Atheism, theism and jelly beans

Discussion in 'Religion' started by James R, Aug 3, 2019.

  1. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    It's true that there is a big logical difference between

    1. Not believing in X

    2. Believing in not-X

    The difference is that a rock doesn't believe in X, but that doesn't mean that it believes that X is false. Rocks don't have any beliefs at all.

    But if somebody is actually more intellectually acute than a rock, if he or she is able to adopt a view about the existence or nonexistence of something, if they are saying "I don't believe in the existence of X', then that does seem to typically imply that they simultaneously believe in the nonexistence of X. This is atheism as I take it to be.

    In some cases 'I don't believe in the existence of X' might instead be more consistent with 'I don't know whether or not X exists' or even the much stronger 'It can't be known whether or not X exists'. These would be (weak) and (strong) agnosticism as I interpret that word. Agnosticism is implicitly (and explicitly in Thomas Huxley's original formulation) a view about the knowability of transcendent matters, matters outside the range of empirical observation or science's methodological naturalism.

    I interpret 'atheism' as an ontological position a view about the existence of 'God' in this case. As I understand it, 'atheism' is the negative view about God's existence.

    And I interpret 'agnosticism' as an epistemological position
    , about whether something ('God's' existence in this case, but one may be agnostic about any manner of things) is known (or stronger) can be known. The word 'agnostic' is from the Greek 'gnosis' (knowledge) and 'a-' (negation). It was coined by Thomas Huxley in the second half of the 19th century with exactly this meaning in mind. And he was quite explicitly distinguishing himself from atheists as well as theists, idealists, materialists and so on. He had joined the Metaphysical Society in London whose members proudly paraded their philosophical positions like foxes display their tails. They seemed to him to believe that they had the mysteries of the universe all figured out and he was damn sure that he didn't. But he felt that he needed a name for that no-knowledge position so he coined the word 'agnostic' so that he would have a beautiful tail like the other foxes.

    My understanding of the meaning of 'atheism' seems to be consistent with how the word is most often used in academic life by philosophers, and it's how I was taught at university.

    "Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods. Thus much Western atheism may be better understood as the doctrine that the Christian God does not exist."

    Oxford Guide to Philosophy p.64


    "Atheism. Denial of the existence of god. Broadly conceived, it indicates the denial of any principle or being as worthy of divinity. Specific meanings vary widely in accordance with the conception of god that is denied."

    The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions p.76


    "According to the most usual definition, an "atheist" is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence "God exists" expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence "God exists" expresses a true proposition. On our definition, an "atheist" is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not his reason for the rejection is the claim that "God exists" expresses a false proposition. People frequently adopt an attitude of rejection toward a position for reasons other than it is a false proposition. It is common among contemporary philosophers, and indeed it was not uncommon in earlier centuries, to reject positions on the ground that they are meaningless. Sometimes too, a theory is rejected on such grounds as that it is sterile or redundant or capricious..."

    Encyclopedia of Philosophy Paul Edwards ed., 1st ed. vol.I , p. 175
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2019
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  3. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    What's the publication date on the sources that you're quoting those definitions from?

    Part of the problem here, I think, is that lots of dictionary definitions of "atheist" and "atheism" have been written down by non-atheists, so there can be some pro-religion bias built in.

    For instance, look at that Perrenial Dictionary you mentioned. Atheism is a "denial" of the existence of god? I've been through this with Jan in the past. You can't deny, or be in denial of, something that doesn't exist. To say that atheists deny god is to assume that there is a god to be denied in the first place. The simple fact of the matter is that atheists don't believe in god/s. Denial doesn't come into it, unless somebody can show there is a god, that is.

    The definition goes on to say that atheism changes its meaning with reference to "the conception of god that is denied". It really doesn't. Atheists don't believe in any gods.

    Historically, "atheist" was from time to time used as a term of abuse levelled at theists by other theists because the second group was of the opinion that the first group's "conception of god" was not the right one, the right one of course being the one held by the second group. These days, the term isn't used that way, at least not by actual atheists.

    The Oxford Guide that you quoted at least mentions that it is talking about the "ostensible" meaning, which leaves the door open for a more accurate definition. The bias of the author of whatever article that was taken from is interesting, though. It's as if the author thinks that there are no arguments against gods other than the Christian god.

    As for the Encylopedia of Philosophy that you quote, again there's wiggle room because the author cites "the most usual definition" of atheism (according to him). That would be the wrong one, presumably - the one that theists tend to use, and the one that I started this thread specifically to try to correct. That definition is worthless because it falls into precisely the trap that I pointed out in my opening post. And again, I note, we see the idea built in that the atheist is "rejecting" or "denying" something, rather than simply not assenting to the truth of an unevidenced proposition. And then the author takes pains to point out that he thinks that atheists aren't "rejecting" belief in god because the existence of god is a false proposition. No, they must be doing it for other reasons. Ho hum.

    At what point, I wonder, will writers of dictionaries of philosophy start to pay attention to how (modern) atheists define their belief, rather than relying on what theists have to say about atheism?
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  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    You are wrong, for reasons that I pointed out in detail in my opening post. Didn't you read it?

    Yes, people are able to adopt a view that God doesn't exist, or that it does. But they are also able to adopt the view that God might exist, while judging the available evidence as insufficient to justify a positive belief in God's existence.

    Is this too subtle for you? Are you trapped by the binary?

    You have given us your usage of the terms "agnostic" and "atheist". I take it you call yourself an "agnostic". From the definition you have given, is it fair to assume that you think that you can't know whether God exists or not? If that is the case, how do you respond when somebody asks you "do you believe in God?" Are you a believer, or a non-believer in God?

    Please don't go all wishy washy at this point and tell me you believe in the concept of God. We all believe in the concept of God, unless we're rocks, as you so helpfully pointed out.

    Are you able to answer the question of whether you believe that God exists with a simple "yes" or "no"? It seems to me that if you can't answer "yes" to "do you believe God exists?" then you're an atheist. Your agnosticism (using your definition) is a separate matter - one that is not about what you believe, but about what you believe can be known.
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  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    What do you think about my jelly bean example in the opening post? You have not commented on that.

    Did you actually read the opening post?

    And what of my previous replies to you? Is a list of dictionary definitions going to be your only response to what I wrote there in reply to your post?
  8. foghorn Valued Senior Member

    So, your saying to catch the ''true'' meaning of historical text, and not someone else's translation, you need to read it yourself in the original tongue ?
    Is that what you do?
  9. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    Ideally, yes.

    Critics of religion often create their own cartoonish strawman of God or the Bible and then foolishly attack it.
    That's the folly of many atheists - who don't seem to realize that it's the same mistake that Fundies make when attacking Darwinism and Cosmology.
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  10. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Staff Member

    I have no idea where you got the word, "mistranslation", in your quote of my post, and find it interesting that your response hinges thereupon.

    The actual sentence is: The simplification of religion according to the needs of ignorant critics is unhelpful and, in any rational historical discussion, inappropriate.

    Meanwhile, DaveC's↑ consideration that original language is ideal can become complicated according to context; a not-quite direct analogy would be the old Catholic question of vernacular mass.

    In addition to cartoonish fallacies, as our neighbor noted, there is a line I have about the problems of basing a question on a condemning critic's twenty-first century definition of a sixteenth-century English-language translation of a first-century Syriac expression of a Hebrew term already in circulation at that time for eight hundred years.

    The question of strawstuffed fallacy haunts the thread in general; more particularly to the present, and overlooked perhaps as a result of your misquote, the simplification of what religion is just doesn't help.

    • • •​

    The actual answer to the question is that it is a relative result: In the context of defining freedom of religion, such as we find in the First Amendment↱ to the U.S Constitution, there is also what we refer to as freedom from religion, which is an actual effect of what the text says—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

    In this, context, the right to observe no God whatsoever is a protected status vis à vis religious freedom; that is, "no religion" is a religious status, and can neither be prohibited, nor superseded by enforcement of another religious status.

    If the question is how many, then zero is a valid answer when accurately applicable.

    If the question is what religion, atheist is a valid answer when accurately applicable.

    • • •​

    There arises a counterpoint↑ that the difference is not a simplification of what religion is, but, rather, an omission of explicit distinction. This is actually an old issue↗, with the simplification of religion being intended to reduce the necessary effort of rational critiques against theistic belief.

    Austin Cline↱ explains:

    Definitions of religion tend to suffer from one of two problems: they are either too narrow and exclude many belief systems which most agree are religious, or they are too vague and ambiguous, suggesting that just about anything and everything is a religion. Because it's so easy to fall into one problem in the effort to avoid the other, debates about the nature of religion will probably never cease.

    A good example of a narrow definition being too narrow is the common attempt to define "religion" as "belief in God," effectively excluding polytheistic religions and atheistic religions while including theists who have no religious belief system. We see this problem most often among those who assume that the strict monotheistic nature of western religions they are most familiar with must somehow be a necessary characteristic of religion generally. It's rare to see this mistake being made by scholars, at least anymore.

    A good example of a vague definition is the tendency to define religion as "worldview" — but how can every worldview qualify as a religion? It would be ridiculous to think that every belief system or ideology is even just religious, never mind a full-fledged religion, but that's the consequence of how some try to use the term.

    Additionally, he considers:

    The Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists traits of religion rather than declaring religion to be one thing or another, arguing that the more markers present in a belief system, the more "religious like" it is ....

    .... This definition is not without flaws, however. The first marker, for example, is about "supernatural beings" and gives "gods" as an example, but thereafter only gods are mentioned. Even the concept of "supernatural beings" is a bit too specific; Mircea Eliade defined religion in reference to a focus on "the sacred," and that is a good replacement for "supernatural beings" because not every religion revolves around the supernatural.

    It really is an old issue; if we can look back six years at Sciforums, for instance, well, we can also look to Eliade, over sixty years ago.

    We should, in that context, also note a result by which one might appeal to religious elements orbiting reservation of sacredness, yet resent the suggestion of religion because there aren't any deities. To wit, if we start with Dick Almighty, to the one, and the Faery Queen, to the other, the question becomes, Do we really want to go there?

    (Okay, okay, I'll try not to call the one a religion until the schism over ritual transgenderism manifests as demonstrative sacrifice fulfilling stations of increasing sacred necessity. As to faeries? No gods are needed for faeries, ghosts, goblins, or grays.)​

    Even setting aside history both more particular and general, it is easy enough to observe that the omission is consequential.


    Cline, Austin. "What Is Religion?" Learn Religions. Updated 25 June 2019. 21 November 2019.
  11. pluto2 Banned Valued Senior Member

    That's because theists are full of shit and are making things up.

    There's absolutely no evidence that any loving God exists yet theists continually insist that he must exist even when there's absolutely zero evidence for any of their claims.

    Even when you show theists that the world we live in is cruel and crazy and that people suffer needlessly theists still insist that a loving God must exist and I think they do this just to piss people off.
  12. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    Just like the rest of us, they don't need any evidence to hold their beliefs. Beliefs don't need to be defended. They're matter of faith.

    Again, only when they assert them objectively do they need to defend their ideas with evidence. But don't make the mistake of judging people for the personal beliefs alone.
  13. foghorn Valued Senior Member

    Nor have I, cause I didn't use it. Can you show where?
    I will stick to reading historical texts in their original tongue and avoid reading people like you.
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2019
  14. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    You did. Here is where:

    Your post 145:
    That is the first use of the word 'mistranslation' in the context of this thread.

    See Tiassa's Post 130, presumably, what you were quoting:
    Your misquote looks like it might be an inadvertent slip of copy-pasting. Maybe you got mixed up when editing a response, who knows. But it is your mix-up - even if an honest one.

    Maybe a quick mea culpa, and this can return to topic.
  15. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Staff Member

    Open the spoiler, view the image; your use of the word "mistranslation" in post #145↑ is highlighted.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    Additionally, I did, in #147↑, quote your post.

    Three posts to change the subject (#127↑, 145↑, 150↑)?

    In American parlance, we have a phrase, swing and a miss. You've managed three of those, which would be significant if this was baseball. Moreover, you apparently cannot follow even your own self from post to post.
  16. Vociferous Valued Senior Member

    Agreed. Technically, there is no such thing as "proof" in science. But "reasonably convincing" would seem to require what passes for "proof" in science, that being widely-accepted evidence. Considering there is widely-accepted evidence for the existence of a tomato, God would seem to be special in that regard. Or are you saying that you, or anyone, would accept evidence of God if it were as mundane or everyday as evidence for a tomato? It seems that any such claim could be readily dismissed with "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
    Well, just like you said, people who believe already know why they believe:
    There's no reason to fixate on something with which you're already intimately familiar. Same reason you're more interested in why theists believe as they do,
    I'm more than willing to talk about my reasons, but I harbor no illusions that they might be compelling to others. Every reason of mine has an equally uncompelling counterargument.
    • Religion, or broader theistic or supernatural belief, has sprung up independently in almost every culture in history. This is often countered with humans being inherently agency-seeking, with a natural propensity to attribute the unknown to intentional actions.
    • People in general seem to have an innate sense of morality, and studies have shown that moral behavior is positively correlated with belief in a God, free will, etc.. Often countered with evolutionary pressure to cooperate.
    There may be others I'm not thinking of off hand. And the rest is what I would readily admit to being anecdotal experience. There would be no way to convey that as I experienced it.
    No idea. Maybe they've been erroneously convinced that their personal beliefs should be compelling to others. External social pressure working against innate belief.
  17. pluto2 Banned Valued Senior Member

    I think it's completely irrational to believe in a loving God when there are people living in extreme poverty or poor people starving to death or very sick people dying because they don't get medical treatment in time.

    Lets face it. This world is way too shitty for a loving God to exist and that's a fact.
  18. Beer w/Straw Transcendental Ignorance! Valued Senior Member

    Not if you're rich like me!

    Who knows, you could be my boyfriend of the week. God made me nympho and I love it.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2019
  19. Vociferous Valued Senior Member

    That's the well-known Problem of Evil, but it's not really much of a problem.
    Genuine free will simply requires a world with cause and effect, where consequences have the potential to be dire so choices have significance.

    A loving God gives us the freedom to make of the world what we will. The alternative is for everyone to live in a totalitarian nightmare, with no hope of even minor rebellion or disobedience.
  20. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Staff Member

    But he's not.
  21. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    The problem of evil might not seem so stark if we place it in the context of a promised heavenly eternity.

    In that context this little Earthly lifespan might be like playing a video game, with the difference that players actually believe for a short time that they really are avatars in the game. Bad things happen in video games, monsters attack and avatars 'die', but it's not so terrible since we are still fine in real life. So... call real life "heaven" and call the game world "Earth".
  22. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    That's actually one of the things that makes me pity believers in an afterlife of one sort or another - or in reincarnation for that matter.

    If you spend all your time thinking that this earthly life is no more than a prelude to the "real" life you'll have in a promised heaven, or that this earthly life is unimportant because you'll shortly being going to a "better place", or because you expect you'll be born again to repeat more or less the same thing in another life, then you risk undervaluing the life you have now. What if you're wrong and this life isn't just practice for your entry into heaven or whatever? What if this is all you get? Life might pass you by while you waste time hoping for something that isn't real.
  23. Vociferous Valued Senior Member

    Apparently you didn't actually read James' post:

    He clearly did, if you bother to read beyond your own confirmation bias.

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