Recently I wrote a blog post about different ways of thinking about the definition of the terms ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’. I was interested in the relation between belief and degrees of belief. Does lacking a belief mean lacking all degree of belief? To me, it seemed like the answer was ‘no’; one can lack a belief that p, yet still have some small degree of belief that p. That was how I describe my own internal doxastic state with regards to the proposition that no gods exist. I don’t feel like it is correct to say that I believe that no gods exist, but I have a small degree of belief that they don’t.
Part of my reasoning behind why I am only slightly in one direction rather than the other is because it is a proposition in metaphysics, and this seems like the most one can ever really have about such propositions. For example, it seems at least conceptually possible that there exists some god who is entirely unverifiable, some sort of deist god who never intervenes in the world and has left no trace of his existence for us to find. How could I ever know if such a god existed? Obviously, I couldn’t. But this type of god would also be the sort of thing that I couldn’t get any information about at all, either for or against. For this type of thing, there couldn’t be any evidence, and so one can never be confident that it doesn’t exist. So while I have an intuition or feeling that they probably don’t exist, it is not strong – after all, I don’t think that I know what the world is like at the most fundamental lever, so I don’t place much weight in what my pre-theoretical intuitions about that sort of thing say. They do lead me in one direction, but only slightly. That’s my view anyway. (An interventionist god who cares about human suffering seems far less likely to me than this epistemologically inaccessible god, and I would have a far lower degree of belief in such a personal god).
So I would say that my degree of belief that there are no gods is more than 0.5, but not much more. It seems to me that this doesn’t qualify as a strong enough belief for saying “I believe that there are no gods”. To me, saying that requires a higher degree of belief than I have. It is a declaration of a certain level of commitment to something to say “I believe that p”, and while it is not saying that you are utterly convinced that p, it is saying more than that you are minimally convinced; belief means something like ‘somewhat convinced’. I’m not sure that there is a precise numerical value which is the cut-off point between non-belief and belief; certainly not for all possible circumstances anyway. However, I just feel like my degree of belief is not strong enough to qualify in this context.
This is just like a situation where you may feel quite sure that a given person has not enough hair to count as hirsute, even though you are not sure whether there really is a precise number of hairs that one has to have in order to count as hirsute, or if so what that number of hairs is. Yet you just feel quite sure that this amount of hair isn’t enough. That’s how I feel about the god proposition.
Before getting to that point though, I spent some time explaining how there is some controversy about the definition of ‘atheist’, and this caused a bit of discussion on the comments below my past blog post on this – quite a lot longer than the actual article itself (and is still continuing as I write this), where people continued to discuss how they saw the right and wrong ways to define ‘atheist’.
My main point in the first section of that post was actually to argue that what seemed like a significant discussion between the atheist and theist is actually just a trivial definitional exercise on which nothing of any significance hangs. By this, I mean that it doesn’t matter if people disagree about whether someone should be called an atheist, a lacktheist or a hard-atheist, etc. The doxastic stance that the person holds, and any burden of evidence that comes with it, is what is actually important, and it remains the same regardless of what definition is used for the terms involved. We should just agree on a definition at the start of the argument and then move on into the interesting stuff.
Here I want to make that point as clearly as possible. So I will visualise a set of related positions – not a comprehensive list, but a reasonably thorough and precise list – so that we can see clearly what the different definitional positions are. I also want to express how this area is actually surprisingly rich from a logical point of view, and the various combinations of positions makes for an interesting enough landscape to categorise as a purely academic exercise. However, once we have a good grasp of the different definitions we could plausibly have in mind (the ‘landscape’), we can see how a particular person’s view gets classified. As we shall see, on some views I am an atheist, on some I am an agnostic atheist. The ability to translate between the different schemes considered provides the potential for more than just an academic classification exercise. It suggests the ability to help people stop talking past one another by providing a precise translation manual. All too often people hold different but not clearly articulated ideas about what it means to be an ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ when they are in discussion and hopefully by setting out the landscape clearly we can be of some help here.
- Degree of belief
First, let’s consider the scale of belief about some proposition p (which will remain fixed as ‘some god exists’. The scale ranges from 0 for absolute conviction that p is false, to 1 for absolute conviction that p is true, with 0.5 being the middle point:
We can consider, for some agent a which we will keep fixed, that there are various propositions about a‘s beliefs and knowledge claims that we are interested in:
- Bp = a believes that p
- B~p = a believes that not-p
- ~Bp = it is not the case that a believes that p
- ~B~p = it is not the case that a believes that not-p
- Kp = a knows that p
- K~p = a knows that not-p
- ~Kp = it is not the case that a knows that p
- ~K~p = it is not the case that a knows that not-p
We will track where these propositions go under the belief scale, and then move on to add labels for various positions in as well.
Although the pair p and ~p are dichotomous (so that ‘p v ~p‘ is a tautology), this is obviously not the case for Bp and B~p; it is quite possible for neither of them to be true. Our agent might not believe that Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and might not believe that Kuala Lumpur is not the capital of Malaysia. The same goes for Kp and K~p. This leaves room in the middle for a ‘belief-gap’. We will visualise this on our belief scale with a penumbra (or grey area) in which they a neither believes p nor believes that not-p. We could add this to our diagram as a shaded area underneath the section of the range to which it applies:
So in the diagram above, the grey area (the penumbra) extends beyond 0.5 degree of belief to some extent in either direction. This reflects that someone could have a degree of belief which is (say) 0.51 that p but that this would not be enough for it to be true that “a believes that p“. For that to be true, a‘s degree of belief has to be greater than this. Precisely how much greater is vague and impossible to give a precise number to. All that we can (or need to) say is that for a to believe that p, their degree of belief has to be greater than the extent of the penumbra.
On either side of the penumbra, we would find the regions in which a holds a positive belief, either that p or that ~p:
We can add in knowledge claims here as well, where as we go along the scale towards 1 (or 0), we get to some (vague and impossible to make precise) point at which a doesn’t just believe that p (not-p), but knows that p (not-p):
So our fully annotated diagram of the situation looks like this:
Given what I outlined in the last post on this topic, I sit just to the left of 0.5 on this scale (where p is ‘some god exists’). The green line is me:
It seems like my degree of belief is such that I don’t believe that p and I don’t believe that not-p. All this is rather uncontroversial*. The controversy, what there is of it, comes in when we decide which labels to apply to which position on the scale. We will do this by adding shaded areas to the top of the diagram. The first proposal we will consider (call it View 1) is where a ‘theist’ is someone who believes that p and an ‘atheist’ is someone who believes that not-p, which makes an ‘atheist’ a ‘hard-atheist’:
This has the consequence that theist/atheist is not an exhaustive distinction; it is possible to be in the area not covered by either (which is where I sit on this diagram). I am not an atheist on this picture (I am unclassified on this picture).
We might want to say that there is no such area, and that everyone is either a theist or an atheist. This sort of line has been put to me in the past. The idea is that if you act as if there is no god, then this makes you an atheist. Actions, it might be thought, are binary, in that you either act like you believe in a god (by going to church, praying, etc), or you act as if there is no god (by not going to church, praying, etc). This may make us think that everyone’s actions either make them an atheist or a theist (depending on how plausible we find this reasoning), in which case there should be no gap between the two positions on our scale (call this View 2):
On this view, a theist is not necessarily someone who ‘believes that p‘, but is just someone whose degree of belief that p is greater than their degree of belief that not-p. Similarly for the definition of ‘atheist’. I would count as an atheist on this view, even though I don’t believe that not-p. I count as an atheist just because my degree of belief that p is slightly less than 0.5. The definition of ‘atheist’ on this view is neither the same as ‘hard-atheist’ nor ‘lacktheist’.
As another option (call it View 3), we could think of the theist/atheist distinction as exhaustive, but draw the line between them on the point at which we switch from not believing that p to believing that p. This would make the definition of ‘atheist’ that of the ‘lacktheist’:
On this view, I count as an atheist, and interestingly so would someone whose degree of belief that p was on the positive side of 0.5 but still in the penumbra; the sort of person who would say that they have a very weak degree of belief that some god exists, but not enough for them to say ‘I believe that some god exists’. That person would count as an atheist on this view.
We might think that the term ‘agnostic’ comes in here somewhere, and that it should come in to fill the gap between theist and atheist on View 1, like this (call it View 1.1):
On this picture, an atheist is someone who believes that not-p, a theist is someone who believes that p, and an agnostic is someone who does not believe either of p or not-p. On this picture, I come under the agnostic category, and not the atheist category.
We could add this version of agnostic (i.e. someone who does not believe either p or not-p) to View 2, to make View 2.1, as follows:
On View 2.1, all agnostics are also either atheists or theists; nobody is just an agnostic. On this view, I am an atheist and an agnostic.
Continuing the series, we could include the agnostic in the diagram and have ‘atheist’ pictured as a lacktheist (View 3), resulting in View 3.1, like this:
On this view, I would count as an atheist and an agnostic. On this view all agnostics are also atheists; there are no pure agnostics or agnostic theists.
However, one might think that the term ‘agnostic’ does not relate to a lack of belief but instead to lack of knowledge; it means that you don’t know if p is true, or if not-p is true. If that were the case (View 1.2), we would want to draw the agnostic area as follows:
On this view, there are ‘pure’ agnostics (and I would be one), but there are also agnostic atheists and agnostic theists (in contrast to View 1.1).
If we add this notion of agnosticism to Veiw 2, then we get View 2.2:
In this view, everyone is either an atheist or a theist (there are no pure agnostics) and there can be both agnostic atheists and agnostic theists. This only differs from View 1.1 in that the definition of agnostic is tied to knowledge, not belief.
Lastly, for completeness, I will consider View 3.2, which combines this agnosticism with the lacktheism of View 3:
On this view, an atheist is a lacktheist, and there can be agnostic atheists and agnostic theists. I am an agnostic atheist on this view.
Here are all 9 of the views for comparison:
3. Logical relationships
We have 9 views outlined above (View 1, 1.1 & 1.2; View 2, 2.1 & 2.3; and View 3, 3.1 & 3.2), but what are the relationships and differences between them? Here is an incomplete table showing some of the various properties of the different views and how they differ from one another:
Each view is unique in some respect or another. The difference between View 1.1 and View 1.2 (for example) is just whether agnostic means not believing either way that p or not knowing either way that p. This difference decides whether there are agnostic atheists/theists or not.
According to that summary, I am an there are two views according to which I am antheist, one according to which I am an agnostic, four according to which I am agnostic atheist, with one where I am not classified. It is noteworthy how many different classifications one and the same doxastic attitude can come under. No wonder there is often confusion as to the usage of the terms involved.
What we have is a landscape of different definitions and their various combinations. These are just the combinations I could see as being remotely justified. Each combination has something which backs it up conceptually.
- There seem to be decent reasons for thinking about atheism and theism as being dependent on believing p and on believing not-p, which is the characteristic of View 1, 1.1 and 1.2.
- However, the idea that belief is tied to action, and is thus binary, gives rise to the motivation for View 2, 2.1 and 2.2.
- Then again, the definition of atheism as ‘lacktheism’ is clearly very popular among contemporary atheists, and this motivates View 3, 3.1 and 3.2.
- There also seems to be some intuitive support for the idea that agnosticism simply fills in the space between atheism and theism, such that everyone is either an atheist, and agnostic or a theist (with no overlap), which informs View 1.1.
- While this view of agnosticism seems fairly intuitive here, there is also something to be said for modelling agnosticism as relating to knowledge. Thomas Huxley, the person who coined the term ‘agnostic’, seems to have this association in mind when he said the following:
Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.
Thus, there is a sort of exigetical support for the idea that agnosticism is epistemic rather than doxastic (i.e. about knowledge rather than just belief). If that is motivational for you, then you may be drawn to thinking of agnosticism as in View 1.2, 2.2 and 3.2.
It seems like a simple question, so often gone over, but so rarely gone over methodically:
What does ‘atheist’ mean?
But it has a surprisingly large number of potential, plausible-looking combinations of positions on the table. The benefit of classifying the various possible logical combinations is that we can translate between people’s usages. Here’s how:
First, one needs to assess internally what their level of belief is in the proposition being considered. Decide as best you can what your degree of belief is. Next also try to decide what you think (roughly) the thresholds are for belief and knowledge. Test yourself. For example, if you feel quite confident that you believe that p, do you also feel like you know that p? If not, then you believe without knowledge, and so you are in the middle section, etc.
In this way, we can get a feel for which region in the bottom part of the diagrams you fit into without too much need to quantify your degree of belief precisely. All you have to do is find which region of the belief scale you fit on. Once you have this in place, you can see how you are classified according to the various views. I did this in this post, and showed my results. So if someone asks me if I’m an atheist, I think my reply will now be ‘I’m an agnostic atheist on most definitions of the key terms, but on some of them I am an atheist’. This qualification doesn’t mean that I am changing my mind about what I believe, or trying to dodge any burden of proof for my claim. All the different views indicate is different ways of describing the same thing.
There is no such thing as the ‘correct’ definition of what an atheist is. There is no such thing as the ‘correct’ definition of anything. Definitions are all arbitrary. One can use a definition in a way that fits the practices of a language using community, but other than ‘fitting in’ there is nothing else to decide whether a definition is correct or not. So there shouldn’t be a debate about what the definitions mean, from a logical point of view. We should only be interested in what people actually believe, and why.
There may be a larger political issue about the definition of ‘atheist’ due to the idea of an ‘atheist community’, but this is an issue I am not interested in. If I don’t classify as atheist enough for the atheist community, then so be it. I’m not going to change my sincerely held views just to be part of a club, and any club which is defined in terms of belief which requires people to adopt beliefs merely for the purposes of joining seems like an inherently contradictory institution.
It may be that people hold that the definitional game is more significant that I think it is for the following reason. It may be that when one joins a religion (or a new church, etc), that one sort of fits their beliefs to the community. As if someone says to themselves, ‘Now I’m part of the Calvinist community, I better figure out what beliefs I have’. This would make the beliefs follow from the belonging to a group. For all I know, this is how people view beliefs, and are happy to let themselves hold beliefs just because they are told that ‘people like us believe in such and such’. To me though, this gets the direction of travel the wrong way. First you have to have certain beliefs, and it is only because you antecedently do (or do not) hold whatever beliefs you do that you qualify for belonging to a club that is defined by beliefs. So one should say something like ‘I believe in the doctrine of predestination and original sin (etc), so I better figure out which group I belong to’. For me, beliefs come first, and labels (such as ‘Calvinist’ or ‘atheist’) follow after.
*From here on out, I will assume this basic picture to be correct. One could argue that the penumbra could really just apply to the 0.5 point and extend no distance in either direction. Even if you do so, this would still mean that the grey area has some extension. The reader should feel free to imagine the grey area being larger or smaller if they so wish if they disagree with the extent I have given it above. It should be agreed by all parties that there is some penumbra, even if it only apples to 0.5 and nowhere else.