The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 2: Three Ways To Lack Belief

by | August 16, 2015

Is an atheist someone who doesn’t believe in gods, or someone who believes there are no gods? It’s a hairline distinction, irrelevant for most practical purposes, but there clearly is a theoretical difference between the two definitions. Anyone who lacks belief satisfies the first, but only those who consciously reject belief satisfy the second. In the first post in this series, I argued that both definitions have some currency, but in this long-delayed sequel I want to go a little further and make a pragmatic case for preferring the second, narrower meaning of atheism.

I don’t, of course, think either definition is superior in any cosmic or objective sense. As Brian Green Adams astutely pointed out in a comment on my earlier post, words don’t have “true” meanings, but rather evolve with usage. However, we can still argue fruitfully about which meanings for words are most useful, in the sense of facilitating clear, substantive communication and keeping misunderstandings to a minimum. In this case, atheism is one term in a classification of possible beliefs about religious matters, and classifications work best when their terms correspond to categories that are prominent in our discourse and separated by easily grasped distinctions that happen to matter to us. It’s also best to avoid terms that are redundant, or that overlap too much in their definitions. Individuals might come to different conclusions about which categories are prominent enough to be worth labelling, and which distinctions are easily grasped and important, but that’s precisely why semantic issues are worth discussing.

The key issue here, in my opinion, is what it actually means to lack belief in gods. I can see three distinct positions that might be grouped together under this heading.

First, a person who actively denies the existence of gods certainly lacks belief in gods. Such a person is clearly an atheist, by all reasonable definitions.

Second, a person who is unsure whether gods exist might be said to lack belief, without embracing active disbelief. This applies regardless of whether he or she thinks the existence of gods is an unresolvable question in principle or merely an iffy question in practice: both possibilities boil down to ticking the “don’t know” box, and can be comfortably placed under the heading of agnosticism. Whether agnosticism and atheism should be regarded as mutually exclusive positions or as compatible positions that a person might hold simultaneously is really the crux of the distinction between the two alternative definitions of atheism given above, and I’ll return to this point below.

The third way to lack belief, at least hypothetically, is to be ignorant and unreflective. Imagine a person who has never considered the possibility that gods might exist, and therefore necessarily goes about his or her life as if they don’t. Is such a person an atheist, an agnostic, or something else entirely? It’s a perfectly legitimate question in theory, but in practice it’s a bit of a non-issue because virtually everyone becomes aware of at least one religion at a very early age. Even staunchly atheist parents in the most secular countries on Earth would have to go to considerable lengths to prevent their children from discovering that some people believe in such things as gods, souls and afterlives, and of course most atheist parents would probably prefer to teach their children a thing or two about religion anyway. In the real world, the issue of whether people who are unaware of religion should be considered atheists concerns only infants, and is therefore basically irrelevant to discussions of how particular viewpoints on the existence of gods should be classified. Infants don’t have meaningful viewpoints at all.

Setting aside this third form of non-belief leaves the first and second, which might respectively be summarized as rejection of belief in gods and uncertainty about whether gods exist. The former clearly can be called atheism, and the latter clearly can be called agnosticism. However, defining atheism as a mere lack of belief in gods would imply that agnostics – or at a minimum, agnostics who tend towards disbelief – are also atheists. This creates unnecessary overlap between the atheist and agnostic categories, and introduces an inconvenient and cumbersome need to distinguish between agnostic and non-agnostic atheists. The same objections can be raised against proposals that atheists who are “unwilling… to be too dogmatic” about their disbelief in gods should be called agnostic atheists, to acknowledge their lack of total certainty. Furthermore, any position can be held with varying degrees of dogmatism, and people generally understand this without any need for special terminology. Those of us who believe the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, but are non-dogmatic enough to accept a remote possibility that some kind of large, unknown aquatic vertebrate might lurk in the depths of the loch, don’t feel obligated to call ourselves “agnostic Nessie doubters”. Why should atheism be any different?

The tidier and more reasonable alternative, it seems to me, is to use “atheism” only to refer to overt rejection of belief in gods, and “agnosticism” only for uncertainty about whether gods exist (stopping short of overt rejection). In this scheme one doesn’t have to be absolutely certain of the non-existence of gods to call oneself an atheist, but merely certain enough to regard their existence as too unlikely to be worth highlighting. Embracing the agnostic label, on the other hand, implies a greater willingness to entertain the notion that someone is home on top of Mount Olympus (or wherever) after all. One can be on the fence between agnosticism and atheism, or wavering between the two, or even agnostic on some days and atheist on others. But the two positions are mutually exclusive in the sense that they can’t be held simultaneously, and in that they define adjacent rather than overlapping parts of a theoretical spectrum that runs from 100% theistic certainty to 100% atheistic certainty. Theists are close to one end of that spectrum, atheists are close to the other, and agnostics occupy the vast middle ground. If a term is needed to refer to both atheists and agnostics, “non-theists” should fit the bill just fine – and similarly, agnostics and theists can be grouped together as “non-atheists”. This taxonomy has the immense virtues of clarity, straightforwardness, and consistency with how the words “atheism” and “agnosticism” are used by many and probably most speakers of the English language. It’s no more “correct” than the alternatives, but in my opinion it’s a damn sight better.

7 thoughts on “The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 2: Three Ways To Lack Belief

  1. Larry Moran

    I have a friend who is a Jesuit Priest. He is also an agnostic because he claims that you can never know for sure whether God exists. Thus, he is an agnostic believer in God.

    How does that fit in with your claim? How can you have an agnostic theist but not an agnostic atheist?

    I once stayed in Belgium where I met all kinds of people who don’t believe in gods. They are second or third generation nonbelievers. They don’t really have any doubts about the nonexistence of gods any more than they have doubts about the nonexistence of Father Christmas. They don’t go around proclaiming their disbelief in gods because they live in a society where it’s perfectly normal to lack belief.

    I think those people are atheists because they lack belief in gods. Corwin, what would you call them?

  2. Larry Moran

    “Those of us who believe the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist, but are non-dogmatic enough to accept a remote possibility that some kind of large, unknown aquatic vertebrate might lurk in the depths of the loch, don’t feel obligated to call ourselves “agnostic Nessie doubters”. Why should atheism be any different?”

    It isn’t any different. You would be a fool to claim that you are absolutely certain, beyond any doubt, that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist just as you would be a fool to claim that it does exist. The only reason you don’t have to advertise the fact that you have a tiny doubt about the existence of monsters is because we usually don’t get into metaphysical disputes about what’s in Loch Ness.

    That’s not the case with the existence of gods. You have to be careful when arguing about the existence or nonexistence of gods because it’s such a well-studied debate. Those people who claim they have proof of the nonexistence of gods will soon find themselves on the losing side of any philosophical debate. That’s why we have the term “agnostic” to represent the position that you can never know for certain whether gods exist or not.

    It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a special word for those people who behave as if there were no gods but are afraid to call themselves atheists but that’s no reason to change the meaning of the word “agnostic.”

    1. Tim Underwood

      Non-material isn’t that far away from non-existent.

      The important distinction, to be aware of, is the difference between biography and myth. Stories can be created from both of these studies; separately or combined.

      Jesus and Moses can be totally mythical while, at the same time, Mohammed and Buddha can be partially biographical and partially mythical.

      Atheism is just an intellectual response to any particular mention of supernatural activity. Atheism or agnosticism occur throughout our conscious time as commonly as belief or concurrence does.

    2. Corwin Post author

      @Larry Moran

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments, and I agree that one can’t prove the nonexistence of gods in an absolute sense. Strictly speaking, though, one can’t prove anything in an absolute sense, at least outside the realm of mathematics and abstract logic. The debate over the existence of the Loch Ness monster may not be metaphysical, but “metaphysical” considerations intrude – what if some quirk in the laws of nature causes the Loch Ness monster to temporarily disappear whenever anyone undertakes a serious search for it? Can we prove that this isn’t the case? Such metaphysical reasons to stop short of complete certainty about the nonexistence of the Loch Ness monster coexist with more prosaic but almost equally far-fetched ones about undetected problems with all the equipment that has been used to search for the monster in the past, secret hiding places at the bottom of the loch, or whatever one might bring up.

      In principle, as I’ll argue further in a later installment in this series, it’s just the same with gods. We see no evidence of their existence, we have no a priori reason to think they might exist, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion (based on arguments from theodicy, for instance) that they must be almost unrecognisably different from traditionally conceived gods if they do exist. However, there are again both metaphysical and more ordinary (“physical” or “scientific” might be an appropriate term) reasons for stopping short of complete certainty about their nonexistence – maybe the gods are just exquisitely careful about not using their influence in situations that would allow it to be clearly perceived and documented, for instance.

      So whether it’s Nessie, the gods, or anything else, absolute certainty about the conclusions one might draw is always going to be unwarranted. In almost every realm outside theology, however, people nevertheless go ahead and adopt labels that reflect their nearly-certain beliefs, without adding a qualifier like “agnostic”. The inevitability of tiny little doubts attached to our conclusions about the world is a reality that we normally just ignore. This is why I think it’s unnecessary and indeed a bit misleading to adopt the label “agnostic” if one considers the existence of gods to be no more plausible or credible as a hypothesis than the existence of the Loch Ness monster.

      Similarly, if your Jesuit friend is nearly certain that Yahweh does exist, I think he ought to drop the term “agnostic” and just call himself a theist. The Belgian nonbelievers you mention are atheists by any reasonable standard because they “don’t really have any doubts about the nonexistence of gods”, even if they don’t go around proclaiming the fact. Being an atheist has nothing to do with being outspoken – it’s a matter of holding particular views.

      1. Tim Underwood

        Similarly, if your Jesuit friend is nearly certain that Yahweh, (the Canaanite God of war, amongst other things} does exist, I think he ought to drop the term “agnostic” and just call himself superstitious.

  3. billybob

    Larry Moran said

    “It isn’t any different. You would be a fool to claim that you are absolutely certain, beyond any doubt, that the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist just as you would be a fool to claim that it does exist.”

    “That’s not the case with the existence of gods. You have to be careful when arguing about the existence or nonexistence of gods because it’s such a well-studied debate.”

    I have never seen a grainy out of focus picture of a god, so the Loch Ness monster is more likely to exist than a god. We can look for it within a confined area whereas gods are just vapour and hide in our imagination. The words “well studied debate” show that there is zero evidence gods exist and debating about it is all there is and that is idiotic.

    Is any creature or god I create worthy of the words “it could exist as we can’t prove it doesn’t.” No, it is silly to even discuss the gods I create today, lets see, how about the suignogs that dwell in the 47th dimension. All gods are silly fabrications and until a tiny shred of evidence that one of the thousands (millions?) of gods created by man exist we should deem them non existent.

    Some gods are mutually exclusive, you cannot have two different creation stories. For example a christian must believe all the other gods man has created do not exist, a christian innately believes you can prove a negative, some gods do not exist. This makes a debate silly as the christian first must prove Zeus, Anu, Ra etc. do not exist, an impossible task. It just gets sillier and sillier to even discuss it.

    (1)atheist: an individual who for pragmatic and evidential reasons does not believe gods exist.

    (2)atheist: what we confirm exists, exists. Nothing exists until confirmed to exist.

    agnostic: an individual who accepts that anything is possible as you cannot prove a negative.

    Elvis is alive and well, that was not his body it was a conspiracy! Prove me wrong. No, the body is not evidence it was a clone.

  4. Jason Clark

    I also prefer using the broad definition of agnostic and narrow definition of atheist.

    “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley, 1884

    Huxley was a scientist, above all else. His agnosticism amounted to a form of demarcation…no evidence = untestable/unfalsifiable = unscientific/unobjective and inconclusive. Karl Popper was also a self-described agnostic.

    The narrow definition of atheist is the way the word was formed, “atheos” (no/not/without gods) + “ist” (someone who believes) = someone who believes we are without gods…that there are no gods.

    The broader definition was not in common usage, or even common knowledge, until recently.

    “The word ‘atheism’, however, has in this contention to 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. I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.

    The introduction of this new interpretation of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. ‘Whyever’, it could be asked, ‘don’t you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?'” ~ Antony Flew, 1984

    Regarding “amoral”, Flew missed that it is constructed the same way as “atheos”. However, just like “atheos”, there are then amoralists and amoralism.


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