Conflated and Misunderstood Terms terms atheist science morality belief

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.

Theist

Someone who holds belief in God/gods/deities

This doesn’t seem to differ in academic circles.

Atheist

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.

Agnostic

Someone who doesn’t know or claims you can’t know if a god exists or not.

Agnostic

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):
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.

(Draper, 2017).

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

Dawkins Scale

Dawkins Scale of 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

Atheism vs theism agnostic scale

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”?

I do not believe in God
Would you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them Sam I am! – a Theist could not grasp that not only did I not believe in God, but also the devil, demons, ghosts etc.

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)

Etymology

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
About Atheism

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?

‘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)

References

  1. 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.)
  2. 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)
  3. ἄθεος (Atheos) https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%84%CE%B8%CE%B5%CE%BF%CF%82?fbclid=IwAR1N0sLeE3cyN7SHZSe91o2wjK3vS2pJkXEvfdP-9OC1wKWMLclqBQmt-fc
  4. Antony Flew (1972) ‘The Presupposition of Atheism’
    Available at: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~ekremer/resources/Flew%20The%20Presumption%20of%20Atheism.pdf
  5. American Atheists ‘About Atheism’
    https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/
  6. Conversations on twitter, come follow us and join in!

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