Atheists who don’t know what they don’t believe in

Posted on 02/21/12 84 Comments

I regularly dialogue with people who, though they identify themselves as “atheists”, do not have a clear sense of how God — that which they purportedly don’t believe in — should be defined. To be sure, they are able to say in a piecemeal fashion “I don’t believe in Yahweh, Thor or Allah…” but they can’t get down to the essence and provide a succinct definition of the type of which each of these is a token.

This is a troubling situation. Imagine if somebody comes up to you and says “I am an a-autoist. I don’t believe cars exist.”

“What do you mean?” you ask.

“Well, I don’t believe in Ford Mustangs or Volkswagen Golfs or Mazda Miatas.”

“That’s it?”

“No, I also don’t believe in Dodge Neons or Jaguar E Types or Honda Accords.”

“Finished yet?”

“No. I also don’t believe in Chevy Corvettes or Hyundai Accents.”

“Okay, but what is the basic definition of ‘car’ you accept such that you believe none of them exist?”

Uncomfortable silence.

“I also don’t believe in Cadillac Fleetwoods and Jeep Wrangers…”

The problem of course is that the a-autoist doesn’t really know what a-autoism is because they don’t know what a car in its essence is. Perpetually listing off particular models that you don’t believe in is not the meaning of a-autoism. This is like continually repeating the sample sentence a dictionary provides while never giving the definition that goes with it.

And if you can’t define it, you probably shouldn’t ascribe the position to yourself. That which is true of a-autoism goes for atheism as well. If you can’t define what God is such that you don’t believe any God exists, then you shouldn’t claim the name atheist for yourself.

But don’t ever say I only curse the darkness. Let me light a candle by helping the confused atheists out there. Theism is minimally the position that the ultimate cause of everything that contingently exists is an agent cause. Thus, God is minimally the ultimate agent cause of everything that contingently exists.

So if you believe that God exists as defined then you are a theist. If you believe no God exists as defined then you are an atheist.

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  • Ian

    This probably reflects the general naivety of theists; one can spend one’s life in the church and never encounter that definition, or any kind of reflection that goes beyond a shallow reading of the Bible. In many parts of the world, that’s the kind of theism one will encounter, and that’s often what atheists are responding to.

    I like that definition though, as it illustrates the strength of atheism. Everything we know about agents indicates that they exist contingently. Agents are complex, composite entities, dependent on an evolved physical substrate in order to engage in cognition and decision making. A non-contingent, unevolved agent who is the cause of everything that contingently exists is thus quite the anomaly.

    • randal

      “In many parts of the world, that’s the kind of theism one will encounter, and that’s often what atheists are responding to.”

      It is lamentable that many theists and atheists lack this level of conceptual reflection about their beliefs. However, atheists are worse off in one particular respect. Most theists don’t define themselves as theists simpliciter. Rather, they are Christians, or Muslims or Sikhs or…. But atheists define themselves by their rejection of all notions of God. One would have hoped then that they would have reflected on what it means to reject the concept of God simpliciter.

      “I like that definition though, as it illustrates the strength of atheism. Everything we know about agents indicates that they exist contingently.”

      Uh, no. Everything you have experienced about human agents indicates they exist contingently. To keep up the automotive theme, your reasoning is like the guy who says “Everything we know about vehicles indicates that they are always built with four wheels.” He’s confused. His evidence set does not support the conclusion that all vehicles are built with four wheels but rather all cars.

      (And as it turns out, not all cars are built with four wheels anyway. Ever see a Messerschmitt?)

      If you want to get any evidential support for atheism out of this definition you’ll have to do so by arguing that there is something conceptually problematic about an agent being the necessary cause of contingent reality. Many philosophers have tried to sell an argument of that type … with about as much success as Messerschmitt’s marketing department.

      • Ian

        I said “anomaly,” which doesn’t denote “conceptually problematic.” There’s nothing conceptually problematic about, say, a Messerschmitt orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, but that doesn’t mean a believer in the celestial Messerschmitt has a strong position.

        Now, to use the same token in a different metaphor, the celestial Messerschmitt you’re trying to sell must come with some solid guarantees of its epistemological soundness before I’ll consider buying it. So far, I haven’t seen any argument that commends it to me, while there are some good ones (argument from evil, poor design) that make me wary of it.

        • davidstarlingm

          Specify that the given celestial Messerschmidt is a transcendental celestial Messerschmidt, and then we’ll have something.

        • randal

          “There’s nothing conceptually problematic about, say, a Messerschmitt orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars….”

          Agreed, but that isn’t relevant to my critique.

          “Now, to use the same token in a different metaphor, the celestial Messerschmitt you’re trying to sell must come with some solid guarantees of its epistemological soundness before I’ll consider buying it.”

          I wasn’t offering an argument for the existence of God here. I was pointing out how God ought to be defined and critiquing atheists who lack the necessary conceptual clarity to define their own position.

          • Ian

            Accepting the more widespread definition of “theism” that gets bandied about in the world isn’t a “lack of conceptual clarity.” Face it–you believe in a certain kind of theism, and you’re not entitled to say that yours is the way it “ought” to be defined.

            “…that isn’t relevant to my critique.”

            It’s relevant to your reply to my comment.

            • davidstarlingm

              Randal’s definition would assert that the “bandied” definition of theism is the result of successful academic obfuscation allowing atheists to set themselves up as the penultimate skeptics.

              • Ian

                And now zat ve have achieved our goal…ve vill destroy ze vorld!

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      “A non-contingent, unevolved agent who is the cause of everything that contingently exists is thus quite the anomaly.”

      From everything we can observe, planets do not contain any forms of life. Planets are just minerals. A planet containing life is thus quite the anomaly. But it doesn’t stop you and I from existing.

      Besides, the term “anomaly” kind of implies that the object or entity is something one wouldn’t expect to ever be produced. But Randal’s definition of God as non-contingent makes grouping him with things that come into existence a non sequitur.

      • Ian

        I agree that life is something of an anomaly, though we must take into account that life and stars are both self-sustaining physical processes, and that biological complexity develops subsequent to a well-advanced progression toward increasing physical differentiation. The organizational principle is different in the case of cosmic vs. biological evolution–equilibrium between gravity and nuclear reactions in the one case, and replication of organic matter in the latter–but both fit within the general pattern of causality constrained by natural forces. In any case, we have plenty enough evidence to support the existence of life, even if we do find it somewhat anomalous.

        On the other hand, a non-contingent, immaterial agent that can do anything is undeniably anomalous to the causal principles we observe in the world of experience. So anomalous, in fact, that we must invent a separate metaphysical category in which to classify it. It’s reasonable to require solid evidence to accept such a claim, and also reasonable to reject the claim if we find evidence disconfirmatory to it.

        • davidstarlingm

          The argument is circular. “We know life isn’t anomalous because we have evolution; we know evolution happens because we have life to prove it.” Being able to explain the existence of an anomaly doesn’t make it any less anomalous; in fact, the need to explain anomalies arises as a direct result of their anomalousness.

          The assertion that a deity would be automatically anomalous does not justify demand for a higher standard of evidence. A non-contingent ultimate agent cause would be unique by definition, so pointing out that uniqueness resembles anomaly doesn’t tell anyone anything new.

          • Ian

            That circular argument doesn’t much resemble mine; there’s considerable distance between “we know life isn’t anomalous” and “I agree that life is something of an anomaly… We do find [life] somewhat anomalous.”

            I’ll grant you that life might seem prima facie implausible. My argument is not that we are justified believing in it because we can explain it, my argument is that we are justified believing in it because we have compelling evidence for it.

            This is in contrast to the proposed existence of a supernatural, unembodied intelligence. This is even more of an anomaly than life, and with a dearth of evidence to support it.

      • Ian

        As for non-contingency exempting a state of affairs from criticism as anomalous, this doesn’t work if the proposed non-contingent state of affairs is the sort of thing that is only observed existing contingent on evolved complexity. It is precisely the supposed non-contingency of the agent, juxtaposed with the fact that agency entails complex functions which only obtain, so far as we know, in an evolutionary context, that makes it an anomaly.

        • davidstarlingm

          Life on earth has only been observed as operating on one particular set of molecular substrates, but recently certain bacteria were discovered that can metabolize arsenic in place of phosphorous. This is anomalous insofar as the discovery was unique and unexpected, but it is not extraordinary in the sense of requiring extraordinary standards of evidence.

          An otherwise ordinary human acquiring the ability to move metal telekinetically by means of a mutation (ie Magneto)? Now that is an extraordinary claim and would require extraordinary evidence.

        • davidstarlingm

          Another note: agency is a property of humans, but there is nothing intrinsic to the existence of agency that restricts it to humans. Thus, there is nothing illogical or awkward about proposing that another entity has agency. It would be the same mistake as asserting that only bats can have the ability of echolocation merely because you hadn’t yet seen any other animals with echolocation.

          • Ian

            I’ve made no attempt to restrict agency to humans, nor even to exclude the metaphysical possibility of non-contingent agency.

  • The Atheist Missionary

    Randal, if I were to accept your definition, what would compel you to worship God?

    • afpierce

      Wouldn’t the easy answer be “I don’t believe in a cause a all!”

    • randal

      Nothing. The definition underdetermines whether the agent cause of contingent reality is worthy of worship (unless you believe, as some might, that simply being the agent creator of all contingent reality is sufficient to make one worthy of worship). In other words, not all theists believe God is a being to be worshipped.

      Needless to say, few theists hold such a minimal conception of divinity, and most hold a much richer conception which includes attributes that entail that God is worthy of worship.

    • afpierce

      Sorry, I meant to pose that 1st post to Randal not TAM. However, now that I’m here. I don’t know about Randal but my response would be “I worship God because my definition (and understanding) is much more precise,”

      • randal

        I think you’re right in spirit, and my view is the same as yours. But I’ll tweak your terminology. The minimal definition I provided is precise. But it lacks the qualities/attributes/properties that would make an entity worthy of worship, e.g. perfect goodness. You and I both hold much richer conceptions of divinity according to which God is worthy of worship.

        • afpierce

          A better word might have been ‘detailed’ — it is also important to note that the qualities that make God worthy of worship are not ascribed by you or me …

          All the same just being the creator arguably gives that entity the right to demand worship. For Christians however this has been shifted from demand to deserving by the cross.

          • randal

            “the qualities that make God worthy of worship are not ascribed by you or me …”

            In one sense that’s trivially true, in another sense obviously false.

            Trivially true = we don’t make God have the attributes he has
            Obviously false = we do make judgments about which properties God does, and does not exemplify based on a set of data (e.g. general revelation; special revelation)

            “just being the creator arguably gives that entity the right to demand worship.”

            For the creator to “demand” worship already assumes a richer conceptual description, i.e. it assumes a God who cares about the actions of created beings. The minimal definition underdetermines whether that is the case.

            If a person believed that an agent created the universe but that the agent had no interest in the universe and was morally benign, I don’t think that we would feel any particular compulsion to worship that entity.

            • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

              If you equate admiration and respect with worship, then it could be asserted that the creator of the universe deserves worship merely on the basis of the complexity and design therein.

              • randal

                Now we get into an analysis of the term worship. I believe that adoration is a part of worship, but I wouldn’t necessary adore an entity toward which I held great respect and admiration.

                • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                  Inasmuch as we worship God for his creative nature, I think that worship is the same basic emotion as admiration (as in the case of an artist or architect or designer), except on an infinitely greater scale.

            • AFPierce

              Randal,

              Sorry, but I’ve been stuck here for the past few weeks because something just doesn’t seem right about your response:

              Trivially True / Obviously false. I think it has finally clicked for me: God’s worthiness of worship has nothing to do with me at all or whatever I ‘choose’ to worship. I could decide a cat (or a potted plant or an idol made of wood) is worthy of worship but that does not ascribe any worthiness to any of those things — it only describes my level of sanity or foolishness. Worthiness of worship must be an objective truth or the object is not genuinely worthy at all.

              • randal

                I agree with what you say, but I’m unsure where you concluded the problem in my response lay. Was it that you agreed but I wrote in an unclear way?

        • davidstarlingm

          Related: from a semantic point of view, what is the difference between worshipping the same ultimate agent cause while attributing false and dishonest attributes to said agent, over against worshipping a different agent altogether that merely has certain similarities to the ultimate agent cause?

          In other words, which is more accurate in which situations: “You do not know the God you claim to worship” or “The god you worship is not the true God”?

          • randal

            All I’ll say on that is that believing in the minimal definition of God is not, under orthodox Christian definition, adequate to be in salvific relationship with God.

            • Walter

              In your opinion, what are the requirements necessary to be in a salvific relationship with God?

              • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                Not sure if that was directed at me or at Randal, but being the compulsive contributor that I am….

                The requirement necessary to be in a salvific relationship with God is….well….to be in a salvific relationship with God.

                Not to be overly tautological, but that’s really the case. There are no list of prerequisites. One could describe the attributes of a person in a salvific relationship with God, but there are no preliminary, initial, or ultimate requirements.

                • Walter

                  No offense, David, but that was utterly unhelpful. A Muslim would consider himself to be in a salvific relation with God, and I am sure that you would dispute that.

                  The question was actually for Randal, who holds to a vague form of soteriological inclusivism. What are the requirements to avoid annihilation?

                  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                    No offense taken.

                    I wouldn’t dispute that a Muslim considers himself to be in a salvific relationship with God. I would, however, dispute the evidences/attributes that he asserts demonstrate this claim.

              • randal

                Walter, that’s like asking what kind of jacket should a person wear for the weather? It depends on what the weather is. Is it frigid? Rainy? Hot? And what a person is obliged to believe to be in salvific relationship with God depends on where that person finds themselves in history (before the coming of Jesus? After? Before Nicea? After?), cognitive development (severely mentally handicapped? ADHD? clinically insane?), etc.

                I think it is the place of Christians to identify the beliefs that are required to be part of the Christian community. To identify the beliefs necessary and sufficient to be in salvifc relationship with God is beyond what I think we can know. (By the way, I’m not saying there that belief alone is sufficient but rather what would the necessary and sufficient beliefs be to meet the cognitive element of faith.)

                • Walter

                  Let me ask you straight up, do you think that an atheist can be in a salvific relationship with a God that they have no cognitive belief in? Yes, no, maybe or just don’t know?

                  This question is specifically for Randal.

                  • randal

                    My final chapter in You’re not as Crazy as I Think explores that question at length. The answer is I don’t know. An atheist obviously can’t be a Christian. But can an atheist be saved? That’s not for me to decide.

                    Consider two individuals who believe the proposition “Jesus is not the messiah”.

                    Person 1: a young Jewish girl named Judith who is persecuted by German Lutherans all her life as a Christ killer and dies in the gas chambers at the age of nine.

                    Person 2: a former Anglican priest and theology professor named Ric who leaves the church and becomes the lead singer in a death metal band.

                    Based only on those descriptions, I have a greater conviction that Ric is lost than that Judith is lost.

                    • Walter

                      I guess you would say that a person who once believed what you consider to be the Truth and walks away is in graver danger than someone like a Native American who was never evangelized in the first place. I guess us formerly Christian skeptics are really screwed. I was sentenced to hell by the Muslims before my deconversion and I have been sentenced to hell by everyone else since then. Oh well.

                    • randal

                      One of the cases I discuss in the book is a man who becomes an atheist after he discovered his daughter was repeatedly raped by their Catholic priest. I don’t know where my faith would be if I made that kind of discovery.

                    • davea0511

                      I know this is a necropost but seeing it was left unaddressed and a common ploy that I’v always found simplistic let me simply say that I’m sure if you discovered that your daughter was repeatedly raped by your priest then your blind faith in the priest would be much less than your justified faith in God.

                    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

                      Walter — I’d draw a distinction between people who reject truth out of affinity for sin and people who reject truth out of skepticism. The latter are more likely to have never been convinced by the right reasons.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    What if someone said, “I don’t believe in aliens from other planets”? We have a hard enough time defining ‘life’ just on our own planet – there’s a lot of disagreement about whether viruses are ‘alive’. Do they have to have a rigorous definition of ‘life’ and a grasp of the fundamental concepts of xenobiology before they can make that statement?

    • davidstarlingm

      “I don’t believe in life on other planets” is actually a horribly ambiguous and poorly constructed statement, at least in the way that most people would take it.

      Under a rigorous definition, life is any self-replicating biological entity. Most biologists would concede that anything containing molecularly coded instructions for self-replication is at least a fragment of life (ie a virus). And yet when most people say they don’t believe in extraterrestrial life, they’re referring to unique, intelligent, and probably humanoid individuals representing an extraterrestrial civilized society. That’s a far cry from, say, the possibility of silicon-arsenic based bacteria in the oceans of Europa.

      • randal

        “life is any self-replicating biological entity”

        This looks circular unless you have a definition of “biological entity’ that doesn’t include reference to life (and that may be a problem given the meaning of “bios”).

    • randal

      Ray, how do you decide when the debate over whether viruses are living is relevant to a case of definitional confusion?

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        When even biologists have to work at it: http://bytesizebio.net/index.php/2012/02/11/life-is-short/

        …you know there’s some confusion. I note that you’ve got an article up now classifying Mormons as atheists.

        (BTW, I think your web server doesn’t like the way I typically browse your site. I often open up a couple of tabs within a few seconds of getting to your main blog page. In the last week, this seems to trigger some kind of throttling/blacklisting that causes timeouts or total connection failures. Only if I look at one page at a time can I actually see the articles.)

        • randal

          I’m sorry about the trouble. I can’t afford the kind of web support that I’d like and I have resolved never to include “University of Phoenix” banner ads just to make things run smoother.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Oh, and how many theists in practice actually have such a definition in mind when they say they ‘believe’?

    • davidstarlingm

      Most theists aren’t only theists; they are Christians or Muslims or Mormons or something else. They merely say that they believe in a particular deity, and their beliefs about that deity usually dictate their feelings with respect to every (or at least most) other hypothetical deity.

      Unfortunately for atheists, it is a great deal easier to describe what you do believe in than to define what you don’t.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Except… very frequently theists in practice don’t believe what their denominations preach. If over one third of nominal “Christians” think Jesus sinned, how can anyone confidently state that they really believe in “the ultimate agent cause of everything that contingently exists”?

        • davidstarlingm

          That’s the definition that the God described by orthodox Christianity falls under.

          Saying that liberal or uneducated Christians don’t really believe in an ultimate non-contingent agent is like saying that biologists can’t believe in gravity because they don’t fully understand relativity.

    • randal

      I already pointed out that more theists should have this clarity but that the lack of unclarity actually reflects worse on atheists who define theselves over-against theism rather than the theist who typically defines themselves in accord with a particular divine being rather than theism in se.

  • pete

    for scripture relevant to the conversation:

    “To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
    to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.

    You save the humble,
    but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low.”

    2 Samuel 22:26-28

  • davidstarlingm

    Randal: where do the various flavors of polytheism, including Mormonism, fall into your definition? The Mormon Elohim is not the ultimate agent cause of everything that exists, as he is both contingent on a higher entity (the creator of Kolob, I think) and was not actually responsible for the creation of the universe itself.

    • randal

      I’ll respond to this in the blog.

  • Pingback: Randal Rauser doesn’t know how to speak English | The Uncredible Hallq

  • http://justdfacsmaam.wordpress.com MarkNS

    If someone asks me if I believe in god I generally first ask them to define what THEY mean by god since they’re the ones positing the question. It’s unfair to expect the atheist to provide the definition when even theists can’t agree on what the word means.
    As it is, I can confidently state that I do not believe in any of the gods I have ever heard described.

    • randal

      Asking for that kind of definition is essential. Otherwise, people are liable to end up talking past one another.

  • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

    Okay. So let me say that I am an atheist with regard to what you believe to be god. If, as you say, I do not understand what it is I do not believe in, perhaps you would be so kind as to illicit an ‘essence’ of your god’s nature is so that I may further understand what it is I don’t believe in.

    The problem I see with this is, why would your definition of the essence of god be any different from another theists (or atheists) definition of the essence of the same god, if his essence is unchanging and immutable? Your own definition must convey all of the attributes and essences that other people ascribe to it – without any ambiguity – in order for it to hold any validity. My experience of god definitions is such that they are contradictory, vague and not entirely descriptive of either being or essence, thus making my rejection of such a concept absurd.

    Go on! Give me your definition of god that encompasses all possible other definitions. If you fail in this task, your attempt at defining either its being or essence is incomplete. If, however, you succeed, you have painted the very antithesis of that which can be believed.

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      “Let me say that I am an atheist with regard to what you believe to be god.”

      Well, we run into some difficulty right off the bat. Atheism is generally considered the proposition that no gods exist, with some ambiguity as to the definition of “gods”. But you say that you are atheistic “with regard to” the god I believe in. Odd.

      Do you mean that you are only atheistic with respect to the Christian YHWH? If so, join the ranks; your a-YHWH-theism is shared by billions of Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists worldwide. But somehow I don’t think that’s what you meant.

      The other interpretation is that you are generally atheistic toward any articulated conceptions of god. But then we run into more difficulty: what if someone claims that money is their god? Do you then deny the existence of money? You could try to get around this by stipulating that you are only atheistic toward agent deities, but then you’re left denying the existence of Reverend Moon and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom have been “worshiped” as “gods” in one way or another.

      So robust atheism isn’t so simple after all. You need a precise definition of the theism that you are categorically rejecting, or else you are left compiling lists of the gods you do and do not believe in (which is really no different than what any theist does).

      “Perhaps you would be so kind as to illicit an ‘essence’ of your god’s nature is so that I may further understand what it is I don’t believe in.”

      That’s essentially what Randal has done with his agent cause of all contingent existence, but this definition is broad enough to include more than just the Christian YHWH — this, because we assume you deny more deities than just him.

      Of course, this definition only covers theism simpliciter; it doesn’t include unicorns or leprechauns or alien worship or the Mormon gods or any other things you may or may not believe in. If you want your atheism to categorically deny all the things you don’t believe in, you may want to come up with your own definition.

      “The problem I see with this is, why would your definition of the essence of god be any different from another theist’s (or atheist’s) definition of the essence of the same god, if his essence is unchanging and immutable?”

      Because we aren’t defining the same god as any other theist. That should be obvious. There are many variegated concepts of god, and  only one can be accurate. We aren’t interested in affirming the existence of just any god concept, but rather a very particular one. 

      Yet actual atheism is a far cry from merely denying the existence of a particular god. For the purpose of this exercise, then, Randal just wants to help atheists articulate the overall concept of god-ness that they are so intent on denying. 

      • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

        I see no problem with my opening statement. However, by your employ of changing the definition to suit your own argument, you create a straw man that has no bearing on the nature of the debate. So no further thought shall be required on this semantic chicanery.

        I didn’t ask for your definition of god according to any other theist, I asked for the definition of the god you are proposing as group under the title of what I presume is Christianity, but if your definition is so vague as to include the definition of a god other than the Christian flavour, surely you argue for pantheism or panentheism?

        It should be noted, of course, that I am asking you to provide the definition before I make any categorical claims myself. I have heard definitions before that have left me cold with regard to all forms of deity which, up until this point in time would warrant my position as an atheist. I simply see no reason to accept the theistic arguments as they have been proposed. As such, I do not believe in the existence of a god or gods.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          The question I have is merely this: are your declaration of atheism interested only in denying particular gods (specifically the Christian god), or is it a categorical statement that denies all gods generally?

          Two statements follow. Which properly describes your view?

          A: I am an atheist because I have not been convinced of the existence of anything I would consider to be a god.
          B: I am an atheist because I believe that no being exists which I would consider to be a god.

          Surely you concede the significant difference between these two statements….

          • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

            I don’t particularly care to argue what atheism is or is not, when I have already stated my position; I am an atheist because “I do not believe in the existence of a god or gods.”

            • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

              Too bad you can’t tell us what a god is.

              It’s equally unfortunate that you can’t tell us whether you merely haven’t found a god you believe in or if you are opposed to gods on principle.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          *meant to say “is your”….

          The god whose existence I affirm can be minimally defined as follows:

          God: the ultimate agent cause of all contingent existence, who has communicated with human beings by and through the various documents which came to be the Christian Old and New Testaments, and whose attributes are objectively and consistently revealed by those documents.

          I’m sure you’ll deny the existence of this God. But that doesn’t make you an atheist; plenty of non-atheists also deny the existence of this particular concept of God.

          • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

            I do not ‘deny’ the existence of such an entity. To do so would suggest that it exists, but I am merely ignoring the truth value of the proposition. On the contrary, I categorically reject the truth value of your definition, for no other reason that there is no reason to suggest that it is – as you claim – true.

            I do not make this assertion idly, and the reasons can be summarised in two points;

            1) I see no requirement for an “ultimate agent cause of all contingent existence”. I understand the requirement of such a framing in a theological context; it is a necessary component to counter ‘reductio ad absurdum’. However, existence is not always contingent and matter can arise from such phenomena as quantum fluctuations and radioactive decay. No first cause or agent is necessary.

            2) No entity with the attributes ascribed to it in the Christian scriptures could logically exist, so replete are they with contradiction, absurdity and a woeful ignorance of what we understand to be the empirical properties of reality.

            Needless to say, I do not believe in the existence of such a god. If that doesn’t make me an atheist – at least with respect to your definition – what does it make me?

            • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

              With respect to the first point: the question “does God exist” is not at all dependent on the question “must God exist”. In practically any situation involving an agent cause, it’s possible to come up with a series of non-agent causes to explain it away. Though many arguments for the existence of God depend on proving that he “must” exist, it is easier and better to simply demonstrate that he does.

              And, being a physicist, I’m awfully interested to hear how exactly radioactive decay produces new matter. Please tell.

              Contradiction, absurdity, and woeful ignorance? Sounds like someone has been reading too much Dawkins.

    • randal

      “If, as you say, I do not understand what it is I do not believe in….”

      I don’t know you Tris, so I don’t know what you personally do and do not know about what you don’t believe in.

      “why would your definition of the essence of god be any different from another theists (or atheists) definition of the essence of the same god, if his essence is unchanging and immutable?”

      It looks like you’re confusing our conceptual grasp of x with the actual objective nature of x. Our view of the universe has changed enormously over the years from the Ptolemaic universe to the Copernican, from the Newtonian to the Einsteinian … and beyond. But the universe isn’t itself changing tandem to our changing understanding of it. Similarly, there is change and development over time in our understanding of God, but that doesn’t entail that God’s nature is changing along with our understanding of it.

      “Your own definition must convey all of the attributes and essences that other people ascribe to it – without any ambiguity – in order for it to hold any validity.”

      I don’t believe in euthanasia for human beings, but I recommend that this sentence be put out of its misery. Do you care to try and restate what you’re aiming to say here?

      “My experience of god definitions is such that they are contradictory, vague and not entirely descriptive of either being or essence, thus making my rejection of such a concept absurd.”

      I didn’t provide a vague or contradictory definition. I defined God as “the ultimate agent cause of everything that contingently exists.” This definition draws upon the concept of “agent cause” (which as I pointed out is eminently familiar) as well as the modal concepts of contingency and necessity. That’s it. What’s the problem?

      “Give me your definition of god that encompasses all possible other definitions.”

      I don’t know what you’re asking here. If another definition contradicts the one I provide then by definition I can’t provide a meta-definition that incorporates the contradictory elements of the competing definition. This is true whatever it is you are aiming to define. I’m sorry Tris, but you’re just not making sense.

      • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

        From your reply, I am reminded of William Lane Craig’s latest philosophical circulatory logical merry-go-round.

        “According to the Transcendental Argument For God (TAG), the principles of Logic, inductive science and morality all depend on the existence the Christian God.”

        This from one of the leading Christian philosophers and apologists, would be laughable if it were not what he truly believed.

        • randal

          I’ll take this irrelevant comment to be a tacit recognition of your own confusion and your inability to deal with it.

          • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

            OK then. What is your conceptual grasp of x? Not that this matters when discussing the truth value of the actual existence of x; I just want you to clarify its relevance to the discussion.

            With regard to the objective nature of x, I see no objective nature in a concept which has no clearly defined existence in material form. This is an important distinction. No definition of a concept has any existent quality, i.e. it is meaningless to say that concepts exist in an objective manner, when concepts are the product of the subjective psyche in which they are formed.

            “Similarly, there is change and development over time in our understanding of God, but that doesn’t entail that God’s nature is changing along with our understanding of it.”

            This smacks of the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. The problem with this should be apparent,but I shall briefly explain. As our understanding of science continues to grow, so must the definition of x to account for itself against the brutal reality of objective scientific endeavour. Couching theistic notions of the god concept between that which we can objectively understand, and that which we can imagine, does nothing to enlighten our understanding or the actual existence of x, and merely narrows the areas in which the concept – not to mention its existent qualities – can survive.

            I shall restate the sentence you are having problems with a little more clearly for you. If your definition of x is counter to another’s definition of x, is it an accurate definition of x, or is one – or both – of the definitions fallacious? If person A and person B have differing definitions for the same entity, we must look for an objective method of discerning the truth value of each of the claims. As I have already alluded, this is epistemologically absurd, so both definitions can be dismissed without further consideration from an existential position. The conceptual position has no clothes.

            As I pointed out to davidstarlingm, there is no requirement for the definition of an “ultimate agent cause of everything that contingently exists.” To assert the necessity of such an entity, to justify its existence of either the conceptual or actual existence, is nothing more than circular and tautological nonsense. That would be the problem.

            I trust this makes more sense.

            • randal

              “With regard to the objective nature of x, I see no objective nature in a concept which has no clearly defined existence in material form.”

              What does this mean? Are you using the word “material” the way Aristotle uses it? Or in some other esoteric way? Surely you’re not using it in a mundane sense of “spatially extended” because it would be absurd to claim that predications which apply to things that are not spatially extended lack an objective nature.

              “This smacks of the ‘god of the gaps’ argument.”

              Does that mean that if I wrote “there is change and development over time in our understanding of the universe, but that doesn’t entail that the universe’snature is changing along with our understanding of it” that you would accuse me of a universe of the gaps argument? Dietrich Bonhoeffer is rolling over in his grave right about now. It’s like you’ve learned some terms but not what they actually mean.

              “If your definition of x is counter to another’s definition of x, is it an accurate definition of x, or is one – or both – of the definitions fallacious?”

              One must ask this whenever two definitions are in conflict irregardless of what it is they are defining.

              “If person A and person B have differing definitions for the same entity, we must look for an objective method of discerning the truth value of each of the claims.”

              Thanks for stating the obvious.

              “As I have already alluded, this is epistemologically absurd, so both definitions can be dismissed without further consideration from an existential position.”

              What is epistemologically absurd? The fact that people have definitions that are in conflict? Are you aware that you and I have conflicting definitions about what exists? Does that entail “epistemological absurdity”?

              Sorry Tris, this doesn’t make more sense. You seem like a nice fellow but you don’t seem to have a clue what you’re talking about. You remind me of a pompous graduate student who has learned how to express himself in a turgid and pompous manner, but who remains all style and no substance.

              • http://mygodlesslife.blogspot.com/ Tris Stock (@mygodlesslife)

                It is a shame you do not understand.

                • randal

                  Well you can’t say I didn’t try.

  • Pingback: Randal Rausner’s claim that most atheists don’t know what atheism is. « Just Stuff

  • WHYOHWHYOHWHY

    Sorry, but what you describe as the basic position of theism is actually Deism, Theism is the believe in a god who works in history and takes an interest in human affairs, which doesn’t logically entail a creator god at all.

    Also talking about “the ultimate cause of everything that contingently exists is an agent cause.” isn’t a description / definition at all as is purely a tautology you stole from William Lane Crag to artificially cut off an infinite regression.

    If you are going to be so damn smug can you at lest make an effort to be right.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “Sorry, but what you describe as the basic position of theism is actually Deism”

      Incorrect. The definition underdetermines deism/theism and thus is consistent with both.

      “which doesn’t logically entail a creator god at all.”

      I provided a definition reflective of classical theism. If you want to invoke your own definition of God in which God is consistent with metaphysically independent entities then more power to you. It’s a free country.

      “purely a tautology you stole from William Lane Crag”

      Who is “William Lane Crag”? I know William Lane Craig and Kenneth Cragg.

      Sorry, I wouldn’t have poked fun at your typo if you hadn’t been so obnoxious to start with. Anyway, to say that I “stole” the definition I provide from William Lane Craig is as ignorant as accusing me of “stealing” the fact that Martin Luther posted the 95 theses in 1517 from Heiko Oberman. Get it? We’re talking an item of common knowledge that would be recognized as such by anybody even moderately well read in the discipline in question.

      “to artificially cut off an infinite regression.”

      Well duh. The whole point of invoking a metaphysical first cause is to avoid an infinite regress. For a serious metaphysician having to retreat to “infinite regress” is about as palatable as a scientist retreating to “God did it!”

      • Whyohwhyohwht

        Ok, fair point, I am prepared to accept that we got off on the wrong foot, but there is still a real issue here which you still haven’t answered.

        Even if you could prove that god was the uncaused first caused, that still doesn’t take you any further than Deism, god – or gods since the uncaused argument goes back to pagan greece – could have created the universe for an number of reasons which have nothing to do with any interest at all with humans.
        You seem to dislike this distinction, although i can’t really say why. As for not liking my definition, well thats fine, but it is what the words mean.
        Also sorry, but underdetermination doesn’t in fact mean what you think it means. Underdetermination means that you have a number of equally plausible ideas which can’t be judged because you don’t have the evidence to hand, and thus no answer is more plausible than another. Are you really saying that theism is no more probable than Deism, or for that matter, polytheism, atheism or animism. If so then I congratulate you on your honesty, but can’t quite see your point.

        also, my problem wasn’t that you avoided an infinite regress, but that you artificially cut it off. It is fine to say that things must have a cause, but you can’t then, excuse the creator you are trying to prove. Since you just admitted that this is precisely what you have done, I don’t see how the argument can mean any thing at all.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          “that still doesn’t take you any further than Deism”

          I’m not sure why you would think this. You seem to assume that I’m simly borrowing Aristotle’s entire argument for a prime mover. But I’m not. Indeed, I’m not appealing to a cosmological argument at all. Rather, I’m simply providing a definition of theism, viz. “Theism is minimally the position that the ultimate cause of everything that contingently exists is an agent cause.”

          Taken as such, theism is the type and “deistic theism” and “non-deistic theism” are two token examples. To get deistic theism (of the classic eighteenth century sort) you’d add the following to the definition: “And that cause does not intervene in the world through miracles or the provision of revelation beyond the moral law.” (Incidentally, an Aristotelian deism would be defined differently.)

          • Whyohwhyohwhy

            Ok, again far point and I accept that you are not invoking a
            cosmological or design argument.

            But I still do not understand on what grounds
            you can claim that Theism is simply the belief that the ultimate cause of
            everything that contingently exists is an agent cause.

            According to my
            dictionary that is Deism, and your argument that Deism is a
            subset of theism not only begs the question, but also seems to simply assume
            that if god did create the universe then he must, logically be actively
            involved in the lives of its inhabitants and that is the move I am having
            trouble with.

            Even if you could establish the need for an uncaused first
            cause, that still only takes you
            as far as the great engineer and, logically means you still have a REALLY long
            way to go, intellectually before you can even argue that said god is even
            knowable.

            In fact, it might be an unbridgeable gap since a lot of things you
            have to assume for the first cause argument to work, logically work against the
            idea of a God who works in history.

            Why should the god who went to such pains to establish the
            laws of the universe then violate them?

            Why, if he were God would he need to?

            If he is the first cause then one assumes he is outside the
            universe, but if he is outside the universe and outside time, then he is, by
            definition utterly outside of our comprehension and his character, let alone
            will, must be unfathomable. As such it takes a special move to move from deism
            to theism, not the other way round.

            I am not asking for an answer to any of these objections,
            although I would of course be interested in any you have, I am simply trying to
            demonstrate that Deism is not any sense logically dependent on theism, and that
            if any thing it is the other way around. So
            how can Theism be the default position?

            Also, why did you add that mess about the moral law to a
            perfectly serviceable definition of Enlightenment Deism?

            While Kant may have waxed lyrical about the starry heavens above him and the moral law within, the existence, let alone the implications of the moral
            law are far from self evident and again, since the whole point of the deistic
            god is that he doesn’t care about us, seems a complete non-sequitur at best,
            and given that such a revelation might violate the very non-interference that
            is the point of Deism, a contradiction at worst.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              “Theism” is simply the belief that God exists. This minimal claim is consistent with an interventionist deity (as in Christian theism) or a non-interventionist deity (as in deistic theism).

              The full definition I provided articulates what theologians, philosophers of religion, and lay people typically mean by “God” (in the case of lay people, most are unable to articulate their views in this way, but the agree when it is explained to them).

              Most of your comments seem to assume that I am presenting some sort of argument here for the existence of God. But as I said, I’m not doing that.

              “Why should the god who went to such pains to establish the laws of the universe then violate them?”

              God doesn’t “violate” natural law by acting in the universe anymore than I violate gravity when I pick a coffee cup up off the table.

              “but if he is outside the universe and outside time, then he is, by definition utterly outside of our comprehension and his character, let alone will, must be unfathomable.”

              I don’t believe God is atemporal. But even if I did it, apophaticism wouldn’t follow.

              “I am simply trying to demonstrate that Deism is not any sense logically dependent on theism.”

              If theism is the belief that God exists, and deism is the belief that God exists and he does not interact in the world, then it follows that if you’re a deist you are a theist. There simply is nothing for you to object to here.

  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    Allah is not even a different god. It simply means God in Arabic and is the same God as that of Christianity and Judaism, hence why the three religions get to be called Abrahamic faiths. Also, it seems to me that some atheists cannot distinguish between random gods and deities and the concept of God itself. Thor is a god, but he is not God, the same with Zeus and Amaterasu. They would be God, that is the supreme being, if their mythologies and religions described them as so. In fact, Zeus was equated from time to time with God by philosophers like Epictetus, and it is not the same Zeus that appears in Greek Mythology.

  • davea0511

    well said, mostly. I think the most absolute thing one can say who is not an atheist – and it is the category in which most all people belong except the “strong atheist” is that of non-atheist. This is because the concept of “God” from theist to theist differs as greatly as it does from theist to atheist. Therefore to put all theists in the same group then makes no sense – the only thing we really have in common then is that we do not believe no God of any kind does not exist. Until we agree on that point we will misunderstand each other when we speak of “God”.

    • davea0511

      Using your analogy there are only a-autoists and nona-autoists. You either believe there are no autos, or you think that position is absurd.