Thursday, November 24, 2011

Defining Atheism

 
Most people know that there are two common definitions of atheism/atheist. Here's an excellent example from two different dictionaries.

atheist: a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings [dictionary.com]

atheist: a person who does not believe in the existence of God or gods [Oxford Dictionaries]
The first definition defines an atheist as someone who maintains that gods do not exist. The second defines an atheist as someone who is not a theist.

The distinction is relatively unimportant in everyday usage since most of us who are nontheists will argue that gods do not exist. But when you're arguing with a philosopher you need to pick nits since philosophical arguments often turn on definitions. No intelligent atheist wants to be trapped into arguing that gods do not exist since that's like trying to "prove the negative" and we all know that it is impossible to prove the nonexistence of something.

That's why the correct definition of atheist is a person who is not a theist. This is the definition that most atheists use to define their position when it's important to be philosophical. We will readily admit that we cannot prove the nonexistence of gods. There will always remain a remote possibility that some kind of gods exist somewhere. Even though we might be 99.99% certain that gods are a delusion, when talking to philosophers we need to keep reminding them that 99.99% is not 100%.

There's a class of philosophers (professional and amateur) who prefer to be called agnostics. As a general rule, those philosophers use the restrictive definition of atheist and that's why they deny that they are atheists. They do not seem to be sympathetic to any other definition of atheist since that might require them to admit they are atheists, as well as agnostics.

I encountered one of those types in the comments section of Trying to Understand Agnostics. Joe Agnostic wrote ...
Larry Moran wrote:
Is it your position that I'm guilty of "intellectual bankruptcy" by proposing a definition that better reflects my position and that of many other atheists?

I am saying that you are either engaging in creative humpty dumptyism or displaying a severe lack of intellectual curiosity in failing to realize that there are perfectly good words which already exist that might better capture your position, such as theological noncognitivism or simply nontheist.

How would you react to one of your students trying to redefine the meaning of exothermic - or redefining natural selection to incorporate orthogenesis? I hope you can see how silly that is.

Your infatuation with the term Atheist is blinding you to its actual meaning - and your blind desire to redefine that meaning is undermining any claim to an intellectual high ground.
Joe Agnostic is saying that there is one, and only one, valid definition of atheist and that definition requires atheists to deny the existence of gods. According to Joe, attempts to "redefine" atheist are not proper. In other words, Joe insists that atheist stick to the definition he prefers, which means that all atheists are idiots for claiming to have proved the negative.

Ergo, the only intellectually valid position is agnosticism. Nobody can be an agnostic atheist because agnosticism and atheism are incompatible by (his) definition.1

Joe insists that modern atheists are trying to change the meaning of a commonly accepted definition. (I don't know if that's the position of John Wilkins.) I don't know enough about the history of the word to know if Joe is correct, although the article on atheism in Wikipedia suggest that both meanings are quite old.

However, regardless of historical precedence, it is perfectly okay to promote a definition that reflects modern thought on the topic. We do this all the time in science—the redefinition of "evolution" and the refinement of terms like "natural selection" are perfect examples.

I suspect that the resistance we encounter from agnostics has more to do with their reluctance to become associated with a word that has negative consequences in some societies than with any real intellectual high ground. If I were being mean (heaven forbid!) I'd even say that Joe is the one who's a bit blind.

Let's close with an example of a famous theist who tries to teach atheists the "proper" definition of atheism. He seems a bit frustrated because his opponent won't jump into his trap.


To me this sounds just as silly as Joe Agnostic.


1. It's interesting that these hard-core agnostics are far more likely to criticize the position of atheists than theists.

28 comments:

  1. It's hard to redefine a word that already has a concrete definition. You might redefine common usage, but definition stays - a thesim; to be without theism (or without belief in gods)

    The reason for your lack of belief might be many, but lacking belief is all that is meant by atheism. Any other definition is adding to, not changing. Atheism does not address whether gods exist or not. It simply states that the atheist does not believe in gods.

    Agnosticism does address whether goes exist in that the agnostic does not know whether gods exist or not. More literally, a gnostic means without knowledge. In this case without knowledge of whether gods exist or not.

    The former implies knowledge and a search for the truth, the latter simply means you haven't found enough information to even make a decision.

    Those who claim agnosticism is the wiser position appear to be saying that ignorance is the wiser position.

    One can claim that the evidence against gods is unconvincing but yet the evidence for gods is also unconvincing. If you conclude from this to be agnostic you have missed the point. Atheists are not saying there is no god, come look, we have searched everywhere and there is no god. Atheists are saying that those claiming to have evidence of gods are whackaloons with out credibility. Their claims of supernatural beings are bunkem. The conclusion is that there is no reason to even begin thinking there are supernatural beings. Agnosticism is simply the capitulation that you won't investigate or access the available information.

    To clarify, If I claimed that there are invisible robots who will do your bidding if you talk to them in a certain voice and believe in them, the onus would be on me to prove it. Well the claims of supernatural beings rests on the shoulders of believers. You do not have to prove that my invisible robots do not exist to be arobotism. Saying that your are agnostic about invisible robots is then simply a cop-out.

    Even if there is an infinitesimally small chance that there are invisible robots, counting that chance as equal to evidence is just intellectually lazy. It's no different than saying you don't eat chicken wings because there is a chance they might turn you into the swamp thing.

    Refusing to say more than I don't know is very lazy when the evidence and argument is fully available to you.

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  2. These binary philosophical definitions are bullshit. To say you are either "with knowledge" or "without knowledge" is a false dichotomy. Therefore I reject their use.

    And yes, both the newborn infant and the rational skepticist are atheists.

    Furthermore as skepticists we should reason quantitatively. I.e. we should first give an upper bound for the probability of some theistic entity's existance (e.g. a catholic god) and compare that to other probabilities in everyday life.

    Second we show how to get an upper bound for a different brand of theism.

    Third we give an upper bound for transparent what-if scenarios, such as deism.

    Fourth we give the probability of atheism (zero length).

    I think it should be doable using minimum description length estimation. If not in this generation, then in the next.

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  3. To add to what Anonymous said, atheism would seem to be the default position for claims of the supernatural, as it's been for well over one-hundred years--evidence-wise, god's existence is not the controversial topic it once was. Sure, there was a time when it made sense to be agnostic. But there have been significant historical landmarks (the scientific method: heliocentrism, meteorology, common descent, extinction events, the Holocaust, etc.) that've chipped away at the god hypothesis. As a side-note, for many born into a religious worldview, agnosticism is still a common step in intellectual development.

    We've gathered enough knowledge about ourselves and the universe to confidently say there probably is no god, making "professional" agnostics intractable bores.

    Modern agnosticism must presuppose an ultimate insolubility despite the glaring lack of evidence for theistic claims (and some good evidence against them).

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  4. Bertrand Russell:

    Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?:

    I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

    None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

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  5. On the oft-used canard that one can't prove a negative, you might want to read the philosopher Tony Pasquarello from the Skeptical Inquirer (1984). Here is the link:

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  6. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    1. Atheism

    ‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

    The denial of the truth of a proposition is not equivalent to the assertion that the proposition is false.

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  7. God is not the issue, You are. Can any God exist if you don't? If so, prove it. Prove that that things exist of which you have no awareness, conception, or imagination.

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  8. Years ago I used to define myself as agnostic. This was partly because I valued the idea of avoiding conflict around religion, and partly because, living in New Zealand, there is less theism and markedly less vocal theism than in many other places. The latter meant that I had little reason to carefully consider the validity of a distinction between agnosticism and atheism.

    In the end, it was enough for me to simply reflect on the point that I wouldn't have called myself "agnostic" about anything else for which there was zero evidence - of which many absurd examples abound: invisible unicorns, zombies and so forth. The only logically consistent position was to redefine myself as "atheist".

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  9. agnosticism: the long wait for nothing.

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  10. Sorry, let us try the link again:
    http://www.skeptictank.org/files//atheist/negative.htm

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  11. That quote from Bertrand Russell nicely illustrates how badly Huxley muddled the originally crystal clear waters.

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  12. No intelligent atheist wants to be trapped into arguing that gods do not exist since that's like trying to "prove the negative" and we all know that it is impossible to prove the nonexistence of something.

    Well, there are certain kinds of negatives you can prove. Trivially, anything which is logically incoherent (e.g. married bachelors) can be conclusively said to not exist.

    For everything else, we have to settle for showing that their existence is indistinguishable from their nonexistence (i.e. god answers prayers in a way that produces an outcome exactly like what you'd expect if he didn't answer prayers at all).

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  13. The Chinese for atheism is 无神论 - pronounced in pinyin wu2shen2lun4. A direct pronounciation would be "without a spirit theory". I quite like that definition!

    I think pedants who insist words can only have one meaning are really missing out on the richness of language.

    But even so find me an atheist who claims there is absolutely no God, no matter how it is defined. They only exist in the strawmen of religious apologetics.

    I am perfectly happy to say to an evangelizing theist that I deny or disbelieve in God as defined by that theist!

    With philosophers I am happy to revert to the more nuanced definition - because there you aren't being pulled into a bait and switch routine.

    "There could be some sort of God, ergo Jesus" is the type of rhetoric you get from William Lane Craig, but does this really have any place in a respectable discussion.

    Language allows for multiple meanings, nuance and resonances within words - pretending one particular definition is the true one, is as silly as claiming there is one true God.

    Both definitions have their places; get over it!

    John Wilkins is a defacto atheist, so is Richard Dawkins and, I presume, Larry Moran. The defacto part of that phrase is only important for pedants and philosophers. But because of the ambiguity in words I'm happy to put it in there, but really its not worth the angst it seems to cause!

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  14. I have no philosophy training so can't speak to the currency of the following concepts, but I note in Wikipedia under Agnosticism is the sub-definition: "Ignosticism - The view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable".

    With respect to “noncognitivist” it further states: "Theological noncognitivism is the argument that religious language, and specifically words like "god", are not cognitively meaningful...Some theological noncognitivists assert that to be a strong atheist is to give credence to the concept of God because it assumes that there actually is something understandable to not believe in".

    So quite by chance I seem to have discovered what I am. And this was the point of my comment on the preceding thread where I wondered what the hell people even mean when they talk of god. One person didn’t like this because he thought it was a discussion killer.
    But, by not pointing out the absurdity of discussing matters without definition, we ultimately provide cover to the theist. It is when you dismantle the theist’s protective, vague supernatural language by asking rational, pointed questions, that it becomes clear the theist cannot define what it is he believes in, he just knows it is important to believe in something.

    Anyhow, despite my new-found affinity for the terms Ignostic or theological noncognitivism, in common conversation I might still refer to myself as a strong atheist not because I have a clue of what this god thing is supposed to be, but merely as a conventional counter to the strong belief (in something or other) without evidence and that this “something or other” seems most likely to be a mere fabrication of humans.

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  15. When discussing about deism, I prefer to call myself a non-believer rather than an atheist, since the existance of a metaphysical creator seems to be an untestable claim. On the other hand, when discussing about the existance of the god of a specific religion (typically christianity), I strongly believe that the God of abrahamic religions doesn't exist with the same conviction I don't believe "Little Red Riding Hood" describes historical events.

    The thing is, most of the time theists don't make that important distinction when discussing about the specific god of their religion, and start giving arguments for deism without connecting the dots with their specific theistic god. The result is that non-believers end discussing about two categories of god with somebody who thinks the discussion deals only with his particular flavor of "revealed" god.

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  16. No intelligent atheist wants to be trapped into arguing that gods do not exist since that's like trying to "prove the negative" and we all know that it is impossible to prove the nonexistence of something.

    Except that my understanding is that at least the scientists amongst you deal in evidence not proof, proof being reserved for mathematics, metals and alcohol. As one of those nit-picking philosophers, David Hume, wrote

    A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.

    Or, as a well-known agnostic put it:

    The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.

    You also write:

    There's a class of philosophers (professional and amateur) who prefer to be called agnostics. As a general rule, those philosophers use the restrictive definition of atheist and that's why they deny that they are atheists. They do not seem to be sympathetic to any other definition of atheist since that might require them to admit they are atheists, as well as agnostics.

    Except that both John Wilkins, who is a professional philosopher (although that shouldn't be held against him)and I, who am not, both admit to being atheist for all practical purposes. Even the coiner of the word 'agnostic' wrote:

    I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel.

    Is there any difference between that and the fact that most atheists will grudgingly concede that, yes, strictly speaking, they are agnostic about the existence of a god or gods because they do not know for certain that they do not exist?

    The difference seems to be whether, for rhetorical purposes, you want to project doubt or certainty.

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  17. It is probably best to distinguish the ilks by what they do.

    Atheists attack theists (and new atheist also took to attacking accommodationists and now agnostics).

    Agnostics don't give a damn as long as they are not attacked first.

    Accommodationists (by Larrys own definition) try to form alliances with theists against creatioists.

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  18. "That's why the correct definition of atheist is a person who is not a theist."

    You know better than that, Larry. For non-technical terms, there's no such thing as "the correct definition." Meaning derives from the way the word is used, and for "atheism", usage is all over the map.

    "There's a class of philosophers (professional and amateur) who prefer to be called agnostics. As a general rule, those philosophers use the restrictive definition of atheist and that's why they deny that they are atheists."

    I'll take that as indicating that you are continuing to miss the point that John Wilkins has been trying to make.

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  19. Bertrand Russell wrote,

    As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    That's exactly the problem I'm addressing. There's a big difference between what we might say in the real world and what we say when dealing with a bunch of philosophers. It's one of the reasons why I'm worried about philosophy—it seems, in many cases, to be out of touch with reality.

    When it comes to agnosticism we all have to admit that we are agnostic about gods, fairies, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We can never prove that they do not exist. But here's the catch, we only have to admit this when talking to philosophers! In the real world it's quite acceptable to say that gods don't exist because the probability of being right is greater than 99.99%.

    It's troubling to me that one has to be so nit picky when discussing philosophy even though I understand that strict adherence to logic demands it.

    That's one point. The other point has to do with the implicit definition of atheism in the quotation from Bertrand Russell. He implies that to be an atheist is to claim that you have proof of the non-existence of gods.

    I argue that this definition of atheism is incorrect, precisely because it is indefensible and illogical. The correct definition of atheism is, in my opinion, the lack of belief in gods.

    If Bertrand Russel had adopted that definition then he could have proudly stood before a philosophic audience and proclaimed that he was an atheist AND an agnostic.

    You don't have to adopt my preferred definition of atheism but you do have to recognize that it's a widely held position these days. When you proclaim, in 2011, that you are an agnostic but not an atheist, then you have an obligation to point out what definition of atheism you are using. Ideally, you should take a position based on both definitions.

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  20. Larry said:
    "When you proclaim, in 2011, that you are an agnostic but not an atheist, then you have an obligation to point out what definition of atheism you are using."

    Taking the mere words, I'd say atheism stands in opposition to theism, whereas agnosticism stands in opposition to gnosticism.

    Now I go reading something on gnosticism to see whether that would be a workable distinction.

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  21. When a god botherer informs me that my definitions of atheist and agnostic are all wrong I take comfort in the fact that this is the best that they can bring to the conversation.

    This is a rhetorical tactic and on par with the argument that the religion criticized by atheists is a caricature and not the religion practised by "thoughtful" faith heads.

    And then there are the nail jello to the wall attempts to get theists to actually define what they mean by god, possibly one of the most protean concepts invented by humans.

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  22. Taking the mere words, I'd say atheism stands in opposition to theism, whereas agnosticism stands in opposition to gnosticism.

    Now I go reading something on gnosticism to see whether that would be a workable distinction.


    Surprise! Conventionally, gnosticism refers to one of the many (and thoroughly confused) branches of Christianity. One more reason why Huxley's invention makes no sense.

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  23. Larry Moran wrote:
    "When it comes to agnosticism we all have to admit that we are agnostic about gods, fairies, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We can never prove that they do not exist."

    But that latter claim is simply false (the whole point of my earlier reference to Pasquarello). We CAN prove that they do not exist, to the extent that they are defined well enough to support an existence claim to begin with. If not, there is no reason to take the existence claim as reasonable at all: you are not agnostic with respect to it, but hostile: it is a stupid, ill-formed claim, and not worthy of further discussion.

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  24. @DK
    I don't find it completely unworkable. A gnostic seems to be someone who claims to have a special knowledge of god. So, a gnostic is not just a theist but one claiming to have a special (often secret) knowledge source for his belief.

    An agnostic denies that such a knowledge (in the positive or negative) is at all possible. In other words, an agnostic will start an argument with someone claiming his (dis)belief is based on special knowledge, but not with someone who only (dis)believes without claiming a special knowledge source for that (dis)believe.

    An atheist, on the other hand, will start an argument with any theist, gnostic or not.

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  25. On second thought, I find the inclusion of gnosticism into the conception of positions not only workable but enlightening. Let "gnu atheism" stand for "gnostic atheism", that is, atheists that claim their disbelieve is based on knowledge, and you see what the current controversy is all about.

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  26. Just a nit:

    Your link to the Oxford Dictionaries definition of atheist should be this one.

    Your link goes to the definition of "atheism" not "atheist".

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  27. Essence Of Evolution, Natural Selection
    http://universe-life.com/2011/10/07/eotoe-some-implications-i/

    Thus the essence/definition of evolution, natural selection is:

    Mass formats attaining temporary augmented energy constraint in their successive generations, with energy drained from other mass formats, to temporarily postpone, survive, the reversion of their own constitutional mass to the pool of cosmic energy fueling the galactic clusters expansion.
    This explains why black holes and humans, in fact all mass formats, must feed themselves in order to survive.

    This explains that the essence of quantum mechanics of all processes are the probable or actual evolution steps between physical states ordained for natural selection.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/

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  28. If you follow dictionary.com's definition, the one that you propose means to have a belief, I would like you to notice that it has disbelief in its definition. If you look up disbelief, you will find that it is not an assertion of the contrary.

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