Can a Dog be an Atheist?

At a book talk last night, I mentioned that my definition of an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in a god.

That prompted the following (paraphrased) question from an audience member:

Is a dog an atheist?

I think the questioner wanted to discredit my definition. But I thought it made perfect sense to say a dog was an atheist. (It’s not going to pray anytime soon, after all.)

Did I misspeak?

  • Dustin

    Human language is inadequate to describe the cognitive processes of dogs. It is likely that dogs do not think the way we do; they don’t synthesize language in a way we can understand. I’d guess they think abstractly, much like we do when we have some of our lower-thinking dreams.

    Perhaps this means that they do have theistic thoughts in some sense of the word, e.g. idol worship of their human companions.

    Still, I’m putting too much thought into this question. Applying human words to lesser-evolved animals is ultimately a waste of time until we know more about their congnitive capabilities.

  • http://AgnosticOracle.livejournal.com AgnosticOracle

    Some people believe in gods, I believe in dogs!

    Dog’s don’t believe in god, therefore they are atheist by most definitions. Though since we don’t have away to have nuanced conversation about abstract ideas with non-humans a good case can be made that the question is silly though the answer may be literally correct.

  • http://www.travisjmorgan.com Travis Morgan

    While many atheist would disagree with me, I think a dog would not be an atheist. I do not think we are born atheist, I think we are born ignorant. I do not think one can be an atheist until presented with the idea of a god. I think the dog is just ignorant of a god. The dog doesn’t even know of the concept of a god to be without it, to believe in it, or disbelieve in it. Totally ignorant.

  • http://www.travisjmorgan.com Travis Morgan

    To reach atheism, I think it must go in this order: Ignorant – agnostic – atheist.

    By default we are all ignorant.

    A baby for example has no idea of god, and therefore can not even disbelieve in god. A baby by default is ignorant. Once ideas are introduced, such as the idea of a god, then one immediately becomes agnostic until they decide to believe in the idea or not. If they decide to not believe in god then they are labelled as an atheist.

    An atheist holds a disbelief based on being exposed to the idea of god and having rejected it. A baby for example does not hold a belief or even a disbelief. They are totally “ignorant”, they are not atheists. You must be exposed to the idea to reject it. Babies do not not believe in god. They haven’t been exposed to god to even not believe in god. I do not think that atheism is just lacking a belief, I think it is also holding a disbelief. To disbelieve, you must be exposed to the idea.

  • JT

    Maybe it depends on the dog. If I rescue a dog from the pound – he may consider me a god for getting him out of that hell-hole.

    Their survival was dependent on the pack, much in the same way man survived by forming communities. However, I doubt they cared much as to the workings of the world and more to where they were getting their next meal so I doubt they have a need for such silliness.

    But if Fluffy thinks I’m a god – there’s an extra biscuit for her after dinner.

  • http://notreallyalice.wordpress.com Alice

    Believing in a god or not is a personal decision :P You could have advised the question-asker to ask whever dog he was concerned about. St Francis did preach the gospel to animals, so I suppose if a person wanted to advise his dog to accept Jesus into its heart, he could go ahead and do so. Then you can have it confirmed and baptised and share its testimony in front of church. “I once was lost but now am found.”

    This is getting wierd so I better stop.

  • http://leavingeden.wordpress.com Lily

    Travis, I totally agree with you. I think that informed, intelligent atheism necessitates the active rejection of gods. I don’t just lack belief in gods, I believe that there are no gods. However, I think most people would call that ‘strong’ atheism and say that basic ‘weak’ atheism is the lack of belief in gods. Therefore, babies and dogs and inanimate objects could all be atheist.

  • Russ

    Doesn’t the pronoun “someone” suggest that you were speaking of a human being? I’ve never experienced or heard of anyone referring to a non-human organism as “someone.”

    That said, however, I think that, at our births, the dog and I shared about the same understanding of whatever gods have ever been worshiped.

    If we grant dogs personhood and, thus, place them under the umbrella of “someone,” then, since an atheist is someone who does not assert a belief in a deity, the dog is, due to its lacking the ability to assert such a belief, an atheist. Is that why dog is man’s best friend?

  • http://thehappyhuman.wordpress.com John

    I think I agree with Travis. I think it’s far more useful to define atheism as “the consideration and rejection of theism”. If all you define it as is “a lack of belief in theism”, then rocks and trees and sailboats and dogs are all atheists, and the word has much less explanatory power.

    If I call myself an atheist, I want people to get the idea that I’ve considered and subsequently rejected the idea of gods, not that I am unaware of the idea.

  • http://noodleguy.wordpress.com noodleguy

    Absolutely the dog is an atheist. Your definition is correct, and it completely applies. It just means the absence of God(s)

    Whether or not it is a conscious decision, dogs still have no God. Therefore, they are atheists. It seems pretty simple to me. Any other definition of Atheist just seems overly complex.

    Now, of course another response would be “Is the dog a Christian?” In the Salem Witch Trials dog’s were thought to be controlled by the Devil, and therefore several were hanged. Doesn’t that imply that dogs can have the opposite of religion, therefore they can have no religion? Actually, I think probably they were just saying the dogs were possessed by demons or something, so I suppose that doesn’t count.

    In any case, why over complicate atheism? It’s anyone who doesn’t believe in a God.

  • http://josephbales.com Joey

    Yes you misspoke. This is the same argument opponents of gay marriage use when they say that the next thing will be the marrying of people to animals. Argument from bestiality?

  • Larry Huffman

    First of all…there is no set of steps or pattern to becoming an atheist. That is ridiculous. An atheist is not always someone who has come from religion to a realization about god or the lack thereof. An atheist is simply one who lacks the belief. That can be a very ignorant or very intelligent person who simply has not been exposed to a god belief. It can be any number of things. Many buddhists are technically atheist. So many ways people come about it.

    And agnostic is about how you come by the knowledge, not a belief. It is not a third choice in the “Do you have a belief in a god or gods?” question, so it is not even in that chain of events. If you are agnostic and you claim that you cannot have knowledge of a god or gods…and then you believe in one, I would then ask you to tell me what you are believing in if you cannot possibly know…by your own admission. No…logically speaking you would not assign belief if you say you cannot know anything about the deity. To say you do believe in something you can know nothing about is, by definition, believing in nothing. Therefore…any agnsotic who is remotely intelligent will also be an atheist.

    (Not to mention…knowing that you cannot have knowledge about a god or gods…is in fact knowledge about that god or gods. So, how do you know you cannot have knowledge of a god or gods? If you cannot have knowledge, how do you come by the knowledge that you cannot have knowledge? Totally ignorant…the term was coined in the first place by a guy who was atheist who did not want the bad rep that came with it. That is all.)

    A baby is both ignorant and atheist. Blows the ‘pattern’. Atheists happen so many ways and for so many reasons, there is no way to say atehists go from this to this to this. Silly to try. Just shows a lack of understanding of what atheism (and agnostisism) is.

    With respect to the original question:

    I am not wild about trying to discuss things that are quite obviously specific to humans. I think I could say “Neither” since we do not even know if dogs are able to ‘believe’ in something in the first place.

    But I have never found a theistic dog…and neither has anyone else.

  • http://notapottedplant.blogspot.com/ Transplanted Lawyer

    Dustin, I think it’s a misnomer to say a dog is a “lesser-evolved” form of life than a human being. Dogs have gone through the same evolutionary process we have and for as long as we have, ever since the common ancestor of dogs and humans roamed the ancient earth.

    With that said, the concept of a “god” is, in my mind, quite obviously alien to a dog. My dogs can’t understand the concept of a doorknob, much less that of a deity.

  • Beowulff

    I’d answer with another question: can a dog be (Christian/Muslim/Jewish)?

  • Larry Huffman

    Travis said:

    An atheist holds a disbelief based on being exposed to the idea of god and having rejected it.

    Umm…wrong. Not all atheists have rejected something. Atheists simply lack a belief in god or gods. That can mean they have never even heard of a god. You are taking a small segment of atheists and assigning a pattern and making statements that are patently and linguistically wrong.

    You cannot even intelligently speak about athiesm if you do not understand who makes up the set of people who are atheists. It is really really simple. Too simple maybe.

    Forget god…this is not about god. It is about the individual…and their personal belief.

    Do you believe in a god or gods?

    If you answer yes you are a theist…if you answer no you are an atheist.

    It does not involve how you got there…what you rejected…or even if there is a god or not. It is merely about personal belief. There are other terms and discussions for those other things…atheism is not concerned with those things. Only if you have the belief or not.

    Understanding who makes up the group we call atheists is pretty important, since everyone wants to organize them and speak for them. And then gets confused why all atheists cannot just get together. hehe…All we all have in common is a lack of belief…and we all did not reject religon. Some have. Others have not even given it a thought.

  • http://noodleguy.wordpress.com noodleguy

    It does not involve how you got there…what you rejected…or even if there is a god or not.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think the question becomes: “If you don’t allow people who have never heard of a God to be called atheists…what do you call them?

    his is the same argument opponents of gay marriage use when they say that the next thing will be the marrying of people to animals.

    How so? It doesn’t seem to be correlated in the slightest :?

  • Larry Huffman

    Noodle…atheism is not the ‘lack of god’ it is the ‘lack of belief in god’.

    In that respect, I would say there is no way to know if a dog is a theist or atheist, since a dog would have to be proven to be able to have belief in the first place.

  • http://www.travisjmorgan.com Travis Morgan

    If gods do not exist, then we cannot be absent of gods. There is nothing there to begin with for us to be absent from or lack belief in. That is what I mean.

    Atheists just don’t lack belief in general, they claim to lack belief in “something” specific. They claim this something they lack belief in doesn’t actually exist and is there for nothing. So if it is nothing. Then there is nothing to lack belief in. I think that is a problem with the definition, and that is why I prefer to simply state, “I don’t believe there is a god or gods to believe in or lack belief in.”

  • http://noodleguy.wordpress.com noodleguy

    Well, I’d say there’s no way of knowing if a dog is an atheist since he can’t talk. Maybe there are doggie gods, great silver wolves in the sky? Who knows. :P

    atheism is not the ‘lack of god’ it is the ‘lack of belief in god’.

    The difference being? If I don’t believe in a god, there is no god. If I never heard of a god, there is a lack of god.

    atheism
    (n) : absence of belief in the existence of God or gods

    There you go. If you never heard of a god I can’t say there could possibly be a greater absence of belief in the existence of gods…

  • http://noodleguy.wordpress.com noodleguy

    If gods do not exist, then we cannot be absent of gods. There is nothing there to begin with for us to be absent from or lack belief in. That is what I mean.

    That doesn’t make any sense, dude. If you don’t think that something exists that is the definition of disbelief. Is someone confused as to what belief and disbelief are?

    disbelief
    (n) : Unpreparedness, unwillingness, or inability to believe that something is the case

    Yah…then atheism is the disbelief in a god. It doesn’t matter if the thing actually exists or not. It defies logic, and moreover the rules of the English language to believe otherwise

  • Adrian

    Many people like Travis and Bill Maher and others seem to want ‘atheist’ to have a much more narrow meaning than what it has. Travis says that it requires a rejection of God, Maher says its a dogmatic insistence that God definitely does not exist.

    It’s neither. An atheist is anyone that does not believe in a God. If you don’t actively believe that God exists, you are an atheist. You could argue that “anyone” only encompasses people but I think this is a dull, semantic argument. It’s much better to make the broader point that atheists aren’t evil, they aren’t insisting God doesn’t exist and many atheists (especially those outside of the US) may never have thought seriously about the question of religion.

    I think that dogs are atheists in the same way that babies, celery and small rocks are atheists. Atheism is the default position, one must actively form and hold a belief in a God to become a theist and dogs, babies, celery and small rocks can’t do this. Hence that cute little baby is really a nasty horrible atheist!

  • Brooks

    “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think the question becomes: “If you don’t allow people who have never heard of a God to be called atheists…what do you call them?”

    Wouldn’t irreligious be more accurate than atheist in this case? Quoted from dictionary.com, irreligious means “not religious; not practicing a religion and feeling no religious impulses or emotions.”

    Speaking as an atheist, I think this would more accurately describe the position of a baby or a dog. It’s not that the baby or dog either believes or disbelieves in God. It’s that they don’t even have any impulse or emotion towards the subject since they didn’t even know the subject existed in the question. Another way of looking at this question is this, can a person disbelieve in Santa Claus if they never heard of Santa Claus before or are they simply ignorant of Santa Claus concepts? I guess another way of looking at it would be to ask “are ignorance and disbelief the same thing?”

  • Dustin

    I think it’s a misnomer to say a dog is a “lesser-evolved” form of life than a human being. Dogs have gone through the same evolutionary process we have and for as long as we have, ever since the common ancestor of dogs and humans roamed the ancient earth.

    I agree this could be construed as a misnomer in many contexts, and dogs posess many traits that are more “advanced” than humans. I meant “lesser evolved” mostly in the cognitive, forward-looking humanitarian sense along with whatever other positive traits we claim humans have and dogs don’t.

  • Tim N

    I take it then that Hemant accepts something like (1) ‘atheism means not believing that god exists’ and the questioner accepts something like (2) ‘atheism means believing that god does not exist’. So babies and dogs, being ignorant of god, necessarily lack the belief that god exists and are atheists under (1). I get the appeal of (1). It basically means being able to say that ‘we’re all born atheists’, but the problem, as I see it, is that it’s not just applicable to ‘type (2) atheists’, babies and dogs, but also to objects that lack beliefs altogether. According to (1), a toaster is an atheist. Maybe you’re okay with that – after all, your toaster isn’t going to pray anytime soon either – but since the word ‘atheist’ is never really used to describe incognisant objects, you’d have to either reject (1) or the intuition that atheism only really applies to individuals with beliefs (again, maybe you don’t have this intuition). That doesn’t necessarily mean accepting (2) though.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    No, you didn’t misspeak when you gave your definition but you did make the common (and reasonable) assumption that “someone who doesn’t believe in God” is capable of having a belief.

    For example, to carry something to its extreme, someone with severe Down’s syndrome doesn’t believe in God and could be thought of as “an atheist” by an over literal definition.

  • http://humanistmama.blogspot.com Humanist Mama

    That’s funny…my kids asked me the same question a couple of weeks ago. They didn’t use the word atheist, they just asked if our dogs have a god.

    My answer to them was that I don’t know what goes on in their brains, but I don’t think they do. It’s a tough question to answer when you believe that gods are a creation of man….are dogs that creative? If they worship anyone, it’s probably their owners :) They seemed OK with my answer and we went on to imagine walking in on our dogs praying or reading the dog bible :) It turned into a very silly conversation.

  • Herb

    I think that if dogs are atheists than so are trees and rocks. These things don’t believe in gods because they simply don’t have the ability to. This is very different from why atheist humans don’t believe in gods.

    Dogs also can’t vote, but I wouldn’t call them “non-voters”. The term is reserved for people who at least have the ability to vote.

  • Santiago

    My definition of Atheism would be tilted more towards the “knows that there is no God”, so I’d say that a dog is more of an Agnostic.

  • http://www.baconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com/ The Atheist Jew

    An atheist is someone who answers the question “do you believe in God” with a NO.
    But I think you have to have a concept of what God is supposed to be in order to be classified an atheist.
    Now I’m pretty sure that a dog would never consider a cat to be God.
    Anyway, I have falsely called my dog an atheist on Youtube

  • llewelly

    Hemant, you must have never lived with a dog. Dogs believe humans are gods, and pray to them all the time.

  • http://www.travisjmorgan.com/blog Travis Morgan

    Umm…wrong. Not all atheists have rejected something. Atheists simply lack a belief in god or gods. That can mean they have never even heard of a god.

    If one has never heard of god, then how one they lack a belief in “it?” To them, there isn’t an “it” yet to lack belief in.

    As for your definition of “atheist:” “Atheists simply lack a belief in god or gods.”

    I must agree to disagree. God? What’s that? There is nothing there to even lack belief in.

  • chris

    small thought, despite what llewelly wrote about dog’s thinking we human are gods and praying (I am certain he meant begging, etc.), I would comment that since dogs (and all other animals for that matter) are not required to worship gods why should humans?
    But my question would be, was there ever a society of humans who did not believe in a deity? Maybe that should be the definition of privative society, one that believes in god(s). Additionally, why would a god want/need to be worship/sacrificed to? ick!

  • http://www.travisjmorgan.com/blog Travis Morgan

    That doesn’t make any sense, dude. If you don’t think that something exists that is the definition of disbelief. Is someone confused as to what belief and disbelief are?

    How can you believe or disbelieve in “something” that doesn’t exist? There is no “something.” There is nothing there to begin with to believe in or disbelieve in.

  • http://whitehorsemen.blogspot.com/ Autonomous Intellection

    If the question is do they believe in a god similar to what humans do, I don’t think so. But to them, we might be considered gods.

    Also, while they may not believe in the same god we do, they still suffer from hyperactive pattern recognition i.e. superstition:
    B.F. Skinner Experiment on superstitious pigeons
    Enemies of Reason clip on the B.F. Skinner experiments

  • Tom

    I think this question might a bit like the Zen Koan

    Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?

  • Jonathan

    The question assumes that you know what dogs believe. Do you know what dogs believe? And, do all dogs believe the same thing? I can’t see how you could answer the question without making some unsupportable assumptions.

  • Pseudonym

    I agree with Tom on this one, actually. But here’s a more interesting question: Can a dog be moral?

  • Eliza

    Nice discussion of this Sirius issue :)

  • Adrian

    Travis,

    If one has never heard of god, then how one they lack a belief in “it?” To them, there isn’t an “it” yet to lack belief in.

    Iif one hasn’t heard of a thing then of course one lack’s a belief in it. What the heck are you thinking of?

    I must agree to disagree. God? What’s that? There is nothing there to even lack belief in.

    If you don’t think the term is well defined enough to make an empirical case for existence, then you don’t believe it exists. Again, this point seems blindingly obvious. You can argue about non-coherence all you like, “atheist” and “theist” are still meaningful terms. Sheesh.

    How can you believe or disbelieve in “something” that doesn’t exist? There is no “something.” There is nothing there to begin with to believe in or disbelieve in.

    By your loopy reasoning, we would have to prove something exists before we can either believe or disbelieve which has to be one of the stupidest things I’ve heard.

    You’re like an atheist troll who just read the Coles Notes version of first-year philosophy.

  • Jason

    I’m pretty sure that dog is without a belief in any gods so it is an atheist.

  • http://www.travisjmorgan.com/blog Travis Morgan

    If one hasn’t heard of a thing then of course one lack’s a belief in it. What the heck are you thinking of?

    Again, there is no “it” to lack belief in. What the heck are you thinking?

    If you don’t think the term is well defined enough to make an empirical case for existence, then you don’t believe it exists. Again, this point seems blindingly obvious. You can argue about non-coherence all you like, “atheist” and “theist” are still meaningful terms. Sheesh.

    If you call two terms that postulate over nothingness and call this nothingness God, “meaningful” than yea, Sheesh.

    You’re like an atheist troll who just read the Coles Notes version of first-year philosophy.

    I wouldn’t doubt you would know about first-year philosophy given that you have now rendered misdirection by presenting a classic argumentum ad hominem. I’m sorry, but I shall not return the favor. While the simile does reflect a hint of poetic justice, it does not serve you much justice as a credible debater.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I don’t think anyone really has a concept of god. People use the word, but I have no idea what they mean, and I would net most people who use it don’t either. There may be a list of characteristics and feelings attached to the word god, but I don’t think it denotes a robust concept.in other words, babies are atheists. They lack belief in a god or gods. No heed to have the “concept” first because it is vacuous. The word god is sound and fury signifying nothing.

  • Richard Wade

    Can a dog be an atheist?

    MU!

  • Tao Jones

    Well Hemant, your definition of atheism is certainly correct.

    However, you do not have the knowledge of whether or not a dog believes in a god or divinity.

    I’d have said something like, “Well, I’ve never met a dog who has claimed to be Christian.” Surely dogs do not believe in our gods.

  • stephanie

    Given what I’ve seen of dog behavior and what I’ve seen of human behavior in terms of religion, I’d say most dogs are probably fundies.
    Except maybe shepherds, they’re pretty wily. I’m pretty sure there’s probably an atheist or two running around in those breeds.

  • http://wintercityromance.blogspot.com Danae

    How can we know dogs don’t pray. what if they pray in their heads?

  • http://wintercityromance.blogspot.com Danae

    and….

    “Pseudonym Says:
    November 19th, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    I agree with Tom on this one, actually. But here’s a more interesting question: Can a dog be moral?”

    Yes, can a dog be moral? Dog’s do good deeds, right?

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    If you define “atheist” (as many of us tend to) as absence of god-belief, then a dog is probably an atheist, and a rock, definitely so.

    This is not problematic, to my mind. I believe in god very much the way a rock believes in god.

    I’m not atheist in in the way a puddle is, though, because they puddlomorphize everything, thinking their own little world is perfectly suited to their shape, thus implying design.

    Damn muddle-brained, addle-pated, puddle-theists.

  • http://auryn29a.livejournal.com Auryn

    Can an atheist dog look in the mirror?

  • Lexi

    Maybe the dog is ignostic. with an i.

  • http://cephalogenic.blogspot.com pyramus

    If you give a dog food and shelter and love, it will come to believe that you are god. If you give a cat food and shelter and love, it will come to believe that it is god.

    You can’t really say whether a dog is an atheist until you define “god”, which is a tricky thing: but anyone who’s ever owned a particularly adoring dog knows very well that that dog exhibits the same slavish devotion to its master that the religious offer to their deity. Other dogs are considerably more independent-minded. I’d have to say that, for some definitions of “god”, there are theist-dogs and atheist-dogs.

  • stogoe

    I don’t think dogs have the capacity to think about gods in the way we do, but I’m sure that they share our capacity to assign agency to random events. A dog barks at the wind for blowing; we burn offerings to the sky god to bring the rains/quell the storms.

  • Brooks

    “If you give a cat food and shelter and love, it will come to believe that it is god.”

    The cats are gods and we have evidence cats exists! We must worship the cats and start a church of Cat!

  • Mark C.

    The Church of Cat is icanhascheezburger.com. :)

  • http://diaphanus.livejournal.com/ Ian Andreas Miller

    Is a dog an atheist?

    I have heard variants of that before: “So, is a tree or a rock an atheist?”

    Well, I think that if we could cite instances in which dogs, trees, and rocks have shown to have the capacity to become theists, and also cite instances in which individuals of the aforementioned groups became theists, I suppose that the ones that are not theists could be atheists.

    Argument from bestiality?

    Argumentum ad Bestialitatem!

  • Tao Jones

    If you give a dog food and shelter and love, it will come to believe that you are god. If you give a cat food and shelter and love, it will come to believe that it is god.

    Evidence please?

    Devotion and love are not the same as worshipping or believing in something supernatural.

    Until we have evidence that non-human animals have a god-concept, it is safe to assume that the idea of god is something our human minds came up with.

  • http://cephalogenic.blogspot.com pyramus

    That line about food and shelter and godhood and whatnot is something that we like to call a “joke”. You might want to look into it sometime. It doesn’t require evidence, because it’s a joke.


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