Atheism Disproved

OK, so the title is intentionally provocative. But it seems to me that atheism can actually be disproved – depending, of course, on what you mean by “atheism.”

Pantheists view the world, the cosmos, as divine, as God. And no atheist denies the existence of the cosmos. Ergo, at least one sort of “God” exists.

I’m being a bit sarcastic here. But hopefully this highlights a key issue related to the definition of atheism, which goes hand in hand with the matter of the definition of God. Is atheism denial that any sort of god exists? If so, the existence of the cosmos, or the existence of Egyptian cats, or the existence of gurus in India, all disprove atheism.

The irony is that many atheists respond to this by denying that such entities are “really” gods.

But that is just the adoption on their part of a particular definition of Godhood, as defined within the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, which adopted that perspective in their polemical denigration of other religious viewpoints.

And so when atheists adopt this view of who or what does or does not constitute a “real God,” they are implicitly saying that the religions that most of them reject most vehemently are theologically correct. And that seems to me quite odd.

The alternative is to acknowledge that atheism means the rejection of a certain sort of god, in particular, the supernatural, anthropomorphic sort.

But of course, that stance has the corollary that some religious viewpoints, such as Deism, pantheism, and panentheism, may not be as radically at odds with their atheist stance as the more simplistic rhetoric of “denying the existence of any and all gods of any kind” suggests.


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  • Neil Rickert

    You have explained quite well why I don’t really like the term “atheist” and prefer to say that I am non-religious.

    • Enopoletus Harding

      Agreed. One can be religious while being an atheist. I am not religious and I am an atheist.

      • Tadtiger

        I think it is safe to assume that everyone who is religious is also an atheist. You would be hard pressed to find someone not an atheist concerning Zeus, and if you did, they would almost certainly be an atheist concerning Ra, Odin, etc.

  • ron

    This is nothing but an inane semantic trick.

    • James Walker

      one could argue that “atheism” is nothing but an inane semantic trick…

      • Joe Cogan

        In what way?

        • James Walker

          by using language in an effort to limit the framework of discussion to only those concepts of deity with which they disagree on ethical, moral or ontological grounds, atheists are using semantic trickery to support their position.

          This is not to say “all atheists” do this, but several I’ve engaged in discussions on the internet have done this and refused to confront the possibility their view of the world might be incorrect.

      • DFW Heathen

        Not any rational person

        • James F. McGrath

          It isn’t a semantic trick. What is a semantic trick is when Christians and other monotheists say “nothing deserves to be called a god except for our one God” and atheists simply accept that definition even though they reject the theology that it is based upon.

          • Herro

            Yes, and that’s why atheists refuse to call Zeus and Odin gods.

          • Troy Avery

            I’ve never heard anyone refuse to refer to any of the ancient gods as “gods”. Zeus and Odin were gods, kings of their pantheons. My experience is when people separate the differences is by doing the “God” vs “god”. That’s a theistic position though, not atheistic.

          • Herro

            I was being sarcastic. Of course atheists (contrary to what James writes) call Zeus and Odin gods. 😉

          • J

            No, it actually is a semantic trick.

    • MattB

      No it’s not. In order to be an atheist, you have to believe that the claim “God exists” is false.

  • wallofseparation

    Sigh… atheist just deny the existence of the “supernatural”. They simply demand evidence, there is evidence the cosmos exists in nature, not beyond it.
    To disprove atheism, i.e. reality and nature, you would need to have evidence of the supernatural.
    I could use yr logic to disprove god, because things exist on nature, people, rocks, planets, there must be no gods…there Theism disproved.

    • James Walker

      there are views of deity that don’t require deity to be supernatural and, therefore, such a deity is not entirely outside the realm of possibilities for those atheists whose definition of atheism is “I don’t believe in the supernatural”.

      • wallofseparation

        So then if they aren’t “deity” then they are based in reality and supported by evidence, atheist have no reason not to accept their existence, but they aren’t gods, they are natural.
        See the defintion of “god” includes supernaturality, thus atheists don’t belve in gods no matter how you try to change the meaning to fit your views.

        • James F. McGrath

          For ancient animists, natural forces were divine. You may say that such phenomena have no personal attributes, but that does not mean they do not exist. Ancient polytheists viewed gods as powerful but not all-powerful beings, and the universe may contain such beings for all we know, as Richard Dawkins and Gene Roddenberry have acknowledged and explored to some extent.

          This is not about changing the meaning of “god” to fit one’s view. It is about the fact that that term has a long history of use in a variety of ways, and that is just the English term, and so there is a need for precision when talking about these matters.

        • James Walker

          “So then if they aren’t “deity” then they are based in reality and supported by evidence”
          I didn’t argue that such an entity was not a deity. I argued that not all concepts of deity require the supernatural. The definition of “God” does not necessitate a supernatural being. Only certain definitions of “God” do that.

          For example, using the panentheist view, it is unlikely for God to be supernatural because God is as much part of the physical universe as the physical universe is part of God. Any action by God under this framework is, by definition, a natural one and any action of nature is, by definition, an act of God.

          • wallofseparation

            Oh so you define god as anything you don’t understand, got it. Atheist just see that as an opportunity to learn about reality, not believe in “gods”

          • James Walker

            No, I don’t define God as anything I don’t understand. anything I don’t understand represents an opportunity to learn and grow. I am, after all, an engineer and a computer scientist. but for me God is Present and manifested in the experience of encountering something I don’t yet understand, something I can’t explain, something beautiful or something true. God, for me, is very deeply personal and internal rather than being some “magic man in the sky”.

          • wallofseparation

            Nice word salad for agreeing with me that you consider god anything you have yet understand.

          • James Walker

            no, I disagree with you. are you unable to differentiate a thing from the experience of a thing?

    • David Iversen

      As soon as there is evidence then God ceases to be “supernatural” and becomes “natural.”

      As a theist, I see God as natural and the creation as a natural expression of the creator. The issue to me is more of whether there is an intelligent purpose and design in the universe.

      • Lemmy Caution

        “As soon as there is evidence then God ceases to be “supernatural” and becomes “natural.””

        True. At one time humans thought lightning and thunder were supernatural. We learned and now we know better. Eventually we have shrunk the need for the label ‘supernatural’ down to nothing.

        “The issue to me is more of whether there is an intelligent purpose and design in the universe.”

        No evidence of any. Whatsoever. So there’s that.

  • Matt Kovach

    non believer, not into shell games

  • Bob O’Hara

    “Is atheism denial that any sort of god exists? If so, the existence of the cosmos, or the existence of Egyptian cats, or the existence of gurus in India, all disprove atheism.”

    This seems to assume a rather wide definition of godhood. I would have thought that the super-natural was one essence of godhood: it’s not enough to call a cat a god, it has to exhibit some divine characteristics, which are super-natural. What those characteristics are I’ll defer to lexicographers, or philosophers.

  • Jack Collins

    Give me a coherent definition of a god and I’ll tell you whether I believe in it.

    Gods of the supernatural variety are just one on a long list of things in which I don’t believe. The label “atheist” only attains because I live in a cultural context wherein belief in a specific concept of gods is prevalent. I am also an ananimist, but that’s not a very useful term in our culture.

    I do, however, believe in cats, and render unto them the reverence they are due.

    • James Walker

      conversely, tell me what kinds of deity you refuse to believe in and I’ll tell you whether I share your disbelief. that still, to me, leaves plenty of ground open for possible views of deity that “might” exist.

      • Lemmy Caution

        ” tell me what kinds of deity you refuse to believe in and I’ll tell you whether I share your disbelief.”

        The kind that fail the basic tests of logic, reason, and evidence.

        • James Walker

          how so? do you understand that not everyone’s concept of deity falls within the same framework and that two frameworks that are in seeming opposition may still contain areas of agreement?

          • Lemmy Caution

            “do you understand that not everyone’s concept of deity falls within the same framework”

            Oh I’m well aware of that. 1,000 theists will give you 1,000 definitions of ‘god.”

            “two frameworks that are in seeming opposition may still contain areas of agreement?”

            Yes, 1,000 definitions of ‘god’ with have some areas of agreement. So what?

          • James Walker

            and definitions of “not god” that have overlap with other people’s definitions of “god”. that’s the point

          • Lemmy Caution

            I don’t know what “definition of ‘not god'” means. Is that like the definition of ‘not unicorn’ or ‘not leprechaun’, or ‘not nothing’. You are engaging in some serious linguistic gymnastics to avoid giving a coherent definition of your ‘god’.

          • James Walker

            you, like one of the other commenters I suggested this to, could benefit from some reading on the topic of semiotics.

          • Lemmy Caution

            You, like many theists, could benefit from explaining your beliefs clearly.

          • Jack Collins

            Ad hominem and appeal to authority. Ten yard penalty. Still first down.

      • Jack Collins

        I refuse to believe things that are logically unintelligible or exist outside the natural laws that make predictive knowledge possible. Or rather, I consider positive statements about such things to be incoherent.

        I would be perfectly happy to believe, given sufficient evidence, in natural, intentional entities whose ability to manipulate natural laws was far beyond current human comprehension. I have yet to see any such evidence, and I see no reason to call such an entity “a god” rather than “an alien” or “Q” or “Galactus Devourer of Worlds.” I certainly see no reason to pay homage or obeisance to such an entity, let alone use it as the foundation for a system of morality. I would like to ask it a lot of questions, though.

  • Erp

    As you say depending on how you define ‘god’. If to you, god=universe and universe=god and nothing more or less (no universal consciousness, no transcendence, etc), then I’m not atheistic. However the vast majority of people don’t define god that way (even the most pantheistic of Christians seem to think their god is bigger than the universe [panentheistic I think is the term]). Perhaps we atheists haven take apophatic theology a step further than most.

  • Herro

    I’m sure ancient Germans, Egyptians, Romans and so on, who hadn’t adopted the Abrahamic definition of a god, would agree that “the world” isn’t a god, and they would say something like gods being powerful spirit beings.

    >”The irony is that many atheists respond to this by denying that such entities are “really” gods.”

    I hope that not many atheists think that words have some “objective” meaning, but the fact remains that this isn’t what the vast majority of people mean by the word “god”. And that’s not just true for the present time.

    So call your cat a god all that you want, but don’t insist on us using your definitions of the words ‘god’ or ‘atheism’.

  • Joe Cogan

    “Pantheists view the world, the cosmos, as divine, as God. And no atheist denies the existence of the cosmos. Ergo, at least one sort of “God” exists.”

    So if someone views, say, broccoli as divine, that also is a “God”? That doesn’t seem to be a particularly fruitful philosophical path to take.

  • Psygn

    The whole god concept is authoritarian in nature or a personification of authoritarian ideology, therefore gods can only exist in the minds of those who subscribe to authoritarianism, totalitarianism or a dictatorship.

    • Mary

      There are many spiritual people who do not subscribe to authoritarian religions. You have religion mixed up with spirituality. They can co-exist for some people but I find the controling nature of religion to be counter-productive to true spirituality.
      Panthiesm, which is a belief that the Universe is God, does not subscribe to an authoritarian God by definition. God is an impersonal force and the same is true of Deism.

  • martinrc

    So you just disproved monotheism as well since according to you anything that can be defined or was once defined as a god and exists disproves atheism, meaning there is more than one god, disproving any monotheistic religion.
    I’m fine with that, I never had polytheist or deist trying to enact legislation that affects my life based on ZERO evidence anyways.

    • Jakeithus

      It actually doesn’t disprove what is traditionally understood as monotheism. A theist believes that God exists, and this God is separate from the natural world. Unless the cat can be shown to have an origin outside the physical world, it is not a god that can challenge a monotheistic viewpoint.

      Like James has said in the article and his other posts, what this shows is that atheists are just working from the same basic assumptions that monotheists are.

    • Enopoletus Harding

      True, but Old Testament Judaism was monolatristic, not monotheistic.

  • River Lizard

    This article was sad humor at best. It is quite clear you don’t know what atheism is or you enjoy being dishonest by making false statements about atheism.
    The Universe is the Universe as humans see it…….you want to insert a god….sorry….I’m not going to even start believing it until you show evidence of your god.

    • James F. McGrath

      It isn’t about humor. It is about many atheists assuming one particular definition of what “divinity” entails that they have taken over from a monotheistic religion, usually Christianity, and generalizing in their rhetoric in ways that they often find they need to qualify. For instance, Richard Dawkins has said that he has no fundamental objection to the possibility that their might be advanced extraterrestrials who have mastered ways to control matter and can thus do things that are “godlike” by the standards of ancient polytheistic traditions, in which gods are powerful beings, not all-powerful ones. But then he will elsewhere say he disbelieves in “all gods” of any sort. My point is not to make sad or happy jokes, but to point out the need to not merely engaging in hyperbolic rhetoric, but to be as clear and precise as possible.

      • Enopoletus Harding

        Dawkins doesn’t believe “advanced extraterrestrials who have mastered ways to control matter and
        can thus do things that are “godlike” by the standards of ancient
        polytheistic traditions” exist, he just accepts they might exist.

        • James F. McGrath

          Right, which means their might be “gods” of a particular definition.

          • Jack Collins

            I was just re-reading Paradise Lost, and I noticed how many times Milton (in imitation of the Hebrew Bible) referred to the angels as “gods.” And to be frank, angels-as-usually-portrayed would have qualified as gods in many ancient societies, where divinity was often on a sliding scale. So if we are going to play fast-and-loose with definitions, one could easily claim that Christians who believe in angels are polytheists (or polytheistic monolatrists). (And then there’s that messy trinity…)

      • Jack Collins

        Don’t make the mistake of assuming Dawkins speaks for all atheists any more than the Pope Emeritus or Fred Phelps speaks for all Christians. If nothing else, he seriously needs to take a few religious studies courses before making sweeping statements about religion.

        • James F. McGrath

          That’s something that everyone but Richard Dawkins seems to agree about! 😉

          • Jack Collins

            I mean, I have taken enough biology classes to know to defer to experts when it comes to matters of genetics and evolution. He should learn the same humility.

  • Jakeithus

    This further goes to show why I think “atheism” is such a poor term for people to use as a primary identifier. Naturalism or Materialism is a much better choice in my view, as it focuses on identifying with a positive idea, rather than with an absence.

    It’s frustrating to be discussing different belief systems, only to have someone chime in “Well atheism is not a belief system”. They might be technically right that atheism is a non-belief, but that non-belief is always accompanied by the belief that the physical world is all that exists, and everything can be reduced down to natural causes.

    • J

      Naturalism? Nah. *Naturism*, now THAT I can get behind . . .

  • DKeane123

    Let’s Break Down the Logic:
    – Atheist:: I don’t believe in gods
    – Believer: I worship my pet cat and call it God – you don’t believe in my cat?
    – Atheist: Your cat posses supernatural abilities?
    – Believer: Nope, it is just a regular cat.
    – Atheist: Idiot, you just wasted 5 minutes of my time – and I have no infinite afterlife.

    • James F. McGrath

      This assumes that “supernatural abilities” is a inherent to the definition of a god. But the whole notion of “supernatural” is a result of the emergence of modern science and its distinction between “natural” and “supernatural.” Ancient gods were not thought to do supernatural things. They were thought to do the things that were observed in nature, such as storms and lightning bolts and tornadoes. And so that is my point: if what you mean by “god” is supernatural, then fine, but that doesn’t relate to the use of the term by pantheists, for instance.

      • Enopoletus Harding

        Cats don’t affect “storms and lightning bolts and tornadoes”.

        • James F. McGrath

          Clearly you have not known very many cats! 😉

          But seriously, my point was not about cats but about gods in general. Poseidon was not thought to be a cat, but the acts attributed to Poseidon on a day-to-day basis were things we would call “natural,” not things we might categorize as “supernatural.”

          • Enopoletus Harding

            Poseidon doesn’t exist; the “Poseidon hypothesis” of storms states no reliable and practical predictions.

          • James F. McGrath

            Indeed. I am not trying to make a case for the existence of such gods!

          • Jack Collins

            But sometimes he was a horse!

      • DKeane123

        I’ve already sunk 5 minutes into this conversation and refuse to waste any more.

  • Enopoletus Harding

    And so when atheists adopt this view of who or what does or does not
    constitute a “real God,” they are implicitly saying that the religions
    that most of them reject most vehemently are theologically correct.

    -What utter tripe, James. The fact one accepts cows exist does not necessarily mean one accepts they are sacred.

    • James Walker

      the point is that by arguing so specifically against a particular reference framework as if it were the only one that mattered, you default authority to whomever operates within that framework

      • Enopoletus Harding

        And what’s wrong with that? Common definitions are necessary for any kind of communication.

        • James F. McGrath

          OK, but getting back to your “tripe” allegation, I do not have the impression that atheists say “gods are real but not sacred,” most say “gods do not exist.” And it is my point that such language cries out for nuance and greater clarity.

          • Lemmy Caution

            “most say “gods do not exist.””

            Or more accurately, “I don’t believe any gods exist”.

          • Enopoletus Harding

            No, we view the ability to commit supernatural acts as part of the definition of the word “god”. So we can still say “gods do not exist” by claiming that cats and stars aren’t gods.

          • James Walker

            “No, we view the ability to commit supernatural acts as part of the definition of the word “god””

            who’s “we”? I don’t agree that the concept of deity must include the ability to commit supernatural acts.

          • Enopoletus Harding

            “We” are the atheists.

          • James Walker

            well, then, please meet someone (me) who agrees that “beings who can commit supernatural acts” in all likelihood don’t exist and is, therefore, an atheist.

            but, I do believe in God. so… in your framework I’m an atheist and in my framework I’m not. now what?

          • Lemmy Caution

            “in your framework I’m an atheist and in my framework I’m not. now what?”

            Now I would ask you to thoroughly define your god and provide reason to believe it exists along with evidence for it’s existence.

          • James Walker

            but my concept of deity is one that resists “definition” because it is necessarily about the parts of my experience in the world that defy explanation. my concept of deity is about the narrative that I tell myself to link together my experiences into a continuous consciousness. it is about that part of me that reaches out instinctively to the beautiful, the mysterious and the unknown with a sense of wonder and awe. how can you claim something doesn’t exist that so clearly, internally to my experience, exists for me? how can anyone claim something so clearly internal has a “real” existence? does it even matter to anyone but me?

            you see, I both agree in part and disagree in part with the “atheist” position which is why I find so shockingly hilarious the efforts professed atheists go to in arguing that their non-belief is the only rational approach to the world.

          • James Walker

            now cue all the atheists with “but THAT’s not God!” remarks…

          • J

            That’s not god.

          • Lemmy Caution

            “how can you claim something doesn’t exist that so clearly, internally to my experience, exists for me?”

            I state that I don’t believe. I don’t claim it doesn’t exist.

            “how can anyone claim something so clearly internal has a “real” existence?”

            There are plenty of folks at the local asylum who claim all kinds of personal experiences that I dismiss as well. The reasons should be obvious. The claims lack any kind of reason, logic, or evidence.

          • James Walker

            yep. that’s the predictable response. anything that doesn’t map to your framework is “insanity”. it must be nice to have such clear, neat labels to put on everything. I couldn’t live like that, though. sucks the life right out of living.

          • Lemmy Caution

            “anything that doesn’t map to your framework is “insanity”.”

            Or ‘anything that doesn’t make a lick of sense and completely lacks any reason to take it seriously is downright bonkers.’

          • James Walker

            just because my concept of god maps pretty closely to your concept of “plain old human consciousness” doesn’t mean my concept of god “doesn’t make a lick of sense” or that it isn’t worthy of being taken seriously.

          • Lemmy Caution

            I agree……There are plenty of reasons it doesn’t make a lick of sense….but the “just because” you lay out here isn’t the only one.

          • James Walker

            name one reason why I shouldn’t look at the evolution of the concept of deity among humans and conclude that God is exactly the narrative we as a race have told ourselves to help us explain the observable world and our internal experiences and that has evolved along with us and become more sophisticated as our societies and language have?

          • Lemmy Caution

            Wha? It sounds like you are trying to say that ‘god’ is just a narrative story given to help us understand thing we don’t, or don’t yet, understand. Don’t think any atheists would disagree with that.

          • James Walker

            so is human consciousness. prove that consciousness doesn’t exist!

          • James Walker

            as consciousness is the narrative, or fiction, that we tell ourselves to connect our otherwise disjointed experiences, God is the meta-narrative we as a race tell ourselves to connect our otherwise disjointed lives. God exists because the narrative exists. Or is it the other way around? It’s a chicken/egg conundrum and I choose to believe rather than to disbelieve.

          • Lemmy Caution

            “God is the meta-narrative we as a race tell ourselves to connect our otherwise disjointed lives.”

            Speak for yourself.

            “God exists because the narrative exists.”

            Prove it.

            ” It’s a chicken/egg conundrum and I choose to believe
            rather than to disbelieve.”

            Belief is not a choice.

          • James Walker

            in addition to some reading on semiotics, you could probably benefit from some study of recent discoveries of ethical and moral behavior in other great apes. the narrative, and the ability to create a meta-narrative larger than our local family groups is the only thing left to differentiate us from the rest of our primate cousins.

            it will be interesting to see whether whale songs and elephant songs are similar to human religion in keeping disjointed tribes together across large distances.

          • Lemmy Caution

            “human religion in keeping disjointed tribes together across large distances.”

            Yeah, if it’s one thing religion is good at, it’s keeping people together. /S

            I look forward to tomorrow when, hopefully, the supreme court throws out the shackles of “human religion” and grants equal marriage rights to all.

          • James Walker

            I also look forward to tomorrow when SCOTUS will hopefully rule in favor of equal marriage rights for all and (again, hopefully) toss aside arguments that religious belief should form the basis of our civil laws.

            You might be surprised how much common ground there is for both theists and atheists in your framework of belief.

          • Lemmy Caution

            “You might be surprised how much common ground there is for both theists and atheists in your framework of belief.”

            Considering the VAST majority of folks I interact with on a daily basis are theists, I doubt I’d be all that surprised.

          • J

            No, I’m pretty sure it isn’t worth being taken seriously. Here I go, on 3, I will commence to refuse to take you seriously . . .


            There. Consider yourself unseriously taken. Bam.

          • J

            Bully for you. I DO insist that the concept of a deity must include the ability to commit supernatural acts. So we’re at a complete communications impasse, I guess. Good fucking night.

          • James F. McGrath

            Right. But what you are denying is that stars have any sort of personal nature or attributes. Not whether the things that some have worshiped exist.

        • James Walker

          you may benefit from some reading on the subject of semiotics. definitions are less useful than you might imagine when discussing “squishy” topics like philosophy, psychology, belief, etc.

          • Philip Typaldos Waters

            I just don’t get the point of this line of logic. Yes you can call the meta-narrative of the things you don’t understand in your life God. You could also call it a unicorn. But you’re not making a relevant point to the discussion most people are having about if unicorns exist or not.

            Maybe this will make you happy. I’m an atheist but I’ll go ahead and acknowledge that: God defined as the meta-narrative of James Walker to explain things that he doesn’t understand about his life exists.

            But again so what? You’ve defined a god that doesn’t do anything that requires explanations beyond what we already have explanations for. It’s a lot like me defining Philip’s God as the natural forces in play that work to make a light bulb come on when I flip a light switch.

            I don’t think any atheists are going to disagree that “God” defined in such a way exists. But why bother.

          • James Walker

            well, this discussion isn’t about making me happy but about the original post Dr. McGrath made. a lot of the argument that’s taken place here is about the semiotics, the word-to-idea maps we have, and where those differ even though we’re using the same language and perhaps even similar dictionary definitions of words.

            my point in discussing the particulars of MY word-to-idea map of God is to highlight that I have a concept of deity that is decidedly not in conflict with the general framework of atheism except that I’m perfectly content to call this concept, this meta-narrative of existence, God where you might call it something else entirely.

          • Philip Typaldos Waters

            I’m not trying to be flippant when I ask this question because it seems to actually be driving a lot of the back and forth.

            So what?
            If your version of God is something that is either natural or completely internal then sure your definition of God isn’t in conflict with the standard atheist view.

            Again though, so what? It doesn’t change the definition most people use for God and doesn’t disprove atheism in regards to that standard definition. And no one is going to start saying I’m an atheist except for James Walkers version of God which is exactly the same as the natural universe I support except it has different words for things. (That’s just takes too long to say)

            Assuming my experience is typical, you’re probably also getting push back because this argument typically goes:
            Theist: You agree the universe exists right?
            Atheist: Yes.
            Theist: What if God is just the universe. Then do you belive in God?
            Atheist: Sure.
            Theist: So you admit you agree Jesus (or some other guiding/intelligent/active force) is real then.
            Atheist: *cries*

          • James Walker

            actually, I usually get push back along the lines of people in the traditional theist camp calling me an atheist and people in the traditional atheist camp calling me a loony tunes. 😉

            what I’m getting at, and what I think Dr. McGrath is getting at, is that before we start arguing and yammering at one another “God exists!” “God doesn’t exist!” “You’re irrational!” “You’re going to Hell!” is that we should develop some better ways to talk about what we’re actually talking about so we can have productive discourse rather than mindless fighting and belly-aching.

            also, I like inclusiveness. I like finding areas of common ground with people who seem to think we have none. I prefer painting people into my circle (and myself into theirs) rather than finding more and more ways to exclude people from the conversation and the shared experience of being human. wouldn’t you, as an atheist, rather live in a world where your belief (or non-belief, as it were) was no cause at all for any division or rancor?

          • Philip Typaldos Waters

            Lol. I’m not surprised you get that reaction from both the theists and atheists.

            I do fully agree that better terms would help but even that can be unproductive sometimes. For example I don’t really need to know all the specifics of your god’s favorite pajamas if it has the stereotypical supernatural elements to it.

            I’d also say that I’m not willing to forgo honesty, truth, human rights, or an accurate description of our universe in the name of inclusiveness.

          • James Walker

            then it seems we agree on quite a lot. =)

          • James F. McGrath

            Indeed, the fact that that which Pantheists call “God” clearly exists doesn’t help one to make the case for a theistic sort of God. (And I assume/hope that your last statement was not about the historical Jesus, whose existence in the past can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of historians, but a supernatural divine Jesus).

            My point is precisely that some atheists are liable to ignore the range of meanings the English word “God” has and to speak in a way that makes enemies of those who could make common cause with them in arguing against superstition and irrationality.

          • Philip Typaldos Waters

            I’ll be honest I don’t much get the point of using words like “god”, “spirituality”, “soul” or whatever in ways that don’t include the supernatural element that they are typically associated with.

            Certainly if you are using them in ways that don’t fit the standard or commonly accepted definition it’s up to you to be clear on what you actually mean with the word.

            It’s like saying I disproved math because 1+1 doesn’t equal 2 if you define 2 to mean 3. Sure I agree if the word 2 means 3 then 1+1 doesn’t equal 2. But why would I care?

          • James F. McGrath

            As someone who studies religion professionally, this objection sounds to me to be very much like that which complains that scientists are not being sufficiently clear when they use “theory” to mean a well-defined and evidenced explanatory framework, because in popular speech it means a hunch. Even 1+1=10 should be straightforward given how much modern technology depends on binary code. But then there’s the old joke that there are only 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who don’t. :-)

          • Philip Typaldos Waters

            Think about how much wasted time and energy would have been saved if back in the 1610s they had coined the word “sitheory” instead of just sticking with theory.

            It sounds to me like you’ve made a good case that in both situations less confusing words would probably be a good choice.

          • James F. McGrath

            Perhaps, but we can’t foresee how words will be used, what narrowings or broadenings will occur, over the next four centuries. Words are like that.

  • James Walker

    at what point did downvoting comments based strictly on whether or not one agrees with the commenter’s position become the thing to do? I only downvote comments if they add nothing to the discussion…

    disagreement can readily be expressed by CONTRIBUTING, as in, making a reply explaining why you disagree.

    • Enopoletus Harding

      I’m a prominent proponent of downvoting comments based on disagreement on Slacktivist. I don’t see anything wrong with the practice.

      • James Walker

        maybe not anything “wrong” per se, but frustrating

    • Jakeithus

      Agreed. Downvoting should be reserved for arguments and posts that are of low quality, not simply what one disagrees with. It should be a way to assist while skimming the comments…plenty of downvotes, don’t waste your time. Plenty of upvotes, give it a read whether one agrees or not.

  • nulldevice

    If you’re going to unfetter the definition of a “god” beyond “supernatural entity” then everything is a god, and nothing is. It becomes a meaningless distinction.

    And you’er missing something fundamental – if someone defines something concrete as a god, whether that’s the universe, or a cat, or whatever, an atheist isn’t going to say “I don’t believe the cat exists.” They’re going to say “I don’t believe the cat is a god” regardless of how you define a god (unless you define a god as “anything”, which is the meaningless distinction above).

    Or I could just say “I am a god, and I don’t believe in you.” Problem solved?

    • James F. McGrath

      But historically speaking it is monotheism and science fettering the definition of god to have to do with the “supernatural” that represents the innovation. That’s the whole point.

      • nulldevice

        So what you’re saying is “god” is an word with no definition or meaning, and everything/anything is a god as long as decides it is?

        And historically speaking? What history did you read? Certainly pre-monotheistic civilisations define their gods as supernatural forces.

        • James F. McGrath

          I think perhaps what you mean is that they attributed natural forces, tornadoes and lightning and rain, to entities they called gods. But the phenomena in question were “natural” and any distinction from “supernatural” was not made by the ancients. And so again, the point is denying personhood and agency to the natural, and not about the terminology of “supernatural” which they did not yet have, since “nature” had not yet been “secularized” as a result of scientific study.

          • nulldevice

            Oh right. So what you’re saying IS that anything we want to be a god, is a god, because we say it is, without definition, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

          • James F. McGrath

            Yes, just as what we call chairs are chairs, even though they do not all have the same precise attributes or forms. “God” is just a word in the English language, and it has a history of being used in more than one way – to say nothing of how some related terms in other languages have been used. What human beings apply the term “god” to is what the term “god” applies to, by definition. And anyone saying “That’s not a god” is making a theological claim, not a linguistic one.

            (I am reminded of the Friends episode where Joey keeps saying “That’s not a cat”…)

          • nulldevice

            And I’m reminded of that episode of Seinfeld where they discuss what a stupid argument this is.

          • James F. McGrath

            Some arguments are indeed stupid. But sometimes arguments seem stupid to some people for reasons other than that the arguments are stupid.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I don’t think it has so much to do with how you define “atheism” as how you define “god.” I mean, yes, obviously, if “god,” to you, refers to something that everyone else would call a “chair,” then any dinning room will be proof that your religion is capital-t True. But is that useful?

    No one ever thought that cats were gods (that I know of). Rather, that cats were the special animal of a god. Same with idols – they are not god, but rather a manifestation of god. A statue is just a statue until it is imbued with representative significance. So I think you’re confusing symbol and symbolized. But, as I say, even if someone does come around and truly define an object as *being* god rather than merely representing or manifesting god, then we can talk about whether that has any relevancy. Crackpots exist, so what? At this point, we’re just engaging in semantic games at the expense of substance.

    Same goes for pantheism. Is it really just the belief that the universe is god? Or is it tied into the belief that there is something beyond random chance and physical laws, some kind of agency? Not to poo-poo someone else’s beliefs, but what would be the point of imagining a god without agency (or, to avoid theological/philosophical disputes, without at least the same level of agency possessed by humans)? And if there is a “something more,” then it’s no longer the case that we can simply open our eyes, say “yup, there’s a universe,” and conclude that pantheism must be True.

    But putting all of that aside, I’m actually wrestling with whether a real god is even possible. If we define gods as supernatural beings, how do we know that something is supernatural? How can something real be “beyond reality”? And if gods are real, does that mean that they are no longer gods? And if a god suddenly materialized in front of me and said “yo, hey, I’m, like, totally a god!” how do I distinguish that claim from the similar claims made by that hirsute gentleman downtown? Or from an alien with a wicked sense of humour? And that’s not even getting into the issue of worship – if we proved that gods exist, how do we then go on to show that they are worthy of being worshipped? Is power alone sufficient? If they created us or the universe, is that sufficient? Do they have to be good? If so, how good to they have to be to tip from “worthy of respect” into “worthy of worship”?

    I’m at a point now where I think that I really *couldn’t* stop being an atheist, because it seems that the very idea of a god – by most people’s definition – is logically inconsistent by nature.

  • Matt McDowall

    wow! I mean this argument is so logical!

    I mean someone could call this the cup of tea that I’m drinking right now “God”…

    And since I believe this cup of tea is real…so therefore God exists…But why wouldn’t someone call it a God? Ive never heard someone call a cup of tea God before to be honest!

    Hmm maybe, just maybe because God already has a definition attached to it? and maybe, just maybe calling my cup of tea a God is silly because we already have a label for it and adding the the title “God” adds an unnecessary baggage of multiple definitions.

    Pantheists may call the universe God…but just like my Cup of tea…we have a word for it…its called the universe and or nature…it is playing semantics with labels and brings unnecessary baggage of the terminology and colloquial use of the word God.

    • James F. McGrath

      No. There is a long and established use of God in reference to Nature in pantheism. If someone says “that’s not what god means” in reference to a usage that strays from established definitions in the English language, then that is a linguistic point. Otherwise, it is a theological claim.

  • Matt Dillahunty

    Atheism is a response to theistic claims.

    Theism is the position of believing that a god exists.
    Atheism is the position of not believing that a god exists.

    Atheism isn’t defining a god and then rejecting it, it’s rejecting the various gods that theists propose and the abstract god-concepts that could be proposed within the broader definition of ‘god’. Claiming that the term ‘god’ is so ill-defined and abused that it’s virtually meaningless isn’t a ding on atheism (especially as one can’t rationally accept an incoherent concept and would still be an atheist – non-believer, of the concept), it’s a ding on theism.

    What you’re doing here is akin to saying “Do abolitionists really reject slavery? What about those people who think that minimum wage is slavery – who gets to say their usage isn’t valid? Do the abolitionists oppose slavery or only certain kinds of slavery?”.

    It’s a pointless exercise that says far more about the problems of theism, than it does about atheism.

    As for the sensational “Atheism Disproved”, it’s not just “provocative”, it’s nonsensical. Like “Not collecting stamps Disproved”…

    • James F. McGrath

      Well, one of the first things I said was that the title was sensationalist. But my point is in relation to the fact that “God” has a range of established uses in English, never mind when one considers related terms in other languages. Not all of them represent theism. Pantheism, polytheism, Deism, and other viewpoints have all used the term, in a manner that has a long history and is accepted usage in English.

      It is certainly appropriate to point out if someone claims to be opposed to all forms of slavery everywhere but only focuses attention on one sort and yet conveniently ignores another.

      • Matt Dillahunty

        “Not all of them represent theism. Pantheism, polytheism, Deism, and other viewpoints have all used the term”

        And, as an atheist, I reject pantheism, polytheism and deism as well…as they’re either subsets of theism, in the strictest sense (merely defining the specific god/s of their brand of theism) or, in a handful of cases, using an esoteric ‘god’-label that I also reject. (You can call the universe “god”, but my belief that the universe exists doesn’t mean that I share your belief that it qualifies for “god”-hood.)

        • James Walker

          in order to even make the argument you’re making, you are required to have an idea that the word “god” maps to and then to state that the word “universe” in your framework cannot be mapped to the same idea or set of ideas as the word “god”. but what if Dr. McGrath’s idea of “god” in his framework happens to map closely to your idea of “universe” in your framework? if you both agree that the universe exists, and you both agree on what the idea of the universe “looks like”, then, you’ve just agreed that Dr. McGrath’s idea of god also exists (at least in part, in those areas where the two ideas are congruent). the fact this does not have any congruence to YOUR concept of god is irrelevant.

          • James F. McGrath

            Indeed, the point is that your rejection of those systems of thought involves different sorts of disagreements. In the case of some, you are denying the existence of an entity. In others, you are differing merely in your choice not to use the word “god” in reference to an entity whose existence and attributes you and a religious person might agree on.

            And your claim that they are all “subsets of theism” just confirms my point that most modern atheists are significantly shaped in their views and discourse by Christian theology of a theistic sort.

          • Matt Dillahunty

            Words are tools to convey concepts. The goal is to communicate those ideas accurately – which requires that we conform to some standards. You’re free to label things however you like – but if you hope to communicate ideas to others, you probably shouldn’t muddy the waters with non-standard usage.

            There must be some minimal set of characteristics that the ‘god’ label points to. If it can point to anything, then it’s a useless term and what we think about it doesn’t really matter. What is that set of minimal characteristics? We can certainly have that discussion…but hopefully we wouldn’t waste much time discussing whether the object normally identified as “coffee cup” has those characteristics. It’d be like arguing about whether the object normally identified as “oak tree” has the characteristics that normally accompany the label “my brother”.

            I’ve said, many times (on our TV show) that if you claim that “This totem pole is my god” – then I’ll agree that “your god” exist, but what you mean by “god” isn’t particularly useful or recognizable, because its non-standard usage inhibits communication rather than encouraging it.

            Words don’t have intrinsic meaning – their shared usage is what makes them powerful. Invent a new word and it’s useless until someone else applies it to the same (or similar) concept. When a common usage exists, alternate usages are less valuable and may, ultimately, just be disregarded.

            If there exists another label that is more commonly used to label the object – then your additional label becomes, at best, extraneous. (The universe already has a label – “universe”.)

            If your additional label has a usage that more frequently labels something other than the object – your additional label becomes, at worst, flat wrong (in the sense that you fail to communicate).

            If you try to tell me that I actually DO collect stamps because, to you, “stamp” maps to the thing I identify as “antique magic equipment”…then the problem is one of language. We are definitely not talking about the same concept – and until your usage becomes standard, you’re the one creating the disconnection.

            At the end of the day, I’d hope that it’s obvious that atheists aren’t claiming that they disbelieve every possible concept that someone might possibly label “god” – but are, as I originally noted, rejecting existing theistic propositions, as they have been presented as well as conceptually similar potential propositions.

            If atheists were running around claiming “I do not believe in any gods and I define ‘gods’ as ‘square circles’…” I’m pretty sure that those who do believe in gods (including those whose gods are actually reducible to the logical equivalent of a square circle) would be whining about how ridiculous atheists are in their attempts to redefine god in order to not believe.

            They’d be appealing to very thing Dr. McGrath is tap-dancing around: the fact that there exists a common, understood, somewhat ill-defined, minimal set of characteristics that are associated with the label ‘god’.

            It’s almost like some of you have concluded that a poetic usage that maps to some truth makes it true. As far as I can tell “the universe is god” is most probably a deepity.

          • James Walker

            as I’ve tried (evidently poorly) to explain in several places in these comments, this is essentially an argument over semiotics. we don’t all have the same word-to-idea maps because we don’t all have identical experiences as humans even if we have the same language, culture and dictionary definitions. before we begin bashing one another for having different beliefs or bashing certain sets of beliefs as being “irrational” or “irreverent”, perhaps we should do the hard work of conversing with one another about what our word-to-idea maps are so that we can assess whether our beliefs are, really, all that different. then we could enjoy real communication about the concepts at the heart of what we believe and think about the world around us.

          • James F. McGrath

            That’s why I have said here several times that one can make a linguistic objection to treating a coffee cup as god, but not to treating Nature that way, since Pantheism has a long established history of using the term in that way.

  • brgulker

    I think part of the issue here is that atheism isn’t a defined, codified set of beliefs (or just “thing” as I say for simplicity), but Christianity is. As is Deism. As in Pantheism. Etc., etc.

    The only unifying concept of atheism of which I’m aware is skepticism of supernatural / metaphysical claims that can’t be supported via rationality (as defined post-Enlightenment).

    So an atheist would not believe in pantheism, due to a lack of rational evidence.

    An atheist would not believe in the Christian God, due to a lack of rational evidence.

    Etc., etc.

    • James F. McGrath

      I am not sure what you mean in reference to pantheism, at least in the sense of modern Western pantheism. Evidence of the existence of the cosmos is surely not lacking! It is not disagreement about existence, and perhaps not even about attributes, but about terminology and attitude, is it not?

      • brgulker

        I’ll try to rephrase: a skeptic would point to a lack of rational evidence that all of the stuff of the universe, including you, me, and the keyboard on which I’m typing, is part of an all-encompassing deity.

        In other words, yes, there is evidence that the stuff of the universe exists. There is not evidence that this stuff is part of / included in / however you want to say it the divine.

        • James F. McGrath

          Perhaps I should do a follow-up post asking what attributes atheists consider the cosmos would need to have in order for it to be appropriate to use religious language in reference to it. I suspect that for some, the answer would include aspects of God specific to monotheism rather than pantheism. Modern pantheists are normally not positing that some non-material stuff exists, but are using religious language to express the sense of depth within and connectedness to Nature that they experience – which some who self-identify as “atheists” also experience, but choose not to express in such language.

      • Philip Typaldos Waters

        What exactly is the difference between a completely materialistic worldview and a pantheistic worldview then?

  • Barry

    What does the Naming conventions have to do first of all with the lack evidence of a deity. Oh I’m sorry, god-like figure from out of this world giving and praising and giving and always full of love… I got lost with your title and just what your topic of choice is all about. If I was told there was little green aliens on mars, would I believe that too? I’m an atheist … and I have no trouble accepting that without a deity … there is no need for faith. I have troubles accepting however the way the rest of the world can behave even with nothing religious groups.

    • James F. McGrath

      Do you realize that the concept of deity you are addressing is defined by a particular tradition?

      • nulldevice

        As is yours.

        • James F. McGrath

          If your point is that I am highlighting the range of uses of the term across different traditions then yes, of course, that is the whole point.

          • nulldevice

            And that point is rendered entirely meaningless. It’s a big “so what?” Your point is, simply “I don’t believe your ‘tradition’, therefore you’re wrong.”

            That’s not an argument. I don’t believe your tradition, either. Therefore you’re wrong. This is an impasse that you’re trying to get around through wordplay.

          • James F. McGrath

            No, you have completely misunderstood my point. It is not about proving or disproving someone’s tradition through wordplay or otherwise. It is about the fact that some atheists use generalizing rhetoric rather than precise and clearly defined terminology. A well-known case in point is Richard Dawkins’ statement in The God Delusion that he rejects belief in any and all gods of every sort, while elsewhere he has acknowledged that we have no way of knowing whether natural gods exist – beings like Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation who have evolved within the universe and have come to exemplify Clarke’s Law.

            This post was about rhetoric that creates divides where in fact religious and non-religious opponents of belief in the supernatural and superstition could be making common cause.

            Did you actually read the post, or did you read the title and assume that you knew what it was about?

          • nulldevice

            Read the whole thing. Still think it’s simple wordplay, if you can redefine “god” any way you want, as some sort of “natural” force, then you can prove or disprove anything. It’s an entirely useless argument.

            A natural entity with a godlike power that we cannot explain, ie. Clarke, does not de facto make them a god in anything other than your “anything I say is a god is a god” definition.

            My cat thinks I’m a god for the power I wield over the food dish. This does not make me a god. I do not consider myself one. Who’s right? Me or my cat?

          • James F. McGrath

            This is not about redefinition but about definition. Your objections are theological in nature, and I do not necessarily disagree with your theological judgments about cats. My point is that, rather than engaging in generalizing rhetoric, people ought to do justice to the range of meaning of terminology and express themselves precisely. I am not sure why this is felt to be an objectionable stance.

  • Dave

    It is a common misunderstanding to assume that atheists think they know there is no god. However, that is not a theistic claim, it is a gnostic claim. The idea that you are actually attempting to disprove is gnostic atheism.

  • Aoc Crow

    1. God
    a. A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions.
    b. The force, effect, or a manifestation or aspect of this being.
    2. A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people, especially a male deity thought to control some part of nature or reality.
    3. An image of a supernatural being; an idol.
    4. One that is worshiped, idealized, or followed: Money was their god.
    5. A very handsome man.
    6. A powerful ruler or despot.

    Never seen any evidence of #1 or #2. #3 and #4 physically exist, but I don’t believe any have supernatural powers. #5 and #6 well yes, so I”m atheist with respect to supernatural powers not very handsome men.

  • RBH

    Is atheism denial that any sort of god exists? If so, the existence of the cosmos, or the existence of Egyptian cats, or the existence of gurus in India, all disprove atheism.

    Which is precisely equivalent to my calling my goldfish a “god,” and then proclaiming that a sort of god exists. It really is a semantic shell game, James, and is unworthy of you.


    • James F. McGrath

      No, it is not the same sort of thing. Pantheism has a long history of use of the term. But even though Richard Dawkins has said that pantheism is merely “sexed-up atheism” it remains the case that pantheists talk of Nature as God and do not necessarily posit the existence of any entities the existence of which atheists typically deny. And so this is not a semantic shell game. It is an appeal to avoid generalizations rather than semantic precision, in the interest of genuinely understanding one another, and precisely what we do or do not agree and disagree about.

  • Troy Avery

    If we are going to refer to the universe itself as a “god” or cats that are Egyptian as “gods”, then by that standard I’m not an atheist. If we want to say that the universe itself is a sentient being, or that cats from Egypt have divine powers, I’m back to being an atheist. Part of the problem is the claims of “godhood” and how they are are being applied. By the standard set in the article, no one can claim to be “atheistic” about Zeus. He was a “god”. Does that mean that he was real or threw thunderbolts down from Mount Olympus. No, ofcourse not. What is really at issue here is not the definition of “atheism”, it’s the definition of “god”.

    In my opinion, and that is all that it is, to disprove atheism must prove one form of theism. Using the Egyptian cat as an example, yes cats from Egypt exist, are they gods? Once again, depends on the usage of the word “god”. This is going to be driven by the understanding that is attached to the word. If we are simply going to view it in a generic sense, same as Zeus was a god, then yes, all that the article says is true. BUT, if we are going to attach something more to the term “god”, such as divine attributes, then we are talking about something very different.

    I do think that the assertion that pointing out that Egyptian cats exist, thus “gods” exist is far too simplistic to what the Egyptians were doing within their theology.

    • James F. McGrath

      I agree that it is simplistic, but you did get the point which I was making, which is that the disagreement with ancient Egyptians is not about “existence” but about theology.

  • ASH: Samuel Walter

    Well, this is 5min I’ll never get back. If someone is going to manipulate semantics, and insist on vague, subjective definitions, they’re not worth talking to.

  • Steve Dufour

    And then you also have to define “exist.” Not as easy as it sounds.

  • MNb

    The dirt I get when picking my nose is God. That dirt exists, hence God exists, hence atheism is disproven. Now think two or three seconds and you’ll realize what’s wrong: the terms ” god” and “divine” become meaningless.

    If anything this article proves that Herman Philipse is right in his God in the Age of Science. Thanks for confirming atheism.

    • James F. McGrath

      If one simply applies “god” to new and random things then one can indeed make a linguistic objection. But in the case of Pantheism, there is a long and established usage of God, and such a linguistic objection cannot be made. One can make a theological objection, as I indicates in the post above and in the follow-up one I posted later yesterday. But for an atheist to do that is somewhat peculiar, don’t you think?

      Here’s the follow-up post I referred to:

  • J

    Fine, McGrath, I’ll bite: Which specific cats, piles of rocks, thunderstorms, etc. will YOU be worshiping?

    • James F. McGrath

      None. I do have a sense of awe and reverence towards Reality as a whole, of which those things are just a part, as am I.

  • MBeR

    Each “god” falls or stands on its own merits and while the sun and the universe clearly exist I have never been provided with a good reason the consider them gods. Your games with semantics aside, atheism is not a blanket term.

  • claynaff

    I’m sorry to come so late to the party, but my invitation must have gotten lost in the mail. Anyway, I’m tempted to remark that “atheism” is simply a lack of belief in *any* proposed god — and that can be the case. In fairness, however, I must acknowledge that contemporary Atheism (note the angry initial cap) has become a blood sport, in which self-congratulatory smartypants sling their barbs and arrows at the primitive deities lurking in fundamentalist jungles. Not much of a sport, really. It’s easy-P.Z.

    It has forced me to add an explanatory note to my self-introduction. I always say that I am an atheist, in the sense that I reject belief in any of the deities that traditional religions of which I am aware claim to exist. Maybe “secularist” is simpler.


    Clay Farris Naff
    Science & Religion Writer

  • Peter White

    Straw man; you’re defining what atheists mean when they use the term “God” and then attempting to refute that meaning.

    • James F. McGrath

      Sorry, whom was this comment addressed to? The point of the post is precisely that, while some (e.g. Richard Dawkins) will sweepingly talk about rejecting all gods everywhere and of every sort, that is a rhetorical flourish and not the reality in most instances. I have no problem with atheists defining themselves as those who reject theism. My point was to call for clarity, and to highlight an absurd consequence of failing to be precise or painting with too broad a brush. Dawkins’ statement could also be disproved by pointing to the status of Neil Peart as a drumming god.

  • Anonymous Atheist

    This is the most convincing argument I have seen to disprove the term atheist. Good job. Never thought of it in this way.