15 Kinds of Atheism

I have previously pointed out that the word “God” is ambiguous in Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. This oversimplifies the situation a bit, because a close reading of The God Delusion reveals a reference to at least fifteen different kinds of atheism. So, before I go into critique of Dawkins’ main argument, I will briefly spell out these fifteen different kinds of atheism.

A main purpose of The God Delusion, is to convert people to atheism:

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. (TGD, Mariner paperback edition, p. 28)

Unfortunately, Dawkins never explicitly defines the term “atheism” (at least not in the Preface or first four chapters). Also, his initial attempt to clarify this term in Chapter 1 appears to (mistakenly) equate atheism with naturalism:

An atheist in the sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world … (TGD, p.35)

Later on, in Chapter 2, Dawkins implies a more standard definition of “atheism”: the belief that “there is no God” (TGD, p. 73).

So, the word “atheist” in The God Delusion has at least two different meanings:

(Def1) X is an atheist if and only if X believes that there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world.

(Def2) X is an atheist if and only if X believes that there is no God.

Furthermore, Dawkins points out that atheists ascribe different levels of probability or certainty to their belief. A de facto atheist believes that “God is very improbable” (TGD, p.73), while a strong atheist believes it is certain that there is no God (TGD, p.73). Dawkins implies that there is another position that is halfway between that of de facto and strong atheism: someone who believes, as Dawkins does, that it is almost certain that there is no God (TGD, p.74 & 189). So, Dawkins points to three levels of certainty for atheism: very probable, almost certain, and certain.

These three levels of certainty can be applied to either of the two above definitions of atheism, to yield six different kinds of atheism. So, how do I come up with fifteen different kinds of atheism in The God Delusion? There are at least four different interpretations of the word “God” referenced by Dawkins in this book:

(Def3) X is God if and only if (a) X is a supernatural creator, and (b) it is appropriate for us to worship X. (see TGD, p.33)

(Def4) X is God if and only if (a) X is a superhuman being, and (b) X is a supernatural intelligence, and (c) X deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it. (see TGD, p.52)

(Def5) X is God if and only if X is a god of any kind (whether as conceived of by polytheism or monotheism). (see TGD, p.56)

(Def6) X is God if and only if X is a person who is (a) omnipotent, and (b) omniscient, and (c) perfectly good. (see TGD, p.101)

Because Dawkins suggests four different meanings of the word “God”, there are four different varieties of atheism in the sense of disbelief in the existence of God (see Def2 above).

So, in The God Delusion, there are five basic types of atheism, each of which can occur in three levels of certainty, which yields a total of fifteen different kinds of atheism:

1. There is nothing beyond the natural, physical world (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
2. God (Def3) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
3. God (Def4) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
4. God (Def5) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).
5. God (Def6) does not exist (very probably, almost certainly, certainly).

So, what sort of atheism is Dawkins trying to prove in The God Delusion? That is not clear, but if I had to pick just one of the fifteen kinds as his main focus, it would be the view that,

God (Def4) almost certainly does not exist.

Dawkins clearly opts for the “almost certainly” level of probability, and Def4 seems very central, because it is based on his precise definition of “the God Hypothesis” which is a central and often used concept in the key chapters of The God Delusion.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06282825922079471798 FVThinker

    Why do so many miss the very simple deconstruction of the word? Granted, common usage has given the term far more baggage that it should carry.

    It would be more sensible to define ‘theist’ or ‘theism’ and then say an atheist is ‘not a theist’…super, duper simple. Just like ‘atypical’ means ‘not typical’, atheist means ‘not a theist’. It connotes no political position, ideological position or anything else, only that the person is not a theist. That is all the meaning that the word should carry…and it irks me that the religious have foisted so much baggage on the word.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Finally the voice of reason. I so agree with you fvthinker.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01587994908818534357 Samuel Skinner

    Dawkins goes with including naturalist in his definition of theist (technically not correct). The reason? You can be an atheist and not a naturalist- but it ISN’T a rational position.

    I think the whole point of his book was defending atheism derived from rational thought, evidence and argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11679911093460636159 Aspentroll

    Jayzeus, what a nitpicking twit. Too much time on his hands, why can’t he just read the fricken book and enjoy?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham.Narins

    I agree that Mr. Bowen may be overthinking this a bit. Remember, theists themselves have never produced a satisfactory definition of the word; at best, the attempts have been self-contradictory and logically untenable. Why should Mr. Dawkins be forced to do what believers can’t? Dawkins deals with some common possibilities for the definition and dispatches them.

    Moreover, I think it’s incorrect to suggest there are as many different kinds of atheism as there are definitions of “god.” Dawkins does not believe, and he is fairly certain about it. I don’t believe with a good amount of certainty. And I’m sure Mr. Bowen is pretty certain in his disbelief as well. We’re all on the same page about this.

    Leave it to the theists to set up all manner of definitions. We’ll stand here, on this spot, and knock them down.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06282825922079471798 FVThinker

    EXACTLY Brigham.Narins!! Do you want to define ‘atypical’, then define ‘typical’ first. Do you want to define ‘atheist’, then define ‘theist’ first. All this is trying to address a symptom instead of a cause.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. (TGD, Mariner paperback edition, p. 28)”

    Seems like he was setting himself up for failure, not neccessarily all to his fault.

    “So, what sort of atheism is Dawkins trying to prove in The God Delusion?”

    What’s wrong with anyone that will stick?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to fvthinker…

    Infants and young children are usually “not a theist”, but that does not make them atheists. Also, adults who have never heard the idea of “God” fall into the category of “not a theist,” but such adults are not atheists. Atheism implies the taking of a position on theism, which one can do only if one can understand, to some extent, what theism is.

    In my view an atheist is a person who has rejected theism. This rejection may be based on various grounds: (a) theism is false, (b) theism is improbable, (c) theism is unknowable,(d) theism is conceptually incoherent, or (e) theism is to vague or unclear to be rationally evaluated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    response to aspentroll…

    I suspect if I had made similar careful analysis of a Christian apologist or philosopher who was defending belief in God, you would applaud my efforts. If that is the case, then your comment betrays a lack of objectivity and rationality.

    The issue of whether God exists is an important one, so any intelligent and informed writer who claims to have a strong argument for a position one way or the other deserves careful critical scrutiny, whatever his/her position might be.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    response to brigham.narins…

    “theists themselves have never produced a satisfactory definition of the word; at best, the attempts have been self-contradictory and logically untenable. Why should Mr. Dawkins be forced to do what believers can’t?”

    Nobody forced Dawkins to write a book in which he claims to show that it is almost certain that God does not exist. Since he chose to write such a book, he chose to take on the burden of making clear what it is that he is claiming. This requires that he clarify what he means by the word “God”.

    Otherwise, nobody will know what it is that he is trying to say or show.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to brigham.narins…

    “I think it’s incorrect to suggest there are as many different kinds of atheism as there are definitions of ‘god.’”

    The multiple meanings of “atheism” in TGD is simply a logical implication of Dawkins’ implied definition (Def2 in my post) combined with Dawkins multiple senses of the word “God”.

    We can eliminate the multiplicity of meanings for “atheism” only by rejecting either (a) Dawkins’ definition of atheism (specifically Def2), or (b) multimple definitions of “God”. Those are the only ways of escape, logically speaking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham.Narins

    Bradley Bowen said…
    response to brigham.narins…

    “Nobody forced Dawkins to write a book in which he claims to show that it is almost certain that God does not exist. Since he chose to write such a book, he chose to take on the burden of making clear what it is that he is claiming. This requires that he clarify what he means by the word ‘God.’

    “Otherwise, nobody will know what it is that he is trying to say or show.”

    Believers act (and think) as though the word refers to something actual. When pressed by non-believers, or by the urge to justify their belief, they come up with all kinds of definitions and arguments–all of them rhetorical sleights of mind that atheists demolish with relative ease. They just don’t stand up to critical examination. Dawkins is not required, particularly in a popular book like “The God Delusion,” to collect all of them and take them apart one by one (neither is he required to pick just one). I would enjoy reading such a book–and in fact I have: Michael Martin’s “Atheism”; but this is a rigorous philosophical analysis, similar to what you are doing, not a popular work aimed at general readers. Dawkins is trying to say and show that there is no good reason to believe that the word “god” refers to anything actual. He uses the word in the ways that you describe because those are common ways that believers use the word. Perhaps he should have been more systematic, explicit, or self-conscious about the multiplicity of uses, about the possible referents, of the word. That would be a reasonable criticism. But he shouldn’t waste effort defining a word he knows to be meaningless. That would be a straw man, or a straw god, argument.

    6:41 PM
    Bradley Bowen said…
    Response to brigham.narins…

    “The multiple meanings of ‘atheism’ in TGD is simply a logical implication of Dawkins’ implied definition (Def2 in my post) combined with Dawkins multiple senses of the word ‘God.’

    “We can eliminate the multiplicity of meanings for ‘atheism’ only by rejecting either (a) Dawkins’ definition of atheism (specifically Def2), or (b) multimple definitions of ‘God.’ Those are the only ways of escape, logically speaking.”

    I see your point. But if my position is that word w is meaningless, and w is said to mean a, b, or c, then all I need to do is show why w can’t possibly mean a, b, and c; or show that a, b, and c are meaningless as well. My position is consistent with regard to w–I don’t believe it has meaning (I am atheistic with regard to w)–but I use different arguments to deal with definitions a, b, and c, presumably because the definitions are unique. Same position, different targets.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to brigham.narins…

    Thanks for your thoughtful criticism and comments. Even if we disagree on some points, I appreciate intelligent disagreement.

    “Perhaps he should have been more systematic, explicit, or self-conscious about the multiplicity of uses[of the word "God"], about the possible referents, of the word. That would be a reasonable criticism. But he shouldn’t waste effort defining a word he knows to be meaningless.”

    Dawkins would disagree with your claim that the word “God” is meaningless, and I would be inclined to side with Dawkins.

    If the word “God” is meaningless, then the sentence “God exists” is also meaningless. If the sentence “God exists” is meaningless, then so is the sentence “God does not exist”. But if “God does not exist” meaningless, then so is the main claim that Dawkins makes in The God Delusion:

    “God almost certainly does not exist.” (TGD, p.189)

    Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the word “God” as generally used in conversations and discussions about religion is in fact meaningless (a radical and implausible view in my opinion). This does not stop you or me or Dawkins from putting forward a definition of “God” for purposes of a philosophical (Dawkins would say scientific) investigation.

    Indeed, all good philosophical and scientific investigation requires clarification of key ideas and terms. Once a clear definition of “God” has been stipulated, the problem of meaninglessness goes away. At least, a good stipulative definition will eliminate that issue. Dawkins has provided such a definition (see TGD, p.52) when he clarifies the key phrase “the God Hypothesis”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to brigham.narins…

    “But if my position is that word w is meaningless, and w is said to mean a, b, or c, then all I need to do is show why w can’t possibly mean a, b, and c; or show that a, b, and c are meaningless as well.”

    Your position that the word “God” is meaningless represents a counterexample to Dawkins definition of atheism.

    You and many other atheists who believe that the word “God” is meaningless (or hopelessly unclear) are a type of atheist that is not covered by Def2. This is a problem with Def2. It shows that Def2 is too narrow, since it exludes clear examples of atheists (A.J. Ayer and Kai Nielsen being two prominent examples).

    That is why I prefer to define “atheism” as the rejection of theism. My definition includes both those who, like Dawkins, assert that “God does not exist” as well as those who, like you, assert that “The word ‘God’ is meaningless.” You and Dawkins both reject theism, but for different reasons.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham.Narins

    Bradley Bowen said…

    “Thanks for your thoughtful criticism and comments. Even if we disagree on some points, I appreciate intelligent disagreement.”

    Well thank you for your interesting posts. I’ve enjoyed reading and thinking about them. And thanks for replying and helping me sort out these issues.

    “Dawkins would disagree with your claim that the word ‘God’ is meaningless, and I would be inclined to side with Dawkins. . . .”

    Yes, you’re right, I was somewhat imprecise using the word “meaningless” to describe “God.” In one sense, “God” is like “Jay Gatsby,” as meaningful as the name of any fictional character. We can speak about these characters’ qualities and meaning within the context (within the text) of their books and, indeed, within the broader context of literature. In another sense “God” is like “phlogiston,” the name of a thoroughly untenable explanation of the actual world we all share. The sentence “neither God nor phlogiston nor Jay Gatsby exists” is meaningful even though the nouns are meaningless in the senses just described–without actual referents.

    That said, the question is, how does one establish the meaninglessness of “God”? How does one establish its fictional nature and its untenability as an explanation? Perhaps Dawkins, in his attempts at this, should have been more explicit and self-conscious in establishing and arguing against stipulative definitions. That’s a valid criticism of TGD. His failure to do so doesn’t undermine his arguments or position, but it may represent an area where his rhetoric could be strengthened.

    “. . . That is why I prefer to define ‘atheism’ as the rejection of theism. My definition includes both those who, like Dawkins, assert that ‘God does not exist’ as well as those who, like you, assert that ‘The word “God” is meaningless.’ You and Dawkins both reject theism, but for different reasons.”

    This is an interesting distinction–thank you for pointing it out. My gut reaction is to say “but I don’t believe God exists either”; Dawkins and I are not in separate camps. I believe God does not exist for the reasons Dawkins writes about–there is no evidence to support it, it provides no explanatory power, etc. If this is the case, then the word can be said to be meaningless. How would you respond to this seeming paradox in your reply? Is there sense in holding that “God does not exist” but “the word ‘God’ is not hopelessly confused”? In other words, in what sense is it possible to simultaneously believe “God is not meaningless” and “God does not exist”?

    By way of anticipating a possible criticism: Atheists often like to argue with the example of unicorns, but the nonexistence of those creatures doesn’t help here. God is not like unicorns. Unicorns don’t exist, but we know what they look like–they’re horses with a single horn between their eyes–and we know what they do from the various stories in which they appear (healing powers, can only be called by children, etc.). We know far less about God. We don’t know what “God” looks like, “his” reputed actions, commands, and thoughts are contradictory, “he” can’t possibly realize the basic attributes “he’s” said to possess. “Unicorn” is meaningful. “God” is not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to brigham.narins…

    Great comments and questions. They deserve thoughtful and considered responses, but I’m just going to shoot from the hip, and hope to backtrack, qualify, or develop my thoughts as the discussion proceeds.

    First, I concede that the word “God” is less than clear. It is, at the least, a problematic and controversial word, like “liberal” and “democracy”.

    Second, some specific conceptions of God appear to involve logical contradictions or category mistakes (e.g. Flew challenged the idea of a “bodiless person”).

    Third, your analogy of “God” with “Jay Gatsby” reminds me that “God” is a proper noun, so it is somewhat problematic for me to treat “God” as definable in the way that we might define a general noun (like “cars” “bananas” and “trees”).

    OK, so those are some concessions in your direction.

    But it seems to me that you want to have your cake and eat it too. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the meaning of the word “God”, then I don’t think that you can confidently agree with Dawkins that “God almost certainly does not exist.” That is probably why Dawkins puts forward a definition of “the God Hypothesis” on page 52 of TGD. Given that clarification, he can proceed to argue that God does not exist.

    In philosophical terms, you cannot determine that “God” has no referent until you first determine the sense or meaning of the word “God”.

    But I am still thinking of the word “God” in terms of a general noun (i.e. like “gods” or “deities”). So, if you push the idea of “God” being a name or proper noun that might support your view and undermine my view (?)

    My preference is to develop one or more good stipulative definitions of “God” and then to show that no such critter exists. So, my inclination is to travel down a similar path as Dawkins does in TGD.

    However, I am aware that there are conceptual problems associated with the word “God” so whatever stipulative definition(s) are produced must (a) be examined to determine whether they suffer from some of the same conceptual problems (e.g. “bodiless persons” might involve a logical contradiction or category mistake)that have been pointed out, and (b) must be compared back to popular religious beliefs and claims about God to see to what extent the stipulative definition departs from God as conceived of or talked about by ordinary religious believers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    brigham.narins said: Is there sense in holding that “God does not exist” but “the word ‘God’ is not hopelessly confused”? In other words, in what sense is it possible to simultaneously believe “God is not meaningless” and “God does not exist”?
    ====================

    Your own example of “unicorn” shows that it is possible for a word to be meaningful and yet have no referent, no actual instances, no real thing to which the word applies.

    The meanings of words are artificial or conventional. So, we can agree on a collection of characteristics as the definition of “unicorn” and thus establish a meaningful word, even though nothing actually possesses that specific combination of characteristics.

    Of course, we cannot have an infinite regress of definitions, so there must be some words or sentences that get their meaning by a more direct connection to reality. (This may be the intuition that inclines you to think that meaningful words must have actual referents).

    The word “unicorn” is meaningful because we can analyze it into more basic ideas that are themselves meaningful, like: “winged”, “horse”, “head”, and “horn”.

    The word “God” can also be defined in terms of more basic ideas that are themselves meaningful, like: “power”, “knowledge”, “love”, “justice”, “create”, and “person”.

    If someone defines “God”, in part, as a “bodiless person”, then you can argue, along with Antony Flew, that “God, so defined, does not exist” because there is a logical contradiction or a category mistake involved in combining those two ideas together.

    But in order to make that case, you must first have some grasp on the idea of “bodiless” and some grasp on the idea of “person”. You must first understand the component concepts before you can show that there is a problem that precludes the existence of an actual being that corresponds to “God”, so defined.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    One further point about “God” defined, in part, as a “bodiless person”.

    Showing that the idea of a “bodiless person” contains a contradiction or category mistake will be a worthless and irrelevant acheivement unless you can also show that the idea of a “bodiless person” captures or reflects part of the MEANING of the word “God”.

    In order to show that there is a logical contradiction or category mistake involved with the idea of God, you must show that some analysis of the meaning of the word “God” is true or accurate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04123863777408880111 Brigham.Narins

    My apologies for not replying sooner–I’ve been enormously busy since my last post, and your comments deserve careful consideration. I hope to get my response together soon.

    In the meantime, I’m wondering if you have read the recent interview with James Carse at Salon.com. It’s called “Religion Is Poetry” and the interviewer is Steve Paulson (http://www.salon.com/books/atoms_eden/2008/07/21/james_carse/index.html).

    It’s interesting. Two excerpts:

    “SP: What about God? . . . do you think God exists?

    “JC: [Laughs] Frankly, no. But there are so many different conceptions of God. Take, for example, the medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic mystics. It’s a very rich period from the 12th to the 15th centuries. They began to realize that in each of their traditions, it was impossible to say exactly who God was and what he wants and what he’s doing.”

    “JC: . . . To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.”

    Carse goes on to say that “To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe.” Utter drivel, of course. But his other comments are interesting and bear somewhat on our current discussion.

    More later . . .


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