Re: irrational atheists

Max More (
Sun, 10 Jan 1999 21:50:38 -0800

At 11:49 PM 1/10/99 +0000, Nick wrote:
>Max More wrote:
>> >From: <>
>> >
>> >>Technically, by definition you're an atheist. Don't be afraid of the
>> >>It simply means "absence of belief in a god or gods".
>> >
>> >According to my dictionary it means 'one who denies there is a god(s)'
>> An atheist may deny that there is a god, but this isn't necessary. a-theism
>> = lacking theistic belief.
>The Oxford Companion to Philosophy likewise says "Atheism is
>ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God." This seems to be the
>common way the term is used, and you get it if you parse
>atheism: (a-the)-ism.

With terms like these, several differing definitions are possible. As you will know, Nick, I'm offering a precising definition and a definition that I think makes most sense. I'm not offering a lexical definition. Clearly, most people use "atheism" to mean an active denial that there is a god.

I don't understand your parsing of the term. What does the "the" mean in (a-the)-ism? The term relevant here is "theism". Presumably then an atheist is one who lacks theistic belief.

Perhaps the idea is that atheism is still an "ism"--that is, a thought out, specific *belief*. If the term is being used that way, that may rule out those who have simply never heard of any idea of a god.

It should also be noted that before anyone can say they are or are not an atheist, they need to specify what god they are talking about. I am an atheist about the standard god (of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), since I lack belief in such a being, and I have some positive reasons to think it unlikely that such a being exists. However, I completely agree with you that it is *possible* that our universe is a simulation... or an accidental creation by something hardly anyone would call "god"--such as in Gregory Benford's recent novel, Cosm.

So, I think "atheism" can be legitimately defined several ways. My insistence is that it's a mistake to say it can only mean an active denial of belief in any god. I just checked The Dictionary of Philosophy (ed. Peter A. Angeles) and three definitions are given, including a positive belief that god(s) do not exist, a "disbelief" -- which doesn't clearly specify whether that is active belief or lack of belief, and, thirdly, simply "the lack of belief in a particular god".

>> As you note, an agnostic is one without knowledge.
>The Companion states: "Agnosticism may be strictly personal ond
>confessional -- 'I have no firm belief about God' -- or it may be the
>more ambitious claim that no one ought to have a positive belief for
>or against divine existence." So this is about belief, not knowledge.

I can't agree. "Gnosis" is definitely related to knowledge. The common usage is "someone who isn't sure whether there is a god". The Dictionary of Philosophy says: agnosticism 1. The belief (a) that we cannot have knowledge of God and (b) that it is impossible to prove that God exists or does not exist. Gnosis relates to knowledge, not belief. The Gnostics were an early sect who thought they had a special means of *knowledge* about the divine plan. The Companion's definition is unfortunately, in my view, because of what it leaves out. Agnostics generally think that "no one ought to have a positive belief for or against divine existence" precisely *because* they think this is not a possible object of knowledge.

>If you define an agnostic as one without knowledge about God, it
>follows that there does not exist any agnostics (since knowing that
>P implies that P is true), so that is a bad definition and not in
>agreement with common usage.

I'm not sure what you mean by "without knowledge about god". When I used that incomplete formulation, I was noting what you had said, not offering a definition, which I think did elsewhere. An agnostic is one who thinks that they do not or cannot know whether there is a god. (Which implies what the Companion said--if you think you [or anyone] cannot have knowledge of this, then presumably you will think no one should have a positive belief before or against.)

Whether you are an agnostic or atheist about any specific god depends on your view of what's required before you think you know something. I don't equate knowledge with certainty, which is why I call myself an atheist and not an agnostic, at least when we're talking about the Christian/Islamic/Jewish God.



Max More, Ph.D.
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Philosophical issues of technology
President, Extropy Institute:,