Loftier Musings On John Shook’s Views On Atheism.
In reading John Shook’s book The God debates – I’m struck by his cogent and adept way at articulating both sides of the great debate – true it is that I’m only a few chapters into this book, but nonetheless it deserves some attention. That attention today will be focused on his discussion on the definition/s of atheism.
As many of you know this has been a hobby for me – as it probably is for most atheists who have ever attempted to discuss the way they define themselves with believers. As Shook notes:
Religion’s defenders often show a preference for defining atheism as the strongest claim to know that no god exists, If atheist’s cannot justify such an extravagant claim (and they can’t…), perhaps belief in god then appears reasonable? (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22, 2010)
This tactic fails, since it uses the wrong definition of atheism and conveniently forgets how religious believers do claim extravagant knowledge of a supreme infinite being. It is religion that credits an extraordinary capacity for knowledge to humans, not atheism. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22-3, 2010)
If atheism isn’t solely known for the strict and strong belief, or claim to knowledge, that no god exists, and it is not possible for one to, just exactly what does atheism mean?
Shook begins at p. 13, with the Greek definition of the word “atheos” – which he determines to mean the contrary of “theos” which means “godly” hence atheism, understood this way – simply means “not godly”. Over time though, and Shook does not give specific dates, but on p. 17 one is led to believe he is discussing some time around, or not long before the enlightenment era – atheism became associated with “dogmatism” – which confounded Shook as that was a term used to describe true religious believers since “the days of the Christian Church”. Shook states that in earlier centuries an atheist was simply someone who was a skeptical non believer, characterized “by an inability to be dogmatic about religion.” (p.17) These skeptical atheists were ignorant of religious matters, they remained unpersuaded by religious creed, scripture or theological reasoning – they were doubters and uncertain. It is ironic then, that nowadays atheists are again, largely associated with dogmatism – if only in the eyes of believers, says Shook.
It wasn’t until the term “agnostic” came into play, with its conservative approach to belief, which Shook considers is also the basis for atheism – that atheism became to be defined in the way the religious believer believes. The basic argument goes as follows:
If an agnostic cannot know supernaturalism is right, and if the atheist isn’t an agnostic, then the atheist must therefore be someone claiming to know something about the supernatural. What might an atheist claim to know? The common meaning of ‘atheism’ began to shift towards “disbelief in god” and “the denial that god exists” so that many people began taking atheism to mean “it can be known that nothing supernatural exists”. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 18, 2010)
Shook states at this point, on p. 18 that it is difficult to track down the dictionary definition of atheism over the centuries, since it was Christians doing the recording and the subject is considered “distasteful” to them, to use Shook’s term. One term that cropped up in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was the earliest of that series to mention the word – distinguishes between 2 types of atheism that Shook uses for the rest of his discussion on it. They are “dogmatic” atheism and “skeptical” atheism:
Dogmatic atheism “denies the existence of a god positively” while skeptical atheism “distrusts the capacity of the human mind to discover the existence of god.” The entry goes on to add that skeptical atheism hardly differs from agnosticism. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 18, 2010)
Let us take a moment out of Shook’s review of atheism for just a moment to look at 2 atheist philosophers who have added support for this separation of atheism into positive and negative positions: George Smith in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, and Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification both present their own case for such. Let us look at Smith briefly:
Atheism may be divided up into two broad categories: implicit and explicit. (a) Implicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it. (b) Explicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it.
(a) An implicit atheist is a person who does not believe in a god, but who has not explicitly rejected or denied the truth of theism. Implicit atheism does not require familiarity with the idea of a god…
(b) An explicit atheist is one who rejects belief in a god. This deliberate rejection of theism presupposes familiarity with theistic beliefs and is sometimes characterized as anti-theism. (Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, p13-4, 17, 1989)
Now let us turn, again briefly to Martin:
Still there is a popular meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist not simply holds no belief in the existence of a god or gods but believes there is no god or gods. The use of this term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion let us call this positive atheism and the type of atheism derived from the Greek root and held by the atheistic thinkers surveyed above [fyi they are Baron D’Holbach, Anne Besant, Richard Carlile, Charles Southwell and Charles Bradlaugh] let us call negative atheism. (Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 464, 1990)
I advise anyone looking for a reasoned discussion on this topic to see both books for a look at this issue. With that out of the way – let us continue with Shook – and his brief discussion of the “New Atheism”.
He states on p. 18 that dogmatic atheism is taken to be the only kind of atheism present nowadays, especially in the form of the “new atheism”:
This new meaning for atheism has achieved common parlance, dictionary affirmation, and philosophical usage. Instead of being an ignorant skeptic about the divine, an atheist is now supposed to be just another overreaching gnostic possessing confident knowledge about ultimate reality. Agnosticism has now re-emerged into popular view as a nonbelief option to atheism’s dogmas and religion’s faith. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 18, 2010)
Shook moves on to the point of his discussion on atheism – what an atheist really is today – and how they define themselves:
… an atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods. It must be immediately added that an atheist does not have any faith in a god, either, just in case we could imagine someone lacking a belief but having faith. Whatever it may take for a person to take god’s existence seriously, an atheist does not have it. The essence of atheism is a lack of a belief that god exists. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 21, 2010)
Shook states, pn p. 21, that even with this definition there are, as a matter of pragmatism actually 4 threads of atheism, based on the above view:
- Atheists are those denying the specific theistic god of Judaism/Christianity/Islam.
- Atheists are those who deny that any god exists.
- Atheists claim to know no god exists.
- Atheists simply lack belief that god exists.
Moreover there are even more debates over who has the burden of proof, how many atheists there are, amongst all this debate it seems, says Shook (p. 21) that agnosticism simply has no place anymore – as skeptical atheism has relegated it to a useless category, by encompassing it entirely.
Shook does state however, that there are “understandable causes for disagreement over a precise meaning for “atheism”, (p. 21). Theists have pointed out the Greek is not simply understood as “not godly” as it seems many atheists are content on using: but this poses no problem for Shook who states instead that atheists now have a choice of “prefix and term”:
… “anti” theos (denial of the gods), or maybe “non” theos (not believing in gods), or “anti” theism (denial of a specifically theistic god). Translations can’t decide this issue. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 21, 2010)
Shook finishes by stating that this confusion can be cleared up quite easily – by a couple of distinctions. He states that an atheist is someone who “does not believe in any gods” (p. 22) – the basis for this being in either inattention or skepticism. Shook states that that’s why 2 main varieties of atheism are often promoted as “‘not believing that a god exists’ is different from ‘believing that god does not exist'” – according to Shook both are valid forms of atheism which he dubs “apatheism” and “skeptical atheism”.
Apatheism combines apathy and theism to label people inattentive about a god and religious matters; apatheists lack a belief in a god because they are not paying attention to religion and don’t care enough to think about god. Skeptical atheism is doubtful disbelief towards a god and religious matters; skeptics lack belief in god because they have considered religion and believe that god probably does not exist. “Strong” atheism is the extreme end of skeptical atheism where some people confidently assert that no god exists. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22, 2010)
Shook states that apatheism doesn’t offer rational justification for itself as the apatheist doesn’t know or care enough to bother- she has no concept of god or has no interest in thinking about what little she has heard about. Therefore the common apologetic argument that atheism strictly means the assertion “no gods exist” cant’ apply to the apatheist as she “simply does not have that affirming belief” (p. 22). Shook states that it is more correct to say that the apatheist ” does not have the belief a god exists, rather than supporting that the apatheist believes god does not exist.” (p. 22)
As Shook states an apatheist is not the kind of person you would seek to find rational justification for skepticism towards the claim that a god exists – rather it falls to the skeptical atheist. Shook states that skeptical atheism is doubt toward the existence of all gods on the “grounds that available information and sound reasoning shows how it is improbable that any god exists.” (p. 22) Moreover this branch of atheism contains the “disbelievers” portion of the larger whole of the”nonbelievers”.
Religion’s defenders often who a preference for defining atheism as the strongest claim to know that no god exists. If atheists cannot justify such an extravagant claim (and they can’t…), perhaps belief in god then appears reasonable? This tactic fails since it uses the wrong definition of atheism and conveniently forgets how religious believers do claim extravagant knowledge of a supreme infinite being. It is religion that credits an extraordinary capacity of knowledge to humans, not atheism. Those who propose the existence of something always have the burden of justification. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22-3, 2010)
Shook states that the skeptical atheist has a responsibility to respond to theology with atheology in the god debates, which is akin to saying that atheists do have a burden of proof – that is, to demonstrate that theist arguments and evidences fail.
And finally – the strong atheists are those who are persuaded by both negative and positive philosophical atheology – which is, if I have been succesful at all, not the default position of most atheists.
If anything I hope this shows some of my theist readers who try to tell an atheist what they believe (like they would ever let an atheist tell them what branch of Christianity they fall into) that all those atheists you debate, who claim atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods, or that they don’t claim a god doesn’t exist, only that they don’t accept the claim one does – actually believe what they’re saying. It seems some of the more cynical apologists think this is simply a word game to avoid the burden of proof – or is antithetical to the traditional definition of the word (even if they’re right, it doesn’t matter, definitions and words change meaning over time, all the time). But as we see – no educated atheist is saying they have no burden of proof – rather that their burden lies in demonstrating fallacies, absurdities, contradictions and flaws in your arguments and evidences. It is you who launches the opening salvo – being the claimant – it is us who are required to respond.
Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. P. 464.
Shook J.R. (2010). The God Debates. Sussex, United Kingdom. Wiley-Blackwell. P. 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23.
Smith G.H. (1989). Atheism: The Case Against God (second edition). Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 13-4, 17.
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