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Let’s Agree on Some Definitions…

July 31, 2013

Last week, a promotional video for a religious documentary film, Unstoppable, was released. The film and the video both feature Kirk Cameron (famously of Growing Pains, the terrible Left Behind movie, and friend of the Bananaman). In this video, Kirk claims to be a “recovering atheist” and asserts that there are two things all good atheists must cling to: firstly, there is no god, and secondly, that they hate him (the god they do not believe in).

Both points get torn apart pretty well by Hemant Mehta in his responses to the video. That isn’t really what this post is about.

Tonight, I was listening to episode #823 of The Atheist Experience. The first caller was debating the hosts, Matt Dillahunty and Martin Wagner about the need for an intelligent creator for the universe and life on Earth to exist. A large portion of the call was taken up with Matt and Martin trying to explain to the caller why atheism isn’t a religion and why it is not the assertion that there is no god. The caller accused them of being agnostic, not atheist, a common mistake people make and one I’ve addressed previously.

Just in case you’ve missed it, I’ll sum it up with the use explanation Matt himself often uses: theism and atheism addresses belief and gnosticism and agnosticism addresses knowledge. One can be an agnostic theist or a gnostic theist, just as one can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist. The agnostic atheist does not believe a god exists, but does not claim to have knowledge that no god exists. Likewise, an agnostic theist believes in god but does not claim to have knowledge that a god exists. It is important, too, to note the difference in not believing in a god and believing that there is not a god.

There is another semantic problem many people fall into that popped up in this call. Early in the conversation the caller asserted that atheism is a religion. The hosts tried to explain that neither theism nor atheism are religions. These words address only a single belief and do not, in themselves, form any religion. They explained that there are atheistic religions, and there are non-religious theists. This is a point many Christians fail to grasp and what struck me as I was listening is one possible explanation as to why they fail to understand the fallacy of calling atheism (or theism) a religion. They cannot comprehend someone not believing in god.

This would explain why so many Christians think that atheists are angry at god or why there are so many stories of Christians leaving the church, becoming atheists, and then returning to the church at some later point. They have confused being nonreligious with being atheist. These are people who were indoctrinated early to believe in god, became disenfranchised with the religion of their childhood and left it. They are often angry at the church or at the god they believe in for some injustice they experienced. They then return to their religion (perhaps a different variety, or sometimes perhaps a different theistic religion) later in life and claim to have been atheists, when they were just non-religious theists for a while. (Or, more often probably, were just non-practicing religious theists.)

I have had difficulty understanding why it is so hard for some people to accept that atheism is not a religious belief. Now I see that many people have trouble separating religion from theism, as well. Yes, many religions incorporate theism in their belief system, and most theists are also religious, but one does not require the other.

Most atheists who claim the label of atheist are nonreligious. Most of them also tend to be agnostic. Most, but not all. Atheism is not a religion, and agnosticism is not the middle ground between theism and atheism, and there are nonreligious theists (in fact, I’d be willing to bet that a large percentage of the “nones” are theists). Apparently, many Christians think that being nonreligious makes you an atheist. Not sure why some of them also want to claim that atheism is a religion.

Anyway, that’s what was on my mind tonight. I apologize that it has been so terribly long since I made a post. Partly, I just don’t need this outlet as much as I once did since I’ve got a network of friends with whom I can speak openly about such things. Also, I tend to forget things moments after I’ve thought of them, so unless I make a note of it, it can be gone forever. (And often if I make a note of it I forget that I made a note of it!) I do intend to continue writing here, but it may be infrequent. Bear with me, and subscribe to my Twitter or this blog so you get notified of new posts.

Here are some helpful links. Most of them are hotlinked in the post but I felt it would be good to include them here, too:

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2013 3:20 pm

    Atheists don’t hate god, they hate assholes like him who lie about atheists all the time.

    • July 31, 2013 9:59 pm

      I’m not even sure most of them are intentionally lying. I think that many are just misinformed, mistaken, or just unable to accept the truth because of what it could mean for their own beliefs.

      • August 5, 2013 1:46 pm

        True. Saying untrue things a lot sucks just as much though unfortunately.

  2. Deborah Jeffries permalink
    September 3, 2013 10:13 pm

    When I was diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s Disease at 45, I realized there was no god when people approach me as I shake and walk with my cane saying god loves me I say yeah look at me a loving god who lets me suffer like this. No god in my world.

    • December 5, 2013 3:52 pm

      I’m sorry that you have to live with this terrible disease, but I’m glad that you realize there is no deity forcing you to suffer this way. Also sorry it took me so long to approve the comments and reply, I’ve been away from the blog for a few months!

  3. September 7, 2014 9:41 pm

    Bad choice! And nuh we are not bad people we are good,thats why we rape and kill and make genocides and not feeding the hungry and become prostitutes and haters,thats why we have wars and atomic bombs and full prisons cause we are just great people.No need for God we can do it ourselves ,so see you at the next world war ,they will put flowers and smily faces and i love cards on the atomic bombs when they will kill us.

    • September 7, 2014 11:07 pm

      Your comment is a total non-sequitur to this post, and it barely makes sense in any context. Nowhere in this post did I talk about good vs bad people, I talked about the definition of atheism vs theism, agnosticism vs gnosticism, and non-religious vs religious.

      That said, there are plenty of atheists who do not rape, kill, create genocide, let the hungry starve, start wars, or use atomic weapons (I’ll address the prostitutes comment in a moment). In fact, the majority of people in our prisons are *not* atheists (at least according to the data we have access to) and are, in fact, Christians. (This is not to say that Christians are doing more illegal things. For one thing, atheists are a small minority of the population so it would stand to reason that they would be a small minority in prisons. That the percentage of atheists in prison population is much lower than that in the general populace is another issue and one I do not feel there is enough data to make a statement to one way or the other. It is possibly that the *actual* atheist population in prisons is closer to that of the general populace and they are either misreported or are intentionally misreporting on themselves in order to seem like better people or to fit in with the prison population better as a whole.)

      I could go through a list of the major wars this world has seen and the majority of them would have religion as a core cause or driving factor, but I won’t. I also will not blame religion as a whole for those wars, but it completely negates your assertion that godlessness causes war.

      Now lets address prostitution. In my view, and that of many humanists, prostitution is not at its core immoral. Forced prostitution and sex slavery are immoral, and it is probably that the majority of prostitution in the world is forced or coerced in some way. That does not, however, make the people who go into prostitution bad people. It does not, necessarily, make people who are customers of prostitutes bad people. In no way do I think everyone involved in this is good, but prostitution and sexuality themselves are not the problem. Infringing on a person’s right to bodily and mental autonomy are.

      In short: most atheists don’t do the things you mentioned, the prison system is majority Christian, and prostitution is not something I consider immoral.

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