19 February 2007

Why did you end up agnostic? (Part 3)

This is Part 3.

Part 2 is here.

Part 1 is here.

This should probably be titled Part 3A. The reason for this is that I had typed up about two thirds of a post, then I came across this site which kinda said nearly all of what I wanted to say. So I deleted what I had typed and started again.

But let's go back a few steps, first.

In Part 1, we discussed how I grew up as an archetypal apatheist. About the only thought I had on religion was that ECP (Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentacostalist) Christianity was very funny, while traditionalist Christianity was mind-blowingly boring. I had what's commonly described as 'care-factor zero' with regards to Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sufism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Baha'iism, Confucianism and everything else.

In Part 2, I found myself as an agnostic.

I have now come to the point where I defend my decision not to do what everyone else appears to think is obvious. That is, why I don't go 'all the way' and become an atheist?

And for my regular readers, yes. This is where I get semantic.

Gotta warn you now - there is some seriously boring pedantry approaching. Go and play with MySpace folks - this could put you to sleep.

I discovered evilbible.com on the weekend. Not sure why I haven't seen this one before.

This is a rather interesting website maintained by what I like to call a 'large-a atheist', named Chris 'Ali-Baba' Thiefe. He's dedicated it to:

...promote atheism by revealing the wicked truth about the Bible and religion.

Now, large-a and small-a atheists is a delineation that you might not have come across before. That's pretty much because I think that I'm the only one who uses this terminology. But anyway, I call a large-a atheist someone who follows the dictionary definition of atheism, and a small-a atheist, one who follows the 'disbelief' definition.

Thiefe likes to call them 'strong' and 'weak' atheists.

What I'm going to do today is let Thiefe do the talking, and then I'll butt in with my two cents every now and then.

Thiefe is, as I mentioned before, a large-a atheist and is not afraid to go head to head with what appears to be fast becoming the accepted groupthink around the definition of atheism.
His opening paragraphs read as follows:

It has come to my attention that some atheists on the internet are trying to redefine the words “atheism” and “atheist” to mean anyone who simply lacks a belief in gods. This definition would include babies, agnostics, and people who have not come to a conclusion about the existence of gods.

Some proponents of this definition can be found in the alt.atheism newsgroup and at the following web sites:

A “lack of belief” definition is a bad definition for many reasons. It is not commonly used. It is not defined that way in any reputable dictionary. It is too broad because most agnostics and babies don’t consider themselves atheists. And it makes no sense for an “-ism” to be a based on a lack of belief.

These atheists are usually motivated to redefine the word “atheist” because they want to enlarge the definition of “atheist” to include as many people as possible, or because they perceive it to be an advantage in debates with theists. Unfortunately, some of these people have used lies and distortions to support their opinions, and some have made extremely ignorant and grossly incorrect statements that may reflect badly on all atheists.

Goodness gracious me! Them's fighting words, alright, and Thiefe is clearly upset about this as well he might be. It may be a touch hyperbolic, but let's see where he's going with this.

After mentioning that he plans to correct some of these 'lies and distortions' he points out that there are three types of people out there:

Group A believes that gods do not exist (atheists).

Group B neither believes that at least one god exists nor do they believe that gods do not exist. This would include agnostics, babies, and the undecided.

Group C believes that at least one god exists (theists).

The crux of this is that that the 'lack of belief' definition, Thiefe maintains, renders the word atheism meaningless, as it could also cover, as he points out, 'agnostics, babies, and the undecided.'

Atheists can slot into either groups A or B depending on what meaning they assign to the word.

Conversely, small-a atheists are claiming the middle group as weak atheists and the top group as strong atheists.

Thiefe's arguments are many and really has the impact of rendering the above paragraphs unnecessary. But where he later returns to the question of meaning, he doesn't do so quite so effectively.

Let's look at Thiefe's main arguments one by one:

Stupid Argument #1: The etymology of the word "atheism" means "a lack of belief".

A commonly repeated error is that the word "atheism" was derived from the prefix "a-", meaning "without", and the word "theism", meaning a belief in God. Therefore they claim that "atheism" means "without a belief in God". This is incorrect because the etymology of the word "atheism" derives from the Greek word "atheos" meaning "godless". The "-ism" suffix, which can be roughly mean "belief", was added later. The etymology of the word means "godless belief" not "without a belief in gods".

I actually don't like the etymology argument, but not for the reasons that Thiefe gives. The etymology of the word atheism is irrelevant. The Oxford (definitive to all of us outside of North America) at AskOxford.com defines atheism as:



noun the belief that God does not exist.

And, given that the Oxford is a reflective dictionary, and not a proscriptive one, this should be the be all and end all. If that is how the word is used, then that is what it means.

Let's, just for argument's sake, consider the etymology of atheism whilst pondering the definition of 'anti-semitism', and for all the idiots out there deconstructing this, I am NOT equating atheism with anti-semitism:


noun hostility to or prejudice against Jews.

See? Not one mention of Semites at all.

All in all, the etymology argument is a pretty weak one. Thiefe and the small-a atheists can duke this one out without me. An argument this feeble is a waste of everyone's time.

Thiefe's next argument moves from etymology to the definition itself:

Stupid Argument #2: Most Dictionaries Define "Atheism" as a "Lack of Belief".

I see this lie quite often on the internet. The truth of the matter is that no reputable dictionary has a "lack of belief" definition. See page 3 for more on this subject.

This is quite an allegation. Dictionary shopping is one thing, and we'll talk some more about that later.

But to lie outright about the contents of the world's dictionary's?

(Incidentally, he quotes the 1989 Oxford which does use a 'lack of belief' definition. I'll let him get away with this, because ostensibly, he's American, but absolutely no one outside North America would ever describe the Oxford as 'no reputable dictionary'. I believe it's a hanging offense in some parts.

AskOxford is currently sourced from the 2005 Compact Oxford, which itself is sourced from the 2004 Concise Oxford, both of which post-date the 1989 version.)

If Thiefe is correct about this claim, then this is an absolute DISGRACE!!!

Not sure who to award this to. Thiefe puts this claim to bed pretty efficiently. On the other hand, I'm having great difficulty believing that an atheist would make such a patently dishonest claim.

It's here that I'm going to talk on the subject of dictionary shopping.

This is an appalling practice that really must cease.

The number of times I've been confronted by, for example, an Australian quoting definitions out of something like the 'American Heritage Dictionary' just because it happens to have the definition they're after is getting beyond a joke.

We've all been guilty of dictionary shopping. I'm disgracefully hypocritical, but I'm at least making an effort to be consistent. One of these days, I'll post a style guide for this blog, but I am really making an effort to only use the Oxford.

I'm going to award Thiefe a point at this juncture, as he has the good grace to use (other than the Oxford) up to date definitions here with encyclopaedia excerpts here. But then I'll dock him that same point, due to the outlandishness of his claim.

Thiefe's next argument looks at the reasoning behind the argument:

Stupid Argument #3: Most Dictionary Definitions of "Atheism" are Wrong Because They are Written by Biased Christians.

This absurd claim is totally unsupported by any facts, much like the gigantic government conspiracy to cover-up UFO landings.

I don't really see the need to add much to this.

The number of times I have heard atheists trot out this line astounds me. Needless to say, it's really, really pathetic. Atheists (of all people) should know better than to use this one. This is a slam dunk for Thiefe, with high fives all round.

Stupid Argument #4: Only Atheists get to Define What the Word "Atheist" Means.

This argument is absurd for two reasons. First of all, words are defined by common usage, not by the people who fit that definition. For example the word "handicapped" is defined by common usage not just by handicapped people.

Secondly, a "lack of belief" definition for the word "atheist" would include so many agnostics, babies, infants, and the undecided that the self-identified atheists would be a very small minority. Babies and infants would make up a majority of the "lack of belief" atheists and I haven't heard of any of them who could express a coherent definition.

Thiefe's really making two claims here. The first is the sub-heading itself. I've really never heard anyone make this claim so Thiefe ain't getting a point for this.

His second one is his one that he alluded to at the start, that is, by expanding the definition of atheists to include people who normally wouldn't meet the requirement, the word atheism is rendered meaningless. This is a much better claim, but it's one that I'm undecided about.

Is there anything wrong with atheism embracing more potential atheists? It's certainly better (and more inclusive) than a cookie-cutter "no true Scotsman" fallacy that a lot of theists (especially Christians) like to come out with when they exclude people. And it makes a lot of people feel included.

On the other hand, this way of thinking does give rise to blatant absurdities such as this one:

'I put it to you that you're an atheist, you just disbelieve one less god than what I do.'

Yeah, it's witty and all, and you can get a laugh at parties with it (I know, I've tried. Successfully, too). But really, if the word 'atheist' was a person, it would be on life support in a full plaster cast after that sentence. Every last ounce of meaning was squeezed out of it just like a tube of toothpaste that's down to its last dregs.

Plus it's just plain wrong. It's the atheist cliché version of Sandi Thom's I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair. Describing a theist as an atheist is the kinda thing Edward Lear would have done just to annoy Lewis Carroll. Except Lear would have written a limerick, and possibly referred to a 'runcible spoon'.

Lastly, you end up with not a lot of difference between atheists, 'agnostics, babies, and the undecided', as well as apatheists, ignostics and others.

I'm provisionally awarding this round to Thiefe, but only because a more inclusive definition seems a bit like a hippie love-in.

Thiefe starts waffling a bit here:

Stupid Argument #5: Most Atheists Want a "Lack of Belief" Definition.

This argument is usually presented as fact without any actual surveys to back it up. The first problem with this is the "babies and infants" problem described above. The second problem is that most scientific surveys of religious beliefs show that only a minority of the non-religious people self-identify as atheists. For example the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that 13.2% of the US population self-identified as "no religion" while 0.4% self-identified as atheists and 0.5% self-identified as agnostics. The 2000 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year also shows similar numbers.

Again, same as the previous one, I've never really heard anyone make this claim.

Thiefe dazzles us with stats, but I'm not sure if they really support his argument or not. Not touching this and therefore, no points for Thiefe, here.

After covering some fairly minor points so far regarding the underlying philosophy of the definition of 'atheism', he decides to actually have a go at the disbelief definition itself:

Stupid Argument #6: The Phrase "Tom does not believe in the existence of God" does not mean "Tom believes that God does not exist."

This idiotic argument is sometimes presented by brain dead morons who don't understand basic English grammar. I really don't expect most people to know that "raising" is the technical name for the location of the negative in the first sentence, or that raising simply shifts the negative from the subordinate clause where it logically belongs to the main clause, especially when the main clause’s verb is suppose, think, believe, seem, or the like. (Here are two links from The Columbia Guide to Standard American English that explain it: Link 1, Link 2)

However, I find it impossible to believe that anyone with half a brain would use this argument. The English language is literally filled with many common examples of raising. I'll post a few for clarity:

A) "I don't believe the mail has arrived" means "I believe the mail has not arrived". It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about the mail arriving.

B) "I do not believe we missed the last bus" means "I believe we did not miss the last bus". It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about missing the last bus.

C) "I don't think the kicker can make a 55 yard field goal" means "I think that the kicker can not make a 55 yard field goal". It does not mean that I did not think about the kicker making a field goal.

D) "I don't believe in the existence of deities" means "I believe that deities do not exist". It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about the existence of deities.

After a couple of misses, Thiefe really starts kicking goals here - which really goes to show that he was wrong about point C.

The end result is Thiefe's inference that there is no difference between a 'strong' or 'weak' atheist. Mind you, I don't recall 'raising' when I was studying English at school, but you don't really need to really understand it to get the gist of the four examples that he has cited. They are four exceptionally well chosen examples.

Thiefe gets full marks for this one.

OK. So we've looked at the underlying philosophy behind the disbelief definition, and we've looked at the fundamental raising flaw in that definition.

What would motivate a small-a atheist to move this kind of re-definition?

Stupid Argument #7: A "Lack of Belief" Definition is Useful in Debates.

Some people think that a "lack of belief" definition of atheist shifts the burden of proof to the theist and requires them to prove the existence of their god. The truth of the matter is that the theist's claim of a supernatural god with magical powers is an extraordinary claim and requires substantial evidence if it is to be logically believed. The burden of proof is on the theist regardless of the definition of the word "atheist".

As an analogy, if someone claimed that flying pigs existed, then they would have the burden of proof to prove this regardless of whether I told them I "lacked belief" in the existence of flying pigs or if I told them that I believed that flying pigs did not exist.

You know, I once complained that there was something not quite right about the disbelief definition. Something almost suspicious. And I could not put my finger on exactly what it was.

Until now.

I think that this is particularly loathsome. I wouldn't go as far as to suggest that this argument is a deliberate attempt to shift the burden of proof - unless the atheist doing it genuinely thinks that to be within the same 5,000 words as belief is bad.

Thiefe handled that one pretty well. Thus, he wins here, too.

This raises a point about the word 'belief':

The small-a atheist's fear of the word 'belief' and derivations thereof is way lame. It is so completely lame, it's funny. It's hilarious I think, because it's like those kiddies who get petrified about stepping on cracks because they actually think they'll break their mother's back. That's what it reminds me of.

Athiests who show this fear are at least consistent to the point of anal-retentiveness about it. So much so, that this blogger has engaged in the odd argument here and there and introduced ludicrous straw men as, 'I don't believe X,' or, 'I refuse to believe Y,' in order to test it out.

And while atheists are generally too consistent (and polite) to argue such points, it gets seen through straight away as the phony counter-argument that it is in other forums.

On the other hand, if an argument goes anywhere near accusing the small-a atheist of holding a belief of some sort, they get extremely and irrationally flustered.

This is a scenario that happens all too often:

Theist says (in all naïveté) that, 'I do not believe that there is no god.'

I've actually seen an atheist (with sheer audacious nerve) accuse the theist of putting up a Straw Man.

Amazing. Like I said, the fear that small-a atheist has for the word 'belief' is really quite incredible.

And it speaks volumes about your average small-a atheist's ability to tell the difference between an extraordinary claim and the null hypothesis. None of them good.

Incidentally, while I haven't heard the 'shifting the burden of proof' argument, I have seen another instance where this kind of rationale is invoked - one atheist I was engaged in a discussion with posited that to use the word belief provides theists with ammunition to pretend that atheism is a religion and therefore muck around with school curricula under this flimsy pretext. This is particularly relevant in countries where a separation of church and state exists.

Needless to say, that under whatever definition you care to throw at 'atheism', atheism is not a religion. It would be absurd to think otherwise.

Stupid Argument #8: All Atheists Lack a Belief in Gods so Anyone who Lacks a Belief in Gods is an Atheist.

This argument is so damn stupid that it is rarely expressed explicitly. Usually it is only vaguely implied by statements such as "the only thing atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods".

The logical mistake here should be self-evident to any adult with half a brain, so I won't explain it. But if you are in a child in elementary school, try to figure it out with this analogy: All dogs have fur so anything with fur is a dog.

Thiefe is wrong when he says that this one is rarely expressed explicitly. The number of athiests who trot out the cliché about, '...One less god...' in all seriousness, is the rule, rather than the exception, IMHO.

Given that this argument has a different flavour to the others here, I'm not rating this.

Out of Thiefe's 8 arguments, I've given him 4, but given his pretty decisive handling of arguments 3, 6 and 7, this is a resounding victory for Thiefe.

I had a conversation with my good buddy 'Bob' about this. Bob is a small-a atheist.

We might leave the last word to him:

Me: Bob, you've had a chance to read Thiefe's arguments. What are your thoughts on them?

Bob: Rubbish.

Me: So you don't agree that you believe that there are no deities.

Bob: I have nothing to say on the matter. Incidentally, if Thiefe's grammar holds, doesn't this mean that you hold an untenable position?

Me: What do you mean?

Bob: Well, you don't believe or disbelieve the existence of deities, yet you also don't believe or disbelieve in their non-existence. Thiefe's grammar has this as being rather contradictory.

Me: Nup. I don't believe or disbelieve either. So they all kinda cancel out. But I do know which of these is the extraordinary claim. You, on the other hand don't believe in deities, Bob.

Bob: Yep.

Me: And, because of your craven fear of the word belief, you also refuse to believe in the non-existence of deities.

Bob: I wouldn't put it quite like that...

Me: So here's the $64,000 question: Doesn't this make you an agnostic?

Still waiting for that last word, Bob.


Anonymous said...

Well Dikkii, that took me a while. Still, it was a goodun...:)

My Oxford (Australian Concise 1993 - Based on the Concise, 8th edition) says of atheism: n. the theory or belief that God does not exist.

Is there an I'll believe it when I see it catagory I can slot into? It'd just make life a whole bunch easier.

Dikkii said...

Sorry about the length, Ted. It went on a bit longer than I thought it was going to.

Your Oxford is not inconsistent with what Oxford is saying at the moment.

But is there an "I'll believe it when I see it" definition? I would have thought that agnosticism met this criteria.

But a better one would be "Skepticism".

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dikkii, I like the sound of "Skepticism" best.

My Oxford is the Australian version, so not being strictly British, I'm not really surprised that the meaning differs a little. But so does the meaning of agnostic. "Skeptic" on the other hand, seems to sum it up quite nicely...:)

Kønig Hasemörder said...

The logical mistake here should be self-evident to any adult with half a brain, so I won't explain it...

Theism is the belief in one god... All Theists belief in God so anyone who beliefs in God is a Theist.

Yeah, I don't see what your sayin' I'm guessing you just don't want to identify with the rebels. To be an agnostic you have to at least belief that god is possible, it has nothing to do with what value you place on the belief. I have stopped calling myself an atheist even thought if someone asks if I am I have no choice but to. It's stupid to identify with something that requires a rejection of a sheep's belief. I now proactively identify myself as a Naturalist, capitol N. Therefor it is the Supernaturalists who are actually rebelling against my (and many intelligent philosphers and scientists) sound belief.

Dikkii said...

Hi Kønig, thanks for dropping by. You wrote:

Theism is the belief in one god... All Theists belief in God so anyone who beliefs in God is a Theist.

Not quite. Theism is the belief in one or more gods. Belief in one god would fall under the banner of theism, certainly, but so would polytheistic belief structures such as Wicca, Hinduism, etc. You're probably looking for the word, "monotheism".

Yeah, I don't see what your sayin' I'm guessing you just don't want to identify with the rebels.

You don't see what "I'm" saying? Or, more precisely, what Chris Thiefe was saying?

At the risk of sounding obtuse, what was it specifically that didn't make sense in Thiefe's quote? I thought that it was as clear as the Hope Diamond.

Incidentally, if identifying with "the rebels" is what you consider a valid reason for assuming some arbitrary identity, you've got a little bit of growing up to do.

To be an agnostic you have to at least belief that god is possible, it has nothing to do with what value you place on the belief.

Agree with this, although I would have thought that placing a value on the belief is important in helping to ascertain which is the extraordinary claim from all of the possible outcomes.

And are you telling me that you are able to completely discount the existence of a God or of gods for whom no one has been able to even come up with a viable definition of?

You're doing better than me. I'm still stuck on establishing definitions.

I have stopped calling myself an atheist even thought if someone asks if I am I have no choice but to. It's stupid to identify with something that requires a rejection of a sheep's belief. I now proactively identify myself as a Naturalist, capitol N. Therefor it is the Supernaturalists who are actually rebelling against my (and many intelligent philosphers and scientists) sound belief.

Better a capital-N Naturalist than a capital-N Naturist, eh?

Yeah, Naturalism is a sound belief, sure, but can you prove the null hypothesis?

More importantly, can you actually structure the alternate hypothesis which the null hypothesis opposes without any sound definitions?

These are questions the philosophers and scientists you refer to would be the first to know, and, well I would also like the answers to this.

Thanks for dropping by, and do come back, Kønig.