Not a True Atheist?

Recently a remark by a Christian visiting here reminded me of something peculiar I have encountered from time to time that I had never known about before I started reading and discussing things on line, the notion of the “not real Christian.”

I have heard several people who identify themselves as Christians say that because other people who identify themselves as Christians do not believe in such and such, or don’t agree with so and so, or haven’t done whatever, that they are not really Christians, and some even contend that these counterfeit or phony or somehow not qualified “Christians” (with their scare quotes) will burn in hell. Sometimes the differences they cite sound at least theologically significant, sometimes it’s too subtle or esoteric for me to fathom, and sometimes it sounds like they just don’t go to the same particular church.

To me as an outsider this is bizarre and ridiculous. On the news I hear Muslims dismissing other Muslims as “not good Muslims,” or “not true Muslims” for disparities only they can comprehend. How can theists of any flavor ever hope to attract outsiders when so many differences are cited as disqualifying all the others but their specific variety of religion, differences that seem indistinguishable to anyone not already inside their camp? From the eyes of the uninitiated, their micro-controversies discredit them all as a whole.

It seems as if religion is a thing that spreads out forever like heat, continuously splitting into ever smaller sub groups with ever subtler differences, yet those differences often (not always) remain significant enough to the sub group members to cause disdain and even enmity toward those of other sub groups.

Now the point of this post:

Can this happen to atheists? Has it already? We have several terms that non-god-believing folks use to identify themselves to emphasize other aspects they feel are important. Is there a looking down the nose from those using one term toward those using another? Do humanists look askance at freethinkers? Do skeptics roll their eyes about brights?

Has anyone ever been accused of not being a true atheist by another person calling himself or herself an atheist?

Richard

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://www.jaredmlee.net jared

    Yeah I know who you are talking about. (shy grin). I don’t know if this will shed any light on your dilemma, or if it is relevant. But I think a true Christian is a person who believes he is sick with sin and lives trying very hard to repent, hoping first in the God who has promised to make things right again. That takes different forms and it gets expressed different ways, but Jesus never taught that a Christian votes republican. Sadly some think they are Christians because they faithfully bomb abortion clinics and drag homosexuals behind trucks. It’s important to those of us who live the faith of Jesus that we distance ourselves from what one biblical writer called “false religion.”

    Now as that speaks to your issue… I was once an atheist, so I might be able to have an opinion here. Some people think that an atheist is a loud, obnoxious punk (similar to many “Christians”). But I can’t think of a single characteristic that sets a true atheist apart from a false atheist unless he really sort of believed in a deity and didn’t admit it. And I would just call that intellectual dishonesty. Sure there are different strains, but I don’t really think can consider yourself an atheist and not really be one. But I am no longer in that camp, so that could just be ignorance speaking…

    Hope that helps, and hey, if my “not really Christians” thing ticked anyone off… I really am sorry, but if you drag people, burn buildings, or even think you HAVE to vote for the GOP (or the DEMS for that matter) in the name of Jesus, maybe you should check back in at headquarters, I think you got some bad orders.

  • http://godbegone.blogspot.com [GBG]

    What christians mean when they say “not a true christian” is “they don’t happen to have selected the same parts of the scripture to believe in as i have”, it;s a way of distancing themselves personally from any action that exposes their faith as corrupt and divisive.

    As for “not true atheists”, There is no doctrine one has to follow to be an atheist other than a disbelief in god, So as long as one disbelieves in a god they are an atheist and as true an atheist as is possible to be.

    I have also heard the religious say things like “atheism is a religion” and “Darwin is your god” so it seems part of their tactic is to drag us down to their level as if to say “well if i am an easily fooled imbecile who worships entities and believes in something written in a book, So are you”.

  • Skeptical Skeptic

    Sure, look at Sam Harris; he is drifting into somekind of “find your inner self” sprituality that some characterize as metaphysical nonsense bordering on theism.

    Of course, he is also the guy who claims, on page 53 of his End Of Faith book that some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be OK to KILL PEOPLE for holding those beliefs. BELIEFS, not ACTIONS, beliefs.

    No wonder atheists don’t want to claim him

    Or look at the drunken sot Hitchens, and his banging the drum for war. (Not that atheists have ever been particularly against violence.)

  • Gary Charbonneau

    But I think a true Christian is a person who believes he is sick with sin and lives trying very hard to repent, hoping first in the God who has promised to make things right again.

    If a group (e.g., the Mormons) has additional “revelations” and sacred texts not accepted by other Christians, would you consider them true Christians?

    Is a person who believes he is sick with sin and lives trying very hard to repent a true Christian if he does not believe in the divinity of Christ?

  • Arlen

    Christianity has a long history of schisms, but it’s important to note that that’s neither new nor particularly unexpected. People think of the Protestantism as the first major schism, but the truth is that before the Catholic Church held a virtual monopoly on Christianity and dating back as far as the time of the Apostles, there were lots and lots of early Christianities. The Bible is a wonderful book, but it’s not a constitution; there is no well-defined, all-encompassing credo or instructions on how to run “The Church.” So it’s natural that people, through the generations have disagreements about their beliefs and interpretations of scripture. With some frequency, groups of splintered denominations will come together, reconcile their differences, and merge; so it’s not an infinitely expanding number of different Christianities.

    Can someone be “not a true atheist?” To me that would depend very heavily on what is means to be an “atheist.” In this blog, I’ve heard people say over and over that to be an atheist just means “I don’t believe in the existence of a God or gods.” If that’s really it, then I don’t see how, semantically, one could be a false atheist (unless you were just lying).

  • Daniel

    While there are some misled people who call themselves atheists who will still profess some belief in psychics or spirits or some wacky gaea theory, for the most part a non-believer is a non-believer. However, one thing that I am sick and tired of is the assumption that any American atheist or skeptic is automatically then a cheerleader for the left wing of American politics. No, wrong, and the next blogger I run across that casually tosses in some casual jab at conservatives can die in a chemical fire. Ramen.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Can someone be “not a true atheist?” To me that would depend very heavily on what is means to be an “atheist.” In this blog, I’ve heard people say over and over that to be an atheist just means “I don’t believe in the existence of a God or gods.” If that’s really it, then I don’t see how, semantically, one could be a false atheist (unless you were just lying).

    What if someone said, “I don’t believe in the existence of God, but neither do I believe in the non-existence of God”?

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    Like Gary said:

    Some atheists aren’t particularly accepting of those who have no active god-belief but prefer to identify as agnostic (or humanist or Buddhist), and call them “atheists without balls” or something. That’s kind of along the same lines of saying “you’re not a real or true atheist.”

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    It’s simply the No True Scotsman fallacy writ large: first you claim that such and such ideology (Christianity, in this case) is great, and then you discount every possible counter-example out of hand almost by definition.

    Most of the “you’re not a true atheist” stuff I’ve heard has come from Christians claiming that really, really deep down we know that God exists, and really we just want to be able to steal cookies out of the cookie jar and hope that God won’t notice.

  • Chas

    I just saw a youtube video where Pat Condell called any atheist who wants to engage with polite debate with theists a “hobbiest,” inferring a less than “true” status to them.

    It’s human nature to slice and dice ouselves into ever smaller groups, theists and atheists alike.

    Just call me “less than true atheist”

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I view someone as not being a real “X” if their beliefs or behavior is aligned with a distortion of X or (a faux X). For example, I believe Christianity is really all about living a selfless compassionate life. I also think that Christianity has been corrupted by notions of a heavenly reward in an afterlife. It is therefore possible for “Christians” to “fake” being selfless and compassionate in order to get that heavenly reward. I would not call these people real Christians. The ultimate in greed and selfishness is wanting to live forever. Of course Christianity has been corrupted in many other ways as well.

    I can imagine one scenario where someone similarly would not be a real atheist. Take a look at my comic where I present a little thought experiment where God changes the rules for getting into heaven. Only righteous non-believers can get in. You would then have a lot of people faking being an atheist in order to get into heaven. They would not be real atheists.

  • http://heathendad.blogspot.com/ HappyNat

    Can this happen to atheists? Has it already?

    The one way I have seen this happen is with people who have converted to theism. Recently I read an article by a PhD who was an atheist all her life, met a nice Christian, and converted to Christianity due to the wonder of life and a warm feeling in her heart. One of the comments said she wasn’t really an atheist because she hadn’t thought about her lack of belief in god and was convinced very easily there was a god. I would strongly disagree.

    A lack of belief in god is all it requires to be an atheist. How much thought you put into it or how well you can argue points doesn’t matter. I would consider my 4 month old daughter an atheist because I see it as the default position. She hasn’t heard about god and can’t mentally comprehend the idea currently so she lacks a belief. She obviously lacks a belief in a lot of things. I think many atheists, including myself, took a long road filled with critical thinking and breaking down institutions we were taught from birth to get to atheism. It is tough for us to think of someone not believing without critical thought, but this is not required to lack a belief in god(s).

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    How can theists of any flavor ever hope to attract outsiders when …

    Um, they’ve been doing it very successfully for centuries. And it seems like the more splinter groups there are, the more people are willing to sign up for the group that suits their own preferences. So I don’t think it’s a problem in any way.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Richard Wade,

    From my experience with atheists in the past few months, I absolutely do think that their beliefs differ as much as the Christians. I think sometimes, the two sides overlap. The people in the grey area seem to be very much alike, other than the labels that we put on each other. That’s my observation.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    But I think a true Christian is a person who believes he is sick with sin and lives trying very hard to repent, hoping first in the God who has promised to make things right again.

    I have to disagree completely! The way I see it, a true Christian is a person who is born again in the Spirit of Jesus Christ as a new creation. It is a person who is renewed with a new identity in Him. All of mankind died (spiritually) with Adam in the garden, and all of mankind is rebirthed with Christ in his death and resurrection. It’s not about believing in the sin, but believing in the forgiveness (which was finished once and for all on the cross) and our new Spirit life as holy and perfect beings.

    We continue to live out our lives on this earth trying to always choose truth when faced with a truth and a lie… always choosing life when faced with life and death… always choosing love when faced with love and fear… and always choosing freedom when faced with freedom and bondage.

    In my view and in my belief, that is true Christianity and the true meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who ultimately came to free us from the bondage of our own self-made religion – which came from believing the lie that we can be “like God.” The lie keeps us on this endless and hopeless quest of trying to reach perfection on our own.

  • Mriana

    I haven’t experienced it with the majority of the various groups of non-theists, but several years ago, when I started researching the answers to my questions and spoke my thoughts, the more extreme Christians would throw me in the camp of atheists, infidels, and heathens, when I had not even decided myself what I was. At the time I was still attending the Episcopal Church and that was pretty much the only Christian sect that didn’t shove me into a group I had not yet chosen for myself. I still can’t say I am 100% pure atheist. I don’t know if anyone is, but I can say I am a non-theist.

    I know I don’t believe in any metaphorical being or an anthropomorphic Zeus-like deity. However, if I mention even the slightest possibility of ‘something’ that is part of us, this earth, the universe, some militant atheists shove me back into the religious camp. So, I keep my mouth shut, in most groups, of the possibility that scientists may discover something that is like the wind or oxygen or similar. I’m not saying it’s God, but it’s something vital to everything. Maybe it’s Dawkins’s slight probability. I don’t know. I do know it is not something anthropomorphic, it is natural to us, the environment we live in, and is totally unrelated to any religious text- except maybe the Tao.

    I like how a fellow Humanist on another board put it when he said he saw a scale of atheism and gave a few of us a percentage on how sure we were there is no god. He gave me a 95% certainity there is no god. I can live with that and he was not shoving me back and forth as though I were a 1/2 breed or something, like the militant ones on either side do. It also fits with leaving room for any scientific possibility, which I can also live with.

    I think we will find people on all sides who have their own definition as to what it means to be a Christian, Muslim, or even atheist. We just have to deal with it and figure out for ourselves what we are and find the best label that fits our worldview to claim for ourselves. Not let others claim a label for us.

  • stogoe

    What if someone said, “I don’t believe in the existence of God, but neither do I believe in the non-existence of God”?

    That person is then an agnostic, not an atheist (though he’s more than welcome in the greater freethought community). And it’s not about exclusion, it’s about correct definition. If Bob believes in the divinity and saving power of Jesus, and Tom believes in casting spells and supplicating the Earth Mother, then Tom is not a Christian. The “No True Christian” fallacy comes in when believers in Jesus split themselves up over iconography or selling indulgences or baptism or the like, and then try to state that the other group doesn’t really believe in Jesus because of their strange and unfamiliar add-ons to Jesus-belief.

    I just saw a youtube video where Pat Condell called any atheist who wants to engage with polite debate with theists a “hobbiest,”

    What I think Pat Condell was getting at is that he thinks debating dogma is a time-waster, like model trains or video games, not that you’re any less ‘true’ of an atheist.

    As far as I’ve noticed, I don’t see atheists calling humanists or brights or other categories ‘not atheists’. They may call them misinformed, deluded, idiotic, hippy-dippy, perhaps, but I don’t see “You say you don’t believe in gods, but you really do believe in gods because of your stupid name! Neener!”

  • Frank Mitchell

    I grew up Catholic in the Bible Belt, so I’m very well acquainted with the “not a real Christian” label.

    Unfortunately, I’m not really plugged into the atheist community, but on its face schisms in atheism seem absurd. How can you disagree on core beliefs, when the core beliefs of atheism are an empty set? Then again, there are memes like “No tolerance for theism” (cited above) and “No tolerance for supernaturalism”, so maybe we do have the beginnings of an ideological split.

  • http://www.acosmopolitan.blogspot.com Anatoly

    I don’t know if atheism can split into several groups but I have been tempted to call a few atheists – like a UFO-believing, Holocaust-denying, one I met online, or some people who claim to have been atheists before they converted and then show their ignorance to anything atheist every time they talk about their times without faith which makes you wonder how honest they really are with you (case and point – Lee Strobel).

    I wondered much about the issue of “true atheism” myself and despite any comfort I, and I think other, atheists would receive – we can’t use it. Atheism simply means “without a belief in God,” so how can somebody have a wrong form of nothing? They might certainly have a philosophy that we disagree with – we might have a not true humanism or a not true existentialist or a not true skeptic, based upon the tracts that they might not follow in that particular line or method of thinking.

    But atheism? Never. It’s too broadly and too simply defined to cause division, it incorporates anyone from the most spiritualistic, new-agey Buddhist to the most nihilistic brat like the school shooter in Finland just a few weeks ago. Regardless what we may wish they are still atheists, they still don’t believe in God, and despite the ease with which we could write them off as false, it cannot be done in a practical sense.

    The best we can do is say is a bad human being, not particularly a bad atheist.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    We can discuss the differences in beliefs until the cows come home; but I think fundamentally, we are all the same.

    When your speaking of morality, there is no difference between a Christian and an atheist, in my opinion.

    A Christian’s morals are based on what will make them feel good by doing something pleasing to God, and an atheist’s morals are based on what they thnk will make them feel good about themselves…period. They both ultimately point to self. No difference. I had this discussion with my brother who is an atheist over Thanksgiving. When we dig deep enough, all humans are basically motivated by self-interests. Even being totally selfless, even martyrdom, becomes a selfish act in the end. We are all the same.

    The only thing that can cure us of that is unconditional love, but what human do you know that can claim their love as completely and utterly unconditional?

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    All that’s required to be a “true atheist” is a lack of belief in a deity. Atheism is not a philosophy, it is simply one belief (perhaps more appropriately designated a non-belief) that can fit into a world of philosophies: Marxism, humanism, Objectivism, pragmatism, etc.

  • Mriana

    Anatoly said:

    I wondered much about the issue of “true atheism” myself and despite any comfort I, and I think other, atheists would receive – we can’t use it. Atheism simply means “without a belief in God,” so how can somebody have a wrong form of nothing?

    But atheism? Never. It’s too broadly and too simply defined to cause division

    Anatoly, I do believe you we share the same definition. :) I can’t disagree with anything you said, at least.

    Linda said:

    We can discuss the differences in beliefs until the cows come home; but I think fundamentally, we are all the same.

    Physically, maybe, but quite honestly, can you really say I am the same as you, in worldview, since I do not believe the god of religion exists? Can you say we are the same when I do not believe there is a historical Jesus- at least not as depicted in the Bible, the Bible is fiction. Can you really say we are the same when I see any definition of God, heaven, hell, Satan… as human concepts and do not exist? By any definition that is an atheist and many a religious person is quick to shove such a Freethinker out and into the non-theistic group.

    When your speaking of morality, there is no difference between a Christian and an atheist, in my opinion.

    Depends, Linda. Are you looking at Richard Roberts of Oral Roberts College who truly believes God is talking to him? (I still can’t stop laughing about that one) If so, I don’t know of any non-theist who would agree. We don’t throw things on Casper and say He did it or told me to do it. Most non-theists take responsibility for what we do without blaming it on some invisible friend. No insult intended, Linda, but it’s not quite the same.

  • Chas

    I think atheism can fall into a number of camps:
    -Those that define atheism in slightly skewed ways such as not believing in a Christian-type uber-god, but believes in other types of spirituality
    -Those that believe “pop-culture phenomenom” such as ufo’s and chiropactrics
    -Those that tolerate other’s belief systems
    -Those that don’t tolerate other’s belief systems

    I’ve tried to order this list in such as way that an atheist that is described in the following item may not agree that the atheist described in the previous item is an atheist.

  • Aj

    As many have said, it doesn’t make sense for someone not to be a “real atheist”. Atheism can come from different appoaches, worldviews, or no worldview, no thought. If you lack belief in god, you’re an atheist, it’s that simple.

    However, there is a “my kind of atheist”, sometimes called weak atheist, or agnostic atheist, grounded in rationalism, methodological naturalism, science, scepticism. Atheism isn’t really important to me, it’s just that theism is important to so many people, thus has implications for me.

    I have come across “not a real Christian” numerous times. Every time it’s invoked I get more confused about what a Christian is. I thought I knew what one was, until they say that, now I have no idea. One conservative Christian basically ruled out everyone but him (one true message), and a liberal Christian said that Islam and Christianity were compatible belief systems which could mean that everyone who ever existed was a Christian (no true message).

    The first type, generally conservative, including fundamentalists, have a clear view that they can answer are true or not about what they call Christians. It’s usually more narrow than is commonly meant by “Christian”, but they can explain what they mean. Liberal Christians use meaningless language and terms, i.e. “God is love”, and generally can’t give a definition of what a Christian is, they’ll accept self-definition whatever a person believes.

  • athenebelle

    Hemant, have you be watching too much South park? *j/k*

    Seriously, I don’t know if it would actually happen. Like someone else stated earlier, how can you separate a negative?

    As a Christian from a denomination that MERGED with three other somewhat separate sects in Christianity (all from various different schisms from the past) I find your confusion over someone saying that you’re not a “True” Christian to be the same as mine. In a church were there is only testaments and not tests (beyond the belief in God and Jesus Christ) there is no way to say that and not show yourself to be judgemental and typically called out on it.

  • Don Pope

    It doesn’t matter how you reached your atheist conclusion: deep study, brainwashing, gut feeling, makes you feel good, seems reasonable, lack of evidence to the contrary, you think nobody can be superior to you or you just like to piss people off. If you don’t believe in gods, then you are an atheist.

    All you could say is “he/she is an atheist for the wrong reasons”.

  • Don Pope

    How about someone who follows Christ’s teachings but doesn’t believe in his divinity. (I don’t know anyone like that, but they might exist.)

    Would that be a Christian Atheist?

  • Mercredi

    There are two people I’ve encountered who were deeply unhappy as atheists, and insisted that everyone else was either (a) a happy and stupid, blindly-optimistic theist, or (b) a wise, smart atheist and deeply unhappy. Anyone who claimed not to fit into these two categories was taken to be either a liar or in group (a) but too “blind” to realize it – a happy atheist was not a “true” atheist in their books.

    One of them has since converted to Christianity, and started insisting that only Christians can be happy, and everyone else is unhappy and foolish.

    The other had a habit of taking in “new” (and especially depressed or uncertain) atheists under his wing and estranging them from their friends (especially their atheist friends who aren’t depressed), and I haven’t really heard what he was up to since a friend of mine finally got out of that situation. But he doesn’t seem that much different in M.O. from an abusive religious cult leader, except for his choice of tool.

  • Chas

    This issue is one part definition and one part psychology. We can define both Christian and atheist in pretty definite terms:

    Christian: one who professes belief in the divinity of Christ, a person who lived about 2000 years ago.
    Athiest: one who professes a lack of belief in any god.

    Using these definitions, we can easily sort people into Christian and non-Christians; or into atheists and theists.

    However, as humans, it doesn’t end there. Each one of us has opinions and philosophies that have either led us to align with these definitions and/or have grown out of them. We share ideas and affinities with others who share similar views and exclude ourselves from others who don’t share those views. We form groups, join groups and don’t join other groups. We start defining others as not exactly “us,” and they become “them.” We start defining those groups as how close they are to our philosophies. Some of these group’s philosophies may be too far away from us and we define them as “not” a part of our philosophy at all.

    Classic us and them. We are social animals. We are hardwired for it. Atheists can’t avoid it.

  • Karen

    The “no true Christian” thing is a very convenient and predictable excuse to cover up the bad actions and attitudes and morals of Christians. It comes up every time someone points out that Christians (supposedly guided by the magical holy spirit) are no better or worse off than non-Christians on any number of measures (social, criminal, educational, financial, etc).

    Q: So, why don’t we see a measurable, positive difference in the lives of Christians the world over? Why do Christians hate and war and cheat and lie just like everyone else? Where’s the holy spirit’s influence?

    A: Oh, you mean THOSE people!? No, no, they’re Not True Christians. Don’t lump me in with them! They don’t have Jesus in their hearts/don’t follow the right sacraments/don’t acknowledge the True Church, etc. etc.

    In terms of atheists, I don’t think one sub-group accuses another of not being atheists exactly, but there seems to be a lot of infighting about styles and approaches of atheism.

    For instance, those “in your face” atheists who want to attack religion and don’t acknowledge anything good about it are often impatient and dismissive of those atheists who encourage dialog with moderate and liberal Christians and acknowledge that there are some good results from religion.

  • Allison

    I do agree here:

    In terms of atheists, I don’t think one sub-group accuses another of not being atheists exactly, but there seems to be a lot of infighting about styles and approaches of atheism.

    For instance, those “in your face” atheists who want to attack religion and don’t acknowledge anything good about it are often impatient and dismissive of those atheists who encourage dialog with moderate and liberal Christians and acknowledge that there are some good results from religion.

    I think there is infighting, but I’ve very seldom seen it erupt into a “you’re not a true atheist” sort of thing.

    I have seen backtracking when (IMO) atheists overreach and say “an atheist state would never do x,” then when you show them an example of a controlling regime that purported to be atheist and did exactly what they say an atheist state would never do, they say “oh, but that’s not an atheist state because they saw [usually insert power for the regime here] as a form of God.” I see that as similar to what Christians are doing when they say someone’s “not a true Christian.”

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I really like this appropriate Cectic comic.

    With atheists, the problem isn’t that anyone is accusing others of not being true atheists. The problem is that people tend to accuse themselves of not being true atheists. They look at the stereotype and at the people, and they feel they don’t belong.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    There is a difference between exclusion and disagreement. It’s not up to me to decide who is or is not a true Christian. Everyone can be in who wants to be in, as far as I’m concerned. However, I have my opinions about the kind of lifestyle Jesus taught us to live, and the particular ways that I think the Bible should be understood, and of course these opinions will occasionally disagree with the opinions of other Christians about the same matters. Hopefully we can respectfully disagree and dialogue about it without needing to exclude the other.

    Hopefully atheists can do the same regarding their differences.

  • Siamang

    This comic reminds me of recent discussions here:

    http://cectic.com/064.html

  • Aj

    I have seen backtracking when (IMO) atheists overreach and say “an atheist state would never do x,” then when you show them an example of a controlling regime that purported to be atheist and did exactly what they say an atheist state would never do, they say “oh, but that’s not an atheist state because they saw [usually insert power for the regime here] as a form of God.” I see that as similar to what Christians are doing when they say someone’s “not a true Christian.”

    I’ve never heard that before, that doesn’t seem defensible. Theists bring up states with atheistic governments doing bad things. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are always brought up, even though Hitler was not an Atheist.

    I’ve never heard an atheist advocate atheism itself, it wouldn’t make sense. So whether a state is atheistic or not doesn’t seem like something someone would advocate, or say something about like “they wouldn’t do x”.

    Hitchens says something similar in wording, but very different in content. He says something like “A country founded on [and presumely following] the philosophy/principles of Spinoza or [insert someone involved in the enlightenment] wouldn’t do x”, and “name me a state that’s become worse for being more rational”.

    Dawkins and Harris say things like “imagine a world without religion and irrational beliefs, the superstituion, the faith, the wishthinking” and advocate an end to such things. Not that it’ll make the world perfect, not that it’ll stop all bad things.

    Atheists still do bad things, a state could still do bad things , not for atheism, for some other reason, Dawkins usually mentions authoritarian regimes, like communism (atheistic) and fascism (religious), as examples of governments doing bad for secular reasons, counter to theocracy doing bad things for religious reasons. Religion is a reason for doing bad things, and if it ended there would be one less reason for people to harm each other.

  • Siamang

    I’ve heard it expressed as that these folks were advocating rationalism.

    It can be said that however atheistic Mao’s China was, it was manifestly not rationalist.

    As can be said, I do not advocate a government based on atheism any more than I advocate a government based on a disbelief in the existence of dragons or unicorns.

    I do, however, advocate rationalism and humanism and principles derived from a rational examination of the world we find ourselves in. If it turns out that there is indeed an actual God, rationalism is no insult to that entity either.

  • Mriana

    Don Pope said,

    November 29, 2007 at 10:24 am

    It doesn’t matter how you reached your atheist conclusion: deep study, brainwashing, gut feeling, makes you feel good, seems reasonable, lack of evidence to the contrary, you think nobody can be superior to you or you just like to piss people off. If you don’t believe in gods, then you are an atheist.

    All you could say is “he/she is an atheist for the wrong reasons”.

    What? This doesn’t make sense? How can one be an atheist for all the wrong reasons? You make no sense at all.

    Deos this mean that if one researches and studies and believes they reached X-ianity or any other religion for the right reasons? That is rediculous. I’m sorry, but I hardly wish to piss anyone off, but IF one REALLY researched the subject they would find it is all one more myth. This does not make me feel superior to any other human though. How many religious people disregard true knowledge in favour of belief? They say if you get an education you will lose faith. I’ve heard this so many times and it has lead me to the conclusion it is those who refuse knowledge and/or an education, believe out of ignorance or they need that security blanket or something.

    Now IF they really did do the research (not just stick with apologists because your mother and/or other family members and supposed friends told you to) and actually studied the topic and came to the conclusion that there is a god, even after studying all the evidence, well then that is their choice. At least they did not come to the conclusion out of lack of an education.

    I know many former ministers who are now atheist. Even some who went into Theology School believing and came out not believing. To say that a non-theist who did their homework and in the process decided there is no god and/or no historical Jesus came to the wrong conclusion is not justifiable.

    The truth of the matter is, I scare a lot of the religious away when I show them just how much I do know. They don’t want to hear it because they fear it will lead to disbelief. Those are the ones who are insecure about their belief. Those who can actually read/hear what I have to say are either very secure in their beliefs or they are still seeking answers to their questions.

    In fact, my mother asked me point blank once just how studying religion has affected my faith, because she fears an education will lead me to disbelief. It hasn’t affected my faith, because I never really had it in the first place- she just doesn’t know. Not to mention, she abruptly cuts the phone call off- whether she called me or I called her- if I even try to share with her what I learned in this Hindu class I’m taking. She can’t handle that the story of Krishna sounds so much like the story of Jesus. I’d tell her why, but she can’t handle the truth. Unfortunately, there are many people out there like her. They get disturbed and upset about the truth and don’t want to hear it.

    Truth is, Jesus is just another series of midrashes (Krishna, Moses, Elijah, etc), a pure and ingenious work of fiction much like John Jakes North and South, and was force upon people for centuries- sometimes by means of violence. Dig deeper and you will also find astrotheology. Thing is, I would not want to worship a god named Jealous if I believed in a deity. Too cruel and hateful. Of course, Jealous does have some qualities of Shiva, come to think of it.

  • http://stereoroid.com/ brian t

    What if someone said, “I don’t believe in the existence of God, but neither do I believe in the non-existence of God”?

    These days, that statement also fits a “weak atheist” position. It’s not strictly Agnosticism, because it doesn’t say anything about whether the question (of the existence of “God”) can be answered, or not. Agnostics, by Huxley’s original definition, hold that the question can not be answered, even theoretically. Bertrand Russell explained the difference quite well, but I like the way Robert G Ingersoll put it: “The Agnostic does not simply say, ‘I do not know.’ He goes another step and says with great emphasis that you do not know.”

    Others, such as myself, think it’s possible to arrive at a usable answer, if the question is about “God” in the Judeo-Christian sense we are being expected to believe in. That is, a god who knows we’re here, communicates with us, and does things in this world that (by definition) can be detected by us. If the claim is of anything detectable, then it’s a scientific claim, something that can be examined by scientific methods. In the useful sense that matters to me (my life), that question can be answered, and without supporting evidence the answer is No.

    Back to the original question: I’ve even seen some American writers saying things like “Catholics are not Christians“. Makes me want to grab them by the… ears and remind them that Catholics were the original Christians. Or is it vice versa? 8)

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    It’s an interesting question. Different people definitely mean different things when they call themselves or others “atheist”.

    For example, there’s the common belief that all atheists are what I would call “strong atheists”, and that the weak atheists are actually not atheists at all, but agnostics.

    Many (most) people who call themselves agnostics but not atheists, are in actuality atheists by my reasoning. They just don’t like to call themselves that.

    So there is a lot of potential disagreement regarding who is and isn’t an atheist. Some specific points of disagreement are:
    - the particular definition of God (e.g. is pantheism actually a brand of atheism?)
    - the distinction between strong/weak atheism
    - the distinction between explicit/implicit atheism
    - does one actually have to call himself/herself an atheist in order to be one, or can others decide based on an evaluation of one’s beliefs?

  • Old Beezle

    Kudos to Mriana for her forthright friendly atheist views!

    I think the chaplain , in a prior post, got it right also: Atheism is “one belief that can fit into a world of philosophies.”

    I think that if one were to attempt to turn Atheism into a philosophy unto itself, then it may be structured as the following:

    One whose world view is shaped by facts rather than faith and uses the scientific method as a tool to arrive at those facts.

    If a fact is defined as a concept whose truth can be proved, then this works very well for asserting that god does not exist.

    And, when in doubt, apply Occam’s Razor:
    -There is no god or god is a “bearded white man from Oxford”?

    The simplest ideas are usually the best ones.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Mriana,

    When I said we’re the same, I meant when it comes to the matters of the heart. …whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy… Aren’t those things what we are trying to achieve?

    That makes us same, regardless of our beliefs. Don’t you think?

  • Mriana

    Old Beezle said,

    November 29, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    Kudos to Mriana for her forthright friendly atheist views!

    Thank you. I came by them via a real and honest education.

    One whose world view is shaped by facts rather than faith and uses the scientific method as a tool to arrive at those facts.

    If a fact is defined as a concept whose truth can be proved, then this works very well for asserting that god does not exist.

    I can’t argue with that.

  • Pustulio

    As an atheist, I think that there are instances where people who do believe in god label themselves as atheist because for whatever reason they’re angry with their deity of choice and are “getting back” at it by denying their beliefs. They are of course not true atheists, and as they get over their anger they “convert” back to whichever religion they already believed in.

    You can generally spot these “former atheists” because they tend to assume that all atheists describe themselves as such for the same reasons that they did; that deep down they really do believe in god and just need to get over their anger.

  • Mriana

    Linda said,

    November 29, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    Mriana,

    When I said we’re the same, I meant when it comes to the matters of the heart. …whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy… Aren’t those things what we are trying to achieve?

    That makes us same, regardless of our beliefs. Don’t you think?

    If you mean that on a purely secular view, I agree. Douglas Spotted Eagle has a saying on the main page of his website that says:

    “As 5 fingered humans, we are all the same….”

    Regardless of his beliefs, whatever they maybe, he is dead on about that. So, yes, there is always something we can agree with that is shared by all.

  • Monty

    I tend to see this a lot with Prostetants claiming that Catholics are apostates or evil or reject the Bible or silly crap like that. Also, this reminds me of the colusseum scene from “The Life of Brian”- “The People’s Front of Judea!!”

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Atheists still do bad things, a state could still do bad things , not for atheism, for some other reason

    Yes, and some atheist states have done bad things for atheist reasons – as when Communist regimes persecute religious groups based on the Marxist/Maoist belief that religion is poison.

  • Aj

    MikeClawson,

    Yes, and some atheist states have done bad things for atheist reasons – as when Communist regimes persecute religious groups based on the Marxist/Maoist belief that religion is poison.

    Atheism doesn’t say anything about religion, poison or not. It doesn’t say anything about anything. It’s a lack of belief in a deity. Is the logic area in your brain badly damaged? How could someone possibly use that as a motivation to do anything. No one ever shot someone because of a lack of belief in fairies or gods.

    Believing religion is poison doesn’t necessarily lead to violence, if you believe individual freedom is important, or persons have a right to life (under most circumstances, or all the time if you’re Ghandi or Buddha), there are many alternative possibilities. Marxist (more accurately Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Titoism etc…) and Maoist states of the 20th century were authoritarian in nature and their response to many things they were against was violence and supressive.

    Since my original post directly addresses your points, but you were unwilling to read it, I probably shouldn’t even take the time to respond to your willful ignorance. For someone who advocates dialogue, it’s strange that you would regularly not take the time to listen to or read from others, to the point that you don’t even know what atheism is while posting on a site about atheism.

  • Mriana

    And as a philosophy prof said, Marxism itself is not bad. What the people did with it was bad. He also made the comment that Marxism itself is a good theory, it’s just that the people screwed it up. A history prof said the same thing.

    Now, I’m not saying I support Marxism, I’m just saying was not the problem, but rather in the wrong hands it become a bad thing. If placed in the right hands, it might be a good theory. I have some of Marx’s writing in my own library, thanks to a philosophy class that I had to take.

  • Darryl

    The tendency to categorize self and others says more about a person’s psychology than their beliefs or dis-beliefs. Suspicious Christians will likely be suspicious atheists when they de-convert. Pompous atheists will probably be pompous theists when they convert. People who simply have to make distinctions and set themselves apart from others will do that no matter what they believe. Someone who loves to stump others will logical arguments is a bore no matter what they call themselves.

  • Old Beezle

    Well put, Aj! Bravo!!

    The atheist state of former Communist Russia was largely propaganda anyway. The rhetoric at the top was atheist per Marxism-Leninism, but the reality amongst the masses was something else entirely. Add to that the polarization efforts by the American propaganda machine to paint the Reds as ‘Godless Communists’ and the real picture becomes a little clearer.

    The Russian Eastern Orthodox Church never went away. Soviet citizens never ceased engaging in baptism or the occasional mass. The unwashed masses retained their faith (along with two millenia of superstition) and Communism came and went. Certainly there was a resurgence when the regime fell, but an Orthodox Russian is about as active and overtly religious as a Catholic Kennedy. I was there for a couple of years in the 90′s and witnessed it first hand.

    All of this is scholastically ironic considering that the first Christian Russians were forced into a river and baptized en masse. Accept Jesus or die by the sword (my favorite conversion technique)! There then followed years of infighting and slaughter due to the fact that some crossed themselves with two fingers and others used two fingers plus a thumb.

    Religious authoritarian regimes have the upper hand to “atheist” regimes when it comes to oppression and slaughter. All the more reason to keep religion far away from government and to champion science and education in the hopes that a second Renaissance may begin.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    “What if someone said, ‘I don’t believe in the existence of God, but neither do I believe in the non-existence of God’?”

    These days, that statement also fits a “weak atheist” position. It’s not strictly Agnosticism, because it doesn’t say anything about whether the question (of the existence of “God”) can be answered, or not.

    I’ve never been much taken with the notion of “weak atheism.” Since the so-called weak atheist does not deny the existence of God, why call him an atheist? Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable (or unreasonable) to call him a “weak theist” as a “weak atheist”?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said: There is a difference between exclusion and disagreement. It’s not up to me to decide who is or is not a true Christian. Everyone can be in who wants to be in, as far as I’m concerned.

    Oh, surely not. How could one reasonably say that an atheist is a Christian, and therefore “in”? In order to be “in” as a Christian, doesn’t one have to be a Christian and not an atheist (or a Muslim, or a Jew)?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Monty,

    I’m partial to the “Popular Peoples’ Front”!!!

    Yes just “Look on the bright side of Life!!!”

    Thanks for bring that up. Great movie!!!

  • Gary Charbonneau

    godma said: So there is a lot of potential disagreement regarding who is and isn’t an atheist. Some specific points of disagreement are … the distinction between explicit/implicit atheism ….

    The notion of “implicit atheism” is another one that I have a little difficulty with. I find myself wondering, at one point in time does one become an ‘implicit atheist? At birth? At conception? Can the case be made that abortion amounts to persecution of “implicit atheists”?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Aj said: I’ve never heard an atheist advocate atheism itself, it wouldn’t make sense.

    “At a time when the West is debating the teaching of religion in schools on the pretext of manufacturing social solidarity … it seems to me that we might prefer the teaching of atheism.” — Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: the Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, p. 36.

  • Maria

    Okay, my parents having come from the former soviet union, having been there, and still having family there, just wanted to throw some comments in:

    The atheist state of former Communist Russia was largely propaganda anyway. The rhetoric at the top was atheist per Marxism-Leninism, but the reality amongst the masses was something else entirely. Add to that the polarization efforts by the American propaganda machine to paint the Reds as ‘Godless Communists’ and the real picture becomes a little clearer.

    Yes, the masses were largely religious.

    The Russian Eastern Orthodox Church never went away. Soviet citizens never ceased engaging in baptism or the occasional mass. The unwashed masses retained their faith (along with two millenia of superstition) and Communism came and went. Certainly there was a resurgence when the regime fell, but an Orthodox Russian is about as active and overtly religious as a Catholic Kennedy. I was there for a couple of years in the 90’s and witnessed it first hand.

    No, it never did officially, but people were not allowed to practice for the most part. And it wasn’t just the russian orthodox-they may have gone a bit easier on that particular church for appearances sake. But catholics, Jews, etc were barely allowed to practice at all, and had to set up many underground churches. Just ask anyone who was shipped off to the gulag for being caught in a church, or for being overheard saying they believed in god. It did happen, and quite a bit. It is true that nowadays there’s a lot more laxity in religiousity like you said, b/c the “novelty” of the resurgence has worn off. Atheism and agnosticism is on the rise in that part of the world now and has been for quite a while.

    All of this is scholastically ironic considering that the first Christian Russians were forced into a river and baptized en masse. Accept Jesus or die by the sword (my favorite conversion technique)! There then followed years of infighting and slaughter due to the fact that some crossed themselves with two fingers and others used two fingers plus a thumb..

    Are you talking about the mass conversion in the year 988?

    Religious authoritarian regimes have the upper hand to “atheist” regimes when it comes to oppression and slaughter. All the more reason to keep religion far away from government and to champion science and education in the hopes that a second Renaissance may begin.

    I agree with the second part. As for the first, that’s true too, and I’d add that I wouldn’t want to live under either “regime”. I’d prefer to live somewhere like Western Europe (without the influx of Muslims!)

  • Maria

    I’ve been accused of not being a freethinker b/c I’m an agnostic deist, and someone actually tried to tell me I can’t be a humanist (nevermind I’ve met plenty of deist humanists). Something similar happened to a pantheist friend of mine. I’ve also had friends who are atheists and agnostics who went to the RRS board who were told they weren’t “atheist enough” if they expressed some sort of sympathy for theists.

    I think it’s really stupid to accuse someone of not being a “true atheist”-all that is required is not believing in a god/gods. Anything else is up for grabs. Atheists are the most diverse group of people I have ever seen, and I actually like that.

    I’ve never been much taken with the notion of “weak atheism.” Since the so-called weak atheist does not deny the existence of God, why call him an atheist? Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable (or unreasonable) to call him a “weak theist” as a “weak atheist”?

    That’s a really good point. I have kind of wondered that myself. The line starts to blur between weak theist and agnostic and agnostic and weak atheist sometimes……

    The tendency to categorize self and others says more about a person’s psychology than their beliefs or dis-beliefs. Suspicious Christians will likely be suspicious atheists when they de-convert. Pompous atheists will probably be pompous theists when they convert. People who simply have to make distinctions and set themselves apart from others will do that no matter what they believe. Someone who loves to stump others will logical arguments is a bore no matter what they call themselves.

    well said

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Like others here, I’ve never seen an atheist accuse another of not being a “true atheist.” But I have seen atheists and other godless people accuse each other of having the wrong kind of godlessness: atheists accusing agnostics of being wimpy, agnostics accusing atheist of holding an untenable position, etc.

    It’s usually very irritating. Sometimes it’s valid — we have real disagreements within our community, and we shouldn’t pretend that we don’t — but often it’s ridiculously nitpicky and counter-productive.

    Mostly, though, I want to say that I’m very entertained by the Christians in this thread insisting that their version of Christianity really IS the right one. They’re proving Richard’s point exactly.

  • Mriana

    I’d prefer to live somewhere like Western Europe (without the influx of Muslims!)

    I would too, but I don’t know how that can be done.

    someone actually tried to tell me I can’t be a humanist

    I would have to disagree with them too. I would question just how thoroughly they have studied Humanism also. There are a variety of Humanists and while the majority are non-theists, there is such a thing as Christian Humanists- ie Spong, Cupitt, and the Sea of Faith. The thing is, they are considered atheists by Christians. Why? They redefine the Christian religion in a non-realism sense. Love is God and not a metaphysical being. Love is not unprovable nor is much else they say either, but what they do say is a stretch. Not to mention the suggestions Spong gives to bring Christianity to the modern world. His 12 theses were the basis of people labelling him an atheist. He does say he is a non-theist, yet he says things the make me question that, but I would not push him back and forth though, because he does say things I can agree with- like living life fully, love wastefully, and alike. Can’t dispute that.

    If there is such a thing as Christian atheists, the Sea of Faith would be the closest thing to it, but they lose me with the God talk.

    I’ve also had friends who are atheists and agnostics who went to the RRS board who were told they weren’t “atheist enough” if they expressed some sort of sympathy for theists.

    and don’t get me started on the URS. :roll:

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Chas said,
    However, as humans, it doesn’t end there. Each one of us has opinions and philosophies that have either led us to align with these definitions and/or have grown out of them. We share ideas and affinities with others who share similar views and exclude ourselves from others who don’t share those views. We form groups, join groups and don’t join other groups. We start defining others as not exactly “us,” and they become “them.” We start defining those groups as how close they are to our philosophies. Some of these group’s philosophies may be too far away from us and we define them as “not” a part of our philosophy at all.

    Classic us and them. We are social animals. We are hardwired for it. Atheists can’t avoid it.

    I missed that post before. I agree. Even if we were all Christians or all atheists, we would still find dividing lines. Humans are addicted to conflict. We always seem to need to pick a side and oppose another. So will there be a resolution? Probably not. We will always have conflict, sad to say…

  • Aj

    Gary Charbonneau,

    “At a time when the West is debating the teaching of religion in schools on the pretext of manufacturing social solidarity … it seems to me that we might prefer the teaching of atheism.” — Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: the Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, p. 36.

    a) It’s a translation from french by someone else, so there might be an error or inaccuracy.
    b) He might mean an unbelief in God, i.e. strong atheism, belief in the non-existance. The context might suggest this, or as some philosophers do when writing books, define terms at the introduction of subject, or in footnotes/glossary.
    c) If he does mean a lack of belief, I’d like to see him try to teach that! When did you learn a lack of belief in fairies?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    He might mean an unbelief in God, i.e. strong atheism, belief in the non-existance. The context might suggest this, or as some philosophers do when writing books, define terms at the introduction of subject, or in footnotes/glossary.

    There’s no doubt that Onfray’s a “strong atheist” (and one who advocates atheism):

    Atheism rejects the existence of God as a fiction devised by men desperate to keep on living in spite of the inevitability of death

    I don’t think he’s ever heard of this thing called “weak atheism,” which seems to be mainly a product of Anglophone online discussion groups in which, I suppose, he does not participate.

    But there are certainly plenty of other examples of atheists advocating atheism. For example, there’s Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who describes his “evangelical atheism” project of engaging in public debates with William Lane Craig: “As I saw more instances of religion’s controlling politics in disreputable ways,I grew angry. It seemed so unfair for people to suffer because others held indefensible views. I wanted to do something about it, but what? … I felt as if I was doing something important. At least I was trying to do something about an important problem, and I had fun doing it.” –Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, pp. 76-77.

  • Aj

    -Gary Charbonneau

    I don’t think he’s ever heard of this thing called “weak atheism,” which seems to be mainly a product of Anglophone online discussion groups in which, I suppose, he does not participate.

    Atheism has been used to mean lack of belief for over one hundred years in philosophy, and more famously later by Russell. In my experience the vast majority of self-identified atheists don’t claim knowledge of the nonexistance of gods.

    But there are certainly plenty of other examples of atheists advocating atheism. For example, there’s Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who describes his “evangelical atheism” project of engaging in public debates with William Lane Craig: “As I saw more instances of religion’s controlling politics in disreputable ways,I grew angry. It seemed so unfair for people to suffer because others held indefensible views. I wanted to do something about it, but what? … I felt as if I was doing something important. At least I was trying to do something about an important problem, and I had fun doing it.” –Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, pp. 76-77.

    That quote doesn’t support the claim he’s “advocating atheism” itself, and the existance of the term “evangelical atheist” doesn’t either. Someone might even say “I want more atheists”, but that doesn’t mean they want atheism itself, but as a product of something else.

    Harris doesn’t use the term “atheist” (he tells us, it was absent in his books) because it’s not important. Dawkins does, but he agrees with Harris, it’s not important. Dawkins’s talk was about advocating “militant atheism”, it’s clear from his book a lack of belief in God isn’t the goal, it’s a product of not having faith, in this case God, but in anything.

    I haven’t come across someone yet where there end or foundation was atheism. It makes as much sense as advocating the lack of belief in a teapot orbiting saturn. Sure, it’s unreasonable to believe that there is a space pot without evidence to support it, but the problem isn’t the space pot itself. The problem is believing in things without evidence, or counter to evidence, people are advocating against faith not for atheism.

    Some atheists narrow this to “harmful beliefs”, but they don’t include beliefs supported by evidence in the “harmful beliefs” pile.

  • monkeymind

    Wow, Richard, you certainly know how to spark a discussion!
    Aj said:

    Atheism doesn’t say anything about religion, poison or not. It doesn’t say anything about anything. It’s a lack of belief in a deity. Is the logic area in your brain badly damaged? How could someone possibly use that as a motivation to do anything. No one ever shot someone because of a lack of belief in fairies or gods.

    Aj, how would you deconstruct the phrase “Neville Chamberlain atheist” which I think was coined by PZ Myers and much popularized since then? Doesn’t that imply that atheism is more than simply a non-belief in God? Doesn’t it imply a conflict of some kind between atheism and its enemies, and that the Neville Chamberlain atheists are doing it wrong?

    Also, consider this quote from Steven Weinberg:

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    Now, I know that this an off the cuff remark by a Nobel Laureate, and I don’t know the context. But it is often repeated uncritically by opponents of religion. Now, in response to such simplistic thinking, I think it is appropriate to cite examles of crimes committed in the name of noble-sounding ideological goals (the Bolshevik Commissariat of Enlightenment), or in the name of scientific research (the Tuskegee Experiment.)

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    I’ll keep it short so you can’t grossly misinterpret what I write.

    Doesn’t that imply that atheism is more than simply a non-belief in God?

    No.

    Doesn’t it imply a conflict of some kind between atheism and its enemies, and that the Neville Chamberlain atheists are doing it wrong?

    No.

    Now, I know that this an off the cuff remark by a Nobel Laureate, and I don’t know the context. But it is often repeated uncritically by opponents of religion. Now, in response to such simplistic thinking, I think it is appropriate to cite examles of crimes committed in the name of noble-sounding ideological goals (the Bolshevik Commissariat of Enlightenment), or in the name of scientific research (the Tuskegee Experiment.)

    Does Weinberg think there are good people and bad people? I say it’s probably not wise to take it literally. I’d bet against it, but that’s only my judgement.

    in the name of scientific research

    To be fair scientific research, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. An experiment is done for knowledge, but the God of scientific research doesn’t demand knowledge at any cost.

    The God of scientific research, a.k.a Cthulmeter the observable: I demand knowledge! Anyone who denies me knowledge will know the fiery furnace of bunsen burner, and the nashing of buret clamps. Surprisingly doesn’t eat souls, isn’t concerned with the supernatural.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Aj said, Atheism has been used to mean lack of belief for over one hundred years in philosophy, and more famously later by Russell. In my experience the vast majority of self-identified atheists don’t claim knowledge of the nonexistance of gods.

    Russell would not have claimed knowledge of the nonexistence of his famous celestial teapot, either, if by “knowledge” you mean “absolute certainty.” At the same time, however, I don’t think that Russell would have claimed that he therefore had absolutely no choice but to be a “weak a-celestial-teapotist,” neither believing in the existence of the teapot, nor disbelieving in it — not disbelieving in the existence of a teapot he himself had made up as a deliberately absurd example! Rather, he think he would have been — and was — a “strong a-celestial-teapotist.”

    I haven’t come across someone yet where there end or foundation was atheism. It makes as much sense as advocating the lack of belief in a teapot orbiting saturn.

    That would depend. For example, it would depend on whether the claim that there is a teapot orbiting Saturn were to be used as the basis for an argument in favor of adopting some misguided public policy or advocating some misguided personal behavior.

    It seems to me that to assert that it makes no sense to advocate atheism is to imply that the dominant forms of theism (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) on balance do more good than harm, or at worst do no more harm than good –an implication that people like Russell, Dawkins, Sinnott-Armstrong, and Onfray would certainly reject.

  • Aj

    Gary Charbonneau,

    Russell would not have claimed knowledge of the nonexistence of his famous celestial teapot

    That was the whole point of his celestial teapot argument!

    neither believing in the existence of the teapot, nor disbelieving in it

    Disbelieving in something includes lack of believing in something.

    Rather, he think he would have been — and was — a “strong a-celestial-teapotist.”

    Such a person would have claimed knowledge of the nonexistence. That’s what strong atheists claim about God.

    That would depend. For example, it would depend on whether the claim that there is a teapot orbiting Saturn were to be used as the basis for an argument in favor of adopting some misguided public policy or advocating some misguided personal behavior.

    They would only be advocating against the claim because it lacked evidence. If the public policy was logically consistant with the teapot (and inline with their moral views), and the teapot had strong evidence to support it from top scientists, then Dawkins et al wouldn’t think it was harmful. My best guest*, the teapot is actually an alien bomb thousands of times more powerful than our H-Bombs… and headed for earth!

    It seems to me that to assert that it makes no sense to advocate atheism is to imply that the dominant forms of theism (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) on balance do more good than harm, or at worst do no more harm than good –an implication that people like Russell, Dawkins, Sinnott-Armstrong, and Onfray would certainly reject.

    It’s still advocating against those, but atheism is just a logical product, not a goal or a foundation.

    *Sorry, my imagination isn’t great.

  • monkeymind

    Aj, what do you think is meant by the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist”?

  • monkeymind

    the God of scientific research doesn’t demand knowledge at any cost.

    Hmm, what was that prompt the lab-coated research assistants used in the Milgram experiment to get the subjects to apply what they thought were lethal levels of electric shock? Oh yes, I remember now:

    It is necessary for the experiment to continue

  • Aj

    Aj, what do you think is meant by the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist”?

    An atheist who appeases. Refering to atheists that advocate appeasement with those who believe in God. The term doesn’t seem say anything about atheism at all.

    I know PZ Myers has used Neville Chamberlain, it’s in The God Delusion, quoted by Dawkins and (I think) attributed as well. It didn’t have atheist in the term.

  • monkeymind

    Well, what is the opposite of appeasement? Isn’t it confrontation?

  • Jen

    I tend to find Christian in-fighting to be hilarious. I find that generally speaking, if I ask a Christian what a “Christian” is, they will offer me a stock answer about believing in the divine Christ, etc, and believing in salvation through him. All right. Now, if I then ask about, say, the gays, I will often get an answer along the lines of, “they are going to hell/ they are sinners/ they are misguided.” If I then ask them for the specific sin, it usually revolves around sexual immorality. If I then ask the Christian why she can have premarital sex, they will shut down. If they still have their v-card (an ever-dwindling number of Christians I know) I ask the same thing about hooking up, and they will say it isn’t sex, and I will point out that Jesus didn’t hook up, and they will shut down.

    As for not-real atheists, I don’t know. I would question some “former atheists” along the lines of Kirk Cameron, who is a moron who has clearly never spoken to an atheist besides Hermant, and we all know how that went. It seems like formers atheists tend to get converted fairly easily, which seems… strange. I don’t want to say they weren’t atheists prior to that. After all, a former vegetarian clearly didn’t eat meat back then, so their actions were vegetarian, but I am not sure how convinced they could have been of, say, animal suffering and the problems with that if they went back to cheeseburgers. So, someone may “live the atheist lifestyle” or whatever, but if they move quickly to theism, I am not sure how convinced they were in the first place. As always, YMMV.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Well, what is the opposite of appeasement? Isn’t it confrontation?

    Indeed.

  • Mriana

    After all, a former vegetarian clearly didn’t eat meat back then, so their actions were vegetarian, but I am not sure how convinced they could have been of, say, animal suffering and the problems with that if they went back to cheeseburgers. So, someone may “live the atheist lifestyle” or whatever, but if they move quickly to theism, I am not sure how convinced they were in the first place.

    I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 11 or 12. People ask if I ever miss meat. No. I don’t even remember what meat tastes like to be honest and even before that, my mother had a difficult time getting me to eat meat. It was always, “Eat your meat.” ECK! She gave up eventually and left me alone. Now I’m a mother of two teenage boys- 16 and 18. One is a vegetarian and the other is not, even though at home I cook vegetarian. Even though I fed them as vegetarians, they have both have tasted meat and made their own choice.

    By the same token, I don’t think a true atheist would be easy to convert. I think those that are converted easily, didn’t have their minds made up and only said they did.

    I think those of us who question at an early age and seek out the answers as soon as we are free to do so (some can’t until they leave home and even then they maybe slow to do so until they test the waters) are more likely to choose atheism/Humanism/etc over theism. Since non-theists already question and doubt, it’s more likely that they are harder to convert.

    Once people make up their minds about something, most never turn back. That’s just my thoughts.

  • monkeymind

    And confrontation implies potential conflict, no? How can you say that using a metaphor from WWII does not imply that there is some sort of campaign/conflict to be waged?

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    Gary Charbonneau said:

    The notion of “implicit atheism” is another one that I have a little difficulty with. I find myself wondering, at one point in time does one become an ‘implicit atheist? At birth? At conception?

    This is only barely worth dickering over, but anything that is not a theist is by definition a non-theist. “Non-theist” and “atheist” are synonymous.

    The case of infants is entirely trivial and uninteresting, but technically, since no non-thinking thing (e.g. fetuses, rocks, cheese graters) can possibly be a theist (because they have no beliefs whatsoever), then they are definitially atheists (or non-theists, whatever).

    By the same reasoning, infants are also apolitical, and aspherical.

    The designation of “implicit atheist” only gets interesting when we consider people who do have beliefs in general, but have never considered the concept of deities in the first place.

  • Darryl

    I don’t think a true atheist would be easy to convert. I think those that are converted easily, didn’t have their minds made up and only said they did.

    I think many people don’t look too deeply into these matters. Many of them believe what they do for no good reasons or they just don’t care enough about it to inquire. When they are approached by someone who seems to make sound arguments they can be swayed. In brief, there’re a lot of people who never learn how to think critically and logically.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    And confrontation implies potential conflict, no?

    I wouldn’t use the word conflict.

    How can you say that using a metaphor from WWII does not imply that there is some sort of campaign/conflict to be waged?

    No.

    Make your point.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Atheism doesn’t say anything about religion, poison or not. It doesn’t say anything about anything. It’s a lack of belief in a deity. Is the logic area in your brain badly damaged? How could someone possibly use that as a motivation to do anything. No one ever shot someone because of a lack of belief in fairies or gods.

    This is your version of atheism. Other atheists do in fact have very strong things to say about the negative effects of religion (take Christopher Hitchens for example). You may want to take a fine-tooth comb to your beliefs and isolate your lack of belief in a deity as the only part of your worldview referred to by the term “atheism”, but most people’s views don’t work that way. For most people their belief or lack of belief in God and their feelings about religion are all bound up together. For instance, I guarantee that Hitchens’ view that religion poisons everything is a consequence of his atheism. To be sure, if he didn’t lack a belief in God, it is highly unlikely that he would still consider all religion to be poisonous. Regardless of how you define atheism, there are and have been atheists for whom non-belief in God leads to violent persecution of those who do believe in God (and of course the reverse has been true too – that goes without saying.)

    It seems to me that you’re falling into the same “No True Scotsman” fallacy that Richard is calling out in this post. You’re basically defining atheism so narrowly that it excludes any negative things done by atheists as a result of their atheism. It’s annoying, and weasely, and dishonest when Christians do that sort of thing to get out of responsibility for the Crusades or the Inquisition or whatever, and it’s equally so when atheists do it too.

  • Aj

    For most people their belief or lack of belief in God and their feelings about religion are all bound up together.

    What your hopefully saying is that people base their opinions of religion on whether the claims it makes are justified or not. Well done, Sherlock. Although “all bound up together” should be “a natural consequence”. CS Lewis says this in Mere Christianity:

    A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

    That doesn’t broaden the concept of atheism beyond what it is commonly meant as. Different religions believe others are terrible.

    Regardless of how you define atheism, there are and have been atheists for whom non-belief in God leads to violent persecution of those who do believe in God

    Something else leads to violent persecuation. A lack of belief in something is not a motivation. At best it might be a lack of a something that motivates in a different direction to violent persecuation. Non-belief has never lead to any violence. It doesn’t make sense, check your logic circuit. My lack of belief in fairies never motivated me.

    It seems to me that you’re falling into the same “No True Scotsman” fallacy that Richard is calling out in this post. You’re basically defining atheism so narrowly that it excludes any negative things done by atheists as a result of their atheism. It’s annoying, and weasely, and dishonest when Christians do that sort of thing to get out of responsibility for the Crusades or the Inquisition or whatever, and it’s equally so when atheists do it too.

    You wouldn’t know logic if it bit you, died for your sins, came back with zombies, and ate your brains. I defined what I meant by Atheist and many others on this blog have, if you’re going to adopt your own definition but still respond and argue with me you’re seriously troubled. Since you don’t actually know what “No True Scotsman” fallacy is, I’ll give you a hint, it’s about the definitions.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    godma said,This is only barely worth dickering over, but anything that is not a theist is by definition a non-theist. “Non-theist” and “atheist” are synonymous.

    The case of infants is entirely trivial and uninteresting, but technically, since no non-thinking thing (e.g. fetuses, rocks, cheese graters) can possibly be a theist (because they have no beliefs whatsoever), then they are definitially atheists (or non-theists, whatever).

    I consider this something of an abuse of the language. It seems to me that when English-speakers speak of an “X-ist,” they are referring to a person who subscribes to a certain doctrine (even if it is a doctrine that consists only of rejection of some other doctrine). They are not referring to persons who are to be characterized by their not subscribing to (but also not rejecting) some doctrine or other, and they are certainly not referring to inanimate objects.

    Are you seriously suggesting that, when we try to estimate the number of “atheists” in the world, we need to remember to count the cheese graters?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Aj said, Such a person would have claimed knowledge of the nonexistence. That’s what strong atheists claim about God.

    I submit that your characterization about what “strong atheists” claim is simply false. Wikipedia declares that “Strong atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist,” and I think that’s a reasonable definition. An explicit affirmation does not require “knowledge,” especially where “knowledge” is somehow to equated with “absolute certainty.” If Richard Dawkins had to take a stand on this issue, I’m sure he would claim to be a strong atheist, even though he has explicily denied absolute certainty about the non-existence of God. I don’t have The God Delusion in front of me at the moment, but I believe that he says that, on a scale of 1-7, his degree of certainty that God does not exist is 6.

    As for Bertrand Russell, I suspect that he would also come down on the side of strong atheism, and would go on to say that this whole “weak atheism” business simply has the effect of according theism a degree of intellectual respect that it, like “celestial teapotism,” does not deserve.

  • Mriana

    Regardless of how you define atheism, there are and have been atheists for whom non-belief in God leads to violent persecution of those who do believe in God

    The belief in a deity also leads to violent persecution. Just look at the history of Christianity and Islam. They have a history of violently persecuting doubters, infidels, non-believers, heretics, etc.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    The church I attend recently re-did their bylaws. One item that caused a lot of discussion was how long a person must be a member of the church before they can qualify to run for a leadership position. They initially had decided on 1 year but many people objected and then they changed it to two years. The rationale being that one year is not enough time to make sure someone is a “true” Christian. The church wants to see steady commitment from the individual over an extended period of time. That is the opinion of at least one church that I am familiar with. As similar argument could be formed about “true” atheists.

    I, though, tend to put more stock in early childhood development. If a person is brought up religious, then it is very hard to break from that early cognitive conditioning. It is possible, but painful. Since atheism is simply a lack of belief, it is easier for an atheist to convert to theism since they may not have had any early cognitive conditioning supporting atheism. The exception being if the child decided early on to be atheist in a larger environment of theism (neighbors, classmates, family, etc). Then the child would be forced at an early age to go through the painful exercise of reconciling their lack of belief against the predominant belief of the world around them. If a child can go through this, then they will probably be what some would consider a “true atheist”. Such a person would not easily be converted later in life. Their brain would already be “wired” for atheism just like their religious counterpart’s brain’s are already “wired” for religion. I think it all a battle over our children. Churches understand that all too well.

  • monkeymind

    Aj, my point is this.

    The term “Neville Chamberlain Atheist” implies that there is a praxis of atheism – even more, that there is an orthopraxis of atheism – i.e., that there is a right and a wrong way to “do”it.

    Your assertion

    [atheism] doesn’t say anything about anything. It’s a lack of belief in a deity. Is the logic area in your brain badly damaged? How could someone possibly use that as a motivation to do anything.

    is exactly what Mike C. says it is – a bit of prescriptive and pre-emptive semantics. Prescriptive because it implies some essential “correct” definition of atheism that does not gibe with how the term is actually used. Pre-emptive because it excludes atheism as a motivation for any action, good or bad.
    It’s obvious that those who use the term “Neville Chamberlain atheists” do not subscribe to your narrow definition of atheism, but believe instead that atheism should lead to vigorous advocacy of a specific set of policies.

    Now the weird thing about all this is that, according to Wikipedia at least, the term “No True Scotsman” for a specific fallacy of equivocation was coined by Antony Flew!

    Flew’s original example may be softened into the following:

    Argument: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
    Reply: “But my uncle Angus, who is a Scotsman, likes sugar with his porridge.”
    Rebuttal: “Aye, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

    Aj’s argument: Atheism simply means lack of belief in gods, which cannot motivate anyone to do anything.

    Reply: In practice, many atheists believe that atheism as a worldview necessitates socio-political activism. The fact that in the present day most atheists are also strong advocates for civil liberties shouldn’t blind us to the fact that in the past, political programs for the promotion of atheism have led to human rights violations.

    Aj’s rebuttal: Are you mentally impaired? I already told you that by my definition, atheism can never be a motivation for anything. Do not confuse me with your descriptivist semantics about how the term “atheist” is used in the real world! Aj has spoken!

    PS I have no clue what you were trying to prove with your quote from CS Lewis. In my opinion, it’s the single most bone-headed thing Lewis or any other Christian apologist has ever said. The fact is that Jesus (even if he is not a real person but a composite of various spiritual teachers active in Palestine in the first century CE) could still be a great human teacher who inadvertently founded a cult that grafted various elements of Greco-Roman mystery religions onto his legend.

  • Keith

    Aj,

    Why are your comments toward Mike C. filled with down-talk and insults? Recognizing that you prefer confrontation to appeasement … it seems that you have flown by confrontation to contempt. Please reconsider your method of confronting, Mike C., because what you’re communicating right now is that you loathe him … not that you want him to understand. And while many atheists are able to confront action without expressing contempt for the person, you have specificallly expressed contempt for Mike C. himself.

    Also, if possible, please explain more of what you meant in quoting C.S. Lewis … did you mean that Lewis considered other religions terrible, that Lewis thought other religions should find Christianity terrible, or something else that I have ineptly missed. Please help me understand that comment. Thanks.

  • K

    I am an Atheist and I am an individual. I am true to myself and don’t care what anyone else thinks I should be like.

  • Vincent

    monkeymind,
    the problem with the definition Mike (and apparently you) proposed is that no person who calls himself atheist uses it.
    Others ascribe more meaning to the word because they want to perceive the outgroup in that manner.
    Those who self-describe as atheists use only one or two limited definitions, one of which most people would consider agnostic rather than atheist.
    The “no true atheist” problem doesn’t arise because those who self-describe as atheist don’t use the word atheist in a manner that would make such a proposition possible.

  • Cade

    I think that in some circles, atheists tend to look down on agnostics for being indecisive, and agnostics tend to look down on atheists for being dogmatic.

    Both of these groups are most likely minorities, and I think that their opinions stem from a poor understanding of the other’s thoughts. Labels tend to ignore the broad spectrum of beliefs. They say that you’re either red, green, or blue when you may be purple instead.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    the problem with the definition Mike (and apparently you) proposed is that no person who calls himself atheist uses it.

    I don’t think either of us proposed a formal definition of atheism. An atheist may still be defined as someone who lacks a belief in God (just as a Christian may be defined as someone who believes in the divinity of Christ). The point both of us were making was that atheism (as with Christianity) often goes beyond mere belief to an actual praxis as a consequence of that belief. My argument was that you can’t just say that belief and praxis are completely separate and have nothing to do with one another. (Just as you can’t separate the actions of certain Christians from the fact that their actions were motivated by their beliefs as Christians.)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Aj’s argument: Atheism simply means lack of belief in gods, which cannot motivate anyone to do anything.

    Reply: In practice, many atheists believe that atheism as a worldview necessitates socio-political activism. The fact that in the present day most atheists are also strong advocates for civil liberties shouldn’t blind us to the fact that in the past, political programs for the promotion of atheism have led to human rights violations.

    Aj’s rebuttal: Are you mentally impaired? I already told you that by my definition, atheism can never be a motivation for anything. Do not confuse me with your descriptivist semantics about how the term “atheist” is used in the real world! Aj has spoken!

    Very well said monkeymind. Excellent summary of the conversation thus far.

    PS I have no clue what you were trying to prove with your quote from CS Lewis. In my opinion, it’s the single most bone-headed thing Lewis or any other Christian apologist has ever said. The fact is that Jesus (even if he is not a real person but a composite of various spiritual teachers active in Palestine in the first century CE) could still be a great human teacher who inadvertently founded a cult that grafted various elements of Greco-Roman mystery religions onto his legend.

    And I second this as well. I have no idea what that Lewis quote had to do with the topic at hand. And I likewise agree that it’s not a very astute statement by Lewis either. He would have done much better if he had just added one more “L” to his “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” options… “Legend”.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    “Regardless of how you define atheism, there are and have been atheists for whom non-belief in God leads to violent persecution of those who do believe in God”

    The belief in a deity also leads to violent persecution. Just look at the history of Christianity and Islam. They have a history of violently persecuting doubters, infidels, non-believers, heretics, etc.

    Yes Mriana, I acknowledged exactly that in what I said immediately after the end of the bit you quoted from me, which was:

    (and of course the reverse has been true too – that goes without saying.)

    The “reverse” of course being exactly what you yourself have just pointed out.

  • Aj

    I submit that your characterization about what “strong atheists” claim is simply false. Wikipedia declares that “Strong atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist,” and I think that’s a reasonable definition. An explicit affirmation does not require “knowledge,” especially where “knowledge” is somehow to equated with “absolute certainty.”

    Yes, that’s an error on my part, a strong atheist could just “feel” that there is no God like theists “feel” there is one. I’m unfamiliar with that kind of belief myself. It’s not uncommon for knowledge to be used to describe certainty in common English, I concede that it’s not compatible with epistemology.

    Richard Dawkins had to take a stand on this issue, I’m sure he would claim to be a strong atheist, even though he has explicily denied absolute certainty about the non-existence of God. I don’t have The God Delusion in front of me at the moment, but I believe that he says that, on a scale of 1-7, his degree of certainty that God does not exist is 6.

    Here’s the quote.

    6 Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I
    cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

    7 Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same
    conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

    The God Delusion, p50-51

    That’s not my understanding of what a strong atheist is. A strong atheist’s probability of God existing would be zero.

    As for Bertrand Russell, I suspect that he would also come down on the side of strong atheism, and would go on to say that this whole “weak atheism” business simply has the effect of according theism a degree of intellectual respect that it, like “celestial teapotism,” does not deserve.

    Bertrand Russell seemed to be in agreement with Dawkins.

    When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that this or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless.

    Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (1947)

    Keith,

    Why are your comments toward Mike C. filled with down-talk and insults? Recognizing that you prefer confrontation to appeasement … it seems that you have flown by confrontation to contempt. Please reconsider your method of confronting, Mike C., because what you’re communicating right now is that you loathe him … not that you want him to understand. And while many atheists are able to confront action without expressing contempt for the person, you have specificallly expressed contempt for Mike C. himself.

    He’s calling for us to “respectfully disagree and dialogue” while deliberately misinterpreting me and others. I probably shouldn’t have responded after the second time I stated my definition, yet he still insisted on using his own to argue against my points. He then proceeds to make my arguments for me, putting words in my mouth, arguing against things I never suggested, and accuses me of dishonest motivation for my definition of atheist, one that would be accepted by the majority of atheists I have come across. Complaining that I’m limiting “atheism” to just about belief in a God (or gods), which seems so absurd to me I don’t accept that it’s anything but an insult to my intelligence.

    I’m being told what atheists think and what atheism is, by someone who asked who do atheists thank when they have good fortune. Being told I’m committing a “No True Scotsman” fallacy by someone who doesn’t know what it is.

    Also, if possible, please explain more of what you meant in quoting C.S. Lewis … did you mean that Lewis considered other religions terrible, that Lewis thought other religions should find Christianity terrible, or something else that I have ineptly missed. Please help me understand that comment. Thanks.

    As a comment on the importance of what you consider the truth value of these claims to consideration whether they’re good or bad. Anyone who goes around saying worldly things aren’t important and I am your God isn’t a very moral person unless they know something you don’t. It’s quite obvious, so obvious that Lewis found it insulting to his intelligence to suggest otherwise. It wasn’t just Lewis that thought this, Jefferson had trouble with retrieving teachings of secular value from Jesus. Some have commented on Jesus not being so special compared to others in history.

    The religious don’t think other religions are true, so many consider those teachings to be terrible, even though they’re just as irrational as their own. Even to the point that the same action in the name of a different God can be considered the most evil act, where in the name of their own can be seen as the highest achievement.

    Atheism doesn’t suggest what the person considers an action good or bad, but it does suggest a position on a truth claim that might be integral to whether a person considers an action good or bad.

  • Keith

    Aj, thank you for your thoughtful response. I empathize with your frustration … atheist/Christian conversations can be delicate and edgy … I am confident that Mike C. is not “deliberately misinterpreting” you, and it may ease your frustration when you find that Mike C. is your dimwitted friend rather than your vile enemy (this is tongue in cheek, Mike C., I do not consider you to be dimwitted)

    Thanks for replying to my question about Lewis. At the beginning of section two of Mere Christianity (titled “What Christians Believe), Lewis says the following:

    I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth … As in arithmetic – there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

    How does this quote match what you sensed Lewis was saying in his (admittedly weak) “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” quote? You said:

    The religious don’t think other religions are true, so many consider those teachings to be terrible, even though they’re just as irrational as their own. Even to the point that the same action in the name of a different God can be considered the most evil act, where in the name of their own can be seen as the highest achievement.

    If this conclusion follows from Lewis, I think it is important to include his remarks about this specific subject in addition to his more commonly known comments. Thanks.

  • Mriana

    As in arithmetic – there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

    Keith, this is where I said and still say, Lewis is arrogant. He was, in a round about way saying Christianity is right and all others are wrong, BUT the others may have some simblence of being right. Of course, I don’t think Lewis ever was an atheist either. Just an arrogant boob- even for an Anglican.

  • Richard Wade

    AMMENDMENT TO THE POST
    Excuse me everyone, I have enjoyed and have been impressed by the thoughtful and incisive comments here so far, but soon after the conversations started I realized that the way I had worded the title and the very last question of the post had narrowed the conversation more than I had intended.

    I closed by asking if anyone had ever been accused of being not a true atheist by another person professing to be an atheist. By “true” I meant a broader meaning than just “real” or “genuine.” Including those I also meant had anyone been accused or treated as if they were somehow unworthy atheists, or less-than atheists or lightweights or any of dozens of possible dismissive or disdainful ways of conceding that yes, you are an atheist but for some reason you are still not up to their standards.

    A few people have described such experiences such as Maria’s story about the RRS board rejecting people, but people seemed to be adding them as if they thought those were side issues and a little off topic. Not at all.

    I should have been more explicit in my question and my use of the word “true.” While the responses have been remarkable so far, I just want to open it up more if anyone is still interested.

    Richard

  • Darryl

    Anyone who thinks they know what a true atheist is is in error: no such atheist exists. No one can be a ‘true’ atheist. Just like Christians, there are all kinds of atheists in the world, and they may be loosely grouped by virtue of their unbelief in god(s). Beyond that, there may be no other belief that they hold in common. Since there is no true atheist, any atheist who dismisses another atheist for not being atheist (adj.) enough is being imprecise about what it is that they are objecting to. I may object that some atheist is not informed enough, or not logical enough, or not reasonable enough, or not objective enough, etc., but I cannot assert that the atheist is not atheist (adj.) enough.

    For those of you who enjoy reading long, let me demonstrate the error I’m discussing (for those who love a pithy, punchy bon mot, please move on)

    The true Scotsman argument is simply a strategy to defend an assertion by shifting the object of the assertion from one category to another, in effect to redefine the object. Making a concrete object into an abstraction constitutes the shift. This strategy works because by making an assertion about an abstraction one prevents the assertion from being verified or falsified because its object is effectively beyond reach.

    In the assertion “no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge“ the ‘true’ Scotsman is an abstraction (as opposed to what was assumed to be an actual Scotsman in the initial assertion, before the shift was made). As such it is a fiction, an essence without existence. Since no such man exists, an assertion about him has only logical meaning, but no factual meaning. Hence, an actual Scotsman will never be a ‘true’ Scotsman because no flesh and blood man can be the ideal Scotsman.

    If atheist is defined in abstract terms, then any comparisons of the abstract atheist to actual atheists is unreasonable, since no actual atheist can be the ideal atheist.

    The same holds for the term ‘theist.’ To say that someone is a theist may mean nothing at all in relation to how they behave or what they believe because they must actually be something when no one can be an abstraction. This is the irony of categories: to generalize is to abstract; to abstract is to fictionalize.

    So, to sum up,

    No theist is a true theist or ‘theist’
    No atheist is a true atheist or ‘atheist’
    No Christian is a true Christian or ‘Christian’

    Since no one can be an abstraction,

    No theist is a ‘theist’ or a ‘Christian’
    No atheist is an ‘atheist’
    No Christian is a ‘theist’ or a ‘Christian’

    Silly but true.

  • Aj

    Keith,

    If this conclusion follows from Lewis, I think it is important to include his remarks about this specific subject in addition to his more commonly known comments. Thanks.

    I was taking a specific point from Lewis, that it matters whether this stuff is true or not. I was making the related observation that the religious tend to base their views on other religions by whether they think it’s true or not. Often they consider each others religions to be terrible. I wasn’t implying Lewis was one of these, because I don’t know his view on other religions.

    Lewis in the quote you have provided restates the truth value of religious claims as important. The point about a Christians ability to not believe other religions to be all wrong (I suspect he means apart from the times it conflicts with Christianity), is one I accept.

    I think perhaps my wording of the religious considering the teachings of other religions as terrible can be interpreted as meaning they consider all the teachings terrible, or that they have to consider other religions terrible. I didn’t mean for this, sorry for the confusion, I meant it in more general terms.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Very helpful clarification Darryl. Thank you.

  • Claire

    The exception being if the child decided early on to be atheist in a larger environment of theism (neighbors, classmates, family, etc). Then the child would be forced at an early age to go through the painful exercise of reconciling their lack of belief against the predominant belief of the world around them. If a child can go through this, then they will probably be what some would consider a “true atheist”.

    Oooh, ooh, me, me! (Waving arm frantically) I guess I’m a true atheist! (Except I don’t remember it being painful, I just remember deciding most of the world was as stupid about religion as they were about most things.)

    Anyone who thinks they know what a true atheist is is in error: no such atheist exists. No one can be a ‘true’ atheist.

    Damn, I guess I’m not a true atheist after all…..

    Oh, no, wait.

    So, Darryl – My question wouldn’t be how you are defining “atheist”, but how are you defining “true”? From Richard’s post, the meaning he used in posing his questions was that “true” meant simply genuine and even a little looser than that. You seem to be defining “true” as the “the one and only genuine type”, and that’s what’s putting us into the no true Scotsman territory. I see why they call it a fallacy.

    Although, mostly, I just think of myself as an atheist, not a true atheist, anymore than I think of myself as a true human or a true movie-lover. The true or not true label is something most people apply to other people, not themselves.

    As for who is or isn’t a christian, or a muslim, or any other religion, true or otherwise, that’s easy for me. They are if they say they are. Who else would know better?

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    From Gary Charbonneau:

    Are you seriously suggesting that, when we try to estimate the number of “atheists” in the world, we need to remember to count the cheese graters?

    No. We should only count the explicit atheists. The rest are only atheists in a trivial sense.

    This is a silly exercise. Of course non-sentient entities are outside the context implied by the theism/atheism distinction. Although I think that cheese graters are atheists in a very narrow, pedantic, technical sense – I don’t think this fact is useful.

    However, the essence of the issue is interesting:

    Do you disagree that “atheist” is synonymous with “non-theist”? If so, then on what grounds? If not, then what’s wrong with calling a rock a non-theist? Do you have a problem calling a rock apolitical or asexual?

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    “MikeClawson said: There is a difference between exclusion and disagreement. It’s not up to me to decide who is or is not a true Christian. Everyone can be in who wants to be in, as far as I’m concerned.”

    Oh, surely not. How could one reasonably say that an atheist is a Christian, and therefore “in”? In order to be “in” as a Christian, doesn’t one have to be a Christian and not an atheist (or a Muslim, or a Jew)?

    Huh? I don’t quite follow you. I said “Everyone can be in who wants to be in“. In other words, if someone wants to self-identify themselves as a Christian they are welcome to do so, it’s not for me to determine whether they really are or not. But I would assume that most atheists (or Muslims or Jews) are not going to self-identify as a Christian. Thus I don’t really understand your question. Are you suggesting that some might?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, The point both of us were making was that atheism (as with Christianity) often goes beyond mere belief to an actual praxis as a consequence of that belief. My argument was that you can’t just say that belief and praxis are completely separate and have nothing to do with one another. (Just as you can’t separate the actions of certain Christians from the fact that their actions were motivated by their beliefs as Christians.)

    I believe that the point that AJ has been trying to make is that atheism neither mandates nor implies a praxis as part of its core belief set. I think I would agree with that (and whether you define atheism as “a lack of belief in the existence of God” or “a belief in the nonexistence of God” doesn’t matter here). For example, atheism does not imply any particular theory of ethics. It merely implies the rejection of one particular theory of ethics, the “divine command” theory.

    “Christianity,” on the other hand, ordinarily implies a praxis as a part of its core belief set. For example, I think it mandates that I should do unto others as I would have them do unto me. Or would you disagree?

    Thus, in atheism, belief and praxis are entirely separable, since there is no atheist praxis. In Christianity, belief and praxis are supposedly inseparable. This is in fact one of the major “advantages” often cited by Christians in comparing Christianity to atheism.

    Of course, Christians often disagree on the praxis mandated or implied by Christian beliefs. That is another way of saying that Christians often disagree on what “Christian beliefs” actually are. Hence the division into two camps, the “true” Christians and the “not-so-true” Christians. Differences among atheists about the nature of atheism are, I think, considerably fewer and less substantial than differences among Christians about the nature of Christianity.

    I have no difficulty with the notion that Stalin was a “true atheist” while he engaged in persecution of theists, but this persecution was not mandated by a praxis of “atheism.” Rather, it was the praxis of a particular atheist (who certainly did not stop at persecuting theists, because his iron hand was felt at least as severely by many Soviet atheists).

    On the other hand, the historical persecution of Christians by other Christians, based on charges of heresy, was part and parcel of distinct Christian praxes. These praxes must be regarded as genuinely Christian — unless one is, indeed, prepared to say that those who engaged in them were not “true Christians” insofar as they did so.

  • monkeymind

    Aj, is it possible that you are misunderstanding Mike and me?

    I think Darryl’s post sheds some light here. You have in your mind an abstract definition of atheism (lack of belief in a deity), and use it to postulate “How could someone possibly use that as a motivation to do anything,” thus atheism could never be a motive for bad actions.

    Your assertion that atheism can never motivate anyone to do anything does not seem to fit with the reality I observe, in which many atheists see atheism as a principle organizing and informing their response to the world. They definitely feel that atheists should try to influence the culture around them by engaging in specific activities. These people are motivated to create web sites, join or create a non-profit organizations, write their elected representatives, participate in discussions, etc. etc. The may not agree on policies and strategies, but they definitely don’t seem to think that atheism is all about philosophical debate but rather about getting out a mailing, organizing a protest, initiating a letter-writing campaign.

    Of course the minute that atheism moves from being an abstract essential quality to an existential commitment, a discussion about means and ends ensues. You lose the purity of abstraction and risk becoming entangled in the messiness of life, where its possible to rationalize one’s own aggressive impulses as justified in the service of the cause (that’s experience talking)

    Now, I wouldn’t dream of saying that the activist atheists are the “real” atheists, or accuse the others of a form of atheistic quietism. But, I will take them at their word, and believe that atheism is a motivating force in their life.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    godma said, Do you disagree that “atheist” is synonymous with “non-theist”? If so, then on what grounds? If not, then what’s wrong with calling a rock a non-theist? Do you have a problem calling a rock apolitical or asexual?

    Well, to refer to a cetain rock as “apolitical” seems to me a mighty peculiar thing to do — as though one were trying to distinguish the political apathy of that particular rock from the political engagement of other, more civic-minded specimens of mineralogy.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Aj said,
    It’s not uncommon for knowledge to be used to describe certainty in common English, I concede that it’s not compatible with epistemology.

    I recently ran across a web site called “strongatheism.net” put up by a Canadian fellow named Francois Tremblay. He says that “Strong Atheism is the proposition that we should not suspend judgment about the non-existence of a god or gods.” In an FAQ on the site he says, “Strong atheistic propositions do not imply certainty. To understand this, we need to understand the difference between a claim and the confidence we put on that claim. We can make claims about a great number of things, but the nature of the claim itself does not indicate how confident we are in it.”

    So far, so good (at least as far as I am concerned). But then he goes on to say, “a proposition such as “there is no god” … does not demand certainty. It demands that we prove it as knowledge, just like any other claim of knowledge.”

    So in deference to M Tremblay, I need to back off from my previous claim that strong atheism is not a claim about “knowledge.” Obviously there is at least one “strong atheist” who thinks it is. That being the case, what term shall we use for the atheist who says “I have a belief in the non-existence of God” — if the term “strong atheist” is already spoken for for another purpose?

    Here’s the quote.

    6 Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I
    cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

    7 Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same
    conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

    The God Delusion, p50-51

    That’s not my understanding of what a strong atheist is. A strong atheist’s probability of God existing would be zero.

    Yes, thanks. Obviously I hadn’t remembered precisely what Dawkins said, and clearly he equates “strong atheism” with “a claim to knowledge,” as Tremblay (ultimately) does.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I believe that the point that AJ has been trying to make is that atheism neither mandates nor implies a praxis as part of its core belief set. I think I would agree with that (and whether you define atheism as “a lack of belief in the existence of God” or “a belief in the nonexistence of God” doesn’t matter here). For example, atheism does not imply any particular theory of ethics. It merely implies the rejection of one particular theory of ethics, the “divine command” theory.

    Gary, I see your point, but I think monkeymind’s last post has pretty much summed up what I want to say in response. You are talking about a theoretical, abstract definition of atheism. We are pointing to the ways in which we actually see atheism lived out in the real world. While the definition theoretically may not imply any particular praxis, in actuality atheism very often does result in specific actions in the world.

    And since I’m a pretty practical guy, I give more credence to what people actually do, versus what they claim to believe.

  • monkeymind

    Gary, I am in total agreement with you! I don’t think that atheism necessitates a praxis. I also agree that there atheism does not imply a particular theory of ethics. I would argue however that really-existing atheism, at least in the US, does have a core socio-political agenda, to wit, that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harassment, and that state power and tax dollars should not be used to promote religion. Now, that’s a pretty minimalist agenda compared to that of the Religious Right, but nevertheless it is around this core agenda that atheists are mobilizing and arguing about tactics and strategies.

    Gary says:

    I have no difficulty with the notion that Stalin was a “true atheist” while he engaged in persecution of theists, but this persecution was not mandated by a praxis of “atheism.”

    Well, I think that you could argue that there are significant differences between Marxist “scientific atheism” and liberal secularist atheism. But to argue that specific groups of atheists have never had specific socio-political agendas based on atheism is specious.

    BTW, rather than focusing on Stalin, who after all initiated a big swing toward rapprochement with the Orthodox Church during WWII, I think the more instructive case is the focused campaign against religion in the Lenin/Trotsky era, including the activities of the quasi-volunteer “Society of the Godless.”

    As to whether “the historical persecution of Christians by other Christians, based on charges of heresy, was part and parcel of distinct Christian praxes,” I’ll let Mike C. weigh in on that if he’s interested.
    In the immortal words of Mel Brooks:

    Hey Torquemada, whadya say?
    I just got back from the Auto da fe
    Auto da fe? What’s an Auto da fe?
    It’s what you oughtn’t to do but you do anyway

  • monkeymind

    I think a strong atheist is one that can bench press more than 250 pounds.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, Gary, I see your point, but I think monkeymind’s last post has pretty much summed up what I want to say in response. You are talking about a theoretical, abstract definition of atheism. We are pointing to the ways in which we actually see atheism lived out in the real world

    I don’t think you’re so much pointing to the ways in which you see “atheism lived out in the real world” as you are pointing to the ways in which you see some atheists living (and behaving) in the real world. I submit that there is a difference, but I would be glad to have you point out how I may be mistaken.

    Are the persecutions of Christians carried out by the Stalin’s Marxist-Leninist regime best compared with, or are they best contrasted with, the pogroms carried out against Jews in Russia a generation earlier by the Black Hundredists in the name of “Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie i Narodnost’” (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality)? For example:

    The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews. — New York Times, Apr. 28, 1903.

    I’m not arguing that Stalin and his henchmen were not “true atheists.” As far as I know, they were (that is, I don’t suspect them of being closet theists, though Stalin himself went so far as to publicly invoke God’s help against Nazi Germany). And there was nothing in their behavior incompatible with atheism. I am simply arguing that their behavior was not the result of any “atheist praxis,” theoretical or practical, abstract or concrete, of the kind that you seem suggest exists. It was the result of a Marxist-Leninist praxis — where Marxism-Leninism is not a sect of atheism in the same way that Russian Orthodoxy is a sect of Christianity.

    What of the Orthodox priests who allegedly led the Kishinev pogrom described above? “True Christians,” or not?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    monkeymind said, Gary, I am in total agreement with you! I don’t think that atheism necessitates a praxis. I also agree that there atheism does not imply a particular theory of ethics. I would argue however that really-existing atheism, at least in the US, does have a core socio-political agenda, to wit, that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harassment, and that state power and tax dollars should not be used to promote religion. Now, that’s a pretty minimalist agenda compared to that of the Religious Right, but nevertheless it is around this core agenda that atheists are mobilizing and arguing about tactics and strategies.

    Well, here is the distinction I am trying to make: You say, “Existing atheism, at least in the US, does have a core socio-political agenda, to wit, that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harassment, and that state power and tax dollars should not be used to promote religion.” To that I statement would recommend one subtle but important change: “Many atheists, at least in the US, do have a core socio-political agenda, to wit, that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harassment, and that state power and tax dollars should not be used to promote religion.”

    Do you see the difference? It’s not “atheism” that has an agenda, it’s “atheists” who have the agenda. But it’s not an agenda driven by atheism — in fact, many if not most of the leading proponents of church state-separation in the U.S. are theists, and I would hope that a good many theists would concur that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harrassment. So in no sense is this a peculiarly “atheist” agenda.

  • Darryl

    Gary, you’re dangerously close to agreeing with me (and Claire, I think) that whatever a self-described Christian does is a Christian praxis, and similarly, whatever a self-described atheist does is an atheist praxis. To say otherwise is to posit an objective standard of what a true Christian and true atheist ought to do or not do. I know that Christians do that all the time, but I don’t think it makes any sense.

    And, by the way, one can be an atheist and a Christian, if by that you mean a follower of the teachings of Jesus. There is a lot of Jesus’s teaching that still appeals to me although I don’t believe he’s the Son of God. I don’t profess myself to be a Christian any longer, but I imagine there’s some preacher or priest, or nun out there working his/her heart out doing good works though his/her faith in things unseen has, over years, slowly ebbed away. Isn’t this the case with Mother Teresa? If they could speak freely, they might say that they don’t believe in God any more, but they still believe in the message of Jesus, that through self-sacrifice and love we may save ourselves from evil in some sense.

    monkeymind said,

    I don’t think that atheism necessitates a praxis. I also agree that there atheism does not imply a particular theory of ethics. I would argue however that really-existing atheism, at least in the US, does have a core socio-political agenda, to wit, that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harassment, and that state power and tax dollars should not be used to promote religion. Now, that’s a pretty minimalist agenda compared to that of the Religious Right, but nevertheless it is around this core agenda that atheists are mobilizing and arguing about tactics and strategies.

    Gary has already corrected you on this point, but allow me to strengthen his argument, Monkeymind, atheism here in the U.S. does not have a single core socio-political agenda. Remember that among atheist types there are the conservative, pragmatic atheists. I imagine there are many of these in the Republican Party here in the U.S. They tolerate and even contribute to right-wing, Christian/Jewish activism, not because they believe it, but because they think it’s good for America, or that it helps them win elections, or some such reason. Think about it, if you don’t believe in God, or heaven or hell, and you don’t really believe in moral absolutes, then why not be Machiavellian?

  • monkeymind

    Gary said:

    To that I statement would recommend one subtle but important change: “Many atheists, at least in the US, do have a core socio-political agenda, to wit, that atheists should be able to make their unbelief public without fear of discrimination and harassment, and that state power and tax dollars should not be used to promote religion.”

    I see your point and concede your amendment to my post. I don’t think it detracts from my core point, which is that some atheists at least view their atheism as motivation for action, contrary to Aj’s assertion.

    I don’t really think that “theism”, or even Christianity, has a single core agenda either. Violent persecution has been a praxis of some Christianities, but other Christanities have eschewed all forms of violent coercion, on behalf of the church or the state, for centuries.

    And since we’re into random quotes from CS Lewis, here he is on theocracy:

    I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

  • monkeymind

    Darryl, you’re absolutely right, I had forgotten about the Karl Rove type of atheist. I don’t think he regards atheism as a core value though. Again, it’s not necessary for all atheists to have an agenda to prove that some do. And that once you have an agenda, you have to make decisions about means and ends.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Darryl said, Gary, you’re dangerously close to agreeing with me (and Claire, I think) that whatever a self-described Christian does is a Christian praxis, and similarly, whatever a self-described atheist does is an atheist praxis

    Er, no. not quite. Whatever an atheist does is the praxis of an atheist, but not an atheist praxis — that is, not a praxis prescribed by atheism, because atheism prescribes no praxis. With Christians, the same is not true. If a Christian discriminates against gay men because of some visceral dislike of homosexuality, that would be the praxis of a Christian, but not a Christian praxis. If, however, a Christian discriminates against gay men because Leviticus 20:13 declares,

    If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads,

    that would be a Christian praxis. That is, the Christian believes that faithful adherence to Christianity requires a certain praxis (even if he waffles a bit on the “putting to death” part and settles for some lesser form of retribution).

    Other Christians might, of course, disagree that Christianity requires this particular praxis, but I know of no Christians who argue that Christianity (unlike atheism) requires no praxis. It is simply that there is considerable disagreement among Christians as to the specifics of the praxis Christianity requires.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    monkeymind said, I don’t really think that “theism”, or even Christianity, has a single core agenda either. Violent persecution has been a praxis of some Christianities, but other Christanities have eschewed all forms of violent coercion, on behalf of the church or the state, for centuries.

    See my response to Darryl. Christians agree the Christianity demands a praxis. They often disagree on what praxis Christianity demands.

  • Darryl

    Gary, perhaps we’re talking past one another, but I disagree with your distinctions regarding praxis. There is, in my view, no single Christian praxis, that is, a single prescription for how Christians ought to act. Yes, Christians believe that being one requires some kind of special conduct, but what that is differs among sects. To cite Scripture is beside the point: the interpretation of Scripture is just another of those things that the sects differ over.

    As for atheists, I agree, atheism prescribes no praxis. Therefore, since there is no praxis that is authentically atheist, because none is prescribed, then any praxis of any atheist is by definition an atheist praxis. Stated in other terms, there is no general atheist praxis, just as there is no general Christian praxis; there are only specific ones, and even those can become generalized at some point.

    Finally, all this mincing of words only supports my contention that there is no way to critique anyone else’s atheism (or Christianity for that matter), since that requires a general standard. All we may do is describe the particulars and comment upon those.

  • monkeymind

    Gary, I’m not saying that atheism requires a praxis. I’m simply saying that an atheist who claims that his atheism motivates him to take certain actions is not wrong or deluded or a false atheist. I also made the assertion that the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist” implies that some atheists feel qualified to make normative judgments about the praxis of other atheists.
    I think we agree it’s weaselly for Christians to excuse historical evils by saying the perpetrators weren’t true Christians. I also think it’s weaselly for anyone to claim, for example, that the arrests and persecutions carried out by Yaroslavsky and the Union of Militant Atheists in the early days of the Soviet Union could not have been motivated by atheism. If the participants claimed that their actions were motivated by their desire to promote atheism, why not take it at face value, just like we accept the claims of Christians about their motivations? Why the special pleading that atheism wasn’t the true motive?
    BTW, I looked up the Michel Onfray quote about teaching atheism. From the context, it seems that he was was suggesting that atheist authors be part of the curriculum. The book he specifically mentions is Nietzche’s The Genealogy of Morals.

  • Darryl

    If atheists would be constructive in the world as atheists, then they will need to fill out their viewpoint with some positive content. It is not likely that they can draw any logical conclusions about ethics from the single assumption they share: that no god exists. They will have to use whatever sense they have to produce an ethics or adopt one, just as everyone else has done. Right now, I see little difference between the ethical views of a solidly liberal Christian, a humanist, and an easy-going atheist.

  • Mriana

    I don’t think there is much difference, Darryl- except liberal Christians believe in the supernatural.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I don’t think you’re so much pointing to the ways in which you see “atheism lived out in the real world” as you are pointing to the ways in which you see some atheists living (and behaving) in the real world. I submit that there is a difference, but I would be glad to have you point out how I may be mistaken.

    Sorry, I don’t see the distinction. It sounds like you just said the same thing I just said. What are you trying to say the difference is?

    I’m not arguing that Stalin and his henchmen were not “true atheists.” As far as I know, they were (that is, I don’t suspect them of being closet theists, though Stalin himself went so far as to publicly invoke God’s help against Nazi Germany). And there was nothing in their behavior incompatible with atheism. I am simply arguing that their behavior was not the result of any “atheist praxis,” theoretical or practical, abstract or concrete, of the kind that you seem suggest exists. It was the result of a Marxist-Leninist praxis — where Marxism-Leninism is not a sect of atheism in the same way that Russian Orthodoxy is a sect of Christianity.

    Let’s suppose you have an atheist who, as a corollary to their lack of belief in God, believes that anyone who does believe in God is irrational and therefore dangerous and harmful to society. And let’s suppose that this person, as a result, believes that such people ought to be either imprisoned or killed or “reeducated” or in some other way either “fixed” or removed from normal society. And suppose they lead a violent revolution in their country that, among other things, incorporates just such a program against people who believe in God. Are you trying to tell me that such action is somehow not a result of their atheism?

  • Maria

    Right now, I see little difference between the ethical views of a solidly liberal Christian, a humanist, and an easy-going atheist.

    I agree

    Let’s suppose you have an atheist who, as a corollary to their lack of belief in God, believes that anyone who does believe in God is irrational and therefore dangerous and harmful to society. And let’s suppose that this person, as a result, believes that such people ought to be either imprisoned or killed or “reeducated” or in some other way either “fixed” or removed from normal society. And suppose they lead a violent revolution in their country that, among other things, incorporates just such a program against people who believe in God. Are you trying to tell me that such action is somehow not a result of their atheism?

    that’s a good question

  • ash

    i find myself in the unfortunate position of fitting into a number of stereotypical views of atheism according to fundies – i am nihilistic to a degree, i do have a depressive nature, and although i aspire to many lofty ideals, i can only truely bring myself to believe in them/their value when i’m up. which would also make me an illogical hypocrite a great deal of the time.

    to the point of this post; i doubt anyone could accuse me of not being a ‘true atheist’ as i blatantly have no god/s belief, nor feel the need to acquire such. however, i imagine if i were to post regularly, despite state of mind, there probably would be a fair few who found my views inconsistent, offensive, or just plain undesirable, and would therefore wish i did not post as a poor representative of atheistic views.

    I closed by asking if anyone had ever been accused of being not a true atheist by another person professing to be an atheist. By “true” I meant a broader meaning than just “real” or “genuine.” Including those I also meant had anyone been accused or treated as if they were somehow unworthy atheists, or less-than atheists or lightweights or any of dozens of possible dismissive or disdainful ways of conceding that yes, you are an atheist but for some reason you are still not up to their standards.

    this does genuinely bother me. mind you, this goes on in any group opinion collective, does it not?
    #1 ‘i’m a huge Chicago bears fan’
    #2 ‘wow, so am i!’
    #1 ‘oh yeah? bet i’ve been one longer…how many games you been to then? do you have a signed t-shirt? huge fan my arse…’

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Of course, this sort of thing happens in the atheist community as well. Humans have a natural tendency to understand our world by grouping, and we should expect this in-group/out-group sort of thing to happen in any community. I have certainly heard atheists say that others weren’t “real atheists.”

  • Aj

    MikeClawson,

    Let’s suppose you have an atheist who, as a corollary to their lack of belief in God, believes that anyone who does believe in God is irrational and therefore dangerous and harmful to society. And let’s suppose that this person, as a result, believes that such people ought to be either imprisoned or killed or “reeducated” or in some other way either “fixed” or removed from normal society. And suppose they lead a violent revolution in their country that, among other things, incorporates just such a program against people who believe in God. Are you trying to tell me that such action is somehow not a result of their atheism?

    Theists being irrational is not a corollary from lack of belief of God. Not all people who lack belief in God believe that it is irrational to do so. It does not follow that an irrational belief is dangerous or harmful to society, these require beliefs about what is harmful. What one thinks should be done if they believe belief in god is irrational, harmful, or dangerous, does not follow from that belief. Nothing is demanded from atheism, a lack of belief in God, that someone should do anything. It is not a motivation to do anything. There are no demands, doctrines, dogmas, commandments, orders, advice, rewards, punishments, authorities, infallibles, revelations, holy texts, or suggestions.

    You have made two leaps that do not naturally follow from a lack of belief in God, but then you already know this, you alluded as much in your comments before when you decided to change the definition of atheism beyond just belief in God.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    You’ve missed my point Aj. It is irrelevant whether you or anyone else here thinks that train of reasoning necessarily flows from atheism. (I agree with you, it does not.) The point is that in the real world there are and have been atheists who do reason this way. And there are and have been whole societies and regimes that have acted on similar lines of reasoning. Again, your “ideal” definition of atheism doesn’t reflect the way actual atheists reason and act in the real world. And again, you’re resorting to the “no true atheist” argument by saying that your definition is to be preferred over all the real world varieties of atheist belief and behavior that actually exist.

    At any rate, this is a pointless discussion. For those atheists who care how they come across to non-atheists, bear in mind that trying to weasel out of answering for the atheist atrocities of the past century comes across as just as dishonest as believers who try to weasel out of answering for the atrocities committed by their religion throughout the centuries. If you don’t like it when we do it, then don’t do it yourselves.

    And for those here who don’t care how you come across to others, don’t worry about it. Aj’s line of reasoning will suit you just fine.

  • Aj

    MikeClawson,

    It is irrelevant whether you or anyone else here thinks that train of reasoning necessarily flows from atheism.

    Ah, so you expect me to accept an argument that requires me to include potential irrational links to atheism as well. Lets make a list of things that irrationally follow from atheism:

    Murder
    Rape
    Assault
    Beastiality
    Cannibalism
    Drug Addication
    Thumb Sucking
    Stamp Collecting
    Authoritarianism
    Capitalism
    Communism
    Fascism
    etc…

    Hell, even Christian Fundamentalism irrationally follows from atheism.

    I have faith (no, the other kind) that the majority of atheists reading this blog will see your argument as the irrational nonsense it is.

  • moebius2778

    Let’s suppose you have an atheist who, as a corollary to their lack of belief in God, believes that anyone who does believe in God is irrational and therefore dangerous and harmful to society. And let’s suppose that this person, as a result, believes that such people ought to be either imprisoned or killed or “reeducated” or in some other way either “fixed” or removed from normal society.

    I think that it is the second belief that is dangerous here. The above seems to require a not fully stated belief (or not fully stated in the quote) that “people who are dangerous and harmful to society should be imprisoned or killed or ‘reeducated.’” And I think when such a belief has few or no constraints (for example, when the questions “how dangerous?” or “how harmful?” or “what sort of danger?” are never asked), then that belief is probably going to cause problems at some point down the line.

    But I don’t see such an unconstrained belief being a corollary of any sort to atheism. I don’t even see that belief in itself being a corollary of any sort to atheism. Opposition to harmful or dangerous elements would seem to come from elsewhere. Or if it is a corollary, I’d appreciate a proof of it, because I don’t see where it would come from.

  • monkeymind

    Aj, let’s say I meet someone at a party who introduces himself as an atheist. Are you really saying that it is just as silly for me to expect that he also believes that religion is a harmful influence, as it would be for me to expect that he is a thumb-sucking serial killer?

    Just trying to get clear what you’re trying to say.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, You’ve missed my point Aj. It is irrelevant whether you or anyone else here thinks that train of reasoning necessarily flows from atheism. (I agree with you, it does not.) The point is that in the real world there are and have been atheists who do reason this way. And there are and have been whole societies and regimes that have acted on similar lines of reasoning. Again, your “ideal” definition of atheism doesn’t reflect the way actual atheists reason and act in the real world. And again, you’re resorting to the “no true atheist” argument by saying that your definition is to be preferred over all the real world varieties of atheist belief and behavior that actually exist.

    At any rate, this is a pointless discussion. For those atheists who care how they come across to non-atheists, bear in mind that trying to weasel out of answering for the atheist atrocities of the past century comes across as just as dishonest as believers who try to weasel out of answering for the atrocities committed by their religion throughout the centuries. If you don’t like it when we do it, then don’t do it yourselves.

    Now don’t go away all huffy, Mike. At what point in his reply did AJ suggest that your hypothetical atheist was “not a true atheist”? As long as the person “lacks a belief in God” — Aj’s definition of an atheist — he’s a true atheist. But where does lacking a belief in God, or positively believing that there is no God, imply any sort of praxis?

    You said: “Let’s suppose you have an atheist who, as a corollary to their lack of belief in God, believes that anyone who does believe in God is irrational and therefore dangerous and harmful to society….” How does one get from — how do you get from — “There is no God” (premise) to “Therefore, I must do something to prevent danger and harm to society”? One can’t, and one doesn’t. If your hypothetical “true atheist” has adopted the ethical principle, “One must do what one can to prevent danger and harm to society,” that principle about how one should behave is most certainly not inherent in his belief about a matter of fact (the non-existence of God) that is absolutely all there is to “atheism”. Or so it seems to me. If it does not seem so to you, please explain a train of reasoning that leads from “God does not exist” to “One must do what one can to prevent danger and harm to society.”

    If, therefore, your hypothetical atheist does great evil in trying to live up to the ethical principle he has adopted — an ethical principle that is entirely extrinsic to “atheism” — he’s a “true atheist” as long as he lacks a belief in the existence of God. However, “atheism” does not deserve the blame for any evil he does. He deserves the blame for the evil he does. And, if instead he does enormous good in trying to live up to that same ethical principle, while remaining a “true atheist,” “atheism” deserves no credit either. The atheist deserves the credit.

    Let me put it another way. If there actually were a Hell, Stalin would certainly deserve to rot in it. That doesn’t mean that he was wrong to believe that there is no such thing as God (or Hell).

    Why is this simple point so difficult to grasp? How can Aj and I possibly explain it any more clearly?

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Ah, so you expect me to accept an argument that requires me to include potential irrational links to atheism as well.

    For someone who likes to insult people for not being “logical”, you sure don’t pay close attention to your own logic. I said:

    It is irrelevant whether you or anyone else here thinks that train of reasoning necessarily flows from atheism.

    I said nothing about the reasoning being “irrational”. I said it doesn’t necessarily flow from atheism. In other words, that reasoning could (and sometimes does) flow out of an atheist worldview, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Gary, I understand your argument. I just don’t agree with it, for reasons that I’ve already explained.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    monkeymind said, Gary, I’m not saying that atheism requires a praxis. I’m simply saying that an atheist who claims that his atheism motivates him to take certain actions is not wrong or deluded or a false atheist.

    So you’re saying, then, that one atheist may say, “Atheism implies no praxis, and cannot imply a praxis” while another may say, “Atheism does imply a praxis, and here it is….” and that both could be correct?

    Surely that can’t be what you are trying to say. Frankly, I’m puzzled.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    So you’re saying, then, that one atheist may say, “Atheism implies no praxis, and cannot imply a praxis” while another may say, “Atheism does imply a praxis, and here it is….” and that both could be correct?

    Surely that can’t be what you are trying to say.

    Why not? They can both be correct according to their own personal definitions of atheism – according to what being an atheist means to them. After all it’s not like there’s an atheist Pope who gets to dictate whose personal definition is the correct one. (Isn’t that kind of the point Richard was making in this post in the first place?)

  • monkeymind

    From the American Atheists web site: ( http://www.atheists.org/Atheism/ )

    The following definition of Atheism was given to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d (MD, 1963), to remove reverential Bible reading and oral unison recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools.

    “Your petitioners are Atheists and they define their beliefs as follows. An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy.

    An Atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction, and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it.

    An Atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.

    He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man.

    He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter.

    He believes that we are our brother’s keepers; and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.”

    Sounds suspiciously like a praxis to me.

    So when an atheist as defined above says his atheism motivates him to be his brother’s keeper, I should correct him and say that can’t possibly be true? Do you or I know what is true about the meaning and implications of atheism in his life better than he does himself?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, Why not? They can both be correct according to their own personal definitions of atheism – according to what being an atheist means to them. After all it’s not like there’s an atheist Pope who gets to dictate whose personal definition is the correct one. (Isn’t that kind of the point Richard was making in this post in the first place?)

    Why not? Well:

    There’s glory for you!’

    `I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

    `But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

    Since for some strange reason you seem to be willing to bestow upon me me the power to be master of the word atheist, according to my own “personal definition,” then perhaps I might just decide to define the word as “Someone who lacks a belief in God and who never commits any moral outrages.” Under this definition, Stalin was not a “true atheist.” Why, by definition he wasn’t an atheist at all! End of discussion, and good day to you, sir.

    Can I also be master of the word Christian, according to my own private definition? If so, I might choose to define it as “Someone who believes in God, and who is a weasel.” Therefore, since you are a Christian, you must by definition be a weasel. I don’t like talking to weasels, so, again, end of discussion, and good day to you, sir.

    But perhaps I misunderstood. Did you mean to imply that the Pope gets to define the word Christian? If he were to choose to define it as a synonymous with “Roman Catholic,” then you wouldn’t be a weasel, but, by definition, you would also not be a Christian. You might object, but having conceded to a Pope the power to be master of the word Christian, I don’t know what reasonable grounds you could have for objecting.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Aj, let’s say I meet someone at a party who introduces himself as an atheist. Are you really saying that it is just as silly for me to expect that he also believes that religion is a harmful influence, as it would be for me to expect that he is a thumb-sucking serial killer?

    I’ll assume “expect” means “is likely” and “harmful influence” is “is involved as motivation in harmful deeds”. No, I don’t think it’s “as silly”, because you’re using knowledge you can deduce outside of whether the person is an atheist or not.

    As I have said on more than one occasion, the truth value of claims is important to judging whether it’s harmful or not. E.g. Jesus telling people to get rid of their worldy possessions because of heaven. If you don’t believe in heaven and you believe that worldy possessions are important then you won’t think that’s good.

    If 5% of atheists were thumb sucking serial killers and 95% of atheists believed that worldly possessions aren’t important then it would be as likely that the atheist at the party was a thumbsucking serial killer as it was that they believed following Jesus’s teaching was harmful. If you didn’t have a good probability of either it wouldn’t be reasonable to predict how equally likely they were.

    I’m sure you would extrapolate a lot of general information you know about people onto atheists. For one, not many people are serial killers, lots of people believe religion is involved in harmful deeds, even the religious (but not their religion*).

    *Their specific religion, as a set of beliefs, not religion as a set of sects or schism.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    monkeymind said, So when an atheist as defined above says his atheism motivates him to be his brother’s keeper, I should correct him and say that can’t possibly be true?

    If an atheist is to be defined as above, and someone says that Stalin was an atheist, shouldn’t you correct him?

  • Karen

    Are you really saying that it is just as silly for me to expect that he also believes that religion is a harmful influence, as it would be for me to expect that he is a thumb-sucking serial killer?

    You didn’t pose this question to me, but just in passing I’d say absolutely “yes.”

    The “average” atheist (as opposed to the activist atheist or the anti-theist atheist that we’re familiar with from online interactions) probably has little opinion about religion or even thinks it’s generally beneficial to society. They don’t have anything against religion – they just don’t buy it personally.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I tend to agree with Humpty (and Foucault, whom Carroll is anticipating by almost a century) – you have every right to define words the way you wish to Gary, and yes, you can be the master of them as far as you are concerned, and can act however you wish based on your definitions. However, you are not the master of how any other atheist uses them, or how they act upon them.

    And yes Gary, some Christians do let the Pope define the word Christian for them. I am not one of them, but within that sphere of social agreement the Pope is the master of that word. Since I am not within that sphere I do not concede his mastery over the word. Of course my reference to the Pope was simply by way of reverse analogy – i.e. atheists do not have a Pope to define words for them in the way that some Christians do. (Though I suspect you already grasped the analogy and are now just being difficult.)

  • monkeymind

    Aj, Gary, so atheists who define themselves in a way that is more expansive than “non-belief in a deity” are not true atheists then? The plaintiffs in Murray v. Curlett were not true atheists? Members of the group American Atheists are not true atheists?

    Or is it that we must extract out from their definition the bit that is “true atheism,” as defined by you, and disregard the other verbiage that implies anything else? Not take them at their word that atheism motivates to build hospitals rather than say prayers?

  • Keith

    I think perhaps my wording of the religious considering the teachings of other religions as terrible can be interpreted as meaning they consider all the teachings terrible, or that they have to consider other religions terrible. I didn’t mean for this, sorry for the confusion, I meant it in more general terms.

    Aj,

    No problem … thanks for the clarification …

    Mike C., Aj, monkey, and Gary,

    Please drop the argument over who’s to blame for atrocities, and over whether atheism’s definition involves praxis. Look instead at the gold you guys are uncovering. Do you note how the American Atheists definition highlights a number of actions about which the emergent church is passionate? Whether praxis should inherently be involved in the definition of atheism or the definition of Christianity, it provides a tremendous common ground. And one thing is nearly certain … if we can define ourselves by action as much or more than by belief, maybe atheists and Christians will increasingly come together to conquer disease, vanquish poverty, and eliminate war.

    To paraphrase both the American Atheists and the Bible: We are our brothers’ keepers. Whether that action alone is enough to make us true atheists and true Christians I do not know, but it is surely enough to make us true.

  • monkeymind

    Karen, you may be right about the average non-believer, but if someone thinks it’s an important enough fact to include in their party-introduction bio, I’d tend to peg them as one of the activist kind.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    (as opposed to the activist atheist or the anti-theist atheist that we’re familiar with from online interactions)

    Sorry Karen, but, according to Aj and Gary, such atheists cannot exist. There is no atheist praxis, therefore there are no activist atheists. There are only activists who also happen to be atheists (just totally coincidentally, with no rational connection at all between the two).

  • monkeymind

    Gary:

    If an atheist is to be defined as above, and someone says that Stalin was an atheist, shouldn’t you correct him?

    Well, about 3,000 words ago I quoted Steven Weinberg saying that evil people will always do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, you need religion. Since Stalin was a paranoid sociopath more concerned about grabbing and consolidating personal power than anything else, he’s probably as close to what Weinberg meant by an evil person as anyone could be.
    A more instructive example would be the Society of the Godless (later the Union of Militant Atheists under Yaroslavsky). This was a volunteer organization with the idealistic goal of “awakening the masses from their religious torpor.” Most of their activities weren’t crimes against humanity, but they did sometimes harass, beat up, and denounce believers to the secret police.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    It’s irrational to counter my arguments with different definitions. You know I mean “lack of belief in God” when I say atheism, being boolean, there can’t be a “true atheist” beyond that statement being true or false. A true atheist (same as “an atheist”) lacks belief in God, it doesn’t matter what they say or do. It doesn’t matter what definition they use for atheism, my definition can’t rationally be a motivation for anything. If you want to debate that with me fine. I believe this is the most common definition of atheism, by atheists.

    No definition is wrong, words are meaning carriers. If your definition of atheism is stalinism, then when you say atheism has led to murder I agree, but only with your definition of atheism as stalinism. So if you want to couple beliefs with atheism that don’t logically follow atheism but are logically consistant with atheism then fine, but don’t use them to respond to my arguments.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Do you note how the American Atheists definition highlights a number of actions about which the emergent church is passionate? Whether praxis should inherently be involved in the definition of atheism or the definition of Christianity, it provides a tremendous common ground. And one thing is nearly certain … if we can define ourselves by action as much or more than by belief, maybe atheists and Christians will increasingly come together to conquer disease, vanquish poverty, and eliminate war.

    Excellent point Keith. I totally agree. And I am glad that, despite what Aj and Gary say, there are atheists who do include this kind of praxis as part of what it means to be an atheist. It gives me a lot of hope for the future.

  • Keith

    And I am glad that, despite what Aj and Gary say, there are atheists who do include this kind of praxis as part of what it means to be an atheist. It gives me a lot of hope for the future.

    Mike C.,

    Don’t assume Aj and Gary won’t agree with my post … let them decide that … I think the reason they seem so anti-praxis to you right now is that the subject was brought up in reference to atrocities supposedly in the name of atheism. I am confident that Aj and Gary are in favor of less disease, war, and poverty.

  • Keith

    Mike C.,

    Thanks for the positive comments, too … I share your hope for the future

  • Aj

    I don’t deny that there could be atheists* and non-atheists that define atheism** as something beyond lack of belief in God. However, before assuming they do, I would like to ask them this question: I don’t believe in any god, but I don’t believe in anything what you are for, am I an atheist? If they answer no, then I will accept that they have a different definition of atheist.

    Whether such atheists exist or not doesn’t make anyone less wrong when they disagree with my arguments using a different definition of atheism.

    *my definition
    **the word

  • monkeymind

    Keith, you’re right. Nothing is stupider than going through history in order to chalk up points for or against various identity groups so that we can feel better about ourselves, instead of trying to understand, and avoid, the circumstances that bring out the worst in humanity.

    But, I can’t help myself from making one more observation.

    If an organized group of christians claims that it is their obligation as Christians to torture and execute heretics, I think it’s reasonable to use their actions as examples of what Christianity can motivate people to do.

    If an organized group of atheists claim that atheism motivates them to build hospitals rather than say prayers, I think it’s reasonable to use their actions as actions of what atheism can motivate people to do.
    .

  • monkeymind

    Aj, imagine a big circle labelled “Atheists.” The line dividing the inside of the circle from the outside is “belief in a deity.” Imagine a smailler circle inside it labelled “Atheists with an atheist praxis.” They’re all in the big circle, so all atheists by your definition. The group in the smaller circle have some additional criteria, that’s all.

  • Claire

    dangerously close to agreeing with me (and Claire, I think) that whatever a self-described Christian does is a Christian praxis, and similarly, whatever a self-described atheist does is an atheist praxis.

    Well, no, I don’t remember agreeing about that. Unless you also want to postulate that anything a numismatist does is a numismatist praxis, or whatever an artist does is an artist praxis. Mostly, I find people do whatever is in their nature to do, and go looking for a reason later.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    If an organized group of christians claims that it is their obligation as Christians to torture and execute heretics, I think it’s reasonable to use their actions as examples of what Christianity can motivate people to do.

    If an organized group of atheists claim that atheism motivates them to build hospitals rather than say prayers, I think it’s reasonable to use their actions as actions of what atheism can motivate people to do.

    In this argument you don’t require to know what they mean by christianity or atheism. They could be using a different definition. Take these examples:

    A group claims they are motivated to kill people in the name of pacifism.
    A group claims to pray to trees because they lack belief in fairies.
    A group claims that a lack of belief in zebras obliges them to not work on sundays.

    Would you accept these claims the same way?

    Aj, imagine a big circle labelled “Atheists.” The line dividing the inside of the circle from the outside is “belief in a deity.” Imagine a smailler circle inside it labelled “Atheists with an atheist praxis.” They’re all in the big circle, so all atheists by your definition. The group in the smaller circle have some additional criteria, that’s all.

    You know I can’t accept an “atheist praxis” if atheist means lack of belief in God.

  • monkeymind

    Let’s take it as a given that the christians give the reasons christians gave for torturing heretics in the middle ages, and the atheists gave the reasons given in the American Atheist statement above.

  • monkeymind

    By reasons, I mean “definition of Christianity or atheism”

  • monkeymind

    You know I can’t accept an “atheist praxis” if atheist means lack of belief in God.

    OK substitute “atheist as defined by the American Atheist statement above”

  • monkeymind

    A group claims they are motivated to kill people in the name of pacifism.

    In this case, I feel comfortable saying they are not true pacifists. I would also say that an atheist who claims his atheism motivates him to worship god is not a true atheist.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    and the atheists gave the reasons given in the American Atheist statement above.

    Do you sincerely believe that the statement you quoted contain reasons for the beliefs it states? I read it as a number of claims about “atheists”, but I don’t know what their definition of atheist is.

    In this case, I feel comfortable saying they are not true pacifists. I would also say that an atheist who claims his atheism motivates him to worship god is not a true atheist.

    I’ll assume you would agree with the ones you didn’t address then. So then it seems to me that you accept that actions that don’t logically follow something can be motivated by that something. Accept when that something seems to be directly against that action or belief. So someone can have sex/play golf/suicide bomb in the name of atheism, theism, deism, capitalism, naturalism, communism, existentialism etc… but not in the name of abstinance/agolfism/pacifism.

  • monkeymind

    I don’t know what their definition of atheist is.

    Umm, that’s it. The clue was “The following definition of Atheism…” I believe that our gracious host is a member of said organization, so presumably he does not find it to be a completely false or irrelevant definition.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Umm, that’s it. The clue was “The following definition of Atheism…” I believe that our gracious host is a member of said organization, so presumably he does not find it to be a completely false or irrelevant definition.

    OK, I know it says it’s a definition of Atheism, but I don’t accept it’s a complete one, mainly because the page that it’s on has additions. Anway, I asked you for their reasons.

    a) Couldn’t that statement include deists and theists because it doesn’t claim a non-belief in God?

    b) Couldn’t that statement exclude some who lack belief in God, including some that have certainty in the nonexistance of God?

    I don’t think the definition is irrelevant or false. From reading Hemants posts in the past and who he likes to read and agrees with, I find it hard to believe Hemant uses this definition (especially not with the additions from the page). I also think the majority of self-identified atheists on this site or anywhere don’t use this definition.

  • monkeymind

    So then it seems to me that you accept that actions that don’t logically follow something can be motivated by that something.

    Oh, Aj, give me a break. The American Atheist statement said nothing like “An Atheist wears red underwear and golfs on Sunday.” Most of the statements had a logical tie-in to non-belief in religion. It’s not a logical theorem, but it hangs together rhetorically.

  • Aj

    monkeymind

    Most of the statements had a logical tie-in to non-belief in religion.

    No, give me a break. Unless “logical tie-in” means follows, and I suspect it doesn’t, my argument has been ignored intentionally for an argument I didn’t make that’s more suitable for you to counter. If it does mean follows, then you will have to explain to me how loving your “fellow man” follows from a lack of belief in God. Sure, I love my fellow man as much as the next guy, but it has nothing to do with God. I can definitely see an atheist not loving his fellow man.

  • monkeymind

    By additions do you mean this statement:

    Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.

    So, with that preface, it’s obvious that their definition doesn’t include theists. What is the point of this discussion again? I have to take a break now.

  • Darryl

    I agree with Mike and AJ:

    Mike is correct when he says that it does not matter if some action does not logically follow from the atheist assumption–God(s) don’t exist–what matters is that some atheist might think it does, and thinking thus, act in some bad way.

    AJ is correct that the atheist assumption does not logically lead to any specific ethical conduct.

    What I would add to their views is this: as we all know, Christians have used the atheism-leads-to-bad-acts argument in an attempt to discredit the position. Since AJ is correct that atheism does not necessitate any ethical conduct, then bad conduct by an atheist does not discredit the atheist assumption, any more than good conduct justifies it.

    If bad conduct by an atheist has no logical or necessary causal connection to the atheist assumption, then atheism is to blame for bad acts like guns are to blame for murder: the state of mind of the one who holds the gun is determinative, which is Mike’s argument. The gun is the instrument, the vehicle of the performance of the bad act. It is the state of mind of the agent that we want to understand.

    In this view, even religions that explicitly require ethical conduct cannot be discredited solely because adherents do bad acts. Now, if it is the express doctrine of a religion or philosophy to do evil, then that’s of course a different matter. Or, if a religion or philosophy advocates what some might consider evil, that’s another matter still.

    Finally, I think that no deductions necessarily follow from the premise: there is no god, or there is no supernatural. That someone might believe that they are being logical to deduce from that premise that nothing matters, or that the universe is meaningless, and everything in it, or that life is cheap so one may treat it cheaply, or that all there is to live for is self-gratification, or some such thing, only shows poor powers of reasoning, or else it shows (as I think it often does) an emotional/psychological predisposition to certain modes of behavior or castes of mind. To hyperbolize for a moment, if someone is prone to hysteria or paranoia, does it matter what is the specific content of that person’s belief? The Unibomber could have taken up religion just as well as Ludism as his modus vivendi for madness.

    P.S. Claire, you and I do agree.

  • monkeymind

    Aj, the full sentence was ” An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of God,”

    Seems pretty logical that if Atheists are capable of love, which most humans are unless they’ve been damaged in some way, they’re going to love humans instead of God.

    Of course part of what makes the statement hang together rhetorically is because we know that it is a counterfoil to stereotypes of atheists.

    It’s irrational to counter my arguments with different definitions.

    Please tell me again why I need to privilege your definition over one given by a group with over 2,000 members? And what exactly we’re arguing about? I’m not claiming the American Atheist definition is the One True Definition of Atheism full stop, just a definition of an atheism, one of the smaller circles instead the big circle defined by non-belief in God.

  • Darryl

    Between all of you I think you have fleshed out all the sides of the question “what is a true atheist?” I see no real contradiction between your various views.

    One thing I do like in what I read is a mutual understanding that all the arguments that take the form: they believe that; they do bad things; their belief is bad or wrong, are fallacious.

  • Aj

    Darryl

    Mike is correct when he says that it does not matter if some action does not logically follow from the atheist assumption–God(s) don’t exist–

    I don’t understand, don’t these statements contradict the previous:

    AJ is correct that the atheist assumption does not logically lead to any specific ethical conduct.

    What I would add to their views is this: as we all know, Christians have used the atheism-leads-to-bad-acts argument in an attempt to discredit the position. Since AJ is correct that atheism does not necessitate any ethical conduct, then bad conduct by an atheist does not discredit the atheist assumption, any more than good conduct justifies it.

    I agree with you, Christians do use this fallacious argument to discredit Atheists. So when Mike (not suprisingly a Christian) responds to my comments saying I’m wrong, and atheism leads to bad acts, then this is a really good reason why it’s important to make it clear bad actions don’t follow from atheism.

    We can’t truly know his motives for why he insists it follows that atheism leads to bad acts, but I think it’s a pretty fair assumption on my part that it’s an attempt to discredit Atheism. It’s also pretty damn clear why I would be hostile to it.

    monkeymind,

    Seems pretty logical that if Atheists are capable of love, which most humans are unless they’ve been damaged in some way, they’re going to love humans instead of God.

    I think you have misinterpreted “loves his fellow man”. I think it means as a whole, i.e. humanity, all humans, etc… I agree most humans are capable of love.

    You lead with “seems pretty logical that if Atheists are capable of love”, but this is redundant. If this is our accepted definition of Atheists then people who aren’t capable of love can’t be Atheists under such a definition.

    You also seem to suggest that Atheists love something instead of loving what they lack belief in, for example “Atheists who don’t believe in fairies equally love their fellow man instead of fairies”. It’s like suggesting man has “some” love as a finite resource and that he’ll give it to man if he can’t find something to irrationally believe in.

    I also think you entirely miss the intended meaning of the statement. The statement suggests that while theists are busy loving God above man because God is more important, Atheists will be helping man.

    Please tell me again why I need to privilege your definition over one given by a group with over 2,000 members?

    It’s not about privilege, it’s necessary for logical debate. If you’re going to respond to my comment and argue against my arguments then you must use my definitions otherwise it would be irrational. Why are you asking this now? I thought I had already said this a few times.

  • monkeymind

    Aj, I agree that no action, belief or attitude necessarily flows from disbelief in God. I just don’t accept your contention that all atheists define themselves as such solely by their non-belief in God. Exhibit A, the definition composed by the organization American Atheists for submission to the Supreme Court in a landmark school prayer case.
    If you have problems with the American Atheist definition, I suggest you take it up with them.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Aj, I agree that no action, belief or attitude necessarily flows from disbelief in God. I just don’t accept your contention that all atheists define themselves as such solely by their non-belief in God. Exhibit A, the definition composed by the organization American Atheists for submission to the Supreme Court in a landmark school prayer case.
    If you have problems with the American Atheist definition, I suggest you take it up with them.

    I thought you stated in your first counter argument in response to me that there were actions, beliefs and attitudes flowing from disbelief in God. In subsequent comments I didn’t read anything that would pause this impression. Now I’m very confused, tired, and slightly upset.

    I never wanted to imply all atheists define atheism as solely non-belief. After reading much from the most prominent atheists and atheist philosophers, and interacting with a lot of atheists I would be shocked to find out that this not how most atheists define atheism.

    I don’t have a problem with their definition. I haven’t seen them state that they believe most atheists subscribe to their definition, my ownly “problem” with that would be that they were mistaken. A word can have as many definitions as their are meanings. I already knew of other definitions before coming to this blog, non-atheists commonly mean “strong atheism”, certain that God not exist. Religious people tend to view atheism as not believing in “their God”.

    So now we can agree to agree?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, I tend to agree with Humpty (and Foucault, whom Carroll is anticipating by almost a century) – you have every right to define words the way you wish to Gary, and yes, you can be the master of them as far as you are concerned, and can act however you wish based on your definitions. However, you are not the master of how any other atheist uses them, or how they act upon them.

    Thank you, Mike, for your generous concession to me to define any word however I wish as far “as I am concerned.” However, doesn’t such a concession mean that the people you call “other atheists” are not actually atheists as far as I am concerned, unless they fall within whatever definition I choose to use, for whatever purpose I choose to use it? Can I use the right you have so generously granted to me to withdraw my previous statement that Stalin was an atheist, and replace it with a statement that “as far as I’m concerned,” he wasn’t? In short, doesn’t your generous concession give me every right to say that someone was “not a true atheist, as far as I’m concerned”?

    Now, in fact, I don’t want such a right, perhaps because I’m having some difficulty in grasping the point of this strange Alice-Though-the-Looking Glass notion of having private definitions of words, so that there can be words that mean one thing to Humpty Dumpty, but something else entirely to everyone else in the world, including poor Alice.

    Early this evening I went out to grab a bite to eat at Arby’s. While I was there, I noted a little storage tray on the counter full of those little paper cups that you put ketchup in. On the front, the tray was labelled “toothpicks.” Reflecting about tonight’s conversation, I thought to myself, “How interesting. Here in Arby’s-land, ‘toothpicks’ are defined as “those little paper cups that you put ketchup in.” Then I noticed that on the side of the storage tray it said “mustard.” From that I was forced to conclude that, in Arby’s-land, “mustard” was a synonym for “toothpick.” I tried to fill up my toothpick/mustard with ketchup, but the ketchup dispenser was empty. I moved over and resorted to the Arby’s Sauce dispenser, and what came out was what I would have called “ketchup.” So I was forced to conclude that in Arby’s-land, “Arby’s Sauce” is a synonym for “ketchup.”

    That trip to Arby’s reminded very much of this whole discussion.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Keith said, Don’t assume Aj and Gary won’t agree with my post … let them decide that … I think the reason they seem so anti-praxis to you right now is that the subject was brought up in reference to atrocities supposedly in the name of atheism. I am confident that Aj and Gary are in favor of less disease, war, and poverty.

    Oh, you betcha, but not (to use a hackneyed and inappropriate phrase), “as an atheist.” Atheism gives me no reason to favor less disease over more disease, peace over war, or prosperity over poverty.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I agree with you, Christians do use this fallacious argument to discredit Atheists. So when Mike (not suprisingly a Christian) responds to my comments saying I’m wrong, and atheism leads to bad acts, then this is a really good reason why it’s important to make it clear bad actions don’t follow from atheism.

    We can’t truly know his motives for why he insists it follows that atheism leads to bad acts, but I think it’s a pretty fair assumption on my part that it’s an attempt to discredit Atheism. It’s also pretty damn clear why I would be hostile to it.

    Now I’m starting to understand the source of your disagreement in this thread. Let me just state categorically that you are entirely mistaken in your assumption about my motivations, and I suspect you have misinterpreted my entire argument as well. I am not trying to discredit atheism. I completely agree with Darryl when he says:

    all the arguments that take the form: “they believe that; they do bad things; their belief is bad or wrong”, are fallacious.

    My argument was never that atheism is wrong because some atheists do bad things. I am not even arguing that “atheism leads to bad acts”. What I am arguing is that atheism sometimes leads to bad acts, BUT I also explicitly said that it does not necessarily lead to bad acts. As monkeymind has pointed out, it very often also leads to good acts, as with the American Atheist statement above.

    In other words, my main point was not that atheism necessarily leads to good actions or to bad actions, but just that it can lead to actions, period. Atheism very often does have a praxis, sometimes good, sometimes bad – either praxis can follow from atheism, but neither praxis necessarily follows. But, and please hear this, I’m not at all trying to say the bad is reason to reject atheism any more than I’m saying the good is a reason to accept it.

    I think you make a similar mistake in your interpretation of what monkeymind is saying. You said:

    I thought you stated in your first counter argument in response to me that there were actions, beliefs and attitudes flowing from disbelief in God.

    Again, the key word you are failing to understand in both my and monkeymind’s argument is “necessarily”. We are both saying that there are, very often, “actions, beliefs and attitudes flowing from disbelief in God”. However, we are also both saying that “no action, belief or attitude necessarily flows from disbelief in God”. With the addition of the word “necessarily”, both statements can be true.

    You are still welcome to disagree that any actions at all (good or bad) could ever follow from atheism, but please believe me when I say that my point was never to try and discredit atheism. I didn’t think that was ever the point of this conversation.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    monkeymind said, Aj, Gary, so atheists who define themselves in a way that is more expansive than “non-belief in a deity” are not true atheists then?

    I wouldn’t think that the question on the table is whether they are true atheists, but rather, whether they are true lexicographers — that, is, whether they correctly understand the meaning of a word whose meaning is (or ought to be) now somewhat well established — though admittedly not completely well established. For example, I’ve seen (roughly) the following definition: “Atheism is opposition to theism. Theism is belief in the God posited by the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” Under this definition, a Hindu (for example) would be an atheist.

    The plaintiffs in Murray v. Curlett were not true atheists? Members of the group American Atheists are not true atheists?

    Well, that is an interesting question. My guess is that they are. However, did you notice (perhaps you didn’t) that at no point in their (official?) list of the beliefs of the members of American Atheists did they ever say that the members either (a) positively believe that God does not exist, or (b) failing that, lack a belief in the existence of God?

    So in answer to your question, I’d say that there is a danger of a “more expansive” but faulty definition of the word “atheism” actually contracting the definition in such a way as to leave out precisely those whom the ordinary person (including yours truly) would regard as atheists — in this case, leaving out Stalin for one. If what American Atheists was pushing in their lawsuit was a definition of the word “atheist” rather than a claim about the beliefs of the members of their particular organization (it’s far from clear to me that it was), and you buy that definition (by which I mean that you agree that this is what the word “atheist” means, and it is what you mean when you use the word “atheist”), then you must accept as reasonable a claim that Stalin was not a “true atheist.”

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, Huh? I don’t quite follow you. I said “Everyone can be in who wants to be in“. In other words, if someone wants to self-identify themselves as a Christian they are welcome to do so, it’s not for me to determine whether they really are or not. But I would assume that most atheists (or Muslims or Jews) are not going to self-identify as a Christian. Thus I don’t really understand your question. Are you suggesting that some might?

    What I was trying to suggest that it seems strange to me to regard it entirely as a matter of “self-identification” rather than a matter of what one believes, says, or does. From what you’ve said, one is a Christian if one thinks he is, regardless of anything — anything at all — he might believe, say, or do. Accroding to this view, words like “Christian” and “Christianity” would seem to be nothing more than empty labels, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Your position is way too post-modernist for me to successfully wrap my head around, I guess.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, Sorry Karen, but, according to Aj and Gary, such atheists cannot exist. There is no atheist praxis, therefore there are no activist atheists. There are only activists who also happen to be atheists (just totally coincidentally, with no rational connection at all between the two).

    Well, an “activist atheist” would be “an atheist who happens to be an activist,” so “activist atheists” do exist. Other than that, bravo, Mike, I believe you may actually be starting to get it!

  • monkeymind

    Aj said:

    I thought you stated in your first counter argument in response to me that there were actions, beliefs and attitudes flowing from disbelief in God.

    Nope, I was just using the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist” as an example of how some atheists seem to feel that there is a right and a wrong way to “do” atheism – in other words, that atheism has a praxis.
    I don’t want to discredit atheism, just the notion that atheists who are motivated to organize and act on behalf of the cause of “atheism” (however they define it) are somehow exempt from making bad choices about means vs. ends. To me, the argument that the actions of a group calling itself the Union of Militant Atheists, who claimed that their mission was to promote atheism, can’t be used as an example of atheism leading to bad actions, is weaselly. As weaselly as a Christian saying that Torquemada wasn’t a “real” Christian.
    Now, I’d certainly agree that atheists who value skepticism and questioning authority would be less prone to certain types of errors in this regard. But I think that any kind of us/them thinking, where”they” are all irrational, infected with harmful mind viruses, etc, is bound to have bad consequences.

  • Karen

    Karen, you may be right about the average non-believer, but if someone thinks it’s an important enough fact to include in their party-introduction bio, I’d tend to peg them as one of the activist kind.

    Monkeymind, I’d encourage you to try not to “peg” people without getting to know them a little deeper.

    I think that we who interact a lot online on this topic really get a rather skewed view. For instance, my cousins happily call themselves atheists. They were raised Baptists, left during the teen years and never looked back. Religion just didn’t work for them. However, they have no beef with religion, they let their kids attend church when they were in high school, they very much respected their parents who were believers. They are anything but “activists,” trust me.

    A friend in my book club fits the same category. She was raised Catholic and believes that religion is a force for much good in the world. She just doesn’t believe in the supernatural herself.

    My hope is that as the “a” word becomes less taboo and more socially acceptable, all/most nontheists will use the term and it will no longer be associated solely with activists and anti-theists.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, My argument was never that atheism is wrong because some atheists do bad things. I am not even arguing that “atheism leads to bad acts”. What I am arguing is that atheism sometimes leads to bad acts, BUT I also explicitly said that it does not necessarily lead to bad acts.

    And my argument is that your argument is fallacious because it proceeds from a faulty definition of the word “atheism.”

    Way back in 1739/40, the Scottish phlosopher David Hume wrote:

    In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

    This is the famous “is/ought problem” in philosophy.

    What I have been trying to suggest is that, first, there is something that might reasonably be called a “proper” definition of the word “atheism,” and second, that this proper definition is entirely about what “is”, or rather, about what “is not.” “God is not,” says the atheist. Qua atheist, he can say nothing more (except to explain why he believes that “God is not”). Hume tells us (and I think he is correct), that no “oughts” or “ought nots” can logically be deduced from the claim that that “God is not” — any more than they can be deduced from the contrary claim that “God is.”

    My desk dictionary defines “atheism” as “the doctrine or belief that there is no God or gods (opposed to theism).” “Theism” is defined in the same dictionary as “1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of revelation (distinguished from deism). 2. Belief in the existence of God.”

    Note: No “oughts” or “ought nots” are stated or implied in this simple, straightforward definition of “atheism.” Now what, if anything, is wrong with this definition? And why must we deliberately muddy the waters by allowing “private” definitions such that, when we talk about “atheism,” we can have only the vaguest idea of what is even being discussed?

  • monkeymind

    Gary said

    that at no point in their (official?) list of the beliefs of the members of American Atheists did they ever say that the members either (a) positively believe that God does not exist, or (b) failing that, lack a belief in the existence of God?

    Sorry Gary, there was a preface that i did not include in my original quote block. This is it:

    Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.

    I’ve never heard atheism defined in quite those terms, but it seems to rule out a deity.

    You also say:

    I wouldn’t think that the question on the table is whether they are true atheists, but rather, whether they are true lexicographers — that, is, whether they correctly understand the meaning of a word whose meaning is (or ought to be) now somewhat well established

    If by “established” you mean “fixed,” I think your idea of how lexicographers work is completely wrong. The folks who write dictionaries don’t sit around discussing what words “should” mean in some abstract logical sense. They collect examples of how words are used in the real world. If a particular word begins to gain a new meaning, once the new meaning reaches a certain level of acceptance, it gets entered in the dictionary. Examples are the English words “good” and “bad.” 600 years ago, if you referred to a person as “good”, you most likely meant that the person was a member of the gentry, not that they were morally a good person. In the ’80′s, a new definition of “bad” meaning cool, desirable, etc entered the lexicon. The thing is, there is a constant flux in meaning, it’s not like the new definitions somehow become “real” or correct when it’s included in the dictionary.

  • Aj

    I’m out, I can’t take the nonsense. I don’t understand how a lack of belief in deities rationally leads to actions. No examples have been presented using this definition, and no rational argument has been presented to support the claim.

    I have never claimed other definitions couldn’t lead to actions. You could define atheist to mean anything. You can’t have a logical argument without agreeing on definitions and I have been clear of what my definition is.

    An example doesn’t have to be a lack of belief in deities, it can be lack of belief of anything leading to actions e.g. fairies, cosmic teapots, zebras. When I say leading, I mean motivation, not consideration. I know a lack of belief can change the truth values of claims so it would be a consideration in many actions.

    I think I’ve said all of this twice already, and three times is enough for me. Bye.

  • Darryl

    AJ may have had enough, but allow me to make one more distinction that I think is important in terms of what I think AJ has been saying:

    Mike says that his argument has been that atheism sometimes leads to bad acts, but does not necessarily do so. If the definition of atheism AJ is using, a narrow definition, is inserted into Mike’s argument, then it is false. It is false for the reason that AJ has been saying: The simple disbelief in god(s) does not require any conduct of any kind.

    If, however, some other definition of atheism is used, one that includes an ethical obligation, then Mike’s argument can be true, with this caveat: this looser definition of atheism has an added ethical component that, in my view, is not strictly required by the core and essential rational content of atheism: believing there is no god(s).

    Mike and I (I think) tend to define categories of belief with respect to ethics in phenomenological terms: Christianity is as Christianity does. I don’t see any other way to do it since there is no universal, prevailing theology. Christianity with respect to ethics, as Mike knows, has been changing continuously since its inception, and will continue to do so. The same applies to atheism.

    AJ seems to prefer narrowly defined categories to which, if someone claims to belong, and yet acts in logical contradiction of, they do not really belong. Such a one may be an atheist, but that one is not a logical atheist.

    For me, both views are correct and are not contradictory.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    “MikeClawson said, Sorry Karen, but, according to Aj and Gary, such atheists cannot exist. There is no atheist praxis, therefore there are no activist atheists. There are only activists who also happen to be atheists (just totally coincidentally, with no rational connection at all between the two).”

    Well, an “activist atheist” would be “an atheist who happens to be an activist,” so “activist atheists” do exist. Other than that, bravo, Mike, I believe you may actually be starting to get it!

    I was being sarcastic. I’m glad I characterized your position accurately, but clearly I don’t agree with it.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I agree Darryl. Very well put.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Gary said:

    Now, in fact, I don’t want such a right, perhaps because I’m having some difficulty in grasping the point of this strange Alice-Though-the-Looking Glass notion of having private definitions of words, so that there can be words that mean one thing to Humpty Dumpty, but something else entirely to everyone else in the world, including poor Alice.

    and

    What I was trying to suggest that it seems strange to me to regard it entirely as a matter of “self-identification” rather than a matter of what one believes, says, or does. From what you’ve said, one is a Christian if one thinks he is, regardless of anything — anything at all — he might believe, say, or do. Accroding to this view, words like “Christian” and “Christianity” would seem to be nothing more than empty labels, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Your position is way too post-modernist for me to successfully wrap my head around, I guess.

    Yep, that’s precisely what it is. IMHO, words are not fixed entities with absolute meanings. They have the meanings we give them – whether as individuals or (far more commonly) as communities. Language is a social construction, a set of shared agreements that are nonetheless always in a state of flux and redefinition. As monkeymind pointed out, lexicographers don’t record how words are supposed to be used, they record how they are actually used by both individuals and communities. Some communities or individuals may attempt to dictate how certain words are to be used (the Pope within the Catholic Church for instance) but those agreements are only binding within that particular community. Elsewhere, definitions are up for grabs and constantly open for renegotiation.

    And the point Humpty (and later Michel Foucault) makes is that very often what happens is that the right to define a word falls to those with the most power (i.e. the master). So, for instance, in his book “Madness and Civilization” Foucault asks the question “Who gets to decide what is sanity and what is insanity?” And the answer is “majority rule”. “Sane” is what the majority of people agree is “normal”, while anything falling outside the norm is labeled “insane”. As another example (very relevant to Foucault himself), until recently homosexuality was labeled as a psychological disorder. This “definition” was based not on some objective reality, but simply on majority rule – i.e. on power, on who was “master”.

    And yes, this is a very “postmodern” view of language, and one that I happen to agree with (in fact I wrote my Master’s thesis in a linguistics related field on a very similar topic).

  • monkeymind

    Monkeymind, I’d encourage you to try not to “peg” people without getting to know them a little deeper.

    Good advice, Karen, and thanks for the reminder. From the rest of your post, it seems like you thought I meant something pejorative by “pegging” someone as an “atheist activist.” Not at all. If s/he were a hands-on organizer or fundraiser, I imagine we’d have a lot to discuss and could probably find ways to collaborate.

    Darryl:

    If the definition of atheism AJ is using, a narrow definition, is inserted into Mike’s argument, then it is false. It is false for the reason that AJ has been saying: The simple disbelief in god(s) does not require any conduct of any kind.

    I agree.
    All I wanted to say was that not all atheists restrict themselves to this narrow definition, and to give some examples. It’s ok with me to add additional qualifiers like activist-atheist or militant atheist or ant-religious atheist. Would it be fair to say that a belief in atheist-activism has the potential to motivate behavior? And is there some some way to acknowledge that an atheist’s activism around, say, church/state separation is experienced by that person as connected to, and flowing from her atheism? I mean, is it safe to conjecture that Hemant experienced his decision to start this web site as flowing from his atheist world view?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, And the point Humpty (and later Michel Foucault) makes is that very often what happens is that the right to define a word falls to those with the most power (i.e. the master). So, for instance, in his book “Madness and Civilization” Foucault asks the question “Who gets to decide what is sanity and what is insanity?” And the answer is “majority rule”. “Sane” is what the majority of people agree is “normal”, while anything falling outside the norm is labeled “insane”. As another example (very relevant to Foucault himself), until recently homosexuality was labeled as a psychological disorder. This “definition” was based not on some objective reality, but simply on majority rule – i.e. on power, on who was “master”.

    I have not read Madness and Civilization, but I suspect that perhaps Foucault was not asking precisely the question you say he was asking, namely, “Who gets to decide…?” That way of phrasing the question implies that a certain kind of normative answer is expected. If the answer to the question is “the majority,” the implication of there being a properly normative answer is that the majority have every legitimate right to make this decision. I’m wondering whether the question he was actually asking is, “Who has (in practice) decided?”

    The difference between these two different questions is enormous, and especially so for the present discussion. For example, if the majority get to decide (that is, have the right to decide) the meaning of a word, then those who get to decide the meaning of the word “atheist” in the United States are the Christians, for they are clearly in the majority. Atheists may participate in this decision-making process, I suppose, but ultimately they will be outvoted. Christians have, in fact, effectively assumed the power to decide the meaning of the word “American” and have determined, through act of Congress, that atheists ought not to be covered by the word’s meaning. The justification many of them have given for exercising this supposed power is the principle of majority rule.

    My sense is that you are sympathetic to the notion that the Christians should not get to decide the meaning of the word “atheist,.” At some points you seem to be saying rather that the atheists should get to decide. If you simply stop there, that would leave the Christians with no choice but to agree with whatever the atheists have decided. What rule the atheists should use to decide among themselves how the word is to be defined is not clearly stated. Majority rule?

    Now the problem I have with the suggestion that the atheists and atheists alone should get to decide the question is precisely that it would allow, and in a sense empower, the atheist community to legitimize the very thing that you (and I) believe would be illegitimate, and that would be to define the word “atheist” in such a way as to be of the greatest use to the community rhetorically and politically. One of the ways the community might do that, of course, is to define certain unpleasant individuals such as Stalin outside of the community altogether, so that the actions of such individuals would require no explanation, no apology, and no further discussion. In short, to grant the atheist community the sole and exclusive right to define the term “atheist” is to empower that community to decide who is, and who is not a “true atheist.” This would not be, as you have characterized it, weasely, but simply a consequence of a particular postmodernist take on “who gets to decide” what words mean.

    What you have not acknowledged, or even realized, is that I have resisted your claim that one can speak of an “atheist praxis” (that is, of “a praxis implied by atheism”) rather than “the praxis of a particular atheist” in part because I am bending over backwards to avoid claiming some alleged right on the part of atheists, and atheists alone, to decide that this practice is an “atheist praxis” (and thus entitles one to membership in the atheist community), while that praxis is not an atheist praxis, such that anyone who engages in that praxis is not a member of the atheist community — by definition. Stalin? Look at what he did. Obviously he could not be a “true atheist,” because “true atheists” believe the things that American Atheists say they believe in their lawsuit….

    Thus the problematic implications of a postmodernist community-based approach to wordmaking as I see them. The problematic implications of a postmodernist individual-based approach to wordmaking, which you seem to have recommended at times, are it seems to me to be even more staggering. Such an approach virtually seems to prohibit coherent discussion. It would allow every individual Christian, as well as every individual atheist, to decide for himself or herself who is and who is not a “true atheist.” I fail to see how that is helpful. One possible solution you have suggested to that problem is a kind of hybrid community-based/individual-based approach to wordmaking, in which anyone who wants a particular label attached to himself or herself, for whatever reason, is entitled to decide for himself or herself the meaning of the label. My critique of that proposed solution is that it effectively empties the label of any agreed-upon cognitive content. If I choose to self-identify myself with the label “Christian,” then I’m a Christian, and a “true” one — even if I have no beliefs whatsoever in common with some other self-identified “true Christian.” Since I have the right to decide what a “true Christian” is, and so do you, then the possibility that we could agree what a “true Christian” is is potentially rather remote. This approach does solve the problem inherent in allowing an entire community to decide who is and who is not a “true Chrisitian.” The cost is that when anyone uses the word “Christian,” we are left potentially clueless as to what that word means, because it has virtually no meaning left. We would need to go back to our dictionaries and replace whatever definition we might find there for “a Christian” with the following: “Christian” –n a person who calls himself or herself a Christian.” And an “atheist praxis” would be “anything that a self-identified atheist claims is his atheist praxis.” If he doesn’t claim it has his atheist praxis, then it is not an atheist praxis. Thus, unless Stalin says that his persecution of atheists is motivated by his own individual atheism, or claims that it is a praxis logically implied by atheism, then it’s not an atheist praxis. To prove that Stalin’s persecution of theists was an atheist praxis, you find yourself compelled to demonstrate that Stalin claimed that it was. God help you (figuratively speaking, of course) when you find Stalin invoking God and thus apparently being, at that moment, not a self-identified atheist, but a self-identified Christian. Again, how is this helpful, for the purposes either of our own argument or of a shared understanding?

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Sorry Gary, there was a preface that i did not include in my original quote block. This is it:

    “Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are ‘super’ natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.”

    I’ve never heard atheism defined in quite those terms, but it seems to rule out a deity.

    Yes, that appears to an actual definition, as decreed by American Atheists. The text you quoted earlier seems to be a more or less offical statement of beliefs on the part of the organization, not an attempt to expand the definition beyond that stated. I would have to scrutinize that list again to see if any of those beliefs are actually implied by the definition and the definition alone, without any additional premises.

    I find the definition slightly less problematic than some. However, as you correctly note, one has to read between the lines a bit to to infer that atheism is (1) a “lack a belief in the existence of God” or (2) a “belief that God does not exist.” (2) seems to be implied more obviously than (1). Indeed, one could infer from the definition that one could actually be an atheist without believng that God does not exist, provided that one believes that he exists as a “natural” and not a “supernatural” entity. Also, the second clause of the first sentence seems to contradict the first. If thought is not matter, then according to the first clause it simply does not exist, whereas the the second clause implies that it does exist (and explains its relationship to matter). I won’t bore you any further, other than to say that some here would seem to be of the opinion that any attempt on my part to criticize this definition is misguided, and that Amercian Atheists are entitled to have “atheism” mean whatever they want it to mean, like Humpty Dumpty.

    If by “established” you mean “fixed,” I think your idea of how lexicographers work is completely wrong. The folks who write dictionaries don’t sit around discussing what words “should” mean in some abstract logical sense. They collect examples of how words are used in the real world. If a particular word begins to gain a new meaning, once the new meaning reaches a certain level of acceptance, it gets entered in the dictionary. Examples are the English words “good” and “bad.” 600 years ago, if you referred to a person as “good”, you most likely meant that the person was a member of the gentry, not that they were morally a good person. In the ’80’s, a new definition of “bad” meaning cool, desirable, etc entered the lexicon. The thing is, there is a constant flux in meaning, it’s not like the new definitions somehow become “real” or correct when it’s included in the dictionary.

    Sure. I understand that the statement, “God is one bad motherfucker!” would mean one thing if uttered in a certain way within a certain cultural community, and quite another if uttered by Christopher Hitchins. I also understand that meanings change over time, with new meanings coming in, and old meanings becoming obsolete or archaic. I wonder how many people today know, off the top of their heads, the meaning of the following line from the song “Yankee Doodle”: “Stuck a feather in his hat, and called it macaroni.” Note that I am implying that there is actually some legitimacy to the phrase “the meaning of the following line,” and further implying that the”following line” actually means something very specific, not “whatever I want it to mean.”

    Lexicographers struggle constantly with the question of whether, and when, to add new words to their dictionaries, as well as whether or when to add new meanings to existing words. Should they adopt American Atheists’ prescriptive definition of “atheism” as a valid descriptive definition? If so, why?

  • Mriana

    “From what you’ve said, one is a Christian if one thinks he is, regardless of anything — anything at all — he might believe, say, or do. Accroding to this view, words like “Christian” and “Christianity” would seem to be nothing more than empty labels, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    Yep, that’s precisely what it is. IMHO, words are not fixed entities with absolute meanings. They have the meanings we give them – whether as individuals or (far more commonly) as communities.

    Tell that to BBQin’ Pentecostal preacher man next door (oh wait, he’s at his church preachin’ today). He preached to his employees one day that there is a set definition and it concerns how a person thinks (what s/he told basically) and acts in order to be a Christian. He even said, he thought he was a Christian before, but he wasn’t really. By his definition, I’m not sure who would want to be a Christian. You definitely wouldn’t make his definition, Mike.

    This is what I really hate too. No one can agree the definition of what it is to be a X-ian. When I was an Episcopalian, moderates and extremists X-ians outside the Episcopal Church called me an atheist, infidel, etc, esp when I openned my mouth. Liberals (any sect) accepted me, even agreeing with me sometimes concerning what I’d say about religion/religious (I was a critic then too), and some still do- esp my librally religious friends. They’ve always gotten a kick out of my evil streak (not seen much here) when some prejudice and bigotted religious reicher came along.

    Funny thing, even though they know I’m now a Humanist, they still consider me more Christian than some Christians. These liberals I speak of, define being a Christian as what is in one’s heart, BUT Fundies… well you just better damn well be their defition or you ain’t Christian and procede to label you themselves. :roll:

    So, I don’t think it really matters. No one can agree on the definition of Christian. Do I care if a liberal Christian includes me and excludes the Fundie weirdos? No, I consider it a compliment that they would accept a Humanist, who sees the Bible as literature and doesn’t believe in a historical Jesus or a deity (this by definition fits atheist), into their fold. Of course, I bet you these people are Christian Humanists and don’t know it. There’s a little difference between Christian Humanist and Religious Humanist- one believes in a non-anthropomophic deity and the other doesn’t believe in any deity.

    There is very little disagreement as to what an atheist is though. I have yet to hear any real dispute and name calling from that direction- disregarding those like Unrational RS. There is very little and rarely happens. For the most part, nicer company to hang with, esp if you have a tendency to criticize religion or the actions of the religious, esp those like Roberts. Even agnostics are more welcomed in most atheistic groups than in religious groups.

    I would far rather be with uplifting people than oppressive religious people. People who are life affirming rather than life hating. More often than not, one finds people like this among non-theists and liberals.

    But if you want a mental beating with some much guilt, hate, shame, degredation- just go to the more hardline Christian branches. They will gladly give it to you in a heartbeat. Personally, I would not define that as Christian, but then again, there is a lot of cruelty going on even in the NT. So, who knows. The point is, the religious define being a Christian in too many different way and none can agree, while atheist and atheism is defined pretty much universally by non-theists.

  • Darryl

    The problematic implications of a postmodernist individual-based approach to wordmaking, which you seem to have recommended at times, are it seems to me to be even more staggering. Such an approach virtually seems to prohibit coherent discussion. It would allow every individual Christian, as well as every individual atheist, to decide for himself or herself who is and who is not a “true atheist.” I fail to see how that is helpful.

    Gary, Mike is telling it like it is, not how he might like it to be. You might find it difficult in this post-modern world of ours to communicate, but you can’t blame language for the difficulty. Far from prohibiting it, coherent discussion is enriched by the depth of language because it requires that we precisely define all our terms and make fine distinctions. In this respect it enhances our linguistic and rational faculties. I think you would agree that those are good things.

    It might be troubling for some, but we have to understand that when we use a categorical label for a group of people this does not imply that they all share the same views and beliefs about the focus of their group. There is diversity. If members of a group decide to put aside or deemphasize some of their differences (prioritize their positions) for the sake of greater group unity (e.g., see the Republican Party), that in no way means that the differences do not remain, or are not important, or that the categorical label of the group has required them to do so.

    I regard diversity as a virtue everywhere. Diversity accounts for language change, and all other kinds of change and evolution. To hope for uniformity, stability, purity, clarity, simplicity, etc. is a Utopian desire as much as the Christian’s hope of heaven and divine justice.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Darryl said, Gary, Mike is telling it like it is, not how he might like it to be. You might find it difficult in this post-modern world of ours to communicate, but you can’t blame language for the difficulty. Far from prohibiting it, coherent discussion is enriched by the depth of language because it requires that we precisely define all our terms and make fine distinctions. In this respect it enhances our linguistic and rational faculties. I think you would agree that those are good things.

    I don’t blame language for the difficulty, I blame some people for misusing language. Call it a pet peeve. Lots of people appear to be absolutely tone deaf to language abuse, but maybe they’ve been bombarded with so much advertising by the media that they think of it as the most as natural thing in the world. It seems to me, however, that If we want to make ourselves understood, clarity of expression actually matters. To those who just like to hear themselves talk, and don’t care whether anyone else understands what they’re saying, perhaps it’s not so important.

    I remember hearing somone talk one time about a difference between English and French. English has the richer vocabulary, while French has the greater clarity. Or as the joke went, “The French have a word for it — but only one” (and fewer definitions per word also, maybe?). If that’s true, then perhaps it might be said that English is a language for poets, while French is a language for philosophers. While I glory in the English language, I prefer philosophizing to poesy, so maybe I would be happier if I were to speak French (which, alas, I can’t).

    My recommendation to anyone who feels the need to enrich English vocabulary in order to achieve greater clarity (rather than greater obscurity) is to resort to neologism rather than to misappropriate existing words. To me the misuse of perfectly good existing words is a little like using a bowling ball to pound nails. It’ll work, but it’s hard on the ball, which may not be quite as suitable for its intended purpose thereafter. You’re not likely ever to hear Pat Robertson describe himself as “feeling gay.” Perhaps that’s an example of the language have been impoverished rather than enriched to further a postmodernist agenda: a word being so completely hijacked that one is almost embarrassed to use it according to its original meaning. By all means let atheists stop calling themselves “atheists” and start calling themselves “brights” so that they can say, “We’re bright — and you’re not.” Reminds me of Lenin calling his minority faction the Bolsheviks (the Majority) and calling the majority faction the Mensheviks (the Minority). Soon even the Mensheviks were calling themselves Mensheviks. Seize control of the vocabulary, and the battle is already half won (as any good political spinmeister knows).

  • Karen

    Good advice, Karen, and thanks for the reminder.

    You’re welcome, thanks for your gracious response. :-)

    From the rest of your post, it seems like you thought I meant something pejorative by “pegging” someone as an “atheist activist.” Not at all. If s/he were a hands-on organizer or fundraiser, I imagine we’d have a lot to discuss and could probably find ways to collaborate.

    Well, you might not think pejoratively about someone you assume believes religion is a “harmful influence,” but I imagine that a lot of religious people would.

  • Aj

    Gary,

    The problematic implications of a postmodernist individual-based approach to wordmaking, which you seem to have recommended at times, are it seems to me to be even more staggering. Such an approach virtually seems to prohibit coherent discussion. It would allow every individual Christian, as well as every individual atheist, to decide for himself or herself who is and who is not a “true atheist.” I fail to see how that is helpful.

    Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal suggest that the aim of “post-modernists” is to prohibit coherent discussion. I tend to agree, and this discussion is clear evidence.

  • Mriana

    Guys, look was in my email this morning: http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismquestions/a/defining.htm I had no idea there was this big debate about it. :? I knew there was a little, but not this much. Seems almost as bad as X-ianity the way this guy talks, but what he says seems to reflect what is being discussed in this thread. I don’t get and it doesn’t make much sense to me.

  • monkeymind

    Gary, Aj, descriptivist lingustics is not some kind of post-modern woo. It’s the consensus of all practicing linguists on how scientific research into language is to be done. Descriptivism reject the assumption that the rules that determine whether or not an utterance is “correct” can be derived from anything other than what the speakers of a language actually do. For a good explanation of how descriptivism is not equal to Gary’s “anything goes” caricature, read this post on Language Log

    Gary also says

    To me the misuse of perfectly good existing words is a little like using a bowling ball to pound nails. It’ll work, but it’s hard on the ball, which may not be quite as suitable for its intended purpose thereafter. You’re not likely ever to hear Pat Robertson describe himself as “feeling gay.” Perhaps that’s an example of the language have been impoverished rather than enriched to further a postmodernist agenda: a word being so completely hijacked that one is almost embarrassed to use it according to its original meaning.

    Again, you’re adding value judgments that get in the way of any scientifically useful approach to thinking about language. I’m sure the VIctorians who originally hijacked the word gay to mean a prostitute or sexually licentious person had no postmodern agenda. It’s this meaning that later spread to mean homosexual, and which gays then re-appropriated.

  • Darryl

    I blame some people for misusing language.

    Language cannot be “misused” simply by the use of it. It may be put to bad purposes, but that is something else altogether.

    My recommendation to anyone who feels the need to enrich English vocabulary in order to achieve greater clarity (rather than greater obscurity) is to resort to neologism rather than to misappropriate existing words.

    Language does not need to be enriched, it is rich. I don’t think using language can ever constitute a misappropriation. You’re view of language is idealistic, and to that extent unrealistic.

    You’re not likely ever to hear Pat Robertson describe himself as “feeling gay.” Perhaps that’s an example of the language have been impoverished rather than enriched to further a postmodernist agenda

    “Postmodernist agenda?” You’re sounding conspiratorial. Do you think that the way I use language is done to further some agenda?

    Even if I had an agenda (which I do not), as far as I know, the way language changes neither supports nor undermines any cultural analysis and its categories, like ‘post-modernism.’ Some of the most significant changes to modern American English in the last generation have come, not from the bastion of cultural criticism–the academy, but from the grassroots of our society, usually from the least educated. In fact, your “neologism” is about the only thing that academia does supply to evolving language, otherwise its language is thoroughly conventional if not conservative.

    You seem to be wanting to do something that no one has ever succeeded in doing: to arrest the development of a language. Language is not something that can be controlled. You are also in error about the state language is in at the present. Take a university course in American English and Linguistics and you may change your mind.

    Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal suggest that the aim of “post-modernists” is to prohibit coherent discussion. I tend to agree, and this discussion is clear evidence.

    AJ, you’ve unfairly represented this discussion with this comment, and I disagree with the suggestion. If your are correctly representing the thought of Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal, then they have all made the same error that you have made: they have a single, narrow definition of a category and they are unwilling to recognize that there are other equally-useful definitions.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Gary, Mike is telling it like it is, not how he might like it to be.

    Yep, Darryl has once again hit it on the head. That is exactly what I was going to say in response to your post Gary, and Darryl beat me to it. This kind of postmodern philosophy is not prescriptive. It is simply descriptive. (So yes, you were right in your rephrasing of Foucault’s question – forgive my imprecision.) Regardless of what you or I might perceive as the negative implications, this just simply is how language works. It is determined by social agreement, and every group does get to decide for themselves what words mean and who they want to exclude or include by their definitions. Like it or not, that’s the way it is.

    And personally, I do prefer English to French. While I am natively an analytical thinker and used to be more of a prescriptivist when it came to language, in recent years I have come to realize that language simply does not work that way, and that it is better suited to poetry than philosophy (or rather, that the best philosophy is like poetry – take Nietzsche for instance).

    For an example of the dynamic nature of language, did you know that the French attempt to keep their language static and unchanging by means of legislation? They have an official Bureau of Language. Without this artificial imposition of what words are allowed to mean and which new words are allowed to enter the French language (from English for example), French would be just as fluid and changing as any other language.

    And if in linguistics as in biology, movement is a sign of life, then it seems to me that the next step from a static and unchanging language is a dead language.

  • Darryl

    It is my understanding that the Greeks have also tried to promote a standard of proper modern Greek, as opposed to the popular language. Just as silly as what the French are doing.

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    Gary, Aj, descriptivist lingustics is not some kind of post-modern woo.

    I’m not saying it is, this is where I suspect I differ with Gary (who said something about “misappropriate existing words”). It’s a completely separate issue to post-modernism

    Refusing to define terms, or refusing to agree on definition of terms, being purposely ambiguous, is very much post-modern, and isn’t about descriptivism. Descriptivists can accept that for rational debate or meaningful communications between groups their has to be a consensus.

    Darryl,

    AJ, you’ve unfairly represented this discussion with this comment, and I disagree with the suggestion. If your are correctly representing the thought of Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal, then they have all made the same error that you have made: they have a single, narrow definition of a category and they are unwilling to recognize that there are other equally-useful definitions.

    a) Unfairly represented discussion. Got it.
    b) If I am representing Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal correctly then they are wrong. Alright.
    c) …

    You don’t even know their arguments, you admit so, you just know their conclusion. Not surprisingly your response contains no content, because it would be some feat of intellect to come up with a meaningful response.

    What category do they have a single, narrow definition of?

  • monkeymind

    Refusing to define terms, or refusing to agree on definition of terms, being purposely ambiguous, is very much post-modern, and isn’t about descriptivism. Descriptivists can accept that for rational debate or meaningful communications between groups their has to be a consensus.,

    Aj I’m really not trying to be purposely ambiguous. I accept that for meaningful debate there has to be a consensus about how terms are to be defined. I objected to you imposing a consensus by fiat. I still think there is a non-negligible number of atheists who believe that an atheist worldview has a praxis. I’m happy if you want to designate those atheists with some other term, to indicate that they are atheists who also hold this belief.

    I also think that we’re confusing lexical meaning and existential meaning here, a bit. Let’s say that the American Atheist statement above was rewritten as a personal essay entitled “What Atheism Means to Me”. Would you object to this person that his definition went beyond your definition?

  • Darryl

    AJ, I think the content of my views is expressed in my prior comments. Yes, I have come to conclusions about such things as post-modernism, and I don’t agree with the assertion you attribute to Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal. I doubt that their views can be summarized as you have represented them, but if you’re anxious for content, cite your sources, I’ll check them out, and then I’ll come back here and give you precise reasons. But please, if you’re just padding your argument by dropping names, and you really don’t give a damn about my views on post-modernism, then just let the matter go.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, Yep, Darryl has once again hit it on the head. That is exactly what I was going to say in response to your post Gary, and Darryl beat me to it. This kind of postmodern philosophy is not prescriptive. It is simply descriptive. (So yes, you were right in your rephrasing of Foucault’s question – forgive my imprecision.) Regardless of what you or I might perceive as the negative implications, this just simply is how language works.

    OK, let me take another run at this question, from a slightly different angle. Consider the following hypothetical “language game”:

    There’s Christianity for you!’

    `I don’t know what you mean by “Christianity”,’ Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “fundamentalism!”‘

    `But “Christianity” doesn’t mean “fundamentalism”,’ Alice objected.

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

    I am admittedly completely out of my league here, because I know very little about postmodernism. Can you give me a postmodernist critique of this exhange?

    Clearly we have in this example two people discussing the use of a particular word, “Christianity.” Alice objects that Humpty is using the word incorrectly, because, she says, it doesn’t mean what he says it means. In other words, she is making a particular fact claim about “how language works.” Humpty responds that any word means whatever he wants it to mean. He is clearly making a claim about “how he uses language.”

    So, two questions here:

    1. Is one of these positions, Humpty’s or Alice’s, more postmodern than the other?

    2. Accepting at face value Humpty’s fact claim about how he uses language being true, what would a postmodernist say about Alice’s fact claim? Is it true? Is it false? Neither true nor false? Is it irrelevant?

    Moving on: Alice suggests, by means of a question, that Humpty is not playing the language game by the proper rules (though she does not say prcisely what those rules are, we can probably make a reasonable inference). To this Humpty responds, in effect, that the objective in a language game (any language game, or just the one he is playing here?) is, somehow, “mastery.” Perhaps he is implying that rules are therefore irrelevant, or perhaps he is implying that Alice’s rules are inappropriate for achieving his objective, but some other rules might be; I’m not sure.

    Again, what’s the postmodernist critique? Am I correct in my understanding that, in the “real world” defined by this obviously unreal exhange, to be a postmodernist is to limit oneself to observing that Humpty and Alice are playing the language game by different rules (or that one is playing by rules and the other isn’t)? Are the question of whether one set of rules might be better than another, and the question of whether it is better to have rules than to have no rules, two questions that are completely out-of-scope for postmodernism?

    Let us suppose that one of the two people in this exchange is a Christian, and that the other is an atheist. Does a postmodernist critique of the exchange require that we know which is the Christian and which is the atheist, or is that something that doesn’t matter?

  • Aj

    monkeymind,

    I objected to you imposing a consensus by fiat.

    My argument was: if you respond to me, and disagree with my comment, when I had defined what I meant, then it’s apt you use my definition (when responding to me).

    If I hadn’t have defined what I meant, then hopefully you would either determine through context what the meaning was, or go with what you feel is the most common.

    I still think there is a non-negligible number of atheists who believe that an atheist worldview has a praxis.

    That’s something I disagree with, it’s not really relevant, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time. Hemant, poll?

    I also think that we’re confusing lexical meaning and existential meaning here, a bit. Let’s say that the American Atheist statement above was rewritten as a personal essay entitled “What Atheism Means to Me”. Would you object to this person that his definition went beyond your definition?

    They can define dogs as cats for all I care in their own essay. I wouldn’t object, it would be more accurate to say my feeling would be “not impressed”. If I needed to read it for some reason, I would probably be cursing the authors name.

    Darryl,

    AJ, I think the content of my views is expressed in my prior comments.

    I fail to see how that redeems your response.

    Yes, I have come to conclusions about such things as post-modernism, and I don’t agree with the assertion you attribute to Chomsky, Dawkins, and Sokal.

    That seems to imply that you wouldn’t be willing to change your mind regardless of their reasoning.

    I doubt that their views can be summarized as you have represented them, but if you’re anxious for content, cite your sources, I’ll check them out, and then I’ll come back here and give you precise reasons.

    I doubt that their views can be summarized in a single statement as well. However, I am confident that various statements they have made can be represented in such a way. You have already decided to disagree them, you just haven’t decided how.

    But please, if you’re just padding your argument by dropping names, and you really don’t give a damn about my views on post-modernism, then just let the matter go.

    What argument? I was replying to someone who seems to agree with their statement. You’re attempting to counter arguments you haven’t yet read. I won’t lie to you, I’m probably not going to read your views on post-modernism. So you don’t get the impression, I’m misrepresenting the views of Dawkins, Chomsky, and Sokal, here’s some of their own words on the subject:

    The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity — the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter — has profound politicalimplications (which, of course, are “progressive”). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.” Next, I assemble a pastiche — Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity — held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

    A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies by Alan D. Sokal, Lingua Franca

    Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.

    Postmodernism Disrobed by Richard Dawkins, Nature
    Sorry, one link limit, they’re easy enough to find on google, Dawkins’s article is on his official site richarddawkins.net.

    Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.

    Noam Chomsky on Post Modernism, taken from a post by Chomsky on usenet, linked to on his official site chomsky.info.

    The Grand Inquisitor explains that you have to create mysteries because otherwise the common people will be able to understand things. They have to be subordinated so you have to make things look mysterious and complicated. That’s the test of the intellectual. It’s also good for them: then you’re an important person, talking big words which nobody can understand. Sometimes it gets kind of comical, say in post-modern discourse. Especially around Paris, it has become a comic strip, I mean it’s all gibberish. But it’s very inflated, a lot of television cameras, a lot of posturing. They try to decode it and see what is the actual meaning behind it, things that you could explain to an eight-year old child. There’s nothing there. But these are the ways in which contemporary intellectuals, including those on the Left, create great careers for themselves, power for themselves, marginalize people, intimidate people and so on

    In Chomsky on Anarchism (2005), p. 216

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Is anyone going to answer Gary Charbonneau’s question(s)?

    Now, that sounds very interesting and thought provoking… All other heated technical (and wordy) debates are getting a little overwhelming, repetitive and, may I say… boring? (sorry…)

    Remember… oftentimes, less is more. And simplicity reaches wider audience.

    And the thing he said about using proper language reminds me of a quote:

    We are obliged to create our own language because there are dimensions to ourselves absent from clichés, which require us to flout etiquette in order to convey with greater accuracy the distinctive timbre of our thought.
    ~ Alaine de Botton

  • Mriana

    Gary, you remind me of that poem- Beware of the Jabberwocky. Oh I understand you, but your Alice/Humpty scenerio just remind me of that with its following explaination Lewis Carroll gave. You have the poem and then you have explanation with the use of Alice and Humpty. You have the following explanation down pat.

    It also reminds me of a chapter with the same title (Beware of the Jabberwocky) in Valerie Tarico’s book, “The Dark Side: How Evangelical Fundamentalist Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth”.

  • monkeymind

    My argument was: if you respond to me, and disagree with my comment, when I had defined what I meant, then it’s apt you use my definition (when responding to me).

    Aj, I think I said this before, but in case it wasn’t clear: You are of course 100% correct that if atheism means only “non-belief in God” and nothing more, it can’t be seen as providing the motivation for anything. I just disagreed with you that was how all atheists defined atheism. If you’re a descriptivist as you say, you should be open to the possibility that the meaning of this word is in flux.

    After thinking about this further, I think I can sum up my thoughts on this subject as follows (I’ll try not to be long-winded Linda!)
    If you define atheism as non-belief in a deity, as Aj does, of course it can’t be a reason to do anything, good or bad. The corollary is also true – if you define theism simply as a belief in a deity, it is not necessarily a motivation to do anything. If your deity never interferes with the universe, doesn’t hand out punishments and rewards, or have any human characteristics, it’s hard to see how that would necessarily motivate you to do anything. And people exist who believe in such a deity. The problem is that most believers don’t believe in that deity.
    And there’s the rub. In our world, religion is something that almost everyone is forced to have a belief about, because it is ubiquitous. So, in practice, all atheists have beliefs about religion. If, in the future, religion’s influence on human culture sinks below some threshold, there would be no need for the word “atheist” at all.

    Beliefs about religion that I see atheists expressing are:

    1. Religion is fine for other people, but I find it neither interesting or compelling.

    2. Religion is based on false premises, and these false premises must be exposed for what they are.

    3. Religion is harmful and its influence should be opposed.

    4. It is not necessary to be religious to be ethical and compassionate. (this is the belief the Am. Atheist statement expresses)

    I think this whole debate arises because many non-atheists, and some atheists (I could come up with more examples than the two I gave) lump their beliefs about religion and their non-belief in a deity under the heading “atheism.” I would argue that people who believe in 2,3 and 4 are the most likely to identify as atheists, so its not too surprising that outsiders associate those views with atheism. I’ll agree with Aj that this confusion of non-belief in a deity with beliefs about religion, is messing with our heads. There have been some attempts to come up with a term for beliefs about religion that I listed as #2 or #3 – militant atheist, fundamentalist atheist, passionate atheist. Some are perjorative and will never be used by atheists themselves, and all include the word atheist and thus continue to blur the lines between non-belief and belief.
    So, I think what we are dealing with a gap in our language, and I agree with Gary that it’s best filled with a neologism. Any suggestions?

  • ash

    Remember… oftentimes, less is more. And simplicity reaches wider audience.

    oh noes Linda, have you just explained why so many claim to be christian, yet so few know anything about it?

    my take on this whole debate is that a strict definition of atheism can only mean a lack of belief in god/s. that’s it as far as the definition goes, and rather than find that narrow, i believe it works as a definition that can act as a foundation for all the varying conditionals that are then built upon it.

    however, i do feel that anyone who has come to the position of choosing to label themselves as atheist by means of research, enquiry, etc. (rather than as a default) is more likely to hold extraneous views that can easily appear related to the end product of atheism.

    as a further thought, i have problems believing that any self identifying label can either be completely uncoupled from individual praxis, or held solely to blame. for example; i am pro-choice. this is influenced by many of the identities i choose to label myself with;- feminist, atheist, british, liberal etc. i would struggle to find a singular identity that i could hold as the sole motivator for this particular opinion, or any behaviour related to it.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Gary asked:

    I am admittedly completely out of my league here, because I know very little about postmodernism. Can you give me a postmodernist critique of this exhange?

    Clearly we have in this example two people discussing the use of a particular word, “Christianity.” Alice objects that Humpty is using the word incorrectly, because, she says, it doesn’t mean what he says it means. In other words, she is making a particular fact claim about “how language works.” Humpty responds that any word means whatever he wants it to mean. He is clearly making a claim about “how he uses language.”

    So, two questions here:

    1. Is one of these positions, Humpty’s or Alice’s, more postmodern than the other?

    2. Accepting at face value Humpty’s fact claim about how he uses language being true, what would a postmodernist say about Alice’s fact claim? Is it true? Is it false? Neither true nor false? Is it irrelevant?

    Humpty’s position is the more postmodern one because he is acknowledging (similar to postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault) that the meaning of language is determined by whichever individuals or social groups have the power to impose their definitions on others. This brand of postmodernism is about recognizing the degree to which power relationship within society influence the way we perceive and talk about the world.

    However, you’ve slightly mischaracterized Humpty’s position when you said:

    Moving on: Alice suggests, by means of a question, that Humpty is not playing the language game by the proper rules (though she does not say prcisely what those rules are, we can probably make a reasonable inference). To this Humpty responds, in effect, that the objective in a language game (any language game, or just the one he is playing here?) is, somehow, “mastery.” Perhaps he is implying that rules are therefore irrelevant, or perhaps he is implying that Alice’s rules are inappropriate for achieving his objective, but some other rules might be; I’m not sure.

    Humpty is not saying that the “objective” of a language game is “mastery”. That would be a normative and prescriptive judgment, and, for the postmodernist at least, the point here is simply descriptive. Humpty is saying that the rules of the game simply are about mastery. He is describing the fact that the meaning of words is determined by those who have the power to impose their definitions on others. This is true whether we like it or not – regardless of the social or moral implications.

    So the postmodernist (and Humpty’s) response to Alice is to question why we should privilege her definition of the word over Humpty’s. The postmodernist recognizes that this is not a question of a fixed and objective definition of the word verses Humpty’s personal re-definition. The issue is between two competing definitions. Alice needs to realize that she is essentially doing the same thing Humpty is doing. They are both trying to assert that their particular understanding of the word ought to be normative for the other.

    However, neither has put forth a reason why their definition is to be preferred – i.e. why they should be the “master”. This, then is the starting point of conversation. The postmodern doesn’t say that words can just mean whatever anyone wants them to mean, but rather that individuals and communities must negotiate meaning among themselves and reach some social agreement if conversation is to continue. For instance, Alice might reply that “Well, the majority of people mean something different by the word “Christianity”.” Humpty can then decide if he wishes to submit himself to that community of people who define the word differently than him and accept their definition (i.e. let them be the master) or can maintain his own definition (and thus cut himself off from further conversation with that community). Notice however that Alice’s appeal in this case would not be to some “objective” meaning of the word, but to a socially agreed upon definition. Thus her appeal to Humpty would not be that he should see the light and accept the one objectively and universally correct definition, but rather that he should join the linguistic community she identifies with by using the word in same ways they do.

    Am I correct in my understanding that, in the “real world” defined by this obviously unreal exhange, to be a postmodernist is to limit oneself to observing that Humpty and Alice are playing the language game by different rules (or that one is playing by rules and the other isn’t)? Are the question of whether one set of rules might be better than another, and the question of whether it is better to have rules than to have no rules, two questions that are completely out-of-scope for postmodernism?

    Yes, the postmodernist would observe that they are playing by different rules. In your original exchange Alice seems to be assuming that words have fixed, objective definitions. The postmodern would say that her assumption is incorrect. They would say that Humpty’s rules are “better”. However, in this case “better” does not mean “more morally or socially desirable”, but simply “more accurate to how we observe language to actually work”. Again these rules are descriptive, not prescriptive.

    As for whether it’s better to have rules or no rules, that question is irrelevant to this discussion since neither Humpty nor Alice is suggesting that there are no rules. Humpty is simply saying that the rules for defining words are based on social agreements (usually determined by power relationships) while Alice is still under the misconception that the rules are based on some external, objective standard.

    Let us suppose that one of the two people in this exchange is a Christian, and that the other is an atheist. Does a postmodernist critique of the exchange require that we know which is the Christian and which is the atheist, or is that something that doesn’t matter?

    It doesn’t necessarily matter. Atheists and Christians are simply two different communities that may have competing definitions of what the word “Christian” means. Humpty’s observation is true regardless – the meaning of the word still depends on which community’s definition you take to be normative for yourself. Again, this is something Alice and Humpty could work out between themselves in conversation.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said, So the postmodernist (and Humpty’s) response to Alice is to question why we should privilege her definition of the word over Humpty’s. The postmodernist recognizes that this is not a question of a fixed and objective definition of the word verses Humpty’s personal re-definition. The issue is between two competing definitions. Alice needs to realize that she is essentially doing the same thing Humpty is doing. They are both trying to assert that their particular understanding of the word ought to be normative for the other. However, neither has put forth a reason why their definition is to be preferred – i.e. why they should be the “master.”

    True, not explicitly. However, lurking behind Alice’s argument, in Lewis Carroll’s original version, is her well-justified belief that among no English-speaking community does the word “glory” mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you.” It might in Humpty’s private language, but Alice is implicitly questioning the point of a private language.

    This, then is the starting point of conversation. The postmodern doesn’t say that words can just mean whatever anyone wants them to mean, but rather that individuals and communities must negotiate meaning among themselves and reach some social agreement if conversation is to continue. For instance, Alice might reply that “Well, the majority of people mean something different by the word “Christianity”.” Humpty can then decide if he wishes to submit himself to that community of people who define the word differently than him and accept their definition (i.e. let them be the master) or can maintain his own definition (and thus cut himself off from further conversation with that community).

    He doesn’t cut himself off conversation with that community through any lack of mutual understanding (where “understanding” is defined in the literal sense of “knowing what is meant”). Once Alice understands that, when Humpty considers “Christian” and “fundamentalist” to be synonyms, she will probably not be puzzled if he says that “Jones is not a real Christian.” It means, “Jones is not a fundamentalist.” Where Humpty might cut himself off from conversation with Alice and her community is if her community considers the word “Christian” as a prize to be fought over and finds itself offended by Humpty’s use of the word. If he insists on using the word that way, then they no longer want to talk to him, even though they understand him just fine. But there may be other other, more significant reasons why they no longer want to talk to him. On the other hand, it is at least as likely that Humpty and his community won’t want to talk to them. They are, after all, not real Christians (that is, fundamentalists).

    As for whether it’s better to have rules or no rules, that question is irrelevant to this discussion since neither Humpty nor Alice is suggesting that there are no rules. Humpty is simply saying that the rules for defining words are based on social agreements (usually determined by power relationships) while Alice is still under the misconception that the rules are based on some external, objective standard.

    She may or may be under such a misconception. In fact, she understood that the rules for defining words are based on social agreements perfectly well, I think, in Lewis Carroll’s original version. In my revised version, that is perhaps not so clear.

    Atheists and Christians are simply two different communities that may have competing definitions of what the word “Christian” means.

    How does that follow? Don’t you think that there is likely to be as much disagreement among Christians as to what the word “Christian” means as there is between atheists and Christians? Obviously there is a multiplicity ofChristian communities potentially fighting over the meaning of the word “Christian.”

    Humpty’s observation is true regardless – the meaning of the word still depends on which community’s definition you take to be normative for yourself.

    But I think that the issue here is not understanding, not of knowing what is meant, but of, as you put it, power. For example, to assert that “Christian” means “fundamentalist” is to imply that anyone who is not a fundamentalist is making a mistake if he or she applies the word “Christian” to himself or herself. And this may be because because, within certain communities, the word “Christian” is regarded as laden with positive value regardless of its meaning content. They want to call themselves by that word. Whereas other communities would be horrified to be called by that word.

    Sorry, no time to continue….

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    True, not explicitly. However, lurking behind Alice’s argument, in Lewis Carroll’s original version, is her well-justified belief that among no English-speaking community does the word “glory” mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you.” It might in Humpty’s private language, but Alice is implicitly questioning the point of a private language.

    She may or may be under such a misconception. In fact, she understood that the rules for defining words are based on social agreements perfectly well, I think, in Lewis Carroll’s original version. In my revised version, that is perhaps not so clear.

    Well, you seem to have interpreted Alice’s intent differently than I did. That’s fine. If the disagreement between Alice and Humpty is about social-agreements vs. private languages (rather than “objective meaning vs. social-agreements” as I assumed), then both of them are postmodern and they’re not really disagreeing over the basic rules (i.e. it’s still about power), just over whether individuals or communities should get to be “master”.

    He doesn’t cut himself off conversation with that community through any lack of mutual understanding (where “understanding” is defined in the literal sense of “knowing what is meant”). Once Alice understands that, when Humpty considers “Christian” and “fundamentalist” to be synonyms, she will probably not be puzzled if he says that “Jones is not a real Christian.” It means, “Jones is not a fundamentalist.” Where Humpty might cut himself off from conversation with Alice and her community is if her community considers the word “Christian” as a prize to be fought over and finds itself offended by Humpty’s use of the word. If he insists on using the word that way, then they no longer want to talk to him, even though they understand him just fine. But there may be other other, more significant reasons why they no longer want to talk to him. On the other hand, it is at least as likely that Humpty and his community won’t want to talk to them. They are, after all, not real Christians (that is, fundamentalists).

    Yes, you’re probably right. Though as more and more competing definitions arise the more difficult conversation will become.

    Funny though, but I took Humpty to be the atheist (rather than a fundamentalist) and Alice to be the Christian. I guess maybe that’s just because I’ve encountered so many atheists whose operative definition of “Christian” seems to be “fundamentalist Christian”.

    But whatever, this is all just hypothetical. It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about the definition of “Christian” or the definition of “glory”. I’m not even really sure what the point of changing it was. The principles are still the same regardless of the word in question.

    Atheists and Christians are simply two different communities that may have competing definitions of what the word “Christian” means.”

    How does that follow? Don’t you think that there is likely to be as much disagreement among Christians as to what the word “Christian” means as there is between atheists and Christians? Obviously there is a multiplicity ofChristian communities potentially fighting over the meaning of the word “Christian.”

    I’m confused Gary, was the point of your question about a postmodern view of language or was it about the meaning of the word “Christian”? I took it to be the former. I was speaking hypothetically and within the context of the Alice/Humpty story, not in regards to actual atheist or Christian or Fundamentalist definitions of Christianity. For the purposes of philosophical discussion I don’t really care what set of words you use – you might as well have left it as “glory”, as I said, the principles are the same.

    That’s why I qualified my statement by saying atheists and Christians “may” have competing definitions. But I don’t actually know or care whether they do or not, or whether Christians have more definitions among themselves. I was under the impression that this was all just hypothetical – just for the sake of discussion.

  • Richard Wade

    A premodernist, a modernist and a postmodernist who don’t know each other well are walking through the woods together.

    Premodernist: “There’s a bear! Run!” (runs away)

    Modernist: “Huh? Oh! You’re right! A bear! Back away slowly!” (backs away slowly)

    Postmodernist: (watching the other two leave) “‘Bear?’ Now what do you two mean by ‘bear?’ For all I know ‘bear’ could mean to one of you what I would call ‘a plane ticket to Albuquerque,’ or the other might mean what I would mean by ‘why are there twigs in my cereal?’ Your terms are based on assumptions toward their definitions that cannot ever be entirely universal and so are suspect. And since we define words with other words, those meta-words are also based on suspect assumptions as are the meta-meta-words I’m using right now to describe this problem. (shouting now as the other two get far away) Furthermore all assumptions are based upon other assumptions and are expressed in words and all those meta-assumptions and their meta-meta-assumption-meta-meta words have their suspect assumptive meta-meanings ad infinitum. (pauses for a breath, cupping his hands around his mouth to shout in their direction) If by uttering ‘bear’ your intention is simply to express or to vent with no regard to any effect that the utterance may have on others then it doesn’t matter what you mean, but if your intention is to communicate a concept or experience from yourself to another, such as myself, where we will have at least a semblance of mutual agreement at least in understanding the gist of the concept or experience, then the three of us must first sit down here and establish a mutually agreed upon vocabulary of words and meta-words which are based on assumptions that are not too suspect for us to eventually achieve basic mutual understanding. We can point to things like rocks and trees, offer words for their representation, nodding and grunting in what may be vaguely felt as mutual agreement. It will take quite some time but eventually we will have built up a consensus matrix of words whose definitions we can at least just barely agree upon and finally work toward what either or both of you mean by ‘bear’….”

    Bear: “ROAARRR!!” (smash, crunch, bite, bite, claw, claw, tear, rip, crunch, crunch, claw, bite, drag, drag, crunch, bite, chew, chew, chew, chew, chew, burp)

  • http://heathendad.blogspot.com/ HappyNat

    Richard, I see you finally found a good use for a postmodernist thinker . . bear food. :)

  • Gary Charbonneau

    Richard Wade said,

    Bear: “ROAARRR!!”

    The postmodernist asked the bear what he meant by “ROAARRR!!” Was it part of a bearish metanarrative of oppression against postmodernists, and, if so, of which specific bearish metanarrative was it a part: that of the black bears, that of the brown bears, of the grizzly bears, of the Kodiak bears, or of the polar bears?

    The bear withdrew in confusion.

  • Gary Charbonneau

    MikeClawson said,

    Well, you seem to have interpreted Alice’s intent differently than I did. That’s fine. If the disagreement between Alice and Humpty is about social-agreements vs. private languages (rather than “objective meaning vs. social-agreements” as I assumed), then both of them are postmodern and they’re not really disagreeing over the basic rules (i.e. it’s still about power), just over whether individuals or communities should get to be “master”.

    Well — still trying to wrap my head around the concept of “postmodernism” here — if a postmodern analysis of language is non-normative, which is what I understood you to have been saying, then for them to argue over whether individuals or communities should be master might, it seems to me, require them to step outside the intellectual framework of postmodernism for the purposes of that discussion. The same would be true if they were arguing over which individual or which community should be master.

    Another way of saying this is that, while postmodernism is, or may have, a praxis, I understand that it cannot have a normative praxis.

    Of course, if posmodernism holds that meaning of a word truly is to be found in a social agreement, and Humpty Dumpty could point to no social agreement in which anyone other than himself used the word “glory” to mean “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you,” then Alice’s criticism could be poth postmodernist and well-founded. The “objective” meanings of a word in that case do exist, and are to be found in the use of that word in various communities. Presumably this is how descriptive lexicographers actually go about deciding how to add new words and new meanings to old words in dictionaries: when they conclude that the usage has become well-established within some community of respectable size and stability.

    Note, of course, the obvious irony in trying to arrive at a “correct” definition of the word “postmodernism.” If postmodernism is correct, then it seems to me that the term itself has could have no “objective” meaning, in the sense that one could say that someone was using it incorrectly. Which means, I suppose, that it could not be incorrect to apply the term “postmodernist” to someone who held that words to have objective meanings.

    Funny though, but I took Humpty to be the atheist (rather than a fundamentalist) and Alice to be the Christian. I guess maybe that’s just because I’ve encountered so many atheists whose operative definition of “Christian” seems to be “fundamentalist Christian”.

    When I made up the example, I did so thinking that Humpty was the fundamentalist, until I realized that he could just as easily be the atheist.

    Just to make sure I understand: It would not be a proper postmodernist response to an atheist whose operative definition of “Christian” is “fundamentalist Christian” to say, “You are mistaken.” Correct?

    I’m confused Gary, was the point of your question about a postmodern view of language or was it about the meaning of the word “Christian”? I took it to be the former. I was speaking hypothetically and within the context of the Alice/Humpty story, not in regards to actual atheist or Christian or Fundamentalist definitions of Christianity.

    Sorry. The form of your answer suggested that you were in fact speaking about actual atheist or Christian definitions of “Christianity.”

    I was under the impression that this was all just hypothetical – just for the sake of discussion

    Well, by changing Lewis Carroll’s example from “glory” to “Christianity” I was deliberately trying to make it less “just for the sake of discussion” and directed more to the point at hand.

  • monkeymind

    I’ve always thought of Humpty as a typical “egghead.” He is portrayed as sneering and arrogant. What he’s about is not linguistic self-acualization but the creation of insider jargons designed to make outsiders feel like ignorant noobs. Sp it’s probably not that inappropriate to call him a post-modern philosopher. I’ve tried to read Derrida – never again. Proof positive that the old chestnut Gary brought up about the clarity of the French language(Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français – “What is not clear is not French”) is full of worms.
    As for “Jabberwocky”, that’s more modern than post-modern. its the modernists like James Joyce, the avant-garde Russian zaum (trans-sense) poets, the absurdists and the surrealists who used invented words and tried to break down all conventional and traditional forms to create forms of expression suitable for the modern world. That’s not the aim of the post-modernist -they’re not about forging new, modern forms. The post-modern artist I visualize as perched on the rubble heap of history and civilization, trying to arrange the pieces in vaguely meaningful patterns.

    Edited to add: 3 quarks for Muster Mark!

  • monkeymind

    Does anyone else but me think that some atheists, as well as many believers, lump beliefs about religion and how/whether it’s to be confronted, together with non-belief in God under the heading “atheism”? English is rich in words to define different kinds of believers, do we need to develop new terms for counter-religionists?

    In any case, after this conversation, if anyone wants to bring up Lenin, Yaroslavsky, Pol Pot et. al. I think it’s better to phrase the thought like this: If atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, atrocities have also been committed in the name of opposing religion and promoting atheism.

  • Darryl

    Does anyone else but me think that some atheists, as well as many believers, lump beliefs about religion and how/whether it’s to be confronted, together with non-belief in God under the heading “atheism”? English is rich in words to define different kinds of believers, do we need to develop new terms for counter-religionists?

    In any case, after this conversation, if anyone wants to bring up Lenin, Yaroslavsky, Pol Pot et. al. I think it’s better to phrase the thought like this: If atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, atrocities have also been committed in the name of opposing religion and promoting atheism.

    Yes. That’s what many of these posts have been about, and what AJ seems to object to. The matter is not about what ought to be a definition for atheism but what working definitions people give it. We can agree to disagree. So long as we give our definitions up front communicating should be possible.

    Why don’t we atheists and believers just agree to never use the you-done-wrong-so-you-believe-wrong argument again. I think fair and reasoned believers like Mike C. see the fallacy in it and so do many atheists.

    I think it’s time for this thread to die a natural death.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X