Based on my previous blog posts it is probably not too difficult to guess my general position on religion. I am a De facto atheist. But what do I really mean by that? The words atheist, agnostic, and theist often have different meanings in different contexts, and can mean different things to different people. There are often debates about what the word ‘atheist’ actually means, along with how it is used in a societal and academic context.
So, what am I saying when I call myself a De facto atheist? Well, like many things in life, I consider a person’s religious belief to be best characterized as a spectrum of possibilities. Richard Dawkins popularized the spectrum of theistic probability which is what I am referring to here. The spectrum is defined as follows:
- Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God.
- “I do not believe, I know.”
- De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent.
- “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
- Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high.
- “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
- Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent.
- “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
- Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low.
- “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
- De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero.
- “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
- Strong atheist.
- “I know there is no God, with the same conviction that a Strong theist knows there is one.”
I personally feel that the statement,”I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” describes my position on the matter fairly well.
However, there is another phrase which I also believe to describe my position, and that is “I remain unconvinced by the evidence or claims made by any of the world’s religions”. This was essentially said by Neil deGrasse Tyson in a podcast where he talked about why he doesn’t call himself an atheist. Neil would rather label himself as an agnostic over an atheist, due to the connotations associated with those words.
I am certainly sympathetic with that view, as I previously described myself as agnostic for very similar reasons. I did not like using the term atheist to describe myself, as people often took that to mean that I was a strong atheist, believing with conviction that there is no god, when that is not the case. However, referring to myself as agnostic caused confusion as well, as some people believed what I meant by agnostic was that “we can never truly know if God exists or not” or that “God’s existence and non-existence are equally probable” when that was not the case either.
I prefer the term De facto atheist because it provides a little more information than the word atheist by itself, and my cause extra discussion about what exactly I mean by the term. Also, I get to describe myself using Latin, and using Latin phrases is what all the cool kids do nowadays. Right?
If we were to fully flesh out how I would describe my belief in technical terms, I would consider myself to be a friendly wide negative weak atheist. Wow, that is a lot of adjectives huh? You can read more about these terms on the IEP and elsewhere on the Internet, but here is a quick summary for you.
Atheism can be narrow or wide in scope. The narrow atheist does not believe in the existence of God (an omnipotent- being). A wide atheist does not believe that any gods exist, including but not limited to the traditional omnipotent-God, the Norse Gods, the Greek Gods, the Egyptian Gods, etc…
Negative atheism is the lack of a belief that God or gods exist, whereas positive atheism is to affirm the non-existence of God or Gods. The terms negative and positive are often used interchangeably with the words strong and weak, meaning essentially the same thing.
What about a friendly atheist. Now by friendly I don’t mean that I consider myself to be a friendly person who is also an atheist (although I certainly hope that to be the case). To quote the IEP again “The friendly atheist can grant that a theist may be justified or reasonable in believing in God, even though the atheist takes the theist’s conclusion to be false.” This has to deal with how we view knowledge (Epistomology), and whether beliefs can be rational, justified, and true or false. I recommend reading the IEP page to learn more if you are unfamiliar with these terms.
It has become a trend recently, that instead of calling oneself a weak or a strong atheist, people will call themselves an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist, with the terms gnostic and agnostic referring to knowledge, while theism and atheism refer to belief. If I were to use these terms instead, I would be classified as an agnostic atheist. Personally I do not like using this format, as it is not the way in which philosophers typically use these terms. Perhaps this form was recently popularized because people were uncomfortable with using the terms strong, weak, positive, and negative to describe their positions?
So, why am I spending so much time talking about what the difference is between agnosticism and atheism, along with how it all applies to myself? Well, honestly this is a question that I have personally struggled with for a while. Looking for an answer to this question is essentially what lead me down the path of philosophy in the first place.
I grew up in a Protestant Christian household that attended church fairly regularly. Both of my parents were very involved in the church, both of them being deacons, and my father was acting Treasurer for the church for a while. After I went away to college and was exposed to more people with varying beliefs, I started to doubt what I had been taught by my family. It all just seemed to make less and less sense. After doing a lot of soul searching and contemplation for the past few years, I have essentially come to the conclusion that I have been elaborating upon throughout this post.
I also think this is a question that all people need to wrestle with an settle on in one form or another, as it becomes a pillar that supports and influences your world view.
This question was also important to the ancient Stoic philosophers. They essentially believed in pantheism, that God and the universe were one and the same, and that the universe is governed by rationality and providence. This puts me at odds with the ancient Stoics as I am not a pantheist, and I do not believe in providence.
There is also a debate within the Stoic community as to whether one can even consider themselves to be a Stoic while being an atheist, as belief in a rational universe along with providence was an essential part of Stoic philosophy as a whole. Many people have written on this topic elsewhere in much more detail, but essentially I agree that an atheist would not be able to consider themselves a Stoic, at least in the classical sense, and that you would become a different type of Stoic, with a different philosophical world view. I do think it is possible to retain the concepts found in Stoic Ethics without the need of a pantheistic view of the universe. However, that is something that I will go into, another time.