Sunday, January 9, 2011

What do you call someone who doesn't believe

Language is not liquid. Language is LEGOs (tm). If you use too few blocks you create a very rough form. To add detail you must add scale. So too with language, complex ideas tend to be poorly represented in sparse wording. Once more efficiency is the enemy of quality.

I am a staunch and unashamed atheist. And when I describe myself as an atheist I know exactly what I mean. But I've exchanged ideas with enough people who call themselves atheists to know that though they use the same word they may not mean the same specific thing.

And I've seldom exchanged ideas with theists (on points of contention) when I didn't find it necessary to clarify definitions and implications of words and phrases to avoid equivocation and general miscommunication. Again the words atheism and atheist are likely to create misconceptions. When I use these words I know I am probably seeding a conversation.

I like the term naturalist. But that can be confused with bird-watchers or nudists. I like the term humanist but it seems new-age-y, evasive and doesn't really get the point across. I like secularist but that is more of a political position. "Bright" is immodest. If there is a better word than "atheist" it may not be coined yet. It was super-naturalists who coined and wielded the word atheist. Would it not be poetic justice if they were undone by it?

One way to have the atheist conversation while avoiding the stigma is to balance the Socratic method with dismissals of ungrounded ideas. For some reason it is more acceptable to hold and share a perspective of non-belief as long as you don't seem to have an actual position. By "playing dumb" you can avoid a lot of labels and prejudice. By asking for explanations and details you can also un-stuff or avoid many strawman arguments.

English language and Western culture seem particularly unfavorable to non-super-naturalist. For instance we still say the Sun comes up. And though we know it is the Earth's rotation moving into view, we still think of it as the Sun coming up. Try to describe a situation wherein someone experiences random but favorable circumstances without referring to luck or providence. So too "atheist" carries culturally and historically ingrained stigmas similar to "pagan," "witch" and "devil worshiper."

But by shying away from this word we give it power. We would be foolish to allow "atheist" to become "the A word." Let us instead change the meaning, not by committee or decree, but by action and example. And when archaic stigmas are made moot by an overwhelming inability to stereotype a subset of society who share nothing in common but a lack of belief, what we are called will be equally arbitrary. Let the "non-religious" and "unaffiliated" look on us with admiration so that they too may call themselves what they really are: people find no merit in religious claims, aka: atheists.


  1. Define Atheist....and, Which founding father do you most relate to politically/theologically/spiritually?

  2. I hinted at a definition in the title and in the last paragraph. But any definition I give is likely to miss some people who self-identify (and rightly so) themselves as atheists.

    The broadest definition would be anyone who either passively lacks belief or actively disbelieves there is a single entity that is seemingly all-powerful, the creator of the universe, directly or indirectly the creator of life on Earth and plays a role in the lives of humans (individually and as a group) intentionally, actively and interactively. *whew*

    Such a definition would exclude polytheists, pantheists, deists, Shinto-ists, Buddhists, disinterested the undecided and any number of super-naturalists we (and probably they) would generally not think of as atheists.

    Usually what I mean by "atheist" is someone has considered the common monotheistic religious hypotheses and dismissed them.

    I'm not familiar enough with the personalities and personal beliefs of the founding fathers to make a well-informed choice. Perhaps Ben Franklin.

    Politically, liberals make me the least angry. Theologically, I am a former christian. I still look for ways judeo-christian theology could be true, out of habit. But it all seems like an elaborate and inconsistent back story for an elaborate role playing game. If only the early Israelites had had Gary Gygax. Spiritually, I find naturalistic materialism is most consistent with the objective evidence. That is to say: non/un/dis/anti-spiritual. Maybe "post-spiritual" would be a good term.

  3. Interesting...When you spoke of naturalist tendencies, I was guessing possible deist. Sorry I didn't catch the hints to your def of atheist, as I went back to reread, I "got it". Have you read the book The Bible Tells me so by Ken Ham? I'd be interested in how you would respond to his idea that the contradictions in the bible can all be "explained".

    1. Wow, so long ago but worth an additional note. You mentioned Ken Ham's claim that the contradictions in the bible can all be "explained." For most (perhaps all) things that aren't direct contradictions it is possible to retrofit "explanations." Even with direct contradictions ad hoc BS explanations are possible but less convincing, especially when we allow for divine interventions.

      Whether it's the last words of Jesus or how Judas died there is always a way to claim each version is true by adding information that is not presented in the original material. Did Judas give the 30 silver pieces back and hang himself in the field or did he buy the field with the 30 pieces and fall down and burst open? Apologists start with the assumption that neither version could possibly be wrong and construct a story that includes both. For instance Judas could have given the money back as payment for the field, gone to the field, hung himself and somehow fallen down and burst open spilling his guts. Contradiction averted? Technically yes. But the two versions also hint at opposing states of mind. I suppose we could say he was conflicted. But the individual references seem to be telling us opposing stories, one about a good man who regretted his betrayal and the other a villain who was punished for his act of evil. While I doubt Judas was a real person, perhaps both stories could be technically true. But that would make both stories meaningless. Was he repentant and suicidal or evil and punished? If somehow both were true then each story is less interesting.

      But more importantly, if both were true and we can only know the truth by constructing our own reconciliation then how do we know this isn't the case for every bible story? If we can take a story and add our own information to reconcile contradictions, why can't we add our own information at leisure? Perhaps if the bible says one thing and I feel another why can't I reconcile the two in a way that I find satisfactory.

      The point I'm trying to make is that no one should do that. No one should make up their own excuses based on dis interpreted bible stories. Neither should anyone construct self-serving ad hoc rectally extracted fantasy excuses for conflicting bible stories. It's heresy if nothing else. But also exposes the desperation of believers; the cognitive dissonance.

      With the best of these biblical contradictions we should all be able to admit there's a problem. Maybe there's a good explanation, maybe not. But we don't know. Whether someone allows for reasonable doubt or clings to faith there is no excuse for representing purely fictional accounts as facts. If the bible is incomplete we have neither the authority nor wherewithal to fill in the gaps. That's nothing but non-cannon fan fiction.

      If the bible is unclear, muddled, wavering or self-contradictory then just admit it. Integrity by far surpasses zealotry.

  4. A deist deity would be genuinely impossible for anyone bound by space, time, matter and energy to disprove. A theist deity would merely be improbable to prove.

    The Bible Tells Me So by Ken Ham is not available at the Answers Store or at Amazon. The apologetics at AIG is not the worst available. But the quality of salesman hardly excuses a faulty product.

    The only way to accept YEC is to ignore geology, astronomy, physics, etc. or to assume that a creative force was deceptive and wanted to make the universe and the Earth look billions of years old.

    (edit: changed "deist" to "theist" in the second sentence which was what I originally meant to write)