Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is atheism? I might as well chime in as well...

Greetings viewer(s),

So I subscribe to quite a few YouTube channels, mostly science, philosophy or atheism based ones.  On the atheist channels there have been a couple that have decided to take up the question of "what is an atheist".  This was likely sparked by two videos by Gary Edwards , one where he stated that 'there were two things that bothered him about YouTube atheists', (one being the claimed definition of atheist) and then a subsequent video where he spells out his idea on the matter.

I want to, before explaining his definition, let you know that I disagree with his position on the matter.  I don't think he's wrong in his logic or reasoning per se, but I think that he misses the point about the term and it's usage.

His position is that, in a nutshell, that something must basically meet three criteria to be an atheist.  First, they must have or be able to have some attitude about the proposition about the existence of a deity.  Second, they must be aware of such claims.  Third, they must believe that the probability of such a claim being true must be below 50%.  

While I agree that someone who meets these criteria would likely be an atheist (even a "strong" atheist), but I don't think that it's entirely correct in it's purpose.

There are probably at least two ways to divide up the word atheist (and atheism).  Either in two parts, such as 'a' (without or not) and 'theist' (belief in god(s)), or three parts like 'a' (not) 'theos' (god(s)) and 'ist' (one who holds the acceptance of a positive action or claim). I make this distinction only because many theists use the second breakdown to claim that atheists think that there is no god(s) as opposed to just not accepting the claim that a god(s) exists. 

[I will use the first breakdown exclusively because it is more accurate in the modern usage, which is a lack of the acceptance of the claim of god(s), and to the fact that it can also include the other distinction as a subset of the first term.]

And then there is also the distinction of whether or not something is objective or subjective, such as being atheist (position) or atheistic (being the characteristic of atheism).  So, being "atheist" versus being "an atheist" is, I suppose, another way to explain it.  These terms are sometimes refereed to as "implicit" or "explicit", respectively.

I hold to the objective, two part definition myself.  And the quick and dirty reason for that is that it's cleaner, simpler and less available to a claim of positivity.

I think the point that Gary Edwards makes is valid, but I think it describes more of the process for deciding if someone would be described as an atheist (subjectively) as opposed to what an atheist is (objectively).  And I think it's important to make a distinction in the definition because the term itself is the modification of an existing term that makes a claim that is not accepted.  Much like "non-stamp collector" describes someone or something that does not collect stamps, atheism modifies the term "theist" by defining someone or something that does not hold to or accept "theism". 

So yes, rocks and babies and lamps are atheist, in the objective sense, because they are things that cannot accept the belief in a god(s) (and thus cannot be theistic).  They could not be an atheist however, because they lack agency to reject theistic claims, but they none-the-less do not hold theistic beliefs.  By the same token, someone with agency but who had not heard of theistic claims (maybe from an undocumented tribe in South America with no such concept in their culture) could be an atheist because they would also have not accepted theistic claims.  These people too would be objectively (implicitly) atheist.

Someone like Gary who rejects positive claims about god(s) would be subjectively atheist because he has made a belief based on theistic claims.  He would also be objectively atheist because I think that a subjective atheist is somewhat of a subset of the term atheist because they would be something that likewise does not accept these claims AND has actively participated in evaluating the claims and found them to not be convincing.  The subjective atheist fulfills the broader definition with the additional modifier of also having rejected the positive claim of the existence of god(s). 

Definitions and terms

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/theism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theism
http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/atheism
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism
https://ltc.unt.edu/sites/ltc.unt.edu/files/all/UNTOWL_Objective_vs_Subjective.pdf