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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22 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.

  5. Tyler Scollo on said:

    “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.”

    According to you, atheism is just a report of your doxastic experience. But traditionally, Craig is right. Atheism means more than a mere report of your doxastic experience; it’s a doxastic experience that includes the assertion that God or gods do not exist. You’re merely including a necessary condition for atheism; the sufficient condition is the assertion of the non-existence of God or gods. If you keep the necessary, without the sufficient, condition, then babies and beasts are atheists, which is absurd. You think Craig is ridiculous for suggesting this, but your reasons for thinking it’s ridiculous are ridiculous.

    “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.”

    Seriously? The change is only the difference between making a metaphysical assertion or not. That’s a huge change.

    “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?”

    Analogy completely begs the question. The contents of the bottles are different; in one bottle is the whiskey of mere doxastic reportage, the latter is the rum of doxastic reportage and an existential, metaphysical claim.

    “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.”

    Because it’s good to be precise with terminology. He hasn’t addressed their actual positions? Seriously?

    “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.”

    Well, that’s why he’s precise with the terms. So, he doesn’t argue against a straw man. You’re the one muddying up the waters. He simply wants you to drop the label ‘atheist’, so you can be someone who isn’t making claims. He’s totally okay with this. That’s more of an agnostic position, since ‘absence of belief’ means ‘absence of an ingredient that is necessary for knowledge’.

    “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.””

    Yea, what’s wrong with this? This definition of ‘theist’ would parallel the atheist definition of one who believes that god or gods don’t exist, rather than your view which is the one who doesn’t believe in God’s existence.

    “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.””

    Nope. The negation of theist is non-theist, since, as you just argued, theist means the belief in the existence of god or gods, not the unbelief in the non-existence of god or gods. If you make atheist mean the unbelief in God’s existence, instead of the belief in God’s non-existence, your antonymic pair is no longer antonymic.

    “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.”

    This is what is implied by your re-definition, as I mentioned above. I’m glad you’re confident in the ‘ridiculousness’ of it. You sound so objective. Let’s see what your amazing rebuttal is.

    “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.”

    Nope. Ridiculously wrong. A theist isn’t merely the report of a doxastic state, it’s also the affirmation of the existence of God.

    “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.”

    Easy to poke at someone doing a podcast. I’ll be more charitable. They aren’t ‘disparate’ in the sense that the affirmation of the existence of god or gods is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for theism. Well, that was easy.

    “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.”

    But it WOULD change the fact that you DON’T affirm the NON-EXISTENCE of god or gods. That’s why precision with terms is important. If you merely disbelieve in the existence of god or gods, you haven’t assumed a burden of proof, and the conversation can have its point of departure at the point where you have whatever reason for not accepting theistic claims.

    So, I see absolutely no reason to think that Craig is off the mark at all.

    • According to you, atheism is just a report of your doxastic experience. But traditionally, Craig is right.

      I completely agree that the word “atheist” has been used to describe the assertion that gods do not exist. Prior to that, it had been used in other ways– for example, ancient Greek and Roman authors referred to Christians as “atheists,” because they denied all gods but their own. The meanings of words quite often change over time, which is why I think we should be clear about the manner in which we use them. Hence, the entire thrust of my article.

      If you keep the necessary, without the sufficient, condition, then babies and beasts are atheists, which is absurd.

      I see no reason to think that this is absurd. Dr. Craig suggests an alternate term, “non-theist,” to encapsulate both those who assert gods do not exist and those who simply lack belief in gods. Dr. Craig’s phrase would also apply to babies and beasts. Does that make it absurd?

      Seriously? The change is only the difference between making a metaphysical assertion or not. That’s a huge change.

      You misunderstand. If I abandon my definition for “atheism,” and adopt Dr. Craig’s definition, none of the positions which I hold are altered or changed in any way. The only thing that changes is that I cease to call myself an “atheist.” I’m still not asserting that gods do not exist. I still lack a belief in any gods. The arguments which Dr. Craig poses against atheists, under his definition, still don’t address my positions, at all.

      Because it’s good to be precise with terminology. He hasn’t addressed their actual positions? Seriously?

      I agree that it is good to be precise with terminology, which is why I explicitly noted that the person in question precisely defined their terms. So, yes, Dr. Craig pedantically insisting on particular semantics does nothing to address their actual positions.

      Yea, what’s wrong with this?

      Nothing at all, which is precisely why I noted that Dr. Craig and I are in agreement on that point.

      If you make atheist mean the unbelief in God’s existence, instead of the belief in God’s non-existence, your antonymic pair is no longer antonymic.

      How do you figure? On the definitions I prefer, a “theist” is one who believes in the existence of deity, while an “atheist” is one who does not believe in the existence of deity. In what way is that not antonymic?

      Nope. Ridiculously wrong. A theist isn’t merely the report of a doxastic state, it’s also the affirmation of the existence of God.

      So the term “non-theist” doesn’t equally apply to atheists (as he defines them), agnostics, non-cognitivists, babies, chimps, and even doors, because all of these things lack a belief in gods?

      Easy to poke at someone doing a podcast. I’ll be more charitable. They aren’t ‘disparate’ in the sense that the affirmation of the existence of god or gods is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for theism. Well, that was easy.

      I was addressing the definition which was presented. However, if you want to argue that “theist” has sufficient conditions which are not met by polytheists, pantheists, and panentheists, then the term “non-theist” becomes even more broad, and even begins to include those who actually do believe in the existence of deity.

      But it WOULD change the fact that you DON’T affirm the NON-EXISTENCE of god or gods.

      It doesn’t change that fact at all. I didn’t affirm the non-existence of god or gods before. I don’t affirm the non-existence of god or gods now. I would not affirm the non-existence of god or gods if we were operating on some other possible definition for the word “atheist.”

      Labels DESCRIBE the positions held by a person. They do not PRESCRIBE those positions.

      If you merely disbelieve in the existence of god or gods, you haven’t assumed a burden of proof, and the conversation can have its point of departure at the point where you have whatever reason for not accepting theistic claims.

      I merely disbelieve in the existence of god or gods. Now, we agree that the conversation should turn to whatever reasons I might have for not accepting theistic claims. Instead, Dr. Craig seems to want to focus of semantics.

  6. Tyler Scollo on said:

    “The meanings of words quite often change over time, which is why I think we should be clear about the manner in which we use them. Hence, the entire thrust of my article.”

    Isn’t that what Craig was trying to do? He’s trying to be clear about the manner in which we use the terms atheist and non-theist.

    Your example about Christian atheists only substantiates his point. Christian atheists affirmed the non-existence of pagan gods. They didn’t just disbelieve in the existence of the pagan gods. If they merely disbelieved in the existence of the pagan gods, then they’re Christian non-theists. Easy!

    “Dr. Craig suggests an alternate term, “non-theist,” to encapsulate both those who assert gods do not exist and those who simply lack belief in gods.”

    What? Craig is saying that a non-theist is one who disbelieves in the existence god or gods, and an atheist is one who affirms the non-existence of god or gods.

    Don’t you see the difference between,

    1. The disbelief in the existence of X (non-theist)

    and

    2. The belief in X’s non-existence (atheist)

    “Dr. Craig’s phrase would also apply to babies and beasts. Does that make it absurd?”

    Yes. It’s absurd to say that babies and beasts report doxastic states such as their disbelief in god or gods. But if it’s merely a “lack” of a doxastic state, then, sure, babies and beasts would be non-theists. That’s absurd. So, it’s not just a lack; it’s the ‘report’ of a lack.

    “If I abandon my definition for “atheism,” and adopt Dr. Craig’s definition, none of the positions which I hold are altered or changed in any way.”

    This is completely beside the point. Keep the positions which you hold! By all means! The point is the reasons for your positions will change relative to whether you’re adopting atheism or non-theism. If you’re a non-theist, all you’re doing is providing reasons for why you don’t accept theistic claims. You don’t have a burden of proof at all. If you’re an atheist, you’re providing reasons for why you do accept atheistic claims.

    “The only thing that changes is that I cease to call myself an “atheist.” I’m still not asserting that gods do not exist. I still lack a belief in any gods. The arguments which Dr. Craig poses against atheists, under his definition, still don’t address my positions, at all.”

    Right. That’s all Craig’s point is. Atheism is totally different than non-theism. If you’re not making any positive affirmations, and you’re just reporting the doxastic state of your lack of belief, then that’s cool! You assume no burden of proof and your ‘positions’ can remain the same if your positions only involved reasons for not accepting theistic claims. That’s it.

    I don’t know what arguments Craig poses against atheists you’re talking about. The problem of evil? What? And if all of Craig’s arguments against atheists are in the context of those who are providing reasons for the affirmation about God’s non-existence, then just deal with the simple fact that you’re not involved whatever Craig is saying to them. But are you really prepared to assert that Craig has never interacted with those who provide reasons for not accepting theistic claims?

    “So, yes, Dr. Craig pedantically insisting on particular semantics does nothing to address their actual positions.”

    How in the world is this pedantic? If that’s pedantic, then making distinctions between any position is pedantic. Distinctions sufficient for assuming the burden of proof, sufficient for making an affirmation regarding the non-existence of something as opposed to merely reporting the doxastic state of a lack of belief, are not pedantic distinctions. It’s called clarity of thought.

    “How do you figure? On the definitions I prefer, a “theist” is one who believes in the existence of deity, while an “atheist” is one who does not believe in the existence of deity. In what way is that not antonymic?”

    Because the antonym is between doxastic states, not affirmations regarding the existence or non-existence of something. A theist is one who believes in the existence of a deity; a “non-theist” is one who does not believe in the existence of a deity. An ATHEIST is one who affirms the non-existence of the deity. Or, belief IN the non-existence of the deity.

    Again, there is a difference between

    1. I believe in the existence of X (theist)
    2. I believe in the non-existence of X (atheist)
    3. I do not believe in the existence of X (non-theist)

    1 and 2 are not antonyms; 1 and 3 are. 1 and 2 overlap only in doxastic reportage; they are both belief-states. 1 and 3 are antonyms because their respective doxastic reports are antonyms.

    “So the term “non-theist” doesn’t equally apply to atheists (as he defines them), agnostics, non-cognitivists, babies, chimps, and even doors, because all of these things lack a belief in gods?”

    I have no idea what you’re saying here. Yes, all these categories would fall under non-theist if, as I said above, non-theist is a mere lack of belief; it can’t be that, because it would be absurd to say all those categories are non-theists. It’s more a ‘report’ of a lack.

    “However, if you want to argue that “theist” has sufficient conditions which are not met by polytheists, pantheists, and panentheists, then the term “non-theist” becomes even more broad, and even begins to include those who actually do believe in the existence of deity.”

    Did I say that? I think I said polytheist, pantheist, and panentheists all share necessary conditions with theism generally, not that theism has sufficient conditions that aren’t met by such theisms. So, how in the world could non-theists believe in the existence of deities if non-theism is the ‘report’ of a lack of a belief in such deities?

    “It doesn’t change that fact at all. I didn’t affirm the non-existence of god or gods before. I don’t affirm the non-existence of god or gods now. I would not affirm the non-existence of god or gods if we were operating on some other possible definition for the word “atheist.””

    Cool. Then you’re not an atheist. You’re a non-theist.

    “Labels DESCRIBE the positions held by a person. They do not PRESCRIBE those positions.”

    That depends, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it muddy the waters if I just used the label “atheist” is describe my position as the belief in the existence of god or gods? Wouldn’t it muddy the waters if I used the label ‘tree’ to describe my position regarding televisions? When the usages of language are sufficiently cemented into the lexicon of discourse, then there is a prescription to the labels used, even if such ‘usages’ where ‘initially’ descriptions.

    “I merely disbelieve in the existence of god or gods. Now, we agree that the conversation should turn to whatever reasons I might have for not accepting theistic claims. Instead, Dr. Craig seems to want to focus of semantics.”

    Okay . . . he focused on the semantics to frame the debate in a podcast episode dedicated to this particular question. After the framing is established, one can know whether or not he’s talking to an atheist or a non-theist, which helps to go about the conversation.

    Great! If you just disbelieve, you’re a non-theist. Easy as that. Craig would be more than happy to shift from this semantic distinction to whatever reasons you have for not accepting theistic claims. If someone made a podcast episode on what basketball is, and why someone playing basketball isn’t a baseball player, how in the world is it pedantic to make distinctions between basketball and baseball, and how in the world does that mean that the podcaster wouldn’t be willing to discuss reasons for why someone might not accept claims that basketball is better than baseball? What would you say to someone who objected that the terms ‘basketball’ and ‘baseball’ are just descriptions of positions held by the person, rather than prescribed words for entrenched usages of the lexicon reflecting different social phenomena?

    • Isn’t that what Craig was trying to do?

      No. He is responding to people who have already clearly defined the terms which they are using by attempting to introduce an altogether separate definition for those same terms. This does not clarify anything. Rather, it muddies the waters of the conversation and turns a discussion to one of semantics rather than one of substance.

      Your example about Christian atheists only substantiates his point. Christian atheists affirmed the non-existence of pagan gods. They didn’t just disbelieve in the existence of the pagan gods.

      Except that “atheist” was also used, in the same time period, by pagans against other pagans to mean something very similar to “blasphemer” or “heretic.” These “atheists” did not affirm the non-existence of any gods– quite the contrary, they believed in the gods existence. They simply worshiped those gods differently (or not at all). This usage continued through the fall of the Roman Empire into the Christian era, and continued to be used– even by Christians– well past the Middle Ages. This is the manner in which the term “atheist” was utilized for millennia. The definition which Dr. Craig prefers is not all that much older or more traditional than the one employed by modern, self-described atheists.

      What? Craig is saying that a non-theist is one who disbelieves in the existence god or gods, and an atheist is one who affirms the non-existence of god or gods.

      I’m not sure how this is meant to be a disagreement with what I said.

      How in the world is this pedantic? If that’s pedantic, then making distinctions between any position is pedantic.

      Dr. Craig isn’t making distinctions between any positions, when he insists on this semantic argument. The other conversant has already clearly defined his position. Dr. Craig is sidestepping a discussion of that position and merely disagreeing with the label which the conversant uses to describe that position. This is pedantic.

      Because the antonym is between doxastic states, not affirmations regarding the existence or non-existence of something.

      So, it is antonymic, but it isn’t antonymic in the way you would like it to be.

      Yes, all these categories would fall under non-theist if, as I said above, non-theist is a mere lack of belief; it can’t be that, because it would be absurd to say all those categories are non-theists.

      Why would that be absurd? You’ve offered nothing but your bald assertion in support of such a point.

      The phrase “married bachelor” is absurd. It contains an inherent contradiction derived directly from the definitions of the two words involved. The phrase “the greatest Natural number” is absurd. An exploration of the properties of Natural numbers reveals that it is not possible to choose one which is greater than all the others– so, again, the phrase is a contradiction in terms. If “non-theist” or “atheist” merely describe a lack of belief, then there is no contradiction in terms to say, “this chimp is a non-theist” or “this baby is an atheist.”

      Unless you are not using “absurd” in the sense of its actual meaning in Logic, and are instead using it colloquially to simply indicate something with which you disagree…

      So, how in the world could non-theists believe in the existence of deities if non-theism is the ‘report’ of a lack of a belief in such deities?

      So rather that “non-theist” simply referring to “a person who is not a theist,” as nearly every person on the planet would utilize the phrase, you are suggesting that we redefine the term to mean “one who reports a lack of belief in deity.” However, you still stand firmly against other people using a definition for “atheist” which disagrees with a more common usage. You realize that this is inconsistent, right?

      Cool. Then you’re not an atheist. You’re a non-theist.

      On the definitions which you and Dr. Craig prefer, certainly. If I were to engage with some work which Dr. Craig had written in which he says, “I’m going to deal with atheist arguments, and this is what I mean by atheist,” I would not pedantically insist that he utilize my preferred definition, instead. In fact, I have upbraided several other self-described atheist friends and acquaintances of mine for doing exactly that. Instead, I would simply note that Dr. Craig’s arguments do not necessarily address my position because– despite using the same word– we are discussing two different things, entirely.

      Similarly, if Dr. Craig is responding to some work in which a person says, “I am an atheist, and this is what I mean by atheist,” I would expect Dr. Craig to actually address the positions which that person lays out. I would not expect him to engage in a trite argument about definitions instead of actually addressing that person’s positions.

      That depends, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it muddy the waters if I just used the label “atheist” is describe my position as the belief in the existence of god or gods? Wouldn’t it muddy the waters if I used the label ‘tree’ to describe my position regarding televisions?

      Even in such an instance, the label still DESCRIBES your position. It does not PRESCRIBE your position. You begin with a position, then find a word with which to label it. Nobody first applies a label to themselves, then changes all of their positions to fit with the accepted definition of that label.

      If someone made a podcast episode on what basketball is, and why someone playing basketball isn’t a baseball player, how in the world is it pedantic to make distinctions between basketball and baseball?

      Sports actually gives us a far better example, since we’re talking about people utilizing the same word in two different ways.

      Let’s imagine an Englishman who is trying to discuss the greatest football players in history. Now, along comes an American who insists that those people cannot be the greatest football players in history, because they do not play football. They play soccer. The Englishman has laid out his positions clearly, and explained why he thinks each player under discussion is the best football has had to offer. Does the American’s argument do anything to actually address the Englishman’s positions? Does it further the discussion in any meaningful way? Or is it simply argumentative and pedantic?

      • Tyler Scollo on said:

        “No. He is responding to people who have already clearly defined the terms which they are using by attempting to introduce an altogether separate definition for those same terms. This does not clarify anything.”

        It may be a clear definition, but it leads to absurdity. Babies, beasts, and inanimate objects would be atheists. And the motive is a discarding of the burden of proof.

        “Rather, it muddies the waters of the conversation and turns a discussion to one of semantics rather than one of substance.”

        Why in the world couldn’t semantic discussions be substantive? In this case, it is. Adopting the term ‘atheism’ for the mere lack of a belief in god or gods is absurd. Babies, beasts, and inanimate objects would be atheists. It’s absurd. Pointing this out is substantive, not pedantic or trite or argumentative.

        “Except that “atheist” was also used, in the same time period, by pagans against other pagans to mean something very similar to “blasphemer” or “heretic.” These “atheists” did not affirm the non-existence of any gods– quite the contrary, they believed in the gods existence. They simply worshiped those gods differently (or not at all).”

        Point taken. But pagan atheism doesn’t lead to the noted absurdity.

        “The definition which Dr. Craig prefers is not all that much older or more traditional than the one employed by modern, self-described atheists.”

        What’s the oldest definition employed by modern, self-described atheists? What about fellow atheists that eschew the label? What about the idea that this new definition leads to absurdity? What about the idea that the ‘other’ definition doesn’t lead to absurdity?

        “I’m not sure how this is meant to be a disagreement with what I said.”

        Well, if you don’t disagree with it, then you’re not one of the so-called, modern, self-described atheists.

        “Dr. Craig isn’t making distinctions between any positions, when he insists on this semantic argument.”

        Yes, he is. There are at least two positions. One position lacks belief in a god or gods. Another position affirms or believes in the non-existence of a god or gods. A semantic analysis of ‘atheism’ is productive to find out where ‘atheism’ applies. If it’s applied to the former, then there’s the noted absurdity. Also, explain how the former isn’t different from soft agnosticism (with my caveat that it’s a ‘report’ of a lack of belief)?

        “The other conversant has already clearly defined his position. Dr. Craig is sidestepping a discussion of that position and merely disagreeing with the label which the conversant uses to describe that position.”

        He’s not sidestepping anything. He’s making a productive semantic distinction between two positions and arguing that ‘atheism’ better applies to one position, rather than to another, which is so broad as so to include babies, beasts, trees, and rocks.

        “This is pedantic.”

        Maybe your response to Craig is pedantic. Why I can’t wake up one morning and say that Christianity is pantheistic? What if I’m really clear that what I mean by ‘pantheism’ is the belief in the existence of one God? Is it pedantic to note that perhaps I’m using a word that doesn’t apply here? Is it somehow sidestepping the issue if you want to correct my application of the word ‘pantheistic’? In the case of atheism, it’s even worse; the burden of proof is dropped. Your honor! We have motive!

        “So, it is antonymic, but it isn’t antonymic in the way you would like it to be.”

        Isn’t it ironic that you want me to be accurate in my use of the word ‘antonymic’? You mean, I can’t use it the way I want? Aren’t you being pedantic? Anyways, my intended antonymic pair was meant to emphasize the relevant antonym relative to the antonymic pair necessary to avoid the pair that leads to absurdity.

        “Why would that be absurd? You’ve offered nothing but your bald assertion in support of such a point.”

        You don’t think it’s absurd to call babies, beasts, inanimate objects non-theists or atheists (keeping in mind the caveat non-theist in this context was the ‘report’ of a lack of a belief)?

        “If “non-theist” or “atheist” merely describe a lack of belief, then there is no contradiction in terms to say, “this chimp is a non-theist” or “this baby is an atheist.””

        There are other kinds of absurdity than just ‘logical’ absurdity. ‘Reductio’ style arguments don’t necessarily go for revealing a contradiction; sometimes it leads to metaphysical, physical, existential, ethical, aesthetic, practical, or whatever, absurdity. If chimp or baby doesn’t do it for you, what about a darn rock? Is that an atheist too?!

        “Unless you are not using “absurd” in the sense of its actual meaning in Logic, and are instead using it colloquially to simply indicate something with which you disagree…”

        It’s neither colloquial nor purely logical.

        “So rather that “non-theist” simply referring to “a person who is not a theist,” as nearly every person on the planet would utilize the phrase, you are suggesting that we redefine the term to mean “one who reports a lack of belief in deity.””

        Their “utilization’ of the phrase IS their ‘reporting’ a lack of belief! And only ‘persons’ can make reports (excluding beasts and rocks), and only persons developed enough to make and understand their reports are those who can be called a non-theist.

        “However, you still stand firmly against other people using a definition for “atheist” which disagrees with a more common usage. You realize that this is inconsistent, right?”

        The common usage is in agreement with what I’m saying, per the above. You phrased it in a way that ruled that out.

        “I would not pedantically insist that he utilize my preferred definition, instead. In fact, I have upbraided several other self-described atheist friends and acquaintances of mine for doing exactly that.”

        I would if it lead to absurdity.

        “Instead, I would simply note that Dr. Craig’s arguments do not necessarily address my position because– despite using the same word– we are discussing two different things, entirely.”

        Simple. Then I’m sure Craig would discuss your non-theism.

        “I would not expect him to engage in a trite argument about definitions instead of actually addressing that person’s positions.”

        I would if it’s an absurd application of ‘atheism’. And I’m sure that after this is pointed out, Craig would address your positions. Two birds with one stone.

        “Even in such an instance, the label still DESCRIBES your position. It does not PRESCRIBE your position. You begin with a position, then find a word with which to label it. Nobody first applies a label to themselves, then changes all of their positions to fit with the accepted definition of that label.”

        I find this utterly bizarre. I get that would describe the position relative to my idiosyncratic usage, but how wouldn’t it muddy the waters to use ‘tree’ to describe my television? There’s still the problem of discarding ‘labels’ that are defined so broadly that they lead to absurdity. It’s doesn’t apply to trees and televisions, but it does apply to ‘atheism’ and babies, beasts, and rocks.

        “Does the American’s argument do anything to actually address the Englishman’s positions? Does it further the discussion in any meaningful way? Or is it simply argumentative and pedantic?”

        No, the American’s argument doesn’t do anything to address the Englishmen. But this case of ‘same-word’ used in ‘two-ways’ isn’t entirely relevant. I brought up the point because I thought you were rendering pedantic any clarification of meaning on the grounds that it would lead to trite semantic distinctions, which would magically inoculate the clarifier from arguing about the content underlying the usage. Since this doesn’t seem to be what you’re saying, so for the analogy to be entirely relevant, we’d need to concoct a scenario in which the case of ‘same-word’/’two-ways’ leads to an analogous kind of absurdity. In this scenario, it definitely would further discussion in a meaningful way, not argumentative and pedantic, especially if you’re in the business of avoiding counter-intuitive absurdity. So, instead of “football”, football, and soccer, just parallel it to what we’re talking about here: “atheist”, Bertrand Russell, and Mt. Rushmore. If ‘atheist’ is mere lack of belief, Mr. Rushmore is an atheist, since inanimate objects lack any beliefs. That’s absurd, right?

        • Nearly every one of your responses focused in on this claim to absurdity, so rather than a point-by-point, let’s focus in and see if we can at least resolve that issue.

          I still don’t see what you find to be absurd about the situation. You seem to agree that it is not logically absurd; yet you also deny that you’re using the word “absurd” in its colloquial sense. You still haven’t offered any real reason to think that the situation is absurd, but you continue to baldly assert that it remains an absurdity.

          So, what is it that you mean by “absurd?” And how does the situation conform to that definition?

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