“A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
Many people mistakenly believe that dictionary definitions tell us what words mean. But it’s the other way around. We, by our actual usage of words, tell dictionary lexicographers how to define words. English is a fluid language, constantly changing. Definitions come from us, not dictionaries.

This is an important point when it comes to distinguishing agnostics from atheists. The fact is: our usage of these words is ambiguous, so dictionary definitions are too. We can’t claim to nail down an unambiguous definition of what these words mean but we can assert what we think they should mean. And it’s been my experience that there are many ideas on what the words “atheist” and “agnostic” should, unambiguously, mean. I offer my own ideas, below.

An atheist should treasure rational integrity and rely on reason from evidence. Because reason and evidence are both antithetical to faith, an atheist should be dubious, even cynical, about claims of faith in any form: especially faith in God or anything else supernatural.

Because an atheist should treasure rational integrity and rely on reason from evidence, an atheist should not deny God absolutely – an atheist should not unequivocally deny any and all possible gods. Absolute denial, without the benefit of reason from evidence, is faith; just as absolute acceptance, without the benefit of reason from evidence, is also faith. You can have faith that there is a God or you can have faith that there’s not a God. Either way, neither of these positions is consistent with rational integrity and reason from evidence.

Instead, an atheist should respect facts and acknowledge that God and the supernatural can be neither proved or disproved. There is no conclusive evidence either way.

But this does not mean nobody can claim atheism. An atheist should deny God conditionally not absolutely. We should deny God based on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence – all of which point away from God and the supernatural. An atheist should claim the odds of God’s existence is exceedingly remote or vanishingly small or anything similar that does not unequivocally rule out any possibility of any God.

Ruling God out absolutely does not respect facts as we know them. Ruling God out absolutely is a claim to knowledge one can’t possibly possess. Ruling God out absolutely violates respect for facts, rational integrity and reason from evidence. We can deny God with reasonable confidence but not with certainty.

There should be a separate word for those who deny God absolutely and those who deny God conditionally (but with confidence). You might be thinking that I’m advocating agnosticism but I’m not. Remember, words mean what we (collectively) say they mean and, for now, the words “atheist” and “agnostic” have multiple meanings. Where the existence of God is concerned, I believe most agnostics claim indecision based on rational integrity and most atheists claim confidence based on rational integrity. Most agnostics are not sure whether or not to deny God. Most atheists are sure they want to deny God (conditionally).

Unless, or until, we finally have solid evidence one way or the other, we are stuck with God. He might be a meme that defies us to ignore him or he might be the creator of the universe. But I’m confident that no God worth his salt could ever accept the name of Jehovah or Allah. If there is a God, I’m confident he would not like the caricature gods we’ve created as his placeholder.

Views: 55

Comment by James on July 17, 2011 at 10:10pm
Well said. I agree that my Atheism is not an outright denial of the possibility of gods, and I feel that is the most intellectually honest position to take.
Comment by Doug Reardon on July 17, 2011 at 10:27pm

"Ruling God out absolutely does not respect facts as we know them. Ruling God out absolutely is a claim to knowledge one can’t possibly possess. Ruling God out absolutely violates respect for facts, rational integrity and reason from evidence. We can deny God with reasonable confidence but not with certainty."

I beg to differ: I do not know of a single fact that supports the concept of god.  Rational Integrity?  Is it rational to believe in something that is prima-facie  impossible?  Can you give one definition of god that does not require some appeal to things outside of known physical reality.  For something to exist it must occupy space for some period of time, god is "everywhere" and "exists outside of space and time"  Just how impossible does something have to be before it is unbelievable?  Where is there one shred of actual evidence?  Other than the delusions and hallucinations of malfunctioning brains, there is none.  Just because you can posit an explanation does not in any manner imply that it is accurate, only verifiable evidence can support any supposition.  To argue that one cannot trust their senses, memories, etc while accurate, does not lend evidence for the possibility of god, to accept that we cannot trust what we experience invalidates the universe, and to use that ridiculous argument to support the "fact" that gods may exist is absurd and inane. You can argue semantics and epistemology all you want, it doesn't affect reality in the least.

Comment by Sassan K. on July 17, 2011 at 11:04pm
Well - you can't deny it completely as in you can't deny the Spaghetti Monster - but in reality - we know that it is impossible to exist.
Comment by Doug Reardon on July 18, 2011 at 12:03am
If you know that it is impossible to exist, then it is illogical, irrational, and unreasonable not to deny it completely.
Comment by Sassan K. on July 18, 2011 at 12:24am
Only in the sense that you cannot set up an experiment to prove it false. This is the way that Richard Dawkins describes it. It is just as possible for there to exist a multitude of things that we can't see - but it doesn't mean that it exists. Just like you can't deny the spaghetti monster - same concept.
Comment by Trevor Siemens on July 18, 2011 at 3:42am
I think assuming that anything is impossible in every reality, allowing the possibility that there are realities beyond ours which we are not aware, is equally illogical. This is different, however to claim that we know of anything within a reality which we do not know for certain exists. But reasoning by  that by that logic, an infinite number of things outside of our perception could be possible, so we should conditionally deny them because they are infinitely implausible, yet not impossible.
Comment by Nathan Hevenstone on July 18, 2011 at 11:57am

First off, Doug, you're assuming that we now know everything there is to know about reality. I think every Physicist (and every scientist in general) would beg to disagree with you, there. We are nowhere near close to knowing everything there is know about reality. The vast majority of Physicists will tell you that over 70% of our universe is still a complete and utter mystery to us.


Second off, you seem to be focusing on the god of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But what about the god of Baruch de Spinoza, Albert Einstein, Scott Adams, Robert A Heinlein, etc? I'm talking, of course, about Pandeism. The Pandeistic concept of a deity is such that the deity is equivalent to the Laws of Nature and Physics; they are one and the same. Now, this is similar to Pantheism, but where the difference lies is that Pantheism is purely metaphorically; Pantheists are, essentially, atheists. Pandeists, on the other hand, are being literal rather than metaphorical. There was still a First Cause/Creator/Whatever, but that deity isn't answering prayers or taking any interest in our lives because a) it doesn't want to and b) even if it did want to, it couldn't. This first cause not only reformed the energy to set off the Big Bang, it was the energy that set off the Big Bang...


Just read the Wiki article I linked to (on the word "Pandeism")...


Of course, most people would not recognize that concepts as a deity, but that's only because when we think of deities, we think of a supremely supernatural, omnimax, malevolently loving (contradiction used on purpose) being who not only hears and answers our prayers, but micromanages our lives from when we will die all the way down to who, where, and how we f**k. Obviously, Pandeists don't believe in such a deity. But they consider their idea as much a deity as the Christians consider their idea one and, although the probability of their being any form of higher power is ridiculously small (I wouldn't be an atheist if I thought otherwise), the Pandeist deity is a hell of a lot more probable (in that tiny, essentially improbable bell curve) than Jehovah.

Comment by Doug Reardon on July 18, 2011 at 9:53pm
I know that we do not know diddly about reality, but what I do know I have evidence for. There are uncountable many things that might possibly exist, but for which there isn't one iota of evidence for, so why pick a particular one to give any credence to?  As for other :"gods" Einstein's (for example) god is a tautology and adds nothing to understanding what if anything they are, especially if they can change over time.  To posit a first cause is speculation, if the universe is infinite, or cyclic, there was no first cause.  You are free to define god as you will, but so am I and vague suppositions are not in any way my concept of a god.
Comment by Atheist Exile on July 19, 2011 at 8:58am

“I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”  ~Clarence S. Darrow


“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.”  ~Bertrand Russell


“The educated in [the critical habit of thought] . . . are slow to believe.  They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.”  ~William Graham Sumner


“What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”  ~Christopher Hitchens


“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.”  ~Voltaire


“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”  ~William K. Clifford


“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it”  ~Terry Pratchett


“A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.”  ~José Bergamín

Red flags go up for me whenever I’m faced with absolute certainty from somebody.  My experience tells me that such a person is probably either a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or is a didactic pedagogue who feels that anybody who disagrees is obviously wrong.  Among us atheists, of course, religious fundamentalism is ruled out, so it always turns out (so far) that absolute certainty, in atheists, conceals over-confidence or intransigence or (more likely) both.

I used to feel certain that no entity, all-powerful or not, could possibly produce the unimaginable mass/energy of the entire universe.  But as it turns out, cosmologists now believe the universe has a grand sum of zero energy (thanks to "negative energy", like gravity).  I used to feel certain that consciousness was entirely subjective and abstract.  But observation explicitly factors into quantum theory.  And certain phenomena, like quantum entanglement, reveal that data is inherent to subatomic particles.  That seems a bit strange for a universe that existed for billions of years without intelligence of any kind (if you assume God does not exist).  And, of course, there's the favorite argument of Intelligent Design: our universe, fine-tuned to life on Earth.

I know that there's arguments for and against all these strange things.  The point is that, although we have theories that attempt to explain everything, they are only working models that fit observations.  They aren't the actual reality or "truth".  There were many scientific paradigms preceding modern ones and there will be many more to come.  Are there really 11 dimensions?  Is life limited to 3 dimensions plus time?  What if life existed in higher dimensions?  According to the math, if an entity existed in the highest dimension (the 11th?) he would have god-like powers, such as omnipresence.

I know that's a bunch of wild speculation.  The point is that there is too much we don't know.  So much, in fact, that certainty is an unjustified pretense.  The ineffable mystery of existence may never be solved.  I reject any certainty where the big questions are concerned.


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