Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

WLC insists that I am not an Atheist

I do not believe that any gods exist. As such, I usually self-identify as an Atheist. When asked about my beliefs, the word “atheist” offers a simple, one-word answer which is generally understood by those with whom I’m conversing. When I tell someone that I am an atheist, they usually understand it to mean that I do not attend a Church, Synagogue, or Mosque; that I do not cleave to any sacred texts, doctrines, or dogma; and that I do not believe in any gods. Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, however, disagrees with me, rather vehemently.  According to Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast, this week, the fact that I do not believe in any gods is completely irrelevant. He insists that I should not be calling myself an Atheist.

The reason for Dr. Craig’s assertion is a difference in our definition of terms. Generally, when people like me utilize the word “atheist,” we mean “one who does not believe in the existence of gods.”  However, Dr. Craig insists that this definition is a departure from the word’s more traditional usage in philosophy, which was to describe “one who believes gods do not exist.” At first glance, you may not see much of a difference between those two definitions– especially if you are unused to the rigor of philosophical argument.  But there is a difference, and while it is subtle, the difference is very important. In Dr. Craig’s mind, a person should not be described as an atheist unless they are directly asserting that God does not exist. However, according to the definition which I prefer, a person doesn’t necessarily claim that gods do not exist– gods may or may not exist, regardless of whether the person in question believes that they exist.

I’m sure that this difference is somewhat confusing, at first, so allow me an analogy to help explain.  Let’s say that we have a big, glass jar which is completely filled with sand.  You don’t know much about the jar, besides these facts.  For example, you don’t have access to precise measurements of the jar’s dimensions, or knowledge of where the sand originated.  Now, let’s say that a friend– who has just as little information about the jar as you have– walks up to you and claims that, if you counted all of the grains of sand in that jar, you would come up with an even number.  You do not believe your friend.  This, of course, does not mean that you believe that there are an odd number of grains in that jar.  Despite the fact that there must be either an even number of grains, or else an odd number, your lack of belief in one does not indicate a positive belief in the other.

Belief in gods is similar. A god either exists, or else it does not exist.  A person who doesn’t believe that the god exists does not necessarily claim that the god doesn’t exist; just as a person who doesn’t believe there are an even number of grains of sand is not necessarily claiming that there are an odd number of grains of sand.

So, getting back to the definition of the word “atheism,” Dr. Craig would reserve the usage of this word only for those people who are directly claiming that gods do not exist.  According to him, people like me are wrong to apply this word with the broader sense that we do. He asserts that we are attempting to “redefine” the word, and that the more “traditional” meaning is the proper one. Unfortunately for Dr. Craig, his concentration on semantics is entirely pedantic.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that I agree to abandon my current definition of “atheist” and instead adopt the one proposed by Dr. Craig. Nothing of any real substance has actually changed in my beliefs or arguments; we’ve simply agreed to label them differently. If I have a bottle, and we agree to change the label from saying “Whiskey” to read “Alcohol,” does that have any effect on the contents of the bottle? None, at all! In the same way, regardless of whether I refer to myself as an “atheist” or a “non-theist,” nothing has changed in my actual beliefs, nor in the arguments which I make. The whole debate over the definition of “atheist” simply sidesteps all of the actual claims which are being made by the self-described atheists whom Dr. Craig targets in his podcast.

Why, then, does Dr. Craig so vehemently insist upon the use of his preferred definition over any other? In his own work, he is free to define his terms as he likes.  However, when engaging in dialogue with someone who says, “I am an atheist, and this is what I mean by atheist,” what good does it do for Dr. Craig to insist that their definition is incorrect?  He has not addressed any of their actual positions. Worse yet, arguing against the claims made by one who actively denies the existence of gods is a straw man when debating someone who hasn’t made any such claims. The entire line of argument, from Dr. Craig, just seems completely irrelevant.

That, of course, begs the question of why I prefer the definition which I utilize.  I’m fairly certain that Dr. Craig and I would agree on our definition of a “theist,” a word which I use to mean “one who believes in the existence of a god or gods.”  In my argumentation, then, it is useful for me to have a word which represents the logical negation of that position– that is, a word which describes someone who is not a theist. Since the word “theist” comes to us from Greek, and since Greek has a natural method of ascribing negation by use of the prefix “a-,” I therefore utilize the word “atheist” for that purpose. So, just as I would describe something which does not adhere to any certain “morphology” as “amorphous,” and just as I would describe something which disagrees with “chronology” to be “anachronistic,” so would I also describe someone who is not a “theist” as an “atheist.”

The most ridiculous part of Dr. Craig’s podcast comes near the end.  Here, Dr. Craig goes on a tirade about how “atheism” becomes over-broad when using the definition which I prefer.  He calls it a “clumsy, ham-fisted term” and complains that such a definition could be applied to atheists (as he defines them), agnostics, non-cognitivists, babies, chimps, and even doors, because all of these things lack a belief in gods.  Of course, Dr. Craig neglects to realize that the term which he, himself, uses to refer to anyone that is not a theist, “non-theist,” also suffers from this same sort of broadness. He also fails to mention that the term “theist” is, itself, very broadly defined, and encapsulates such disparate positions as monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism. Furthermore, even if the definition which I utilize can be applied to all of these other things, Dr. Craig’s only stated reason for opposing such broadness is that he prefers the traditional definitions– a fairly circuitous argument, if ever there was one.

William Lane Craig insists that I am not an atheist, but rather a non-theist.  I don’t care.  If he would prefer to describe me as a non-theist, he is free to do so. That does not change the fact that I do not believe his claims that a god exists, neither does it address any of the reasons why I do not believe his claims.

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16 thoughts on “WLC insists that I am not an Atheist

  1. Next time the man gets onto your nerves tell him this –

    “if you start viewing your own religion with as much doubt as you view the religion of others, you too would be an atheist.”

    Loved your post 🙂

    • That sentiment is exactly the reason that I, myself, am no longer Christian. When I realized that the skepticism which I applied everywhere else in my life was being sidestepped where religious matters were concerned, I tried something new. I started from a clean slate and attempted to provide myself with the evidence which would prove my Christian hypotheses.

      Ironically, it was my interest in apologetics which led to my atheism.

  2. Ignostic Atheist on said:

    Oddly enough, I’ll be on Craig’s side for this one. It comes down to your idea that believing there is no god is a claim that there is proof of no god. It’s not. A person can hold any belief without proof. What you need to ask yourself, though, is if it is even possible for a person to hold a neutral belief when confronted with the existence of a concept. I say no, the concept is either inconsequential, or you trust the messenger, and then believe, or it is unusual and requires significant evidence, or the messenger is an asshole, and so you don’t believe. Beliefs, of course, are subject to change, so it’s not as though you have to phrase it to last; you just say what is. I do not attend a Church, Synagogue, or Mosque, I do not cleave to any sacred texts, doctrines, or dogma, because I believe there are no gods. If given sufficient reason to alter this outlook, my belief will change.

    Naturally, this isn’t quite what Craig hopes for. He would prefer you think of it as a claim of knowledge. The defense of a belief which is summarized by, “I think your position is wrong,” consists of showing inconsistencies, illogic, and, if available, contrary evidence. The very same defense which has always been used to defend non-belief. If the concept has insufficient valid evidence to support it, it is surely acceptable to believe that those who propose it are wrong.

    I’d pull out an invisible telepathic vending machine analogy (what the hell, in orbit between Earth and Mars), but I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

  3. It’s actually a brilliant debating tactic on Craig’s part.

    To begin with, it functionally defines atheists out of existence – if you can only be an atheist if you think you have positive disproof of any deity, then, it follows, you cannot be an atheist unless you have positive disproof of all claimed and deities which could possibly be claimed in the future. Otherwise, one could always say “Sure, you don’t believe in the 10,731 gods we’ve studied so far, but there are more. Have you disproven them, too?” So, there, Craig gets to claim a win (if his opponent isn’t on the ball); you’re either a theist, or you just have to throw your arms up in the air and say, as we scuff our heels in the dirt, “gorsh shucks ma’am, I reckon we just dun know nuthin’!”

    It’s also an absurdly effective method at shifting the burden of proof. If the only way someone can argue counter to your position is to falsify a universal negative that is neither testable nor falsifiable, the burden of proof has been well and truly shifted and the god hypothesis becomes the null hypothesis. Its rhetorical chicanery at its finest.

    • It’s rhetorical misdirection, more than anything else. It’s like a stage magician calling your attention to his right hand while he performs the trick with his left.

      If Dr. Craig wants to insist that I am misappropriating the term “atheist,” then I’ll say, “Fine! I’ll use your term, instead: I am a non-theist. Either way, I still don’t believe your claims about God.”

    • Not true. Craig appeals firstly to the philosopher’s God, of which there cannot be 10,731 possiabilisites. It is only via further argument that he makes a case for the Judeo-Christian God.

      • There can be as many “philosphers’ god” as there are philosophers. That’s one of the benefits of making things up that aren’t empirically testable – any unsubstantiated claim is just as good as the next.

        And yes, there can be quite a few more than 10,731 possibilities. Off the top of my head, here are five main varieties: theist, deist, pantheist, panentheist, and Gnostic.

        And, of course, the term “god” is, for most folks, like the phrase “the President of the United States”. You can have very, very different characters who still occupy the role simply by it being their title.

        10,731 was somewhat flippant on my part. The number is, in fact, infinite, because I or anybody else can simply add on another characteristic to the claimed deity. The limits of any claimed deities are bound the same way that the number line is – you can always add +1 to any number, and you can always another claimed trait/action/commandment/etc…

        The set of potentially claimed deities is infinite, just like the number line.

        But, of course, the whole point is WLC’s misdirection, which is similar to yours. Catch an advocate of a personal god in a contradiction? Well, their personal god doesn’t work the way you thought it did, so whoops, you were busy refuting a god that they don’t actually believe in. How very fortunate – a moving target that’s also invisible.

      • What is it that you find to be “not true?”

        Whether or not Dr. Craig is appealing to the “philosophers’ god” is entirely irrelevant to the question of my definition for atheism; nor does it change the fact that I do not believe Dr. Craig’s claims about the existence of deity.

  4. It strikes me that the difference in definitions is huge: “lack of belief in existence” is a subjective state of being and offers no reason to others to follow suit; “belief in non-existence” points toward an objective state of affairs. When I cross a street, I believe in the non-existence of any vehicles which will turn me into a stain on the pavement. Likewise, an atheist who wishes to evangelize—to spread his/her atheism—must surely be attempting to talk about an objective state of affairs. Otherwise you would be reduced to getting other people to agree that chocolate ice cream is superior to all other flavors, and I don’t think you intend that.

    Some wiggle-room occurs because there are gods which could exist but be simultaneously irrelevant to the vast majority of human action and thought. When crossing the street, I can consider that there may be a car moving along the street outside of my childhood home. However, such a car would be irrelevant to my decision to cross the street. So, the position you seem to want to advance is that you looked in the relevant places and ways for a god, didn’t find one, and think that others ought to come to the same conclusion. Is this an erroneous inference on my part?

    • …an atheist who wishes to evangelize—to spread his/her atheism—must surely be attempting to talk about an objective state of affairs…

      So, the position you seem to want to advance is that you looked in the relevant places and ways for a god, didn’t find one, and think that others ought to come to the same conclusion. Is this an erroneous inference on my part?

      It is, indeed, erroneous. I have absolutely no intention of “evangelizing” or spreading atheism, any more than I intend to spread a lack of belief in elves or wights or jotuns or the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

      The only thing for which I can be said to be an “evangelist” is sound, logical argumentation. I honestly don’t care whether a person self-describes as a theist, an atheist, a panentheist, or what-have-you. I care about the arguments which that person gives in support of their position. If those arguments are bad, it doesn’t matter to me whether that person believes in deity or not, I will point out that they are bad arguments (as I do with fellow atheists Hemant Mehta and Richard Carrier, for example).

      • I care about the arguments which that person gives in support of their position.

        I had guessed that you believe that if one engages in “sound, logical argumentation”, on matters having to do with the existence of god(s) relevant to human affairs, one would emerge an atheist. Do you not in fact believe this?

        • I had guessed that you believe that if one engages in “sound, logical argumentation”, on matters having to do with the existence of god(s) relevant to human affairs, one would emerge an atheist. Do you not in fact believe this?

          I do not believe that sound, logical argumentation leads necessarily to atheism. It is entirely possible that one could hold a theistic position based on this criterion. This is precisely the reason that I like to engage with theistic apologists– if a sound, logical argument for theism exists, I am most likely to encounter it through them.

          • “necessarily” seems to be the wrong word—that would indicate the kind of certainty that most philosophers agree we don’t actually have. How high is your confidence that there is no human-relevant god, and is this confidence part of the concept ‘atheist’, as you use it?

          • “necessarily” seems to be the wrong word—that would indicate the kind of certainty that most philosophers agree we don’t actually have.

            It’s not the wrong word, in the least, and there are a great many things upon which philosophers agree we can be certain. For example, all philosophers will likely agree that the Postulates and Definitions of Euclid lead necessarily to the Pythagorean Theorem.

            I do not believe that sound logic leads necessarily to atheism. It is entirely possible that there is some sound argument for the existence of deity of which I am simply unaware.

            How high is your confidence that there is no human-relevant god, and is this confidence part of the concept ‘atheist’, as you use it?

            That depends entirely by what you mean by “god.” Without a good definition of that word, I obviously cannot ascribe any meaningful level of confidence as to a “god’s” existence; and I would not presume to define the word myself, as I do not want to knock down a Straw Man.

          • It’s not the wrong word, in the least, and there are a great many things upon which philosophers agree we can be certain. For example, all philosophers will likely agree that the Postulates and Definitions of Euclid lead necessarily to the Pythagorean Theorem.

            Remove the realm of mathematics (where one need only be concerned with validity of arguments, and not soundness) and how much certainty can one have?

            That depends entirely by what you mean by “god.” Without a good definition of that word, I obviously cannot ascribe any meaningful level of confidence as to a “god’s” existence; and I would not presume to define the word myself, as I do not want to knock down a Straw Man.

            Can we start with your own definition, given that you depend on the term ‘god’ having meaning in the first sentence of your blog post? “I do not believe that any gods exist.” I myself said “human-relevant god”, to exclude the boring class of deities which had nothing to do with the properties of our physical reality and do not interact with it in a way we could possibly detect.

            We could get more interesting and consider the concept of the noble lie, as dramatically portrayed in the Star Trek DS9 episode In the Pale Moonlight. Does our reality exhibit the property that sometimes you have to do evil “for the greater good”? On the traditional Christian view of God, the answer is “no”. Morality is not merely a façade behind which pure power is exercised, as Nietzsche argued. Instead, reality itself has certain moral properties, properties which are extraordinarily unlikely to have obtained if the origin of our reality was mindless.

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