Often in debate folks identify their position as one of the 3; Theist, Atheist, Agnostic. Some folks will sometimes use a combination e.g. Agnostic Atheist/Weak Atheist. It might surprise you, as it did me, that some of the definitions of terms we use are not strictly accurate, or at least logical.
Language does indeed evolve, there is a difference between how these terms are used colloquially, and how one might use it at an academic level. Consider how ‘theory’ might be used in science vs how it is used colloquially.
The important thing is communicating in a way others understand. So let’s examine these words, and how they are used colloquially vs academically. That said Atheism is polysemous, even within philosophy, but I will be using the clearest definition in terms of logical propositions.
Below I describe the -ist. Typically an ist is one who subscribes to an -ism. An -ism is essentially believing a proposition to be true. e.g. the proposition “God(s) exists” is Theism, and a Theist is one who ascribes to this (aka believes it to be true), however, to save writing space I explain it from the perspective of the -ist.
Someone who holds belief in God/gods/deities
This doesn’t seem to differ in academic circles.
Someone who disbelieves/lacks belief in God/gods/deities
In academic circles, especially philosophy, this is inaccurate. Atheism is actually a negation of theism, the A is not “without” it is a “not”. It means “Belief God(s) do not exist”. The whole lack position is relatively new and I cover this further down the article.
Consider the question: “Is there a God?”
As stated by Paul Draper in his SEP entry on atheism and agnosticism:
‘There are only two possible direct answers to this question: “yes”, which is theism, and “no”, which is atheism. Answers like “I don’t know”, “no one knows”, “I don’t care”, “an affirmative answer has never been established”, or “the question is meaningless” are not direct answers to this question.’(Draper, 2017).
We internet atheists do not like this, as it is incredibly exclusive. There is a fairly even split between Strong and Weak Atheists, aka Gnostic and Agnostic Atheists. However these terms are not generally accepted in philosophy, and I will explain why later.
Someone who doesn’t know or claims you can’t know if a god exists or not.
This would be someone who doesn’t believe but doesn’t disbelieve either. They are on the fence right in the middle.
In the strictest sense agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist. As such, you are not believing in a god, but you are not denying the possibility.
In fact, the earlier definitions of Agnostic were much broader than the theological sense. That is to say ignorance in any number of topics, e.g. you could be Agnostic about metaphysics or evolution.
It should be noted that agnosticism is thought more to do with “knowledge” than “belief” but can be used in an epistemological way as the ‘withholding judgement’ position.
Consider, for example, this passage written by the agnostic, Anthony Kenny (1983: 84–85):(Draper, 2017).
I do not myself know of any argument for the existence of God which I find convincing; in all of them I think I can find flaws. Equally, I do not know of any argument against the existence of God which is totally convincing; in the arguments I know against the existence of God I can equally find flaws. So that my own position on the existence of God is agnostic.
Many folks would argue Agnostic deals purely with knowledge, but consider if you don’t know, you also don’t know what to believe.
Consider this question, “Where did you leave your car keys?” – I don’t know!
“Well where do you believe you left them?” – I don’t know!
In this sense you are agnostic to where you left your keys.
Now if we use the academic definition of atheism and theism, both being a proposition around God’s existence, you are agnostic to both. e.g.
Do you believe there is a god? – I don’t know!
Do you believe there are no gods? – I don’t know!
This is essentially the position Huxley originally coined agnosticism for, except he went with something more like ‘We should not claim to believe or know that we have no scientific evidence for’.
For more information about Agnosticim, check: ‘What is Agnosticism? how it relates to knowledge and beliefs?‘
Agnostic Atheist / Weak Atheist
When someone is an “agnostic atheist” they tend to mean something along the lines of:
“I have genuinely listened to and looked into to many/all claims of God/gods/deities and found no evidence to support them. I reject all current claims, but I do not claim to have ultimate knowledge of if a god exists.”
The knowledge and belief part are separated. I don’t believe. I don’t know.
In academic terms, that is actually agnostic. Yes, you don’t believe, but you don’t know. An Agnostic also doesn’t believe. This is also why the term Agnostic Theist is not accepted. That is not to say it’s colloquial use is completely wrong, just not accepted in academia. In fact, if you don’t believe something, you’re already saying you don’t know, so the modifier is actually superfluous.
More recently, some atheists proudly call themselves “agnostic atheists”, although with further reflection the symmetry between this position and fideism might give them pause. More likely, though, what is being claimed by these self-identified agnostic atheists is that, while their belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of some sort (minimally, it is not irrational), it does not have the sort of positive epistemic status that can turn true belief into knowledge.(Draper, 2017).
Another reason you could argue this position is wrong is because you are applying it to one side of the belief. If you are agnostic about atheism, then you’re saying you don’t know if you hold the belief no god(s) exist. We obviously know that isn’t what people mean by the position but it is good to be aware that it could be taken that way.
Agnostic Theist / Weak Theist
Not many theists identify as such. Most of the theists I interact with claim to know their god exists.
The “I don’t know if God exists, but I do believe in God” still counts as a Theist. A “weak theist” works in this area, but as explained above, agnostic is typically lacking belief in both god existing and god not existing rather than a statement purely about knowledge. Agnostic theist would actually translate to “I don’t know if I hold the belief god exists or not” but obviously we know that is not what people mean by it.
It is also worth mentioning that, even in Huxley’s time, some apophatic theists embraced the term “agnostic”, claiming that all good Christians worshipped an “unknown God”(Draper, 2017).
Various internet scales used for Atheism and Theism
The Dawkins scale is one many folks complain about, and others rejoice in. It is varying levels of strong to weak theist and atheist. It is graded from 1 (Strong Theist) to 7 (Strong Atheist)
One of the key issues we have with the Dawkins scale is it includes agnostic as a middle position. Typically agnosticism is thought to deal with knowledge (don’t know/can’t know) rather than belief, so to have it in the middle of a belief scale does seem silly. However when applied along the lines of “I don’t know/can’t know if either position is true, therefore I lack belief in both” you can understand why it is there.
You might find an Atheist (like me or Kriss for example) say that using this scale we are 7 about the Abrahamic God as described in the Bible/by theists but are 6-6.9 in regards to other claims, however, we probably wouldn’t use this scale. It is actually quite jumbled with its varying uses of knowledge, belief, and certainty, but it serves a purpose.
The simplest way to look at it is, an agnostic has no psychological certainty one way or another. The second you start to form a belief one way or another you are either a theist or an atheist.
The strength of your belief might be altered by your knowledge, but is not dependent on it.
The Gnostic/Agnostic Theist/Atheist
This was one of my favourites. It was much simpler.. essentially you are either claim to have ultimate knowledge of your position.
You are separating the belief (atheist/theist) and knowledge (gnostic/agnostic) part.
Again from the academic philosophical point of view.. this is redundant. You either have belief in god(s) (from weak to strong) and are a Theist, don’t know, lack belief and are Agnostic, or a believe there is no God and are an Atheist.
However Draper does go on to explain how folks tend to use these terms.
If agnosticism (in one sense of the word) is the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, then it might be useful to use the term “gnosticism” to refer to the contradictory of that position, that is, to the position that either theism or atheism is known. That view would, of course, come in two flavors: theistic gnosticism—the view that theism is known (and hence atheism is not)—and atheistic gnosticism—the view that atheism is known (and hence theism is not).(Draper, 2017).
So what is the right scale?
I’m not going to tell you what the right scale is. I still think the modifier are acceptable even if redundant, but if you were at university doing a philosophy degree and started using Agnostic Atheist you’d probably get your arse handed to you.
Consider again how creationist speak of science or evolution. It is much of the same thing calling yourself an agnostic atheist.
The academic order of this would be:
- Theist (Belief in god(s) (existence) regardless of the strength of said belief)
- Agnostic (Don’t know/can’t know, lacks/suspends belief; someone who has entertained the proposition ‘God Exists’ and believes it to neither [Atheism or Theism] be true or false)
- Atheist (Belief there are no gods/gods do not exist)
Note: Agnostic is typically thought to deal with knowledge rather than belief, but can be used to describe a position on belief. The psychological state of not knowing what to believe, or suspending judgement. (Remember the keys example above?)
The thing to remember is, you cannot KNOW anything you do not believe it, so if you lack belief in both the proposition of atheism and theism, you’re already saying you don’t know. I think this is one of the confusions folks have.
The Evolution Of Atheism
By now I am sure you understand that from a purely philosophical point of view that Atheism/Theism is a binary proposition, and the IST is someone that believes one of them. Technically when you lack belief in both propositions (God Exists and God Does Not Exist) you are described as Agnostic.
Atheism today is slightly different. It is still a binary negative answer to “Do you believe in any god(s)?” but allows for more room than the “Belief god(s) do not exist”. (It separates belief and knowledge)
This is perfectly acceptable, whilst the “lack belief” term does seem a bit wet to many Atheists, we still do not believe in any of the god claims, but we are open enough to accept there may be some form of “higher-power” or that someone may one day provide us some evidence of a deity that would be strong enough to make us believe.
This is sometimes referred to as “New Atheism” – it is rooted in science rather than philosophy. It is not necessarily a “Belief god(s) do not exist” it is a conclusion based on the overwhelming lack of evidence for any deity, the rejection of claims as evidence, but an openness to evidence if provided.
There is also a more “humanistic” approach to atheism that focuses on the oppression/alienation (Our tribe mentality)/evils etc of religion whilst taking the scientific side for granted.
How does this relate to “internet atheists”?
Firstly, I am an atheist on the internet, so yes I am an internet atheist, I am referring to the varying personality types and definitions of atheist/atheism in comparison to the SEP definition of atheist.
I find in discussions with atheists online the two branches, discussed in more detail in LeDrew’s “The Evolution of Atheism” are brought back together (LeDrew, 2012). Folks argue based both on a scientific evidence scale and from a humanistic approach; the suffering in the world, the misogyny and other forms of bigotry in the Bible (and other holy books).
Even within Answers In Reason we have a variety of articles, some looking from a scientific point of view e.g. Evolution and why folks may reject it. Whilst others being more focused on Immoral acts of God or His Psychopathic nature.
There are still many Atheists who are the more classical “Belief God(s) Do not Exist” kind -in fact in a recent poll on twitter I found about 40% of Atheists that responded were the “Strong Atheist” variety.
This was of course a small sample, with only a few hundred folks responding, but hopefully we can get larger sample sets in the future.
So what’s the issue with “lack of belief”?
It’s not big issue, I have said I lack belief myself but I actually find that too weak, at least once you consider the implications and what you actually do/don’t believe. You can probably search for me on twitter and find me saying I lack belief, as I have only recently decided that “lack” is too ambiguous. Where I was using it to say I don’t have any or am without belief, it can and does mean not having enough belief. The short of it is “lacking belief” doesn’t really tell you what someone DOES believe.
I don’t believe in any of the current god claims. I have examined texts, looked for evidence, read apologetics etc and found that I just don’t believe any of it.
From what I have researched, I don’t believe god(s) are necessary for the world/universe to exist/work.
The “lack belief” seems a bit weak, even for my brand of weak atheism, (which interestingly in doing the research, podcasts, and writing this article I have changed my mind on. I would regard myself as an atheist as described in philosophy, I believe gods do not exist).
It [lack belief] is seen as a way to get out of the burden of proof. Rather than a response to the question “is there a god?” its a response to a claim “There is a god” – “I don’t believe you.” whilst similarly not holding a positive belief the other way.
However when you understand that all belief positions, even a lack of belief, carry the burden of justification to make them rational (not prove them true) then you realise this ‘weasel’ is irrational. For more information check these posts – ‘Do we atheists have a burden of proof?‘, ‘More on beliefs and Justifications‘.
Consider this: “I lack the jam for one slice of toast.” Does that mean I have enough Jam for half a slice of toast though? When you apply that to belief, it is a bit like you’re saying you’re not quite sure what you believe rather than a specific disbelief. You’re on the fence. You’re Agnostic.
Now obviously you cannot prove non-existence without a doubt, but I can examine the claims of your deity and give you reasons why it cannot exist. For example, I examined the Abrahamic God’s omniscience. I am willing to do that, whereas the lack of belief is an even weaker form of disbelief.
Atheism is a conclusion based on the overwhelming lack of evidence for any gods existence. It has rational logical steps to achieving this conclusion. As an Atheist, you don’t simply lack belief, you positively disbelieve, you can justify your position, you can explain why you think gods are false.
The “burden of proof” for atheists is not to prove god does not exist, though I think many atheists are afraid of the term for this reason and hide behind the “lack of belief”. Our burden is to simply support our position. Lack of evidence, errors in texts, contrary statements etc.
The history of “Lack Belief”
Atheism comes from the greek Atheos (ἄθεος)
ἀ- (a-, “not”) + θεός (theós, “god”)
In fact originally the Atheos position referred to people who did not believe in the Greek symposium of gods. To give you an indication, Christians were referred to as atheists originally in Greek/Roman society. As time went on this became more expansive to include any gods.
The definition used in Philosophy for Atheism: The Belief God(s) do not Exist has been the same for hundreds of years.
This quote is from Anthony Flew’s 1972 paper ‘The Presumption of Atheism’:
The word ‘atheism’, however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ‘someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood here much less positively. I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheism’ for the former doctrine and ‘negative atheism’ for the latter.Anthony Flew’s 1972
‘The Presumption of Atheism’
As you can see, Flew states that the common definition of atheism at that time was ‘someone who asserts there is no such being as God’, which could also be said as ‘a person who believes there is no God’. Flew argues that the ‘a’ should be used in the same way as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’.
By this he is admitting the current use is not ‘a’ as in without, but ‘a’ as in not. So if theism is the proposition ‘God exists’, atheism is the proposition ‘God does not exist’. What he wanted to do was shift that slightly, so rather than atheism being its own proposition, he just wanted it to be anything that is not a theist (e.g. the conflation of all forms of non-theist to atheist) So atheism is ‘not theism’ and atheist is ‘not theist’.
He then splits the position down into positive and negative atheism, which in recent years seems to resemble what many refer to as implicit or explicit atheism, although not exactly.
Afterwards he states:
The introduction of this new sense of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage.Anthony Flew’s 1972
‘The Presumption of Atheism’
So in 72 Flew proposed his atheism as “not theist” instead of “belief God does not exist”. This in turn over the last 10-15 years of internet discussions, internet dictionaries and the like seemed to evolve into “lack of belief in god existing”.
So we can see that the “lack belief” is a new position on the historical definition of atheism. Those that are saying the “a” is “without” and not “not” because other Greco-English words are missing the origin of the word, but are correct in the modern definition sense. Many of us are not aware of this, so assume anyone, even philosophers, are “changing the definition” when in reality we are using a much newer definition ourselves.
American Atheists has a section on their site that says this about the definition of atheism:
‘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 a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.
Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God.” Clearly, theistic influence taints these definitions. The fact that dictionaries define Atheism as “there is no God” betrays the (mono)theistic influence. Without the (mono)theistic influence, the definition would at least read “there are no gods.”’American Atheists
Here they acknowledge the older definition prior to lack of belief in gods. I believe the biggest issue atheists have is the negative connotations we ascribe to words such as ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ and as such we misconstruct these words.
How often have you head one of us say, ‘I don’t believe in evolution I accept the facts’ – yes, and if we accept the facts we believe them to be true. It isn’t making it a belief system, nor is it making it a religion. I believe the evidence that points to the fact that I am a human. Is that a belief system? I believe I write under the name Davidian. Is that a belief system?
Similarly this is done with faith. Realistically faith is just trust, but when people hear the word faith they think of spiritual faith. In that essence we redefine faith to be trust minus credible evidence plus hope/wishful thinking. The problem here is when we return to reality and say “I (have faith/believe) the bridge won’t collapse as we go over it” we make the mistake of thinking folks are talking in a spiritual sense and get pedantic over a distinction between the terms.
A Note on Greek
Greek is one of those languages where modern language has a problem translating the texts and is why we end up with very different translations and readings of things like Aristotle, Plato, and other classical Greek texts. Socrates was regarded as an atheist by the state yet he believed in a ‘Prime Mover’.
So what’s the difference between the big 3 Atheistic positions?
Atheism is a polysemous term, there are a few definitions than this, but these are the main 3 I see being said around the internet.
- I Believe God(s) do not exist/I believe no gods exist – Philosophical Atheist / Strong Atheist
A positive attitude to the negative proposition – it does carry a burden of proof which is often mistaken for “proving a negative”. The burden is simply to demonstrate your reasoning as to why you think no gods exist.
- I Don’t Believe God(s) exist – Modern Atheism / Varying levels of strength, often based on the lack of scientific evidence. It allows more wiggle room. This is because “I don’t believe” is actually unclear with what you DO believe as you are just describing a psychological state rather than answering the proposition ‘God Exists’.
There is a difference between logical propositions, where not believing something becomes an inverse positive, and the psychological state of not believing which is closer to withholding the belief.
This is where some of the confusion occurs, but this statement could fulfil anywhere from a strong/philosophical atheist position, through weak atheism, even touching the outskirts of agnosticism.
You can support your reasoning for this position.
On the stronger side, it is close to the Philosophical atheism in the sense you could rephrase it to the positive disbelief proposition, although usually it only addresses gods that have been claimed to exist. It is a responsive position rather than a positive proposition.
It can still be said to have a burden of proof, but it is a response to each god claim. You can use your logical skills to examine various texts and refute them.
- I lack belief in God(s) – Incredibly weak atheism (potentially ‘New Atheism’), a modern alteration to the [not theist] definition from 1972. It is believed it carries no burden of proof as it is simply saying to theists “well if you can’t support your position, I don’t believe you” – which is fair enough in a way, but is such a long way from the Philosophical definition of Atheism it should really be Agnosticism if you’re not holding a positive belief gods do not exist. This is due to the aforementioned psychological state of disbelief whilst not having a positive belief in a proposition.
The issue here is, the definitions on the internet use lack belief as part of Atheism. Where I used to use it, I have considered my language, and I hope I have broken the habit of saying lack belief.
I imagine I am going to piss off many of my fellow Atheists by saying we shouldn’t use “lack belief” any more if we want to be rational, just as I probably did by pointing out that from a philosophical standpoint some of us are actually Agnostic.
If you want more details on the problems with the “lack belief” definition, check the article ‘Definitional problems with lacking belief‘
Summary – Does it matter?
I find myself wondering if it matters that we are all using “inaccurate” (from an academic sense) terms. The important bit about communication is that we understand each other. It also is a less logical definition if you understand the rules of logic.
The thing to remember is, The Burden of Proof on a belief (whether you believe god(s) do or don’t exist) is just to explain why you believe. You are not making a knowledge claim, you are not saying something does or doesn’t exist, just that you believe they do. The same goes for believers, if they say “God does exist” they have a much bigger burden than “I believe God exists”.
This is part of why I think we should stop using “lack belief”. Lack is too ambiguous, it is not definitive enough. Lack belief is fine for Agnosticism but not Atheism.
Language also evolves and changes. Awful used to be a positive term – full of awe. People use “wicked” as both a positive and negative term. Gay used to mean happy/colourful/bright. Fag now means an extremely annoying, inconsiderate person most commonly associated with Harley riders ;).
Using a term like “Agnostic Atheist” (today) is a very short way of saying, I have examined all the evidence (or lack of) and reject it. I don’t believe in any god(s), nor do I know for a fact a god doesn’t exist and don’t reject the possibility. I have no issue with folks using the modifier, but understand why some might take issue with it. It is superfluous as if you lack belief you are already saying you don’t know, even holding a belief is not making a knowledge claim, and if we are honest no one truly knows if gods exist or not.
I will continue to use Atheist, as I believe gods do not exist. Maybe even the “redundant” Agnostic Atheist to describe my position because the most important thing in these debates is communication, but it doesn’t really fit my stance. Folks understand what these terms mean, they are the modern colloquial use that provide new/modified definitions, and there really is no point in splitting hairs over an academic definition. However, I will question people on their use of logic in these situations and try and get them to understand the different definitions.
Honestly though, I don’t really care what someone wants to label themselves, or even me (though I do think we should not be prescriptive to others). Atheism/Agnosticism are not part of my identity. They just describe my thoughts on one topic. I don’t know for a fact if gods exist, I don’t believe in any gods. I fully reject the claims presented to me. In fact, through research of this article, the podcasts we have been doing, and everything else I have considered my position at length and I have gone from the simple “I don’t believe in Gods” to “I believe Gods do not exist”. I am not claiming to know, just to believe the proposition.
Academically, at least philosophically, most people who identify as Atheist (as a lack belief atheist, who don’t hold the positive belief gods do not exist) are actually Agnostic. Perhaps it is the fear of the burden of proof and the conflation between belief, certainty and knowledge that makes Atheists drawn to “lack” rather than the more philosophical definition.
Does the academic language need to catch up with the colloquial use, or do we need to correct our use? Hopefully this article has helped clear things up for you with how things are used in different ways, and how the language has evolved.
A couple of things are for certain though.
- Atheism is polysemous
- It isn’t ‘only’ a lack of belief in gods (though many define it that way)
- The Philosophical definition is more logical than the colloquial use (as in, it follows the rules of logical to provide an epistemological answer to the proposition)
- Draper, P. (2017) ‘Atheism and Agnosticism’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Online]. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/ (Accessed 7 June 2019.)
- LeDrew, S. (2012) ‘The evolution of atheism: Scientific and humanistic approaches’, History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 0, No. 0, pp. 1-18. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.1027.689&rep=rep1&type=pdf
(Accessed 10 June 2019)
- ἄθεος (Atheos) https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%84%CE%B8%CE%B5%CE%BF%CF%82?fbclid=IwAR1N0sLeE3cyN7SHZSe91o2wjK3vS2pJkXEvfdP-9OC1wKWMLclqBQmt-fc
- Antony Flew (1972) ‘The Presupposition of Atheism’
Available at: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~ekremer/resources/Flew%20The%20Presumption%20of%20Atheism.pdf
- American Atheists ‘About Atheism’
- Conversations on twitter, come follow us and join in!
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.
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Comments on “Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 2: Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism”
As I see it, a better definition of atheist is a person who believes human reason is qualified to address questions the scale of gods. It’s really a positive assertion just like theism, but most atheists don’t realize they are making a positive assertion because they take the qualifications of human reason for issues of this scale to be an obvious given, even though it is unproven. That is, they are people of faith too, but typically don’t realize that.
Everyone making a positive assertion can be asked to prove the qualifications of the chosen authority their claim is built upon.
As example, atheists don’t accept god claims just because they are stated in the Bible, but instead require proof the Bible is a qualified authority for issues of such scale as god claims.
The very same challenge can be applied to the atheist’s chosen authority of human reason, and has the same result. Nobody on any side can prove the qualifications of their chosen authority.
Hi, thanks for the well thought out comment.
If we take the classical defition, both theism and atheism are beliefs
Belief God(s) exist(s)
Belief God(s) Don’t exist(s)
Beliefs and claims are different – for example
“God exists”, is different to “I believe god exists”
So if a theist (god beleiver) makes a claim that “God Exists” they not only believe but are asserting it as true.
If an atheist was to say “can you support your claim with credible evidence” and the theist can not do more than quote their holy book, the atheist might then say “I don’t believe you”
The atheist in this instance is not making a positive negative claim, e.g. “God Does not exist” but a a belief, either “I believe God does not exist” or more commonly “I don’t believe god exists”
Therefore they are not bound as strictly by their burden, because they are not making a claim, they are just not believing in an unsupported claim.
It is not a position of faith, but one of logic.
Atheists are claiming, typically without realizing it, that human reason is qualified for the task at hand. The atheist is assuming, but perhaps not saying, “my chosen authority is qualified to address this question”. That is a claim, whether it is understood to be one or not.
1) The theist is believing because of reference to their chosen authority, typically a holy book.
2) The atheist is disbelieving because of reference to their chosen authority, typically human reason.
3) Both positions, belief and disbelief, depend upon the qualifications of the authority they arise from.
4) In neither case are those qualifications proven, but instead merely asserted or assumed.
I would respectfully contend that the atheist position is not one of reason, but rather one of ideology. The process of reason requires that the same test be applied to all positions in an even handed detached manner with no dog in the fight.
What most atheists are doing is applying a valid test to the theist position, but then declining to apply that very same test to their own position. That’s not reason, that’s ideology.
There’s nothing wrong with having an ideology, assuming it is not a source of harm to others, which is rarely the case with the vast majority of both theists and atheists. Thus, I’m not arguing ideology is wrong or bad etc, but only that labeling ideology as reason is invalid, typically a sincere misunderstanding.
One test to determine if a position is ideological is to examine whether the holders of that position are using the ideas to position themselves as being somehow superior to somebody else. To the degree that has happened on either side, that’s a case of ego hijacking reason (or faith) for it’s own purposes, resulting in a degradation of reason (or faith) in to ideology.
// Atheists are claiming, typically without realizing it, that human reason is qualified for the task at hand. The atheist is assuming, but perhaps not saying, “my chosen authority is qualified to address this question”. That is a claim, whether it is understood to be one or not. //
I’d say folks that ascribe to the modern definition of atheism.. the lack belief.. rather than the positive belief no gods exist, are not saying that at all, and are in fact closer to an agnostic position than they realise.
I would also say the atheist that uses the “agnostic atheist” tag, regardless of what it actually means, is generally admitting that they don’t know if one exists or not, but they don’t believe. (which admittedly when you break down is more of an agnostic position right?)
(I’ve added to the article on the agnostic, agnostic atheist, and history of lack of belief since your first comment just FYI)
I think there is an awareness from most atheists that we don’t know or can’t know, we simply don’t believe in said deity.
Equally I think we CAN know some claims are impossible as they stand. E.g. the god of the bible can’t exist as written, but could it be based on a real god and tainted by humans? maybe.
We also have to consider the difference between a belief and a claim.
Believing one way or the other with good reason is perfectly acceptable, but I would suggest belief in something without any evidence is less rational than not believing in it.
Believing something without good reason is irrational.
Claiming something definitely does or doesn’t exist without any credible evidence is irrational. (short of a response to a positive claim about something completely illogical, like a square circle or a benevolent god that creased diseases and eternal torture)
//I would respectfully contend that the atheist position is not one of reason, but rather one of ideology. The process of reason requires that the same test be applied to all positions in an even handed detached manner with no dog in the fight.
What most atheists are doing is applying a valid test to the theist position, but then declining to apply that very same test to their own position. That’s not reason, that’s ideology.//
Ok, so say we were not talking “God” or any deity. Say we were saying Unicorns, or Leprechauns or any other mythical creature. Is believing they don’t exist because no evidence has been presented an ideology?
Equally, I know some atheists that would love to be proven wrong about there not being a god. They want some evidence. They want to believe. How is that an ideology?
// One test to determine if a position is ideological is to examine whether the holders of that position are using the ideas to position themselves as being somehow superior to somebody else. To the degree that has happened on either side, that’s a case of ego hijacking reason (or faith) for it’s own purposes, resulting in a degradation of reason (or faith) in to ideology. //
I do know some atheists that hold themselves superior.. not as many as theists I know that do so.. we can get fundamentalist atheists. We do get some atheists who are not as rational as they think.
Even on this topics about the misunderstood definitions of atheist and its origins from the Belief no gods exist to the modern lack of belief in gods I have had so much back chat and irritability because they don’t like being told they are wrong and apparently I don’t understand the burden of proof etc.
Hilarious really because all this article was supposed to do was inform people about the academic/historical use of some definitions in comparison to the modern use.. and to try and tell atheists not to be so scared of their burden of proof because the burden for an atheist is not proving a non existence, it is just simply explaining the reasoning as to why they believe no god exists. It can be simple as “No evidence has been presented, just weak apologetics, and as such I don’t believe”
There are all sorts of people, in all of our “tribes” and as much as I hate tribe mentality we evolved with it as a survival trait and it is hard break free from.
It is one of the reasons I don’t like to be labelled as an Atheist, even though I am one. People in both in and out of groups make judgments and have expectations rather than take each individual for who they are.
On that note, you might enjoy this one: https://www.answers-in-reason.com/misc/life-lessons/fanboys-conspiracy-confirmation-bias/
Thanks again for a great comment, sorry it took me so long to respond, had a very busy weekend.
First, no need to apologize. We aren’t on a schedule. I type way too much, and don’t mean to obligate you to the same.
Yes, atheism is an ideology, and not a function of reason, because it is built upon an unproven authority. In my view, it’s the very same problem which makes theism an ideology. Once it’s grasped that nobody on any side has a proven authority behind them, the whole God debate collapses. To me, that’s when this becomes interesting.
The “simply don’t believe” perspective is misleading, because atheists really do believe, they just believe in a different unproven authority than theists. It’s just as much an assertive claim as theism. The confusion arises because most atheists sincerely don’t realize they are making a claim, because they take the qualifications of reason to be an obvious given.
To the degree one is an atheist ideologist they should be afraid of their burden, because it can’t be met. But most atheists don’t realize they bear this burden, so they are unconcerned and content to focus on other people’s burdens, which they correctly point out also can’t be met. And of course, a person of reason need not be afraid of any idea.
Steering back on topic, here’s a new term for you. Fundamentalist Agnostic. I like the entertaining irony involved in this term, but also mean it seriously. I made the term up, so it’s hardly official. 🙂
An atheist examines god claims and rejects them. Similarly, a Fundamentalist Agnostic examines the God debate and rejects it. This sort of takes atheism up another level from rejecting positions within the God debate paradigm to rejecting the paradigm itself.
As example, all sides of the God debate assume without questioning that the only possible answers are “exists” or “doesn’t exist”. And yet most of reality, space, does not fall neatly in to either category, which would seem to demonstrate that the whole debate is fatally flawed. That is, a bad question which is unlikely to lead to a good answer.
Further, the Fundamentalist Agnostic position is assertive in that it claims not only do we not know, and can’t know, but that this ignorance is a good thing. More on this later perhaps.
I must say, you are the most level headed atheist I’ve met in some time, and that’s a pleasure I’m enjoying. Happy to have discovered your blog.
// I type way too much, and don’t mean to obligate you to the same. //
I’m enjoying the dialogue and hope more people feel free to express an opinion on the blog 😀
// Fundamentalist Agnostic. //
Haha I like that term although the way you describe it seems a little like ignostic, though not quite. How long is it before we have an ignostic-agnostic-atheist position coined? lol.
I understand your point about it being an idealogy based on an “unproven authority” – however lets examine the difference here
If theism (being very general here) is based on a combination of lack of knowledge (god of gaps), assigning agency/superstition, ancient fables (variety of religious books), and wishful thinking (e.g. what happens after death, purpose of life etc)
And atheism (again being general, and using your definition a bit) is assuming human reason is capable of comprehending and understanding something you don’t feel it is qualified to do, e.g. using our intelligence, application of the scientific method etc and rejecting a position that has no credible testable verifyable evidence.. would you not see it as the more rational position? (this isn’t a claim that atheists are more rational than theists, just that atheism is a more rational position than theism, even if you see human reasoning to be flawed/ and unproven authority?)
There are many things I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in them because I have not seen any strong supporting evidence.
This is any of the god claims, mythological creatures, magic, homeopathy etc.
Are all of these positive non-beliefs an ideology?
I am also open to being wrong about my position. There are some claims which I cannot say either way, e.g. the pantheistic style claim equating the universe to god.
It seems like a redefinition fallacy but equally I could understand that we are just part of a much larger organism above our comprehension.
Again without any supporting evidence it isn’t something I believe.
My beliefs change with new evidence.
I am of the position that we don’t know everything.
There are some things we can’t know with our level of technology and intelligence and as a species we may one day be able to answer some of these questions for definite.
In response to specific god claims however, I think it is quite clear that they don’t/can’t exist as described
There are many things I know. Because I know them I also believe in them.
There are many things I have faith in, in the non-spiritual sense of the word, based on evidence.. e.g. driving over a bridge, I have faith it won’t collapse but also I am aware that through wear and tear one day it may collapse on me. I don’t know for certain that it isn’t going to be this time, but I believe it will hold.
I think this is one way to separate the difference between a belief claim and a knowledge claim.
The burden on a belief is to explain reasoning. Reasoning can be flawed and corrected. However reasoning based on “because this book said so” I would say is more flawed than “I’ve searched for evidence and not found any”.
The burden on a knowledge claim is to provide evidence for that knowledge.
//As example, all sides of the God debate assume without questioning that the only possible answers are “exists” or “doesn’t exist”.//
I suppose that depends on the god definition, if it is a creator god or what. That is another issue with the debate, there isn’t really a consistent, coherent, unambiguous definition for god(s).
I do think that a deity existing or not is a binary position – but we could think of it slightly differently.
Thinking of other options, what if there was a creator god, but in creating everything it went out of existence?
In that instance we could suggest that god did exist once, but no longer does.
Or Gods do exist, but are powered by faith, and the universe came first.
There are many different options if you really want to sit down, but I do lean towards the side of evidence in these matters and will change my beliefs in light of new evidence.
//I must say, you are the most level headed atheist I’ve met in some time, and that’s a pleasure I’m enjoying. Happy to have discovered your blog.//
Thank you kindly, I am sure I had a phase many years ago when I was more of a keyboard warrior and allowed my arrogance rule over me.
It have enjoyed our repartee too.
You might like a new article I am working on with one of the other authors of the site, Dave Rowlands.
You may enjoy a discourse with him. I would say he is more level headed than me.
I am not sure if you use facebook or not, but we do have a debate group on there if you would like a wider audience to discuss things with.
My apologies for jumping into the conversation, but I was curious about your view on something.
[2) The atheist is disbelieving because of reference to their chosen authority, typically human reason.]
[4) In neither case are those qualifications proven, but instead merely asserted or assumed.]
What, in your opinion, would need to be shown in order to qualify human reasoning as an acceptable tool for determining whether or not God exists?
Hi Dave, thanks for joining in.
I can’t think of anything that would prove human reason capable of settling the God question. It may be so capable, not claiming otherwise, as clearly I’m not in a position to know. I’ll admit though, doesn’t seem likely to me.
As I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, even the “exists” vs. “doesn’t exist” paradigm the God debate is built upon seems highly suspect, ignoring as it does the vast majority of reality, which seems not to fit tidily in to either category. If the question itself is flawed, we are not likely to get a useful answer from it.
All I’m doing is applying the same challenge to atheist authority as we reasonably apply to theist authority. Imho, if that is done in an intellectually honest manner, the whole “theist vs. atheist” paradigm collapses.
Another way to put it, I am to the God debate as you are to theist claims. You examine theist claims and find they lack credibility. I examine the God debate and find it lacks credibility.
However, on the other side of the coin, if the God debate has proven that nobody on any side is in a position to know what they’re talking about, that would be useful information, and the inquiry would be advanced. In this case, if that is true, not the answer we wanted, but a useful answer.
// I can’t think of anything that would prove human reason capable of settling the God question. It may be so capable, not claiming otherwise, as clearly I’m not in a position to know. I’ll admit though, doesn’t seem likely to me. //
I suppose from that, you’re using human reason to say human reason may not be capable and isn’t a proven authority – you’re open to being wrong but you don’t believe it is capable, or to re-frame it you believe it is not capable of answering the god question.
When we look at the atheist position, it is using human reasoning to examine the overwhelming lack of evidence of a deity, combined with the ongoing search of knowledge explaining processes we used to attribute to the super natural and can explain with natural processes now as reasons we don’t believe in gods in general. As such we don’t believe gods exist, or to re-frame it, we believe no god(s) exist but are open to being wrong when supplied with new evidence.
It seems that these two positions are quite similar.
Yes there are certain elements where an atheist might claim to know a particular deity doesn’t exist based on the parameters, but very rarely do you meet an atheist that knows for definite no gods exist.
Then we have the theistic claim, that doesn’t exactly use reasoning, in fact it uses a lack of knowledge, understanding, and emotional constructs (fear of death, hope of afterlife etc) to build its position that god(s) do exist.
Further more many theists claim to know, not just believe, their god exists. Often this knowledge is because they “feel” it to be true.
So on the one hand we have 2 positions using reasoning to reach an end position, both of which could be considering the evidence in the matter, and one position that is using a lack of knowledge and a number of emotions to make a decision.
It sounds like unless someone is making a knowledge claim with either of the first 2 positions, they are as rational as we can be, presently.
// As I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, even the “exists” vs. “doesn’t exist” paradigm the God debate is built upon seems highly suspect, ignoring as it does the vast majority of reality, which seems not to fit tidily in to either category. If the question itself is flawed, we are not likely to get a useful answer from it. //
Does it have to be a useful answer? – with the knowledge available we presently can only say what we believe to be true, or that we don’t know what to believe.
//All I’m doing is applying the same challenge to atheist authority as we reasonably apply to theist authority. Imho, if that is done in an intellectually honest manner, the whole “theist vs. atheist” paradigm collapses.//
Whilst I understand what you are saying here, it is clearly there is a very different “authority” for an atheist as a theist. And an Fundamentalist Agnostic is using the same authority to say they don’t think the atheist authority is good enough to answer the question, which means it might not be good enough to know either way if the authority is good enough or not, so we are back to a belief based on human reasoning, which is the authority the atheist and agnostic would be using, right?
// Another way to put it, I am to the God debate as you are to theist claims. You examine theist claims and find they lack credibility. I examine the God debate and find it lacks credibility. //
What sort of credibility do you think it should have?
If we look at specific claims of specific religions and how unscientific they are, we can argue that religion, or deity, is false.
Further more we can look at the moral aspect and see how much damage religion can do, with people doing faith healing, denying science (e.g. evolution, age of earth, shape of earth), and treating people horribly (e.g. homosexuals, women etc)
The God debate actually goes much further than the “does god exist?” paradigm.
Anyone reasonable will admit we cannot know for definite if gods in general exist or not, but we can argue against specific claims, and provide credible science.
Some folks may be convinced by certain aspects and change their ways.
“I suppose from that, you’re using human reason to say human reason may not be capable and isn’t a proven authority – you’re open to being wrong but you don’t believe it is capable, or to re-frame it you believe it is not capable of answering the god question.”
Yes, human reason is very very small in comparison to the scope of the God concept, various claims about the most fundamental nature of everything everywhere. And, we quite often don’t reason very well in some rather dramatic ways.
“When we look at the atheist position, it is using human reasoning to examine the overwhelming lack of evidence of a deity”
And the overwhelming lack of evidence is only relevant if human reason is qualified to address the question in a useful way. And, to quibble a bit, “overwhelming lack of evidence” seems an over reach. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the evidence is not persuasive to a considerable number of people.
“..we believe no god(s) exist but are open to being wrong when supplied with new evidence.”
The lack of belief in God claims is made from a belief that you have a credible method of examining the question. If we judge holy books not to be credible authorities, and also judge human reason not to be a credible authority, and can think of nothing else that could serve as a credible authority, we are beyond belief and non-belief, we are outside of the God debate paradigm. Put another way, we have nothing.
Which coincidentally is a state of mind which just happens to line up rather nicely with the nature of reality, which is overwhelming what we call “nothing”.
The God debate, on all sides, is built upon a rarely examined assumption that the point of investigation should be to deliver an answer, a symbolic object which points to the real world. Thousands of years of failure in delivering a credible agreed upon answer may suggest that assumption is flawed.
“Then we have the theistic claim, that doesn’t exactly use reasoning, in fact it uses a lack of knowledge, understanding, and emotional constructs (fear of death, hope of afterlife etc) to build its position that god(s) do exist.”
We might be careful about stating theistic claims “don’t exactly use reasoning”. Theism is huge, the largest cultural event in human history, there are many different people and places involved, a great diversity of approaches.
A quick example, the Jehovah character represents nature quite accurately. Just like nature, Jehovah is both gloriously beautiful, and utterly ruthless, giver of life, giver of death etc. Jehovah contains all the contradictions we see in nature.
Ok, so Jehovah is kind of a cartoon character, but we can observe that this cartoon character has survived 3,000 years and is still going strong, which suggests his creators may have been a tad smarter than we typically give them credit for. As example, science is currently not capable of creating ANY story which people will still cherish thousands of years from now. Other than Einstein, how many people could even name the great scientists of the 20th century??
“Does it have to be a useful answer? – with the knowledge available we presently can only say what we believe to be true, or that we don’t know what to believe.”
And, we could also say that we aren’t in a position to either believe or disbelieve. Some might go further to claim this is a good thing, for some of the magic of reality is preserved in such ignorance.
“Whilst I understand what you are saying here, it is clearly there is a very different “authority” for an atheist as a theist. ”
Not as I see it. One unproven authority vs. another unproven authority.
Also, please note, there is a profound difference between me using reason to declare my inability to answer the very largest questions, and using reason to declare an answer (or belief) to the very largest questions. The first reasoning examines only little old me, while the second attempts to make claims about the nature of everything everywhere.
“What sort of credibility do you think it (God debate) should have?
At the moment my belief is that the God debate has indeed delivered a useful answer (nobody knows) but we don’t like that answer, so we are ignoring it.
“If we look at specific claims of specific religions and how unscientific they are, we can argue that religion, or deity, is false.”
Yes, everyone is free to argue that, just as everyone is free to argue Jesus is God.
“Further more we can look at the moral aspect and see how much damage religion can do…”
Religion is HUGE. It contains within itself both the best and worst of the human condition, and of course also the vast ocean of mediocrity in between.
To conclude, my argument is this….
It is not religion which is the threat, but blind belief in any unproven authority. As example…
Our culture’s blind belief that a “more is better” relationship with knowledge will lead us towards utopia is a VERY dangerous blind belief.
Thanks to science and this blind belief in knowledge, a single half wacko person called Donald Trump can, all by himself, erase modern civilization by a single press on a single button. There’s nothing happening in religion which presents such an existential threat.
Finally, you’re paying me by the word, right? 🙂
PS: thanks for fixing white space, much better!
[I can’t think of anything that would prove human reason capable of settling the God question. It may be so capable, not claiming otherwise, as clearly I’m not in a position to know. I’ll admit though, doesn’t seem likely to me.]
That’s no worries! To be honest, most people haven’t really thought about that aspect of beliefs and claims like the one you made. It’s a question I like to ask though, and usually ask atheists a similar question when they say things like ‘theists present no evidence for their claims’ or ‘there’s no evidence for God’, and theists when they say things like ‘evolution is impossible’ or ‘there’s no evidence that supports evolution’.
I’m interested in understanding your position and claim though, so if you wouldn’t mind me asking a few more questions about it I’d be grateful. Why do you believe that human reason cannot answer the question of whether or not God exists? Whhat makes it seem unlikely to you that the question could be answered using human reasoning?
[As I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, even the “exists” vs. “doesn’t exist” paradigm the God debate is built upon seems highly suspect, ignoring as it does the vast majority of reality, which seems not to fit tidily in to either category. If the question itself is flawed, we are not likely to get a useful answer from it.]
What makes you think the question is flawed? I would agree that there is some nuance to the answer, and that one possible answers to the question of ‘does God exist’ could be ‘I don’t know’ or ‘We cannot know’, amongst others. However, ontologically speaking, the answer is dichotomous. It is either ‘God exists’ or ‘God does not exist’, at least ontologically.
[All I’m doing is applying the same challenge to atheist authority as we reasonably apply to theist authority. Imho, if that is done in an intellectually honest manner, the whole “theist vs. atheist” paradigm collapses.]
In what way do you feel that the challenge is the same?
[Another way to put it, I am to the God debate as you are to theist claims. You examine theist claims and find they lack credibility. I examine the God debate and find it lacks credibility.]
That’s a fair enough answer, not one I agree with of course but I can see why some would choose that position. Why do you feel the debate lacks credibility?
[However, on the other side of the coin, if the God debate has proven that nobody on any side is in a position to know what they’re talking about, that would be useful information, and the inquiry would be advanced. In this case, if that is true, not the answer we wanted, but a useful answer.]
Not that I am disagreeing, but I’m curious as to why you feel it is a useful answer.
Hi Dave, thanks for your interest in my too many thoughts. 🙂
“Why do you believe that human reason cannot answer the question of whether or not God exists? What makes it seem unlikely to you that the question could be answered using human reasoning?”
First, “unlikely” describes my perspective better than “cannnot”.
To continue, I’ve tried to address this with examples above. In short, human beings are very very small, and the God idea is very very big. It’s kind of like asking an amoeba to do particle physics. Further, we quite often don’t reason very well, in ways that can be rather dramatic. So there is the question “is reason qualified?” and “can we reason?”.
What I see is an unwarranted leap by both theists and atheists.
As example, holy books have provided meaning and comfort to billions of people over thousands of years. Many theists make an unwarranted leap from that established fact to the assumption that therefore holy books can deliver credible answers to the very largest of questions. Such an enormous claim needs to be proven, not just assumed and asserted.
Atheists are doing the same thing. It’s absolutely true beyond any doubt that reason is useful for too many tasks to begin to list. It’s an unwarranted leap to jump from that established fact to an assumption that therefore reason is therefore useful for everything, including the very largest of questions. Such an enormous claim needs to be proven, not just assumed and asserted.
“However, ontologically speaking, the answer is dichotomous. It is either ‘God exists’ or ‘God does not exist’, at least ontologically.”
I don’t care about ontologically. 🙂 I’m interested in reality. Most of reality is space. Almost all of it. And space does not fit neatly in to the “exists vs. doesn’t exist” paradigm. Thus, it’s not logical to state that a God must exist or not, one or the other, when most of reality does not follow that rule.
What’s interesting to me is that this is just common sense, and yet it’s being largely ignored by all parties to the debate for centuries, thus bringing our ability to reason in to question.
“In what way do you feel that the challenge is the same?”
Are holy books qualified to deliver meaningful answers to the very largest of questions? Is human reason qualified to deliver meaningful answers to the very largest of questions? Anybody who asserts, or assumes, that either are qualified needs to prove it. Or it’s just faith.
“Why do you feel the debate lacks credibility?”
The God debate hs failed to deliver an answer in spite of centuries of earnest investigation by some of the greatest minds on all sides. Or, perhaps more accurately, the debate has delivered an answer, but nobody likes the answer, so we are all ignoring what the debate has revealed.
To me, the debate has revealed that we simply don’t know, and probably can’t know, AND this is a good thing.
If we look closely, we can discover that much of what makes life worth living is the magic that arises out of ignorance. Why is childhood such a special time? Ignorance. Why do you still remember your first love? Ignorance. Why do so many people get bored and then divorced? Not enough ignorance, too much knowledge. 🙂
“Not that I am disagreeing, but I’m curious as to why you feel it is a useful answer.”
If it’s true that we can’t know answers to the very largest of questions, that may direct our attention away from the symbolic realm in to the real world.
The failed God debate may be trying to tell us that what we’re really looking for can not be found in symbols, ideas, thoughts, answers. Religion is about what we’re really looking for. We don’t have to accept a religion’s answers to agree they are on the right subject.
Hope something in there is interesting.
I decided to jump into this conversation as well, since it incorporates many similar (wrong, to me) perspectives as our other conversation.
You talk about how limited human reasoning is as a tool for deciding the God question. While I can agree that we are limited in many ways (try visualizing 10-dimensional spacetime, for example), I’m completely unconvinced that human reasoning is as limited as you claim.
Religious God claims (e.g. the God of the Bible or Quran) are reasonably well-defined, i.e. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevloent. Within those particular claims and the definitions of each of those capabilities, human reasoning is quite capable of finding and pointing out the obvious logical contradictions and inconsistencies.
Spiritualists’ God claims (e.g. “God is love and love powers the universe”) are usually so ill-defined that neither reason nor evidence are of any help in deciding their validity. But, they are also so ill-defined as to be useless and nonsensical. Why would any rational person spend any time or effort on disproving something so vague and pointless? If the definition can be made to fit anything or nothing, it’s of no value other than to make it obvious the person simply wants to believe.
I saw a cartoon this morning about “dark matter, antimatter, and no-matter.” It was a hilarious use of comedic syntax as “no-matter” is in no way semantically related to something like “dark matter.” This is equivalent to the kinds of “arguments” some people (yourself included, I’d say) make about God. They abuse the syntax and semantics of the English language (or its incompleteness in some cases). It’s easy to arrange words in any natural language so they are syntactically correct, but nonetheless nonsensical. “Purple unicorns phlegmatically inflate yellow ideas” could be an example. “God is love” is another one.
Your argument about “exists vs. doesn’t exist” is another such example, IMHO. You’ve asserted several times that “the vast majority of reality” doesn’t seem “to fit tidily in to either category.” First off, I’d challenge you for one example of something that is real that either both exists and doesn’t, or that neither exists nor doesn’t. This seems like such an obvious mutually exclusive ontological dichotomy that it has to be complete. So, I’d love a counter-example. To me, I’d say, you’re bandying terms about that you don’t understand (e.g. “exist”), though I’d have to admit an actual definition is harder to achieve than is obvious.
P.S. Looking above, I see you’ve used “space” as an example of something that doesn’t fit the “exists vs. doesn’t exist” paradigm. That’s a bad example for your purpose, but a it’s a good example of an argument from ignorance. Just because we don’t understand the nature of space (or time), doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some form of “existence”.
Space is a good example of an emergent phenomenon; that is, it derives from the Pauli Exclusion principles as one of the limiting quantum properties of fermions (note that photons do not share this limitation as they may share complete quantum states-including position- with other photons). Humans are only now starting to develop an understanding of emergent phenomenon (things like “wetness”, “stability” (e.g. of sand piles), “consciousness”, “love”, “information”, “soul”, etc.). It’s a fascinating area of study.but rife with misunderstanding. This study will, no doubt, alter our understanding of terms like “exists” over the upcoming years, but I’d claim it doesn’t demonstrate what you think it does.
It isn’t always a great idea to use one thing we don’t understand very well (“space”) to support ideas about other things we don’t understand very well (“God” or “limits to reason” or “exist vs don’t exist”). You can claim that space neither exists nor doesn’t exist, but without an understanding or what space is the claim is without basis.
Hi there Paul,
You write, “I’m completely unconvinced that human reasoning is as limited as you claim.”
Ok, no problem, and you may be right. So, um, please prove it. Please apply the same standard to human reason that we apply to holy books. No proof = no belief.
You write, “Within those particular claims and the definitions of each of those capabilities, human reasoning is quite capable of finding and pointing out the obvious logical contradictions and inconsistencies.”
But, human reason is so often not capable of asking whether “obvious logical contradictions and inconsistencies” are relevant to every question in all of reality. Instead, it is typically just assumed that they are, without questioning or challenge, because as humans we like to have answers, or least feel we have some method of reaching for answers.
You write, “Spiritualists’ God claims (e.g. “God is love and love powers the universe”) are usually so ill-defined that neither reason nor evidence are of any help in deciding their validity.”
What if reason is not the right tool for understanding love? What if all of reality is not about analytic nerds living in our heads doing logic calculations, and some aspects of reality are better understood through emotional exploration, something we nerds tend not to be very good at? What if, in some cases at least, we are on the wrong channel?
You write, “This seems like such an obvious mutually exclusive ontological dichotomy that it has to be complete.”
And that seems a demand that all of reality comply with the rules of human reason, which it is actually not required to do. Human reason is the poorly implemented ability of a single half insane semi-suicidal species on one little planet in one of billions of galaxies. And you’re trying to turn that very tiny thing in to a God, binding upon everything everywhere.
You ask, “First off, I’d challenge you for one example of something that is real that either both exists and doesn’t, or that neither exists nor doesn’t.”
I’ve already done this. The vast majority of reality. Space. I’m sorry, but space politely declines to comply with human generated rules that we find tidy and convenient.
You state, “Just because we don’t understand the nature of space (or time), doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some form of “existence”.”
I’m not arguing that space has no form of existence. I’m arguing it doesn’t fit neatly in to our definitions of existence and non-existence. Our definitions work great at human scale, but they aren’t necessarily binding on everything everywhere, as illustrated by space.
I must honestly report that I don’t accept the authority that intellectual elites attempt to project. I’m “atheist” to such authority claims.
We could blow up everything built over the last 500 years at any moment, a single person could start it, and it’s really hard to find any flavor of intellectual elite that can discuss this for more than 3 minutes, if that. Our civilization has a hair trigger loaded gun in it’s mouth, and intellectual elites want to talk about just about anything else. The loaded gun, in our mouth, not interesting.
Intellectual elites are NOT masters of reason.
None of us are.
[Hi Dave, thanks for your interest in my too many thoughts. 🙂]
It’s my pleasure! Thanks for sharing them, I’m always interested in what others believe, why they believe it, the coherence and consistency of their beliefs, and much more. It’s the philosopher in me! Also, I can definitely relate to the ‘too many thoughts’ part! At least you’re thinking though, which is the main thing. 🙂
[First, “unlikely” describes my perspective better than “cannnot”.]
Ah, my apologies. I didn’t mean to misrepresent your views, and any time I do please feel free to correct me whenever I do. I would rather not strawman your position.
[To continue, I’ve tried to address this with examples above. In short, human beings are very very small, and the God idea is very very big. It’s kind of like asking an amoeba to do particle physics. Further, we quite often don’t reason very well, in ways that can be rather dramatic. So there is the question “is reason qualified?” and “can we reason?”.]
I see. So what do you mean when you say that ‘the God is very very big’? What makes it ‘very very big’? I’m not sure the simile that you use works, after all we are far removed from amoeba. We actually have cognitive abilities, we can reason, we can use logic, we can use language to share and solve problems, and much more. So I’m not really sure how humans asking the God question is anything like an amoeba attempting to do particle physics.
Though I tend to agree that humans do generally have problems when it comes to the use of reason. However, it would be a terrible leap in logic to assume that because we sometimes have problems when using reason and logic that we can dismiss our abilities to do so outright. It does not even give us cause to question whether or not we can reason. After all, we understand that we have problems with reasoning because we also have the ability to reason correctly. Even asking the questions ‘can we reason?’ and ‘is reason qualified?’ presupposes that we can reason and that reason is qualified to answer those questions. After all, if we could not reason we could not ask the questions, and if it was not qualified we would not presume that we could answer the questions.
So this brings us back to the question I asked you originally, what would count as qualification when it comes to our reasoning abilities and the God question? What would it take to show you that reason is qualified to answer the God question? You’ve said you cannot answer that question, so let us try it from a different angle. Why exactly do you think it is unqualified? So far you have answered with:
1) Human beings are very small and the God idea is very very big.
2) Sometimes human beings do not reason very well, and in ways that can be rather dramatic.
This are not particularly convincing reasons for saying that it is unlikely that we could ever answer the God question, nor that reason is not qualified to answer questions about God’s existence. What reasoning do you use to get from ‘human beings are very small and the God idea very very big’ to the idea that it is unlikely that human reason could answer questions about God’s existence? And by what reasoning do you get from humans making errors in reasoning to the idea that these errors in reasoning make it unlikely that human reason could answer questions about God’s existence?
[As example, holy books have provided meaning and comfort to billions of people over thousands of years. Many theists make an unwarranted leap from that established fact to the assumption that therefore holy books can deliver credible answers to the very largest of questions. Such an enormous claim needs to be proven, not just assumed and asserted.]
There are many theists that put forward arguments that attempt to prove that claim, rather than just assume and assert it. Here the question becomes one similar that of the question about atheists, reason, and justification. What, in your opinion, would prove this claim? What would disprove this claim? Exactly what sort of ‘evidence’ are you looking for here?
[Atheists are doing the same thing. It’s absolutely true beyond any doubt that reason is useful for too many tasks to begin to list. It’s an unwarranted leap to jump from that established fact to an assumption that therefore reason is therefore useful for everything, including the very largest of questions. Such an enormous claim needs to be proven, not just assumed and asserted.]
What makes the existence of God the very largest of questions? What makes this question so special that it becomes unlikely that we could answer it using human reason? It also brings us back to the original question I asked you. Exactly what would qualify as proof that human reason was capable of answering the question? How would someone go about proving that claim to you?
[I don’t care about ontologically. 🙂 I’m interested in reality.]
Ah, my apologies, I should have put that in simpler language. When I say ‘ontologically speaking’ I’m speaking of reality itself.
[Most of reality is space. Almost all of it. And space does not fit neatly in to the “exists vs. doesn’t exist” paradigm. Thus, it’s not logical to state that a God must exist or not, one or the other, when most of reality does not follow that rule.]
What do you mean by ‘space does not fit neatly in to the ‘exists vs doesn’t exist’ paradigm? Existence is a dichotomy, and follows the simple P or Not-P dichotomy. Something either exists or it does not exist.
[Are holy books qualified to deliver meaningful answers to the very largest of questions? Is human reason qualified to deliver meaningful answers to the very largest of questions? Anybody who asserts, or assumes, that either are qualified needs to prove it. Or it’s just faith.]
Again, this brings us back to the question of what would count as qualification.
[The God debate hs failed to deliver an answer in spite of centuries of earnest investigation by some of the greatest minds on all sides. Or, perhaps more accurately, the debate has delivered an answer, but nobody likes the answer, so we are all ignoring what the debate has revealed.]
Ok, but the God debate delivering an answer that nobody likes is a very different thing to the debate failing to deliver an answer would you not agree? It also seems unlikely that the debate has delivered an answer that nobody likes. After all, we have people in the different camps that all seem happy with their particular answer. The God debate has delivered the answer that you hold, and you seem to be happy with that answer. Happy enough with that answer to think it’s an answer that other people should be adopting.
[If we look closely, we can discover that much of what makes life worth living is the magic that arises out of ignorance. Why is childhood such a special time? Ignorance. Why do you still remember your first love? Ignorance. Why do so many people get bored and then divorced? Not enough ignorance, too much knowledge. 🙂]
I’m not sure I agree with this, but I’d be happy to listen to your reasoning behind why it is ignorance that makes these things what they are.
[If it’s true that we can’t know answers to the very largest of questions, that may direct our attention away from the symbolic realm in to the real world.
The failed God debate may be trying to tell us that what we’re really looking for can not be found in symbols, ideas, thoughts, answers. Religion is about what we’re really looking for. We don’t have to accept a religion’s answers to agree they are on the right subject.]
I sort of agree that we don’t have to accept a religion’s answers to agree they are on the right path. However, my thinking is most likely very different from your own, so I would be interested in hearing what you mean by ‘what we’re really looking for can not be found in symbols, ideas, thoughts, and answers’. What is it in religion that you think is about what we’re really looking for?
[Hope something in there is interesting.]
There is always something interesting in other people’s thoughts, so thank you! It did of course raise more questions, which you are free to not answer if you aren’t interested in further discussion. Just in case you’re not, then I’ll thank you for the conversation now. It makes a change to speak to someone that doesn’t immediately bring it down to the level of ego flexing, insults, and condescension! Just to give you a chance to opt out, I’m going to focus mainly on your claim that reason needs to be qualified to show that it is able to answer a question like the existence of God from here on in, as that is the part that interests me the most. I am curious as to how you get to that conclusion, and what thinking you use. Thanks again for your time, it is very much appreciated! 🙂
Hi again Dave,
You ask, “So what do you mean when you say that ‘the God is very very big’?”
Sorry for any lack of clarity. I mean the God concept addresses the most fundamental nature of everything everywhere. As example, it is in part asking whether reality arises from intelligence, or is merely mechanical.
And so we try to address this question with our reason, except that um, we actually have no idea what the phrase “everything everywhere” even refers to. One universe? A billion? One dimension? A rapidly expanding explosion of dimensions? Something else we can’t even imagine?
You write, “However, it would be a terrible leap in logic to assume that because we sometimes have problems when using reason and logic that we can dismiss our abilities to do so outright.”
I’m not dismissing our ability to use reason in very many instances, way too many to list.
What I’m addressing is the unwarranted leap which says that because we can successfully use reason in very many instances, reason is therefore automatically qualified for issues of any and all scales, no matter how large, no matter how far they may be removed from human scale experience.
That is, I’m rejecting human reason being made in to a kind of universal God, without any proof. All I’m doing is applying valid atheist principles to atheism itself. Show us the proof. No proof? No belief.
You state, “Something either exists or it does not exist.”
According to dictionary definitions created at human scale, this is a practical concept in our daily lives. What the space example attempts to illustrate is that this concept does not automatically scale to encompass everything everywhere.
You write, “The God debate has delivered the answer that you hold, and you seem to be happy with that answer. Happy enough with that answer to think it’s an answer that other people should be adopting.”
I don’t really expect that to happen actually, but it’s fun to try. 🙂
I’m simply pointing out the obvious. The God debate has been led by some of the greatest minds on all sides, and after centuries of earnest effort it has not provided proof of any position. This suggests to me that we might turn our attention away from positions within the God debate to the God debate itself. It’s at least possible that we are wasting all our energy on a fundamentally flawed question which is incapable of delivering a useful answer.
You write, “I’m not sure I agree with this, but I’d be happy to listen to your reasoning behind why it is ignorance that makes these things what they are.”
Ok, here’s an experiment. Read this post 48 times. 🙂 It will soon become very boring. You will find yourself having an unpleasant dissatisfying experience. Why? Nothing left to discover, been there done that, too much knowledge of the post, not enough ignorance of it.
More to the point…
The question of the God debate asks, “is there a God in the real world”. We aren’t looking in the real world. We’re looking at our thoughts about the real world. Big difference!
If the God debate were to collapse, if we were to face that nobody’s “knowings” are credible or proven, if we were to accept our ignorance, maybe we’d finally shut up and start observing the real world itself. Observation, pursued for it’s own value, not as a means to some other end.
You ask, “What is it in religion that you think is about what we’re really looking for?”
Unification with reality, to put it in secular language. A religion might call this “getting back to God”.
Animals and primitive humans have/had a primal relationship with nature. As thought became more prominent in the human experience this direct primal relationship was diluted by the divisive nature of thought. Our focus shifted from reality, to our thoughts about reality, a second hand experience, a less satisfying experience.
Imho, religions arose to try to address this loss of relationship with reality, but regrettably typically did so through thought, the very thing causing the weakening of the primal bond.
You are a very good interviewer, and I apologize for spending so much time on my own views. I’m afraid I am obsessed with them, and you’ll find I never exhaust an interest in these subjects. I also appreciate and enjoy the relative lack of male ego chest pounding on this site, which is quite refreshing. The atmosphere you guys have created is helping me keep my own chest pounding to a minimum.
Take it where you wish from here. I’ll try to keep up in whatever direction you wish to go.
Here’s yet another issue to toss in to the pot. Don’t know how to prioritize this, you decide.
1) Science is concerned with facts about reality.
2) Religion is concerned with our relationship with reality.
As example, we are some of the luckiest humans ever to have lived, even some of the luckiest to live today. These are facts. However, our relationship with this extreme good fortune is typically not as enthusiastic as the facts would seem to merit. Point being, the facts about a situation and our relationship with that situation don’t automatically align, facts and relationship are really two different subjects.
If true, then religion might be best evaluated by the degree to which it enhances our relationship with reality.
As example, say my young child is dying of cancer. I’m going to tell my child whatever story helps them get through this experience. The story should be evaluated not by it’s factual value, but by how well it enhances my child’s experience.
There is a sense in which all human beings are children dying of something. But we often don’t feel this, because we have typically sold ourselves a fantasy story about what we think we know and of course, it’s only other people who die, not us.
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