Atheism, Agnosticism, Definitions and Misunderstandings

Leprechaun with goldIt seems some things need repeating. RD Rauser at Christian Post recently demanded evidence for atheism. Despite a number of atheists taking time to explain that it doesn’t make any sense to provide evidence for something’s non-existence including some excellent analogies using leprechauns, it seems the believers on the site still didn’t get it. Disappointingly, neither did he try to provide evidence for the non-existence of leprechauns. That would’ve been good.

One thing they insisted on repeating was that atheists are making a positive claim about the non-existence of God (we’d say “gods”, actually). Apparently, unless we’re certain, we should all be calling ourselves agnostics. Not shy of telling atheists what it is they believe, paracletus commented,

“Atheism” (speaking slowing with only the slightest bit of condescension) means belief in the non-existence of God.
And, once again, if one has BELIEF in the non-existence of God, one has a belief. One does not have the NON-BELIEF in God, which is agnosticism; one has the BELIEF in the non-existence of God.
I honestly don’t care what you are, but the term means something.

Here’s how I understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Atheism and theism describe beliefs. Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Atheists are people who do not believe in gods.

People in either of these groups can also be agnostic. By agnostic I mean “without knowledge”, uncertain.

Theists believe in a God, but some may not be completely certain about it. They are still theists. They believe, but they do not know. We might call them “agnostic theists”.

Likewise atheists can lack a belief in gods, yet be agnostically uncertain about that. They may have considered various forms of theism carefully and found them lacking (Explicit Atheism), or, as in the case of a new-born child, they may never have considered the possibility of gods (Implicit Atheism).

Varieties of atheismI think it’s still correct and normal to call all these people “atheists”. More specifically this is sometimes called “agnostic atheism”, “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”. Wikipedia.org provides a more thorough explanation. However, “atheist” is a shorter and simpler term which encompasses all these things. Most atheists are not philosophy geeks (despite what you might think from reading the Internet), so I can’t blame them for using the single word to describe their non-belief.

As PhillyChief pointed out, the vast majority of atheists are “weak atheists”, those who’d say, “I don’t believe in a god”. They don’t “claim knowledge of the non-existence of gods”.

I think the confusion arises when a weak atheist describes their belief by saying something like,

“There are no gods”.

At which point a theist jumps up and points at him with a retort along these lines,

“Ah-ha! You made a positive claim, provide evidence or you’re just as irrational as believers!”

Strictly speaking the theist is right. It is a positive claim. However, I think unless stated otherwise this is generally the weak atheist being lazy in their speech. The majority of atheists who say this kind of thing are not claiming 100% certainty, nor intending to make some positive truth claim.Gruffalo book

To be completely accurate, they should say,

“I do not believe there are any gods.”

But most people aren’t concerned with being completely accurate in their everyday speech, so we fall into bad habits. When I say,

“There’s no such thing as a gruffalo.”

I am expressing my fairly-confident belief, not a 100% certainty. But yes, to be completely accurate perhaps I should say,

“Based on my experience, I do not believe that gruffalos exist.”

With self-proclaimed “professional philosophers” such as paracletus around I guess I should be using the latter phrase in all cases. Presumably even if it spoils the rhyme. If I don’t then I could be asked to provide evidence for my claim about gruffalos.

Why all the fuss?

If you read the comments following RD Rauser’s post, you’ll see a great deal of effort on both sides of the debate (some 84 comments at the time of writing). When paracletus said, “I honestly don’t care what you are…” he was telling a bit of a fib. Yet, to the rest of the world the distinction is academic and I’m sure most people I know would exasperated by the amount of electronic ink being spilled over it. Why do theists care so much about the precise definition of an atheist?

I can only speculate. My guess is believers feel that agnostics can be more easily ignored; after all, they’re not sure. Meanwhile if all other atheists can be characterised as strong atheists, they bear an equal burden of proof as theists and arguably look equally irrational. Perhaps this is an unconscious “smear” tactic by believers who, on some level, know their beliefs are irrational and so insist that everyone else’s beliefs are likewise.

Atheists care about this issue in part because it is their own beliefs being discussed and their rationality questioned. I think it’s important that atheism is understood by all and not allowed to become the subject of unchallenged ridicule and demonisation. I applaud sites such as Ask The Atheists for their helping people to understand atheism better. I get the impression that RD Rauser and friends are more interested in derision than understanding.

Alpha Course Poll Forces Voters Hands

alph_course_pollBy now it’s old news that the UK’s Alpha Course ran a poll asking visitors whether “God” exists, by which they presumably mean their god. It’s also been well reported that atheists got wind of the poll and surfed over in large numbers to vote “No”. It’s not the only Christian Internet campaign to fall on its face recently.

All this is amusing, but doesn’t really tell us much. It certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or not of any god and it’s only representative of the people who happened to visit their website. I think the BHA took it far too seriously when they responded by saying,

That this poll has revealed such a high number of non-believers, and such a tiny proportion of those who do believe in a god, is really no surprise. This poll only supports what we know already – that most people either do not believe in god or that they simply do not think about the question because it is not relevant to their lives.

The UK does have a relatively high proportion of non-believers, but in every other poll it’s more like 25-35%, not 98% – besides, votes on this poll were not limited to the UK. We might be better off drawing the conclusion that there are a lot of motivated atheists on the Internet who are up for a prank.

Question Phrasing

What I think is worth investigating is the way the question – and in particular the answers – were phrased. It seems to be a clever piece of marketing.

These ads are up on billboards all over the place, but I first saw this ad on a poster outside a church. My reaction was, “Where’s Probably not?”. Or even Maybe, or I don’t know or the Igtheist position, What do you mean by “God”?. I wasn’t expecting them to have the equivalent of the 7-level Dawkins Scale of Belief, but a few more options would’ve been nice. As it stands, the poll only allows for Certain Theists, Agnostic Theists and Strong Atheists. The results aren’t going to be very representative.

dsb-example_dark

I wondered about this for a while, before slapping myself on the head in realisation. Of course, that’s not the point! The Alpha people were not trying to prove anything with their poll. The results were always intended to be meaningless. They were probably only trying to generate debate around a subject that, in the UK at least, is becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to many people.

Furthermore, I suspect that limiting the options is a tactical choice.

Those who vote Yes or Probably might be persuaded that, having admitted it, they shouldn’t stop there, but take the course and be led into the Alpha brand of Christianity. The rest are left only with the No choice – Strong Atheism – 7 on the scale above. It’s about as far towards the other end of the scale as you can get. A bold position that, in practice few atheists hold. Richard Dawkins, for example, says he’s at 6. The idea being to include an atheistic position that as few people as possible will completely agree with. This presumably in the hope that more people will end up in the Yes/Probably category of potential Alpha delegates. The poll is, after all, advertising and intended to get more people onto the course.

Plus, it helps them to label atheists and agnostics as ridiculous extremists.

Imagine a fiercely nationalistic group asking in a survey, “What should we do about immigrants?” and only providing the options: “Confine them to forced labour camps”, “Send them all home”, or “Give them each a free house and abandon all border controls”. Where is the reasonable, liberal option? Ordinary people answering such a poll would be forced into an extreme position that doesn’t properly represent them. A position which can be ridiculed.

So I expect the non-theists who made up the 98% of voters on the Alpha poll will be labelled by some as “extreme” or “fundamentalist”. However, strong atheists are pretty rare. Few people feel they can actually prove the non-existence of all kinds of deity, especially if we’re talking about the vague and woolly non-interventionist kind.

But rather than go into the philsophical subtleties, it’s simpler to say, “There are no god(s)” or just vote “No”.

Review: Godless by Dan Barker

Dan Barker is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but what makes his story interesting is that he was once an evangelical preacher. His latest book, published only last year is godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Barker’s earlier book, published in 1992 was Losing Faith in Faith and from the few online excerpts I’ve seen, it seems to have a lot in common with godless. However, as the more recent publication, godless appears more polished and up to date with plenty of additional content.

Godless is organised into four sections, the first describing his experiences as a preacher and his growing doubts. The second and third sections discuss the arguments for atheism and the problems with Christianity, while the final section covers some of his work with the FFRF.

Rejecting God

For me, the first section is the most interesting part of the book as it offers in insight into the mind of a sincere believer, detailing his lifestyle and thought processes during his five-year journey out of Christianity. What is notable from the introduction onwards, is that Barker was perhaps more rational about his reasons for believing than some. He didn’t believe it because he found it comforting, or because he wanted to fit in. He simply thought it was true.

I was always in love with reason, intelligence, and truth. I thought Christianity had the truth. I really believed it. I dedicated my life to it.

I seems to me that Dan’s desire for the truth was a factor in his de-conversion, as often seems to be the case. I am impressed by the honesty and modesty with which he describes his thoughts and actions as a believer. Some of these are no doubt embarrassing to him in retrospect, but he manages to have a laugh at his own expense. Of particular interest are the reactions of his Christian friends to his loss of belief. These range from total shunning through confusion, to amicable acceptance. My only criticism of the first section is that there’s not enough of it. At only 67 pages out of around 350, it is not the main focus of the book. This is partly because he avoids going into any theological arguments in the first section; it’s entirely about his experience.

Why I Am an Atheist and What’s Wrong With Christianity?

The largest part of the book is taken up by the two middle sections, in which the author covers in detail the arguments for atheism and against Christianity. I’m not entirely convinced by the approach of splitting the book up into personal story followed by the philosophical arguments. Sometimes I think technical, precise writing can become more readable when interspersed with human anecdotes – see for example Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the other hand, the volume of philosophy included would be in danger of drowning his personal experiences, so I can see why he did it this way.

Together, these two sections fill nearly 200 pages, which is perhaps justified. If they’d only been touched upon during the biographical first section, some of the finer points would have been lost. As it is, he thoroughly covers common theistic arguments, biblical contradictions and questions over gospel history in surprising detail. Additionally, one chapter titled “Dear Theologian” takes the form of a letter from God. This has a rather different style, asking questions rather than providing answers. At first this seems out of place, but I found it an interesting piece of philosophy and questioning things is exactly what free thought is all about.

In terms of arguments for atheism there is only a little in this section that will be new to a moderately well-informed atheist.  Nevertheless, he makes a comprehensive and convincing case for atheism which is as clear and relevant as any atheist book I’ve read.

Life is Good!

Appropriately, the book’s final section covers Dan Barker’s work with the FFRF trying to maintain the separation of church and state, fighting cases against organisations which use supposedly secular tax dollars for decidedly sectarian purposes. This is reasonably interesting, although there were no anecdotes which stood out as particularly memorable. Perhaps it would seem more relevant to those living in the US.

Overall I found the book an enjoyable and edifying read. I was a little disappointed by the briefness of his de-conversion story, but to be fair he probably wasn’t keeping a diary or holding a tape recorder during conversations, so it may be difficult to go into more detail without misquoting people. To some extent godless may be seen as a jack-of-all-trades – part autobiography, part philosophical debate, so may be unsatisfying to those who are not interested in reading both those things. For those who are however, it is both entertaining and informative. I would highly recommend this book to the recently de-converted or to Christians wanting to understand a different perspective.

What Does Atheism Offer That Belief In God Can’t?

in-person_questionIt seems that atheism is puzzling to believers. Demian Farnworth recently interviewed Hemant Mehta and in the following comments asked him,

What does atheism offer that belief in God can’t?

I certainly admire the approach of asking non-believers what they think, rather than guessing. Many of us lose track of the number of times we’ve been accused of only being atheists so we can act immorally or “do what we like“.

So what is so great about atheism?

Certainly there are genuine benefits to being an atheist. They’re not just obvious things like being able to cut your hair when you want, or getting a lie in on Sundays. Plenty of writers have already listed some more important advantages. Here’s a selection that I particularly liked.

From Adam Lee:

Being an atheist means you’re free to form your own opinions, rather than having your outlook colored by a belief system that tells you what you should think.

Being an atheist means you don’t have to think of yourself as a sinful wretch who can never do anything right.

From Dave Hitt:

Atheism, by itself, frees up a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted in worship… It provides great freedom and at the same time great responsibility – while I can now do things without worrying if they’ll annoy some nasty sky-daddy, I also know that the results of my actions are my responsibility – I can’t blame it on “sin.”

The wrong kind of question

The benefits of atheism – what it offers – seem rather irrelevant. Likewise if it causes inconveniences to non-believers, that shouldn’t affect a person’s willingness to call themselves an atheist. The important thing is whether or not it is correct. Again, other people have already said some great things about the advantages of atheism.

On atheism.about.com Austin Cline says,

This is rather an odd question — shouldn’t the primary concern be with whether or not any gods really do exist? Shouldn’t the truth of this question be the focus of our attention, and not any personal advantage or disadvantage which we might get by taking one position or the other?

On asktheatheists.com, logicel asks,

Christians are atheistic towards all gods except theirs; atheists just go one god further. Why not also pose the question of what are the advantages of Christians not believing in other god(s)?

While Erik_PK’s answer I could not have put better myself.

I think this is a strange question, as it implies that religious belief is a bit like buying a new car – you look at the available accessories, compare gas mileage, and then figure out which one works best for you. Each person has their own idea of what’s important to them, so there are lots of opinions on what’s best.

But matters of existence are questions of fact rather than questions of opinion. They are not decided by what we would like to be true, but rather by what is true…

clogsDemian’s question makes me wonder how he and other believers think. Did they choose their belief based on what it offers? Did they “shop around” for a belief-system with the most benefits – a nice bunch of people, a reasonable moral code, plenty of religious holidays and a pleasant-sounding afterlife?

None of those things should matter. To be honest if I found a religion that provided sufficient evidence that it was true, I’d believe it. I wouldn’t care if it required me to wear wooden shoes, eat only vegetables and walk on all fours every Tuesday. Conversely, if a set of beliefs are false, then it doesn’t matter how many virgins believers could spend eternity with.

I’ve generally given believers the benefit of the doubt and assumed that they genuinely think their belief-system is correct. Certain questions from believers however, make me wonder if I’ve been right about that. For example, when a believer tried to convince me to join their religion by seriously suggesting Pascal’s Wager, I do wonder if it was the evidence or the fear of going to hell that convinced them. When asked for their reasons for believing, several believers have told me, “I find it comforting”. I’ve no doubt many believers genuinely think they’ve got it right, but suggesting “comfort” as a reason to believe suggests that veracity is a secondary concern.

Apart from the quotes above I’m speaking for myself here. Simply put, all atheism “offers” me is that it’s true. No doubt many believers feel the same about their beliefs. Atheism seems to me to be the only reasonable position. I don’t need it to offer me anything else, I have the rest of my life for that – my family, friends, sports, nature, humanism, sometimes even my job – offer me things to make life interesting. I see atheism more as a simple fact of life, like the sky being blue or the Earth being round.

I’d love to hear what others think about this, believers and non-believers. How important are the benefits your beliefs bring or claim to bring? How much does it matter to you whether what you believe is true?

Religion Causing Offence

fool_hath_said_posterI came across an offensive advertisement on my way to work recently. It was put there by the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’ve seen a variety of other Bible verses in their adverts, but the one pictured to the right caught my eye.

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”

That’s not an argument for the existence of a god. It’s not even a statement of belief. It’s an insult. An ad hominem attack – something intended to sully an opponent’s character and by association, their opinions. That is, unless this is intended as an isolated story about one particular fool with no wider context. In which case it’s hard to see why the Trinitarians are so keen to let hapless commuters know about it. As it is, the idea seems to be to tell passers by that “Atheists are fools and well, you’re not a fool, are you?”. Trying to convince people to agree with you by insulting those who disagree is only slightly better than telling them they’ll suffer eternal torment for disagreeing.

Faced with this I considered writing a letter of complaint to the advertising company. I can imagine the outrage if someone put up an advert with the equivalent slogan, “The idiot has told himself there is a god”. Thinking about it later it I realised I was overreacting. I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does. No one has the right to veto something simply because they find it offensive. For one thing what people find offensive is subjective, so to outlaw the causing of offence would be something of a blank cheque.

The parallels with the reactions to recent atheist advertising are predictably the next section of this post. The bus adverts paid for by public donations to the Atheist Campaign are now on the streets of the UK. As the amount raised was in excess of what was expected, a series of “tube card” adverts, like the one below, are also being shown on the London Underground.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about the statement on the card shown nor the other freethinker quotes that were used. However as I agree with the sentiments in this case it’s hard for me to judge whether they would offend people. According to Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea, the email response she’s received has been almost all positive. With the exception of a few extreme examples, I think most religious people in the UK would support atheists’ right to free speech even if they find it offensive. Some have even said that they welcome the debate.

So I’m not going to follow the great British tradition of writing a stiff letter (presumably on cardboard?) to complain about being called a fool.

Free speech is there to protect offensive speech and controversial ideas, as Greta Christina wrote when she was offended recently:

“What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech.”

It doesn’t matter how offensive the eye of the beholder finds someone else’s opinion. If some belief system’s representatives put up adverts saying “All those who disagree are hopelessly stupid and criminally insane” they should still be allowed. I don’t think it would help their cause much, however. There are plenty of good reasons not to offend people when you communicate – it can backfire and create hostility and turn the offender into the bad guy – and I’m certainly not convinced by a religious group who thinks that one of their best arguments is to call atheists fools. I think it’s pathetic, but I support their right to say it.

Probably An Atheist Bus

I am rather late in covering this, so by now I imagine everyone is familiar with the Atheist Bus Campaign, which has probably generated more publicity than the eventual bus adverts ever could. It started when Ariane Sherine (pictured) wrote an piece in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section complaining about one-sided religious advertising:

“Yesterday I walked to work and saw not one, but two London buses with the question: “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.”

The website featured on the advert contained dire warnings about hell fire and damnation, which is really not what you need on a Monday morning when you’re late for work. Ariane did some homework and suggested that with moderate support a similar advert could be bought by atheists – one with a more tolerant, uplifting message. She suggested:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”

The atheist bus campaign caught on well and has so far raised over 117,000 pounds – enough for several bus adverts. However, the proposed wording of the advert has caused dissatisfaction amongst some atheists. The “probably” is described as a cop-out, too weak, too uncertain. A friend of mine expressed her disappointment by saying, “It’s more of an Agnostic Bus Campaign really isn’t it?”.

There are two things I want to discuss. Firstly, the philosophy geek’s question of whether the slogan is Atheistic, Agnostic or something else? Secondly, is it a good message to slap on the side of a bus?

An Agnostic Atheist Slogan?

Here’s a quick summary of the non-believing spectrum as I see it:

Strong Atheist – “I believe there is definitely no god and I have no doubt about this.”
Weak Atheist – “I believe there is no god but I do not have absolute certainty about this.”
Agnostic – “I do not know if there is a god.” (literally ‘without knowledge’)

Naturally these are not hard either-or distinctions and many people are somewhere between the above positions. There are also several other non-religious positions some of which I covered previously.

In practice the vast majority of those who speak of themselves as atheists are of the “weak” variety (aka “Agnostic atheists”). The reason is that it’s notoriously difficult to prove the non-existence of anything, whether it’s gods, unicorns or a teapot orbiting the sun. The problem with trying to find any of those is when to stop searching. OK, so we’ve searched the world’s mountain ranges and the plains, but what if these mythical beasts exist in the Arctic, or the deepest oceans, or on the moon?

In science and philosophy no knowledge is beyond doubt. If it were, then we might still be believing that the Sun goes around the Earth or that light travels in a luminiferous ether. So strictly speaking a non-believer in unicorns should say, “There are probably no unicorns”. For simplicity this usually comes out as “There are no unicorns”. Not a strict provable statement, but simple enough for everyday language which gets the idea across.

You can however often disprove specific religious claims – for example geocentrism or an omnipotent deity who doesn’t allow lightning.

I said it was a philosophy geek’s question.

Probably the best bus in the world

So does the word “Probably” trammel the proposed advertisement’s intention? Can it still make people stop and think?

I know some believers have responded to the uncertainty of the slogan with ridicule, apparently amused that those noisy atheists aren’t so sure of what they believe after all. Others may think it cowardly.

Many religious people are comforted by the absolute certainty with which their beliefs are claimed. Uncertainty and dilemmas can be unsettling. For people who feel that way, believing something is “probably the case”, never mind contributing to an advert to tell people it is “probably the case”, is laughable.

But I think expressing doubt is a good thing. I’m certainly not the first person to say that, for example Bertrand Russell:

“I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

Furthermore, I’m all too aware that believers regularly accuse atheists of being every bit as irrational as the religious. Some have even written books claiming they don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. In the case of strong atheism (or strong unicorn-disbelief), I think that accusation would be justified. What evidence could provide absolute certainty that there were no unicorns (or gods)? To have absolute certainty that gods or unicorns did not exist would require faith.

The “probably” has certainly caused surprise amongst some religious believers. American Evangelical minister, Clark Bunch reacted on his blog as follows:

What surprises me is that Dawkins would settle for such a weak position.  “There’s probably no God” is not spoken with nearly the certainty with which Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed.  I’ve never sung a hymn nor heard a street preacher shout “There probably is a God.”  The slogan even allows the possibility the God may exist.  If all atheists were this soft, I probably wouldn’t give them such a hard time.

Which is where the massive misconception comes in.

Most atheists wouldn’t say they have absolute certainty about their beliefs. Despite all the hype and accusations of atheist fundamentalism, Richard Dawkins doesn’t claim absolute certainty of his beliefs. If someone says, “I don’t believe in god”, they’re not necessarily claiming that their belief is beyond doubt. If I said, “I don’t believe it will rain tomorrow” would it be taken as read that I’m so sure about it I’d be willing to bet my life on it? Would I be called a fundamentalist meteorologist? Of course not. But for many believers, ordinary non-belief in deities is taken as a statement of absolute certainty requiring irrational faith. Perhaps this is a kind of psychological projection of their own attitudes to belief?

The slightly dull reality is that the inclusion of the word “probably” was at the insistence of the bus company selling the advertising space, who don’t want to offend religious believers.

Nevertheless, I like the phrasing of the slogan. Atheists know only too well how irritating it is to have other people’s unquestionable certainties shoved in their faces and should be slower to commit the same effrontery. The advert makes a point, without having to make the bold claims of absolute certainty usually used by those lacking good evidence.

An Atheist Meme

I was tagged recently by Lynet, so I thought I’d share a few details of my beliefs and how they’ve changed.

Can you remember the day that you officially became an atheist?

No, it was a gradual progression. I became bored and frustrated with the lack of answers from the church youth group I attended and drifted out of it, still probably more agnostic than atheist.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

I suspect I was always a bit agnostic, although there was a time I would’ve certainly described myself as a Christian. I could possibly have been described as a social Christian.

How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

Probably in my early teens, mostly motivated by personal anxiety. When I was younger I remember praying every day. I never got any answers but I certainly thought someone was listening.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

I don’t think I was exactly angry at God, but I was frustrated and fed up with vague religious lectures. I was also appalled and perplexed by the injustice of divine judgement.

Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

Only recently have I become properly sceptical about ghosts, when I was previously agnostic about them. This attitude didn’t seem to change at the same time as my religious beliefs. I guess I hadn’t got around to questioning those ideas properly. If people mentioned ghostly experiences I wouldn’t be sure what to think. I suppose I found ghosts exciting and liked to entertain some belief in them for that reason. These days I’d have no hesitation is saying, “Show me the evidence” and “No a smudge or speck on a photo is not evidence”.

Do you want to be wrong?

Partly.

On the one hand, I’m pretty glad that the world isn’t being watched over by a deity who allows great tragedies to occur without lifting a finger or judges people for making an honest mistake regarding their beliefs.

On the other hand, I would certainly like to live forever. The common ideas of heaven are quite weird and nonsensical and often sound like the kind of blissful tedium that would make a sane person long for oblivion, but I think a lot of people would like to live forever. I guess that’s the biggest part of religion’s marketing hype.

Ignostic igtheists or weak atheists – what’s in a name?

I noticed recently that a friend’s online profile showed “Ignostic” to describe his religious beliefs. I hadn’t heard of this before, so I asked him about it. Joe responded that he’d not done much reading into the subject, but it seemed to sum up his objections to religion.

Put simply, my main reason for taking the ignostic position is that defining what it is you are blathering on about is simply a matter of intellectual honesty…It’s all very well to use words […] in a loose manner in which the listener can get the gist of what you are saying…

I suppose I like the socratian nature of it though: the idea to ask the question “What do you mean by God?” rather than to proscribe an answer to it.

Which is pretty much the informal definition of Ignosticism. It turns out that “ignostic” is a somewhat new term and Wikipedia marks it as a neologism – not yet in common usage or dictionaries.

As far as Wikiedia is concerned, Ignosticism is the same as Igtheism. I have heard of igtheism before – a local humanist explained it as, “Ignorance of existence of god(s), so we might as well act as if they don’t exist.”

The question is, do we need these new terms? The beliefs held by Ignostics and Igtheists seem to be adequately covered by the varieties of atheism and agnosticism. Even within those flavours of belief there is some overlap.

For example, Apathetic Agnosticism states that the existence of a supreme being is both unknown and unknowable and that any such being does not appear to take enough interest in the world to intervene and is therefore irrelevant. This is quite similar to strong agnosticism, or the humourously characterized “militant agnosticism” – “I don’t know and neither do you!”

All of this isn’t very far from the position of most atheists – that of weak atheism. My take on weak atheism is,

“Due to lack of evidence, I don’t believe that there are any gods. I think it is possible that such evidence may exist, but it seems very unlikely.”

Atheism is often misunderstood to mean “Strong atheism” – “There are definitely no gods”. A strong atheist couldn’t actually search everywhere inside and outside the universe to eliminate the possibility of all possible kinds of gods. So almost all atheists are, in practice weak atheists. An atheist may say, “There is no God”, but they will be talking about a specific kind of God and most will also tell you that they’d be willing to change their beliefs if given appropriate evidence.

So if you’re a igtheistic agnostic weak atheist ignostic, what should you write in the tiny box on survey forms? To those who ask you, what response should you give without sounding like a geeky bookworm?

I think it depends on your situation and what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re talking to a group of bigoted fundamentalists who see atheists as the worst kind of sinners and a scourge to society you may wish to say “agnostic” for a quiet life, or dodge the question entirely. On the other hand, if these people already know you as a decent, moral person, then admitting your are an atheist might force them to reconsider their prejudices. Obviously it depends on how deeply those opinions are ingrained and how well they know you. Certainly prejudices have never been reduced by separating people with different views or lifestyles.

Going for a term like “Ignostic” that most people are unfamiliar with carries less baggage and potential for prejudice. It might also require an explanation allowing your to discuss your beliefs in more detail.

Personally, I tend to answer “humanist”. I know humanism has more to do with lifestyle than belief or disbelief in any deity, but I like that it is a simple and practical answer that tells you more about me than my scepticism about deities.

Rights and wrongs of evangelism

WitnessingPlenty of people have written about whether atheists should evangelise, but that’s not quite what this post is about.

Most people, especially atheists, are acutely aware of how annoying evangelism can be. This might be one reason why I think the vast majority of atheists don’t talk about their beliefs. Not only do they not wish to become an irritating preacher, they fear that expressing their beliefs may invite tedious religious lectures. We don’t go knocking on doors asking if people have thought about atheism partly because we know the reputation Jehovah’s Witnesses have for being irksome evangelists.

For the record, I do think atheists should evangelise, although in a passive and respectful way. I’m in agreement with Ebonmuse when he says we should: “…inform people of our existence without intruding directly into their lives…”.

So I’d like to hear your opinions on what kind of behaviour is acceptable when evangelising. I’m talking about evangelism in the broadest possible sense. Where you are evangelising Christianity, atheism, healthy eating, a political party, feminism or your favourite music, I think similar guidelines should apply.

So what is reasonable? What is effective?Alternative rock group

I think in many cases what is most effective at getting your message across is likely to coincide with what is thought to be reasonable and respectful behaviour. People are less likely to want to hear about your alternative rock band if you barge into their house, insult them and make their children cry. However, there may be cases that are not so obvious.

I know evangelism of any kind rarely converts people on the spot, but it may generate some sympathy or curiosity for a point of view the listener had not previously considered.

I’d start by suggesting the following:

  1. Be willing to take “No” for an answer…