I Don’t Think They Understand the Meaning of ‘Atheist’

Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported (as did other news outlets) that Richard Dawkinsancestors owned slaves. As if that somehow discredited him or his beliefs.

Now, the same paper as well as other news outlets are continuing the campaign to discredit Dawkins by trying to make a big deal out of something Dawkins readily admits:

This is not news. And it’s not even accurate.

Dawkins said back when The God Delusion was published in 2006 that he wasn’t absolutely certain that god didn’t exist. On a scale of 1 (“I know God exists”) to 7 (“I know god doesn’t exist”), he put himself at a “6, but leaning towards 7.” He then added in the very next sentence:

I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.

He’s still an atheist. He doesn’t believe in the existence of any god.

Dawkins also pointed out that he didn’t think there were many people in category 7, but he put it in his book to simply balance out category 1 (and we *know* plenty of religious people fall into that one).

But in the tabloid-y British press, they’re acting like this is brand new information:

Professor Richard Dawkins today dismissed his hard-earned reputation as a militant atheist — admitting that he is actually agnostic as he can’t prove God doesn’t exist.

The country’s foremost champion of the Darwinist evolution, who wrote The God Delusion, stunned audience members when he made the confession during a lively debate on the origins of the universe with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It’s not a confession; it’s something he’s been very open about for decades. If it stunned the audience, it’s only because they are so gullible as to believe every word other people say about Dawkins instead of listening to Dawkins speak for himself.

The article says far more about the ignorance of the audience and the reporters than it reveals anything special about Dawkins.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • M J Shepherd

    I’m more stunned by how disingenuous they’re acting.

    • BigTrevor

       Don’t be stunned. The Daily Mail is a horrid paper full of lies and conservative talking points.

      • M J Shepherd

         Oh yeah, I’m fully aware of how full of shit the Daily Mail is; I was just twisting their wording against them, re: “stunned audience members when he made the confession”.

  • Anonymous

    They’re either stupid or dishonest. Or both.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthonyjwmoss Tony Moss

    The originator of both absurd pieces is the once proud broadsheet, now snotrag, the Telegraph.

  • Mike Kruft

    Bald is not a hair color.  Off is not a TV channel.  Atheism is not a belief.

    • Michael Appleman

      Atheism is a belief, but it is not a faith.

      • TiltedHorizon

         I consider Atheism to be a conclusion, not a belief. It is simply a result of considering faith and finding all contenders equally wanting. The sum remainder is Atheism. 

      • Anonymous

        A non-belief is not a belief. That is probably why Dawkins is careful to say that he doesn’t know if god exists. To say that it definitely doesn’t exist without a proof would be a belief.

        • Michael Appleman

          Faith is belief without evidence or in the face of contrary evidence. 

          If I say “85% of statistics are made up on the spot”. You can choose to believe me, or not. Either way it has nothing to do with anything supernatural.

          • Anonymous

            But if I accept what you say with no further evidence isn’t belief and faith equivalent? Perhaps it would be best to avoid the use of belief and talk about accepting the evidence.

            • Michael Appleman

              Faith is a kind of belief, yes. Kind of like a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square.

              You are just trying to avoid a word for stupid reasons. It has a meaning that doesn’t have anything to do with faith.

              • Anonymous

                And geometric analogies which are non-equivalent to meanings aren’t useful either.

                Unfortunately while you can distinguish the meanings of belief and faith, others confuse them to the extent that theists can say atheists believe and therefore atheism is some form of religion. How do you suggest that is avoided?

                • Michael Appleman

                  It is actually a perfect analogy. A square is a type of rectangle. If you refer to something as a rectangle, then it isn’t a square because you would have called it a square.

                  Faith is a type of belief. If you say you believe something, it doesn’t mean you have faith because if you did, you would call it faith.

                  The way to avoid people confusing them is to educate them. “Faith is belief without evidence or in the face of contrary evidence” That makes it pretty clear to me, and that isn’t just some definition I made up.

              • Anonymous

                Atheism can be a belief, but to state it outright like “atheism is belief” just seems ridiculous to me.

                If I grab a friend from the countryside in Japan, who has no religion and doesn’t know of any… how is it that he, according to you, actually does have a belief – that is atheism.

                You must be then saying, that his very lack of belief is belief itself. How can that be if he doesn’t know it? This just gets ridiculous. OK I “am” the messiah.

                • Ken Holt

                  You’re the messiah?  I knew you existed, I just knew it by the way I “feel”.  :)

          • Fentwin

            From my studies I can only conclude that 85% of statistics are made up on the spot, but only 43% of the time.

        • Anonymous

           The point where they go wrong about Dawkins is that (a)theism is about belief, while (a)gnosticism is about knowledge. Two different things that complement each other. You can be both at the same time

      • Anonymous

        What is it that I believe in as an atheist then?

        • Rich Lane

          That’s for you to determine. All your status as an atheist proclaims is what you don’t believe in.

          • Anonymous

            Exactly.  That’s why it isn’t a belief.

        • Fentwin

          Waffles! Tasty sweet waffles.

      • Anonymous

        What is it a belief in?

        • Michael Appleman

          Do you really need me to answer that question?

          • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

            Yes, I think you should answer it. You made the statement, “Atheism is a belief, but it is not a faith.” I won’t pretend to know what you mean, and I don’t think you should strike a pose that what you mean is so obvious that everyone should know, and that you should not have to explain when someone asks.

            Responding to other questions, you have made comments about the difference between a belief and faith, and that is an interesting distinction, but that is not the question that has now been asked three times for clarification. brianmacker above, hoverFrog below, and I would sincerely like to understand the first part of your statement. Please, atheism is a belief in or of what?

            • Michael Appleman

              It is a belief that there is no god(s).

              • Anonymous

                No, it isn’t.  It is a lack of belief in gods.  Please don’t say that this is agnosticism because agnosticism refers to the question of knowledge of gods to which I claim none. A different question to that of belief in gods.

                • Michael Appleman

                  A lack of belief is the same as believing the lack of. Sure maybe not if you get grammatically pedantic a bout it. But the reality is if you specifically say that you lack a belief in god, you are implicitly saying that you also believe in the lack of god.  You can do all sorts of apologetic style gymnastics to dissociate yourself with a word that is tangentially relevant to religion but the truth is you do believe that there is no god. That IS possible without having faith that there is no god. Faith is bad, belief based on reality is good.

                  If, for example, the concept of god, and the belief and lack of belief of god never arose, then I would agree that the lack of belief in god among those alternate reality humans would not constitute a belief in the lack of god.

                • Anonymous

                  They really aren’t the same.  It isn’t a matter of being pedantic either.  It is a matter of making claims and supporting them.  The theist makes the positive claim that god(s) exist.  The atheist does not counter with the positive claim that gods do not exist but counters sceptically by asking for the positive claim to be supported.

                • Michael Appleman

                  Its not about making claims or countering them. Its about what you believe. What does the sum of your experiences tell you about this subject? You can lack a religious belief, and also have a practical belief in the lack of the religious. A belief isn’t a set in stone position, or a claim of perfect knowledge. Its shorthand for ‘as far as I know’.

                  My whole beef is with people acting like the word belief will give them cooties or something.

                • Anonymous

                  I believe in lots of things and I also lack belief in lots of things.  In addition I also believe that lots of things don’t exist.  For example I do not believe in the luminescent ether.  It has been demonstrated through experimentation that this does not exist so I believe that it does not exist.  If I doubt it I can repeat the experiment to show myself that it isn’t real.

                  No effort to define gods or demonstrate their existence has ever been made, so I lack belief in them.  Personally I think that the question of gods is nonsensical and should be ignored by intelligent people.  I’d ignore it myself if other people didn’t keep trying to use their beliefs to force other to do what they want or to belittle others.

                • Anonymous

                  Theists use their beliefs to make claims of authority over others, and this is why they have the burden to back up the claims. They also don’t just claim it is a personal belief. They claim their religion is true.

                  When you assert false beliefs to others then of course they are going to act like you gave them cooties. They will say, no I don’t believe that. The opposite of believing a statement is not believing the statement false. There are other options as I pointed out (such as not understanding the statement) and all thes other options are collectively known as “not believing the statement.”

                  My beef is with people who confuse being accurate with being pedantic.

                • Anonymous

                  What you say is true only if there is one and only one concept of god, that concept is understood, that concept is not ill defined, and if suspension of a decision is impossible.

                  Consider the sentence: “This sentence is false”. Would it be accurate to say that if someone does not believe the sentence to be true that they must believe it to be false? Maybe they believe one of the many other possibilities about a statement, such as it is a nonsense statement. maybe they don’t know what to believe about it. You are pushing people into only two options with your misuse of grammar and logic.

                  All you can say about those who do not believe something is that they lack belief. You do not know that they believe it false.

                  Many religious claims are complete nonsense statements as far as I can tell. How can I claim something is false when it doesn’t have any discernible meaning in the first place? I just say it is gibberish to me, or I don’t understand.

              • Anonymous

                 Some people describe those different definitions as weak/negative atheism (I don’t believe in gods) and strong/positive atheism (I believe there are no goods

                • Michael Appleman

                  I guess thats a good way to leave it. It just seems silly to me that someone can say “I do not believe  X exists” but refuse to say “I believe X does not exist”.

                • Anonymous

                  Many theists lack the subtlety to see the difference between scepticism and positive claims.

                • Anonymous

                  Do you believe aliens exist? Not “visiting” aliens but “somewhere in the universe” aliens. If you say no, or someone else says no, because they have no evidence they exist, then do you think it reasonable to assume you are they are claiming aliens don’t exist somewhere out there?

                  They are not the same claims. I don’t believe in aliens is not the same as I believe no aliens exist anywhere in the universe. They can both be true and someone might want to communicate that by saying the former, but they are not necessarily asserting both claims by the former claim.

                  There is also all sorts of sloppiness in language where people use brevity. If someone tells you they don’t believe something you told them it is often an invitation for you to provide more evidence to get them to believe. It is not automatically a know-it-all claim that it is not possible that they have not heard of something before. Very often the religious take the claim of disbelief as the claim of omniscience on the part of the disbeliever and say, “How can you possibly know God doesn’t exist? Have you been everywhere, and besides God is invisible.”.

          • Anonymous

            This was my question.
            I can’t imagine why you think it doesn’t need an answer.

            It’s the question that debunks your idea that “atheism is a belief” to my mind.
            If atheism is a belief – then you must be able to identify what that belief is.
            If you can’t, then your statement is non sensicle.
            We need to know your answer, to know why you think this.

          • Brian Macker

            Yes I did need it spelled out so I don’t have to respond to every possible intepretation of your ambiguous statement.    You have now stated that “It is a belief that there is no god(s).”

            Your use of the word “a” implied my atheism consisted of some single belief.   I’m afraid I don’t fit your definition of the word atheist for several reasons.

            I say that I believe some statement when a statement is not ill defined, I understand the statement, and I believe it to be true.    I can’t say that about your statement.   It fails one or both of two requirements for me to say I believe something.     So no I don’t believe it to be true.

            I’m about as hard an atheist as you will find.    That isn’t defined by a single belief or disbelief as you sentence implied by use “a belief”.   I actually claim to know that there is no Christian god.   Yet your definition of atheist would exclude me from being called an atheist.

            I know there is no Christian god because as it is defined in the founding texts of the religion and has been explained to me it is a self contradictory definition.    This either excludes its existence, or means that the entity does not exist as defined.  In either case the definition doesn’t refer to anything real so I am as confident as I can be asserting any other knowledge of the fact the Christian god does not exist.

            I have no idea what the nebulous term “god” or “gods’ is supposed to mean outside of specific contexts.  I do know that every god I’ve had explained to me has been either disprovable, ill defined, or self contradictory.

            So the true statement about me is that I do not believe in the existence of any god or gods.    That does not entail belief in the non-existence of things I’ve never heard the definition of.

            There are plenty of other atheists who do not share my beliefs, and yet are still atheists.   They may actually believe that god is well defined, possible, and yet still fail to believe he exist.  They may lack belief because they think it is too fabulous to believe, or that there is not enough evidence, or whatever.   

            Did you know there is a teapot orbiting earth at this very moment?   Do you believe me without further evidence?   Do you know whether I mean a teapot orbiting earth by itself, or as part of some other vehicle?  Is your lack of belief the same as believing that “No teapot orbits earth”?    What if when queried I was abmigous about my claim?  What if I started screwing around with the definition of “teapot” like well claiming the space shuttle might just count as a teapot?  Did you have a belief about this before I brought it up or had you just not considered it?   Is what you are thinking in response to these claims belief or disbelief, are they singular or a combination?  Think about it.

            • Michael Appleman

              If you categorize an atheist as anyone who does not believe in at least one god, then everyone is an atheist and the word is completely meaningless.

              • Anonymous

                No it isn’t meaningless. They are atheist with regard to the god(s) of others. In fact early Christians used to be refereed to as atheists by polytheists and vice-versa. Monotheists are in fact atheists with regards to all gods but their own. In fact a central tenant of Islam is strong atheism with regards to polytheistic gods with “There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.”

                I just happen to believe in one less god than the monotheist.

      • Ann Onymous

        It’s a lack of a certain belief.

  • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

    Following their logic, the millions of self-proclaimed theists in the world are actually agnostics, as they cannot prove god actually exists. 

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Of course they can prove it. The bible says it is true so therefore it is.

      Shame on you Buffy for missing the obvious /s

      :-p

      • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

        Yeah, silly me.  ;-)

    • Anonymous

       Technically, they are. And you can be both at the same time.

  • Anonymous

    The phrase “grasping at straws” comes to mind…

  • Johnashenden

    He can’t prove god doesn’t exist, therefore god exists. Simple as winking. What’s your fucking problem, pinko types? The last time I was anal-probed by aliens, I asked them about this. “Yep,” they said, “God’s real.” Then they gave me a butt-banging that had me gasping for breath and creaming on the table. And I’m NOT gay! The lord works in mysterious ways!

  • Cutencrunchy

    It’s hard to imagine such devout religious people misinterpreting things someone said.

  • Darryl Wright

    This is stupid “un-news” and yet a little bit irritating in that I know that down the road I can expect some Christian dim-wit to say to me “EVEN Dawkins publically renounced his atheism!!!” And then I’ll be obligated to explain the context of the comments and the idea that you can’t prove a negative… (sigh)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Rilriia Rilriia Kilurden

    Who cares one way or another what someone believes? Suppose someone shifts their thinking and ideologies? So what? So what if people change their mind on a subject completely? And so what if some douchebag reporter decided to take snippets of former statements and put them together to be something they’re not intended to be?

    Who cares? I have better things to do with my time than to monitor who believes what and who’s doing what, and as  Johnashenden so eloquently stated, who does what in the butt… What I have is called a life. I suggest other people follow suit and get one.And fyi, I believe in God. I think God is an incredible asshole. I read this blog. I read Christian blogs too. And Jewish, and a couple of Buddhist and even one Hindu. Why? Because they all have interesting things to say–even if I disagree with them.I don’t need to micromanage other human beings to the point where I bash them and try to convert them to one way of thinking or another. (I don’t have to agree with them either to see their point–it’s a unique perspective on the multiverse.)

    • Andrew B.

      “Who cares one way or another what someone believes?”

      I do, because other peoples’ beliefs affect me in ways I find very objectionable.  Duh.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sdorst Stan Dorst

      If you really don’t care what other people believe, then why are you bothering to post something about what you believe, and suggesting that we behave like you do?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported (as did other news outlets) that Richard Dawkins’ ancestors owned slaves. As if that somehow discredited him or his beliefs.

    My ancestors come from East Anglia,  whence comes the name “England” and is named after a people called the Angles. Originally invaders from Germany, they soon developed into a ferocious, terrifying tribe of fishermen and farmers, who were known for piercing the cheeks of fish with sharp, barbed hooks, and for, even more horrifyingly, piercing the very Earth itself with bronze- or iron-tipped weapons, and then forcibly inserting their seeds into the wounded virgin soil. To this day, fish and dirt tremble at our approach.

    I have to admit that the dark and violent background of my bloodline completely invalidates my inability to accept the existence of The Great Absent One.

    Oh well, no matter how hard I try, I still can’t believe a Big Claim on zero evidence.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to do some gardening.

    • Michael

      Bah, coming from East Anglia myself I assure you we would stop stabbing the Earth to grow our crops if the Earth would only apologise for all those volcanos and other natural disasters it keeps hitting humanity with. It needs to apologise first.

      • Ken Holt

        Sorry, the earth will apologize about as much as a god will visually reveal it’s self to all mankind at the same time. Ain’t gonna happen.

  • TiltedHorizon

    When bluetooth headsets first came out, people who never used one would stare with suspicion at those ‘talking to themselves’. Now that it is common place, all crazies can safely engage in self conversion without too many people batting an eye.  Religion has had the same effect, it is impossible to discern the difference between a fundamentalist and someone of questionable mental health spouting religious dogmas.

    • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

       Interesting point.   If a person is just talking to the air, we assume he has a mental illness.  If he has a Bluetooth attached to his ear we assume he’s talking on his phone.

      If a person says he talks to God we’re conditioned to consider it perfectly normal.  If he says he talks to God through his hair dryer we’d consider him mentally ill.  Why does the addition of an appliance change things?

      • http://rrlane.blogspot.com rrlane

        If you’ve ever used a bluetooth headset, you have evidence that there can actually be someone on the other end.  When someone is talking to no visible person while wearing one, it is a logical assumption that is what is happening until other evidence presents itself.

        This is not the case with praying. 

        • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

           Did I imply otherwise WRT the Bluetooth?

          • http://rrlane.blogspot.com rrlane

            Not really.  I was just adding my own two cents.

            • http://twitter.com/Buffy2q Buffy

               I see.  Sorry I misunderstood.  :-)

  • GregFromCos

    I’m guessing the religious have a hard time with the differentiation simply because we do such a bad job of using labels well within the Free thinking community.
    Perhaps we need an advertising campaign just for free thinkers that says. “Do you believe there is a God?” If not, you are an Atheist, no matter what you label yourself.

    Granted, PZ has not helped this cause by trying to add more to the word than there actually is. 

    The word Atheist is to the Secular Humanist community, what Theist is to the Baptists.

    • Iota

      I am not a Baptist and I did not have sex with that woman.

    • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

      Re: “Perhaps we need an advertising campaign just for free thinkers that says.”

      The problem with this, of course, is that theists reflexively object to any kind of advertising by non-believers. Should such a campaign be conducted, theists won’t pay attention to its content; they’ll be too busy expressing outrage that it was being done at all.

      • GregFromCos

        You miss my point. We have to convince non-theists that there is one definition of what an atheist is, if we ever hope to convince theists…

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    I doubt he “stunned the audience” at all with that statement. 

  • Reginald Jooald

    Thomas Huxley coined Agnosticism; what does he have to say about it?

    Agnosticism is not properly described as a “negative” creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle which is as much ethical as intellectual. This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to agnosticism.

    That’s certainly not incompatible with Dawkins’ position, nor that of most atheists.

    There’s a few other definitions that are bandied about, invented after it was originally coined:

    1) That a god’s existence is unknowable
    2) That one doesn’t have knowledge about a god’s existence
    3) That one doesn’t believe in a god, but doesn’t rule it out either

    3 is basically just an atheist. People use 3 because they think that “atheism” equates with “certainty in the nonexistence of God”; these are the same definitions the Daily Fail seems to be using, and they’re usually pushed by religious people.

    2 isn’t incompatible with atheism, and fits exactly with Dawkins’ stated point of view

    1 isn’t incompatible with atheism. I don’t know if it fits in with Dawkins’ stated beliefs.

    • Reginald Jooald

      And that quote fail is why I should be posting while registered.

      • Anonymous

         It’s “blockquote” instead of “quote”

  • Star-stuff

    I really, really wish people would stop using the phrase “militant atheist.”  There’s no such thing and never has been.

    • Jett Perrobone

      Agreed.  Atheists have nothing to do with the military.  They use that label on any atheist that has the temerity to say anything at all negative about their religion.

      • Anonymous

        Well some atheists do have something to do with the military or being militant. Like the involuntarist Marxist communists in the USSR, PRC, or RNK. North Koreans are militant atheist in the true sense of the word, and are quite distinct from other kinds of atheists.

    • http://www.SketchSepahi.com/ SketchSepahi

       I once met a self-avowed militant non-stamp collector, who stunned me by confessing that he couldn’t be absolutely certain he had never owned a stamp even if to the best of his recollection he hadn’t.

  • Guest

    That’s how Dawkins convinced me to be an atheist.  most of this hard earned reputation is only in theists heads.(e.g what atheism means, that “militant atheists” exist and that atheists are all arrogant about their world view.)

  • Seladora

    “Equality groups are now calling on him to apologise for his family’s past.”

    Making Dawkins apologize for something his ancestors have done is no better than taking a descendant of a Nazi and telling them to apologize to all the Jews. Or if my great grandfather killed people, I’m also to blame simply because I’m related to him? 

  • Michael

    And on the right of that article they have a headline that a woman is not dieting.

    I never thought it was possible but the Daily Mail appears to be going even further downhill.

  • Stan Polson

    The religious have great difficulty comprehending a position which doesn’t claim absolute knowledge. They can’t abide it.

  • Gunstargreen

    Every time my Brit friends make fun of the USA for Fox News I remind them that they learned everything they know from the British press.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    We need to start using these labels more: Pope Benedict, the world’s most notorious christian, met Tuesday with an African delegation, who admitted they were Catholics.

  • Iosue

    Some years ago, in an online forum, I was asked “How can you be absolutely certain that there is no god?” I responded that I was not absolutely certain– in fact, no one can be absolutely certain of anything. However, I pointed out, one can be reasonably certain.

    And here is where religious-minded people totally miss the boat. They claim to be absolutely certain of their god’s existence. So they expect atheists to be absolutely certain of the opposite. The idea of being “reasonably certain” escapes them, since reason never had anything to do with their claim of their god’s existence.

  • http://twitter.com/BrookLaa Andy Laa

    Englander here (yes I made up a word).

    I feel I should clear this up – there’s no real bias in the media for/against religion in England.

    The reason that that’s been put in a newspaper is to just give the illusion of something being new.

    I PROMISE it’s nothing to do with “LOOK! Atheist leader admits he’s not an Atheist! GOD IS REAL HERPPPPPP!”

    It’s just trying to find something to report about to sell their rag.

    This is not America a-thank-you.


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