Thursday, June 25, 2009

John Wilkins Is an Asportist

 
Some questions are really very simple in spite of the fact that people want to make them complicated. When I ask you, "Do you believe in God?" it really doesn't require a lot of thought for most people. True, there might be a few people who want more clarification about the meaning of God but those people are the exceptions. Usually you can get a response by asking, "Are you a theist?"

There are only two possible answers to the second question. If the answer is "yes" then you are a theist. If the answer is "no" then you are not a theist. Most of the world can be conveniently divided into two groups: theists and non-theists. The others, those who answer "I don't know," aren't worth the bother.

We have a word for those who are non-theists. They are called atheists by my definition of the word. I use the word "atheist" in the same sense as any other word that begins with "a" and means "not." As Antony Flew puts it, the word atheist has the same connotation as "amoral," "atypical," and "asymmetrical." It means that you are not a theist. I'm also an athoothfairyist and an asantaclausian.

John Wilkins disagrees. He thinks the word atheist should be reserved for the strong belief that gods do not exist. When used in that sense, he would argue that he is not a theist and he does not actively deny the existence of gods. He is an agnostic. John divides the world into two camps—those who have a position on the existence or non-existence of god and those who don't. The latter group is the agnostics and he is one.

That's fine by me as long as John makes his definitions clear and he doesn't try to impose his definition of atheist on the rest of us. It would be wrong of John to call me an atheist using his definition so he better be careful. He would have to include me among the agnostics if he is being consistent. He'd also have to include Richard Dawkins. As a matter of fact, John might find it difficult to find anyone who is a true atheist by his definition.

I will try and respect John's wishes and refer to him as an agnostic who doesn't believe in god but doesn't advocate the nonexistence of gods as a philosophical position. However, I don't think I can go along with him in all cases ...
So, to summarise, when an atheist says to me I am an atheist because I lack a view, I am minded to reply, “I am also an asportist” for failing to have a team in any sport that I support. It makes about as much sense.
I'm sorry, John. I'll respect your (strange) opinion and not call you an atheist, but you really are an asportist!


24 comments :

  1. I agree with you on this, Larry. However I don't think that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. I like the distinction that theism vs. atheism refers to whether you believe in the existence of a god, whereas gnosticism vs. agnosticism refers to whether you know that there is a god. In that sense, most atheists are probably agnostic atheists. While there are probably a good number of people who are gnostic theists, I don't think I've ever met a gnostic atheist.

    We could also distinguish between weak and strong atheism, the former being the lack of a belief in a god, and the latter being an active disbelief in the existence of a god.

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  2. Uh, Larry ... does "theist" really mean one who believes in a god?

    Are deists really theists and are Buddhists really atheists?

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  3. I am also an atoothfairyist and asantaclausian (and any number of words I can invent by pre-pending an "a" to them to indicate something I judge not to have any factual or logical basis). However, like the two examples you used, none of these words are actually used by anyone and most would apply to the vast majority of theists.

    I'm not at all embarrassed or shy about my non-theism but I'm unclear on why I need to be described by a special term applying only to that one specific non-belief.

    Doesn't that term elevate religious belief to a level it does not deserve on it's own intellectual merits? I see very little substantive difference between believing in deities and believing in Santa Claus or leprechauns or mermaids for that matter.

    When I tell folks about my non-theism and they respond that "oh, you're an atheist" I ask them if they believe in Zeus or Odin or Vishnu. Upon the inevitable negative reply I ask them if the same term could not also be applied to them and ask them why their "god" is so special that lack of belief in that entity deserves it own special term.

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  4. John Wilkins disagrees. He thinks the word atheist should be reserved for the strong belief that gods do not exist.

    Not true. It doesn't sound like you read him carefully enough. If you make any claim (strong or not) to the non-existence "God", then you are an atheist of some degree. If you make no claims, you are an agnostic. That makes you, PZ, and Dawkins atheists, and John an agnostic. Seems pretty simple to me.

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  5. Asportist! I love it!

    I like to tell my theist friends who insist on calling atheism "just another religion" that atheism is a religion much like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

    I wish I could claim original authorship of that notion, but I can't. Still, it works for me!

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  6. Uh, John ... do you not get that the debate between agnostic and atheist has everything to do with the definition of "theist"?

    Are nonbelievers in YEC's who don't think God is trying to trick us really agnostics?

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  7. Yes, Deists count as theists if they believe in their magical man, and many buddhists are atheists, but there are others who believe in gods as well, so they aren't a solid group you can categorize easily in one camp or the other.

    I favor the "gnostic/agnostic" concerns knowledge, while "theist/atheist" covers belief. You can believe something without claiming knowledge of it, but I'd wager that most atheists are also agnostics. For myself, I'd agree with Matt of the Atheist Experience (among others) and state that I do not believe that most of the god concepts that people have exist, since there has never been evidence of them, and their is evidence against them. I vary between strong and weak atheism most of the time, depending on the context.

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  8. Just when you think you understand what you think you understand about the world, along comes a philosopher to confuse you. Don't play their pedantic games.

    There really is no benefit gained by attempting to provide precise labels to areas of a broad multi-dimensional continuum. In the end, the important thing is what a person believes and how confident they are in that belief, not whatever label can be applied to categorize that belief.

    The philosophers may think it's an interesting question whether, for example, Dawkins is an atheist or agnostic, but he has thoroughly described what his views are, and so the debate is really about the meaning of the labels, not about Dawkin's beliefs.

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  9. I don't believe in any god that I've heard of but I don't know if the existence is a "knowable" problem or not.

    So I am an agnostic but I don't use that term because it makes people think that I haven't made up my mind about the standard western monotheistic god: of course I reject that god and any other god that affects the events of this universe.

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  10. Are nonbelievers in YEC's who don't think God is trying to trick us really agnostics?

    And if the only choice is to be a theist or an atheist, then most Christians are atheists, since they don't believe in YEC. Or are they aYECists? Take your pick, use "theist" in the general sense Larry wants to use it (despite it history as describing believers in a personal god and, therefore, not including deists) or use it for specific god concepts, in which case you wind up with a lot of "a-" formations.

    I think "agnostic" fits me nicely because I deny knowledge is possible of the existence of one or more gods out of all the extant concepts of gods and the infinite number of possible gods.

    If "atheist" in your formation includes Buddhists, spiritualists, animists, Gaia-ists, New Agers, etc. I think it's a pretty meaningless term.

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  11. waldeufel said...
    'I like to tell my theist friends who insist on calling atheism "just another religion" that atheism is a religion much like not collecting stamps is a hobby.'

    I tried that once and the person I said it to said, "but I don't go around telling people that I don't collect stamps."

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  12. Why are you trying to force me to accept that curling is a sport, and why should I care?

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  13. John S. Wilkins:
    Curing is a sport much like watching paint dry is a sport. (Imagine a smiley face here.)

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  14. John says,

    "If "atheist" in your formation includes Buddhists, spiritualists, animists, Gaia-ists, New Agers, etc. I think it's a pretty meaningless term.
    "

    Wow, wasn't even thinking that. (Although all the groups you mention may or may not make claims about God.) Must have something to do with "superstition" or some such as a proxy for theist -- not my intent at all. I am only interested in what various theists claim to be the case -- it is not monolithic, and I can only form my views in response to a substantive definition.

    I agree with:

    "I think "agnostic" fits me nicely because I deny knowledge is possible of the existence of one or more gods out of all the extant concepts of gods and the infinite number of possible gods."

    But, it is also clear (I hope you agree) that the term agnostic does not fit us nicely to *all* concepts of God, including those held by millions and millions of people. If I am not mistaken, almost *every* exisitence claim has an infinite number of possible formulations that would require us to deny knowledge of them - including the fact that you an I exist. That is hardly interesting, and makes for boring interactions, no?

    Why is this so controversial? Agnostic makes sense for some conceptions of God, Atheist makes sense for others. But there is an asymmetry that is dependent on the claims being made about the nature of theism.

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  15. Two points:
    1. This from Hume:
    "All men of sound reason are disgusted with verbal disputes, which abound so much in philosophical and theological inquiries; and it is found, that the only remedy for this abuse must arise from clear definitions, from the precision of those ideas which enter into any argument, and from the strict and uniform use of those terms which are employed."

    And this from Aveling (self-described atheist) on Darwin (self-described agnostic):
    http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=A234&keywords=aveling&pageseq=1

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  16. But, it is also clear (I hope you agree) that the term agnostic does not fit us nicely to *all* concepts of God, including those held by millions and millions of people.

    There is always a way to "rescue" a god concept from disproof (Omphalos for a YEC god, for example). My judgment as to the credibility of such rescues is on a sliding scale, with YEC near the bottom and a deist or pantheistic god near the top. But my judgement as to credibility is not knowlege. I can remain agnostic (based on my rather strict definition of what counts as "knowledge") while making distinctions between what is more likely and what is less likely.

    Why is this so controversial?

    Because "atheist" doesn't mean what Larry claims it does. Definitions are not logical constructs, they are usages, perhaps especially in English. A definition in any dictionary is a description of how a word is used "on the ground," not a prescription of how it should be used. No matter what Larry wants the word to mean, it carries connotations that I do not think apply to me. "Agnostic" may too (of the sort Flew claimed) but I'm much more comfortable with those than I am with the ones that come with "atheist."

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  17. John Pieret asks,

    Uh, Larry ... does "theist" really mean one who believes in a god?

    Possible not on all planets. Which one do you live on?

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  18. John Wilkins says,

    Why are you trying to force me to accept that curling is a sport, and why should I care?

    Ohmygod! You're not only an asportist you're actually one of those extremist, loud, antiaccommodationist, New Asportists!!

    I bet you've never read all the literature on curling. You are totally ignorant of the sophisticated version of the modern sport. Shame on you.

    Heaven help us.

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  19. John Pieret says,

    Because "atheist" doesn't mean what Larry claims it does. Definitions are not logical constructs, they are usages, perhaps especially in English. A definition in any dictionary is a description of how a word is used "on the ground," not a prescription of how it should be used. No matter what Larry wants the word to mean, it carries connotations that I do not think apply to me. "Agnostic" may too (of the sort Flew claimed) but I'm much more comfortable with those than I am with the ones that come with "atheist."

    You make your position very clear.

    As I've said on other fora, I now challenge you to be consistent in your definitions. You must stop calling me an atheist because it's clear that I am not an atheist by your definition. You should also refrain from calling Richard Dawkins an atheist since, by his own admission, he allows for the slight possibility that God exists.

    Let's see if you can be consistent in your arguments. It hasn't been working very well for you in the past. :-)

    You can call me a "New Agnostic" if you want.

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  20. Larry Moran says,



    As I've said on other fora, I now challenge you to be consistent in your definitions. You must stop calling me an atheist because it's clear that I am not an atheist by your definition. You should also refrain from calling Richard Dawkins an atheist since, by his own admission, he allows for the slight possibility that God exists.

    Let's see if you can be consistent in your arguments. It hasn't been working very well for you in the past. :-)

    You can call me a "New Agnostic" if you want.


    One of the easiest ways to resolve thise "debate" and remain precise in meanings has already been suggested in the comments and that is to recognize that atheist and agnostic relate to two very different positions, belief and knowledge respectively. To treat them as belonging on the same linear scale is counter-productive.

    If Dawkins allows for the possibility of a diety existing but does not believe, then like me (and I suspect you Larry and many others) he is an Agnostic Atheist. For all intents and purposes that makes us "just Atheists" in day to day life but there is a slight distinction when it comes to your exact philosophical position and I think that is John's main point.

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  21. You make your position very clear.

    As I've said on other fora, I now challenge you to be consistent in your definitions
    .

    Apparently, I haven't made myself clear because, if I had, you'd know it isn't my definition.

    You must stop calling me an atheist because it's clear that I am not an atheist by your definition.

    No, as I said, it's usage that is important. If you want to go on calling yourself an atheist, that's a usage and I'm willing to respect your wishes. I just wish you'd extend me the same courtesy.

    But I like "New Agnostic".

    DG:

    I suspect that both Larry and I would think the the distinction in our philosophies is more than slight but otherwise I think you're on the right track.

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  22. In common usage, on the ground, agnostic means I realise that I am no longer the theist I was, but I'm not ready to come out about this shameful condition to some fraction of my family, friends, co-workers, employer or customers.

    For many it is their chrysalis stage as they metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly.

    A few others seem to enjoy hanging upside down, all wrapped up in themselves.

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  23. quoth JohnnieCanuck

    In common usage, on the ground, agnostic means I realise that I am no longer the theist I was, but I'm not ready to come out about this shameful condition to some fraction of my family, friends, co-workers, employer or customers.

    Please, no. I am tired of people asserting that someone who calls themself an agnostic is just a "fence-sitter" who has not come to terms with the fact that God does not exist. Philosophically speaking, I am an agnostic - I hold the position that it is not possible to know for sure if God exists. For a number of years, I was a Christian agnostic, believing that it was impossible to know for sure the existence of God, but at the time, my theistic framework made sense. Then my theistic framework stopped making sense, and now I am an atheist agnostic. I still do not know for certain whether there is a god, but I see no evidence in favour of the argument and plenty to the contrary. I hold this position strongly; it is not just a temporary refuge while I gather my courage to "come out".

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  24. "On the ground" doesn't mean just staring at your own feet.

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