Definitions, definitions


“But if the gods do not exist at all – then we are lost,’ I said. On the contrary – we are found!’ said Aesop. But when we are afraid, who can we turn to, if not the gods?’ Ourselves. We turn to ourselves anyway. We only pretend there are gods and that they care about us. It is a comforting falsehood.” ― Erica Jong, Sappho’s Leap

Most often, it is theists who have issues with defining atheism. That could be excused. But when we have an atheist having issues with it, then you know we have a bit of a problem. He argues

If someone points out that atheism motivated an atrocity, then all of a sudden ‘atheism is just a lack of belief in gods’ stalls any further criticism. Nothing bad could ever be attributed to atheism because there’s nothing there just a lack of belief in something

which, yours truly finds really perplexing. I understand the belief in god is a big thing to many people. I know also it is difficult for most people to comprehend how atheism can only refer to a lack of belief. If a person were to kill others while shouting they lack a belief in god, we could take them at their word for it but most likely we would recommend they be examined for soundness of mind. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. I can tell you why I think no gods exists. This in no way changes how atheism is defined. To claim that the above definition is used  as a defense is, to me, not valid. The second beef he says

The second problem is that ‘just a lack of belief in gods’ is casting the net so wide as to become useless. It would include the agnostic, the person who doesn’t think it’s even worth talking about, hell it would even include babies who don’t have the cognitive capacity to have a stance on the issue.

Which yours truly doesn’t see. Babies lack beliefs in gods. As far as I can tell, I don’t know which deity dogs worship. An agnostic, like my friends Bob and Romulus, would agree that in practice they lack a belief in gods. And yes, it includes the igtheist who believes god is a meaningless word. That it hasn’t been coherently defined to even permit a discussion on it. It is honest to say atheism is a lack of belief in gods. It is also honest for me to say I think no gods exist. Those are different issues. I end this post with this quote of Peter L. Berger

A few years ago, a priest working in a slum section of a European city was asked why he was doing it, and replied, ‘So that the rumor of God may not completely disappear.” ― Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

43 thoughts on “Definitions, definitions

  1. Like that last quote. It makes you think a tad. Theism is a belief in a god or gods. A-theism is a disbelief in gods. What’s so hard about that? How one acts or interprets these words to fit whatever agenda it is they may have is just that: their personal interpretation. There are many “atheists” whose way of thinking perplexes me as much as any theist. This person fits that description.

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  2. archaeopteryx1 says:

    And yes, it includes the igtheist who believes god is a meaningless word.” – As well as the ichtheist, who believes that god is a fish.

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  3. I’m beginning to lament how parsed terminology becomes when talking about definitions of atheism. I don’t think we’d have this problem if theists weren’t so intent on demanding evidence of the non-existence of something. It wouldn’t be a big deal.

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  4. Ain't No Shrinking Violet says:

    I read the link, and thought he sort of had a point in a very roundabout, nonlinear way. Like Sirius, I’ve found terminology/labels to be somewhat troublesome lately, as we discussed on his blog. However one would hope that the simple definition of atheism is something we could all agree on…yet I find lots of people don’t go with the dictionary definition. For the record though, I do agree it’s a lack of belief in god. I have my reasons for my lack of belief, but they need not be defined in the term itself.

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    • All of this bouncing on definitions goes back a bit if I’m asked. There was a time that theists insisted we all believed in a god but denied it. Then they generally insisted that asserting there is no god can’t be known so having no belief in gods was the correct position. Now, people will flop about trying to figure out a new correct definition for atheism.

      Regardless of why a person is unable to make a positive claim of belief in a god they technically and pragmatically do not have a belief in gods or the supernatural. They are atheists.This lack of belief does not imply or necessitate a belief that gods do not exist. Such a belief is the conclusion reached when there is no credible evidence to believe that gods can or do exist.

      The agnostic considers but concludes there is not enough evidence either way to make a decision and so remains on the fence… while being an atheist just the same.

      When a person says there are no gods and all the ‘evidence’ is bullshit and religion ruins everything, that makes them an anti-theist.

      Then we can bring in nihilism, atomists, monists, materialists and so on.

      The wide net of atheist definition is necessarily so. To complain about it being too wide is to misunderstand what is being defined by the label. The labels are there to ease understanding.

      The real trouble is that you can give someone all the tools they need to change a flat tire and they’d still rather call the auto club to have someone else do the hard work… ‘can you come change the thingy on my whatyamacallit?’

      Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      The issue at play here is conflating what an individual atheist considers the definition of atheism and what atheism is. I would tell you no gods exist. Atheist, you will notice has also referred to people who believed in gods other than those of the state

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  5. Yes, as an agnostic, I have a complete lack of belief in gods; and like atheists, I’m steadfastly secular regarding religion.

    Yet, the idea of igtheism intrigues me. I agree that “god” is a rather meaningless word, and that it hasn’t been coherently defined to even permit a discussion on it.

    Does that make me an “igtheist agnostic?”

    The trouble with labels…

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    • john zande says:

      Just an igtheist, from what i understand. It’s a good position to hold when confronted with a rabid cocksure apologist. Let them define their god first.

      Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Sigh. I was afraid maybe I had misrepresented my friend.
      The position of the igtheist is my default

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      • No misrepresentation. You described my position quite well. I just wasn’t aware of the term “igtheist” before. And, I like it! 🙂

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        • makagutu says:

          Bob, humans have claimed diverse reasons to commit crimes. Do you see how a lack of belief in deity would constitute such without other reasons like for example a hateful disposition towards religion. I am unable to see how a lack of belief alone could justify a crime.

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          • I agree with you. Experts in the field of human psychology would justifiably scoff at the notion that crime results from a lack of belief in deities or religion. It’s a ridiculous idea that is completely refuted by statistical facts.

            What’s more relevant to this discussion, in my opinion, is WHY religious advocates promote that view. Christian followers, for example, accept the orthodox dogma that human beings are inherently sinful (i.e. evil) and must be “saved” by unwavering belief in Jesus, God, etc. Christian leaders, on the other hand, might not be so gullible. They might promote that view in order to instill a fearful loyalty into their flock.

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    • I have considered this quandary at length. Because the definition of a god or gods is amorphous there is no reason to even begin believing that a god _can_ exist. Without even the basic understanding of what is being discussed all that one can do is abstain from a positive claim of belief. This is atheism. Igtheism is a label for why you are an atheist and half the argument made by agnosticism. You can, like me, be both anti-theist, igtheist, _and_ nihilist etc. on top of being atheist.

      Draw a line on a piece of paper. Everything on one side is some form of positive claim of belief. The line is infinitely thin so unless you are on positive claim side you are on the other side. On the one side is theism and on the other is atheism. You can have many other labels but these two are basal delineations.

      You can say that you’re on the atheist side but really close to the line for igtheist reasonings. You can say you’re on the atheist side and infinitely far from the line because religion ruins everything etc.

      This is not complicated geometry, there are only two sides. If you are not theist you are atheist. Why you are atheist is a discussion that only you can explain to others. I have said it this way because without the positive claims of theists there would be no discussion at all, no line, no delineation, no argument. The beginning of all discussion on gods should start with the definition of the god: “I don’t believe any claim of gods that I’ve heard so far, what is your god, how do you define it?”

      Now you know what the discussion is about and the argument begins anew:

      theist: there is a god in the sky
      atheist: no there isn’t.
      theist: yes there is.
      atheist: What do you mean? Prove it.

      The burden of proof is always on the positive claimant. Note that the believer who never joins in any discussion about what they believe is in no way burdened with proving their belief to be true. The beauty of this is that the god of Abraham universally demands his followers to run about the world making the claim to every creature. With this the person without belief is forced into the discussion as laid out above. When the discussion starts the atheist is simply that, atheist. As the discussion progresses the reason that they are atheist is discovered.

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      • makagutu says:

        You,my friend, can explain atheism to an old granny or a young child and they would understand. Anyone who still has a difficulty to understand with this explanation is really beyond help

        Liked by 1 person

      • While I agree with most of what you wrote, I must reject rationalist, absolutist arguments which attempt to force a choice between “god(s) exists” and “gods do not exist.” I do so on strictly empirical grounds. I’ll explain:

        I’m an empiricist who makes a clear distinction between what I’m inclined to believe and what I actually know to be factual using the scientific method. Since science has yet to discover what triggered the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago (if anything did), it can only hypothesize (speculate) about the origin of the cosmos. Therefore, religious ideas which attempt to do so (creationism, etc.) cannot be empirically disproved at this point in time no matter how ridiculous I find them to be (and I do).

        So, where we disagree has nothing to do with theism vs atheism, but with rationalism vs empiricism. My position mirrors that of Richard Dawkins who describes himself as a “de facto atheist” while I prefer the term “agnostic.”

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        • makagutu says:

          You and I agree on many things Bob.
          There are moments I used to ask myself if I should make an allowance for gods existing. I have thought this over for so long and I have arrived at a negative conclusion.
          The list of things I don’t know keeps growing though.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I completely understand that negative conclusion Noel, and consider it well reasoned as well as probably true.

            Sometimes though, atheists have a hard time accepting the purely empirical position of agnostics and others who decline to state the nonexistence of gods (due to insufficient knowledge about the cosmos). This is perplexing because the difference between “gods do not exist” and “gods probably don’t exist” is rather insignificant outside a purely philosophical context.

            Even secularists, such as ourselves, use different philosophical methods to interpret the world around us. Rationalism and empiricism each have their virtues, and both are vital to the advancement of human knowledge.

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          • :Rationalism and empiricism each have their virtues, and both are vital to the advancement of human knowledge.” As are domination and discipline. I’d be lost without ’em. 🙂

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          • makagutu says:

            So you mean you are the submissive type or the dominating one? I am a little lost

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          • I’m neutral. I just like that they exist. 🙂

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  6. john zande says:

    I think the genuine theist, the apologist, finds it as to hard to appreciably comprehend “atheism” as people (in general) find it appreciably impossible to imagine no-thing; that time before consciousness. Their thinking is biased in such a profound way they cannot touch other concepts.

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    • makagutu says:

      Maybe atheism is really difficult to comprehend for most people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Atheism is a simple as “I’m not a theist”

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        • makagutu says:

          Why is it complex for others to comprehend?

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          • To theists, they understand that line but label the sides as ‘believe in god’ and the other as ‘does not believe in god’ but these people put a legend at the bottom of the drawing with the caveats that ‘god does exist’ – to them this presupposition is a fact outside of the discussion, and why they are on the theist side of the line.

            I have yet to see a theist who is less bone headed than the likes of WLC who can tell you why they actually believe.

            It is a sad thing to watch when they keep trying to fall back to the book and make pleas to authority and popularity. If they don’t run away from the argument they have to think about what proof they actually have. Statistics for dummies is like kryptonite to many of them.

            Get them to accept that everything is up for discussion and there are only two sides and the discussion is always interesting, but while they get to keep their presupposition of god being true there is no reasoning with them.

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  7. […] off, thank you to Makagutu for critiquing my ideas from a recent post on using a poor definition of atheism as a defensiveness maneuver. […]

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  8. […] off, thank you to Makagutu for critiquing my ideas from a recent post on using a poor definition of atheism as a defensiveness maneuver. […]

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  9. […] in deities (which is more accurate). This haggling over definitions (recent examples are here and here, respectively) made me feel very insecure about calling myself an Atheist at first. Why adopt […]

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