Defining Atheism

Okay, so I was asked about this topic and it’s one better handled where I have more character space than Twitter. πŸ™‚

So, what exactly does atheism mean, and what should it mean? The former question is a little variable (just the nature of language really), but there are more reasonable answers to give, even if there are no definitive, “correct” answers. Whenever this topic comes up, many atheists that run the argument seem to think that this should be known by everyone. “The ‘a’ nullifies the ‘theism’, don’t you see, because it refers to those lacking belief in gods?”, they’ll say (or something like that). The problem here is that they are, sometimes consciously (I think) and other times not, just falling for a trick of language. They’re conflating the the ambiguity in the English language between “don’t believe” (in this case meaning “not affirming as true”) and “believe to be false”. For example, if someone asks me “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”, I think it’s fairly obvious to everyone that when I respond “No, I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” that I mean the proposition “Santa Claus exists” is false, or more likely false than true. Whereas in other situations, such as if asked “Is person X a good person?”, it would be ridiculous to assume that if I refuse to answer “Yes” to the question that I’m saying they’re not a good person. I just don’t know which is the case, so I abstain from going either way, and this is EXACTLY what “lackatheists” are notorious for claiming: That is you don’t believe “God(s) exists” then you are an atheist.

Now, it’s clear to me from everyday interaction with theists on this topic (and just experience in life in general) that when people refer to “atheists”, they’re NOT referring to those who merely “lack belief”, because they don’t go around calling dogs and babies atheists (as some of these “lack of belief” atheists often do, at least for babies); in addition, this is the general sort of definition use by professional philosophers in the Great Debate. This is because the usual conception of the belief spectrum being referenced here is:


With the theist and atheist giving a yes and no, respectively, concerning the existence of God, andnthenagnostics believing neither position is epistemically justifiable. So, it’s perfectly fine for these lack of belief people to go with their preferred definition, but this causes several issues. Firstly, they remove themselves from the conversation inadvertently. Why is this? Well, given that (as far as I believe) we use words as placeholders to convey ideas/concepts to other people, it doesn’t really matter in and of itself what sound or characters we use, so long as our recipients get what we’re trying to convey. So when you guys use this atheism as “lack of belief”, you guys are ignoring the question when asked to justify your atheism. They’re not asking why you merely lack belief, but why you believe it is more likely that gods don’t exist. If you reject their definition, then they can merely make up a new word to refer to that position of going beyond lacking belief. William Lane Craig has made this point before by pointing out that then he’d just ask people who are, quote, “Shmatheists – that is, people who believe gods don’t exist – why they believe gods don’t exist?” And this makes sense, it’s not a trick. If you don’t fit the definition of the word people are using because YOU mean something else by the word, then they’ll simply use another word not in contention to ask their question. If by “red” you mean what I mean by “green”, I’m going to alter my terminology in response so that the conversation is sensible.

Secondly, there’s the issue of coherence. One favorite of these lack of believers is to say that they’re “agnostic atheists” or (rarely) gnostic atheists, meaning they “don’t claim to know, don’t believe” and “know, don’t believe”, respectively, regarding the existence of gods. But don’t you guys see the immediate contradiction here? You guys are saying that the ONLY thing atheism is, is a lack of belief and hence is an either/or situation, but then you’re modulating your atheism with modifiers you intend to denote degrees of difference, which is a clear contradiction. After all, you guys say that you’re either a theist or you lack belief and hence are an atheist. This demonstrates another shortcoming of this definition, I think, which the standard and philosophical definitions maintain easily, as it allows for one to have degrees of belief and disbelief not conflict with the definitions themselves.

My own preferred definite of atheism would be anything along the lines of the following:

“An atheist is one who believes the existence of gods is less probable to be the case (lesser probability than 0.5 on a 0 to 1 scale) than their existence.”

Lastly, some atheists are motivated by or claim that this lack of belief definition nets them some epistemic advantage, since they’re not the ones moving from some default or null position. Well, this is silly. Once you’ve been acquainted with the usual meaning of the word God,as well as the ways by which people try to argue for or against is existence, to claim that you still merely lack belief (because this is what you mean by “atheism”) is to say that you haven’t been affected by the arguments either way, which is a very strange claim indeed, unless you’re merely affirming agnosticism.

Anyway, those are my general thoughts on this topic. Leaves your comments below. Peace πŸ™‚


Me N00bing at Metaphysics of Logic & Ontology

Now, this is a complex topic that I have even less business talking about than even other topics I often bring up online – given that I’m just a first year student in philosophy, which I became after building up an interest in it – but I will press on as requested by these 2 raging, militant atheists (is that a redundant description? πŸ˜‰ ) on Twitter.

Anyway, so my [certainly unoriginal] thoughts on the matter begin as follows. What is being, what does it mean to say that something exists? This is the central question of ontology, and I personally get the feeling that the epistemic hurdles to solidly answering this question are insurmountable. Anyways, perhaps we can at least have a provisional, useful definition to employ here? Well, for a while now I’ve been fascinated with a particular view known as bundle theory. Basically, bundle theory would say that there’s no underlying substance or object to which properties inhere. I suppose you could somewhat analogize it to how a nominalist views sets: sets are essentially all of the members of the set. So, when I refer to a “set”, what I’m really doing is referring to each of the members of the set. Long story short, there’s no ontological overhead, I guess you could so. Similarly, bundle theorists regard “objects” as a mere collection or bundle (hence the name) of properties, and they would argue for this in the following sort of way. Apples, for example, are nothing more than a term we give to a a collection of properties that we sense which meet general criteria that we’ve been culturally influenced to call an apple out of convenience. Now, what sorts of properties constitute an apple? Well, they’ll be red, or green (or whatever), take up about as much space as a baseball or softball, have a sweet or sour taste, etc. So what happens if we start removing these properties? Well, the apple looses its color, size, taste and such, until we’ve excised all of it’s properties. Now, try to conceive of this property-less object; can you? What are you conceiving of? Well, the bundle theorists says you aren’t conceiving of anything! When we conceive of something, we imagine some fuzzy collection of properties, so once yo eliminate those properties, you’re left with nothing by which you could apprehend this object. and bundle theorists take this inconceivability of a property-less object as a good reason to reject substance theory, in addition to the fact that it seems to match our experience that to… experience the world is to have a perceptual model of our sensations. Perhaps I could even give an update to Descartes’ cogito with this in mind:

P1) There are thoughts. (incorrigible proposition)
P2) if there is a process, it requires that there be a bundle of properties (an “object”) in order to exist. (assumption that I have; can give rudimentary argument for is needed)
P3) Thinking is a process.
P4) I refer to this process as “I”.
C) Therefore, I exist.

Not entirely sure about the argument, but I’m just having fun here; criticize it as you see fit. πŸ™‚

So, I’m not sure if the above was necessary for this post (or a good defense of bundle theory), but I’ll press on. When talking about things which exist, what sorts of things, if anything, is necessarily the case? Well, I would tend to go classical here an take the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction as being a necessary, er, facet of reality. But why do I think that? Well for starters, let’s take the law of identity: A = A (A is A). Taken as ontologically necessary, this could be translated to something like “properties A is property A”, or “A is itself”. It seems that we cannot, in any sense of speaking about reality itself, go against this. For example, isn’t it the case that the iPad I’m typing this post from is itself? If I try to affirm otherwise (“The iPad I’m typing this from is not itself”) I contradict myself and utter an incoherent statement that reflects no conceivable state of affairs, because I’m using a term one way and then immediately saying that does not refer to what I just said it did.

Perhaps it could be argued that I’m merely failing to appreciate a potential linguistic-psychological limitation (especially considering I personally am not sold on the idea of conceivability as a means of definitively judging the possibility of things), and you know what, I’m not sure at have a convincing rebuttal to that criticism. But it just seems to vitiate my most fundamental intuitions about the world that I can’t help but reject, pretty much out of hand, opposing these 2 principles or laws as ontologically necessary. #BadPhilosopher

Anyway, that concludes my 2nd post. Ontology and the Metaphysics of logic aren’t exactly my fortΓ©, so this is sort of where I’m at currently. Be sure to leave me some interesting criticism, particularly if you take the view that these two principles are arguably NOT necessary. Thanks for reading! πŸ™‚