hair’.
We have described 3 different types of hair lackers. Those that shave their head because they like the style, those that shave their heads and are white supremacists, and those that cannot grow hair for some reason.
We could, of course, just refer to them all as bald as an umbrella term, but the ontology of the 3 is quite different.
Just to note though, one of our authors, a Dutchman, informed me that where we have the two different uses of skinhead (the hairstyle, and the white supremacists) in Dutch they use bald and bald hairstyle.
So what’s next?
Barefoot. Yes, technically this one is right, it is defined by a lack of anything covering one’s feet. That said, one still needs feet to be barefooted. This is one of those weird ones where it is opposite to most things. The natural state of feet, bare, has a name, yet when we cover them up we just call them feet. In fact, we usually stop thinking about them altogether. Either way, simply lacking footwear doesn’t make something a barefoot, it needs to be a foot before it can be considered barefoot.
Starving. So this is someone who is lacking food, I agree, but again this still requires someone to have the gastrointestinal systems to process food.
We wouldn’t refer to plants as starving and although we might personify their wilting as starving or thirsty, it’s not the same thing… When it comes to things like rocks, there is no energy exchange at all. Rocks cannot be starving, and even though they don’t eat meat or dairy they are not vegan. They are not carnivores either. They don’t eat and they don’t need to eat.
Again, we see a symbiotic relationship between lack and have. I think part of the problem is we are so used to what these things ‘have‘ we take them for granted forget that they are part of their nature and focus just on what they lack.
Comparative differences between objects can be described on what they lack, like the difference between a (drinking) glass and a (glass) tankard is the glass lacks a handle. However, there are still other parameters that make up these objects. They have a purpose of holding fluid, similar shapes etc.
We don’t simply regard anything that does not have a handle a glass, nor do we regard everything with a handle a tankard. There is more to their ontology than that.
Consider comparisons of things that are not other things.
People, let’s say Brits and Americans, are all humans, but not being an American doesn’t instantly make you a Brit. There are tonnes of other countries in the world.
This is the same as the ‘not theist = atheist’ problem. Just there are different countries, there are different ontological/epistemic positions that fit in the not theist category. It doesn’t make them all atheist, and referring to them as such muddies the water, especially when people now define atheism in so many different ways.
If we consider everyone who is not an American a Brit, we have no clue where they actually come from. In fact, if we take it to an extreme, we would include things like forks, spoons, rocks, trees as Brits, because they are not Americans too.
If we consider everyone who is not a theist, an atheist, we have no clue what their position is in regards to the proposition ‘God Exists’ –
- Do they simply not care if a god exists so they don’t give it much thought? (Apatheist).
- Do they consider the concept of god(s) ill-defined and incoherent, so think considering the proposition is meaningless? (Ignostic).
- Do they hold the belief gods do not exist? (Atheist).
- Are they too young to be able to consider the proposition or even hold beliefs? (Innocent).
- Have they never heard of gods? (Also innocent).
- Do they suspend judgment believing it is neither true or false? (Agnostic).
- Are they rocks? (Inanimate objects that cannot hold beliefs or any mental state)
And this is one of many issues with defining ANYTHING not a theist as an atheist. Even if you use the modern lacktheist or ‘lack of belief in gods’ you are still describing a psychological state. It is not simply anything without a belief in gods, but anything that has heard ‘God exists’ and they’ve gone ‘I don’t believe you’.
Now, of course, this is still unclear as to what they do believe, and I would personally prefer the normative philosophical uses of atheism, agnosticism, atheist and agnostic or any of the other positions I’ve described above. Using these we can make clear inferences about what people do and don’t believe.
In fact, it’s a bad idea to simply define things by what they lack. We lack more things than we have, we lack gills, so indeed are not amphibious, but everything lack lacks a gill is not a human. We lack leaves, so are not trees, but that doesn’t make sheep, who also lack leaves, humans. Speaking of sheep, they don’t have any money, that doesn’t make them poor. They don’t even have a monetary system, it would be absurd to refer to sheep as poor, just as it is absurd to refer to rocks as vegans or atheists.
So why would someone do this? I think in a few instances this would be because people haven’t thought much about it. They don’t realise ‘lacking belief in god’ is describing a mental state and therefore, semantically, you could make the case rocks are atheist based on this err in understanding.
I think most who make this argument, though, are doing so for ideological reasons. That is to say, they have a purpose beyond simply defining atheism a certain way.
As you can see from the image above, Aron feels I am doing harm to his movement by saying we shouldn’t be prescriptive with our definitions. He has also said the same on his blog about people who argue against his non-theist = atheist position. If a non-theist is ignostic, and doesn’t want to be referred to as an ‘atheist’ or ‘ignostic atheist’ then we shouldn’t force them. Equally, if they want to be an ‘ignostic atheist’, even though that’s not the most logical use of the term, then, by all means, let them identify as they like.
I would prefer folks use the normative definitions because we can easily infer what they do and don’t believe about them, but I think it’s silly to force people to adhere to them.
Aron wants more atheists because he’s fighting political battles and needs more numbers. I understand this, I do. But most non-theists don’t want creationism taught in schools either. Not only has his ‘rocks are atheist’ annoyed the non-theists that do not like his prescriptivism, but many atheist find his comment foolish too. Not all, of course, there are some that follow him blindly and accept everything he says without question.
So what’s the difference in our positions?
Aron posted the Google dictionary definition of atheist, partially edited to exclude the bit about people, that is to say instead of ‘a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.’ he wrote ‘disbelief or lack of belief in God or gods.’ He then proceeded to post a link to his website, the American Atheists, that state it’s not disbelief it is only a lack of belief gods. By the end of the conversation, he had moved the goalposts again to anything absent of belief in gods. Disbelief, lack of belief, and absent of belief are 3 different states.
To Aron, there are only 2 options, rather than using propositional logic to provide epistemological answers to the proposition ‘God Exists’ he uses it this way.
Do you believe in a god?
- Yes = Theist
- No = Atheist
Theism is quite commonly defined as the belief in god(s) – but as a concept, it is not speaking of the psychological state of believing, but the propositional content, ‘God Exists’. Only those with the capacity of psychological states can hold beliefs.
So, theism is the proposition or p. A theist is one that believes or B that proposition. This is written as Bp.
Existence is dichotomous, either gods exists or they don’t. Aka p or ¬p.
The a in atheism is to be understood as negation rather than absence, as ‘not’ rather than ‘without’. The proposition of atheism is ¬p, ‘gods do not exist’. An atheist is one that believes this to be the case or B¬p.
It follows suit that they each lack belief in the others proposition. So, for example, a theist would also lack belief in god not existing, ¬B¬p. Whilst superfluous, you could write their whole position as Bp ^ ¬B¬p.
There is, however, a third epistemological answer to the proposition. One that withholds judgement on the proposition and lacks belief in it being true or false, or you could say they believe it is neither true nor false. This is known as being agnostic towards a proposition.
So to summarise these 3 positions we have:
- Theist: Believes God Exists, Lacks Belief in God not existing
(Bp ^ ¬B¬p)
- Atheist: Believes God Does not exist, Lacks Belief in God Existing
(B¬p ^ ¬Bp)
- Agnostic: Lacks belief in God Existing, Lacks Belief in God Not Existing
(¬Bp ^ ¬B¬p)
If we were to define an atheist purely on what it lacks belief in, then we also have to allow theists to do the same (otherwise that is known as special pleading), but if we do that the agnostic stance is both theist and atheist which is a bit of a contradiction. This is why there are these 3 distinct positions.
There are also the others I mentioned too, all with very different answers.
So, now I’ve shown you using the rules of logic how propositions ought to be answered, we can safely say my definition is more logical, as his does not provide epistemic answers.
As for meaningful, these normative uses allow us to infer accurately about an agent’s position on a topic, so again they are more meaningful than lumping all non-theists into the atheist camp.
As for helpful, well, other than being more meaningful, I think clear and logical positions are far more helpful, but equally, I’m not prescriptive with their use, his prescriptivism is pushing people away from him. His statement, ‘rocks are atheist’ makes him look foolish to even those that don’t have an understanding of logic. So, how is it helpful to him?
Perhaps he should bite the bullet and try and rally non-theists for his cause rather than trying to make everyone an atheist and he would get a better result, but I doubt he will, whether that’s pride or something else, I’m not sure.
Some want to prove ‘atheism is the default position’ and thus expand the definition to include anything not a theist. However, this reduces the average IQ for the average atheist way way down and shows theism to be a more considered opinion. These are often the same people that make a contrary statement that atheists are more smart and rational than theists. Well, which is it, are atheists smart and rational or are they simply rocks?
Some do it for more political reasons like I mentioned above with Ra. They may not widen the category to the absurd level of rocks being atheist but would include all forms of (human) non-theist. This gives them better numbers from polls etc. especially in those Bible belt states or anywhere else where political decisions carry a heavy theological burden.
The problem comes when a leading atheist makes these sorts of statements. I have a lot of respect for someone like Ra, the work he does, his scientific knowledge, but I have noted a few times where his epistemological understanding is… lacking (😜). Unfortunately, he has a gaggle of followers that see him as an authority on such matters and therefore all agree (and if he ever changed his stance, would instantly change theirs too). When you have a massive number of people agreeing with you, it is much harder to consider you might be wrong about something. Also, when you elevated to such a status because of your intellect and rationality it can be harder to realise your beliefs might not be as rational as you perceive them to be. Sometimes in this instance, you need someone you highly respect to contradict you in a way that makes you sincerely reconsider your position. As Dave says, when changing a mind, respect matters. He’s also written a great article on Cartesian scepticism everyone should check out.
So, aside from the definitional problems with lacking belief I mentioned in a previous article, that show issues with the logic, and the need for either contradiction or special pleading, we’ve shown issues with defining anything by simply what it lacks. This may well be due to forgetting the relationship between have and lack, or it may be for ideological reasons, being caught up in the ‘New Atheist‘ movement, or something else.
Regardless of reasons, I think it’s safe to say we ought not to define things purely on what they lack.
But why does a lack of belief HAVE to be describing a psychological state?
It’s describing a psychological state because it is describing whether or not a belief (which is a psychological/mental state) exists in whatever object is being described.
Even being in absence of a psychological state (rather than simply lacking as it is intended to be used) still presumes the existence of psychological states in the object, otherwise, we would not be describing them in terms of what psychological states exist within the thing.
If it is describing the absence of a psychological state completely, then it cannot be a response to the question of whether they believe in God or not. If the object cannot describe that psychological state, then it cannot be a response to the question.
This is one of those questions that end up ending up in a bit of a tautology. Like if you asked me why I am human and I went through the genus and genetics and various classifications, the end result is, I’m human because I am human.
Eventually, you do have to accept the tautology that some things are the way they are. We accept a number of things in science we cannot test for ourselves and only read papers on them if we hold the interest. The same can be said for philosophy and how the consensus of philosophers deal with doxastic meta-cognition understand these things to be describing psychological states. Lacking belief is still a 2nd order belief position, and therefore still describing a psychological state.
My final thoughts on this topic are this. If we regard rocks as atheist, and accept there are way more rocks than there are people, we are reducing the average IQ of atheists to 0. (Please note, I do not believe rocks are atheists, I am just saying if we are to consider rocks as atheist this is what it means for us)
We also are saying the average atheist is irrational. Why? Well, all belief positions, even lack of beliefs, require adequate justification to be rational. Rocks cannot justify why they lack belief in gods, so, therefore, they are also irrational.
So not only are we making an absurd claim that something that has no mental state is an atheist, we are also saying that the average IQ of an atheist is 0 (or close to it) and the average atheist is irrational.
If you believe rocks are atheist, even though they have no mental state, but you don’t believe this reduces the average atheists IQ to near enough 0 and make claims that they ‘can’t be irrational because they have no mental state’, then you have conflicting beliefs.
Whilst I prefer the normative philosophical uses of atheism and agnosticism, I understand that many do not use these, especially if on the internet or in America. I will gladly explain why my uses are more logical but will not expect others to use them.
I feel being prescriptive with definitions will turn people against you, and making statements like ‘rocks are atheist’ not only make you look foolish, but reduces the atheist position to one so incredibly meaningless and ridiculous, that it loses all weight.
Whilst I am not the biggest fan of lacktheism, I understand it is common use. This whole rocktheism is beyond absurd, and I am quite glad that most who saw that seemed to agree.
There are a number of articles that are worth reading in regards to this topic and things mentioned in it. They may offer you some more clarity on some of the terminology used and why it is used the way it is.
- So what is this normative thing about anyways?
- Why should we use the rules of logic?
- Bad Atheist Arguments – Vol: 02 – Beliefs and Logic
- Beliefs, Language, and Logic
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- What is Agnosticism, how does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
- Definitional problems with lacking belief.
- Has atheism become an ideology?
- CMT: Theism, Atheism and Agnosticism
- Descartes, scepticism and you!
- Changing A Mind: Respect Matters
- Pitfalls of ‘New Atheism’
- Are we Born Atheist?
- Bad Atheist Arguments (Series)
- Conflated and Misunderstood Terms (series)
- I don’t believe (inclusive of gumball analogy)
- SEP Belief
- SEP Epistemology
- SEP Atheism and Agnosticism
- GDC: Gumballs and God Better Explained
- GDC: If ~Bp is held as atheism, then ~B~p can be held as theism else you are guilty of special pleading.
Special thanks to Andy and Dave for the memes they have done on this, I didn’t include all in the article but here’s a few more.
Also thanks to Dave for always being patient with my questions, asks for relevant articles, being my friend and being my editor.
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
This is one of many things I hope to do with Answers In Reason.
I run our Twitter and IG accounts, as well as share responsibility for our FB group and page, and maintain the site, whilst writing articles, DJing, Podcasting (and producing), keeping fit and more.
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