On Defining Atheism

Sorry, no verse. My aggregator threw a post at me that was based on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of atheism. It used that definition for a lot of heavy lifting, showing that we atheist types are all sorts of illogical, given that definition. Thing is, it’s a shit definition, and moreover, it’s not *the* definition by any means.

Anyway, I responded there, and reprise it here in case (but why should it be the case?) it is not printed there:

You have good reason to cite the Stanford encyclopedia–it is convenient for your argument. Mind you, you could have cited any number of other sources that disagree, but this gives you one you can call FACT (appeal to authority, if you care) despite the existence of contradictory definitions.

Let me suggest another authority–the Oxford Handbook of Atheism (How does Oxford rank in comparison to Stanford?). It costs a bit, so here’s a site with the relevant bit quoted with permission: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/02/11/defining-atheism-an-excerpt-from-the-oxford-book-of-atheism/

In a nutshell, atheism is the privative category of religious belief, the “none of the above” answer when asked if you are catholic, lutheran, baptist, episcopalian, brethren, methodist… orthodox, reform… sunni, shia… sikh, hindu, buddhist, zoroastrian, Greek polytheist, Norse polytheist, Scientologist, Mormon, Heaven’s Gate Cultist…. “None of the above” is a perfectly reasonable answer, without any of the baggage of “strong vs weak” (consider–any strong Christian* believer is also a strong Greek Polytheism atheist). It has the added advantage of actually encompassing more atheists than the Stanford definition does, in terms of congruence with the statements of actual atheists; it includes (though the categories are not needed) both “strong” and “weak” atheists, both “accidental” and “deliberate” atheists.

Mind you, the Oxford definition means that much of the rest of your post is relatively irrelevant. Here, of course, you have a choice: You can keep your definition, and maintain that the atheists that don’t fit it are a problem of atheism, or you can recognize that the people you are looking at do not fit the definition you are using because it is a bad definition. In science, when good, hard data disagree with a theory, it is because the theory is inadequate. Here, the data disagree with your Stanford definition. The good news is… you have another, much better, definition sitting right in front of you.

(BTW, the Stanford encyclopedia also happens, coincidentally, to define my own particular are of science incorrectly. It’s a problem I have to alert my students to each semester. The problem with any appeal to authority is, it is only as good as the authority you appeal to.)

I guess I have seen one too many instances of “if X, then Y”, where X is “this is what atheists believe”, and is utter bullshit, and Y is “they must also think all this stuff”, which is more utter bullshit.

Edited to add!–do please click through to see the comments–as of this writing, no atheist comments (not mine, nor any of those of the commenters here) have been published. The site’s author, though, in charge of which comments get through, has commented:

Wow, this post just went up, and we had four atheists comment seeking attention for their personal mental states. This is a blog about evidence. This is not the place for deluded people to call attention to their delusions.For people who want to talk about their beliefs but not about the evidence for those beliefs, I recommend paying a psychologist to listen. The rest of us don’t care about your delusions, we are into arguments and evidence.

Please compare that comment to mine–I would suggest that mine was on topic, appropriate, and not at all about “seeking attention for [my] personal mental state.” I would also suggest that the statement “This is a blog about evidence” is, of course, a lie.

Oh Wintery Knight… I have linked to you, so anyone can see I am not misrepresenting you. Do you have the courage to do the same?


  1. says

    After reading a few entries at the Stanford Encyclopedia long ago, I went “Huh.” They offer some valid information, but something’s always seemed…off. I’ve approached it with a high degree of skepticism even though I don’t know that there’s systematic manipulation or whether that manipulation might be in favor of religion, rightwing politics, particular philosophical traditions, or something else. I remain suspicious, and perplexed.

    (Oh and incidentally I wrote a new poem. :D)

  2. echidna says

    I saw your comment, and added one of my own:

    I do not believe that any gods, leprechauns, fae, trolls, goblins or magical creatures exist. This lack of belief is supported by the corresponding lack of evidence for their existence. I’m sure you have no argument with the notion hat trolls do not exist, nor would you ask me to justify this lack of belief. Why would I need to justify a lack of belief in any god to call myself an atheist?

    Cuttlefish is correct, the Stanford definition is poor. The use of the word “deny” implicitly carries with it that the assumption that there is some evidence to support that which is denied. Would you be equally demanding of the need to justify a lack of belief in goblins?

    However, by the time I had submitted it, your comment was no longer visible.
    I then added this comment:

    Why was cuttlefish’s comment removed? Is the Oxford definition of atheist so patently inferior to Stanford’s that it could not be discussed on this page?

    Both comments are in moderation as I write this.

  3. Al Dente says

    I just posted the following at Wintery Knight’s blog (it’s pending moderation):

    When you start your post with a logical fallacy (“Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition” is an appeal to authority) then I’m going to read your claims very critically. Then you quote William Lane Craig. A friendly word of advice, most atheists who have ever heard of Lane Craig are not impressed by him. This is a guy who claims that his god is morally good even when doing immoral acts. That’s not only special pleading (another logical fallacy) but repugnant to anyone who’s given any thought to morality.

    So you’ve got two strikes against you before I started reading your defense of the Stanford Encyclopedia’s strawman definition of atheism. I’ll count the strawman as a foul tip, you’re still at bat.

    Lane Craig is pretending that atheists must show that gods don’t exist. Note that I said “gods.” We don’t believe in any gods, not just Lane Craig’s favorite deity. Let me introduce you to the concept of the null hypothesis. If there’s no evidence for something, then the reasonable conclusion is that it doesn’t exist. I see no evidence for gods, not Vishnu, not Wotan, not Zeus, not Huitzilopotchli, or any other the other millions of gods invented by human imagination. As a result, I don’t believe in any of them. If you or Lane Craig or any other theist want us to believe in the figments of your collective imaginations, then you need to produce some evidence they’re more than figments of your imaginations. No evidence, no gods. Note that while absence of proof is not proof of absence, it is evidence of absence.

    Continuing on, I then read your twaddle about “subjective atheists.” That’s rich, coming from someone who thinks faith is objectively good. Faith is belief backed by wishful thinking and “gee, I really hope that I’m not mistaken.” Faith is what you have when you don’t have actual evidence for something but really want it to exist. You have the chutzpah to sneer at “subjective atheists” while being a “subjective theist.”

    A swing and a miss for strike three.

  4. says

    Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition.

    That’s ridiculous.

    To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

    This person needs to read the Q&A at the end of Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience. They also need to recognize that someone claiming the existence of an entity needs to define said entity in such a way that evidence of its existence can be defined. If they can’t, the claim isn’t above or beyond science – it can (and should) simply be dismissed as nonsense.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    @1–SC, I like your poems better than mine. That’s really beautiful (“beautiful” is not the right word, but is the right feeling).

    @2–echidna, I got an email from the site, stating the conditions under which my comment would be posted. I won’t reproduce the email (not without permission), but my response is mine, and it goes a little like this:

    How convenient. You get to define atheism in such a manner that a challenge like this is reasonable; a reasonable definition of atheism would make such a challenge utterly irrelevant.

    Pray tell me which god you wish me to know does not exist, and I might be able to answer you; I must admit, though, the vast majority of gods are ones I have no experience with—nor do you, I would wager; there have been thousands, at conservative estimate. Indeed, the “Christian” label you choose is one that assumes agreement among tens of thousands of disagreeing sects.

    Your last sentence, of course, is a lie.

    (all of that quote is my response–pay no attention to changes in kerning!)

    @3–don’t hold your breath!

    @4–Oh, but without the Stanford definition, there is nothing to stand on!
    (For those who wonder why an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, let them visit the Wintery Knight!)

  6. echidna says

    Cuttlefish@5, I certainly didn’t rate an email. I must admit, I’ve always been a little wary of the dismissal of expertise being lumped in with the “appeal to authority” fallacy. But this reliance on the Stanford definition with its slippery use of “deny” makes the case beautifully.

  7. Al Dente says

    Cuttlefish @5

    @3–don’t hold your breath!

    I’m not. The reason I posted the quote here is I wanted it to be published.

    SC @1

    Thank you for the poem.

  8. echidna says

    Cuttlefish, I spoke too soon, I have just received an email. It’s likely to be the same as yours, given that your response would be appropriate for mine as well.

  9. echidna says

    SC@1, reading your poem led to a wish that I had a better sense of poetry. For some reason, the imagery of the word “tallow” seems really important to the poem, but I can’t put my finger on why. I do sense that my desire to analyse the poem is probably getting in the way of experiencing it properly.

  10. Al Dente says

    I also got an email pretending that I didn’t give “evidence” that Wintery Knight’s god doesn’t exist. I replied that the null hypothesis is evidence. However Wintery Knight is either too stupid to realize it is evidence or xe’s too cowardly to allow rebuttal to his nonsense.

  11. Cuttlefish says


    I can’t speak for SC, but I do have a container of rendered tallow in my fridge right now–what used to be the fat of a cow, still fat, still of a cow, but now a container of white stuff in my fridge, ready for me to cook with. The same thing, really, but purified. Not the same thing at all.

    I don’t know if that helps.

  12. Cuttlefish says

    @#12 Al Dente–

    The great thing about using Stanford’s definition is that the email you got almost makes sense. It doesn’t, actually, but it nearly does. And Wintery Knight can pretend.

    It’s a bit like knowing for a fact that planetary orbits are circular–elliptical orbits can be dismissed out of hand, and anyone who proposes them is clearly not playing by your rules and can therefor be forbidden from commenting.

  13. Bruce Martin says

    The Wintery Knight’s blog tag line is … Integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square.

    Of course, it says something right away when someone wants to conflate fantasies with reality.

    But what really gets me is the phrase “public square” here. People have no business pretending that they are trying to be precise when they start out with such a deliberately ambiguous phrase.

    Let me remind us all that no atheist from Madelyn Murray O’Hair thru PZ and Hitchens and the rest have ever argued for removing prayers from the public square. We object to them in public schools and public meetings and public lands and public buildings and public spaces, but not the public square. That’s because all those other uses of public refer to actions by or construable as by the government– while the phrase of public square refers to speech by members of the public acting as individuals and not with the authority of the state.

    It is the religious who try to cheat by conflating these situations to their advantage. To use that phrase in the state/church context without clarification is to confess to relying upon confusion to fake the appearance of scoring a point. It is to confess that the whole project of the Wintery knight is to avoid accountability for his/her own statements and pseudo-arguments on their own blog.

    There is no point or honor in engaging on such terms.

  14. Cuttlefish says

    Hear, hear, Bruce!

    I have made that point many times, though I don’t know that I have done so so succinctly and well. It seems such a simple concept, but it is abused so thoroughly and so often that I sometimes wonder. Thank you for the reminder of just who has got it wrong.

  15. Cuttlefish says

    It seems to me…

    Back when I was a Christian, one of my biggest influences was my pastor, [name redacted]. He fully believed that the bible and the world itself were, in essence, two different books in which God wrote; there could be no scientific knowledge that did not verify biblical truth. He actually encouraged me to doubt, to question, to do my best to poke holes in what he knew to be The Truth. He was a man of faith.

    Wintery Knight does not appear to be such an individual.

  16. says

    It’s interesting how many of the religious desperately want atheists to mirror themselves, making grand metaphysical claims about the origin of the universe, when in fact the positive content of atheism, if any, is about the religious and their claims.

  17. echidna says

    Thanks, but my problem isn’t one of knowing what tallow is, it’s about understanding the play of resonances between the words. I was thinking of tallow as in its use in candles, particularly carved candles, which melt even as they illuminate. This thought seemed to be going somewhere, except that it didn’t seem to fit the rest of the poem.

    On the subject of Wintery Knight, I haven’t graced him with a reply. His mischaracterisation of requiring evidence of magical entities prior to belief in them as “seeking attention for our personal mental states” , while refusing to actually quote any of us as an example is just plain slimy and dishonest.

  18. James O'Day says

    Wintery Knight’s comment on all your replies to his post is ad hominem. He does like his logical fallacies.

  19. Ariel says

    Even if I’m sympathetic to your general aims, it still seems to me that you have some details wrong.

    You can keep your definition, and maintain that the atheists that don’t fit it are a problem of atheism, or you can recognize that the people you are looking at do not fit the definition you are using because it is a bad definition. In science, when good, hard data disagree with a theory, it is because the theory is inadequate. Here, the data disagree with your Stanford definition.

    Do they, really? Some quotes from the source you linked to (“The Oxford Handbook of Atheism”):

    Even today, however, there is no clear, academic consensus as to how exactly the term should be used.

    even relatively homogeneous groups often display a notable lack of uniformity. For instance, a 2007 study of over 700 students — all at the same British university, at the same time, with a clear majority being a similar age and from the same country — found that, from a list of commonly encountered definitions of ‘atheist’, the most popular choice was ‘A person who believes that there is no God or gods’ (Bullivant 2008). This was, however, chosen by only 51.8 per cent of respondents: hardly an overwhelming consensus.

    it is clear that the word is used and understood in a wide variety of different ways, even in so relatively uniform a group.

    Conclusion: if the “hard data” you are mentioning concern the actual usage of the word “atheist”, even your own source states (very explicitly!) that there is no ‘overwhelming consensus’. In effect I can’t see any basis for the claim that “the data disagree with the Stanford definition”.

    Further in the Handbook we read:

    It is important to recognize that plurality of usage, as sketched above, need not imply that some scholars are right and others are wrong. Atheism simply possesses no single, objective definition: it can be used correctly in a number of related, sometimes overlapping, and often mutually exclusive ways. This is not necessarily a problem, so long as one is always clear how exactly each author is deploying the term.

    I like this approach. There is no single ‘objective’ definition of atheism; but what we can do in practice is to assess the usefulness of a given definition. Eventually the authors defend their own definition not in terms of ‘hard data’, but by appeal to usefulness:

    Defining atheism as ‘an absence of…’ permits it to function as an umbrella concept, comprising a range of significantly related positions and phenomena. These may usefully be subdivided into different categories, at different analytic levels.

    In short: they are not claiming that proponents of other definitions are somehow ‘objectively wrong’. They are saying rather that their own definition is useful and handy, especially (but not only) in the context of writing the Handbook, where the analysis of “significantly related positions” will be important.

    I share the view that there is no ‘objective fact of the matter’ here. It’s really a question of convenience, not of ‘hard data’. I would add also that in some contexts the definition of atheism as a ‘conviction that there are no gods’ may also turn out to be useful and handy, depending on our aims (perhaps different than writing a handbook!) Anyway, people who use other definitions make no factual mistake. The Handbook gives no basis for calling the Stanford definition “incorrect”.

  20. CatMat says

    Four atheists are pointing out
    the fallacies in post about
    denial of this Dog of mine
    and giving pointers undivine ~
    I better shush them out.

    Such outbursts merely demonstrate
    a faulty personal mental state.
    This blog is ’bout evidence
    for single-minded audience –
    We’re much better without.

  21. Cuttlefish says

    Ariel @#21– It’s not a matter of “incorrect”, it is a matter of “incomplete”. Someone who fits the Stanford definition is indeed an atheist, but not all atheists fit the Stanford definition; I think your answer shows that as clearly as anything–as you say, “there is no overwhelming consensus”. And if there is no consensus in how atheists describe themselves, there is clearly no consensus that the Stanford definition fits.

    It is my opinion that the privative definition is a much better fit, but I will be among the first to recognize that it is not how a great many atheists self-describe. It does not so much address the “hard vs soft” atheism question, as eliminate the need for the distinction in the first place–but clearly we have a percentage of atheists who are quite comfortable identifying as hard or soft, or with some other explanation why they don’t like the terms.

  22. Cuttlefish says

    Echidna @#19– heh… I assumed (correctly) that you already knew what it was; I tried (and failed) to make a point about its transformation from what it had been in the cow’s world to what it was in mine, purified, almost what Freud would have called sublimated. Verbal alchemy, if you will.

    And of course, that still doesn’t mean I had a grasp on it.

  23. Cuttlefish says

    For the “badphilosophy” redditors–note that the first thing the SEP has to do (in the sentence immediately following the one Wintery Knight quotes as defining atheism) is to specify a sort of god that this atheism is defined with respect to (“that of a sophisticated monotheism”). All well and good, but very clearly an attempt at positively defining an “atheism” that would leave some believers included. Indeed, the problem with any “strong atheism” or “hard atheism” is that it can only be defined with respect to a given god, which leaves the definition open to “but have you examined all possible gods?” queries. (or as a former colleague once asked me, “which god is it you don’t believe in?”) That there are logical problems with that definition does not make atheists illogical, it makes the definition inadequate.

    It seems to me that using the title “internet atheists are too clever by far to use the SEP” would require you to show why my complaint fails–as it stands, all you have is an appeal to the same authority Wintery Knight appeals to… which is bad philosophy indeed.

  24. jonmoles says

    I couldn’t help myself, this is the only comment I’ll be leaving there:

    “If this was truly a blog about evidence you wouldn’t be bashing atheists, you’d be one.”

  25. Menyambal says

    I left a comment, something about how the “evidence” article was mostly just a pasting-in of other people’s opinions.

  26. Ariel says

    Cuttlefish #26, you say:

    Indeed, the problem with any “strong atheism” or “hard atheism” is that it can only be defined with respect to a given god, which leaves the definition open to “but have you examined all possible gods?” queries. (or as a former colleague once asked me, “which god is it you don’t believe in?”)

    Why? Compare:

    (1) Atheism is an absence of belief in the existence of gods.
    (2) Atheism is the denial of the existence of gods.

    Needless to say, (1) comes from the Oxford Handbook and is your preferred definition (right?). (2) is a natural modification of the SEP definition. Please note that the only stated reason for using (monotheistic, sophisticated) “God” in the original SEP version is not some alleged logical difficulty, but the conviction that other gods are “of little or no philosophical interest”. (I put aside the question whether the conviction is right or wrong.)

    Then you say:

    That there are logical problems with that definition does not make atheists illogical, it makes the definition inadequate.

    In other words, you spot some logical problem with (2), which – as I gather – is absent in (1).

    The nature of this logical problem (with (2) but not with (1), remember!) eludes me. In both cases we need to have a general concept of a god even to formulate the definition. Without such a concept both definitions become meaningless. (Yes, (1) as well: are you calling me an atheist? Then you attribute to me an absence of belief in the existence of … well, in the existence of WHAT?) In effect we have the following situation:

    First: we have some general notion of a god (a necessary prerequisite for both definitions!).
    Second: in (1) we attribute to the atheist the lack of belief that something exemplifies this general notion. In (2) we attribute to the atheist the belief that nothing exemplifies this general notion.
    Third: it seems plausible (or at least arguable) that in (2), unlike in (1), we *do* attribute to the atheist the possession of a general notion of a god. But even so, what’s the logical problem with this? (please keep in mind that the notion is needed anyway!)

    I simply don’t understand the “but have you examined all possible gods?” worry. The notion of a god could e.g. be characterized by a list of properties with the proviso that in order to qualify, you have to satisfy – say – most of them. Or at least five of them. Or whatever. Then why do you have to examine all possible gods in order to believe that e.g. no 5 properties on the list are jointly satisfiable? Kill me, I don’t know. I just don’t understand what logical problem you have in mind.

  27. CatMat says


    The conviction that other gods are “of little or no philosophical interest” as a basis for defining atheism is inadequate because it ends up defining atheism as “the conviction that the God in Abrahamic religions is of little or no philosophical interest, either.” That is *not* a useful definition for any other purpose than preloading the validity of some subset of Abrahamic gods as the default position.

    Speaking only on my own behalf as an atheist, I see no reason to adopt a notion of “gods” that is separate from that of “magic” – anything outside of the inherent nature of the universe but with observable effects fits the bill.

    Without evidence to the contrary, I believe – in the active sense – that the universe is comprehensible¹⁾ and that meaningful approximations of its nature and behavior in different scales can be deduced from suitable models and theories.

    As far as I can tell, theists believe otherwise and postulate an actor or actors independent of the universe as a whole, rendering any model or theory useless as a tool for comprehension.

    Assuming the above makes sense²⁾, I could as well use the following definitions:

    (1) Theism is an absense of belief in a comprehensible universe
    (2) Theism is the denial of a comprehensible universe

    and label them, say, “weak” and “strong” theism. Surely no one would object? Clearly all theists (or at least 51.8% of them, if polled) contemplate the nature of the comprehensibility of the universe as part of their core beliefs?

    ¹⁾ (comprehensible in the sense that it is not inherently incomprehensible, but that’s largely semantics)
    ²⁾ (it may not, foreign language and all that)

  28. Menyambal says

    The trouble with defining atheism is that any short definition gets confused by the various possible understood meanings of words. In that article and this post, I saw a case of two different definitions that were clear to me, with someone else wondering what the difference is. It just needs a lot more words, or maybe a different comparison.

    I sometimes define atheism as not going to church on Sunday mornings. Now, is that an action, or a lack of an action? To me, now, Sundays and Saturdays are much alike—I don’t hear church bells, nobody in my house is going to church, I sleep late—the only difference is that garage sales are on Saturday. But back when I was a teen, not going to church was an hour-long fight with my parents.

    Nowadays, my atheism isn’t even a thing. I kinda know that other people do some church stuff, but I don’t care. I don’t wake up on Sundays and thank God that I don’t have to go to church, I just wake up and let the dogs out—late weekend mornings get them pissy. There is literally nothing godly in my morning. It is hard to say how ungodly my Sundays are, because it isn’t actively ungodly in any way. I am no more aware of church-goers than I am of the farting of hippos in the Upper Zambezi.

    Back when I was living with my parents, I had to make excuses to not go to church, I had to come up with something to do instead. I would be sick, I would “go to my friend’s church”, I would stay home and think about how much I was breaking my mother’s heart.

    So, anyhow, there are two different scenarios that are both covered by sayi ng that I didn’t go to church last Sunday. The same can be applied to atheism—at one extreme, atheism is a kind of baffled “what are you going on about” ignorance, at the other, an active fight in which one had better have some good reasons.

    My good reason for actively saying that there is no god is the kind of people who write articles like the linked one. If that is the best they can come up with, I could just keep ignoring the whole issue, but when I get that kind of insult, well, I push back.

  29. Cuttlefish says

    The problem, Ariel, comes from the artificial category “belief in gods”. We could, as you do, treat all believers as members of one category–but it only makes sense to group them that way in comparison to non-believers, and non-believers are already an artificial category negatively defined by lack of membership in one of the many believer categories. A believer in one god is not a believer in all gods (and thus denies the existence of these other gods, fulfilling the requirements of definition #2)–it is worth noting, too, that the philosophically-derived god may not at all describe the god believed in by members of any given religion. Treating “belief” as a binary doesn’t really work.

    This post might help a bit to explain my view: http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2011/09/29/plato-linnaeus-darwin-and-atheism-and-greta/

  30. Menyambal says

    “Belief”. Now there is a key word.

    The definition of atheism that most chaps my chops is the one that says that I believe that there are no gods. It implies an action, an act of faith, and a lack of reason.

    I was on a date once, discussing things in the course of getting acquainted, when the other person said something about belief that made me realize that I simply don’t have any. I just don’t take things on faith. Other folks seem to have a faith lobe in their heads, but in me, it ain’t there. At the time, it was startling, but after a few decades, a few moves, college and the internet, I know that I am not the only person who strives for evidence and a scientific approach.

    But a lot of people do not realize that some other folks lack belief. They believe that everyone is a believer—maybe in the wrong religion, or in Bill Clinton’s perfection, or in Darwin, or in atheism—but they don’t see anyone as operating from a rational evaluation of the evidence. Well, they believe that they are being rational, and that they are making good arguments, but only them.

    And yes, I know of a few atheists who do indeed believe that there is no God. Their puppy died, or something else bad, and they decided that no god would have allowed that, so they believe that disproves their god. (And that disbelief punishes that god.) And they go off and believe in crystals.

  31. Chris J says

    Welp, I tried commenting as well. I even included some justification for my beliefs, in the hopes that this would fit Wintery Knight’s commenting rules. But, whatever. It’s his blog, and he seems to be on a little power trip at the moment, so I doubt he’ll let anything through. To me, the fundamental issue is burden of proof. He wants atheist to require taking the burden so he can avoid it. If he truly based his world-view on evidence and reason, the burden would be pretty easy to bear.

    Here’s the comment I left, just for kicks. It was a reply to Wintery Knight, which I won’t reproduce.

    Doesn’t that mean that you have to justify your belief in God to atheists?

    WLC recognized that there are three positions you can take with regard to a proposition P. “I believe P,” “I believe not-P,” and the third, neutral stance “I don’t believe P or not-P.” What’s so hard about dealing with someone who says they take the third stance?

    What you’re doing is shifting the burden of proof. Both the first and second stances necessarily take that burden; they should demonstrate why they have a positive belief towards “P” or “not-P.” The third stance does not have that burden; they’re the ones looking to be convinced.

    I think you’re insisting that all atheists must have the second stance so you can foist the burden of proof on them. If you admitted that some atheists could take the third stance, that would mean putting your beliefs on the line and having to justify them. If you had reasons and evidence for your beliefs, this would be extremely easy. I guess its telling that you’d rather force atheists to justify themselves to you.

    (By the way, yes, I am an atheist, and one with the belief that no gods exist. My justification? I simply haven’t seen the evidence required for a belief in God. Every study on prayer fails to demonstrate its effectiveness, nobody has been able to show any evidence for communication with a deity, natural disasters that some claim are God’s wrath don’t target anybody in particular, and so on. Every expected piece of evidence that would demonstrate a God fails to appear.)

  32. outeast says

    This definition, that definition…. Surely if we’re talking about ‘what self-identified atheists believe’ then the only relevant definition is the one used by said atheists. If Frosty Knight or whoever wants to build an argument based on one definition, that’s fine – it just means it can only be valid for those whose beliefs actually align with that definition.

    I self-identify as an atheist as per the definition ‘lack of belief in any god’ (more broadly, lack of belief in any supernatural). I don’t really care what others mean by atheist – I’m not under contract. If Chilly Nights wants to cry ‘Aha! But THIS is what my dictionary says atheist means!’ then I’m perfectly happy to say, OK, then don’t class me as an atheist. I’ll be a, a nonbeliever. An agnostic if you must. A whateverist. A randomneologismist.

    The No True Scotsman is only really interesting when applied to redefine a real set – when it excludes people from a set to which they belong, and especially when that redefinition carries implicit or explicit sanctions. Atheism just isn’t like that; and if it was, I’d outwith myself immediately :)

  33. Chris J says

    Well neat, I’m actually getting my comments approved and responded to. I wonder how long this will last?

  34. Gerhard says

    BTW, the Stanford encyclopedia also happens, coincidentally, to define my own particular are of science incorrectly.

    Could you point to the SEP article that misdefines your area of science?

  35. Chris J says

    Spoke too soon, I linked a list of refutations to a list of pro-theism arguments Wintery Knight linked me too, and that comment got deleted.

    I guess “reasons and evidence” doesn’t include refutations to reasons or evidence… I guess his version of debate is to just spout positive affirmations at each other without any real back and forth?

  36. Cuttlefish says

    Gerhard, not without revealing enough about me that I would be outing myself to a good number of people. The SEP is not alone in getting it wrong, though, to be fair. I have to spend the first week of one class addressing misconceptions, and have accumulated a disturbingly large number of journal articles that each are attempts at addressing those misconceptions, varying mostly only by date of publication.

  37. Menyambal says

    “Hi. I’d like a snowcone, please. Without flavour.”

    “Without which flavor?”

    “Um, without cherry flavour, please.”

    “We ain’t got cherry.”


    That’s a retread of an old soda-fountain joke, which could be stretched to Pythonesque length, but it could as easily been built from the folks who ask which god it is that you don’t believe in. All of them, or rather, none of them, nor ghosts nor goblins nor green aliens.

    Actually, the green aliens might exist, but I have no reason to think that they have visited this planet.

    The problem is that we are trying to define atheism as a lack of something, usually, which is odd and difficult enough in most circumstances. It’s like saying that we don’t collect stamps, or running up to total strangers to tell them that we don’t have herpes.

    In an age where the prevailing case was that everyone was religious, in one active religion, atheism had to be mentioned as an oddity. Now, though, it’s only kind of odd and slightly disadvantageous to be atheist. The big change is that there are now so many religions around for us to be atheist of.

    So the burden of explaining one’s position really has shifted to the religious people. Why should their religion get any respect, when a dozen just like it are down the street saying that it is wrong?

    It is only a few people who still regard their own religion as so obvious, so important, and so overwhelming, that the burden of proof shifts to anyone who disagrees with them. To them, an atheist’s claim is extraordinary, so when he says that he really has no claim and that he can’t prove a negative, and he doesn’t care to, it’s head-asplodey time. (Or kill the crazy guy time.)

    But if you ask the religious to precisely define what their religion is, and exactly what god is, they really can’t. It isn’t part of the ineffable to be clear. God works in mysterious ways, and nobody reads the scriptures.

    So how can atheism be defined as the opposite of a-big-bunch-of-hand-waving, or the lack of an uncertain je ne sais quoi, or the fervent belief that some … kinda … thingy … thingies have no whatchamacallitness? We cannot define atheism until theism is defined.

    And that is the theists’s problem. As I have said before, I will start taking religion seriously when there is only one religion.

    I don’t do whatever it is that they do.

    To be a good person, I have to oppose a lot of religious actions, but to be atheist, I don’t have to do anything.

  38. Kevin Kehres says


    but the conviction that other gods are “of little or no philosophical interest”.

    1 billion Hindu might disagree.

  39. Kevin Kehres says


    As I have said before, I will start taking religion seriously when there is only one religion.

    I’ve said many times that I’ll convert to a religion just as soon as all religions everywhere agree on the status of the bacon cheeseburger.

    And the wearing of hats.

  40. Bruce Martin says

    @31: Your comment reminds me of “House” saying that he’s only an atheist on Christmas and Easter, because the rest of the time it doesn’t really matter.

    I wonder what fraction of Americans are effectively only Christian for two hours per year? I think of all the things people do for more time annually anyway. They might as well have faith in being drunk or brushing their teeth or going to the dentist.

    SAY, Wait! Maybe that means the tooth fairy IS real, after all?

  41. Al Dente says

    I’ve just discovered that Wintery Knight has me banned. I wrote a moderate post giving various reasons why his god doesn’t exist and it didn’t even make it into moderation.

  42. echidna says

    I’ve left the following post, quoting from Wintery Knight:

    “If anything, I think that the atheist obsession with not defending their view shows that atheism is not about knowing the truth, it’s about something else – personal autonomy from the moral law, regardless of truth.”

    I disagree that my position, that I do not believe in a god for lack of evidence, is not a statement about truth. The defence of the view lies in the very lack of evidence, however insufficient you deem this to be.

    Atheism of this form is not about subjective states or personal autonomy from moral law, rather it is based on the philosophy of Positivism. Positivism was an important stage in scientific thinking – recognising that explanations for phenomena were not very helpful if there were not supported by observation and data. The search for truth, therefore, lies in developing a consistent interpretation of all data. Apparent contradictions in theory are indications that the interpretations are insufficiently robust: the search for truth is never ending. The rapid progress in our understanding of our world in the last two centuries demonstrates the power of this approach.

    I agree with you that a lack of belief in god affects one’s moral stance. It places the responsibility for the welfare of our world and its inhabitants directly on our own shoulders, because there is no basis to take comfort in a divine plan.

    I’m not sure whether it will get through.

  43. Bryan Long says

    “The atheist obsession with not defending their view” then he has the audacity to stick his fingers in his ears whenever a defence is attempted…

  44. Chris J says

    Yeah… My comments are going through and people are still only picking and choosing what they respond to. They basically ignore everything I say except for the thing Winter Knight has written a blog post about already, and so far I haven’t even been able to get into a dialogue about the content of the linked posts either.

    I can understand not wanting to engage would could easily be drive-by trolls, but pretending you have the high ground and are interested in “reason and evidence,” then ignoring all proffered reason and evidence is pretty sad.

  45. echidna says

    Chris J,
    I’m not so sure that people are picking and choosing what they respond to. It might be that only comments that directly relate to the the blog post or comments by the author get through moderation.
    By the way, my comment @47 did get through.

  46. Ed says

    I don’t get his claim that the “lack of belief” definition is “subjective,.” At least not in the negative sense. Sam Harris, in the discussion of a different matter (scientific or intellectual objectivity as a virtue) distinguishes between two uses of the term subjective. The word is sometimes used confusingly as necessarily implying subjectivism. So, yes, simply claiming that one personally doesn’t like the concept of God (or the supernatural in general) isn’t an argument and only expresses a state of mind.

    But any conscious thought is “subjective” in the sense of involving a first person point of view. A statement of fact or argument that one’s opinion is true has a subjective component but is not limited by this subjectivity. Very few atheists, and hardly any that would call themselves humanists, freethinkers or skeptics, JUSTIFY their non-belief as true because it feels right or makes them happy, for example. Quite a few believers on the other hand, believe on such grounds.

    Even if he is right that only strong atheists should be called atheists, there are few real life consequences to this. There would merely be more people now identifying as atheists calling themselves agnostics or verificationists. This would lead to slight conceptual problems, as there are self-described agnostics who accept some form of theism as a reasonable but unproven possibility and the term verificationist isn’t widely used in the culture.

    In any event, verificationism actually fits his definition of atheism as an arguement against the idea that God exists.. Saying that a word names a contradictory, irrational idea implies that it also doesn’t name anything real–unless the person saying it also asserts that contradictory, not logically possible entities can exist. It’s a logical rather than empirical rejection of theism, as opposed to the strategy of arguing that that the observable nature of the universe is incompatible with theism.


Leave a Reply

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