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ATHEISM: TERMS, DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS  

In discussing atheism various terms are often employed as if their meaning is known by all. Further, the meanings of various terms are often conflated or muddled to suit a particular worldview. The following outlines some of the key terms. It’s important to recognise the distinctions which exist between different positions, and not to fall in to the trap of assuming, as many people do, that one position infers another. Such as an atheist is necessarily a materialist. Or that a naturalist’s are never theists.

Atheism

An Atheist either lacks belief in or disbelieves in god(s). Refer- Oxford Dictionary. Within the atheist position are a number of sub-positions which follow.

Despite the wild claims of some, Atheism isn’t a religion. Since it simply involves the negation of Theism, it’s understandable that the adversaries of Atheism take the opportunity to straw man it into equivalence with religion. Though, the advocates of Atheism are often also advocates of other positions listed below.

Weak Atheism 

A weak atheist lacks belief in the existence of God(s). This is a metaphysically weaker position than making the knowledge claim no god(s) exist. Weak atheism is also known as Negative atheism.

Positive atheism 

  • The positive disbelief or denial of the existence of god(s). Positive atheism is also known as Strong Atheism.

Wide atheism 

  • The denial of the existence of all gods.

Narrow atheism 

  • The denial of a particular conception of god.  Most Theists are typically narrow atheists about other gods such as Zeus, Shiva, or Thor. The Abrahamic religions specifically deny the existence of other gods.

Anti-Theism

As its name suggests, Anti-theism involves active opposing Theism, usually on the basis of an Atheist metaphysical view, and the proposition that religion is on balance a harmful influence on the world. The New Atheists are also Anti-Theists. Anti-theists tend to be strong atheists, at least in reference to the major world religions.

Anti-theism seems to be becoming the new bogey word of the religious apologists. The conflation between atheists and anti-theists is evident in a reluctance of some atheists to embrace the term, even movement atheists, combined with the apologist’s tactic of using it as a rhetorical bat.

Agnosticism 

Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Gnostic

The opposite of agnostic, a gnostic believes we can have knowledge of whether metaphysical claims are knowable. The word must be distinguished from Gnosticism, the group of ancient religions which shun the material world. Gnostic derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means pertaining to knowledge.

Theism

  • The belief in the existence of god(s).

God

There are various definitions of God. Western conceptions of god include the omni properties of omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and all good. Richard Swinburne offers the following:

a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things

Spiritual

This word can mean any number of things, often associated with the human spirit and the soul. Generally, it’s concerned with the aspiration to higher levels of awareness, fulfilment, or meaning within life, as opposed to material or physical things. Often invoked as a general term in relation to religious belief, it has also become a quasi-metaphysical position widely adopted by the non-religious, or by non-observant believers, to describe a state of belief in a spiritual realm or a source of meaning for humans.

Combining Terms*

In developing a position, particularly as a non-believer, we may wrestle with our level of certainty that certain things don’t exist, or with the epistemological justification for ruling them out altogether. As such, various combinations are used to clarify ones position.

*Agnostic Atheism

This position accepts both that we cannot have knowledge of whether gods exist and that we don’t believe they exist. An Agnostic Atheist will therefore tend to be a Weak Atheist.

*Gnostic Atheism

Lacking belief or disbelieving in the existence of Gods and believing we can have knowledge of such metaphysical items.

*Gnostic Theism

Theists are typically gnostic, believing they can have knowledge that god exists.

*Agnostic Theism

Believing that god exists and also believing that we cannot have knowledge of this.

Naturalism 

Naturalism is the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.  (See Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Supernaturalism

Not all things that exist are natural. There are some entities, forces, or phenomena that exist beyond the spatial-temporal world that science investigates.

The distinction between naturalism has been problematic as it’s difficult to assign a “nature” to the unnatural speculation of supernaturalism. See The False DichotomyRichard Carrier has postulated that supernatural might be defined to only include mental processes which are unexplainable by natural forces.

Methodological Naturalism

According to this view the most effective way of acquiring knowledge is through the methods of science, not from logic, deduction or conceptual approaches. Using observation, hypothesis, and empirical disconfirmation is the best way to study the world, and obtain knowledge. Methodical Naturalism is concerned with the means to acquire knowledge—rather than a metaphysical view about the ultimate constituents of reality. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick) (Also, refer to Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Materialism

Materialism is the view that all things are made of matter and nothing else. While materialism appears to overlap with naturalism, especially ontological naturalism, we should see it as an explicitly metaphysical thesis about the ultimatum constituents of reality, but not as much a view about what the best methods are for acquiring knowledge of that reality.  Some of the Greeks, for instance, arrived at the materialism conclusion through a priori or more conceptual reasoning.

Eliminative materialism

This view denies our intuitive understanding of the mind and proposes that some or all of the mental states we normally refer to don’t actually exist. The eliminative materialist believes that with the expansion of our scientific inquiries, there are often concepts such as “demonic spirits,” or “celestial spheres,” that cease to find a place within our theories.  Some terms, like “heat,” we keep, but only by radically revising what we think the ultimate physical constituents of heat are.  Other terms are too embedded in an old model of reality to be effectively salvaged.  The label applies primarily to a position about minds, but we can see the implications for God and many religious concepts. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Reductionism

A reductionist believes complex systems and phenomena can be reduced and explained entirely in terms of their parts and their causal interactions.  Reductionism in philosophy of mind can be contrasted with emergentism, or epiphenomenalism.  According to these anti-reductionist views, mental states, qualia, consciousness or other phenomena are produced by physical processes, but they cannot be explained entirely in terms of them.  For a variety of reasons, theists are often anti-reductionists, but reductionism itself as a thesis about explaining objects in nature is distinct from atheism. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Belief

Belief: the acceptance that something is true with or without evidence or proof.

Faith

Faith: the acceptance that something is true on trust with or without evidence or proof. See The Perils of Faith

Knowledge

In everyday usage, knowledge is understood to be sum of what is known, and comprises facts, information and skills.

In Philosophy, theories of knowledge have been propounded for centuries. The most well-known hypothesis is true, justified belief.

Secular

Not involved or requiring religious, supernatural or spiritual matters.

Secular doesn’t necessarily entail a denial of religious beliefs, or the demand that society or individuals should abandon religion. It’s important to appreciate this distinction. Secular is most often used in connection with the desirability of a separation of church and state. Many Secularists also subscribe to pluralism, and religious freedom, championing freedom to practise or hold one’s preferred metaphysical beliefs without coercion.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge with regard to its methods, validity and scope, and distinguishing between justified belief and unjustified belief. See Oxford Dictionary.

Pluralism

Pluralism is a belief in allowing the co-existence of more than one belief system, political party, ideology or interest group. It’s a system whereby society isn’t governed by one overriding principle or ideology.

Religious Freedom

The principle, that individuals and groups in society should have the freedom to manifest their chosen religion. This freedom includes no religion, and to change religion or “apostasy.”

Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty might seem to be exactly the same thing as religious freedom, but it’s more focussed on protecting the right to observe and practise religious beliefs and traditions, in particular when they come in to conflict with secular law. It’s often invoked as if it’s a natural right, to help sway a debate towards allowing a religious group to privilege their own beliefs on the basis of conscience. For instance, in India polygamy is permitted within Islamic groups, on the basis of religious liberty. In other places in the world sharia law is used exclusively by the Muslim population, even given significant differences to secular law.

Model-Dependent Realism

  • A theory of knowledge posited by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design. Reality can be described by models, or several overlapping models, where the absolute “true reality” of everything is an impossible ideal. This model is applied to relativity, quantum mechanics and theories of everything.

 

AND FINALLY…

If there are any concepts you think I should be including here, or if you disagree with my definitions and comments I would be keen to hear from you.

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