Wednesday, January 07, 2009

On The Definition of Atheism

A couple of Cameron Reilly's recent blog posts have argued that critics of atheists have it all wrong when they claim that atheism implies a belief in the non-existence of gods. He makes the distinction between the position of being against the belief in the existence of gods and the position of believing that gods do not exist.

As a self-described atheist myself, I don't really see the point in making this distinction. The main reason is that I don't believe that any useful argument that an atheist can advance in support of a philosophical or political position depends on the distinction being valid. Furthermore, if there was such an argument, then it is vulnerable to any demonstration that there really isn't any practical distinction between the two positions.

Reilly argues that a-theism means either not or against theism but excludes the other common interpretation of the prefix, that is to mean "without". The a- in a-sexual or a-political is certainly used in this way. The position described as against theism would more correctly be described as anti-theism, rather than a-theism.

If we do assume that a-theism means without theism then, in a strict technical sense, Reilly is correct to note that "without a belief in the existence of gods" is not technically the same as "with a belief in the non-existence of gods".

Reilly argues that this distinction is crucial. I claim that it is irrelevant or, more precisely, that the definition he would have us use for atheist doesn't allow us to clearly distinguish the atheist from the agnostic.

First, let's dispose of the trivial case: a person who has no concept of gods. This person is trivially an atheist in Reilly's sense because if one can't even conceive of the concept of gods, one can hardly hold a belief in their existence.

Let's now consider the more interesting case of two people, Peter and Paul for whom the following statements are true.

  • Peter does not believe in the existence of gods
  • Peter does believe in the non-existence of gods
  • Paul does not believe in the existence of gods
  • Paul does not believe in the non-existence of gods

Peter and Paul are clearly different: Peter believes something that Paul does not. Furthermore, I think most people would agree that Peter is an atheist, whereas Paul is an agnostic, at least according to what I take to be the common uses of the terms.

In other words, I believe that being an atheist does actually entail a belief in the non-existence of gods and this is what distinguishes an atheist from an agnostic.

However, I don't share Reilly's fear that this is something to be concerned about. It really doesn't matter that atheists hold negative beliefs. This doesn't legitimise belief in gods anymore than believing in the non-existence of teapots on Mars legitimises a belief in the existence of teapots on Mars (to use Dawkin's example).

To be worried about that, confuses believing with knowing, a point that Stephen Pinker made in a different context in his book: "The Stuff Of Thought". To state that someone believes something doesn't make a statement about the world outside - it is simply a statement about the believer. The state of the world outside is unaffected by how many people hold deluded beliefs about the nature of reality. So, it really doesn't matter that an atheist's convictions are just beliefs - nothing significant can be derived from that admission.

Assertions of knowing something are quite different. Such statements are claims, not only about the knower's beliefs about the world outside, but also that the world outside conforms to those beliefs.

And this is why it is crucial to put believing in its place and distinguish it from knowing. Many theistic believers claim to know things because they have faith in the truth of their beliefs. Atheists claim to know things because they have the scientific method and reason. And this is precisely why atheism is superior to theism in its various forms - it provides objective methods for deciding the truth of claims of knowledge which are independent of the beliefs themselves, whereas theism is trapped inside circular definitions of belief and faith that never usefully connect with the real world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jon, great comments. I think the definition is important because "belief" itself - whether or not it's belief that gods exist or don't exist - is unscientific. Too often, I hear theists try to argue that atheism is as much based in belief as theism and that's just incorrect.

Atheism is a by-product of reason. What I'm really interested in promoting is reason, rational thinking. And therefore I think it's important to help people understand that atheists (well speaking for myself anyway) don't believe in the non-existence of gods - we simply say "there is no evidence to support the belief in gods". We only believe when there is evidence.

Now, of course, we might want to use Stenger's arguments that the evidence proves that interventionist gods don't exist, but that's another story.

7 January 2009 at 10:40  
Blogger Jon Seymour said...

You write:

"We only believe when there is evidence."

Does that not leave you exposed to the truism that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?

That position is a little too positivist for me and would seem to condemn one to eternally reject strong atheism in favour of agnosticism for the reasons outlined above.

Atheists do not behave as if the question of the existence or non-existence of gods is a 50/50 question. Atheists behave as if they are 99.99% certain that god do not exist.

For me, behaving with a 99.99% certainty that gods don't exist is equivalent to behaving with the belief that gods do not exist and may as well be called that.

Importantly, I don't think that doing so weakens our claims in any relevant way - Dawkin's explains why with his Martian teapot. In our polemics, we don't claim that there are no gods even if that is what we believe; we claim that there is no evidence of gods. It really doesn't matter that I happen to believe there are no gods, because I am not putting that forth as a statement of truth about the world. I am not asking anyone to accept a polemic assuming my belief is true - I don't need to. The most I ever have to do is assert that there is no evidence of gods and proceed from there.

7 January 2009 at 11:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" doesn't bother me at all. It's true to say (leaving Stenger aside for the moment) that I don't claim to have evidence that gods do not exist. But that is also true of the millions of other things that "might" exist, including UFOs, pixies, leprechauns, unicorns, and martian teapots (btw it's actually the 'celestial teapot' and it was coined by Bertran Russell, not Dawkins. He just borrowed the idea).

If our job is to try to ascertain "truth", as best we can, then we have to reduce the list of things that "might" be true to the list of things that "probably are" true, via scientific enquiry.

I certainly don't consider myself agnostic. Again, the literal definition of atheist is "without belief" or "against belief" in gods and as I don't have a belief in gods, I'm atheist, a STRONG atheist, just as I don't believe in unicorns.

I think the difference is subtle but important. If we're going to teach people to think rationally, we have to why belief without evidence is inferior to knowledge via evidence.

7 January 2009 at 11:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last para in my last comment should read:

If we're going to teach people to think rationally, we have to EXPLAIN why belief without evidence is inferior to knowledge via evidence.

7 January 2009 at 11:47  
Blogger Jon Seymour said...


Thank you for your comments and also for correcting my misattribution of Russell's martian/celestial teapot.

This discussion is perhaps veering heavily towards semantics but I think that is still valuable, because I think semantic clarity is a useful adjunct to reason.

While I would agree that a literal construction of atheist is "without a belief in gods" and explains its origin, I don't think that definition properly captures what is meant by atheist today. It is certainly true that it is necessary for an atheist to be without a belief in god, but I don't think it is sufficient to fully capture the common usage meaning. The meanings of words often differ subtly, even radically, from their etymological origins and I see no reason why this can't also be true for the term atheist. There is no inherent virtue in insisting on the literal construction of the meaning of atheist, particularly since that meaning seems to differ from the current usage of the word.

For the ease of discussion let's describe atheists like myself or Peter, in the example above, as non-empirical a-theists. Non-empirical a-theists are a-theists (in the literally constructed sense) who also hold the belief in the non-existence of gods, despite the lack of conclusive evidence in favour of that belief. Empirical a-theists are those literal a-theists like yourself and Paul (above) who do not hold a belief in the non-existence of gods, precisely because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

To be clear, I think "non-empirical a-theist" corresponds to what is meant by "atheist" in common usage and "empirical a-thesist" corresponds to what is meant by "agnostic" in common usage. How would you characterise or define "agnostic" in a way that distinguishes the agnostic from the "empirical a-theist"? In what important sense are you not agnostic? In what sense are you strongly atheist? For, in a strictly technical sense, I would regard your form of atheism to be "weaker" than mine, precisely because you choose not to assert a belief in the non-existence of gods.

To be clear, I am not asserting that the non-existence of gods is actually a true description of the world. I am merely asserting that I happen to believe that it is.

You wrote:

"If we're going to teach people to think rationally, we have to explain why belief without evidence is inferior to knowledge via evidence."

I absolutely agree with your conclusion, but not with the implicit premise that it is wrong to hold beliefs without evidence or that one can't teach that lesson if one holds beliefs without evidence oneself.

The problem with the position that beliefs are only rightly held if they are fully supported by evidence is that it leads to the reductio ad absurdum conclusion that adherents of that position believe nothing at all. This is true because one ultimately has to believe in the integrity of mechanisms that allow one to collect evidence. Of course, if one believes nothing at all, one cannot begin to construct a rational argument about anything since there are no axioms from which to construct the argument.

I think humans believe all sorts of things without evidence. Some of them correspond closely to reality, some of them do not. Some of those are useful fictions, some of them are not. We do this, because that is the best we can do, being products of evolution and thus not being omniscient gods ourselves. Many of our beliefs are indeed supported by evidence, but not all of them.

I really don't see the harm in believing in the non-existence of gods. The problems only arise if I try to use my belief of that fact to assert that it is a true description of the world.

The quality of one's rationality does not depend on whether one holds non-empirical beliefs, for that is surely true of everyone. One's rationality is only rightfully regarded as suspect if one insists on assuming the truth of a contentious belief in order to advance an argument against an opponent who does not share that belief.

7 January 2009 at 14:02  

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