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Strong atheism vs. weak atheism part 1

June 19, 2009

I think I’m informally developing a series of posts on my thoughts about atheism. But unfortunately, as of now, I lack the peer-reviewed strength to take over the world with these (in my opinion), reasonable, intuitive, and etymological ideas.

But, if you want reading on my past entries, try:

So, what would I like to talk about today? I’d like to talk about the difference between strong atheism and weak atheism.

I believe that there is only one thing that is necessary to be an atheist. And that is a lack of belief in gods.

A lack of belief in gods? What do I mean?

I think that we have a question…and this question can intuitively give us an answer as to who is or is not an atheist. This question is: “Do you believe in god/s/deity/deities?” (let’s just use god or gods from now on) or “Do you believe that god exists?”

Such a simple question. Let’s analyze the parts. This question is a question about beliefs, so it is distinct from a question about knowledge (in other words, sorry agnostics, but you can’t just be agnostic about this.) Specifically, this question is about a belief in a proposition…a proposition “God/s exist/s.”

It is a binary question, in my mind. You answer yes if you have a belief in this proposition or no if you lack a belief. If you have a belief in this proposition, we have a special term for you: theist (or deist, depending on the formulation agreed). If you answer no…we have another term for you: atheist. But more specifically…weak or negative atheist. You lack belief in a god. You negate the proposition by not believing in it.

This is important, because we’ll get to something later. But please note that the most important part of this is that all atheism is is a counter to theism…it is a lack of theistic belief, a lack of belief in god. That is first and foremost what it is.

(Some might protest: why can’t you answer “I don’t know” here? Because this question is about beliefs, it is about something internal to an individual…and not about external things at all. One actually doesn’t need to know if there is or is not a god to believe or not believe. So the only ways one can “not know” if they believe or not is if 1) they don’t know themselves [which is regrettable] or 2) they don’t understand the terms…so they can’t parse if they believe in a god because they don’t know what is meant by it)

As I wrote in Mere Atheism, atheism should not be a big deal. A “lack of belief” should be a minor deal. If someone does not collect stamps, this is not be deal. We don’t say that not collecting stamps is a good way to group people.

However, stamp collecting is also not a hobby that a sizeable majority of populations participate in and value very highly. Theism, on the other hand, is. So, within the social consciousness, lacking such a belief is taken as very strange indeed.

At this point, people might (and actually do) come to arms and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, atheists don’t lack belief in god…they believe there is no god.”

But this isn’t something you can get from our question. You need to form a different question: “Do you believe that god does not exist?”

Like our first question, we focus on beliefs, not knowledge or claim of knowledge. But now…our claim is different. The claim is “God does not exist.” If one answers yes, then they are atheist, indeed. But they are a separate kind of atheist than the one presented before…they are a positive or strong atheist. They posit the belief that God does not exist.

So, who’s the real atheist? The weak or the strong? In actuality…both are.

The one thing every atheist has in common is weak atheism…that is, lack of belief god does exists. Even positive atheists have this. However, strong atheists add something more by adding a belief god does not exist.

Meanwhile, the atheist lacks a belief. They lack the belief either way. They don’t believe God exists, but they don’t believe God doesn’t exist.

How can this be? Wouldn’t lack of belief necessitate belief in lack? No…this is fallacious. One lacks a belief because one is unconvinced of that belief. So, one could be unconvinced of both positions here: that god exists or that god doesn’t exist (this means, generally, that weak atheists are agnostic, but if you’ve read me in the past, you should know that agnosticism is about knowledge and the lack of it…and doesn’t do much in our discussion about beliefs).

Now, the clever theist will (and has) point out that it doesn’t seem fair. Why do atheists get double team efforts and theists do not? Why can’t theism be the lack of belief that god doesn’t exist in the same way that atheism can be the lack of belief god does?

Well, the problem is in the idea that theism constitutes. Theism intrinsically and irrevocably is the belief in god. It is intrinsically and intuitively positive in that it posits “God exists.” Theism won’t have the people who simply do not believe god does not exist…unless they tie a lack of belief to a belief of lack (e.g., they tie the lack of belief that god does not exist to a belief that he does). This is clear because they have popularly relegated the two-don’t atheists (don’t believe god exists and don’t believe god doesn’t exist) to agnosticism. And yet, agnosticism intuitively and etymologically doesn’t fit in a battle of beliefs. But atheism does.

So while anyone can propose that the minimum of theism is the lack of belief that there is no god…they run into massive problems with intuition about what theism should entail and etymology. Yet atheism not only does not run into such problems, but in fact it is represented quite faithfully by such a concept.

In the next post, I’ll describe the different ramifications and a controversial burden of proof difference between strong and weak atheism.

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36 Comments
  1. Alright Andrew, I’ll grant your strong and weak atheist distinction. But of course there can also be strong and weak theists (even if the concept isn’t particularly popular).

    Claim 1: There is no God

    – Weak theist response — I just don’t believe there is no God. (A lack of belief in the assertion)

    – Strong theist response — That is not true because there is a God.

    Claim 2: There is a God.

    – Weak atheist response — I just don’t believe there is a God. (A lack of belief in the assertion)

    – Strong theist response — That is not true because there is no God.

    So we clever theists can admit it is entirely fair. It is just a matter of what assertion is being responded to.

    The glaring error in your post is you are not allowing for the “weak theist” position — you are incorrectly claiming that all forms of theism must be the strong position. Of course that is not true.

  2. Geoff, I will grant your weak and strong theists concept, but I will continue to assert that the issue we have is that your strong/weak theism distinction is theoretically. Indeed, it is as theoretically valid as the strong/weak atheism distinction, so I have no problem granting it…but what you should find is that in real world application, theists already reject this theoretical application. Intuitively, you and everyone already realize that theism is belief in God. It is positive. And you and everyone have already conceded that atheism is lack of belief in God. It is negative.

    In fact, the only thing you can do is claim that there is a connection between negation and position. So, you claim that lack of belief in god is connected to belief there is no god. That is the only way your arguments work.

    Let’s take your system.

    Claim 1: There is no God
    Weak atheist and weak theist: I do not accept this claim: I just do not believe there is no god. (A lack of belief in the assertion)

    Strong theist: I do not accept this claim because I actually believe there is a god.

    Please note my adjustments to your arguments, but tell me if you have problems with them. I talk about “convincing” and “belief” because again, we are talking about beliefs, not about external knowledge claims. So, when we try to assert things are “true” or when we do not preface with “I believe” “I do not accept,” then we confuse an inherently internal issue with an external issue. But please note…this are not statements about externalities. These are statements about internal beliefs about externalities.

    and

    Claim 2: There is a God.

    Weak atheist and weak theist response: I do not accept this claim; I just do not believe there is a God. (A lack of belief in the assertion)

    Strong atheist response: I do not accept this claim because I actually believe there is no god.

    I hope you accept my changes here. I have treated the weak theists exactly as I would treat weak atheists. So I allow the weak atheist to lack belief in the claim “There is no God” (which is completely possible and in fact, exactly the case) just as much as the weak theist would. And I have allowed the weak theist to lack belief in the claim “There is a God” just as much as the weak atheist would.

    now I ask you…would you accept the weak theist who does it? Who lacks belief in the claim “There is a God?”

    If not…then doesn’t this mean you can’t treat weak theists similarly to weak atheists and “flip the coin”? Why is that? I submit that it is because the vital part of theism *is* the belief in god.

    • Additionally, if you would like me to change my arguments to fit your claims (e.g., not change language about “accepting” and “believing), then I can do it…and I think it still agrees with my point.

  3. Andrew: theists already reject this theoretical application

    Not true. I’m a theist and I accept it. So it is not theoretical, it is just not popular.

    Your attempts at claiming the intuitive position is failing miserably. People intuitively assume the positive/strong position for both theism and atheism. The weak/negative position is not what most people think of intuitively at all.

    Further, based on your last comment weak atheists and weak theists are suspiciously similar to agnostics. They don’t accept the claim that there is no God and the don’t accept the claim that there is a God. How are they not agnostics again?

  4. Hi Andrew,

    The distinction you make is a very interesting and I think a useful one. Weak atheism (I lack a belief in God) seems to me to fall between agnosticism (I don’t know if there is a God) and strong atheism (I believe there is no God). If theists could be persuaded to acknowledge and make use of this distinction when they go around denonuncing strong atheists for trying to prove a negative, it would be a step in the direction of more productive communication.

    Then again, the distinction is sufficiently subtle that I doubt it will be widely embraced by theistic polemicists.

    -Chris

  5. Geoff:
    And yet in your comments in my last topic, you yourself admitted that intuitively, “atheism means one does not believe there is a God”

    This is clearly the weak definition. It is clearly the negative definition.

    Do you want to take it back. Do you want to take back, and I quote:

    What is intuitive is that atheism means one does not believe there is a God and that theism means one believes there is a God.

    Or no?

    Now, we can continue on:

    Further, based on your last comment weak atheists and weak theists are suspiciously similar to agnostics. They don’t accept the claim that there is no God and the don’t accept the claim that there is a God. How are they not agnostics again?

    Here we come again to the etymological reality that agnosticism has nothing to do with beliefs in god. Rather, it is a position on knowledge…specifically…a lack of knowledge. We commonly use it even more specifically for lacks of knowledge about god.

    So, if we cut out the belief questions and go to knowledge-implicit questions…like, “Does god exist?” then the stage changes…this question implies knowledge…whatever answer is a known answer. So, in this case, an agnostic wisely says, “Whoa whoa whoa…I don’t know!”

    Knowledge is different than belief. An agnostic *still* must answer whether he believes or does not believe. To both of our claims.

    You have presented an idea of agnosticism that is rather popular in a common-use sense, but it doesn’t stand up to etymology or intuition. This idea of agnosticism is only of one who doesn’t accept either claim (that there is no god or that there is).

    But this ignores the breadth and capability of agnostic positions on the belief spectrum which can be experientially recognized.

    For example, have you met a person who has said, “I don’t know if God exists, but I believe he does?” or “I don’t think I know if God exists, but I believe?” I certainly have met many people who have said such things…so this is what I mean by experiential recognition. Intuitively and etymologically, it fits to describe this first part, “I don’t know if God exists” as agnosticism. But what about that second part? that intuitively and etymologically is theism. So, you can have an agnostic theist. Furthermore, I would argue that agnostic theism is prized in many theist communities because it highlights the importance of “faith.” So it is meaningful that we don’t exclude agnostic theism.

    On the other hand, with the common-use definition of agnosticism, we don’t allow for agnostic theists. And we don’t distinguish between agnostic theists, “I don’t know…but I believe,” and gnostic theists, “I know there is a god.”

    Similarly, atheists can be either agnostic or gnostic. Since you are fond of strong atheism as a position, let’s look at this. “I don’t know if there is no god, but I believe there is no god.” This is perfectly conceivable and is an experientially recognized position. Even the most popular of the so-called “militant atheists” or “new atheists” who are rather strong and positive atheists are also agnostic about the issue.

    But going past that, you can also see gnostic strong atheists. They think they know there is no god (because of any number of “arguments” they think are rock-solid…logical contradictions, etc., etc.,)

    So, I’d argue that if you would like to close weak atheist with agnostic, then perhaps *that* is more tenable than arguing for weak theist (which doesn’t really “work” because it proposes a lack belief in God that is necessary for theism)…but when you do this, you divorce agnosticism of its etymological significance and its intuitive significance.

  6. oh wow guys, sorry for the super long comment…that’s basically post sized and that’s ridiculous.

    Re Chris:

    I think the issue is that we are using two scales here. weak atheism isn’t really “between” agnosticism and strong atheism because “I don’t know” is completely different language than “I believe” or “I don’t believe.” One doesn’t substitute for the other — you have to answer both questions.

    I don’t think theists want to accept this distinction, regardless, for some of the same points that Geoff made in comments on the article “Even believers realize it’s easier to bring someone down.” Why? Because it changes the game…theists *want* to be able to hold atheists to the charge of proving a negative…or at least, if they can’t hold atheists to this charge, then they *don’t* want to be held themselves to the charge of proving a positive. Not to put words in Geoff’s mouth, but I think that’s what he means when he refers to the distinction as “spin” and a bunch of “crock.” He either wants “weak” to be applicable to both (which etymologically and intuitively doesn’t make sense for theism) or he wants atheism to be only strong (which etymologically and intuitively doesn’t make sense for atheism).

    And even if we get this change in conversation…to target weak atheist concerns…we don’t necessarily get productive communication so simply. Because now the theistic charge is to show to each atheist that they should have convincing reason to believe in the god of their formulation. And this is a very personal and subjective matter.

  7. Andrew: And yet in your comments in my last topic, you yourself admitted that intuitively, “atheism means one does not believe there is a God”

    True I said that. Yet I meant no distinction between saying that and saying “atheism means one believes there is no God”. In fact it requires quite a non-intuitive strain to discern any difference between those two claims. But I will be more precise in my wording going forward if you’d like.

    [agnosticism] is a position on knowledge…specifically…a lack of knowledge.

    Ok I see that you are basically subordinating agnosticism under the the other subcategories of weak/negative or strong/positive. I understand your point on that. I don’t think it is a common taxonomy at all but I understand what you are getting at.

    But again, I argue a weak theist is one who does not accept the claims of strong atheists — that there is no God. A weak atheist is one who does not accept the claims of strong theists — that there is a God. I suppose both groups are likely agnostics as well by the definitions you are using.

  8. Geoff

    (keeping this comment short for everyone’s sake :D)…so as I said in my first response in this article:

    In fact, the only thing you can do is claim that there is a connection between negation and position. So, you claim that lack of belief in god is connected to belief there is no god. That is the only way your arguments work.

    Is that acceptable to you? Except you might turn the tables back on me and assert that the only way *my* arguments work is if I sever the connection…so then the goal becomes to either show a connection or show no connection.

    I argue that it doesn’t take an unintuitive strain to discern a difference in claims…because you already acknowledge such a distinction with your proposed definition of agnosticism. You know that lack of belief one way doesn’t equal belief the other way, but you call lack of belief both ways agnosticism.

    So, I think it’s important to show that agnosticism shouldn’t reasonably be used that way.

    re: “subordinating agnosticism.” I’m not necessarily doing this…yet. after all, with agnosticism, we don’t really have negative and positive as distinctions. “I believe I don’t know” vs. “I don’t believe I know.” And “strong” and “weak” take different meanings too…weak agnosticism becomes something like, “I don’t know, but maybe I can find out.” whereas strong agnosticism is something like, “I don’t know, and can’t know. Knowledge is impossible for all of us.” A strong agnostic believes we don’t have the ability to discern the existence or nonexistence of god.

    I counter your final argument by arguing that a weak atheist does not accept either claim — he does not accept the claim of “strong” theists because that would make him “strong theist.” He does not accept the claim of strong atheists because that would make him “strong” atheist. Rather, he is not strong atheist…he is weak atheist. So…a weak atheist must be one who does not accept either claim — he does not accept the claim of strong atheists because that would make him strong atheist. But when he doesn’t accept the claim of strong theists…this actually bumps him out of theism entirely. Because the claim for theism to accept is that there is a God — which the weak theist does not do, whereas the minimum claim for atheism is not to accept that there is a God.

    Strong theists and strong atheists both can be gnostic or agnostic (which is why it’s important to keep these distinct from theism or atheism), but weak theists (however they exist) or weak atheists would be agnostics.

  9. eh…i failed in my attempt to keep things concise -_-

  10. Andrew,

    I don’t see a practical difference between your “agnostic atheist” and your “weak atheist” categories. They seem to me to be slightly different ways of denoting the same category.

    Your objection that “atheist” and “agnostic” are answering two different questions seems to me counterintuitive. When you ask me a yes or no question (like “does God exist”), I will typically give one of three responses: “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know / maybe.” In popular usage, the term “agnostic” denotes the third answer: namely, that I refuse to take a position because I don’t have enough information. Since it is popular usage rather than etymology that determines how words are used and understood, it seems fairly obvious to me that the theist, the agnostic, and the atheist are all answering the same question. I have no problem with eking out some mediating positions between the three categories or treating them as non-exclusive, but I also see no reason to insist that agnosticism is somehow a special kind of thing that doesn’t belong on this continuum.

    Best,

    -Chris

  11. Chris:

    an agnostic atheist could be strong atheist or weak atheist. So a weak atheist is an agnostic atheist, but a strong atheist only perhaps is an agnostic atheist (after all, a strong atheist could claim to “know” that god doesn’t exist)

    “Does God exist” is a question that implies knowledge. when you answer, “Yes” or “no,” you imply that you know (and then we ASSUME belief based on the answer…although even this can be a bad assumption…Moore’s paradox is a good one here: “It is raining outside but I don’t believe it is.” or the theistic idea of Korihor “God exists but I don’t believe he does.”)…and if you don’t know (or don’t feel comfortable enough to presume you know), you say “I don’t know.” This “I don’t know” is acceptable precisely because the question is asking about external objects…so it’s possible that you don’t know about the external object “God” and his existence.

    Meanwhile, “Do you believe God exists?” cuts to the chase. It cares nothing about knowledge in an external entity. Instead, it looks inward at yourself. It wouldn’t make sense to answer, “I don’t know,” here, unless 1) you didn’t know yourself or 2) you didn’t understand the words used (e.g., you don’t know what is meant by “god”)

    So I guess the question is…which is more common and popular a question: “Does god exist?” (with the implication of knowledge) or “Do you believe God exists?” (or “Do you believe in God?”)? Additionally, do most people feel there is a difference in these questions (regardless of if they could put their finger on it and SAY that one involves knowledge of external entities and one doesn’t)? I think people do recognize a difference in questions and people do ask about belief when they mean belief.

  12. I am not sure the value of this complex taxonomy you are creating Andrew. Is there a end you have in mind? I suspect Chris is right that for most purposes a simple question like “does God exist” neatly separates folks into three categories. We can muddy the waters with epistemology issues (believe vs know etc) but I am wondering how often doing so would be useful.

  13. The taxonomy is only to get to the chase of what people do or do not believe. And when focused on this, it isn’t really all that complex. We just need to cut to the chase.

    My point is, if I answer the question, “Does God exist?” with “I don’t know,” then this doesn’t appreciate the fact that regardless of my lack of knowledge, I most certainly believe or not believe (whichever claim it is). Similar with all the others who answer such a question.

    It’s much more important for me to know where people stand on the belief question than to know what people think they know. Especially since I think that most people, when they realize the difference, would admit to being agnostic anyway, but still have a belief or not.

  14. Andrew,

    Very few people, if pressed, would say they absolutely know that what they believe about God’s existence is true. Yet those who hold strong beliefs one way or the other but deny knowing can hardly be called agnostics, at least in the normal sense of the term. It would frankly lose all its usefulness as a category if it could encompass “strong atheists” or “strong theists”.

    I understand the distinction you’re trying to make, but I just don’t think you’re going to make any headway here. You’re swimming upstream against common usage. Unless you can provide genuinely compelling reasons for people to adopt your taxonomy, it’s highly unlikely it will catch on.

    Incidentally, if you asked me “do you believe God exists,” I would indeed answer “I don’t know.” This is neither a case of failing to know myself nor of failing to understand the terms involved (though I admit to a little difficulty on both counts), but rather of simply not being able to decide whether I believe or not. Thus I suppose I am an agnostic in the truest sense of the word.

    Peace,

    -Chris

  15. those who hold strong beliefs one way or another but deny knowing can *precisely* be called agnostics. We have a “normal” sense of the term that utterly flies off the handle of the etymological basis of the word (a basis that is still intuitively recognized, I might add). Rather, you’re just highlighting the probable truth that most people are agnostic. (However, I still think that some would assert they “know”…for whatever reason, spiritual confirmation that they interpret as only possibly coming from a divine source, etc.,)

    I think there can be headway made, though…because even though common usage is quite different…it hasn’t completely erased and morphed the definitions of the word. People still can recognize the etymological parts of the words and still do use the words in an etymological sense, at least sometimes. It doesn’t sound totally *foreign* to use agnostic in the way I have proposed (whereas some words, despite their etymology, have completely and fully lost connection). So my reasons are the clarity of the distinctions, as well as the fact that we still intuitively recognize these definitions — it’s not too late.

    As for your final paragraph, a sigh. Seeing as you live out your belief (or lack thereof), I would suggest it would be hard to “not be able to decide,” unless you also had a similar paralysis of action. But this actually gets into a slightly different question (what happens if belief doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t motivate any change in action?)

  16. Weak atheism is more or less a proper scientific mindset. Nothing can really be proved or disproved, but everything can be assigned a probability of truth. I can’t PROVE to you that unicorns don’t exist, just as I can’t prove god doesn’t exist. I can however point out that their existence is equally likely. This is similar to, but not agnosticism.

  17. Sorry for two in a row, I just read a bit more about the “weak theist”

    If you’re assenting to or defending positive truth claims, you carry the burden of proof.

  18. Andrew,

    I’m obviously in agreement with Chris on this one. I see more harm than good in effectively obliterating the term agnostic by essentially saying everyone in the world is agnostic.

    The foundation upon which you are attempting to eviscerate the word agnostic is a sandy one to say the least. Basically you are resting your argument on the etymological fallacy. In other words you seem to be mostly basing you argument on etymology and claiming “based on the etymology of the word it should mean this”. The problem is that the English language is full of words that now mean things that no longer perfectly align with their etymology. In practice words mean or imply different things over time so while you can certainly lament the drift of the meaning of the word agnostic you won’t be successful in reverting it back to the its origins.

    Now I think there is a place for taking the tri-partite taxonomy of theist, atheist and agnostic and adding more nuance. For instance I can see a 5-part taxonomy occasionally being employed in order to explain the weak atheist or weak theist. But I still think it would make more sense to have a weak theists and weak atheists labeled agnostics with either atheistic or theistic leanings.

  19. Andrew,

    First of all, I’m not at all convinced that your etymological argument is valid. Gnosis of the sort Huxley was alluding to when he coined the term “agnostic”does not refer simply to knowledge, but rather to esoteric or ultimate knowledge. The gnostic is not one who possesses certainty as opposed to mere “belief”, but rather one who is privy to a special kind of information via revelation or spiritual insight. Huxley admitted that there may indeed be ultimate or spiritual things, but denied that he possessed any gnosis about them. He coined the term “agnostic” to indicate his inability to decide the issue one way or the other.

    Secondly, let me reiterate that the meaning of a word is simply whatever people use it to mean. If you can convince them to adopt your definition then fine, but I doubt that will happen until and unless you can demonstrate that your definition is actually useful. At present, I’m not convinced that it is.

    You ask a good question about how agnosticism plays out practically. I am quite atheistic about personal deities that transmit scriptures through prophets, but very theistic about deities that are simply metaphors for joy and unity and the like. It is the range of God-concepts between these two poles that I am agnostic about. Fortunately, most of the God-concepts within this range would not entail dramatic changes of lifestyle.

    Far from resulting in a “paralysis of action”, I’d say that my position actually entails a remarkable freedom of action. I can appreciate the wonder, mystery, and unity of the universe while adhering to a practical rather than a sectarian morality.

    Best,

    -Chris

  20. re Bud:

    Thanks for the comments. I guess we’re against Chris and Geoff on this one haha…I agree with you that the theistic position intrinsically is the one that posits something…so the supposed “weak theist” position is flawed because it does not posit anything.

    re Geoff

    The problem is that we do have a qualitative difference between people who think they are gnostic and people who think they are agnostic. This qualitative difference may be mistaken (e.g., people who think they know if god does or doesn’t exist could be mistaken — this is a strong agnostic stance, of course)…but we still get something very meaningful from it. Someone who asserts, “I know God exists, so I believe in him,” seems to be very different than someone who says, “I don’t know God exists, but I believe anyway.”

    The difference between a simple fallacious etymological argument and mine is that the words we are using, while they have drifted, aren’t *completely* unintelligible from what they once meant. It would be different if no one recognized intuitively the meaning of agnostic that I’m using — this would signify a completeness of semantic change in which I’m fighting for a historically lost cause. But this is not the case…rather, we are on the battlefrield of the semantic shift, and exactly because language is flexible, we can argue to change the direction of the shift as we please.

    For example, if we look at your page for etymological fallacy…one of the ways usage can change organically is through ‘reclaiming.’ So, the etymological fallacy would be to insist upon a previous, dead usage of a word after it has been reclaimed. How then, can you argue against the reclaiming of terms? It seems like the etymological fallacy doesn’t apply here (because we still are on the battlefield to claim the usage of a term) or if it *does* apply, it applies to you (who is fighting against the reclaiming of atheism by atheists).

    If you want to label weak atheists or weak theists as agnostics with theistic or atheistic leanings, then fine. The point is that this confuses the issue, because the two are separate issues. To say that weak atheists/weak theists are “agnostics with leanings” would be to suggest that strong theists/atheists are gnostics about their position. This isn’t a remotely true distinction. On the other hand, if you want to banish agnosticism as meaningless because of its commonality, then it doesn’t make any sense to describe anyone as agnostic with leanings

  21. re Chris:

    Actually, I don’t see how Huxley’s definition disagrees with mine. How do people “know” God exists? It is through esoteric knowledge. So, you can clearly connect this to gnostic theists who have had tremendous spiritual experiences that lead to the conclusion they know God exists.

    Please keep in mind that I’m not saying “The gnostic is one who possesses certainty as opposed to mere “belief”,”

    This still is making the fallacy of assuming these are all on the same spectrum. No, “certainty” isn’t opposed to “belief,” because the two things concern different questions. The gnostic is one who possesses knowledge and belief.

    So, I’ll reiterate back that we’re not in the aftermath. So, basically, when you say, “The meaning of a word is simply whatever people use it for,” this *includes* my definition. You can’t simply ignore it because of the tyranny of the majority. Rather, you have to deal with the atheists and agnostics who are reclaiming terms and who are presenting a case for such reclamation. And that’s really our task…more than anything else. It’s not to convince people to become atheist or whatever…but to convince them of the reasonableness of the proposition and of our definition.

    I think you don’t have the paralysis of action precisely because you have already resolved things. You don’t believe in some things. You do believe in others. Based on this, you live in accordance to these things. I would assert that the things you “don’t know about,” you don’t believe in these things, and that’s why you are free, not paralyzed. You take a practical stance on it.

  22. Andrew: the theistic position intrinsically is the one that posits something…so the supposed “weak theist” position is flawed because it does not posit anything.

    You and Bud are wrong here. The strong theistic position posits something just like the strong atheistic position posits something. The weak theistic and weak atheistic positions do not posit anything.

    Someone who asserts, “I know God exists, so I believe in him,” seems to be very different than someone who says, “I don’t know God exists, but I believe anyway.”

    I remain thoroughly unconvinced that this alleged meaningful difference you are pointing out is really very meaningful. It isn’t very meaningful to me at least but I can grant that you find it important.

    while they have drifted, aren’t *completely* unintelligible from what they once meant

    Meh. I’m unconvinced. I think the way you are using the word is unintelligible in modern usage. So much so that it has required a great deal of long comments and explanations by you in these recent threads. I think you are fighting a lost cause with regard to the meaning in the word agnostic.

    To say that weak atheists/weak theists are “agnostics with leanings” would be to suggest that strong theists/atheists are gnostics about their position.

    There you go with a variation on the etymological fallacy again. The English language has drifted and while agnostic is still in common use with a commonly understood meaning (that is — not being willing to openly commit to a positive belief on a subject) the word gnostic has both drifted and become largely obsolete. So what “gnostic” means (in origins or in usage now) has little to do with what agnostic means now and it is fallacious to claim otherwise.

  23. re Geoff:

    Yet atheism doesn’t fall apart when you don’t posit anything. When you don’t posit anything, you lack a belief in God…which is the necessary trait for atheism.

    When our hypothetical weak theist doesn’t posit anything, you lack a belief in the nonexistence of God…this doesn’t make a theist though. In fact, it is his lacking a belief in God’s existence that makes him not much of a theist at all.

    Meh. I’m unconvinced. I think the way you are using the word is unintelligible in modern usage. So much so that it has required a great deal of long comments and explanations by you in these recent threads. I think you are fighting a lost cause with regard to the meaning in the word agnostic.

    And yet, we have modern atheists who recognize and use terms in this way in modern usage. I use long comments and explanations to show that it is reasonable and make a point that you should use the terms in these way too. But even if I don’t make a long comment, this doesn’t change the fact that this is a valid way the terms are used.

    There you go with a variation on the etymological fallacy again. The English language has drifted and while agnostic is still in common use with a commonly understood meaning (that is — not being willing to openly commit to a positive belief on a subject) the word gnostic has both drifted and become largely obsolete. So what “gnostic” means (in origins or in usage now) has little to do with what agnostic means now and it is fallacious to claim otherwise.

    If this drift is so and I accept it, then this proposed form of agnostic can only refer to an atheist (because the weak theist defeats himself whereas the weak atheist does not)

  24. I simply reject the sleight of hand you trying to foist on us Andrew. You are trying to slyly invade the territory inhabited by agnosticism and plant the flag of atheism there. It doesn’t work.

    The fact that lots of atheists hope to do this does not make it a valid. I will certainly grant that atheists accept the assertion that there is no God. Likewise I grant that theists accept the assertion that there is a God. If a person is unwilling to accept either of those assertions then they should be called agnostics. That is the overwhelmingly accepted usage of those words and this linguistic imperialism crusade you are on is in vain in my opinion.

    And yet, we have modern atheists who recognize and use terms in this way in modern usage.

    Of course they do — they have political and rhetorical self-interests to preserve and trying to hijack words helps that cause. That doesn’t vast majority of English speakers are buying what they are selling.

    because the weak theist defeats himself whereas the weak atheist does not

    Again: Bzzzzzt.

    As far as I can tell the weak atheist is simply the agnostic who leans toward atheism. The weak theist is simply the agnostic who leans toward theism. Neither defeats himself more than the other.

  25. Geoff, I’m hurt. Sleight of hand? I’m not trying to do anything of the sort. I’m simply pointing out what everyone already realizes: if you don’t believe in god, you’re atheist. This is not incompatible with agnosticism, but is not identical to agnosticism. It is a different dimension than agnosticism, so we’re not trying to “slyly invade” territory inhabited by agnosticism and plant the flag of atheism there. Rather, the flag has always been and continues to be there.

    Your three grants is fine, but it is a slap in the face to agnostic theists…people who believe there is a god but don’t claim to know such a thing. It is a slap to negative/weak atheists. It is just a slap all around, especially when we’ve already acknowledged a few things — all that’s required for atheism, for example, is lack of belief in gods, not belief there are no gods. Even you acknowledge this, but you claim that a lack of belief in gods is equivalent to belief there are no gods. But you defeat your own position when you say that someone can lack belief both ways (but then you call this agnosticism).

    but if you will continue to say my “linguistic imperialism crusade” is vain, then so be it. Let agnostics be as you say they are, and atheists be as you say they are, and theists be as they say they are. Regardless, agnostics and atheists fundamentally share a border. They fundamentally share common interests if we use your definitions.

    Again: Bzzzzzt.

    As far as I can tell the weak atheist is simply the agnostic who leans toward atheism. The weak theist is simply the agnostic who leans toward theism. Neither defeats himself more than the other.

    Let’s look at what it “means” to lean toward either position. To lean toward atheism is to lean toward lacking belief in God. Yet the agnostic you describe fully fits this. He does not lean toward this. He fulfills this.

    To lean toward theism is to lean toward having belief in god. Yet the agnostic you describe does not fit this in the slightly. He does not lean toward this. He simply lack belief there is no God.

  26. I’m simply pointing out what everyone already realizes: if you don’t believe in god, you’re atheist.

    This is that sleight of hand I am referring to and the nuance you are seeing is not a nuance the vast majority of people discern. In common usage, an atheist is a person who believes there is no God. For most people that is the same as saying an atheist is a people that doesn’t believe in God.

    Chris was right on when he said the answer to the question “Is there a God?” the best litmus test. It could be a three answer fill in the blank with Yes, No, and Not Sure.

    This is not incompatible with agnosticism, but is not identical to agnosticism.

    Thank you. That is precisely the problem here. You are trying to make atheism identical with agnosticism and it ain’t. That is what I mean by pointing out that atheism is planting its flag where it ill belongs. Claiming atheism and agnosticism have always been synonyms is laughable.

    agnostic theists…people who believe there is a god but don’t claim to know such a thing

    Bah. All theists are agnostic theists by that silly definition. I simply reject it. Faith is the key concept of most theists and faith means believing things you don’t know.

    It is a slap to negative/weak atheists. It is just a slap all around, especially when we’ve already acknowledged a few things

    Well good. Seems to me that some of these ridiculous ideas ought to be slapped.

    Regardless, agnostics and atheists fundamentally share a border.

    Very true. Agnostics also share a border with theists. Once they decide to believe one way or the other they cross that border.

    To lean toward atheism is to lean toward lacking belief in God.

    Nope, I think to lean toward atheism means to lean toward accepting the claim that there is no God. Leaning toward theism means leaning toward accepting the claim that there is a God. Remaining non-committal on that binary question is to remain agnostic.

  27. A sleight of hand? No, I am pointing out the simplicity of how people would refer to things. When you ask, “Do you believe in God?” people will commonly refer to a yes answer as the theistic answer. They will commonly refer to a no answer as the atheistic answer. This is completely common. This is simple. This is how people use the words. If you do not believe in God, you are atheist. You yourself have accepted this. Most people do.

    What is not intuitive is exactly what you said in an earlier comment: asking the question “Do you believe there is no god?” people aren’t going to assume that you have to answer Yes to this to be an atheist. They aren’t even going to go through the trouble. They are going to say, “You don’t believe in god? Atheist.”

    Chris was right on when he said the answer to the question “Is there a God?” the best litmus test. It could be a three answer fill in the blank with Yes, No, and Not Sure.

    fine, but it doesn’t pick at belief, which is its fault. That’s the reason I have a problem with that. It is unclear. It does injustice to the agnostics who do believe in god and the agnostics who don’t.

    Thank you. That is precisely the problem here. You are trying to make atheism identical with agnosticism and it ain’t. That is what I mean by pointing out that atheism is planting its flag where it ill belongs. Claiming atheism and agnosticism have always been synonyms is laughable.

    What? Me? Trying to make atheism identical to agnosticism? Oh no, I am not!

    I have been the one, from the very beginning, to say that agnosticism is on a completely different spectrum from atheism and theism. It answers a different question in a different way. Agnosticism is an answer of “I don’t know,” while atheism is an answer of “I don’t believe.” They are intrinsically different and not at all synonymous.

    Atheism’s flag *belongs* in “I don’t believe” territory. Agnosticism’s flag is not “I don’t believe” territory. It’s in, “I don’t know” territory. If your problem is that people who don’t know happen to not believe, then that’s really your problem, not mine. I’d just assert to that not knowing is not incompatible with believing either (because agnostic theism is possible and popular)…so when we have this definition of agnosticism that excludes belief, it is egregiously against real-world use.

    Bah. All theists are agnostic theists by that silly definition. I simply reject it. Faith is the key concept of most theists and faith means believing things you don’t know.

    You should talk, then, with the many, many theists who claim that faith is just a temporary step to get to knowledge. You should talk, then, with the many theists who claim that the end goal is to have knowledge and that this knowledge is possible and that they have reached it. You say you are not convinced of the distinction…but I am incredulous of how you could never have met such people.

    Very true. Agnostics also share a border with theists. Once they decide to believe one way or the other they cross that border.

    Except when the options are believe and not believe, they are in the not believe camp. They have already decided. They don’t believe.

    Nope, I think to lean toward atheism means to lean toward accepting the claim that there is no God. Leaning toward theism means leaning toward accepting the claim that there is a God. Remaining non-committal on that binary question is to remain agnostic.

    Except you have turned the binary question into a false dichotomy. You are dealing with two binary questions. “Do you believe in god” is one…yes or no. That’s binary. and “Do you believe there is no god?” is another…yes or no.

    The first is the common, more useful, defining question. In which case agnostics, by your definition, answer no. By my definition, they can (and do) either answer yes or no. It’s you who wants to eliminate belief for them.

  28. Andrew: They are going to say, “You don’t believe in god? Atheist.”

    I agree, they will say that. The sleight of hand is in the unspoken assumption there. That assumption is that not believing in God = believing there is no God. If we accept that assumption as implied then there is no problem. An atheist is a person who believes there is no God. If you want to say anyone who is not willing to commit to a belief in God is an atheist you are trying to co-opt agnosticism into atheism and doing that fails miserably.

    It does injustice to the agnostics who do believe in god and the agnostics who don’t.

    I don’t grant that there is any such thing. By the commonly used definitions I am aware of, if one _believes_ there is a God one is a theist. If one _believes_ there is no God one is an atheist. If one hasn’t settled on a belief on that binary question one in an agnostic.

    So I reject the definitions of atheism and agnosticism you are offering here. I believe those words don’t mean what you say they mean.

    Further, even we did work with your definitions, theism could be defined as encompassing all people who do not accept the atheistic claim that there is no God. Therefore theists could try to co-opt agnosticism into theism too. For that reason I find the “if you’re not against us you’re with us” approach to defining atheism or theism useless.

    You are dealing with two binary questions.

    Not so. I am satisfied with the binary question “Is there a God?” because asking its inverse “Is there no God?” does not provide additional insight.

  29. *previous message deleted*

    Dang. We are like…not going to get anywhere…I don’t think. And I really would not like to keep digging myself in reputational mud anymore if I don’t have to (haha, I’ve seen what you guys do to people on NCT and that’s a hall of infamy I’d rather not tread down), so I’m going to stop here. If you feel this is a cowardly move on my part or a concession of defeat or whatever, I think that is unfortunate, but I’ll have to just learn to understand.

    In the end, this is what I think can be an agreeable compromise for both groups. You can reject my definitions, and I won’t reject my definitions. We don’t need to fight and argue about it every five seconds, but if things are as you say, then I’ll simply be running into a brick wall against public usage of terms and the questions. On the other hand, if things are as I say, then maybe one or two things will stick for some (personally, I think the simplest points, even if they are muddled in wordiness which is a fault of mine, will either stand or fall). And that’s all I’m trying for.

  30. But people CLEARLY do not make this assumption.

    I think you are mistaken. If I randomly sampled a few thousand Americans and asked them this question: “True or False — An atheist is a person who believes that there is no God” what percentage of people do you think would answer “false”? I wouldn’t be surprised if none answered “false”.

    If you reject my definitions, fine, as long as you can provide a valid set of definitions.

    Alright well I have already done that.

    If one believes there is a God one is a theist. If one believes there is NO God one is an atheist. If one hasn’t settled on a belief on that question one is an agnostic.

    (I even removed the comment about it being binary based on your quibble about that)

    Nonbelief there is a god IS atheism…whereas nonbelief there is no god is NOT theism.

    And again I respond: False and False.

  31. You got in before I could change my last message.

    In last points, I would point out that everyone would say yes to your sample question because strong atheists *are* atheists too. But if you asked the same sample as well, “True or False: An atheist is a person who does not believe there is a god” I think you’d find that people would *not* answer false either. Whereas if you asked someone, “True or false: A theist is someone who does not believe there is no god,” they most certainly would answer false.

  32. Ok so then we could follow up with the money question: “Would a person who does not accept the claim that there is no God, but who also does not accept the claim that a God exists best be described as an atheist or an agnostic?”

    I submit that nearly all respondents would answer “agnostic”.

    Further we could ask: “True or False — A theist is a person who rejects the claim that that there is no God”.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if none of the respondents answered “false”.

    So by that definition anyone who rejects the positive/strong atheistic claims is a theist.

  33. Oh I just saw your 5:26 comment. I missed it somehow.

    It is unfortunate if we can’t agree on meanings of words because it makes communication very difficult. At least you will know what I mean when I use the word atheist, theist, and agnostic in the future. I submit I am using the common English definitions but we may have to agree to disagree on that.

    Having said that, even when I start using your language you have the problem of not yet recognizing that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. That is, if atheists are all people who reject the positive/strong theist claims the theists are all people who reject the positive/strong atheist claims. The reason these definitions must both be rejected is that some people reject the claims on both sides so if we go with your taxonomy we must admit the existence of theistic atheists. In other words, your definitions are self defeating if properly applied.

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