3 AM Philosophy

Dr. Richard Carrier asks me why I balk at being called an atheist

I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist –Albert Camus


Richard Carrier asked me a fair question the other day, one that I think deserves a fair and full response as it is also is a question that I get asked relatively frequently, so I figured I would consolidate my answers into a single blog post to which I can refer people in the future and in perpetuity.

Dr. Carrier asked me why I was so against people calling me atheist, when it is the case that it is commonly held among internet atheist that anyone who does not believe in God is an atheist. Under this  view I would of course would be an atheist, but I reject this schema for the same reason I reject the view that under a creationist view that evolution is merely change or theory is just a guess. Words to me are signifiers that convey concepts. They do not have any intrinsic meaning, and generally do not prescriptively give context by mere utterance or conveyance…words do however have usages. A dictionary doesn’t tell a person how to use a word, they tell you how a word is generally used. There is a pretty significant distinction to be had here. Simply put, dictionaries do not define words. This may give you significant pause when reading what I just wrote…”WHAT!” you may exclaim. What is Steve talking about??? Dictionaries do not define words? So let me explain what I mean by this…

In mathematics things are sometimes prescriptively defined. For example 0!=1 (read as zero factorial equals one) is an identity that is true by definition. Mathematicians have prescriptively made the 0! equal to 1 by definition, same as x^0=1 is by definition. There is no law of the universe which makes these equalities true. They are simply true because they are defined to be so.  If you ever do a Taylor series or polynomial expansion you would quickly see these definitions have utility as to why they are explicitly defined this way. By expressly defining them it conveys to the reader that that if you see 0! in a mathematical formula you “ought” to treat it exactly as you would as if it read as 1. There is no ambiguity or nothing polysemous here. If you want to get the correct answer, you “ought” to understand that 0!=1. Colloquial dictionaries merely give synchronic usage, they do not tell you prescriptively how a word “ought” to be used.

Words like “atheist” or “agnostic” are not defined to be used in any specific way. There is no *must usage* when you see either word nor infer that they are prescriptively being given a single meaning. To me neither atheist, nor agnostic, should ever be referred to as “by definition” as there are no prescribed definitions to these words. Appealing to dictionary (Argumentum ad dictionarium) that there is only one “correct” definition, meaning or use of a word is a fallacy. Again, words have usages and words like “atheist” or “agnostic” are no exceptions and there simply is no prescribed definition of these words. Arguing what the “correct” meaning or definition of “atheism” or “agnosticism” is nonsensical to me and even the lofty goal of having people use my preferred way of understandings of these words I quite realize would be a very much a quixotic endeavor. What I argue is actually two fold: What is the most common way “atheist” and “agnostic” are understood in philosphical literature and which understanding leads to less ambiguity, absurdities and/or contradictions. With that in mind and now with some preliminary background information out of the way…what are the reasons I balk at being called an atheist?

1. Labels are useful identifiers

Why do we have labels? They are often used to quickly convey information to someone about what our particular positions are in relationship to a given proposition being True or False. Given the label “atheist” what does that identify someone as exactly? Assume we go by colloquial definitions and say an atheist is someone who does not believe Gods exist (they lack a belief)…ok, but is that telling someone in that case what my position is with respect to the position being True or False? No, it merely tells someone that I am not a theist. It really doesn’t convey any information about my beliefs nor my position with respect to the proposition of theism…it is unspecific and vague.


If atheism is ~Bp then someone telling me that they are atheist can mean:
1) The person is not a theist and merely has no position on the proposition either way (~Bp ^ ~B~p)
2) The person believes God does not exist. (B~p)

I have no way of knowing by any logical entailment by them saying that they are atheist to what is the actual case here…it could be the case they hold to 1) or could be they hold to 2)…it is unspecific.

If however the label was used in a more stricter sense:


If atheism is B~p then someone telling me that they are atheist means:
1) They believe God do not exist.
2) They do not believe God(s) exist.

The stricter usage (sensu stricto) is clearly more precise as a label. Since I think labels should be informative, I reject the colloquial definitions (sensu lato) for myself as they are simple not the label that conveys my particular position on the proposition of theism.

2. In the realm of philosophy “atheist” and “agnostic” have well established usages.

There are certain material facts of the matter that need to be considered here. Predominantly, and historically for last few hundred years, “atheist” is overwhelming understood in the philosphical literature as someone who believes God does not exist. Even Anthony Flew in 1972 in his paper “The Presumption of Atheism” explicitly noted this as the most common understanding: “Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ‘someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively.” This does not mean one can not adopt a sensu lato understanding of the word atheist, but that does not change the material fact of how the word is understood when reading a peer reviewed paper or academic source on the topic…to read them using a sensu lato usage would result in a misunderstanding of the material. Recently this occurred with someone who adopts “disbelief” as “not believing” (as seemingly a narrative put out by The Atheist Experience) so when they read “Atheism is the disbelief that God exist” or similar they take it as atheism is merely not believing in God, yet this is an incorrect reading as “disbelief” is again overwhelmingly understood to be the belief p is False (or ~p is True).*

Agnostic also has a well established understandings (See “Agnosticism” in 3 ways. https://greatdebatecommunity.com/2019/01/21/agnosticism-in-3-ways/)…and here specifically it is dealing with the question of God’s existence, or ontology…not epistemology. It is not here dealing with knowledge nor the knowability of God, but as not assigning a truth value to the proposition of theism. It is the position that one neither believes nor disbelieves p (one does not believe p is true nor believes p is false). Similarly, agnosticism here is the psychological state of being agnostic on p (SEP), again nothing to do with knowledge here.

So given 1 and 2 I use the label “agnostic” as it best suits my position. Precisely, unambiguously, and is consistent with the most common academic understandings of these words. “Atheist” simply does not label me properly so to Dr. Carrier I say— I balk at being called an atheist, because it simply is not my philosphical position and does not convey any useful information to my beliefs nor my positions. I am not an atheist using sensu stricto understanding of terms and asking me to accept sensu lato usages is asking me to be less precise, more ambiguous and less informative…and to that I say no thank you as I am an agnostic.

*I should note here I tend to capitalize True and False for just my writing style when nothing with respect to p…no other reason.

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