One of the common objections I hear from both theists and atheists about the distinction of the various ontological positions held by non-theists is that they all live as atheists, so they may as well be regarded as one anyway.
In fact, when I was writing Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism there were some that used atheist in a derogatory way in regards to theists that were immoral, or didn’t act in accordance with the bible. They were regarded as ‘practical atheists’.
I have to say, this point is one that swims around my head a fair bit. I’m friends with a variety of folks of different ontological positions, and of the non-theists, they all seem to act no differently. They don’t go to church services or anything like that. There is no, one foot in the door and one foot out. The same can be said for those on the internet that claim to ‘only lack a belief in gods’ – they don’t seem to conduct their lives any different from those that ‘believe gods do not exist’.
Some folks like to say that an atheist like me, one who believes gods do not exist, is not open to changing their mind. This is far from the truth. My mind is very open to being changed, even when I am very certain about something. If you’ve watched any of our SciPhi streams you will see a number of topics I was quite certain on and convincing arguments have changed my mind. In fact, theists believe in gods and become atheists, so why would we assume that holding a belief means you are not open to changing your mind?
So, if we assume that all non-theists are, more or less, equally receptive to changing their mind, are all grouped by not believing in any gods, and all live as if there is no god, apart from an ontological nuance, what really separates them?
This leads me on to deism and secular theism. Deists and secular theists believe in a god of some description. Most of the time they do not have any religious doctrine, though some might have Christian influences. Either way, they also live without religion. They generally act as if there is no god, they just hold a belief in one.
In this regard, they too could be referred to as ‘practical atheists’, though I am sure they would not like this label.
Now, in the western world the most common god to be spoken about is God, that is to say, the Abrahamic deity. If we were to regard America and the UK as Christian countries due to that being the main religion there, anyone not acting in accordance with Christian doctrine is also a ‘practical atheist’.
This means your Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans etc are all also atheist in the practical sense.
Of course, if we were to travel to say a Muslim or Hindu country, the Christians would be the ‘practical atheists’ in that regard.
This says to me that practical atheism is a bit wishy-washy. If we can broaden the definition of atheism to this point it loses all meaning. What we should focus on is what makes us ontologically atheist.
So, what do we mean by ontologically atheist?
Ontology deals with the nature of being. If we were to think about the ontology of a tree, we would be describing (as Socrates once said) its tree-y-ness. So think about the bark, branches, and leaves etc. Most trees, even if you have never seen them before, are quite recognisable as trees.
So, with theists, they have a specific ontological position. They are united in a belief that (at least one) god exists, and we can group them under Theism, but they have specific beliefs that group them into Christan, Jew, Muslim, Hindu etc. Even within those beliefs, they will have more beliefs that make up their ontology into various denominations.
Whilst their theism is grouped by one belief, their specific ontology has various other beliefs surrounding it.
When we consider non-theism, we can see there is a grouping of not having that belief. All non-theists are grouped by not beleiving in any form of supernatural entity that would be refferred to as a god. Does that make them the same though?
If we agree that a theist is a term used for the grouping of a singular belief with categories under it, then it follows that non-theism is not having that singular belief or perhaps more correctly, the same non-belief, as a group also with categories under it.
The categories of non-theism are:
I shall describe what they mean in their clearest form, but I do understand this might not be how you have heard the word used. Consider the below as a response to the proposition of theism, ‘God Exists’.
This is usually speaking of weak agnosticism/the psychological state of being agnostic.
It refers to one who has considered the proposition of God’s existence but has both been not convinced it is true and not convinced it is false.
For more info on agnosticism: What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs?
Atheist refers to someone who accepts the proposition of atheism. The proposition of atheism is the opposite or negation of the proposition of theism. That is to say, the proposition of atheism is ‘God does not exist’. Therefore, it can be written that an atheist is one that believes God does not exist.
Ignostic refers to one who has started to consider the proposition ‘God Exists’ but got stuck at the God part. They find the concept of God so ill-defined and incoherent they find it meaningless to consider.
An apatheist is one that just doesn’t care if a god exists or not, so doesn’t bother to consider the proposition.
An innocent is one who has not heard the proposition of theism at all. Another word that could be used is ignorant. I’ve heard both being used and can understand the arguments for both.
If we consider for a moment, innocence is free from corruption, simple, naive, pure etc. we can understand why this label would be especially useful for a baby.
In fact, I think many atheists would consider childhood indoctrination a form of corruption, just as many theists might consider being taught god does not exist as a form of corruption too. A baby lacks the cognitive abilities to consider the proposition and hold beliefs in regards to it. Their consciousness doesn’t really start to form until about 5 months old.
Anyway, ignorant or innocent, it is quite a different position from the other positions mentioned
An anti-theist is usually also an atheist like I described above, but doesn’t have to be. They believe that all religions are untrue, cause harm and that no one should believe in gods.
There are a few other miscellaneous groups I thought I would bring up. Many of these cross over with the ones above and each other, but are terms are in circulation so should probably be addressed. (there are others, but tend not to be used anymore)
- Positive/Negative Atheist
- Implicit/Explicit Atheist
- Gnostic/Agnostic Atheist
- Religious non-theist
The positive atheist is essentially the same as the one above. The negative atheist is a bit different. It is not simply one that does not believe in gods, at least in Flew’s version of negative atheism. It is close to taking an ignostic stance with a method of investigation: https://youtu.be/Ge0sECpQ1X8.
“implicit atheism” is defined as “the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it”, while “explicit atheism” is “the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it”In George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God,
So essentially implicit is anything that lacks a belief in gods but hasn’t consciously rejected the proposition, and explicit is one that has consciously rejected the proposition.
I would say that a rejection of the proposition would mean you think it is false. If you believe ‘God exists’ to be false, then that is the same as believing ‘God does not exist’ to be true. So it seems an explicit atheist would be like the atheist describe originally but can imagine this is also used for anyone who has considers and reject specific theistic arguments without maintaining a positive belief.
With a misunderstanding of Gnosticism and agnosticism as well as the relationship between beliefs and knowledge, we can see this distinction emerging. Apparently, a gnostic atheist knows god does not exist, and an agnostic atheist doesn’t know if God exists but lacks belief in god. The label seemingly leaves out the ‘belief god does not exist’ type atheist. In fact, many agnostic atheists don’t even agree with what agnostic atheism even is.
For more info, check: Agnostic Atheism
A rocktheist is one who has reduced the atheist label to one where not just everyone who is not a theist but essentially everything not a theist is an atheist. Most folks agree it is ridiculous to describe things that do not have mental states in terms of mental states but they are out there.
A lacktheist is the common variety of atheist you will find on the internet, and in certain circles in America. Not simply because they lack a belief in god, but because they will claim atheism is only that, other definitions are wrong, and often play hide the ball with their burden of justification.
A religious non-theist could operate any of the ontological positions above but also ascribe to a religion that has no gods such as The Church of Satan, The Satanic Temple or some forms of Buddhism.
In fact, there is another type of religious non-theist known as a traditionalist. For example, a Christian traditionalist would be some form of non-theist that still takes part in many of the Christian traditions and services.
There are other non-theistic/atheistic positions too, but they are not commonly addressed, for example, Flint tried to rebrand the agnostic position as skeptical atheism, then changed it to agnostic atheism, then seemingly reasoned it was a bit of a silly label and went back to calling it skeptical atheism.
Summary of Non-theistic Positions
Whilst they are all united by not having a particular belief, there is a distinct difference between their various ontological positions. If we refer to them all as an atheist, then what is the term for the type of atheist that believes gods do not exist? If we rebrand this form of atheism, as some of the more ideological do, to anti-theism, then what for the anti-theist that actually against (anti-) theism?
If we regard them all as practically atheist, then we have to acknowledge that some theistic positions would fit in this category, in fact, all could from a certain perspective, which reduces to position to a meaningless one.
I would agree that all non-theists do seem to live as if God or gods do not exist. We are united, in this regard, by the thing we do not believe in (gods) and the behaviours this influences.
In the same way, if we do not believe a bridge will hold our weight, regardless of if we also believe it will collapse or not, we would not cross the bridge, not believing in a god ends up in similar behaviours to believing gods do not exist..
Does this similarity make us the same though? We’d argue that A Christian and Hindu are quite different types of theist.. and in fact, a Young Earth Creationist to be quite different from a Catholic or C of E Christian.
They are all types of theist, but it’s not till we drill down into more specific labels we start to infer what they do and don’t believe, and have an effective conversation.
The same can be said for thinking of all non-theists as atheists. Grouping them all together under one broad term doesn’t allow us to accurately infer what they do and don’t believe past one specific non-belief. Whilst I’d agree, there generally isn’t much difference in the way the non-theists would live their lives, there’s quite a big difference in their ontological positions and justifications for operating in that space.
Broad terminology can also cause folks to talk past each other. The non-theism = atheism is incredibly new, and outside of atheist; organisations, YouTubers and internet debaters, it isn’t really common use. This means that many conversations get stuck on semantics and the real conversation doesn’t get to happen, much like how conversations with creationists get stuck on ‘evolution means a change in kind’ or that ‘a scientific theory is just an idea’. The only difference here is that it is us, atheists, using vague broad terminology.
Ultimately, what you label yourself is irrelevant from an identity perspective. What ought to be considered is how useful the label is.
If we refer to all tinned produced as tinned tomatoes, does that help us if we want to find tinned sweetcorn? Does saying “tinned sweetcorn is a type of tinned tomato” seem particularly sensible to you? It may sound absurd, but that’s how referring to all types of non-theist as types of atheist sounds to others.
Perhaps a more relatable example is referring to all theists as types of Mormon. Equally absurd, right?
I think, at this point, the only argument that remains is perhaps a misunderstanding of the etymology and a claim that “atheist literally means not a theist” or “atheism literally means without a belief in gods” and to that end, I must direct you to a few articles that break this down.
- Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
- SEP: Atheism and Agnosticism
- Academia: Atheism and the Burden of Proof
In fact, we have a number of posts on atheism and the various uses etc. on Answers in Reason:
Posts About Atheism
- Rockin’ Atheism Part 3: Atheism in Greek Antiquity
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
- Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Video]
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Podcast]
- “If atheism is true…”
- Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
- In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
- Pitfalls of ‘New Atheism’
- Has Atheism Become an Ideology?
- Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof?
- Are we Born Atheist?
- Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- Philosophy in The Atheist Community – SciPhi
- Do Non-Theists Live as Atheists?
- Atheism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Atheism and Agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof (Acedemia.edu)
- Normatively Atheist
- On the definition of atheism (By Philip Müller)
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra