I am an atheist. But I didn't always refer to myself this way. And even today, in order to do it, I have to define the word differently than the way most people use it. I define it as "not being a theist".
This entire post is my tear down of belief and non belief. Primarily I look at practice. Do I live my life as if there is an all-powerful super being whose words are transmitted through revelation to certain fallable humans during the Iron Age (or even before)?
There was a solid point in my life after I graduated from college and I was becoming my own man. I took a hard look at my own practices and I had to admit that I really didn't act like I believed in any God. I didn't go to church. I didn't pray.
And I had a special challenge, much as anyone does, to figure out what I was going to say about what I believe when family members ask why I'm not going to church or why I can't be someone's godparent in any kind of traditional sense because I would find it deeply unethical to raise a child in Catholicism.
Some might say that talking about it can be avoided. Because it's best to avoid talking about religion, money, and politics altogether... these are dangerous topics that will threaten any relationship.
But I think that core human values are enjoyable to contemplate and are worthy of discussion. I love ethics. Talking about ideas and values with other people helps me to feel a student of the world... and, to feel like a steward of my own life. Like I really own it and it is mine to craft according to my own vision.
And so, we begin where I started. I reverse-engineer the question of "what do I believe" by looking at what I do and inferring. I think there are four broad places a person can land and I define that in the next section.
Stages of Religious/Secular Practice
This scale of measurement asks two questions... - Does the person claim they believe in God? - Does the person act in accordance with religious or secular principles (or both)
By secular principles, I refer to any principle not derived from religion. Secular principles are defined here specifically to exclude any knowledge from religious sources that cannot be validated by reason. If some idea is merely transmitted by religion but can be validated by reason, I consider this to be secular.
Please observe also that there are many secular notions that are fallacious ideas that seem like they are reasonable but include an inappropriate switch of context or a comparison of unlike kind which leads to a contradiction. That a notion has arrived from a non-religious source does not make it automatically more likely to be true or valid. The measure of truth as always is whether a principle is in accord with observable fact, which can only be established by a process of reason.
- Believer with consistent practice of religious values
- Believer with a mixed practice of religious and secular values
- Non Believer with a mixed practice of religious and secular values
- Non Believer with consistent practice of secular values
The top half, I label as "Theist". The bottom half I label as "Non Theist". Interestingly, Athiest should mean the same thing as "Non Theist" but because of its usage in the USA, it carries some additional meaning when you factor for how vocal they are in categorically denying the existence of any possible supernatural being or revelation.
Misunderstanding the nature of a claim of existence, they claim the non-existence... which can never be proven as proof rests upon and is implied by existence, a fundamental precondition to go from the evidence of one's senses to a syllogism.
"So hey... there's this all-powerful superbeing in another realty that wants you to obey it according to some bloke named Muhammad... are you in or out?"
This is a claim of existence. And as with any such claim, it is not incumbent on the person evaluating it to disprove it. We don't have to furnish prove that Allah doesn't exist or that the text is wrong. The burden of proof falls on the person that makes a claim of existence. Either the evidence is strong enough to support the claim, ruling out other possibilities, or it is not.
Stages of Affinity/Antagonism toward Religion/Secularism/Knowing
This scale of measurement asks more than two questions... - Does the person believe in a religion? - ...further Does the person believe that knowledge of any kind is possible? - Does the person try to argue/persuade others about to challenge their beliefs or expound the reasons for the validity of their own?
This is an interesting way to measure things because people tend to equate the degree and depth of a person's belief with whether they would get on a soap box and scream it out to the world. I don't think this is true... but it is a perception that exists in the world.
It's also a useful taxonomy particularly to new Non Theists since there is generally a problem which I call "classic over-correction". People who have switched recently from half-hearted Theist to Non Theist often act out in unexpected and repellant ways. Often this is just temporary.
I can name three flavors of non believer when measured based on whether and how they argue with others. They are:
- Those who categorically deny the existence of a god - Those who reject claims of the existence of God (and revelation) based on insufficient grounds - Those who think knowledge of any kind is impossible
Most people label the first category as Atheist, but I label it as "Caricature Atheist"; the second, Rational Atheist, and the third has no clear label so I have labeled it "cynical skeptic". The Caricature Atheist and the Cynical Skeptic tend to be the loudest and most embarrassing of the Non Theists.
I present to you this spectrum involving more than two axes:
- (One True Faith) Believer and Vocal... Open judgment for anyone who believes other than own religion
- (Many Religions, All True somehow) Believer and Vocal... Judgment only for people who have no faith... Any religion is better than no religion
- Believer and Vocal
- Believer and Non Vocal
- Non Believer and Non Vocal
- Non Believer and Vocal about skepticism
- (Caricature Atheist) Non Believer and Vocal... Open judgment for anyone who doesn't deny any possible existence of any supernatural being
- (Cynical Skeptic) Non Believer and Vocal... Open judgment for anyone who claims they can know anything about anything
These really deserve a 3D space but as I am dealing with the written page, I'll have to sketch something up in the future.
Looking at the three types of Non Believer I identified above. One might argue that there is a fourth which exists somewhere between the Rational Atheist and the Cynical Skeptic.
Measured by practice, the Agnostic is very similar to the Rational Atheist. However, an agnostic attempts to side-step the question of whether they accept or reject the claims of the existence of a God and the truth of revelation.
As such, the Agnostic straddles the position between Rational Atheist and Cynical Skeptic claiming that no one can know whether God exists or not. (Incidentally, this is also true about knowledge of anything non-existent... e.g. the existence of Ducks on Mars.). When confronted with a claim that must be evaluated consciously, the Agnostic chooses non-consciousness and non-acknowedgement.
The Agnostic turns out to be a mild sort of coward that prefers to remain in the closet than to take a position that others might judge.
It takes a measure of courage to recognize that your actions say that you don't believe in the claims of the existence of God. It takes a measure of courage to break ranks with your family and friends. In some societies, apostasy may mean ostracism or physical harm.
Even though we are in a country which has a separation of church and state, the vestiges of more than 10 centuries of terror remain in the psyche a people long after the threat of terror has ceased.
It is my position that the more courageous position is that of the Rational Atheist... who has consciously weighed the evidence and finds no grounds upon which to organize her life around the existence and words of an all powerful super-being. I don't think taking an Agnostic position helps a person to feel like an owner of their selves and their lives. I think it is a way of saying that other people are more important than your beliefs or the truth.
How much better to have some integrity about what you really believe and let the chips fall where they may?
For the Future
I've talked a lot about my ideas on how I identify different substrata of religious belief in reference to practice and in reference to vocal affinity/antagonism.
I haven't talked a lot about options for ethical systems but I think I might like to do that in a future post. People often try to substitute Society in the place of God and I think that is a mistake as well. (Just imagine trying to do so in Nazy Germany or the Europe of the middle ages). Destructive ideas can go into currency.
So there is a lot to talk about in a future post.
If you found this interesting or that there's something that you disagree with and you have ideas on how you would structure and identify things, drop me a line either in the comments below or reach out to me on Twitter @francisluong.
See you next time.