Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit

The Reconquista Initiative

Presents…

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit

In the previous essay “Lack-of-Belief Atheism is Bullshit”, it was argued that the testimony of a number of individuals, both atheist and theist alike, as well as the experience of this author, provide the reasonable grounds to believe that the popular assertion made by many modern atheists, which is that atheism is simply a lack-of-belief about the existence of God or gods (hereafter just God) rather than being a positive belief claim, is, in fact, a bullshit move which is employed by atheists not because it is true, but because it helps them avoid the burden of proof for their position. And so, the evidence provided supported the contention that lack-of-belief atheism is, in essence, a shell game used to give atheists a rhetorical advantage over theists concerning the question of who bears the burden of proof.

In this essay, yet another point will be provided which will add a slight amount of further grounds to support the idea that lack-of-belief atheism is indeed more of a rhetorical tactic than a legitimate position. And this point stems from the blending of negative lack-of-belief atheism with agnosticism. Indeed, the conflation and overlap that occurs between lack-of-belief atheism and agnosticism is another point which is sufficiently suspicious that it deserves to be noted.

Now, to understand this overlap between atheism and agnosticism, consider first how atheist Michael Martin, in his “General Introduction” to the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, defines atheism:

[QUOTE] If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand “atheism” in this way. Yet this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek “a” means “without” or “not”, and “theos” means “god.” From this standpoint, an atheist is someone without belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes that God does not exist. Still, there is a popular dictionary meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist is not simply one who holds no belief in the existence of a God or gods but is one who believes that there is no God or gods. This dictionary use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call it positive atheism and let us call the type of atheism derived from the original Greek roots negative atheism. [UNQUOTE]

But Martin, in the same work, then defines agnosticism as follows:

[QUOTE] Agnosticism, the position of neither believing nor disbelieving that God exists, is often contrasted with atheism. However, this common opposition of agnosticism to atheism is misleading. Agnosticism and positive atheism are indeed incompatible: if atheism is true, agnosticism is false and conversely. But agnosticism is compatible with negative atheism in that agnosticism entails negative atheism. Since agnostics do not believe in God, they are by definition negative atheists. This is not to say that negative atheism entails agnosticism. A negative atheist might disbelieve in God but need not. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added]

So observe how Martin defines agnosticism as neither believing nor disbelieving in the existence of God, which means that the agnostic lacks a positive belief in either the existence or the non-existence of God, just as the negative-atheist allegedly does. And so, as per Martin’s definition, agnosticism is thus best construed as the middle position between positively believing and positively disbelieving in the existence of God; it is directly between positive-atheism and positive-theism on the spectrum of theistic belief. Thus, agnosticism is indeed a lack of belief concerning God’s existence, just as negative-atheism is claimed to be. And even Martin himself admits that negative-atheism overlaps with agnosticism. And while Martin argues that these two positions are not identical, Martin himself provides the very means to undermine his own claim that these are two separate and distinction positions—although explaining why this is so will be the topic of a separate essay.

Note as well that Martin is not the only one who implicitly admits the overlap between negative-atheism and agnosticism. For example, Matt McCormick, in his online article “Atheism” on the ‘Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ website, accessed on the 25th of November 2015, also defines agnosticism as a lack-of-belief when he says:

[QUOTE] Atheism is the view that there is no God … It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God.  Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist… Agnosticism is traditionally characterized as neither believing that God exists nor believing that God does not exist. [UNQUOTE] (http://www.iep.utm.edu/atheism/, bold emphasis added)

Notice how McCormick, like Martin, does indeed tacitly admit that both the negative-atheist and the agnostic have a lack-of-belief concerning God’s existence, thereby again demonstrating the conflation that occurs between these two terms.

So the point here is that there is a clear overlap between agnosticism and lack-of-belief atheism, and even atheists, such as Martin and McCormick, admit as much. But this fact, in turn, offers the grounds for a reasonable person to suspect that what the unbeliever is trying to do in defining atheism in a manner that overlaps it with agnosticism is to gain the advantage of agnosticism’s burden-free position while at the same time still being able to call himself an atheist; thus the negative-atheist gets the rhetorical benefit of “proudly and boldly” calling himself an atheist rather than labelling himself as a (perceived) wishy-washy agnostic, but at the same time, the atheist receives the agnostic’s debate advantage of not having a burden of proof for his own position. And so, for the unbeliever, branding one’s self as a lack-of-belief atheist is to his rhetorical advantage all around, which is precisely why it is reasonable to suspect that this is the primary reason for why the unbeliever seeks to define atheism as a mere lack-of-belief.

Furthermore, this whole issue is made all the more suspicious by the fact that there is no need for the existence of the label of negative-atheist (and again, this will be discussed in a separate and longer essay). After all, if the label of agnostic encompasses the idea of a lack-of-belief in God, as it does, and if it can be modified to encompass numerous types of lack-of-belief, as it can be, then there is no need for the overlap and conflation between agnosticism and lack-of-belief atheism, especially given that the latter is unnecessary and could thus be justifiably shaved away via Occam’s Razor.  Consequently, atheism could be left with the more standard definition of being the positive belief that God does not exist whereas agnosticism would be the position where there was a lack-of-belief about God. And yet, atheists, and in particular negative-atheists, tacitly maintain this overlap between negative-atheism and agnosticism in spite of the fact that not only is there no good reason to do so, but there is a good reason not to do so: namely, as mentioned, Occam’s Razor and the appeal to parsimony, which should motivate the atheist—who so often invokes Occam’s Razor in other matters—to cut off the unnecessary limb of negative-atheism from the tree of agnosticism, thereby making matters linguistically simpler by removing the overlap between these two terms. But the fact that atheists are not willing to do this, even though many of them do indeed realize that negative-atheism and agnosticism all too often overlap, is suggestive of the fact that there may be an ulterior motive at play in the desire to maintain the idea of negative-atheism regardless of its overlap with agnosticism.

And so, the long and short of it is this: the existence of overlap between negative-atheism and agnosticism, as well as the atheist’s desire to maintain this overlap even when there good reasons not to do so, and no equally good reasons to maintain the overlap, can thereby lead a reasonable person to suspect that the atheist is indeed maintaining such an overlap for less-than-forthright purposes, such as for the purpose of gaining a rhetorical advantage over the theist when it comes to the burden of proof.  And so, in light of this reasonable suspicion, we once again get a whiff of intellectual bullshit coming from the atheist camp when it comes to their endless drive to ensure that atheism is defined as a mere lack-of-belief concerning the God question.

Additional Note:  Atheism versus Agnosticism

As an important side-note to the question of whether negative-atheism is simply conflated with agnosticism, please be aware that in response to this issue, some atheists assert that the difference between atheism and agnosticism is that atheism allegedly deals with belief claims whereas agnosticism deals strictly with knowledge claims, thereby implying that a person could be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time without an overlap necessarily arising between these two terms. Although addressing this particular objection in full is outside the scope of this essay, let two things be said about it. First, the author is aware of this objection and has a number of responses to it which show that the objection will not save negative-atheism from its conflation problem with agnosticism. And second, the fact that numerous sources do not define atheism and agnosticism in the manner that this objection desires—and both Martin and McCormick are a case-in-point of this fact—means that the claim that this objection makes is readily disputable.

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Anno Domini 2017 01 13

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

10 thoughts on “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit

  1. You wrote: “the fact that numerous sources do not define atheism and agnosticism in the manner that this objection desires—and both Martin and McCormick are a case-in-point of this fact—means that the claim that this objection makes is readily disputable.”

    Anyone can come up with a definition. To question the validity of one definition simply because you’ve found another one seems like a rather weak argument. If you’re interested in a dialogue, denying your interlocutor the right to define his own position is probably not a good start. Unless you can demonstrate that there is some internal inconsistency in the definition, why not simply accept the definition given for the sake of argument? Of course, if dialogue is not the intent, you can simply disregard this objection (and I can disregard your point).

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    • But I don’t just counter it with another definition–although this is a perfectly valid strategy to show that the objector’s unorthodox definition is exactly that…unorthodox. Rather, I give a reason, namely simplicity and clarity, not to use the objectors definition.

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  2. Well, you allude to “a number of responses” that supposedly address this particular issue but until you actually present them, there’s nothing much for me to respond to. Also, how do you determine which definition is orthodox and which is unorthodox?

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  3. But which dictionary? There are those that include “lack of belief” in their definitions of atheism and those that don’t. How do you determine which is the orthodox position? I also don’t see you addressing the issue of atheism being about belief and agnosticism being about knowledge, meaning they’re not mutually exclusive positions.

    Even if we re-defined non-believers who are not prepared to make the claim that God doesn’t exist from atheists to agnostics, their position would remain the same: they still wouldn’t believe in God – and you would still have the burden of proof.

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  4. I don’t see a lot of atheists calling themselves bold for not believing in God (I certainly don’t) – they simply don’t believe. This looks like a complete red herring to me.

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