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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, January 30, 2005

there's a new kid in town...


He's a real nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
for nobody.

Doesn't have a point of view,
Knows not where he's going to

He's as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see

Atheism and Natheism Part 1 by Tony Pasquarello in the American Atheist, Autumn 2003
...Communication, like energy transfer, is never perfect, but rarely wholly opaque. Notwithstanding all the forces conspiring to consign each of us to a solitary cubicle in that lonely, Babelian Tower, we do sometimes--even most times--communicate. Intentions are made known; understanding happens; meanings get comprehended. Ideas, concepts, feelings, truths... knowledge/s transferred from one person to another.

The fact that communication occurs presupposes a linguistic community wherein words and meanings--those slippery devils--are stabilized for most language users, for a relatively extended period of time. In turn, this must mean that, for each term, there exists an intentional core, a set of concepts that change very slowly, if at all. Thus, the California vintner, the Iowa librarian, and the Jersey farmer can all use the same word to mean, not just 'roughly,' but also 'mainly,' the same thing. The general significance of a term in common usage is community property. It is this basic core meaning that is at issue when we ask for the definition of dog, God, or atheism.

Fortunately, these necessary nuggets of minimal comprehensibility and transmissibility for each term have been collected and compiled in a single, marvelous volume. It's called a dictionary.

I have always been a strong advocate of 'dictionary philosophy,' since the ground rules for any sensible discussion or debate must include preliminary agreement on the meanings of key terms. A good dictionary will list those meanings the ways that language-users are employing the term. If the term is archaic, colloquial, obsolete, regional, slang, etc., a dictionary will say so. If the term is Ambiguous or vague, the dictionary will say so and rank-order meanings based on usage / importance. If a term has widespread, common connotations, they will be noted. Manifestly, it cannot list everything that comes to the mind of each language-user upon hearing the term. It cannot list personal, private associations of individuals or small groups. It cannot list proposals for what a term 'really' means, or 'should have come' to mean...

...I believe a convenient, shorthand term is needed for the new Atheism mentioned at the start -"Atheism means without belief in God." Contracting New Atheism, I got Natheism. The question can now be put "Is Natheism correct?" (While noting that Natheism is not a theory about the contents of reality, but a semantic claim about meaning.) Of course, we note how each of these terms has a slightly different semantic 'aura' about it; that is to be expected in such a vibrant, abundant language...

Two Important Points
Nevertheless, frequent concentration on the ',' the person holding or "believing" a certain theory or claim, rather than the '...ism' the theory or claim itself, often has disastrous results for logical analysis. The difference, the shift in perspective is enormous. We begin to focus, e.g. on the Atheist, and gradually find ourselves talking about the Atheist life-style, the Atheist personality, the Atheist belief system, etc. These are surely legitimate avenues of inquiry, but not when one's goal is to ascertain the nature of Atheism. Subtly but surely, we begin analyzing persons, people. Seldom do we then do serious epistemology, but usually proceed directly to pop psychology. In so doing, we expose ourselves to all the informal fallacies that human reasoning is heir to. This shift in focus is, I claim, the root cause of the muddles and confusions that mark all the expositions of Natheism. Its proponents--and even some opponents--invariably, cannot even articulate what the proposal is, without using the fatally flawed locution "believe in." That virus then infects their entire analyses, through to their dubious conclusions.

II. …Humanism, as befits its aesthetic origins, is primarily a theory about values, morals, proper emphasis; about what is good, or right or important. As such, it is properly classified as a normative, valuational, or ethical theory...

Agnosticism is a claim about what is known or can be known, by individuals or the human mind generally, now or at any time. Or, perhaps it is a cautionary, methodological precept about "asserting more than one knows." Whichever interpretation is taken, Agnosticism is, clearly, to be classified as an epistemological or psychological theory, having to do with knowledge and the human mind.

Natheism, as specified when I coined the term, is a claim about meanings, and thus correctly classified as a semantic or etymological theory.

But now, Atheism, in contradistinction to those three concepts, should be seen as a wholly different ball game. Atheism is, first and foremost, a claim about reality, about the contents of the universe. That claim is that reality does not include the entity normally called "God." In this respect, Atheism is much like heliocentrism, a theory about the relative positions and motions of various bodies in space, not about heliocentrists and their beliefs. Indeed, it would be a correct or true description of this solar system even if there were no heliocentrists, and never had been any.

Precisely the same point can be made for Atheism. It would be true that 'God' does not exist even if no Atheist had ever existed. Atheism is about the objective facts of reality. The other major theories are necessarily linked to people, their language, thought processes, behavior, etc. Clearly, it would be absurd to say that humanism would still be true even if there were no humans or humanists.

This radical, categorical distinction between Atheism and other terms is vital in grasping what Atheism means essentially, and this distinction is obscured--or lost--in the attempt to change Atheism to Natheism. Ultimately, that strategy attempts to revise and redefine Atheism as a sort of Agnosticism; in so doing, it abandons the essence of what Atheism is all about. Atheism is a metaphysical or ontological claim about what's out there; in that respect, it is much like science.

Where Was Your Head?
...In the preceding, I've used the term "Atheism" many times. What did you, the reader, think of on all those occasions? Be honest. What did it mean to you?

If my hunches are correct, you first thought, not of Atheism, but of Atheists. Maybe Madalyn Murray O'Hair or Michael Newdow; Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, or Tom Flynn. Or, for the more classically oriented, you had fleeting thoughts of Voltaire, Hume, Holbach; Lucretius or even Socrates. I'd bet my piano that you didn't think of the tot next door, the newborn down the street, the wolf-boy discovered on that remote Pacific island, the ne'er-do-well in the next block who never had a serious thought in his life.

Well, why not? According to Natheism, they are all genuine Atheists, since they're all "without belief in God." But, what really happened was that you automatically grasped my usage of the term 'Atheism' because I employed the standard, accepted meaning. You thought of prominent figures who had grappled with religious issues, done some analyses, weighed the logical considerations. Perhaps some shattering, inexplicable evil jarred them into pondering the matter of deities. Eventually, they arrived at the considered conclusion that 'God' does not exist. For what it's worth, the fact that you understood what I was expressing demonstrates that Natheism is at best, misguided, and at worst, wrong.

The Authorities Speak
Atheism--disbelief in or denial of the existence of God. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: New College Edition).
Atheism--the belief that there is no God, or denial that God or gods exist.
(Webster's New World Dictionary: Second College Edition).

Atheism--1, the doctrine or belief that there is no God. 2. disbelief in the existence of God or gods. (Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary).

Atheism--1a) disbelief in the existence of God or any other deity. b) the doctrine that there is neither God nor any other deity. (Webster's Third New International Dictionary--Unabridged)

I would hope that the complete unanimity of four dictionaries sufrices. Notice that there is no hint of Natheism or natheistic revisionism. Although some are flawed by use of the "believe in" locution, nevertheless the intent is clear, and is made clear by alternative wordings that specify the "denial" that God exists, or "doctrine" that there is no God.

None of these definitions remotely suggests that Atheism is merely freedom from God-beliefs. And the definitions reprinted here are the first, primary entries under atheism, not some tertiary, obscure meaning.

I suppose, that, like chicken soup, it cannot hurt to cite one small, encyclopedic reference:

Atheism--denial of the existence of God or gods, and of any supernatural existence ... (The New Columbia Encyclopedia).

Again, perfect agreement with the dictionaries. Now, lest someone raise the cavil that the dictionaries reflect common usage for ordinary terms, but atheism is a specialized, technical term of philosophic discoarse, let us cite what is widely held to be the most authoritative reference work in philosophy:

Atheism--(from Greek a-, 'not', and theos, 'god'), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one. [emphasis mine] (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy; Robert Audi, ed.)

Here, the citation does indeed reference Natheism as a "widely used sense," the very phenomenon that spurred the writing of this and, probably, future articles. But note that Natheism is summarily dismissed as a marginal meaning of atheism; unquestionably not the standard use. It is also noted that Natheism is "consistent with Agnosticism." I hope to show that it is agnosticism; that its proponents have been beguiled by the epistemic twist given the definition of Atheism and unwittingly equated Atheism and Agnosticism.

I don't think that the presence of this entry implies that "atheism" is a purely technical term of the philosophic discipline. On the contrary, it is an ordinary language term comprehended by the overwhelming majority of language-users. In addition to that widespread, standard usage, some philosophically minded thinkers, concentrating on the psychology of belief, and swayed by the vagueness of 'believe in,' produced the convoluted monstrosity, Natheism. However, this philosophic dictionary leaves no doubt that "atheism" means the "belief that there is no God."

...Ernest Nagel, the "preeminent American philosopher of science" of the mid-20th century spoke directly to the point at issue:

"I shall understand by 'Atheism' a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism ... Atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief, ... Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist--for he is not denying any theistic claims. Similarly in the case of an adult who, if he has withdrawn from the faith of his fathers without reflection or because of frank indifference to any theological issue, is also not an atheist--for such an adult is not challenging theism and is not professing any views on the subject." (E. Nagel, from Basic Beliefs: The Religious Philosophies of Mankind, J. E. Fairchild, ed.)

Penultimate Point
...It has been shown--conclusively, I think--that Atheism is the theory, claim, position ... that God does not exist. It is an ontology that denies genuine reality to the Deity, or indeed, any deity, as usually conceived. The semantic corollary is obvious: Atheism means or signifies, at this time and place, what Atheism is. An 'Atheist' is a person who, with some measure of deliberation, has consciously adopted that position. These conclusions hold whether 'atheism' is classified as a term of ordinary language--which it most certainly is--or a specialized term of philosophic discourse. The reference works of both realms concur. Enough said...

2:33:00 am