Sunday, April 30, 2006

Atheism and Theism

I know I was supposed to refute myself next, but this issue seems to be causing a lot of unnecessary dissension. So.

Atheism is simply the belief that there is no G-d or gods or disbelief in the claim that there is one or more than one. Theism is simply the belief that there is either one G-d or the belief that there is more than one. This is how we get both monotheism and polytheism. It's highly unlikely that anyone has ever killed in the name of atheism itself or theism itself. I can hear it now: "What? Are you a deluded crackpot?" Okay, here's a roundabout way of explaining it.

Jim begins as a blank slate (with reasoning and emotional faculties intact)and is given the choice on the matter of the existence or non-existence of G-d or gods. Jim can think about things and come to one of four conclusions. (Yes, there are other choices in the real world, but not in the make-believe world I've set up for Jim.)

Jim's choices:
a.) There is no G-d or gods.
b.) I don't know and can't know.
c.) There is a G-d.
d.) There are many gods.

Depending on which choice he makes, Jim will be faced with five questions. (Again, Jim lives in an imaginary world.)

1. What does that mean for personal morality?
2. What does that mean for social morality?
3. What does that say about the nature of the universe and my place in it?
4. What does that say about the nature of humanity in general and Jim specifically?
5. What does that say about people who believe differently and my interactions with them?

Jim's answers to these questions can lead him to myriad options even in his imaginary world: militant atheism, atheistic humanism, evangelical atheism, agnosticism, nihilism, materialism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, spirituality, Wicca, Pastafarianism, etc. ad infinitum. Jim's beliefs (depending on his choice) can be identified as liberal, progressive, moderate, centrist, conservative, ultraconservative, fundamentalist, literalist, radical, extremist, etc.

Yes, Jim's belief has gone far beyond a, b, c, or d. However, Jim's answers to 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are based on a, b, c, or d and inextricably liked to them as well.
So, no, Jim would probably not kill over a, b, c, and d but he sure as hell might kill over his answers to numbers 1 through 5.

I hope that makes sense.

27 Comments:

Anonymous Kenn said...

Melinda, I'm sorry but I'm not sure what your point is.

May I point out that the simplest definition of an atheist is someone who is not theist. In this sense, before your blank-slate Jim is presented any choices, he is an atheist.

This is what an atheist means when he claims that atheism is the default position. Someone who is ignorant of all theistic concepts is an atheist by default.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

No one with full reasoning/emotional capabilities is ever truly a blank slate. That's why Jim is imaginary. Also, some evolutionary biologists are now arguing that the capacity for supernatural thinking is innate, that we are born with the capacity to believe in something other than the natural world. They argue that it is an evolutionary accident linked to some of our thinking abilities. What types of supernatural beliefs come out of that capacity is cultural. How that relates to atheism has yet to be examined to my knowledge. It was in the December issue of the Atlantic. Therefore, how is atheism the default unless we're simply going to play a meaningless semantic game? After all, atheism has a very specific meaning that refers to disbelief of supernatural claims (negative atheism) or belief that those claims are false (positive atheism). By this little semantic trick, theism/supernatural claims must exist before atheism can come into being. This is something atheists have also argued.
My point is that both atheism and theism give rise to religions/ideologies that can have a variety of expressions, some of them extremist.

5:34 PM  
Blogger CFeagans said...

"By this little semantic trick, theism/supernatural claims must exist before atheism can come into being."

I think this is utter nonsense. How, then, would one explain my four year-old that is atheist. She has no belief in a god or gods. None are necessary for her. My wife and I have not bothered to teacher her one way or the other about religion or our worldview that considers religious teachings to be mere superstitions.

Atheism *is* the default. It takes someone to implant the mind-virus of belief in another for religious belief to be passed on. At some point, my daughter will ask some very pointed questions about religious superstitions she will overhear in the media or from friends. At that point I'll share with her my own perspective and encourage her to make up her own mind. I already teach her to ask questions like "how do you know?" about little things.

Whether she grows up to be a nun or an atheist, I'll be content knowing that I taught her to think critically and make up her own mind. Until then, she is very obviously an atheist. One who has no belief in gods. Not "disbelief" or "belief they don't exist" - a *lack* of belief.

But even I, someone who knows of many alleged gods, past and present, see no reason to believe in any one over another. I don't "disbelieve" as if I'm shedding myself of something that once was; nor do I "believe they don't exist" in a manner that suggest that I've simply turned my back on them -these are the hopes of those that are theistic in their intellectually dishonest attempts to justify their own beliefs in that which has no evidence.

I simply see no reason to believe in a god or gods. Perhaps one or more exists, but I see no reason to waste time believing that the mythology of man is representative of them. Man has shown itself to be nothing if not willing to believe in the fantastic over the thousands of years epigraphy and archaeology is able to represent.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

That's why I called it a semantic trick. (The definitions I used are from the dictionary, not from any ulterior motive on my part.) I don't really know which precedes the other and I don't think it matters. Being older doesn't necessarily make something more authentic or more true. As for your daughter, I think it's great that you've taught her to question. However, we get back to that pesky evolutionary biology thing in December's Atlantic. I don't know if this idea will stand the test of time, but it's an interesting one. I think, however, that they'll have to examine how it applies to atheism. Perhaps some are born with a biology different enough from the general population that they don't have the innate capacities for religious/spiritual belief or maybe one has to receive specific cultural teachings for them to be "realized". This is not to say that someone who "lacks" these is inferior or superior, simply different. All I could offer was speculation. We'll have to wait for science to have its say.
Also, I think saying "Well, an atheist would say that atheism is..." doesn't always work with such a diverse idea. Atheists seem to use that word with so many different, nuanced shades of meaning. It's kind of like saying, a Jew would say that Judaism is... There are a lot of different points of view.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Kenn said...

“My point is that both atheism and theism give rise to religions/ideologies that can have a variety of expressions, some of them extremist.”

Ok, but this doesn’t address the criticisms of your original RS post, for instance that it’s not clear exactly whom you’re calling an atheist extremist. Instead of providing any real examples of people who make the claims you ascribe to atheist extremists, here you make up a theoretical person who may become one of these vague, unnamed extremists.

As for default atheism, it’s not a semantic game but a meaningful term. What do you call someone who has no concept of a theological claim? I’ll argue that such people really do exist. However, even if I failed, you’d be a hypocrite to criticize me for talking about theoretical people given that you’ve just written a whole post about an imaginary man who lives in a make-believe world.

What do you call someone who has never heard of Thor, the Norse god of thunder? You could reasonably call such a person atheistic to Thor, since she is without belief in this religious figure. I have a friend who had never heard of Thor until I brought him up. (I presumed everyone had heard of him, but obviously I was mistaken). Before I introduced my friend to the concept of Thor, she was atheistic to him by default.

You might argue that I’m misusing the word atheist. But what ever you want to call them, it is obvious that there are real people who, out of ignorance, have no belief in certain religious concepts. Many of us call such non-believers atheist by default.

Do babies have religious belief? It sounds like I have about as much knowledge of the relevant psychology as you do. I’ve read a few articles here and there, and that’s about it. This article by Paul Bloom must be the The Atlantic article you mentioned. I haven’t read it and I don’t have access to the full online version. It wouldn’t surprise me though if humans come pre-wired for belief. But is that the same as actually having a religious belief when we are born? Not necessarily. If we are born with the tendency to believe but don’t actually believe yet, then we are still born as atheists, by default.

“No one with full reasoning/emotional capabilities is ever truly a blank slate.”

Well, let’s consider those who don’t have full reasoning/emotional capabilities. Say that one such a person is incapable of having religious belief. What would you call his lack of belief? I would call it atheism by default.

Atheist by default is indeed a term with meaning, not just a semantic game.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

I wasn't trying to address the criticisms to my original post with this one post. As I stated, it seemed to be one thing muddying the waters. I've provided and will continue to provide different perspectives so as to hopefully address as many questions as I can. As I've stated, I will go back to the original and show how/why it went wrong and try to resolve some of the issues.
The imaginary Jim was a simple story to demonstrate a single point. Like the five blind men and the elephant. If you're really going to read it that literally, I don't think we can come to anything even remotely resembling common ground. So, let's agree to disagree.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Kenn said...

“I wasn't trying to address the criticisms to my original post with this one post. As I stated, it seemed to be one thing muddying the waters.”

“The imaginary Jim was a simple story to demonstrate a single point.”

Personally, I found your story complicated. I read it slowly a few times and honestly tried to understand what you were saying, but I could not. Unfortunately, I think it was muddier than the RS post.

“If you're really going to read it that literally…”

I didn’t read it literally. It was obviously make-believe, just as you said.

I do understand the summary you gave a few posts up. You’re saying that there are religious people who are extreme, and religious people who are not extreme. There are atheists who are extreme, and atheists who are not extreme.

That’s actually a bit too simple for me. I can’t agree or disagree because I still don’t know what you mean when you say extreme.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Kenn. I have never heard of an extremist atheist. What do they believe? What do they do? (Crash planes into buildings like some of the extremist Muslims, or try to use fascist tactics to force their moral views on others like some of the extremist Christians?)

It seems like if you can not give a real world example of exactly who these people are or what their ideology is and what they are doing that is extreme then it begs the question of if they really exist in the first place. If they do exist then by all means point them out, if they do not exist then why bother talking about the possibility of their existence?

12:07 AM  
Blogger exbeliever said...

Melinda,

Atheism is simply the belief that there is no G-d or gods or disbelief in the claim that there is one or more than one.

If a "theist" is one who has a belief in a god or gods, then an "atheist" is, literally, one who does not have a belief in a god or gods. If "theism" is the theistic position that asserts that there is a god or gods, "atheism" is the theistic position that does not assert that there is a god or gods. This is what the addition of the "a" does to most words (atonal music compared to tonal music, ahistorical events compared to historical events, etc.)

It's highly unlikely that anyone has ever killed in the name of atheism itself or theism itself.

This is exactly correct because theism and atheism are not worldviews, they are theistic positions. Christianity, Judaism, materialism, physicalism, Hinduism, Objectivism, etc. are all worldviews. They make moral claims and claims about the world.

Atheism, theism, polytheism, etc., make no claims about the world. They make one claim and one claim only, i.e. a claim about the existence of a god.

Many Buddhists, for instance, do not believe in a god as such and are, therefore, atheists. They are, at the same time, however, very religious and spiritual. Atheism says nothing more about them than their theistic position.

Before "Jim" is given a choice about a god or gods, he is "without a theistic belief" and is, therefore, an atheist.

Your option, b. of Jim's choices (i.e. "I don't know and can't know."), is not an option. One either has a theistic belief or does not have a theistic belief. A so-called "agnostic" is either an atheist or a theist, she either has a theistic belief or she is without a theistic belief. There is no inbetween.

Theistic beliefs do not, themselves, force Jim to face any more questions. Jim has to ask questions about personal and social morality, his nature and place in the universe, the nature of humanity, etc. even without holding a theistic position.

Worldviews answer these questions. Worldviews have component parts. Some worldviews are monotheistic, some are polytheistic, some are pantheistic, panentheistic, and even atheistic. The question of god, per se, does not lead to an answer for any of your proposed questions. This is the job of the worldview that Jim choses to associate himself with--e.g. Christianity, physicalism, etc.

In fact, whether or not Jim will hold a belief in a god or gods will be determined by his worldview. The worldview he chooses to align himself with will determine whether or not he believes in a god or gods or does not have a belief in a god or gods.

It seems to me that you are reversing the order that people make decisions.

If you would like to hear more from atheist "whacko's" try here for my team blog.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Righteous Bubba said...

It wouldn’t surprise me though if humans come pre-wired for belief.

I believe that. So many relatively isolated cultures and tribes develop magic/ritual/religion with so many basic similarities that it seems reasonable to believe that it's a part of our being: we're creative enough to make a lot of interesting connections that are the basis for a lot of intuitive leaps, some of which will be false (I still avoid stepping on cracks sometimes to save mom, and I can't really believe that urging on my favourite team when I watch a game makes a difference yet I feel that I let them down if I don't whoop).

It's an argument for the anti-religious: obviously our societies come up with this stuff no matter what, so it's reasonable to assume that no one of them has any special truth value. Not the same thing as saying God doesn't exist, but often mistaken for the same.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Ex-believer, I think your little semantic trick is producing a false dichotomy here. "I don't know" is a viable answer to the question. If one takes neither stance intentionally, leaving both open to possibility, one does not fit the dictionary definition of atheism. For instance, Are there ghosts? You can believe that there are, there aren't, or that you can't make a decision and don't really care. Atheism by its dictionary definition is the result of having made a decision. Personally, I think trying to fold agnosticism into atheism in order to "prove" something is disingenuous and misrepresents many who call themselves agnostic.

2:41 PM  
Blogger exbeliever said...

Melinda,

Mine is not a "semantic trick," it is standard in atheistic literature. It also more closely tracks the etymology of the word.

Dictionaries record colloquial understandings of terms. You have to read more sophisticated literature to understand more difficult concepts. Read any book on atheism and you will find that mine is the more normative definition than your dictionary's.

Perhaps, you are having difficulty squeezing everyone into your "dictionary definition" because that definition is woefully inadequate.

By your definition, most atheists are not atheists at all (myself included). Anyone who believes that one cannot prove universal negatives would not fit your dictionary definition. I don't believe that I can prove that purple unicorns have never or will never exist in the universe. By your definition, I could never be an apurpleunicornist.

I can't say there is, was, or will be nothing in the universe that can be called a "god." Am I no longer an atheist? All I have said is that none of the evidence I have ever seen has led me to believe a god exists. If you would like to present some evidence, though, I would be glad to consider it.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you haven't read a lot of atheistic literature. Perhaps, doing so would be appropriate in light of your decision to speak out on it armed only with your dictionary.

3:54 PM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

I'm still trying to understand why you felt it was even important to go after these "whackjobs" to begin with. Apart from a few comments posted by people who were obviously agry about your column I haven't seen an example of who these "whackjobs" are, where we might find them (and confront their "whackjobbery"), who they are or what exactly they have done to cause you such concern.

We can debate the definitions of atheist, agnostic, secular etc all day but a few concrete examples of what it was that set you off in the first place would make everything a lot clearer for all of us. Well, for me at least...

Sincerely
A Hermit

3:59 PM  
Anonymous X-treme Atheism said...

It seems that Ms. Barton would prefer quiet, well-behaved athiests who do not challenge her superstitions. We are perfectly free to engage in our non-belief so long as she doesn't have to see it or deal with it. We can believe whatever we like, so long as aren't confdent enough in our beliefs to speak out in public and impose upon the sensetive ears of Ms. Barton or the religious right.
Well guess what? No deal! I'm an atheist and your article has demonstrated the need for me to be even more vocal about my atheism.

Let's be crystal clear on this. I don't have a problem with anybody's private superstitions. I do have a problem when those superstitions are used to justify behaviors like condemning the use of condoms or invading a soverign country. You can believe in monsters in your closet or M-nsters in the sky if you like, but don't expect me to remain silent if you try to declare war or ban gay marrige because the M-nsters in the sky told you that they don't like gay Iraqis.

So, for the record, I'm an atheist and I believe wholeheartedly that there is no evidence that supports the major claims of any theistic religion. I live in a world where people constantly justify their actions with references to those religions. Those actions affect me.

Why should I keep my mouth shut?

4:32 PM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

Just thinking on the run here, bear with me...this may not be as coherent as I'd like...

For me choices a) and b) are effectively the same; if one can't know if God exists then there is no point in including consideration of God in deciding how to live one's life. Option c) is just one belief away from option a). It's not considered irrational or extreme to not believe in all those other gods...but for some reason to drop that last one is to cross some sort of line

I can't think of any examples of agnostics being killed by atheists for adopting the wrong kind of unbelief, but history is littered with the corpses of those killed for believing the in the wrong God, or in the right God but in the wrong way, or for not believing in God(s) at all.

Or to put it another way, Jim would probably not kill over a) or b) but he might kill over c) or d), or even c:i) vs c:ii), or "not c) enough"...

(I know some people like to assign the crimes of Communist dictators to atheism, but that's a non-starter as far as I'm concerned. Communism was about class, economics and personality cults. In any case, Communism is a political philosophy, and is not necessarily an exclusively atheistic movement. Maybe one could argue that Catholic/Protestant or Sunni/Shi`a rifts and violence are also more political than faith based, but it seems to me the question of God(s) looms much larger in those conflicts than in any Communist program.)

Are choices about 1-5 going to be substantially different depending on which of a-d is the starting point? Can a lack of belief, or the belief that the question is irrelevant even be considered a starting point for questions about morality? For myself I don't begin my thinking about any moral question by saying "there is no god therefore...x..." I don't think there is an atheist equivalent to "WWJD". Are those who choose c) or d) more or less likely to make good moral decisions? Or is there no deifference, and if so why does it matter which of a-d we choose? Is it even really any more of a choice than, say, ones' sexual preferences?

But I think we're running into the same problem which beset your original article, Ms. Barton. You are offering hypothetical Jim and his hypothetical options instead of concrete examples of teh atheist whackjobbery you say you so concerned about. I'm sorry to keep harping on that point, but I'm afraid none of this is going to make much sense until you can identify your reasons for writing about the dire threat of leftist atheist extremism in the first place. As you can see I could ramble on all day about hypotheticals, but I'm not sure it's useful...

Sincerely

A Hasty Hermit

6:25 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Hermit, I do intend to write an explanation that I think will clear up some things and some more on why I picked this topic. The answer will astound those who have all kind of "ulterior motives" in mind. I just need some time. First b/c I work a lot of hours and if I get caught on the net at work by the wrong person, no more job for me. Second b/c I need some distance from this overwhelmingly negative experience before I can express myself in a manner befitting public discourse. I've already snapped at Kenn for no good reason and that's just unacceptable. I don't want to let the negative experiences cloud my judgement or my writing.
Thanks for your patience.

6:33 PM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

It must be a bit of a shock to get the kind of reaction you have; I have to give you credit for keeping your cool as well as you have. Some of the comments you've received certainly have been unkind. I would hope mine haven't been perceived that way.

I won't pester you anymore, since this is really just a diversion for me (and I'm busy enough that I probably should be avoiding diversions), but I'll peek back in here later sometime.

Peace
A Respectful Hermit

8:34 PM  
Anonymous dreamwalker said...

I'm overwhelmed at the response you're getting...I can only imagine how you must be feeling. :)

11:28 AM  
Anonymous dreamwalker said...

I'm overwhelmed at the response you're getting...I can only imagine how you must be feeling. :)

11:28 AM  
Anonymous dreamwalker said...

Sorry. Didn't mean to do that :(

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Minnie Mouse said...

(...Depending on which choice he makes, Jim will be faced with five questions. (Again, Jim lives in an imaginary world.)

1. What does that mean for personal morality?
2. What does that mean for social morality?
3. What does that say about the nature of the universe and my place in it?
4. What does that say about the nature of humanity in general and Jim specifically?
5. What does that say about people who believe differently and my interactions with them? ... Jim would probably not kill over a, b, c, and d but he sure as hell might kill over his answers to numbers 1 through 5.

I hope that makes sense."

I don't see where it does make sense for the reason that the Old Testament is full of wars justified by religion, and so is Western history since 1 AD. However, I know of no wars started by Atheists over religion. Therefore, I question your conclusion "...but he sure as hell might kill over his answers to numbers 1 through 5...." Based on the evidence, I think Xtians and Jews are mucn more likely to start wars based on religion, and much more a danger to the progressive movement. Care to contradict me? Got facts? Remember, an opinion whic sites facts is more likely to be valid than an opinion without. (Basic forensics)

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Minnie Mouse said...

"...Depending on which choice he makes, Jim will be faced with five questions....
1. What does that mean for personal morality?
2. What does that mean for social morality?
3. What does that say about the nature of the universe and my place in it?
4. What does that say about the nature of humanity in general and Jim specifically?
5. What does that say about people who believe differently and my interactions with them? ... Jim would probably not kill over a, b, c, and d but he sure as hell might kill over his answers to numbers 1 through 5.

I hope that makes sense."

I don't see where it does make sense because the Old Testament is full of wars justified by religion, and so is Western history since 1 AD. However, I know of no wars started by Atheists over religion. I don't even know of a single murder committed by an atheist over religion. Therefore, I question your conclusion "...but he sure as hell might kill over his answers to numbers 1 through 5...." Based on the evidence, I think Xtians and Jews are much more likely to start wars based on religion, and much more a danger to the progressive movement. Care to contradict me? Got facts? Remember, an opinion which cites facts is more likely to be valid than an opinion without. (Basic forensics)

Yes, a hermit brings up the same point, but I think it should be addressed independently from the rest of his excellent post.

And yes, this has been an overwhelmingly negative experience for Melinda, but I think she deserved overwhelmingly negative feedback from those she chose to stereotype as "atheist whackjobs" while urging that they be run out of a political movement which many of us have given our lives to. Call it Mama's doctrine of Natural Consequences. I'm still waiting for my apology. (Sigh)

6:17 PM  
Anonymous sarah said...

That you cannot bring yourself to, or will not, spell out the word "god" when you capitalize it to refer to a supreme being belies your whole argument (such that it is).

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Melinda, you can call it playing a meaningless semantic game and argue from that imposition but even that is still just an opinion (a dismissive one at that) and therefore not necessaritly corect.

Still, it is beside the point since all you have done is trapped yourself into a dualistic bind.

Neither belief nor disbelief are primary. It is the absence of both that is.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Canardius said...

To say there is no god is a bit different from saying there is no reason to believe in one. The latter is closer to agnostic line of thought -- that the answer is unknowable and the question pointless -- than atheism.

But then this gets us into semantics. And then there's the whole question of whether we are tabula rasa at birth. John Locke, anyone?

3:06 PM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

"The latter is closer to agnostic line of thought -- that the answer is unknowable and the question pointless -- than atheism."

I've always thought that atheism is the inescapable corrolary of agnosticism. If the existence of god(s) is unknowable, there is no reason to believe in one. If one does not believe in the existence of god(s) one is an atheist.

4:34 PM  
Blogger BuffyTFS said...

Jim begins as a blank slate (with reasoning and emotional faculties intact)and is given the choice on the matter of the existence or non-existence of G-d or gods.

Actually, for atheists their lack of belief is not a choice. It is based on lack of evidence for said god(s).

Do you consider your belief in God a choice?

5:29 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home