Agnosticism, Apologetics, atheism, Belief, Debate, Hyponym, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Semantics
I Grumble: I wish I had a nickel for every time a Christian told me that my take on the existence of God isn’t really atheism; it’s agnosticism. No, those nickels wouldn’t make me rich, but they would add up to a nice meal at a decent restaurant, and with enough change to leave a damned good tip.
On one level, this is interpersonal aggression. If someone can take your identity away (or at least that part of your identity most salient to the topic at hand), then the rest of the discussion is going to suck no matter how well you handle the particulars. It’s the sort of argument that is really about who is in charge.
…and I mean in a right-here-and-now kinda way.
Just like a husband and wife engaged in a two-day spat over which brand of butter would have been a better purchase, atheists and theists (mostly Christians) will tap away on our keyboards well into the wee hours of the morning, all over the question of just what atheism really is and who gets to call themselves an ‘atheist’. It’s almost as though we have that agreement, you know the one about never going to bed with unresolved issues, only we never do get to the make-up sex on this particular topic. We just keep jabbering at each other until the sun rises and it’s time to go to work tired. (Thanks honey!) The bottom line is what ought to be the opening stages of a larger dialogue becomes the overwhelming focus of an exhausting (and often pointless) pseudo-discussion.
On another level, the subject is certainly worth some time. The semantics are tricky here, and one will need to sort the meaningful possibilities out before proceeding to any substantive issues. And Hell, I figure I’ve encountered a genuine concern or three amidst all the bunk believers have thrown at me on this issue over the years. I know I have a few truth-in-advertizing concerns for those calling themselves Christians as well. Plus, I think I’m actually adjusting my views on this one a bit lately. So, I’m going to have a go at this all-too familiar old topic and hope that the results won’t lead to any incidents of self-mutilation.
So, please take a deep breath!
The Basics: The problem is this, among the group of people calling themselves atheists, some of us will happily do so without presenting any reason to believe that there are no gods. If pressed on the issue, we will often claim that the burden of proof lies with the believer. Atheism thus represents a stance we will take in the absence of positive reason to believe in God. This approach to atheism is sometimes known as “weak atheism,” as opposed to “strong atheism,” which is generally taken to refer to the stance of someone prepared to argue that no gods exist at all. Some might say that a weak atheist simply doesn’t believe in any gods whereas a strong atheist says there are no gods.
And here is where Theists often cry foul. Isn’t the neutral position really that of agnosticism, they will say, and how can it be that atheists (weak or otherwise) have no burden of proof? Isn’t that unfair?
But of course atheists have a number of arguments in favor of these terms, not the least of them being an analogy to legal reasoning and/or the structure of formal debate organization wherein an affirmative position is often given the burden of proof. If someone is accused of a crime, we do not expect the defense to prove them innocent; we expect the prosecutors to prove them guilty. The problem, as weak atheists often phrase it is that you cannot prove a negative. This isn’t quite true, or even close really; but it does touch on a real problem. Many negatives can be proven true, but many cannot. If for example the original claim to be disproved is too vague, it will be difficult to formulate grounds for proving it false. Making someone responsible for proving a negative thus creates a double-bind of sorts, making the critic responsible for any ambiguities in the position he seeks to criticize.
The weak atheist position construes this debate in terms of a proof that at least one God exists. If the theist can make his case, then great he wins, but if he fails, then we go back to our default judgement that no gods exist.
Theists typically reject these terms of debate, often by suggesting its proponents have mislabeled themselves. ‘Atheism’, they will suggest should be reserved for those prepared to prove god doesn’t exist and those who merely assume he doesn’t in the absence of evidence are better described as ‘agnostics’.
It is actually a rather soft version of agnosticism that theists keep advancing as the proper alternative to the weak atheist position; effectively telling us; “if you don’t know, then leave it at that.” The shoulder-shrug version of agnosticism is not to be confused with hard agnosticism (i.e. the notion that questions about the existence of God are inherently unknowable, in short; “I don’t know, and neither do you”).
Of course soft agnosticism could be a perfectly reasonable description of the absence of affirmative belief, but so would weak atheism. In fact, the two categories could well apply at the same time. …hence the common practice of referring to oneself as an agnostic atheist.
Many do just that.
Holy Holistics Batman! It’s worth considering that such labels go well beyond the stance one takes in a particular debate and extend to questions about behavior, values, etc. Life is full of decisions one has to make in the absence of perfect information, and this is one of them. Sooner or later we have to make decisions predicated on our answer to questions about whether or not God does exist. I will either keep the Sabbath or not; I will either say the Sinner’s Prayer with conviction, or not. I will either covet my neighbor’s hot wife or not. …you get the idea. If the debate over whether or not God exists ends in a stalemate the actual pace of real life decisions does NOT respect that stalemate (and from what I hear, neither will the God of Abraham). Whatever the balance of evidence, one has to make a decision. This is exactly what burdens of proof are about. Assigning a default judgement is a process of deciding what you will do if you do not know the answer to a given question.
The weak atheist position may be frustrating as Hell to theists, but it has the virtue of addressing this question of how one will actually live.
Let’s Take a Step Back: There is just one thing about that last twist in the argument above; it isn’t quite a function of logic or reason, …not entirely so anyway. Rather, it is a question of how the merits of a reasoned position will map onto the practical judgements of actual life.
Default judgements lie at the intersection between reason and social interaction, and the question of who has the burden of proof in this debate is just one of the moments when the politics of religion intrudes on the intellectual exercise of reasoning about it. However much the participants may want to imagine themselves capable of resolving the issue on the merits of the case, the prospect looms large that it will still be an open case long after any particular discussion (or even years of study and centuries of dialogue). It would be nice if someone could produce end-game proof one way or another, but the reality is that most of us will end up making our decisions about a range of relevant issues in the wake of a stalemate shaded by a little other than a sense that one side or another has a good point here and a slight advantage there. In short, the debate may never end, but sooner or later we have to declare our own take on the issue. At that moment, when we have to decide in the absence of a clear accounting, the burden of proof may well prove to be the decisive consideration.
And so we haggle about the terms of the debate even to the point of never getting to the debate itself, partly because we know this little technicality is likely to make a difference on down the road a bit.
Whatever else weak atheists are saying, they are also saying “let’s handle this issue one God at a time. You give me one sound case for one God as you define Her, and I’ll give up my position and go with that one God.” This position offers real advantages for both parties, not the least of them being that it bundles all the tricky semantic questions about what one means by ‘God’ into the same package and lets the Theist have first crack at resolving them. The details of the discussion will then be on her terms (or at least about her terms).
This has the advantage of providing for a pretty direct test of that God, at least for those willing to approach the subject by means of reason (which is admittedly a diminishing portion of the population …it having become an article of faith that religion is about faith). In short, this approach to the conversation maximizes the relevance of any conclusions drawn to the actual beliefs of the Theist involved in any particular discussion.
But what about the atheist? For him, this way of modelling the issue really tests a pretty narrow aspect of his professed stance; his ability to present a reasonable objection to one particular approach to belief in one particular god, …at least as argued by one particular person. It leaves his take on any other gods pretty much off the table altogether. And (here is where I am cutting against years of habit) I think there is some justice to the claim that this is something of a dodge.
If someone has concluded that there are no gods, or even that he sees no reason to believe in any, then even this latter version of his stance necessarily goes well beyond the subject of one debate with one believer. It’s a fair question; what about the others? How do you deal with them?
Those professing weak atheism are generally unwilling to enter onto that turf, not the least of reasons being that any attempt to produce an end-game argument on the subject will effectively make them responsible for resolving all he tricky semantic questions while theists stand-by with an easy out. If an atheist attempts to prove that all gods don’t exist; he has to settle on a definition, and he has to do it without a claim that that definition fits the real thing (since he doesn’t think there is a real thing). The mistakes of believers thus become the responsibility of the atheist, and the liar’s paradox then mocks his every move.
And yet, there remains some trace of a legitimate question here. Does the stance of even a weak atheist not go beyond the particular gods of the particular theists with whom he is talking at any given moment? Clearly, he expects to reject any given god with whom he he is confronted at any given time. If that expectation does not yield a direct argument on the topic, is there no accounting for it whatsoever? None?
At the very least we could frame the conclusion that there are no gods as an induction of sorts, derived from our past experiences debating the existence of particular gods with particular people in a variety of different conversations. At some point, one begins to form an expectation, even a tentative conclusion. The judgement is there, and one can even find ways of framing it for purposes of discussion. It’s just that the conversation gets kind of messy if you go this route.
But maybe that’s a mess more of us ought to consider getting into.
Let’s Wrap it Up (and it’s About Time!): The issue here isn’t really what kind of atheist are you; it’s what kind of conversation do you want to have? How do you prefer to frame the debate? And the truth is that most of those professing weak atheism do in fact cultivate a number of alternative approaches to the subject; they just don’t recognize them as appropriate answers to questions about the existence of God or gods. This happens precisely because the conversation must at some point cease to be a question of metaphysics and become a question about social practice.
Ultimately, the judgement that there are no gods has less to do with the nature of the universe than the value of certain ways of talking about it. It is a judgement that god-talk never has nor ever will produce a description of a superntural entity that is literally true. On a good day, god-talk might produce inspiring poetry, amazing architecture, profound moral thoughts, or even deeply moving personal narratives, but it will not produce a plausible case for a supernatural entity. Even the assertion of a weak atheist stance means at least this much; that one does not expect to hear talk of gods produce a believable claim about the existence of such a being. One may prefer to test that one god at a time with the Theist on the hot seat, but those of us claiming the label are certainly communicating something about our expectations regarding the subject at hand.
We can do more than that, and we actually do more than that every time we comment on the realities of religious practice; every time we describe the horrors committed in god’s name or link any poor judgement to the vagaries of religious thought. This sort of talk doesn’t always rise far above the level of gossip (or even outright idiocy), but it often calls attention to real problems. At least part of the rationale for rejecting belief in God is a sense that talk about him is unlikely to produce a claim worth affirming, at least not in its most literal sense. (Some of us may find Martin Luther King Jr.’s words inspiring or even turn the radio up for a religious tune or two, but there is always some sense in which we are not quite down with the whole message.) And herein lies the moment when even a ‘weak atheist’ goes a little beyond the confrontation with any one case for God; he is pronouncing a verdict on a vast range of discourse about gods, and he is telling us that all of it (in his estimation) fails to produce a compelling case for belief in that God. In some instances the God is too vague, in others She is a contradiction, and when a clear and coherent concept does make an appearance it just doesn’t have the ring of truth to it. This is a judgement that goes beyond the test of one particular god belief, and weak atheists make these sorts of judgements on a pretty regular basis.
So, it isn’t really that we have two types of atheists here so much as two (or more) different ways of setting up a discussion with theists over the subject. One typically uses the deductive models of metaphysical reasoning to test one God at a time (preferably that of the particular believer we happen to be talking to). The other typically uses probabalistic reasoning to pass judgement on a range of loosely connected ideas sailing under the rubric of god-talk. In effect, the second approach deals not with God Herself so much as the language in which she is typically presented, and it deals with that subject in terms of summary judgements. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it’s a bit less rhetorically satisfying, especially when squaring off over the subject with someone who insists that some version of God is real after all.
Most of us are uncomfortable with generalizations, and I think even atheists are oddly attached to the sense of absolute truth that one expects from metaphysical discussion. When we approach the topic that way, we can often say ‘no’ with something approaching certainty. It is the certainty of deductive reasoning and all-or-nothing proofs. Theoretically those are the stakes, the theist too could win one for the Gipper, …or Jesus, I suppose. If these are the stakes, then yes, I think I am still inclined to opt for the weak atheist position. But I do think it is reasonable to expect some accounting for the rejection that goes beyond the god of one particular conversation; that account will of necessity turn into a form of social commentary. And thus my rejection of god turns out to be a rejection of what men say about Her, and on that score perhaps there are sufficient grounds to field an affirmative argument.
About the hyponym? Turns out he’s kinda hyper.
I am an atheist. I believe anyone who believes in god has that right, but does not have the right to coerce others into that belief. Atheists don’t start wars, our legally appointed men of religion do. I don’t fight in the name of anyone, because I choose not to fight. Our money should not say In God We Trust on it, god would never have wanted that – if there were a god.
If you have not read the series of books by Zechariah Sitchin entitled The Earth Chronicle Series I highly recommend reading it. The first book in the series, entitled, The 12th Planet is eye opening, and allows the reader to see what the Bible was really saying, and why the Bible was what words survived from Sumerian times. All that was said in the Bible was passed down from generations prior the time of Jesus.
God doesn’t start wars in his name, people do, greedy political people. I believe religious standpoint should not dictate whether a person can effectively lead people. Its biased and wrong.
Interesting book suggestion. I will have to track that one down sometime,
Capt Jill said:
that whole series of books was eye opening, and definitely made me think, even tho I’ve pretty much always been an athiest
Jack Games said:
I remain a strongish atheist. At least regarding a supernatural being that created the universe and installed life on this planet. There is strong evidence that being does not exist. The theory of evolution is a perfectly logical explanation regarding life on this planet and I accept it. If I believe that Colonel Mustard did it and the evidence points to that fact, I don’t have to spend a lot of time proving Mrs. Peacock didn’t.
I do not believe any deities exist. Do I explicitly state there are none? Well no, there is some chance I am wrong, deities do in fact exist. There is evidence they don’t. By some definitions that makes me an agnostic, I am willing to go as far as reason will take me without regard to other considerations. I guess by that definition theists are agnostics also, their reason has taken them to a different place. But their place is not demonstrable (or hasn’t being demonstrated yet), it requires faith.
What’s interesting is that so many different questions get bundled into this topic, which is part of the reason it is so complex. I is strange to me that certainty would enter into it. One needn’t be certain to make a judgement. I am not agnostic about the price of gas, though I may certainly be wrong. I have always had a tendancy to model agnosticism on the hard variant, whihc is when it is philosophically interesting at any rate. People who don’t know may not need a label at all, but those who say there is something inherently unknowable about the existence of God? They are saying something at any rate. But my own concern is actually that lack of knowledge is not in itself an innocent condition (and Christians typically don’t think so either, at least not if they believ faith in Jesus is an obligation). Sometimes a stance must be taken in the absence of knowledge, and that’s when things get really interesting.
Jack Games said:
re : ” I have always had a tendancy to model agnosticism on the hard variant, whihc is when it is philosophically interesting at any rate. ”
Sorry, I am a bit scientifically and mathematically challenged 🙂 What does that mean?
Again, I’m going to have to come back and peruse what you have said several times. I am sooooo glad for what you wrote, particularly about the going on till the sun comes up part. For now, several questions, of myself and in interest to what your own particular response might be.
One, why must there be proof–in any direction? Two, why must there be a debate? To me, a discussion is about seeing and perhaps asking questions about what another thinks, feels, and believes. I like to know why, so that I can attempt to understand the other party. This stage often gets dicey and into one of those stay up all night places, because the other party ASSumes that I wish them to change, when I am only trying to make sure that I am decoding as close as is possible what the other intends for me to see. It can be particularly awful if I bump into someone who has been argued with and demanded of. I would like a sign that states, beware of mine field. (oh who am i kidding? I’d go in there anyway trying to get to the insides of the other and maybe undo this response for others approaching the field in the future)
Third, reading what you said and seeing how it applied to a closely similar situation, I wonder how much of this is more about the human capacity for faith, in anything. I say faith in a way that would be the same as if I said the word Tree and then asked 30 people in a room to immediately state what image they see. I like doing this, many do not understand the exercise until I do it again, adding emotion, feeling, or descriptive words along with the word Tree. I wonder if the proof issue and the debate need or feeling spring forth from this. Your post is the first time I’ve seen anyone attempt to bring up these issues, it seems more detached and a bit ‘safer’. I thank you for the opportunity to get my thinkful questions onto ‘paper’.
ps. I like how you use your titles to speak. I had to go look up hyponym. For the small paragraph in the horrid wiki area, I wonder why not use synonym? I’m off to do FAFSA forms for my college stupents. I’ll investigate further into hyponym later. If you do not mind providing a good source, that would be nice too. I am wondering if the hyponym is what makes translating poetry or literature from one language to another, difficult to carry an exact meaning without disrupting the feel and structure of a work?
I’m sorry, I’ve been meaning to get back to your comments for a month now. I am taking a hyponym to be a word or phrase with a semantic scope entirely contained within the scope of another. In this instance it is the notion of ‘weak atheism’ as a subcategory of ‘atheism’. Since they don’t exactly describe the same things, I figure synonym isn’t quite right. Anyway, my point is that the distinction has less to do with the type of person than types of conversations, and the roles one might take in those conversations.
Kyle Delaney said:
I don’t understand the exercise either. Why would they see an image simply because you said a word? Are you expecting them to hallucinate? Are you asking them to describe any images that pop into their head? Because that’s different from seeing, isn’t it? Are you asking them to describe what they think of when they think of a tree?
I think in pictures, don’t you? (frowning and confused at the difference….) It’s not a slow process, in fact to describe it, I have to slow it down and attempt to tear it apart to get to the literal images. It’s like my head searches a random index for each and every word and concept and remakes a sequence of applicable images. Wow, now I am wondering if I have made an assumption about others who do NOT see things in this way!
oh, i read my initial comment again, I meant faith period, not religious faith, which while a type of faith can exist around the rest, or not, as we can see by those who believe and those who do not.
Kyle Delaney said:
It doesn’t matter if I think in pictures or not. If you say the word tree I may picture a tree in my mind, but I won’t see a tree just because you said it. That would be hallucinating. Again, there’s a difference between visualizing something in your brain and seeing something with your eyes. I think what you meant to ask the people in the room to describe what they think of, not what they see.
I thank you for the grace of your comment and for being the antecedent work of pondering and then the notice of inner street inventory, cleaning, clearing and of lifting me up. My initial reaction was and still is, every time that I read your words, to hiss “Yes, Daddy!” all spittle and vehemence combined with a shrieking maniacal laughter of memory of the abuse that directs me to such comparative recall and ending with a musical laughing tone at myself and, at you for the utterance.
The next thought of action was to answer you as Lady Mood. I adopted that name one time, in a place where people continuously decided what I thought, what I felt, and what I was doing by assumption or simply deciding for me. It was an intensely funny experiment, as the ones I meant to chide and to alert to bad form, didn’t see it at all, and thought it an affirmation of the thing they didn’t like. I’m smiling again now just typing it.
I want to thank you for giving me something to wrangle with internally while I have PMS. It has kept me occupied and focused. I did not have anything (yet) come out sideways at anyone else! In many moments, I reverted back to the why need to explain Self, thoughts that I’ve shared with Daniel. I still like to be understood, the RIGHT way. (winks) I still REALLY dislike when someone takes my words and purposely twists them, simply to create a ripping down of another—sometimes this other would be me, sometimes not. Such a person doesn’t really need a reason, it is who they are, it is their function in such instances. However, if I ONLY react, and I set out upon an immediate path to set them straight. I lose. I do not lose in the same manner as others might view it, but I cheat myself of my own validity. I give it to an entity outside of myself, which is an egregious error.
My final decision is not one option, though the word decision appears to force only ONE choice, option, or action. One response to you is to note that I MUST not mean anything other than what I meant to say, literally. Another response, is to feel sorry, that perhaps that which I speak is not within your own realm of experience and thus I, as of yet, have no way to better encode a message for you. I would like to simply state that visualization is NOT the same as thinking in pictures. I think that I have taken for granted that more people do it and choose a different method of processing, and thus understand me and contain an ability to identify with me through the concept. I will now work on attempting to identify with other people’s processing methods, so that I might translate across methods. It makes me sad to think of leaving anyone out of a discussion OR thinking that someone is an ignorant dolt with a narrow mind, simply because there is a communication barrier. I am sorry that what I said, appears to have left you unable to identify with my meaning.
I think of engaging as eating at a vast table, laid out with dishes filled with as many foods as anyone present can imagine. I first recall that I have fed myself for my entire life and that the banquet is a gift, but is not needed. It is my choice to sample, to smell, to see, perhaps to taste any of them. It is the same choice of any other present. I have no wish to influence any to do anything, to feel anything. If I choose to engage it is because I am expressing me. I require nothing of you. I thank you for your company.
oh, ps. I smell colors too 😉
Kyle Delaney said:
Well this is bizarre. You seem to be interpreting what I’m saying as some kind of attack. Not sure why. You said yourself that the people in your room often don’t understand the exercise, and I am trying to explain how you might make it more clear. If you want to make a distinction between thinking in pictures and visualizing things then fine, but are either of those things really the same as seeing? Does a vision appear in front of you that you can see with your waking eyes, right beside all the physical objects that are in the room with you? Again, that is called a hallucination or a mirage or an illusion.
And no, I don’t think you smell colors because colors are made of light and not the material particles that your nose is receptive to. If you associate smells with colors then that goes on entirely in your head and again is not the same as actual smelling.
Since you indicated that you were agonizing over your options then might I suggest one you don’t seem to have considered, namely agreeing with me? Again, I am not trying to attack you. I am trying to clarify what you’re talking about and see where you’re coming from.
The question of why a proof is needed is an interesting one, and I fear my actual response is a bit of a ‘he started it!’ …I hate that, but in this instance I think it’s true. I think most conventional forms of Christianity can be modeled as stances taken towards a debate. One is essentially maintaining the truth of a claim or claims (that God exists, and so on). …Hell, you can take the Nicene creed or the Apostles Creed as examples of this.
The essential idea seems to me that one must believe these or one is socially out of the club and cosmically in hot water, so to speak. Then the proofs and arguments start in an effort to show that the obligation is reasonable. I actually think some of those proofs were at least initially offered in good faith (which is one reason I tend to respect Anselm, Aquinas, etc. a bit more than those these days who insist that all of this is beyond reasoning. There is a sincerity to the old proofs that I find lacking in a lot of the rhetoric of faith.) In any event, this is one reason perhaps that atheism is tied in some sense to the history of Christianity. It is an outcome of sorts, or as I believe Nietzsche once wrote, Christian morality overcoming Christian theology. …that’s not a precise quote, just the general idea.
I like rambling, it provokes pondering.
I agree with your observation that atheists should not concern themselves with disproving any and all concepts of God in a debate. First, have your religious opponent define her definition of God and then argue against that definition. I sometimes forget that point because my debates are seldom that serious and my opponents are not that knowledgeable. I’m ready and able to argue against all and any God. But, if I came up against a professional debater, it is good advice to narrow the position to be attacked and the position you might be defending.
I usually do not expose my position so it can be attacked. I start out being vague and let my opponent expose her position and weaknesses. Of course, a good opponent understands this ploy and often shifts positions and denies she shifted. It helps to jot down the main points of your opposition so you can read them back as needed.
I never claim to be an expert or that I am an experienced debater, because I am not. Many times I have witnessed debates where I had difficultly just following along. I have long realized that a debater can win with overwhelming confusion and little if any truth. Trials are won by the highest paid lawyer all to often. The jails are loaded with innocent people as DNA evidence too often proves. One on one debates don’t give me a chance to think, it’s much better to have at least two debaters on each side.
You have good advice. Thank you.
Norbert Haupt said:
First, prove to me that the Easter Bunny does not exist. Then we’ll talk :).
I have bones, my cat ate him in the yard last year.
Told you God is dead!
Bryan Hemming said:
I’ll start believing in God, when God starts believing in me.
Just One Boomer (Suzanne) said:
So what am I? I don’t believe in a Supreme Being, but I pray on airplanes.
Lol, don’t know. These labels point more than they describe, so I think it pays to let people define themselves for the most part. At least it’s a good starting point.
Kyle Delaney said:
Who or what do you pray to?
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Out of curiosity, should we take the word of someone who claims they are a Christian?
When someone says they are an atheist, normally I believe them. When someone says they are a Christian, I immediately begin to evaluate which kind. Are they the kind that embraces the teachings of Jesus and lives their life that way or are they the kind for which that name denotes a social group that considers themselves better than others and membership in which entitles them to any behavior they choose to engage in. The former I easily consider Christian. The latter I consider opportunist – the guise of a religion is used to create a shield against public approbation for their actions.
When I think about it though, if I normally make a distinction between real and ‘fake’ Christians, should they be able to make a distinction between real and ‘fake’ atheists?
No one likes having their beliefs questioned. I keep my thoughts to myself about whether I find a person’s professed religious ideology credible. It hardly matters beyond my own metrics for deciding how much I want to interact with them.
That said, I think it’s okay if someone doesn’t believe an atheist’s profession of atheism. On the other hand, it’s downright rude to say it to their face. And, frankly, I think that if someone feels entitled to question another’s religious ideology openly, they have consented to having theirs examined in quite the same manner. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.