Question about Atheists and Self-Consistency

[Please head over to the newer post On Defining Atheism and Atheists.]

Consider the following description of a human being X:

X believes that a personal God exists and X believes that a personal God does not exist.

I’m interested in which of these options you’d say is correct:

(A) There is no person who satisfies that description;

(B) Any person who satisfies that description is an atheist;

(C) Any person who satisfies that description is not an atheist;

(D) Any person who satisfies that description is neither an atheist nor not an atheist.

It’s clear that any such person is intellectually dishonest, is self-contradictory, is self-deceived, etc.

That’s not the issue.

The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
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.

  • John Morales

    (E) That person is intellectually dishonest.

    • Eric Steinhart

      You’re right that they’re intellectually dishonest, but that isn’t the issue. I’ve updated the post to reflect that – and thanks for pointing out that it needed fixing.

    • John Morales

      Ah, OK.

      In that case, (C).

      (On the basis that anyone who believes in a god is a theist, in my book, and an atheist is someone who is not a theist)

  • Josh, Official SpokesGay

    I don’t think such a person could exist, because I don’t think it’s possible to hold two thoroughly diametrically opposed concepts as true. That a person can delude herself or waffle on terminology, or bend conceptual categories is undoubtedly true. But this, it seems, is a clear case of X is X, X is not Y. That’s what I was trying to get at it in the other thread. There just isn’t any room for subtlety or interpretation when it comes to the definition of atheist the way there is for what constitutes a Catholic, a Democrat, etc.

    • John Morales

      I dunno; I’m pretty sold on the existence of Orwellian double-think, myself.

      (Of course, in the novel, Smith was mentally broken, rather than being self-dishonest)

    • sqlrob

      Sure you can, as long as you don’t think they’re part of the same thing.

      What’s the old canard? “Republicans, for government small enough to fit into your uterus”

  • Cuttlefish

    I have a great many students who are self-described non-smokers. Sure, they have a few cigs at parties on weekends, but that doesn’t count.

    There are a great many people who are naked under their clothes.

    Strict vegetarians, except for bacon.

    I’d say any answer other than A abuses the word “believes” as a trait descriptor. As a state descriptor, C would be the answer, in the same sense that my students are smokers (and liars). Atheism is a privative, like “non-smoker”; it makes no sense to ask “what brand of cigarets do you not smoke?”, as it makes no sense to ask “which god or gods don’t you believe in?” Not believing in a particular god does not make you an atheist; not having a belief in any does.

    • Daniel Fincke

      That’s a really helpful answer Cuttlefish. If the people on the Pew Survey were really shrewd, maybe they meant they are “atheists towards numerous gods but believers in Yahweh” or something like that. Yet, I would be amazed if such a large percentage of Yahweh-believing population understood their attitude towards other gods as “atheism” towards them.

  • Cory Brunson


    An informal explanation might be that many people are Christians (believe in a Christian personal god) but not Muslims (do not believe in a Muslim personal god).

    More strictly, the person holds the positive belief that a personal god exists, and this should disqualify them from atheism (using an inclusive definition). The more interesting question seems to me to be whether the person is a theist.

  • grumpyoldfart


  • Erp

    X could be speaking at two different times (X as a young kid versus X as an adult). More seriously, X could be wavering, in the light of day, no god, in the dark of night, reversion to childhood fears and beliefs.

    Now given the length of the interview for the survey, a few people may have wavered. :-)

  • Josh, Official SpokesGay

    I’m extremely surprised at how many people say the answer is C, that person is not an atheist. That’s orthogonal to the issue, I think. Before we even get there we’d have to show that such a person exists. I don’t think it’s logically possible to believe two completely opposite and contradictory concepts. Yes, what one believes may be opaque to one at times, and in flux or tension, I get that. But a person who simultaneously believes in a personified God and does not believe in a personified God? Why are we even discussing this as if it were real?

    • John Morales

      Never met any Catholics? ;)

      They claim to believe in Thou shalt not kill (NB: not murder, but kill), and simultaneously are in favour of “justified” killing.

    • abb3w

      Because while handling full fledged dialetheia involves cognitive dissonance beyond most people’s ability to compartmentalize, many humans have a lesser but still pronounced degree of inconsistency in their thinking.

      Also, because Eric’s been contemplating some of the weirder statistics about self-identified atheists from the Pew Forum Religious Landscapes Survey.

      I’d be inclined to term any such person as posited as a Heyting atheist; and suggest that Eric’s investigation would most efficiently focus first on asking some questions about their conception of the word “not”. Some translation seems clearly required. Depending on the answers, and what definition of “an atheist” is being used, any of (B), (C), or (D) might be valid.

  • John Morales


    Cory, Erp, I’m pretty sure Eric is speaking about concurrent belief and disbelief in [deity X], since he acknowledges the contradictory nature of that belief.

    • Cory Brunson

      John, you’re right; by “informal” i meant in informal discussion, as opposed to the semantic discussion we’re actually having. : ) I am still keen to know whether people would identify X as a theist. I wonder how much our classification of X as a non-atheist derives from our distaste for X’s belief system (if at all).

    • Josh, Official SpokesGay

      None as far as I’m concerned because I don’t believe it’s possible for X to exist. Asking if X is a theist or atheist is like asking if butter is unicorn.

    • sqlrob

      Belief does not imply truth. There’s no contradiction.

    • Josh, Official SpokesGay

      Yes, there is. It’s plain to see. I’m not only talking about “truth.” I’m saying it’s impossible to believe two contradictory things simultaneously. Which is bleeding obvious to anyone who understands elementary logic and who uses the word “believe” in the ordinary sense. Or are we now saying “believe” means “doesn’t believe” the way “atheist” means “theist?”

      Honestly, what a silly rabbit hole.

  • Otis

    Logically, it’s a contradiction. So, anything follows. A, B, C and D are all equally valid conclusions.

    • sqlrob

      No, it’s not. Belief doesn’t imply truth.

    • Josh, Official SpokesGay

      No one says it did. You’re arguing against something you made up, not something anyone else is addressing.

    • sqlrob

      Since belief doesn’t imply truth, these are not contradictory. The belief is “some fuzzy value of true and some fuzzy value of false”. Those do not contradict, there is overlap.

      It has some cognitive dissonance, but it is not impossible to believe. Don’t apply Boolean logic to something that isn’t boolean.

  • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    I’d say “A”. This is not a statement of subjective belief (i.e. I believe/don’t believe in a personal god)–which can be a result of misunderstanding, self-delusion or whatever, but an assertion of fact (i.e. It is possible for a person to believe X and also believe NOT X simultaneously). Unless you want to include the severely mentally ill, the extremely immature (toddlers), or the intellectually debilitated (brain operating on the level of a child), I would say this is a clear case of a contradiction and therefore impossible.

    • jonmoles

      I agree, assuming that the statement “a personal God” is referring to the possibility of only one personal god and not one of many possible personal gods.

  • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    By the way, if the meaning of the word Scotsman is “someone born within the borders of Scotland as they existed on the day of their birth” and someone who was born in Guatemala claims to be a Scotsman, and we all say “they’re not a Scotsman” that’s not a No True Scotsman fallacy. A No True Scotsman fallacy is about universal assertions, not definitions.

    Person 1: No Scotsman would drink that swill.
    Person 2: My friend Angus is a Scotsman and does drink that swill.
    Person 1: Ah, well no true Scotsman would drink that swill.

    Person 1: Scotsmen are people born within the borders of Scotland as they existed on the day of their birth.
    Person 2: My friend Angus says he’s a Scotsman but he was born in Guatemala.
    Person 1: Well then, he’s not actually a Scotsman by definition.

    The first scenario is an attempt by person 1 to maintain an assertion after being presented by contradictory evidence. The second scenario is a discussion about how to define and apply the word Scotsman. With a word like atheist, there’s only minor disagreement about the definition of the term, and by any generally accepted one, a person who believes in a personal god is not an atheist, no matter what label they want to apply to themselves.

    • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

      presented with

  • consciousness razor

    X believes that a personal God exists and X believes that a personal God does not exist.

    I guess this is the closest:

    (A) There is no person who satisfies that description;

    To claim that X believes Y and not-Y is to claim that we do not have a consistent description of what X believes. We can’t just take X’s word for it that they believe both (if that is X’s own claim). There are only two possibilities about X’s belief: either Y or not-Y. It cannot be both or neither, but we can’t determine what the belief is. Otherwise, we’re committing ourselves to making a contradiction too, rather than describing what we know consistently.

  • Eric Riley

    I’m going for ‘A’ on this one – at least until some evidence is presented that such a person actually does exist.

  • Alethea H. Claw

    E) Fucking with the survey by answering randomly or in a deliberately contradictory manner.

    And not worth taking seriously.

    • Daniel Fincke

      It’s way too high a percentage to attribute it to insincerity with the survey, I think. (Has anyone ever studied what percentage of survey takers are likely to be sincere?)

    • Alethea H. Claw

      Is it? What are the actual numbers in question?

      You say 6% of self-identified atheists in this study. In the US – that’s what, maybe 10%? So we’re looking at 0.6% here. Now, how big was the sample? How many do you need to determine if that “6%” number is statistically significantly different from zero?

      You *always* get noise in surveys and censuses. Data entry people make typos. Computer programs misparse fields because of typos in data. Respondents misunderstand the question and answer backwards, or hypothetically. Respondents just say “yes, yes, yes” to get it over with. Respondents try to please the questioner. Respondents are deliberately annoying. All of these things.

  • Suzanne

    I assume that first “a” means “some” and second means “any” (sorry, English is not my native language)

    Now all that matters is if we can agree to this simple(non-controversial) implication
    From” X believes in non-existence of (any) G”
    it holds that
    “not true that X believes in existence of (any) G. “
    With this we get a simple contradiction B(X) & not B(X) (i.e. original description is even a “stronger” contradiction)
    What remains then is only to clarify the meaning of “any person that…”
    If we take “any person that..” as “there exists such a person that the person meets the description and something”, then indeed only A is true. What’s more D is false whatever we put into the “description” – you either are an atheist or are not an atheist but not both.

    If we take these sentences as implications, i.e. for any given x if x meets the description then something, then all sentences are true, because the premise is false, as Otis pointed out.

    Back to the study I’d say these 6% cannot exist, unless they are whatever they were called. Another way of saying this would be as follows (I stick to classical logic all the time and I assume strong definition of an atheist, as suggests your description of person X)
    If a person asserts positively that “they believe in personal God”,
    “ it is not true that they do not believe in a personal God. “
    Now when we invert the earlier:
    “X believes in non-existence of (any) G”
    implies that
    “not true that X believes in existence of (any) G. “
    “not not true that X believes in existence of (any) G.”
    implies that
    “not true that X believes in non-existence of (any) G”
    we get that the person is not an atheist.

  • sqlrob

    (C) There’s still belief in some god in some manner

    (B), as mentioned elsewhere can’t really be the answer since just about every theist is an atheist in other religions

    Unlike Josh, I believe (A) isn’t an answer since nothing about belief implies truth. There’s no contradiction.

    • Josh, Official SpokesGay

      That is not my argument. This has nothing to do with belief implying truth. Don’t claim I’m arguing that. I’m arguing it’s impossible to believe two contradictory claims simultaneously. This is bleeding obvious to anyone who’s not playing semantic games.

  • serendipityhappens

    The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”, Esquire Magazine (February 1936).

  • sqlrob

    Another reason why this isn’t a contradiction, belief is not transitive

    B(A & ~A) is not the same as B(A) & B(~A)

    For a more concrete example, see the fact that people believe that a burger with lettuce has fewer calories than a burger. I don’t think many(if any) believe that lettuce has negative calories.

    • Josh, Official SpokesGay

      It is perfect nonsense to claim that it’s possible to believe “the sun is hot” and “the sun is cold” at the same time. That epistemic state is simply not possible. It most certainly is a logical contradiction and I’m having a hard time believing you don’t get that.

  • resistingthemilieu

    Off-topic a bit: Okay, so since we’re talking about the nuance involved in the definition of atheist, I thought I’d bring this up. I’ve had this argument on Youtube commentz, with a bunch of people being pretty rude about it. Lots of smart and polite people here, so–

    I consider myself an atheist. I don’t believe in gods or magic. I do believe that those things don’t exist. Some people have told me that I am an agnostic because of how I define my atheism:
    “I am an atheist because there is simply not enough evidence to believe in gods or magic.”
    To me, that’s an empirical sort of atheism. I arrived at my conclusion because an absence of evidence suggests evidence of absence, among other things. I’m not fence-sitting, but rationally if somehow–all but impossibly–if evidence that gods or magic exist were irrefutably put forth, I would accept it after arduous review. Am I an agnostic? Thanks.

    • John Morales

      As always, it comes down to definitions.

      I personally like the concept of two orthogonal axes, knowledge (presumed true belief, here represented as gnosis*) and belief.

      So, you get four quadrants where your belief can fall, where the distance from the origin represents the degree of conviction:

      Gnostic theism  | Agnostic theism
      Gnostic atheism | Agnostic atheism

      (I consider myself an agnostic atheist, rather close to the origin on the gnosis axis, and all the way out on the belief axis)

      * The basis for the very term ‘agnostic’.

  • neleabels

    What is the purpose of this blog entry?

    • Eric Steinhart

      Head over to the home page.

  • Alethea H. Claw

    I see this has fallen behind, but before you try to explain it, can you actually substantiate that there is an “it” to explain?