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“Just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t make me an atheist”

Yeah, it kinda does.  That is the definition and the sole criteria.  The only way you could honestly say that you’re not an atheist is if you’re convinced that at least one actual deity surely does exist.  If you’re not an atheist, you’re a theist. This is one of those rare dichotomies where there is no N/A response, and no escape into undecided avoidance.  It’s binary, and that pisses a lot of people off.

Calling yourself agnostic is a dodge, avoiding the question by providing the answer to a completely different question.

I know a lot of you really hate that A-word.  As I mentioned in my last post, Neil deGrasse Tyson hates that word too.  But a couple hours ago, he tweeted that, “Just because you don’t agree with something, doesn’t mean that what you don’t agree with is wrong”.

My previous post to this blog generated more discussion than anything else I’ve ever said in this forum.  There are a lot of people who really don’t want that scarlet letter applied to them; call them anything else. They’ve even said they would rather misuse other words or redefine them to their liking -as if we can’t verify what those words really mean.  You keep using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.

I understand what y’all are going through. I went through it myself; being told all my life that ‘atheist’ means that I’m both both immoral and unreasonable, and that I believe in ‘nothing’, totalitarian Stalinist nihilism, that I dogmatically reject any possibility that there even could be as-yet undiscovered elements to the universe that might be considered supernatural or spiritual, or beyond what is dreamt of in my philosophy; that being atheist means that I have to KNOW there’s no god; telling me that I have to know even more than God is supposed to know before I can tell whether obviously ignorant and illogical idiots don’t know what they’re talking about.

On the day that I was begrudgingly forced to realize that I was in fact an atheist, I had already been atheist for 15 years and called myself anything else to avoid that word, a word that didn’t mean anything I was told that it did. For a while, I even referred to myself as an agnostic pagan for Christ.  But once I realized what that term really meant, and once I admitted to myself, that shoe fits, it was liberating, and I quickly realized that word isn’t strong enough.

If you don’t believe in God, you’re atheist. Sorry. It doesn’t matter what other label you want to paste over that, agnostic, secular humanist, apatheist, pantheist, whatever. The only way to dodge the definition of being “without theism” is to be WITH theism.  There is just no “well maybe kinda sorta not really” wishy-washy undecided ambiguity anyone can possibly wedge into that.  There just isn’t. Accept it.

If we were talking about any topic other than God, this conversation would be over with in the first sentence, and all the hesitation and excuses would have been too absurd to even bring up.

I mean, what word would you use to describe someone who doesn’t want to admit they’re pregnant, and doesn’t believe they’re pregnant, but winges over the possibility that they might be pregnant -even if they’re virgins, because parthenogenesis is hypothetically possible, and so we can never really know for sure? So they want to call themselves potentialists, because that means they can avoid the question. Don’t label me, man!

Maybe we should invent a word that means ‘not pregnant’, then create a long-running system-wide smear campaign to make everyone grow up hating that word.  Then we’ll see how many people say “don’t pressure me”, refusing to admit whenever the despicable is applicable to them. How many people would paunch their guts out to hide their non-pregnancy from society around them?  I want to see how many 3rd category middle-of-the-road “well I see both sides” open-minded but in denial fair and balanced bullshit excuses people will make up trying escape the yes or no (and ain’t no maybe) question that can only be answered with that God-damned word.

Comments

  1. poolboy says

    There’s a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson arguing against labelling himself an “Atheist” because he doesn’t like “labels”.

    He is an Atheist, whether he likes it or not. He has it in his head that Atheist means something else other than “One who doesn’t believe in a God” or thinks you can only apply one label at a time to himself, so wants something more encompassing?

    • Erik Fredriksen says

      I think the issue is “atheist” has a different colloquial meaning than simply “without god”, and Neil realizes this. Yes, in an academic discussion we can sit here and repeat the actual meaning, but that doesn’t change the fact that when most people hear a person is an atheist, they automatically attach beliefs of other atheists (or what they are told about other atheists) to that person. I get the impression this is the main thing Neil is trying to avoid as a public advocate for Science. He wants to let science to define his public persona – not a semantic misunderstanding. You might say, “Well then he should use his position to educate people of the actual meaning of the word, like Mr. aronra is,” but that isn’t his primary goal. He’d rather talk about black holes, space travel, etc.

      • davidjanes says

        He’d rather talk about black holes, space travel, etc.

        I think that pretty much nails it. Being an atheist is literally a trivial part of who he is and what he thinks, but the word is so loaded with other freight that adopting it risks making that small part of his life the dominant thing people think about him.

  2. says

    Yep. Just like how, if you believe in a “higher power” but are “against organized religion,” you’re a deist, regardless of whether you like the label or not.

    • says

      Nope. That depends on the nature of that higher power. Is it personal or impersonal? If personal, the person is some sort of theist though independent of organized theistic religions like the Abrahamic faiths. If impersonal, like Thomas Paine’s God of Nature or Aristotle’s Prime Mover, then the person is a deist. There’s also pantheism, panentheism, and the combination of those with deism (pandeism and panendeism). A higher power doesn’t have to be anthropomorphic. Native Americans and the Egyptians before them believed in gods that resembled animals, for instance.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    For a while, I even referred to myself as an agnostic pagan for Christ.

    Hee hee, that’s a good one! I think I’ll become an agnostic druid for Christ. I’ll ignore the Corpus Christi and worship the wood of the cross. ;-)

  4. scottbelyea says

    “…it’s binary.”

    Nonsense. Get out and do a bit of reading. There are quite a number of differing views (including from this atheist of 40+ years).

    Of course it looks that way to you … because that’s how you’ve defined it. All you’re doing is giving a fine dogmatic view into your navel.

    Accept it.

    • Monocle Smile says

      I can virtually guarantee that Aron has done at least as much reading on this topic as you.

      Furthermore, it IS binary. If your answer to the question “do you believe any gods exist” is ANYTHING OTHER than YES, then you’re atheist. It’s incredibly simple. And no, you don’t get to say “yes, but” or “no, but” without those first words carrying weight

    • EnlightenmentLiberal says

      Orly? Off the top of my head I can include the following self-identified atheists who disagree with you: Meslier, d’Holbach, Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett. I also cannot find a single self-identified published atheist writer of the last 300 years who disagrees. Got one? I’ll read their work.

      Further, the agnostic published writers of the last few hundred years might say that the atheist word means something different, but when you read their work, you see they come to largely the same conclusions that the published atheists do. Off the top of my head, I can include Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan might as well have written the textbook on atheism when he wrote his garage dragon parable. It perfectly captures the position of every published atheist I can find.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    Nonsense. Get out and do a bit of reading.

    Gosh. That wasn’t arrogant, or ignorant, or belittling at all. Nosirree!

    There are quite a number of differing views (including from this atheist of 40+ years).

    Yes indeedy! If I’m ever in a bus full of people stalled on a train track and I think I see a train heading for us, I’ll be sure to ask for all the various opinions on whether the train exists, and in how many ways we can define ‘existence’.

    • says

      Gosh. That wasn’t arrogant, or ignorant, or belittling at all. Nosirree!

      Wait, are we having a conversation about arrogance, ignorance, or belittling while telling people how to identify and that they are wrong if they don’t identify in a particular way?

      • Monocle Smile says

        Words have meaning, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the baggage that idiots (in this case, a whole lot of theists) attach to said words. That’s really the point here. No one should apologize for accepting the term “atheist.”

      • says

        You may have no interest whatever in astrology; you might even hate astrology with a deep passion, and you may reject everything about it. But if your birthday falls on the 15th of October, that makes you a Libra. You may think that’s absurd and you may object to it all you like, but you don’t get to redefine what ‘Libra’ means just so that you don’t have people telling you how to identify. If that is your birthday, you don’t have to identify as a Libra, but neither can you honestly say you are not one -no matter how much that may irritate you.

      • moarscienceplz says

        Rutee Katreya:
        One can feel that Aron’s position is wrong without declaring him to be unread in the subject. Scottbelyea’s post was insulting and arrogant and ignorant, and the fact that I have to explain this to you does not cast you in a good light.

      • F [is for failure to emerge] says

        You can identify any way you like, and that is important. It doesn’t change facts of what sort of category you might fall into by definition.

        Here, specifically, I disagree that there are no agnostics though. Some people just don’t know, whether they have dodged thinking about it or not. This easily includes the obvious group of people who tend to answer “I don’t know” to all sorts of questions.

        But if you want to identify as an agnostic, but otherwise think and behave entirely as if there are no gods, I don’t see how you can disagree that you’re an atheist. You can say you don’t like labels or don’t identify as such, but you may as well admit it.

        I don’t particularly like identifying as “white”, what with all the baggage and cultural assumptions that carries, but I sure as hell am and have to admit to it.

  6. Corwyn says

    “you’re convinced that at least one actual deity surely does exist.”

    Are you saying that a theist is only that if they have infinite confidence in the proposition that a god exists? This is just as *impossible* (requiring infinite evidence) as that an atheist is only that if they have negative infinite confidence in the proposition that a god exists.

    Expressing your confidence in decibans (as I said earlier when discussing the latter claim) is a way of avoiding all this problem. If people want to put their cutoff for atheism at -100 decibans or at 0 decibans, or -1,000,000 decibans, who cares. As long as you can express your confidence level unequivocally, no one can twist your words.

  7. says

    Well, pantheists *do* believe in the divine, it’s just not condensed into a single convenient deity, so no, they are not atheists, any more than taoists are.

    Yep. Just like how, if you believe in a “higher power” but are “against organized religion,” you’re a deist, regardless of whether you like the label or not.

    Well, no, you’re a theist. Deist refers to a specific philosophy of god as a passive watchmaker. Although, contemporaries sometimes would refer to it as atheism. XD

    Furthermore, it IS binary. If your answer to the question “do you believe any gods exist” is ANYTHING OTHER than YES, then you’re atheist. It’s incredibly simple. And no, you don’t get to say “yes, but” or “no, but” without those first words carrying weight

    If you define atheist as “Anything but absolute belief in god”, then yes. As it happens, there are other definitions, and not only do people not have to play by your definition, there is nothing particularly more valuable or accurate in it.

    Yes indeedy! If I’m ever in a bus full of people stalled on a train track and I think I see a train heading for us, I’ll be sure to ask for all the various opinions on whether the train exists, and in how many ways we can define ‘existence’.

    Amateur Hour. You should at least be comparing with the near-universal agreement that unicorns don’t exist. This comparison is insanely far off, not the least of which because a train as observed as a deity would be a questionable thing to brake for even if it were real.

  8. Sastra says

    In general I agree with the post, but I think the big problem with trying to make a binary either/or category regarding belief in God is that definitions of “God” go all over the damn map. Yes, there are ways to pin it down by stipulating certain criteria for what makes “God” different than “not a god” — but you can still get into some very vague, very confused, half-metaphorical areas which may or may not involve the supernatural and which may or may not qualify as a deity. Like Vitalism. Or Platonic Forms. Or dual-aspect monism.

    The problem isn’t the strategy itself. It’s that a lot of time you’re working on definitional jello.

    • sqlrob says

      This is pretty much where I am.

      On Dawkins scale with respect to the major religions, I’m 7. With respect to the concept of gods, 6.9+ (got anything that can remove the last bit on god of the gaps / deist type gods?)

      I’m actually at the point though where I stuff your other examples into the theist / atheist dichotomy. Arguably this is wrong, I tend to think of atheism as the outcome of thinking about the causes and influences of the real world rationally.

      • Sastra says

        sqlrob #8.1 wrote:

        got anything that can remove the last bit on god of the gaps / deist type gods?

        Maybe. Try: the scientific death of mind/body dualism as a viable hypothesis on the one side… coupled with a good explanation for mind-from-matter on the other.

        Or, as Richard Dawkins more eloquently puts it:

        “Mental things, brains, minds, consciousnesses, things that are capable of comprehending anything — these come late in evolution, they are a product of evolution. They don’t come at the beginning. So whatever lies behind the universe will not be an intellect. Intellects are things that come as the result of a long period of evolution.” (Richard Dawkins)

        All gods — even the cosmological god of the gaps/Deist gods — have something irreducibly mental about them, something completely unconnected to material/physical/flesh but associated with the mind (consciousness, intelligence, goals, values, emotions, awareness, creativity, agency, concern, etc.). Not mind-from-matter, but matter-from-mind. We used to think that our own minds were spooky magic — existed nowhere, came from nothing, depended on nothing, worked through willpower, etc. We learned otherwise.

        But that’s why God — starting out with a Mind which has no history, no development, no explanation, no reason, no anything — initially seemed plausible. And, to many, still does.

        • sqlrob says

          Given some of the out there cosmological hypotheses (event horizon of 4D blackhole, interference pattern on a membrane), there is a possible matrix. Until there’s evidence, these are nothing more than mathematical playthings, but it does show possibilities. Even assuming true, that doesn’t make anything “outside” that may have triggered things a deity per se, since as you’ve mentioned, that would have history and development.

          So I guess you could more accurately call me a 7 for interventionist gods, 7-epsilon for others.

  9. David C says

    Two decades ago (in Australia), while on my way home from university I was approached by a group of young Christians who wanted to know if I believed in god. They insisted that if I didn’t then I must be an atheist.

    I had not paid much attention to the issue up until then but when pressed I refused to place myself in the same category as those people who I had observed in my formative year doing bat shit crazy things (our neighbours in Papua New Guinea were Christian missionaries). But because I had come to believe that atheist were baby eating, devil worshiping, genocidal maniacs I couldn’t accept that label either.

    Fast forward 20 years, and after reading Dawkins, Hitchens and many others, if asked the same question I would state unequivocally that I was an atheist and I would have an arsenal of questions to ask about the foundation for and purpose of any belief in god or gods.

    Christians must perpetuate this belief that atheists are evil, for if we (the atheists) are correct (i.e. there is no foundation for belief in god), then it is they (the Christians) who are truly evil. To claim to have a personal relationship with the ultimate arbiter of right an wrong is of coarse the only way that someone can justify a position or action that is inherently unethical or immoral. “Because God told me so” is a lousy excuse.

  10. says

    Excellent post.

    Only one small point:

    ‘…I went through it myself; being told [...] that I have to know even more than God is supposed to know before I can tell whether obviously incredulous ignorant and illogical idiots don’t know what they’re talking about.’

    I think you mean ‘credulous idiots’. You’re the one who’s incredulous.

      • ethansdad says

        a ‘believer’ can be incredulous if they doubt atheism…just sayin’

        people of all religious beliefs are getting nervous because they are starting to think that if they really are wrong it will show a bit of arrogant ignorance…we atheists are making too much common sense for even the theists to deal with and they can hear it in their own vague arguments…

  11. sqlrob says

    “Just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t make me an atheist”

    As stated, that statement is true. God is not Zeus. You believe in Zeus, but not God. Are you an atheist? Capital G says you’re talking about one specific ;)

  12. L.Long says

    Reading the comments shows me why Tyson hates the label!
    So I’ll throw in another…
    Does gawd exist? Don’t know & don’t care.
    The universe runs according to certain rules and these have been observed and coded by science…NOT religion.
    There have been NO verifiable repeatable observations of the rules being suspended for the benefit of some group of ego-centric bigots.
    So I live my life ‘without gawd’ or A-theist. As gawd is irrelevant.
    Is there an after-life? Don’t know & don’t care, it will be handled as I can when it shows its existence.

    I prefer the definition as …There is no evidence for gawd (or after-life) so I do not believe S/He/IT exists.
    except as a pile under a bull’s ass.

      • L.Long says

        Will be looking ‘apatheists’ up in wiki.
        But I have always read that atheist was greek for ‘without god’ which does not mention any kind of belief.

        • L.Long says

          OK did some quick reading and for most atheist I know they mostly live apatheist in their day to day living, but when they are confronted with various types of religious nutjobs they go into full militant atheist mode in that their aint no gawd especially yours!

          • Sastra says

            In my experience the “apatheists” are just as annoyed by outspoken atheists as they are by religious nutjobs. They think anyone who gets passionate enough about the issue of God’s existence to bring it up in public is more or less a nutjob.

            Apatheist motto: “Oh God — won’t you guys all just shut up about that crap!”

            They’re technically atheists, but wouldn’t read a book on atheism if you paid them. They despise the idea.

  13. says

    So if a backsliding Christian that’s going through severe doubt temporarily arrives at the conclusion that god doesn’t exist, is he/she temporarily an atheist? I think that’s ludicrous. You can’t take a descriptive definition and apply it prescriptively or better said, normatively. A normative atheist identifies as an atheist. If you don’t identify as one, you’re only a nominal atheist; however, you’re not a normative atheist. I think other characteristics describe a normative atheist–namely a concern for truth (something apatheists don’t seem to care for since their apathetic to this all), skepticism, etc. Apatheists have a label, namely apatheism. They, like people who don’t identify as atheists, are nominal atheists. Normative atheism can be used interchangeably with behavioral atheism. Look around! Pick any five atheists and I guarantee you’ll find some commonality besides lack of belief in gods. Atheism is a philosophical position; it is a political view; it is a movement; it is a way of life; it is a form of identity. It is much more than a simple lack of belief. Thus, if you don’t identify as an atheist, you’re not a behavorial atheist. Let me give one example of why my distinction is warranted. Consider someone like Lee Strobel; he is a self-proclaimed former atheist. Why has he appropriated the label? To make his apologetics seem more credible. Unfortunately, he published ZERO books when he was an atheist. There’s no evidence for his claim. A fellow blogger over on Tumblr is also a self-proclaimed former atheist. He was raised in a family that put no emphasis on religion. He recently admitted that he was actually agnostic; in other words, he didn’t think god was likely, but he never had a concrete disbelief in god. So why did he appropriate the title? Like Strobel, he did that to make his apologetics seem more credible. This ex-atheist label is becoming rampant; CS Lewis was perhaps the first to appropriate the title (I have my doubts about him too). If we go by the dictionary definition, we’re giving our opponents permission to appropriate the label–a label that leads to certain behaviors, the first of which is identification with the label. NDT is an atheist in the descriptive sense, but not in the normative sense. Same goes for apatheists. Same goes for accommodationists like Thomas Nagel. I’m sorry, but you can’t claim to be an atheist and be skeptical of evolution; furthermore, you can’t claim to be an atheist and think that ID has merits. These are Nagel’s suspect views. Theists love him for his accommodationism. I won’t stand for it! You can’t appropriate my label as a means to some end! Atheism is lack of belief in god plus x number of behaviors; if you don’t identify as an atheist, if you don’t care about the harm caused by religion and the power it attempts to wield and/or attain, and if you’re not actively addressing the supposed truths of x or y religion (given that you have the freedom to do so (i.e. atheists who are suppressed by blasphemy laws), then you are not a normative atheist. This will no doubt be the subject of one of my future books. Consider this a brief meditation, but believe me, I will develop this further. In any event, I’m not giving our opponents any ammo. Religion already has too much power and too many numbers. They have seen the efficacy of our former affiliations; in other words, they have seen how effective the labels of ex-Christian and ex-Muslim are. In light of that, they want to wield the same weapon. I’m here to say that it’s not that simple. I’m not comfortable with the dictionary definition; it’s inadequate.* I hope I got some of you thinking.

    *Consider the dictionary definition of human. Is that an adequate definition?

    • says

      It is actually possible to be atheist and reject evolution. Dr. Periannan Senapathy is a molecular biologist and genome researcher. He is president and scientific director of Genome Life Sciences, a Genome International company in Madison, Wisconsin, which develops next-generation DNA sequencing technologies. In 1994, he wrote the Independent Birth of Organisms. A New Theory that Distinct Organisms Arose Independently from the Primordial Pond, Showing that Evolutionary Theories are Fundamentally Incorrect. Senapathy argues against common ancestry, saying instead that many different ‘kinds’ of animals emerged from primordial ooze in more or less their current condition as crabs, or as frogs, or as rabbits, and so on. Yeah. Not kidding.

      • says

        That it is possible and that there’s one particular case you can name doesn’t change my point–namely that acceptance of evolution, at least until (if ever) we’re given good reason to doubt it, is a normative characteristic. Perhaps you’re minimizing Senapathy’s view, but if it’s as dumb as you made it sound, it’s safe to say his science is abominable. Particularities can’t overturn generalities. Normative atheists accept evolution. In any event, that was a minor point. My broader point, in that case, was Nagel’s suspect accommodationism; furthermore, I pointed out that his accommodationist approach isn’t normative. My broader point is that the dictionary definition is inadequate and that going by that definition gives people the right to wrongfully appropriate the label. Atheism is more than a lack of belief in gods. In another comment, you said (I paraphrase) that you’ve been down the road the commenter is going to take. Sounds like you’re appealing to authority, namely your own. Bullying people by citing experience, longevity or what have you doesn’t prove anything. Regardless of the roads you’ve taken, you may have arrived at the wrong conclusion. That’s not intended to attack your character. I do, however, see this as a possible roadblock in this kind of discussion.

        • says

          No it isn’t. You’re welcome to tell me whatever else you think it is, and defend or support that if you think you can, but ultimately we’re going to see that atheism is just a lack of theism, just like every source and every authority always said it was.

          No, it’s an open challenge. He obviously hasn’t looked into this very far, and I’ve heard it all before, but I guess neither he nor you are going to believe that until we dance that tune again and prove it one more time.

          • says

            “Every source and every authority.” Once again appealing to majority. Consensus could be wrong. I disagree with the consensus. Atheism, when defined as a lack of belief, is too simplistic. It doesn’t accurately define me as an atheist; it doesn’t define atheists I know personally. The question is often asked: are Buddhists atheists? Some of them are–if we go by the dictionary definition; however, in a normative sense, they clearly aren’t. Normative atheists lack belief in god, belief in religion, belief in scripture, belief in rituals (i.e. prayer, chanting of mantras, fasting for religious purposes, exorcisms, home cleansing, meditating to attain enlightenment, etc.), belief in the afterlife, belief in supernatural entities (i.e. demons, angels, etc.), belief in religious claims (i.e. miracles, faith healing, demonic possession, etc.), etc. Buddhists, depending on the sect, believe in two or more of those things. The sect that is prominent in Tibet, for instance, believes in exorcism, scripture, karma, an afterlife, rituals, and so on. But yet they’re atheists because they don’t belief in a deity? I repeat: not in a normative/behavioral sense.

            Given that, my point starts to become clear. Normative atheists aren’t Buddhists or Hippi spiritual or into some woowoo. Gods are only the beginning of the story. We don’t only reject the gods, but we reject almost everything that is connected to them–and in some cases, we do reject everything connected to them. That’s why we think prayer is ineffective. That’s why we don’t believe in the devil. Is the devil a god? No. Are we a-devilists? Or a-scripturalists? Or a-ritualists? No. But being an atheist implies a rejection of such things–and the dictionary definition doesn’t make that clear; it doesn’t even come close. The authorities have kept it too simple and ultimately, they’re wrong. Atheism, as a philosophical view and as a view regarding religion, is quite intricate. That’s why I think my distinction is useful.

          • EnlightenmentLiberal says

            Once again appealing to majority. Consensus could be wrong.

            This is an argument over language. Almost definitionally, the consensus cannot be wrong.

            A rose by any other name will smell just as sweet, but the word “rose” has meaning only precisely as far as there is consensus, and no farther. What – do you think there’s some magical standard dictionary of English out there? Do you not understand that all languages – English included – change over time? Language is defined by consensus and nothing else.

            Even for technical words like evolution and abiogenesis, it’s defined by consensus. In this case, it’s defined by the consensus of experts, hence why I called them “technical words”. However, even when you appeal to expert definition, you’re just appealing to consensus.

            Debates over meanings of terms is one of those rare times that appeal to majority is the only rational argument. Also because of that, I hate arguments like this the most.

          • Abdullah says

            Belive in god ok
            He is really ok and if you cant see him. It doesn’t matter ok he is really. I belive in him very much and you should too. For example you haven’t been to space but you do belive there is something there right so believe god is there too ok.

    • Monocle Smile says

      GAAAAH BIG WALL OF TEXT

      “Atheism is lack of belief in god plus x number of behaviors; ”

      Wrong. Atheism is only the first of those. There is no “atheist movement” really, because that word only refers to a single stance on a single issue. Attempting to change the meanings of words just to add “weight” to any particular ideology is dishonest. A very, very important part of being a skeptic is to not sink to the level of the theist, let alone the apologist.

      • says

        Atheism, in the dictionary, is only the first of those. Since when do we go by dictionary definitions to accurately describe something? The definition is inadequate. You, clearly out of convenience, downplayed the atheist movement. It’s not a single stance, especially since it includes “new atheists,” intellectual atheists, anti-theists, etc.. This isn’t an attempt to argue from numbers, but it is the sample that represents the biggest chunk of our population. The atheist movement is far more representative of atheism than apatheism, accommodationism, etc. I’m not attempting to change the meaning; rather, I’m attempting to fully and accurately describe atheists in a normative sense. There’s nothing dishonest about what I’m doing and I’m definitely not sinking to the theist’s or apologist’s level. Underhanded ad hominem is a bad way to begin a discussion by the way. Then again, “GAAAH BIG WALL OF TEXT” should have been bad first impression enough. My apologies for running the stop sign.

        • Monocle Smile says

          There was no ad hominem involved in my comment. Also, it’s really, really annoying to read a huge block of text with no paragraph breaks, so I don’t know why you’d be a prick about it.

          You can’t describe atheists in a “normative” sense because atheists are not normative. I would argue that what you call “the atheist movement” is, unfortunately, NOT representative of the largest chunk of our population. I don’t have statistics, but Ayn Rand has an awful lot of staunch disciples, and I don’t really don’t want anything to do with them. If you have statistics, I’d like to know them, but I would have a hard time pointing to anything major that the atheists I know all have in common outside of atheism.

          • says

            Notice I said underhanded. “Sink[ing] to the level of the theist [and[ apologist” is what I was referring to. Who cares if it’s annoying? I don’t usually comment on this site, so I didn’t think about paragraph breaking. In any event, you can’t just wish away so called new atheism. The majority of atheists are in the mold of the four horsemen and other new atheists. The atheist movement doesn’t consist of solely them, but they represent the biggest sample of the movement’s population. When you add in the fact that other atheists are a part of that movement, you have a pretty substantial number. Apatheists doesn’t come close. This is all so far removed from the point anyway.

          • says

            Read my response to Mr.Ra. I obviously didn’t have a hard time pointing to some major things atheists have in common. I’m sure there are other commonalities; it’s too bad there’s not much said about us statistically speaking. That is precisely why I used intuition when speaking of the representation of the atheist movement. When I think about our presence on the internet, in academia, and elsewhere, the best conclusion is that the atheist movement represents a big piece of the atheist pie.

          • Monocle Smile says

            I guess I should have expected that those with annoying habits will defend their annoying habits instead of acknowledge them. That’s a pretty stick-in-ass defense of not using paragraph breaks.

            I’m not comfortable making statements like the ones you make without numbers to back them up.

            Furthermore, you keep bootstrapping baggage to the word “atheist.” Sorry, that’s something else. The word “atheist” doesn’t actually tell you that much about anyone, nor should it purport to do so. We use OTHER words for the things you described in your last comment to Aron. For example, he describes himself as an empirical rationalist and also an apistevist, meaning he is without faith. THOSE words accurately describe the values a person holds. The word “atheist” alone does not.

          • says

            Sorry you see it that way. I wasn’t trying to defend not using breaks. I was being honest about why I did it. Now that I’m more used to commenting here, I’m conscious of it. I’m not comfortable making statements without data either, but there just isn’t much data on atheists. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t draw inferences based on observations, and in my experience, most atheists would consider themselves a part of the movement. Atheism, especially here in the US, is starting to collapse into politics; we’re chiming in on gay rights, abortion, women’s rights, education, etc.

            I’m not attaching any baggage to the word. I’m only pointing out the obvious implications. If you don’t believe in god, you don’t believe in entities connected to the gods, the scriptures, rituals, and so on. Being an apistevist or an empirical rationalist doesn’t imply that one must deny the efficacy of religious rituals, for instance. In any case, a label like apistevist is completely unnecessary since lacking faith is already implied in atheism. If you don’t believe in god, then by extension you highly likely don’t have religious faith. I don’t see why you find that so hard to understand. I also can’t grasp why you don’t get the idea of normative atheism–which is based on the actual behavior and views of atheists and not on a mere definition.

          • Monocle Smile says

            “Being an apistevist or an empirical rationalist doesn’t imply that one must deny the efficacy of religious rituals”

            Oh, yes it does, and I’m sure Aron will agree wholeheartedly. I get what you’re TRYING to say about “normative atheism,” but again, I’m not about to consider that “normative” without numbers. Again, there are hordes of Ayn Rand fans out there who are atheist, but believe pretty much the opposite of what we believe about everything except the existence of gods. This isn’t a joke or a paper tiger; they actually exist.

            Furthermore, there are atheists who are also religious! Many Buddhist sects and druids and shaman, etc. are all atheist because they don’t accept deities. There are also atheists who believe other things like conspiracy theories for bad reasons or no evidence, so they have faith in things…just not deities. I’m wondering just how many atheists you’ve interacted with to draw this conclusion that the overwhelming majority of atheists fit into your “normative” mold. This is the opposite of my experience.

          • Monocle Smile says

            To wit, atheism is not a starting point. It’s a conclusion consistent with certain worldviews. Atheism is an intersection point for a number of worldviews, but there can be vast differences between these worldviews.

          • says

            I think you’re over-representing Ayn Rand fans. From the little I know about her, I see nothing in her philosophy that’s crackpot or anything like that. I could be wrong. In any event, you’re preaching to the choir. Had you read my comment to Mr.Ra, you wouldn’t have felt the need to tell me about religious atheists. Sure, Buddhists, shamans, druids, etc. fit the dictionary definition; however, they’re not normative atheists. Atheists, being human, make the mistake of buying into conspiracy theories, cryptids, and so on'; however, that doesn’t imply that they will continue to believe in that. Skepticism, when correctly applied, leads to self-correction. I, for example, used to be a moral nihilist; I applied sound skepticism and now I know that I was wrong in accepting moral nihilism. I also put more stock into Zeitgeist than I should have; I applied sound skepticism and now I only consider the more scholarly mythicism published by the likes of Price, Carrier, and so on. Ultimately, buying into conspiracy theories, cryptids, ancient aliens, and so on isn’t the equivalent of religious faith; skepticism, when wrongly applied, leads one to accept conclusions with little evidence. Fortunately, skepticism is self-correcting.

            Atheism, as defined in the dictionary, may be a crossroads of sorts, but you really have to know about Buddhism, shamanism, and so on to make that conclusion; they don’t believe in deities, but given my research it’s safe to conclude that they’ve replaced deities with another form of transcendence. That is to say that they have abstracted placeholders for deities. Buddhism and forms of Satanism have something in common, namely that oneself is deified, per se. So, in essence, one replaces deities with a glorification of the self or a transcendence of self. That’s religious rather than irreligious, and them who identify as atheists, rather than Buddhists or shamans, don’t hold such religious views. Again, the identification problem comes into play; I know of no Buddhist that also identifies as an atheist. Acceptance of the label is important.

  14. OutlawPhilosopher says

    There’s another issue here – the assumption that belief is binary. This is probably not true, though there seems to be some disagreement on this point, at least implicitly, among epistemologists. At least to my mind it seems like a more plausible picture is that we have degrees to which we are prepared to assent to various propositions, and ‘belief’ is a context-sensitive or vague predicate sitting over on degrees of certainty in the same way the knowledge attribution is a context-sensitive or vague predicate sitting over degrees of objective justification. On a picture like this, saying “I don’t believe in god but I’m not an atheist” could be true for hidden context-shifting reasons.

    Obviously this is going to depend pretty sensitively on your philosophical orientation in both epistemology and philosophy of language, but that can’t be helped.

  15. bryanelliott says

    ‘k. So what do you define “atheist” as, and why should anyone accept that definition?

    I (and aron, and every other prominent atheist I’m aware of) define it as it’s written: “a” – not + “theist” – believer in god. If you have a better one, please do tell.

    This is not dogma. This is english.

  16. Erik Fredriksen says

    I don’t understand your assertion that belief is binary. Would you apply this to belief in ANY concept? For example, if I asked, “Do you believe there is a a universe outside our own?” would you answer a definitive “yes” or “no”? Or could you legitimately say, “I don’t know”?

    • EnlightenmentLiberal says

      It’s an unfortunate confusion over terms. I see it all the time, and most prominent atheists do a pisspoor job of explaining it. Let me explain.

      Call “Does it exist?” Q1. Call “Do you accept as true that it exists?” Q2.

      “Yes” on Q1 is equivalent to “yes” on Q2.

      “I don’t know” on Q1 corresponds to “no” on Q2. If you do not know if it exists, then definitionally you do not accept as true that it exists.

      “No” on Q1 corresponds to “no” on Q2. If you say it does not exist, then definitionally you do not accept as true that it exists.

      Finally, they usually use a definition of “belief” so that “I believe X exists” is the same thing as “I accept as true that X exists”.

      This is the pedantics that most atheist speakers mean. They really could do better, but this is what they mean.

      Thus, they argue that if you accept as true that there is a god or gods, then you’re a theist, and otherwise you’re an atheist. Atheism includes the position “I don’t know if gods exist” and “I believe/know that no gods exist”.

      To emphasize, look at it from the other perspective. “I do not accept as true that no gods exist” contains both of the following: “I do not know if gods exist”, and “I believe/know that gods exist”. We don’t have a word for an umbrella of both of those positions, the middle ground plus the positive. However, we do have a word for the middle ground and the negative, and that word is “atheist”.

      • arestyr says

        I feel like that definition of atheism is used simply to co-opt the more rational thinking of agnostic so as to appear more reasonable…

        Moreover, the response the Q2 can still be vague. I don’t know if I accept the existence of god as truth. I’ve seen decent argumentation on both sides. There are gaps in our existence that seem to necessitate some form of thought for our creation. That being said, evidence for an intellectual creator also seems correlative more than causal. I legitimately have not made up my mind on whether or not to accept the evidence for either side.

  17. erinbk22 says

    I am agnostic. I am not an atheist.

    An atheist is someone who denies or disbelieves the existence of god or gods, or someone who rejects the belief in the existence of deities. I do not deny the possibility that there could be a god or gods. I do not disbelieve in the existence of god or gods, I am just not going to commit to deciding whether there are or not. I don’t see the reason in doing so. I also don’t reject the belief in the existence of deities; I simply don’t know if there are or not.

    This is VERY different from believing in whether or not one is pregnant. Don’t be ridiculous. First of all, there actually IS a time period at the beginning of each pregnancy when every woman is unsure whether they’re pregnant or not. During this time, they HAVE to live in ambiguity. But after a certain amount of time, there is a scientific test that will tell you whether you are pregnant or not. The existence of deities has no such test in this life.

    You can call me noncommittal, but don’t say I’m an atheist when the definition is not what I believe.

    • dthunt says

      The inability to test something doesn’t mean we can’t draw sensible conclusions; if you consider a hypothetical galaxy zipping away from us at such distance and speed that we’ll ever be able to detect its presence again, after right now; does that galaxy still exist?

      We were pretty sure, but not 100% sure it was there. We are pretty sure, but not 100% sure, that there aren’t galaxy-eating monsters zooming about at FTL speeds and erasing galaxies from existence the moment we can’t see them anymore. And yet, we don’t have this mental hangup with respect to whether that retreating galaxy still exists or not, just because it vanished from our sight.

      It’s the tree falling in the forest. It’s peek-a-boo. It’s a really easy question, made complicated only when we play shennanigans with definitions or engage in some really dubious thinking.

      The above isn’t an argument for or against atheism or agnosticism. It’s just a call for sanity, here. You don’t pick your conclusions. Your evidence, background knowledge, and your ability to evaluate it do.

      If we both have 99.lotsofnines confidence that Thor doesn’t exist, it’s not the case that one of us is agnostic w/r to Thor, and one of us is atheist with respect to Thor. In a definitionally strict since, we’re both atheists with respect to Thor, but you might still prefer to consider your position agnostic.

      To which I ask this (if the above is fair to assume):
      What sort of information are you confident in to the degree that you would not describe yourself as agnostic, with respect to a claim you feel it favors?
      If you can imagine such a something, what makes it different than invisible butt-elves?

  18. Phil says

    You can call me an atheist. All day, every day. I not only welcome it, but I encourage it. Stop being scared people.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    An atheist is someone who denies or disbelieves the existence of god or gods, or someone who rejects the belief in the existence of deities.

    That’s not how atheists have used the word for at least the last 300 years.

  20. Mark701 says

    The term “atheist” is just a label like “Christian” is a label. We’re a society obsessed with labels and self-labeling. It’s all bullshit. When we lay claim to a belief system or a labeling of that system we are laying claim to thoughts, images, symbols, etc. invented by others that upon closer examination have no inherent value or meaning. I suggest there’s a deeper reality that can’t be understood by human reasoning, that has NOTHING to do with religion or lack thereof, that is intensely personal and by it very nature, indescribable to others. It’s not a concept but an experience, an act of knowing that transcends all ideas, values, concepts, and beliefs and introduces us to real knowledge about what we are and what all “this” is.

  21. sumdum says

    I understand why someone might want to avoid using such a label within the USA, but come on, this is the web. We’ve all got some nickname or handle, no need to fear for a backlash or persecution here. Either you do believe in a god, or you don’t currently believe in a god. It’s a really simple yes or no question. Agnostic in that regard just means ‘I don’t want to answer’.

  22. Ichthyic says

    My previous post to this blog generated more discussion than anything else I’ve ever said in this forum.

    you’re an excellent writer, and always have been. I find it really tragic that this is the case, really.

    that such a clear issue should have generated so many dozens of mushy thinking responses.

    *sigh*

    what’s more, every argument you made on it will be entirely forgotten tomorrow, and if you posted the same thread a month from now, you would get… the same mushy arguments in response.

    seen the pattern myself over the last 10 years of immersion in online fora.

    don’t let yourself, or this blog, be defined by this, please?

  23. Ichthyic says

    …maybe it is BECAUSE this really is an easily understood issue, that so many feel comfortable trying to force their own mushy thinking into it.

    gotta be.

    *looks at #22 from MJP again*

    yup.

  24. Ichthyic says

    what’s more, every argument you made on it will be entirely forgotten tomorrow, and if you posted the same thread a month from now, you would get… the same mushy arguments in response.

    what am i saying?

    you got the same responses the very next thread you made on the subject!

    you only needed to wait… one day.

  25. says

    I had never had a problem viewing myself as an atheist. This Atheist-Agnostic divide wasn’t even something I was aware of until the past couple years. The most common criticism I’ve received from self-described agnostics was that “atheists are absolutists in their beliefs” which was the same charge religious types had for us, ever so ironically.

    I guess I’ve just viewed it that atheists are the only group not worried about being wrong. My view more recently has been that an agnostic is an atheist that doesn’t want to be wrong, so they don’t dismiss that there could be a deity–they want to leave the option open, whereas an atheist says, “I don’t believe there are any gods, and until such time as there is evidence to the contrary, this is a logical understanding to have.” If a god exists, and, say, the great and mighty Cthulhu (which might be a god) were to claw his way up from his ancient deep-oceanic slumber, would I suddenly say that there are gods? Only if Cthulhu proved to have unnatural godly powers. Until then, he’s just a big lazy ancient creature that slept for a long time, and is trudging his way toward Rhode Island.

  26. says

    you got problems man i don’t know what god done but have you had Miracles lately and i know why you had them GOD he is the one making the miracles happen and FYI I’m a CHRISTIN and i belive in the word of god so like is said YOU GOT PROBLEMS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! >:<

  27. arestyr says

    What’s so wrong about agnostic? Why does someone have to take the definitive stance of no? Being atheist may not be about “knowing” there is no god, but it certainly is about “believing” there is no god. There is a “leap of faith” of sorts.

    You say it’s simply a “yes or no” question, but with many yes or no questions, why can’t the answer, “I don’t know” be sufficient?

    If you were to ask me “Is the president of France 60 years old?” my answer would be “I don’t know.” If you were to ask me some higher level science stuff, I’m quite certain my answer would be “I don’t know.” What’s wrong with accepting that there are things that we do AND do NOT know? These situations remind me of torture scenes in movies where they got the wrong guy. “Where’s the bomb?” “Dude, I just delivered a pizza…”

    Because the existence of a god is inherently a factual question. There is a truth. God does or does not exist. Either theism or atheism is true. I just don’t know which, and don’t care enough to solve the question or take a stance.

    I guess, with Schrodinger’s Cat as the example, my answer to the question of is there a god is both yes and no? God both does and doesn’t exist?

    • arestyr says

      Went through and read more in the previous post and comments here and such…

      If “atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of a god” then what is someone who believes there might be a god? Or believes there might not be a god? Doesn’t know if there is, but is open to the possibility…

      • John Morales says

        It’s damn simple: “someone who believes there might be a god” is clearly not someone who believes there is a god.

        In other words, not a god-believer.

        Similarly, someone who “believes there might not be a god” is clearly not someone who believes there is a god.

        In other words, not a god-believer.

        And again: someone who “Doesn’t know if there is, but is open to the possibility” is clearly not someone who believes there is a god.

        In other words, not a god-believer.

        Those who believe in deities come in two basic flavours: the theists and the deists.

        (I grant that the latter have an epistemic hidey-hole within which to cower, though both kinds are exposed by empiricism)

    • John Morales says

      What’s so wrong about agnostic?

      Put it this way: are there any agnostics regarding Santa Claus? ;)

        • John Morales says

          Interesting response: if you are being ironic, then you admit it is silly to be agnostic about Santa, and if you’re not, well…

          (Either way, you convey that you believe that there is more evidence for Santa than there is for God)

  28. Alfredo says

    Aronra, I believe that your assertion that this is one of those rare dichotomies where there is no N/A response is incorrect. It isn’t necessarily binary, because a religion which falls on the fine line between the alternatives is possible. I’m essentially saying that it’s theoretically possible for a theistic religion to be compatible with the world-view of a typical atheist.

    We can imagine a time in the future when the embryo growing in a woman’s womb is removed at an early stage in pregnancy and placed in an artificial environment until “birth,” permitting her to function normally without hindrance. Though it would probably be technically impractical, we can even imagine the womb being surgically removed along with the embryo. Is the woman now pregnant or not? That would depend on how we define the term. This is only an analogy. There might be justifiable reasons for defining the woman to be definitively pregnant or not-pregnant. For her to be both pregnant and not-pregnant simultaneously, both interpretations would have to be equally reasonable. In that case, it’s all about how one chooses to interpret the situation and the terminology.

    For me, what would differentiate a theist and an atheist with regard to the sort of religion that I’m suggesting would be the personal choice to embrace the religious doctrine through faith, or to treat it as a reasonable but speculative hypothesis lacking sufficient empirical evidence to define it as a respectable theory or as a fact. By “faith,” I mean secular faith– embracing an idea on the basis of reasonable but inconclusive supporting evidence, and willfully/intentionally marginalizing all alternative or conflicting perspectives cognitively– without denying the possible viability of those marginalized ideas. This is what we call “faith” outside of religious circles. It’s more than empty hope, but less than knowledge. (The “faith” one has in one’s child, or in the human race.) It’s typically driven by emotional motives, but it isn’t intrinsically irrational, illogical, or crazy. Were conventional religious “faith” involved, this would immediately differentiate a theist and an atheist.

    I would argue that the faith factor is critical here, because the reliance on faith is what would differentiate a theist and an atheist in practical, functional terms. In this case, it’s not that the “atheist” would deny the possibility that the beliefs of the “theist” might be valid, but rather that the “atheist” prefers to take a stance of emotional and attitudinal neutrality, in addition to necessary intellectual neutrality.

    Note that, on some level, what we’re talking about here is alternate approaches to dealing with the reality that there is much more to the human brain than the prefrontal cortex, and therefore more to human cognition than the analytical appraisal of facts. We are emotional and instinctive creatures, as well as rational ones. For me, this begs the question– Can we embrace our emotional nature without being irrational or batshit crazy?

    The argument could certainly be made that by choosing to employ “faith,” the theist ceases to be an atheist. I don’t think this argument is valid because the sort of “faith” that we’re talking about is one which each and every conventional atheist employs regularly in the course of their daily lives. Assuming that we have reasonable evidence to support it, we have “faith” in our spouses, our children, our country, and our species. We have “faith” in ourselves, even when we can’t prove that this faith is justified. When there is insufficient evidence to support “faith,” we fall back onto hope– but “faith” is always preferable to hope.

    I currently consider myself to be both a theist and an atheist. Of course, all theists are atheists with regard to every religion but his/her own– but my world-view, and the methodologies by which I understand myself, the universe, and my place in it, are identical to those of conventional atheists– apart from the choice to employ “faith” as an existential teddy bear in the absence of hard empirical evidence.

  29. Rich says

    Because I don’t believe in Darth Vader am I now a Vader hater? Because I ignored Billy and his magical ghost pony am I a gheretic? If I’m not heterosexual I must be … not conservative must be … yes or no, black or white are the only options recognized. Maybe I’m not an illegal, undocumented alien but an aspiring American. Who are you to label me heretic, soulless, atheist, heretic, martianless. Who invented these concepts, ideas, cults, stories, words and now demands I fit it the box, carton, cage? Spare me your ego and your labeling…although it makes for interesting yet boring conversation.

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