jottings from tertius

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"If there was no God, there would be no atheists." G.K. Chesterton


SITES OF NOTE

Tektonics Apologetics Ministry
blogs4God
The Adarwinist reader
Bede's Library: the Alliance of Faith and Reason
A Christian Thinktank
Doxa:Christian theology and apologetics
He Lives
Mike Gene Teleologic
Errant Skeptics Research Institute
Stephen Jones' CreationEvolutionDesign
Touchstone: a journal of mere Christianity: mere comments
The Secularist Critique: Deconstructing secularism
Ex-atheist.com: I Wasn't Born Again Yesterday
imago veritatis by Alan Myatt
Solid Rock Ministries
The Internet Monk: a webjournal by Michael Spencer
The Sydney Line: the website of Keith Windschuttle
Miranda Devine's writings in the Sydney Morning Herald
David Horowitz frontpage magazine
Thoughts of a 21st century Christian Philosopher
one-eighty
Steven Lovell's philosophical themes from C.S.Lewis
Peter S. Williams Christian philosophy and apologetics
Shandon L. Guthrie
Clayton Cramer's Blog
Andrew Bolt columns
Ann Coulter columns




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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

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon


Sunday, October 24, 2004

What is Atheism?

 
Shandon L. Guthrie, excerpted from Atheism and the Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: Why Atheists Cannot Avert the Burden of Proof
Seminal to any investigative work on a given subject, one requires an honest and forthright rendition of what the given subject entails. Sometimes we think that a deskside dictionary is all that is needed to "ground" the definition we seek. Others prefer a more verbose source such as an encyclopedia. Still others prefer to see how proponents of the subject matter define their own view. It is needless to state that it is no easy matter to bring together a univocal definition that shall meet the satisfaction of the broadest representatives of the view. No matter what the subject matter is, there will always be representatives that will seek refinement. But because one cannot make a mathematical proof for preferring one definition over another, and that representatives will always have the final say as to their own viewpoint, then it seems that we ought to approach understanding terminology by seeking mainstream representatives of the view in question even to the detriment of a minority. For example, discussing astrophysics in a college classroom will inevitably entail a discussion on the ontology of earth as a terrestrial planet in our solar system. There are fringe movements as of recent such as the so-called Flat Earth Society that will beg to differ about the common notion of earth's shape as being rounded. But academicians cannot curtail their curriculum in the name of sensitivity to these fringe movements. In these cases, the mainstream authorities on astronomy and astrophysics will have to guide the material therein even if it fails to account for every conviction on the matter. With respect to a definition that carries little import or relative indifference, we should rest our case for a term's definition simply on a dictionary or encyclopedia. For example, perhaps the reader of this article is unfamiliar with the word "terminology" that was invoked above. It would be sufficient for that individual to access a dictionary to discover its meaning as "the terms used in a specific science, art, etc." If our topic of conversation was about the demographics of religion then we might not think that a dictionary could properly capture it in its definitions of "religion" and "demographics." Instead, one may find it preferable to access a commonplace encyclopedia. Perhaps the encyclopedia, under a heading such as "Religion," may not only discuss how religion is to be defined but may explain the different cultural and methodological practices involved in various religions. Still, if we wanted to understand, say, the doctrine of Hell in the Christian religion then we might not find it arguably sufficient to utilize either a dictionary or an encyclopedia.

Christian adherents may find the doctrine of Hell defined in a nonstandard manner by both dictionaries and encyclopedias. The dictionary will only compare various superficial uses of "hell" whereas the encyclopedia may skew its definition in terms of fictionalized representations like Dante's Inferno. Still others might accurately represent the classic Christian perspective. But, which does the reader choose? The careful detractor of this doctrine will desire to seek the best representation of the view she could possibly muster. This might be best accomplished by seeking representatives of the viewpoint whether it be through literature written by proponents or by accessible adherents who can be interviewed. If more than one definition is equally possible and there is no standard view then the critic will have to spend the extra energy in treating its diverse concepts.

Any treatment of atheism ought to be considered in the same fashion as theological doctrines. We must seek representatives of the view in order to best define the subject matter in the most standard and charitable way. If no standard definition exists on the matter then we shall highlight the differences accordingly. Although appeasing every atheist will not be the purpose of defining atheism here, I shall seek the standard representations where they exist.

The term atheism comes directly from the Greek language. It is a combination of a-, which means "not" or "without," and theos, which means "God." The etymology of a term can sometimes be helpful as to why a term may have been coined, but it generally contributes very little toward defining the term. For example, theology comes from the combined Greek words theos and logos. Theos is the Greek word for "God" (which is where theism gets its designation) and logos generally means "discourse," "speech," or "teaching." Nothing about the etymology of theology will help too much with understanding what theology is all about or what it evinces. We can ascertain that "God" and "teaching" may tell us that theology is somehow teaching about God. However, one can be a philosopher and do this outside of a theological context (e.g., Can an all-good God exist if evil also exists?). Hence theology must encapsulate something more than invoking "God" in one's dialogue or teaching. Equally difficult is the term atheism. Although atheism entails a- and theos, we are not entirely sure to what extent and under what rubric the term should be defined. For example, what is being negated by a-? If one acts in an amoral fashion then such an action is simply without morality and would not be considered good or bad. What is it about theism that a- negates? Does it negate the belief in God/gods or does it negate God or gods themselves?

According to philological sources, the term atheism ought to be historically understood as the pure denial of the existence of any deity. Two of these sources include the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology and the Etymological Dictionary of English Language. Some encyclopedic and mainstream philosophical sources that broach the subject with this understanding include the Academic American Encyclopedia, Random House Encyclopedia, Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, The World Book Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Americana, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Encyclopedia of Religion, and Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia. To illustrate just one such example, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines atheism as the "belief that there is no God." However, the term atheism itself has undergone a considerable transformation ever since the Enlightenment. Today, self-proclaimed atheists maintain that atheism only denies the belief in God or gods. No less an atheist and philosopher Antony Flew makes the following case:

"The word `atheism', however, has in this contention to be
construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning
of 'atheist' in English is 'someone who asserts there is no such
being as God,' I want the word to be understood not positively
but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix 'a' to 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: someone who is simply not
a theist."


Although it is noble for one to admit that their personal desire motivates their conclusion so that it is not confused with scholastic evaluation, I fear that Flew disguises what he believes to be the proper definition of atheism with this misunderstood appeal. In no way does Flew mean for the reader to depart from this passage thinking that a petition for an alternative definition is to be understood. Rather, Flew directly appeals to other terms where a- is employed and concludes that atheism ought to have the same perception. Flew's novel understanding would leave it open for the critic to suggest that morality and symmetry, for example, may yet still be present but are simply not acknowledged by someone. But even this more evidential grounding backfires on Flew because the terms such as amoral, atypical, and asymmetrical do not imply "someone who is not a moralist," "someone who is not a 'typicalist,'" and "someone who is not a symmetrist." So these terms do not capture what Flew hopes to accomplish with atheism. The negation a- applies directly to the term and to that which it describes. For something to be asymmetrical is to actually be something where no symmetry is present. For something to be without morality is to be something that has no morality present. We should thus expect that to be without God is to be something that has no God present.

A popular philosopher and atheist from Boston University, Michael Martin, has also shirked the role of classical atheism as seen in the following argument:

"In Greek 'a' means 'without' or 'not' and 'theos' means 'god.' From
this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a
belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God
does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a
negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God."


In this case another "bait and switch" method is being employed but in a more obvious contradictory setting. On the one hand we are to concur that "'a' means 'without' or 'not' and 'theos' means 'god.'" On the other hand we are supposed to conclude from this that "without a belief in God" is what the term means. This is perhaps to the hope that the reader will not see the imported word "believe" from one sentence to the next. I do agree with Martin that the term is certainly a negative view in that it negates something. But, as Martin unwittingly admits or intentionally distorts, it is the negation of God himself not a negation of a belief in God given Martin's comment that "'a' means 'without' or 'not' and 'theos' means 'god.'" Wouldn't this suggest that atheism is to be etymologically understood as without/no - god?

Due to the disparity between conventional and contemporary understandings (revisionist views?) of atheism, philosophers have attempted to branch atheism into two separate categories: positive atheism and negative atheism. Positive atheism is the classical understanding contra Martin. It is the definitive view, the strong view, that God (or any god) does not exist. Negative atheism, the weak view, is the mere absence of belief in God (or any divine being - sometimes it serves as a synonym for naturalism). In this relatively new understanding atheism enjoys a category split so that both definitions can maintain their place amongst their parent heading atheism. However, this amounts to reducing atheism to nothing more than agnosticism. Agnosticism was originally coined by the 19th century lecturer at the School of Mines in London, Thomas Henry Huxley. He is best noted as being "Darwin's bulldog" since he adamantly defended Charles Darwin's infant theory of evolution. Huxley himself, concerning his adoption of the term agnostic, writes:

"Some twenty years ago, or thereabouts, I invented the word
'Agnostic' to denote people who, like myself, confess themselves
to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about
which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and
heterodox, dogmatise with utmost confidence . . . 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.
"

"Soft" agnosticism, shall we say, is the mere absence of belief in God (or any deity) since it suspends judgment about matters of metaphysics and theology. The more epistemological position that Huxley may of had in mind is what is known as "hard" agnosticism - it is impossible to determine whether or not God exists. In either case, agnosticism neither confirms nor denies any epistemological claims about God and thus it properly satisfies the status of being a default position. In a sense, the agnostic places phenomenological brackets around the propositions "God exists" and "God does not exist" to explore unchartered areas of research that may offer insight toward reaching a conclusion.

Despite the historical and philological difficulty with deviating from the roots of atheism and its mainstream approaches to it, perhaps we shall have to consider the matter open to the atheist who wears the label negative or positive atheist. In the spirit of charity, we may be forced to acknowledge against the most reliable and broadest understanding of atheism to include mere deniers of belief in any god in our casual encounters and dialogues. But it should not cause us to go astray from the conventional and usual meaning of the term from which many modern atheists have deviated.


11:21:00 pm