Archive for the ‘Ignominiously Defining’ Category


Ignominiously Defining (Evidence)

In Ignominiously Defining on June 25, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged:

Fundamatheists frequently misdefine faith as “belief without evidence.” Not surprisingly, you can look in vain for such a definition in quality dictionaries (see, e.g., here). Indeed, in the past I have described such efforts as arguments disguised as definitions. But even that is far too generous. Truly, the claim that faith is belief without evidence is a bald assertion disguised as a definition. Moreover, it’s a misdirected assertion not just because it’s not so defined by dictionaries.

  1. It’s misdirected because atheists have no standing to tell believers how faith is (or should be) defined. That’s not how Christians define faith, and their (our) views should control here.
  2. It’s misdirected because we already have a great word in English for the concept fundamatheists are driving at. It’s not faith they’re talking about. It’s credulity, commonly defined as “readiness or willingness to believe especially on slight or uncertain evidence.”
  3. Most fundamentally, it’s misdirected because it’s false.  Christianity is, for example, supported by historical evidence (what happened in 1st C. Palestine to the man Jesus who was called the Christ) and testimonial evidence (people’s testimony about their personal experiences of God).  This evidence can be problematic and is also subject to multiple interpretations, of course, but it is still evidence.  The appropriate quarrel is over the nature and quality of the evidence rather than its status as evidence.

So, the next time you visit a typical fundamatheist website and see faith misdefined as “belief without evidence” (which happens so quickly and so consistently as to be essentially Pavlovian), remind the crowd of would-be and alleged rationalists of the error of their ways. Faith is not credulity and vice versa.



Ignominiously Defining (Faith), Redux

In Christianity & Atheism,Ignominiously Defining on June 24, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

Atheist apologists seem always eager to assert that faith is belief without evidence, notwithstanding that no religion I’m aware of sees it that way (Christianity surely does not) and that dictionaries don’t define it that way. 

That this idea is wrong gets further support from Diana L. Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University and Director of The Pluralism Project:

Traditionally, “believe” means “belove.” It doesn’t mean, “I think so, but I’m not sure.” It doesn’t mean, “I accept this intellectually because I have the evidence.” No, believing is a matter of the heart. The Latin credo with which the great Christian creeds begin means: I give my heart to this.

The word “believe” has gradually changed its meaning from conveying certainty so deep that I commit my life to it, to conveying uncertainty so unstable that only the “credulous” would rely on it. But faith is simply not about propositions, but about commitment.

To say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is to say “I love this Jesus Christ,” and I do. Jesus enables me to see something of God that I do not know in any other way: God truly grounded in the soil of human life and death, and hope beyond death. God who does not rescue us out of this world, but who accompanies us in this world, even in the darkest times. God who is as close to us as our neighbor, as close to us as the stranger. God who surprises us with divine presence as we walk along the road to a familiar place. God who comes not as a judge, but as a child.

To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ” is not to subscribe to a dogma or proposition, but to express a deep commitment to God among us, to God’s presence, justice, and love here on earth.

Amen to that.

Addendum:  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a new entry today on Faith.


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”);; 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.


Ignominiously Defining (Faith)

In Christianity & Atheism,Ignominiously Defining on June 22, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

As it happens, I have spent a fair amount of time discussing and debating God with atheists. Popular books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, among others, have provided more heat to the ongoing dialogue, but not much light. These books (not to mention blogs and internet atheist discussion boards) pretty consistently try to define faith as “belief without evidence.” However, that isn’t faith in a Christian context and doesn’t conform to standard dictionary definitions. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as

“a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

“b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.”

For the Christian (at least), faith is confident belief in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t relate to a set of propositions at all and thus evidence as to the truth or falsity of such propositions is manifestly irrelevant. That is not to say that such evidence doesn’t exist, however.

The Bible’s view of faith is consistent with this approach.  Some atheist apologists will point to Heb. 11:1-2 (“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”) to support their claim that faith really means belief without evidence or in spite of the evidence.  Yet the heroes of faith “roll call” that follows for the rest of the chapter includes hero after hero who had directly experienced God and seen Him in action, suggesting that faith allows more confidence than the evidence might otherwise allow, not that there is no evidence.  Those same critics often point to Thomas and his failure to believe in the resurrection without seeing Jesus firsthand (John 20:29:  “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'”) as further basis for their preferred definition of faith.  Yet Thomas wasn’t criticized for not believing without evidence.  He was criticized for not taking Jesus at His word with respect to His resurrection.   

The unsupported claim that faith is belief without evidence is a purported argument disguised as a definition.  And it’s a pretty lousy argument at that.


Ignominiously Defining (Fundamatheism)

In Christianity & Atheism,Ignominiously Defining on June 14, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , , , ,

During the course of her response to a piece by David Gibson, in her Butterflies and Wheels blog yesterday, Ophelia Benson was quick to claim that “[w]e [explicit atheists] are not ‘fundamentalists’ in any meaningful sense.”  The full post is here.  With a careful caveat that I don’t think that all explicit atheists are “‘fundamentalists’ in any meaningful sense, I disagree.

Historically, fundamentalism was an ecumenical Christian movement in North America premised upon certain fundamental truths all Christians shared (most prominently the authority of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection and the atoning work of Christ, and the second coming) and reflected by a series of tracts called The Fundamentals. Over time, the idea developed in general terms to denote strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles or, in the words of the American Heritage Dictionary, “a usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.”

Strictly speaking, atheists cannot fit that definition.  They share no common fundamental ideas or principles to which they can return and aren’t necessarily religious.  However, if we focus on behavior rather than belief, the similarities become clear.

In my view, all fundamentalisms share a very narrow epistemology. Christian fundamentalism is based upon the idea that the Bible + common sense = readily ascertainable truth. What I call fundamatheism is a similarly narrow epistemology whereby science + reason = readily ascertainable truth. In each case, the emphasis is on the readily ascertainable part, with the (capital T) Truth so obvious that those who disagree aren’t just in error, they’re evil or damned or irrational or delusional or mentally ill or or or. Both fundamentalist and fundamatheist have a base-level arrogance. The fundy mindset isn’t at all humble and rejects the idea that being wrong is even a remote possibility, except perhaps in theory. Moreover and most (a-hem) fundamentally, those who disagree are inferior — and that idea is incredibly dangerous and not terribly constructive, as history makes ever so clear.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Benson isn’t alone in rejecting the connection.  For example, Richard Dawkins vociferously objects to this kind of description.  My idea of a fundamatheist is designed to get at a particular form of zealotry that is more than just aggressive advocacy and which is common to theist (fundamentalist) and atheist (fundamatheist) alike.  Note here with respect to Dawkins, wherein he says of certain scientists:

“What I can’t understand is why we are expected to show respect for good scientists, even great scientists, who at the same time believe in a god who does things like listen to our prayers, forgive our sins, perform cheap miracles,” he said, prompting a burst of nervous laughter to ripple through the audience, “which go against, presumably, everything that the god of the physicist, the divine cosmologist, set up when he set up his great laws of nature. So I don’t understand a scientist who says, ‘I am a Roman Catholic’ or ‘I am a Baptist.’ ”

Thus no scientists, even admittedly great scientists, can earn respect from Dawkins if they are believers — they’re necessarily inferior. Note too, further down in the linked piece, Dawkins’s specific condescending attack on Ken Miller (who is an excellent scientist). If someone with Miller’s academic pedigree and history of couragious support for science is seen as inferior and unworthy of respect by Dawkins, then all Christians are necessarily inferior per se.

That’s fundamatheism.

To be clear, I’m not troubled by strong criticism or strong language in the least.  I don’t care about tone.  If we believe what we say to be the truth, we should be willing to defend it against vigorous attack.  What does trouble me is the claimed (or at least inferred) inferiority of opponents.  As a general rule, we’re all too confident and think too much of ourselves (and while, in my experience, the most common Christian sin is hypocrisy, the most common atheist “sin” is arrogance). Such claimed superiority is hardly conducive to constructive engagement.  It’s that kind of excessive certainty and a demonization of the opposition that qualifies certain explicit atheists as fundamatheists.