Friday, November 13, 2015

Debates on the definition of an atheist

Today I saw a post about a Pew survey of atheists that said "Although the literal definition of 'atheist' is 'a person who believes that God does not exist' ... 8% of those who call themselves atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit." There are issues with this!  Many atheists will dispute that definition, saying that an atheist is a person who does not believe a god-deity exists.  Superficially similar, these are quite different definitions.  The key notion is that belief means an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists.  Belief in a deity, therefore, implies a state of mind with 100% confidence in the existence of that deity.  Similarly, if atheists believed with 100% confidence that God does not exist, then their belief would be the mirror image of a believer's faith in God.  Atheism could be seen as just another sort of religion, then.

What's wrong with belief, in either case, is that there's no absolute proof of the Abrahamic God's existence - or non-existence.  If such proof existed, there'd be no need to discuss this topic at all.  Everyone would already know for certain that God's existence or non-existence was an obvious fact.  If someone believes either claim with unshakable confidence, they must do so in the face of inadequate evidence to support absolute confidence in their claim - either belief would, therefore, be an act of "faith" where by faith I mean "belief in the absence of evidence".  Belief of either sort is, therefore, not rational.  

On the other hand, if your definition of an atheist means someone who does not believe in a deity (the Abrahamic God, Odin, Amun, or whatever), then it would be an outright contradiction in terms to have 8% of atheists say they believe in God or a universal spirit (whatever that might mean).  If someone claims to be an atheist and then turns around and says they're a theist clearly doesn't understand the definition of an atheist.  The funny thing about people who call themselves atheists is that we wind up disagreeing with each other a lot!  A continuing point of disagreement among atheists is the definition of atheist, as evidenced by the Pew survey result and the comments it has engendered among atheists.  Evidently, 8% of people claiming to be atheists don't understand the term! 

Many people who actually don't believe in a deity don't want to accept the atheist label, for reasons of their own, so they choose not to call themselves atheists.  Agnostic seems to some to be a less negative label than atheist.  An agnostic is someone who claims not to know for sure, but at the same time typically does not believe in God.  Agnosticism is a claim about a lack of knowledge, not a claim about belief.  A few atheists are absolutely certain there's no deity, a faith I don't share with them.  They would be "gnostic" atheists, and there are large numbers of comparable "gnostics" among theists.  I consider myself an "agnostic" atheist, as do most of the atheists I know.

It's quite possible to claim not to be affiliated with any organized religion and still be a theist (or deist, if you prefer).  [This was the case for several of the framers of the US Constitution, most of whom favored a "wall of separation" between church and state, to prevent the tyranny of one religion over all others.]  There are some who regularly attend organized religious services but in their own minds actually do not believe in a deity - closet atheists, if you will.  The issue of whether or not you participate in organized religion isn't relevant to this discussion, but not having a religious affiliation is in no way equivalent to atheism.

Most of the atheists I know prefer the definition I mentioned above - atheism is the negation of belief, not a belief.  There are many analogies:  baldness is not a hair color, off is not a television channel, not collecting stamps is not a hobby.  These analogies are intended to illustrate the simple point that unbelief simply is not a belief.  Unbelief leaves open the logical possibility that at some point in the future, absolute proof of a deity's existence could be found.  As things stand now, any logical discussion of God's existence (or non-existence) is limited to the degree of confidence (i.e., excluding absolute certainty) one might have in concluding that God exists (or does not), based on whatever "evidence" we can muster.  Absolute positions are irrational in such a situation, because that degree of confidence just can't be justified.

It's common in science that two scientists can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions.  Both may have what they consider to be good reasons for their opinions, but unless the data are unambiguous and of an extremely compelling nature, they may continue to disagree.  Science, contrary to a common misconception, doesn't deal in truth.  Absolute truth doesn't exist in science (although it does in mathematics).  All scientific ideas are subject to question and revision, typically when new evidence comes to light.  Scientists never claim to know all the answers, in part because to know all the answers would be the end of science!  No one has to "believe" in science.  There are vast amounts of compelling evidence that science works in a practical, factual way that doesn't involve faith at all.  The thing about facts is that they're facts whether or not you believe in them.
I've described elsewhere the sort of evidence I'd find to be compelling regarding the question of God's existence.  In the absence of that sort of compelling evidence, the way the world works seems to me to be entirely consistent with what you would expect if there was no such deity.  The Abrahamic God is full of contradictions and is irrational, immoral, and even has human failings (e.g., jealousy!), despite the claims of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.  That deity makes no sense to me.
  I have an expanded version of my position regarding religion elsewhere, if you're interested.  Thus, it seems highly unlikely to me that the Abrahamic God exists, and the burden of proof lies with the theists, who are making the dubious positive claim that the Abrahamic God does exist.  I'm only making the statement that I'm not buying in to that claim.