Atheism and Agnosticism

After my first couple of posts and having people read the ‘About’ section it’s become obvious to me I’ve spent a little too much time hanging out in atheist circles with people who, generally speaking, think similarly as I do and understand the definitions I use.

Obviously that won’t always be the case here, so I wanted to take a post to explain my definitions for atheism, agnosticism and my beliefs in general. Looking over the post I’ve written I think defining atheism and agnosticism is enough to fill one post. I shall make my next post about the things that I do believe.

 

Atheism – Dictionary.com

‘A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings’.

That’s it. The rejection of belief. Saying “I don’t think so” when someone says their god exists.

Now, many people put atheism in the same category as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any other religion, and for purposes of census that’s probably where it belongs. But it needs to be said that technically atheism isn’t a religion. It is the rejection of religion.

To once again use proper definitions:

 

Religion – Dictionary.com

1. A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

3. The body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.

Now I can understand that when people first read these definitions they’d assume atheism falls into this category, but let’s break it down.

Obviously number 1 doesn’t fit. Rejecting the belief in a god doesn’t tell us anything about the cause, nature or purpose of the universe and obviously it’s the opposite of considering superhuman agencies.

2 and 3 are very similar and I’ll address them together. There are no atheistic practices. There is no doctrine or creed that binds us together. Finding someone is an atheist will tell you nothing about what they do believe. Admittedly there is often a consensus about many issues, such as abortion or gay rights but that is a byproduct of being critical thinkers, and most likely so is their atheism.

So we can reject practices, but what about beliefs? Surely the fact we all, by definition, reject the idea of a god or gods fits this?

Technically no. What needs to be pedantically pushed here is that a religion is a set of beliefs. Atheism is a rejection of those beliefs. It is an anti-belief. It is unbelief. Take note of that definition. A religion requires a set of positive beliefs. Beliefs you say ‘yes’ to. Atheism is saying ‘no’ to those beliefs.

I understand that people may think I’m being unnecessarily anal here and that I’m debating semantics but it is a very important point that needs to be got across. Atheism is not a religion. It cannot tell you anything about what a person does believe. To say atheism is a religion is like saying bald is a hair colour. Atheism is the absence of belief, just as bald is the absence of hair.

Now to get a little less clear. Strong atheism and weak atheism. I have heard there are positions other than these two, but I’d prefer to not muddy the water any more than need be, so I will try to limit my conversations to these two.

 

Weak Atheism – My definition

‘The disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings’.

Yep, basically weak atheism is the standard definition of atheism. That’s pretty simple.

 

Strong Atheism – My definition

The belief there is/are no god(s).

Strong atheism differs from atheism here. Weak atheism is akin to say “I don’t think you’re right” when someone claims their deity is real.

Strong atheism is stepping forward and saying “I believe I have evidence your god doesn’t exist”.

Now I freely admit here that strong atheism is a big step closer to being considered a religion. It is a positive belief in the lack of a deity. That doesn’t mean it comes with any of the extra baggage religions usually carry, such as political hierarchies, pray, creeds, practices or an opinion about the meaning of life.

So does that leave us with strong atheism technically being a religion? I would suggest a tentative no, and this is why.

Are we to categorize every positive belief as a religion? Would PC vs Mac users be considered a religion? They’re certainly dogmatic enough. Heck, they even have T-shirts! But I wouldn’t consider them a religious movement.

Something that might be a little more reasonable would be to compare strong atheism to those that believe in the Lockness monster or Bigfoot. I certainly don’t think either of these beasts exist. In fact I would argue there is positive evidence against their existence. When it comes to cryptozoology, I am a strong atheist. But I wouldn’t consider disbelief in Bigfoot to be a religious movement either.

What is it that makes one set of beliefs about something mundane (say your football team is the best) not religious, but others religious? Certainly we can’t start labelling every set of beliefs a religion, that would defeat the purpose of the label.

I openly admit that strong atheism comes a lot closer to being a religion than weak atheism. And maybe it’s one of those areas that’s so grey it just defies proper labelling.

For the purposes of this blog I am happy to admit that strong atheism is a religious belief, however it is a belief based upon evidence, not faith. And there are two more words I will need to define at some point.

I would argue however that although a belief about religion, strong atheism is still not a religion. To meet that requirement it would need the addition of practices, creeds and a collection of agreed upon beliefs. Strong atheism does not have this.

 

Agnostic – Dictionary.com

1. A person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2.A person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

Now this is where things can get a little wishy-washy, and I’ll do my best to keep things clear. In terms of knowledge, I agree with the above definitions. We can never be 100% sure (about anything really) that a god does or doesn’t exist. It is always possible one may exist beyond our universe in a place we are completely incapable of exploring.

If we are to be honest I think we would all admit to being agnostic, at least in our knowledge. It’s possible a god may exist beyond the veil of our perception. It is also possible solipsism is true, and that nothing exists but ‘I’.

Now this is all well and good, but if we’re all agnostics then it kind of defines away both atheism and theism. Agnosticism is great for telling us about our limited knowledge, but it tells us nothing about what a person believes. And for the purposes of discussion, I find that vastly more interesting.

So, although I agree with the dictionary definition, I don’t find it all that useful. If we’re all agnostics then we all agree and we can go home right? But we know that we don’t all agree. That’s the damn point of this blog!

So what I want to do is use agnosticism to talk about belief. And this is where it fails.

When you have a dichotomy like belief or non-belief it is impossible to sit on the fence. Of course you can profess to not knowing (which we should all do) but if asked what you believe this fence sitting becomes impossible.

In your mind either the subject has met its burden of proof or it hasn’t. You either believe or you don’t. If you’re “unsure” then you fit into the latter category. ‘Unsure’ means the subject hasn’t quite met its burden of proof. ‘Unsure’ is just a less convinced version of disbelief.

So to try and wrap up agnosticism.

 

When it comes to knowledge we are all agnostics. We can never be 100% certain no matter how smart we think we are, or whether we think god(s) have spoken in our ears.

When if comes to belief none of us are agnostics. Either the burden of proof has been met or it hasn’t. We are either believers or atheists.

For these reasons I will generally try to avoid using agnosticism as a label. If we’re talking about knowledge, we all are. If we’re talking about belief, none of us are. The title becomes useless and tells us nothing.

When and if I use agnosticism I will use it to refer to people who believe there is something more to the world we see around us, but don’t limit that ‘something’ to a deity. It may be a force, an energy source, a purpose to life. This is still fairly wish-washy but at least it tells us something. The individual has a belief in something supernatural, however they don’t adhere to any of the major religions.

 

So, the work still to be done. I’m going to need to find working definitions for both faith and belief. These can be fairly wish-washy and you may have different definitions, but for the purpose of you understanding me I’ll lay those out in another post.

I need to do another post covering my own beliefs. This will cover some of my morals, why I am a strong atheist and probably a short list of other crap I don’t believe.

 

-Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.

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About Jamie D
I'm an entrepreneur and small business owner working in 3D animation and multimedia. I also have a keen interest in technology and education.

10 Responses to Atheism and Agnosticism

  1. Ama Dine says:

    Hmm.. my webpage went a bit weird in the last answer so I will finish here .. the psuedonyn thing .. I don’t mind if someone I can identify as a human being says they do not like what I write, I am unbiblical, a heathen and going to hell (not to mention threatening to stone me) .. but when a ‘thing’ does it .. a person with pseudonym instead of an identity (so you cannot tell even if they are male or female) does it .. watch out! I am usually polite, but I do not cop crap from anyone. I think a person who hides behind a psuedonym and is incredibly nasty is a coward, and certainly not a ‘good’ Christian .. which some of them pretend to be.

    That’s me for the evening. Goodnight.

    LOve & Peace
    Ama

    • archdragon87 says:

      Hi again Ama,
      Generally I’d agree with you on the pseudonyms, however in this instance I would prefer to write under ‘Arch’. The reason being for fear of discrimination. Generally in Australia I don’t think it’s something to worry about too much, but a great deal of my atheistic information comes from America and I know over there being an atheist is much more likely to have real life repercussions, such as losing ones job, hate mail and even the extent of death threats. Considering some of the clients I have are American this is something I’d like to avoid.
      Out of interest though, what difference would knowing these ‘cowards’ real name make? The only reason I can think of to want their real name would be to track them down offline, and I don’t see the point in that. It may in fact be somewhat cowardly to hide your true identity, but considering real harm can come to people I think it is a warranted cowardice.

      Argue, discuss…perhaps I would have been better to use the word ‘debate’? Regardless, I think our only quibble here is word usage and we seem to be in agreement over the ‘proper’ way to discuss things.
      As to harm, I think it can be a bit of a grey area. There are many times where it can be better to hurt someone’s feeling in order to prevent further suffering. Presumably you’d be fine with this?
      But what about things that will only cause pain, but are the truth none the less? For example, if you had cancer and only a couple of months to live, would you prefer your doctor to not tell you?
      Likewise I’d hardly try and convince people that atheism will make you feel any better. I can’t use atheism to comfort you when you lose a loved one. I won’t tell you about the man in the sky who always loves and forgives you no matter how much of a jerk you’ve been. There is no comfort in atheism. Death is final and life can be brutal for no good reason. But I still think it’s most likely the truth, and I feel we should deal with reality on realities terms, no matter how unpleasant that might be.
      Your thoughts?

      It is most unfortunate to hear about your friend. It is for reasons like this I worry many people become too attached to their beliefs. As much as I hate agreeing to disagree there comes a point in the conversation where people must do this, or risk losing more than the argument was worth. I hope your friend will one day give you the chance to explain what you meant and you can patch things up.
      Oh and if Transformers 1 gets you wound up avoid the second one, it’s likely to be even worse.

      I think you’ve made the right choice studying theology outside of the church. The limited experience I’ve had with masses in school and churches suggests they’re more interested in pushing their version of god and don’t take a lot of time to question his existence in the first place.
      I’m not a believer in the paranormal and I intend to briefly cover why in my next major post. Maybe there is something you can bring to that discussion, and convince me why I’m wrong?

      Until next time 😉

      • Ama Dine says:

        Hi Arch,

        What difference does it make? To me, a huge one. You know the old saying .. “don’t dish it out if you can’t take it”. It’s too easy for someone to hide behind a screen and make nasty comments at other folks who do not believe what they believe. It takes a lot more courage to stand up as yourself, an easily recognised person .. photo included .. and stand your ground. I admit I don’t abuse people the way I have been ‘talked to’ recently, but the ones that did it are totally unknown, except among their sniggering selves. I don’t want to track them down online, I just want them to OWN their comments. And I want their ‘churches’ to see them in places they are not supposed to be venturing, given their beliefs.

        You have a legitimate reason, by your understanding, for using a pseudonym, but I want people to trust me. Many of them have said ‘I looked at your face and I knew you could help me’ .. and I did. And I try not to be a hypocrit, Arch, I don’t say one thing on one site, and say the opposite in real life, or another site from behind a mask. And when I have a rant, I am responsible for what I say .. and people can see who I am when they comment.

        When I was a child my mother always told me I had to learn tact. Saying nothing is often better than saying something nasty, if it can be avoided. Yes, the truth can hurt, and I don’t pull my punches at times, but the situation truly has to warrant that choice. And who am I to decide what ‘truth’ is for the other person? Though I break that rule at times, when I state mine with great firmness. But I try to paraphrase it with ‘have you thought of this ….?’

        And to me .. death is never final, and our lives do not ever lack meaning. Atheism takes away so much. Believers believe in nothing, an emptiness that can be filled in many ways, but never more kindly than by knowing that someone loves you. In a life devoid of friends, contact with other people (eg prison cells), and happiness, a faith in God/Spirit can fill huge gaps in someone’s life. And yes, it might be our imagination, but going by my experience .. not just what I think I know .. but what I have actually experienced .. subjective, of course .. there is a something greater out there, something that watches over us with love and kindness.

        To me an atheist has to believe that everyday people are either deluded, liars or insane. Do a quick search on the internet and you will find thousands, or millions, of stories of people seeing ghosts, or having angelic, demonic or elemental experiences. Yes, some people are imaging them, some are deluded and some are insane, but not all of them – and the true experiences deny the ‘nothingness’ of an athiest’s reality, and yet what does the average althiest do?

        And talking about reality, doesn’t it depends on how I see my world? Mine is full of ‘other world’ beings, which some people will not even allow to exist, regardless of whether they have seen them with their own eyes. I know quite a number of people who have seen ghosts, but still deny their existence. That is a puzzle! Does it make them so unsafe to know there is more out there than we can touch with our fingers .. although in ghost cases you actually can.

        Actually, I’ve seen the 2nd transformers, and liked the first better. LOL I saw them in reverse.

        I think I made the right choice in studying theology at St Marks Anglican College in Canberra, by correspondence. The head lecturer’s first comment at residential school was ‘the study of theology will either make or break your faith’, and he wouldn’t allow fundamentalist type remarks, bless him.

        I don’t want to convince you of anything, Arch .. a person convinced by force holds the belief very lightly. You’ll accept what I ‘know’ one day, or you will not. Whichever choice you make is fine with me. The angels once said to me, “It does not matter that humans do not believe in us, Ama, because we believe in them.” .. Can’t top that comment. LOL

        Love & Peace
        Ama

  2. Rob C. says:

    Agnosticism is……murky. And very fence sitting. I agree with you there.

    Other than a set of practices, both weak and strong atheism should be a religion. (I suppose the avoidance of god or actively seeking evidence could be a practice.) There is a set of beliefs about the world, creation, ect. and you do have an opinion on a “higher power”. It less of it being positive or negative in nature, because it’s possible to make atheism into a positive. Example, “I believe god(s), or supernatural entities do not exist.” followed by the reply, “No, I do believe a god(s) or supernatural entities exist.”

    I wonder if you have been hanging out with atheists so long that part of the language within that group has evolved it’s own language and would no longer be considered English. (jks)

    • archdragon87 says:

      Sorry Rob but there are a number of things wrong with your statements. Firstly atheism only makes a statement about a persons belief in a god. Whether or not the individual seeks evidence to support this is irrelevant from their belief. I personally seek evidence both for and against, but I know other atheists who couldn’t care less. There are no practices in atheism, just the simple statement of belief.
      There is also no set of beliefs, there is only the one. Other than a lack of a deity atheism cannot tell you anything about the world and it has no opinion on how the universe was created. Aside from it’s non-existence we have no collective opinion on a higher power. Although thinking about it even that is hard to define. I recently met an atheist who believed in ghosts. And let’s not forget than technically Buddhists are atheist too. Should they be considered to be part of two religions?
      The strict language use is probably less to do with atheism and more to do with philosophy and the distinction is important. In weak atheism it is the believer who has the positive belief and it is therefore their responsibility to provide proof. In strong atheism it is the atheist who is making the positive claim and the burden of proof is now on both the atheist and the believer.
      It does appear anal at first, but this is why you are wrong to say you can take atheism from a negative to a positive. Weak atheism is simply saying “I’m not convinced”, whereas strong atheism is saying “I have evidence you are wrong”. These are two very different positions and you would do a disservice to the talker to confuse the two.

      • Ama Dine says:

        Hi Archdragon,

        You invited me, and I am reading. A couple of questions though .. why does someone who is a weak atheist have to provide proof of their positive belief? And who do they have to prove it to, except themselves? And what is wrong with an athiest who believes in ghosts? Isn’t athiesm a lack of belief in ‘gods’, not the paranormal? They are two different things, though they might be seen to exist in the same realm. And what evidence do you have that proves God, or Gods, don’t exist – apart from ‘I can’t touch it, therefore it isn’t real’? LOL

        Love & Peace
        Ama

        • archdragon87 says:

          Hey Ama, thanks for coming over. It’s always nice to have an audience when typing up these ramblings and it’s even nicer when you’ve got someone to disagree with. Well, I prefer it anyway. So, welcome, and now to try and answer some of your questions.

          “why does someone who is a weak atheist have to provide proof of their positive belief?”
          Either that’s a typo or you’ve got it around the wrong way. Weak atheism is simply the rejection of belief. It is the believer with the positive belief who is meant to bring evidence to the table. A strong atheist has a positive belief there is no god(s), and it is therefore their responsibility to bring evidence to the table.
          As to why though, as that is the important part of your question. It is both a scientific and philosophical standard, and because it works best for discovering the truth. I think to explain it best I will need to use an example.

          Say I come to you telling stories of a wonderful new creature I found in my backyard. Let’s call it a Snoogleplop. I’ve done some extensive research and I’m fairly convinced no one before me has ever documented the existence of a Snoogleplop, and I’d like to make it official and give it my desired name. A Snoogleplop is ten feet tall, but it’s like a chameleon and can camouflage itself, which is why no one has ever found it before. I happened to stumble across it while it was in one of it’s rare ‘normal’ states and I was able to see it.

          Oddly enough, you don’t believe me. You are an atheist to my Snoogleplop. Now, if we’re interested in figuring out if this Snoogleplop exists (or whether I’ve just got into the pot) we need to take steps to prove it’s existence. As an unbeliever to my Snoogleplop, how do you go about gathering negative evidence for something that doesn’t exist? The simple answer is, you can’t. Because as soon as you start investigating, you are in fact looking for positive evidence.
          From your atheistic position about Snoogleplops it is impossible for you to gather evidence to prove your position. It is therefore my responsibility as a believer in Snoogleplops to gather positive evidence (photographs, a sample of dung, an audio record, whatever) to try and convince you. After all, I don’t expect you to just believe my somewhat outlandish claims!
          Now of course this doesn’t mean you can’t be a nice person and come to my backyard to help me search. It’s just that my claims are quite nutty and I wouldn’t expect you to waste your time when you have other important work to do. Someone over in Africa has a really blurry photo of a Snoggleplip, and that should be investigated first!

          “Who do they have to prove it to, except themselves?”
          What difference does it make whether they want to prove it to someone else, or just themselves? The standard of evidence should be exactly the same. Regardless of whether I’m trying to convince myself of something or you of something I would require the same standards of evidence. And I would use the above standard (that the burden of proof is on the positive believer) because it’s been demonstrated through experimentation that it works extremely well for discovering the truth.

          What is wrong with an atheist who believes in ghosts?
          I never said there was anything wrong with it, I was merely amused as it’s dreadfully unusual. You’re correct though, being an atheist doesn’t immediately mean you don’t believe in the paranormal. Although connected, gods and ghosts are separate ideas and disbelieving in one doesn’t mean you disbelieve in the other.
          Hopefully at some point I’ll get her to explain her position, as I’d be interested to hear how she justifies that.

          “And what evidence do you have that proves God, or Gods, don’t exist?”
          That is one massive question and one I wouldn’t hope to answer in a simple comment. No to worry though, my next post will be about what I do believe and I will cover a few of the reasons I am a strong atheist. That has the potential to massively blow out the post though, and I may just do a couple of reasons, then expand on those in yet another post. One way or another though, that stuff is coming!

          • Ama Dine says:

            Hi AD, I am happy to agree to differ, I do not like arguments, and have no time for rudeness. 🙂

            I reworded this sentence of yours – “In weak atheism it is the believer who has the positive belief and it is therefore their responsibility to provide proof.” I counted the ‘believer’ to be the weak athiest, I guess you didn’t meant that?

            I look forward to your explanation .. back to my own blog now.

            Love & Peace
            Ama

            • archdragon87 says:

              Hello to you too AD ;),

              I hate having to agree to disagree, even more so when I think an agreement should be reachable. I not only love to argue I think it’s essential to finding the truth. If there is a point I am mistaken about and no one is willing to argue the point with me, how will I ever learn I am wrong? I’ve had my opinion changed many times from arguments. In fact I had my view altered by someone on my very first post! I’m not terribly bothered by rudeness, but that may be because I’m pretty difficult to offend. I do my best to take arguments on face value and try not to be put off a good argument by bad manners.

              I’m not sure I understand the reworded sentence. Did I have a typo in my writing somewhere and you’re correcting it (if so, thanks), or are you changing your original writing? Either way I think it’s a lot more accurate, and no, I wouldn’t count weak atheists as any kind of believer.

              From what I’ve heard you haven’t done a lot of your own writing recently. I’ve bookmarked your blog and I’d be quite happy to read more of your stuff, although I do have quite a backlog to chew through. And not to worry, I’ll keep my rants confined to my own blog I promises 😛

              • Ama Dine says:

                Hi AD,

                are you hiding behind a psuedonym or am I allowed to call you your name? Psuedonyms bug the heck out of me! I’ll explain why in a minute.

                I don’t ‘argue’, I will ‘discuss’ something down to the ground, and all its finer points in pin-point detail, and maybe to the death, unless I get really bored with the whole thing, or the other person’s attitude. I love learning new things, and changing my mind about old ones .. if the change is appropriate, does no harm, and makes me a happier, healthier person. I think rudeness is not a conversation. Definitely to be avoided, and a great way to make me, politely, drop them.

                I copy/pasted your sentence over .. so no, no spelling mistake, just semantics. You wrote it to mean one thing, I read it to mean another .. believe me, its easy to do. A person is not speaking to me anymore because s/he ‘read’ what I wrote as one thing, and I meant it as another .. (sigh). I am usually pedantic about words, and making sure people understand what I say. I should never make comments late at night, and when I am wound up from watching ‘transformers (1)’.

                The writing thing .. I have not done many blogs lately, because I spend hours every day answering questions either on ‘allexperts.com’ or ‘trueghosttales.com’ (also a wordpress group) under the topic of paranormal. I don’t call myself an expert on anything, but I do know quite a bit on metaphysics topics, and biblical ones. I am a lay theological student .. which means I learn it outside any church, and usually from the hundreds of theology books, or my friend, the internet .. and end up deep in arguments with people with common interests, which is fun, or ‘other’ people .. more fundamental .. who invade the ghost tales site and condemn us all to blazes. That can also be fun, because I love a good biblical ‘he said, no, he said’ type debate, but mostly you just get .. intense diatribe, which is very sad. I am trying to blog more, under the scrutiny of my lovely daughter, but the one I started today got sidetracked because my partner was interrupting too much, and I lost the thread of what I was thinking. So it will appear tomorrow. You are welcome to read and comment, keep it nice, argue if you want, but be kind .. my site is also moderated.

                Love & Peace
                Ama

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