In the recent past, in AN discussions, I have noticed two different opinions about what constitutes atheism.

One opinion holds that all humans are born atheists and they may later become religionists or confirm themselves as atheists, as they grow up. This seems like a transient atheism. This supposes that not knowing about the existence or otherwise of god or gods is also enough to qualify as an atheist. To be called an atheist, it is not necessary to thoughtfully, firmly, state that no supernatural exists. It is not necessary posses a firm belief or knowledge to qualify to be an atheist. Knowledge, therefore, is not an essential constituent of atheism.

What is then the status of a less-than-year-old child that is made to fold its hand in worship by the suggestion of an elder? Does this child remain an atheist? If lack of knowledge of a god can be atheism, then, conversely, can lack of knowledge of atheism make a child a religionist? Can a mentally retarded person whose mental status is the same as an infant, be counted as an atheist? This opinion would prohibit a person from being an agnostic till he acquires knowledge but allow him to be an atheist till then! A transcendent atheist will feel no importance of science, the greatest support of atheism today.

This opinion is extremely helpful for winning an argument about natural status of atheism.

The second opinion about what constitutes atheism states that atheism must be a conscious decision. An atheist must be able to proclaim that he does not believe in god, no such thing as god exists, that god is a man’s creation, a fiction. Therefore, atheism is a knowledge-based argument. This opinion will not support “natural atheism” theory but will lend atheism tremendous weight of firmness arising out of knowledge. Atheism thus defined will not be a transient atheism but will be a potentially firm belief, reversible only in the most unlikely event of knowledge supporting belief in god.  This definition of atheism will permit secularism, agnosticism as precursors to atheism, as it’s natural steps. Science can be a strong part of the support structure of such an atheism.

These are basically the arguments of the two sides. Which opinion is more correct? Which one would you support and why?

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Replies to This Discussion

"To claim belief in the existence of god implies need to justify its claim to existence."

God, fairies, UFOs, flying purple unicorns, magical leprechaun boot buckle dust, etc.

Burden of Proof lies with the affirmative claim. 

"Joe claims to believe in the existence of god"

= Affirmative claim

"Joe does not believe there is no god."

= Grammatically, as well as logically just restating an affirmative claim with a double-negative.

"Bill does not believe there is a god and has no burden of proof."

Correct, (to be precise he has far less burden of proof, see*) however…(new quotes-mine)

"Bill claims there are no god(s)"

= Contrapositive Claim, assuming burden of proof, as well as dancing with the logically untenable "proving a negative" problem.

"*Bill does not believe in god(s) and recognizes that while he doesn't believe in god(s), their impossibility is unknowable"

= Zero Burden of Proof

This may help…  Matt Dillihunty is great at explaining this one. Here's a recent clip from "The Atheist Experience".

Oh! Another one, this addresses the "shifting of burden of proof".

Richard Ewald

I had to be careful not use the word 'definition' because when I expressed my definition (one) of atheism, I was accused of wanting to change the definition. I f discussions take place in their right manner, sich over carefulnesw is not needed.

Now the first question I want to ask you is, if we are born as atheists, we willy nilly oscillate beteen a state of atheism that is a result of our ignorance as a child, then by virtue of family influence become theists and then by virtue of rational and free thinking, we acquire a knowledge based atheism. Is this what you mean by saying that we are born atheists? For you this may sound a silly question but for me it could be a starting point for a good discussion.

Now the first question I want to ask you is, if we are born as atheists, we willy nilly oscillate beteen a state of atheism that is a result of our ignorance as a child, then by virtue of family influence become theists and then by virtue of rational and free thinking, we acquire a knowledge based atheism. Is this what you mean by saying that we are born atheists? For you this may sound a silly question but for me it could be a starting point for a good discussion.

That sounds like a fairly good summation of the situation, yes.

No need for citing definitions, or making 'em up either. Contextual logic will do, and the law of parsimony/Ockham's Razor.

"...then by virtue of family influence become theists..."

- Is also not necessitated.

"...and then by virtue of rational and free thinking, we acquire a knowledge based atheism."

- Nor this, rationality and freethinking won't give you a knowledge based position, all those things can do is provide you with heuristics that help to justify the non-belief.

"Knowledge-based" requires evidence. There are already two words for this dichotomy -gnostic/agnostic.  

Again (…context = T. Huxley), agnosticism is not a middle-ground between atheism/theism.

It's like this:

"Is this what you mean by saying that we are born atheists?"

No, I'm saying, non-belief/negation is the default (null) position of the two possible positions in the premise as it is an "believe in" existential claim/negation proposition.

You want to place "knowledge" on an axis where it doesn't belong (wrong context), knowledge already has its own axis (see above).

Perhaps a Venn Diagram will better clarify:

Do you see the green area?

That represents where null resides as it's the only position with zero burden of proof.

Not knowing/believing.

We're all born to it.

Q.E.D.

Richard Ewald

I have seen your reply just now and want to admit that I will take some time to reply. Your reply is complete and more brilliant than I have seen any reply in A N, so let me give it due respect and think over a bit before I reply.

Richard Ewald

I have seen all the above figures and read your comments and my first impression has vanished. You have created a nice web that can make one confused. I do not mean to say that this is done deliberstely, but, none-the-less this can happen.

I may agree that the green area of the venn Diagram represents a null point but there is nothing to establish that that is our position at birth. Again, here you may argue that the word 'null' signifies it, but this can not be accepted on the basis of words alone. It has to be practically shown why this position shows our position at birth. You are being purely theoretical on this point without taking any practical example.

I am unable to paste a diagram drawn by me in Word/Paint/Autocad here so I will have to depend on words alone.

Imagine an electrical meter having a null point at the middle of the scale. Then, one end of the scale would be atheism and the opposite end of the scale would be theism. This would be a realistic graphical representation of a null point. This null point would also realistically represent our position at birth. You know," Doesn't claim proof exists" and "doesn't believe in god" are not our true positions at birth because an infant canot take either of the positions. This is real practicality that can not be wished away to depend merely on imagined theories.

If such a diagram as I have described is drawn, then it becomes clear that movement from a null position in any direction can not come without reason. You may take whatever meaning of the word reason here.  Such a model would clearly and truely demonstrate that an infant is neither an atheist nor a theist, and is simply at a null point which lies in betwee the two.

  1. Not know/not believe is not …complex.
  2. That the negation of an existential "believe in" claim is the default (null) is a logical axiom.
  3. Does an infant believe in god = no
  4. Can an infant know that god does or doesn't exist = no
  5. Q.E.D.
We are born to an atheist position. 
"Imagine an electrical meter having a null point at the middle of the scale. Then, one end of the scale would be atheism and the opposite end of the scale would be theism. This would be a realistic graphical representation of a null point. This null point would also realistically represent our position at birth."
Yes! …don't forget though, null means "not yes". The middle-ground of this meter is null, atheism is also, "not yes". If you try to argue that it also represents "not no", …you are introducing a third position, where there are only two possible.
"You know," Doesn't claim proof exists" and "doesn't believe in god" are not our true positions at birth because an infant canot take either of the positions."
They don't have to "take" those positions, they are born to them, it is self-evident.
"This is real practicality that can not be wished away to depend merely on imagined theories."
It would be prudent for you to read your reasoning again to realize that it is based on wishful thinking.
"If such a diagram as I have described is drawn, then it becomes clear that movement from a null position in any direction can not come without reason. You may take whatever meaning of the word reason here.  Such a model would clearly and truely demonstrate that an infant is neither an atheist nor a theist, and is simply at a null point which lies in betwee the two."
That point (null) is non-belief.
Your premise assumes three positions (conclusions) where there are only two, and it still falls flat, as it doesn't recognize that the middle position is no different from negation. Let's try an even simpler electronic circuit analogy...
Like a single pull/single throw light switch. on = belief, off = non-belief, what (as opposed to electrical current) is being switched on/off is belief.
The absence of belief is represented by off

When there is no current present (belief) at the switch, it makes no difference whether it is in the off position or the on position, the default is off = non-belief.
There's a reason that moving from a position of belief to non-belief is called "deconversion".
Having never acquired a theist position in my life, I have always been an atheist, from birth.
Have you ever been a believer? 

Another very important distinction between atheism/theism you haven't seemed to consider in your belief in atheism as an ideology/conscious choice.

Theism isn't necessarily the converse position to atheism even though atheism is the converse position of theism.

Atheism is the nonbelief in any gods (note the plural).

Theism is the belief in at least one god (not the belief in all gods).

Consider the following graphs depicting belief/non-belief:

All three graphs have the majority position (blue) as non-belief, …not all the blue nonbelievers are going to be atheists. Let's add another to the mix:

Most Buddhist sects do not believe in any god(s), …most of the red constituents can be legitimately called atheists, along with some of the blue constituents, but …most of the non-believers in the blue area are likely to be some form of theist.

Now, it's also very important to realize that in order to graphically represent what the atheist position doesn't believe in, I would have to create over 1000+ such graphs(!).

Amongst these will be descriptions of god(s) you (like any infant) have yet to consider, and have no knowledge of. If, like the infant, you have no conscious basis for non belief in the god, "天理王命" as of yet. How, as you insist in the case of infants, can you call yourself an atheist?

hi Richard,

Great post.

Richard,

Atheism is the nonbelief in any gods (note the plural).

your presentation is always impressive but I find that it is purely high-flying theory. When you say that there is not much difference betweeen not knowing and not believing, you are artificially stretching the meaning of these terms. Not believing is a conscious decision, reached after contemplating both alternative of belief and non-belief. I was out of the internet for 2 days, so more after studying things a bit more.

"When you say that there is not much difference betweeen not knowing and not believing, you are artificially stretching the meaning of these terms."

No, I'm pointing out that negation is a null position, whether it's non belief, not knowing, not having, not willing, etc. My argument here lies in the intrinsic property of;  "no/not/non/without".

Further, look to your own posts to find conflations of believing - knowing & non belief - not knowing. I've repeatedly pointed out that these are different things.

"Not believing is a conscious decision, reached after contemplating both alternative of belief and non-belief."

You keep repeating this without providing any evidence or rational justification that non belief is by necessity; more than what it is.

Since when is "no"; a kind of "yes"?

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