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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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Sunday, January 30, 2005

"sounds like agnosticism to me"

Atheism and Natheism: Part II by Tony Pasquarello in the American Atheist, Winter 2003

In an earlier paper, I coined the term 'natheism' to stand for a relatively new version of Atheism which defines 'atheism' as "lack of belief in God." Natheism retains the term 'atheism' but redefines it. I then argued that natheism is mistaken; the standard conception and dictionary definition - "denial of the existence of God" - is indeed, correct...

...In other words, the emphasis is put on the objective, the facts of the matter, the relevant evidence, the state of reality -not the subjective, psychological considerations.

...Those distinguished thinkers who, deliberately or unwittingly, retain 'believe in' in their formal examinations of these concepts, all the way to their last formulations, are just perpetuating muddiness and murkiness, bad weather for reasoning. The flawed believe-in locution is endemic in the writing -and thinking -of Natheists; it might even be fingered as the "enabler." Here are direct quotes from leading proponents of natheism:

"All atheism requires is the lack of belief in God."

"An atheist does not believe in the existence of a God."

"Atheists ... lack belief in a god."

"'Atheist' means 'without belief in God'."

Yes, these would be considered ordinary, commonly employed expressions, but they're hardly appropriate if one claims to be doing serious, philosophical explication. In that context, they must be adjudged as circuitous, bloated, evasive attempts at hinting (wink, wink), that God doesn't exist, without saying it directly.

...Santa is a current, vivid, and dynamic figure with tens of millions of devout followers. And, they're all small children, i.e. intellectually immature. If an adult, native-born American were to state his position on Santa, using similar expressions -natheispeak - we would conclude that his sleigh wasn't hitting on all reindeers. "I'm just without belief in Santa"; "I lack a belief in the existence of Santa." Statements like these would make us cringe, if not scream. Why doesn't he speak plainly? Why doesn't he say simply that Santa isn't real?

As we acquire the terms of a language, we acquire concepts. As we acquire facility in using a term, we acquire the cluster of related concepts that comprise that linguistic family. We acquire beliefs, ideas, opinions, judgments, etc. It is, therefore, logically impossible, at that point, to assume the pose of the feral innocent emerging from the deep jungle, clutching his unsullied tabula rasa. It is logically impossible to know how to use the term 'God' yet not have any beliefs pertaining to God.

For any person, A, fluent in the language, who does not 'have', or 'hold', or 'believe in', or who is 'absent', 'lacks', is 'free from' or 'without belief in' some proposition, p--(these are typical of the cumbersome circumlocutions employed by Natheists to express this new version of Atheism)--this may be the case because: (1) A is unfamiliar with the component concepts of p; A does not understand p. As indicated, for the God concept, this option is not open to a practiced speaker of the language. (2) A lacks the information enabling one to judge the probability or truth value of p. (E.g., p is "Magnesium can be found on Jupiter"). A may believe that p's value is unknown or unknowable at his intellectual level, or unknowable in general, or at the present time, or to science, or in principle. A may be gathering information about p, or awaiting some event, or the outcome of some experiment bearing on p. Perhaps A has simply not made up his mind about p. Any of these could be, and has been, considered some form of classic Agnosticism. (3) Finally, A considers p to be highly improbable or false. Given our topic, this is classic Atheism. A is 'free of' belief in God because A is convinced that God does not exist. It is quite normal, and logical, not to 'hold' or 'embrace' a belief that one considers false!

Without the baggage of the bloated belief-vocabulary, a much more succinct summary can be given. For any mature language-user, a given proposition will be meaningless or meaningful; if meaningful, its probability or truth value will be known or unknown.

Taking Good Advice
If we follow our own schematic, 'A doesn't believe in God' becomes 'A doesn't believe that God exists'. Now, how is that to be parsed? Common sense, ordinary linguistic practice, and reasonable understanding of the thrust of the negative all point to 'A believes that God doesn't exist'. That is one, standard way of expressing standard Atheism.

But, the reform Atheists, the Natheists, are adamant in their insistence that they are painstakingly carving out another interpretation that is significantly different from the flat-out denial that God exists. (It is different, but it's certainly not new, since it is no more than the old, familiar Agnosticism.) Natheism claims that 'A doesn't believe that God exists' must be unpacked to 'A is without the belief that God exists'.

Let us grant that, for the sake of our analysis. Now, only one crucial question: How about the belief that God does not exist? Is A also 'without' or lacking that? Either he is or he isn't.

If he is, i.e. A holds neither the belief that God exists, nor the belief that God does not exist, for whatever reasons, A, an intellectually mature language user, is properly classified as an Agnostic. If A is not lacking the belief that God does not exist, then he has the belief that God does not exist, which is traditional, strict, hard, explicit Atheism. There is no other alternative. It follows that Natheism is not a separate, discrete stance on "belief in" God but collapses into either traditional Agnosticism or traditional Atheism. But, since Natheism itself is unyielding in insisting that it is positively not traditional Atheism, then it must be Agnosticism. Q.E.D...

The same sorts of skewed conclusions can be deduced from the various redefinitions of 'atheism' proposed by Natheism. A definition is, by definition, an equivalence. If '... all that Atheism requires is the lack of belief in God," then that lack of belief is both necessary and sufficient for Atheism, and therefore, equivalent to Atheism. But, an Agnostic, by definition, lacks belief in God (for any of a slew of problematic reasons connected to concepts like 'knowledge', 'certainty', 'unknowability', etc.). Therefore, it follows, rigorously, that an Agnostic is an Atheist! This would surely come as startling news to most Agnostics, who constantly, vigorously strive to differentiate their stance from the "arrogant certitudes" of Atheists. Grotesque results like these are inevitable when Natheists engage in this redefinist orgy reminiscent of the absurd claims of Soviet revisionism. When leaving the semantic boundaries of the dictionary's realm, the Twilight Zone often lies just ahead.

It's hardly surprising that our analysis has led us to the conclusion that Natheism is really Agnosticism. Every philosophically sophisticated acquaintance to whom I mentioned the natheistic redefinition of 'atheism', without any comment, had essentially the same reaction--"Sounds like Agnosticism to me". Our analysis confirms that first impression as absolutely correct.

Under a Semantic Spell
How bewildering when so many distinguished thinkers seem to be linguistically bewitched by Natheism when, logically speaking, that theory has so little to recommend it. One can only speculate as to which fallacies might have entrapped them, though I suspect that the ultimate source of the errors is not poor logic, but a political motivation. That involves creating a position that could be seen as a kinder, gentler Atheism; one that is politically correct and less confrontational. The redefinition of Atheism so that it emerges as Agnosticism is a significant part of a larger agenda calling for downplaying Atheism, and rendering it impotent and irrelevant--in the present case, by defining it out of existence. As the best-known of all humanist thinkers wrote to me some six years ago, "... atheism is out"!...

Illicit conversion of the universal affirmative proposition could possibly be one of the snares that influenced some of these profound thinkers to adopt such a peculiar interpretation of 'atheism'. 'All X is Y' cannot be reversed or converted with impunity; it is risky business to do so because there is no guarantee that the original truth value will be retained. Hence, the reversal is an invalid procedure. Could this, then, be the trap that gave rise to Natheism? They realized that all Atheists lack belief in God (because they deny that God exists), unwittingly turned that around, and came up with 'All who lack belief in God are Atheists', (an obviously false proposition). Could it have been that simple?

Or perhaps it was the fallacy called undistributed middle in syllogistic logic. All Atheists are without belief in God, and all Agnostics are without belief in God, but it surely does not follow, either that all Atheists are Agnostics, or that all Agnostics are Atheists. (To see that, try "All members of American Atheists are Atheists" and "All Communists are Atheists".)

Whatever other traps ensnared Natheists, they definitely commit this specific, little-noticed faux pas - definition by negatives. Informal logic teaches that a definition should not be negative where it can be positive. Eminently reasonable advice. Define apple as "not blue, not Martian, not uranium ..." - and, a few trillion negative properties later, you will still be no closer to conveying the idea of what an apple is. Define atheist as "without belief in God" and, while that may be true, it is hardly informative. For the Atheist is also without the beliefs that grass is red, squares have 5 sides, etc. Consequently, the natheistic redefinition only tells us what the Atheist does not believe and fails to convey the essence of Atheism, the positive claims that make it distinctive.

Incidentally, one wonders if the natheistic formula for definitional reconstruction applies to all negative belief statements. When A, confiding in his friend, B, confesses that he doesn't believe in his wife, B might reasonably respond, "So, you think your wife's unfaithful?" But A, having absorbed a little too much natheist rhetoric, replies indignantly, "What? I never said any such thing! I merely meant that I lack the belief that my wife is faithful. That's all." Well, while we may differ on the definition of atheism, surely, we'd all agree that such a conversational exchange would be the very definition of ludicrous.

So many ways to go wrong! These are merely hints at what might have led Natheists astray. Then again, that gamy aroma emanating from Natheism could be the result of having been too long in the stable, putting the cart before the horse. To be sure, Atheists are 'without', 'free of', or 'lacking' belief in God, for the very same reason that we are without belief in statements we consider false. Ordinarily, we do not knowingly incorporate false proposition into our belief systems. Atheists claim that God does not exist; naturally, they do not hold or have the belief that God does exist. Their lack of the latter belief follows from, is a consequence of, their Atheism; not vice-versa. That seems clear enough.

This cart-before-the-horse blunder, essentially a causal fallacy, seems to be a key misstep. For, in general, it is a matter of misplaced emphasis. Emphasis on the believer and his mental state, rather than what is or is not believed. Emphasis on a person's lack of belief rather than the reasons for that lack. Mistaking a consequence of Atheism--lacking the belief that God exists--for the essence/definition of Atheism--the denial that God exists. When we do not have or hold a belief that we understand and know something of, it is usually because we have previously rejected the belief as false or highly improbable. That is, after all, why I don't hold the belief that grass is red.

"Why are you without?" This is the crucial question to pose to Natheists. When one is without a near-universal belief, it is surely fair to ask why. Why is the Natheist lacking the belief that God exists? How come? It would be equally legitimate to ask "Why? of a three-year old child who lacked belief in Santa. (And the child would surely answer that his parents taught him that Santa isn't real.)

When Natheists talk of "freedom from" or "being without" God-beliefs, what do they have in mind? The child of some sturdy Nordic freethinkers in a remote corner of Montana? It's probably not a good idea to base philosophic analysis, or anything else, on an anomaly, a rarity. Our explorations of these tangled concepts should stem from, and apply to, real Atheists in the real world. That isolated child will hear about God the moment he begins the socialization process. He will acquire the term 'God', and, with it, beliefs about God. Given the smothering omnipresence of religion in the contemporary milieu, any adult in the Americas has beliefs about God. Those beliefs will be either theistic, atheistic, or agnostic...

Similarly, intellectuals and sophisticates, pseudo or genuine, often express their disdain for the entire religious scene by ignoring it, by dismissing it as "beneath" them, or calling it "unimportant."

In reflecting on these commonplace cases, it could be tempting to assert that these individuals proceeded directly to a state of lacking God-beliefs, without passing GOd, i.e. without claiming that God does not exist. It seems that they are without God-beliefs, but have never expressly denied the existence of God. They exult in the Atheist life style but cannot remember ever having explicitly declared "God does not exist."

While this may be true in some cases, it misses the point. First, many Atheists can recall some life point at which they did explicitly deny God's existence. But, explicit denial is not necessarily the criterion; implicit denial, implied denial also counts. Whatever is implied is thereby, presupposed. And, we have been attempting to show that being responsibly and securely without the belief that God exists, presupposes having the belief that God does not exist.

The argument - a very simple one - goes something like this: if God, the interactive, wrathful/ loving, punishing/ rewarding, Judeo-Christian-Islamic deity really existed, it would be extremely important. It would be important to ascertain the deity's wishes and commands; important to live by them; important to have the proper religious beliefs. Indeed, if that sort of god existed, it would be the most important fact about life, about reality. I assume everyone would agree.

Now, add the premise that religion and religious beliefs are unimportant, and it is possible and rationally acceptable to be 'without' or 'lacking' them (another way of saying they're unimportant) and it follows, deductively, that God does not exist. This shows, I think, that one cannot casually, safely take the natheistic high-road of freedom from God-beliefs, without presupposing old-fashioned Atheism.

...Here's the analogy: in all cases of any interest to our inquiry, being 'without belief in God' describes Agnosticism, or presupposes Atheism. And if the usual description of God as all-powerful and all-knowing, as well as all-rewarding and all-punishing, is at all accurate, the only way to be comfortably free of god-beliefs is to have made the prior judgment that God is mythical. The nine-year-old child who feels secure in no longer putting out cookies for Santa on Xmas Eve, has, at some prior point, decided Santa is not real. I claim that Natheists must have made the analogous judgment--"God does not exist." For both the child and the Natheist, it is too dangerous to be blithely "lacking" certain beliefs without being pretty sure of the non-existence of the respective entities.

3:06:00 am