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Ignominiously Defining (Atheism)

In Christianity & Atheism, Ignominiously Defining on June 23, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: ,

Stained Glass Window, Reason Cathedral, Glenn Lodge, Idaho

One popular tactic used by certain atheists is to try to define atheism so as to avoid any burden of persuasion. Unfortunately, evangelization by deception is far too common among everyone trying to persuade, theist and atheist alike.

Traditionally, theism and atheism are seen as poles on a continuum where agnosticism occupies a middle ground. Thus theism encompasses those who believe in a god, atheism encompasses those who think no god exists and agnosticism encompasses those who take no position on the question of gods. Many atheists today want to alter this traditional view. They want atheism defined as a mere lack of belief in any gods. Pursuant to such a rubric, anyone without a current god-belief – like babies, a Christian sleeping or thinking about something else or even someone who is mentally ill – is an atheist. Moreover, they say that agnosticism isn’t about belief at all, but rather relates to knowledge. Accordingly, a Christian who doesn’t claim certainty (who doesn’t claim to know) is also an agnostic.

Why this attack on the traditional view? Confusing the definitions of atheism and agnosticism is a popular tactic with some atheists because it allows them to define the territory of debate in their favor. The goal is essentially two-fold. Firstly, a change would dramatically increase the number of atheists and make atheism seem more popular. Secondly, defining atheism as a default position – a mere lack of belief – allows atheists to avoid any proof burden in formal debate. They should not, however, be permitted to define and misrepresent basic categories in this manner without challenge.

Let’s be clear from the outset that an argument as to the better definition of atheism is perfectly reasonable. But many atheists want to avoid that discussion altogether and presume that the argument is already decided and to accuse theists (usually Christians) of dishonesty for not having yielded to the presumption.

As best as I can tell, dictionaries are split over whether atheism is a mere lack of belief or whether atheism includes a specific denial. However, the more specific professional works, such as philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedia, all define atheism as something like “‘[a]theism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” (J.J.C. Smart in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Atheists will concede, as they must, that professional works reject the definition they propose, but claim that it reflects mere professional jargon.

The OED defines atheism as “[d]isbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God” and, to be clear, defines disbelief as “[t]he action or an act of disbelieving; mental rejection of a statement or assertion; positive unbelief.” Accord, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2nd Ed. 2001)(atheism is “the doctrine or belief that there is no God” {#1} and “disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings” {#2}, while disbelief is “the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true”). The Compact Oxford agrees (atheism is “the belief that God does not exist”). So does Merriam-Webster (atheism is “a disbelief in the existence of deity”; disbelief is “the act of disbelieving: mental rejection of something as untrue”). Moreover, no less an authority than Michael Martin (in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification) makes the same admission: “If you look up ‘atheism’ in the dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and …[Martin goes on to argue for his preferred definition].” Even the Skeptic’s Dictionary concedes the point: “Atheism is traditionally defined as disbelief in the existence of God. As such, atheism involves active rejection of belief in the existence of God.”

Some atheists wish to stress the point that some comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries include the passive definition of atheism. True enough. Activist atheist efforts have borne some fruit. Moreover, comprehensive dictionaries are more descriptive than prescriptive and tend to include all possible options. But concise dictionaries, designed to provide the most common and best definitions without all the baggage, go the other way. See, e.g., Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (atheism is “a disbelief in the existence of a deity” while disbelief is “the act of disbelieving”); The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Ed. 2005)(atheism is “the theory or belief that God doesn’t exist”); allwords.com; Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary; and the American Heritage Dictionary.

Note that in his famous “The Presumption of Atheism,” Antony Flew (ironic, no?) conceded that the new atheist view requires that atheism “be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ’someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition 1999) addresses this very point. It provides that “atheism [is] the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.”

So the next time an atheist activist claims that atheism is necessarily a default position — a mere lack of belief — don’t be afraid to call the bluff.  That said, I generally think adherents to a particular position ought to have the right to define what it is and what it entails.  Christians should have that right when it comes to defining what faith is.  Accordingly, I am willing to accede to the view that atheism is a mere default position with no substantive content, so long as the history behind it can readily be made clear.

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9 Responses to “Ignominiously Defining (Atheism)”

  1. Ah, I’m going to have to call the bluff on your “calling of the bluff”!

    First, on atheism. You admit that the evidence is mixed. Then you assert that your view is correct. Well, if the evidence is mixed, wouldn’t that mean that the general category of atheism is best understood as having gradations? So, for instance, that there are strong and weak theists?

    Second, on agnosticism. There are certainly popular misconceptions about the categories. So, for instance, when you say agnosticism “encompasses those who take no position on the question of gods”, you hit on something about popular usage. People who call themselves agnostics generally want to stop talking about the matter, and have found a word that has been relatively effective in shutting down the conversation.

    However, the meaning of “agnostic” *is*, and has always been, “does not know”. That’s not a redefinition — it simply is the definition. And nothing you’ve said here challenges that. So I find it very strange that you would make claims about this being persuant to an attack on the “traditional view”, when actually it simply is the traditional view.

    I will, however, defend one intuition that you have: that not everybody fits into that theist/atheist scheme. It seems to me that those who really are indifferent to the question, or have not adequately considered the question, are not usefully described as agnostics, atheists, or theists. At one point, I called myself an “apatheist” to describe this third way. (Now I call myself a “quietist”, and could not care less where people think I fit on their Venn diagrams, so long as they understand me adequately.)

    These labels of atheism/agnosticism/theism, if they are to be used in some useful way, should not be used to describe (for instance) babies any more than they should be used to describe rocks. But if they are used in this way, for whatever reason, then the label “atheist” becomes far less interesting than it ought to be.

    • You admit that the evidence is mixed. Then you assert that your view is correct. Well, if the evidence is mixed, wouldn’t that mean that the general category of atheism is best understood as having gradations?

      The “ad campaign” to effect the change is having some impact. But the best and most authoritative sources support the traditional definition. Moreover, it doesn’t make sense to let the newer proposal carry the day just because it has gathered a bit of support.

      However, the meaning of “agnostic” *is*, and has always been, “does not know”.

      A common alternative, perhaps fairest to Huxley, is “can’t know.”

      So I find it very strange that you would make claims about this being persuant to an attack on the “traditional view”, when actually it simply is the traditional view.

      Many want to claim those who answer “I don’t know” as atheists and categorize agnosticism as an unrelated category. Since I don’t claim to know that God exists, I am deemed an agnostic Christian. I think that’s silly.

      At one point, I called myself an “apatheist” to describe this third way.

      As I noted in the post, I think people have the right to define their positions as they wish so long as they are clear.

      These labels of atheism/agnosticism/theism, if they are to be used in some useful way, should not be used to describe (for instance) babies any more than they should be used to describe rocks. But if they are used in this way, for whatever reason, then the label “atheist” becomes far less interesting than it ought to be.

      I agree.

  2. But the problem here is that you have no independent grounds for saying that it’s silly. You just assert a few things about what you think the traditional view of atheism is, while providing mixed evidence; and then assert things about what you think agnosticism means, while providing no evidence — except the homage to Huxley, which only undermines your position.

    • The evidence for what the traditional view is isn’t mixed and the “professional” definitions are unanimous. Accordingly, to say the evidence is “mixed” isn’t really accurate. That said, as I have already noted, I think people should be able to self-define within reason. Thus I have no quarrel with the newer view being used. My quarrel is with the “it’s obvious” and “it’s settled” objections I commonly see to the traditional view.

  3. Alright — I think we can respectfully disagree on how best to cut up the term “atheism”.

    But you haven’t said anything in defence of your claims about agnosticism. You say “it’s silly” to think of modest Christians as agnostics. I think that opinion is quite sheepish. Granted, it may be surprising to think of modest Christians in that way — agnosticism is usually used as a conversation-ender, not as a philosophical term — but it logically fits, and deserves much more recognition than just to be brushed aside.

    It might even be pragmatically expedient for someone in your position to acknowledge this. If you want to show how science and faith are compatible, you had best show how they’re ignoring their common ground — agnosticism.

    • You say “it’s silly” to think of modest Christians as agnostics.

      That’s because unless knowledge is defined so loosely as to become essentially meaningless, we’re all agnostics by that definition.

      It might even be pragmatically expedient for someone in your position to acknowledge this. If you want to show how science and faith are compatible, you had best show how they’re ignoring their common ground — agnosticism.

      That’s quite a good point.

  4. So on faith we have to go to dictionaries written be believers and on lack of faith we also have to go to dictionaries written by believers?

    For the definition of faith you insist that the one who holds faith gets to define it (regardless that many atheists understood faith in their early lives).

    Yet on atheism you insist that atheists don’t know their own definition and we should look up the dictionary!

    Unfortunately you haven’t invented this. It’s a standard problem. It used to be worse. Dictionaries for atheism used to include “evil” “heretic” “immoral” “godless” also as definitions. So much so that Holyoake invented the word nontheism to avoid this problem.

    Luckily the worst of the definitions has been removed. Yet dictionaries still today are notoriously bad in distinguishing atheism as viewed by believers and atheism as viewed by nonbelievers.

    There is a difference.

    Most believers will agree to this definition:
    1) Atheism is the rejection, disbelieve or denial of God.

    However most nonbelievers will rather use this definition:
    2) Atheism is the rejection of the belief in God.

    Believers often claim that this distinction is artificial and created by atheists to inoculate them against criticism (as you do).

    Unfortunately this is just not true. The difference can in fact be rather trivially understood.

    If you believe in God, you are likely to accept that one can define a oppositional category to your belief. So it is simply disbelief in God.

    However if you do not belief that there is anything that could be called God (or wongawonga) then you will seek a definition that does not require the category (it doesn’t exist after all). There is no point in rejecting God. All there is to reject is the superstitious belief other people hold!

    Hence atheists tend to (correctly) state that they reject the belief in a deity, not the deity.

    Atheism is not the default position because they say so. But because in an evidence based system, we don’t give credence to things that have no evidence. If you claim something is true, it is up to the one who makes that claim to show it.

    Say you witness a crime and you run to find another person. It will be up to you to convince the other person that the crime has been committed.

    To understand this let’s reverse roles. You stand there and someone runs to you and says “A crime has been committed” (or “God exists”). You (or the atheist) will respond fine, where and who and what? (Asking for evidence). You give evidence. The person will check evidence. If there is sufficient evidence there will be a conviction.

    But if you just stand there you don’t assume that a crime has been committed in a certain location at a certain time in a certain way. To assume something without evidence is not the default position. There would be too many default positions. After all at all locations could have been crimes, except the ones you can observe.

    To the same end there could be infinitely many possible deities, tooth fairies and made up concepts, along with real but unobserved things. Default is not to assume any of them, it’s bascially the same as assuming a massive pile of unfounded things. I could post infinitely many things that are unproven and ask you to disprove it because mine is the default position. It would be a non-workable process.

    No, the one who observed or claim to have observed has the burden of proof. It’s basic to epistemology.

    The definition of atheism actually has nothing to do with that, except in the minds of apologists who thing that one can construct a case from it that suddenly atheists have to proof a negative.

    E.g. that a crime was not committed at a location, time and in a method, they themselves, but another person picked.

    You the believer picks the truth claims (“the genesis is true” “the great god wangawanga lives in Manhattan Upper East Side in a specific appartment”) an atheist can but check the evidence you provide and answer yes or no. If wangawanga is not in the appartment in the upper east side, well it’s questionable that an evidence-driven person will agree that wangawanga was more than a made up thing to make you check!

    And we have checked claims in the bible. earth was not created in 7 days or 6k years and Jesus did not return within the life-time of the disciples.

    For an evidence-based person that is already rather good reason to assume that someone just made up the story and lets us run around the block. In fact the story is changing. First the earth is flat, then it is not. First God created all creatures, then he created the process of evolution. First he created the universe in one stroke, then he created it in the big bang.

    With new evidence the story changes. Just like someone faking a crime scene and still trying to make it fit.

    “So I didn’t find the body where you said the crime was committed”
    “Oh, it must have been moved”
    “But there were no traces of blood”
    “Oh, that’s because it was washed away”
    “There is no evidence for how people may have possibly washed away blood” etc etc

    Shifting stories don’t strengthen a case, it weakens the case.

    Scientific theories change too, but the difference is that we understand how the data points make sense. Often theories are later understood to be approximations to a more detailed understanding. This is very different. This is comparable to a crime scene where evidence points to a conclusion and new evidence refines the conclusion. Some hair may point to one of three suspects, and alibis may narrow it down to one. the story changed, but not in the sense of those inventing new things to match to evidence, but to refine things based on evidence.

    So no, I’m sorry, the burden of proof is on you why you belief something. I’m happy to prove or justify the things I believe in or consider true. For example I believe in Universal Human Rights and I believe that General Relativity is a good description of very specific aspects of nature, I also believe that we can say with good certainty that we know very little about some aspects of nature. I will have an easy time giving evidence and explanations for all my beliefs. If you cannot do the same for yours, that is indeed not my problem but yours completely.

    • So on faith we have to go to dictionaries written be believers and on lack of faith we also have to go to dictionaries written by believers?

      No. That’s why I was careful to include Smart, Martin and the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

      For the definition of faith you insist that the one who holds faith gets to define it (regardless that many atheists understood faith in their early lives).

      Read my last paragraph again.

      Atheism is not the default position because they say so. But because in an evidence based system, we don’t give credence to things that have no evidence.

      When did atheism become a system?

      No, the one who observed or claim to have observed has the burden of proof.

      I don’t claim otherwise (even though it’s better understood to be a burden of persuasion rather than a burden of proof).

      Shifting stories don’t strengthen a case, it weakens the case.

      Perhaps the problem is with the storyteller rather than the case.

      Often theories are later understood to be approximations to a more detailed understanding.

      And sometimes they are just plain wrong (remember Kuhn).

      So no, I’m sorry, the burden of proof is on you why you belief something.

      I don’t claim that the believer doesn’t bear the existential burden of proof.

  5. “No. That’s why I was careful to include Smart, Martin and the Skeptic’s Dictionary.”

    I suggest you go to the discussion section of atheism on wikipedia, to understand how contentious this is. I certainly give Smart & Martin any authority to define the labels.

    The point remains, you tell us what definitions we have to use and point at books you picked. Why not point at Dawkins? Hitchens? Russell? There are plenty of prominent nonbelievers to consult for definitions. So you say one books definition is right, when prominent proponents of the label disagree?

    “Read my last paragraph again.”

    You mean the part about default position? How does having the right to describe ones own views have anything to do with default position?

    Or did you mean the paragraph on Flew?

    “When did atheism become a system?”

    Well, go read some atheism. As said your definition is not what atheists believe.

    “Perhaps the problem is with the storyteller rather than the case.”

    Yes, it’s called “not credible witness” but if all one can produce is witnesses without credibility it again does not strengthen the case, it rather weakens it.

    “And sometimes they are just plain wrong (remember Kuhn).”

    I think you misunderstand Kuhn.

    “I don’t claim that the believer doesn’t bear the existential burden of proof.”

    Hmm, fine I’ll take it. Prove existence. That’s all atheists ask. You haven’t proven your case. Until you give some sensible proof we’ll continue to assume that there was no crime and so far it really sounds like a made up story, given that evidence has been conflicted and even disproven.

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