Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is an "athiest"? - Redux!

I have made an update to this post since I originally released it Saturday. I have changed the release date so that it appears nearer the top of my blog.

   While I think my original post on this topic was adequate for discussion, I have decided I should perhaps change it up a bit in a way my software friends can understand. Also, I want to add some other examples of why the atheist/agnostic distinction frustrates me below the line break.

   It's probably been a few months ago now, but one of my coworkers told me that he's not religious, but he's not an atheist either. Guess what he is? He's an agnostic!

   In hindsight, I should have pressed him on the "but I'm not an atheist" remark by asking, "Oh, so you believe in a god or gods?" To which I suspect the answer would have been, "No." To that I could have then asked, "But you're not an atheist?" If the answer is "Yes," then I'd go back to my first question. (See the second part for a further explanation for this.)

   In the original post, I briefly discussed the meaning of the "a-" prefix. There I pointed out that it generally means "without." So, if a theist is a person who has a belief in a god or gods, then an atheist is a person without such a belief. Another way to view the prefix, though, that is easier in software terms is to think of it as meaning "not". Therefore, an atheist is "not a theist". Pretty simple - it's a Boolean!!!

   Perhaps this can better explain to my software friends why the idea of someone being neither a theist nor an atheist, but rather an agnostic, gives me a headache - You're generating a CONSTRAINT ERROR! I have the feeling my coworker bought into the canard that it's an enumerated type (theist, agnostic, atheist), but it's not. You actually have two sets of Booleans (when we include agnostic in the mix). Notice what letter "agnostic" begins with? Yes, it starts with that same "a-" prefix. You can be either a gnostic (someone who believes truth claims are knowable) or you are not.

   As before, the two words deal with two different aspects of truth claims. Gnosticism deals with what we know and theism deals with what we believe. We can then combine the terms to describe ourselves. My software friends should be able to recognize quickly that if we combine two Booleans, we have four possible combinations:
  1. Gnostic Theist - A person who believes in a god or gods and thinks they have enough knowledge to make such a claim.
  2. Agnostic Theist - A person who believes in a god or gods but acknowledges that they really cannot know for sure.
  3. Agnostic Athesit - A person who does not believe in any gods but acknowledges that they really cannot know for sure. (Or, recognizes that they would have to know everything about everything to be able to make a claim that there is no such thing as a god.) I, as well as most atheists, fall in this category.
  4. Gnostic Atheist - A person who not only does not believe in any gods, but also believes we can know that there are no gods.

   So, Mr. Agnostic...which are you? Are you a theist or an atheist? You must pick one! (Or maybe your brain is initialized to garbage!?!)

   For the second part, I'm going to attempt to demonstrate the "constraint error" problem in non-software terms for the general audiance. For example, ask a person if they believe in Bigfoot. You will likely get one of three answers:
  1. Yes.
  2. No.
  3. I don't know (in other words, agnostic).
Though that last answer is once again giving a yes-or-no question an answer other than yes or no, what you likely won't get with it is a follow-up where the person says, "But I'm not one of those people who doesn't believe in Bigfoot!" So...if you're not one of those people who doesn't believe...that means you do believe? Why didn't you just answer "Yes" then?

   See how that is confusing? Yet that's exactly the type of answer a person gets on the god question. When a person says "But I'm not an atheist" they are saying "But I'm not a person who does not believe in gods." It's a double negative, so that means they believe? And that's what drives me crazy. This type of thinking leads in circles because it has no conclusion. As for my coworker, I perhaps should have taken him "dancing" around this circle in hopes that it would help me to expose his flawed reasoning.

UPDATE: One important thing I forgot to say originally is that I'm not really bothered so much about the "I don't know" answers. If you honestly have not examined the evidence for a claim, then I can handle an "I don't know" answer. Because a second thing I forgot to say is that there are different levels of certainty with a belief. Even if you are one who does not believe in Bigfoot, you can range from being absolutely confident in that lack of belief all the way to being quite unsure in that lack of belief to the point where you are on the verge of believing. So, when I said earlier that you either believe or you do not believe, that is actually a bit misleading, though still true, and I need to confess to that. The agnostic label generally implies that one is uncertain, and I acknowledge that as acceptable, though saying that you are an uncertain atheist would make more sense. Therefore, it is not so much a person using the agnostic label that bothers me as much as someone adding in that they are not an atheist. Another way to look at it besides the ways I already have is to say, "I'm not sure whether I believe or not, but I do not not believe." Ohhhhh...K.

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