Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Without Theism

In one of the recent comments section of Godol Hador's blog, he is bewildered over the concept of the "weak atheist" and does not understand the qualitative difference that it has from the term "agnostic."

Weak atheism is the idea that one does not know if there isn't a god but that one doesn't reject the idea either. The weak atheist is simply unpersuaded by theistic arguments. The weak atheist can also go by the term "agnostic atheist" which means basically the same thing.

This idea is different from simple agnosticism in that an agnostic is just making a statement of knowledge, not belief. An agnostic, while saying that they don't know (or cannot know), may also believe in gods or not.

In common use, the term agnostic has taken the "middle ground" between belief in gods vs rejection of that belief. But, in truth, no such middle ground exists. Look at the word "atheism." 'A' means 'without,' 'theism' means 'belief in an intervening deity or deities.'

One is either of a belief in theism or without it. You can waver back and forth between the two, but you cannot both hold a belief and not hold that belief at the same time.

Suppose someone offers you ice cream, you can either accept the offer, reject it, or stop and think about it. If you accept it then you have ice cream (i.e. theism). If you reject it then you are without ice cream (i.e. atheism). If you stop to think about whether you want ice cream or not, you are still without ice cream (i.e. _still_ atheism). The guy isn't going to give you your scoops unless you say yes. One cannot somehow have ice cream and not have it at the same time. Either you accepted the offer, or you did not. Not accepting is not the same as rejecting, but it still puts you in the same category of those without ice cream.

The atheist doesn't need to explicitly reject the idea of god, the atheist is still an atheist if he just doesn't accept the idea.

12 comments:

elf said...

The problem with this explanation is that, while we pretty much all agree on the nature of ice cream, "belief" means different things to different people.

GH seems to define "belief" as a conviction (with or without reason) that something is true. For him, "theism" is a conviction that the God postulate is true, "atheism" is a conviction that the God postulate is false, and "agnosticisim" is a lack of certainty. You may accept this definition of belief and simply reject the definintion of "atheism" as a conviction that God does not exist; instead, it is simply a lack of conviction that he does. However, this makes GH's challenge to your terminology quite reasonable: "weak atheism" and "agnosticism" mean the same thing. According to your ice cream analogy, this category is closer to "strong atheism" than to "theism," so you may prefer to use the term "atheism," but frankly, all this does is confuse matters. We don't need two terms for the same thing.

On the other hand, when mis-nagid says that one can be an "agnostic atheist" or an "agnostic theist," he seems to imply that "belief" is not a conviction, but rather an assumption. One can be unsure about God's existence (agnosticism) but choose to assume, for practical purposes, that God does or does not exist. This is a bit more consonant with your ice cream analogy, as one can genuinely choose whether or not to assume something, whereas convictions are not necessarily optional.

So, what is it? Conviction or assumption?

heshy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
elf said...

Orthoprax,
Why do you get so much Jew-spam?

Orthoprax said...

elf,

"GH's challenge to your terminology quite reasonable: "weak atheism" and "agnosticism" mean the same thing."

You only get into this situation in the first place through a misuse of the term "agnostic." What it really comes down to is whether you are a etymological purist or a "go-with-the-flow" dictionary person.

But with important terms like these, I prefer keeping true to their original meanings and not losing focus through their bastardization over time.

"So, what is it? Conviction or assumption?"

Neither really. One can hold strong convictions, but what can also just tentatively accept an idea too. And I don't think beliefs are voluntary, so I wouldn't call it an assumption either.

My measure, as I think I mentioned in my post, is simply if a person is convinced of an idea or not. How strongly convinced a person is is irrelevant.

Orthoprax said...

Heshy,

Please don't spam on my blog.

Elf,

Maybe I'm just popular. ;-)

Divrei Yashar said...

I can certainly see why GH is confused.

The fact is that as you acknowledge, agnosticism is a statement about knowledge (or lack of knowledge) not belief.

Atheism, on the other hand, requires an affirmative statement about the non-existence of G-d. It is simply a misuse of language to then label as any kind of atheist an agnostic who declines to adopt a belief in G-d (or in your questionable analogy, declines the ice cream). This repeats the GH "coerced belief" fallacy in which the agnostic is required (in your mind) to adopt some kind of belief at the risk of being labeled some kind of atheist.

This fallacy also lies at the heart of what is wrong with your ice cream analogy. Instead of analogizing belief to whether the recipient takes the ice cream, let's instead equate non-belief with not liking ice cream (doesn't like ice cream equals atheism). Now, when the recipient declines the ice cream, do you know he doesn't like ice cream? Maybe he just isn't in the mood for ice cream. Maybe he's outside in a blizzard. Maybe he's an OJ who just had a steak for lunch.

The fact is that belief cannot be coerced and the refusal to express a belief does not equate to atheism, which does express a belief. If you want to use the term "strong" and "weak" atheism, a strong atheist would be one who claims that the non-existence of G-d can be empirically demonstrated, i.e. he purports to "know" that G-d does not exist, while a weak atheist would be an agnostic who believes there is no G-d.

But an agnostic who adopts no belief is not any kind of atheist at all, so please stop misusing these terms.

Orthoprax said...

DY,

"Instead of analogizing belief to whether the recipient takes the ice cream, let's instead equate non-belief with not liking ice cream (doesn't like ice cream equals atheism)."

I'm sorry, but that's wrong. You're turning around the analogy from what it was, a question of fact (do you or do you not) into an unrelated (do you or do you not want). A person who likes ice cream and still turns it down is like the atheist who likes the idea of god but still rejects it. Unrelated and unimportant to the question.

"The fact is that belief cannot be coerced and the refusal to express a belief does not equate to atheism, which does express a belief."

Do I need to break down the word again? A - without, theism - belief in god. If you do not have a belief in god then you are an atheist. If god is not part of your belief system, be it through active rejection or passive non-acklowledgment, the idea of god is _still_ not part of your belief system.

You're free to disagree, but you're not giving me any reason to adopt your side of things. You're just telling me what you think.

"But an agnostic who adopts no belief is not any kind of atheist at all, so please stop misusing these terms."

Does the agnostic include god in the things he believes in? If not...

Divrei Yashar said...

You can't define a word as correctly used in English by breaking down the Greek. Here's a dictionary definition of atheism:

1. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods;
2. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.

I know you'll now quibble and say "disbelief" means only the lack of an affirmative belief (in fact the dictionary definition of disbelief is refusal or reluctance to believe). I think it is pretty clear that the dominant tenor of the above definition requires a more positive disbelief than the scrupulous neutrality of a principled agnostic.

The Columbia online Encyclopedia defines atheism as "denial of the existence of God or gods or of any supernatural existence, to be distinguished from agnosticism, which holds that the existence cannot be proved". That seems to me to be correct.

I did see some examples of the usage that you urge, in which any lack of affirmative theistic belief is defined as atheism, but the problem with that usage is that, as the Encyclopedia definition makes clear, it would blur the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. The degree of confusion engendered by this usage over a NTGH, for example, is reason enough to eschew this definition and preserve the classical distinction between atheist and agnostic.

Divrei Yashar said...

Also, your modification of my modification of your ice cream analogy merely makes my point that it was a weak analogy in the first place.

Orthoprax said...

DY,

"...is reason enough to eschew this definition and preserve the classical distinction between atheist and agnostic."

The "classical distinction" was a qualitative one. They actually meant totally different things. They weren't supposed to be on the same scale but at right angles to one another.

My usage is keeping to the classical distinction. Dictionaries today do not define what a word means, but how it is commonly used. That's why terms evolve and languages change.

I make a point about these terms because I want to conserve the actual meaning and now how they've been demeaned over time.

I actually think the way the terms are used today are more confusing because most agnostics live their lives under the presumption of there not being a god anyway. They just don't want to be called atheists because of the negative connotations associated with the term. In all practicality most atheists are agnostics and most agnostics are atheists.

"Also, your modification of my modification of your ice cream analogy merely makes my point that it was a weak analogy in the first place."

I didn't modify your analogy, I returned it to mine. It's only weak if you don't want to accept the actual definitions of the terms.

Anonymous said...

My Personal experience is that although I accept the natural world is a result of a natural process I see in scientific explanation and theory elements that both contradict and indicate the possibillity of the exsistance of an intelligence. Therefore I cannot say in my own mind with honesty that there either is or is not such an intelligence. What I can be certain of is that I reject all forms of orgnised religion for this is created by humanity in its entirity as a comfort blanket to ward off the possibility of final oblivion after death.

Ergo, I am Agnostic. If it is proven, I will believe in an omnipotent intelligence. If it disproven I will be an Atheist.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

Are you familiar with the 'teapot in orbit around Saturn' analogy?