Semantics and Gawd:
On Michael Shermer's Response
James Beacham

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
To: "James Beacham"
Subject: Re: Semantics and Gawd
Date: Monday, July 10, 2000 7:48 AM

I like the way you put the idea of atheist being the opposite of a theist.

It still seems to presuppose that the theist came first, which obliquely points toward the notion that atheism is the default position unto which theism presents its claims.

It may have other problems, though; and may need to become one of several ways to think of "weak" atheism -- that is, atheism as simply the lack of a god belief (rather than "strong" atheism, which claims to know that no gods exist).

I would need more specific language, which would probably either include or specifically exclude the concept of the lack of theism. If lack were included in the description of opposite, then I'm not sure that we even need to use the term opposite at all, and best stick with the more easily grasped wording, "lack of theism."

We are all born without theism: on this almost all agree (except a few theists, who take a literalist approach to poetry such as Jeremiah 1:5: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee" -- which many use to teach about the notion of Providence or justify the idea of predestination, but which some try to use to use to back the notion of pre-existence, or at least pre-natal-cognizance).

In other words, if it can be shown that an infant has the competence to grasp the concept of theism, then it becomes possible for an infant to be a theist. If so, then there goes the idea that all infants are atheists. If it cannot be shown that an infant has the abilities to understand theism, then we are justified in thinking (for now) that infants are atheists in this sense that we use the term.

The main disagreement is still whether this state (the assumed inability of the infant to grasp these concepts) is rightly called atheism: It is a part of what most would call "weak" atheism. If atheism means the lack of theism, then the infant is an atheist; if atheism means, as you put it, the opposite of theism, then I'm not sure where this leads, because "the opposite of" seems to be less specific than "the lack of."

The fact that so many of us call ourselves atheists in the face of widespread social rejection shows that no such alternate meme has caught on yet.

If, as most of us agree, the calling oneself an atheist is no way to win friends and influence people, then why do so many of us call ourselves atheists anyway? And why do so many "weak" atheists continue this self-description despite the fact that most theists think that an atheist "denies the existence of God"? or think that an atheist, at minimum, "knows that no gods exist"? If a better meme had caught on, I'd have changed the name of the magazine by now, or never named it this in the first place.

Great thinkers from Huxley to Asimov have balked at the moniker "atheist" and have either tried to find a middle ground (as Huxley did with "agnosticism") or accepted the moniker (as Asimov did when he said that "I so strongly suspect that he [God] doesn't [exist] that I don't want to waste my time").

It still seems that our choice is either to follow Huxley in accepting agnosticism as a middle ground between theism and "strong" atheism (or else coming up with a different middle ground) or to accept atheism as one element in a dichotomy of theism and "weak" atheism (or some other term for what we have thus far called "weak" atheism).

Most writers and thinkers who accept the appellation "atheist" have preferred the "weak" definition, which, as discussed above, probably includes infants and imbeciles and isolated tribes. It also probably splits Huxley's agnosticism into the same two camps: theistic and atheistic. Theistic agnosticism thinks a god exists but knows no more than this; atheistic agnosticism doesn't know whether or not a god exists, and thus lacks a god belief.

Since this seems to describe (approximately) the preferred definition among most atheistic thinkers and writers, I am trying to pass on the meme that atheism means "the lack of theism" and that an atheist is "one who lacks a god belief." The crucial meme that I am trying to pass on is the use of the word "lack" in defining an atheist's relationship to theism.

It disarms it only when the theist in question cannot make the god-claim understood (or flatly admits that the "God" being claimed cannot be understood). To call myself a non-cognitivist is to say that the theist is not communicating the god-idea. I cannot see it telling a theist much more than this. Either the theist agrees (admitting that the god-claim is unfathomable) or disagrees (claiming that we ought to be able to understand, or claiming that we actually do understand and are simply being rebellious).

It is only valid either when we can make the case that the god being claimed defies description, or when the theist admits her or his god is unfathomable (such as the "Not this. Not this" god of the Upanishads).

But why would those with an admittedly unfathomable concept of "God" insist on discussing it with me? For a theist to try to "evangelize" the concept of an admittedly unfathomable "God" is, to me, not unlike a Calvinist who would preach the Gospel to those likely predestined unto damnation, or a solipsist who tries to convince others that the his or her solipsism is realistic.

Meanwhile, I would think that a theist who is genuinely curious about what atheists think would try to understand why some of us are tempted to class ourselves as "non-cognitivists" (in certain situations) rather than "atheists." This would preclude initially supposing that non-cognitivism is just a ploy to avoid the question.

Certainly, if a theist wants to try to make an effective case for theism, she or he ought to be ready to grapple with the non-cognitivist objection, since this objection has been clearly stated since at least Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. The problem in the West has been that the popular notion of "God" (a "God" such as the main character in DeMille's "The Ten Commandments") hardly fits the non-cognitivist objection, as George H. Smith points out.

Nevertheless, I still prefer to class "non-cognitivism" as a form of atheism, a subset of the larger picture of "weak" atheism. In this case, the theism-atheism argument would remain binary, would remain a simple dichotomy.

If the non-cognitivism is merely a subset of atheism (as I have argued above), then I don't see the need to come up with a nickname. It's just as easy to state that "I'm a non-cognitivist with regards to your god-claim, which this means that I don't understand what you are talking about here; thus, I lack a belief in your god-claim, which means I remain an atheist."

Also, if the most popular forms of theism in the West do not readily lend themselves to the non-cognitivist objection, then the non-cognitive approach might safely be relegated to the back seats, and may not need to be expressed in shorthand.

When I write, I try not to use any shorthand (even if such shorthand exists and is somewhat popular) because I can never tell how much education a particular reader has attained. I renewed my personal vow along these lines after spending half a day last year trying to find out what Michael Martin meant when he used the expression "iff" (if and only if).

Point well taken.

As an atheist, I admit that I do not subscribe to any of the outlooks collectively known as theism. When I call myself an atheist, I mean that I lack a god belief (specifically, that I have yet to be presented a god-claim that holds water with me). Unfortunately, many people think of something completely different when they hear the term atheist. If this were all there was to it, I would have no problem. But throughout the world and throughout history, atheists (however we have been seen by others) have been persecuted in the past and are still at least being marginalized if not outright persecuted today.

This would fly if the theistic view were self-evident. Not even most theists would go this far, but would quickly resort to some notion of "faith" in the face of theism's lack of self-evidence. The very notion of evangelism and missionary work seems to admit that theism is self-evident (yea, far from it).

Besides, "anti-atheist" or "non-atheist" would be a double-negative. We best keep it as simple as we can, since very few aspects of this discussion can be reduced to a bumper sticker.

I am satisfied with theism being the unnatural idea, injected into the collective understanding of a culture, and with atheism being (at minimum) the lack of this injected idea.

If theists could show their god-idea to be self-evident, then it would be different. But the fact that so many resort to "faith" and support missionary endeavors points to the likelihood that such theists admit that their god-idea is far from self-evident.

If Mormonism is, as they claim, The One True Faith, then all Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses and Wiccans are, to the Mormons, atheists.

I had a Catholic try to tell me that anyone claiming to be a theist (a Catholic?), but who sins, is actually an atheist, because nobody who really believes that a god exists would act this way in the face of certain judgement (or something along these lines).

This makes it easier to discuss claims for the existence of a god, in a sense, because we are, in cases like this, dealing with a specific god-claim (be it the Mormon god, the Catholic god, or whatever). However, this problem makes coming to a mutual definition for atheism next to impossible.

Yes, but how would one even attempt to get this across to a missionary of any stripe?

We must be able to show that the rules of logic we use are self-evident, or we have no business advocating them. Ideally, we should only use rules of logic that we see as true or self-evident, and should marginalize or reject any others unless strong arguments can show them valid.

Do you think it might be better, at this point, to switch gears and show the futility (and the sheer bigotry) of exclusivistic religion (a religion that relegates all nonmembers to the group of "outsiders")?

To me, the semantic acrobatics come in handy when detecting and circumventing logical fallacies and other dishonest methods for convincing others of one's viewpoint.

In all cases, we do best when we insist that the theist describe the "God" that they claim exists. Once this is done, we can discard the word God and stick to discussing the description -- which, hopefully, is in terms we can at least understand (lest we find ourselves resorting to the non-cognitive objection!).

George H. Smith's brilliant discussion of the history of the meaning of the word atheism is called "Defining Atheism."

I mentioned Huxley, whose three-tiered model of theism, agnosticism, and atheism has become very useful for theistic philosophers. This usually means that they can dismiss "atheism" as they define it in the classic "Straw-Man" form, simply because one cannot prove a negative. The "weak" definition of atheism restores the burden of proof to the theist, because it says that atheists simply lack belief that theists hold.

Many attempts to replace the term atheism have involved a similar middle ground, relegating atheism to an extreme, dogmatic insistence that gods do not exist and making the (currently) favored term sound more reasonable than atheism (or, the "atheism" being described).

Most recently, Michael Shermer has advocated dividing the group I would call atheists into two smaller camps: atheists and nontheists. Like Huxley and the theists, atheism needs to be defined as a dogmatic stance to make room for the third group (in Shermer's case, nontheists).

If Shermer's or a similar view prevails among atheists, I will probably go along with it. I will then change this magazine to something like "Positive Nontheism."

Until then, I still prefer the admittedly uphill battle of stumping for popular acceptance of the "weak" definition of the word atheism.

I would settle for having the "weak" definition included in dictionary definitions for the word atheism at this point. We once discussed contacting the folks at Encarta on this matter and on allowing atheist to be capitalized as the word evangelical is now allowed to be capitalized.

Unfortunately, changing the definition of an existing word is, I fear, more work (and less certain) than coining a new term.

Even if we were able to come up with some new terms, or change the popular understanding of atheism, we would still need to be sure that both sides agree that certain terms (such as God and atheism) mean something specific. We would need to prepare ourselves for such a discussion either way we look at it.

In other words, just as we rightly insist that the theist describe what he or she means when using the term God when talking with us, we have the same responsibility to define what we mean when we use the term atheism when talking with a theist. It works both ways.

In lieu of any popular acceptance of any new term, we do well to learn how to set the ground rules for discussing these issues. The main ones, for me, are describing the claim being made and recognizing it as a claim (without, at this point, commenting on whether the claim is valid).

Secondly, whenever the term atheist enters the discussion (or whenever I am falsely accused of holding some variation of the "strong" position), I stop the discussion to make sure that we understand what the term atheism means when I use it. I also make sure that I have admitted to holding the position of "weak" atheism (after, of course, describing the difference between the "weak" and the "strong" positions).

Again, if a new term (or a redefined atheism) became popular, we would still need to set these ground rules before the discussion begins, in case the opponent is unfamiliar with them (or to make sure they see that we are familiar with them).

First, would extant be a synonym for the "weak" atheistic position or the "strong" atheistic position? or, would it be an alternative or middle ground between "strong" atheism and theism? or, would it include a new twist of meaning that is not covered by any of the traditional descriptions? If extant specifically means "still in existence" (Encarta) or "not destroyed or lost" (Mirriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate), then it could suggest that they haven't wiped us out yet through evangelism or persecution.

If extant is archaic for "projecting or protruding" (Bookshelf 98), this it could suggest that we have the unnatural (non-default) position, rather than the natural (default; not supernaturally influenced) position.

I would not wish to artificially tilt the debate in the opponent's favor with either picture.

Good luck with your endeavor.

As with all discussions of new ideas, your task is to present your ideas to the public specifically to invite scrutiny.

I have scrutinized some of the ideas leading up to your suggestion, but cannot go much further because I lack a clear understanding of what, specifically, the term extant would mean in this application.

What I have done is scrutinize your claim that we even need a new word in the first place (as I did with Shermer's suggestion that "nonthiesm" be a middle ground between theism and "strong" atheism).

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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