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Atheism definition aka Philosophy 101
May 26, 2009 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Is atheism the belief that there are no gods or the lack of belief in existence of gods? This is philosophy 101 but I honestly keep finding different definitions claimed by atheists. Can someone clarify? (and if my question is phrased poorly, please forgive me but I hope you understand the gist.)
posted by snap_dragon to Religion & Philosophy (49 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
The correct answer to "Is atheism the belief that there are no gods or the lack of belief in existence of gods?" is yes.

That comes off facile, but you get the drift. Nobody owns the definition; one or the other are true for different people.
posted by adipocere at 8:00 AM on May 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


There's no governing body standardizing the definition. The word can mean a bunch of things.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:01 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think a good standard is:
atheist: believes there is no god/gods
agnostic: lacks belief in a god/gods
posted by Grither at 8:04 AM on May 26, 2009


The word atheism is used to mean both.

Wikipedia gives some of the philosophical history of your question here: weak and strong atheism. Other terms are positive/negative and implicit/explicit atheism.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:04 AM on May 26, 2009


I'd say that atheism is the positive belief in the fact that there is no god. At least, that's what I think when I come across the word.
posted by Solomon at 8:05 AM on May 26, 2009


I"m an agnostic. I believe that there is no way to know if there is a god or not. I personally assume that there is not. Atheism positively states, "There is no god."
posted by notsnot at 8:07 AM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Similar to vegetarianism, many people have personal definitions of what atheism means to them and it's not really a definition worth arguing in most cases. Most people I know subscribe to the definition split that Grither outlines above.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on May 26, 2009


Small sample, obviously, but in my experience people who actively believe there is no God/gods are more likely to call themselves atheist. People who don't believe in god/gods but aren't categorically opposed to the idea often seem to refer to themselves as agnostic.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:08 AM on May 26, 2009


Look up the terms "strong atheism" and "weak atheism". They're a little controversial, but I think they really cut to the heart of the matter.

By those definitions, I consider myself a weak atheist. That is, I can't completely rule out the existence of a god, but I certainly see no evidence for it. Thus, unless someone came forward with some astounding proof, I'm willing to say that there is no god.

Russel's teapot does a good job of describing the difference:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
Being an honest scientist, I can't absolutely say that there's no teapot, but given the remarkable improbability of the claim, I feel safe saying that I'm a teapot atheist.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:10 AM on May 26, 2009 [9 favorites]


I actively believe there are no gods or ghosts or magic or supernatural anything, and I refer to myself as an atheist.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:10 AM on May 26, 2009


agnostic: lacks belief in a god/gods

Actually, most agnostics I know (including myself) believe that it the existence of god/gods is unknowable.
posted by dame at 8:12 AM on May 26, 2009


I think you pretty much have to actively deny the existence of a god to call yourself an athiest.

(One interesting argument I read somewhere recently is that everyone is an atheist: even the most fervent believer in religion A is an atheist with regard to all the other varied religions in the world. S/he just makes an exception for his/her own. A Christian believer, for instance, will actively deny the existence of Vishnu, Krishna, Thor, Odin, Zeus, Kanon, Buddha, all of them; he just makes one small exception in his pan-atheism for this own religion. Now, this is not a particularly deep or compelling argument one way or the other, but for some reason it makes me smile.)
posted by zachawry at 8:16 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


atheist = There is no God/gods.

agnostic= There might be God/gods but there is no way of knowing so they do not practice any form of religion.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 8:17 AM on May 26, 2009


Obviously there is no single clear answer to this question. Especially because athiesm is somewhat controversial and the definition often gets pushed around to score points in arguments.

I consider myself an athiest, and get a bit annoyed when people try to convince me I am really an agnostic because I do not have a positive belief in the nonexistance of god.

People will probably disagree, but this is how I break it down:

Strong Athiest: Belief that there is no god/s
Athiest: Lack of belief in god/s
Agnostic: Considers question of god/s unknown or unknowable
posted by Nothing at 8:19 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


This thread's already good proof that there is no clear-cut consensus understanding.

In practice, I read athiest as "There is no god, go away." and agnostic as "...but I'm open to evidence. Convince me."
posted by rokusan at 8:20 AM on May 26, 2009


Atheism is the lack of a belief in gods.

As an example, I can't honestly call myself an atheist, but agnostic isn't quite right either. To give an real and accurate answer, I think we have to define exactly what "god" means.
posted by zerokey at 8:22 AM on May 26, 2009


The belief that there is no evidence for God's existence is pretty much equivalent to the belief that there is no God. I know it sounds different, but it works out to be the same. Look at the teapot argument chrisamiller cites above. If you ask me whether that space-teapot exists, I'll say "no". If you ask whether I'm absolutely certain it's not there, or whether I can prove it's not there, I'll also say "no". But if there's no single reason to believe the proposition, then there's also no point in entertaining the proposition. I won't go around arguing against its existence; instead it will just drop out of my belief system. So it is with God: as an atheist, I don't have much use for the proposition -- it does not form a part of my belief system. An agnostic is more someone who sits on the fence regarding whether it's true or not -- you could say that God's existence plays a role in their belief system, but they're not sure what the role should be.
posted by creasy boy at 8:30 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


agnostic as "...but I'm open to evidence. Convince me."

I would encourage you to rethink this, at least in terms of applying it to anyone who says they're agnostic. I'm agnostic and I don't want to be convinced about anything; I believe that the question is fundamentally unanswerable, and therefore it's absurd to think about it in terms of "evidence" and "convincing."
posted by scody at 8:32 AM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


I should amend my answer. There are religious people who also believe that there is no evidence for God's existence and emphasize the leap of faith. An atheist, for me, is someone who believes that there is no evidence for God's existence, and for that reason simply drops the proposition out of their belief system, rather than maintaining some kind of leap of faith.
posted by creasy boy at 8:33 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I agree with adipocere. This question cannot be answered meaningfully, because both options, (A)“ there are no gods” v. (B)“lack of belief in existence of gods” imply the existence of God as a threshold assumption which can only be negated (A), or deferred (B), and therefore have little if any value apart from a theistic’s perspective. Because belief in God is so fundamental to many it can be difficult for people to understand that the question “Do you believe in God?” is more precisely a statement (“There is a God.”) plus question (“—Do you believe this?”). The irony here is that while God cannot be [/has not been] proved, the onus is put on non-believers to assume the existence of God as necessary to deny it.
posted by applemeat at 8:53 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I personally assume that there is not. Atheism positively states, "There is no god."

To illustrate the difficulty in answering the original question: meh. I consider myself an atheist. I would not "positively state" that there is no God. I assume there is not. That's what belief is. It's a best-guess assessment of probability. I assume there are no unicorns. There may well be. I wouldn't positively state a denial in too many things.
posted by xmutex at 8:54 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Atheism describes an absence of a particular belief (no theism) as opposed to the presence of a belief. So people who can be correctly described as atheists may fall into a wide variety of other kinds of belief systems.
posted by hworth at 8:55 AM on May 26, 2009


To confuse the matter at hand: aren't a lot of believers atheists as well concerning completely different religions?
posted by ijsbrand at 8:58 AM on May 26, 2009


There is an essay on the difficulty answering this question here, that reiterates a number of the above points.
posted by TedW at 9:04 AM on May 26, 2009


Seconding that there's no uncontroversial correct usage of these terms.

But there is a best usage. The best usage is that an "atheist" thinks "There is no god(s)," while an agnostic thinks "I don't know if there is/are a god/gods."

Why is this best? Because it makes the most sense of the fact that we have two distinct words: "atheist" and "agnostic." If "atheist" means "unsure of whether there's a god(s)" ... then what's "agnostic"? This also gives us the greatest descriptive power: if "atheist" merely means someone who doesn't feel they know that there is a god, then what do you call someone who's convinced that there isn't a god?
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:05 AM on May 26, 2009


I should add that considering how controversial all of this is, it's best to quickly define your terms. Otherwise, you'll be met with "What do you mean by atheist?" etc.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:06 AM on May 26, 2009


Re Jaltcoh's comment above, my personal opinion is that everyone, like it or not, is basically an agnostic, since no one (living) knows for sure whether there is a god or gods.

However, making that leap means assuming that "knowing" and "believing" are the same thing, when that's a bit of a stretch.
posted by charlesv at 9:12 AM on May 26, 2009


This isn't really 'philosophy 101'—it's semantics. Words can mean different things to different people. If you'd like to know what someone believes, it's best to ask them to explain rather than assuming they mean a certain thing by the word 'atheist.'
posted by koeselitz at 9:16 AM on May 26, 2009


I'd argue that it's the former.

The latter, "a lack of belief in the existence of gods," seems, aside from the plural gods, like something an Evangelical Christian would say. The word lack implies some kind of defect or failing on the part of the atheist, as if atheism is simply "god-blindness" or something.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2009


Etymologically speaking atheism comes from "no godsism" and agnosticism comes "no knowledgeism". But of course it's muddied and there's plenty of people who feel that we can't know for sure that there is or isn't any gods, but also "believe" to a reasonable degree that there are none. In this strict sense agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive at all.

That said, nobody cares about etymology (except for it's fun to talk about at parties).

Without any clarification (strong/weak, etc) the word "atheist" can mean a fairly wide range of different overlapping groups. There's no way to tell unless some context or explicit clarification is given. This imprecision is hardly unique to this topic, though. People don't fit into tidy groups as well as our language implies. Beliefs are a lot more mercurial than notions like race or wealth or whatever, but even an easily measurable concrete term like height, you won't find everyone agreeing on who's tall and who's short.

If you find this particular distinction important, clarify further in your writing and speech. If you were just fretting that we all know what each other means and you were feeling left out, don't. You're much better off than the people who don't realize the ambiguity is there in the first place.
posted by aubilenon at 10:09 AM on May 26, 2009


Chiming in as an agnostic to clarify that I (and most other agnostics, to my knowledge) define this term as the existence of god(s) being fundamentally unknowable. To me, this is quite literally what a+gnostic means.

Christians (and some atheists), in my experience tend to define it as not knowing God with a tacit acknowledgment of godly existence. In a manner of speaking, also quite literally what a+gnostic means.
posted by desuetude at 10:19 AM on May 26, 2009


*sigh*

Well, here is my take on the history of it all.

Prior to the second half of the 19th century, there was a pretty whopping amount of faith in the ability of philosophy to come up with answers to the big questions. However in the 19th century, philosophy starts taking some epistemological hits. Along comes Huxley who takes, in my opinion after having read him, a rather contrarian position that I summarize as, "I don't know and you don't either. I call my position agnosticism, and I'll respond to the arguments with 'neener neener neener.'" Pretty much I feel that Huxley was taking the piss, and responding to epistemological positions that were rapidly going out of fashion.

The problem is, epistemology moved on since Huxley. Instead of positions being claimed with absolute and ironclad logical poof, you had the growing success of the scientific method centered on a preponderance of evidence and falsifiability. James comes along and says that it's sometimes reasonable to believe in religion for entirely pragmatic reasons (and Dewey stuck one foot into that rabbit hole using God language in places.) Bertrand Russell shoots back and says that absent evidence, skepticism and doubt are reasonable default positions. Dawkins and Schermer pretty much take after Russell on this.

So currently, I'd say that the most common form of atheism these days is that described by Russell and Dawkins. In the absence of compelling evidence, skepticism and doubt are the most reasonable positions. As a practical matter, absence of evidence should be considered evidence of absence. And that's pretty much all you can say if you consider the empirical scientific method as your best bet for getting knowledge about the universe. You can't definitively say, under this sort of epistemology, that no gods exist.

Of course, I find it ironic that people will generalize about atheism in a way that you couldn't about all of theism, including: Tibetan Buddhism, Voodoun, Christianity, and all the religions of the First Nations. But that's another story.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:44 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


(One interesting argument I read somewhere recently is that everyone is an atheist: even the most fervent believer in religion A is an atheist with regard to all the other varied religions in the world. S/he just makes an exception for his/her own. A Christian believer, for instance, will actively deny the existence of Vishnu, Krishna, Thor, Odin, Zeus, Kanon, Buddha, all of them; he just makes one small exception in his pan-atheism for this own religion. Now, this is not a particularly deep or compelling argument one way or the other, but for some reason it makes me smile.)
posted by zachawry at 11:16 AM on May 26 [1 favorite +] [!]


"I contend 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 F. Roberts
posted by Who_Am_I at 10:50 AM on May 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


As has been amply covered above, the answer is "it depends on whom you ask." But, let me make a few observations.

Here's what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject: an atheist is "one who believes that there is no deity".

To make things as general as possible, let me list the relevant possible stances:
(1) I know there is no deity.
(2) I have no knowledge about the existence of a deity, but I believe there isn't one.
(3) I have no knowledge about the existence of a deity, but I believe there is one.
(4) I have no beliefs about the existence (or nonexistence) of a deity.

When I studied philosophy in college, it was commonly accepted in that community that claiming (1) makes you an atheist, while claiming any of (2)-(4) makes you an agnostic. But, in non-philosopher circles, I believe the distinction between (1) and (2) is generally ignored, and claiming (3) would, in such circles, make you neither an atheist nor an agnostic.

To complicate matters further, if you claim one of (2)-(4), you can in addition take a stance on whether or not it is possible to know something about the existence of a deity, namely:

(5) I know that it is not possible to know whether or not there is a deity.
(6) I know that it is possible to know whether or not there is a deity.
(7) I believe that it is not possible to know whether or not there is a deity.
(8) I believe that it is possible to know whether or not there is a deity.

It seems that some people would say that claiming either (5) or (7) is a prerequisite for being an agnostic, though in my experience this is a less common stance.

To make things even more fun, you can go another layer deeper and take a stance on whether or not it is possible to know whether or not it is possible to know whether or not there is a deity. Or, another layer deeper than that...
posted by epimorph at 11:20 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow. What a great series of answers. I naively thought it was bit easier than this. Of couse I am not the master of philosophy or semantics. Just a man in the street who has some great friends who are atheist. We have good discussions and this helps me understand a bit better. Thank you everyone.
posted by snap_dragon at 11:33 AM on May 26, 2009


That seems like a useless definition even in a philosophy class, epimorph. "I have no knowledge about X but believe X doesn't exist" makes you agnostic, isn't everyone on the planet an agnostic about virtually everything?

I mean, it makes us agnostics about pink unicorns on the moon, agnostics about leprechauns in my closet, agnostics about a brain in Britney Spears' head, agnostics about the Loch Ness Monster, agnostic about Santa Claus, and so on.

What ARENT we agnostic about by the definition given that it is virtually impossible to prove a negative?
posted by Justinian at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2009


I just finished reading Can Man Live Without God by Ravi Zacharias last night, so I'm getting a kick out of these replies. Anyhoo, I used to think agnostic meant "I don't care if there's a God," but I think most people read it to mean "I don't know if there's a God". I may be trouncing the foundations of my (Christian) religion here, but it's like I can't see how any honest human can know that there's a God. Sure, one can believe there's a God or not, but to know it would be too much. I think Jean-Paul Sartre would agree?

To summarize:
Theist - Believes in God(s) (and doesn't / cannot know)
Agnostic - Doesn't know.
Atheist - Doesn't believe in God(s) (and doesn't / cannot know)
We're all agnostic?
posted by joecacti at 11:47 AM on May 26, 2009


I do not think "open to evidence" is a particularly good qualifier to decide if someone belongs in "agnostic" versus "atheist." It depends on what you mean by "evidence."

Were I out on a walk and came across a flaming bush which was not consumed, I would be very interested in the bush. Is it giving off heat? Can I smell accelerants? I wait an hour, yep, still burning, and it is still talking to me. I might ask for a prediction, something I could not influence. The last digits for the powerballs (but only the last) for the next four weeks would be good; I cannot profit from it, but I have no way of altering these. I'd write them in a sealed envelope and have a friend open it and compare a month from now.

At this point, while I was waiting for the numbers to check out, I'd be pretty worried. I probably would have to try burning my thumb on the bush, then I'd ask people to look at my hand. Oh, you see a burn? Hrm. I have a schizophrenic aunt, so I might do some other random checks. Am I experiencing any other hallucinations? Anyone noting me acting more oddly than usual? An MRI might be advisable. Maybe some EEGs to see if I have temporal lobe epilepsy.

And if the numbers check out, and a giant stone pillar appears in my backyard in between me putting the mower away and pulling my head back out of the shed, and it reads in glowing letters:

       NO, SERIOUSLY,
     ADIPOCERE, IT
     REALLY IS ME.
     I AM WHO AM &
     ALL OF THAT.  
     I'M FOR REAL,
     MAN AND YOU'RE
     PROBABLY BUG-
     GIN' RIGHT NOW
     BUT YOU NEED
     TO SIT DOWN
     AND LISTEN UP.


I'd rap my knuckles on it, try chipping it, call some friends over, and ask them what they see. While I'm waiting, is this limestone? Do I see any UFOs in the sky? Aliens could have a great sense of humor. I'd check the news while I waited for my friends to show. It's kind of weird that aliens would show up and pick me to mess with, but they've gotta talk to somebody, right?

At this point, given corroboration and the absence of any pulsating tumors in my brain, the rational thing to do would be to accept the evidence that something supernatural is at work. It might be God, it might be Odin, might be Screwtape when he's completely trashed and off the leash, but it certainly looks supernatural. You can only play Carpentier in Inferno for so long. So, yeah, you can be an atheist and still be open to evidence.
posted by adipocere at 12:33 PM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


data point: i call myself an atheist, but i am an agnostic.

that is, i do not believe that there is a god. i do not, however, insist that there is no god, as there isn't enough evidence on which to calculate numerical odds for or against.

agnostic: without knowing

in my daily life, god plays no part. that's why, to all intents and purposes, i am an atheist.

atheist: without god


russel's teapot only works if you assume that the claim that there is an orbiting teapot is extraordinary. what if it's not? for believers in gods, the claim that there is not a god is extraordinary and carries the burden of proof. unfortunately, there is exactly the same quantity of evidence to support either claim: none.


one more thing. these two phrases:

a) i believe there is not a god
b) i do not believe there is a god

are completely, totally, absolutely not the same. "a" is a statement of faith in the non-existence of god. "b" is a statement of uncertainty about the existence of god. it seems to me that many sources of the definition of the word atheist are probably sloppy with their wording.
posted by klanawa at 12:46 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


See also KNOWLEDGE vs. BELIEF vs. FAITH, and it all gets pretty dang complicated.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:55 PM on May 26, 2009


You will find different definitions of the term, not only by different atheists, but also by agnostics, and, with varying degrees of accuracy, Christians and believers of every sort. The term has a long history ("agnostic" is a relatively recent term, hence some of the multiple meanings for "atheist"). It's also a term with a more specific meaning in philosophical contexts than in the general parlance (like "theory" in and out of scientific contexts). It doesn't help that, in the popular parlance, especially, the term is often used in a polemical sense, often at odds with its more formal definitions.

Luckily, there are dictionaries. Here's what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has to say on the subject:

"Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism)."

That meaning goes back to 1587.

"Atheist" goes back just a bit earlier. Here are the definitions:

A1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
A2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man.
B1. attrib. as adj. Atheistic, impious.

"Agnostic" goes back to 1870:

A. n. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.
B. adj. Of or pertaining to agnostics or their theory.
posted by wheat at 1:02 PM on May 26, 2009


Could part of the difference be, that at least in current usage, that atheist is a political term and agnostic is a personal term? When I see the word atheist used is seems primarily to be connected with a political event, i.e., someone trying to remove religious references from something. In my personal life, I know many agnostics and no atheists.
posted by rtimmel at 1:09 PM on May 26, 2009


To me, "agnosticism" is a fence-sitting position, created, as KirkJobSluder indicates, around the mid-point of the 19th century as neologism that had greater social acceptance than "atheism", which, once you were labelled with it, tended to be associated with persecution, prosecution, and ostracism, particularly in the West. It attempts to sidestep the longer, unpacked atheistic statement: "While I cannot ever absolutely prove there is no God (i.e. the teapot argument), lack of evidence and logical arguments such as the Paradox of Evil suggests that he doesn't exist, so I shall assume that's the case. Should evidence come to light - and it would have to be incredible evidence, given that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and eternal God is an incredible claim - I would be prepared to re-consider my position." The agnostic boils this down to "I don't know."

But the agnostic still has to live day-to-day - does she attempt to act as if God (or multiple Gods) exist, whether unknowable or not, in a form of Pascal's Wager, or does she act according to her own conscience? If the former, the argument could be made that she is a religious adherent; if the latter, she is an atheist.

The atheist also "cannot know" - to fundamentally disprove God would require the ability to look into the basic structure of every one of our 13 dimensions (assuming string theory is correct), everywhere, simultaneously (in case God is like a quantum gopher, popping up in difference locations in the universe.) Potentially, the atheist would have to eliminate the existance of God(s) from other universes, if the multibrane implications of string theory follow through.

Essentially, to completely disprove God you would have to, paradoxically, be God.

If you're a materialist and understand the modern scientific method, along with a little bit of Godel and Schodringer, atheism includes agnosticism, and the difference between the two is largely semantic. Indeed, it might be more productive to re-frame the entire debate as "materialists" vs. "non-materialists", as atheists may, technically, have any number of spiritual beliefs (animists, for example, could be considered atheists, as could many Buddhists).
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 1:47 PM on May 26, 2009


I would call myself a "teapot atheist" as chrisamiller described above. I believe Richard Dawkins has described himself that way as well. The funny thing is that this definition fits the definition of agnostic pretty neatly. So the distinction may need to lie elsewhere. I believe the Wikipedia article on atheism does a nice job describing atheism as the "life stance" that you live as if god does not exist, even while admitting, on a purely academic level, the extraordinarily remote possibility that god does exist (also touched on in wheat's comment above).

I used to call myself an agnostic until I realized the only reason I didn't call myself an atheist was the cultural baggage associated with the word.
posted by adamrice at 1:48 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


The way I explain it to myself is that we are arguing about the meaning of "believe". Specifically, from one point of view it is defined according to the scientific method (i.e. it is not dogmatic) whereas from another it is acceptance of a statement as absolutely, dogmatically true.

Do I believe that there is no god? In the first sense, yes. In exactly the same way that I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun. I don't believe anything (physical) in the second sense.
posted by katrielalex at 5:21 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


As an agnostic, I gotta say that I find the common "fencesitting" characterization to be kind of annoying. I get where it comes from, but it seems dismissive and sort of elitist. As if I'm not non-believing correctly.

I really truly have an investment in the idea that the impulse toward wanting a deity seems universal, but that such deity would be by definition unknowable. So you could call me a humanist pan-religionist non-dogmaist? Because we people create some gorgeous and thought-provoking stuff inspired by a faith in something greater. Which is inspiring to me regardless of whether or not I literally believe in any of these gods, and that inspiration taps into an acknowledgment of a sort of ineffable universal idea of "greater than." It's not "God," though, any more finding it profoundly emotional to stare at the stars is "God."
posted by desuetude at 8:46 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd go with the 'everyone has a different view on this matter' crowd.

My position?

As a close example, I'd say an amoral act (as opposed to a moral or immoral one) is an act with no moral component to it.

Similarly, I'd say that as an atheist, I am a person with no theological component. I am a person sans-religious belief. I neither 'do not believe' in gods, nor 'believe there are no' gods. I personally have no truck with the religious sense of 'belief' at all. I simply don't do that sort of 'believing' in any direction.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 4:17 AM on May 27, 2009


I thought that Dawkin's 7-point scale was the best way I've seen recently to accurately gauge someone's stance:

1. Strong theist: 100% probability of God. "I do not believe, I know".
2. De facto theist: very high probability, but short of 100%. "Can't know for sure, but I believe, and live my life as if God exists".
3. Technically agnostic, theist-leaning: higher than 50%, but not very high. "Uncertain, but inclined to believe".
4. Impartial agnostic: exactly 50% probability of God. "God's existence and non-existence are equiprobable" (I'd add the "unknowable" crowd in here, but Dawkins doesn't mention them specifically)
5. Technically agnostic, atheist-leaning: lower than 50%, but not very low. "I don't know if God exists, but I'm inclined to be skeptical".
6. De facto atheist: very low probability, but short of 0. "Can't know for certain, but I think God is very improbable and live my life on the assumption that he's not there".
7. Strong atheist: 0% probability of God. "I know there is no God".

So you get positions 3 to 5 being agnostic, but with some variation. I'd say that most atheists I've met would be 6 rather than 7, although I've read opinions of the 7s online. I can't honestly say what proportion of theists I've met would be 1 or 2, although I've met some of each.
posted by harriet vane at 4:57 AM on May 27, 2009


Further, to spin off of Justinian and BHG, many contemporary atheists and contemporary apologists for religion are formally agnostic. Atheists argue that skepticism is a more reasonable, moral, and ethical default position. Liberal theists argue that a leap of faith is more reasonable, moral, and ethical. Neither will stake a claim to certain knowledge regarding the existence of god.

desuetude: As an agnostic, I gotta say that I find the common "fencesitting" characterization to be kind of annoying. I get where it comes from, but it seems dismissive and sort of elitist. As if I'm not non-believing correctly.

Much of the tension comes from the fact that many self-proclaimed internet agnostics have a bad habit of setting themselves up as the voice of reason in contrast to straw-atheists who are described as being both foolish in claiming certain knowledge, and generally mean and intolerant.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:35 AM on May 27, 2009


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