Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Semantic Taxonomy of Non-theism

You might have seen some posts here discussing the various meanings of "atheism" and "agnosticism". (Also, my personal favorite, "ignosticism".) If you visit online forums like Internet Infidels, you probably see the same debates over meanings come up again and again. In this post instead of making a case for what I think is the correct or best definition (except for one definition below, which really is bad), I made a list of the main definitions people use. There are many other variants though, which you can find in the Wikipedia pages on atheism, agnosticism, and also agnostic atheism. (You can also find plenty of arguments over meanings in the discussion pages). The reason I am doing this is to get the various positions straight in my mind so I can discuss them clearly.



1. Obsolete Definition = Hatred of, or rebellion against a particular god.

2. Street Definition = The belief that a god or gods do not exist.

3. Philosophical Definition = The lack of belief in a god or gods; equivalent to non-theism.

The philosophical definition is usually broken down into two sub-groups:

3a. Strong Atheism = Equivalent to the street definition, #2 above.

3b. Weak Atheism = Emphasized the lack of a positive belief. Equivalent to "agnostic atheism".


1. Bad Definition = Undecided about the existence of a particular god or gods. Someone who is 50-50.

2. Street Definition = Equivalent to weak atheism.

3. Philosophical Definition = Says that we don't know anything about a god or gods.

Likewise this last definition can be broken into two sub-groups.

3a. Strong Agnosticism = The position that it is impossible to know about a god or gods.

3b. Weak Agnosticism = The position that one doesn't know about a god or gods, but such knowledge might be possible.


I think most arguments are between people supporting either the street definitions or philosophical definitions. These arguments are similar to the old descriptivist/prescriptivist debate, and also remind me of the hacker/cracker arguments as well.

The second layer of confusion added on top of these disputes is the definition of "god". Depending on what definition of god we are talking about, my own label can change drastically. For example, if your god is literally the universe, then I am a theist, since obviously the universe exists. If your god is some vague deistic first cause, I am either an agnostic or ignostic. If your god is Yahweh, Allah, or Quetzalcoatl then I am an atheist.

In any discussion it is important to get your meanings straight so everyone knows exactly what everyone is talking about. This advice is even more important when it comes to talking about religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hitchens vs. D'Souza Debate

Last night I went to the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinseh S'Souza. Hitchens wasn't in top form, and D'Souza probably won the debate in terms of audience support. But the audience was stacked against Hitchens with 80 to 90% being Christian in my estimate.

D'Souza threw out numerous mischaracterizations of atheists, and statements such as atheism and belief in scientific laws requiring a leap of faith just like Christianity, which Hitchens never properly attacked.The final audience question period favored D'Souza as well, since most questions went to Hitchens, D'Souza got the last word in almost every time. Hitchens often made arguments that seemed to go over the heads of the audience. Once he made the point that the so-called designer didn't do a very good job since most of the solar system and universe is uninhabitable. However he made this argument with too much literary flair since I saw the young Christians sitting in front of me shaking their heads in confusion, not because they disagreed, but because they plainly did not understand what Hitchens was saying.

When Dinesh mentioned Hitchens book on Mother Theresa "The Missionary Position" the young Christians in front of me freaked out. Their eyes were bugging out and their jaws were hitting the floor! After all the things Hitchens had said so far, I couldn't believe that book title getting the biggest reaction.

Here are my crappy notes:


The format was 10 minutes each, then 5 minutes each, then cross examination from either side, and finally audience questions. D'Souza went first. (I'll use "D" and "H" from now on.)I'll put my biased remarks in square brackets.

D (10 min.):

- Militant atheism is on the rise.
- Why do atheists care? You don't see me writing books on how I don't believe in unicorns. [There haven't been any unicorn suicide bombers yet, or people pushing for unicorn lessons in public schools.]
- I will focus on reason and evidence during the debate.
- The values atheists promote are the result of Christianity.
- It is the Western Christian nations that help others in time of need. (tsunamis, etc.)
- Atheists say there democratic values are based on ancient Greek civilization. No, ancient civilizations were based on slavery.
- Christianity provided the moral engine to eventually end slavery, and the foundation for democracy. (all men created equal under God...)
- Many scientists in history have been Christian. (Galileo, Newton, Mendel...) [Galileo?!?]
- There is no conflict btwn. science and religion because modern science is based on three assumptions. (1) Universe as a whole is rational. (2) Universe obeys laws which can be described with mathematics. (3) Laws of nature mirrored in our brain. These assumptions are rooted in Christianity.
- Christianity hasn't killed so many people. Only 18 at Salem, and 2000 from Inquisition. Compare to the millions of atheists Stalin and Mao. [The inquisition didn't have modern death technology, nor the dense populations to work on...]

H (10 min):
- The problem is faith, and the belief that faith is a virtue.
- People didn't know right and wrong before Mt. Sinai? Silly idea.
- Vicarious redemption by applauding a human sacrifice is nasty.
- Compulsory love is immoral.
- Despite many atrocities in the Old Testament, there was no everlasting punishment of the dead until Jesus meek and mild came in the New Testament.
- What moral act can be done by a believer that can't be done by a non-believer? (And vice versa, what immoral acts can only be done by believers?)
- Humans have been around for at least 100,000 years. So God waited through 98,000 years of suffering and death before we got a filthy human sacrifice in one part of the middle east.

D (5 min):

- "I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony, that is I don't know where to begin." (Big laughs!)
- Hitchens has presumed many things. He presumes there is no God, so the crucifixion is a dirty human sacrifice. But the Christian presumes there is a God, and Christianity is not about the crucifixion, but the resurrection? [Why use a cross symbol then? Why not a rising Christ symbol?]
- Science can't prove anything. Millions of tests won't tell us for sure the speed of light won't change tomorrow.
- Hitchens is taking a leap of faith believing in the laws of science.- Loving God is not a compulsion, it's a free offering to us. People aren't sent to Hell, they choose to go there by rejecting God.
- Hitchens hates Jesus.

H (5 min):
- You still haven't proven God exists.
- Religions want the end of the world to happen soon.
- Islam is bad. [Sorry my notes aren't so good here.]

Cross examination... [rough notes]

D: Name a law of science that can't change. [i.e.. implying that is Hitchen's faith.]

H: Einstein was a deist. [They argue about that for a bit.]

D: Why does the universe have perfect life inducing parameters?

H: Most of the solar system and universe is uninhabitable. Some designer!

H: Fascism grew out of the Catholic church. (Celebrating Hitler's birthday, etc.)

D: Stalin and Marx were atheists. Hitler actually hated Christianity and just used it for his own ends. Hitler surrounded himself with atheists.

H: Stalin was making use of population of believers. You can't give example of atheist society falling into chaos and decay.

D: Hitchens blames Christians for all their crimes, but also blames the crimes of the atheists on religion too.

Audience question time...

Q: To D, elaborate on laws of nature mirrored in our minds please.

D: blah blah blah.

H: No miracles.

Q: To H, Why do you say morality has =merely= evolved?

H: Evolution, blah blah.

D: Evolution can't explain origin of life, consciousness or morality.

H: I gave blood!

D: That's because you were raised in a Christian society.

Q: [Schizophrenic ramblings about existence]

H: Lets take that as a statement.

D: OK.

H: Next!

Q: To H, Before Xianity came to Fiji, we were eating each other. What do you have to offer us?

H: Well, why did Xianity take so long to get there?

D: Indian untouchables embracing Xianity because of teaching of equality. I'm thankful for the inquisitors who brought Xianity to my ancestors, even though my ancestors might not have liked it at the time. [!]

Q: To H, if people are evolving and religion is bad, why haven't' we gotten rid of it after all this time?

H: Religion says your a worm, nothing, dirty, but God loves you! [George Carlin?]

D: Hitches is crazy with his exaggeration that religion poisons everything.

Q: [Something about faith]

H. [don't remember]

D: We are both agnostics. I don't know, but I believe. Chris chooses to have faith that God doesn't exist. We are both making leaps of faith.

H: Saying I disagree with you is not a leap of faith. [I wish he made this point clearer...]

D: Kepler is awesome.


Sorry my note taking wasn't going so well there at the end. I was getting tired, and the cheering of the Christians around me whenever Dinesh made some stupid remark was giving me a headache. Hitchens needed some coffee, or maybe a shot of methamphetamine at the end. He let too much slide by.

It's possible that D'Souza has a point in that Christianity has had some positive influence on human society. But just because a religious social system is doing some good doesn't make its claims true. I'm interested in what is true, and how we can verify that to the best of our abilities.

UPDATE: It looks like the video will be available here.

UPDATE 2: There's a much better report of the debate here at Hitchens Watch.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Radioactive Rush

I posted this as a comment on a post at Hemant's blog. Does copying and pasting it here make me a lazy blogger? Yes... yes it does.


Rush said:

You just can’t. You might run around and say, “I don’t want
to destroy God’s creation.” God’s laughing at you.You can’t!
Stan is certainly right about the “God [verb]” warning flag. So Rush knows what God thinks is funny? Why don’t we put some of our nuclear waste in Rush’s backyard? Since he is so sure we can’t hurt the natural environment, he shouldn’t mind. God will just help him adapt to all plutonium in his lawn.

Maybe some people’s environmental activism is like a religion for them, but that is stretching the whole meaning of “religion” to it’s breaking point. People get passionate about all kinds of interests and hobbies. So what? However everyone should make their best effort to promote intellectual honesty on both sides of the political spectrum.

The point Rush clearly misunderstands is that blind faith is not a good thing, whether you have blind faith in some religion or even global warming. Someone needs to remind him that the 9/11 hijackers were also also faithful people who “believed in something larger than themselves.” Obviously that idiotic Chesterton quote failed in their case.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More Criticism

I'm feeling grumpy today so I think I will follow along with the theme from Sam's infamous speech to do some atheist "bashing" of my own. I saw Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists, wrote a response to his speech. From there I clicked on the American Atheists web site. I also found out that if you search for "atheist" on Google the American Atheist web site is the second link that comes up. Now I warned you I was grumpy, so here comes a lot of negativity. I feel the need to say it though:

1. What an ugly web site. The most annoying thing is the list of topics on the left in all caps. Yech.

2. I hate the fricken symbol. It looks like something you'd see stitched on Flash Gordon's chest. I guess the middle orbital is cut off to make an arch for some reason, but it looks funny to me. If I have to have an atom I want my orbitals whole! (The issue of a symbol for atheism has been endlessly debated. Check out this massive discussion thread or this image of some ideas.)

3. I don't like their definition of atheism. "Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units." Atheism is a doctrine? A doctrine? Wikipedia says, "Doctrine (Latin: doctrina) is a code of beliefs or "a body of teachings" or "instructions", taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system." I don't see how atheism is a doctrine. It doesn't even make sense to call "theism" a doctrine. Theism and atheism are about the belief or disbelief in a god or gods. I don't see any doctrines there.

I know they are trying to say the supernatural does not exist, but it seems like they are just saying "nothing exists except that which exists." They go on to write, "This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own." That doesn't seem very scientific for a bunch of atheists. I can't say for sure that there is a higher dimensional alien being out there. Who knows? But if there is, it would be natural anyway so who cares. It sounds like they are claiming the universe as we observe it today is all there is and is the TRUTH.

Again saying there is nothing beyond physical nature is silly. If we could observe and measure something "beyond" our universe it would by definition have to be part of the universe. Some people talk about other "bubble" universes with different physical laws. Sure they could exist. I guess they are beyond our local universe in one sense, but they are still part of the larger cosmos.

Yeah, humankind is on it's own for now. But it might not always be that way. Watch out when Google wakes up or some aliens decide to visit. Things like that might never happen, but its absurd to rule them out based on some "Atheist™ Doctrine".

4. Finally stop capitalizing atheism! It's not a religion for crying out loud. Does anyone capitalize "theism"?

The rest of the page isn't so bad with some various humanistic principles. However by strict definition being an atheist doesn't mean you are a humanist. A serial killer could be an atheist. But if you are making a demographic bet I would say most atheists are humanists. From my anecdotal experience I would say the Venn diagram for both groups almost perfectly overlaps.

So can you tell I'm not a member of American Atheists? I am a member of The Freedom From Religion Foundation. The co-leaders Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor are kind and intelligent people. (Check out their delightful radio show/podcast.) They also do a lot of valuable legal work protecting church-state separation. I'm also a member of The Center For Inquiry.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Theophilic Atheist

The endless debate over labels rages on. I'm going to copy some comments I made regarding Sam's speech. First this one I posted on the Dawkins site:

I really don't know if Sam is right or not. Society is so complex and judging how a label will affect a group in that society is very hard. We have seen a lot about atheism in the media recently, but has it really diffused out into the general public? I'm not even sure the majority of Americans even know what atheism is or have ever heard of Harris, Dawkins, and the rest.

Personally I still like to use the label "atheist" just because it stimulates discussion. I like to use it in a seemingly contradictory way though. I usually say "I'm an atheist who loves god," which really flummoxes the listener! I mean I do love the idea of a god who punishes the bad guys who seem to get away with a lot in this world, sends dead children to a heavenly paradise and hopefully gives some answers to questions on life the universe and everything. Sounds good! (Note I certainly don't love the idea of a bizarre Yahweh-Jesus god model which celebrates human sacrifice and rewards blind faith.) I particularly like the god idea in John Shirley's secular "rapture" book, The Other End for example.

However, liking an idea doesn't make it true. My free and open mind can entertain all kinds of ideas, but the rational part filters those ideas based on real evidence. That is the education I want to give people when I say I'm an "atheist who loves god."

After writing this I did a Google search and found out that I wasn't the first person (no surprise there) who thought up the idea of "an atheist who loves god". I see this German philosopher, Paul Carus, said it a long time ago.

And here was my response to an e-mail from a member of our local atheist group ("she" is referring to another member who wrote a previous e-mail):

In general I liked Sam's article. He made many good points, but I don't agree with it 100%. I think the most problematic part is where he writes:

"We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them."

In the current anti-science and pro-superstition culture we are in, we have to organize to "destroy bad ideas" and any organization has to have a name. Maybe a case could be made to avoid the term "atheism", but I don't see why Sam said we should avoid using relatively innocuous labels like "naturalist" or "freethinker". Anyway, there are already plenty of atheist organizations which use all kinds of labels such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Council for Secular Humanism.

This culture war is being fought on multiple fronts and it is natural for people to rally under various banners or no banners at all. Even the religious side is divided among various labels and leaders. I don't think that is going to change anytime soon.

It's a bit much to immediately crucify Sam for airing these thoughts. He didn't really say anything totally outrageous. (I do find it odd though that she chose to capitalize atheism. Lets leave the capitalization for actual religions.) I still think we should be thankful to Sam for opening the gates for the current atheist publishing boom. I certainly hope he continues to write and speak. Lets take his recent essay as some constructive criticism. We don't have to do what he says. There is no Pope among atheists. So lets get back to organizing as we please to promote reason and destroy those bad ideas.

I tried to come up with a clever title for this post, but I'm not even sure "theophilic" is a real word. There are a few google hits, but I don't really understand how people are using it in those contexts. I'm just guessing it means "love of god". Nothing like a good oxymoron! Which reminds me of another bumper sticker:

"God made me an atheist, who are you to question his wisdom?"

As a level 6 atheist on the Dawkins Scale of Belief I am open to the possibility of a personal god if some extraordinary evidence comes up, and if such an entity exists I would bet good money that He/She/It loves atheists best!