Atheist Children

From lol god:

miraculousatheists.jpg

Yep… the pastor’s reaction is pretty much how we atheists feel when a religious couple says they have a “Christian” or “Catholic” child. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. The children are not yet old enough to know what they are.

It’s a point that Richard Dawkins makes very clear in The God Delusion.

That said, I’d say there’s some truth to this picture (of “atheist” children). The kids have not yet been inculcated with religious doctrine. They haven’t been told to believe in God.

As far as I’m concerned, children are atheists unless they are taught otherwise or they begin to think for themselves that there must be a higher power out there. Probably the former, though…

(via Too Many Tribbles)


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://redwinegums.wordpress.com Red Wine Gums

    As far as I’m concerned, children are atheists unless they are taught otherwise

    Very Islamic… :-) One doesn’t convert. One reverts. Always interesting. The age of consent so to speak. At what point is a person’s theism, or not as the case may be, their own?

  • Cafeeine

    While I agree with the definition of an atheist, I often see the term used as a synonym of the ‘informed atheist’, in essence the person who remains an atheist after knowledge of theistic philosophy and doctrine. For example, it is said that atheists are more liable to apply critical thinking, but one cannot make any comments on the critical thinking skills of a child atheist as they haven’t yet been put to the test.

  • Kate

    I don’t like children indoctrinated with anything – and that includes forcing atheism down their tiny throats, either.

  • http://justawhisperinthewind.blogspot.com HLKing

    I sort of touched on this subject myself the other day, when talking about accidentally offending my Baptist friend, by telling her that she was to all intents and purpose, given no choice about her religion.

    My reasoning is that from day zero, she was told of no religion BUT Christianity, went to church every sunday, was given Bibles and Bible-Quotes as gifts, given various Christian jewelry/etc as gifts, sent to Bible Camps in the summer, participated in the various Christian Holidays all through the year… and so on.

    Her parents did not sit her down and say ‘here’s all these other religions, they’re just as valid – as is no faith – choose which one when you’re ready’ – instead, she basically grew up in a household where there was one religion and it was her parents religion and that was the only religion she was allowed to have.

    Even now, she refuses to admit even the possibility of her being indoctrinated by her parents from a young age. Her whole life view stems from how her parents would react to what she’s doing, according to their interpretation of their religion.

    From what I understand, she has been keeping some fairly ordinary events in a young womans life incredibly secret from her parents, becuase of how, as Christians, they would view these aspects of their daughter.

    It really is true, that children are NOT born with a pre-set religion/worldview – they learn these things from their primary care-givers, in much the same fashion as a child learns it’s spoken langage from it’s primary care-giver (as I stated in my post, take a ‘French’ baby and give it to Chinese care-givers, and when it starts talking, it will speak Chinese, NOT French.)

    Children should not have faiths inculcated into them – these are world-views that can only be correctly understood when the personality and character of the child is adult enough to reason them. And that doesn’t normally happen until the mid to late teens – and sometimes later.

    It has oft been repeated ‘give me a child til his 7th year and I will give you the man’ (badly paraphrased – sorry) – and unfortunately, this is quite true.

  • Jen

    If we use atheist to mean “Doesn’t believe in God(s)” then I don’t see why babies couldn’t be called that, really.

  • Cafeeine

    Jen:
    By this definition, how do we defend against the argument that ‘atheists are simply ignorant of the Truth of XYZ God”? We can’t say that we know better, because nothing in the term applied generally implies that..

  • Tim Nailer

    This cartoon and discussion nicely illustrate the difference between strong atheism (belief that god does not exist) and weak atheism (lack of belief in god’s existence). Weak atheism can only really be held by people that don’t have an idea of god, such as newborn babies.

  • Gary

    If we use atheist to mean “Doesn’t believe in God(s)” then I don’t see why babies couldn’t be called that, really.

    Yes, “if.” But is that what “atheist” means? Given that definition, any inanimate object would be an atheist, since it does not believe in God.

    My bookshelf dictionary defines “atheist” as “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of God or gods.” It defines “atheism” as “the doctrine or belief that there is no God or gods.”

    By those definitions, neither inanimate objects nor infants are atheists.

  • TheDeadEye

    I don’t like children indoctrinated with anything – and that includes forcing atheism down their tiny throats, either.

    Babies are born atheists; no force required.

  • Daniel Hoffman

    As far as I’m concerned, children are atheists unless they are taught otherwise or they begin to think for themselves that there must be a higher power out there. Probably the former, though…

    That doesn’t seem to square with the history of humanity and its universal religiosity from as far back as we an trace.

  • anon

    Dude, that’s a terrible analogy. Those babies ARE INDEED atheists, they lack belief in God. How could they believe in anything like that?

    Saying “atheist child” is semantically correct!

  • Jen

    By this definition, how do we defend against the argument that ‘atheists are simply ignorant of the Truth of XYZ God”? We can’t say that we know better, because nothing in the term applied generally implies that..

    I don’t see why baby atheists can’t be so because they don’t know better, and adult atheists because they do understand the concept. Technically, I did not imply via my definition that the atheist has or hasn’t had an opportunity to learn about XYZ god, merely that they do not.

  • Eegaddz

    Atheist is a bit of a misnomer. To be an atheist requires the knowledge of religion and theism. Since babies don’t have that yet, they technically couldn’t be called atheists. Depending on who you speak to, I think pure would be a better term.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    If we use atheist to mean “Doesn’t believe in God(s)” then I don’t see why babies couldn’t be called that, really.

    How do you know they don’t? If God exists, then perhaps they do, (in whatever sense an infant is capable of knowing or believing in anything). If She doesn’t, then they probably don’t, though as Daniel points out, even that is not certain. Your assumption that infants have no belief in God is based on your own presupposition about Her non-existence, not on any actual evidence about what babies themselves do or do not believe.

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

    Actually, I’m not sure “atheist” is the right word. I think it’d be more accurate to call them agnostic.

  • Maria

    I don’t like children indoctrinated with anything – and that includes forcing atheism down their tiny throats, either.

    I agree, and I can’t help but notice there seems to be a double standard that way among some people saying it’s okay to call a child an “atheist child”.

    Actually, I’m not sure “atheist” is the right word. I think it’d be more accurate to call them agnostic.

    That makes sense, or at least it’s closer. As far as I’m concerned, to be an atheist you have to decide you don’t believe in a diety. Babies haven’t decided anything, so they should be exposed to all possibilities and allowed to decide for themselves as they get older. It’s no more okay to label them atheist than it is theist. Period. The knife cuts both ways.

  • TheDeadEye

    That doesn’t seem to square with the history of humanity and its universal religiosity from as far back as we an trace.

    Yeah, it would have nothing to do with the fact that most Christian/Jewish/Muslim parents raise children of the same religion. Those children were born that way. ;)

    My son is nearly 3 years old and he doesn’t even know the word “god”. :P

  • mikespeir

    Wow, Mike Clawson, I don’t see much reason to think babies believe in anything. Do you?

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Sad to see people trying to dance away from some rather obvious and inevitable logical implications. If atheism is the lack of belief in god, then there is no sane argument against babies, which lack beliefs in anything, being atheists. You can only be an atheist or a theist, by that definition, and if babies aren’t theists, then there’s only one other thing they can be.

    The knife doesn’t “cut both ways” because atheism is a privative, not an affirmative definition. By saying a baby is an atheist, you aren’t saying it adheres to anything at all in particular: you are listing something it doesn’t yet adhere to.

    And this is rather important to understanding atheism, because unlike what theists would love everyone to believe, atheism is not some sort of belief system that requires constant effort to maintain. It’s a lack of maintaining THEIR belief system. Some people simply never start believing in gods in the first place, and no conscious choice or even thought is required. For some atheists, their non-belief is exactly like an infants in that they did not have a god belief, never got it, and thus remained without it.

    That’s neither an inherently good or inherently bad thing. Some things that are true DO require conscious choice and effort to understand, and if you put in that effort and understand them, then kudos to you. But I often get the feeling that theists are so full of themselves that they simply cannot imagine that not believing in their beliefs could a trivial matter: they are so much in search of self-gratification that they want to think that even not believing in their religion must be some sort of momentous, giant step: that it’s so so important that they should kowtow to that importance at least in that respect even if they don’t believe themselves.

    And while “agnostic” fits too, it doesn’t resolve the question of whether they are atheists or theists. If you define atheism as “without god belief”: the only definition that really seems accurate, then babies are atheists, end of story. So are rocks. The confusion comes from people who don’t seem to understand the implications of the definition, and are applying all sorts of other connotations to the word “atheist.”

    As far as I’m concerned, to be an atheist you have to decide you don’t believe in a diety.

    Well then, as far as I’m concerned “wallow in the mud” means “fly” and therefore pigs can fly. Right?

  • Gary

    If atheism is the lack of belief in god, then there is no sane argument against babies, which lack beliefs in anything, being atheists.

    If atheism is “the lack of belief in God,” is there a sane argument against bacteria, trees, rocks, and planets, which also lack beliefs in anything, being atheists? When I mow my yard, am I cutting atheists down to size?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Wow, Mike Clawson, I don’t see much reason to think babies believe in anything. Do you?

    Nope, not really. In which case Greta Christina is right, “agnostic” (i.e. “without knowledge”) is a more accurate term.

  • monkeymind

    I have an idea, let’s cut the baby in half and call one half atheist and one half theist!

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Gary: If atheism is “the lack of belief in God,” is there a sane argument against bacteria, trees, rocks, and planets, which also lack beliefs in anything, being atheists?

    Bingo. All those things lack belief in god in precisely the same way that I do: i.e. none of us has beliefs in god. The trees and the rocks and the babies don’t because they CAN’T, and thus don’t. Adult human atheists don’t because they just don’t.

    Either you have god beliefs or you don’t. If you do, you’re a theist, if not, you’re an atheist. Calling a baby an “agnostic” doesn’t in any way answer which of the two the baby is.

    MC: Nope, not really. In which case Greta Christina is right, “agnostic” (i.e. “without knowledge”) is a more accurate term.

    Uh, how “more accurate?” Agnostic is indeed without knowledge. But Atheism is without belief. Seems like a real double-standard in nomenclature to accept the one and not the other. Babies don’t have knowledge. They don’t have beliefs.

    The reason people don’t want to call babies atheists is, again, I think because people envision there needing to be some sort of dramatic effort to cast off those inevitable god beliefs, rather than a possible continuity of starting off not believing, and simply continuing to do so.

    Try this another way: babies don’t believe in evolution. They are non-believers in evolution in the same way that they are non-believers in god. Saying that they are one sort of non-believer is not anymore an insult or an over-characterization of an infant than another. Saying that they don’t believe in evolution is not some sort of “point” we give to people that doubt evolution. It’s not an advantage to anyone. It’s not an advantage to atheist arguments that babies are atheists. It’s just a direct and unavoidable implication of that particular definition.

    The only reason its shocking and controversial is that some people DO see it as some sort of “point” to fight over for jurisdiction or something, or because they quietly disdain atheists so much that they don’t want to admit that anything nice and innocent could qualify as what they see as a craven, plotting being.

    They are simply confused.

  • Gary

    Gary: If atheism is “the lack of belief in God,” is there a sane argument against bacteria, trees, rocks, and planets, which also lack beliefs in anything, being atheists?

    Bingo. All those things lack belief in god in precisely the same way that I do: i.e. none of us has beliefs in god. The trees and the rocks and the babies don’t because they CAN’T, and thus don’t. Adult human atheists don’t because they just don’t.

    The second part of your paragaph contradicts the first. First you say that trees and rocks lack a belief in God in precisely the same way you do. Then you say that trees and rocks and babies lack a belief in God in one way, while adult human atheists lack a belief in God in what seems to be quite a different way.

    If every rock and tree is an atheist, it seems to me that that we have an easy answer to the oft-asked question as to which, on average, is more intelligent, theists or atheists. The theists clearly win by an overwhelming margin if being an atheist requires no more intelligence than a rock.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Uh, how “more accurate?” Agnostic is indeed without knowledge. But Atheism is without belief. Seems like a real double-standard in nomenclature to accept the one and not the other. Babies don’t have knowledge. They don’t have beliefs.

    First off, this is all just semantics. Who the hell really cares? If you want to press the point, fine, by a strict definition of the words, sure babies most likely lack a belief in God (we presume). But I would suggest that lacking a belief generally presupposes the possibility of also holding that belief. By atheist we don’t usually mean people (or objects) who can’t hold any beliefs at all and therefore also don’t hold any beliefs about God. We usually mean someone who has the intellectual capacity to consider the alternatives and has decided against belief in God.

  • mikespeir

    “Nope, not really. In which case Greta Christina is right, “agnostic” (i.e. “without knowledge”) is a more accurate term.”

    Well, there’s a big debate over that right now. Myself, I’d say “agnostic” as an adjective. (I’m not sure I really think it should ever be a noun.) But atheists are agnostic, too. If “atheist” means “lacking belief in deity,” which is more than justifiable etymologically, then the baby is an atheist, too.

  • monkeymind

    Most of what I know about child development supports the idea the babies are born animists – that is, liable to assign agency and sentience to all sorts of things that we, as adults, do not.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    First off, this is all just semantics.

    Good semantics equals good communication. Bad semantics generally delivers confusion, which is exactly what I think is at issue here.

    Who the hell really cares?

    You do: which is the point, in a way. You’re bothered by the idea that babies could be called atheists.

    If you want to press the point, fine, by a strict definition of the words, sure babies most likely lack a belief in God (we presume). But I would suggest that lacking a belief generally presupposes the possibility of also holding that belief.

    That’s not what “lacking” means though. You can add all sorts of peculiar presuppositions to concepts. Some people presuppose that all atheists are wicked, which, I suppose, might be one reason they’d dislike the idea of babies being atheists: because it conflicts with that belief.

    By atheist we don’t usually mean people (or objects) who can’t hold any beliefs at all and therefore also don’t hold any beliefs about God. We usually mean someone who has the intellectual capacity to consider the alternatives and has decided against belief in God.

    And again: this suggests that you think God beliefs are somehow de facto far far more important than other sorts of beliefs. I might as well run around claiming that people who don’t believe in QM simply lack the intellectual capacity to grasp it. But that would merely be insulting, not illuminating or valid.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    The second part of your paragaph contradicts the first. First you say that trees and rocks lack a belief in God in precisely the same way you do. Then you say that trees and rocks and babies lack a belief in God in one way, while adult human atheists lack a belief in God in what seems to be quite a different way.

    I didn’t say it was a different way. Not having something isn’t a “way.” There isn’t a “type” of not having a lemon tree in your back yard. There might be different potentials for having one: your back yard might be all concrete, and so there’s no way you could have a lemon tree, unlike mine, which could have one but just doesn’t. But we both don’t have lemon trees, and in precisely the same “way.”

    If every rock and tree is an atheist, it seems to me that that we have an easy answer to the oft-asked question as to which, on average, is more intelligent, theists or atheists. The theists clearly win by an overwhelming margin if being an atheist requires no more intelligence than a rock.

    Shrug. If that’s the sort of sophistry you enjoy, have at it. Like I said, thinking about this in terms of scoring points is a form of confusion. People who don’t believe in global warming all have babies on their “side” too. Until, of course, you realize that it doesn’t matter who is on what “side” in this particular case.

  • monkeymind

    Like I said, thinking about this in terms of scoring points is a form of confusion.

    I think that is exactly what the original cartoon does though.

  • Gary

    I didn’t say it was a different way. Not having something isn’t a “way.” There isn’t a “type” of not having a lemon tree in your back yard. There might be different potentials for having one: your back yard might be all concrete, and so there’s no way you could have a lemon tree, unlike mine, which could have one but just doesn’t. But we both don’t have lemon trees, and in precisely the same “way.”

    Whether or not you think the distinction between the “atheism” of a piece of granite and the atheism of a sentient adult is to be characterized in terms of a “way” of being an atheist, it is clear that you think that there is some distinction that needs to be made, since you alluded to the distinction. I would simply argue that the need to draw that kind of distinction only exists for you because, for some reason, you wish to insist that all inanimate objects are “atheists.”

    The suffixes “-ism” and “-ist” imply, in ordinary English usage, respectively some kind of doctrine or intellectual position, and a human being who subscribes to that doctrine or intellectual position. Why you think that general rule of English usage uniquely does not apply to the terms “atheism” and “atheist,” I fail to understand. What is your reason for wishing to define “atheist” in the eccentric way that you do rather than in the way that an ordinary dictionary might define it?

    Shrug. If that’s the sort of sophistry you enjoy, have at it. Like I said, thinking about this in terms of scoring points is a form of confusion. People who don’t believe in global warming all have babies on their “side” too. Until, of course, you realize that it doesn’t matter who is on what “side” in this particular case.

    It’s not the kind of sophistry I enjoy, but rather the kind of sophistry you leave yourself open to by insisting on a plainly silly definition of the word “atheist.”

    Suppose we define “Christianity” as “a lack of a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God.” In that case, then every baby, and every rock, is a Christian, as well as (according to your definition) an atheist — in other words, a Christian atheist. And if inanimate objects are atheists, then the following statement is certainly true: “The vast majority of atheists do not deny that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God.”

    I am trying to make a case here, not so much for semantic clarity, but for semantic sanity.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    monkeymind said, I think that is exactly what the original cartoon does though.

    Maybe, and that would be a fair point. On the other hand, it could be playing off the shock of believers (for whom the idea creates the sort of cognitive dissonance: based on negative ideas they have about atheists) that noting that babies are atheists causes.

    It’s not about celebrating atheists because babies are so awesome and babies are atheists, so therefore atheists are awesome. It’s about misconceptions people have about what being an atheist requires or encompasses, which is, respectively, nothing at all and everything BUT theistic belief.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Whether or not you think the distinction between the “atheism” of a piece of granite and the atheism of a sentient adult is to be characterized in terms of a “way” of being an atheist, it is clear that you think that there is some distinction that needs to be made, since you alluded to the distinction.

    Really? So if I said that an apple and an orange are both fruit in exactly the same way (i.e. they are both the ripened ovary and seeds of a flowering plant), but are also different in other ways, you’d say that I’m contradicting myself?

    The suffixes “-ism” and “-ist” imply, in ordinary English usage, respectively some kind of doctrine or intellectual position, and a human being who subscribes to that doctrine or intellectual position.

    Precisely right! But there’s another rather important component to the word “atheist” which is the prefix “a.” It means, as interpreted by most people, “without.” That is, atheism is the LACK of a specific “kind of doctrine or intellectual position.” You’re 100% right that a thinking human being is required to subscribe to a doctrine or intellectual position. Where you go wrong is in thinking that a thinking human being is necessary to NOT subscribe to one.

    What is your reason for wishing to define “atheist” in the eccentric way that you do rather than in the way that an ordinary dictionary might define it?

    First of all, the definition I’m using for atheist is:

    1) what most atheists today and, as it turns out, through much of history, have used to describe themselves
    2) what most people in practice act as if atheist meant, even if they claim to define it differently when on the spot
    3) what many dictionaries do, in fact, use in some form

    It’s not the kind of sophistry I enjoy, but rather the kind of sophistry you leave yourself open to by insisting on a plainly silly definition of the word “atheist.”

    You claim it is plainly silly, but I haven’t seen where you’ve a) taken direct issue with the basic definition or b) if you do do a, then show where I’m drawing faulty conclusions from the implications of that definition.

    Suppose we define “Christianity” as “a lack of a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God.”

    Suppose we defined “walked around in a field” as “flew over the moon.” Imagine all the amazing things cows would then be able to do!

    Unfortunately, Christianity isn’t merely the “lack of a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God.” It’s the belief that (at least for most types of Christians) that he was. The “lack of a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God” is not a position, but the lack of one, and it’s not something we have any discrete name for like we do with atheist. But note that, in fact, it is a lack that is true for me atheist, with no contradiction. I also, as it happens, lack the belief that “there is no God.”

    And if inanimate objects are atheists, then the following statement is certainly true: “The vast majority of atheists do not deny that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God.”

    And that’s literally true. Hopefully this illustrates the importance of applying definitions consistently, instead of mixing and matching different meanings of the same term within the same argument. The fact that you can get confusing by tossing in a lot of negatives, mixing privative terms with affirmative ones and then tossing in the ambiguous word “deny” doesn’t demonstrate much beyond the fact that you can be deliberately confusing.

    And in fact, as I noted, the latter clause up there is even true for this atheist. I have no idea who the “son of god” is, or if there is a god or not. I don’t believe that there IS a son of god. But I also don’t need to run around insisting that there isn’t one either. Both claims overreach, and the latter is wholly unnecessary in any case.

  • Gary

    Really? So if I said that an apple and an orange are both fruit in exactly the same way (i.e. they are both the ripened ovary and seeds of a flowering plant), but are also different in other ways, you’d say that I’m contradicting myself?

    I would say that if you call the orange in the bowl an “apple” because both oranges and apples are fruits, you would be misusing the English language, just as you would be misusing it when you call rocks “atheists.”

    First of all, the definition I’m using for atheist is:

    1) what most atheists today and, as it turns out, through much of history, have used to describe themselves

    Well, that is plainly false, by your own definition of the word “atheist.” If most atheists are and have been inanimate objects, then most atheists are and have been utterly unable to describe themselves in any way. What you must say instead, is that a very small minority of atheists have used this term to describe themselves.

    2) what most people in practice act as if atheist meant, even if they claim to define it differently when on the spot

    Are you quite sure that most people “act” as though the term “atheist” could mean “rock”? How would a person acting in this way act?

    3) what many dictionaries do, in fact, use in some form.

    Do they? Mine doesn’t. It says that an atheist is “A person who denies or disbelieves in the existence of God or gods.” I would assert that this is very much line with traditional and common definitions of the term. The online Concise Oxford English Dictionary deosn’t allow me to look up “atheist,” but for “atheism” it supplies the definition, “disbelief in the existence of a god or gods.”

    Now, I will admit that I have seen attempts to define the terms “atheist” and “atheism” as you do. I would say that these attempts are rather recent in origin, and have been pushed by some (by no means all) atheists, not for the sake of linguistic clarity, but for some ill-conceived purpose of trying to score this or that rhetorical debating point (such as by trying to claim that all babies are atheists, as implied by the cartoon).

    You claim it is plainly silly, but I haven’t seen where you’ve a) taken direct issue with the basic definition or b) if you do do a, then show where I’m drawing faulty conclusions from the implications of that definition.

    I’ve taken issue with yor basic definition by arguing that it does not conform to the way that the word “atheist” is actually used by English speakers, some atheists excepted. Given your faulty definition, you haven’t drawn any faulty conclusions. You have, however, provided a ready answer to the riddle, “How is Richard Dawkins like a piece of crap.” Answer: They’re both atheists. This is a correct and entirely un-faulty conclusion that follows logically from the definition of “atheist” you think we should all accept, is it not?

    Unfortunately, Christianity isn’t merely the “lack of a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God.”

    To coin a phrase, “bingo.” The “Christian” and “Christianity” are rather vague, but I think it would be fair to say that most Christians lack a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God. To insist on that particular definition would, however, be obfuscatory, not enlightening. I take a similar position with regard to your definition of the word “atheist.”

    I don’t believe that there IS a son of god. But I also don’t need to run around insisting that there isn’t one either.

    But clearly you take the position that one need not disbelieve that there is a son of God, as you do, in order to be an atheist.

  • ash

    i think there’s a whole world of difference between a default atheist and an atheist; to my mind both babies and very possibly people such as Lee Strobel would (have) fall(en) into the ‘default’ category. can we label rocks and babies as atheist? certainly, they’re not in a position to argue about it. do the words atheist/christian/muslim etc. have any significant meaning without a measure of self-application? not as far as i’m concerned…

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    I would say that if you call the orange in the bowl an “apple” because both oranges and apples are fruits, you would be misusing the English language, just as you would be misusing it when you call rocks “atheists.”

    Except I haven’t done this or anything equivalent to it.

    I’ve taken issue with yor basic definition by arguing that it does not conform to the way that the word “atheist” is actually used by English speakers, some atheists excepted.

    Except that it does. If I tell virtually anyone that I don’t believe in God, they’ll call me an atheist. Q.E.D.

    You have, however, provided a ready answer to the riddle, “How is Richard Dawkins like a piece of crap.” Answer: They’re both atheists. This is a correct and entirely un-faulty conclusion that follows logically from the definition of “atheist” you think we should all accept, is it not?

    Certainly. Your problem is that you seem to want to use two different definitions at once here to gain a negative connotation. But this is merely the logical fallacy of equivocation.

    but I think it would be fair to say that most Christians lack a belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not the son of God.

    But this isn’t sufficient to define one as a Christian. Most Christians also lack three heads.

    To insist on that particular definition would, however, be obfuscatory, not enlightening. I take a similar position with regard to your definition of the word “atheist.”

    Except you haven’t justified this position. Atheist specifically defines people by what they are not (i.e. theists), not by what they are.

    But clearly you take the position that one need not disbelieve that there is a son of God, as you do, in order to be an atheist.

    You’re using an ambiguous term again. To be an atheist, one would need not to believe that there was a Son of God. That doesn’t mean one would have to believe there wasn’t.

    Remember, doxastic logic has two key negative operators ~B and B~, which are not equivalent.

  • Cafeeine

    This discussion is all due to a lack of a term to describe a certain category of people. For the purpose of my comment I will arbitrarily call these people Hemantists. (No offence meant. I would have called them Cafeeinists, but that term is loaded in a different way)

    Hemantists are atheists, i.e they lack a belief in God, and they are aware of this lack of belief. Hemantists can be atheist children who grew up and decided that religions and their gods are not convincing, theists who have decided that they can no longer hold their previous beliefs. They are critical thinkers, hold rationality in high regard and some feel threatened by religious encroachment on their lives. They value education. By the same reasoning that they reject the god concept they reject supernaturalism.

    Children are not Hemantists, because they do not have the critical capabilities to defend their lack of belief, and in early stages are unaware of it to boot. Thus neither rocks are Hemantists,nor cats nor oranges. Atheistic Buddhists aren’t necessarily Hemantists, but if they reject supernaturalism, then they probably are,

    The “New Atheists”, the “Four horsemen of atheism” are examples of Hemantism.

    Hemantism is closely related to secular humanism.

    Of all atheists, Hemantists are the overwhelming majority, and because of this, they have identified with the atheist label, even though they are a subgroup of it. The need however to ascribe a name to Hemantism is apparent in proposals such as the Brights movement, that don’t pickup steam.

    In discussions between theists and atheists (Hemantists) Atheism/atheist is used liberally both in its main sense as in Hemantism/t.

    Both sides of the argument seem confused as to which definition is used at some times and the need for two separate terms causes some to rebrand atheism as agnosticism and hemantism as atheism, which causes more problems in the long run.

    Hemantism is a subgroup of atheism akin to christianity being a subgroup of theism.

    All the alternatives for Hemantism (anti-theism, non-theism, militant atheism, informed atheism, explicit atheism, agnosticism) seem to fall short of the meaning they have to convey and have ended up confusing people, not for the least reason that people use the terms arbitrarily.

    I think that we need to find a proper term for Hemantism, or we will keep confusing ourselves and others.

  • mikespeir

    One of the reasons I doubt there is such a thing as a noun agnostic is that such a person would be a fence-sitter. I suspect fence-sitting on the subject of deity isn’t really possible. One will tend to lean more one way than the other. And because the subject is so contentious one will at last be forced to lean fairly far one way or the other, just by confronting and countering arguments.

    An atheist is, yes, one who disbelieves in deity. (Leaving aside for a moment the idea that “atheist” is one who simply lacks belief, which, as I noted above, it etymologically defensible.) But that need not be the same as denying the possibility of deity. It’s just that, having to live one’s life on one side of the fence or the other, atheists come down where they see the best evidence leads: disbelief.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    You’re bothered by the idea that babies could be called atheists.

    Says who? I’m not bothered by it, I just think it’s silly.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    An atheist is, yes, one who disbelieves in deity. (Leaving aside for a moment the idea that “atheist” is one who simply lacks belief, which, as I noted above, it etymologically defensible.) But that need not be the same as denying the possibility of deity. It’s just that, having to live one’s life on one side of the fence or the other, atheists come down where they see the best evidence leads: disbelief.

    I think this is a deeply confused way to look at things though: it’s very unlike how we treat all other matters of truth claims. Why such special treatment in this area?

    There is no reason why, in order to not believe a proposition, someone has to stake out the definitive negation of the proposition instead. That’s completely unnecessary and not logically warranted. You don’t need to live your life “as if” you believe there is no God. You can simply live your life without believing that there is one (and likewise, not having to believe or maintain that there isn’t one either).

    Generally some people at this point will declare this agnosticism, which sorts of misses the entire point. Agnosticism first of all deals with characterizing knowledge, not belief, and second of all it to many people implies some sort of middle of the road position, which is not the case here: it’s neither necessary nor really logically possible. Either you believe G or you don’t. Likewise, either you believe ~G or you don’t. These are two different propositions. They are linked in some fashion (for instance, someone who believes ~G must also necessarily not believe G) but are not synonymous (for instance, one can consistently ~BG and ~B~G).

    Binary propositions do not have a “leaning” or “coming down on the side” of area.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    And Gary, I have to highlight this:

    Now, I will admit that I have seen attempts to define the terms “atheist” and “atheism” as you do. I would say that these attempts are rather recent in origin,

    You’d be wrong though. This definition is not only old, but original (the word, for goodness sakes is taken from “a” i.e. “without” and “theos” i.e. god belief), and generally has been what actual atheists have used to define themselves throughout history (and, it should also be noted, in non-Western cultures as well). Ever read any of the major works by atheist philosophers? If so, you’d know that this is far far from a new issue.

    Now, we’re all well aware that many theists are told over and over that atheists all believe, with all their hearts, requiring great effort at every moment, that there is no god, but this is largely a caricature. Theists, being in the majority, believe all sorts of things about atheists and define us this way and that, as it suits their prejudices.

    and have been pushed by some (by no means all) atheists, not for the sake of linguistic clarity, but for some ill-conceived purpose of trying to score this or that rhetorical debating point (such as by trying to claim that all babies are atheists, as implied by the cartoon).

    All gross mischaracterization. This definition has nothing to do with babies per se, and everything to do with clarifying the core issues of believing and not believing a claim. This has been an important issue long before anyone every mentioned babies. It’s not about “scoring points” and you seem to be far far more interested in those “points” than myself or anyone else discussing this definition.

    Now certainly many people would like as many people as possible to have misconceptions about atheists, because that’s to their own rhetorical advantage…

    Babies happen to be a useful example of what we’re talking about when we say that not believing in something is not itself a philosophical position or really anything at all. It is a category.

    The fact that people like you continue to apply the usual slanderous connotations to atheists, and then to babies, and then find this silly because you like babies, is utterly beside the point.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    C’mon, guys! (and gals)

    Surely, a newborn baby’s brain does not have the capability to perform cognitive functions such as contemplating a deity?

    The baby is totally helpless and 100% dependent on the caregiver (mother). He/she is completely vulnerable and at the mercy of his environment. All he can do is respond naturally to whatever comes his way. When he exits the womb and faces the air, he takes a breath. When he’s introduced to the food source, he sucks. When he feels discomfort, he cries. He/she does not do anything but what a baby is supposed to do. Yet he is loved unconditionally, and the fact that he is alive and well is the only issue that has any importance.

    The baby is not an atheist or a theist. That is completely irrelevant to its existence. The baby is a life that lives in its fullness and instinctively responds to the love that it receives. Isn’t that the only thing that ultimately matters to any of us, regardless of what we think we believe?

  • Cafeeine

    Linda,

    contemplating a deity is not contingent to lacking a belief in one. The baby is by definition an atheist, it just isn’t aware of it.

  • mikespeir

    Logical technicalities are all well and good, Bad, but they don’t necessarily give us much insight into how people actually, practically function.

    Reflect on your own experience. I’ll have to reference mine. I visit sites like this a lot, sometimes as a lurker and sometimes as a commenter. Most people here would call themselves atheists. Most of those would consider themselves weak, soft–negative–atheists. Sometimes a self-professed “agnostic” appears. We do have a few theists, as well. When one from that latter group dares to present evidence for the existence of God, what do the weak atheists and agnostics do? Are there ever any fence-sitters? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Agnostics and the weakest of atheists unfailingly join in to strongly refute the evidence. Why would that be if their position were merely one of “lack of belief”? Why is it so important to them personally that the evidence be exposed as unconvincing?

    I’m a weak atheist. Contrary to what a lot of Christians seem to think, I could be convinced that there’s a God if I were to see compelling evidence. But I’ve tried sitting on the fence. It’s razor sharp and not very comfortable. If there’s any verse of the Bible that’s unquestionably true, it’s James 1:8: “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” In the end, we will choose to come down on one side or the other, if for no other reason than to keep us sane.

  • Gary

    GARY: You have, however, provided a ready answer to the riddle, “How is Richard Dawkins like a piece of crap.” Answer: They’re both atheists. This is a correct and entirely un-faulty conclusion that follows logically from the definition of “atheist” you think we should all accept, is it not?

    BAD: Certainly. Your problem is that you seem to want to use two different definitions at once here to gain a negative connotation. But this is merely the logical fallacy of equivocation.

    I’m not using two different definitions at once. I am using the single definition that seemed to be implied by your statement above, “Bingo. All those things [i.e., bacteria, trees, rocks, and planets] lack belief in god in precisely the same way that I do: i.e. none of us has beliefs in god. ” The definition that is implied is: “any thing that lacks a belief in God.” In other words, what you seem to be implying is that “an atheist” is not necessarily person, or a sentient being (though it could be), but could be an inanimate object.

    This is a rather extraordinary definition, to say the least. You’ve had plenty of opportunities here to clarify here that of course you did not mean to imply that inanimate objects could properly be called “atheists,” yet you have failed to do so. I find that rather puzzling.

    Remember, doxastic logic has two key negative operators ~B and B~, which are not equivalent.

    The non-equivalence is at the very heart of my disagreement with you. What I am arguing here is that the meaning of the word “atheist” as used by most English speakers carries the implication “believe not,” not the implication “not believe.”

    I would invite your attention to the fact that already we have, in English, another perfectly good word that carries the implication “not believe.” The word is “nonbeliever,” which my desktop dictionary defines as “a person who lacks faith, esp. in God.” What I would suggest is that for some reason you want the word “atheist” to do the work of the word “nonbeliever” by making them synonymous (except that you seem to go much farther by seemingly wanting to substitute the word “thing” for “person” in the definitions). But if “atheist” is the term we are supposed to use for “a person who lacks a belief” — a person who “not believes” — what term do we use for a person who disbelieves — who “believes not”?

    Should we, perhaps, use “disbeliever”? I suppose we could. It’s a perfectly good English word, meaning precisely what it appears to mean. However, when I turn to yet another dictionary, I find that “atheism” is defined as “disbelief in the existence of God or any other deity.” By implication, “atheist” and “disbeliever” are synonyms. What is the argument for insisting that “atheist” is a proper synonym for “nonbeliever” when in common parlance it is a synonym for “disbeliever”? I’m not seeing it.

    It seems to me that, if one substitutes the word “nonbelievers” for “atheists” in the cartoon that triggered this discussion, the cartoon makes much more more sense (and that makes it funnier).

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    I’m not using two different definitions at once. I am using the single definition that seemed to be implied by your statement above

    Of course you are. Because only the second definition could make the ever so witty implication that Dawkins is crap make any sense.

    The non-equivalence is at the very heart of my disagreement with you. What I am arguing here is that the meaning of the word “atheist” as used by most English speakers carries the implication “believe not,” not the implication “not believe.”

    It also carries, to most English speakers, the meaning “wicked.” Are we atheists supposed to concede that we are either wicked, or not atheists as well?

    And as I noted, while people CLAIM that this is the implication it carries, in practice, that’s not how it’s treated. Non-believers ARE treated as an described as atheists. I’d be perfectly happy to dump the word atheist entirely and just call myself a non-believer. The problem is that all of these people who supposedly understand this so much better than myself all continue calling me an atheist as soon as I note that I do not believe in god.

    Dictionaries are guides to common usage, not bodies of law. Good ones, and most encyclopedias, will include the definition I’m talking about as a secondary definition.

    What you don’t seem to want to admit is that this meaning has been ambiguous throughout the history of the word, and the fact that its primarily been atheists who characterize themselves and atheism as being “without god belief,” while theists (who are by far in the majority) prefer to call atheism “the belief that…” should not be surprising. The reason is that it allows theists to pull the neat little trick of telling people that they must either believe in god, believe that there is no god (be an atheist), or be “an agnostic.” This rather neatly helps them conceal the most reasonable non-belief position, which is simply to not believe IN a god.

    It creates a taxonomy that confuses people, and, frankly, I think quite intentionally does so.

    It seems to me that, if one substitutes the word “nonbelievers” for “atheists” in the cartoon that triggered this discussion, the cartoon makes much more more sense (and that makes it funnier).

    Well yes. Because then you and I would finally be using the same meaning, instead of you thinking that atheist means something different from what I, and, frankly, I think the cartoonist understand it to mean (I think it’s pretty obvious that the cartoonist is using the atheist understanding of the word, because the stereotype version indeed wouldn’t make much sense in the context of babies).

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    mikespeir, you seem to be mixing up a number of different things. Lacking belief does not imply any necessary indifference towards claims that one should believe. The validity of claims and the soundness of their conclusions are two different things. Heck, theists could potentially be just as critical of some particular claims for theism as anyone: would you want to call those theists somehow irrational or conflicted just because they supposedly are arguing against an ostensibly theist argument?

    Consider babies: they cannot believe, and don’t believe, in god.
    Consider adults with brain damage: they can’t believe, and don’t believe, in god.
    Consider people who live their entire life without hearing of the concept of God: they do not believe.
    Consider a person who hears the concept of God once, but doesn’t see any merit in it, and doesn’t ever give it a second thought.
    Consider a person who hears God claims, but doesn’t believe them or care about them or arguing about them.
    Consider a person who hears God claims, finds those claims to be generally lousy and dishonest, and enjoys arguing about them.

    All of these people lack god belief, and in the same way: i.e. they don’t believe. Belief requires some impetus, some reason, some cause. That’s not a knock against belief: if the belief is correct, then this extra effort is worth it and laudable. But not believing in something doesn’t require anything.

    The reason babies are a good example here is that they illustrate that not believing in god takes no effort, and not even any capacity. This doesn’t necessarily change even after a person gains the capacity.

    For many believers, they have the idea that you must either believe what they believe, or, because it’s so gosh darned important, put lots of effort into believing the opposite. But this is neither logically warranted nor accurate. And hence the cognitive dissonance in thinking about babies not believing in god.

  • mikespeir

    Bad, I’m not even sure what you’re arguing against. I’ve made the same points myself and will again. Broadly defined, “atheism” is nothing but a lack of belief.

    My point is that in practice–among those with the capacity, I’ll add–it never takes that form. One invests oneself in the truth or falsity of a proposition, at least when that proposition affects one’s worldview, the definition of who one is. One never just sits on the fence. Even to the “agnostic” it becomes important that the evidence purporting to demonstrate the existence of God be shown invalid. Why? Because he bases his life on the irrelevance of the proposition. It’s not without justification that the Christian charges him with being a “practical atheist.” He is, in effect, saying, “God might as well not exist.” Consequently, he lives his life as though God does not exist. How believable, then, is his protest that he genuinely has not made up his mind? Furthermore, if this is all true of the agnostic, how much more so is it for the weak atheist!

  • Gary

    GARY: I am m not using two different definitions at once. I am using the single definition that seemed to be implied by your statement above

    BAD: Of course you are. Because only the second definition could make the ever so witty implication that Dawkins is crap make any sense.

    What do you mean by “second” definition here? I have stated that you have implied the following single definition of “atheist”: “any thing that lacks a belief in God. ” By that definition, both Dawkins and a piece of crap are “atheists.” By stating my reading of your position as explicitly as I know how, I have given you yet one more opportunity to deny that you think that inanimate objects (including, e.g., pieces of crap) can properly be called “atheists.” You have not taken advantage of the opportunity.

    GARY: The non-equivalence is at the very heart of my disagreement with you. What I am arguing here is that the meaning of the word “atheist” as used by most English speakers carries the implication “believe not,” not the implication “not believe.”

    BAD: It also carries, to most English speakers, the meaning “wicked.” Are we atheists supposed to concede that we are either wicked, or not atheists as well?

    I fail to understand the relevance of this point to the issue under discussion, which is whether the word “atheist,” in ordinary English usage means “disbeliever,” as i would argue, or whether it means “nonbeliever,” as you would argue.

    Dictionaries are guides to common usage, not bodies of law. Good ones, and most encyclopedias, will include the definition I’m talking about as a secondary definition.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will repeat my argument that the definition of the word “atheist” that I advocate is precisely the “common usage” one, since I see no need to employ some kind of elliptical usage. As to whether “good” dictionaries include the definition you are talking about (things lacking a belief in God?), can you cite an example?

    The Oxford English Dictionary, considered by some to be a “good” dictionary, givs two definitions of the word “atheist”:

    “1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.” It cites examples of that usage going back to 1568. A quotation from Gladstone dated 1876 is particularly interesting: “By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.”

    “2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man.” As far as I know, many atheists would willingly embrace the term “godless” as applying to them, in the sense that, denying the existence of God, they would deny that one could possibly have any moral obligation to God.

    What I don’t see there is any definition of “atheist” in terms of “lack of belief” or any suggestion that a rock could reasonably be called an “atheist.”

    And as I noted, while people CLAIM that this is the implication it carries, in practice, that’s not how it’s treated. Non-believers ARE treated as an[d] described as atheists.

    Babies are not, as far as i know, described as “atheists” by anyone other than the occasional atheist cartoonist. However, while the term “nonbeliever” in most contexts is probably intended to mean “an adult who lacks a belief in God,” clearly, if a nonbeliever is any person who lacks a belief in God, that necessarily includes babies (unless babies are not persons). That obviously poses certain problems for those Christian theologians who would insist that, order to be “saved” and in order to avoid being “damned,” one must be a believer and not a nonbeliever. The theologians have tried to deal with this problem in a variety of ways, of which the doctrine of Original Sin is one. That is a point that probably need not detain us here.

    What you don’t seem to want to admit is that this meaning has been ambiguous throughout the history of the word, and the fact that its primarily been atheists who characterize themselves and atheism as being “without god belief,” while theists (who are by far in the majority) prefer to call atheism “the belief that…” should not be surprising. The reason is that it allows theists to pull the neat little trick of telling people that they must either believe in god, believe that there is no god (be an atheist), or be “an agnostic.” This rather neatly helps them conceal the most reasonable non-belief position, which is simply to not believe IN a god.

    I not only do not understand why this is “the most reasonable non-belief position,” I simply do not understand what the position is.

    Elsewhere you asserted:

    Bingo. All those things [bateria, rocks, trees, and planets] lack belief in god in precisely the same way that I do: i.e. none of us has beliefs in god. The trees and the rocks and the babies don’t because they CAN’T, and thus don’t. Adult human atheists don’t because they just don’t.

    And although you further argued that that there was not a different “way” of lacking a belief in God because of complete incapacity to have a belief in anything, and lacking a belief in God because one is a sentient human being who “just doesn’t,” I’m baffled by what this “just doesn’t” means in actual practice. Could you clarify?

  • monkeymind

    Bad said:

    The reason babies are a good example here is that they illustrate that not believing in god takes no effort, and not even any capacity.

    Well, there’s the crux. The word “atheist” can’t usefully be applied to entities without the capacity for belief. This doesn’t have to imply that they have consciously decided against belief, just that they lack something that it is theoretically possible for them to have.
    One doesn’t have to object to calling a pwecious wittle baby a nasty atheist to think that calling my coffee cup an atheist is just plain silly.

    Your definition is counter to almost every dictionary definition, and to the way it is used by most English speakers -e.g. applied to persons with the capacity for belief.

    I can say “atonal” simply means “lacking the traditional hierarchy of chord progressions and key signatures”; therefore, this pile of dirt is atonal just like a Schoenberg symphony is atonal.

    But I wouldn’t be making much sense when I said it.

  • Awesomesauce

    I can say “atonal” simply means “lacking the traditional hierarchy of chord progressions and key signatures”; therefore, this pile of dirt is atonal just like a Schoenberg symphony is atonal.

    But I wouldn’t be making much sense when I said it.

    Hence the need for a term such as “Hemantist” as one who is aware of his/her lack of theism. Atonal is just as an appropriate description of dirt as atheist is to anything that isn’t theistic. Calling me an atheist (for lack of a better word) isn’t useful to you because all it tells you is that I don’t believe in a goddess.

    The term atheist is paradoxical because of its suffix. In essence the term is used about one who subscribes to the belief in the lack of a belief.

    It’s no wonder there is such disagreement. Perhaps we should quit using the term “atheism” as though it is a useful description or the term “atheist” as though such a concept is possible.

    In other words I second the call for us to be known as Hemantists.

  • Gary

    Hence the need for a term such as “Hemantist” as one who is aware of his/her lack of theism.

    Consider the distinction proposed by George H. Smith between “implicit atheism” and “exlicit atheism”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_and_explicit_atheism

    Babies might, perhaps, be considered “implicit atheists.” How useful the concept of “implicit atheism” actually is would be something that would be open to debate. I think it just muddies the waters.


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