Atheism and Agnosticism
July 24, 2011 10 Comments
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.