Friday, 26 January 2007

The problem with atheism

7 comments
The problem I wish to discuss is to do with the definition of atheism as was brought to my attention by EvilBible and Atheist Ethicist (except I cannot now find the relevant post in the latter's blog now so I will stick to EvilBible's arguments). As EvilBible says
A “lack of belief” definition is a bad definition for many reasons. It is not commonly used. It is not defined that way in any reputable dictionary. It is too broad because most agnostics and babies don’t consider themselves atheists. And it makes no sense for an “-ism” to be a based on a lack of belief.
I don't think these are really significant, since in practice, if every atheist says "I don't believe in god" and most theists, when challenging atheists, are likely to say the same thing to them, as in "you don't believe in god!?". Now why is it that many atheists would not want to say "there is no god" or some equivalent? The answer is they are maker a stronger stance - hence these are known as strong atheists - which they can defend against faith-position accusations and so on, but most atheists are reluctant to take such as strong position, the default therefore being weak atheism (which is I think a terrible modal qualifier), they just lack belief in god.

I like EvilBible's Stupid Argument #6 the best. This is to do with the standard grammatical technique of "raising":
Compare
"I don't believe the mail has arrived" means "I believe the mail has not arrived". It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about the mail arriving.
to
"I don't believe in the existence of deities" means "I believe that deities do not exist". It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about the existence of deities.
really what is the difference? None that I can see. When looked at this way it appears that the strong/weak modes are like a two-setting volume control, where changing the volume just moves the negative from the subordinate clause to the main clause. Except these formally mean the same thing anyway! Nonetheless there is something in the distinction between strong and weak positions but the way it is formulated is misleading. Then, we might add, how do we account for agnostics?

There have, of course, been many arguments over all of this and I have no interest in repeating these. However sometimes it is useful to generalise the issue and, as it happens, there is an alternative and well-defined framework that does generalise these points in a meaningful fashion. In my previous post, I presented a skeleton framework on naturalism relating methodological naturalism to metaphysical naturalism and these are quite distinct positions, specifically showing how someone with theist or supernatural beleifs can work unproblematically in the fields of science or other areas of discourse. If we look at someone using methodological naturalism per se then they are not looking for supernatural explanations. There is no reason for them to be thought of, generated, examined, let alone dismissed. (This is excluding when scientists specially look at supernatural claims which is beside the point here). That is supernatural explanations do not occur or more simply supernatural explanations are irrelevant. It does seem more tortured and indeed wrong to say that using methodological naturalism requires the lack of belief in the supernatural - since it does not - only that it is just irrelevant. Also note the distinction between the epistemological assumption behind methodological naturalism and the ontological implication of metaphysical naturalism. There is also possibly another distinction to be made between methodological and the epistemological assumption behind it, this might be made clearer by distinguishing between pragmatic (with a small p) and epistemological. With these thoughts and insights from naturalism let us see if we can create a meaningful framework for atheism:

An atheist finds god irrelevant. A pragmatic atheist lacks belief in god because god is irrelevant - why have beliefs that are always and ever irrelevant? An epistemic atheist knows there is no evidence for god one way or the other and that all proofs of god are deficient. An ontological atheist takes this as sufficient that there is no god, they use epistemic atheist arguments to show why god is irrelevant. An ontological agnostic says the epistemic atheist arguments cannot show that god exists or not and nothing ever could. They could optionally choose to believe in god - which takes more work and they would be an honest fideist - or not.

Now we have three, let us call, them distinct dimensions, we can see that the weak/strong dimension is misleading and how agnosticism fits into all of this.

Weak-position Atheism
Now a pragmatic atheist is the equivalent of a weak atheist. In their day to day lives, god is simply irrelevant, god-beliefs do not occur, why should they, so in this dimension they have no god-beliefs.

Strong-position Atheism
Trivially they are pragmatic atheists but they use epistemic atheist arguments to justify an ontological atheist position to show that god should be irrelevant because god does not exist.

Agnosticism
They use the same epistemic atheist arguments but only to assert their agnostic ontology that we cannot know whether deities exist or not. What they chose to do with this, if they default to the simpler atheist position then they are pragmatic atheists. If they chose theism, then they are pragmatic fideists.

Atheism
God is irrelevant.

Conclusion
Well this is my take on the whole debate. This does explain the absurdity I noticed when I started late reading the atheist literature (having been an atheist all my life) that everyone who was arguing for the lack of belief definition seems to have many beliefs at the same time - otherwise what are they writing about!

7 comments:

beepbeepitsme said...

I go with this one.

If a theist believes in the existence of a god or gods, an atheist doesn't.

Julia Buckley said...

Nice post Martino.

If only everyone could keep it is as simple as beepbeepitsme, eh?

martino said...

Julia I think it is as simple as beepbeepitsme says. However the weak/strong lack of belief/non-belief distinctions are made by atheists themselves and that is what i was complaining about. However the more I think about it the more I like my god is irrelevant view. If someone wants to make god relevant, they first need to show that god exists, making very clear where the burden of proof lies.

Anonymous said...

***As EvilBible says A “lack of belief” definition is a bad definition for many reasons. It is not commonly used. It is not defined that way in any reputable dictionary...***

It’s interesting that the author of EvilBible does not refer to the most respected dictionary of the English language... the Oxford English dictionary:

atheism: Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.

disbelieve 1. trans. Not to believe or credit; to refuse credence to: a. a statement or (alleged) fact: To reject the truth or reality of.

Deny:
1. To contradict or gainsay (anything stated or alleged); to declare to be untrue or untenable, or not what it is stated to be.
2. Logic. The opposite of affirm; to assert the contradictory of (a proposition).
3. To refuse to admit the truth of (a doctrine or tenet); to reject as untrue or unfounded; the opposite of assert or maintain.
4. To refuse to recognize or acknowledge (a person or thing) as having a certain character or certain claims; to disown, disavow, repudiate, renounce.

See this page for more on the OED definition: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-definitions.html

There is also another issue with dictionaries: dictionaries exist to provide definitions that people use, therefore they provide colloquial definitions AND rigorous philosophically sound definitions.


In short… if you believe, you believe… EVERYTHING ELSE is disbelief.

You’re either a theist, or an atheist. There is no other logical option.

Theism = belief in god
Atheism = a (without) theism (belief in god)

The term atheism simply means no belief in god. That’s it. As you can see, it does not imply the degree of this disbelief, so saying atheism means and only means the outright rejection of god, or the belief god doesn’t exist, is an error.

Of course, you can get degrees of belief within each position, hence the use of the strong/weak qualifier. So you can get strong theism, and a weak theism, but it’s all still theism. Same with atheism, you can get strong and weak atheism, but it’s still atheism. There is no logical position between atheism and theism and claiming there is is simply nonsensical, an impossibly.

So how does agnosticism fit into this? It has nothing to do with belief or disbelief. Agnosticism and Gnosticism are positions regarding knowledge… do you claim KNOWLEDGE of the existence of god(s). If someone asks you if you believe in god, and your answer is that you’re an agnostic you haven’t actually answered the question. BELIEF and KNOWLEDGE are separate issues and therefore require separate answers.

Agnosticism is therefore a qualifier to BOTH theism and atheism. You can be an agnostic atheist (you claim no knowledge of god, and therefore not believing in god), and an agnostic theist (you claim no knowledge of god, but believe in one regardless).

Not only are these definitions the way they were meant to be and the way they literally translate, they are the only way in which they all have distinct, coherent meanings.

Elaine Vigneault said...

Anonymous is right. For the most part.

Trouble is in this sentence: "You’re either a theist, or an atheist. There is no other logical option."

Logic is a man-made tool, just as language is, and neither are the end all and be all of everything that exists. I assure my mind can think up some things we don't have ways of expressing in words just yet. Logic and language evolve and what's impossible today may not be so tomorrow.

However, for today, I agree with you wholeheartedly. :)

Intergalactic Hussy said...

I love how Christians never admit that they are, in fact, atheists to the other gods. I don't usually use a quote in a comment, but it fits:

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Stephen Roberts

martino said...

Anonymous

Point taken about EvilBible's avoidance of the use of the OED, my preferred choice too.
"atheism: Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.[My italics]"

This definition seems to cover both conventional weak and strong position atheism and your expansion of disbelief and denial does not help, so what?

You say
"There is also another issue with dictionaries: dictionaries exist to provide definitions that people use, therefore they provide colloquial definitions AND rigorous philosophically sound definitions."

It is exactly the confusion between these two types of definitions that I was trying to deal with. Which is there is too much focus on the importance of belief qua belief which we have inherited from the underlying xian background in modern society.

I agree with your other points but cannot see the relevance to my post, with the exception of this:

"The term atheism simply means no belief in god."
You ignore the grammatical argument of raising which leaves as an open question whether disbelief and denial are the same or not.

"That’s it. As you can see, it does not imply the degree of this disbelief, so saying atheism means and only means the outright rejection of god, or the belief god doesn’t exist, is an error."
It is is not an implication but rather an entailment of (the logic of) grammar, hence my experiment here with avoiding it. Even to play the belief game with a theist is going too far in my opinion.

"There is no logical position between atheism and theism and claiming there is is simply nonsensical, an impossibly."
I never said there was so not sure what your concern is here.

You seem to be saying the same as I did regarding agnosticism so nothing to reply to there.

"Not only are these definitions the way they were meant to be and the way they literally translate, they are the only way in which they all have distinct, coherent meanings."
Again then answer the a priori "raising argument" if this is of concern to you.