X-Message-Number: 19632
Date: Sun, 28 Jul 2002 10:58:28 -0500
From: Jeff Dee <>
Subject: OT - Re: What is an atheist?
References: <>

 > Subject: What is an atheist?
 > Suppose someone says,
 > "What is your attitude toward X? Do you believe or disbelieve? If you
 > disbelieve, you are an a-Xist."
 > Obviously, if you give any thought to it at all, you could neither
 > believe nor disbelieve, without knowing what X is.

In actual practice, apart from isolated instances where the theist is 
attempting to confuse the issue by phrasing the question in the manner 
you describe, what they actually ask is "Do you believe in God? Yes or 
no?". To which, I think, a yes or no answer is more to the point.

Atheism is nothing but the absence of belief in gods. That is all that 
is implied by the prefix "a-" before the word "theism" ("belief in a god 
or gods"). On that basis, if you cannot say that you BELIEVE in their 
god then "a-theist" is a reasonably descriptive term for you. Active 
"disbelief" is not required.

However, I recognize that dictionaries and common usage may disagree, 
and so I'll try to make a different case than this one (valid though it 
may be).

 > So I object to being called an atheist--one who disbelieves in
 > God--because I can neither believe nor disbelieve in something or
 > someone or some concept so varied and vague that it is too slippery to
 > get hold of.

While it is true that some (perhaps most) God believers are unable to 
clearly articulate exactly what they mean by "God", the same could be 
said of most quantum physics believers. But it would be unreasonable to 
suggest that one must remain undecided on the issue of quantum physics 
merely because most people you ask can't explain it clearly. SOME who 
believe in quantum physics can describe it, and so theirs are the 
definitions I go by when I say whether I agree with quantum physics or not.

The same goes for gods.

 > I prefer merely to
 > say, "I have no religious beliefs." Someone insists, "Doesn't that
 > mean you are an atheist?" I insist, "No--it just means you have asked
 > an unanswerable question."

I think the theist deserves to have their question answered on the basis 
of the clearest, most specific definition of their god that has ever 
been offered.

It just so happens that the more specific the definition gets, the 
clearer it is to me that I don't believe in it.

 > So how can there be believers? The answer is, first, that they either
 > don't understand or ignore the areas of vagueness and uncertainty and
 > disagreement.

The very lack of specificity usually associated with god definitions 
seems to function as a memetic defense. If the theist cannot persuade 
you to believe in his vaguely defined invisible friend, then at least he 
can attempt to shame you into withholding any disagreement - because he 
hasn't given you anything specific enough to disagree with.

But like all defenses, it has limits. When OTHER members of the theist's 
religion get a little cocky and offer clear, specific, even testable 
statements about the god's nature - then it is reasonable to respond on 
that basis.

 > Secondly, they may not really believe in what they say they
 > believe--rather, they are merely identifying themselves with a support
 > group and giving it a label.

I've had enough theists try to tell me what I believe to realize how 
rude and unfair that is. So I prefer to take them at their word; if they 
claim to believe X, I accept that they believe X. Though I'm frequently 
astonished at how little they ACT like they believe it.

 > None of this proves the believer is wrong. It is possible to be right,
 > or mainly right, for the wrong reasons. It is also possible to have an
 > idea with some merit, even though the idea is poorly articulated or
 > even incoherent in concept. It is also possible to be right at the
 > level of metaphor, or/and at the level of practical living, without
 > being right literally or logically.

But it is not possible to be right when you're demonstrably wrong.

Here are two specific claims, and how we know that they are false:

1. God is the source of morality: Euthyphro's Dilemma
2. God is all knowing, all powerful, and all loving: The Problem of Evil

So if anyone asks for our attitude toward a god about whom either of 
those things are said, then we are justified in saying that we disbelieve.

 > As for practical politics, I think a "march" of "Godless Americans"
 > for political recognition is a really bad idea, for reasons many
 > people have frequently expounded.

I think a march of Godless Americans for political recognition is 
worthwhile despite any objections for the same reason that a march of 
Gay Americans was worthwhile despite those same objections. In fact, I 
intend to participate in the Godless Americans march.

 > There are many religious people in cryonics, and they are just as
 > smart as the rest of us. The Christian clergy, as far as I can tell,
 > on balance are not less friendly to cryonics than the average American
 > or the average irreligious American.
 > We don't want, even indirectly, to promote the feeling that someone
 > must be either with us or against us. Rather, the choice should be
 > seen as approval or indifference.

This is why it is potentially counter-productive to debate about 
religion on this mailing list. I know you didn't start it; whoever 
posted about the Godless March did. I wish you'd just said, "that was 
off topic" instead of lashing out at atheism and the March itself. 
Couldn't you simply be indifferent toward it, as you're asking us to do 
on the question of theism? Then I could've kept my own mouth shut.

 > Some politicians define themselves in terms of their enemies, in terms
 > of what they are against and whom they hate.

I hope you are not suggesting that atheists "hate" theists. I don't hate 
theists. I just think that they are wrong.

 > We want to define ourselves in
 > terms of what we are for and whom we love--life, ourselves, our
 > families and friends, and an expanding sphere.
 > Robert Ettinger

Being for certain things means being against other things. Atheists in 
America have issues which concern us. If those issues do not concern 
you, that is your prerogative. But it's hardly your place to say that 
those issues don't outweigh your unspecified objections to the atheist 
march. Surely that is up to those of us who call ourselves atheists to 

-Jeff Dee

"It is as morally bad not to care whether a thing is true
or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to
care how you got your money as long as you have got it."
-Edmund Way Teale, "Circle of the Seasons", 1950

 * http://www.io.com/unigames/index.html
* * * AA #1355 - Knight of the BAAWA since 10/26/99 * * *

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