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Any self-respecting atheist diary series needs a "What do the words mean?" article, and this year it falls to me to write it.

What is an "atheist"? What's an "agnostic"? Why are non-believers so adamant about these words and what they do or don't mean? These are the kinds of issues that need to be hashed out at the beginning of any in-depth discussion of non-believers and our ideas. The idea is to head off a number of disputes that constantly bedevil public discussion of atheism and related concepts; the disputes in question are based on common misconceptions regarding what "atheism," among related terms, even means.

So, if you're tempted to respond to any diary in this series by pointing out, say, that atheism requires just as much of a "leap of faith" as belief in God does, please read this diary first. It is very likely that you are operating from an understanding of the term "atheism" that conflicts severely with the widespread consensus, among self-declared atheists, regarding what that term means. At the very least, you need to be aware of that conflict.

A. The Words

the•ism (IPA: /ˈθiɪzəm/) n: The affirmative belief that one or more gods exist.

a•the•ism (/ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm/) n: A lack of belief that a god or gods exist. Frequently divided into two constituent categories:

  • strong a•the•ism (/strɔŋ ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm/) n: The affirmative belief that there are no gods.
  • weak a•the•ism (/wik ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm/) n: A lack of belief (a.k.a. disbelief) that a god or gods exist, without an accompanying affirmative belief that there are no gods.

ag•nos•ti•cism (/ægˈnɒstəˌsɪzəm/) n:

  1. The affirmative belief that it is impossible to know whether god(s) exist.  Contrasts with gnosticism (NOT Gnosticism), the belief that such knowledge is possible.
  2. A lack of knowledge as to whether god(s) exist.

These same definitions have been examined in numerous other works, such as the following:
The Scope of Atheism (George H. Smith, from his book Atheism: The Case Against God (1980))
Atheism (Michael Martin, entry in Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia)
What is Atheism? (Cliff Walker, positiveatheism.org)
Atheism 101 (Austin Cline, atheism.about.com)
Definitions of the term 'Atheism' (religioustolerance.org)

Atheist Digest: Semantics, a DKos diary by Chicagoa that served as the glossary for Atheist Digest '09, covers the above turf as well, and it also defines some additional terms that will inevitably come up in this series—such as "science," "religion," "spirituality," and (perhaps most importantly) "god":

Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods

This definition comes from Merriam-Webster, and it's a decent one, although I would use the term deity instead of god. This is an important distinction because people seem to love the word god, and will go out of their way to use it for all sorts of things. Spiritual types often say things like:

"God is just love"

OR

"God is the universe"

No! Love is love, and the universe is the universe. Why use the loaded word god to describe things that we already have words for? In this series when we say god we mean deity - a supernatural / celestial / transcendent being. If you want to use the word god for something else, be it "love", "universe", or "turkey baster", please try to use those words instead.


The primer on atheism that's nearest to the hearts of a certain generation of online atheists is An Introduction to Atheism, a FAQ file posted by "mathew" on the Usenet group alt.atheism in the mid-1990s. Here's how mathew dealt with the same issues raised above:

"What is atheism?"

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the "weak atheist" position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as "strong atheism."

Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of 'god': Whether they are 'atheists' or not is a matter of debate. Since you're unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it's not a very important debate...

It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. "Weak atheism" is simple skepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. "Strong atheism" is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are "strong atheists." There is a qualitative difference in the "strong" and "weak" positions; it's not just a matter of degree.

Some atheists believe in the nonexistence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.


"But isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as not believing God exists?"

Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not. Which brings us to agnosticism.


"What is agnosticism then?"

The term 'agnosticism' was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an "agnostic" as someone who disclaimed both ("strong") atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know.

In recent years, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.

To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on a belief that we cannot know whether God exists be qualified as "strict agnosticism" and usage based on the belief that we merely do not know yet be qualified as "empirical agnosticism."

Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming that you can work out someone's philosophical point of view simply from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here as "weak atheism," and use the word "atheism" only when referring to "strong atheism."

Beware also that because the word "atheist" has so many shades of meaning that it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all you can say for sure is that atheists don't believe in God.


The distinction between "weak" and "strong" atheism—between a lack of belief in gods and a belief that there are no gods—is confusing to many people. But it's really not all that complicated: if a person actually holds the belief that "there are no gods," she is a strong atheist. If she does not hold that belief, but also doesn't hold the belief that "one or more gods exist," she is a weak atheist. Note that in either case, she's an atheist because she lacks a belief in god(s). The "strong" label merely means that she also holds a separate, affirmative belief.

Just to clarify further, here are a few things that the strong/weak (sometimes, alternatively, called "hard"/"soft" or "positive"/"negative") distinction doesn't involve:

  • Certitude. Weak atheists can be (and indeed many of us are) all-but-100% convinced that belief in god(s) is untenable. Meanwhile, strong atheists can be somewhat uncertain about gods' non-existence—though not uncertain enough that they end up lacking an affirmative belief that gods don't exist.

  • Outspokenness. Weak atheists can be extremely explicit, candid, and loud about their non-belief, and many are. Strong atheists can be entirely closeted, and it's safe to say that many are.

  • Attitudes toward manifestations of theism. Weak atheists can believe that religions, and other matters connected to theism, are severe burdens on human life that our species would be better off discarding. Strong atheists can believe that religion is a wonderful thing (for example, on the theory that theism is a "noble lie") that does not deserve to be criticized or attacked.

  • Physical strength. This "weak" atheist would like all of you to know that he can bench-press more than 425,* so watch your step.

The point of all of the above is merely to emphasize that "weak" and "strong" atheism are abstract philosophical positions rather than broad personality types. It is certainly not the case, for example, that all weak atheists are "all-but-100% convinced that belief in god(s) is untenable," "extremely explicit, candid, and loud about their non-belief," staunchly opposed to religion, or awe-inspiring archetypes of hulking muscular might. There just isn't anything about the weak atheist category that renders any of the above a logical contradiction.

Plenty of theists, and a few strong atheists, allege that a "lack of belief" on this question is impossible. To clarify the weak atheist position a bit, I have occasionally resorted to that old Philosophy 101 standby, The Case of Julius Caesar's Teeth. Check it out if you're interested (or confused).


Finally, it's important to note that an extremely broad consensus of atheists understands "atheism" to denote the absence of belief in god(s), and not merely the affirmative belief that gods don't exist. If you wish to maintain that only "strong" atheism is real atheism, you need to understand that a broad swath of atheists in the English-speaking world fundamentally disagree with you. This position has some serious implications for a minority group's right to self-identification, addressed below.


B. Some Important Related Issues

          "Why understand 'atheism' that way?"

The precise justifications we atheists provide for our broad understanding of our own category are extremely well (and repeatedly) treated in the documents linked above. A reader would be at least as well off examining mathew's or Smith's accounts of the linguistic issues as she would be reading mine. Nonetheless, this being a full-service Digest diary, I'll take a shot.

First, the meaning of "atheism" flows straight from its etymology: the word comes from the Greek a-, "without," and theos, "God." The notable point is that a- is not anti-; "without" does not mean "against"! Think of "asymmetrical," "apolitical," "amoral," "atypical," "asexual," "amorphous," "asymptomatic".... Those terms aren't about denial or refutation, they're about absence. The same goes for a- theism.

Second, confining "atheism" to the affirmative belief that gods don't exist leaves a very large number of us out in the definitional cold. If atheism is nothing more than what I described above as "strong" atheism, the many millions of us who are unwilling to assert an affirmative belief in either the existence or the non-existence of gods are left with no label at all. ("Agnostic" doesn't fit, either; both Huxley and the Greek root he was building on are concerned with knowledge, which has no necessary connection to theism or atheism.) But we are without god-belief: a- theist.

Third, the broader conception of "atheism" better reflects the sociological reality of those many millions of us who are without god-belief. Theism is extremely common and overwhelmingly politically powerful in most of the world, and as a result those of us who don't have it—from the quietest, most milquetoast doubter to the most firebreathing critic of god-belief—have something fundamental in common: we lack something big that everyone else has. It's a common practice to recognize the factors that unite particular minority groups: for the same reason that (for example) gender theorists group transsexuals, transvestites, people who identify as genderqueer, and others into a category called "transgender," nonbelievers in gods are a cognizable group as well. In a world in which god-belief has tremendous power, nonbelievers can't help but have some important things in common, regardless of whether we even like it. "Atheism" gives us a name, which is no small benefit.


          "But my dictionary says..."

Several dictionaries do, indeed, focus on the conventional "denial" understanding of atheism and atheists. But one hopes that anyone interested in discussing philosophy and theology would understand the pitfalls of allowing dictionary writers the absolute last word (so to speak) in deciding what our (ir)religious terminology means.

First, it shouldn't be terribly surprising that dictionaries reflect the conventional wisdom regarding nearly any word. Indeed, that's a big part of their function: to report the way that words are actually used in the real world. And in that world, alas, people do use "atheism" to denote what is more accurately termed "strong atheism."

Second, dictionaries are written by human beings who bear the same kinds of biases and flaws that all the rest of us have; as a result, they are no less prone to prejudice and objectionable omission than any other human endeavor is. Not incidentally, atheists have been a despised minority for a very long time. Socrates was put on trial for his life in part on the charge of atheism; Thomas Paine was left to rot in a French Revolutionary prison because the U.S. administration considered him (as Theodore Roosevelt memorably put it a century later) a "filthy little atheist"; we've been baited with garbage like "There are no atheists in foxholes" for nearly a century; we are at serious risk of losing custody of our children during custody disputes in court on the specific grounds that we're not religious; … and so on.

In light of the serious societal prejudice against atheists, it should hardly be surprising that dictionary writers are less sensitive to atheists' concerns than they could be. Even today, one prominent Web dictionary still lists "ungodliness" and "wickedness" in its primary definition of "atheism"! What gives? [In a comment below, Indexer shows the problem with this logic. Withdrawn!]

All that said, though, there are in fact plenty of reference works that have picked up on the more accurate and more widely self-expressed understandings of "atheism" and "atheist." (Actually, most dictionary definitions of "atheism" are adequate; it's just that one particular word used in many of
them—"disbelief"—is a poor choice, because it's so widely misunderstood. As mathew noted in "An Introduction to Atheism," quoted above, "disbelief" actually means a lack of belief, not an affirmative belief in an opposing proposition. As a result, folks who try to browbeat atheists with a dictionary frequently fail to notice that said dictionary refutes their argument.)


Finally, contrary to allegations from certain quarters that the "lack of belief" conception of atheism is a new (and, by implication, disingenuous) development, it has in fact been around for a rather long time:

All children are atheists — they have no idea of God.

- Baron d'Holbach, Good Sense (1772)


ATHEIST, in the strict and proper sense of the word, is one who does not believe in the existence of a god, or who owns no being superior to nature. It is compounded of the two terms ... signifying without God.

- Christian theologian Richard Watson, A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1831)


[N]o position is more continuously misrepresented [than atheism.] Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God.

- Charles Bradlaugh, The Freethinker's Text-Book (1876)


The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one. I know nothing about God and therefore I do not believe in Him or it. What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny 'God,' which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.

- Annie Besant, The Gospel of Atheism (1877)


[T]he Oracle [of Reason, a mid-Nineteenth Century freethought periodical], pursued a logical course of confuting theism, and leaving "a-theism" the negative result. It did not, in the absurd terms of common religious propaganda, "deny the existence of God." It affirmed that God was a term for an existence imagined by man in terms of his own personality and irreducible to any tenable definition. It did not even affirm that "there are no Gods"; it insisted that the onus of proof as to any God lay with the theist, who could give none compatible with his definitions.

- J. M. Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (1929)


[The "negative atheism" of Richard Carlile, Robert Cooper, George Jacob Holyoake, Oracle of Reason publisher Charles Southwell, and other Nineteenth Century atheists] did not prove that there was no God.... On the contrary, Southwell was typical in placing the onus probandi on those who affirmed the existence of God and Holyoake regarded himself as an atheist only in his inability to believe what the churches would have him believe. They were content to show that the Christian concept of the supernatural was meaningless, that the arguments in its favor were illogical, and that the mysteries of the universe, insofar as they were explicable, could be accounted for in material terms.

-  Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels (1974)


[R]efer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God. ... Etymologically, as well as philosophically, an ATheist is one without God. That is all the 'A' before 'Theist' really means.

- G. W. Foote, What Is Agnosticism (1902)


The atheist is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God. What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds.... [E]very man is an atheist who does not believe that there is a God, although his want of belief may not be rested on any allegation of positive knowledge that there is no God, but simply on one of want of knowledge that there is a God. ... The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less.

- Christian theologian Robert Flint, Agnosticism (1903)


If one believes in a god, then one is a Theist. If one does not believe in a god, then one is an A-theist — he is without that belief. The distinction between atheism and theism is entirely, exclusively, that of whether one has or has not a belief in God.

- Chapman Cohen, Primitive Survivals in Modern Thought (1935)


Atheism - The absence of theistic belief.

- Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia (1950)


(Cites and further information here, here, and here.)


          "So what? Why should we care how you define
          'atheism'?"

So atheists generally understand themselves to be people without beliefs in gods. What difference, one might wonder, does that make? Why does anyone else need to respect that?

One hopes that tolerant people of whatever perspective on religious questions will agree that minority groups have the right to self-definition. The idea that most any minority group is required to accept the characterization that an uncaring (if not hostile) majority thrusts upon them seems notably illiberal, not to mention oppressive.

Words like "Negro," "Colored," "Black," "African-American," "homosexual," "gay," "queer," "Indian," "Native American," "handicapped," "disabled" and so on, one hopes, carry the meanings and background connotations that the minority groups denoted by them say they carry. (The same, only with more oomph, goes for words like "nigger," "faggot," "dyke," "redskin," "cripple," etc.) The idea that any of these groups should be expected to knuckle under to a frequently ignorant conventional wisdom is repugnant.

Especially in light of recent evidence that atheists are among the most despised groups in the United States, it would seem that the definition of "atheism" that is broadly accepted by those of us who are actually in the minority group deserves considerable attention.

Imagine that this discussion were about sexuality instead of atheism. Imagine, moreover, that a DKos commenter had expostulated broadly about how awful it would be for Kossacks to accept homosexuality as a valid part of the human experience—because homosexuality, "by definition," is a mental illness that necessarily involves disgusting promiscuity and terrible disease. (Once upon a time, that was indeed the conventional wisdom regarding gays and lesbians, and one could easily find plenty of reference books to support it.)

In that context, now, imagine that a gay DKos commenter replied to the above attack that the whole "mental illness" claim was strikingly ignorant and then argued for a conception founded on healthy sexual orientation, etc. Would you dismiss him because his self-definition failed to reflect the (ignorant and hateful) conventional wisdom? One sincerely hopes not.

For the same reasons, atheists' consensus self-description doesn't deserve to be simply flattened by an ignorant conventional wisdom. That approach amounts to passive acceptance of the generally unthinking tyranny of the majority—and no liberal can seriously expect any minority to give in in that way. People who don't understand us (and frequently don't respect or like us much, either) have no right to tell us what and who we are.

The substantial majority of self-declared atheists understand "atheism" to mean the absence of belief in anything one considers a "god," not some dogmatic insistence that "god" is a crock. That ought to be what matters.

As atheist and queer blogger extraordinaire Greta Christina puts it:

Defining one's self is among the most powerful acts a community and a movement can take.
When gay people started insisting on being called gay; when women started saying, "Please don't call us girls, we're women"; when transgendered people politely but firmly request that people address them by the name and gender they identify as... those are powerful acts. Defining one's self says to the world, "We are not who you say we are. We are who we say we are." It says to the world, "You have to deal with us on our terms — not just yours." It says this to the world... and it says it to other people in the movement.

Defining one's self is among the most powerful acts a community and a movement can take.

And people who desperately wish for a community and movement to disappear are not voluntarily going to let us have that power.

They are going to keep trying to define us, so they can continue to make us look like rigid, hysterical, unreasonable dogmatists who don't have to be taken seriously. They are going to keep trying to define us, so they don't have to think too closely about who we really are and what we really think. And they are going to keep trying to define us, simply because they can: because defining a marginalized group is a way of saying that your definitions, and not theirs, are the ones that count.

We have to not let them do that.

- "Atheism and Self-Definition"


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- --------------------------


...And finally, a word from our Master of Ceremonies, XNeeOhCon:

Next diaries by XNeeOhCon:

Fri. August 13th, About 9:30 AM PST –  On Christian Claims to Moral Superiority

Mon. August 23rd, About 10:30 AM PST -  Ben Stein is a Moran, The Infinite Probability Fallacy.  

Wed. September 1st, About 5:30 PM PST –  Conclusion diary

Stay tuned for diaries from other users including Brahman Colorado, rfall, Something the Dog Said, and Warren S.  (Look for "Atheist Digest '10" in the Tags and Diary Title)

I hope to post a diary examining the concept of religious privilege in a few weeks as well. See you then!


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- --------------------------


* That is, "more than 425" ounces. But a whole hell of a lot of reps.

Originally posted to Rieux on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:11 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Have at it. (13+ / 0-)

    Obviously a glossary can only be a starting point:

    So.... hey, Digest diarists (and wannabe diarists), here are some entries in the series I'd like to see:

    "So It's a 'Leap of Faith,' Is It?": Why Strong Atheism Is a Reasoned and Reasonable Conclusion

    Don't Think Of Ganesha: What George Lakoff's Framing Concepts can Bring to Atheist Advocacy

    Yes, Some of Your Best Friends Might be Atheists: Nonbelief and Demographics, in the U.S. and Around the World

    An Open Letter to Liberal Believers

    The Bible, As Read By Atheists

    Bring 'em on!

  •  My take on the atheist/agnostic thing... (8+ / 0-)

    ...I think there's no need for the term agnostic anymore.  Atheists have advanced our intellectual position enough that we basically ALL now state that of course we cannot 100% KNOW or declare definitively that there is no god.  Instead, we look at the evidence, determine that it OVERWHELMINGLY points to there being no god, and take a "I'll operate under the assumption that there isn't one until I see convincing evidence" stance.

    Which, to me, is the same as agnosticism.  Anyway, no need to divide up our small minority anymore than it already is.  Let's all call ourselves atheists, IMHO.

    •  Well said. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Captain Sham, Apost8, Aves

      That was as concise and spot on a synopsis of my feelings on the subject as realistically possible.  With your permission I'll just cut and paste it in every comment I make in this series.  Couldn't have said it better.

      "Religion allows people by the millions to believe things, that only a crazy person could believe on their own." -Sam Harris

      by XNeeOhCon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:24:58 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  We can also do without (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      denise b, Captain Sham, XNeeOhCon

      the strong atheist versus weak atheist labels. According to the posted definitions I'm a strong atheist but I would feel ridiculous describing myself that way.

      •  I'm still trying to understand (4+ / 0-)

        why it's the believers who get obsessed with all these concepts. Why do they keep insisting that I'm either really an agnostic on the one hand or really dogmatic and fanatical on the other?

        I'm neither. I simply don't believe. I don't think about it. I don't care about it. It's just one more in an endless number of propositions that I don't take seriously. I am an atheist. I don't question what you call yourself. That is all.

        The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. --Bertrand Russell

        by denise b on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:07:03 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  nt (4+ / 0-)

          It's because some people are so wrapped up in their religious beliefs that they simply cannot fathom that you don't believe. It's easier for them to insist you are an agnostic (which to a lot of theists means you're just not sure and need some gentle prodding) and not an atheist.

          •  Yes, precisely (3+ / 0-)

            They can't fathom that anyone could be be relatively certain about the non-existence of something they believe so strongly in.  "Does not compute, must squeeze you into a category I can make sense of."

            "Religion allows people by the millions to believe things, that only a crazy person could believe on their own." -Sam Harris

            by XNeeOhCon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:17:59 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Very true! (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mrkvica, denise b, XNeeOhCon, Aves

            It gets back to others defining someone like me on their terms, not on mine. I'm one of those self-assured quiet type athiests discussed in the diary. Very few people know this about me, including my wife's parents, siblings, aunts/uncles/cousins (we've been married 24 years); my own aunts/uncles/cousins, and most of the people I work with. I choose to remain "in the closet" with them, because to "come out" would cause a lot of hurt all around. My gay brother has been out with everyone for years; perhaps I should seek guidance from him....

            Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

            by Captain Sham on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:56:42 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  That's tough. (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Captain Sham, Aves

              There are a lot of downsides to making your atheism known, but very few upsides.  Most of my wife's family (though I've been maried two decades fewer than you) that don't really know my full feelings about religion.  For the time being I'm happy to let them make whatever assumptions they want.  I'm sure some day it will become clearer to them, but I wouldn't gain a thing from disclosing everything.  They are mostly hardcore Christian conservatives and I have enough trouble with them that they know I'm a liberal.  

              "Religion allows people by the millions to believe things, that only a crazy person could believe on their own." -Sam Harris

              by XNeeOhCon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 01:02:43 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Very true... (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                mrkvica, Captain Sham, XNeeOhCon

                ...I can't think of any positive reactions I got to outing myself.  Only negatives come to mind.  Still, I've never once regretted it.  I could not live a lie any longer and I'd never go back to it now.

                •  My relationship with those who know (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  mrkvica

                  is so much more fulfilling for me (and I hope for them) because they get the real, comfortable me. I wish it could be that way with everyone, but I know it can't. My wife's parents would be terribly saddened and feel betrayed. I won't do that to them.

                  Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

                  by Captain Sham on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 01:19:48 PM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Similar situation for me, though I wouldn't (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    Captain Sham

                    go as far as to use the word "betrayed" in my case.

                    "Religion allows people by the millions to believe things, that only a crazy person could believe on their own." -Sam Harris

                    by XNeeOhCon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 01:30:10 PM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  I think the word is appropriate in my case. (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      XNeeOhCon

                      It took my mother-in-law about fifteen years to accept that the two grandchildren I helped provide her are not being raised in the Catholic church. The fact that I, with my wife's blessing, (interesting choice of a word), am raising them in the church of there is no god, would, quite possibly, kill her. Ok, perhaps I'm over-dramatizing a tad.

                      Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

                      by Captain Sham on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 02:00:33 PM PDT

                      [ Parent ]

              •  Most of the folks I speak of are conservatives (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                mrkvica, XNeeOhCon

                also, but they know I'm a liberal. My wife's family has known from the start that I'm not Catholic, like them (some drama, there, in the beginning, but fully contained for the last several years). I've become somewhat emboldened, of late, to non-threateningly assert my "beliefs", when I deem it appropriate. In many cases it is not appropriate, and I hate that.

                Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

                by Captain Sham on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 01:15:49 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

              •  The same was/is true of sexual preference (4+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                mrkvica, Indexer, XNeeOhCon, Aves

                outside the "mainstream". That did not change until gays, lesbians, transfolk and bisexuals began to open up about their nature to others.

                It can be painful, alienating and professionally dangerous.

                And, it is important to advance the causes of tolerance, equality and inclusion.

                And it still hurts just as much.

                Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

                by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 01:58:07 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

        •  As we can see here, it's not just believers (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          XNeeOhCon

          who try to insist on relabeling someone contrary to that person's own self-definition. There are atheists and agnostics who insist on doing it, too.

          Being an atheist, unfortunately, does not automatically make one rational, nor liberal, nor fair-minded.

          Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

          by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 04:20:52 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Huh? (7+ / 0-)

        Those labels provide some valuable precision about particular philosophical positions. The weak and strong positions are different, and that can matter—albeit only in more-or-less-serious philosophical discussions. Trying to "do without" the terms, within those discussions, inevitably increases confusion.

        I'm not sure why anyone would expect you to identify yourself as a strong atheist, in particular, in any context other than the aforementioned philosophical discussions.

        The existence of the "weak" and "strong" concepts doesn't obligate anyone to put them on nametags. Just call yourself an atheist; I certainly do.

        •  nt (0+ / 0-)

          I do call myself an atheist. I just don't think we need to complicate the issue and there are a lot of people who use "strong atheist" when they mean anti-theist which is different from your definition above.

          •  asdf (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mrkvica, RandomActsOfReason

            I just don't think we need to complicate the issue....

            And my contention is that we do need to do so, in the particular context of philosophical discussion about atheism. Or, at least, there are significant benefits in greater precision from doing so.


            [T]here are a lot of people who use "strong atheist" when they mean anti-theist which is different from your definition above.

            There certainly are, and it certainly is. That's why I put in the whole "certitude"/"outspokenness"/etc. list up there.

            The point of a diary like this one is to act as a reference work that disposes of the kinds of misconceptions you've noticed. It's why a glossary diary is a necessary component of every Atheist Digest series.

            For AD '11, it'll be someone else's turn!

      •  Philosophically, there is a significant differenc (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Rieux, mrkvica, XNeeOhCon

        Strong atheists, like me, assert that the existence of "gods" as commonly defined is inherently impossible, on the order of square circles or the direction "east-western". Moreover, we take the absence of evidence as evidence for absence.

        Weak atheists simply say they do not believe in any gods, and that there is no evidence of any gods. They don't rule out the possibility, they simply find no reason to believe.

        It is not an important political or activist distinction, any more than atheist/agnostic is, but it is a fundamental philosophical difference.

        Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

        by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 04:19:20 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Yes, that sums up my position very nicely. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      TheLizardKing, Aves

      Thanks!

      "Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself." - Robert G. Ingersoll

      by Apost8 on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:56:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  As long as people feel the need to self-identify (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rieux, mrkvica

      as agnostics, there is a need for the term.

      Disrespecting that need, or overriding it, is no different than those who insist "atheist" doesn't mean what most atheists say it means.

      I am a strong atheist, but support the right of others to call themselves "agnostic", if they feel that is the most accurate description of their position - particularly if they believe that the existence of god is inherently unknowable (I happen disagree with that position, but respect those who hold it).

      Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

      by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 04:16:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not trying to disrespect it... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        XNeeOhCon

        ...I agree people definitely have a right to call themselves what they want.

        I'm just saying that I think the terms have become redundant as a greater understanding of atheism has advanced.  Maybe I'm wrong.

        But I'm definitely not going to go around demanding people stop calling themselves agnostic.

        I don't see how that makes me irrational, illiberal, or not fair-minded (from your comment above which I can only assume refers to me).

        •  Why would you assume (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          XNeeOhCon, Aves

          that a general statement about behavior I have experienced on Daily Kos refers to you?

          I don't keep track of usernames, frankly, but I don't remember ever tangling with you or seeing you attack people for thinking differently.

          I simply posted a rebuttal to your assertion that agnostic is an outdated term. The other comment is utterly unrelated to this one.

          Best policy online is not to assume, but simply to respond to what is written.

          Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

          by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 05:10:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  But Why Here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RandomActsOfReason

    I guess I'm wondering why the topic is part of political form.  Isn't it like talking about sports here?

    Listen, I beleive in your right to talk about that one of "God's current appearance/non-appearance" methods.

    But why do you use this forum as an attack base?  

    There's something wrong with that.

    "The TV set was blown up/ every bit of it was gone/ ever since the nightly news show/that the Monkey Man was on" --from Bob Dylan's "The Monkey Man".

    by williamjustin on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:36:56 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for this diary (7+ / 0-)

    I have difficult talking about my atheism sometimes because it's an absence than a presence. Some of the vocabulary here will be quite helpful for future discussions.

    Interested in identifying and eating wild plants? Check out my foraging diaries.

    by wide eyed lib on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:48:25 AM PDT

    •  I know what you mean (7+ / 0-)

      It is depressing how people perceive atheists and the crazy things they believe about us. Using simply defined words helps.

    •  I view it as a beginning, rather than an "absence (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mrkvica, Aves

      it is a rational starting position, from which, and upon which, one can build a rational philosophy and worldview.

      I no more consider atheism an absence, than I consider not believing in the tooth fairy an absence. Theism is an added belief that lacks evidence, imposed upon the natural world.

      It is only cultural prejudices that surround us that make us think of atheism as an "absence".

      Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

      by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 04:24:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  As Robert Ingersoll wrote, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wide eyed lib

      Ingersoll's Vow

      When I became convinced that the Universe is natural--that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light, and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world--not even in infinite space. I was free--free to think, to express my thoughts--free to live to my own ideal--free to live for myself and those I loved--free to use all my faculties, all my senses--free to spread imagination's wings--free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope--free to judge and determine for myself--free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired" books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past--free from popes and priests--free from all the "called" and "set apart"--free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies--free from the fear of eternal pain--free from the winged monsters of the night--free from devils, ghosts, and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought--no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings--no chains for my limbs--no lashes for my back--no fires for my flesh--no master's frown or threat--no following another's steps- -no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

      And then my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and went out in love to all the heroes, the thinkers who gave their lives for the liberty of hand and brain--for the freedom of labor and thought--to those who fell in the fierce fields of war, to those who died in dungeons bound with chains--to those who proudly mounted scaffold's stairs--to those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn--to those by fire consumed--to all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and deeds have given freedom to the sons of men. And then I vowed to grasp the torch that they had held, and hold it high, that light might conquer darkness still.

      Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899)

      Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

      by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 04:25:20 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Call me an "earther." After that, the void n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mrkvica, Captain Sham, XNeeOhCon

    Dream, that's the thing to do (Johnny Mercer)

    by plankbob on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:00:07 PM PDT

  •  Like many atheists now, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass

    I've got a fairly strong fascination with Christianity, and the quality of my thought and atheism about it is just different than the quality of my thoughts about other religions.

    I think that cultural superstition is natural and universal and ever present, and that modern atheism is no protection against it at all. Superstition is the water we all swim in, and we just hardly see it.

    •  Superstition is the broth that religious soup is (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Garrett, RandomActsOfReason

      made in.  I personally try to identify and avoid any kind of superstition, as it can usually only get you into trouble.

      "Religion allows people by the millions to believe things, that only a crazy person could believe on their own." -Sam Harris

      by XNeeOhCon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:22:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Same here... (3+ / 0-)

        ...I won't let myself "knock on wood" or be afraid to walk under a ladder or open an umbrella inside, etc.  All of those things are perfectly ridiculous.  

        I'm routinely blown away when I see adults doing avoiding these things as if they would ruin their day.  And the whole thing where buildings don't have a 13th floor?  Ludicrous.

      •  Just being logical about it (0+ / 0-)

        All other people, in all other cultures, at all other times, religious and non-religious, can now be seen as being possessed by what can be considered as silly superstitions. They very often thought others had superstitions, and that they didn't.

        It's easy imply that we are exactly the same; it's hard to hold that we aren't.

        •  "Exactly"? (3+ / 0-)

          C'mon--that way lies absolutist postmodernism.

          Some of the things we think we know we really do know. Not everything is an arbitrary Kuhnian paradigm.

          [Thomas] Kuhn did not deny that there is progress in science, but he denied that it is progress toward anything. He often used the metaphor of biological evolution: scientific progress for him was like evolution as described by Darwin, a process driven from behind, rather than pulled toward some fixed goal to which it grows ever closer. For him, the natural selection of scientific theories is driven by problem solving. When, during a period of normal science, it turns out that some problems can't be solved using existing theories, then new ideas proliferate, and the ideas that survive are those that do best at solving these problems. But according to Kuhn, just as there was nothing inevitable about mammals appearing in the Cretaceous period and out-surviving the dinosaurs when a comet hit the earth, so also there's nothing built into nature that made it inevitable that our science would evolve in the direction of Maxwell's equations or general relativity. Kuhn recognizes that Maxwell's and Einstein's theories are better than those that preceded them, in the same way that mammals turned out to be better than dinosaurs at surviving the effects of comet impacts, but when new problems arise they will be replaced by new theories that are better at solving those problems, and so on, with no overall improvement.

          All this is wormwood to scientists like myself, who think the task of science is to bring us closer and closer to objective truth. But Kuhn's conclusions are delicious to those who take a more skeptical view of the pretensions of science. If scientific theories can only be judged within the context of a particular paradigm, then in this respect the scientific theories of any one paradigm are not privileged over other ways of looking at the world, such as shamanism or astrology or creationism. If the transition from one paradigm to another cannot be judged by any external standard, then perhaps it is culture rather than nature that dictates the content of scientific theories.

          [....]

          But even when we put aside the excesses of Kuhn's admirers, the radical part of Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions is radical enough. And I think it is quite wrong.

          [....]

          I would like to describe my own idea of scientific progress. As I said, Kuhn uses the metaphor of Darwinian evolution: undirected improvement, but not improvement toward anything. Kuhn's metaphor is not bad, if we make one change in it: the progress of physical science looks like evolution running backward. Just as humans and other mammal species can trace their origins back to some kind of furry creature hiding from the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period, and that furry creature and the dinosaurs and all life on Earth presumably can be traced back to what Pooh-Bah in The Mikado called "a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule," in the same way we have seen the science of optics and the science of electricity and magnetism merge together in Maxwell's time into what we now call electrodynamics, and in recent years we have seen electrodynamics and the theories of other forces in nature merge into the modern Standard Model of elementary particles. We hope that in the next great step forward in physics we shall see the theory of gravitation and all of the different branches of elementary particle physics flow together into a single unified theory. This is what we are working for and what we spend the taxpayers' money for. And when we have discovered this theory, it will be part of a true description of reality.

          - Physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg, "The Revolution That Didn't Happen"

          RTWT, of course.

    •  Well... (5+ / 0-)

      I gather you live in a place where Christianity is the dominant religion. That has an inevitable effect on your level of interest, "fascination," etc.

      Atheists from non-Christian cultures (such as these two) have different concentrations—which is both useful (I think) and unsurprising.

  •  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this diary (9+ / 0-)

    and take that from a middle-aged, gay Anglican who for many years has made his living as a sacred musician.

    You see, I'm also a great believer in the Constitution, and have always felt that hostility towards those who don't believe in any kind of deity is wrong, dishonest, and highly un-American. I have always supported the right of non-believers to live in peace and harmony with the full protection of the rights afforded all of us by the Constitution. Full stop.

    While I admit that my theology is fairly convoluted (let's just say that I tend to agree with John Shelby Spong's assertion that whether or not Jesus existed or "God" exists does not automatically nullify the practice of Christianity), my major focus has always been social justice.

    That being said, some of my fiercest allies in social justice over the years have been non-believers.

    One thing that happens sometimes, I think, in conversations between Christians and Athiests is that both are painted with a broad brush full of generalizations, which can lead to hostility. Increasingly, the term "Christian", for instance, conjures up images of evangelicals, of which I am decidedly not one. Which is why I am always careful to refer to my polity, Anglican, rather than to call myself a "Christian".

    Diaries like this enlighten, explain, elucidate and educate. And I had a wonderful time reading it.

    Commonmass is able to receive a gift subscription.

    by commonmass on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:25:09 PM PDT

    •  An addendum: (3+ / 0-)

      How many Christians, I wonder, are aware that the reason they were persecuted by the Romans (until Constantine came along) was because they were considered.....Athiests?

      Commonmass is able to receive a gift subscription.

      by commonmass on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:34:51 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Very interesting comment. (4+ / 0-)

      If you have any interest in writing a diary about generalizations people make about "Christians" I would think that would be elucidating.  You may be inviting some long discussions which you may not be up for, so I would understand if you want to pass.  Just throwing that out there.

      "Religion allows people by the millions to believe things, that only a crazy person could believe on their own." -Sam Harris

      by XNeeOhCon on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:39:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Oh, I am truly happy to have long discussions (4+ / 0-)

        on this topic. As a "religious" person, I have long been of the opinion that religion of all types tends to be fairly toxic. Thus, the kinds of comments are likely to be, too.

        There is a group of us who are writing a diary on religion and marriage equality for the friday series WGLB. This is an undertaking which is large enough to require a google chat group just to lay it out! Thus, I will be engaged with that for the next couple of weeks.

        After that, I would be delighted to undertake that. It has been suggested to me before.

        My email address is in my profile. Feel free to email me if you like. I would be happy to do it, and after the marriage equality diary, I will probably have quite a bit on insight. There are 6 of us, so far, as co-authors coming from lots of different religious backgrounds, including a soon-to-be Doctor of Theology.

        I did not mean to pre-pimp that diary, just wanted to let you know what I'm up to and what my time issues are.

        Thanks for the suggestion. I will take you up on it.

        Commonmass is able to receive a gift subscription.

        by commonmass on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 12:45:59 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  How effusively kind. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mayim, RandomActsOfReason, XNeeOhCon

      What a gracious comment; thank you very much.

    •  Historically, atheists have been fierce allies (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rieux, mrkvica

      in every one of the civil rights movements in the US - and around the world, for that matter.

      As I have noted many times, most recently in this comment.

      Always make new mistakes - Esther Dyson

      by RandomActsOfReason on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 04:32:31 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Pronunciation advice request (0+ / 0-)
    For years I had identified myself as agnostic—in the last few years realizing that, as the old joke goes, I was just "hedging my bet." Now I call myself an atheist and identify myself as such should the discussion get so crassly personal as to require a label. I suppose I should be a "strong atheist" but I'm too lazy to defend the position, so I'll settle for "weak atheist" so I don't have to explain it.

    Back to the question at hand—for years I've understood the etymology of atheist (without theist belief) and probably agnostic as well. However, I was ignorant as to what gnostic meant and how it is pronounced and happily went about saying I was an ag-nostic.

    Since I've learned what a gnostic is and how it's pronounced, I've come to believe that it should more correctly be "eh-nah-stic". Sadly, I suspect very few will understand what I mean if I say it that way (much like the word forte—look it up—you'll be shocked).

    So, what's your opinion on the correct pronunciation of agnostic?

    •  Gee.... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RandomActsOfReason, XNeeOhCon

      I have never heard "agnostic" (or for that matter "gnostic") pronounced with a silent "g." ("Gnocchi"? "Gnome"? "Gnash"?)

      I suppose we should talk to Huxley, except that he's inconveniently dead.

      Well, here's the multi-dictionary entry for "agnostic." Picking out the first several links, I don't see any phonetic spellings that leave off the "g."

      For whatever all of that is worth; most of the definitions that just came up in my little sampling were far removed from Huxley's focus on knowledge.


      I was not, however, shocked by "forte." The musical term is pronounced the way everybody thinks it is, while the personal-strength meaning (which doesn't derive from the musical term) is just a single syllable. I've watched enough "M*A*S*H" (Maj. Winchester was fond of that word, and he pronounced it as a single syllable) to get that one.

  •  Great diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rieux

    and interesting, polite and informative discussion! Thank you all- have given me a lot to learn and to read. Specifically, on Ingersoll and in depth on Thomas Paine. Fascinating how buried their stories have become; I'm extremely curious and read everything, but this is first time I've seen Paine's life discussed thusly.

    Natasha

    •  If you're really interested in Paine, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      XNeeOhCon

      especially with regard to his ideas about religion, I strongly suggest you read The Age of Reason. It's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attack on Christianity and the Bible; it shocked the bejeezus out of the American public, which is why even Paine's buddy President Jefferson didn't think that he could, politically, help Paine get out of a French Revolutionary dungeon.

      Another thing that Paine makes quite clear in that work is that he was a Deist, not an atheist—though. of course, effectively no one in the West in the Eighteenth Century was an atheist. I'm pretty confident that, had Paine lived in our era and learned what modern science (especially physics and biology) have discovered about the universe, he would have been an atheist. (Jefferson and Adams too.)

      Still, though we Twenty-First Century atheists can find plenty in Paine and company to admire, they weren't atheists. Important to remember, I think.

  •  How I define my beliefs: (0+ / 0-)

    I have found no reason to seriously consider the possibility that god exists.

    I find it combines the defensibility of weak atheism with the honesty of strong atheism.

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