Atheism = Absence of Belief in God or Gods?

It’s a common trope among some New Atheists looking for more and better rhetorical tools for their identity politics that atheism is a-theism, and therefore means “a lack of belief in God or gods” and absolutely nothing else. This definition generally aids rhetorically in asserting atheism as a sort of default position for humanity. A recent example:

 

 

Apart from being a wildly naive etymological fallacy that ignores literally millennia of historical usage, the explicit denial of any qualification whatsoever renders all entities in the entire universe atheist, animate or otherwise, including all believers during the vast majority of their lives when they are not actively engaged in believing. I would suggest that this kind of petty and naive identity politics does neither service nor justice to atheism or atheists.


19 responses to “Atheism = Absence of Belief in God or Gods?

  • Lynn Svedin

    Entymology:
    Awesome – with awe to some extent.
    Awful – Full of awe.

    So, by demanding strict compliance to entymology, the “atheist” argument is awful, just awful.

  • Boxing Pythagoras

    Apart from being a wildly naive etymological fallacy that ignores literally millennia of historical usage…

    What is an “etymological fallacy?” As long as one clearly defines his terms, the historical etymology of those terms is fairly inconsequential. For thousands of years, the word “atom” was intended to reference the smallest possible division of matter, which could not, itself, be composed of parts. However, the definition of that word has been altered over the past hundred years, so that atoms are composed of smaller particles, which are themselves composed of smaller particles, which also may be composed of smaller particles. Are chemists and physicists committing a “wildly naive etymological fallacy” when they talk about Hydrogen atoms?

    …the explicit denial of any qualification whatsoever renders all entities in the entire universe atheist, animate or otherwise, including all believers during the vast majority of their lives when they are not actively engaged in believing.

    I don’t see how you could possibly think lacking belief in deity could extend to those who hold a belief in deity. However, if the application to inanimate objects is that bothersome to you, it’s fairly simple to amend the definition to apply only to persons.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      One commits the etymological fallacy when they insist the meaning of a word or concept is to be found in its lexical origins. The notion that the meaning of atheism is determined by its constituent lexical elements (a-theism) is the etymological fallacy. That is simply not how language works. Meaning is constructed in the brain of the reader/hearer based on their understanding of an agreed upon symbol relationship between a sign and a signified conceptual field. Meaning is conceptualization. It does not exist outside of the human mind. It is thus relative, fluid, contextual, and socially constructed. Because of that, the historical usage is absolutely relevant. it can help us understand where certain understandings are coming from. Sure, word meanings change all the time, but all that does is prove that etymology is no guide or fence. It does not mean that historical usage chains anyone to a specific meaning, but the ways that new meanings develop is important here. If a person or group of people would like to posit a new meaning, they have to understand that they cannot assert it prescriptively over and against others still happily operating with a specific historical usage, and particularly if (1) their new meaning is so obviously a rhetoric ploy intended to serve their identity politics, and (2) those self-identifying with that category do not accept that new definition. Self-identifying atheists assert belief in deity. It’s neither the prerogative of you nor anyone else to excise them from the category on the grounds that your new definition requires it.

      Next, “belief” is not a physical neural feature that people just always have. It’s a cognitive action in which I can either be engaged or not engaged in any given moment. When I’m asleep, I am not actively believing in God. When I am driving in my car or working on my dissertation or eating dinner with my family, I am not actively believing in any deity. If it happens, it happens in brief spurts here and there when the situation catalyzes or calls for it. There is an absence of belief in deity in all humans at all times except when they are actively engaged in the cognitive action of believing. I am, by that very definition, an atheist 99.9% of the time. At the same time, until I activate a disbelief in deity, my cognitive architecture predisposes me toward acknowledging counterintuitive agents in the world around me. All humans have this cognitive architecture, so if we were to assert that our underlying cognitive predispositions determine our belief systems, whether active or inactive, then from a scientific point of view, no human on the planet is an atheist. It takes reflective beliefs to reject the existence of deity or the supernatural. For this reason, simply adding “on the part of humans,” or something like that, to the definition does no good.

      Now there are nuances and exceptions and shades of gray in all this, and I’m happy to discuss them, but the notion that atheism is a black and white question of the absence of belief in deity is laughably naive rhetoric and nothing more.

  • Boxing Pythagoras

    Meaning is constructed in the brain of the reader/hearer based on their understanding of an agreed upon symbol relationship between a sign and a signified conceptual field… If a person or group of people would like to posit a new meaning, they have to understand that they cannot assert it prescriptively over and against others still happily operating with a specific historical usage…

    I’d say we are fairly in agreement, here.

    (1) their new meaning is so obviously a rhetoric ploy intended to serve their identity politics

    I don’t agree with this characterization, in the least.

    (2) those self-identifying with that category do not accept that new definition. Self-identifying atheists assert belief in deity

    Most self-identifying atheists with whom I converse– myself, included– utilize a definition for atheism similar to the “lack of belief” definition from above. And is there a typo in that second sentence? I do not know of any self-identifying atheists who assert a belief in deity.

    Next, “belief” is not a physical neural feature that people just always have. It’s a cognitive action in which I can either be engaged or not engaged in any given moment.

    This seems a fair bit pedantic. It’s fairly obvious that when someone asks the question, “Do you believe in God?” they are not asking, “Do you unceasingly actively engage in the cognitive action involving belief in deity?” When a person says that they “have a belief in God,” it is not necessary that they hold this belief at the forefront of their cognition at all times. Similarly, when a person says atheism is a “lack of belief in God,” they are not referring to a person who holds a belief in God when engaging actively in that particular cognition, but does not incessantly engage in that active belief.

    Do you know of anyone who utilizes the “lack of belief” definition who has attempted to claim that theists are actually atheists whenever they are not actively engaged in their belief? If not, this line of reasoning seems to be a Straw Man.

    Now there are nuances and exceptions and shades of gray in all this, and I’m happy to discuss them, but the notion that atheism is a black and white question of the absence of belief in deity is laughably naive rhetoric and nothing more.

    I can agree to that, but I would say that precisely the same is true of those who claim that atheism concretely implies the statement that God does not exist.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      1) So you disagree that that new definition of atheism was developed and is primarily utilized within discourse between atheists and non-atheists, and particularly to validate the legitimacy/naturalness/superiority of atheism?

      2) No, there’s no typo. Studies conducted by Pew showed that in 2007, only 73% of self-identified atheists reported not believing in deity. In 2014 it had risen to 92%. Atheists who believe in god are around, and I think your incredulity kinda reveals the scope of your engagement with the issue.

      3) If they’re not holding it in the forefront of their cognition at all times then it is absent at any time it is not at the forefront. Our brains do not store reflective beliefs. Similarly, we do not store memories. We reconstruct both every time we call them up. Our brains’ architecture predisposes us to quick construction to certain types of intuitive beliefs, but like I said, the human brain is predisposed to attribute counterintuitive agents and agency to the world around us, so if you want to be scientific about it, all of us default to the roots of theism.

      4) It’s not a straw man, it’s just pointing out the necessary logical conclusion of a rhetorical trope about which advocates of it have not thought particularly deeply.

      5) That’s kinda the point I’m arguing, but above you insisted you don’t know any self-identifying atheists who assert belief in deity. Which is it?

      • Boxing Pythagoras

        1) So you disagree that that new definition of atheism was developed and is primarily utilized within discourse between atheists and non-atheists, and particularly to validate the legitimacy/naturalness/superiority of atheism?

        I don’t disagree that there are atheists who utilize this definition, and who thereby argue that their atheism is legitimate or natural or superior. I disagree that doing so is a rhetorical ploy, of some sort.

        2) No, there’s no typo. Studies conducted by Pew showed that in 2007, only 73% of self-identified atheists reported not believing in deity. In 2014 it had risen to 92%. Atheists who believe in god are around, and I think your incredulity kinda reveals the scope of your engagement with the issue.

        I’ll look into those Pew studies, as I am not familiar with them. I would certainly be interested in what definition for “atheism” is utilized by a person who self-identifies as atheist and yet still claims a belief in God. I will note, though, that I did not express any incredulity. I simply acknowledged that I am unaware of any such self-identified atheists. I have no problem admitting that the level of my engagement on this issue has not brought any such people to my attention– especially considering their rarity, even by the data which you’ve presented.

        3) If they’re not holding it in the forefront of their cognition at all times then it is absent at any time it is not at the forefront. Our brains do not store reflective beliefs

        So, then, would you say that a theist ceases to be a theist whenever he is not actively believing in God?

        4) It’s not a straw man, it’s just pointing out the necessary logical conclusion of a rhetorical trope about which advocates of it have not thought particularly deeply.

        I disagree that it is the necessary logical conclusion because, as I noted, I do not agree that the strict active cognition of belief in what is meant when someone colloquially discusses “having a belief.” So, again, do you know of anyone who has claimed that a person who would be a theist when actively considering God would be an atheist when not actively considering God? If not, have you asked anyone who uses the “lack of belief” definition if they mean a constant, active cognitive action by the term “belief,” and found that they do? If neither of these is the case, then you are certainly arguing against a position which is not actually being forwarded– which is precisely what I mean by a “Straw Man” argument.

        5) That’s kinda the point I’m arguing, but above you insisted you don’t know any self-identifying atheists who assert belief in deity. Which is it?

        I stated that I don’t know any self-identifying atheists who assert a belief in deity. I did not state that no such people exist, nor did I state that such people would necessarily be wrong. It’s entirely possible that such people have a definition for “atheism” which would include people with a belief in God. As I mentioned above, I’d definitely be interested in such a definition.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    1) I consider it to be a rhetorical ploy when a definition is altered in order to aid an argument, whether defensive or offensive. Rhetoric is effective discourse. The definition was altered precisely to be more effective in discourse.

    2) http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/11/201.11.03_RLS_II_full_report.pdf (p. 48 to start)

    3) Of course not, since I’m not advocating for anything even approximating such a definition.

    4) So the definition is strict and binary, but it relies on colloquial squishiness? Perhaps he shouldn’t assert a strict definition in the context of an academic discussion and then complain that my engagement with it is too strict and academic. The “well, you know what I mean” defense is really just an admission of willful naivety that has no purpose in a discussion about drawing strict linguistic boundaries around concepts.

    5) As I stated in the tweet of mine that you see above, definitions don’t work for conceptual categories. This is part of my concern. When people start asserting definitions, they’re trying to reify boundaries that don’t exist outside of our discourse about them. The best approach to this question is to let self-identification stand and not try to tell people our imaginary boundaries ought to control their understanding of their own worldviews.

  • danielwalldammit

    “One commits the etymological fallacy when they insist the meaning of a word or concept is to be found in its lexical origins. The notion that the meaning of atheism is determined by its constituent lexical elements (a-theism) is the etymological fallacy.” Quite a shift in there.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      How do you figure? Breaking the word into it’s constituent elements “a-theism” and asserting their separate original lexical meanings combine to produce the meaning of the word (“absence of-belief in god”) is the etymological fallacy.

      • danielwalldammit

        You’re equivocating on ‘original’. As relevant to the EF, that would be historical. In your response to me, you are speaking of components, not historical relationships.

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        I’m referring to an appeal on their part to what they believe to be the original meaning of each component of the word. “Original” is not distinct from “historical,” it’s just the far end of it.

  • danielwalldammit

    Might be ‘composition’ is a better candidate that etymological fallacy for the argument at hand.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    He’s not appealing to the contemporary use of the word or the historical usage between its etymological roots and this redefinition in which he find rhetorical value. He’s trying to circumvent all that to go back to the etymology. As I said, it’s a textbook example the etymological fallacy. Splitting hairs about whether or not my use of “original” in my explanation of the etymological fallacy was accurate seems a pretty pedantic attempt to score a meaningless point here.

  • Seth R.

    I usually allow atheists who use this line on me to use it, but only if they are willing to accept the logical conclusion that they have nothing useful to contribute to the discussion as atheists, if that is indeed what atheism is.

    If atheism is, as they say, mere non-belief, it is also quite irrelevant as a logical matter. Atheism asserts nothing, claims nothing, prescribes nothing, and is consequently good for nothing, and can be safely ignored.

    Only people who wish to assert positive truth claims really have anything to contribute to the ethical, philosophical and social/political dialogue of our time. People who wish to go around bragging about holding mere non-positions are simply wasting everyone’s time.

    But, if an atheist wishes to assert the relevance of his or her views and actually join the dialogue with something useful to say – then they will have to take up an actual position with actual truth claims. Which, to be fair, most atheists cannot resist doing. I’ve actually never met an atheist who was content to confine himself to mere non-position, non-belief, and non-opinions. Every last one of them broke down and started making all sorts of positive truth claims.

    And once they do that – they now have the burden of proving those truth claims.

    Which seems to make most atheists break out in hives. If you want to ward off a vampire, they say to wave garlic at it. If you want to ward off an atheist – hand him the burden of proof. They really hate trying to prove their statements, but life’s tough all over I guess.

  • Mark

    Hey mak,

    Are you a athiest now days

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