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Definitions of atheism

Last updated on 19 Apr 2013

I have religious friends, and atheist friends, and they both disagree with me on one point: my claim that I am not an atheist. My religious friends note that I lack a belief in God, and therefore I am not with them. My atheist friends note the same thing and presume that I am with them. Now, I have argued my case for being neither before, but what I noticed in the course of replying is that the definition of atheism has shifted recently, and what seems to be going on is that we have duelling definitions.

Take, for example, this definition in 1878:

What is Atheism ? As a theory, with regard to the nature and constitution of the universe, the word means either that the mighty something, the το παν, the all, was produced out of nothing, nobody knows how, and goes on producing itself into something, nobody knows how; or that it has existed forever, and will exist forever, as a mighty confused complex of something that acts, called force, and something that is acted on, called matter; but it takes its shape from no intelligent or designing cause, merely from blind chance; or at least that it is a self-existent combination of forces and the results of forces, of which, in their unity, no intelligible account can be given. [John Blackie, The Natural History of Atheism p3]

Hardly a fair definition, and obviously self-serving, but clearly the definition here is the denial of intelligent design in the natural world. The author is religious, and defines it in terms of the denial of that which he thinks is most reasonable. Atheism is defined in relation to some other view, to that of traditional religion, that God exists and is responsible for the way things are. Of course, this immediately eliminates any belief in gods that are not responsible for the world, such as the gods of Gnosticism.

A few decades later, in a historical work, Atheism in pagan antiquity by Anders Bjørn Drachmann in 1922, we get this:

A difficulty that occurred at the very beginning of the inquiry was how to define the notion of atheism. Nowadays the term is taken to designate the attitude which denies every idea of God. Even antiquity sometimes referred to atheism in this sense; but an inquiry dealing with the history of religion could not start from a definition of that kind. It would have to keep in view, not the philosopical notion of God, but the conceptions of the gods as they appear in the religion of antiquity. Hence I came to define atheism in Pagan antiquity as the point of view which denies the existence of the ancient gods. It is in this sense that the word will be used in the following inquiry.

“Atheism” is historically defined as the denial of some specific deities. When Hume was called an atheist by his contemporaries, it was because he rejected the orthodox Christian God and religion; he was most likely a deist, someone who believes in a deity that is not directly involved in the ordinary affairs of the universe. Drachmann goes on to note:

Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek ; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotes; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed; we even meet with philosophers bearing atheos as a regular surname. We know very little of the men in question; but it can hardly be doubted that atheos, as applied to them, implied not only a denial of the gods of popular belief, but a denial of gods in the widest sense of the word, or Atheism as it is nowadays understood.

In this case the word is more particularly a philosophical term. But it was used in a similar sense also in popular language, and corresponds then closely to the English “denier of God,” denoting a person who denies the gods of his people and State. From the popular point of view the interest, of course, centred in those only, not in the exponents of philosophical theology. Thus we find the word employed both of theoretical denial of the gods (atheism in our sense) and of practical denial of the gods, as in the case of the adherents of monotheism, Jews and Christians. [p4-5]

The historical definitions go back to the 16th century in English (and French), and are broadly of the following kind:


[a. F. athéisme (16th c. in Littré), f. Gr. ?????: see ATHEAL and -ISM. Cf. It. atheismo and the earlier ATHEONISM.]

Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism) [Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 edition]

1587 GOLDING De Mornay xx. 310 Athisme, that is to say, vtter godlesnes. …

As Fichte wrote

What they call God is to me an idol; they are the true atheists; what they call atheism is that I refuse to recognise their idol instead of the true God.”

So, as it stood around the first quarter of the century, atheism was understood to be the positive denial of either religion or God. When did it change?

Information is hard to come by without several weeks’ worth of library stack time. But it seems to be that it changed very recently. Here’s a 1999 book on the philosophy of religion:

To be an atheist in the broad sense is to deny the existence of any sort of divine being or divine reality. Tillich was not an atheist in the broad sense. But he was an atheist in the narrow sense, for he denied that there exists a divine being that is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good. [p157]

Notice what is implied here: the narrow sense of atheism, and the narrow sense of theism that it relies upon, is basically the monotheism of Christianity and Islam. It is in other words a cultural imperialist definition: one that relies upon our religion as the touchstone. It means, literally interpreted, that Hindus and Zoroastrians are not theists, but atheists. The only justification for this kind of definition of atheism is that it is something culturally bounded, that atheism is a crime against the status quo. This is the sense in which Socrates, who explicitly ascribed his views to the influence of “the God”, was regarded as an atheist by the Athenians, because he failed to support the religion of the State. Similar aspersions were cast by the Romans on the Jews and early Christians, who likewise failed to follow the state religion, and were charged with “atheism”.

The other interesting thing about this definition is that it makes atheism an assertion rather than a lack of belief. It makes atheism a positive belief about a particular state of affairs, not a lack of knowledge or interest. The authors, Stump and Murray may not be consistent here, as they too lump agnosticism in with atheism, although earlier, on page 132 they said that agnosticism was the view that “one just does not know (and has no good way of finding out)”, which is more in line with my view. In the 1880s, Thomas Henry Huxley invented the term, agnostic, to denote someone who thought that God’s existence was unknowable in principle.

In the 2003 second edition of the book Atheism and Theism, a debate between Jack Smart and John Haldane, Smart defines theism and deism in the ordinary way and then says “Atheism I take to be the denial of theism and deism”. So the traditional view of atheism as a positive claim about the knowledge of the existence or not of a class of beings, is still in play.

But look at the internet definitions, and that’s not what you find. There are two distinctions that have become popular, and are to be found, for example, in the Wikipedia article.

George H. Smith in 1979 distinguished between implicit atheism and explicit atheism. He wrote

The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist. [p14]

This is implicit atheism, he said. Explicit atheism is the traditional sense of a denial of God. Now, why should we adopt this distinction? Are newborn children also implicit abaseballists? Are they little implicit aconservatives or aliberals? If we have to say they are not, then the only justification for calling newborn children or those who have never heard of a religion of theism “atheists” is that you have already privileged the view they do not have as primary. This is that cultural imperialism I talked about before. We’ll get back to that. For now, let me merely say that I find the distinction to be without merit as a taxonomy of beliefs.

The later distinction is between “weak” atheists and “strong” atheists, and this is the most common distinction made on both sides today. It appears to have been suggested by Antony Flew in 1976. In a landmark essay “The Presumption of Atheism”, Flew argued that the onus of proof lies on the theist, not the atheist, but he remarks:

The word “atheism,” however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of “atheism” in English is “someone who asserts that there is no such being as God,” I want the word to be understood not positively, but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix “a” to be read in the same way in “atheist” as it is customarily read in other such Greco-English words as “amoral,” “atypical,” and “asymmetrical.” In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels “positive atheist” for the former and “negative atheist” for the latter.

But why? Why not just call the former “atheist” and the latter “agnostic”, according to traditional usage (and, I argue, good taxonomy)? Flew does a nice little bit of special pleading: agnosticism has a “degenerate” meaning in ordinary use, that you used to believe in God but now you are not sure. That is, in my view, total baloney. I never, for one, ever thought that was the case for agnosticism, and neither I warrant, did anyone else who published on the matter. Flew is setting it up so that he can claim that the default view includes all those who are not, in effect, Christians.

Why would atheists like this distinction? For similar reasons to the reasons why theists do too: it means that the battle lines are drawn precisely, and that “if you are not for us, you are against us” and “if you are not against us, you are for us” are simultaneously true. There is a nice term in political history – revanchism. This is all about the desire to gain or regain territory. Christians and other theists like to think that it’s all about them, so having agnostics defined as atheists means that it is. Atheists like to claim non-theists as atheists (but weak ones, not very good thinkers). It all looks like that game we used to play when we were kids at the beach. “I dare you to cross that line!” “Now you’re on my side!”

Revanchism doesn’t lead either to good borders or good taxonomies. I have previously given my reasons for thinking that the right taxonomy is between those who do and don’t assert knowledge (just as Huxley explained when he declared himself the first agnostic), and of those who do, between those who do think there is a God (or gods; let’s not be revanchist ourselves), and those who do not, which gives us theists, who do, and atheists, who do not. [See other posts here, here, here and here.]

Some theists have claimed not to know if there is a God (or gods), and declared themselves agnostics. I think this is a bit of a verbal trick. If you ask them do they believe there is a God or gods, they will, if they are theists, declare that they so believe. Belief is a kind of knowledge claim (not, maybe, a justified one), and so I think that theist agnostics are a contradiction in terms.

So, to summarise, when an atheist says to me I am an atheist because I lack a view, I am minded to reply, “I am also an asportist” for failing to have a team in any sport that I support. It makes about as much sense. Flew’s faux etymology is just special pleading. While I agree that there is a presumption that there are no gods for some people, I do not think this is a truth of nature or fact about logic, as some seem to. What counts as the “default” view is a historical contingency, and we have to recognise that. In my history, the burden of proof falls on those who wish to make any kind of knowledge claim one way or the other.

Agnosticism, not theism or atheism, is the default position… for me, at any rate. So I repeat: I am not an atheist. I am myself, and I self-identify as an agnostic.


  1. I actually think that it gets complicated, and my first attempt to draft a comment was turning into a book.

    So for now I’ll content myself with saying that you can hardly speak about the “traditional” usage of a word coined as recently as circa 1880, as “agnostic” was. And it’s clear that there is no traditional definition of “atheist” – the meaning has changed over time in both its denotation and its connotations. Thus, Hume could be called an atheist and it had a derogatory connotation, even though Hume may have believed in a deist God. The derogatory connotations have gone to some extent (varying from place to place), and the word can certainly no longer denote anyone who is a deist.

    Rather than getting hung up about the usages of these words, I’m really more interested to distinguish between people who do and do not think that some religious organisation or leader or holy text is authoritative in one or more of various important ways – e.g., in describing what ultimately exists, or in telling how us how to live our lives or how to attain some goal such as salvation, or in telling the government what to prohibit or allow. I know whether someone is approximately on my “side” in various spheres when I hear detailed answers to those questions. As it happens, I doubt that you’d recognise any religious organisation, etc., as authoritative in such respects.

    • John John

      I’d have liked to read that book, Russell. But traditions need not be all that old to be traditions. There’s a family tradition we have to name the eldest boy “John” – I’m the third and my son is the fourth. That’s not as old as “agnostic”!

      I do recognise the moral authority of religious organisations and texts – for those who want to be in the traditions in which they are authoritative. For me, no, I don’t recognise such moral authorities, but I still have to construct my moral compass by cross-bearing with those around me. Maybe the radical priests of the Paul Simon song are influencing me still…

  2. jeff jeff

    There are also different levels of agnosticism: a weak agnosticism makes no knowledge claims at all, a strong agnosticism claims that it is impossible to ever know (which is a knowledge claim), and “ignosticism” which claims that agnosticism itself is meaningless unless a “coherent” definition of God(s) is assumed.

  3. Here is an example from Sophie’s Ladder, the blog of Jeff Carter. It’s from his review of David Eller’s Atheism Advanced:

    His argument is telling. Each local atheism is shaped by its local theism, complementary, dependent on it, I gather. Atheism is reactionary, having no substance or creativity in and of its own self but defined by the positive force of theism. That’s why they were called atheists first – their whole raison d’etre was found in the opposition to God, before their PR marketing campaign transformed them into “freethinkers” and “brights.”

    I think there is a great deal of truth in what Carter has to say. If I were to live in a society in which the Abrahamic religions were not so much a part of the fabric, I would be an “apatheist.” My confidence that the One True God (triune) does not exist is based on my own incredulity of the ways in which such existence is taught (inconsistently and with clear contradictions.)

    Technically I am agnostic about the existence of that which cannot be demonstrated either to exist or not to exist. I’ll stick with the word “Atheist” because for proselytizers the term “Agnostic” gives them false hope that I can be swayed to their religion.

    • John John

      If I were a theist confronted with an agnostic, I’d despair, while confronted with an atheist I’d think to myself they had a lot in common with me, and all I had to do to convert them is change a “not” to an “is”. Of course, the atheist thinks the same in reverse. But an agnostic says “fie!” to both houses, and denies that it even matters…

      • You’ve gone and done it. You’ve turned me into an “agnostic.” I must admit that I don’t feel any different.

  4. Fair enough, Russell, but John’s “complaint” is that we agnostics have a word that comfortably enough describes our position and we should be left to use it without attempts to apply some ill-defined word to us and thereby drag or push us into some camp that we do not feel comfortable within. If you want to make some other distinction either coin some other word or take the time to spell it out.

  5. J. J. Ramsey J. J. Ramsey

    One thing I notice is that, in practice, those who insist on calling themselves agnostics rather than atheists tend to emphasize caution and tentativeness in making knowledge claims.

    • John John

      Indeed. Tentative to the point of saying that knowledge claims vis á vis whatever is being agnosed are impossible.

  6. Martin Andersen Martin Andersen

    I’m one of those people to whom you replied that by “my” definition you would be an “asportist”.

    As I understand your claim, you are saying that the definition of atheism is slowly encroaching on the domain of another perfectly useful term: agnosticism, and that in turn implies a certain “wrongness” about its latest definition.

    I disagree on both (perceived) points. The two terms (atheism defined as people that are not theists and agnosticism) are still completely disjoint.

    Agnosticism is useful when describing a stance on knowing anything about a given subject (gods by default).

    Things such as policies, devices or procedures are said to be agnostic about X, if they operate on X just as well without making any assumptions about the nature of X that would influence the way they manipulate it.

    Therefore, a person Y agnostic about gods, does not assume to actually know anything about said gods. But whether or not Y believes in any particular god without letting said belief influence her actions is irrelevant to her agnosticism.

    An atheist otoh, can have either stance on knowledge about gods but can never, not even privately, believe in any of them or she would no longer be an atheist.

    Any combination of atheism (by the definition I defend) and agnosticism are possible and describe actual beliefs held by people in the real world. Therefore “this” atheism is both valid and useful.

  7. GregB GregB

    I am neither superstitious nor deluded into thinking that a supernatural world in which a God, an afterlife, angels, and demons exist. I am an atheist. I am without Gods, without the supernatural, without superstition, without dogma. The definition of the word ‘atheist’ doesn’t seem hard to understand to me.

    Agnostic is “without knowledge”. Do we *know* that there is no God? Of course not. Nor does anyone truely know that there is a God. In regards to religion everyone is agnostic, without knowledge. I do agree that peopel misuse the word agnostic to mean “I don’t really know and it doesn’t really matter to me.”

    Religion is bullshit. There is no evidence for God. People who believe that God is real are deluded. I am an atheist. I am also asuperstitious, adelusional, and adogmatic.

  8. Chris' Wills Chris' Wills

    Religion is bullshit. There is no evidence for God. People who believe that God is real are deluded……….I am also……, and adogmatic

    1. Pertaining to a dogma, or to an established and authorized doctrine or tenet.
    2. Asserting a thing positively and authoritatively; positive; magisterial; hence, arrogantly authoritative; overbearing.

    Adogmatic? I suspect you are somewhat dogmatic at least when it comes to religious belief.

    I’m a little suprised at the ordering the dictionary used, 2) seems more common usage nowadays.

  9. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    Almost everything I started to write at first was going to insult someone, which is not really necessary or productive, so I’ll just say this: if one is going to write or say something and has the time to define terms, do so. Isn’t the important thing to make sure we are talking about the same thing? No time? Use the most popular current definition and cross your fingers [use of superstitious gesture is not actually recommended nor endorsed].

    Purists of every religious and a-religious variety just want to win. Who cares if someone is atheist or agnostic? Make your case if you must, there is always the possibility that you might persuade someone over to the light side through force of reason, but the idea that you can argue another to atheism, agnosticism, whatever, is silly. Seriously, who has been successful?

  10. Regardless of the ambiguous etymology I think “ignosticism” is the best defined and most efficiently defended position. You cannot, for example, really be a negative or a positive ignostic, nor a weak or a strong one, imho.

  11. Susan, many people have moved in their substantive positions on these things based on the arguments. For example, when I was about 19 or 20 or so I moved from a (relatively liberal) evangelical Christian position to an atheist one, based on the arguments. This sort of thing happens all the time. What I think might more fairly be said is that some people are unreachable by argument because they disagree with your fundamental premises. But we can’t be sure in advance what fundamental premises people hold. Often, prior to entering into a phase of deeply self-searching rational reflection, we may not even know very much about our own fundamental premises.

    It’s also true that no one will be persuaded by a single encounter with someone else’s arguments; you have to be ready to reflect on your own basis for your beliefs, even if that kind of reflection is painful. But it’s certainly not true that arguing for your position is always futile, or that it never contributes to somebody changing their mind.

    • John John

      The psychopathology of conversion is not obviously rational, Russell. I take a kind of “tensegrity” approach, where one’s overall commitments are a kind of self-supporting series of values and propositions in tension. Conversion is when some critical part of that structure collapses or changes such that it makes a major difference overall. Hence, when people like C. S. Lewis claim to have been atheists before their conversion, I tend to suspect they were merely unresolved theists who hadn’t yet worked out the equilibrium.

      That’s not to say some people aren’t converted by reason, but to do so they must already value rational argument above the tenets of faith, which is itself not something one can rationally overcome if someone wants to hold those beliefs dear.

  12. Brian Brian

    I consider myself an atheist because I don’t believe in any god, and an agnostic because I have no knowledge of any god. Whether that fits any taxonomy is not important to me. If knowledge came along then I’d be less agnostic and less atheistic I suppose.

    John, there’s a Christian apologist called Norman L. Geisler who things that agnostics who claim that no knowledge of God is possible are making an absolute claim about reality, and thus self refuting, and those whom one might term weak agnostics, tentative agnostics, are really just theists, as theists don’t claim total knowledge of reality. Seems pretty specious to me.

    • John John

      Geisler is running an old line, one that among others Lewis put, that one cannot be consistent about logic without there being a reasonable intelligence behind the world. It’s a crap argument, put in terms that make the crap harder to see.

      The error is obvious if you put it this way:

      Ag: There is nothing that will tell for or against the existence of a God

      Th: Therefore you can’t know if this rock exists! Thus you are refuting yourself.

      Ag: Take a chill pill; it means nothing of the kind…

    • jeff jeff

      I think the Pope (Ratzinger) also made a similar argument about strong agnosticism being “self-refuting”. But strong agnosticism is really like saying, “there will there always be something beyond my (or our) comprehension”. I don’t know whether to believe it or not, but offhand I don’t see anything wrong with that assertion. (I tend towards weak agnosticism).

  13. RichardTHughes RichardTHughes

    (a)gnosticism addresses the epistemological question – can man know? As atheism presupposes a universal negative, it is a presumably an agnostic position by default. One may also be agnostic theist – and I suspect most are as they take it on faith, not fact.

    • John John

      I take atheism, as I argue above, to be a statement of knowledge – that God (or all gods, depending on the scope of the claim) does not exist. I take agnosticism to be the view that one can neither know or not if god/s exist/s. Surely that difference is clear.

  14. RichardTHughes RichardTHughes

    I think the (a)theisms are positions of belief, where as agnosticism adresses knowledge:

    “Here there comes a practical question which has often troubled me. Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.

    I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

    None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

    Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line. ” – Bertrand Russell

  15. I usually avoid the problem altogether by telling people I’m a postmodernist;)

    I hope this isn’t too OT but I’m personally a lot less interested in where people fall on the theist / non-theist continuum, than what their concept of god is (for both believers and non). A word that can’t distinguish (on its face) between the god of Polkinghorne, Falwell, C.S. Lewis, and Tillich is in need of some assistance, and without this type of specificity it’s hard to say just what an atheist is disbelieving in.

    How many atheists of a merely moderately rationalistic bent might say, after hearing Tillich’s god described as a “ground of being” that they could go for that? Or Buber’s concept of a sacralizing “eternal Thou”?

    I’m not saying these types of atheists should start calling themselves theists, but there is room for confusion between the sense in which Bertrand Russell intended the term, and the type of atheist who will say, like many in my acquaintance, “I’m an atheist, but I’m spiritual.”

    A similar problem afflicts agnosticism, in that certain varieties of belief are willful; that is they are not about epistemological certainty, but about a metaphysical decision on how to understand the universe as given to experience. I suspect Unitarian Universalists of taking a position like this. I also think Buber’s argument was something like this: that we can choose to make the cosmos sacred in our attitude to it.

    I suppose there’s also an existentialist component to this type of approach, whether of the Christian type (like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith), or the Kantian/atheistic type (like Sartre’s total freedom.) In each case one is asked to commit to a position despite the absence of perfect knowledge.

    • jeff jeff

      what their concept of god is (for both believers and non).

      “God” is the first creature you see, immediately after croaking out your last miserable deathbed breath. She appears to have the same purple and green amoeba-like form that you do. In one pseudopod, she’s holding a jack that she just pulled out of a brightly-lit console, and in another pseudopod, she’s carrying a strangely familiar memory module case with “Sim #666.42 Human, Earth” printed on the side. The first thing God says to you is: “Well… How was it?” 😉

      • richardthughes richardthughes

        I’ve had a very similar thoughts – waking, being surrounded by freinds one doesn’t remember in this life – being both sad and happy.

    • John John

      I have often thought that “God” is a highschool student in some higher dimension who threw the universe together at the last minute from hisher “Universe Kit” as a project. This explains a whole lot of things, including why the universe is so thinly inhabited (forgot to tweak a few constants that allowed us to live in the atmosphere between the stars, etc.)

      But more seriously, the term is totally protean. What sorts of entities are classed as gods depends a lot on context. There’s a nice distinction in religious studies between “folk” religion and “elite” religion. The latter kind of gods are the kind that a philosopher cannot object to. The former are without exception manifestly false.

      A god is any entity that is, effectively, counterintuitive with respect to the ways things ordinarily (for you and me) behave. A god is not burned by fire, or held down by gravity. A god is able to do things without the usual constraints that we operate under. So a god, in folk religion, is like you and me but multiplied beyond natural capacities. In short, Superman is a god. And Doctor Manhattan is a complete god.

      In the folk religion of Christianity, angels and demons are gods, as well as those individuals who have been elevated to a position of supernal power, like Mary. The religions in which these individuals occur often rejects that they are gods, but then will attack competing religions like Hinduism or Pagan religions in which the gods are no more powerful than these entities.

      In Buddhism, the folk variety, for example (e.g., Theravada), there are Devas, which are supernatural beings taken over from Hinduism. They are gods, even if not the highest god. They have powers and can be appealed to or assuaged by prayer and sacrifice.

      But there are no universal properties of a deity (generally a deity is defined by what it is not: i.e., an ordinary agent) that cover every case. The so-called “Abrahamic” deities are exceptional, historically speaking, because they are supposed to be the “only” God, although there are other supernatural agents like Jinn. I doubt there has ever been a folk monotheism.

    • jeff jeff

      I like John’s answer that there are no universal preset properties for a God. If there is something we can call God, those properties will be discovered, not verified. That may take a lifetime, or it may take ages.

      I also think that to many, God is about context. What ultimate context do I find myself in? (and therein lies the connection with my flippant little story). Understanding of context has survival value. People are always wondering about larger and larger contexts. What’s the hierarchy of government? Who’s the top man in my company? The top athletes, the best scientist in a particular field, etc… Eventually, you begin to wonder: what is the largest context that I exist in? The Universe? The Multiverse? Consciousness? Brahman? Turtles all the way down? Etc. Meaning always exists in a context, so find ultimate context and you find ultimate meaning. Of course, these contextual questions often overlap with scientific questions – hence the conflict between science and religion.

      And I would not restrict God to the anthropomorphic. We’ve always had a tendency to anthropomorphize objects and forces in nature, and cherished the idea of God making us in his image. But what if there is indeed a God, and he turns out to have to little in common with us, in any way? Or… what if he’s just a real bastard? How important will “God” be to us then? Ignorance can be a blessing.

  16. A god is any entity that is, effectively, counterintuitive with respect to the ways things ordinarily (for you and me) behave.

    Using this, highly practical, definition then I am an atheist as I genuinely do not think that such an entity can or does exist. In terms of scientific or logical epistemology then I am perforce an agnostic, as I know for a fact that I cannot prove or disprove the existence of such an entity, as defined.

    My major problem with the situation that John describes is the fact that some people, both believers and non-believers, apparently think that they have the right to prescribe or dictate to somebody else what they ‘really’ believe, as in “you may think that you are an agnostic but in reality you…” ! Strange, very strange.

    I think I will settle for being an athenogtarian!

  17. Peter Peter

    It seems to me that the most common usage of “god,” whether Christian, Hindu, ancient Greek, or whatever, involves an anthropomorphization of nature, law, morality, fate, creativity, etc.–almost always attributing more or less human-like purpose and/or intelligence to something that doesn’t really deserve it.

    So I describe myself as an atheist to positively assert that, no, those types of anthropomorphizations really aren’t insightful or useful or meaningful or in any way a reflection of reality. I can allow that such a “god” might be possible, but that everything else I know makes it vastly improbable, and also superfluous. Although I can allow that “god” can be useful as a metaphor in this sense.

    There are of course more rarefied, philosophical definitions of god, that do their best to remove all human qualities from the definition. Well, my general opinion of that type of god is that the philosopher uses that type of definition to “prove” the “existence” of “god,” although it happens to have nothing in common with any god that anyone actually believes in, and then, hey, by an uncanny coincidence, some philosopher has just proved that something called “god” “exists,” and the dominant religion in that part of the world also happens to worship something called “god,” so maybe there’s something to that religion after all. “Agnostic” or “ignostic” is probably a better label than “atheist” when talking about that sort of “god.” However, when I call myself an “atheist,” I want to be understood as disbelieving in the common understandings of the word “god,” not the more obscure concepts of “god” that no-one understands (and wasn’t really ever meant to be understood, anyway).

  18. Peter,

    To my mind one difficulty with this way of thinking (though not an insurmountable one) is that a truly de-anthropomorphized cosmos cannot be described in any value-laden language at all. So, for example, when the existentialists call the universe “absurd,” this is more than a negation of the older idea that it is purposeful. It is a positive claim about a trait a godless universe really cannot have. Similarly, when scientists like Weinberg and Monod describe the cosmos as “hostile” or “alien,” this is more than saying that it is not sufficiently nurturing. It is saying it is something other than it should be, that it has Intent. The temptation to make nature meaningful afflicts even the best of minds.

    I also think you overstate the case when you talk about the “more obscure concepts of ‘god’ that no-one understands.” Mystical sects like Sufism, or Vedanta or Zen, or Kabbala, or certain Christian monastic orders, have tens if not hundreds of millions of adherents (perhaps a comparable showing to atheism) whose devotion to their “rarified” god can be quite real and meaningful, rather than a simple philosophical construction designed to score points in the halls of academe.

    (This goes to John’s comment too. In his list of who might possibly answer to the protean name “god” I think he left out those gods who are not separate persons at all, but divine selves who extend into every corner of existence. This includes not just the Hindu Brahman, the Ein Sof of mystical Judaism, and certain Christian descriptions of god like that of John Scotus, but also numerous animistic spirit religions. It may be a definition in the minority today [it’s unclear for example how many Hindus contemplate their avatars rather than the one self they all represent an emanation of] but it can’t be entirely discounted.)

    • Peter Peter

      Why is that a difficulty? I’ll allow that that sort of anthropomorphization can be valuable as metaphor. Regardless, people are free to ascribe any value to the universe they like, as long as we remember that it’s we who are assigning the value, and that that value isn’t intrinsic to the universe. I’m pretty sure that that is an important enough distinction when we’re often arguing against the idea that “God wants it” is, for example, a good reason to ban certain behavior or send people to war.

      And I also don’t really understand your point regarding mystical concepts of god. They are 1) obviously distilled from anthropomorphic concepts of god, and 2) pretty similar conceptually to the “philosophers’ gods,” just less rigorous. They still fit under the umbrella of god concepts that aren’t meant to be understood. And if, for the sake of argument, some mystics want to be more specific about what their god is, so that they can, for instance, use god as a moral authority, then I can be more specific about my position on that god, be more certain that it doesn’t exist.

      Anywho, to me, when John says:

      “There’s a nice distinction in religious studies between “folk” religion and “elite” religion. The latter kind of gods are the kind that a philosopher cannot object to. The former are without exception manifestly false.”

      I hear that and think, he’s as atheist as I am. And I’m as agnostic as he is. So really, why again are we drawing lines in the sand over what is, apparently, a semantic argument?

  19. Jeb Jeb

    I don’t believe in God, animistic spirits or the notion of a divine self.

    I can’t offer conclusive proof that my belief is true. So its better to maintain the position that I do not know, but given the lack of evidence for such a thing as God or God’s to suggest that such a thing is fundamentally true seems to me a giant leap of faith over reason.

    I am asportist as a matter of taste, I don’t like watching sport and find it boring.

    I find fundamentalist grand designs very distasteful and dull whatever shape or form they appear in.

    I don’t see that degree of certainty in things.
    I lack the eagle eye view of the God’s and prefer to see things on a more small scale and human level.

    I try to hedge my personal private beliefs with a degree of reason, so I am an Agnostic.

  20. John Pieret says,

    Fair enough, Russell, but John’s “complaint” is that we agnostics have a word that comfortably enough describes our position and we should be left to use it without attempts to apply some ill-defined word to us and thereby drag or push us into some camp that we do not feel comfortable within. If you want to make some other distinction either coin some other word or take the time to spell it out.

    Please be consistent.

    Stop calling me an atheist if you’re using the same definition as John Wilkins. If you going to he honest and consistent then you have to refer to me and Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers as agnostics, just like you.

    • Dawkins has been very specific about being agnostic about the existence of God, to the same degree as he is about the existence of fairies. So, yes, I think it is a question of semantics.

  21. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    I am an atheist. My description is simple: there are not now, have never been, will never be, can not be deities. YMMV.

    Y’all can call yourselves whatever you like, just please stop insisting that others conform to your own, private definitions. It’s not that complicated.

  22. bob koepp bob koepp

    I don’t know how informed, intelligent people can be atheists or even agnostics regarding the Olympian gods. For example, Iv’e seen Apollo with my own eyes as he courses across the heavenly sphere. Haven’t you?

  23. It’s lousy taxonomy to define a group by a single character. Both birds and bats have wings, but they aren’t very closely related. Similarly, both Marxist/Leninists and American village atheists deny the existence of God, but the beliefs of the former have obvious structural as well as historical affinities with the Christianity while the village atheists have a different genealogy, having diverged, as it were, at an earlier fork in the cladogram, a fact which accounts in part for the distinctly 18th Century flavor of their rhetoric.

    A serious attempt to understand the various atheisms would have to eschew essentialism in favor of the methods of historical sociology. That wouldn’t be much fun, though, and wouldn’t necessarily further anybody’s polemical intentions so this comment is probably the last you’ll hear of it.

  24. Mike Mike

    John says,

    “Flew is setting it up so that he can claim that the default view includes all those who are not, in effect, Christians.”

    I guess missed where Christians came into his quotes at all.


    “Why would atheists like this distinction? For similar reasons to the reasons why theists do too: it means that the battle lines are drawn precisely, and that “if you are not for us, you are against us” and “if you are not against us, you are for us” are simultaneously true. There is a nice term in political history – revanchism. This is all about the desire to gain or regain territory. Christians and other theists like to think that it’s all about them, so having agnostics defined as atheists means that it is. Atheists like to claim non-theists as atheists (but weak ones, not very good thinkers). It all looks like that game we used to play when we were kids at the beach. “I dare you to cross that line!” “Now you’re on my side!””

    Come on John,

    Isn’t this a clear violation of “The Principal of Charity”? This whole debate revolves around the difference between theistic claims that are unjustifiable (or unfalsifiable) in principle and those that can be examined like any other interesting knowledge claim – whether someone says agnostic or atheist will depend on the theistic claim being made. There is an inherent asymmetry here, IMHO.

  25. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    Larry Moran doth protest:

    Stop calling me an atheist if you’re using the same definition as John Wilkins. If you going to he honest and consistent then you have to refer to me and Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers as agnostics, just like you.

    Personally, I’m cool with Larry, Dickie and PeeZee being agnostic. But I’m going to have to self-identify as a Millian Huxleyist if they do.

    • Veronica Abbass Veronica Abbass

      I’m cool with Larry, Dickie and PeeZed being agnostic, but I’m going to have to self-identify as areligious, which, I hope, will mean I have coined a new word.

  26. Veronica Abbass Veronica Abbass

    RE: “Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.”

    Is there a reason why , when people are asked to state their religion either verbally or on a form, they cannot answer “none” or “MYOB”?

    RE: “The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. ”

    I was under the impression that a person “who is unacquainted with theism” is a heathen, but according to the Compact OED, heathen is a “derogatory” noun “a person who does not belong to a widely held religion (especially Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) as regarded by those who do.”
    However, you may call me a heathen; I won’t be offended.

  27. Jeb Jeb

    I think Jim nails it for me, it’s a single issue, and only becomes a matter of identity for me at least when faith enters the political world and the views I share with others are challenged.

    Within such a group you would expect to find very different perspectives and outlook on all other matters. I may indeed have more in common with friends who belong to faith groups and share the same general political outlook and cultural background as myself despite having a major disagreement on one aspect of life.

    If the debate was just about unjustifiable claims that can not be examined like other claims to knowledge it would have been long dead, long ago.

    As the answer is not a difficult one to reach.

  28. Jeb Jeb

    To me it’s more a matter of fundamentalist beliefs and religion entering the political world than a problem with religion in general that I need to define myself against.

    As long as it’s a private view and does not seek to impose itself on the secular world of politics who cares what individuals think.

    • Veronica Abbass Veronica Abbass

      Religion is seldom “a private view,” but a view that seeks to impose itself everywhere in the secular world. As long as individuals feel comfortable about asking others “what is your religion?” it is necessary to care about what individuals think.

  29. Jeb Jeb

    I come from a place famous for sectarian hatred where religious identity is imposed regardless of personal beliefs as it is a cultural indicator with little to do with faith.

    So yes you do have to be very careful about what people think and who they are.
    Often the construction of identity has little to do with the actual arguments presented as they pretend to be something else. I bit like the age old image of the village idiot
    Repeatedly wheeled out by elite administrative groups since the middle ages as a means of creating an exclusive and well defined identity. Still you have to have some hope that things will change.

  30. everettattebury everettattebury

    What is the correct term to describe someone who has come to the conclusion that gods and religions are the products of human imagination, whose continued existence is the result of cognitive biases, logical fallacies and psychological motives such as wish-fulfillment?

    • jeb jeb

      Well if you drop the psychology you could refer to them as an ethnologist among other things.

      The removal of God and psychology from language in the 18 th century and placing it in a firm historical framework was a shrewd move in my book. I find both approaches often lead to glaring mistakes and assumptions in my subject.

  31. nme nme

    >I take atheism, as I argue above, to be a statement of knowledge – that God (or all gods, depending on the scope of the claim) does not exist. I take agnosticism to be the view that one can neither know or not if god/s exist/s. Surely that difference is clear.

    So, what would you call someone who believes that there is no god(s) and that the truth of that is unknowable?

    Or someone who has no opinion on the existence of god(s), but thinks the answer is knowable?

    • jeb jeb

      I think the evidence clearly points to the fact that God does not exist. Although I cannot furnish the evidence that a believer would require.

      I would call agnosticism good professional working manners; as an Ethnologist I have to work with peoples belief and on occasion the people who believe such things.

      I have to show respect to views other than my own. Clearly others feel they don’t have to.

      I would suggest you drop the language of the middle ages though. It’s history and usage are very clear. It’s a subject that has been of particular interest for years and if its not being used to define an identity in this case. It’s a first for the term.

  32. JohnnieCanuck JohnnieCanuck

    Fascinating how fascinated people are with that god-shaped hole in their heads. It seems to take as much effort to keep it empty as it does to justify what is in there.

    I remain suspicious of anyone who rejects gods as being relevant in their daily lives, yet needs to cast around for a euphemism to avoid the tainted label of atheist.

    If you grant that theoretically, no atheist can prove the non-existence of all gods and likewise no theist can nor is likely to prove the existence of any god; what then the point of the label Agnostic? We are all agnostic and provably so, therefore it is a useless distinction. Unless we happen to need a euphemism in our circumstances.

    It really depends on how you live your life. It all comes down to actions:

    Theist- Follows rules imperfectly, prays,
    bargains, hopes for rewards, worries about punishment.

    Atheist- Follows rules imperfectly.

    Cultural theist- Ditto, but likes to go through some of the motions.

    Agnostic- What? Do you pray to a god that you are unsure even exists? Sacrifice to it? Just sometimes? If you are consistently a practising non-theist, then what more do we need to know?

    So, don’t deny that I am an atheist and push me into your agnostic pigeon hole because I acknowledge that I can’t prove a negative. Of course I’m agnostic. Everyone is, whether they know it or not. It’s a big pigeon hole.

  33. JohnnieCanuck JohnnieCanuck

    nme, what do you think of the contention that it takes 2 binary bits to describe the (theist, gnostic) situation, giving 4 states (00, 01, 10, 11)? I can allow that the agnostic variable is the belief that one can or cannot know. I just claim that no-one can prove their belief that they can know, giving 01 or 11 which reduce to just 0 or 1.

    The 2 bit model disallows the common assumption that it is a grayscale, with agnostics somewhere between the canoe and the dock.

  34. nme nme

    JohnnieCanuck I tend to think both are greyscales, with the terms representing either.

    There are degrees of belief on both scales – I’m pretty convinced there’s no deity but not completely certain, and I don’t think any of the modern versions of god are knowable, though again I have no certainty.

    There’s certainly no way to prove their belief, but I think we’re talking more about labels for belief systems than truth in any objective sense. A devout Catholic will never be able to prove his knowledge of God to me, but as far as he’s concerned he is certainly not agnostic.

  35. nme nme

    curses. “representing either end”.

    I’m going to stop trying to post while completely distracted.

  36. The 2-bit/4-state concept appeals to my engineering sensibilities (cue the wisecracks about whether engineers have sensibilities). However, I think the measure of how agnostic a person is should be based on the confidence level of their belief, not their ability to provide convincing proof to others. Those among the devoutly religious who have given the question some thought tend to come up with justifications for their beliefs along the lines of having “different ways of knowing”, and/or experiences that provide sufficient (albeit subjective) proof.

  37. Colin KLINE Colin KLINE

    A worthwhile original posting, about a topic that has received too little attention, especially in this era of “the new atheism”.

    Two references could be explored by WILKINS in his exploratory essay:

    1. WIKIPEDIA has coined a new word, namely, “ignosticism”. This word MAY serve the purposes that WILKINS desires.

    2. Keith PARSONS, in his book, , p.29 asserts (about whom the burden should fall upon):

    These could be worthwhile readings ?


  38. Weirdly, this reminds me a bit of Sam Harris’ comments on why we should drop the label ‘atheist’. We don’t have a special word for people who disbelieve in pixies, so why should we have a special word for people who disbelieve in Gods?

    That aside – presuming that you’re still monitoring the comments on this thread – I have a general question to you.

    Consider that I cannot be utterly certain that pixies do not exist, but feel that I am so strongly justified in my belief that they do not that I consider that I know fairies don’t exist. Similarly, I know that if I drop an apple, it won’t suddenly fall up and away from the Earth – though in an absolute sense, I cannot be sure to a metaphysical certainty that this will always be the case.

    Does the above qualify as knowledge?

    If it does, why is it so impossible to ‘know’ God does not exist, when it is possible to ‘know’ that fairies do not?

    If it does not, what possibly would qualify as knowledge? After all, I can feel the keyboard under my fingers, but I cannot really know to a metaphysical certainty that there really is a keyboard under my hands – or even that I have hands, for that matter.

    At what point do we say ‘this is certain enough to be knowledge’? Can we ever say it, in your view?

    • everettattebury everettattebury

      “…why should we have a special word for people who disbelieve in Gods?”

      Because even if we don’t call ourselves something, the people who do believe in gods WILL. They will call us names like “sinner”, “heretic”, “apostate”. If we give up using the word atheist to describe ourselves, that will not prevent the pious from making it a pejorative term against us.

      The whole argument of “why do you define yourselves by what you DON’T believe in?” ignores centuries of violence and persecution against disbelievers. No one asks the Protestants the same question.

      • Of course – I hope you didn’t think I was attempting to criticize the use of the term ‘atheist’. I was just pointing out that his argument reminded me of Harris’.

        I’d assumed that the use of the word ‘atheist’ in my avatar would have made it clear that I disagreed with Harris – but then again, perhaps I should have been clearer. ^_^

  39. Being aware of no proof there ever were any gods, and being aware that the forces we do know about in this universe are totally capable of forming all we do know about it, I am an atheist. I have seen no evidence to produce uncertainty about the existence of deities, but only the lack of evidence to support even their possible existence. Since I have this knowledge and can act in total freedom using it, I am not agnostic.

    • John John

      More power to you. Say it loud. Just don’t say that makes me an atheist, thanks, because I have seen arguments that do make the issue unresolvable. Let’s agree to say I am atheist about one or a small number of gods fewer than you, and several gods more than most theists…

  40. ChrisE ChrisE

    Reading the above, and browsing a few dictionaries’ takes on the matter, my sense is that usage of “atheism” and “agnosticism” is just terribly inconsistent. But this is a nice discussion. I’m all for John’s staking a claim on the one term and trying to promote the sort of terminological clarity that discourages strawmen, equivocation, and discussion-breakdown. Good luck.

    But I’ve decided the best term for me is “irreligious.” It communicates that no particular religious positions convince me (as if they did, given a presumption of rationality, I would be religious). But also, like your “asportism,” it communicates a general disinterest in the whole business, without misleadingly suggesting I have any particular position on something ambiguous.

  41. I think there’s value in thinking of atheism and agnosticism as two separate things. From one of the FAQs on my site:

    One of the key points is that agnosticism is a separate axis from the presence or absence of actual belief in the individual. It is a statement about whether or not the existence of deities is knowable, rather than about whether the person in question is a believer or not.

    The value in the distinction is not, as our esteemed author has argued, one of “territory” but rather one of precision. It helps get away from using the terms as value judgments and instead lets them be used as actual descriptors of the reality of a person’s belief system. From a more solid understanding you can then move on to the juicy shouting bits.

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