Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Yes, you're an atheist. (Part 1)

It wasn't that long ago that, in the midst of a dust-up involving what it meant to be "progressive," the first commenter for that article of Mr. Vincent's wrote (in a stunning display of incoherence):

I've never read cynic's blog before but in any case the fact that he said "Dude, if you're 'non-religious' you are by definition an atheist" is proof in and of itself that he probably isn't worth listening to.

Which inspired me to try to explain what it means to be an "atheist." I can't imagine Mr. Vincent (being the world-class philosopher that he is) or his commenter will get much out of this, but those of you with functioning brain stems might find this moderately enlightening. I try.

Quite simply, there are 10 types of people in the world: those that understand binary notation, and those that don't. No, wait ... wrong joke.

Quite simply, there are two types of people in the world: those that believe in a supernatural deity of some kind, and those that don't. That's it -- there are no other categories. Every single person on the planet is in one of those two categories and (you knew this was coming) those two categories have names -- they're called "theists" and "atheists." How about that? If you want the full-blown explanation, you can check out Wikipedia, but I'll try to demonstrate a bit more brevity.

If you believe in a supernatural deity (and, for the sake of argument, let's just call this "God" to save on keystrokes), then by definition you are a "theist." That generally isn't a controversial statement, and most people are happy to go with that.

What's more controversial is when you define the set of everyone else as "atheists," which normally causes the devout to get their little panties in a wad. "No way," they'll sputter and fume, "that's not the right definition. An atheist is someone who says that God doesn't exist! That's not fair!"

It most certainly is fair, in so far as different people like to define the word "atheist" differently but, if you read the Wikipedia entry, you'll notice that it's perfectly reasonable to define atheism as simply a lack of religious belief, and nothing more.

"Hold on," you interrupt, "what about those people who haven't made up their minds yet? Who are still sitting on the fence? Aren't those people 'agnostics'?" No, they're not. Once again, let me pound this home -- unless you hold a specific, deliberate, explicit religious belief in some sort of deity, you are an atheist. (Figuring what all this "agnostic" nonsense is all about is left as an exercise for the reader.)

There is more than enough precedence for this kind of definition. Consider the complementary definitions of, say, "typical" and "atypical," or "symmetrical" and "asymmetrical." The same applies here, regardless of how much you want to plug your ears and hum loudly to not hear it.

So what does all this imply? Well, if you're a theist, that means that, by definition, you believe in a deity. Put another way, you hold an active belief in a deity and, based on simple logic, if you want to convince others to hold that belief, the burden of proof is on you to support that belief.

See how that works? You hold belief, you want others to share belief -- ergo, you must logically provide the supporting evidence. This position can be summarized briefly by saying, "I believe in God." So far, so good? (And note how the opener "I believe ..." makes it clear that you are expressing the holding of a belief of some kind. This will be important shortly.)

And what about the atheist? The atheist's position can be summed up thusly, "I don't believe in God," at which point badly-educated fundamentalists (or pompous philosophers) have an unfortunate habit of lashing back with, "Oh, yeah? So you say God doesn't exist? Well, prove it. Go on, prove that God doesn't exist!"

I say this is "unfortunate" since, if you give it about three seconds of thought, that's not what the atheist just said, is it? All the atheist said was that he did not believe in God. Put another way, he does not hold a belief that God exists. In other words, what the atheist is presenting is a lack of belief, for which he has no obligation whatsoever to provide supporting evidence. And since trying to explain this with respect to some folks' favourite deity generally causes their brains to cramp up, I'll use another example.

Consider, say, the Loch Ness monster. Some people believe it exists. Personally, I don't -- all I'm saying with that statement is that I haven't seen sufficient evidence to support that belief, which means all I'm expressing is my lack of belief in the creature. Got that?

However, that's considerably different from saying that I believe the beast doesn't exist. I'm certainly not making that claim, since that would involve me now expressing a belief, wouldn't it -- the belief in the non-existence of the creature, and that would be a tough belief to substantiate.

How could I prove non-existence? How can I know that the Loch Ness monster just isn't really good at hiding? It's possible, of course, and I'm always going to leave the door open to the possibility of existence. But thus far, there's been no evidence for its existence so I'm perfectly within my rights to say, "I don't believe the Loch Ness monster exists," stating only my current lack of belief, with the proviso that I'm willing to look at any new evidence that comes in.

Now you see how this applies to theism and atheism? Atheism represents nothing more than a current lack of belief in a given position, with the understanding that new evidence might change that position but it hasn't yet.

What it also means is that, when it comes to having to provide evidence, atheists have absolutely no obligation since their position equates to a lack of belief, putting the burden for evidence squarely on the shoulders of the theists who should either be prepared to present such evidence calmly, dispassionately and objectively or, barring that, they should just shut the fuck up for a change.

COMING SOON: Why theists and atheists aren't really that different.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: Two more points based on the above that are worth emphasizing. First, based on the above definition of "atheism," it should be obvious to most sentient beings that atheism is the initial default position, in that one has to choose to be a theist.

Quite simply, we are (every one of us) born atheists, and become theists only through making an explicit decision to do so. And until that happens, you're an atheist.

And second, I'm hoping that you now understand the critical difference between the following two positions:

"I don't believe God exists."

"I believe God does not exist."

If you still don't appreciate the difference between those two statements, then there's little I or anyone else can do to help you out, and you should consider finding a less intellectually taxing blog to read.


Adam said...


While your arguement makes sense in purely semantic terms, I disagree with your conclusion. Dictionary definitions are not always sufficient to describe the evolution of language. Like it or not, atheism has come to refer to your second statement, the specific belief that God does not exist.

It's similar (without the capital letter) to the way that Creationism has come to refer to the specific belief that the world was created by God in seven 24-hour days 6000 years ago. There are many, many other creation myths and versions, but 'Creationism' has a single meaning in popular discourse.

And it is not a redefinition promulgated solely by theists. My experience has been that people who call themselves atheists tend to hold very strongly to the second view.

I myself hold the first view. I see no evidence for or against the existence of God, and I've decided that I would live my life the same way in either case. It's not important to me to decide on belief or disbelief. But I refuse to call myself an atheist because I refuse to declare "There is no God." You're saying that I don't need to make that statement, but I still have to be part of that group.

Instead I do go with agnostic (definition: Someone who may or may not spend eternity in purgatory because they were too lazy to spend one morning a week in church).

CC said...


One more thought. Yes, I realize it's just easier to say you're "agnostic." But, frankly, I have no interest in making these peoples' lives any easier.

If they choose to argue theology, first I'm going to let them embarrass themselves by using what I consider to be a biased definition of the word. Then I will, with all the snark I can muster, correct their thinking.

Sometimes, it's worth it to take a stand.

Adam said...

Yeah, I could supply the definition (I usually have to do that with 'agnostic' anyway). But then, I could also go around telling everyone I'm gay, and then explain that it means I'm in a light-hearted mood.

If I'm in a civil conversation, I'd rather not worry about what someone's definition of 'atheist' is, and what they might therefore think my definition of 'Christian' might be. If I'm in an uncivil conversation, I still find that arguing about definitions is boring.

Couch Stu said...

I don't think the term atheist needs to exist. There are no atheists. I think instead we should say, there are two types of people: rational people who require evidence to believe in something, and irrational people who don't.

Religious beliefs are the only beliefs that don't require evidence. You'd want evidence if somebody told you he could fly, you wouldn't take it on faith. But the following tale requires no evidence:

An invisible person in the sky rapes* a woman to get her pregnant. The woman has a bastard** child. Kid grows up, does some miracles, is crucified, is reborn, goes up into the sky. If you don't believe this tale, you should be stoned to death, afterwards, the invisible man in the sky is going to send you to be tortured for eternity.

* The bible doesn't say if Mary agreed to get knocked up by god; if it was a rape, and she lived in the city, she should have been stoned to death along with god the rapist according to the O.T.

** Jesus was born out of wedlock, so he is a bastard child. The word was just put in to piss of Christians.

mk said...

"one has to choose to be a theist"

That doesn't sound right. I think you either believe something or you don't - there isn't necessarily (ever?) a choice in the matter really, is there?


aweb said...

MK, are you trying to make an argument about the nature of free will, or just making trouble? I can see how a lot of people aren't really given a choice about whether to believe in things or not as young children. If parents tell the child there is a ---(fill in blank as you choose), they for the most part believe them. After growing older and acquring the ability to question things, the choice is made to continue this belief. People do make choices one way or the other all of the time.

I distinctly remember making a choice not to believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, god, and the rest of the bunch. Until evidence comes along to refute my lack of belief (and hey, if the sky bursts into flames and the pit of Hell opens, I'm all on board with the god thing...), I still choose not to believe.

mk said...


There are probably lots of philosophers and more well-read people out there who could discuss this more intelligently than I can, but one of the reasons I'm in this conversation is to just see what other people think about this whole "why I believe what I believe" stuff. I find it really interesting. Sorry if it distracts from the main topic, but I'm just curious...bear with me.

"if the sky bursts into flames and the pit of Hell opens, I'm all on board with the god thing..."

That's what I mean about not having a choice about what you believe. I think if the sky bursts as described, then you would have no choice except to believe, as we all would. Likewise, if I walked up to you and stood in front of you and you saw me standing there, I guarantee that you would have no choice but to believe that I was standing there.

I think it's useful to compare the definitions of "belief" with "faith". Personally, I find that the definitions of "faith" in the online dictionaries don't agree with my own definition. As I said, I think belief is more of an involuntary thing, based on stimuli, whereas faith is kind of like "wanting to believe" something. Faith, to me, is something very artificial and involves a choice. Belief doesn't.

As such, I don't understand how you could "distinctly remember making a choice not to believe in Santa Claus". To me, belief means that you are reasonably convinced of something. I'd say that you already didn't believe it by the time you decided to "choose" to disbelieve it. And I don't understand how you could "choose" what to believe in that instance. Anyway, that's how I choose to define belief, so to speak.

I think it would be interesting if CC re-wrote the article and incorporated the word faith in there so as to distinguish between belief and faith as I understand it.

Also keep in mind that I may not know what the hell I'm talking about. But I'd be interested to read others' ideas or be directed to further material on the subject.


aweb said...

"I guarantee that you would have no choice but to believe that I was standing there." I don't know, I'm pretty tall, I might not see you...

MK, I can see your view on the idea. I do not personally think of belief that way. In the sky bursting into flames example I used, I would agree that that choice of belief in it would be limited. But since nothing like that has ever happened in recorded history (note: bible not a history text), I believe it won't happen.

But the example of Santa Claus is sort of the opposite. Now keep in mind I was, as I recall 5 years old at the time. At this point, parents, siblings, relatives, friends, all tell you there is a Santa Claus. So do TV, books, and movies. There is some evidence of his existence (hey, someone leaves those presents with his name on them; which on an aside, in one more piece of evidence than god ever provided). Despite what might appear to be overwhelming evidence in favour of Santa, at some point, the logical inconsistency of his existence (magic is required), and the lack of any other observed things like him, made me decide to not believe anymore. I don't think that choice was inevitable, at least not at that time. I could have believed a few more years.

If you want to substitute faith for belief, that's between you and your internal dialogue. Language has always seemed very subjective to me, although some (I suspect CC is in this group) don't like it that way.

Alison said...

“…I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one
fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all
the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

~ Stephen F. Roberts

CC said...

I think there's some disagreement on what it means to "believe" something.

I have this conversation on occasion with creationists, when they say something like, "Well, I choose to believe in creationism, just like you choose to believe in evolution. So it's the same thing."

"No," I reply, "I don't choose to believe in evolution any more than I choose to believe that the Earth is round. I don't choose that belief; rather, it's forced upon my by the evidence. There is no choice involved."

On the other hand, one can safely say that Christians really do choose their beliefs. Given the numerous world religions, they choose to believe in one and reject all the others.

They, of course, have the right to do that, but they don't have the right to accuse my beliefs of being equally arbitrary and unfounded.

mk said...

"On the other hand, one can safely say that Christians really do choose their beliefs."

Not always. I think it's important to distinguish between a follower who simply has been exposed to a certain faith and accepted it by choice as opposed to someone who has had a revelation of some sort.

We've all heard the anecdotes about some person's miraculous recovery from some catastrophe - those would be the so-called "true believers" as I think of them. The "true believers" wouldn't necessarily have a choice since they may have become sincerely convinced based on their experiences (sky bursting into flames...)

This leads into another conjecture of mine: I personally think that the vast majority of self-described religious followers aren't truly convinced. They go through the motions worshipping, but deep down, they have their doubts. I mean, if the followers were so convinced, then wouldn't you expect a lot less sense of self-preservation amongst them? A true believer would be all smiles on that hospital bed in anticipation of finally taking that incredible journey as the end approached rather than screaming for the doctors to take all possible extraordinary life-saving measures, you would think.

Belief is that upon which the self-preservation instinct relies.


CC said...

mk writes:

"We've all heard the anecdotes about some person's miraculous recovery from some catastrophe - those would be the so-called "true believers" as I think of them. The "true believers" wouldn't necessarily have a choice since they may have become sincerely convinced based on their experiences (sky bursting into flames...)"

Your point is well taken but there's still a large element of "choice" happening here.

While the believer may have been absolutely convinced by a "miracle" of some kind, an atheist may have looked at the same "miracle" and said, "Holy crap, was I ever lucky there."

The believer, in some way, still "chooses" to look at some event as requiring divine intervention, when there's no evidence of that.

So, yes, underneath it all, it's still a choice, albeit one that the believer doesn't even appreciate he's made.

Anonymous said...

As someone who respects atheism, I hope you take this constructively.

I saw your link to this via Gervais' Twitter feed, and thought I'd give it a whirl.

The reason I made it about three paragraphs in (as is, I suspect, the case for many others) is not your content, but your petulant, disgusting tone with people.

The best debaters are those who don't use terms like 'those of you with functioning brain stems' and 'get their little panties in a knot'. Good debaters present the best version of their opposition and succeed by toppling even that. Also - and do wait for it - that is usually how they change minds. You failed to do that. Most atheists do as well, and like it or not, that's what you have in common with a great number of theists: an argument, and being a dumbass about it.

I'm not even necessarily disagreeing with your argument, but snark atheists have become the sexless grammar Nazis of contemporary intelligence, and your teenaged tone as a whole has got to stop if you've any chance of being listened to by reasonable people who don't already share your every thought. If those people missed a great article, you should have opened it better. Not their fault.

I should say, while I'm posting this anonymously, I'm not necessarily choosing to remain that way. It takes guts to put your name out there, and I'll give you that.