Quantcast

«

»

Oct 08 2007

Atheist/theist or naturalist/religious?

If one tries to categorize people by their beliefs about god, then there are many categories into which people fall (all definitions in quotes are from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary): the religious believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe; the deist is part of “a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe”; the pantheist “equates God with the forces and laws of the universe”; the agnostic is “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god”; and the atheist is one “who believes that there is no deity.”

Most philosophical discussions about religion (and opinion polls that try to measure the prevalence of religious beliefs) tend to divide people along the theist-nontheist fault line, where a theist is one who believes “in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world” and nontheist consists of everyone else. If you divide people up this way, then the groups that I have labeled as religious, deists, and pantheists all end up on the theist side of the split; atheists fall on the nontheist; and agnostics straddle the divide.

While the theist-nontheist divide can lead to interesting discussions about important philosophical points, as a practical matter it usually goes nowhere, because there is no operational way of distinguishing between the deist, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist points of view.

The problem with the theist-nontheist division is that it depends on self-identification and all kinds of highly variable subjective factors come into play in deciding what label one assigns to oneself or to others. For example, almost all atheists will readily concede that the non-existence of god, like the non-existence of fairies and unicorns, cannot be proven and that therefore there is always the logical possibility that god exists. As a result, some atheists will prefer to describe themselves as agnostics, since the term atheist erroneously, but popularly, connotes the idea that such people know for certain that god does not exist.

Take the case of Charles Darwin. By the time he reached the age of forty, he was to all intents and purposes an atheist. The shift from belief to disbelief had been steady and inexorable. The more he learned about the laws of nature, the less credibility miracles and the doctrines of Christianity had for him. He considered the idea of a personal, benevolent, omnipotent god so illogical that he said it “revolts our understanding.” Darwin wrote that he:

“gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation.” There was no smugness and no hastiness to his loss of faith; it happened almost against his will. “Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 245, my italics)

After he lost his faith, he had no doubts or anxiety about it but when pressed to give a label to his religious views he said, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain Agnostic.” Darwin apparently shied away from the label “atheist” as being too aggressively confident, which went against his own cautious and non-confrontational personality, and he took refuge in the new word agnostic, which had been coined by his friend and colleague T. H. Huxley to meet the philosophical needs of just such people. I think many people who are functionally atheists share Darwin’s unease with calling themselves that. When I tell people that I am an atheist, for example, they often try to persuade me that I must “really” be an agnostic since I readily concede that I cannot be sure that there is no god.

Similarly, many people probably choose to call themselves deists or pantheists, not because they have any evidence for the existence of the deity, but because they seem to feel that if there is no god at all then there is no meaning to life. Since they desire their life to have meaning, the idea of there being a god is comforting and appealing to them and they seek to find some way to hold on to it, despite the lack of evidence. Deism and pantheism offers such an option without also having to accept the absurdities that formal religions require, like infallible texts and miracles. It allows one to have a god to give one’s life meaning for those who need such an external source, while not compromising one’s belief that the world behaves in accordance with natural laws.

I feel that a more operationally useful classification scheme would to sort people according to their answer to the question “Do you think that god in any way intervenes in the course of events contrary to natural laws?” In other words, we should ask what their views are on what people normally consider miracles. Those answering in the affirmative would be classified as religious, and those answering in the negative (atheists, deists, and pantheists) would be grouped under the umbrella term naturalist, with the name being selected because all these people see the world operating solely under the influence of natural laws. Most agnostics, other than those who are doggedly determined to not commit themselves, should also be able to answer this question definitely and decide which of the two groups they feel most closely fits them.

(If agnostics are still not sure how to answer, a more concrete version of the question might be to ask them: “If the person whom you respect and trust the most and know to be very religious said that god had spoken to him or her and had wanted a message conveyed to you to give away all your money and possessions to charity, would you do it?” If you do not think this could have happened and refuse the command with no hesitation, then you are operationally a naturalist. If you say you would do it or are not sure what you would do, then you are effectively a religious person. I suspect that most agnostics will fall into the naturalist camp, since agnostics do not usually expect god to actually do anything concrete.)

This kind of naturalist-religious divide provides a more useful classification scheme since it is based on whether there is any observable difference in the behavior of people as a consequence of their beliefs, rather than on their beliefs themselves. The members of the naturalist group (the atheist, the deist, the pantheist, and most agnostics) all live their lives on the assumption that god does not intervene in life in any way. None of them pray or ask for god to intervene. (Those who did pray would be switched from into the religious group because then they effectively believe in an interventionist god.) As I have said many times before, what people say they believe is of little consequence except insofar as it influences their actions.

So the religious-naturalist divide based on the answer to the question “Do you think that god in any way changes the course of events contrary to natural laws?” is, to my mind, a much better measure of the level of belief in god than the theist-atheist divide. It would be nice to see polls conducted on this question. My suspicion is that there are far more naturalists (i.e. functional unbelievers) than one might suspect.

Next: Should atheists seek to undermine religion or does religion play a valuable role that makes it worth preserving?

POST SCRIPT: Sputnik trivia

Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the launching into space by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik, an event that galvanized the US space program. In 1999, a nice film called October Sky was released based on the true story of a group of high school students in a small mining town in West Virginia who were inspired by Sputnik to build rockets on their own. The film was based on the memoir Rocket Boys of one of the boys Homer Hickam, who later did become a rocket scientist for NASA.

A curious feature of this story is that the name October Sky is an anagram of the name Rocket Boys.

9 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    bob

    Sounds like theistic gerrymandering to me.

  2. 2
    Zar

    WHEN you wrote this:

    “If one tries to categorize people by their beliefs about god, then there are many categories into which people fall (all definitions in quotes are from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary): the religious believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe; the deist is part of “a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe”; the pantheist “equates God with the forces and laws of the universe”; the agnostic is “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god”; and the atheist is one “who believes that there is no deity.” ”

    You show a great lack of understanding in yoru terms. Miriam Webster aside, Deism is a rleigious construct, as, indeed, is Atheism. (Note: Atheism may not be a rleigon in and of itsself, but neither is theoism.)

    You seem to define “religious” as “Beliving in God”, which is absurd.

    In that regard, Buddhisst who do nto beelive in God arne’t rleigious. But Buddhism is a rleigion. So, indeed, is secular Humanism. (Dispit emodern claism to the contrary, it does fit the definitoon of ehat a rleigion is.)

    Pantheism is also a religious position.

    Deism, Pantheism, Panentheism ( a term you didnt even brign up I know) and Theism are all componants of variosur eligious suystems, as is Atheism and Agnostism.

    You then continue to make similar errors when you say the following.

    “Most philosophical discussions about religion (and opinion polls that try to measure the prevalence of religious beliefs) tend to divide people along the theist-nontheist fault line, where a theist is one who believes “in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world” and nontheist consists of everyone else. If you divide people up this way, then the groups that I have labeled as religious, deists, and pantheists all end up on the theist side of the split; atheists fall on the nontheist; and agnostics straddle the divide. ”

    SO, what abotu Polytheists? I’m sorry, but to be a theist requires only that you beleiv ein at leats one god. It doenst limit the number of gods you beleiv in to one. Nor does it deifne this god as anything. SImply beleivign in a god makes you a theist. Period. ( Note: Deistst are also theists. So are Pantheists.)

    “While the theist-nontheist divide can lead to interesting discussions about important philosophical points, as a practical matter it usually goes nowhere, because there is no operational way of distinguishing between the deist, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist points of view. ”

    You haven’t really studied religion, have you?

    Worse, when you state that some folks are Deists or Pantheists, but are so simply because, even though theire is no evidence for God’s existance, they prefer to beelvie in God as otheriwse there is no menaign in life, you pretty well Pretend that the only reaosn anyone beelivs in God is for emotional support or to grant meaning. This isn’t true at all. Many are Deists, for example, because they htink thsi is where the evidence leads them.

    The claim that no evidence for Gods eixstance has ever been rpesented is itsself false, since there is evidence.You may disagree withthe conclusion drawn, but ther is evidence.

    Nor do all peopel who eelive in Gods existance nessisairlybeelive base don Emotional need, or desire to find meaning.

    It seems to me that you simply project onto others a mtoive for beleif that fits yor own perspective, and your own A Priori asusmptions about htings.

    Thats a rather poor way to operate.

  3. 3
    Zar

    Also, using the temr “Functional Unbeleivers” in reference to Pantheisst and Deisst is intellectually dishonest.

    Just because they do not hold to the same beoleifs as those you try to berate, doens’t eman they are ufnctional Unbeleivers. THey’d still possss a beleif in God, and woudl still have a mean of understandign God.A Pantheist even has a mean of interactign with God.

    Such is simply a self-serving lale you use to shore up support for your own Atheism, but it isnt a truthful representaiton.

  4. 4
    Zar

    ALSO…

    Since when does Pantheism preclude a beelif in an Interventionist deity?

    Pantheism is the beelif that God and the Universe are one unit, and everyhtin taken in totality in God. It is not, hwoever, a bleif that the Universe is midnless, or operates soley on fixed laws. Numerous Pantheists acutlaly beleive that the Universe can affect changs in itsself to accomodate goals it has set for itsself.

    Thus, a Pantheist cnanot be seen as a “Naturalist” simply because Pantheism doesnt preclude the possibility of an intereventionist God.

    On that note, you can’t veen make the “Religious/Naturalist” divide work. Unless you wan tto really ask is to beleive that all rleigious beleivers beleiv ein an interventionist God.

    It isn’t so, as many rleigious formulaes are Deistic ( and are still called rleigious) and many are Pantheistic ( STill rleigious) and many Athiestic ( and tsill rleigious).

    Buddhism is an example. Buddhism doesn’t require a beleif in any god,and many Buddhists are Atheists, and yet Buddhism is a religion. If one is a devout Buddhist, one is religious.

    But one is still Atheistic.

    The Humanist is also rleigioous, an dyet an Atheist. ( Humanists may prefer to say they arne’t religious, but htye clearly are.)

    Religion isnt beleif in an interventionist God. Thats just poor deining of terms.

  5. 5
    Heidi Cool

    Zar,
    I’m confused about what points you are trying to make. Mano has defined religious to be those who “believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe.”

    That seems appropriate to this argument, but how would you define it? How would Humanists be considered religious in your view?

  6. 6
    Elizabeth

    Despite the difficulty of reading these comments, Zar has made some interesting points. While I don’t think that Mano “[hasn't] really studied religion,” I do think that Zar’s categorizations of the religious terms used in this post may be equally valid. The dispute over which is the proper definition of theism, deism, or atheism is part of the argument for coming up with new terms. Perhaps Miriam-Webster’s classifications of these terms are too narrow, or even incorrect, but these are notoriously hard terms to pin down. There are minute and possibly contradictory divisions of beliefs within each of these more general groupings that will make it nearly impossible to settle on a single definition for any of them. But this is what the point of the argument is – that it is hard to categorize religious beliefs into general groups and that there may be another way to do it. Mano is, I think, suggesting that the belief in a God (or gods, or supernatural powers, or forces) that can and does actively interfere with people’s daily lives is the sort of belief that most strongly distinguishes one type of belief structure from another, regardless of what traditional category that structure falls under. Perhaps he shouldn’t use the terms “religious” and “naturalist” for the people who believe in active interference and those who don’t, since the terms already have definitions that may not follow along these lines.

    It can be noted, though, that this isn’t actually that uncommon a practice. Oftentimes in the study of linguistics (a field where terms are almost always blurry and have been known to refer to many different concepts) the author will define the way he is going to use a term for the duration of his work; not as an affront to the definitions already set down for these terms, but as a shorthand so he doesn’t have to continue clarfying every time he uses them. It seems clear that that’s what’s going on here. These terms already have plenty of definitions; Mano is just clarifying how he wishes to define them for the purposes of studying the divide between those who believe in this sort of intervention, and those who don’t. Personally, I think it’s a reasonable aspect of religion to look at as a possibly crucial dividing line, and could lead to some interesting arguments about the ramifications of this belief.

  7. 7
    Mano

    Elizabeth is right about my motivation. I initially thought of making up new labels to avoid this kind of response but realized that I myself get annoyed when other people make up new names for things when not absolutely necessary! So I decided to use existing labels that came closest to what I intended.

  8. 8
    Zar

    ACTUALLY, religion is defined as any set formulae of beleifs that form a coherant worldview. Basiclaly a religion is any set of principles or ideals codified into a central framework.

    Buddhism is a rleigion that doesn’t demand the worship of any gods. Its still a religion.

    Humanism, although most Humansist like to say otherwise these days, is also a rleigion, as it has pretty firm teachings and a central philosophical framework that is adhered to. In fact, if you read the Humanist Manifesto, the founding DOcument of Humanism, you will see that the Authors quiet clealry intended Huamnism as a New religious Philosophy, and flatly stated Humanism was a religion.

    The reason most Humanists nowadays reject the lable of religion is because they want to pretend religion is somehow irraitonal, and they wan tto depict thmselves as “Socnetific” and not “Religious”. Besides, itn eh US its a vehicle for teahign Humanism in schools.

    This stated, mano is still wrong and no one addresse dmy other points.

    For one thing, Pantheism isn’t nessisarily a beleif that rpecludes an Interventionist God. Many Pantheists htink God can intervene in the operation fo the Universe, even thugh God and the Ujvierse as a total are Identical. A sentient, thinkign Universe is often invisioned in Pantheism.

    Mano also ignroed Panentheism. Panentheism sees the Universe as contianed within God, btu God as beign greater than the Universe.

    All of this also said, Pantheists ar enot “Functional Unbeleivers”, as they have a modle framework for God to interact with them.

    In the same ay, Deitsts aren’t relaly “Functional nonbeleivers” either.

    If one reads the works of SUch Deists as Thomas Paine, or Mathew Tindal, you will swiftly see that Providence is provided by the Deistic God, and the IDeals he established are still rather to be followed.

    As I said, Mano’s understanding of Religion is lacking. He may be a Physicisst, btu he is not a theologian, nor a Philosopher, and his arugments are just not tall that good and rather frustrating if you knwo anyhting about the topic at all.

    I mean this not as too mch an offence, and I realsie I am new here, but in a world of Militant “New” atheism, one has to wonder why peopel who have not studied the theology they are tryign to disporve should even bother venturing into this field?

    From the pld claim that “All intelelgent peopel are Atheists” tot he Hidden God hypothasis, the whole thign is Sophomoric, and displays a lack of actual study into what Theologians say, or even what common beleivers truely assert.

    This si what Irks me the most.

  9. 9
    Arcos Plage

    I see you have not addressed Pandeism, which uses logic and reasoning to arrive at a combination of Pantheism and Deism. Pandeism is the acetylene torch that cuts through the clutter of other religious positions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>