This is the direct sequel to http://dalehusband.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/atheism-is-a-dogma-get-over-it/
Prior to the 1990s, it was clear to me what atheism, atheists, agnosticism, agnostics, dogma, and fanaticism were. That’s because we had clear and logically consistent definitions of those words. They were found in reliable dictionaries like Webster’s New World Dictionary. Here are the definitions I found in the 1975 edition, which I still own and use.
atheism: “the belief that there is no God”. (That’s the ONLY definition in the book.)
agnostic: “a person who beleives that one cannot know whether or not there is a God or an ultimate cause, or anything beyond material phenomena.” (The ONLY definition in the book.)
dogma: “a positive, arrogant assertion of opinion.” (One of several definitions, and it is not implied that dogmas must always be religious in nature.)
fanaticism: “excessive and unreasonable zeal” (Again, it is not specified that only religion can produce fanatics.)
Can one be dogmatic and fanatical about atheism? Using these definitions, the answer seems to be yes. Communist governments made atheism a dogma and promoted it in a fanatical way, using force.
But after the fall of most Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the rise of the New Atheist movement, the definitions of terms began to change. Atheism was broadened to include disbelief in the existence of God, not just believing there is no God. See examples here:
Some atheists have gone further and asserted that atheism merely means “lacking belief in a god”, but that is illogical since what would follow from that is all newborn babies would therefore be atheist (they are born with NO beliefs at all) and this actually makes the term atheist useless for statistical purposes as well. It is ideologically useful (you can thus argue that atheism is a child’s natural state and thus religious indoctrination violates the child’s “true” nature), but has no empirical foundation. It also fails to take into account that many agnostics, including myself and the late Carl Sagan, have REJECTED the term atheist as applied in the newer sense.
Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.
In another description of his view of god, Sagan emphatically writes:
The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.“
Sagan, however, denied that he was an atheist: “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.” In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, “I’m agnostic.” Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator of the universe was difficult to prove or disprove and that the only conceivable scientific discovery that could challenge it would be an infinitely old universe.
Sagan was hardly a sell-out, but like me he was a product of that Cold War period mentioned above. It is thus understandable that he would avoid using a term associated so closely with Communism. But even before Communism became a global menace, atheism was scorned even by many unbeleivers, like Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, who coined the term “agnostic” to distinguish himself from the atheists.
Though Huxley began to use the term “agnostic” in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively:
I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter… It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions…
That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.
And again, to the same correspondent, May 6, 1863:
I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.
Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave the following account:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.
Huxley’s agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established Jewish and Christian doctrines. Agnosticism should not, however, be confused with natural theology, deism, pantheism, or other science positive forms of theism.
And I would add that it shouldn’t be confused with atheism either, but that’s what the New Atheists are trying to do. They even claim that one can be an agnostic and a theist at the same time. Since Huxley coined the term agnostic, it shouldn’t be used in conjunction with either atheist or theist, because he didn’t!
Why is this such a problem for me? Because in broadening the meanings of the terms atheist and agnostic, the New Atheists risk damaging their credibility if they also claim that the number of atheists and agnostics is increasing in the world, when in fact that may not have happened, but the terms used to refer to them have been altered to create the appearance of increasing popularity.
This is what the world looks like now, religiously:
How can anyone measure religious affiliations if they cannot even agree on the definitions of terms? Then that pie chart appearing above becomes useless as far as measuring actual unbeleivers is concerned. I’m interested in honesty and accuracy rather than using semantic ploys to make an ideology more palatable to the public. Atheists should make the ideology itself more palatable instead, regardless of terminology. In short, it should become more socially acceptable for people to deny the existence of God, period, not merely alter the usage of a word to take its social stigma away. Most religious people will not be fooled by this stunt.
Here is a chart made by New Atheists:
Note there is no room for agnosticism here. That is WRONG! I have made my own chart which is consistent with how terms were defined by Carl Sagan, Thomas Huxley, the 1970s editors of Webster’s New World Dictionary, and myself today:
An agnostic would say: “I don’t know if there is a god and I won’t commit to believing or disbelieving in him.” He is also a non-theist, but not an atheist, by this definition. His neutrality is the issue, not merely his lack of belief.
An atheist that is non-dogmatic would say : “I believe there is no god.” He is NOT neutral like the agnostic is, but definitely rejects theism as a viable option for himself. The idea that non-dogmatic atheists are “weak” is an insult I won’t accept from anyone, thus it does not appear on my chart.
A so-called “strong” atheist would say dogmatically: “There is no god.” If he does behave like he has a dogma, he shouldn’t be outraged when someone calls him out on that.
An anti-theist would say: “I despise all theistic concepts and those who follow them.” He would be a fanatic.
It is a non-theist, not an atheist, who can be properly defined as “lacking belief in God”. The term non-theist could not be used for statistical purposes, but atheist and agnostic still can under this system of definitions because they are now clearly separated from each other, as well as from theists.
A friend of mine said this about me years ago:
I have known Dale for several years – and he does not preach atheistic materialism – nor has he ever done so as long as I have known him. He professes to be an agnostic – i.e he claims that the existence of G-d cannot be either proven or disproven. Rather than being a materialist he is very much an ethical/spiritual sceptic, which is far from being an atheist materialist.
That is indeed correct. Otherwise, I would never have written blog entries like: