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Cap Clueless has a long and interesting discussion on atheism today.

I knocked off a quick email to him, but then decided that it's worth posting here.

He writes:

"Atheism" isn't a unitary whole; it's actually a collection defined by a negative, consisting of all people of all beliefs who do not think that there are any deities.

The wording here is precise, but inaccurate, in my opinion. It should really be "...people of all beliefs who think that there are no deities."

As he describes it, it's closer to agnosticism, or skepticism (I consider myself a skeptic, and a provisional transcendental materialistic reductionist).

Consider the two statements:

"I don't believe there is a God."

"I believe there is no God."

One has a belief, the other does not. The latter is the position of what's thought to be the true atheist (though the nomenclature is screwed up, because atheist should really mean no theistic beliefs, e.g. asexual, or amoral, and antitheist is the word we should use for someone we currently term an atheist).

There are some other interesting points in his post, relating to falsifiability and the utility of scientific models and theories, that I might expand on later, if I find the time.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 07, 2003 09:09 AM
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A nice piece, pretty much in line with my own beliefs.

It might interest you to know that some of the consequences of a strictly scientific world view can be quite surprising. For example, the idea that we might be a computer simulation is not so far fetched, and in fact, could be argued to be a direct consequence of quantum mechanics. See for more info. (If anyone takes the time to read this - it's rather long - I'd be interested to know if you found it understandable.)

Posted by Erann Gat at May 7, 2003 10:03 AM

See also

Posted by at May 7, 2003 10:07 AM

The current Atlantic has an interesting article by Jonathan Rauch that coins a new word: Apatheist. This is a person who may or may not be a believer but doesn't get all worked up about it. Rauch presents apatheism as a civilizational advance, so that religious passion doesn't overwhelm our ability to get along with one another.

Posted by Mitchell Burnside Clapp at May 7, 2003 10:27 AM

I found Den Beste's piece interesting, but I'm too embarassed to tell him that his "Theory of Fred" is alarmingly close to my own view of things.

Posted by Spoons at May 7, 2003 11:38 AM

"Atheist" is exactly the right word for someone who believes that there is no God. The prefix "a-" literally means "no". Asexual means no sex, amoral means no morals, and atheist means no god. An atheist is a person who holds the belief that no deities exist.

An antitheist would be a person who is actively opposed to deities. Such a person would definitely believe that deities exist, but that they are evil and should be fought by every means available. This is not the same as being antireligious; an antireligious person is opposed to belief in deities, regardless of whether any actually exist.

Now, what about people who don't believe there is a God (as distinct to those who believe that there is no God)? I suggest that the best term for them is "nonreligious." "Apatheistic" is close to this, but it suggests a person who does not care whether any deities exist. This isn't quite the same thing -- you can be nonreligious and still hold that it does, in fact, matter whether deities exist or not.

Posted by Pat Berry at May 7, 2003 11:43 AM

Spoons, you are an infidel!

His name is not Fred, but Throatwarbler Mangrove!

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 7, 2003 12:10 PM

Fred for Pres!!!

Vote now to elect Fred!!


Seriously, doesn't the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics require the existence of a super observer to collapse the wave form for temporally unobserved quantum events.

Maybe that's Fred's day job.

John Bouler

Posted by John Bouler at May 7, 2003 12:35 PM

Well, thats an extrapolation from the Copenhagen Interpretation, in a lot of quarters used to show its absurdity. There is no Standard Model for quantum mechanics, you're thinking of particle physics. The Copenhagen Model has been found wanting by nearly all modern physicists, although nothing has quite come along to difinitively cast it aside that I know of.

Posted by Mark Buehner at May 7, 2003 01:16 PM

John, I think you're referring to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics. The Standard Model is the description of particles and forces that cause them to arise.

There is currently no theory that explains waveform collapse, or by what mechanism it takes place. That's where the handwaving comes in. :-)

Posted by David Mercer at May 7, 2003 01:26 PM

I've got to get a copy of that Atlantic. I've been describing myself as an apathist for years. Maybe there's a God, maybe not, I really don't care. I'm going to live my life in a way I think is good and right whether or not there's heaven and hell waiting at the end.

I use this metaphor. You have two kids. One will do what you want, if you threaten and reward him enough. The other is just does the right thing most of the time without you watching him. Which is the good kid?

Posted by Richard R at May 7, 2003 03:07 PM

"As he describes it, it's closer to agnosticism"

Actually, both of you are correct. In my understanding, there are really two large classifications of atheists: "strong" and "weak" atheists.

Strong atheists believe there are no gods; weak atheists do not believe there are gods. The former is a positive belief, the latter the complete lack of a belief.

In contrast, I have always understood agnosticism to be uncertainty about god's existence (e.g. "There might be, there might not be, you can't tell one way or the other"). Richard R is espousing an agnostic position: he doesn't know and considers the question essentially irrelevant.

Agnosticism is very close to (but still distinct from) weak atheism... the spectrum runs strong atheist-weak atheist-agnostic-theist.

Posted by Eric at May 7, 2003 03:20 PM

Eric is correct with regard to strong and weak atheism. The linked page disagrees somewhat with Den Beste, BTW -- the author argues that skepticism is not the same as active belief.

Den Beste is certainly correct when he says that "atheism" is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted; I often describe myself as "not a theist" to disarm the stereotypical reflexive response to "atheist". I've also been known to point out to a proselytizing Christian that he and I are in almost perfect agreement -- after all, I simply don't believe in one more deity than he does... (this usually terminates the discussion).

Posted by Troy at May 7, 2003 06:20 PM

Many words have been bandied about here, but I see one word is missing. Gentlemen and Ladies I give you FAITH. Faith goes beyond belief, without it we can believe in nothing. Our senses don't prove Quantum Physics, our math does. But only because we have faith in math's ability to prove things scientific and Engineered.
Faith, folks, is the key to God, Gods and Science.

Posted by Steve at May 8, 2003 12:48 PM

<tiptoes quietly out of the room, saying nothing>

Posted by Kevin McGehee at May 8, 2003 01:44 PM

"But only because we have faith in math's ability to prove things scientific and Engineered."

We only have faith in that because it has proven itself true time and again. We don't blindly believe in the power of math; we have seen repeatedly over the last several thousand years that math is a useful tool.

I don't think we've seen any kind of comparable proof that one or more deities exist; that faith is baseless, it has no grounding in experience or experiment.

Posted by Eric at May 8, 2003 03:15 PM

Cool I hooked one!!

...and that is why faith is what seperates believers, and agnostics, athiests and madmen. People who believe in God or Gods, believe that our math, science and engineering are gifts of our deity. That core belief is that any God who wants us to be happy, healthy, and long lived will give us the tools to make things better, for ourselves and for everyone we can help.

To paraphrase Mr. Benjamin Franklin, Math and Engineering and Science, are proof that God loves us.

Posted by Steve at May 9, 2003 05:33 AM

Romans 1:16-25
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:
Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

Posted by BibleGuy at May 15, 2003 09:58 AM

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