Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is atheism?

I think it's hard to define 'agnostic' and 'atheist' well. Agnostics are often said to be people who think we can't know whether God exists or not, but this means that a great many believers count as agnostics (because they insist their belief is necessarily a matter of faith, not knowledge). It seems to me that agnosticism is more a matter of not being sure what you believe, or just having no beliefs either way about God.

Atheism is harder though. At In Living Color, Jean Kazez writes that "new atheists" like Dawkins and Harris are really anti-theists, unlike most atheists, who are more just skeptical, and might appreciate that religion offers people some good things. But if you are an atheist rather than an agnostic, don't you have to reject theism? You might not reject it rudely or with much confidence, but I think you have to reject it to count as an atheist. That doesn't mean you reject theists, of course, and perhaps that is what Kazez and Julian Baggini (whom she cites) have in mind. Or they might just mean that normal atheists do reject theism, but not as much as Dawkins, et al., do. And they seem to think that this is a good thing, since Dawkins (in their opinion and mine) goes too far.

Speaking of Baggini and a talk he gave, Kazez says:
Atheists come to be overly anti-theist, he said, when they don't try to understand what religion offers people. It doesn't so much offer doctrine as it offers practices --many positive, like expressing gratitude before meals, and creates communities.
This could be read as saying that religion consists primarily in practices or that what is good about it consists primarily in practices. But atheists can engage in these practices too, can't they? Unless the practices include things like saying sincerely that you believe in God, but then doctrine comes in again.

If religion is mostly practice but theism and atheism are beliefs, then atheists can be (to a large extent) religious. But that seems wrong. So should we think of atheism as a kind of practice, or as non-engagement in a range of practices? That seems promising to me. But it raises the question why atheists who see value in these practices do not engage in them. And the answer to that seems to be that the distinction between doctrine and practice breaks down here (or somewhere, anyway).

And maybe that is where Dawkins and co. go wrong. If there is no sharp distinction to be made between doctrine and practice and if, therefore, there is no sharp cut-off point between theism and atheism, then the kind of black-and-white thinking that says you are either a loony (who might as well worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Russell's teapot) or a Bright seems insufficiently motivated. It seems like a difference of taste masquerading as a difference of insight. But I'm not sure how sharply we can distinguish taste from insight either.  



  1. Actually it's very simple to define all the terms. The important thing to keep in mind is theism and gnosticism deal in different domains; theism/atheism deal with belief while gnosticism/agnosticism deal with knowledge.

    So with that in mind the definitions are quite easy to understand:

    Theism is the belief in one or more gods.
    Atheism is a lack of belief in one or more gods.

    Gnosticism is the positive assertion of knowledge.
    Agnosticism is the lack of a positive assertion of knowledge (it isn't the classic philosophical postion, or positive assertion, that knowledge can not be had).

    So to meld them together:

    A gnostic theist believes in more or more gods and makes the positive assertion that they know this to be true.
    An agnostic theist believes in more or more gods but does not make the positive assertion that they know this to be true.

    A gnostic atheist lacks belief in any gods and makes the positive assertion that there are none.
    An agnostic atheist lacks belief in any gods but does not make the positive assertion that there are none.

    Most atheist that came to atheism through modern skepticism (and/or are familier with the philosophical difficulty of proving the absence of a thing) are agnostic atheists when it comes to gods in general. This does not make them deists this just means they do not make a positive assertion that there are no gods.

    You can also be a combination of all of these for instance I am generally an agnostic atheist but am a gnostic atheist specifically when it comes to all gods written about by man because it can be demonstrably proven that they were invented by man.

    Interestingly enough most theists are also gnostic atheists when it comes to all the myriad of other gods save their own. The lack a belief in all of them and make the positive assertion that those other gods do not exist.

  2. Thanks. Yes, that's the literal definition I suppose. But I was thinking more in terms of ordinary use. Talk of 'agnostic theists' is technically correct, but sounds a bit funny (at least to my ears). There is also the problem, as I see it, that talk of belief in God or gods makes theism sound like a doctrine (the belief that such-and-such an entity exists), when actual religion is rarely best understood in these terms. Or perhaps I should say that belief in God is rarely simply the belief that God exists. And if theism is not so simple and doctrinal then atheism surely isn't either. Or so it seems to me.

    But maybe what I mean is that talk about theism and atheism is largely beside the point. Maybe it's more relevant to talk about religion and irreligion instead.

  3. I do think many atheists wish to distance themselves from Dawkins and his ilk, because of the WAY they reject everything religious. But I'm not sure that that is all there is to the distinction atheism vs. anti-theism. In his Atheism, A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini tries to rid atheism of a reputation as parasitic on religious believes, and that "atheism is by its very nature negative and [that it] relies for its existence on the religious beliefs it rejects". One could perhaps call this the idea of atheism as anti-theism? Baggini aims instead to "provide a positive case for atheism, one that is not simply about rubbishing religious belief". I think I see a difference here. Dawkins is simply saying: My belief is that your belief is wrong, whereas Baggini tries to formulate some ideas of his own that would stand even if there were no believers around.

    (However, something seems to go badly wrong when he wants to define his position. "Atheism is in fact extremely simple to define," Baggini writes: "it is the belief that there is no God or gods." Why, isn't this exactly atheism defined as anti-theism, or as a spin-off from religious belief?!)

    But this, it seems to me too, is largely beside the point. Much of the debate that stems from the understanding of theism and atheism as doctrines, such as the efforts to prove (logically) God's existence or to disprove it, look more like intellectual games than existentially important questions to me -- they certainly seem far removed from the religious daily life.

  4. Yes, that seems like a problem for Baggini's position. I suppose the idea of Brights is meant to be a positive alternative to religion, but it seems very parasitic on the idea of religion (since it appears to be a kind of religion without theism).

    I find it hard to get past the idea that Dawkins shares the understanding of religion that fundamentalists have (or claim to have), so that his rejections of religion really leave non-fundamentalist kinds of religion untouched. And non-Dawkinsy atheists want to distance themselves from him, or from his brand of atheism, because it seems so fundamentalist itself.

    But if we think of theism in different terms, then atheism becomes something hard to pin down, and perhaps not radically different from (non-fundamentalist) religion.

  5. Yes, Dawkins....(sigh). It is sooo easy to think of counterexamples, and really all kinds of objections, to what he says about religion. I was tempted to put down his book after only a few pages and make up my mind based on that (not unlike the way Dawknins reads religious texts, I imagine), but I read on, with my frustration growing for every sentence. Terry Eagleton wrote a devestating review of The God Delusion, where he mimics the tone of Dawkins' writings. The ridicule seems more fair in this case, however, as Eagleton only writes about one spesific book, unlike Dawkins who collects every sillyness he can find, out of which he creates "Religion", which he then points his finger at (or shakes his angered fist, really).

  6. I hadn't seen that review--thanks. I don't think every word of it is true (Oxbridge philosophers these days have more time for Heidegger than he thinks, for instance), but it's a good account of how Dawkins goes wrong. The funny thing is how popular Dawkins and company are, how much money there is to be made from abusing religion, and how much anger it seems there must be for people to want to read all those books. Or perhaps they are really thirsting for philosophy but either don't know where to look or else don't want to have to do the work involved in philosophy done well. My sense is that a lot of people have been raised in a religious environment and resent it quite strongly. I'm not sure why, but then I was raised by a Christian mother and an atheist father, neither of whom tried to force me to agree with them. So I really don't have much to resent. It might be political, given how much conservative politicians have gained from playing the religion card, but I'm not sure how much of the phenomenon can be explained this way.

  7. Or perhaps they are really thirsting for philosophy but either don't know where to look or else don't want to have to do the work involved in philosophy done well.

    I think there's a lot of that all around. Good formulation.

  8. Thanks. Yes, this might be a big part of it. Some philosophical work has been very popular, after all, but it seems to have to be watered down quite a bit to go over with many people. And even philosophers these days want their philosophy scientific (although perhaps that has always been the case). So it makes sense that people would turn to scientists for their philosophy.