The Reconquista Initiative
Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit: Part 2 – Martin’s Example
In the previous essay “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit”, it was argued that lack-of-belief atheism—also called negative-atheism—is really just agnosticism in disguise. Indeed, the two terms are essentially synonymous. And in that previous essay, it was specifically mentioned that atheist Michael Martin, via his own writings and through his own words, provides the very means to demonstrate why negative-atheism and agnosticism are essentially the same. And so this essay will examine Martin’s writing to see why this is the case.
Now, in his “General Introduction” to the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Martin says the following about 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]
And now Martin, after agreeing that a negative-atheist is someone without a belief in God or gods (hereafter just God), then continues in the following vein concerning agnosticism:
[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 it is clear that Martin perceives the conflation between negative-atheism and agnosticism. And although Martin says that while agnosticism entails negative-atheism, negative-atheism does not necessarily entail agnosticism, it is hard to see why this is so. Martin does say that a negative-atheist might disbelieve in God but need not do so. Now it is hard to know exactly what Martin means, but if he means that a negative-atheist might be a person who is genuinely ignorant of the whole issue of God and thus does not actually disbelieve in the existence of God because the person does not even know what God is, then such a view is fair enough, and perhaps the term negative-atheist can be used in this way. However, in reality, not only would such a genuinely ignorant person be better labelled with the less-prejudicial and more accurate term of ‘ignotheist’ (or even ignorant-agnostic (both of which mean someone who is genuinely ignorant of theism and who thus, by necessity, neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God), but, additionally, if the term negative-atheist (or lack-of-belief atheist) merely describes a person who is genuinely ignorant of the concept of God, then it is a term which is completely inapplicable to any self-described and self-aware adult atheist. And yet, it is precisely such people that use the term negative-atheist to describe themselves. So if the term ‘negative-atheist’ is meant to describe people who are truly ignorant of even the idea of God, then not only is it a poor term for this task, but it has almost no practical application given that nearly all the individuals who use the term as a self-label are well-aware of the question of God and his existence. Furthermore, Martin’s own words will later show that negative-atheism, as he defines it, cannot apply to individuals who are genuinely ignorant of God. And so, even if its potential applicability as a descriptive label of people who are genuinely ignorant of God that is the only reason why negative-atheism does not entail agnosticism, then, with the removal of that reason—a reason that can indeed be removed for all practical purposes given the way that the term negative-atheism is actually applied in our modern culture—it is thus the case that negative-atheism does indeed entail agnosticism and there is not real difference between the two. And this point can be shown in even more detail when we consider how Martin, once again in the same work, defines the two types of agnosticism. Here is Martin’s definition:
[QUOTE] Here I will explore what is at issue between positive atheism and agnosticism. An agnostic, one might suppose, is skeptical that good grounds exist [to disbelieve that God exists], whereas an atheist is not. However, this is not the only way the difference between these positions can be construed. An agnostic might think that there are good grounds for disbelieving that God exists but also believe that there are equally good grounds for believing that God exists. These opposing reasons would offset one another, leaving no overall positive reason to believe or disbelieve.
Let us call the view that there are no good reasons for believing that God exists and none for believing that God does not exist skeptical agnosticism and the view that there are equally good reasons for believing both theism and atheism that offset one another cancellation agnosticism.
Arguments that are intended to establish both negative and positive atheism refute both skeptical and cancellation agnosticism. Showing that negative atheism is justified undermines cancellation agnosticism, for it assumes that both atheism and theism have good grounds that cancel each other out, and negative atheism entails that there are no good grounds for theistic belief. Moreover, arguments showing that there are good grounds for the nonexistence of God undermine skeptical agnosticism since skeptical agnosticism assumes that there are no good grounds for either atheism or theism. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added]
Now the problem that arises from Martin’s aforementioned connection between agnosticism and negative-atheism is that Martin’s own reasoning essentially destroys any justification for the existence of what Martin calls negative-atheism.
Consider that Martin says that cancellation-agnosticism—which Martin defines as being the position that while there are good grounds for theistic belief, these grounds are cancelled out by equally good grounds for atheistic belief—can be undermined by negative-atheism, because negative-atheism allegedly shows that there are no good grounds for theistic belief. And yet the problem is that if negative lack-of-belief atheism undermines cancellation-agnosticism by removing the cancellation-agnostic’s good grounds for theistic belief, then the cancellation-agnostic (as per Martin’s definition) still has good grounds for atheistic belief, which means that the cancellation-agnostic becomes a positive-atheist rather than a negative one, for the atheist now has unimpeded good grounds for the positive belief that God does not exist. But if the cancellation-agnostic does not have good enough grounds to become a positive-atheist after hearing the negative-atheist’s arguments, then he is, also as per Martin’s definition, simply a skeptical-agnostic rather than a negative-atheist, for remember that Martin defines a skeptical-agnostic as a person who sees no good reasons for believing that God exists and no good reasons for believing that God does not exist.
But now the question becomes: where does negative lack-of-belief atheism fit in to all this? After all, as per Martin’s own definitions, it seems that negative-atheism, when pushed, simply collapses into either positive-atheism or skeptical-agnosticism, and thus there is no room to legitimately fit negative-atheism into the spectrum from positive-atheism to agnosticism. For again, if negative-atheism causes the cancellation-agnostic to lose his good grounds for believing in theism but to simultaneously maintain his good grounds for believing in atheism, then the cancellation-agnostic becomes a positive-atheist, even if only to a slight degree. And yet if negative-atheism causes the cancellation-agnostic to lose his good grounds for believing in theism, and if the cancellation-agnostic then also loses his good grounds for believing in atheism, or if his grounds for believing in atheism are not sufficient to justify belief in positive-atheism, then the cancellation-agnostic simply becomes a skeptical-agnostic, not a negative-atheist. In essence, there is nowhere for the negative lack-of-belief atheist to fit, for either 1) an unbeliever has good enough grounds for atheism to believe that atheism is, to a greater or lesser degree, more probable than not, and thus the unbeliever becomes a positive-atheist of a certain strength, or else 2) the unbeliever does not have good enough grounds to believe that atheism is true, and then the unbeliever becomes a skeptical-agnostic; what there is no room for is a negative-atheist who just lacks a belief in God, for such a lack-of-belief atheist just is a skeptical-agnostic. And so, in light of the above, and as per Martin’s own definitions, and at least if we are speaking of individuals who are aware of the idea of God, then it seems that there cannot be any coherent place for negative-atheism to fit along the spectrum of theistic belief unless it serves as nothing else than a different label for skeptical-agnosticism.
Additionally, if the negative-atheist tries to squeeze himself in somewhere between positive-atheism and skeptical-agnosticism by claiming that there are good enough grounds for atheism to not label oneself as an agnostic, and yet those grounds are not quite good enough to have a positive-belief in atheism, then note that such a claim is incoherent. After all, a positive-atheist’s degree of belief in the proposition that God does not exist can be quite weak, but it is nevertheless still a positive belief in a positive claim. Indeed, it is the positive belief that there are good enough grounds to lean away from agnosticism towards a type of tenuous atheism, but not good enough grounds for full-blown beyond-a-reasonable-doubt atheism. But again, a tenuous form of positive atheism is nevertheless still a positive claim that would need to be defended, and it is by no means a mere absence of belief. Thus, such a tenuous atheism cannot coherently be categorized as a lack-of-belief, for it is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is, as stated, a positive belief, albeit a very weak and hesitant one. And so again, such a tenuous and probabilistic atheism simply cannot be accurately described as lack-of-belief atheism, for it is actually a positive belief, and thus it falls under positive-atheism, even though the tenuous level of positive-atheism that the person possessed in this particular case would need to be made clear.
Negative-Atheism as No Good Grounds
Now, if the unbeliever tries to claim—as Michael Martin did in one of the quotations above—that negative-atheism is a position which entails that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, and thus that a negative-atheist should be understood as a person who holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, then a number of points can be noted in response to this idea.
First, notice that if a negative-atheist is a person who holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief then, by definition, such a person cannot be genuinely ignorant of the idea of God; after all, a person know believes that there are no good grounds for theistic belief needs to know what theism is and needs to know, and reject, the grounds for theism. And so if negative-atheism describes a person who claims that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, then it cannot be used as a label for a person who is genuinely ignorant of theism, which was—as we saw earlier—a potentially legitimate use of the term ‘negative-atheist’. But such use of the term is no longer possible if negative-atheism entails that there are no good grounds for theistic belief.
Second, merely claiming that there are no good grounds for theistic belief does not necessarily indicate what an individual’s position is on the spectrum of theistic belief. For example, a fideistic-theist could agree that there are no good grounds for theistic belief and yet believe in theism regardless; consequently, believing that there are no good grounds for theistic belief would not necessarily mean that a person is a negative-atheist, nor that a person would wish to be labeled as such. In fact, as I explain in my book Turning the Tables on Atheism, a person could hold that there are no good grounds for theistic belief and yet nevertheless still prefer to be labeled as a negative-theist rather than a negative-atheist. Furthermore, note that the skeptical-agnostic also holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, and yet the skeptical-agnostic is an agnostic, not a negative-atheist. So simply holding to the idea that there are no good grounds for theistic belief is insufficient grounds to label someone as a negative-atheist. And, as illustrated above, such a label might actually be quite inaccurate in certain cases.
Now, the third response to the idea that negative-atheism should be understood as the position that there are no good grounds from theistic belief is the more substantive one, for this response argues that defining negative-atheism in the above fashion still does nothing to alleviate the problem that negative-atheism is simply a different term for skeptical-agnosticism. After all, as mentioned, the skeptical-agnostic also holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, and so negative-atheism appears to be nothing more than skeptical-agnosticism in disguise. And again, if the negative-atheist not only claims that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, but he also claims that there are no good grounds for positive atheistic belief (and a negative-atheist could claim this), and thus the negative-atheist claims to neither believe nor disbelieve in God, then that is the very definition of a skeptical-agnostic! And so again, negative-atheism is still nothing more than skeptical-agnosticism. And yet if the negative-atheist thinks that there are no good grounds for theistic belief but there are good grounds for atheistic belief, at least to some degree or another, then, by the definitions provided above, such an individual is a positive-atheist, not a negative one. So again, there is no room for the idea of negative-atheism, for either an individual is a skeptical-agnostic, or he is a positive-atheist.
However, perhaps it could be argued that a negative-atheist is someone who holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, and yet, at the same time, the person is completely ignorant of the grounds for atheistic belief. Now, while the existence of a person who holds such a position is theoretically possible, in practice, such a potential reality is essentially irrelevant given the fact that anyone who examines the grounds for theism, and finds them wanting, will almost certainly encounter and/or contemplate some arguments and reasons for atheism while doing so; this means that, in practice, a person who holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief will never really be completely ignorant of some of the grounds for atheistic belief. In fact, since a person who contemplates the grounds for belief in God’s existence would, at the same time, almost certainly come to consider at least some of the grounds for belief that God might not exist, this then means that after doing so, the person would necessarily adopt some kind of position about that latter claim; and so this means that after contemplating some of the grounds for atheism, the person would either 1) accept the grounds for atheistic belief and come to believe that God does not exist (positive-atheism), or 2) take the opposite view (theism), or 3) reject the grounds for atheism and adopt a position of uncertainty about God’s existence (agnosticism). However, this returns us to our earlier point, which is that a person who rejects the grounds for theism but accepts those for atheism is a positive-atheist, whereas a person who rejects both the grounds for theism and for atheism is a skeptical-agnostic; but again, there is no room for negative-atheism between the two unless negative-atheism is merely a synonym for skeptical-agnosticism!
Furthermore, note that even if, in the purely theoretical sense, it was possible for a person to hold that there were no good grounds for theistic belief while being genuinely ignorant of any of the grounds for atheism, this would still do nothing to negate the fact that negative-atheism is really just a form of agnosticism in disguise, and that it is best described as a type of agnosticism. After all, a person who holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, but is ignorant of the grounds for atheistic belief, would still be a person who neither believed nor disbelieved in the existence of God; but such a position is the very definition of agnosticism, as Martin and others—as well as many dictionaries—have pointed out (and see their quotes in both this essay and others for substantiation of this claim). At the very least, it is as much of an agnostic position as it is one of negative-atheism, and so, once again, a conflation between negative-atheism and agnosticism occurs. Additionally, it is highly questionable whether it is fair or even accurate to label a person who is ignorant of atheism as a negative-atheist; rather, and as mentioned earlier, a term like ‘ignorant-agnostic’ seems like a much more judicious, fair, and appropriate label for such a person. And so, even if there could be a person who is wholly ignorant of atheism while still holding that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, this would not negate the fact that negative-atheism would not be an appropriate label for such a person, and that such a person’s actual position would be a form of agnosticism, thus once again showing the tangled web that negative-atheism has with agnosticism.
Finally, note as well that if a person held that there are no good grounds for theistic belief, and yet that person was merely doubtful or skeptical of the “goodness” of the grounds for atheistic belief—meaning that he was doubtful of just how good the arguments for atheism were, but not that they were good arguments in general—then, once again, such a person is best thought of as either a skeptical-agnostic or a positive-atheist, but not as a negative-atheist. And why is this so? Because again, if the person is skeptical enough of the “goodness” of the grounds for atheistic belief that he does not believe, to any degree, that God does not exist, then the person is nothing more than a skeptical-agnostic (as per Martin’s own definition), for he holds that there are no good grounds for theistic belief and none for positive atheistic belief either. However, if such a person is skeptical of the “goodness” of the grounds for atheism, but nevertheless believes, to some positive degree, that God does not exist, then such an individual is a positive-atheist, not a negative one. Indeed, perhaps the best term for such a person is an indeterminate-atheist, or an unsure-atheist, given that he is unsure of how good the grounds are for his atheism, but he is still a positive-atheist nonetheless. And so even here, negative-atheism simply does not fit.
And so, the long and short of it is this: using atheist Michael Martin’s own words, we can see that the concept of negative-atheism either collapses into skeptical-agnosticism, or, at best, serves as an inappropriate and inaccurate label for certain positions which could theoretically exist, but which have few, if any, real-life instantiations. Indeed, Martin’s own writings show us that, in reality, negative lack-of-belief atheism is little more than agnosticism in disguise. Consequently, and as has been repeatedly stated, this fact thus further supports the idea that the modern unbeliever’s use of the label ‘negative-atheist’, or ‘lack-of-belief atheist’, is a bullshit maneuver, for while it is rhetorically useful for the unbeliever to use such a term given that it provides him with the burden-avoiding benefits of agnosticism while allowing him to label himself as an “atheist”, it is still a disingenuous maneuver regardless.
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Anno Domini 2017 03 02
Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam