I have said before that that one must be intellectually honest if they value their character and want to have honest discourse. Part of being intellectually honest is to understand epistemic risks of any positions and acknowledge that one can be incorrect. Along with the possibility of being incorrect, one must be able to admit when they are, and revise their positions on whatever it is that they were wrong about. That is where this entry comes in, and it is a difficult one for me. I have a huge ego, but my love of philosophy, and urge to be as intellectually honest and open minded as possible forces me to put that ego in the backseat. the core of my views, MY atheism has not changed. What has changed, and what I was wrong about is some of the nuanced precise positions. This entire thing started with a brief conversation with the philosopher that I respect more than any other, Dr. Graham Oppy, who flatly and unbelievably politely told me I was mistaken about a few things. I did not have the chance to get too in depth about it with Dr. Oppy, so as anyone who wants to be considered intellectually honest, I had to start looking into things more. I worked on Shadow of the Dead god for ten years and have an MBA…research is nothing new to me.
My research into Shadow was focused on arguments, counter arguments and positions on those arguments. I legitimately though erroneously believed I had atheism itself locked down, so other than the etymology of the word, there was not much research done there. As such I made a few errors and was incorrect about some of the things I said in Shadow and other places. If I ever get around to a version 2.0 of the book, the entirety of the first two chapters will either be reworked or cut completely. I argued from etymology, from colloquial usage, and popularity. Those themselves are errors in thinking, bad form, and honestly fallacious. I was not purposefully fallacious or trying to deceive people. Yet, I am faced with the undeniable reality that I was incorrect and was being fallacious in my assessments about what atheism is, among some of the more nuanced issues surrounding the position itself. The rest of this post is going to be lengthy and cover a lot of ground. I apologize in advance. Read on or don’t, the rest of this is to talk about what I was wrong about, why, and where I now stand. The most important part has already been stated.
The biggest thing I have changed and was wrong about, is something the more astute among you have already caught. I called atheism a position. When I first left Christianity, and started calling myself an atheist, I used atheism in the more modern colloquial sense, that it was simply a lack of position, because it was lack of belief. I now longer believe either of those things. I have always acknowledged the fact that philosophy understands atheism to be a positive position that posits that no gods exist. I still do, as I am in that camp. No gods exist, I am an atheist in the most philosophical sense. I am a proud atheist, the same sort of atheist as Nietzsche, Oppy, Camus, Hume, Russel among others are.
One of the mistakes I made, was thinking that atheism was simply or just the lack of belief. I want to make this perfectly clear to Aron Ra, to the Atheist community of Austin, Atheist alliance international, American Atheist and anyone who shares the afore mentioned views on this. Atheism is not simply the lack of belief. It is not just the lack of belief. Atheism is a philosophical position that no gods exist, if you want to label yourself as an atheist, because you lack a belief please do so. However, you should be aware of the inherent issues with that position. I think that a lot of these atheist just want to avert their burden of proof when having conversations about the existence of god(s). I say this, because many times someone will assert that god does not exist, but then when asked to support that assertion they run and hide behind lack of belief. “I don’t have to support it, because I simply lack a belief”. At that point, one is simply being intellectually dishonest. If you are going to claim to be an atheist, own that. That was the majority of what Shadow of the Dead god is about. I strived to counter the most common arguments for god and make the case that at the very least the Abrahamic god does not exist. That is the purpose of this post. I owned my burden; I just did not follow all the way through with it and have yet to see a lack of belief atheist do so. Let me reiterate, I am not a lack of belief atheist (hereafter I am going to refer to that are as a lack-theist). I am an atheist in the truest philosophical sense.
Let’s break this down even further. If you are going to claim non-theist, lack-theism, or agnosticism do so. However, the moment you argue from that “position” that a god or gods do not exist, you are being dishonest. Lack of belief means you are simply not convinced a god or gods exist. That does indeed put you on the not theist side of the dichotomy that you either believe of you do not. However, it does not make you an atheist. Atheism is the opposite extreme end of the belief spectrum to theism. I do not any longer subscribe to the idea that there are weak (soft) or strong (hard) variations of those positions. I understand that words are descriptive, and one is free to use a word to mean pretty much anything they would like. However, the issue is when one tries to equivocate atheism. In one moment it is used as lack of belief to hide when (rightly) asked to bare their burden of proof, but then lack-theists will make assertions that god does not exist. They then again will hide behind simply lacking a belief to not support their assertions. That is where the bulk of my (new) issue with lack-theism is, and where I was most wrong. If you want to label yourself as an atheist because of lack of belief, you are more than free too. I will still acknowledge you as an atheist. However, you should know that the word atheism has philosophical connotations to all who have studied philosophy. If you say you are an atheist in a philosophical discussion, you are carrying a label with a lot of baggage, and a burden of proof that is just as high as those who take on the label of theist. You cannot with any integrity claim to simply lack belief, while simultaneously arguing that a god does not exist.
Let’s get into the weeds more here. There are two dichotomous positions here that lie at the heat of all this. Either god does exist, or it does not. Then second is that you either believe that a god(s) exists, or you do not believe a god(s) exists. To understand why such a dramatic shift for me has happened, we must explore these dichotomies. This shift is not sudden, it is just not been shared until now because of working out my positions on these things. Let us start simple. It is true via classical logic that either god does exist, or does not exist. A god cannot both exist, and not exist in the same way, at the same time. That is basic, and I assume not controversial. This is in relation to the ontology of god existing. The actuality of a god existing has nothing to do with our epistemological positions regarding that dichotomy. For the purpose of this post, and these thoughts, the ontology of god, its actuality is irrelevant.
What matters most here, is the dichotomy of belief. One either believes a god(s) exist, or they do not. That is also basic, and not controversial. This is where the fun starts. If you believe that a god exists, (specifics not important) you are a theist. If you do not believe in a god, you are a non-theist. Non-theism is what I got wrong, is what most “new atheists” get wrong. There are levels here. And this is what I am sure will be the controversial part to most non-theists here. Non-theism includes agnosticism, lack-theism, theological non-cognitivism (Theological propositional innocence) and atheism.
Level one would be agnosticism, not having a position one way or another, this is a true neutral position. There is another version of philosophical agnosticism that we will address in a bit. However, this would also include non-cognitivism, what Dr. Oppy calls innocence of the proposition of god. A good example here, would be a group of people I cited in Shadow, and in my debunking of Romans 1:20, the Pirahã tribe, whom do not even have a concept for god(s). They are not atheists, as they most likely do not even have a concept for that either. This is evidenced by the idea that if they don’t have even a concept of god, they do not have a position on the proposition of god. They would be neutral! Though, that non-cognitivism is itself a sublevel of agnosticism. That is because they have not considered both positions to take no stance, they take no stance because there is no stance for them to take. This is distinct from the knowledge belief of agnosticism, which is that the knowledge of god is either unknown, or unknowable. That is a belief claim itself, as one could not demonstrate that a god is knowable or unknowable. While a proper philosophical notion, most philosophers, and philosophical literature uses what Huxley meant when he coined the term; That one does not either believe or not believe after having considered both positions. This seems more like what “atheists” mean when using lack of belief, than what atheism is. I do still think that by a technicality, that we are all agnostic in the sense of the knowability of god(s).
Lack-theism is what I think most people run into, when it comes to non-academic and non-formal discussions with atheism. Though I have an MBA and have devoted an enormous amount of time to studying philosophy, I am not an academic either. That said, I understand what the lack of belief position is, I understand what people mean by it. To me, it is now a useless stance to take. The reason for this, is because of the previously mentioned hide and go seek game that those who claim lack-theism as atheism play. If one wants to lack belief, that is understandable, especially if one does not feel comfortable making burden heavy claims such as god does not exist. That is the core of my issue with lack of “atheists” though. The say they are an atheist, when asked why they are an atheist, the common replies are “lack of evidence” “theists have not meet their burden of proof” “because I have not been convinced by arguments for theism” . This is almost always followed up (Rather quickly as well) by the statement that they are an atheist by proxy because they lack a belief in god. However, it becomes a dishonest proclamation when they then venture into the conversation and make actually atheistic assertions, like god does not exist. It is possible to counter, reply to, and reject arguments for god, without explicitly or implicitly affirming the atheistic position. Folks like Steve McRae do this effectively (I may have just cancelled myself with lack-theists, by the mere mention of him that’s not negative). Steve, is an agnostic in the sense that he does not have a position one way or another on the proposition of god. Brief yet informative conversations with Steve, along with reviewing his published work and videos have allowed me to better understand his positions. While it was Dr. Oppy that led me to changing these views, Steve was among the resources used to flesh things out more. Lack-theists want to so desperately put Steve in their camp, and call him an atheist (though to me they are not atheists either) …that is where much of their dishonesty became extremely apparent. I am agnostic on his semantical collapse argument of lack-theism as atheism, yet he makes good points, that if conceded logically dictate the collapse; that no one seems to want to content with. Not shocking, as this is what the big name lack-theists like Aron, and Matt do. They disguise their positions, and then make absurd claims like “atheism is JUST the lack of belief. I think Matt is more intelligent that most of the members of AAI, AA, and the ACA (Forrest and Paul not withstanding) are, thus, when he uses lack of belief as atheism, he is being intentionally dishonest. When folks like Aron do so, they are simply showing their ignorance of philosophy. Do not get me wrong, when it comes to biology, and debunking young earth creationism, there are few people on the planet as prolific at it as Aron Ra is. The point is that he simply does not understand the philosophy at play. That’s not a knock on him, as I have nowhere near the understanding of biology as he does. I am extremely ignorant on the subject, and must rely on experts like him, for my understanding of the subject. What do I mean when I say folks like Matt are being intentionally dishonest? Simple, look at the body of work and evidence for it. In public debates, call in shows and social media, him, and folks like him openly proclaim atheism (the assertion that there are no gods) but when pushed back on hide behind lack of belief. You cannot assert that no gods exist, then claim you have made no claim and hide behind lack of belief. Matt knows this, he understands this deeply. He probably is more intelligent than I am, but he is patently wrong when he claims that atheism is just the lack of belief, and he knows it. Let me make this PERFECTLY CLEAR, words are DESCRIPTIVE, not prescriptive. One may use whatever definition for a word they would like. You are free to call yourself an atheist because you lack a belief. However, when you do so you are speaking a different language than everybody else in philosophy. I am an atheist in the philosophical sense, I do not lack a belief; I openly and unapologetically proclaim that no god exist. If you label yourself an atheist because you lack belief, we are not the same. Lack of belief, and the belief that no god exist are not two sides of the same atheistic coin, they are not two versions of atheism. Lack of belief is an entirely separate sort of atheism, and one I do not even consider to be atheism. That is the rub though, honest intellectual discourse demands the defining of terms from the outset, and honest interlocutors will strive to find common ground or understanding for contentious terms. Most lack-theists I have seen (including myself at one point) do not even try, and some are outright dishonest about atheism. To throw folks like WLC (nah, I’m not getting sued for using anything more than initials) a bone; I understand why he and other academics won’t debate people without relevant graduate degrees. They won’t, because they do not want to content with this philosophical ignorance or get tied down by dishonest semantical games.
It is funny, not so long ago I could not understand why philosophers made such a huge deal about the usage of atheism in formal discourse. I understand it now. They saw what I for the longest time could not. They saw what I have been guilty of, and that is the deceptiveness of lack of belief atheism. I do not for a moment think most lack-theists are being intentionally dishonest. Rather I think most just have not come to understand the philosophy enough. I wrote a book on philosophy, and myself did not understand atheology as much I as I should have beforehand. I should have left out the chapters on what atheism is. I won’t un-publish the book, it is what it is at this point. However, the chapters will be reworked if I ever do a revised edition. I do want to make a point, that I will support lack of belief atheism in the sense of its utility. I want religion out of politics, out of schools and out of the way. It is useful to draw more people to secularism, to humanism, and away from the dangers of overly religious societies. In the sense that lack of belief is more useful to achieve those goals than atheism is; I openly support folks like Genetically modified skeptic in that endeavor. The reason there is more utility there, is because people are more likely to embrace lack of belief, rather than belief that no gods exist.
The last level of non-theism is atheism itself. The extreme opposite end of the belief spectrum. Atheism to me, to philosophy, and to the vast majority of academia is the belief that no gods exist. This is the type of atheist that most if not all atheist philosophers are. I am an atheist, absolutely no gods exist. Why am I an atheist? I have written an entire book about that. However, the short answer is that because every concept of god I have ever encountered is either logically impossible, incoherent, or demonstrably false. Moreover, everything that was once thought to be explainable only by theism has either already gotten a naturalistic explanation, or is lurching closer to having one as our understanding of the reality we live in continues to grow more robust.
I am not trying to be belittle anyone here. I for the longest amount of my time as a non-theist used lack of belief, I feel I was in error to do so. I want to apologize to anyone I argued against like my good friend Zack, when they tried to point this out years ago. I have nothing but love for my lack-theist friends, especially Eilidh, and Sylvie. Nothing but respect for the members of the communities I am a part of (and wont leave unless they give me the boot), especially the admin team for the Facebook group Discussing Atheism. These folks are my family, and I love them dearly. The entire purpose of this, was to admit I found myself in error, and like any honest person should I revised my positions because of said errors. Call yourself whatever you would like, but the pretentiousness of the more aggressive lack theists, and the dishonesty from “atheist” organizations needs to die a quick death.
Disagree? Awesome, leave a comment, or email me. Let’s have a conversation about this and see if we can understand each other more