A redefinition of “atheist”

The latest New Humanist has an short article by Mano Singham that tries to untangle the confusion around the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”.  As we know, one can define these terms so they become essentially equivalent, even though some people choose the “agnostic” label simply because it seems less confrontational.

Singham first looked up the definitions of the terms in the Oxford English Dictionary, and found this:

atheist:  one who denies or disbelieves in the existence of a God.

agnostic:  one who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The problems here are obvious.  For “atheist,” “denying” God is not necessarily identical to “disbelieving” in God.  The former is absolute certainty, the latter allows for some hedging, i.e., “I see no reason to believe in God.”  For “agnostic,” Singham says, “the definition fails to distinguish between not knowing something and there being nothing to know.”  In other words, we can “know nothing” about God because either it’s logically impossible to know (i.e., the [false] claim that “you can’t prove a negative”), or because there could be evidence for God but none has appeared.  The two parts of the agnostic definition—those parts separated by “and especially”—are contradictory.

These problems are why many of us see those who call themselves “agnostics” because they adhere to the “no -evidence-has-appeared” idea, but want to distinguish themselves from the nasty atheists who say the same thing, as intellectual cowards.

Singham’s solution: deep-six the term “agnostic,” and redefine “atheist” to eliminate these ambiguities:

atheist:  One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.

He explains the advantages:

This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say “no”, they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say “yes”, they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.

Although this sounds like a rhetorical strategy to force people to admit they’re atheists, I actually like it.  It subsumes in a logical way both people like P.Z., who don’t think there can be evidence for a god because the very concept is incoherent, and people like me, who think that in principle there could be evidence for a god, but none has appeared.  Likewise, it subsumes those who are certain that there is no god (#7 on the Dawkins scale) with those, like Richard himself, who are highly doubtful but not absolutely certain.  And it’s not just conflation of wildly disparate views, for it separates people on a crucial axis: whether or not they think we need a god to explain and understand the world.

The only problem I see is that of pure deists, who may claim that although God isn’t needed to explain anything, he’s still up there anyway.

244 Comments

  1. Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    I don’t think deists pose a problem.while deists consider god to be incommunicado with reality now, they still use god as an explanation for existence to begin with.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      I was thinking the same thing. For them, God is still the explanation for the world, I assume by necessity. If not, then this new definition seems to reveal just how vacuous the deist position really is.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Deists that claim an unspecified God created the universe and then went away are still offering an explanation, and aren’t atheists according to this definition.

      On the other hand, deists that believe an unspecified God exists that didn’t ever do anything – not even creation – might as well call themselves atheists.

    • Dave B.
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Deists don’t pose a problem because they don’t exist.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

        The ones I know will be surprised to hear that.

    • Sam
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I was slightly confused by Jerry’s use the term ‘deist’ here as well, but besides that, there certainly are those who believe in God but don’t believe God is an explanation for anything. These are the types who will simply say that they ‘experience’ God through prayer and whatnot, without saying God is necessary to explain the universe or anything else.

      • Tulse
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        there certainly are those who believe in God but don’t believe God is an explanation for anything. These are the types who will simply say that they ‘experience’ God through prayer

        …and thus God is an explanation of their experience. They can’t have it both ways — subjective experiences still must be caused by something.

  2. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I prefer the term ‘god free’. It’s about how you choose to live your life, rather than what you believe. It also suggests that those who believe in god/s are in bondage.

  3. Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Ah, I see the catherders are out in full force this morning…now, let me toss my own hat into the ring!

    As far as I’m concerned, the straight-ahead deconstruction of the words works just fine.

    “A-” means “without.”

    “Theism” means “the position that there are these ‘god’ thingies that nobody has a clue what the Hell they’re supposed to be but lots of people think are mucking everything up — or, at least, think they could be out and about mucking things up if they really wanted to.”

    Thus, an atheist is somebody who’s without said position. Why somebody is godless is irrelevant, just as it doesn’t matter why you came to any other philosophical position in order to be properly defined by the applicable term.

    “Gnostic” means “one who knows.” And therefore we discover that an agnostic is somebody who’s without knowledge, or ignorant.

    The problem with self-proclaimed agnostics, of course, is that they take pride in their ignorance. If we were talking about the mass of the Higgs, all physicists today would admit their ignorance in that regard while then going on about their excitement about how they hope to soon conquer their ignorance. Agnostics, on the other hand, not only revel in the fact that they’ll never know whether or not there are monsters under their beds, they’ll do all they can to keep you from getting out the flashlight to check for yourself. And heavens forfend if you have the temerity to ask them what it is they think they mean by the term, “monster,” or ask how their beds would be different with or without one underneath!

    Hope that clears things up.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Coel
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      I agree entirely:

      atheist = a-theist = without theism = one who lacks theistic belief. End of story.

      • Al West
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Not “end of story”. That’s called an argument from etymology, and presupposes that the meanings of words are fixed by their derivations. They are not. In practice, ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ are polysemous terms whose definitions cannot easily be summed in a simple sentence, even if the concepts they can refer to can be so summarised. ‘Atheist’ generally clusters around the idea of a person who denies the existence of ‘god’, which is itself a polysemous term, but obviously one could use it in other ways, and people certainly seem to.

        I suggest ceasing this moronic focus on definitions in favour of a discussion of real metaphysics and the real metaphysical positions people take, accepting that words act as convenient placeholders for more complex ideas and have the indubitable capacity to hinder the effective communication of ideas rather than enable it.

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

          It’s not uncommon for atheists to be accused of being dogmatic based on the “atheists deny god” dictionary definition. While the “argument from etymology” doesn’t establish The One True Meaning of “atheist”, it can validly be used to refute that the other definition is The One True Meaning.

          And focusing on definitions isn’t necessarily moronic. Like I said elsewhere in this thread, labels are useful, but we need to make clear what we mean when we apply a label to themselves. It’s not about defining THE definition, it’s usually about defining the definition used in the current discussion, so everybody is on the same page.

          • Al West
            Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

            While the “argument from etymology” doesn’t establish The One True Meaning of “atheist”, it can validly be used to refute that the other definition is The One True Meaning.

            But much better than that argument is the idea that the term should not precede the concept. Those two concepts, ‘dogmatic unbelieving prick’ and ‘one who doesn’t believe in deities’, are different things, not aspects of the same thing, and we use the same term for both (‘atheist’) at our peril, and for convenience only. Here, the confusion produced by a focus on the definitions of the terms is obvious.

            It would be far better to try to rigorously outline one’s views with regard to the issue of deities than to first apply a term to oneself and then struggle to define it positively in the face of pre-existing definitions in the heads of others. Terms like ‘atheism’ are just convenient placeholders, and the focus should be on the metaphysics, not the language, except insofar as it is clarifying (which, as anyone can tell, it is not).

          • Bernard J. Ortcutt
            Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            People make those arguments but they really make no sense. Dogmatism doesn’t have to do with what you believe. It has to do with your corrigibility under new evidence. I deny there is any gods, i.e. I believe there are no gods. I even have a fairly high subjective certainty about that belief. But I don’t believe it dogmatically because I am open to changing my belief should confirming evidence arise. The theists who make this argument have just misunderstood what dogmatism is. It’s not having beliefs. It’s having beliefs which are incorrigible under further evidence.

        • Rieux, JS-OAFGAI
          Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          ‘Atheist’ generally clusters around the idea of a person who denies the existence of ‘god’….

          According to whom? You?

          You can sling words like “moronic” around all you’d like; they don’t change the fact that a large swath of atheists conceptualize atheism as a lack of belief in gods, not (solely) the belief that there are no gods. Your bald declaration that the word “clusters around” your preferred conception shows little, especially in light of contrary evidence from reference works (for example, the Oxford definition Jerry quotes is correct, because “disbelief” means lack of belief) and, more importantly, atheists ourselves.

          The fact that atheophobes have asserted (and “clustered around”) a narrower notion of what atheism is—in the service of their attempts to smear us—does not establish that their notion is correct. Atheism as a lack of belief is a conception with a long and distinguished history, broad support among modern atheists and reference works, and an etymological justification. Exactly what are you holding that beats that hand?

          If theism is the belief in the existence of God, then a-theism ought to mean “not theism” or “without theism.” Actually, there is no notion of “denial” in the origin of the word, and the atheist who denies the existence of God is by far the rarest type of atheist–if he exists at all. Rather, the word atheism means to an atheist “lack of belief in the existence of a God or gods.” An atheist is one who does not have a belief in God, or who is without a belief in God.

          – Gordon Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985)

          • Al West
            Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

            Atheism as a lack of belief is a conception with a long and distinguished history, broad support among modern atheists and reference works, and an etymological justification. Exactly what are you holding that beats that hand?

            A better grasp of linguistic philosophy, perhaps?

            You have failed to understand the point that I’m making. The only real definition of anything is narrow and confined to single concepts. We should not take the word as prior. The concept should be prior. Words can cover a lot of concepts; concepts can only be singular, even if they are referred to by the same word.

            If you define a term so as to be inclusive of a large number of concepts (this is called ‘polysemy’) then you create ambiguity. If one word refers to several things, and the word ‘atheism’ definitely does, then it creates confusion. Better to use ‘atheism’ as a placeholder as not as an arbiter.

            Your bald declaration that the word “clusters around” your preferred conception

            It’s not my preferred conception, and you have misunderstood my point. In ORDINARY LANGUAGE, ‘atheism’ tends to cluster around the focal concept of denial of the existence of gods – that is why this is used as an attack by religionists. I don’t care for this view, but that is irrelevant. It is the ordinary language conception, and one that redefinitions must battle against. I call this battle futile, and say that we should instead stick to arguing about metaphysics and liberty than the definitions of words. All the latter does is thrust an unwanted fog onto the discussion, especially as atheophobes, as you call them, are as unlikely to cooperate in using a definition of atheism as they are to accept the validity of atheist arguments.

            Calm down. You are overreacting. I’m not an enemy, and I’m not endorsing that view simply by pointing out that it is the dominant one.

            • gillt
              Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

              In ORDINARY LANGUAGE, ‘atheism’ tends to cluster around the focal concept of denial of the existence of gods

              This assumption seems to be fairly important to the point you’re trying to make. On what is it based?

              • Al West
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                It isn’t important to the point, actually – it doesn’t matter exactly what the ordinary language view is for the theoretical point. The point I really want to make is that you should have a position before a moniker, and that’s obvious; that the position is more important than the name, and that too is obvious; that the name can never sum up the position, especially if it is a common word, again obvious; and that in ordinary language, to which we ought to look to sharpen our awareness of phenomena (as Austin put it), ideal definitions (such as the one above for ‘atheism’) are commonly if not inevitably ignored for folk conceptions and impressions. Redefining terms and quibbling over definitions is fruitless next to discussions of what positions we actually take.

                That is the point I’m making. We can define any word over and over again, but as nobody actually owns the word (even those to whom it might be said to refer), and as words generally have pre-existing folk conceptions and definitions, all we are doing is adding to the pile of concepts to which the word could potentially refer rather than actually clarifying the issue.

              • gillt
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                Well, actually it is important. For the impetus for making your point would be mute without first asserting that most people think atheism means something different than what atheists want it to mean. Again, I’m asking for your sources because the prevalence isn’t obvious to me.

                It would be far better to try to rigorously outline one’s views with regard to the issue of deities than to first apply a term to oneself and then struggle to define it positively in the face of pre-existing definitions in the heads of others.

                This isn’t practical in casual conversation nor is it an obvious winning communication strategy. It is in our informal conversation where we do battle with folk definitions. Your method of defining terms first sounds presumptuous and pedantic in such a scenario.

              • Al West
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                This isn’t practical in casual conversation nor is it an obvious winning communication strategy.

                Probably true, at least in part. That is supportive of my point: that we should use these words, like ‘atheist’, but we shouldn’t put all of our stock in them. Just use them as placeholders, and define them as clearly as possible when you use them, accepting that your definition is unlikely to achieve prevalence, especially given the argumentative circumstances in which it is used. I’d say that it is not a winning communication strategy, nor a conversational practicality, to insist on the acceptance by everyone of a particular definition of the word ‘atheism’.

                Also, winning for what? To what end? If the purpose is to increase a general public understanding of metaphysics, then explaining yourself beyond your term of self-identification is clearly a better way to go. As that is my purpose, that is what I will do.

                For the impetus for making your point would be mute without first asserting that most people think atheism means something different than what atheists want it to mean.

                As I pointed out above, this is circular – atheists believe atheism means x, but who decides who the atheists who get to decide what atheism is are? As we can see, there is obvious disagreement even among self-identifying atheists as to what the term means. So even if it didn’t mean denial to some relevant parties, as it certainly seems to amongst most Christian groups, it would still be important to point out that the position should come before the word.

                For instance, I do not positively believe in any gods, and I explicitly deny the existence of Abrahamic and otherwise personal deities. With regard to first causes, I believe that the idea is impossible even in principle to falsify, but that there is no reason to believe in causation in the absence of time and space, whatever that means.

                To call that ‘atheism’ would lead to ambiguity, because several other positions have that name. ‘Atheism’ would nonetheless be a useful placeholder in conversation to point in the general direction of that view – but clearly, obviously, you shouldn’t put any stock in the word itself.

                The horse should come before the cart.

            • Diane G.
              Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:59 am | Permalink

              In ORDINARY LANGUAGE, ‘atheism’ tends to cluster around the focal concept of denial of the existence of gods – that is why this is used as an attack by religionists.

              I suppose I can buy that, though it’s not true of the “ordinary language” I encounter most often, as I tend to hang out at sites like this one. But granting your point, I think that Ben’s original emphasis on the etymology makes eminent sense; now that we have more of a voice there’s no reason not to make the effort to reclaim the term; and the argument from etymology is a simple-to-convey, easy to remember tact to take. I may be ignorant of the philosophy of language but I’ve lived long enough to observe several words change their meanings in “ordinary language.”

              • Al West
                Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

                To what end? That’s what you’ve got to ask. What good does it do to any real aim to focus on changing peoples’ minds about the meaning of a word already in common use with several meanings?

                As I have tried to make clear, it is downright idiotic to “be an atheist” first before deciding what your metaphysical position is. Again, it is not wise to adopt “I am an X, ergo I believe that p” when you could adopt “I believe that p, and some/most people call that x.” Everyone has a metaphysical position that is more complicated than ‘atheism’, and focusing on the word rather than the concepts it signifies is obfuscating. Labels are about practicality, and should neither determine your identity nor your metaphysics.

                Are we clear yet? Sort out your metaphysical position first. That is much more important than public relations or quibbles over definitions. It seems like everyone in the so-called rationalist movement has fallen into the trap of language games instead of genuine metaphysical discussion. If you really believe in reason, then words should be a hindrance and public relations a necessary evil, neither being the purpose of the discussion. Truth is more important than that, I think, and just as we should not compromise on science to win allies, so we should not compromise on metaphysics to create a more unified atheist movement. The idea of doing that is abhorrent to reason.

              • Diane G.
                Posted June 29, 2011 at 3:15 am | Permalink

                Oh yeah, you’re clear. You’ve been clear for some time now. And I find it almost insulting that you seem to imply that some of us have not sorted out our “metaphysical” (what’s wrong with simply “philosophical?”) positions. And I wasn’t talking at all about changing the minds of others, I was talking about embracing the one (of many) meanings (“concepts” if you insist) of a fine word and running with it; which may involve some further elucidation as necessary, depending on whom one’s talking with.

                It’s no different from “liberal” or “feminist” or “environmenalist” or any other term that a large portion of a given society will attempt to subvert; if you capitulate you have to keep coming up with yet another term, ad infinitum.

                Basically, polysemy (I assume there’s a noun?) occurs in any mature language and it’s up to the wielders of any given term to make sure their meaning is clear. I actually think we’re on the same page here in large part; unless you’re saying that what you insist (citation?) is the most common meaning of atheist in “ordinary language” means we need to find another term.

              • Al West
                Posted June 29, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink

                I’m sure you have sorted out your metaphysical position; that’s precisely why it is not prudent to keep on faffing about with words that can’t possibly express it concisely or meaningfully except in an echo chamber. Everyone keeps on trying to define the word ‘atheist’ in an absolute way so as to include people who would be reluctant to use it or so as to promote a particular position. But that is silly.

                if you capitulate you have to keep coming up with yet another term, ad infinitum.

                It is not capitulating to refuse to use a term like ‘atheist’ as a term of identity. It is not a question of identity as to whether there is or is not a god – it is a question of belief and metaphysics (‘philosophy’ is vaguer than metaphysics, but either is fine, I suppose – it’s like asking, ‘why use the word “biology” when you can use “science”?’). I choose to try to outline my position when confronted, and to state that it could certainly be considered an atheistic position, rather than saying that I am an atheist first and trying to correct misconceptions later. If someone would rather apply an ambiguous word to me than listen to my actual position, then I don’t want to talk to them in the first place. The only reason to do so is for political purposes, and that isn’t what reason is about, as such. We should only compromise on this to the extent that it is genuinely useful.

                I’m sorry if you feel insulted, in any case.

          • Al West
            Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

            To be even clearer, you should not say, “I am an x, ergo I believe that p.”

            You should say, “I believe that p. Most people call this x.”

            The concept, the argument, the metaphysics, the belief – these should come first. Naming comes later, and political movements designed to take action on behalf of the believers that p should come later still, once the believers that p have agreed on what it is that they believe, not what they have decided to call themselves.

            And I do not believe that a coherent metaphysical position can be summed up in one sentence, and certainly not one word.

            • Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

              Nicely put.

              While agreeing with you, I also agree with Reiux’s criticism. In ordinary language (whatever that is) there are multiple clusters of meanings. I, for one, always understood “atheist” in the “weaker” sense, long before I self-identified as one. Both “weaker” and “stronger” meanings have many adherents. I have no idea — and I doubt anyone else has — which is the more common across all anglophones.

              /@

              • Al West
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordinary_language_philosophy

                That is what is meant. Again, to paraphrase Austin, to use a sharpened awareness of words to sharpen our awareness of, but not as a final arbiter of, the phenomenon.

                In ordinary language, it doesn’t matter which meaning is considered focal, actually, and I regret putting it into my argument that the idea of denial was central in ordinary language – it would be hard to prove that. Nonetheless, that is certainly one view, one among many, and one which has a great deal of currency among religionists and theists. You may say that their views are irrelevant, but of course they aren’t. The point of defining the term ‘atheism’ would be to make it clearer and better for the purposes of debate, argument, and public exposure, and competing definitions cannot be ignored when they have common currency among at least one relevant speech community.

                Again, ‘atheists’ don’t have dominion over the word. I’m not accommodating religious viewpoints here. I’m just saying that, for fuck’s sake, the actual position that you hold is much more important than the word by which you refer to it, especially when that word is inherently polysemous and downright contentious.

                I’m amazed by the ignorance of philosophy of language here. Really amazed.

              • Posted June 29, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

                Thanks for clarifying what you meant by “ordinary language” – yes, I am ignorant of the philosophy of language, at least in any formal way, but I’m surprised that that would amaze you.

                I did agree with you, anyway, apart from that focus.

                I think the “deny” definition has greater currency among theists and religionists – and that’s certainly not irrelevant! – because it suits their worldview: Not to believe in God is to deny a Truth. I doubt that many see a significant distinction between the “weak” and “strong” definitions (just as few outside Benelux see a difference between Dutch and Flemish).

                /@

              • Al West
                Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                I’m a little surprised, nonetheless. In terms of reason, logic, argument, and avoidance of error, the work of ordinary language philosophers is quite important, and should be a strong element of any effort to advance reason. This kind of linguistic philosophy has been extremely influential. It was a largely British thing, it seems, centered on Oxford, and Gilbert Ryle and J.L Austin in particular. It hasn’t gone away, despite a wane in popularity as a result of Ernest Gellner’s misguided polemic, “Words and Things”. Although philosophers (and, it seems, gnus) would like an ideal language (how much easier it would make things!), we can’t have one, and our starting point, at the very least, has to be ordinary language, with all of its problems of polysemy, family resemblance, fuzzy edges, and so on. Ordinary language work is still around today, certainly: Dennett studied under Ryle, John Searle studied under Austin, both at Oxford, and even though they are seldom explicitly considered as ordinary language philosophers, that tradition inspires a great deal of their work. I think it’s indispensable for anyone looking for the most reasonable approach to any issue.

              • Posted June 29, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                Well, there are a lot of things I am ignorant of. Despite pursuing physics to doctoral level, I never had any grounding in philosophy of science, critical thinking or even formal logic – my only exposure to that had been in an “O”-level General Studies paper (typified by “Socrates is a carrot” – that will resonate with most people who sat the exam).

                25 years on I’m trying to rectify that through reading. And I have read a little of Wittgenstein, so some of the ideas in “common language philosophy” seem kind of familiar.

                But your point seems very commonsensical to me (whether it’s grounded in philosophy or not). In my professional life – working for the leading (no, really!) IT research and advisory firm – I come across what you call polysemous terms and I call overloaded terms a lot. Writing research reports, I often need to carefully define the sense I’m using. Sometimes the meanings are general and specific (like atheist, where “weak” atheist is a superset of “strong” atheist); sometimes they’re quite distinct, but still within the same context, which ambiguity can often lead to costly errors! (Of course, this isn’t restricted to technical terms – just look at the British v. US meanings of the verb “to table”, which, since I work in the UK for an US-based firm, often causes confusion.)

                But… well, I have yet another area for reading and self-study.

                /@

            • Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

              *Rieux (sorry!)

            • Kharamatha
              Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

              I like you, Al West.

    • Rieux, JS-OAFGAI
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Thus, an atheist is somebody who’s without said position.

      Precisely. This is an overwhelmingly common conception of what “atheism” means among atheists, and I am continually befuddled that so many prominent atheists—such as, for example, Richard Dawkins—appear entirely unaware of that. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods, not (solely) a belief that there are no gods.

      I wrote a Daily Kos diary explaining this (at considerable length) last summer.

      One point made in that diary is that atheists (and some others) have conceptualized atheism as a lack of belief for centuries:

      All children are atheists — they have no idea of God.

      – Baron d’Holbach, Good Sense (1772)

      ATHEIST, in the strict and proper sense of the word, is one who does not believe in the existence of a god, or who owns no being superior to nature. It is compounded of the two terms … signifying without God.

      – Christian theologian Richard Watson, A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1831)

      [N]o position is more continuously misrepresented [than atheism.] Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God.

      – Charles Bradlaugh, The Freethinker’s Text-Book (1876)

      The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one. I know nothing about God and therefore I do not believe in Him or it. What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny ‘God,’ which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.

      – Annie Besant, The Gospel of Atheism (1877)

      [T]he Oracle [of Reason, a mid-Nineteenth Century freethought periodical], pursued a logical course of confuting theism, and leaving “a-theism” the negative result. It did not, in the absurd terms of common religious propaganda, “deny the existence of God.” It affirmed that God was a term for an existence imagined by man in terms of his own personality and irreducible to any tenable definition. It did not even affirm that “there are no Gods”; it insisted that the onus of proof as to any God lay with the theist, who could give none compatible with his definitions.

      – J. M. Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (1929)

      [The “negative atheism” of Richard Carlile, Robert Cooper, George Jacob Holyoake, Oracle of Reason publisher Charles Southwell, and other Nineteenth Century atheists] did not prove that there was no God…. On the contrary, Southwell was typical in placing the onus probandi on those who affirmed the existence of God and Holyoake regarded himself as an atheist only in his inability to believe what the churches would have him believe. They were content to show that the Christian concept of the supernatural was meaningless, that the arguments in its favor were illogical, and that the mysteries of the universe, insofar as they were explicable, could be accounted for in material terms.

      –  Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels (1974)

      [R]efer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God. … Etymologically, as well as philosophically, an ATheist is one without God. That is all the ‘A’ before ‘Theist’ really means.

      – G. W. Foote, What Is Agnosticism (1902)

      The atheist is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God. What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds…. [E]very man is an atheist who does not believe that there is a God, although his want of belief may not be rested on any allegation of positive knowledge that there is no God, but simply on one of want of knowledge that there is a God. … The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less.

      – Christian theologian Robert Flint, Agnosticism (1903)

      If one believes in a god, then one is a Theist. If one does not believe in a god, then one is an A-theist — he is without that belief. The distinction between atheism and theism is entirely, exclusively, that of whether one has or has not a belief in God.

      – Chapman Cohen, Primitive Survivals in Modern Thought (1935)

      Atheism – The absence of theistic belief.

      – Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia (1950)

      (Cites and further information here, here, and here.)

      This isn’t “redefinition”; it’s an attempt to correct a misconception that an unfortunately large number of people have about what atheism is. (The Oxford definition Jerry quotes is correct, because “disbelief” means a lack of belief. That word just happens to confuse people.)

      And the issue is not, as Al West has sneered on this thread, a “moronic” focus on “an argument from etymology”; it is an argument from how large numbers of atheists conceptualize atheism. Etymology is one reason for understanding atheism to be a lack of belief rather than (solely) belief in a lack, but it’s not the only reason.

      • Al West
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        Your view that historical usage should determine our present definition is based on another logical fallacy, argument from precedence. By that standard, we should redefine ‘pretty’ to mean ‘cunning’ or ‘crafty’, which it meant in Old English. If you were to be consistent, you must accept this, but of course, you would not, and with the good reason that that isn’t what it means now to most people – ie, in contemporary, ordinary, language. The same is the case with atheism.

        I think it is better to agree with Wittgenstein that, to paraphrase, what is and what is not referred to as a ‘cow’ is up to the people to decide. What matters here is that the word ‘atheism’ is polysemous. I don’t doubt that it has historically meant a lack of belief in deities, and that for a large number of people, it means that. For other people, as we know, it means a denial of the existence of deities. For others, as the with redefinition above, it means something again, a view that deities are not explanatory. These definitions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do certainly show that the word ‘atheism’ has no trivial, monothetic, ordinary language meaning. It’s a contentious word, and your claim that you are ‘correcting’ people instead of offering a meaning in competition with other ordinary language meanings is predicated on a logical fallacy, that of precedence.

        And my point is that it doesn’t matter what goddamn word you use. What matters is the position itself. ‘Atheism’ is just a collection of syllables. It should ideally be clearly representative of a metaphysical position, but, of course, it isn’t, or else we wouldn’t have to go through all of this redefinition nonsense every so often. Let the word go if it is a hindrance, which it evidently is. Use it as a convenient placeholder and define it rigorously when you use it, but don’t expect everyone to go along with it or for it to acquire a magical character, capable of expressing your (doubtless complex) metaphysics in seven letters.

        And, given all of that, to focus on the word (it’s just a fucking word!), to focus on endless debates about redefining it or defining it in historical terms – that is indeed moronic. All you will do is end up eating your own tail, not progressing in any way with metaphysics or the public advancement of reason.

      • Al West
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        I’d also like to point out that the idea of atheists defining atheism is circular. How can atheists define atheism if there is no definition of atheism by which to say who is and who is not an atheist? Or do you just leave it to self-identification, and go with an argumentum ad populum when it comes to deciding upon a definition within the ‘atheist’ in-group among competing meanings?

        See? This is what happens when words become the focus. They become confusing. And we all become dumber.

        • Mesenchymal
          Posted June 29, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

          How is it that you think self-identified atheists defining atheism is an invalid argumentum ad populum, but common, popular usage isn’t?

          • Al West
            Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

            I’m not arguing in favour of the acceptance of any particular definition of the word over any others. If you want to argue for imposing a particular definition such that it becomes the definition in every instance of the use of the term, then you need to justify it, and if you don’t, you don’t. I’m arguing that the words are relatively unimportant, and that we should use words so as to make the most sense and best convey our arguments, not so as to promote any particular concept covered under the umbrella term of ‘atheism’. I’m saying that our use of terminology should be so as to make the most sense in speech, and we have to accept that there are a variety of definitions of atheism, some less formal than others. The word isn’t important – if it causes confusion, and it does, then it is much easier to simply explain yourself and your actual position than to try to convince someone hostile to atheist positions to adopt an atheist-friendly definition of atheism.

            So an argumentum ad populum is obviously how ordinary language philosophy kind of works, but that is so as to eliminate, or at least reduce, ambiguities, not to promote or settle on particular definitions of words that aren’t the prevalent one.

            It’s strange – we’re all quite used to the idea of the No True Scotsman, but applying effectively the same thing to ourselves seems to be an uphill struggle, and it needn’t be.

            • Posted July 11, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

              That’s a lot of words to explain the unimportance of words. I think you should post an interpretive dance to illustrate your point properly! 🙂

          • Posted June 29, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

            Atheists aren’t the whole populus!

            /@

      • Teapot
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:39 am | Permalink

        Is there some arguing at cross-purposes here? I agree entirely with Al West that the important thing is the position, not the label. However, my reading of the thread, and the responses by Rieux et al, was that people are not trying to pin down “the” definition of “atheist” which all must use on pain of death, but to come up with “a” sensible definition which can be used when conversation gets to the “Are you an atheist?”, “In what sense?” stage.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I agree 100%. The simple standard definitions are the best way to go. The thing I like about the so-called “Weak Atheist” definition is that it divides people neatly and without remainder into theists and atheists. If you’re not a theist, then you’re an atheist. What could be simpler than that?

      Why this comes up over and over again, I don’t understand.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      I read ‘catherders’ thrice before I realized it was cat-herders!
      duh!

      • swences
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        haha, me too! I even googled for a definition thinking this might be a cool new word, but nothing came up except for a suggestion that perhaps I meant “catheter”. I then thought that was an odd way to open a comment, “Ah, I see the CATHETERS are out in full force this morning”….???

        Eventually I came to the conclusion that he probably meant cat-herders. This took a good 5 minutes of investigation and deliberation, and only until I was satisfied with a conclusion did I proceed to read the rest of Ben’s comment.

        • Dominic
          Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          From the above fisticuffs perhaps catheters would be appropriate! Or would that be taking the piss?
          🙂

  4. Dan Gaston
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    How about people stop thinking of them as mutually exclusive binary labels and relying on only the OED as the definitive source for their definition.

    The terms have both garnered plenty of baggage but talk about two totally different things. One refers to belief (theism/atheism) the other knowledge (agnostic/gnostic). One can be an Agnostic Atheist (I suspect most atheists are of this variety), an Agnostic Theist, etc. Agnosticism can further be differentiated into hard and soft: unknowable versus just lack of knowledge.

    It’s not that difficult of a concept.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Let’s try to apply this system to Santa. Do you not-believe in Santa (a-Santaist) or do you not-know Santa? Are you an agnostic a-Santaist (ie. have no knowledge about the existence about Santa but do not believe in Santa) or an agnostic Santaist (ie. have no knowledge about the existence about Santa but believe in Santa)? Are you softly agnostic about Santa (ie. hold the position that Santa is unknowable) or hardly agnostic about Santa (ie. hold the position that we lack data about Santa)?

      The problem about this scheme is that it is contrived. We don’t use this two-dimenional classification system on anything else. It is useless (and disingenuous) because the sole purpose of its construction is to frame the process of understanding in terms of belief and knowledge, while the real issue is evidence and conclusion. An atheist is someone who comes to the conclusion that there is no god, given the evidence available. An atheist *knows* that there is no god in the same sense that he or she *knows* that there is no fairy or dragon – because of the lack of evidence.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Hear, hear.

        May I suggest to the collective?

        Stop differentiating between gods and everything else that gods “bump” in the night. Just stop.

        Unless, of course, you can offer a reason why gods are different from the faeries at the foot of the garden.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          I see what you’re driving at, Ben, but I think that there is a difference — a huge psychological, social and cultural difference. Farrows never had the same degree of explanatory power as gods or gave people such “meaning” to their lives. We have no “féologists” with sophistical explanations of why there are faeries at the foot of the garden even though we never see a shred of evidence for them. And it’s all that baggage associated with gods that leads to the (a)theism x (a)gnosticism

          • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

            *Farrows = Faeries

            (stupid iPad autocorrect!)

            • Dominic
              Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              Surprising Jobs has not sold iTypex for them!

          • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

            Actually, I think you’ll find that the various supernatural beasties everybody dismisses today not so long ago served the exact same porpoises as Jesus and the angels and the saints and what-not do today. They’ve just fallen out of flavor, is all, the same way as the Olympians have.

            I mean, nobody would actually seriously believe that thunder was the result of Thor tossing Mjölnir around, would they? That’s just silly.

            Except they did.

            And they thought that it was the faeries that caused bad luck, so you better not say anything rude about them, and be sure to make sacrifices to them (modest ones, to be sure, like a bowl of milk) to keep them from running amok.

            The difference between today’s gods and silly superstitions is that people still believe in today’s gods the same way they used to believe in silly superstitions. That’s it.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Kharamatha
              Posted June 29, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

              I tend to agree. They’re all the same to me. The gnomes are listening. God is listening. There was no obvious difference in my childhood. Not just to me, but neither was a supposed difference ever presented.

              At most, some christophiliac might try to say that the other magical critters are yucky.

            • Posted June 29, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              Well, yes, but I thought I’d preempted the thrust of that response … “the same degree of explanatory power … such ‘meaning’”.

              Yes, all are “supernatural beasties”, but there is a real difference in degree, reinforced by culture and society, and that’s why belief is more persistant and the conversation about belief and knowledge is different.

              Rather like the difference in degree between lentiviruses and rhinoviruses: Even though they are all “just” viruses, one kind in more virulent than the other.

              /@

              PS. I wonder how far Ásatrú literally believe in the Norse gods. However silly it is, maybe some still do believe that thunder is the result of Thor tossing Mjölnir around. (It’s no more silly than some of the things that, say, Creationists believe.)

              • Kharamatha
                Posted June 30, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

                I know a selfdescribed asa-follower. (None of this “Ásatrú” fancy-schmanciness, though. He’s an actual swede.)

                He, at least, is quite pro-science.

              • Posted June 30, 2011 at 2:04 am | Permalink

                So are many Christians!

                /@

              • Kharamatha
                Posted July 1, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink

                Indeed.

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          (cont.) classification.

          hhyu is right; what matters is evidence and conclusion. But that’s relatively new (or gnu?) to the debate, and our terminology hasn’t caught up yet.

          /@

          PS. As an sf fan, such arguments about definitions and re-definitions are horribly familiar.

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

          Agreed, with the one caveat that agnosticism is often the first step recovering goddists take on the way to atheism, and as such, we need to recognize that it’s a hard step/path for them, and welcome them, not argue definitions.

          Note that that’s only a subset of agnostics. Those in love with their semantics and with (un)holier-than-thou airs deserve to have their sematicism returned in kind.

  5. Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I was just thinking yesterday of the charge that some of us “strident” atheists will rudely tell agnostics that they are really atheists. I think there is something to that charge — people have the right to self-identify all they want — but I think there is also value in pointing out to someone that their views on the topic are functionally equivalent to what most people mean when they say “atheist”. But care must be taken; if people feel like they are being railroaded, they will push back. The message should be, “I respect that you wish to call yourself an agnostic, but I feel I need to point out that I think the same thing as you, and I call myself an atheist — and so would many other people.”

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Well, this discussion usually doesn’t start with atheists being rude to agnostics, in my personal (possibly biased) experience. It tends to start with agnostics accusing atheists of being dogmatic, and proclaiming the superiority of their non-committed position.

      In return, I tend to point out that they may call themselves agnostics, but that in practice, they’ve probably already chosen to either live as if God exists, or as if he doesn’t.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        Which god?

        And, if the god’s name is, “God,” then which of the seventeen brazilian gods with that name in particular?

        Cheers,

        b&

  6. Posted June 28, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    I kinda like the new definition, but I don’t think it’s going to replace the current meaning. Atheists haven’t even been able to keep “one who denies the existence of God” from being the primary meaning in the dictionary, even though very few atheists agree with this characterization of their position (however, many Christians and some agnostics just love using this definition to accuse atheists of being dogmatic).

    I wonder if we shouldn’t try and come up with a whole new word to match the new description?

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Laplacian?

      /@

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      No. That’d probably be about as successful as Esperanto.

  7. Coel
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    “For “atheist,” “denying” God is not necessarily identical to “disbelieving” in God. The former is absolute certainty, the latter allows for some hedging, …”

    Sorry, no. OED “deny”: “refuse to admit the truth or existence of”. Thus “denying” the existence of God is simply withholding assent from the claim “God exists”, it is not an assertion of non-existence, nor a claim to certainty.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      The first definition is every dictionary I’ve seen is “to declare untrue” (M-W). I can declare something untrue without absolute certainty though. There are very few things that I am absolutely certain about, but I deny things all the time. There is ambiguity in the word between not-claiming and claiming-not, but that’s common to everything with negation. “Disbelieve” can either mean believe-not or not-believe. That’s why I wish he had originally defined Atheism in terms of claims and beliefs rather than denials and disbeliefs.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        Yep, this can get recursive very quickly.

        /@

    • Myron
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      No, denial is stronger than rejection. To deny that p is to affirm/assert that not-p.

      • Coel
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        “No, denial is stronger than rejection. To deny that p is to affirm/assert that not-p.”

        Not according to the OED: “Deny” = “refuse to admit the truth of existence of”.

  8. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Why does denying require absolute certainty? Denying is to claiming as believing is to disbelieving. I don’t need absolute certainty to claim something, so why would I need it for denying something? This could have been clearer if he had just said “atheist: one who claims or believes that there are no gods.”

    That said, I think his solution is stupid. “isms” should have something to what you believe, not with concept-unnecessary-finding. In fact, I find the concept of gods very explanatory, in that I couldn’t explain what atheism is to anyone without it. What I think he meant to say is that “Atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory entity.” That’s somewhat better, but it still lacks the connection to belief.

    • Kevin
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      The problem with the word “deny” is that there is a presupposition embedded in there.

      Theists often claim that atheists “deny” god in order that atheists might then “sin” (another useless concept if ever there was one). But inherent in the word “deny” is the concept that the atheist “really” knows there is a god after all, but “denies” it for selfish reasons.

      It’s about as loaded a four-letter word as you can get.

      • Coel
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        “But inherent in the word “deny” is the concept that the atheist “really” knows there is a god after all, but “denies” it for selfish reasons.”

        That is not inherent in the word “deny” (though it is in the phrase “in denial”).

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          No, I agree with Kevin: “deny” can carry that idea, and in the minds of fundies on teh internets invariably does.

          /@

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        If you don’t like “deny”, it’s possible to get by with just “claim” or “believe”. “Strong atheism” is usually defined that way as “one who claims or believes that there are no gods.” I tend to think that weak atheism is the way to go. A weak atheist is “one who does not believe there are gods.” Sometimes these are called “Positive and Negative Atheism” instead. These definitions are dead-simple. So, I fail to understand why these definitional arguments go on-and-on.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory hypothesis.

      See? Laplace got there some time ago.

      /@

  9. MadScientist
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Why are people so hung up on the definitions? No matter how anyone defines atheist or agnostic, there must be some people out there who would disagree. Fretting over some precise definition or other is a futile exercise.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Because once you apply any label to yourself (and labels are useful), people are going to use its definition to ascribe certain positions to you. To avoid confusion (and straw manning), it is important to make it clear which definition you – the user of the label – favor for yourself.

  10. Becca Stareyes
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I actually use both, an old habit picked up from college*. Atheist because I don’t believe in God; agnostic because I don’t think you can prove the non-existence of something as poorly defined as ‘god’. The whole thing frustrates me, since I’ve met people with similar thoughts, but using different words to describe themselves. (I want a universal classification system so we all agree on a meaning for ‘what is an atheist’.)

    * When I am not using Secular Humanist. I like that one better, mostly because I think it is a lot more descriptive of what I actually believe, rather than a statement of what I don’t believe. I mean, trips to the blogosphere aside, I don’t put much thought into gods, while I do think a fair bit on ethics and humanity.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted June 30, 2011 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      Gods can be either well defined or poorly defined. There are examples of both. For that reason, I may describe my positions as gnostic or agnostic, but I don’t presume to be “an Agnostic” or “a Gnostic”.

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

        For instance of exquisitely well-defined (and currently existent) Gods:
        1) Prince Phillip (Duke of Edinborough)
        2) The Sun
        3) The Nipponese Emperor

        • Kharamatha
          Posted July 1, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

          Oh, is the current Emperor divine again? I seem to remember a previous Emperor (pretty sure it was Hirohito, Mr. Shōwa) relinquishing godhood.

  11. Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I only looked up the dictionary definition this morning. I REALLY object to the word “deny” as it implies it is something true that is not being accepted.

    I prefer “rejects claims for all gods”

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      But “reject” is active!
      What about those who have never been exposed to the toxic inculcation of faith?
      They, by your definition, are not a-theist!
      I think that I may have spotted a minor flaw in your definition.
      What say you?

  12. Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    The idea of redefining “atheist” presupposes that words get their meaning via definition, rather than via cultural practice.

    • StrangerTides
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Exactly. You can redefine however you want but be prepared to explain your version of the definition every time the term is used. Which is what we have to do now anyway.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Are we not part of culture? Redefinitions work on occasion. Look at how the right wing movement in the U.S improved the connotation of “conservative” and turned “liberal” into an epithet.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I think Singham’s re-definition of “atheist” (with maybe one of the changes suggested above) is actually a pretty good (partial) definition of “gnu atheist”. (The other part would relate to the view that religion not have any special privilege in society.)

      I doubt that many atheists — esp. apatheists — really think about their worldview in this way.

      /@

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      The “redefinition” of “gay” has achieved a mountain of god.

  13. Aratina Cage
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Denying something also carries the connotation that you are not recognizing that thing in face of a wealth of evidence that the thing is actually real. It can be a sort of willful ignorance, which is why I think it should never be used in a definition of atheism.

    The new definition I like; it leads to a rhetorical device I have often used where the atheist invites the theist or agnostic to point out where in nature or science God is necessary.

  14. Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    gnostic theist = believes in a theist god and has knowledge of what it wants

    agnostic theist = believes in a theist god but has no knowledge of what it wants

    deist = as above but the god does not intervene in human affairs and thus its wishes cannot be known so by default is always “agnostic”

    atheist = rejects claims for all gods and thus is always agnostic

    antitheist = an atheist that positively claims there are no gods

    That’s how I understand them.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      “Antitheist” sounds too much like it’s the theists you’re against.

      I much prefer “antitheismist” in such contexts.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Kevin
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        Wow. Say that three times fast.

        Antitheismist…antitheismist…antitheismist.

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          Yeah…well…to be honest, I can’t recall the last time I had to use it more than once in a conversation.

          The normal course of events is that a theist accuses me or somebody else of being an antitheist, implying that we’re but one step away from going all Hitler on the religious. I’ll mention that I prefer “antitheismist” instead and why…by which time said (typically Catholic) theist is hip-deep in blaming atheism for the Inquisition, which really wasn’t all that bad anyway, don’t’cha’know?

          Cheers,

          b&

      • Myron
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        In philosophy, the prefix “anti-” is often used in a purely theoretical sense without any practical, i.e. ethical or political, connotations, e.g. realism vs. antirealism.
        In societal life, an antitheist may be quite tolerant towards theists, even though he doesn’t accept their ideology, i.e. theism.

        I prefer the words “atheism” and “antitheism” to the phrases “negative atheism” and “positive atheism”.

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          I know that. You know that. Even the theists misusing the term to score cheap rhetorical points know that.

          It doesn’t stop them from doing it, though.

          Cheers,

          b&

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:48 am | Permalink

        I much prefer “antitheismist” in such contexts

        “antitheismist”?
        Is that even a word?
        What the intercourse does it mean?
        Everyone else seems to pretend that they immediately grasp its meaning, but I need assistance, please.

        • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

          Well, of course it’s a word.

          (Whaddyamean it’s not in your dictionary? Didn’t you get the updates I sent out last week?)

          Anyway:

          anti: against
          theism: the position that our universe has been invaded by gods
          ist: person who holds the position described by the first part of the word

          So an antitheismist is a person who’s against the position that our universe has been invaded by gods.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

            Thanks for the executive summary.

            My computer in my lair has recorded that definition for posterity, may, I repeat may employ it against you at a later stage.

            And no, I have not received updates from the EAC dicktionary for daze now.
            (It might be because my EAC dues are very slightly in arrears)

            • Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              Hmpf! “Slightly”?

              Dude, don’t try to kid us. You ain’t paid your dues since the Nixon administration. You’re just lucky the records office burned down (in questionable circumstances, I might add) and took your address with it, or else the black helicopters (which don’t exist, of course) would have paid you a visit a looooooooong time ago.

              b&

              • Posted July 1, 2011 at 5:06 am | Permalink

                Ah! So you are the “Mavis from accounts”, eh?!
                How do those negatives of you look on the big-screen?
                And don’t dis’ the Milhouse years.
                The sanest Republican counting backward from today.

              • Posted July 1, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

                Sorry, no, not Mavis. We did do lunch the other day….

                And don’t dis’ the Milhouse years.
                The sanest Republican counting backward from today

                Sadly, not only is that true…well, the guy was waaaaaay too liberal for today’s Democratic party. Blows my mind.

                b&

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      I think most people would interpret “anti-theist” as “actively opposes theism” (or theists, if one wants to be uncharitable, as Ben Goren pointed out). This in contrast to atheists who see no need to reduce the influence of theism in society.

      What you describe here I think is more commonly referred to as an “explicit atheist”.

      • Myron
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        I think it’s time to (re-)interpret and use “antitheism” and “antitheist” in a purely theoretical sense. In the context of atheism, single words are preferable to phrases (“positive atheism”).

        “Positive atheism” is not synonymous with “explicit atheism”. Explicit atheists are atheists who consciously, deliberately reject the belief in the existence of God/gods. But rejection is weaker than negation, so explicit atheists needn’t be positive atheists. Agnostic and skeptical atheists are explicit atheists but no positive atheists.

    • Aqua Buddha
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      I thought antitheist referred to someone who finds the very idea of a paternal skyfather degrading, apart from the question of God’s existence. One example is Russian anarchist (and atheist) Mikhail Bakunin who said: “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.” This would contrast with someone who doesn’t believe in God, but nonetheless would think it swell if God really did exist.

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

        Again, the singular case.
        This does a dis-service to those truly atheist amongst us by automatically assuming the existence of just one Deity, rather than assuming the non-existence of the panoply of deities that have been concocted by man!

        Your rhetorical style serves to enforce the entrenched Western notion of monotheism, and thereby undermines our goal.
        Please cease doing this.

  15. Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Having sorted out the niceties of atheism, the question then arises: what’s your positive worldview? Religions are worldviews, with more or less definite positions on how we know, what exists, human nature, ethics, existential concerns, and practical advice for living in the world. Atheism, for instance the claim that God is an unnecessary explanatory concept, doesn’t present itself as a positive alternative to supernatural religion.

    Of course not everyone is in the market for a worldview, and atheists, skeptics and champions of reason (e.g., Sam Harris) are often reluctant to ally themselves with any positive “ism”. But if you are in the market, one alternative on offer is worldview naturalism, which includes atheism as a corollary.

    Slides from a recent talk at ReasonFest at U. of Kansas in Lawrence cover the basic questions involved in building a worldview, how naturalism answers them, and the practical, ethical, and existential implications of naturalism, http://www.naturalism.org/Clark%20ReasonFest%20Implications%20of%20Naturalism.pdf

    As to whether there could conceivably be evidence for a god, I’m with Jerry on this, http://www.naturalism.org/Close_encounters.htm

    • Kevin
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I think I strike a middle ground between PZ and Jerry on the evidence question.

      I think there could have been godly evidence, but since there isn’t any at present, there never will be.

      Any god that wants to reveal itself to the world could do so trivially and in a manner that none would disagree. If that’s true, then such a god would have wanted everyone in past times to agree that it exists. Therefore, to suppose that such a god is waiting to reveal itself is just pure nonsense.

      Of course, one needs to agree on the attributes of the god in question in order to decide what evidence would be both necessary and sufficient to prove its existence. Karen Armstrong’s god-who-does-nothing-but-allowed-evolution-to-happen-so-that-we-can-know-the-god-who-does-nothing has very different attributes from Ken Ham’s god who poofed everything into existence with magic words in 6 days, and then tried to drown everyone and everything in a fit of pique and who is totally against ‘teh gey’.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      Oh, that’s a good presentation, Tom.

      It clarified a few things for me.

      If I had to nitpick, I’d say you should put the six worldview questions on one slide. (Don’t worry about not filling every slide!) 😉

      /@

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      I had a look at your website a few days ago and really liked it. Naturalism is a term I’m happy to use (and, BTW, the ‘ism’ behind the Brights–“those with a naturalistic world view”).

      I tend to go with secular humanism, first, but probably only because I have a longer history of with the term, having been a CODESH (now CFI) member long before there was an internet. The American Humanist Association, of course, drops the “secular,” which is also fine with me; but there is a tradition of religious humanism that does create a problem of confusion.

      I like “freethinker” best as a label; it also has a long history, and as I’m not much of a joiner, or very fond of philosphy (though I think a personal philosphy is vital), it seems personally most compatible.

      I do think that people like PZ are trying to claim too much by insisting that atheism, itself, conveys anything about a worldview; in particular, that it implies rationality. It would be nice, and it is true of most of the atheists I correspond with, but as I’ve said many times, there are also plenty of atheist whackos.

  16. NoAstronomer
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    I certainly don’t think the use of the word ‘denies’ is useful in the definition of an atheist. To deny the existence of a god could also mean that a person knows, or has reason to believe, that a god exists but refuses to acknowledge it.

    For example : many accused criminals DENY their guilt.

    This is a label often applied to atheists.

    On the other hand I don’t think Singham’s solution is useful either.

    I’m an atheist because I’ve looked at the evidence, or lack thereof, and I’ve concluded that there is no such entity as god. It has nothing to do with whether god is necessary or not. Neither does his definition really address the issue of agnostics. You can’t eliminate a word from usage just be defining another word.

    People will still count themselves as agnostic no matter how you define atheist.

    Mike.

  17. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    1. Negative atheists are people who don’t believe in the existence of God/gods.
    2. Positive atheists (antitheists) are people who believe in the nonexistence of God/gods.
    3. Doxastic agnostics (neutral atheists) are people who neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of God/gods (suspension of belief).
    4. Epistemic agnostics are people who believe that it is not known or unknowable whether God exists/gods exist.

    Epistemic agnosticism is compatible both with theism and with antitheism. “Agnosticism” is very often used to mean “doxastic agnosticism”, and in this sense it is synonymous with “neutral atheism”. Most doxastic agnostics/neutral atheists are ones because they are epistemic agnostics and uphold the normative principle that one shouldn’t believe what one doesn’t or cannot know.

  18. Curt Cameron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I’d be curious about how Singham proposes that we change the definition (I don’t have access to the article in question). You can’t change a word by changing dictionaries – as we all know, dictionaries just report what people mean when they use a word.

    And if you describe what people who call themselves “atheists” mean by it, Sam Harris said it best: an atheist is a person who has evaluated the god-claims of various religions, and found them all utterly unconvincing.

  19. Finbarr
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Well, I think the very word ‘atheist’ shouldn’t have to exist, as we don’t have words like ‘afairyist’ or ‘aunicornist’, but it does and we’re stuck with it. Like it or not, it’s a term applied to us by the religious, to immediately shift the debate to their home turf, the existence of gods. ‘Naturalist’ would be a more fitting term, but people tend to misunderstand that as being a biologist or even a naturist!

    As it is, I think we should stop being hung up on definitions, let those who don’t want to adopt the atheist label call themselves what they want. Surely agreement on important issues like science, education, church/state separation etc. is more important than all adopting the same label? For us who are happy to call ourselves atheists, let’s recognise that for many people that will always have a negative connotation, and work to show through our actions that their definitions and prejudices are wrong.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      “‘Naturalist’ would be a more fitting term, but people tend to misunderstand that as being a biologist or even a naturist!”

      Just introduce yourself as a worldview naturalist, or naturalist as opposed to supernaturalist, and people get the picture immediately.

      • Myron
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        It really shouldn’t be too complicated to teach people that philosophical naturalism has nothing to do with nudism. (Of course, a naturalist may also be a nudist.)

      • Finbarr
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        I still think I might get blank looks from people if I used the phrase ‘worldview naturalist’ but then I suppose it might start a conversation, which is better than having them just automatically assign the role of ‘immoral and dangerous’ when I say I’m an atheist. Nice website by the way!

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

          Thanks, and good luck with naturalist!

  20. Al West
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    This is a case of taking a word and fitting it to a concept rather than taking a concept and putting a word to it. All that this will do is confuse and annoy. It is naive. We cannot create an ideal language, and must use ordinary language, using a sharpened awareness of it to sharpen our awareness of phenomena. In ordinary language, ‘atheist’ does not refer to the above definition, and changing its meaning to that ideal one would make it either a strange term of art for atheist in-groups or a method of confusing, well, everyone.

    If you wish to use the word in this way, feel free. There is no law requiring you to follow the dictates of ordinary language use. But for the sake of sense and reason, please try to put the concept before the word and the horse before the cart, and do not use existing, contentious terms and give them specific terms that arbitrarily broaden their meaning.

    Far more important than defining words like ‘atheist’ is the attempt to produce a set of metaphysical views that better reflect the universe in which we live and its properties. Your metaphysical position should come before your group identity or the political uses of terminology.

    Subsuming different views under the same term when they can be usefully and meaningfully separated and referred to by different and clear terms is simply not a good idea.

    Having said that, the position itself is good. ‘God’ is, after all, not a useful explanatory concept.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      “…more important than defining words like ‘atheist’ is the attempt to produce a set of metaphysical views that better reflect the universe in which we live and its properties.”

      Agreed, see #15

      • Al West
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        Actually, I’m not sure how far we agree. I’m not really talking about a positive worldview instead of a rejection of another’s worldview, as I believe is the point of your comment. What I mean is that words are a hindrance to rather than the subject of metaphysics. My position with regard to deities is much more complicated than can be summed up by a convenient handle, as I’m sure the position of any independently-thinking person is, and defining ‘atheist’ is less useful than deciding what your position is with regard to deities and then describing it in the greatest detail before applying to it a name. I am a naturalist, and an atheist, according to ordinary language use and definition, but neither of these rather vague ideas exhausts my metaphysical positions (how could they?). They are used primarily as politicised placeholders, and it is this use of terms of convenience as the point of contention in metaphysical debates that is the real danger of formalising any kind of ‘atheist movement’.

  21. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    “For ‘atheist,’ ‘denying’ God is not necessarily identical to ‘disbelieving’ in God. The former is absolute certainty, the latter allows for some hedging…” (J. Coyne)

    I beg to differ. To deny that p is to declare p to be false, and I don’t think the denier needs to be absolutely certain about p’s falsity. Nevertheless, of course, her/his degree of (subjective) certainty should be very high, say, >0.9.

  22. Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Laplace essentially say this already?

    Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”)

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

      As Ant Allan has already pointed out a few times upthread. 🙂

      And really, what more need be said?

      • Posted June 29, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Upthread, but — to be fair — later. (Although before I’d read Steve’s comment.)

        /@

  23. Neil
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    I call myself an atheist when god is defined specifically and contrary to reason and science, such as in the bible, and an agnostic when god is defined as some unknowable cosmic mystery, as Einstein used the term.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      Which is how any “polysemous” (thanks, West!) word should be used. In context.

  24. Corda
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Does anyone actually know a deist? The label seems a bit old-fashioned. There is little difference between deism and atheism apart from social fashions, and deism seems out of fashion.

    • Tulse
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Deism is indeed a red herring. Even if one believes deism to be true, it certainly isn’t a “religion” in any usual sense of the word, as there would be no point in worshipping a god that doesn’t interact with the world.

      • Myron
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        The god of deism is the god of the philosophers.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:45 am | Permalink

      Yes.

  25. Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    The two are clearly orthogonal.
    (a)theism refers to BELIEF, or lack thereof.
    (a)gnosticism refers to KNOWLEDGE, or lack thereof.
    They belong on a two dimensional Cartesian co-ordinate system, and are *utterly independent* of each other.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      However, people do appear to cluster in some quadrants more than in others.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        You may be interested to view my mock-graph, (link below), in that case!
        Where might you tentatively place yourself, if that is not a personal question?

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          I’d be looking for the Z axis labeled, “I will no more tell you my position on the existence of undefinable fantasies than I will tell you when I stopped beating your wife.”

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            You stopped beating my wife on 9 July 1977, at approx. 4:35pm.
            Now tell me your position!

            • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

              nGooood a’niiiiight!

              ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding

              b&

              • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                Boa noite, Mr. Goren.
                Dung, dung, dung.

              • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

                FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! ZERO!

                b&

              • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                Come on, do something!
                GOOD! Very good indeed! Quite outstanding.

              • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                [6.7] [9.4] [9.6] [8.9] [9.5]

                b&

              • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                I say, Cleese’s character in that sketch is a close-to-the-bone parody of the problem that is at the core of this entire page; vis: folk who know nothing, relying on fallible instinct, in order to diagnose the failings in others, and prescribe a supposed remedy that has little or no basis in reality.

                For those of you out there in non-nerd-land, this is that to which we refer:
                [x.co/Y0Q1]

        • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          Probably somewhere close to where you placed Dawkins.

          • Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            Thanks.
            That clustered area is teeming with highly rational folk from around the globe.
            You are in good company!

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      I have prepared such a cartesian graph, with examples.
      Enjoy:
      [www.antitheist.info/Resources/TheistAgnosticCartesian.png]
      or:
      [x.co/Y0Ld]

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      That depends on what you mean by belief. In Statistical Learning Theory, the word belief essentially means a conclusion derived from (probabilistic) inferencing. In this sense, belief is clearly not orthogonal to knowledge. The two cannot be independent, since you should only conclude (or *believe*) what is justified by knowledge. If you have insufficient knowledge, you simply shouldn’t believe in anything.

      Belief and knowledge can only be independent to each other if you use another definition of belief, namely an irrational belief, or jumping to conclusion without sufficient justification. In that case the two-dimensional classification system is rigged to disallow rational but strong conclusion derived from evidence. It is a wrong way of characterizing knowledge.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Your definition of “belief” might be more accurately replaced with “trust”.
        Try it for size.
        I have no idea what “Statistical Learning Theory” is.
        Are you able to briefly elaborate on its core principles, please?

      • Rob
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        What you should believe and what you do believe are two different things in reality.

  26. Solomon Wagstaff
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    What about two other terms I have seen at various times: ignostic & apatheist? An apatheist doesn’t waste time thinking about gods at all. An ignostic thinks that ‘God exists’ & ‘God doesn’t exist’ are equivalently senseless statements.

  27. Mirik
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Deism shouldn’t be a problem. They would simply agree and therefore be atheists that believe in God. Shouldn’t be a huge problem since they are probably aware they have no reason for it and hence will put no arguments forth to defend it.

  28. Myron
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    “The only problem I see is that of pure deists, who may claim that although God isn’t needed to explain anything, he’s still up there anyway.” (J. Coyne)

    The deistic god explains the existence and essence of the physical universe just like the theistic god.

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      What: not at all?

      • Myron
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        According to deism, there is a physical universe because there is a divine personal spirit who intentionally created one. This is an explanation. (I’m not saying it’s true.)

        • Posted June 30, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

          Seriously now:

          The deistic god explains the existence and essence of the physical universe just like the theistic god

          The key word is “explains”:- for it no more explains the existence of the universe than does Yolwgjr.
          It merely DESCRIBES the mental state of the poor mentally impoverished chap who imagines that this “sweeping reality under the carpet”, and giving it a Latin name, entirely excuses it from logical scrutiny, via some genre of exemption from criticism.
          No. I am not having it!
          Deism is little more than an infantile cubby-house in which to retreat because one does not have the maturity nor intestinal fortitude to admit that gods are, (and always have been), concocted by males who have discovered that this is a very workable method by which to enslave the weak-minded.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:50 am | Permalink

        LOL!

  29. Sigmund
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Are we still allowed to shout forced laughter at the nice people?

    Personally I use one of two terms, depending on the circumstance. Most of the time I use ‘atheist’ while occasionally (almost always when I am meeting religious friends of my wife – she’s not religious but some of her friends are – I use the term ‘not-religious’.
    Sometimes you dont need a specific term at all – just show you dont accept nonsense. A couple of years back I was in Ireland, visiting relatives with my wife and son when a rather annoying priest rudely asked me about how I was raising my son (this is not too unusual in Ireland.)
    He said something along the lines of “I presume you’ve baptised your son, haven’t you?, it’s important to educate him about God”
    This was a bit too much for me and I’m afraid I went gnuclear.
    “He believes in Santa at the moment, Father, and I’d rather not confuse him by telling him about another imaginary character”.
    Well he started it!

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      +1 for “gnuclear”!

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 4:48 am | Permalink

        Is “Gnuclear Fishin'” an atheist Troll?
        Is “Gnuclear Power” an atheist perpetual emotion machine?

  30. Egbert
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    It might be a good idea to bring back the terms ‘freethought’ or ‘freethinker’.

  31. Bob Carlson
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    “Gnostic” means “one who knows.” And therefore we discover that an agnostic is somebody who’s without knowledge, or ignorant.

    But here gnostic is defined as an adherent of gnosticism. That would make an agnostic someone not adhering to “the thought and practice especially of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis.” That seems rather ambiguous, and, in fact, it seems to me that those who are applying the term agnostic to themselves wish to be ambiguous about what they believe. Whatever the case may be with that, why isn’t the a in agnostic pronounced the same way as the a in atheist? After all, when gnostic is pronounced, the g is silent.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted June 30, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

      Silly english, with the E-sounding A and the silent G.

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

        The Economist’s jocular suggestion that “fish and chips” be spelled “ghoti and tchoghs,” weighs in on the “nuclear-nucular” controversy.
        [x.co/Y2MH]

  32. Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I think we’re missing the point here, at least a little bit, in this discussion about the various words. The real issue is that accepting the label “atheist” is perceived as a negative, at least in American society.

    The value of being religious is so high here that many people do not want to risk upsetting their friends and neighbors, or even themselves, and adopt some other label that makes sure to distinguish themselves from those shrill and strident and militant atheists, even though they may not differ much in terms of actual values and beliefs.

    It’s partially a problem of definitions (and inconsistent thought), but it’s largely a problem of a culture that imagines horns (possibly like that of a wildebeest) on us ‘gnus.’

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 4:55 am | Permalink

      I have a horn…

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 2, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      The real issue is that accepting the label “atheist” is perceived as a negative, at least in American society.

      You’re absolutely right. And the answer isn’t to change words but to destigmatize the word(s) we have. Because until attitudes are changed, no new word is going to make us more palatable. The best strategy is to decloak, continue to speak out, and mostly let it be known that there are atheists driving the carpools, serving on the PTA, coaching soccer, whatever.

      A friend on another list frequently posts an essay he wrote about how advocates for the mentally disabled have kept coming up with new terms trying to stay ahead of the stigma that inevitably attaches to the current labels. Most of us know that “retarded” still is hurtful to many and shouldn’t be used disparagingly, but few realize that “imbecile,” “cretin,” and “moron” were also once clinical terms for the developmentally disabled…

      My (atheist) daughter attended a Catholic high school, and reported that one day in religion class a classmate went on and on about how much he hated “secularists.” Apparently that’s nearly as odious as “atheist” in some circles.

      It’s definitely not the word, it’s the perception. I think we can reclaim “atheist” if we want to badly enough.

  33. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    I think all discussions about these definitions should substitute the term “certainty” for “proof”. “Proof” is for closed systems, like mathematics and legal systems (e.g. in Islamic legal systems, the word of a woman is not “proof” in some circumstances, etc.) Reality is an open system, so the term “proof” is an unnecessary eternally-red stoplight with zero benefit. I can walk all over Australia, and never be able to “prove” that a given map is a true representation. However, one can keep increasing the value of “certainty” by accumulating evidence. Will the sun rise tomorrow? Evidence shows a high certainty, but without “proof”. Trouble is, people rank “proof” above “certainty” in our culture, simply because of the legal system’s effect on everyday thinking.

    • Myron
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Strictly speaking, we find proofs only in mathematics and logic. The concepts that matter in empirical science are and .

      • Myron
        Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        Strictly speaking, we find proofs only in mathematics and logic. The concepts that matter in empirical science are “confirmation” and “evidential support”.

    • Myron
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      “However, one can keep increasing the value of ‘certainty’ by accumulating evidence.”

      I think what you mean is probability rather than certainty.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        Hmm… I don’t think “probability” is quite right either… you’re back to (inductive) logic.

        It’s really a level of confidence or assurance or a degree of validation.

        /@

        • Myron
          Posted June 29, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

          Then what you mean are degrees of confirmation:

          “Confirmation: The relation between evidence and theory in virtue of which the evidence supports the theory. There are three conceptions of confirmation: /qualitative/ confirmation, namely, evidence e confirms or supports hypothesis H; /comparative/ confirmation, namely, evidence e confirms hypothesis H more strongly than it confirms hypothesis H’; and, finally, /quantitative/ confirmation, namely, the degree of confirmation of hypothesis H by evidence e is r, where r is a real number. Current theories of confirmation rely heavily on probabilistic relations between the evidence and the theory.”

          (Psillos, Stathis. /Philosophy of Science A–Z./ Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. p. 44)

          (Psillos, Stathis. Philosophy of Science A–Z. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. p. 44)

          • Posted June 29, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

            Yes… 

            Although I’d tend to eschew “confirm[ation]”; pace the quotations you cite, the “ordinary language” meaning of “confirm” is more absolute: If something is confirmed, it’s true.

            This is a distinction that’s very relevant to my professional area of expertise, user authentication. For example, using a password doesn’t confirm (verify) your claimed identity, it only corroborates (gives support to) that claim with a (low – very low!) level of confidence.

            /@

  34. Rob
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Is it time to change the word? I don’t think Brights was a good attempt. What about untheist?

  35. Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with either term: agnostic or atheist.

    Agnosticism addresses what we don’t know or cannot know.

    Atheism addresses what we don’t believe.

    Our beliefs and our knowledge are not always in alignment. Sometimes we may believe what we don’t know and that’s often not a problem. (Not believing what we know to be true may make sense temporarily when faced with bereavement or horror, but is generally problematic.)

    I have a friend who is an agnostic, but he chooses to believe in God anyway. My friend’s attitude is that if there isn’t a God, there ought to be.

    I can’t relate to my friend’s attitude. I see no reason to believe. I’m more interested in reality than in security blankets.

    I sum up my agnosticism this way: If there is a God, I don’t see evidence and I don’t think there could be evidence. I can’t rule out that there might be a creator of the universe of the kind that deists believe in.

    I sum up my atheism this way: I don’t believe in God. And I see plenty of evidence against there being an Abrahamic God. Atheism is a statement of non-belief. Here’s what I believe: We can improve the world by adopting secular humanist values.

    By the way, I believe that WEIT is a blog even though its creator says it isn’t. (I guess that’s a case of belief in spite of contrary knowledge.) And WEIT happens to be my favorite blog (or Web site that looks and reads like a blog).

    • Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Nicely said. This has been quite personal for me lately, as I just came out to my wife as an Atheist a couple months ago. Her most recent line of argument against my position is that I’m actually an agnostic since I don’t claim to have knowledge of the non-existance of god.

      I call horseshit on that. But since terms are not deffined in a vacuum there’s little we can do effect the way others percieve and use terms.

      Cheers.

      • Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        Well, that’s back to Al’s point: What you and she use as labels for you doesn’t change your position one iota!

        I wish you well. (My wife self-identified as a Christian when I married her, but, it seems, mainly for familial reasons. She’s now as atheistic as I, only less vocal about it.)

        /@

  36. Claimthehighground
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Why should belief in god(s) be surrendered to theists as the default position, with athiest/agnostic defined in terms such as “those who don’t” or “those who deny”? If we subscribe to a worldview that is based on rationalism, empiricism, realism and scientific naturalism, then it is long past time when rational empiricism should be seen as the obvious default view. Theists and other believers in supernatural explanations are then the true deniers, the “don’t believe in rationalism” group, and it would be up to them to come up with explanations on which to base their non-belief (if they can). Otherwise they can be re-branded as a-rationalists, or more appropriately, irrationalists.

  37. Flakko
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of when Neil deGrasse Tyson was on the Point of Inquiry podcast and he labeled himself an agnostic and not an atheist because he was not an asshole about his nonbelief. I couldn’t believe that Chris Mooney let this go unchallenged. What am I talking about – of course Mooney did not challenge this.

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      There is room for types and stripes.
      NDT is an educator about Astronomy, not in the assault-team for anti-theism.
      And I understand his wimpy position on the juvenile superstition that is theism, even though I do not share such apathy.
      Yet I note that he is anything but a wimp when it comes to laying into the juvenile superstition that is astrology.
      That is his strategic choice.
      Not everyone is suited to be in the SAS.
      (Special Atheist Service)

  38. freedtochoose
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    ‘Tis good to explore the meaning of terms. For me, the the distinction is between theist and non-theist wherein lies atheism and, for want of a better term theistic inconsequentialism. It seems that to hold an atheist view, one must have a characterization of the god/deity one a’s.

    Karl Jasper’s definition is, “God is transcendence.” To be an atheist in his view would mean disbelief in transcendence.

    Joseph Campbell’s view is, “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being. Those are categories of thought. It’s as simple as that.” Simple, maybe, but not easy.

    Why Jaspers and Campbell? For the same reason I read Darwin and Coyne for insight into evolution, not Ken Ham.

    In this view, then, to be an atheist is to disbelieve in transcendence. The problem with this is that, by definition, there is no evidence to support or deny god.

    • Myron
      Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      The gods relevant to atheism aren’t impersonal things but supernatural or superhuman persons or quasi-persons, i.e. self-conscious beings capable of intelligent, intentional action.

  39. Posted June 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Atheist, agnostic, I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you call me as long as you consistently apply the definition and it’s not late for dinner.

  40. Dominic
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Talking of confusing terms, the deep six I had to look up – seems chiefly US!

  41. Gayle Stone
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with the definition of atheist because it uses the word believe. I could not reach the comment page on believe and belief so I’ll put it here. There is no place for the words in an atheist’s dialogue, conversation, writings, answers, etc. They are intagibles, e.g., show me a belief. Believe is a word for the other side of the fence, not on it. Sometimes I get the question, ‘So and so tells me you are an anatheist, is that true?’ I answer, ‘That depends on what your definition of atheist is.’ They invariably answer, “Someone who does not believe in God.’ I tell them, ‘That is not I; I translate the word from the Greek, as your New Testament was, thus, A, no < THEOS, god, no god, there is no god!

  42. TheMuse
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    When I hear serious scientists discussing the possibility of creating “baby universes” in the lab it makes me think that agnosticism is far more rational than atheism with respect to the idea of God and the creation of our universe. We just don’t know and a dogmatic stance seems irrational to me in the face of our ignorance. For me the energy or force that gave rise to our universe and the laws that govern the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, life and ultimately us, is “God” even if it is an impersonal being or not even a being at all. I don’t know if that is agnosticism or deism but that is kind of where I am at right now.

  43. Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Mano Singham proposes:

    “Atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.

    […]

    This definition leaves little room for agnostics because they will have to answer the question as to whether they think God is necessary as an explanatory concept for anything. If they say “no”, they are in the same camp as atheists. If they say “yes”, they are effectively religious and would be required to show where the necessity arises.”

    Ah, but there is another possible answer: “Maybe. Who knows? Maybe God is a necessary explanatory concept for something. Who knows if the answer is even knowable, in principle or in practice?”

    Trying to pin down agnostics is pretty pointless. The whole point of being agnostic in the first place is the feeling that you aren’t sure enough about unfathomable metaphysical matters like Why Existence Exists to take a strong position on matters like the existence of God.

    Agnostically yours,
    Nick

  44. Wowbagger
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Oddly enough, when I tried to ‘reply’ to a comment, it crashed my browser.

    Anyhoo, the only person I know who refers to himself as a deist is everyone’s favourite name-dropping serial web pest, John Kw*k.

  45. Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Atheist is far too dry a term, as if the only necessary task is to slot oneself into one belief system or another.

    Pastafarian captures the idea that I believe religions are the source of silliness, and I have picked one which is self-professed as ludicrous. If LulzSec gets round to publishing the UK Census you’ll be able to check I am consistent here.

    • Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      While there’s a certain crude charm about the idea of a stripper factory and a beer volcano, I’m afraid y’all simply don’t have enough holidays. What good is a beer volcano when you’re dead? Holidays I can celebrate today.

      I’ve been a unicornitarian for donkey’s ages, now, and no regrets.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:12 am | Permalink

        What good is a Uni-corn if it is invisible?
        And pink?

        • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          Well…She raptures socks….

          b&

          • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

            If only she might deign to “rapture” away some of the sock-puppets infesting this site, I may decide to believe in her.

            • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

              Well, that depends…how’re your stocks of pineapple and ham pizza?

              b&

              • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

                I manufacture my “stocks” from Jarrah, or Karri, not the feeble leaning dough of Pizza nor the structurally pitiful cycad-like Ananas comosus:- a Latin name that to an uncultured ear translates as “Huge Arsehole”.
                My stocks are built to restrain the most vile of blasphemers, in relative discomfort.
                Ask for them by name!

  46. Hitch
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Thomas Huxley gave a perfectly cogent definition of agnostic. And the definition of atheist as “not a theist” is about as clean as it gets.

    Agnostic according to Huxley really is an epistemic position. Atheism denies the onthological claim.

    I don’t think it will ever get any cleaner than this and many people understand this, why we run into “agnostic atheists”.

  47. Evan Meszaros
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    All of this discussion involving “god(s)” assumes we all know what “god(s)” is/are! Before even granting theism a place at the table, though, I first want a coherent, consistent (from theists of all stripes) definition of exactly what it is we’re arguing about. Until then, I remain an igtheist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignosticism).

    • Myron
      Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Yes, the broad definition of atheism as the lack of belief in the existence of gods is useless unless there is a sufficiently precise generic definition of “god” (or “deity”); and, as it turns out, such a definition is hard to come by. A god/deity is a divine being, i.e. a being possessing divinity. But what exactly distinguishes divine beings from nondivine beings? Is being divine an intrinsic or an extrinsic property?

      • Myron
        Posted June 29, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        How about the following definition?

        x is a god/deity
        =def
        x is a supernatural or superhuman personal or person-like agent who reigns over the universe or some part of it and deserves or demands being adored and worshipped

        • Al West
          Posted June 29, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          Formalising it won’t make the definition any better. I personally view the concept of ‘god’ as being meaningful in a trivial sense – it certainly carries (not to sound like a broken record) an ordinary language meaning, even if pinning it down is not so easy. One can certainly talk about the issue of deities. It’s really not so hard. The First Cause argument makes sense, for instance. It probably doesn’t make real sense in terms of expressing what we can know to be truth, if that is what sense is, but it’s still a logical argument and we still know what is being referred to. To claim that it isn’t at least logical, given its premises, is wrong. So that, at least, is one aspect of the debate that can be discussed.

          People can talk about things that don’t exist, and even things that are incoherent. That is enough to satisfy the ignostic’s challenge. I’m an anthropologist by trade, and in anthropology it’s quite normal, as I’m sure it is in other disciplines, to talk about things before we’ve ever got around to defining them rigorously. With some concepts, like ‘marriage’, every attempt at rigorous definition has failed. The 1951 Notes and Queries definition, “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman such that children born of the woman are the recognised legitimate offspring of both partners”, clearly fails – as does every other attempt. Does this mean that we can’t talk about marriage, or can’t argue about its existence? Of course not. It has an ordinary language meaning and in specific instances or arguments makes sense as a concept. I submit that the same is true of gods.

    • Posted June 29, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Well, igtheism (or ignosticism) certain seems to describe the attitude of some of the folks here: “The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed. Furthermore, if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God (per that definition) is meaningless.”

      /@

      • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:16 am | Permalink

        Why “god” in the singular, prey tell?

        • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

          That question would be better directed at the authors of the Wikipedia article — or of their sources. 😉

          /@

          • Posted June 30, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

            Understood.
            But I am curiously interested in your opinion on this matter, for some reason.

  48. greyhound1405
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Atheist: One who can find no verifiable evidence for the existence of a God or Gods. But following good scientific principle would be open to the possibility of such a god existing should verifiable testable repeatable evidence be forthcoming. Should the Deist God exist ‘out there’ in as yet undiscovered space, then he/she/it would not be the personal Jahweh, allah etc. figure that the 3 Abrahamic faiths find comfort (!) in. At the current understanding of evolution, than no ‘creator’ god is necessary. So what is left for this ‘god’ to do? And why would anyone want to worship let alone respect such a being?
    The Abrahamic faiths are so obviously man made, in order to scare the masses into doing the priests, imans, rabbis will, through their made up god. Keep searching though it keeps the greys cells going. But keep your imaginary friends for adults (!) to yourself.

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Excelent!
      May I suggest one minor alteration?
      If you change the initial “One who can find” to “One who may find”, then you have a winner!

  49. Newish Gnu
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    I’m way late to this party but…

    When I’m feeling more dickish than usual, I refer to theists as a-atheists. And ask whether they are Weak A-atheists or Strong A-atheists.

    They don’t seem to like it when the shoe is on the other foot.

  50. Matt Bowman
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I like Singham’s definition. “Unnecessary explanatory concept” pinpoints the problem. I think Singham is correct that the definition of “atheist” should be reworked. The Oxford definition seems old-fashioned now. I especially don’t like the use of the word “denies.” It reminds me of the historical use of the word “atheist” as another word for heretic. Or as another word for infidel when the religious want to identify those outside of what they believe is the true faith. By the Oxford definition everyone becomes an atheist. But Singham’s definition gives us the proper separation from all religious groups.

  51. Posted June 29, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    That’s pretty much the same thing Richard Dawkins explains in his article There is no God. He also points out how so many “believers” seem to hope for the end of the world. What a grim and sad thought.

  52. Deepak Shetty
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.

    As a “self identified agnostic” I would sign up if this were the definition – but I wonder why you simply wouldn’t use a new word?

    On a different note I find it mildly amusing that some atheists feel the need to project their reasons on why they think some people are agnostics

    but want to distinguish themselves from the nasty atheists who say the same thing, as intellectual cowards.

    The problem with self-proclaimed agnostics, of course, is that they take pride in their ignorance.

    It tends to start with agnostics accusing atheists of being dogmatic, and proclaiming the superiority of their non-committed position.

    Without actually you know providing references or names of the people they are referring to (or even to what degree this is prevalent ) . I can always point to Michael Ruse and Chris Mooney and Karen Armstrong if I want to poke fun at “atheists” but to draw conclusions about atheist definitions based on these people would be mistaken , no?

    And when someone tries to define atheism

    ‘Atheist’ generally clusters around the idea of a person who denies the existence of ‘god’,

    Look at the responses!

    According to whom? You?

    This assumption seems to be fairly important to the point you’re trying to make. On what is it based?

    Im sure some of the above apply when you try to define what agnosticism is or why agnostics believe whatever they do.

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      I wonder why you simply wouldn’t use a new word?

      What: “Bright”?
      Why invent a new logos when the old one is perfectly suited to the task?
      Why let the forces of darkness hypnotise you into believing that they have hijacked the term for their evil purposes?

      • Deepak Shetty
        Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Why invent a new logos when the old one is perfectly suited to the task?

        Oh I dont know – because the “perfectly suited” word doesnt actually work that way in the real world?
        Why not have a post that redefines agnostic to have the above meaning? What particular attachment do you have to the label atheist? As sam harris says , that particular word shouldn’t even be needed.

        • Posted July 1, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

          I may regret replying to one of your reputation, but:
          First you go “all practical” on me, and then you come over “all theoretical”.
          Make up your mind, please.

          • Deepak Shetty
            Posted July 1, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            Im flattered you think I have a reputation and surprised you think one cant be both practical and theoretical – Do you think these are mutually exclusive that I have to make up my mind?

            The question still stands if you have two labels that are fuzzily defined and poorly used – and you wanted a clear definition that includes some people and excludes others, why would you choose one of those existing labels (especially the same one as you already choose for yourself).

  53. Posted June 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I just came across this, which seems to be related to Singham’s definition:

    Quine’s criterion of ontic commitment: “We are ontologically committed to all and only the entities that are indispensable to our current best scientific theories.”

    Quine, W.V. 1953. “On What There Is.” Reprinted in From a Logical Point of View. Second edition, Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press: 1–19.

    Via “Can the Eleatic Principle Be Justified?” Mark Colyvan Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 313-335

    /@

  54. Posted June 30, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Once again, this definition specifically excludes those who have had no indoctrination into theism.
    I hate to keep repeating this, but the ‘active’ defintion of atheism rejects and denies the existence of the uindoctrinated majority!

    • Posted June 30, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Post Scriptum:
      This recently TERMINALLY & RETARDED BROKEN thread commenting software means that my remark is placed as a new stub, rather than a response.
      It used to be perfect.
      Now it is BROKEN.
      With whom do I have to sleep in order to have it repaired??

  55. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m certain that has been mentioned in this long thread, but the reason I think Singham’s definition is excellent is because a) it allows for empirical atheism b) it reveals agnostics as religious based, as Singham notes.

    And for the record: note that Dawkins scale does not allow room for empirical atheists in the same way! I.e. those like me who are not “(100 %) certain”, but specify a high degree of certainty from observation. Dawkins specify bayesian probability in his “The God Delusion”, i.e. based on revisable but not precisely quantifiable observation.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] article about the meaning of the word “atheist” and “agnostic”. I like this: Singham’s solution: deep-six the term “agnostic,” and redefine “atheist” to eliminate […]

%d bloggers like this: