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Semantics and atheism

May 21, 2010

A lot of people who know me will, after getting into enough discussions with me, criticize me for being to absorbed in semantics. I’ve never understood why this is a bad thing.

Understanding terms is important. Sometimes, it’s important enough to stop everything else about a discussion until a term’s definition can be hammered out.

I especially think that definitions are important when we are talking about identities. Assumptions about identities and what they entail can (and often are) wrong, with disastrous consequences for future discussions. What does it mean to be a Mormon? What should a good Mormon believe or do? I wrestled with this way back when, and I think I wrestle with them even now. Of course, I think a reasonable definition of a Mormon in the religious sense includes or necessitates some beliefs in things that I simply don’t believe in.

What happens when one does not believe in deities? I think then that one can identify as an atheist.

A short while ago, I engaged in a discussion on another blog titled, “Is Atheism Belief?” I thought that this was (and is) a slam dunk article. Atheism is not a belief. It is simply the lack of belief in deities.

The author of that article, however, didn’t quite address things that way, and I was disappointed with the way he actually went.

See, if you ask most anyone, they will give you one of two answers for what the meaning of the word atheism is. Is it simply lack of belief in deities? Or is it belief in the lack of deities? I think that if one defines atheism as the belief in the nonexistence of deities, then obviously, atheism is a belief.

D.M. (over at the Political Cartel blog) argued though that the “belief that gods do not exist” is a “rational conclusion,” so it’s different from a belief that gods do exist.

I wasn’t completely sold. But that’s not quite the point I wanted to make.

What I noticed was that, in my comments, I would make the position that atheism is the lack of belief in deities. D.M. would continue to refer to this as the “agnostic” position, but would insist that nevertheless, some take the “atheist” position. In other words, “not believing in gods” is agnostic. But atheism is “believing there are no gods.”

I think this kind of division, where theism and atheism are both beliefs, but agnosticism is the middle road, is popular these days. I have often tried to argue it in various ways (agnosticism doesn’t imply anything about belief…it is a position about knowledge…one can be an agnostic and a theist, or an agnostic and an atheist,. To say that atheism is only “belief that there are no gods” selectively ignores much of the definition, when understanding atheism as a lack of a belief that there are gods incorporates and allows for both positions. Etc.,), but I have afterward found myself countered in various ways (You’re arguing semantics…Language isn’t prescriptive based on dictionary arguments that “disbelieve” means “not to believe” rather than “to believe in an opposite truth claim.” Since most people understand atheism as this and agnosticism as that, deal with it.)

Intuitive common-language use arguments have similarly failed. I have argued, “But people ask the question: ‘Do you believe there is a god?’ or ‘Do you believe in god?’ We understand a no answer to be atheism. People do not ask ‘Do you believe there is no god?’ to probe for a yes answer.” The response here? “Nonbelief in god is the same thing as belief in the nonexistence of god.” Or “When people ask do you believe in god, they assume a no answer is the same as a belief in the nonexistence of god.” (Self-proclaimed agnostics have produced what I find are weirder arguments to avoid answering the question.)

So, what I’ve learned from all of that is that, in some sense, trying to argue for a shared definition in this way won’t be quite as effective. But I’ve also realized something else. If we accept that language is descriptive, that meaning comes from how people actually use language and now how people “should” use language, then I still think that there is a semantic battle.

Here’s my hypothesis.

I think that the different “sides” have different definitions of the terms atheism, or agnosticism, or theism, as befits their position. A theist or a self-proclaimed agnostic benefits the most from labeling atheism as the positive belief that there are no gods, so I think these groups would tend to use this definition. I could probably links to many example of the strategy of using this definition, but these comments or this blog article represent good ones from theists.  But what I’m supposing — and I guess someone would have to do some research on this — is that people who call themselves atheists recognize that atheism is, at the minimum, a lack of belief in deities. I don’t know who was primarily answering this (admittedly unscientific) poll, but the definition of atheism comes out overwhelmingly as nonbelief.

Of course, there are those who believe that not believing in the existence of deities is exactly the same thing (or at least, implies) belief in the nonexistence of deities. I wonder tentatively at which groups would be more likely to accept this equation?

What I would ask all of you is: do you see anything to it? Have you seen trends relating to which groups tend to define atheism as what (or trends regarding motives as to why they do it…how they argue based on the meaning they ascribe to the term)? What do you identify as and what meaning do you give to words like “atheism” and “agnosticism”?


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  1. The problem is that I’ve rarely met an atheist who was content to simply leave it at “I have yet to encounter any sufficient reason to believe in God.”

    And who can blame them? Non-belief makes for a pretty crappy existence. Human beings have to positively believe in something. Otherwise, where is the motivation? Non-belief motivates nothing, inspires nothing, and certainly offers no real vision for people to get behind.

    If all atheism were was a non-position, or non-belief in God, then it really would have little to say publicly. The actual public arguments would be made by people with other positions – and the role of the atheist would be to basically sit at home and shake their head skeptically – the end.

    Atheism only becomes a community, an ideology, a societal force, when you take it beyond the mere “non-position” stage and start asserting real claims. Like Karl Marx’s attempted “religion is the opiate of the masses” claim – which morphed into Chairman Mao’s “religion is poison” – now being echoed by militant secularists like Christopher Hitchens.

    But none of the above is a mere “non-claim” – all of it is asserting a positive claim about the world – it has to. Otherwise it would have no public relevance.

    I think this was my problem in the last looong thread you linked to. Intuitively, it seemed pretty obvious to me that atheism was definitely a positive and assertive claim about the world – one that its advocates were lazily claiming they didn’t have to advocate for or establish. Yet logically, the case that atheism was a non-claim, a non-position, seemed compelling.

    The problem was that I’ve never actually met a true atheist “non-claimer.” So theoretically, atheism was a non-claim, but in practice, it almost never was.

    I’m still not convinced that it is even philosophically possible to have a non-position. But for the moment, conceding it is possible – why is it almost never manifested in actual human society?

    I’m pretty sure the answer is as I noted above – humans need positive claims to function socially.

  2. Again, Seth, that atheists do not believe in gods does not mean that atheists do not believe in anything. It’s just that, to get at what atheists believe, you’re going to have to look at other descriptors and labels. Many of the things that people may happen to believe in will be comorbid with or conducive to atheism, but the thing to realize is that they are not necessary for atheism nor necessarily implied by atheism.

    So, what are some possible positions that many atheists may happen to hold. In your discussions, you’ve probably encountered – no doubt – a belief in rationality, a belief in the scientific method as a way of finding information about the world, etc., Existentialism, absurdism, nihilism, hedonism, materialism, naturalism, buddhism, etc.,

    None of these are necessitated or implied by atheis, but any of these (or more) could be positions that an atheist could take. Atheism doesn’t tell you the specific worldview, nor does it say that atheists have no worldview…it only allows you to note that WHATEVER worldview an atheist holds, it does not involve deities.

    So, you’re not getting it. When atheists say atheist is a lack of belief in gods, they are NOT saying that they lack positions on anything any everything. So, your entire argument from the of showing that atheists do have a position misses the mark. Of course we do. However, our position isn’t necessitated or defined by our atheism. It is defined and necessitated by whatever we believe in…

    The reason I say this is because in other topics, you make specific arguments against what you think is atheism. But, from my perspective, you aren’t. You are making arguments against the fetish with rationality or scientism that some atheists have, but these aren’t necessary for atheism.

    I would say further, though, that some things are more likely to be comorbid with atheism in different climates or eras. Today’s atheism is so commonly seen with antitheism, scientism, an insistence on hyperrationality, etc., not because that is what atheism intrinsically includes, but because our current western world, the actions of certain religious people, etc., etc., have primed these things forward. That these things are brought together under the “new atheist” banner is not to imply that new atheism necessarily includes all of these things, but recognizes that a coalition is more politically effective than several disjointed groups.

  3. Actually Andrew, that’s pretty-much what I said.

    On it’s own, atheism is essentially a meaningless position (or non-position). It is only when you combine it with hyperrationalism, antitheism, etc. that you even have a meaningful position. It leads a bit of a parasitic existence – requiring other ideologies for its sustenance.

    The problem is that the atheists I encounter often tend to conflate “atheism” per se, with whatever OTHER motivating ideology they happen to hold.

    So, I may encounter an ex-Mormon atheist who argues that “atheism is a non-position” – therefore, the burden of proof is on you Mr. religious guy to establish your positive claim of religion, and if you fail to do so, then we all get to go back to the default position of atheism.

    But you see, he’s not really arguing atheism as the default. What he is arguing is HIS ENTIRE POSITION as the “default” setting – to which I’m supposed to revert if I fail to establish my faith claims.

    But what is his entire position? Atheism?

    Not remotely.

    He has COMBINED atheism with materialism, or hyperrationalism, or general Mormonism sucks-ism. Now he takes the ENTIRE package deal and tries to bestow the atheistic default setting upon the whole thing.

    So basically, this whole “atheism is a non-position” argument becomes merely a method of smuggling in other assertive positive claims and insulating them from any burden of proof.

    Sloppy and extremely lazy argumentation. Not saying you do this Andrew. But you’d better believe I’ve encountered it in atheist forums and blogs.

  4. It’s funny to think about all the time and energy that we spend arguing about labels. We are almost as bad as religious denominations. We have atheists, agnostics, Brights, non-believers, unbelievers, non-theists, non-religious, anti-theists, and probably more.

    You are seeing things way too simply if you think that you can categorize all of the positions people have on this complex human phenomenon into two categories.

    As always, though, I enjoy reading your argument.

    • Actually, though, you’re missing my point.

      When you take an “atheist,” “agnostic,” “Bright,” “nonbeliever,” “unbeliever”, “nontheist”, “nonreligious,” “antitheist” and any other, we can divide them into sets based on a number of things. If we divide them into sets based on the sole criteria “has/does not have belief in deities”, then we CAN divide all of these things — however they may fall — into either of these two categories. Since “has belief” and “does not have belief” cover ALL options, each thing MUST fit into one of these two groups.

      This isn’t oversimplification. This is just noting that we have a relevant criteria that we want to divide things into, and we define those criteria as “a” and “not-a”, which is a TRUE binary that covers everything.

      I’m kinda waiting for you to provide a third option to “a” and “not-a” in general.

    • You viewing it as “A” vs. “Not-A” is exactly the problem. Another complex modern human phenomenon is politics. Do you think it makes sense to classify Americans into “Republicans” and “Not-Republicans?” No doubt you could do it, but it would be silly. It’s just as silly to reduce the spectrum and variety of belief and non-belief to a binary variable.

      • Then are you against the theism vs. atheism discussion in the first place or not? Please note that it is not (and was not) me who first created such a discussion and division.

        Apparently, many people disagree with you that such a division is silly. Many people base entire worldviews, codes of ethics, etc., based on belief in a god, and some, unfortunately, are willing to treat others quite differently if they find out that the other does not share their belief in a deity.

        So, if you want to argue that the classification is silly, go ahead. But DON’T assume it without making your case first, however.

        …not only that, but I don’t even know why you’re really pursuing this point. My argument does not oversimplify human interaction. Rather, what I have pointed out is that atheism, like theism, says very little about an individual. It answers one simple question (a question that nevertheless has been deemed very important in our society). But what I argue is that people within these “sets” have many more positions that set them apart. In the same way that theism is an umbrella that contains smaller components like “Christianity” or “Islam”, atheism is just as much an umbrella that contains smaller components.

    • Chris permalink

      Having a 3rd option, I think, would be confusing. I can understand where DM Manes is coming from in regards to the God hypothesis and other complex human phenomena. But in regards to just skepticism in general… I think it is binary.

      Is ‘not yet believe’ really a 3rd option?

      • Chris, it’s not that having a 3rd option would be confusing. It’s that having a 3rd option is logically excluded.

        “Not yet believe” is “not believe.”

  5. Chris permalink

    Seth, I’d say most people are a-something. I’d assume you are too. Can you give me an example of something you don’t believe in? Water-dowsing? Facilitated communication? Therapeutic touch? Mind-reading?

    How do you approach these claims? I’d like to see how you use skepticism.

    • Chris permalink

      Oh, and please please please don’t say that you don’t believe in atheism.

    • Actually Chris, I don’t disbelieve any of those things. I’m fairly open-minded about this stuff.

    • Chris permalink

      How does “fairly open-minded” differ from “open-minded?” When you say “don’t disbelieve,” does this mean that you are not convinced yet to believe in them?

      Is there anything at all that you don’t believe in?

      • In a sense, I don’t think there is anything that I “don’t believe in.” It’s just that I positively believe in other things which drive me away from certain beliefs. For example, as a Mormon, I strongly believe in libertarian free will – which drives me away from Calvinist notions of compatibilist free will. That doesn’t mean I am “a-compatibilism” though.

        I guess I just don’t really buy into the notion that non-positions even exist. So maybe your quip was right – I am “a-atheism.”

        • “It’s just that I positively believe in other things which drive me away from certain beliefs.”

          “I don’t think”

          “I just don’t really buy”

      • Chris permalink

        Firstly, I’m not sure why you keep using the term I used over at Daniel’s blog: “non-position.” You keep using it as if it was used by Richard Dawkins or some other well-known atheist scientist. After I used that term, I regretted it and I said that I probably should have used a different one. Maybe I should have said ‘default position’, instead. I don’t know. I’m not the most articulate person in the world. I mean I’m just random dude … nothing too intellectually spectacular.


        “It’s just that I positively believe in other things which drive me away from certain beliefs.”

        So if there isn’t a method more reasonable than water-dowsing, you would accept water-dowsing?

        Have you ever been skeptical of a positive claim of any sort? For example, a claim like breast-implants caused increased illness or that if you put a plastic ball in your laundry without detergent, this magical ball will clean your clothes thus saving you money. How do you approach these claims?

    • Chris permalink

      In addition to ‘open-mindedness’, I’d like to see how you define skepticism.

      • When I referred to the skeptics in the other thread, I mainly meant in a classical Greek philosophical sense, not a modern sense. Basic Wikipedia explanation:

        “In classical philosophy, skepticism (or scepticism) is the teachings and the traits of the ‘Skeptikoi’, a school of philosophers of whom it was said that they ‘asserted nothing but only opined.'”

        It wasn’t necessarily meant to be definitive of the modern usage.

        • oh, I see.

      • Chris permalink

        It seems to me that people who don’t fully understand what skepticism is and how it is applied as a method, tend to equate the opposing views on a certain claim as equally valid (“atheism is just another religion”).

        Atheism is skepticism. It’s a specific kind and is only concerned with the God hypothesis.

        I think getting an accurate understanding of what skepticism is and how the skeptical method is used, people would be less inclined to say that a-whateverism is just another religion.

    • Seth.

      You avoided the question, perhaps with a different definition of “disbelieve”.

      Being open-minded doesn’t change that you either believe or do not believe in something.

      Note that “not believing” something is true/real/whatever does not mean that you believe that thing is false.

      Note that “not believing” something is true/real/whatever does not mean that you do not believe that the thing could be true.

      the issue again is this. When the question is “a or not-a”, then HOW can there be any third option? The question Chris posed was *NOT* “believe is true/right/real” or “believe is not true/not right/not real.” It was “believe” or “not believe.” These two sets include everything.

  6. On it’s own, atheism is essentially a meaningless position (or non-position). It is only when you combine it with hyperrationalism, antitheism, etc. that you even have a meaningful position. It leads a bit of a parasitic existence – requiring other ideologies for its sustenance.

    I disagree with the point that it is a meaningless position. I do think that it requires other ideologies for its sustenance, but I disagree that the other ideologies that make it meaningful are hyperrationalism, antitheism, etc., The only ideology that atheism “needs” to be worth talking about is theism.

    No one goes around calling themselves a-unicornists, not because they *aren’t*, but because no one serious believes in unicorns. However, because people seriously do believe in gods, and are motivated to certain actions as a result of this beliefs, the position “I do not believe in gods” has social meaning.

    I think most atheists would like to live in societies where “I do not believe in gods” doesn’t need to be said, and has no impact on the way people will treat them if they (or someone else) do say it. But we don’t live in such a society.

    I can perhaps see what you mean by the conflation of different positions with atheism for the “default position,” but I can also see why someone would make a position like that.

    Nevertheless, I think at base, most atheists are (in a way that I concede is pretty aggressive and rough) are not trying to say what *you* should believe, but trying to carve out rooms for themselves. It intrudes upon you to the extent that they feel you are intruding upon them (but that comes out in a conversation very badly. E.g., “Theists should stay out of the public sphere” sounds pretty bad.) Their argument is this: we believe in things when convinced and don’t believe in things when unconvinced. We are unconvinced. This is the default. We are unconvinced about the evidences you are bringing to your claim because we believe in x, y, and z instead. (This isn’t necessarily to say that x, y, and z are part of the default position, but that they support why they are unconvinced to believe in the claim.)

    I wholeheartedly agree that positions x, y, and z then need to be backed up, but this isn’t a criticism of atheism, but of x, y, and z.

  7. A lot of people who know me will, after getting into enough discussions with me, criticize me for being to absorbed in semantics.

    Were they losing the argument? ‘Cause that’s a common enough tactic.

  8. First regarding Seth’s claim that Atheism “requiring other ideologies for its sustenance”

    Isn’t that true for theists as well, to say I believe in God is meaningless until you start defining the ideologies of this said God. The only difference is that an Atheist has to use other criteria for forming their own ideologies.

    What we all act on Theist or Atheist is what we believe is important to us. Since the two positions are in contradiction regarding such a core issue we naturally end up with…if you are a theist you are anti-atheist and visa versa.

    To answer one of Andrews original question –

    “What do you identify as and what meaning do you give to words like “atheism” and “agnosticism”?”

    I consider myself an Atheist, because I believe the claimed Deities and or God narratives do not hold up to scrutiny, I also do not believe that some alternative explanations, such as aliens inhabiting earth millions of years ago, hold up either as viable explanations as to the nature of our complex world and universe. I do think there are still many things unexplained but I don’t think it does us much good to explain those away as “mysteries” of God. The more we have found out about our natural world the less need there seems to be for God myths and the mysteries are not quite as mysterious.

    • That’s a good point about theism coventry. In a way, I’d say that both theism and atheism are blank slates that you can write whatever ideology you want onto. In some ways, I’m starting to think the “theism or atheism?” question really is pointless and fruitless. It tells us nothing important about the human experience to answer this question.

      Frankly, I don’t think people really – when you get to the heart of it – care so much about the pure answer of whether there is a deity or not. What matters to humans is what you do with that neutral piece of data.

      In short, I’m thinking the whole issue of “God or not?” is really a red-herring and a question that we are wasting our time trying to answer. What matters is not the mere data point of whether God exists or not – but the paradigm we view the universe through.

      I do not consider atheism to be a concern. I find the actually motivating theologies that people attach to atheism to be far more worthy of consideration. Nor do I consider theism to be an interesting subject of contemplation or study. The ideologies attached to it are far more tangible and real.

      So you think there is a God?

      So – freaking – what?

      Are you a Calvinist or Arminian? Now THERE’S and interesting question.

      • I completely agree with this. I wish more people, believers and nonbelievers, saw it this way. The real division comes not in the technicalities of belief and unbelief, but in the ideologies. I don’t believe in a god, but my wife does. Yet we really don’t have anything to argue about as far as religion and morality goes, because we both have extremely similar perspectives.

        I totally wish my parents saw it this way. It just shouldn’t matter so much whether I believe in the JS story. I’m basically the same person they’ve always known.

  9. Okay I have been watching Ancient Aliens on History channel all day and it does seem plausible. Might have to change my belief statement from the last post.

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