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Mere Atheism

February 26, 2009

I stumbled upon the site of George A. Ricker the other day and found an essay he had written as companion to his book “mere atheism” (which I probably need read several times). Because…quite frankly, I like most of his ideas and have tried to use them often, even though I’ve never seen his site or his works until recently.

So I guess I’d like to take the time to take a few quotes from this page and comment about them.

Atheism is best defined as the absence of god-belief. It is the opposite of theism, which is the belief in a god or gods. The theist believes a god exists. The atheist does not believe a god exists. Theists believe in a god or gods. Atheists do not. All of those statements about atheism are accurate reflections of what atheism means.

…One of the most common misconceptions about atheism is that it requires one to deny the possibility of a god or to assert the absolute conviction that no god exists. Thus, atheists are commonly accused of claiming to “know” no gods exist. The relationship between atheism and agnosticism also seems to create confusion in the minds of some. It’s not at all uncommon to hear or read the statement “atheists claim to know there are no gods and agnostics aren’t sure.”

But the relationship between atheism and agnosticism is not one of degrees of belief. The two words reflect different kinds of statements. Agnosticism is not a convenient halfway house between belief and nonbelief.

I wrote about this a little bit in my article on atheism and agnosticism; if you didn’t realize, I strongly agree with this.

The idea is that really, atheism and agnosticism are very simple (mere) ideas…ideas that are clearly drawn from the words. However, in modern times people have tried to frame the definitions to create social connotations that quite simply don’t make sense. Particularly speaking of the second-to-last paragraph, this reasoning leads to conclusions that doesn’t make sense. A hypothetical conversation:

A: “What happens if I don’t believe in God?”

B: “Do you know that God doesn’t exist?”

A: “Uhh, no, I don’t know.”

B: “Then you must be agnostic.”

…I hope you can see the silliness in that. Atheism cannot simply be a gnostic position of God’s nonexistence. Intuitively, a definition of atheism should include those who merely don’t believe in God. It’s not just about people who “know” god doesn’t exist or who positively believe god doesn’t exist or who believe god is impossible. It’s about people who simply do not believe. Agnosticism doesn’t even address the issue here.

I submit these terms can fit together in various combinations: the gnostic theist—one who claims to know a god exists and consequently believes; the agnostic theist— one who makes no knowledge claim but believes in a god anyway; the gnostic atheist—one who claims to know no god exists and does not believe; and the agnostic atheist—one who makes no knowledge claim about the existence of gods and does not believe.

I agree, and that’s how I often try to frame things. I guess what would be interesting about the Mormon church and Mormon testimony is that it places a verbal premium on gnostic belief. So, people know the church is true. However, at the same time, the church is not so solid on the necessity of knowledge. For example, the church is apt to put value in faith, which is a trust in things not seen but hoped for. This easily allows for an agnostic theist.

(I would disagree that people can be purely agnostic and not take a belief position, but I think I address that in On Atheism and Agnosticism).

At the heart of mere atheism, and what I liked the most about Ricker’s essay, what this:

If you ask me about my opinion of gods, whether general or specific, and I tell you I am an atheist, the only legitimate conclusion you can draw is that I have no belief in gods. That’s it. The statement tells you nothing whatever about my politics, my moral code, my sexual preferences or anything else. Atheism does not provide one with a world-view. It has no opinion of politics. It has no agenda for social change. It presents no moral code. It is not an economic theory. It is neither a religion nor a philosophy. It is none of those things.

Of course, there are things you might surmise based upon my lack of theism. You could reasonably conclude that I don’t think a god is responsible for the existence of the universe, or anything else for that matter, and that I don’t base my moral convictions on the the absolute laws of some absolute being. Although the morality I practice may conform in many particulars to that practiced by most religionists, it is based on an entirely different perception of the nature of things.

Certainly, there are philosophical, political and economic theories that are secular in nature, in that they are not religious, and there may be some, like communism, that are atheistic, in that they overtly promote nonbelief. But while atheism may be a feature of some secular systems, none of those systems are atheism. None of them define atheism. None of their successes or failures can be laid at the door of atheism, nor can any of the abuses that may have been committed by such regimes. Atheism is a lack of belief. It is not about political coercion, and it certainly is not about interfering with the rights of conscience of any individual.

This is powerful, I think. Atheism doesn’t say what I must believe or not believe regarding morality or politics. Instead, I take what I have in light of my nonbelief. In particular, as a cultural Mormon, I still practice many aspects of Mormonism, but not due to a theistic responsibility. The fact that coffee, tea and alcohol taste utterly disgusting is more predictive of my non-drinking than vying for a temple recommend. With mere atheism, I am free to scrutinize the tenets of belief systems because I don’t have a vested interest in dogma and faith — I don’t have to feel bad if I disagree with the church on gay rights because I don’t accept that dogma or a god who theoretically would support that dogma.

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13 Comments
  1. Mike permalink

    Our culture also has a strong current of another kind of gnostic atheism: people who suspect God exists but don’t like him. I see that in some Holocaust literature and in Peter Shaffer’s plays Equus and Amadeus. C.S. Lewis addressed this tradition in his novel Til We Have Faces. My summary of its theme: we can’t challenge God face to face until we have faces.

  2. Mike:

    While I have no doubt that these kinds of people exist, I think as soon as you establish that this group “suspects God exists,” then they are not atheist. Rather, they are some form of maltheist.

    (Note: this is different than someone who believes God does not exist, but also believes that the constructs that various religions have proposed for God are unappealling and unlikable. In this case, the person still is atheist, because he does not believe in gods. He doesn’t dislike God so much [because he doesn't even give God existence], but rather, he dislikes and criticizes the available *constructs* of God.)

    So, I’m unsure in Equus, Amadeus, or Till We Have Faces adequately address this cohort…then again, I’m poorly read on each of these.

  3. nktrygg permalink

    atheist and agnostic are very different

    atheist is without evidence, there’s no reason to accept claims for a deity.

    agnostic is about the nature of knowledge, not the content – agnostic means that we can’t know either way if there is or isn’t a god.

    they are the opposites of the counterpart words

    theist – with faith – adding the a makes it negative – atheist is without faith

    gnostic means knowledge, agnostic without knowledge

    I like to joke that the agnostics are the bisexuals of the faith realm, but it’s not really an accurate metaphor

    nina

    http://ntrygg.wordpress.com

  4. I agree, (down to your point that it is not really “accurate” that agnostics are “bisexuals”, lol. Although I agree that they can “go both ways” as far as belief).

  5. nktrygg permalink

    oh sure – agnostics is about knowledge – and they can then lean on either side of the yes/no fence

    so, maybe they are more like bisexuals in that they can go both ways, switch and play both sides……

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