So the last post got me athinkin’. The problem of defining terms like “atheist” and “agnostic” has reared its ugly head again. I think arguing about definitions is almost always a waste of time, but it’s especially annoying when the argument gets to the question of historical usage and what the “true” definition of something is.
In terms of atheist, there are two main definitions: (1)someone who believes there are no gods and (2) someone who does not believe there are gods. A common anti-atheist argument is that 1 is “correct” historically and philosophically, and that atheists today are doing a bait and switch in order to avoid having to prove that gods do not exist.
A typical retort might be that there is little practical difference between the two definitions — not to mention that meaning is dictated by usage (and changes anyway) so what’s wrong with 2? I’ve also seen some claim that there is no difference between “not believing X exists” and “believing X does not exist”, which is another area we can all waste time on.
Once you throw “agnostic” into the mix things get really hairy. To some these are tangential questions with gnostic/agnostic describing your assessment of how confident your knowledge is and theist/atheist describing whether or not you believe in a god. So you can be an agnostic theist (eg. you believe YHWH exists but believe he can’t be proven) or a gnostic atheist (you believe we can know that a god doesn’t exist) and so on. On the other hand, many self-described agnostics use definition 2 above for themselves, which generally requires them to insist definition 1 is the “correct” definition of atheist.
I hope that merely listing some of the issues have convinced you that this is a silly argument. It’s akin to asking “if a tree falls in a forest and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound”? A very good post to read about this is this one: the people who argue over this are just using different definitions of sound. Both definitions have some social use hence both definitions have someone feeling it’s the “natural” one.
Part of the problem is that the split is too crude: like much of language it’s built on a binary: either you accept something or you don’t. But this is one of the biggest problems with the human brain — we aren’t good at thinking about probabilities. Rationality on the other hand is (IMO) is all about probabilities. So I think it’s in probabilities that we can clear this up a little.
Of course the idea of there being a continuum of belief has been suggested many many times, including by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, which discusses the spectrum of theistic probability:
- Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
- De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
- Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
- Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
- Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
- De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
- Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”
The advantage of this is that it includes the entire set of attitudes that is likely to be held. Unless someone is a self-identified agnostic who thinks it’s impossible to even come up with a subjective probability for the existence of a god, or that there is no subjective probability etc. If you are one of these people please comment, I’d love to hear from you.
But of course you can set any probability for yourself about a theistic statement. This scale is just a way of splitting the spectrum into bands that are more socially convenient. As opposed to walking around saying “I’m an 82%-er”.
Still, I think the basic idea is right. Even if we talk about having beliefs or not having them, we SHOULD be talking about our degree of confidence that something is true. At least if we’re interested in reason. For now I think it would be interesting to examine confidence levels. So let’s have some statements:
- The universe was created by an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, immaterial being/intelligence
- The universe was created by a being/intelligence (note that this includes ideas like the universe being a simulation)
- [Some form of mainstream] Christianity is true
- Zeus exists
My thumbsuck ratings are 5%, 25% or even higher (a complex topic for another day), 2.5%, 0.5%. What are yours? Next post I’ll look at the problems of what those numbers might mean in terms of words like atheist/theist/agnostic.