Lack of Belief in Gods

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 12, 2011 in Video

Update: Lol. I just noticed that I posted this same video here a few months ago!

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt January 12, 2011 at 9:15 am

Those silhouettes are totally ripped!

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Rob January 12, 2011 at 9:52 am

“Which one’s aren’t married?”

“The coffee table, Maureen, the pit bull, the home-made macaroons . . . ”

Such a great analogy, and another example of exactly what it is like to converse with (some) Christians.

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Joseph January 12, 2011 at 10:13 am

A lot of this is just semantics. What is a belief? What is a lack of belief? What is atheism? Strong atheism? Weak atheism? If I say, ‘I don’t beleive”, this in itself is a belief. Similarly, if I say, ‘Ihave a lack of belief ‘.

A solution would be to draw a line, with “God” written on one side, and “No God”, on the other side, and ask people to say where they stand. Those who can’t answer should get drunk until such times they can make a decision.

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Eric January 12, 2011 at 11:30 am

I wonder how qualified someone who says that the biblical god “needs worship” is to speak about the biblical god. It’s not *always* true, of course, but it’s far too often true that if you scratch an atheist, you find a ham handed biblical literalist: he may not believe anything in the Bible, but he *knows* that if you’re *going* to believe anything in it at all, it *has* to be understood literally. (Again, I know that this is not always true, and that it doesn’t apply to many of those who comment here, but it’s obviously true of Qualiasoup, at least when he made this video.)

Re: “Look around and tell me which ones aren’t married” versus “atheism denotes a lack of belief in god,” my goodness, this fellow is incredibly confused. The question about who is or isn’t married *does not* in *any* sense attempt to establish the necessary or sufficient conditions of marriage, while the claim, atheism denotes a lack of belief in gods, does! If you want to say that X is a necessary or sufficient condition of P, then it’s *perfectly* legitimate to raise any counterexamples (i.e. a P that lacks the property X).

“Those who can’t approach discussion with a basic level of intelligence and maturity shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously.” If accurately representing what those whom you disagree with believe, or recognizing the distinction between (1) the use of a pronoun without an antecedent in the context of a conversation where the antecedent is understood and (2) a definition are requirements of “a basic level of intelligence and maturity,” then…(While it’s true that the suffix -ist is personal, it’s still the case that if you want to claim that X alone is a sufficient condition for being a P-ist, then it’s legitimate to raise counterexamples. Indeed, the fact that the suffix is personal *counts against* the claim that a proposed *sufficient* condition *that a non-person can satisfy* is how the term should be defined!)

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Rick B January 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

@Joseph – yes, it’s semantics, but those same semantics which you seem to brush off are the basis of so many misunderstandings.

Why don’t we hold the same contest: we’ll draw a line with “Truntoo” written on one side, and “No Truntoo” written on the other. I refuse to define Truntoo, and demand that you make a choice on where you stand.

This is what debating theists is like to me.

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I refuse to define Truntoo, and demand that you make a choice on where you stand.

Easy. “I don’t know.” That’s the third choice. Either Truntoo exists (true) or does not (false). Until I have more information, it’s “I don’t know.” I lack belief, but I also lack non-belief. So saying what I lack is to say nothing.

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MS January 12, 2011 at 1:23 pm

It seems a little hypocritical to me that the video’s creator gives the dictionary definition of agnosticism to back up his point, then immediately disregards dictionary definitions of atheism that he disagrees with. However, this does illustrate the fact that dictionaries are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The dictionary definition of a word is contingent on how the word is actually used, not vice versa.

Secondly, the creator completely fails to actually address the (legitimate) issue with his definition’s failing to differentiate between Richard Dawkins and a rock. In regular conversation, I don’t see any problem likely to arise. But I presume we, or at least the video creator isn’t actually talking just about regular conversation, but about creating a logical basis to rest a linguistic framework upon. In this case, imprecision is simply not permissible. If you want to claim that your system makes more logical sense than atheist->agnostic->theist, then you need to address said problems.

The truth is that whichever system you use, there will always be imperfections, exceptions and mis-communications. Human language is a terribly flawed way of conveying ideas, but we don’t have any other options. Instead of treating words as if they have immutable definitions that correlate exactly to a specific, particular meaning, and trying to enforce our definitions on others, we should try to speak so that we are understood. In all the time my friends have defined themselves as agnostics, I’ve never had any trouble understanding what they were trying to tell me. In all the time I’ve defined myself as an atheist, nobody has ever asked what I meant, except for a few rare occasions when I’m asked if I’m really an agnostic(the “incorrect” definition of agnostic). And to that I always answer with “no.”

I don’t “lack belief” in God. I actively believe that God does not exist. By belief(a term I don’t like to use) I mean that I would answer “True or probably true” to the proposition “God does not exist” and I feel no shame or embarrassment in doing so. This whole divide between “Strong/weak” atheism was actually coined by former atheist Andrew Flew in 1976. It’s neither the traditional, nor the most commonly accepted use of the term. Since then, atheists around the world have fallen for the bait that it’s somehow wrong or illogical to actively think that God doesn’t exist. And stop thinking that people who really agonize over the question of God’s existence, or legitimately don’t know and choose not to worry about it will gladly let you co-opt them into your gang.

I became an atheist when I was in high shool, but I still went to a Catholic School. The first day of one of my classes, the teacher asked the non-Catholic students to raise their hands. I did so along with a few others. He then asked us “Have you written an act of Defection?” I said no, as I didn’t even know such a thing existed. He then told us that we were still Catholics and was going to mark us down as such. He was right of course, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, my apostasy was not valid. Just like my agnostic friends, by your definition, would be atheists. If you’re an ex-Catholic and haven’t formally defected, do you want to told that you’re not actually an atheist, but a Catholic? If one of your loved ones dies and is posthumously baptized into the Mormon Church, will you accept that your dead relative is a Mormon now? How does forced conversations via semantics make you any different than the Catholics or Mormons who would do the same? Is this really how you want to promote atheism?

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MS January 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Also, the term “atheism” actually entered the English Language meaning “Godless Belief”
Just something I find interesting.

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 1:55 pm

MS,

Thank you. I completely agree with you. The bankruptcy of this sissified beating around the bush is easily exposed by just looking at the underlying logic:

A proposition is capable of being only true or false. There are no other options.

“X exists”

1 = True
2 = False
3 = I don’t know

Either you think the justification favors 1, or it favors 2, or there isn’t enough info and thus 3.

There is no way to display the strong/weak/gnosticagnosticgnostiatheists nonsense using just logic. Hence, it’s all just semantics.

Watch the Craig/Hitchens debate. Hitchens kept saying he just “lacks belief” and thus he doesn’t have to support his position. At one point, Craig asked him what he specifically thought about the Christian God, seeing as the term “atheism” has become this umbrella term meaning all kinds of things. He pressed him on it. Hitchens responded that the Christian God is imaginary. I.e., does not exist. I would be willing to bet a large number of atheists would answer the same if pressed. This is a positive claim and thus requires justification. Needless to say, Hitchens never provided any such justification.

Craig at least is manly.

“Weak” atheists are sissies.

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Justgreatthanks January 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Martin:

A proposition is capable of being only true or false.

Yes, but this is an observation of metaphysics. “Weak atheism” isn’t a metaphysical position, it’s an epistemological one.

A proposition is capable of being only true or false. There are no other options.

“X exists”

1 = True
2 = False
3 = I don’t know

If there are “no other options” where exactly did this “I don’t know” come from? Obviously, a proposition is either true or false independent of our knowledge or our ability to identify its truth or falsity.

By your reasoning, since “true” or “false” exhausts the possibilities with regard to the veracity of “God exists,” the people who say “I don’t know” are just as much sissies a those who “lack belief.” You could even extend this thinking to other fields.

I mean it’s either true or false that Higgs boson exists, and physicists who either don’t believe in it due to insufficient evidence or say we don’t really know (yet) are just being sissies.

I would be willing to bet a large number of atheists would answer the same if pressed.

Perhaps you didn’t actually mean this bit to be an argument, just merely an observation. But just to be clear: This is of course an ad hominem in regard to coherence of “weak atheism.” Even if it is true that a “large number” of atheists hold beliefs that extend beyond the “lack of belief” in theism, it doesn’t follow that weak atheism is not a perfectly coherent stance to take.

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Justfine,

“I don’t know” is not a sissy position. The sissy position is including “lack of belief” among the other three. It doesn’t make logical sense. If you lack T, then you must be F or IDK. So why not just say F or IDK to start with?

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Justgreatthanks January 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm

If you lack T, then you must be F or IDK.

But again, if F and T exhaust the possibilities (as you correctly stated), where exactly is IDK coming from? Are you arguing that despite the fact that the truth of the matter is either F or T, one can justifiably hold a position that is not F or T?

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Ben January 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm

I don’t believe you have to be 100% certain of something to believe it. I believe that I will meet my deadline for work, but I am not 100% convinced of it.

With that said, it may be almost impossible to have no opinion or belief/disbelief in something after you heard it. I could tell you that a person named Mark Andrew became the world’s best Chef by accident in 1982. That could be true, or I could have made it up. You might not *think* you have a belief, but deep down you probably have a hunch one way or the other.

There’s beliefs, and then there’s a DEGREE of belief, but either way, you either believe x or don’t believe x, it’s just to different degrees.

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Kevin January 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Martin,
The phrase “I don’t know” is not a statement about X, it is a statement about my evaluation of X. It is an answer to the question “do you think X exists?” as in “I am not in a position to say or conclude that X exists or not.” This has nothing to do with the truth value of the proposition “X exists.” You are conflating epistemology and ontology. Now, if you ask the question “do you believe X exists,” the possible answers are yes (I believe) and no (I don’t believe/lack belief). To say “I don’t know”, is to express confusion as to what beliefs you hold.

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Justfine,

IDK is not having enough information to decide between T and F.

There is justification for being an F on Russell’s Teapot (lack of space missions out that far, and matter does not spontaneously become teapots).

But consider a teapot orbiting earth. There is less justification for being an F, but not enough justification for being a T either. There have been thousands of missions to near earth orbit, and there is all kinds of junk floating around up there.

I think the reasonable position is to say that there is not enough information to decide if the proposition “there is a teapot in near earth orbit” is T or F, so withholding judgment (IDK) seems to be the most reasonable position to take, until such time as justification can tip it one way or the other. Which may be never.

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Kevin,

No, I’m definitely arguing epistemology only. See my above comment about a teapot in Earth’s orbit. If you ask me whether I believe or whether I know, or whether I think, I’ll answer IDK every time. It’s entirely possible, it’s not far fetched that there is, and it’s not far fetched that there isn’t. There really isn’t enough information to make me believe or think or know either way. At all.

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Justgreatthanks January 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

IDK is not having enough information to decide between T and F.

So yes, it seems, one can refrain from either F or T reasonably. That’s the first step in understanding the coherence of weak atheism.

The second is seeing how, even if I don’t have enough information to definitely determine the truth of falsity of a proposition, I can have enough information to determine that its positive assertion as being true is unjustified, and that is distinct from calling that proposition necessarily false.

There really isn’t enough information to make me believe or think or know either way.

What if someone insisted that they did believe in the teapot? Would you argue that they had unjustified beliefs? Would you perhaps argue that, despite the fact that the teapot may exist and it may not, we have enough information to know its positive assertion as being true can’t be reasonably justified, and for this reason you cannot hold to T as they do?

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Justfine,

Would you perhaps argue that, despite the fact that the teapot may exist and it may not, we have enough information to know its positive assertion as being true can’t be reasonably justified, and for this reason you cannot hold to T as they do?

Sure. But that would still make me an IDK.

Back to the original teapot (the Mars one). I think we have reasonable justification for being Fs on this proposition. What if, instead of saying I was an F, I kept saying I only “lack T”? This would still leave open the question of whether I was an F or an IDK.

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Justgreatthanks January 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Sure. But that would still make me an IDK.

Ok. But it also sounds like IDK would be an insufficient description of your particular stance on the issue, since what you hold to be the case extends to what other people believe. That is, in addition to “not knowing,” you hold that others who hold to T in regards to the Earth teapot are wrong in doing so, because the case for T is wholly unconvincing. It’s more than just “IDK” it’s also “T is not a reasonable position to hold because the case for T is a bad one.” Am I correct?

Back to the original teapot (the Mars one). I think we have reasonable justification for being Fs on this proposition.

I think it could be said that the Earth teapot is more likely than the Mars teapot. However, considering that were a teapot travelling the speed of a shuttle (which is easy in the vacuum of space) it could reach reach the orbit of Mars in a matter of a few years. Given that, why a IDK for the earth one but an F for the Mars one? Both are quite distinctly in the realm of possibility.

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Alex January 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm

I wish I could watch the video, but it wont show up for me sometimes :/
I am pretty sure I have the current latest version of Flash.
I would appreciate it if you try and put the URL in these video blog posts Luke.
Thanks!

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Hermes January 12, 2011 at 7:26 pm

MS: He then asked us “Have you written an act of Defection?” I said no, as I didn’t even know such a thing existed. He then told us that we were still Catholics and was going to mark us down as such. He was right of course, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, my apostasy was not valid.

FWIW, It’s nearly impossible to get that now, and they are retroactively rescinding quite a few of them as ‘improper’. This is largely to stem the official losses to the RCC over the past decade.

The exception is in countries that take taxes out to fund various sects including the RCC. Some of those allow you to opt-out. I don’t know if the RCC counts that as an actual defection or not.

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Hermes January 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm

The video is spot on. When it came out, I did have to watch it twice to make sure that I wasn’t improperly interpreting it. Taking a look again — today or in a few days — may make things clearer for those who have fundamental concerns about what it says and why.

—-

Side note: I take atheist to equal non-theist. As such, since theist is typically defined as having belief in a god or gods, the negation not having belief in a god or gods fits common usage of atheist as well.

That there are variations on theist/theism or atheist/atheism does not negate the common usage examples outlined above and in the video that act as effective supersets for each category.

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Martin January 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm

It’s more than just “IDK” it’s also “T is not a reasonable position to hold because the case for T is a bad one.” Am I correct?

Sure.

Given that, why a IDK for the earth one but an F for the Mars one? Both are quite distinctly in the realm of possibility.

Because we aren’t justified in thinking that a space mission has been out to Mars yet, and we aren’t justified in thinking that matter spontaneously organizes into teapots. Therefore, we are justified in being Fs with regards to the original Mars teapot. Not just lack-Ts, but bona fide Fs. Not 100% Fs, but probably 95% or 90% Fs.

In contrast, we are justified in believing that space missions have been to near Earth orbit, and we are justified in believing that there is a bunch of space junk, and so therefore we would be justified in being Ts in regards to the Earth teapot. But we would also be justified in being Fs. The thing is, there just isn’t enough justification either way, and so withholding judgment is the only option.

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MS January 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm

since theist is typically defined as having belief in a god or gods, the negation not having belief in a god or gods fits common usage of atheist as well.

So does atheist meaning “having the belief in no god” And given that “atheism” was first used to mean “Godless belief” a more appropriate one going by the word’s etymology.

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Hermes January 12, 2011 at 9:43 pm

MS, I’d like to respond but I’m not sure what you’re saying in your last post.

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Jesse January 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Though I have not watched the video, I have read the replies that have been made here and I want to give my thoughts on some of the subjects they touch upon.

When it comes to belief, there are three possibilities: having the belief that X is the case, having the belief that X is not the case, and not having either of those beliefs. For the sake of keeping this response at least a little brief, I will use the symbolism of formal logic to refer to these possibilities: B(X), B(~X), and (~B(X)^~B(~X)), respectively.

The expression that one “lacks belief in X” can be interpreted two ways: as meaning B(~X) or as meaning (~B(X)^~B(~X)). If the first interpretation is right, then the person thinks B(~X), which means they cannot also think ~B(~X) at the same time. If the second interpretation is right, then the person thinks (~B(X)^~B(~X)), which includes ~B(~X), which means they cannot also think B(~X) at the same time. As such, one or the other interpretation must be right in a given instance, but not both, because that would result in (B(~X)^~B(~X)), which is a contradiction.

The person who takes the position of B(~X) and asserts that they “lack belief in X” could be charged with having told us a half-truth at least, and possibly with having used weasel wording too. While their use of language is technically correct, because B(~X) is one of the logical possibilities, they did not give us the full picture, which would tell us that they do not take the position of ~B(~X), which would rule out the other interpretation. A lot of the time, people are speaking casually and hence imprecisely, so a lot of time people can be excused for the ocassional telling of a half-truth. In some cases, however, people say “lack of belief in X” to leave both B(~X) and ~B(~X) on the table and then switch between them whenever they desire. When the person does this intentionally, they are guilty of weasel wording, and when done unintentionally, the person just needs to get acquainted with logic.

The person who takes the position of (~B(X)^~B(~X)) and asserts that they “lack belief in X”, then they are guilty in the same way, though to a lesser extent in my opinion. I emphasize my opinion here because I am now speculating. It seems to me that “I believe in Not-X” is so straight-forward and easy to say that reasonable people would expect an honest speaker to say that if that is what they thought. As a corrolary to that, when someone goes out of their way to say something less straight-forward, “I lack belief in X”, reasonable people would interpret that as meaning the author takes a position other than B(~X), which makes (~B(X)^~B(~X)) the only possibility remaining. As such, those who take the position of (~B(X)^~B(~X)) and assert that they “lack belief in X” are making an honest effort at concise and accurate communication, so they are not as open to charges of having told a half-truth. Even so, while the grass may be greener on this side, that does not mean there are no weasels here.

Perhaps stricken with paranoia, or unwittingly counting the hits and ignoring the misses, it seems to me that this kind of weasel wording is becoming more common in direct relation to the growth of atheism outside the intelligentia. If I am right about this, then people should be wary of ever using the phrase “lack of belief in X” because the increase of weasel wording could serve to undermine the distinction mentioned in the previous paragraph, which will make the agnostic kind of atheist more open to charges of having told a half-truth. Even if the speaker intends to be honest and forthright, should their words be preserved into some future age where the distinction has been undermined, people could look back on what you said and suspect that you were not intending to be honest and forthright.

Things look bad for this use of language, not that I found it very appealing before. I say this, not only because it opens the speaker up at least a little bit to charges of having told a half-truth, but also because “lack” is often a poor choice of wording. Lack is generally taken to mean, and has been defined by all the reputable dictionaries I have read to mean, not just being without something, but being without something that you regret being without. If you disregard my warning and continue to use the “without belief in X” phraseology, then at least try to avoid saying that you “lack belief in X” unless you regret being without it.

I know some people would dismiss everything I have said here with a handwave and, perhaps under their breath, an utterance of “just semantics”. To approach language that way is hardly different from approaching science with a handwave and, perhaps under their breath, an utterance of “just a theory”. In fact, I have yet to come across an expression of “X is just Y” that does not have as its foundation a fallacy of reduction (a.k.a. fallacy of mediocrity). A home is just bricks, a book is just words, evolution is just a theory, your argument is just semantics, etc., etc., etc. I find it ironic, in the most disagreeable sense of the word, that the usage of the word ‘just’ is so unjust. Revelations like these, and like those of the previous paragraphs where I drawn out the possibilities with formal logic, stem from semantical reasoning. Semantics is important (and so is tone, gosh darn it).

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Kevin January 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

“I will use the symbolism of formal logic to refer to these possibilities: B(X), B(~X), and (~B(X)^~B(~X)), respectively.”

This breaks down in the real world since X is not clearly defined which is required in formal logic. Consider someone who holds (~B(D&C)^~B(~D&C)) with respect to Deism and B(~(I&S)) with respect to Islam and Scientology. How would you characterize their position. If you say only B(~X) constitutes atheism, then the person is an atheist with respect to Islam and Scientology, but not an atheist (presumably an agnostic) with respect to Christianity and Deism. This method results in contradictions. This is why, if atheism is to have any use as a label, it is better described as ~B(X) where X is any god that has attributes commonly attributed to him (i.e. does not include God is love, a totem pole, etc.) so basically an atheist is someone who ~B(I&S&C&D&J&B…). This way, it cuts straight to the issue of contention and does not result in any contradictions.

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Jesse January 13, 2011 at 3:14 am

Kevin,

Thanks for reading my reply and offering a response. I agree with almost everything you said. Specificity is important, perhaps essential, to the proper use of formal logic. However, I do not agree with the very start of your response, not so much because you were wrong in what you said, but because of the reasoning that seems to have led to it.

You seem to have thought that, when I said there were three possibilities with regard to belief, that I was defining theism, atheism, and agnosticism and that I was confining myself to that subject. That was not the case. I meant to talk about any and all beliefs, which is why I left X undefined: you can replace it with any meaningful expression you care to come up with.

Here is how I would define atheism and agnosticism. Atheism: ~B(X). Replace X with the proposition that the universe was created or caused to exist by a conscious being plus whatever other propositions would be needed for the non-creator gods, such as those of the Greeks. Those who accept atheism can be classified as belonging to one of two categories: B(~X) would be positive atheism and ~B(~X) would be negative atheism. Agnosticism: (~K(X1)^~K(X2)…). The K stands for knowledge and X1, X2, etc. would be for the existence or nonexistence of each of the various gods. These definitions could be improved, especially in distinguishing B and K, but this should give you an idea of how I define these terms, which is all that I have set out to accomplish here.

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MS January 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

MS, I’d like to respond but I’m not sure what you’re saying in your last post.  

I meant to say that taking “atheist” to mean somebody who actively disbelieves in God works just as well as taking it to mean somebody who simply lacks believe in God according to your logic.

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Hermes January 13, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Yes, including other shades along the same basic spectrum from a simple lack through active disbelief. Any individual who happens not to be a theist is covered, and the issue of any knowledge claims are still left open.

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Citizenghost January 14, 2011 at 4:06 am

MS

It seems a little hypocritical to me that the video’s creator gives the dictionary definition of agnosticism to back up his point, then immediately disregards dictionary definitions of atheism that he disagrees with

I don’t think it’s hypocritical at all. He’s making a case for why some dictionary definitions are better than others. You can find any number of definitions for the terms “atheism” and “agnosticism” In the case of agnosticism, he clearly feels the distniction between knowledge and belief is one worth making.

I think it’s a very good video.

Personally, I’m a great deal more interested in what people’s views actually are (and what explanations they give for them) than what particular term is used to described their views. The latter obsession is just an invitation for word games.

C.G.

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PDH January 14, 2011 at 7:09 am

C.G.,

Yup. Once the atheist and the theist have explained their positions, it’s irrelevant what we call them.

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