Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Definition Wars

My last post recommended an essay by Theodore Drange. Although the essay was interesting I was having some trouble agreeing with his definitions of atheism and agnosticism. I prefer the definition described in Matthew's essay here. I thought I would ask Matthew his opinion but there didn't seem to be any contact information. So I decided to e-mail the only other atheist Matthew active online that I know of, Matt Dillahunty, who is president of the Atheist Community of Austin. (Check out their podcasts and videos!)

It ends up they are not the same Matthew, but Matt D. was kind enough to write me a detailed critcism of Drange's essay. I will take the liberty of quoting a small section of his e-mail here with regard to the proposition "God Exists" (ignoring the first option of noncognitivism):

2. The individual accepts the proposition
3. The individual does not accept the proposition.

Note that this does not mean that the individual accepts the contradictory proposition. That proposition is separate. I do not believe that any other option exists. Someone can BE noncommittal, by refusing to state what their position is - but they either accept the proposition or they don't. There is no other option.

So I will continue to use "atheism" to mean "non-theism", because that term is more useful. I also think it is more politically expedient to make atheism an umbrella term including all non-believers.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Agnostic Confusion

If you aren't confused enough yet over the various definitions and flavors of atheism, check out the Wikipedia article on agnosticism. Good stuff! There are strong, weak, apathetic and other kinds of agnostics. I found a great quote there by Bertrand Russell:

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 can 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.

I'm glad to see I'm on the same wavelength as him.

The article also has a description of one my favorite labels in this area, "ignosticism." I see that some philosophers think it is impossible to be an ignostic and an atheist or agnostic at the same time. Hmm. The link to Theodore Drange led me to his essay here, which was probably the best discussion of the various challenges in defining these words that I have read yet. I highly recommend it.

Maybe I could rename this blog "that noncognitivist with regard to god-talk guy's blog"!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wading In

A few days ago I couldn't help posting part of a previous post as a comment to this post on Scott Adam's Dilbert blog. Other atheists like PZ and Austin have already jumped all over it. Since replying to anyone in the hundreds of comments there is a lost cause I will reply here to the person, "Mark", who wrote the following in response to me:
No, I'd say we're agnostic: we neither believe there is a god nor believe there isn't one. We are without belief. Agnostic. We can
a) remain without belief
b) gain a belief
If we gain a belief, it can be
a) for the "right" god.
b) for the "wrong" god.
c) for no god.
mind you, there are shadings there too.

This reply was referring to my story about people being born atheist, and then choosing to become theist, or remain atheist later in life. Once again people don't realize you can be both atheist and agnostic, and insist on defining the umbrella term of atheism as the specific kind of atheism, called strong atheism. Also Mark's definition of "agnostic" isn't correct, which actually refers to knowledge not belief.

However I wonder if we can be born agnostic, since to be agnostic means to claim you don't have knowledge about something. I don't think babies can do that. But babies can lack belief, and be implicit atheists. It isn't until the person replies "No, I don't think so." in response to a theistic claim that they become explicit atheists, though not necessarily strong atheists.

And before you comment or send e-mails, YES we atheists are changing the meaning of "atheism" as it is commonly used. So what? The whole point of the change is that it makes more sense philosophically and the word becomes more useful. Besides the word has changed in the past. The Romans were calling early Christians "atheists" for crying out loud.


Update: I should have said "correcting" not "changing". See Austin's comment below for clarification.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Quotes - #1

A while ago I got Jack Huberman's book The Quotable Atheist. In this series of blog posts I will give you my favorite quotes from the book (page numbers included). Here we go with the first one:

p. 13
Susan B. Anthony

"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

Monday, August 6, 2007

Born Atheist

I actually did get to the NYC Atheists table on Saturday but I don't think I have enough material for a full report. Instead I will just write the little story I tell to define atheism. I'm often using it because I am arguing with these "militant" agnostics over semantics.

Everyone is born an atheist. How could we not be? We know nothing about any kind of gods or supernatural deities. These atheist babies grow up, learn to talk and start communicating with other people. At some point young people hear a story about a god. If these baby atheists believe the story, they are now theists. If they don't believe the story, they remain atheists. In other words, atheism is the default position.

So many people disagree with this definition. They think atheism is the "faith" that no gods exists. They claim I (and most other self described atheists) are changing the definition. I don't know if we are or not, but it doesn't matter. This basic definition of equating atheism to non-theism is more useful. Making atheism equal so called "strong atheism" makes the word useless.

Anyway, it all depends on the definition of "god" under discussion. First I'm an ignostic. For the purpose of argument over vague descriptions of gods I am an agnostic. For definite god models based on ancient myths I am an atheist.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Atheist FAQ

Hemant asked his readers to contribute answers to a FAQ on atheism. He has now compiled them into a handy list available for download from his site. I like most of the answers, but some of them I would have answered differently. I will put my personal answers to the FAQ here. If there is no change in my answer from Hemant's list, I will put [no change] after it. My personal answers are in bold.

-- Atheist FAQ --

Q1: Why do you not believe in God?

A1: First of all which "God" are you talking about? If you mean Yahweh/Jesus the answer is that I have seen no good evidence for his existence, which is probably the same reason you, if you're a Christian, don't believe in Allah, Brahman, or Zeus. If you mean some other kind of god, first define it, and then I will tell you what I think.

Q2: Where do your morals come from?

A2: A combination of life experience, family, human nature, and the good sense to treat others the way I would like to be treated. [no change]

Q3: What is the meaning of life?

A3: I make my own meanings of which there are many. If you are asking about some kind of ultimate meaning, I have no idea. I also don't really understand the question.

Q4: Is atheism a religion?

A4: How are you defining "religion" here? Usually religion involves worship or ritual centered around something supernatural, in which case atheism is obviously not a religion. Someone once said atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Q5: If you don't pray, what do you do during troubling times?

A5: When it's possible, I try to take action to fix the situation. If that's not an option, I talk to people I trust and hope that things will get better. [no change]

Q6: Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?

A6: Yes, but not because of spite or to "ruin the party." We should be encouraging critical thinking and intellectual honesty everywhere we see faith used as an explanation for believing something. [no change]

Q7: Weren't some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?

A7: Some of them, yes (Stalin was one example). But these people did notcommit their crimes because they were atheists. Rather, the radical political/racist ideologies they held drove them to commit their crimes. [no change]

Q8: How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?

A8: Truth is not subject to popular vote, just like the majority of people were once wrong about the Earth being flat or the center of the universe. Much of the reason people believe in some God has to do with their religious upbringing; our beliefs are generally passed down through the generations. [no change]

Q9: Why does the universe exist?

A9: As Peter Atkins said in a debate once, "why" questions assume there was some intention involved, and maybe all "why" questions can be broken down into "how" questions". So your question should be "How did the universe come to exist?" And my answer is: I have no idea!

Q10: How did life originate?

A10: We don't know for sure yet. But the best current theories involve a self replicating molecule (which occurred by chance) that eventually evolved to become more complex through the process of natural selection. [no change]

Q11: Is all religion harmful?

A11: Only in the sense that religious fervor has the potential to become disastrous. By avoiding logic and promoting faith when making our decisions, anything can be justified, good or bad. While there are people who can separate religious beliefs from scientific truths and respect for all people, there are many that cannot. [no change]

Q12: What's so bad about religious moderates?

A12: They teach that faith is a virtue. They use the same reasoning patterns as religious extremists when justifying their beliefs. If faith is all they need to believe, today's moderates could become tomorrow's extremists. [no change]

Q13: Is there anything redeeming about religion?

A13: Religion can be used as a motivator for good. It can be a source of comfort in times of need. It has the ability to bring people together and unite them. It has been the inspiration for much of our world's beautiful music and architecture. However, all of these redeeming qualities can be found outside of religion as well. [no change]

Q14: What if you're wrong about God (and He does exist)?

A14: Again, it depends on which god you are talking about. If Yahweh exists then I'm in trouble, but if Allah exists maybe we are both in trouble. Anyway, I can't force myself to believe something through Pascal's Wager.

Q15: Shouldn't all religious beliefs be respected?

A15: No. Beliefs, ideas, and principles should all be respected based on their own merit. [no change]

Q16: Are atheists smarter than theists?

A16: Not necessarily, and a lot depends on how we are measuring "smarts". However I think most surveys show a correlation between level of education and rates of atheism, not that there aren't very highly educated theists and very stupid atheists. I do have to say in most cases regarding these "big questions" about god(s) and existence, the average atheist is more rational than the average theist. The division in a normally rational and intelligent person's mind between theistic beliefs and rational thought is often referred to as "compartmentalization".

Q17: How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?

A17: If he was an actual person (and not an amalgamation of many people), he had some good ideas mixed in with some bad ones. We should be questioning the documents that refer to him, studying how they came to be, and asking ourselves if we would believe the miracles he performed if they happened today. [no change]

Q18: Would the world be better off without any religion?

A18: Only if people stopped behaving the way they currently do because of religion. Other potentially harmful ideologies could take its place. In a nutshell, though, we will always be better off without blind faith and dogma no matter what form they take. [no change]

Q19: What happens when we die?

A19: I assume you are asking about our conscious mind (personality and memories) and not our body, but I don't know if we can even separate the two. I find the idea of eternal life almost as horrifying as oblivion. Is there a third option? I don't have any answers. Maybe you should give cryogenic freezing a shot! Yet we know for sure we are here alive now, so we should make the best of it and try to leave this world a better place before we die.

This list [at least the unchanged bits] was created by the readers at FriendlyAtheist.com and edited by Hemant Mehta. A full list of responses can be found at:


Only 19 questions? I can't leave it at that. I must think of one more to make it an even 20:

Q20: What does an insomniac agnostic dyslexic do at night?

A20: Lie awake wondering about the existence of dog.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Blog Comment

A Google news alert came in today about a new book called A Letter to an Atheist Nation. I did a search for it, but instead found this post here criticizing the Sam Harris book A Letter to a Christian Nation. I couldn't resist responding to it so here is what I wrote:

Hello, Google led me to your blog and it seems like I am the only atheist to have read this post so I will chime in here.

I found a few points to disagree with you in your review of Sam's book. Here we go:

1. You say books like Deuteronomy and Leviticus are irrelevant to the modern Christian life. I think the question Sam is raising is how could a loving god ever promote such barbaric rules in the first place? If Yahweh is perfect, how could he change his mind? It also seems like you are choosing to interpret the word "fulfill" in a non-standard way. To me the plain reading is Jesus came to support those laws. Finally a large portion of Christians still view laws from the Old Testament as very important and use it in support of their anti-homosexual agenda, and idolatry of the ten commandments.

2. Please give a link to your Dawkins quote. I can't find it. From the following article:


He did say, "Yet I believe I am correct that not a single one of the 535 members of Congress will admit to the fact. A good many have got to be lying, and who can blame them?"

I would hate to accuse you of fabricating a direct quote, so a link would be appreciated.

3. I'm not sure what to make of your criticism of science changing. That is the whole point of science's built-in self correcting system. And I think Christianity has changed a lot during the past 2000 years. For example modern Christians no longer have slaves, persecute Jews, or burn witches. But as Sam Harris has stated, is this thanks to the religion itself, or outside secular influences?

4. Your quote from 1 Timothy 1:9-11 seems to come from the NIV version of the Bible. The KJV says "menstealers", which are probably those slave traders that kidnap people to sell. Again this is Sam's point, you are cherry picking one dubious quote. You have to admit that the New Testament as a whole is not making any effort to stop slavery.

5. What do you think about your friend's quote about Gandhi?

6. I find it odd that you claim scientific theories like the Big Bang or evolution take faith. I don't have any faith in the Big Bang. There is evidence for it so it seems reasonable, but I am open to future correction. As a skeptic I have to judge each claim based on the evidence for it, and I choose not to believe anything based on faith.

7. Why do you want to believe in two impossible things? I'm not really sure what the point is of your last sentence.

Now to comment on the comments above:

To Joe: I am not going to disagree that some atheists are arrogant jerks. You can find bad apples in any bunch. As you are well aware there are plenty of bad apples among Christians as well. (See those Phelps people protesting at military funerals with posters saying "God Hates Fags". However, don't take criticism for "bashing". I think we should have the right to question all claims and religious ideas should not be exempt from questioning.

I'm not sure what you mean by God not being fair. Isn't fairness a part of justice? Shouldn't a perfect god be perfectly just? If you believe our legal systems have grown out of the moral law written in our hearts by Yahweh, then you should agree that the punishment should fit the crime. Purse snatchers don't get hanged and serial killers don't get fined $100.

To Max: As others have said, if atheism is a faith, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Atheism is nothing more than the disbelief in god(s). No faith is involved. Does it take faith not to believe in unicorns or fairies? Atheism is the default position. The theist makes a positive claim and must provide evidence to support it. Either you agree and become a theist or you disagree and remain an atheist. Keep in mind I am talking about general atheism as a synonym for non-theism. There are strong atheist who do make positive claims saying no gods exist for which your argument might hold. However I am not one of those atheists and I have not met many so I think they are a minority in the atheist community. Even Dawkins rates himself a "6" on his scale of belief where "1" is a complete 100% sure theist, and a "7" is a complete 100% sure atheist. For most scientists belief is spread on a spectrum from highly likely to highly unlikely.

To Mark: I agree, many atheists are obsessed with god(s). I am one of them. I enjoy discussing theology and different possibilities of existence. These are big questions and it is natural to be curious about them. I certainly don't hate the idea of a god. I think it would be great if a god existed, but I just don't see the evidence for the kind of god described in the Christian religion. I am not sure why you need a god to be humble though. There are plenty of people out there smarter and more able than I so I can certainly be humble about that.

You also said atheists don't like being told what to believe, but isn't that true for anyone? Do you want to be told to believe in Allah or Buddha? Everyone wants to find truth their own way.

Most atheists just want to live in a free society where everyone can believe whatever they like as long as those beliefs don't hurt other people. We are not trying to take away your bibles or churches. However in a public forum such as the Internet expect your views to be challenged. These discussion are not persecution or hate filled attacks. At least, they are not supposed to be, but remember the Internet is full of fanatics of all flavors!

I edited one grammatical typo since copying my comment to my blog here, but there are probably more!