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.


cerebralmum said...

I've read all the arguments, and had all the arguments and it comes down to this: Words are for communicating. If the "street" meaning of a term is different from the meaning you intend, nobody is going to understand you. The broader definition of atheist renders the term virtually meaningless and requires qualifiers if it is to make any sense. Seriously, who says, "Hello, I'm a weak atheist?"

that atheist guy said...

Thanks for the comment. Yeah, it's true. I've also read the arguments and I go back and forth in my mind which is best. The problem is many people on the "street" still use the obsolete and bad definitions of atheism and agnosticism.

If I encounter an average American Christian and they ask me "what I am" I have to worry if they use the obsolete definition of atheism. But I'm also not comfortable with the street definition, because I don't feel like my "belief" in the non-existence of Yahweh is the same class of their belief in his existence, nor do I want it to imply I believe all possible god models don't exist. Saying agnostic also might cause an misunderstanding if they go by the bad definition of that.

If the encounter is going to lead to fruitful conversation, I might choose to use relatively unknown words like ignostic, or say seemingly contradictory things (as I explained in an earlier post) like "I'm an atheist who loves God" because that will lead to deeper discussion and greater mutual understanding.

I do see a lot of support for the philosophical definition of atheism among atheists online though. There might be a lot of problems with making it equivalent to non-theism, but it could be politically expedient. The effort might be futile though, just like my futile efforts to get people to use "beg the question" properly. We'll just have to see how things develop over time.

cerebralmum said...

I live in Australia, so atheism is not really the political issue here as it is in some parts of the US, but I just don't think that trying to impose a new definition which, yes, many atheists agree upon, but nobody else understands will help. If someone's definition of atheist is "equivalent" to non-theist, why can't the term non-theist be used?

I get concerned when groups attempt to co-opt words and proscribe their usage. It smacks of Newspeak to me. And "political expedience" isn't something I'm comfortable with.

The problem is that when dealing with some Christians, none of the fine distinctions being made are meaningful to them. They see through the lens of the informal fallacy "You're with us or against us". It's written in their bible. Twice.

Newer terms like ignostic are probably more useful, because their meanings have not calcified.

In the meantime, I have to wonder if all this focus on the word is not counter-productive. I have been told many times that I AM an atheist, no matter what I say. I object to that label on the basis that it misrepresents my position according to general understanding so instead of having fruitful conversations about things that really matter, I am forced to spend my time on abstract and obscure philosophical masturbation.

Forgive my bluntness, but I think it's useful to point out that the debate can alienate others who actually share atheists interests.

I have found that many who expound the broad definition use it, very subtly, with a sense of moral superiority. And in my opinion, you can never defeat that which you dislike by becoming it. That is a mistake which has been repeated over and over again in history and the outcome is always the same.

I should probably add here that the label I use for myself is agnostic. If we want to get really specific, you could technically call me an "apathetic agnostic", but that is a distinction only valuable within atheist/agnostic circles.

Overall, I find the arguments of definition to be reactionary and polarising. And ultimately self-defeating. But they're out there, so I guess I have to deal with them.

(I really wanted to put an incorrect "begs the question" in there for you, but I just couldn't find a place.)

Incidentally, a little debate over whether religion is necessarily bad has started on a blog I read. Stewart will be posting again soon, if you feel like adding a third voice.

that atheist guy said...

Thanks again for the comment. Those are good points. You certainly don't seem to be apathetic! ;-) As far as the endless debate over definitions, I'm still up in the air about it. Dare I say, "agnostic" about the semantics? Ho ho.

I'll take a look at the blog you linked to.

JT said...

Yep! They are just "labels." When we can look beyond the labels and think outside of the "religious box," we will find that we have many more similarities than differences.

I've been commenting over at the Reasonable Atheist and his Genesis study, and I've decided to take a leap and reveal myself in hopes of finding more people to think with.

Check out my post titled Freedom in Thought, as well as some other ones, and let me know what you think.

You can take a look at my more personal blog as well.

JT said...

Hi AG!

I didn't even know you were a New Yorker when I posted my comment this morning. I love NY! I used to live in NJ and worked in NYC for ten years.

On our way home from church this morning, I stopped at Borders Book Store with my family.

I looked for two books in particular: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which were recommended by a friend of mine.

Being thoroughly frusted by not being able to find the books, I looked for a clerk to help me. When I found someone, I asked in a slightly louder than usual voice where I could locate the books. You should have seen the looks I got... It was kind of funny.

I did find the books in the teeny weeny "Atheism" section hidden within the "Religion" section. The section was not even marked. It sort of infuriated me that I had such diffulty finding the books.

Do you find this same situation in New York? (I'm in VA by the way.) It spoke volumes to me as to what the general feeling is about atheists. It made me want to cry (literally), and I'm not even an atheist.

that atheist guy said...


Thanks for the comments! I haven't had too much trouble finding the various new atheist books here in NYC. When the Dawkins book first came out I never could find it at any airport though. I don't know if that is still true now that everyone knows it's a good seller.

I subscribed to your blogs RSS feeds. You have a unique voice, and I enjoy your posts. I should post more, but I'm more a consumer than a producer of information.

JT said...

Thank you, AG!

I wrote something about you yesterday that was not true. I just didn't get a chance to come to your site to see your comment, that's all. So if you see a discrepancy, please do comment on that post, so they know that you're not ignoring me.

I would love for you to come and think with me on my various "WHY" questions. If you read the Friendly Atheist blog, you will know what I'm talking about.

My voice is only unique because it changes daily. My goal is to absorb other thoughts and other voices that I hear in oder to keep building onto who I am.

I've let go of my fear of being an ass and a fool.

So.... come have some fun with me at your leisure.