Atheism Disproved

Atheism is easy to disprove. Watch:

  • Cats exist
  • Ancient Egyptians (as well as some current cat owners) worship cats as gods
  • Therefore, gods exist
  • Therefore, atheism is false

I am being somewhat flippant, but as I have pointed out before (then using the example of the universe as god for pantheists), unless one defines clearly what one means by “god,” then one cannot make sweeping statements such as that “there is no god of any sort.”

Or at least, one can make them, but they are easy to rebut.

Egyptian cats disprove atheism

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  • Pseudonym

    Yeah, my standard examples are the Sun (Sol Invictus) and Prince Philip (the Kastom people of Tanna). By any reasonable definition of the word “god”, there are some gods which clearly exist. The more interesting question is whether or not the properties claimed of the god are accurate or not.

    I’m reminded of the line from the miniseries of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather. An assassin is hired to kill the Hogfather (the Discworld version of Santa Claus). When asked if he actually exists, the reply is: “Of course he exists. How else are you able to recognise him so readily?”

    • Jon-Michael Ivey

      That was among my least favorite of Pratchett’s works, probably his worst book whose failings cannot be blamed on Alzheimer’s.

      • Pseudonym

        Really good TV adaption, though. It was my favourite until Going Postal.

    • Kieran Dyke

      Well, looking up a definition for god, I get two primary meanings:





      (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.


      (in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity.

      Clearly, these are reasonable definitions for which nothing clearly exists. Unless you want to demonstrate the supernatural status of cats, Prince Phillip or the sun.

      • Pseudonym

        Even though I’ve used the word in this very thread, I also have a problem with the word “supernatural”. It seems to me that you either believe that something is part of the natural order of the universe (including gods), or that it isn’t a thing at all.

        The distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is a fairly modern invention. I know that’s how we use the term “god” these days, but it’s not clear that the Romans (or the Kastom people, for that matter) would think the same way.

  • Orion Jones

    “then one cannot make sweeping statements such as that ‘there is no god of any sort.'”

    How many atheists are actually making that claim of total denial? I can’t think of any atheist of note who is claiming that.

  • jjramsey

    Isn’t there a hidden premise in between premises (2) and (3), namely that those worshiped as gods actually are gods? One can trivially argue that just because a cat is called a god doesn’t actually make it one.

    • James F. McGrath

      But that is a matter of theology, not of existence.

    • Pseudonym

      If we were talking about anything other than gods, Daniel Dennett would at this point loudly wonder why anyone would use the word “actual” to mean “nonexistent”.

      By any reasonable definition of the word “god”, anything which is sincerely treated as if it were a god is, indeed, a god. Any other definition is, as James rightly pointed out, a theological argument, not a lexicographical one.

      • jjramsey

        By any reasonable definition of the word “god”, anything which is sincerely treated as if it were a god is, indeed, a god.

        That’s nonsense. Take the sun, for example. Suppose people sincerely believed that it is a god. Does that mean that the sun is a supernatural being? That it can do miracles? That it might be appeased by performing some rituals? True, the boundaries of what would and would not be considered a god can be fuzzy, and those questions are not absolute determinants of what is and isn’t supposed to be a god, but they are reasonable places to start, as they fit with the rough picture of what various religious myths that have accumulated over the centuries have called a god. One can readily argue that the sun as we know it — namely a ball of gas so huge that its gravity spurs a fusion reaction — does not fit this picture. The word “god” is not infinitely elastic.

        Indeed, the claim about this being a “matter of theology, not of existence” is grossly incorrect, because it is about both. Various theologies make claims as to the existence of things called gods, and then judgments are passed, both by the religious and non-religious, as to whether these claims are justified.

        • Pseudonym

          I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that the Sun not the god of, say, the Sol Invictus cult?

          • jjramsey

            When we say, “the Sun is the god of the Sol Invictus cult,” what we usually really mean is that the Sol Invictus cult believed that the sun was a god and that they worshiped it as such. It does not mean that the sun actually is a god, or even that if the members of the Sol Invictus cult knew what we knew about the sun, that they would have continued to conceive of it as a god.

            Take a look at the coinage relating to the Sol Invictus cult. The sun god is depicted as having a humanlike image, and even riding a quadriga chariot. Clearly, when the Sol Invictus cult held a belief that the sun was a god, they also had certain ideas on what that implied regarding the sun’s nature — ideas that we now know are false.

            Come on, don’t be a sophist. You’re better than that.

          • Pseudonym

            It does not mean that the sun actually is a god […]

            I’m just going to link to this lecture by Daniel Dennett, because he put it better than I can. To define the word god such that “actual” gods are the ones that don’t exist… that makes no sense.

          • jjramsey

            If you’re going to link to an hour-long video, at least offer a time stamp to the part that’s of interest. I’m not going to waste a hour just to verify that Dennett really said what you think he said. Anyway, …

            To define the word god such that “actual” gods are the ones that don’t exist… that makes no sense.

            Let’s replace the word “god” with fictional things that have less fuzzy definitions. For example:

            “To define the word ‘unicorn’ such that ‘actual’ unicorns are the ones that don’t exist… that makes no sense.”

            “To define the word ‘mermaid’ such that ‘actual’ mermaids are the ones that don’t exist… that makes no sense.”

            “To define the word ‘sasquatch’ such that ‘actual’ sasquatches are the ones that don’t exist… that makes no sense.”

            Can you see the problem with this? There are already plenty of definitions of non-existent things.

          • Pseudonym

            We’re getting into philosophy here, and this comment field is too small to contain the small amount of it that I understand. Much ink has been spilled over debating in what sense claims such as “mermaids swim”, or “that mermaid you saw was a dugong”, or “there are plenty of examples of mermaids in literature”, are true. In a broad sense, all of these claims are true.

            But that’s actually not the situation that we’re talking about here. If you don’t like the example, let’s use Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He is 94 years old, so he may not be around for that much longer, but nonetheless he is not fictional. Not only does Prince Philip exist, he is a divine being to the Kastom people of Tanna.

            If Prince Philip is not a “god” to them, then the word “god” is meaningless.

          • jjramsey

            If Prince Philip is not a “god” to them, then the word “god” is meaningless.

            Look here:

            According to ancient tales, the son of a mountain spirit travelled over the seas to a distant land. There he married a powerful lady and in time would return to them. He was sometimes said to be a brother to John Frum of another local cargo cult.

            The people of the Yaohnanen area believe that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the consort to Queen Elizabeth II, is a divine being. They had seen the respect accorded to Queen Elizabeth II by the colonial officials and concluded that her husband, Prince Philip, must be the son referred to in their legends.

            Notice that the Yaohnanen think that Philip is not a normal human, but the son of a mountain spirit. By your logic, what is preventing us from concluding that he is the son of a mountain spirit?

          • Pseudonym

            In my experience, any sentence which contains the phrase “by your logic” is probably not worth reading. (I’ve been a mathematical logician in a previous career.)

            Having said that, I’m going to refer you back to the first comment that I made on this story:

            By any reasonable definition of the word “god”, there are some gods which clearly exist. The more interesting question is whether or not the properties claimed of the god are accurate or not.

          • jjramsey

            Well, to be fair, you did answer what is preventing you from concluding that Prince Philip is the son of a mountain spirit. However, saying that “[t]he more interesting question is whether or not the properties claimed of the god are accurate or not” isn’t a complete get-out-of-jail-free card.

            Suppose, for example, that we met a guy named Thor who could control thunder, didn’t age, and had lived for centuries, but his hammer was just an ordinary hammer. Yes, he lacks one of the properties claimed of him by Norse myth, but he still has enough of the properties that one might expect from a god that it would be reasonable to call him such.

            On the other hand, suppose that we have a man who is reputed to be immortal and to do miracles, and has thus been worshiped as a god. However, it turns out that he is just an ordinary human about whom legends have accreted. You might call him a god and say that merely the properties claimed of him are inaccurate. I would say that he simply is not a god at all, that his actual properties make him so removed from what a god is purported to be that to call him a god would water down the meaning of the word “god” to uselessness.

  • Cady555

    As an atheist, I have come to the conclusion that there is no evidence to support the conclusion that supernatural beings exist. Word games won’t change my conclusion.

    • James F. McGrath

      This isn’t an attempt at apologetics, to persuade you to worship cats! The point is to get people to be more precise, so that when they do make a point, it will be more persuasive.

      • Brad Feaker

        And that is a good point. The trouble I have is trying to pin down the various theists I interact with to precisely define their god.

        I hear over and over – “Well, I do not believe in a god like that either”. But when you to to force them to actually define their god and his/her attributes they can never quite seem to come through.

        • arcseconds

          So, you’ve (hopefully) established that they don’t believe in a God that sends hurricanes because of gay people in a different city and punishes people who didn’t say the magic words for all eternity, or heals people who refuse modern medicine, or created the cosmos 6000 years ago in a way that appears as though it’s several billion years old to scientists, but those scientists are somehow missing or deliberately not seeing the obvious.

          That means you’ve got substantial agreement with them on all the important issues!

          Isn’t this good news?

          • Brad Feaker

            So, you’ve (hopefully) established that they don’t believe in a God that sends hurricanes because of gay people in a different city and punishes people who didn’t say the magic words for all eternity, or heals people who refuse modern medicine, or created the cosmos 6000 years ago in a way that appears as though it’s several billion years old to scientists, but those scientists are somehow missing or deliberately not seeing the obvious.

            I wish that were the case – but until I see creationists stop trying to ruin my kids science education, stop seeing fundies trying to legislate their religious beliefs and see an end to all the bigotry and hatred…I will fight against it as best I can.


          • arcseconds

            In your comment that I’m replying to, you’re talking about people who say “I don’t believe in a god like that”.

            But now you’re talking about creationists and fundies, who do believe in a god like that.

            Why are you suddenly talking about a different group of people? Or do you not distinguish between the two, even though one group doesn’t believe in a god like that, and the other does?

          • Brad Feaker

            That pretty much sums up most Christians in general I debate with – not just the fundies and creationists. I am fairly confident in saying that your conception of ‘God’ is different than Mr. Magrath’s conception – or anyone else’s for what it is worth. And I am also fairly certain your conception of ‘God’ contains logical contradictions and ill founded attributes OR ignores your holy book’s description completely. It’s hard to tell sometimes when someone is unable to define the deity they worship – even in a small way.

            So why don’t you give me your definition of your deity and let’s have a civil discussion about it?

          • James F. McGrath

            It is your reference to a “holy book,” and not just your getting my name and title wrong, that makes me think that you are engaging with an imagined conversation partner and not my views as articulated on this blog as well as elsewhere.

          • arcseconds

            All Christians you debate with believe in an interventionist, homophobic God who sends hurricanes and created the universe 6000 years ago and heals people who refuse modern medicine?

            And yet you say they’re not all fundies and creationists?

            Who are these Christians that you debate with that believe this and are yet not fundies and creationists? Surely by definition if you believe God created the universe 6000 years ago you’re a creationist…

            Anyway, it’s a good thing you are here, because plenty of Christians don’t think the universe is 6000 years old or God tries to punish gay people with poorly-aimed hurricanes, and it’s about time you met some.

            What makes you think I have a deity or a holy book? And you seem to be insisting on a literal hermeneutic for my supposed holy book, why should I be required to adopt such a hermeneutic? Especially given holy books tend to be rich in metaphor and symbolism, it seems like a good recipe for not understanding the text.

            And are you sure your conception of God is free of contradiction and ill-founded attributes?

          • James

            You’re setting up a strawman. You might try being a wee bit more polite if you want to have an actual discussion. Atheists certainly know progressives aren’t YECs; speaking for myself, I was a progressive for years before I deconverted. At least as many atheists have moderate to progressive backgrounds, as opposed to fundamentalist. The problem from an atheist perspective, though, is essentially the same: progressives and YECs alike each asserts strong intuitive belief, yet lacks evidence of existence of their deity or even a coherent definition of what it is they think they worship. Where the YEC denies evidence, the progressive tends to render most of the bible into allegory, except that bit about Jesus. Try thinking about it as an outsider for a bit – would you be convinced someone has a True Belief (whatever that is supposed to mean) in a deity when they cannot define what they believe in, provide evidence for its existence or even define what that deity is even supposed to do?

          • arcseconds

            I’m setting up a strawman‽ Brad is the one who’s not clearly distinguishing between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists!

        • Pseudonym

          I’m not a theologian, but for what it’s worth, this bugs mainstream theologians too. Consider all those classical “arguments” for the existence of God. When asked to characterise the deity of the religion which has presumably changed someone’s life for the better, few would say: “Why, the unmoved mover, of course!”

          Having said that, for someone up the more liberal end of the theological spectrum, asking someone to define their god and any associated attributes is probably the wrong way of looking at it, because uncertainty and ambiguity and messiness is a large part of it. It’s more a process of discovery, like an explorer or someone in a new relationship.

          • James F. McGrath

            And I would add that in some instances, there is deliberate slipperiness to avoid substantive criticism, whereas in others, particularly in mystical branches of various traditions, language is by definition inadequate to describe transcendent reality, and so if language is pinned down to something that is literal description instead of symbol, one by definition has ceased to be speaking about what is meant by “God.”

          • Pseudonym

            Yeah, it reminds me of the classic Christian heresies, all of which seemed to have the same problem: over-defining the nature of God.

          • Brad Feaker

            If you cannot define it, you cannot know it. Which is why faith is a failure as an epistemology.

          • Pseudonym

            Of course it would be silly to use trust or loyalty (virtuous though they may be) as a source of knowledge. I think most people here would agree with that.

          • Brad Feaker

            I would be interested to know if (and how much) you are acquainted with the works of Joseph Campbell.

          • James F. McGrath

            Yes, but not intimately or extensively. “Somewhat acquainted” might be a good description.

          • Brad Feaker

            I guess my point is this. I am often confronted with this statement when discussing religion with a theist.

            “You cannot prove God doesn’t exist”

            Of course I can’t if you cannot define what the attributes of your deity are. If there is a supernatural deity that intervenes in the natural world, there should be evidence of that intervention. so, in theory and practice, it is possible to prove, to a high degree of certainty, that said deity does not exist.

            So if a theist cannot define what he/she worships it shows they have no intellectual foundation for their belief in such a being. “Sophisticated Theologians” (TM) are very good at giving vague, slippery definitions of their deity’s attributes for this very reason.

          • James F. McGrath

            I think one needs to make distinctions between what might be regarded as apologists’ attempts to be slippery so as to evade criticism, and theological systems in which what is meant by God is clear but by definition is symbolic and not literal. It isn’t being vague to say that God does not have clear attributes because God is a term that points to an ultimate reality that transcends our ability to perceive and comprehend, and which we thus only comprehend partly and at times intuitively. I could well imagine someone criticizing physicists for being “vague” about the origin of the Big Bang or about the multiverse, when in fact the “vagueness” is altogether appropriate in response to the fact that there are things we do not know, and indeed cannot know.

          • Brad Feaker

            It isn’t being vague to say that God does not have clear attributes because God is a term that points to an ultimate reality that transcends our ability to perceive and comprehend, and which we thus only comprehend partly and at times intuitively.

            Which proves my very point. You have a holy book that purports to teach you about the nature of your deity. And it does so in no uncertain terms. But the deity described therein is such an unpleasant, and very human like, character that your have to obscure that definition in layers of sophistry.

            And I know – you cannot take all the words of the Bible literally….but that raises another long standing issue. How do you know which is which? And while a theologian will generally answer with ‘hermeneutics’ – in reality it is a crap shoot. It is really just a matter of each individuals judgement – hence 40,000+ Protestant denominations.

            I could well imagine someone criticizing physicists for being “vague” about the origin of the Big Bang or about the multiverse, when in fact the “vagueness” is altogether appropriate in response to the fact that there are things we do not know, and indeed cannot know.

            Except astrophysicists are not vague about it at all…they will quite freely admit to not knowing. Which clearly delineates the boundary between scientific and theological thought. An honest scientist will freely admit his or her ignorance. They make have a hypothesis – but they demand hard, empirical evidence to support it before they attempt to advance it as a working theory. A theist/theologian, however, begins with the position that their deity exists and works backwards from there. One should follow Hume and proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence.

            … there are things we do not know, and indeed cannot know.

            I agree that there are many things we do not know. I disagree that there are things that are unknowable. Just are the people of the second century could not conceive of the knowledge and abilities we have now, how can you be so certain that we will not gain that sort of knowledge in the future?


          • Pseudonym

            You have a holy book that purports to teach you about the nature of your deity. And it does so in no uncertain terms.

            If you honestly think that, it’s a fair bet that you don’t normally read this blog. That’s okay; welcome to you. It’s fair to say that most people here who identify as some variety of theist here would not agree with basically any part of this claim.

            The book of which you speak is an eclectic anthology, written and re-edited by many people over the course of centuries. It is a “holy book” in the same sense that cats are gods (there are people who believe it is and treat it as such), but very few, if any, of its authors made such a claim.

            The anthology does not “purport[] to teach” anything, although some of its authors do. And the terms in which it speaks are usually anything but certain, especially when you consider how the terms in which its authors tried to understand the “nature of [the] deity” in question changed dramatically over the course of its composition.

            And I know – you cannot take all the words of the Bible literally….but that raises another long standing issue. How do you know which is which?

            There are so many assumptions in here to unpack that it would take several blog posts to do so. This is an academic blog, so the ultimate answer is “research”, but only once you have decided precisely what it means to “take […] the words of the Bible literally”. Once you’ve agreed on precisely what you mean by that, the parts of the Bible that James thinks are literally accurate may well be the same parts that you do.

            Does anyone seriously doubt that the Levitical laws were literally part the religious/civil code of laws of the Hebrew people at some point in their history? Does anyone seriously doubt that Paul really did write letters to some church communities, and the words in them (well, the authentic ones) accurately reflect what he actually thought at the time?

          • James F. McGrath

            Yes, I was shocked to find myself addressed in a way that showed such complete unfamiliarity with anything that remotely resembles what I actually think. I wondered at first whether the comment was intended to be left elsewhere as a response to someone else.

          • arcseconds

            I disagree that there are things that are unknowable.

            That’s a very bold claim. Do you think we can know things that happen outside our past light-cone? You know that that commits you to information travelling faster than light?

            And what’s your opinion on Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? How do we go about knowing mathematical results that can’t be proven by our system? How could we go about proving the Generalized Continuum Hypothesis?

          • Brad Feaker

            I will answer your question with another.

            Can you predict the future? How do you know we will not discover new principles and new methods of discovery? Or new principles of mathematics and physics?

            My point being – we do not know these things now..and it is true we may never know….but you cannot simply say something is forever unknowable. The only caveat I would add is knowable in our observable universe. And who knows? Maybe we will find a way to look beyond that…or maybe we will go extinct first.

            And while I am aware of Godel’s theorems, I am not enough of a mathematician to speak directly to it. I was a biology and computer science major 😉

          • arcseconds

            You disagree that there are things that are unknowable. So you are claiming that all things are knowable. The burden of proof is on you for this, not on me.

            You don’t actually have any proof of this, just optimism.

            I’ve raised some standard examples of things that out best theories tell us that we can’t know.

            Your response to one is to retreat: you’ve now restricted your claim to the observable universe. That is the same thing as agreeing that (as far as we know) we can’t know things that are outside our past light-cone.

            The response to the other is to say that you don’t understand it.

            The result of the incompleteness theorems is that any formal system that can prove arithmetical truths will be able to express true statements it can’t prove (or else it’ll be inconsistent and be able to ‘prove’ everything, even false things).

            So there will always be truths beyond what our system can do. I don’t think you can just handwave and say “maybe we’ll find out that that’s wrong one day”: there has been a lot of focus on these results, and they have been proven multiple ways by many mathematicians and logicians, so there’s no problem with the proof. If we can prove anything, we’ve proven this. To say ‘maybe it’s wrong’ is to cast doubt on our ability to do mathematical logic, so it doesn’t result in potential omniscience, but outright scepticism about mathematics.

            Now, it’s true the results only apply to formal systems, so maybe we’ll find some way of proving mathematical results that doesn’t rely on formal systems yet is as reliable as formal systems are. To us now, that would seem like a mystical insight. I can’t prove that it’s not possible, but it seems quite unlikely, and you are committed to the existence of some unfathomable future way of doing mathematics by saying everything is knowable.

            As you have done computer science, perhaps you might be familiar with the Halting Problem? It’s closely related to the incompleteness theorems.

            Will we one day be able to know what computer programs will halt and which ones won’t?

            Turing and others actually investigated what would be the result if we had a device that could tell us which computer programs could halt or not. Turing called this device an ‘oracle’, and it turns out an oracle machine (a Turing machine equipped with an oracle) ends up having its own halting problem, so you need a second-order oracle machine oracle to tell whether oracle machine programs will halt or not…

            Moreover, presumably we’re always going to have limits to our computational abilities. So there are always going to be things we can’t compute. Are you convinced we will one day have infinite computational resources?

    • Simon K

      I am not a big fan of the term “atheist”. Most people today who call themselves “atheist”, their primary point is not about whether or not “God” (as understood in the traditional Western sense) exists, but rather the position that physical reality as revealed by the natural sciences is all there is (or at least, all that can possibly be known). I think terms like “antisupernaturalist”, “naturalist”, “scientific materialist”, etc, may be better, because most atheists will equally reject non-theistic supernatural beliefs (like many of those traditional to Buddhism, or John McTaggart’s philosophy that the fundamental constituents of reality are immortal souls), even though those beliefs are technically atheist too. John McTaggart would not have been a good fit for the contemporary atheist community. Calling your position “atheism” is naming your viewpoint after one of its consequences rather than naming it after its more fundamental principles (even though I accept that in some societies, that consequence is much more salient than the fundamental principles that produce it.)

      • arcseconds

        While I agree in principle, ‘naturalist’ and ‘scientific materialists’ technically rule out people who think numbers exist.

        ‘antisupernaturalist’ sounds like a clumsy freshly-minted neologism :-) and also suffers from the same criticism as ‘atheist’: it’s a consequence, not a fundamental principle.

        (There are also people who are atheists because the Church won’t marry divorcées and such like)

        • Simon K

          Is a Platonist position in the philosophy of mathematics that incompatible with naturalism? A person could hold the viewpoint “everything which exists is either describable by the natural sciences or by mathematics or both”, and while that technically is a Platonism-naturalism hybrid, such a person and a pure naturalist would disagree on very little. Indeed, I suspect many people who subscribe to such a viewpoint would simply call themselves “naturalists”.

          My wife calls herself an atheist – she doesn’t believe any God exists – but she believes in a life after death. I don’t think she’d fit in with most of contemporary atheism – which de facto involves rejection of an afterlife – even if she literally fits the definition. This is why I think maybe atheism (as a social movement) should look for a more accurate term for its self-definition, because they’ve adopted a word yet use it in a way which excludes people who meet its literal definition.

          • arcseconds

            I think someone who thinks that numbers exist and we find out things about them by a process of pure reasoning actually has quite a big difference of opinion with someone who thinks that numbers are a kind of highly disguised empirical theory, to say nothing of someone who thinks that epistemology is really just a branch of evolutionary biology.

            Those are three very different understandings of what it is to know something, and in the case of the first one versus the last two at least, of what it is for something to exist.

            It’s only a small disagreement because no-one besides philosophers are particularly interested in the question.

            If our society was such that we had ‘rationalist’ and ’empiricist’ channels on Patheos, and there were campaigns to get more rationalism into schools (or to expel it because it’s too close to being supernatural revelation and therefore a violation of the non-establishment clause), then we might well think it was a big difference of opinion.

          • arcseconds

            I agree that in some respects it would be better if the atheist movement picked another name, but I also think the horse has bolted on that one.

            As I’ve tried to explain before to Gravelle, it seems clear that ‘atheist’ now has at least two meanings: the restricted, classic definition of ‘denies the existence of God’, and these days increasingly ‘something to do with the atheist movement’. When someone is said to be ‘an atheist author’, for example, that frequently does not mean ‘an author who also happens to be an atheist’ but ‘an author who writes for the atheist community’.

            Plenty of people who deny the existence of God don’t want anything to do with the atheist community, so they look for a label that doesn’t implicate them, or proffer hedging caveats.

          • Simon K

            Another reason I bring this up, is I think the very decision to label the debate as between “theism” and “atheism” actually changes the way the debate is carried on. Adopting those labels focuses the discussion on the philosophical question of “Does God exist?”; but I think the debate might be more productive if we put that question aside for now, and focused more on background questions, such as is materialism true? is naturalism true? etc. If materialism, physicalism, naturalism are true, then the existence of God (at least as classically understood) is impossible; if they are false, then the existence of God (in the classical sense) becomes a possibility (we can debate whether it is a remote possibility or a likely one).

          • arcseconds

            What does ‘materialism’ mean? As I said to Gravelle, the understanding of ‘matter’ has changed significantly in the last 400 years or so, and there’s no real guarantee it won’t change again.

            So materialism seems to almost by definition be ‘only assert the existence of things found in the latest physics’ or something like that. It’s hard to see what could possibly prove it false, because as soon as one worked-up notion of ‘material things’ is discarded, the new notion becomes materialism. I suppose if all at once a spirit realm was revealed maybe then they’d have to recant, but if we discovered some other domain of existence bit by bit by mathematical theorizing and careful experiments, and it turned out that that’s where ESP works or whatever, I can’t see any reason why that wouldn’t be embraced as a new theory of matter. People have already shown themselves to be quite comfortable at speaking of ‘the material’ in terms of spooky properties that vanish when you look at them sideways, prima facie cases of future states causing current behaviour, non-local action, extra spatial dimensions we can’t see, etc.

            On the other hand, it seems crazy to say that we know for sure that physics won’t discover entirely new phenomena, that cause us to re-evaluate what we mean by matter. So it certainly makes sense to deny that the current theory is complete and isn’t subject to revision.

            But I’m not sure whether this really makes the discussion any more productive. Plenty of atheists already agree that the probability of the existence of a traditionally-conceived powerful, non-material (whatever that means) entity is non-zero. So the discussion is already kind of proceeding on this basis.

            And what does ‘productive’ mean anyway? Is it really productive to agree on the modal possibility of the existence of a powerful, non-material entity?

            These topics seem more likely to be productive in a clear sense to me:
            — what should we accept in the public sphere? Should our courts accept divine intervention as a possible cause of death, say? Should science classes teach cosmologies drawn from religious texts?
            — to what extent should religious beliefs be accepted as a valid reason for acting?
            — how should LBTQ folk be treated?
            — why would you care about how I spend my Sunday mornings?
            — what exactly do you get out of your religious practices?

            fortunately, it seems that there can be a widespread agreement among atheists and religious people on these issues .

            Unsurprisingly there are dogmatic and domineering people who will insist on unhelpful answers to these questions.

            But it seems dogmatic, imprudent, and unwise to forgo an alliance with people under a different label that do agree with you on substantive issues like these because there are other people under that label who don’t.

          • Simon K

            What does ‘materialism’ mean? As I said to Gravelle, the understanding of ‘matter’ has changed significantly in the last 400 years or so, and there’s no real guarantee it won’t change again.

            I think materialism (as a position in the philosophy of mind) is best understood through comparison with its chief alternatives idealism and dualism. Materialism says that mind is dependent on matter for its existence, that matter is a fundamental existent but mind is a dependent existent. Idealism says that matter is dependent on mind for its existence, that mind is a fundamental existent but matter is a dependent existent. Dualism says that mind and matter are of equal ontological status, that neither is more fundamental than the other. While materialists’ theoretical understandings of what the most basic form of matter is have changed over the decades and centuries, none of those changes have altered its logical relationship to idealism and dualism.

            And what does ‘productive’ mean anyway?

            What is productive is relevant to one’s aims. For me, my primary aim is to discover the truth, and having observed much of the existing debate on the truth of theism-vs-atheism, I feel like changing its focus might better serve that aim.

            You raise a bunch of important social issues and practical concerns. I don’t mean to diminish them, but philosophical questions occupy my mind more. If we were to discuss them, I get the impression we would probably mostly agree anyway.

          • arcseconds

            Do you find online debates actually at all productive in terms of discovering truth?

            Frankly if that was my aim, I’d think them an almost complete waste of time. Most people do little more than say just what their fellow-travellers say, in terms of say articulating a philosophical position. A few say genuinely novel things (at least to me) but I’m seldom at all convinced by them. Occasionally one gets something that does provoke some belief revision, but you’d be much better off doing something else, like reading books.

            The theism-vs-atheism debate in particular seldom seems to be about truth at all, and it’s certainly not about understanding each other. Instead it’s about drawing up battle lines.

            Look at Giraffe-Junk in the ‘Mythicist defenders of Christian Orthodoxy’ thread: he is flailing around trying to find a traditional theist to fight. He’s not at all interested in learning anything.

          • Simon K

            Do you find online debates actually at all productive in terms of discovering truth?

            Honestly you are mostly right there. The level of online discourse in general is pretty poor. But what am I to do? I feel the need to discuss philosophy with someone, and none of my real-life friends are particularly interested in that, so on to the Internet I go, looking for someone to talk to, mostly futile. I’d really like to find someone who is thoughtful, serious, but also who disagrees with me (since that is a much better test of the correctness of my views than talking to someone who agrees with me.) But, it’s hard, I’m almost always disappointed.

            I feel a strong emotional need for religious belief combined with a lot of intellectual doubts about whether religious belief is valid. So that drives me to philosophy, trying to answer those doubts.

          • Cady555

            You don’t speak for me.

      • Cady555

        I am an atheist. That is my viewpoint on religion.

        • Simon K

          What’s the point of replying to me if you’ve failed to engage with the substance of what I’ve said? (Unlike arcseconds who has.) I don’t care if you agree or disagree with me, but merely repeating your identification of atheist without engaging with the detail of my criticism of the term is a rather pointless response.

  • rasungod0

    The Egyptians didn’t worship all cats, they just treated them really well as the servants of Bastet.

    Kinda like how Hindus treat monkeys really well since they are servants of Hanuman.

    But even if you do define a god as something that exists, you are just using a poor word for that definition since word god has baggage.

    • James F. McGrath

      The word “god” has a lot of baggage, of a lot of different kinds. One could easily point to Neil Peart as proof that drum gods exist, or Neal Schon that guitar gods exist. And obviously the natural follow-up is to say that you weren’t talking about those kinds of “gods.” Which is the point – the be clear and precise about what we mean.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Boom! Suck on THAT, Sam Harris! *drops mic*

  • Sven2547

    unless on defines clearly what one means by “god,”…

    An ongoing annoyance of religion is that they keep shifting on their definition of “God”. It’s impossible to nail down because it is so mercurial.

    • Daniel Wilcox

      A good place to start is with the first denotative definition of Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality:”

      Of course even with that definition one has to define what is “ultimate”? What is “reality”?

    • arcseconds

      A bit like those pesky scientists, always changing what things like ‘atom’ means.

      Or ‘matter’ — it’s well established that there’s a lot more to the universe than the passive, localised, individual, hard particles of the early mechanists like Huygens and Descartes.

      But somehow this never results in materialists saying “we were wrong”, but rather with them redefining what counts as ‘material’ to suit!

      • Sven2547

        That’s kind of a lousy comparison.

        Scientists may refine definitions as our understanding of reality improves (and yes: good scientists DO say “we were wrong”, quite frequently).

        In contrast, the shifting definition of God arises ad-hoc, as a matter of convenience. At one moment a believer may be extolling the personal, communicative, always-active God they believe in, and in the next moment they are defending the hypothetical existence of a vague, deistic ‘first cause’ of unknown intelligence.

        • arcseconds

          If ‘materialist’ meant some fixed idea about what the universe consisted of, there should be no more materialists, as quantum physics has blown away the entire notion of the universe consisting of matter as it was understood in the 19th century.

          (And Newton blew away the notion of matter as it was understood in the 17th century. )

          Are we comparing the best scientists with theists that you happen to bump into on the street?

          Talk about lousy comparisons… if you’re going to that, then let’s make a fairer comparison with people who vaguely remember a couple of popular books they read about quantum physics.

          Such people have extremely confused ideas about matter: to them it’s a mishmash of ideas of continuous media, classical hard particles, and misunderstood spookiness from quantum theory. Depending on what you’re talking about one or the other will take precedence.

          Theists are often quite prepared to say they were wrong about God, too. Hadn’t you noticed?

        • James

          That’s a retreat to unfalsifiability, also known as a bait-and-switch. In debate, it’s sometimes known as a motte-and-bailey. Theists defend a vague, unfalsifiable concept and then equivocate, asserting a falsifiable deity with a specific, lengthy history of interaction with people. Such tactics strikes me as self-deception or outright dishonesty.

          • Sven2547

            I think you are misunderstanding where I am coming from. I am an atheist. I am well aware that the theistic approach is often a fallacious appeal to the unfalsifiable.

    • Pseudonym

      An ongoing annoyance of religion is that they keep shifting on their definition of “God”.

      You don’t think that part of it could be that you’re talking to different people with different ideas? Hell, I bet you don’t see the world the same way that you did ten years ago.

      • Sven2547

        You don’t think that part of it could be that you’re talking to different people with different ideas?

        Is God real or is God an idea? Because your question seems to indicate the latter, even if you did not intend that.

        Gather 10 random nuclear physicists from around the world, from completely different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and they will all agree with a very high degree of precision on the properties of, say, a Hydrogen atom.

        Gather 10 random theologians, and they’ll scarcely agree on anything. That’s because theology isn’t about discovering facts. It’s about coming up with ideas.

        • Pseudonym

          Is God real or is God an idea?

          For the purpose of comparative religion, which is what I think you were talking about, gods are ideas.

          Actually, the Greek gods were even moreso; many of them were the anthropomorphisation/reification of abstract concepts like “victory” or “justice”.

          • arcseconds

            to deny the existence of Eros is to deny the existence of love

        • Pseudonym

          One more thing, while I think of it.

          Gather 10 random nuclear physicists […]

          Now gather 10 random literature academics and try to get them to agree on, say, Finnegans Wake. You’ll probably get 12 different opinions.

          The academic study of religion happens in the humanities faculty, not the science faculty, and with good reason.

        • James

          “Is God real or is God an idea? Because your question seems to indicate the latter, even if you did not intend that.”
          Exactly. Objects exist in reality and occasionally are known by and can be modeled by minds. Concepts exist in minds and occasionally models reality. Where the two intersect is where knowledge is found. Theism substitutes knowledge for unsubstantiated belief.

  • James F. McGrath
  • Liz

    “…unless on defines clearly what one means by “god,” then…”
    Hmmm…maybe you should learn how to proofread before you attempt to make logical arguments.

    • James F. McGrath

      Thank you for pointing out the typo. I appreciate it.

  • aar9n

    When I told my high school friend recently that I left Christianity, he asked if I still believed in God and I tried to explain this point. I am certainly an atheist to the sort of fundamentalist God I (and my friend) grew up with, but that’s a very different sort of thing than the “ground of all being” or “source” or pantheist or panentheist or process theology or whatever.

    Could I be athiesitic of some theologies of God and agnostic of others?

    Hence when someone asks if I believe in God, I find it important to ask them to define God.

    It frustrates me greatly that in both the fundamentalist and athiesitic communities such a question is bypassed entirely.

  • J. Gravelle

    My grandmother used to call me her “cute little Leprechaun”. And I can point to millions of peer-reviewed boxes of Lucky Charms cereal to back up the assertion that Leprechauns exist.

    Unless we agree to a third-party arbiter of our grammar. Then my claim, I’m afraid, fails the litmus test of viability, at least in the court of public opinion.

    For me, in matters of English, I’m happy to defer to, well, the English. Our friends at Oxford insist the Leprechaun is a subset of sprite, ergo a non-physical spirit and, as such, sorry Nana: I’m not a Leprechaun.

    Likewise, Oxford offers us god[s] as in the most popular contemporary vernacular as a superhuman creator of the universe, with “supernatural, preternatural, and paranormal” as their accepted synonyms for “superhuman”.

    Which gives us something to work with outside the constraints of any pantheistic insistence that god is anything and everything.

    Finally, on the noun “atheism” we’re told it’s “Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods” and, while I cringe at seeing “lack” where “absence” would be arguably more appropriate, I can work with it.

    I’ve said it before in these forums (including the provocative and often important pieces authored by our friend Mr. McGrath) and I don’t doubt that I’ll have to say it again: Atheism is is simply the domain of those unconvinced about theism.

    Your grandson isn’t a Leprechaun, Nana. But he IS an atheist. And, at least for now, he exists…

    • arcseconds

      the OED has:
      1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
      2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man.

      A simple lack of belief has never been part of the standard use of this term. No-one asserts that horses and tea-cups are atheists.

      Christians historically have never called people who are ignorant of God ‘atheists’, that’s always been reserved for people who reject the notion of the Christian God.

      Of course, they have also applied it to people who profess uncertainty or don’t have quite the right theology and so forth, but even here they use the term to assert (often falsely) that the person has rejected God.

      • J. Gravelle

        “A simple lack of belief has never been part of the standard use of this term.”

        Sorry, no. The ancient Greeks most certainly did.

        = = =

        “No-one asserts that horses and tea-cups are atheists.”

        Careful with blanket assertions. I’d be happy to establish that my dog is an atheist, if afforded the latitude for that tangent by our esteemed moderator[s].

        = = =

        Bottom line: Not a theist = atheist …

        • arcseconds

          That is giving the etymology. It no more shows the Greeks used it of people who knew nothing of gods then the etymology for ‘television’ shows people believed in some magical power of seeing at a distance.

          I know you love to assert this, but you don’t actually have any evidence for this.

          What I would require before I change my mind is some actual linguistic evidence of people using ‘atheist’ regularly for animals, infants, inanimate objects, and people who lack an opinion one way or the other. Not repeated assertions and appeals to etymology, neither of which shows anything.

          You deciding to use it in this way also shows nothing. If you’re successful in getting everyone to recognise dogs as atheists, then the meaning will have changed, but for now you and maybe a handful of others are the only people who use the word like this — and you’re the one appealing to ordinary English for definitions, so I don’t think you’re entitled to your own novel definition.

          • J. Gravelle

            “…I don’t think you’re entitled to your own novel definition…” [ of atheism ]

            Agreed. Nor you, yours.

            And the word “atheist” still equates to “not a theist” and need not mean “anti-theist”. If you take issue with the prefix “a-“, please hammer it out with the Greeks, the Websters, et al.

            Apolitical = not political. Atheist = not theistic…

          • arcseconds

            In case you hadn’t noticed, English isn’t a computer programming language where you can just look at the prefix and immediately tell what the operation is and therefore what it means.

            You already accept that ‘atom’ no longer means ‘indivisible thing’. Any appeal you make to the etymology of ‘atheist’ also applies to ‘atom’, but clearly ‘atom’ has changed its meaning and does not mean that any longer.

            Moreover, I don’t believe it has ever meant what you say it means. Again, this can’t just be read off the etymology: to say of someone they’re a ‘not god’ person, does that mean they lack a belief in god, or positively assert a ‘there is not a god’? Or does it just mean that the gods have abandoned them? Without looking at how it is used, we can’t tell.

            (Note too that ‘atom’ doesn’t mean just something that hasn’t been divided, so the sense is not ‘without division’, but rather something stronger than that: ‘cannot be divided’. )

            Similarly with ‘television’: it actually means a device that is used to ‘see far’, and not just any such a device but one that transmits an image, so a telescope is still not a television. This meaning is not present at all in the formation of the word.

            What you require is exactly what I have asked for, which is linguistic evidence for people actually using ‘atheist’ to mean what you says it means in the case of the current meaning or in the meaning of the Greek.

          • J. Gravelle

            “I don’t believe [the word ‘atheist’] has ever meant what you say it means…”

            Then you are mistaken, and at odds with more than just me.

            Googling the precise phrase “atheism means not a theist” returns some +4000 results and, lest I get accused of argumentum ad populi, I’m only submitting this to exonerate myself of the charge that the notion is singularly mine:


            If you eschew the Greek etymology, we have the French, first accredited with the modern use of the word in the 16th century, per our friends at

            atheist n. 1570s, from French athéiste (16c.), from Greek atheos “WITHOUT GOD, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly,” from a- “without” + theos “a god” (see Thea ).
            [emphasis mine]

            If you have a belief in god[s], you’re a theist. Everybody else is an atheist…

          • arcseconds

            Etymologies do not give the meanings of words. ‘Atom’ no longer means ‘indivisible thing’, ‘awful’ does not mean ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘batman’ is not someone who is in charge of a bat-horse any longer.

            So it’s not that I reject the Greek etymology and will accept the French, I reject all etymologies as determining the meaning of a word. At best it can help to determine the original meaning, or help us to guess at the current meaning.

            It would be nice to think that when people give definitions they actually describe what they do themselves. But unfortunately this is not the case. People constantly note ‘rules’ for English that virtually no-one has ever consistently followed, most competent writers don’t follow and don’t try to, and often the person giving the rule doesn’t even follow themselves.

            This can most often be seen with grammar. Things like ending sentences with prepositions and starting sentences with conjunctions have always happened all over the place, in the best writing, and often even the people who think it’s ungrammatical do it. So these aren’t genuine grammatical rules.

            So people saying that this is what atheism means unfortunately doesn’t mean that anyone actually uses ‘atheism’ like that, even the people who give that definition.

            If you can find me a conversation between people who just naturally understand ‘atheist’ to include ‘nones’, agnostics, infants and pantheists (and maybe dogs and teacups) without prefacing it with something like ‘for the purposes of this discussion, ‘atheist’ means … ‘ then I’ll concede that there’s a minority use where it means that.

            Otherwise I think all this shows is that there’s a lot of people insisting on a false definition that describes no-one’s use of the term.

          • J. Gravelle

            Let’s try this: Can we at least agree that a person either is, or is NOT a theist…?

          • arcseconds

            Why would you think the world divides neatly into two pieces like that?

            An obvious problem is that clearly (and this entire discussion thread is evidence of this) there is no universal understanding on what counts as a god.

            And different people have different understanding of what counts as theism even beyond ‘believes in a god’. Some (I suspect most) understand it to mean ‘any belief in any god whatsoever’, but pantheists and panentheists do believe in something they’re inclined to call ‘god’ but often say they aren’t theists.

            So it’s entirely possible for ‘X is a theist’ and ‘X is not a theist’ to be asserted of the same person, and both be true, when ‘theist’ means two different things in either case.

            Moreover, even with a statement with a much clearer and more obvious meaning there are an array of attitudes one can take to it

            Take young-earth creationism. Clearly there are people who are young-earth creationists. There are also people who clearly aren’t. But what about someone who kinda believes it , but is starting to have doubts about it? Are they a young-earth creationist? How much doubt is needed before they’re not one? What about someone who’s a young-earth creationist on Sundays and Wednesday evenings, but otherwise isn’t (this sort of thing really happens)? What about someone who gives contradictory answers depending on the context in which they are asked?

          • J. Gravelle

            Me: “Let’s try this: Can we at least agree that a person
            either is, or is NOT a theist…?”

            My Friend Arc: “Why would you think the world divides neatly into two pieces like that?”

            Either one believes in some manner of god, or one does not. Something cannot be itself and not itself at the same time.

            “X” is “X”. Not “X” is Not “X”. A thing cannot be both “X” and not-“X”.

            Your argument is with the ancient Greeks and the logical absolutes, not with me…

          • James F. McGrath

            As with most terms, “theist” can be used in more than one way. If you mean by “theist” anyone who believes in any sort of God, then you may get two categories (although some would argue that in the realm of pantheism, theism and atheism overlap). But if by theist you mean classical theism, then other categories besides atheism and theism include pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, and Deism.

          • J. Gravelle

            The theist is certainly free to define their own theism. One religion’s adherent is another’s infidel, I get that.

            But whatever we decide “X” to be, that thing IS then “X” for purposes of discussion. And those things that are NOT “X” are simply not “X”.

            Again, the matters of self-identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle aren’t concepts I’ve pulled from– um, a hat.

            It would be dishonest of me to pretend I’ve entertained the notion that a thing can both be and NOT be just to advance the discussion. If we can’t get further than that, I’m afraid we’re stuck…

          • James

            Theologians tend to equivocate when convenient.

          • arcseconds

            Did you actually read my comment, or did you only get as far as the first line?

            I say this because if you had read my comment, and thought about it a little bit, you might realise that in fact classical logic(*) is not applicable in this case.

            Firstly, even Aristotle understands that logic cannot apply in the absence of clear definitions.

            And I have raised problems with the definition of ‘theism’, and the definition of ‘belief’, which you seem disinclined to address.

            Secondly, we have in fact moved beyond the logic of Aristotle.

            People don’t just have things they either believe or don’t: they can be almost certain, kinda sure, vaguely inclined to believe, doubtful, etc. We have developed (or appropriated, depending on which way one sees the history) the probability calculus to formalize this notion.

            Another way in which we have moved beyond the logic of Aristotle is that we have recognised that properties can come in degrees, and in fact it’s surprising what properties actually aren’t there or not there if you reflect on it a bit. The usual go-to examples are things like ‘bald’, or ‘is a heap’ (you might like to look up ‘Sorites Paradox’ for the motivation here), but even things like ‘pregnant’ or ‘explosion’ aren’t as clear cut as one might think.

            The formalization of this notion is known as ‘fuzzy logic’.

            So, if you’re going to assert this ‘X is X’ business on the basis of ancient authority, your argument is with modern logic and epistemology, not with me! :-)

          • J. Gravelle

            “People don’t just have things they either believe or don’t…”

            You either believe there IS a plesiosaur living in Loch Ness, or you do not. If you are unsure, you do not. You are therefore aNessian.

            I’m not promoting the false dichotomy that not-believing equals disbelief, only that not believing is not believing. The degrees of conviction of belief are irrelevant; the spectrum runs from belief to knowledge.

            As for needing a common definition, our friends at Oxford were kind enough to oblige. Theism is: “Belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.”

            Merriam-Webster concurs nearly verbatim, saying theism is: “belief in the existence of a god or gods; specifically :
            belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the
            human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world”.

            One who is unconvinced that they hold such a belief is an atheist. It’s still no more complicated than that. There are theists, and those who are not theists; i.e. atheists.

            I hope you’re not insisting a mentally healthy individual can be simultaneously an atheist AND a theist, are you…?

          • arcseconds

            The problem with the definition of theism is the problem of defining what the notion of god is. As I’ve said already, in fact.

            And one thing you seem to have yet to understand is that dictionary definitions follow the behaviour of human beings, not the other way around.

            Anyway, you appear to think that deists and pantheists are atheists.

            Unfortunately for you, substantial numbers of people do not use the word in this way. In fact, I think basically nobody does. I’m prepared to revise this view once you present me with clear evidence of a natural conversation happening where all parties understand ‘atheist’ to include deists or pantheists, but only to the extent that it would show there is a minority who do use the word that way: many, if not most people do not.

            (Please don’t go back to asserting that ‘a’ means ‘without’. Or if you do, please give a new argument: I’ve explained ad nauseum that etymology doesn’t determine meaning.)

            And again, you haven’t told me how sure you have to be to count as believing in something. Do you require complete certainty? If so, then a lot of things I’d say I believe I actually don’t believe, because I regard very little as having a probability of 1.

            And what if I say I believe something, but act as if I don’t? Or act as if I do on some days but not on others?

            These are questions that I’ve already raised, that you just don’t seem to want to even acknowledge, let alone deal with.

            It would be nice if you would, you know… it’s kind of boring repeating the same points over and over again, and frustrating having them continually ignored.

            I’m not sure of what this ‘belief to knowledge’ spectrum is you’re talking about. Normally truth is regarded as a necessary condition to knowledge: you can’t know false things.

          • J. Gravelle

            And the problem with your schizophrenic position is that it insists that a person can simultaneously believe “X” and NOT believe “X”…

          • arcseconds

            Unfortunately reality doesn’t always fit our nice neat concepts, Gravelle.

            However, it’s not that my position is contradictory. It’s just that sometimes the situation is unclear. This is true of many of the concepts and terms we want to use: they seem clear in our heads, but reality does not fit them precisely, so we’re left with a lot of borderline cases that we don’t necessarily know what to say about them.

            So it’s not that someone can believe X and not believe X, but rather that sometimes they’re a very borderline case. They mostly believe X, but they have significant doubts. Or they act inconsistently: they say they believe X, but they act like they don’t. Or they act like they do sometimes, but not other times.

            You still haven’t discussed the kinds of cases I’m mentioning. Why is that? I suppose it is easier to ignore them and keep insisting that everything’s crystal clear and there are no problems, but it’s just sticking your head in the sand, isn’t it?

          • J. Gravelle

            “Unfortunately reality doesn’t always fit our nice neat concepts, Gravelle.”

            Is it or is it not your contention that a rational person can simultaneously believe “X” and NOT believe “X”…?

          • arcseconds

            No, not a rational person.

            But I thought we were talking about actual people, though? Maybe this is part of the problem here: you not only want to idealize belief, and theism, and atheism, you also want to deal with idealizations of people…

            A rational person would not give a probability 1 for contingent propositions though, so most of their propositional attitudes would not be a case of total belief.

            You haven’t told me how you want to deal with degrees of belief: this is a complexity that you’re apparently just refusing to grapple with.

            I get the impression that you’re just trying to ‘gotcha’ me, so you can catch me in a contradiction, and then perhaps declare victory and ignore everything I’m saying.

            I would suggest this is not a very responsible attitude to take. People actually do have degrees of belief, which can fluctuate, and it often is the case that people exhibit behaviour that cannot be captured by the ‘either they believe or they don’t’ model that you seem committed to.

            So far you have avoided even acknowledging these cases exist. You can avoid thinking about them entirely by biffing me in the ‘contradiction!’ bin. But of course that doesn’t change the fact that they are there.

            What does a good scientist do when they get data that doesn’t fit their model?

          • J. Gravelle

            “No, not a rational person.”

            Good, then one is either a theist or an atheist. I didn’t disappoint you, I hope.

            “People actually do have degrees of belief…”

            No, people have degrees of certainty. Certainty pertains to knowledge, the subset of belief.

            If I order a pizza, and fifteen minutes later the doorbell rings, I “believe” the pizza delivery person has arrived. Upon answering the door, I may confirm my belief, and my newly confirmed certainty will then escalate that belief to the level of ‘knowledge’.

            Conversely, I may find a flaming bag of poo, in which case my belief changes.

            This conflation of belief with knowledge has, thanks in no small part to Huxley’s ham-fisted attempt to offer agnosticism as a happy, neutral middle-ground, done nothing but muddy the issue.

            Anybody with the capacity FOR belief is, at any given point in time, either a theist, or an atheist. I won’t argue that they can change their minds, if that’s any sort of consolation. Many of us have.

            But even the irrational who still harbor the capacity for belief, either harbor a belief in universe creating gods or they do not, making them either a theist or an atheist…


          • arcseconds

            Good, then one is either a theist or an atheist. I didn’t disappoint you, I hope.

            Well, of course you’ve conveniently forgotten all the points against your claim, but that’s par for the course with you, so naturally I’m disappointed, but hardly surprised.

            Time to start keeping lists, to help you remember:

            Things Gravelle has forgotten:

            • people aren’t rational
            • ‘atheist’ doesn’t mean ‘the complement of theist’
            • repeating a claim doesn’t make things true
            • the following mean that there are unclear cases of belief in god:
            — degrees of belief (I’ll keep using the recognised term, thanks)
            — irrational propositional attitudes
            — no clear definition of God

            I’ve been over all of this. I’m not going over it again until you start paying attention to it, but I will continue to remind you of it so you don’t forget and think you’ve made your case, as you’ve apparently just done.

            I’ve quite a lot of ground to cover with you. But you seem to forget things so easily and not understand what I’m saying, so I’m hoping that maybe dealing with one point at a time might help. So I’ll keep a list of things that require my attention:

            Things arcseconds has yet to deal with:

            • truth is a necessary condition for knowledge (therefore knowledge is not as species of belief)
            • degrees of belief is the usual term (you could google this for yourself, of course)
            • the terminology makes no difference, calling it ‘degree of certainty’ doesn’t solve the problem

          • arcseconds

            Regarding knowledge:

            Can you know something that is false?

            I think not. Of course from a first-person perspective we can’t distinguish between something being true and us believing it: if we think it’s true we believe it (and even when we’re being irrational we don’t have the clarity of perspective to say ‘it’s false but I believe it anyway’).

            But with other people we can and do distinguish these things. We say things like “well, you think you know that, but actually it’s false” or “she says she knows he did it, but she has no proof”. we don’t say “Well, he knows he’ll make a lot of money with Madoff, but actually Madoff will fleece him” but “Well, he’s thinks he knows he’ll make a lot of money with Madoff, but actually Madoff will fleece him”.

            At any rate, such has been the opinion of most epistemologists since as far back as Plato at least, e.g.:

            Condition (i), the truth condition, is largely uncontroversial. Most epistemologists have found it overwhelmingly plausible that what is false cannot be known.

            (Stanford Enclycopaedia of Philosophy, Analysis of Knowlege.

            While belief is normally also regarded as a criterion, as truth is also required, knowledge is not not merely very certain belief.

          • J. Gravelle

            “…knowledge is not not merely very certain belief…”

            Agreed. And my dog is not merely a Spaniel, either. But my dog IS still a Spaniel.

            Just as knowledge is still a member/subset of belief…

          • arcseconds

            By the way, your venn diagram is too small to read. Even blowing it up does not help: the words are all blurred.

          • J. Gravelle
          • J. Gravelle
  • David Evans

    I’m curious. Which prominent atheists would you say are unclear about the god whose existence they deny? I’m away from my library, but I should say that Dawkins denies the existence of:

    (1) The god(s) whose actions are described in the Old Testament and the Qur’an
    (2) Any being who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent

    And would probably argue that (1) and (2) are not compatible definitions.

    • James

      When pressed on why an all-knowing, all-loving deity would advocate for genocide, rape, slavery and the other moral travesties of the OT (and NT), theists generally pull out the “free will” card and proceed to imagine a mysterious deity who must have very good, yet totally unknown reasons for not being able to create a better universe.

  • TheMarsCydonia

    Well if cats are gods, not only is atheism disproved but so is every religion that claims there exists a single god.

    So anyone claiming “there is no god of any sorts” should do well to define what is meant by “god” but so would anyone trying to show “god” exist lest the point is lost.

    • Pseudonym

      Well if cats are gods, not only is atheism disproved but so is every religion that claims there exists a single god.

      So the Ancient Hebrew religion, assuming that their texts are more-or-less accurate on this point, would not be disproven by this argument. Sure, they believed in one god who created the world, but other tribes had different gods. It’s not clear that the Hebrews were monotheists (in the sense of believing that only one god exists) prior to the Letter of Jeremiah.

      There’s an argument to be made that Medieval Christianity would also not be disproven by this argument. Sure, they professed belief in (and followed) one god, but they also believed that the world was full of supernatural entities, both malevolent and benign.

      Of course, all that is assuming that it even makes sense to use words like “proven” and “disproven” to refer to religion. Strictly speaking, “religion” is a way of life to be adopted, not a set of propositions to be accepted. You may as well ask if the wearing of hats can be “disproven”.

  • Sporkfighter

    Who says “There are no gods, there can be no gods”?

    Personally, I’ve waiting on convincing evidence for any particular god before I believe in it.

  • Kevin P. Hepp

    This is for all you here arguing/debating what “god” means and such…


    1. ostentatious in one’s learning.

    2.overly concerned with minute details or formalisms, especially in teaching.

    ….Call an apple an apple and stop the word games. There seems to be a desire to redefine everything to fit the person defining it. I would call this practice dishonest and/or completely pointless to further any meaningful discussion. It is counter productive to argue semantics when the basic definitions are adequate to describe the subject….. I honestly was hoping for a better comment section here, but found a word fight..

    • James F. McGrath

      Thank you for this comment. There have indeed been a number of comments from people who want to insist that only one tradition’s way of using the term “God” in English ought to be included in the discussion, and that somehow all others are “redefinitions” or whatnot. That isn’t how languages work, and indeed the very point of the original post was precisely that, if one is going to make a statement, one should make it in relation to specific ways that words are used, and not pretend that one particular definition is the only one when it is not.

      • Kevin P. Hepp

        Thats what I took away from the article, but i fear i am in a minority, that or they missed your point. The third option is that they just want to argue so they argue about everything. That kind of agruing reminds me of a Bill Clinton quote i heard on live tv…”that depends on what your deffinition of ‘is’ is”…almost made my ears bleed.

        • RbtRgus

          The question to ask is, “What do you believe and why?” If a person says they believe in a god, they have to define what they mean by god and then they might tell you why they believe it to be true.

          • Nonsensical
          • James

            When asked to define God, the definitions most theists provide are so vague and unspecific as to be totally meaningless. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. If they had to give specific, consistent definitions, they’d wind up not believing in it either. The goal of theism is belief, not uncertainty.

          • RbtRgus

            A good point. You can never seem to get a straight answer. That’s why I ask the question “What do you believe and why?” It cuts right to the chase.

          • RbtRgus

            That guy couldn’t even tell me why he thought his god was real. It was amazing. He just could not speak for himself.

  • Kieran Dyke

    This worthless bit of sophistry does nothing to establish the existence of any entity which fits most people’s definition of god, or the reasonableness of such belief. It does nothing to demonstrate that there is an entity which created the universe, is ominipresent, omniscient or omnibenevolent. In fact, it doesn’t establish the existence of anything more intelligent or powerful than a cat.

    • James F. McGrath

      Did you think that the post was trying to do one of the things you mentioned? If so, why?

      • Kieran Dyke

        Well, what was it trying to do? Make a worthless point that God exists by….changing the definition of God? No theist, when they say that they believe in God, is saying that they believe that cats exist.

        • James F. McGrath

          No, it was not trying to prove that God exists, nor was it trying to change the already diverse definitions of God. It was illustrating why it is important to be as clear and precise as possible when one is trying to communicate, and to avoid assertions that are too broad, or alternatively too narrow inasmuch as they fail to take into account the variety of ways that people use terms.

          • Kieran Dyke

            You coud just as reasonably demonstrate that God exists by asserting the existence of a short utterance which people repeat during sex, or by introducing me to your friend Godfrey (God for short).

            No, the whole thing is silly and dishonest. (Which is par for theists)

            Looking up “god definition” on google, I get: God




            (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.


            (in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity.

            This is what people mean by “god” when they’re not playing an absurd game of semantics.

            Cats, Prince Phillip and the sun are not supernatural. (The best you can do here is to correct me with “they have not yet been demonstrated to be supernatural.” The divinity of these is not a question for theologians because nothing is a question for theologians. It’s a worthless discipline which is keen on circular logic and uninterested in facts.

          • James F. McGrath

            Sorry, did you misunderstand me to be claiming that there are theists who actually make the argument I talk about in my post?

            Students often start their essays with “Webster’s dictionary defines,” but it inevitably costs them points. Dictionaries are attempts to summarize the phenomenon of human language, although they have been known to veer into being prescriptive. But at any rate, I suspect that a major print dictionary might have served you better than Google on this topic.

          • Orion Jones

            “It was illustrating why it is important to be as clear and precise as possible when one is trying to communicate”

            From the look of the comments here, you seem to have failed spectacularly in following your own advice.

          • James F. McGrath

            Perhaps. It certainly illustrates my point. Perhaps I ought to have foreseen the possibility that this post would be seen by people who would not bother to check who I am or what my perspective is, and so would assume that my remarks were an attempt to formulate an apologetic argument against atheism or something else like that.

          • Orion Jones

            If you were “clear and precise” in what you said, you wouldn’t need to have people “check who I am or what my perspective is” – it would irrelevant.

          • James F. McGrath

            Well, blogs tend to feature short thoughts, and so jumping into one that has been around for more than a decade and then jumping to wrong conclusions based on a single post seems to be the fault of the reader, not the writer. When we write letters, is the responsibility on us to make sure we won’t be misunderstood by someone who was not up until that moment part of the conversation, and just happened to read the letter written with an already-existing known audience in view?

    • James

      The meme does hit on a valid point: theology won’t give us a consistent, coherent, broadly-accepted definition of deity. And lacking any such definition, theism in general can neither be positively proven nor disproven. That’s a major flaw of theism, not skepticism; the burden of proof is tilted against unfalsifiabile claims of existence. And there is no shortage of unfalsifiable, yet mutually contradictory deity concepts.

      Certain deity concepts can be positively disproven – the Young Earth Creationist god concept, for example. Which is why savvy theists place their deity comfortably outside time and the universe where it can remain well hidden like Carl Sagan’s fire-breathing dragon. Most theologians these days retreat to unfalsifiability and then shift the burden of proof, substituting arguments for why they don’t need evidence for actual evidence of existence. As an aside, there are very good reasons why theology is no longer considered to be a legitimate branch of philosophy…

      Omni deities are incoherent – omnipotence, for example, is quickly equivocated to mean “can do anything *logically* possible,” with the theist getting to decide what they think is and isn’t logically possible (special pleading). Getting a theologian to stick to a consistent definition is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. In any other facet of life, except perhaps for modern art, this isn’t a selling point.

  • The Eh’theist

    It’s been interesting to watch this, both here and on Larry Moran’s blog. The most interesting point has been to note that when there has been a disagreement over definitions, many of the disputants have tried to assert definitions while simultaneously attempting to continue the debate of the original point. It hasn’t met with much success.

    Where there has been some progress, it’s meant a pause of the original question, a discussion of proposed definitions to see if there is any overlap or if they are mutually exclusive and an attempt to focus on common ground or to persuade for adoption of a particular definition. These exchanges have shown more progress, but some realized the gap was too wide to permit discussion of the original point.

    That’s been my takeaway from this: some people you can have productive discussion with, and some you can’t. Apart from personality, tone, knowledge, etc which can hamper things, there are simply some questions where there is no common mutual understanding, and if one understands *that*, it is best to find another topic for discussion, or another individual with whom to have the discussion.

    It has also reinforced my conclusion that arguing about the existence of ‘god’ in the abstract isn’t particularly productive. While I acknowledge that there are things that exist that have been considered ‘gods’ by some, for me it is the more classical understanding of Theism, and deities associated with that description where I’ve no longer find sufficient evidence to believe in one or more of them.

    That said, I don’t think even disputing at that level of abstraction is productive in comparison to the consideration of a specific Theistic deity with specific attributes.

    So the thread has been helpful in clarifying my thinking, and reminding me to stop and evaluate a conversation if it seems to be unproductive. I think that will save me some time and frustration in the future. Thanks.

  • RbtRgus

    Most atheists do not claim that there is definitely no god. We cannot say with 100% certainty that there are no supernatural entities in the universe, but we are saying that the god stories of the various holy books are clearly bull$/it. 😉

    • Nonsensical

      Yet you live in a Christian society and benefit from it immensely.

      You are a petulant child asking to be carried, nothing more.

      • RbtRgus

        I live in a country with a thoroughly secular government. My country has had a lot of good Christians, Jews, atheists and other religious people as government and community leaders, and these people made it a great country.

        • Nonsensical

          Is it in Europe?

          I have never met an atheist who had even a grade school understanding of history either.

          • RbtRgus

            US of freakin’ A. And I served in the military for 24 years – – an atheist in the foxhole.

          • Nonsensical

            Even for an American your previous statement was stupid.

            And that’s because you either worship the devil or are suicidal. You aren’t the first atheist soldier I have met, or military is feels like it is worth less than cardboard sometimes

          • RbtRgus

            Our military has many non-believers now because young people are less religious now. A good thing.

          • Nonsensical

            Only for the jackboot of the state, which you were a trailblazer for.

            When the camps are put up and staffed by marines, you can say “I built that.” Though you can guarantee vets are going to be the first “undesirables” shoved in.

          • RbtRgus

            More silliness.

          • Nonsensical

            It won’t be silly when your rotten tree bears rotten fruit.

          • RbtRgus

            Oh, cut it out.

          • RbtRgus

            Oh yeah? I bet I’ve got a better understanding than you do.

          • Nonsensical

            I’ve met many atheists that can’t separate fiction from reality.

            It’s a natural side effect from having no real grounding.

            It’s usually video games and YouTube conspiracy theories that cannot differentiate from reality.

          • RbtRgus

            Separating fiction from reality is a major problem for theists. Believing Bronze Age mythology to be actual fact? Silly.

          • Nonsensical

            Chrisianity is not “myth,” that not only shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity but a fundamental misunderstanding of myth.


            Secondly, Christianity is so advanced that the world is still thousands of years off from truly practicing it properly. It was even harder to accept 2000 years ago than it is now.

          • RbtRgus

            What makes you think the god of the bible is real?

          • Nonsensical

            “God of the Bible?”

            He’s the God of all things, as there can only be one uncreated cause.

            Your statement betrays your ignorance.

            Read this, all of it.


          • RbtRgus

            I have read the bible and I don’t believe its god story due to lack of supporting evidence in the real world. The bible is wrong about so many things that it is entirely untrustworthy.

          • Nonsensical

            I asked you to read The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton. I even gave you a link.

            And you didn’t “read” the Bible. You haven’t even a faint understanding of it. Save your feeble excuses and just read and listen.

            Listen to this

          • RbtRgus
          • Nonsensical

            Your cowardice knows no bounds.

            Here are all the links I gave you since you seem to be too unable to look at them. Maybe you will grow some intellectual honesty if I keep them in one message.

            Answering the atheists:

            The Everlasting Man:

            On Faith and Reason:

            Is Christianity a myth:

            Rene Girard, Church Father:

            Fr. Robert Barron, “Aquinas and Why the New Atheists are Right”:

            Iraneus, Augustine, Aquinas. Ignatius:

            As I said before, I have no interest in talking to someone who is too cowardly to learn. I will not throw more pearls before swine.

          • RbtRgus

            What makes you think your god is real? I want to hear your own words. You know I’m not going to watch your propaganda any more than you’re going to watch mine, so gimme your own words.

          • Nonsensical

            Ironically, “propaganda” means “documentation to propagate understanding.”

            See the protestant heresy, one of the origins of modern atheism, was propagated through misinformation and “disinformation” as the soviets later called it.

            The Church created “propaganda” or “documents that propagate understanding” to combat the disinformation with the truth.

            The protestants, mostly illiterate, immediately thought “propaganda” meant something bad just because it came from the Church. I see you are taking up that tradition.

            Read the links.

          • RbtRgus

            Nothing in your response relates to why your god might be real.

          • Nonsensical

            All of it applies.

            You are illiterate and you call anything from the Church “evil” by default.

            Protestantism only first took off because of support from the German government that wanted more absolute control over the people. Protestantism is a religion run by the state, it is little different than marxism.

            Your atheism, and by proxy your hatred of new info, is merely just one more example of you falling towards accepting tyranny.

          • RbtRgus

            Evidence that your god is real, please.

          • Nonsensical

            Read the links, especially the first one

          • RbtRgus

            I don’t want to hear apologetics crap from professional apologists. I have seen and heard plenty of that. I want you to give me one example of why your God might be real. It should be easy, like when I tested if the winter solstice is real I used a simple experiment on my front lawn. The winter solstice is definitely real. Is your god real?

          • Nonsensical

            I will repeat once more than stop talking for good.

            I chose those links on purpose. Read them.

            Bishop Robert Barron is not just an apologist, he is a faithful Bishop (a rarity).

            Chesterton, Girard, Lewis were the last great thinkers this world saw.

            Iraneus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Ignatius are the finest minds this world has ever known.

          • RbtRgus

            I need YOU to tell me a story about why YOU think your god is real. Have YOU seen any evidence? Can YOU tell ME how to find evidence? You’re as bad as the 9/11 truthers 😉

          • Nonsensical

            “I will repeat once more and stop talking.”

            I cannot have a conversation with someone so disinterested in conversation.

          • James

            Nice argumentum ad verecundiam you’ve got there… Now about that evidence again. Do you have any or not?

          • Nonsensical

            Changing your account nor using Latin in the hopes I will not understand will not help you.

          • James

            Apologists tend not to be able to draw a distinction between evidence and their argument for why they don’t have to present any evidence.

          • James

            Your personal attacks are tedious. Surely you’re a troll.

          • RbtRgus

            Are you Ken Ham, by any chance?

          • Nonsensical

            I don’t know who that is.

            You are clearly to afraid to learn though.

            Considering that I have nothing more to say to you.

          • RbtRgus

            I try to keep an open mind about evidence for extraterrestrials and supernatural entities, but your stuff is just silly.

            Have a reasonable day. 😉

          • Nonsensical
      • David Evans

        You might like to know that Christian doctrine is blocking efforts to slow the spread of the Zika virus:
        Or, I suppose, you might not.
        You might also like to consider whether Savita Halappanavar benefited from being in a Christian country.

        • Nonsensical

          You might like to know that the fallacy of false privation is an instant destroyer of argument.

          You might also consider intellectual honesty is a requirement for conversation.

          Why precisely has Christianity “blocked” these obscure widgets from being made? Other than a trumping up of a bad excuse to attack the Church?

          • David Evans

            I do not think I am committing that fallacy. You told Bob Rogus (without, apparently, knowing what country he lives in or anything about him) that he benefits immensely from living in a Christian country. For that to be a reasonable argument it must be the case that everyone who lives in a Christian country benefits immensely from it. I merely provided some counterexamples.

            Why does the Catholic Church block contraception in Guatemala and elsewhere? I don’t know, and I don’t know what “obscure widgets” you are talking about. I do know that the result in Guatemala is to leave women with no approved method of avoiding pregnancy (since saying “no” to their husbands is also disapproved of) and therefore at risk of bearing a microcephalic child.

            This is, of course, a minor tragedy compared to the many thousands of deaths from AIDS caused by the Church’s opposition to condoms in Africa.

          • Nonsensical

            You have made a lot of claims.

            Not only do your claims somehow imply humans are incapable of reason and self-control, you seem to really love the idea of contraception.

            Let me guess, you know you are disgusting and you think your chances with women are higher when they know they won’t produce your offspring.

          • David Evans

            Your guesses are offensive as well as false. You produce no evidence for any of your claims. I’m done with you.

          • James F. McGrath

            Nonsensical’s comment was inappropriate, and the user has been banned.

        • Mark Z.

          “Christian doctrine is blocking efforts to slow the spread of the Zika virus:”

          This is simply incorrect. What it’s doing is blocking efforts to prevent the birth of children affected by the Zika virus. The spread of the virus itself is not affected by that.

          • David Evans

            You’re right, that was sloppy of me. I should have said the Christian doctrine is blocking efforts to mitigate the effects of the virus on unborn children. And I concede that we are not yet sure of those effects, and that it would be wrong to start advocating abortions of possibly healthy fetuses (contraception is a different issue). All told, it wasn’t the best example to have chosen, but it does illustrate the way in which the Church at times seems not to care about the temporal welfare of its flock.

  • RbtRgus

    Funny and silly. Can anyone prove the their god exists? I doubt it. We know that cats exist.

  • BeaverTales

    Gods have indivisible human descriptive quantifiers,like
    crueler/more merciful,

    Why cant God be measured by any other physical quantifier? like “God is 42” or “God is yellow” or “God is absent or present” or “God is the first 7 fibonacci numbers in an octave harmonic. I don’t know how we can understand God’s emotion or power, but get nothing quantitative and/or measurable to our shared 5 senses?

    Can we attribute anything to God in the material world?