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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Tuesday, April 22, 2003

atheism lite

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – no more, no less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master – that is all.”

(Lewis Carroll “Alice Through the Looking Glass”)

Atheism as traditionally and historically understood has always involved the denial of the existence of God or gods. [see below for evidence of this assertion]. In fact until approximately 25 years ago virtually no one would dispute this, certainly not committed atheists. With the advent of the Internet however and the increasing number of debates and exchanges between theists and atheists, many atheists have been forced by the speciousness of their arguments to adopt a new understanding of atheism.

Traditional/historical atheism is now referred to as “strong” atheism while an increasingly popular form of atheism rearing its head on the Net and elsewhere is known as “weak” atheism - the notion that atheism is merely the lack of belief in God or gods. And it truly is weak!

Atheists certainly have every right to define their worldview on their own terms but I suspect that the majority of atheists one meets on Internet forums are actually too young to realize that they have deserted the classical position of atheism of their “spiritual [sic] forefathers. “Strong" atheism is the only respectable form of atheism, the weak version is nothing but a cop out; a flagrant attempt to avoid shouldering the burden of proof that always falls to the person who makes any assertion or argument.

“If one presents a positive belief (i.e. an assertion which one claims to be true), one has the obligation to present evidence in its favor. The burden of proof lies with the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If the evidence is not forthcoming, if there are not sufficient grounds for accepting the proposition, it should not be believed.” [Atheism: The Case Against God, by George H. Smith]

No less a luminary than Interent Infidel Jeffrey Jay Lowder admits "anyone who claims, ‘God does not exist,’ must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, "God exists."”

So, presto, why not shift the burden of proof!? And this is exactly what a new generation of atheists are doing; they do not have a solid case to build for their position so they hide behind the cop out of pretending that they merely are “without” or “lacking” belief in God. Everyone knows the dictum “you cannot prove a negative”, so to claim absolutely that gods do not exist is a pretty tall order. Isn’t that why fewer atheists these days are willing to make such a claim? A claim by the way that atheists of the 20th century made without flinching. Consider Jean Paul Sartre near the end of his life:

"I have caught the Holy Ghost in the cellars and flung him out of them. Atheism is a cruel, long-term business: I believe I have gone through it to the end."

If belief is defined, as it is, as a positive attribute of trust, commitment and assent, then it is saying absolutely nothing of significance to proclaim that one simply “lacks” it. One does not produce dozens of web pages and appear on hundreds of forums merely to defend the proposition that you don’t have a proposition to defend. It is lunacy on the part of “born again weak atheists” to even bother to come to Christian boards and chatgroups - unless one is a "Christ-hater", an anti-Christian, or an anti-theist (i.e. a God denier) - because one cannot logically and sanely get worked up over a God whom one claims is meaningless and non-existent. If one has no positive proposition to put forward, one is nothing more than a naysayer or a sick individual who gets his jollies by mocking the positive beliefs of others - positive beliefs being something he apparently lacks. Are you guys nuts? Get a life.

As is asserted in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism:
“If the atheist is simply without God, then he is not asserting anything. On the other hand, the theist is asserting the existence of something (God), so the burden of proof is on him…Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God.”

This is thoroughly disingenuous and self-serving. I am staggered (or perhaps I am not) at the frequency and boldness with which this asinine assertion is put forward by self-proclaimed freethinkers and rational thinkers who should no better, but continue on their merry way butchering the laws of logic and the rules of evidence.

Atheist philosopher Ernest Nagel had this to say about the meaning of the word “atheism” in a book highly praised on the Secular Web site by the aforementioned Jeff Lowder:

“Atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief, or with disbelief in some particular creed of a religious group. Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist-for he his not denying any theistic claims.

As I see it, atheistic philosophers fall into two major groups; (1) Those which hold that theistic doctrine is meaningful, but reject it either on the grounds that (a) the positive evidence for it is insufficient, or (b) the negative evidence is quite overwhelming; and (2) those that hold that the theistic thesis is not even meaningful, and reject it (a) as just nonsense, or (b) as literally meaningless , but interpreting it as a symbolic rendering of human ideals.

It will not be possible in the limited space at my disposal to discuss the second category of atheist critiques; and in any event, most of the traditional atheistic critiques of theism belong to the first group”.
“Philosophical Concepts of Atheism” [Ernest Nagel in “Critiques of God” Prometheus Books, 1976. ]

So in 1976 a well-known atheist clearly outlined the dominant understanding among atheists of atheism at that time. One can see that in the 25 years since the first appearance of “Critiques of God”, many atheists have deserted the traditional atheist position and have embraced what was formerly a minority position. Why? Short-term memory loss or something more sinister?

Donn Day has done some detailed research into the etymology and history of the term atheism and he reports that as far as he can ascertain the revised usage of the word “atheism” has been around, only, since 1979. The first usage of the new "redefinition" seems to have appeared in, “Atheism: The Case Against God", by George H. Smith, one of the Secular Web's top ten atheist books.

This is how Smith defined atheism:

“Atheism therefore, is the absence of theistic its main form, it is not belief; it is the absence of belief.”

A year later Prometheus Books released, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, edited by Gordon Stein. This book had the following definition:
“ atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important...To be without a belief in God merely means that the term 'God' has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely, this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is a lack of belief.”

In 1984 philosopher Antony Flew in The Presumption of Atheism concurred, but he, at least, to his credit, explicitly acknowledges this as a "new" definition:
“…we need to give a new and much more comprehensive meaning to the term "atheist." Whereas it is currently construed as referring to a person who positively disbelieves that there is an object corresponding to what is thus tacitly taken to be a or the legitimate concept of God, I would now urge that the word be hereafter understood not positively but negatively. Let the originally Greek prefix "a" be read in the same way in "atheist" as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as "amoral," atypical," and "asymmetrical." In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the nonexistence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.”

Now I think we all understand that words and their meanings evolve and change over time in any language, but the current “hopeful monster” definition of atheism is definitely a case of punctuated equilibrium - it has happened so incredibly fast!

The origin of the terms "atheist" and "atheism" can be traced to ancient Greece where they were applied to any who refused to acknowledge the official gods of the state. The Greeks designated as atheists those who, usually in the name of another faith, separated themselves from the established religion. The word "atheism" is a direct cognate (to use the technical term), a transliteration of the Classical Greek word “atheos” .Its meaning, is best expressed as: "one who disdains or denies God or the gods and their laws." (Walter Bauer. Greek-English Lexicon. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p.20). It follows that “As matter of lexicography…when the word has a direct cognate in, or is a pure transliteration from, the primary language it is that primary language's usage which always takes precedence in determining its meaning in the secondary language.” In other words, the pretense that “a theos” means merely “without God” is not borne out by its use in the original Greek where it was understood as the “negation of god or gods” - in other words “active denial of god(s)”. But I admit, in a postmodern world, like Humpty Dumpty one can make words mean what ever one likes…

When the Romans came to power they continued the Greek practice; thus in the ancient Hellenistic world Cicero labelled Socrates an atheist and the early Christians were repeatedly called atheists by their opponents because both refused to recognise the Graeco-Roman pantheon of gods. Neither were atheists in the sense that the Internet Infidels like to see themselves as - in their original or revised version.

Contemporary atheists claim that Christians are atheists about the gods of other religions because they deny their validity and refuse to worship them. That is perfectly true, but irrelevant, for is not the issue that really concerns modern atheists - “weak” ones who affirm that they are simply without belief in the supernatural, or “strong” ones who actively deny the existence of the supernatural. The classical view does not automatically dismiss the realm of the spirit or of the supernatural while the contemporary one does just that. The ridiculous claim that because atheists reject all gods whereas Christians only reject 99%, therefore Christians are hypocrites, is nothing more than a polemical ploy - meaningless in a discussion about the validity and reality of the supernatural or the evidences for or against a proposition. It results in the frequent contradiction of atheists arguing vociferously in favour of other non-Christian gods in order to attack the Christian God!

I recently visited an atheist’s website where he spent a lot of time defending the notion that atheism can really mean nothing more than simply a lack of belief in God. Then he turned around and said he doesn’t take that view because he was an unashamed strong atheist. This was then followed by a bizarre admission: he was actually a strong atheist only with respect to the Christian version of god; he was a weak atheist with respect to all other varieties of god! Apparently, he would consider the Norse gods to be at least a remote possibility. This is primarily anti-Christian polemic not a defence of atheism. And I suspect quite strongly that most atheists come to Christian sites to prey because they (let's be brutally honest) hate Christianity. It is a simple as that. They have no great worldview vision that will enrich the lives of humanity; they just hate the religion that their parents forced them to follow in their childhood and youth. And they are angry!

Isn’t it the truth of the matter that weak atheists (“atheism lite”) are cowardly, unwilling to accept real full strength atheism, but incapable of stating their true position, which is that they really don’t know - in other words agnosticism?

12:58:00 pm