Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

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Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby DjVortex » Fri Apr 27, 2012 1:39 pm

There are, roughly speaking, two meanings to the term "atheism":

1) The technical meaning: Someone who is not a theist. In other words, someone who wouldn't consider the claim "I believe that a god exists" to be their own personal view.

This meaning includes every single person who is not a theist. Someone who has never even heard of the concept of a "god" is by definition an atheist. Someone who doesn't have the mental capacity of even understanding such a concept is an atheist. Someone who doesn't care one way or another is an atheist. Someone who does care but maintains a firm position of not taking a stance to either direction (in other words, what's colloquially and erroneously called an "agnostic") is an atheist. Someone who positively believes that no gods exist is an atheist.

2) The colloquial meaning: Someone who not only believes that no gods exist (iow. a "strong atheist") but also holds lots of other unrelated views (such as being a skeptic and a humanist, believing in evolution, in abiogenesis and in the appearance of the Universe ex nihilo, and so on).

The second meaning is so pervasive that even many well-known atheists detest the term and do not use it to describe themselves. Almost invariably they use the word "agnostic" instead, even though that's a category error (gnosticism/agnosticism has nothing to do with deities or the supernatural; it's a philosophical stance about knowledge, and in no way mutually exclusive with theism/atheism).

"I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic" is an oxymoron. An agnostic (in the colloquial sense) is an atheist. It's like saying "I'm not a human, I'm a man".

Why is "atheist" such a dirty word? Why do so many respectable atheists avoid using the term when describing their views? Is this a case of religion having succeeded in making a completely innocuous and valid term something so detestable that even people who hold that very view feel ashamed of it?
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby Cephus » Sat Apr 28, 2012 4:32 pm

They do so only because of the social implications of the word. When your friends and family react negatively to a term and you care what they think, you tend not to use that term. The same is true of many theists. They really have no strong religious beliefs, they simply call themselves Christian because they think it makes them look good to the neighbors.

Personally, I don't care what anyone thinks. I'm an atheist. Anyone who doesn't like it can take a flying leap.
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Religion is a mental disease.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby GrammarOfAssent » Tue May 01, 2012 1:41 am

I admit that I am often confused regarding the usage of the term atheist (partly because many people, including atheists, use it differently). Hopefully some of you can help me understand this better.

I am a theist. I want to have meaningful discussions with people, including atheists. This often proves difficult because of a basic misunderstanding of the other's most basic principles. I have read the ironchariots wiki definitions, as well as the scale provided by Dr. Dawkins. These are still confusing because the specific terms are seldom (if ever) used in general discussions. In some discussions with "weak" atheists, language is often used that could be misunderstood as proposing the strong atheistic position (or at least leaning that way). Consider the following questions to be used at the beginning of a discussion:

1) Is the question, "Is there a 'god'?" one that is able to be answered?

2) If yes, have you accepted an answer to that question?

3) If yes, which answer have you accepted regarding the question?

If 1) = 'No', then the person would be considered an agnostic.
If 2) = 'No', then the person is an atheist/agnostic atheist or "weak atheist" or even a "skeptic" by some.

If 3) = 'No', then the person is a "strong atheist".
If 3) = 'Yes', then the person is a theist.

I am just attempting to come up with a quick way to discover the basic position of a person without having misunderstood terms getting in the way. Hopefully it would also avoid inadvertently mischaracterizing a weak atheist's position as a strong atheistic one (which I would say is the most common error?) I welcome any correction, insight, and clarifications you might have. Thanks
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby dobbie » Tue May 01, 2012 3:02 am

GrammarOfAssent wrote
I admit that I am often confused regarding the usage of the term atheist


The co-hosts of the Atheist Experience Show (they also run the IronChariots forum) use the word “atheist” as a matter of convenience. When asked what kind of atheists they are, they will say (ultimately) that they are agnostic-atheists.

They are agnostics in the sense that they don’t know absolutely whether there’s a God.

They are atheists in the sense that they see no convincing evidence for the God that somebody names.

That is their position. That is, it's how I paraphrase their position, if I may speak for them.

It’s my position, too, so I believe I understand where they are coming from.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby Lausten » Tue May 01, 2012 11:18 am

I would agree with dobbie. I would also point out that Grammar is missing any comments on belief. You might think that the god question can be answered and not be sure about that god is. i.e. "Yes" to 1, but still agnostic.

My short answer to the OP, people like labels, they make them comfortable. Most people don't try to really define a term or listen to what other's think the definition is. It takes large cultural movements to affect the meaning of words like, gay, divorce, mentally ill, war, slave, black, and now atheist.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby GrammarOfAssent » Tue May 01, 2012 3:40 pm

Lausten wrote:You might think that the god question can be answered and not be sure about that god is. i.e. "Yes" to 1, but still agnostic.


Just to make sure I understand you, is this what you mean?: 1) Yes (You think the question can be answered); 2) No (You are still not sure about the actual answer to the question)

In other words, a person can accept the question as valid and answerable, while at the same time remain in a state of doubt or skepticism regarding any proposed answer to the question.

If that is the case, then, as dobbie pointed out, this would be the "agnostic atheist" position, and you call it simply "agnostic". See my confusion? What I am getting at is not an attempt to authoritatively define these terms. I'd actually like to avoid the terms altogether during a discussion. I have heard people ask hosts on the show if they believed god exists, to which the host responds, "No". The caller immediately (and incorrectly) presumes this to mean the host is a "strong atheist". Obviously, more questions are required to discover the actual position of the host. This is my attempt to honestly and accurately investigate the actual position of a person.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to know how you label your own position and your reasons for accepting a certain label. This certainly lends to being more concise. However (for sake of discussion) I am more interested in the principles of a given position rather than what that position is called.

So, please, answer the questions for yourself. Does the 'yes' or 'no' format to the questions allow you to accurately state the most basic parts of your position? Would you prefer an additional question? Would you prefer a question was asked in a different way? Thanks.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby DjVortex » Tue May 01, 2012 5:45 pm

GrammarOfAssent wrote:I admit that I am often confused regarding the usage of the term atheist


An atheist is someone who is not a theist. It's that simple. (And that's what the word "atheist" means. The prefix "a-" means the same as "not". In other words, "not theist".)

It's relatively easy to test whether someone is a theist or an atheist: Would you say "I believe that a god exists"? If you answer anything else than "yes", then you are by definition an atheist.

1) Is the question, "Is there a 'god'?" one that is able to be answered?
If 1) = 'No', then the person would be considered an agnostic.


Yes, he would be an agnostic, but that doesn't tell us whether he's a theist or an atheist. Gnosticism/agnosticism is not mutually exclusive with theism/atheism. Gnosticism/agnosticism is just a philosophical stance dealing with knowledge. It's not related to belief in gods.

It's perfectly possible for someone to be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

Now, a completely different issue is that the term "atheist" is often attached to a ton of other positions, philosophies and ideologies, as if atheism implied all of them, even though it doesn't. Thus when you say that you are an atheist, most people immediately assume a ton of other things about you as well, even though you haven't said so. (Of course the extent of these assumptions depends on the culture and country. In some countries atheism is a default position held by the majority, and someone proclaiming being an atheist does not carry with itself so much baggage, because most people are atheists. In other countries, however, where atheists are ostracized, the amount of baggage attached to the term "atheist" can be very great indeed.)
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby dobbie » Tue May 01, 2012 7:13 pm

GrammarOfAssent wrote
1) Is the question, "Is there a 'god'?" one that is able to be answered?


I will answer the question for myself. The answer is that the question isn’t able to be answered yet. That is, an "answer" isn’t able to do justice to the question yet. I ask, What god does the question ask about? That is, What does the god do?

Then I would give the answer to the question from there.

Now let’s say that the person doing the asking wants to know whether there is a Bible God. Then, yes, the question is able to be answered by me.

I would answer, No, and I could give my reasons.

That is the way it should work. That is, the theist names which God that the question is asking about. And the atheist responds from there.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby Lausten » Tue May 01, 2012 8:19 pm

GrammarofAssent wrote:Just to make sure I understand you, is this what you mean?: 1) Yes (You think the question can be answered); 2) No (You are still not sure about the actual answer to the question)

Slight typo by me made this more confusing, "that God is" should have been "what God is", not important. Also, I haven't said anything yet about my beliefs. Not that I don't love doing that, I just don't need to re-summarize them for every new thread. My comment was that your three step process left out a lot details. Dobbie filled in some of them.

I believe the god question can be answered. That doesn't make me non-agnostic. It doesn't make me anything related to belief in god.
It means I have reasons to assert that there is a method that we could apply to the question. I'm not sure how answering "no" indicates agnosticism anyway. The second question doesn't say anything one way or another and the third says nothing about degree.

I could be wrong and the method could fail. I could be right and we could get an answer. The answer could be yes or no. The answer we currently have is, most likely no. We have falsified that god created the earth, that god controls the sun, that sacrifices make crops grow, that god makes rainbows, that god created a man out of dust and woman out of the man's rib. We should be able to falsify the whole thing.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby GrammarOfAssent » Wed May 02, 2012 12:44 am

Thanks to everyone for the responses.

DjVortex wrote:It's relatively easy to test whether someone is a theist or an atheist: Would you say "I believe that a god exists"? If you answer anything else than "yes", then you are by definition an atheist.


I understand at least that much. However, as the above statements demonstrate, claiming that atheist label says very little about the position being claimed. So an atheist does not believe in the existence of a god...does that mean they are maintaining doubt or skepticism on the question (e.g. "I have not yet accepted an answer to the question,'is there a god(s)'"), or have they accepted a different proposition as a true one (e.g. "It is improbable that a god exists", "No god(s) exist", etc.).

Call yourself whatever you like (if you can do so accurately, all the better). I would prefer to avoid labels as much as possible for the very reason this thread began; people misunderstand and misuse terms very frequently when attempting to describe a non-theistic position.

DjVortex wrote:Yes, he would be an agnostic, but that doesn't tell us whether he's a theist or an atheist. Gnosticism/agnosticism is not mutually exclusive with theism/atheism. Gnosticism/agnosticism is just a philosophical stance dealing with knowledge. It's not related to belief in gods.


It would seem that we are operating with two different understandings of agnosticism (which serves as another piece of evidence that encourages me to avoid using the terms). Agnosticism IS a philosophical position regarding knowledge, and it is frequently used when discussing the "god question". An agnostic position maintains (see wikipedia) that metaphysical claims are "unknowable" (a-gnosis = no knowledge). If a person understand that question, "Is there a god" to be, in principle, an un answerable, or unknowable one...it stands to reason that, if such a person is logically consistent, the same person cannot then accept an answer to the question. This is different from a position of skepticism or state of doubt regarding the question: in such a case, the person understands that the question does in fact have a knowable answer, even if they have yet to arrive at that knowledge. Some people describe this as a type of agnosticism. That is fine. Call it whatever you'd like. Just be aware that it will cause confusion.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby GrammarOfAssent » Wed May 02, 2012 12:49 am

dobbie wrote:I will answer the question for myself. The answer is that the question isn’t able to be answered yet. That is, an "answer" isn’t able to do justice to the question yet. I ask, What god does the question ask about? That is, What does the god do?


At this point (at least as I see it), the "what god" or "which god" question is not yet relevant. The question asks, "Is there A god?" If the position of the person is (in its most general sense) atheistic, then there has yet to be a god proposed whose existence has been accepted as real. Perhaps it would be better to ask:

1) Is the question, "Is there any god(s)?" an answerable one?

Let me know if this allows for a more general understanding.
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby dobbie » Wed May 02, 2012 3:20 am

GrammarOfAssent wrote:
At this point (at least as I see it), the "what god" or "which god" question is not yet relevant. The question asks, "Is there A god?"


Well, this is a point of departure. 'Cause, for me, the question "what god?" is germane. That is, without this followup question, the original question "Is there a god (any god)" isn't clear enough.

As an analogy, if an analogy is okay, there can be the question "Are there UFO?" How to answer it? I could infer any unidentified flying object such as space debris or unidentifed terrestial aircraft; with that in mind, I could then answer with a simple yes or no. Or I could infer that a UFO is a space ship from other planet, and then answer with that alternative in mind.

I expect there's a strong chance that if I answer yes, there are UFO, the person asking the question would say, "So you believe that extraterrestials have visited Earth in ships." And then I say, "No not that kind of UFO." And we have to begin again.

I would expect that both sides want to be clear enough on the question being asked. Thus, I say it's relevant to ask "What god do you have in mind?" in response to the original question. Is that okay?
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby dobbie » Wed May 02, 2012 3:39 am

1) Is the question, "Is there any god(s)?" an answerable one?


By the way, to give a direct answer to the question, my answer is "Yes, it's an answerable question. But before you (the generic "you") ask anything else, which god or gods do you have in mind?"
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby GrammarOfAssent » Wed May 02, 2012 4:44 am

dobbie wrote:Thus, I say it's relevant to ask "What god do you have in mind?" in response to the original question. Is that okay?


=) Of course it is ok!

The 'specific god' question is not needed to answer this question (as I read it) because 'any god' includes all possible definitions of god (even including non-divine ones). Even so, I am starting to think that this question is unnecessary. Perhaps it would be better to avoid this first question altogether. Maybe the first question should rather be:

1) Do you have a position regarding the question, "Does god(x) exist?" (where god(x) is the specific definition of god).

If 'no' (read: 'no' to the question: "do you have a position...?"), then the person is maintaining a state of doubt or skepticism on that specific definition (call it whatever you'd like).

If 'yes', then the next question could be:

2) What is that position, and what led you to adopt it?

What do you think?
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Re: Even many atheists detest the term "atheism"

Postby DjVortex » Wed May 02, 2012 6:30 am

GrammarOfAssent wrote:Call yourself whatever you like (if you can do so accurately, all the better). I would prefer to avoid labels as much as possible for the very reason this thread began; people misunderstand and misuse terms very frequently when attempting to describe a non-theistic position.


It may be because I live in a country where atheists are not ostracized (because the majority of people here are non-religious) rather than in the US (where, especially in certain parts of the country, atheists are seen as monsters not unlike mass murderers and child rapists), but I don't have such a big concern is labeling myself an atheist. It's not such a dirty word here.

This is different from a position of skepticism or state of doubt regarding the question: in such a case, the person understands that the question does in fact have a knowable answer, even if they have yet to arrive at that knowledge. Some people describe this as a type of agnosticism. That is fine. Call it whatever you'd like. Just be aware that it will cause confusion.


Skepticism is the principle of not accepting a claim at face value, without proper evidence. I don't see skepticism as a position of claiming that it is possible to know if a god exists or not. It's simply a neutral position of "show me the evidence and I'll examine it and make a decision based on that".

As for the meaning of "agnosticism", people use it interchangeably with to positions that aren't actually the same:

1) "It's impossible for us to know if a god exists."
2) "I don't know if a god exists."

In fact, most people who label themselves agnostics use the second meaning rather than the first. Most people wouldn't make the claim that it's impossible to know. Are they still agnostics?

Rather ironically, when someone says "I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic", it's actually the exact opposite: They are atheists (by definition) but not agnostics (because they usually don't claim that it's impossible for us to know).
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