It’s Atheism, Not Adeism

As I have expressed a number of times in the past, I am a gnostic atheist.  I am an atheist in the sense that I neither believe in nor worship, appease, pray to, or in any other way imagine myself to interact with personal gods. Simply lacking such belief and refraining from related practices is sufficient to make one an atheist. I am a gnostic atheist in that I think that I know that such personal gods in fact do not exist.  An agnostic atheist, by contrast, refrains from belief in personal gods and from pretensions to interact with personal gods but does not think their nonexistence is quite a matter of knowledge for one reason or another.

I am not such an agnostic because I do think that it is a matter of knowledge that there are no personal gods.  It is no harder for me to dismiss the existence of Yahwheh or a personal Allah or a divine Jesus as fictional or mythical than it is for all of us 21st Century modern people to dismiss out of hand claims that Thor or Zeus or Spider-Man or Aquaman exist.

But some atheists are reluctant to call themselves atheists because there remain the various god conceptions of the philosophers, some of which are, or may in the future be, plausibly formulated.  Might there be a single source of all being distinguishable from the known universe and fitting a certain, longstanding, traditional philosophical definition of the word “God”?  Perhaps.

This or a number of other concepts one might formulate are, or at least could be, sufficiently conceivable and sufficiently consistent with our best science and metaphysics as to be reasonably plausible.  One might for one reason or another disfavor belief in one or another of the possible metaphysical god concepts and yet still not think of one’s disbelief as raising to the level of knowledge.

I consider someone like this open to deism and agnostic about deist gods.  I myself fit this description.  But then why call myself an atheist if I am philosophically agnostic about whether some single “divine” principle which originates existence exists?  Should I not just call myself an agnostic?

No, I should not just call myself an agnostic.   The reason I am an atheist is because I am the opposite of a theist, not the opposite of a deist.  And I am not agnostic about theism, I am agnostic about deism.  I am gnostic about theism.  I know Yahweh and a divine Jesus and a personally construed Allah, etc. do not exist with the same kind of sufficient evidence and degree of certainty that I know Aphrodite and Green Lantern do not exist.

An impersonal metaphysical principle which somehow accounts for existence or order, etc. is an entirely different thing.   Proving such a thing exists would get you no closer to proving the existence of Yahweh or a divine Jesus than proving numbers are real entities would prove the real existence of The Count from Sesame Street.

Theists are quite fond of arguing for a deistic god and assuming that it is the same thing as providing evidence for a theistic one, when it’s not.  Or, a bit more modestly, other theists think that the inconclusiveness and relative philosophical open endedness of the deist god question translates into a plausibility of the theist god.

But it does not.

I do not feel like participating in the equivocations of theists by granting them that lack of knowledge about whether a deist god may exist translates to lack of knowledge about whether the personal gods upon which religions are actually based exist or not.

The believer in a personal god is a theist.  I do not believe in any personal gods, so I am an atheist.  My considered reasons for disbelief raise to the level of knowledge by our ordinary standards for knowledge claims.  Therefore, I am a gnostic atheist.  That the existence of some deistic, impersonal god may very plausibly be proved to me is irrelevant.  Even were I to come to be a deist by affirming the existence of a “divine” impersonal metaphysical principle of some sort, I would remain a gnostic atheist. The positions are entirely compatible.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Zac

    I get that you’re using a term and defining it clearly, but the use of your word gnostic is rather unfortunate given its wider, more accepted understanding in religious tradition.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, I understand that and it’s a valid concern. I am following a growing usage that chooses gnostic for the natural symmetry with agnostic.

  • Adult Onset Atheist

    Your distinction is a worthy one, and one I often stumble across. I’ve also found that theists are more likely to be the ones arguing for a deist god; they engage more readily than deists do. You propose inspiration for a lack of belief within the playing field of certainty and debate; most deists I know avoid those activities. They further avoid the question of whether evolution is right or wrong, or even how the universe began. The questions they are more often invested in are: “How do you work this thing?” or “How will this work for me?”. The deists I know who have decided they were in fact atheists (like myself for instance) had discovered that the deist god was not really doing anything worthwhile for them. The deist god does not explain, enlighten, or help figure out how to work this thing. The change does not come from anything as conclusive as a wining debate maneuver; rather it is the grudgingly comprehensive amalgam of effect gleaned from a sort of philosophical bookkeeping.

    • Daniel Fincke

      The deists I know who have decided they were in fact atheists (like
      myself for instance) had discovered that the deist god was not really doing
      anything worthwhile for them. The deist god does not explain, enlighten, or
      help figure out how to work this thing.

      Yes, unless you are a metaphysician interested in a god concept because it helps with your overall metaphysical account in some way, I do not see why anyone would be terribly invested in positing a deist god. Theism is where the action is for relating that metaphysical question to one’s personal life, to ethics, to religion, etc., which is the extent of where most people’s interest in metaphysics lies (unless they are philosophers or scientists with a special overlap with metaphysics, or some other sort of intellectual specialist, etc.)

  • Wazaghun

    See which problems arise when people start to look for terms for “nonbelief”.

    I rather stick to a view similar to the one of Sam Harris:
    I don’t define as something i am not. Hence i am not an “atheist”.

    If you don’t believe in Christianity, then so be it. If you don’t believe in any personal god so be it.
    No need to label oneself as subcategory B of a category that is the negation of the other categories around.

  • James Sweet

    Heh, I said something similar last August:

    I think there are good philosophical reasons not to accept deism (or pantheism) either, but by definition there cannot be any empirical evidence against it. Theism is another story… And furthermore, I’m not that interested in opposing deists. There’s no in-practice difference between deism and flat-out atheism, so even though I think deists believe something a bit superfluous and silly, I’m not particularly worried that it’s going to negatively affect their other beliefs or actions.

  • George W.

    Damn you Dan!
    Every time I start using a label you come by and tear it down. I have been saying “agnostic atheist” for the last year and a half at least…only to now find out that I should rightly be using “gnostic atheist/agnostic adeist”.

    Your criticism rings true.

    • Daniel Fincke

      That’s gratifying to hear, George. Thanks. It feels good to me also to finally find the way to articulate why atheism has always seemed the intuitive correct label for myself even when the definitions of it I was offered were telling me it wasn’t.

  • Mr Z

    I agree that labels are more or less useless because anyone can define how ‘they’ use the label and thus remove any meaningful definition from the word.

    I am ME. My world view is like the world view of so many others in that it includes more than a single facet of life. I am not a single issue voter nor a person who only likes one kind of beer. Why should my world view contain a single issue or flavor?

    I am ME. You do not have to like me. My self esteem does not rely on what you think. If you must give me a label I am anti-theist. Not only do I find a complete lack of credible evidence for the supernatural and god(s) but I think that even the notion that such things might exist is complete BS. Anti-theism is not my world view, it’s not even close to being a substantial part of my world view. It is simply a single facet of my world view. As such, such a label is demonstrably meaningless.

    I don’t collect stamps or watch trains. I don’t eat hand sized cherry pies from fast food restaurants. I don’t rent old black and white movies on DVD. I don’t sprinkle fairy dust or sage smoke on my lawn. There are millions of things I don’t do and in fact believe are complete BS from inception to execution. These do not define me or my world view.

    If you ask me if I believe in god(s) I won’t simply say no, I’m an atheist. I’m most likely to ask why you would even ask me such a question because I don’t believe in santa claus or the tooth fairy or the easter bunny. Do you ask me about my position on those? Why ask me about your particular favorite imaginary friend? Why don’t you ask me if I believe in reincarnation, or any tenet of a faith you don’t belong to? See, the real reason you are asking me the question is not to discern my view of the world but to decide whether or not to display your bigotry to me and at me.

    While it’s possible that you might simply be interested in my view it is most common that the questioner is not really interested in anything but how to discriminate. Labels do nothing for such people because any label that is not ‘their’ faith label is reason enough to demonstrate their bigotry at you. This is the most common use of labels where religion or lack of it are concerned.

    We can all gather one day per week with those who claim the same label as we do. We can have fun and enjoy the social aspects of the gathering and feel good about ourselves. When we feel the need to change our label we can meet with different people that one day per week.

    A label apparently does many things. There are some things a label cannot do: Feed a starving community; end bigotry; end discrimination of any kind. In fact labels don’t really do anything useful for the world in the way that helping another human does.

    So call me anything you want (you will anyway) but know that I don’t actually give a damn what label people use for me. I am ME. If you want to know what that means, try one of the time tested methods of getting to know someone. It generally works well.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Labels matter, Mr. Z, because of context. In a context where religion is a dominant institution, identifying oneself explicitly as a dissenter from its hegemony and as a challenger to its truth claims is an important socio-political act. This is importantly different, from a cultural point of view, than other denials you might make. There are many other reasons to identify as an atheist besides merely being a target of someone’s bigotry.

    I make the case for atheist solidarity at greater length in this post which I recommend for your comments.

  • Mr Z

    While what you say might have weight in the heat of a battle, it carries no weight in the struggles of life. I proclaim myself as ME, not some religious adherent and in the society I find myself (North America) that is enough to distinguish that I am not a supporter of magic sky daddies.

    That I make the simple distinction that I am NOT part of their value system, but exist wholly in MY value system I have affirmed what you think important and more pertinent, I have not joined any side at all. In this context I have declared that no group can lay claim to my loyalty and I give it as I see fit. “I am not a number” and all that. I count. Not because I have a label, but because I do not. I count not because I oppose theism due to being in some group or wear some label but because I oppose it on my own volition; my own thought; my own impetus; my own reason. I stand, without accord, and I stand against inequality. I do not need a label or a group. I am ME. I got here without the support of any group and I will continue with or without the support of any group. I am NOT one of you or one of them… I am ME.

    I do not represent the thoughts and ideas of any famous atheist speakers. I do not worship any of those speakers nor their ideas. I am ME.I am not just an atheist and I do not vote (where life allows such an action) only with atheist sympathies. I am ME and I do as I wish. Your label is woefully inadequate for my purposes. It does not promote any of the other ideals which are important in my world view.

    Yes, I see and admit your point that it takes organization to change the world. I am not here to change it, only oppose the oppression in my little corner of it. Though you can argue that this is counter productive, if all of us did the same, it is as effective as an organized opposition. E.G. if no one murdered anyone, we would have no need for laws against it… no matter any lack of organization. That is not how the world works you say? Well, not yet. I stand for me and all who wish and seek and support equality. I don’t want anyone to join me. I simply want all to do the same. Don’t join me, stand on your own. Stand strong and fight for what IS right. Yes, you do know what is right without a group to belong to. Saying otherwise is silly. When you see injustice of any kind, stand, shout, pick up a club.

    Joining a group is to selectively surrender independence and autonomy. I cannot do this with a peaceful mind. You and I might agree on the existence of gods, but there it stops and I need to know much more before allying with you. The simple fact that you also do not believe in gods does not make us brothers. What if I disagree with some other aspects of your or the ‘movement’? What then? I will have aligned myself with a group that does not have my interests at heart. A group whose cause has high probability of great effect on my life which is outside my control.

    My name brand is ME. It is worth much more to me than to brand myself with a group name. It is worth much more to my friends and in-group than some label of a group. Having the title policeman does not make you honest. Being known as an honest person who happens to work as a policeman is worth more.

    Finally, I did not withdraw solidarity, I only refused the label. I got here on my own despite every reason for me to be a fundie right now. I had no help. I had no support. I had no group. My lack of belief means much more to me, and the world, that I am not a member or follower or groupie.

    The law of reciprocity demands that we oppose injustices. It does not also require that we join a group or wear a label. Religion does enough of that. If I have to join to be an atheist then such is not worth having. Trust me on this, if I have to wear a label, I will toss it to the curb. When you tell me that I need to join a group because I don’t do something I begin to think your belief and understanding of the world is weak and perhaps without merit.

    An honest person opposes injustice where they find it, not simply where a group tells them to. My duties to myself and in-group members has little to do with lack of belief and if I execute my duties faithfully, there is no need of me to join a group of non-belief. Honesty and truth always oppose injustice and credulous faith. I do not need a label.

    Ask me for solidarity, sure… ask me to wear your colors… not so much.

  • Mr Z

    GAH, pressed the wrong key or something.

    I do not stand for what I am not. I stand for what I am. Let anyone oppose me for standing for equality and fairness and justice. Let them oppose me for standing against societal harm. Let them oppose me for supporting my fellow humans. Let them oppose me for supporting peace.

    I will not allow them to oppose me because I wear a label.

  • Julian Bennett

    It is standard practice in philosophy to delineate three doxastic states towards some proposition P [God exists]

    A: Belief that P is True
    B: Neither belief that P is True, or, belief that P is False
    C: Belief that P is False

    Once you have these stances it is important to focus on the rationale for them i.e., which is justified. Since they are mutually exclusive if any one of the above is the correct stance to take the others are false.

    In the internet world of blogs and folk atheists things are different and more confusing. There is very little philosophical argument about which stance is justified, other than the odd poorly thought out analogy like comparing belief in God to belief in childhood fictions like toothfaries and a lot of hot air on what to call oneself.

    Worse still those who call themselves “Atheists” make out that what they mean by this is the simple lack of belief that God or gods exist. Yet indirectly through use of analogy with obviously fictional entities such as toothfaries they reveal that they actually think God does not exist. It is just that they do not want to admit to having any beliefs incase they get asked to justify them – which they struggle to do.

    That is the state of philosophy on the internet.

  • commandergreen

    You doubt the power of all mighty spiderman, rot in Arkham asylum